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A Hole Shaped Like You

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“Sir, you can't touch that,” an attendant calls across the room, more calm that she arguably should be.


Steve jerks his hand back, ducks his head sheepishly. He doesn't want to draw attention to himself, so he shuffles along.


Chronologically, it's been seventy five years since he last saw one of his drawings of Bucky. Sure, he's drawn newer ones, desperate attempts to hold the memories together, hold himself together when he fears his perfect memory will somehow fail and he'll truly never see Bucky again. But not one of the pictures of Bucky, the love letters he'd spend hours on, not fueled by the desperation and fear of today's drawings.


There are pictures, like this one, grainy and black and white and-


“Best friends since childhood…”


He jerks back, eyes darting up to the speaker system, the cool voice cutting off abruptly.


“Best friends since childhood…”


The recording starts again and Steve listens to it fully this time, even if the echoing repeats in his head.


Best friends since childhood, best friends since childhood, best friends…


That's what's left.


***


Best friends since childhood.


Steve's first memory, the ones that aren't faint impressions of his mother rocking him side to side in a candlelit apartment, goes like this:


He's four and a half years old, and scrawny and short is expected, accepted. For now. He gets into more fights than he probably should, standing up against any injustice.


It hasn't made him many friends. It hasn't made him any friends in fact, which is why he sits alone on the little patch of grass outside his apartment building while the other kids gather in little groups, throwing a baseball around.


He doesn't remember before this day but he knows that it happens every day. The kids come out to play ball and he sits on the little patch of grass and doodles on the concrete with the piece of chalk his ma bought him for his birthday. (Sometimes one of the older boys will try to pick on someone and Steve will rise from his seat and race to their rescue.)


This day, Bucky Barnes sits next to him instead of joining in the game.


He's a ray of pure sunshine, all toothy grin and dark, dark curls and golden skin. And Steve can only stare for the first few seconds, unsure how to proceed now that someone has approached him instead of the other way around.


“Whatcha drawing?” He asks, elbows on his knees. It gives Steve pause, for half a second, remembering the other times people came up to him instead of the other way around, asking him about his drawings before slamming him to the dirt.


“The, uh, the tree across the street over there,” Steve offers slowly and Bucky nods and smiles.


“It looks really good. I wish I could draw like that,” he says, as though Steve doesn't watch Bucky every day throwing the ball around with the other guys and wishes he could throw like that or catch like that or run like that. “I'm James Barnes, but my friends call me Bucky.”


He holds his hand out and Steve isn't sure what to do and ends up dropping the chalk to shake Bucky's hand, smearing dust over his palm and fingers.


“I'm Steve,” he rushes out, wipes the chalk dust into his trousers even though his ma’ll probably scold him about it later. “S-Sorry… James.”


Bucky laughs, smears the dust across Steve's cheekbone in retaliation.


“Call me Bucky, punk,” he replies, beaming and it's contagious because Steve can't stop from beaming right back at him. “I saw that in a comic. Buck Rogers or somethin’ said, ‘Stop right there, punk, or I'll shoot.’ It was really good. You read comics?”


And Bucky slings an arm over his shoulder and they talk about comics until Steve's ma comes outside to call him in for dinner and Bucky goes running off down the block to his own apartment building.


And the next day when Steve goes out to sit on the grass and draw, Bucky's already waiting there for him.


***


They have plaque at the museum, a little story about poor, sickly Steve Rogers being beat up in a Brooklyn back alley for being too poor and too sickly. In comes Bucky Barnes to his rescue, as he will countless other times in the future.


Brave Bucky Barnes fights off the bully and helps Steve Rogers up from the dirt and this is where they meet. This is where they become Best Friends.


It’s not true, not that Steve will ever say. Bucky doesn’t save him from a fight until weeks after they become friends. It’s not the first time they meet.


It’s the moment he falls in love.


***


He still doesn't know why Bucky approached him that first day, doesn’t know why a scrawny blonde kid, drawing alone on the sidewalk was more appealing than a stickball game.


(Doesn’t know why a sitting with a sick blonde kid was more exciting than going out to the movies. Doesn’t know why a scrawny blonde kid was more worthy of attention than any other dames in Brooklyn. Doesn’t know why following some bull-headed blonde idiot back into was the reasonable choice over going home, making a life, having a family, living.)


He’d ask sometimes, and Bucky’d smile at him, and say, “Stevie, I took one look at you and knew. I came right over because my soul was reaching out.”


He knows Bucky’s joking. They were four, too young to think about soulmates.


Even if Bucky wishes that’s what he was thinking, he probably wasn’t.


Sometimes Steve thinks Bucky only loves him because they've known each other so long. And if Bucky only came up to him that first day because…


Well, not that it matters now that Bucky is gone, but…


***


He doesn't go looking for the fight. He rarely does.


He's four and a half and he doesn’t want to get beat up, but he won’t back down or run away. Some eight year old starts picking on Susan O’Conner, pulling on her pigtails and stealing her toy doll.


And Steve goes jogging over, shouting at the boys and snatching the doll back. He hands the doll back to Susan and she runs off to find her mother, eyes wet. The older boys aren’t fond of him, he knows that.


So giving them an excuses to be mad probably isn’t the best idea. He ends up getting punched in the face, thrown to the concrete and scraping his hands and knees on the ground.


He can handle it. He’s used to this, getting pushed down every time he pushes himself back up until the bullies get bored or someone’s parents show up.


Only this time, he gets up, gets hit down a second time, and then suddenly, there’s Bucky, slamming into one of the guy’s legs, shoving him to the ground. The two boys glare, but go running off, clearly not interested in messing with someone who's capable of fighting back.


Bucky humphs, cursing after them, hands balled in fists. And then he turns and…


Oh…


He reaches his hand out, pulls Steve off the ground. Holds Steve’s hand even after he’s steady on his feet again.


“I was fine,” Steve insists. “I had them on the ropes.”


“Yeah, pal,” Bucky agrees. “I know. Gotta have my best pal’s back though.”


“Thanks,” Steve says, ducking his head. Bucky shrugs.


“It was nothing.” Bucky touches Steve’s forehead, where he’s got a small cut. “You okay?”


Steve nods. “It doesn’t hurt.”


Bucky leans down and presses a light kiss to the cut. Steve’s heart jumps hard, and that’s no surprise, Steve’s heart has always had problems.


This is different though. His stomach twists and his skin tingles.


“That’s what my ma does when I get hurt,” Bucky explains. Steve nods, Bucky’s arm wraps around his shoulders and drags him off, in the direction of his apartment.


***


He and Bucky go to see Snow White when it comes out in theaters. It's lovely, drawn beautifully. The colors- the ones that Steve can see anyhow- are incredible.


He watches, enamored, and leaves the theater with his head spinning, thoughts about true love and happily ever afters swirling in his brain.


They go back to see it four more times because Bucky can tell how much Steve loved it. Bucky probably wanted to go see some horror flick instead, always a fan of the gore and the way Steve will jump and grab at his arm, but he sits through it every time and grins when they leave the theater.


“One day you're gonna draw a picture like that, Stevie,” he says. “And I'll go see it every single day until they kick me out.”


On the third time they see it, Steve is studying the scene where Prince Charming kisses Snow White awake and he gets the brilliant idea to glance over at Bucky, see what emotion is playing across his face.


Only Bucky's already looking at him, chin resting on his shoulder, like he's been glancing Steve's way for a while. He smiles, almost guiltily, like he got caught.


“I’ve got it memorized,” he explains sheepishly, whispering into Steve's good ear. “You're more interesting than the movie either way.”


He blushes, can't possibly help it with Bucky's attention concentrated on him like this. It makes Bucky grin, his eyes scan the nearly empty theater (It’s a Tuesday afternoon, only small kids and their parents, posing no threat to the two of them in the back seats), and he leans over, kissing Steve's temple.


Sometimes Steve thinks he could be Snow White. Not that he's even tempered. Or good at singing. Or looks pretty. Or cleans things.


Okay, he's not a lot like Snow White.


But he thinks Bucky could be like Prince Charming. Brave enough and tall enough. Perfect and loving and protective.


Steve tries to find similarities between him and Snow White. Obsessively some days. He’ll watch the movie over and over, looking for any little detail that can link the two of them.


Anything to prove that Bucky is his, could possibly be his.


He doesn't find enough, and they stop going to see the movie. Bucky takes him to see a slasher film, and he jumps out of his skin more times than he can count, buries his face in Bucky's shoulder.


***


When he leaves the museum, after spending considerable too long staring at pictures of Bucky and Peggy, his chest is hurting.


His apartment is too quiet, too empty, too blank and harsh and impersonal. He needs to do something, distract himself. He barely held it together in the museum and every second he spends staring at this stupid apartment with no warmth, no color, no Bucky, he feels himself getting closer and closer to falling apart.


He turns on the TV. The first thing to come on is the news, an anchor talking about this crisis in some country and that celebrity drama. He skims the other channels, but it's all the same.


He puts in a DVD instead, too tired to look for anything else.


He doesn't think Natasha knew what she was doing when she bought him the 164-DVD Disney Box Set for his birthday. Because now there's nothing holding him back from doing this to himself.


Snow White is the first DVD of the set. It's sloppy, crudely drawn compared to the others, no digital animation, no realism, no special effects, just drawings, moving pictures and simple songs.


It feels like coming home. For a few seconds, he can act like he's back in Brooklyn, curled up with Bucky, falling in love with the animation and the story and the boy next to him through it.


Watching it now, he finally finds a similarity with Snow White. They both fell asleep. Steve for a much longer time, but the both fell asleep, thought dead, gone from the world.


Only when Steve woke up, his Prince wasn't there. He didn't get a happily ever after.


He got this instead.


***


It's after the last time they see Snow White.


It's frigid out, unusual for the first days of April. When they get back to their apartment, Bucky bundles him up and every blanket they own, makes two cups of hot cocoa with the little bit they have, and burrows in next to him on the couch.


They're twenty years old and they spend minutes, maybe an hour, curled up tight, exchanging slow, languid kisses that taste like chocolate and movie popcorn.


Bucky's hand slides along his side, burning a trail of fire along his skins.


“You could be him,” Bucky says, whispers in his ear before sucking on the skin below it.


“Who?” Steve says, gasping softly.


“The prince,” Bucky explains. “You're strong like him. Always fighting the good fighting.”


“I'm not-” Steve protests.


“Yeah, yeah, you are,” Bucky insists. “A prince. My prince.”


***


Best friends since childhood, Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers were inseparable in both the schoolyard and the battlefield. Barnes is the only Howling Commando to give his life in service of this country.


It sounds like a history lesson, like a perfect little story, like a million other Hollywood films about war. Two long time friends, fighting for freedom by each other's side, stoic and strong.


It shouldn't be. He and Bucky were not best friends. He and Bucky were everything.


It should read like a fairy tale. Like a love story.


Once upon a time, there was a brave and wonderful prince who had everything, charmed everyone. But he decided to sit by a small peasant boy who everyone ignored, and they fell in love, somehow. Then they went to fight a dragon, save the kingdom, only the wonderful prince died, leaving the peasant boy all alone in a kingdom he doesn't even recognize anymore.


It wouldn't make a good movie, Steve decides. Bucky would get too bored of it to watch it every day.

Chapter Text

It starts on his birthday.


In his mind, it's April. Bucky been dead for three months. It should be closer to Bucky's birthday than his. It’s only been a month and a half since New York and he feels…


The calendar says July 4th, 2012, and he wakes up in the morning and has breakfast in his usual cafe, but gets himself a cupcake from a bakery nearby, so...


The country is celebrating. Morale is high after New York. Most people don’t realize how close it was. Most people don’t realize how easily it could have- Most people feel happy and safe, and Steve feels…


It’s Captain America’s birthday. The news reminds him of that. People are out buying merchandise and shooting fireworks in his honor and partying like it’s the end of days.


“So what do you think the significance of today is, as the first fourth of July after the New York Attack and since Captain Rogers’ was defrosted?” a perky news anchor asks a man with a thick beard and an American flag bandana.


“I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s the best thing that could have happened. Captain America represents this country’s values and he’ll reminds us what we should be standing for,” he drawls. Steve doesn’t think he wants to know what this guy thinks those values are so he turns off the news.


Nobody really knows it’s Steve’s birthday. Nobody really knows Steve.


Most days he puts on the uniform and becomes this person, becomes this Captain America everyone expects him to be. Truth, honor, justice. Playing by the rules and fighting the good fight. No swearing or disrespecting authority or acting selfishly.


Everybody calls him Cap, or Capsicle, sometimes Rogers, sometimes Captain Rogers.


He remembers the last time someone called him Steve. Peggy, over the radio, asking for his coordinates, trying to stop him from being an idiot. Trying to stop him from acting selfishly.


(He remembers the last time he heard Bucky say his name, remembers how it pulled at his chest.)


He doesn’t feel like Steve most days. Until he gets back to his apartment, in the city because that’s where everyone expects him to be. Then he’s alone, and he’s Steve, and inside he feels just as empty as his cold apartment.


They’ve given him the day off, which is maybe the worst thing they could have done, because now he can only wander, without purpose, act like he’s enjoying his birthday when really… when really, he just wants to give up.


Tony Stark calls him at three in the afternoon.


“Hey, Capsicle,” he says, shouts, because there’s loud music playing and he’s probably drunk. “Cap, it’s your birthday! You should come by the Tower; we’re throwing you a party! It’s great. You’ll love it. Just close friends.” Something shatters on the other end of the line. “Shit. Hey Cap, I’ll buy you a lap dance.”


He knows what he’s supposed to say, no, in his most disapproving tone. For a second though, all he can think about is his 21st birthday, when Bucky bought him a new button down and some cologne, and took him to this seedy club downtown where he got a lap dance from a sailor in his underwear.


Bucky had laughed for hours, and Steve had turned redder than a fire hydrant, and they stumbled home together, tipsy and clinging to each other tight.


“I can’t, Tony,” he says, perfectly even. “I have other plans.”


“Other plans! With who? Got a hot date, Cap?”


Yeah, all by himself with some ice cream and the DVDs from Natasha that arrived at his apartment that morning. (He called her to say thanks. He didn’t ask how she knew.)


“I gotta go, Tony,” he insists and hangs up.


His mind drifts for a second, caught up in memories about Bucky, and he finds himself and hour later, standing outside the same bar from all those years ago. It’s not a bar anymore. Now it’s a pet supply store.


There is a bar a few stores down though, so he pulls his baseball cap down, and walks into the mostly empty establishment and buys half his body weight in beer, despite knowing it won’t do a damn thing.


***


He didn’t know it was his last birthday with Bucky, but even if he had known, he doesn’t think he would do it any different.


By some miracle they don't have a mission, despite the pressure from Phillips and everyone above him to wipe Hydra off the map completely. They're in London, and Bucky kisses him awake before the sun is even up.


“C’mon, Stevie,” he says, shaking his shoulder. “‘S your birthday. You gotta wake up.”


“Hmmm,” Steve grunts. He doesn't want to move. He's warm, and Bucky’s warm, wrapped around him, mouth on his temple. He doesn't want to leave ever.


“Steve. Get up,” Bucky says, shoving him hard. This time last year, Bucky could've pushed him off the bed, but now he barely shifts.


“No,” Steve mumbles. “Sleep.”


“Stevie, I've got plans,” Bucky says. “Birthday plans. Get up.”


Bucky pulls the blankets off the bed, and Steve grunts, sits up.


“What?” He whines.


“Jeez, you lump,” Bucky says, tugging on Steve's hand. “Come on, baby. We've got a city to see.”


“What?” Steve groans.


“It's your birthday and we're going out,” Bucky announces and rolls out of the bed.


Steve follows him, quick enough to catch Bucky's wrist and tug him down into a kiss. Bucky smiles against his mouth, places his other hand on the back of Steve's neck.


“We’re going to see the entire city, Steve,” Bucky says. “It's gonna be beautiful.”


“You're beautiful,” Steve says, tired enough that it's almost a whine. “Don't need to leave bed to find the most stunning thing in this city.”


“Hey,” Bucky says. “It's your birthday. I get to say ridiculously sappy things to you, pal. It's my right. You have to wait til March.”


They won't make it to March. Either of them. But they don't know that.


Bucky goes rushing off to the corner of the room where he stashed all his stuff. He's not supposed to be sleeping in here, so he doesn't put his stuff in the closet just in case, but every night, they hold a two person ‘strategy meeting’ that required Bucky to say over every night. The Commandos all laugh and tease them: “How'd the meeting go, Barnes?”, “Any good new strategies, Rogers?”.


Bucky bounces back to the bed, drops a newspaper covered package in Steve's lap.


“What-?” Steve starts.


“Just open it,” Bucky insists, sitting on the edge of the bed, legs crossed.


“Buck, you didn't have to,” Steve protests.


“Shut up and open it, punk,” Bucky says, shoving his arm.


Steve tears into the package, glancing up too many times at Bucky and the excitement in his eyes.


It's a notebook.


No, that's not enough. It's a sketch pad, leather bound, heavy and thick, cream colored paper that won't bend or tear as easily as his other sloppy and cheap pads. His initials are engraved on the front in gold.


“I saw it three weeks ago when we were in that town up north on leave. I knew it'd be perfect for you,” Bucky explains. “Do you… Uh, do you like it?”


Steve nods, doesn't think he could speak if he tried.


“I, uh, I wrote a cheesy poem thing on the first page. Thought you might like it. Since you were such a big fan of my ridiculous letters when you were back in the states,” Bucky continues, rambling now. He's nervous. “I know I get you art supplies every year. But I think this really beats the pencils from last year.”


“I-I love it, Buck. It's beautiful,” Steve says, because he can't stand the thought of Bucky thinking he doesn't like it. It's so…. He can't understand it. It's a sketch pad. He's had dozens, but this one is so… Different. Professional, like it'd be owned by a professional artist, a genius or something, not the little scraps Steve had used before.


“Really?” Bucky sighs. “Thank God. Because I asked the shop manager and he said this was the stuff to get for an artist. Quality stuff. I figured we could go out, see the sights, and you could draw to your little heart’s content.”


Steve shakes head.


“All the sights are right here,” Steve says, opening the sketchbook. He sees Bucky's loopy scrawl across the first page as promised, but doesn't read it, wants to save it.


“Stevie, seriously,” Bucky protests, like he isn't turning red.


“I am being serious,” Steve says. He reaches for the table by the bed, grabs the pencil he left there the night before. “Lie down. I wanna draw you.”


“Steve,” Bucky says slowly. Steve just stares at him, a little breathless, reaches out and rests his hand on Bucky's shoulder.


“You sure?” Bucky asks.


“I wanna draw you,” Steve insists, and Bucky nods slowly.


“Okay, pal, it's your day.”


***


He sits at the bar with his hat down, stares at his beer, takes another swig, and gives up.


He keeps trying not to think about Bucky, but that was a stupid goal to begin with. Bucky was, is, and always will be his axis, the point his world revolves around, his person, his soulmate, his… Bucky. His Bucky.


There's no way to pretend that wasn't the case, no way to look at this new world and not see the places Bucky would fit in perfectly, notice the holes he leaves behind.


That's not to say he doesn't miss everyone and almost everything from his old life. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt his heart when he sees a girl with bright red lipstick, or some guy with a bowler hat. But he can't help but think he could live with all that pain if Bucky was by his side.


So he starts pretending that Bucky's by his side.


“Really, pal,” his Bucky says, crouched on the empty bar stool next to his. “This is the best you could do. Spend your 94th birthday in this dump of a place.”


Yes, that's exactly what Bucky would say if he could see this. And he would tilt his head like that and emphasize those words, inflect his tone just like that.


And then Steve would say, “Shut up, Buck.” And Bucky rolls his eyes.


“You could be trying to get trashed at Stark's party, ya know?” Bucky suggests.


“I don't want to.”


“Look, I know he's obnoxious and loud, but isn't it better than being alone, you stubborn punk?”


“I'm not alone. I have you.” Even in his head it sounds pathetic. He's having a conversation with Bucky in an empty bar, most probably losing what's left of his sanity.


“Steve,” Bucky says, tilting his head, smiling sadly. “I know it's hard, sweetheart, but you have to move on.”


“I can't, Bucky. You know I can't.”


“You have to try, honey. Please.”


“It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I wasn't supposed to wake up. I wasn't supposed to be here without you.” Shit. That was it wasn't it. He was supposed to die in the Valkerie. His story was supposed to end, and maybe he would’ve ended up wherever Bucky was. But instead he was here.


“Don't say that, Steve. Goddamn.” And Bucky gets choked up on that. “Don't do that for me. You got a second chance, Steve. Don't waste it because of me. Live it for me.”


Steve sighs, downs the rest of his drink.


“I don't know how to do that without you, Buck.”


But he pushes back from the bar and heads home.


***


Birthdays are a Thing for them. Mostly for Bucky. Bucky loves birthdays.


It starts when they're 12. Well, Bucky's 11 for a few more months, but Steve is turning 12 and Bucky is too excited.


“Twelve years, Stevie,” he says over and over. “That's a dozen.”


They're sitting on the sidewalk outside Steve's apartment, and Bucky is outlining the day he has planned for Steve, including movies and the park and fireworks, arm thrown around Steve’s shoulder, temples pressed together. Gloria O'Donnell from down the street walks up with two of her friends, and that's usually not good news for Steve.


Gloria hates him. Which is becoming more typical of kids their age. But Gloria loved Bucky.


“Hi James,” she says, smiling shyly. Steve sits back, hunched his shoulders a little to go unnoticed, not that she acknowledges him either way.


“Hi,” Bucky replies, leaves his arm around Steve's shoulder. “Anything we could help you with, ladies?”


Bucky sounds charming as always. Bucky always sounds sweet and perfect and it makes Steve's chest go tight, heart beat funny, has for years.


“I'm going down to the pier to watch the fireworks tonight and I was wondering if you wanted to join me,” Gloria says, batting her eyes a little.


“Steve and I were gonna watch from the roof,” Bucky says, contemplatively, like he doesn't even notice the way Gloria is staring at him, eager and lovelorn. “Do you think the view there will be better?”


“I sure think so,” Gloria says, raising an eyebrow. “But I was asking if you wanted to come with me.”


“But it's Steve's birthday,” Bucky says slowly, like he can't fathom why else Gloria would invite him to the pier. “He's twelve, you know.”


“Yeah, well, I was hoping to spend time with you,” Gloria explains.


Steve clears her throat a little, nudges Bucky with his elbow. They don't have to speak any more to have conversations.


‘You should go,’ Steve says with a nudge.


‘It's your birthday,’ Bucky replies with a raised eyebrow.


Steve shrugs. ‘I'll have more.’


He doesn't think about how sick he got this winter, scarlet fever for a week and a half followed by a really rough bit of pneumonia, doesn't think of Bucky running over to the apartment every day after school, the constant worried look on his face, the way he cried when Steve started getting better, too relieved to play off any of the emotions as something insignificant.


‘I don't want to,’ Bucky frowns.


‘You sure?’


‘Steve, I don't want to.’


“Sorry, Gloria,” Bucky says out loud, turning away from Steve. “I can't. I'm gonna watch the fireworks with Steve.”


Gloria huffs out a little breath, throws a glare Steve's way.


“That's alright,” she says, even though her voice suggests it isn't. “Maybe next year?” Bucky shrugs. Gloria frowns for a second before plastering on another smile. “Well, I'll see you around, James.”


She and her friends skip off down the street, whispering to each other and giggling. Bucky goes right back to talking about their plans for the day like it never happened, like they were never interrupted, like he doesn't realize what he did.


“So after the park what do you want to do?” Bucky asks. “I've been saving up and we can go get some ice cream from Wilson’s.”


“She likes you,” Steve says instead, crossing his arms over his chest.


“What?” Bucky asks, forehead wrinkling.


“Gloria likes you,” Steve repeats. “You should've said yes.”


“But it's your birthday,” Bucky says, still confused, like he can't fathom why anything else would matter.


“So. We're going to the park now and you can go watch the fireworks with Gloria at the pier tonight,” Steve offers, pursing his lips.


“But it's your birthday,” Bucky says again. “Stevie, pal, I want to spend it with you.”


Steve shrugs. “You don't have to.”


“I know. But I like you better than Gloria either way,” Bucky says, and that's the end of it. “So would you rather go to Wilson’s or the automat?”


They don't mention it for the rest of the day. And it's a great day. They spend hours in the park, lounging in the grass. His asthma doesn't act up, and he and Bucky even play a game of stickball, and it's perfect.


They end up getting ice cream at Wilson’s, splitting a banana float because Bucky insists on paying and Steve agrees tentatively. And then it's getting dark and Bucky tugs him down the streets through small crowds with sparklers back to his apartment. They climb up to the roof like they've done for dozens of other summer days, hiding from their moms, Steve going first slowly and Bucky following.


The sky turns black while they watch, lying on the dirty cement, and then it's lit up with colors, explosions of red and blue and green above them.


“Better than going to the pier with Gloria?” Steve asks, and he's not sure why, not sure which response he's more willing to hear. This thing bubbles up in chest, the same one that churns when the girls in their class stare at Bucky with their hearts in their eyes, the one that flutters every time Bucky smiles at him, or pounds every time Steve heard stories about people getting married or how his parents fell in love.


Bucky rolls his eyes, takes Steve hand in his and squeezes. That's nothing new. Bucky's always so tactile, holding his hand, pulling him into a hug, cuddling in their blanket forts while reading some action comics or listening to programs on the radio. Kissing him on the forehead after pulling him from a fight, or on the cheek when he’s talking him through an asthma attack.


“Better than sitting on a stupid pier with any dame from here to Jersey,” Bucky insists, and then Bucky's looking over at him and Steve is looking right back. Bucky's illuminated in light, colors splashing across his face.


He leans in.


Steve forgets how to breathe, and then Bucky's lips are on his, soft and light, not something that should count as a kiss, but at 12 feels like the whole world.


Then it's over and Bucky smiles at him and then turns back to the show in the sky. It takes Steve an extra second but he looks back up, too, moves closer to Bucky so their sides are pressed together.


“Best birthday ever?” Bucky asks, later, much later, when the fireworks are over but they still lie there, pressed together, staring silently at the sky.


Steve nods. “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”


***


For his 13th birthday Bucky takes him to Coney Island. Steve throws up after riding the Cyclone and wastes a dollar and a half on this one ring toss game without winning a stuffed animal for Bucky. But they kiss at the top of the Wonder Wheel, and when Bucky asks him if it's been the best birthday ever, he says yes.


For his 14th birthday, Bucky takes him to the beach. For his 15th they go to Central Park. For his 16th the watch a Dodgers game at Ebbets Stadium. And every year, Steve assures Bucky that yes, it's been the best birthday he's ever had. He's always tried to figure out his obsession with birthdays, has a few theories.


For one, he thinks maybe Bucky's trying to give him motivation. Anytime he gets sick during the year, Bucky just looks at him, pleading and Steve can almost hear it.


‘You can't die. Not like this, not here. You gotta make it to your next birthday. You gotta see what I have planned.’


That maybe Steve needs just more incentive to get back up. Like trying not to break Bucky's heart isn't enough to push Steve through every winter.


Steve doesn't pretend not to know that he can be hard to deal with. He's too stubborn, too angry, too many hard edges and he won't accept help without a fight. He knows that Bucky gets tired sometimes, of having to fight with everything he's got to do anything for Steve. But on his birthdays, he'll let it slide. He'll stop fighting for a second and let Bucky take care of him.


So yeah, Bucky has a thing for birthdays.


For his 24th birthday though, Bucky doesn't take him out or buy him some extravagant art tools. They spend the day in their apartment, in bed, on the couch. Bucky doesn't let go of him, doesn't let him out of his sight. They don't talk about the draft letter on the kitchen table or Bucky's time at basic or the fact that his orders could come in any second, just stay wrapped up, ignoring it all.


Bucky didn't buy him a present, didn't have time to, and Steve knows he feels guilty about it, so he doesn't even joke about it. But when it's dark outside and the clock on their bedside table says Steve's birthday is almost over, Bucky presses his mouth to Steve's hair, breathes, “I love you”, like he has a million times before but different, and he thinks that's present enough.


He thinks maybe Bucky just likes birthdays.


***


For Steve's 25th birthday, they do spend all day in the hotel room, Steve drawing Bucky over and over and over, no matter how much Bucky protests that they should really go outside.


He still has pages and pages left in the sketchbook and it fills him with this hope. Each blank page holds this potential, to be filled of more sketches of Bucky, maybe some for Peggy and the Commandos and Phillips. But he can see in each page another drawing, another scene. He sees a future. One that isn't always filled with dark violent gloom.


He wonders if Bucky knows his present this year was more than a sketchbook, was hope.


“Do you really think that?” Steve asks. He's taking a break, lying across the width of the bed, his head in Bucky's lap, Bucky's fingers in his hair. “That I'm an artist. You said before this was the stuff real artists used. Do you think I count?”


“Who else would count?” Bucky asks, shaking his head. “You're the best artist I know, Stevie.”


“Yeah, but what other artists do you know, Buck?”


Bucky huffs out a laugh. “You're incredibly talented, honey. I never lied about that. I may know jack shit about art, but I know you're good. And I'm not just saying that because I love you.”


“Yeah, but I dunno. Being good at drawing, doesn't mean I'll ever be an actual artist,” Steve says, shrugging.


“Why not?” Bucky asks, frowning. “You're cut out for more than this.” He waves his hand, and Steve wonders if he means the hotel room, the war, Captain America. He doesn't ask.


He shrugs, stares down at the sketchpad in his hand and wonders.


“So…” Bucky says, after a pause. “Even though we didn't do anything exciting at all, was it the best birthday ever?”


Steve's taken aback. For all his theorizing, birthdays shouldn't care anymore, yet Bucky still…


He's healthy now. He accepts help from Bucky, some of the times, doesn't have anything to prove anymore. Yet…


“Yeah. As always,” Steve agrees, and it seems to ease a tension in Bucky's shoulder, like it was actually worrying him.


“Good, then I'm doing my job.”


***


He doesn't go to Stark's party, doesn't think he can muster up the strength to be around other people today of all days.


He hasn't spent a birthday without Bucky since he was four. He can't remember ever spending a birthday without Bucky. He doesn't think he can pretend he knows how to have a birthday without Bucky.
Hell, he doesn't think he can pretend to be Captain America or Steve Rogers or a function human being today.


So he leaves the bar and goes back to his apartment, alone, yet tries to imagine Bucky on the bus seat next to him, knows the feeling so well, can perfectly recreate the feeling of it. And goes straight from the front door of his apartment to his bedroom to his bed, not bothering to eat or drink or shower, just hides under the covers and keeps pretending.


Bucky's arms around him, his head pressed into Bucky's shoulder, Bucky's mouth on his forehead. Even with a perfect memory of the millions of times they've done this, curled up under the covers, content to just be close and quiet until it's morning, it hurts more than it helps.


It feels like a phantom limb. Like Bucky should be there, should be holding him close and asking him, “Best birthday ever, Stevie?”


It's the warmest he's felt since waking up, but it's still not enough. He closes his eyes, wants this day to just be over already, but it doesn't stop the tears from stinging.


“Sorry, Buck. ‘S the worst one yet.”

 

Chapter Text

It's been two months since New York. He still lives in New York, some nights at the Tower, some nights as his apartment.

It's too quiet, everywhere. The city is loud and the Avengers are loud, but there's this silence that consumes Steve. (The empty spaces around where Bucky should be, making noise, being loud.)

He's staying in the Tower this weekend. He wakes up and goes to get some breakfast in the communal kitchen and he hears Bucky's name for the first time since waking up.

“It's Bucky all the way, man,” Clint says, voice growing in volume. “How is this a comparison? He’s a World War 2 sniper.”

“What're you-?” Steve asks, voice catching in his throat before he can get any further. Nobody has talked about Bucky, asked about Bucky.

When he woke up and was taken back to Shield, he started asking, half delusional, where Bucky was, if he was okay, only to be reminded by Fury that, “Sergeant Barnes died seventy years ago, Cap.”

Steve doesn't reply with, “So did I.” But it was there.

“Cap, perfect. Come here and tell Tony how wrong he is,” Clint says, waving Steve over.

“No, you can't bring Cap in,” Tony protests. “He's biased.”

“And you're not,” Clint snaps back.

“What're you guys-?” Steve starts.

“Who would win in a fight, your sidekick or mine?” Tony asks.

“Sidekick?” Steve asks, because this is going somewhere he doesn't understand.

“Bucky Barnes,” Clint explains, like he doesn't know. “One of your pals front the war.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve says slowly.

“Sniper or not. Did I mention Rhodey has a super suit? It's called War Machine. It has guns. He wins,” Tony says, and Steve just stares.

“Okay, but Barnes is a sniper. He wouldn't be near the guns,” Clint argues. “He'd be afar, shooting at Rhodey.”

“Did I mention the suit has thermal and night vision modes?” Tony replies. “Because that's important.”

“Did I mention that Barnes has a rifle that can shoot EMPs?” Clint snarks back, face scrunching.

“What?” Steve asks, because that doesn't sound right.

“Your guy wears tights, Barton,” Tony protests. Steve doesn't know which settles worse in his stomach, the ‘your’ or the ‘tights’.

“Tights?” He echoes though, because that seems like the most pressing.

“Pardon me, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis says, while Clint and Tony ignore, delve back into their debate. (“It's a breathable fabric,” Clint says, crossing his arms. “More flexible than a stupid metal suit.”) “I believe Mr. Stark is referring to the Captain America comics, first published in the 1950’s. I can pull up further reading on your tablet for you.”

Steve rubs a hand over his face and walks back to the kitchen. It's all too much to take in this morning. Too much to think to long about and not do something stupid.

He makes himself a coffee and goes back to his room, stares at the perfectly even ceiling for a little while. He hears Clint and Tony’s argument get increasingly louder, but tries not to focus on the words.

His tablet it on the bedside table. He uses it often to draw, found something interesting and new in digital art, something that wasn't staring at an empty sketchbook with pencils like it was supposed to mean something now, like he could think of putting a pencil to paper and not trace the curves and lines of Bucky already laid out into the page.

He doesn't use anything else though, is too intimidated by the internet and the future to explore too much of it. (If he explores, if he gets comfortable, that means he's staying, and a part of him wants to think this is only temporary, that he won't actually have to build a life here, to exist without Bucky.)

“Tights,” he says to himself, awash with dread and maybe a little anger and a whole lot of sadness. He picks up his tablet and googles “Bucky Barnes”, almost certain he will regret it.

***

Steve finds one of the covers of the early Captain America comics. He doesn't even bother looking at his own representation, just stares at Bucky's. The drawing makes him look like he's twelve, shorter than Steve by a foot, dressed in bright blues and reds and yep, tights.

He scrolls through some of the other pictures. Bucky says things like “Golly Gee, Cap!” and always does something reckless that Steve has to scold him for. He has a temper and gets upset when he's sidelined. He's the damsel half the time, getting caught by the Red Skull and strapped to a bomb or something, but always plays the sidekick, teasing Steve about girls and hitting on every pretty female officer that crossed their path.

It makes Steve's stomach twist, but he keeps scrolling, keeps looking through different comic panels of Bucky Barnes, fan blogs and archives dedicated to them. It's disconnecting, seeing people talk about Bucky without it being Bucky. There are the rare history professors who talk about real Bucky, but even then it's based off speculation, interviews with the Commandos, and some of the movie reels they made in between missions.

The only thing out there resembling his Bucky are the few interviews they did with Becca on the 50th anniversary of his crash. It's reassuring, sets Steve at ease for a second that Bucky was really Bucky and not just something Steve was making up in his head.

Becca talks fondly about Bucky as a kid, him and Steve running around Brooklyn like a couple of idiots, getting into trouble at every turn. She doesn't talk about them falling in love along the way, not that she knew too much about that in the first place. For a moment, listening to Becca, Steve is back home, can see every second of the story she tells. He turns off his tablet after that, doesn't want to disturb the peace he found. He focuses on his Bucky and not the ones the world has made and remade for their purposes.

Tony and Clint stop arguing about Bucky and start arguing about some football team.

***

Steve remembers.

It was a year after they started living together. Steve still missed his ma, felt her absence in every corner of his life, but living with Bucky was a dream come true. The apartment was a mess, broken heater, broken icebox, broken everything, but every night he curled into bed with Bucky, warm and contented.

At least at the beginning, and then Bucky started not coming home until later and later into the night, always tired and sweaty, and dodging Steve's questions and eyes, crawling into bed and drifting right off.

Steve remembers the knots in his stomach, planning to bring it up every night before deciding it would be better not to know. The only reason Steve can conceive of Bucky not telling him why is was out so late is if it was for a girl.

Steve tries to bring up girls sometimes, girls who are interested in Bucky, asking if he plans to take Susan or Amy or Dolores out to dance or something. Bucky always shakes his head and changes the topic. So maybe…

Bucky never hid anything from Steve before so it must be something he thinks will make Steve upset. Really upset.

If it's a girl, Steve thinks it might be better not to know. He tries to convince himself he has no claim to Bucky beyond friendship. That even though they've been… Something over the past five years, but they've never talked about it much. So it's not like Bucky has this obligation to him, or any reason to hide what he's doing, feel guilty about it because there's nothing…

Steve’s not angry about it. He has no right to be.

At least that's what he tells himself, over and over. He's not angry. He waits up for Bucky, after about a month of it, of struggling between wanting to ask about it and ignore it. He just wants to know. He won't be angry or sad or anything. He just wants to know.

When Bucky comes into the apartment, easing the door open silently, creeping in on his tiptoes, at two in the morning, he takes one look at Steve, curled up on the couch, wide awake, and crumples, shoulders folding inward, guilt washing over his face. Steve sits up slowly.

“Hey, pal,” Bucky says, closing the door behind him. “You didn't have to wait up for me.”

“I was starting to worry we'd never talk again if I didn't,” Steve responds and Bucky flinches. “You gonna tell me what's going on?”

It sounds to harsh. He's not angry, Steve reminds himself. He's not. He just wants to know. Bucky walks over to the couch, slowly, eyes on Steve, wary.

“I'm not gonna be angry, Buck,” Steve assures him, keeping his voice calm, smiling albeit weakly. “If it's a dame or something. I'm not. I just… I’m a little worried.”

“A…?” Bucky asks, eyebrows furrowing. “Steve, I'm not seeing some girl.”

Steve tries not to think about how relieved he feels. Bucky sits on the couch next to him, but not close to him, leaning his elbows on his knees, head hanging.
“If it's not some girl then why-?”

“Because you’re not gonna like it,” Bucky offers, mouth a tight line.

“Is it another fella?” Steve asks. He thinks he might be angry about that. Maybe not angry, maybe just sad, but it's not like he wouldn't understand it.

“Steve, no,” Bucky says, looking up at him imploringly, looking hurt. “Stevie, God, I'm not just… I wouldn't just… I wouldn't do that to us, can't even dream of it.”

“Then what is it?” Steve asks, crossing his arms over his chest. If it's not a girl and it's not a guy and Bucky still didn't tell him… It must be something really bad. He thinks of all it could be, the dangers that wait just outside their apartment door. He thinks, though, that it wouldn't matter, that this is Bucky, his Bucky, and nothing could change that.

“I've been going to the gym,” Bucky says, muffled into his lap. Steve thinks he must have misheard him. Surely, all of this was not about Bucky going to the gym.

“Until two in the morning?” Steve asks incredulous, not because he doesn't believe Bucky, he just can't seem to understand what this means.

“I've, uh, been taking boxing lessons with one of the pros there. I don't have any other time to practice,” Bucky explains carefully. “And I clean up for the owner afterwards.”

“Boxing?” Steve echoed. “But you hate boxing.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees slowly, shoulders slumping.

“Then why?”

“Well, that's the part you're not gonna like,” Bucky says, taking a deep breath. “It's just that lately you've been throwing yourself into fight after fight, Stevie. And you know, there's been a few close calls too. I can't pull you out of every fight anymore. Not when you're taking on guys twice my size like the O'Connor twins. At least not when I have no idea what I'm doing. So yeah, I've been learning how to box.”

“I don't need you to protect me,” he says tightly, looking away from Bucky.

“This is why I didn't tell you,” Bucky sighs. “I knew you'd get upset.”

“I can take care of myself,” Steve snaps.

“I know. You only remind me fifteen times a day.”

“I don't need your help. I'm not some invalid you have to look after.”

“I've never thought of it that way and you know it,” Bucky snaps. “You know I don't do it because I think you're too weak to. I do it because God knows when you’ll pick a fight with someone three times your size and they don't hold back. God knows, when I can't pull you out of a fight and you'll end up getting something broken or worse and then where will we be. I just want to be able to protect you.”

“I don't need you to,” Steve insists, standing and pacing away from the couch. Bucky rubs his hands over his face. “I've never asked you to do any of that.”

“You don't have to ask. I don't want to see you dead. God, is that too much to ask for?”

“I can keep myself alive just fine.”

“Steve.”

“I can. I never asked for your help. I never asked you to do a goddamn thing for me,” he hisses.

“Don't I fuckin’ know,” Bucky replies. “What? I only have to fight you every damn time I try to do something for you. I only had to beg you for weeks to let us move in together, argue for hours to buy you anything, food, medicine, anything. You never ask. You never let me. You ever think maybe I want to, Steve. Maybe I care about you.”

“You don't have to,” Steve says quietly, not meeting Bucky’s eyes. “You never had to do any of that.”

“Goddamnit. I know. I want to,” Bucky insists, and he walks over, placing a hand on Steve's shoulder, rubbing his thumb along his collarbone. “We've been friends for over a decade, Steve. If I wanted anything but this, you think I'd still be here. You think I'm doing any of this out of some obligation. You think I fight to do anything for you because I think I have to. I love you. More than anything in the world and I just… I don't know. I want to be able to look out for you, protect you, and help you when you need it, just like you always do for me.”

“When do I ever-”

“When do you not?” Bucky says. “When Becca got into that fight with Colin Davenport and you punched him in the face. Or when my dad lost his job and you brought my ma groceries every day. You're always here for me, through everything, when you don't have to be, when I don't ask you to.”

“Well, yeah,” Steve agrees, frowning. “I… I love you, Buck.”

Bucky nods, presses his forehead to Steve's. “Exactly. I love you. I want to do everything for you. Not because I think you can't or think I have to. I love you and I don't want to lose you.”

“But you hate boxing,” Steve says gently.

Bucky chuckles. “It's worth it for a little peace of mind. I've learned a lot of cool stuff. How to make a good fist, put my weight into a hit.” He holds his hand up for Steve to see, curled up tight. Steve runs his fingers along Bucky’s knuckles, the small scabs and bruises. He pulls his wrist up, kisses the back of his hand.

“Show me?” Steve asks, raising his eyebrow. “For peace of mind?” Bucky smiles, curls his fingers around Steve's and folds them into a fist, before tugging his hand towards his chest. “I'm sorry. That I'm so… I'm sorry I can't be easier to deal with. I… I wish I could say I'd fight less.”

“I'd never ask you to,” Bucky says softly. “God, as nervous as you make me, you're you. I'd never want to change that. I love you.”

Steve sighs, lets his eyes fall shut for a moment.

“Which means no more with the girls, Stevie,” Bucky says. “I’m not interested in anyone but you.”

“I wouldn't be angry if you were,” Steve says.

“That's not the point,” Bucky says. “I don't want to be. I've never wanted to be with anyone but you. God, Steve, I've been telling you that since the seventh grade.”

“I know,” Steve says, hanging his head. “I'm sorry.”

“Don't apologize, just… try to believe me, pal,” Bucky says softly.

“I'll… I'll try.”

***

“James Buchanan Barnes,” one article by some history professor reads. “was a fighter long before enlisting. He had a fighting spirit from a young age, as seen in his mild success with boxing in 1938, when Barnes was 18 and 19. He soon dropped out of the tournament circuit, no doubt to pick up extra hours at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to pay for increasing rent prices and medication for a young, sickly Steve Rogers.

“As the story goes, Barnes first met Rogers after rescuing him from a playground squabble when they were a mere five years old. Throughout their friendship Barnes would continue to save Rogers from older and stronger bullies, who saw the pintsized Captain as an easy target.

“Many historians agree with Edward Hofstadter’s thesis published 1989, that the young Barnes would have much to gain from a friendship with Rogers, due mainly to the caring, charitable reputation it would create for him and the increased impression of strength by comparison. And others extend this theory to encompass Barnes’s apparent violent streak. By taking the easily targeted Rogers under his wing, Barnes was afforded an endless stream of opportunities to let out his aggression, protecting his weaker friend, and especially after the failure of his short lived boxing career, it would provide Barnes an outlet.

“Once the war began, he would quickly find a new enemy and be put to use defending his country as he once defended his small friend. When assembling his team, Captain Rogers would have had a unique understand of Barnes’s skill and temperament…”

Steve stops reading after that and tries not to throw up.

***

He considers the debate for a while. He wants to say unequivocally that Bucky would win in a fight against Rhodey, but it's a part of this same complex that haunted him back in Brooklyn, so full of childhood memories of Bucky swooping in and pulling him out of fights that it's imprinted. Bucky is stronger than anyone, braver, smarter, could take anyone in a fight.

Those memories though are right alongside newer ones now, Bucky in war, scared and hurt and desperate. Steve pulling him off that table, the way he would shake for days after a mission, the perfect statue of Bucky in his head crumbling to be replaced by real Bucky who wasn't the strongest or the bravest, who could get hurt, lose a fight, die...

He thinks if Bucky were to fight Rhodey, it would depend on circumstance. It would depend on location and what Bucky had on hand and how much time he had to prepare. Steve has seen him take on numbers of Hydra suits and come out on top, so that's not a complication.

Bucky though, is a pacifist at heart, always gentle and kind, much more suitable to charm than throw a punch. Bucky hated fighting, hated watching Steve fight. He would always yank him out of a fight, get in a carefully placed kick or tell the guy off. But it was never something he sought out. Steve thinks if Bucky had been friends with someone else, he never would have thrown a punch in his life. He could talk Rhodey into not fighting about whatever the situation was.

Steve wouldn't. Steve's a lot of things, but tactful is not one of them, charming is not one of them. Everybody has a list of things they’ll come to blows over and Steve's is longer than he was back in Brooklyn. Bucky’s is short and simple: Steve.

He’ll defend a dame in need, out an asshole in his place when necessary, sock a guy in the face when the situation demanded it, but the number one way to get Bucky wholeheartedly into a fight was Steve.

So yeah, if that was the cause of the fight, Bucky could beat Rhodey, Bucky would take on anybody for Steve, or at least, die trying.

Chapter Text

He gets sent on a lot of interviews. A lot. Mostly because Tony is a PR nightmare, Thor is off in Asgard, Natasha only gets stupid questions, nobody knows who Clint is, and Banner… well, not Banner.


But Steve is supposed to be a proper old geezer, an American icon, a paragon of virtue. So he's sent on a lot of interviews.


It's not his idea of a good time. Putting on the Captain America persona is getting harder by the day, even if it's the only thing he has to cling to anymore. But he doesn't have anything better to do except sulk so he might as well.


Some of the interviews are alright, just talking about the Avengers and occasionally the Commandos. Some are actually fun, some talk shows and a few college radio news programs, where they ask him about this movie from the 40's or whether he ever met Ella Fitzgerald. And a few are just painful, either some asswad who wants to make a point about PC culture or some other bullshit or, like this one, some overly peppy interviewer throwing out quirky slang terms every other word and treating him like a geriatric idiot.


"What do you think of Facebook?" "What's your favorite SnapChat filter? You know, SnapChat?" "How do you feel about Kim Kardashian?"


It gets his blood boiling. He's not some idiot and he's not a close minded grandpa no matter what Tony has to say on the matter.


He knows perfectly well what "on fleek" means even if he was born almost a century ago. But if he has one more overeager reporter try to make him look like an idiot, he might just point out that technically he's younger than them and a smartphone only has two buttons so of course he knows how to fucking use it.


It's on this interview with some dude with his hair in a bun and a pair of black rimmed glasses throwing out the typical barrage of social media and technology questions and he answers each with his patented Captain America grin, keeping his frustration deep in his chest.


It's good to feel something though.


“So what do you think Bucky Barnes would put in his Tindr description?” the guy asks, a follow up to a question about online dating sites.


He's so thrown off guard by hearing Bucky’s name, sometimes he thinks he's the only one who remembers Bucky, he doesn't even process the rest of the question.


“Uh, what?” He asks, and the interviewer smiles, like he's glad he's finally caught Steve off guard on something.


“Tindr,” he repeats slowly, like that’ll make Steve understand. “It's this app, an application-”


“Yeah I know what it is,” Steve snaps, unable to keep the facade in that moment in the face of this flood of conflicting emotions. He feels rage down to his bones, feels like he's being taunted, like this guy knows how many hours he's spent wondering what this century would be like with Bucky in it (brighter, more colorful, louder, home). And just next to that rage is the stomach churning sorrow he's so used to.


“So like…” the interviewer says carefully. “He's quite the lady’s man. Or was, I guess.” Steve feels like he might not make it out of this interview without puking. “What did he look for in a babe?”


Steve is tempted, so tempted to say, “Me,” and watch the world explode. Wants to leave this guy gaping and confused, wants to see him grapple with his next questions, wants to see him squirm, wants to see this plastered on every news channel, wants to burn their picture of macho playboy Bucky Barnes to the ground, wants to…


He can't though. No, he doesn't want to. He can viciously envision it, but he just feels this coldness in his chest. He doesn't want to share his Bucky with these people, especially not this guy. They spent seventy years fucking up the image of his Bucky so it fit their precious ideals of a loyal soldier, a loving and devoted best friend who's not too loving or devoted. They don't deserve to know Bucky.


“Bucky,” he says, slowly, carefully, thoughtfully. He's always loved the feeling of Bucky's name in his mouth, how second nature it feels, how comforting and safe, how warm just saying Bucky's name makes him feel. “He always loved girls who were smart and kind. He hated bullies, wouldn't put up with any dame who was mean, especially to me. But he also loved some… someone with a lot of spirit and wit.”


“No, but like… type means like blondes or brunettes, tall or short,” the guy explains, tactful.


“Oh,” Steve says, offering his best ‘oh, shucks’ look. “Well, Bucky never cared about looks all that much.” He fell for me after all.


***


They're twelve and Steve thinks he can't get any happier. He's a bit of an idiot.


Bucky kissed him on his birthday just over three months ago, and has kissed him fifteen times since. He feels like he's in love, the childish sort, stomach twisting, heart fluttering, doe-eyed sort. He doesn't yet know the all-consuming, soul-crushing love that will hit him in a few years.


For now, when Bucky sits next to him on a park bench, his heart pounds and his face turns red and he feels giddy. Bucky throws an arm around his shoulders, pulls him into his side and Steve feels warm and loved.


“Hey, pal,” Bucky says, pressing a kiss to Steve's forehead. “Can I ask you somethin’?”


“You're gonna ask anyway,” Steve teases, leans into Bucky, folds his sketchbook close.


“Punk,” Bucky mutters, but he too is too dizzy to keep the lovestruck look off his face. “Can I take you out on a date?”


Steve hearts thumps hard and he ducks his head, hiding a smile. “Hmmm. I dunno. Whatcha got planned?”


“It's gonna be a surprise,” Bucky explains sheepishly. “Becca was talkin’ about some of her romance pulps, and well, I thought… ya know, we should do something like that. So if you're not doing anything on Friday?”


“Buck, when have I ever done something on a Friday without you?” Steve challenges.


“Right,” Bucky says, blushing. “Uh, well, ask your ma then, ‘cause we’re gonna take the train, an’ don't worry about money or stuff, I've got it for this one.”


“Buck,” Steve protests.


“Hey, what kinda fella do you take me for?” Bucky asks. “You really want the whole neighborhood knowing I don't pay for my date.”


“You can't just-”


“I asked you out, I get to pay. If you ask me out next time, you can pay and I won't say a word, but this one's on me, doll,” he insists and Steve reluctantly agrees and then tries to pretend he isn't so outrageously excited.


He's jittery by the time Friday comes around. He's never been on a date before, much less one with Bucky. He knows it can't be much different than the millions of other adventures he and Bucky have already gone on, but it feels more important. He can tell Bucky feels the same. They spend most of the week exchanging looks, smiling giddily before looking away.


Bucky picks him up from his apartment at five, handing over a small bundle of daisies he must have picked himself from the park. Steve turns red and his ma laughs, goes to place the small bundle in a cup of water.


They take the train, sit pressed up against each other. Steve keeps trying to pry their destination out of Bucky, but makes no progress. As the stops go by, he starts to wise up.


“We’re going to-?” He asks.


“Yep,” Bucky says, and they exchange another beaming smile.


They stay on the train until the last stop, Coney Island. Bucky grabs his wrist and tugs him up the stairs and through the streets, towards the park.


The park is about half full, quiet enough, but still full of the lights and noises of the boardwalk. Bucky pays for their tickets and then for some cotton candy. He throws his arm around Steve's shoulder. Sometimes Steve feels naked without Bucky's arm around him, feels cold unless he's being tugged into the warmth of Bucky's side.


“Where to first, darling?” Bucky asks.


They spend hours as the sun goes down, dashing from ride to ride. He throws up after the Cyclone, while Bucky rubs circles on his back and buys him a water, but it's still worth it when Bucky takes him on the Wonder Wheel and kisses him sweetly at the top, overlooking the park and the water and the sunset.


It's dark when they leave the park. Their train car is empty, and they wait in the station. He makes use of the quiet, burying his face in Bucky's shoulder.


“So… did ya like it?” Bucky asks sheepishly. Steve grins, shocked by the ridiculous hint of nervousness in Bucky's question.


“Yeah, Buck,” he replies, rolling his eyes. “It was perfect.”


“Good, good,” Bucky says. “I, uh… Becca showed me her story and that's where I got the idea.”


“Maybe I should ask Becca to help me beat it with my date,” Steve says.


“That's cheating,” Bucky says, elbowing him. “She's my sister. You can't steal her.”


“You cheated in the first place, stealing ideas from her book,” Steve protests.


“That's not cheating,” Bucky argues. “That's… using my resources.”


“Well, you have an unfair advantage then,” Steve says, crossing his arms.


“All’s fair in love and war, Stevie,” Bucky taunts, and kisses him for the eighteenth time, a hand on his cheek, tasting like hot dogs and cotton candy.


***


“Pull it together,” he tells himself, rubbing his face, staring at himself in the cracked bathroom mirror. This was a terrible idea, maybe one of his worst. He could back out, should before he ruined everything.


He shuts the faucet off, dries his hands on the towel and prays they stay that way.
With one more deep breath, he gives himself one last warning, “Do not fuck this up.”


He closes the bathroom door carefully, walks back over to the kitchen and waits, sitting awkwardly at the table, glance at the door every few seconds. It’s ten minutes before Bucky gets home, shoulders slumped, face glowing with sweat.


“Hey, pal,” he says, voice gruff, but smiling softly.


“Hey, Bucky,” Steve replies, jumping to his feet, rushing over to cut him off before he can run off to the bedroom. “I made dinner.”


“Oh,” Bucky says, eyes darting between Steve and the kitchen. “Oh, wow. You didn’t hafta-”


“It’s my ma’s meatloaf recipe,” Steve adds, and Bucky’s eyes light up for a second.


“Steve,” Bucky sighs. “I-”


“Please just…” Steve says, biting his lower lip.


“Alright,” Bucky says, nodding slowly. “Let me just get change and I’ll-”


Steve stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “It’s getting cold,” Steve pleads. “Please, Bucky.”


Bucky’s eyes trail down to Steve’s hand on his shoulder, and Steve almost pulls it away, but Bucky is nodding again, leaning into his hand for half a second too long before heading into the kitchen.


Steve follows him, bouncing a little on his toes. He can’t afford to lose his nerve now. Bucky sits down and Steve grabs the two plates he meticulously prepared and places them carefully on the table, pulling his hands away so Bucky can’t see them shake.


Steve asks him about his day, and Bucky starts talking about the docks and his new boss and how he might get a promotion soon. He pauses frequently to shovel meatloaf into his mouth. Steve's too nervous to even touch his plate.


Bucky turns the question back on him, and Steve tries to talk calmly about the store. There's nothing exciting about his job, but he keeps rambling about nothing, wondering what the hell he would say if this were any other day.


“Stevie, honey, aren't you hungry?” Bucky asks. His plate is empty and Steve's is still full.


“My, uh, stomach wasn't feeling too great today,” Steve explains, wipes his hands on his pants. He's not sure how to do this right, how to start. He practiced everything else. Shit.


“Damn, is it too early for the flu?” Bucky asks, pulling his lower lip into his mouth. “Should we call Doctor Kolbechek?”


“No, no, it's nothing,” Steve insists, trying to look as earnest as possible. “I'm sure it'll go away by tomorrow. Here let me grab your plate.” He gets up, but so does Bucky.


“Jeez, pal, don't worry about it. If you're not feeling great, you should sit,” Bucky says. Steve goes around the table though, trying desperately to save the moment, get this whole thing back on track.


“Seriously, Stevie,” Bucky insists, picking up his plate. “You don't gotta do everything for me and-”


Steve drops to his knee.


“Pal, are you-?” Bucky seems concerned for a second, reaching down to help him up, before he realizes what exactly Steve is doing. Steve manages to get the ring out, smile weakly up at Bucky.


“I know it's dumb. I know it won't mean anything and-and it's just kinda pointless, but… I wanted to say that, even though I can be hard to deal with, too reckless and hard hearted, I love you. And I wish it could mean something, but since it can't, I just wanted to… I don't know, show you that. So, uh, James Buchanan Barnes, you've been my best friend my entire life. You've, uh, made all of this worth it, and I wouldn't change a single second. I want to spend every moment of my life with you, so even though we can't actually do anything about it, would you-?”


“Hang on,” Bucky says, holding a hand out. “Just hang on one second. I need… I need a second.”


“If you don't… don't want to, it doesn't… it doesn't have to change anything or-”


“Steve,” Bucky says softly. “I… it's not that. I just…” His eyes are wide and wet and he sinks to his knees in front of Steve. He stares at the ring, hand hovering in front of it. “Is it-”


“My ma’s,” Steve says, looking away. This seems like such a terrible idea now that he's actually doing it, something so dumb and childish. “I dunno why I…”


“Oh,” Bucky sighs, like his heart is breaking. “Steve, I couldn't.”


“She’d’ve wanted you to have it,” Steve says. “If you want it, that is.”


“Want it?” Bucky repeats, and he looks at Steve, awestruck. “If I want it?”


Steve nods. “I mean, it wouldn't really fit, not that you could wear it, but I have a chain for it, so you could wear it whenever you want.”


Bucky nods slowly, like the idea is sinking in. He throws his arms around Steve's neck, burying his face in Steve's neck.


“I love you,” he breathes. “I love you so much, Steve. God, I can't believe… Steve.” His shoulders shake, and Steve brings his arms up around him, holding him tight and close.


“I love you, too,” he says, breath catching in his throat. “You're the best thing that's ever happened to me.”


Bucky's crying, but he's smiling too, kissing Steve's neck and his cheek, wetly. They stay wrapped around each other on the dusty floor of the kitchen. Steve presses the ring into Bucky's hand, watches him marvel at it.


“Shit,” Bucky says, chest shaking again with something closer to a laugh. “I gotta get you one now, too.”


***


It started out as a coping mechanism. Something to help keep him going. Just imagining Bucky by his side in this brand new world was a comfort. He could act like this was all okay.


With Bucky at his side, he always felt stronger, braver. Even if it would only leave him with more hollowness at the end of the day, it was worth it.


But it was only supposed to be that, something to help him cope, something to help him mitigate the pain of not having Bucky with him. Now though, he looks around at a world that doesn't understand him, that has taken Bucky and warped him, warped them into this noble story that he can't recognize.


He keeps pretending, with a renewed vigor. This is what Bucky would say here, this is what Bucky would think of this, this is how Bucky would hold him, how Bucky would stand in this room, how Bucky would look at this person. He reinvents the world around him to include Bucky, putting Bucky into his every thought.


Because if he doesn't…


He's the only one who remembers who Bucky is, and if he doesn't…


***


A few other interviews ask him about Bucky, sparingly, just a few questions about how much of a charmer Bucky really was back then, what Bucky would think of women today.


Bucky was the type of charmer to meticulously plan dates, pull out every romantic move he could think of. He was tactile, always holding Steve's hand or hugging him, always loved being close. He was the best sweet talker in all of Brooklyn, always whispering the sweetest things in Steve's ear, coming up with a million endearments, honey, sweetheart, babydoll, darling, Stevie.


Bucky was the type of person who wouldn't propose because he didn't want to make Steve feel like some dame. He was the type to cry and laugh and argue with Steve for years about how unfair it was that Steve beat him to it, Steve proposed first, Steve won a million points in their long list of tallies for romantic gestures.


Bucky was.