“Tell me something true,” Steve says, stretched out in the muddy field beside the Met. He is nine, Bucky almost ten, and if Steve’s Ma knew they had taken the train into Manhattan neither boy would be able to sit for a week.
“Your Da saved his whole unit,” Bucky replies, chewing on a piece of grass, listening to the wind in the trees, rustling the leaves and the pages of Steve’s sketchbook. “Threw himself into a German trench, blew ‘em all to smithereens so the 107th had time to retreat.”
Steve is the dreamer. In school – when he is well enough to go – he winds up in Father Becket’s office, for covering the pages of Bucky’s old math book with ships, with sea monsters and princesses chained to rocky cliffs. When he is at home, his Ma leaves the radio on, and Steve tells Bucky stories about cowboys and horses, howls like an Indian headed for a wagon train until he’s too hoarse to speak.
But sometimes Steve has enough of his own talk, enough of superheroes and masked men. It’s Bucky’s job to understand the world. It’s Bucky’s job to understand Steve.
“Tell me something true,” Steve chokes out, breath rank with the smell of bile, the whites of his eyes an awful yellow, sweat beading on his forward and jaw clenched against the shivers wracking his scrawny frame. Steve’s Ma is in the hall, fighting with Dr. Lev about fetching the priest. Mrs. Rogers won’t allow it, won’t admit that Steve’s never been this sick before, that his skin already looks waxy and gray.
“You’ll be the ugliest old man in Brooklyn,” Bucky whispers, because he doesn’t want Death to hear them and come calling, clutching Steve’s clammy hand like they’re sweethearts and not a couple of sixteen-year-old punks. “Uglier than old Mr. Moran, an’ twice as mean. You’ll lean out the window like you ain’t a hundred and two with a bad back, shouting that in your day a boy knew how to respect his elders.”
Steve laughs, and it’s a horrible sound, wet and rasping against the raw skin of his throat. “Nobody’s uglier than Moran,” he disagrees.
“You will be,” Bucky promises, and doesn’t tell Steve that he’s just soiled the bed and is too ill to even notice, anymore. Bucky doesn’t tell Steve that he’s never been so frightened in his life, not even when his Mam went into the hospital and only baby Gracie came home. He still has Mrs. Rogers, after all, but he doesn’t have anyone that can replace Steve.
“Leave me alone.” Bucky sits down, freshly turned mud under his nicest suit. “Go the fuck away, Bucky! I’m fine!” It would sound more convincing if Steve hadn’t keened the last word, eyes swollen from crying. Bucky probably doesn’t look much better, he knows, and little Gracie is inconsolable – Mrs. Rogers was the only mother she ever knew.
“Something true,” Bucky murmurs, and Steve shoves him as hard as he can manage, still recovering from the flu and hunched over his Ma’s grave.
“Don’t!” he hisses, slapping at the parts of Bucky he can reach. “I don’t want anything true. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want this!”
“They need nurses, you know.” Steve keeps hitting Bucky, but most of his effort goes into breathing through his sobs. “For the war. But we ain’t in the war yet, so no one can know they’re sending Americans.” Steve stops gasping for air, momentarily, squinting up at Bucky in the too-bright afternoon sun. “Your Ma still sounded - sounds Irish, and there ain’t no one braver'n her. Bet they sent her straight to France and couldn’t tell nobody.”
Steve turns his damp and puffy face toward Bucky, trying for a smile. “I miss her,” he says, but he doesn’t look back at the grave.
“So do I,” Bucky admits, pressing fingers against the headache from crying into his pillow for hours the night before. “But we’ll see her again when the U.S. finally goes to war.”
The pier is dark, after midnight and hours before the dawn, and Bucky’s fancy new uniform is probably filled with splinters, his palms gritty with sand.
“Tell me -” Steve starts, then bites down hard on his lip and tries to strangle the sob he won’t let Bucky hear. The waves crash against the wooden pilings, covering the way Steve’s always whimpered when he cries.
“The war’s gonna be over by the time we land in England,” Bucky tells him, wrapping his arm around Steve and pulling him snug against the Army’s olive wool. “They’ll have to send me right back again, before you even have time to write.” He pitches his voice low, to keep the sound distinct from the roll of the sea, and because Steve hears better when the sounds are deep. He keeps his words to a rumble in his chest, so that Steve won’t hear him break.
“I’m gonna be right behind you,” Steve sniffles, rubbing his nose on Bucky’s lapel, curling his cold fingers into Bucky’s free hand. “I’m gonna be leading the charge, you’ll see.” Bucky smiles, and doesn’t say that he’s heard men talking, and even if the Army took Steve, he’d be following a dead man. Steve’s the dreamer, after all.
“Tell me something true,” Captain America says, and Bucky wants to laugh. Would laugh, if it wasn’t so painful. Bucky has already told this enormous man that his chest aches. He doesn’t tell him it’s not the broken ribs that hurt the most.
“What’s true, now?” he answers, because they are walking through Italy with a ragged horde of soldiers, carrying weapons that can’t possibly exist. Because they have been rescued by a superhero, and the grass under Bucky’s feet and the scent of rain in the air have no place in this dreamer’s world.
“Bucky,” the other man pleads, voice thick. He’s begging, Bucky knows, though to all the men around them it must sound like a command. He knows that if he didn’t have both hands wrapped around his gun, one of them would already be cramping under a hero’s tight grip.
“I’m fine,” he tells the Captain, finally, the words oddly soft on his tongue after so much screaming. “It turns out I’m a pretty good soldier.”
Captain America scrunches up his perfect nose, as though they are sharing a joke. “You?” he says, smiling, his hand brushing Bucky’s hip with every step. “Not a chance. You can’t even win us a goldfish at the fair.”
“I miss Steve,” Bucky exhales, expecting someone half deaf and startled when the Captain hears.
“Don’t be stupid,” Captain America chuckles. “I am Steve.” He pauses, and his smile widens, blue eyes bright. “I missed you, too, Buck.”
Bucky nods, and doesn’t say that he still misses Steve, because Captain America is obviously a dreamer, and he wouldn’t understand.
“Tell me something true,” Steve cries, his voice thin and terrified, whistling like the wind as it tries to pull Bucky away from the train. Begging again, so much more willing to go to his knees for Bucky now that he is strong enough not to bow to any man. “Bucky!” he screams, a moment later, because Bucky is still trying to find the words, reaching for Steve’s hand and already gone.
“I love you,” he says, the words whipped out of his mouth and into the icy mountain air, Steve’s face an afterimage in Bucky’s closed eyes. “I’ve loved you all along.”
I told you I’d find your Ma in the war, he doesn’t say, and his own frightened voice is swallowed by the fall.
“Bucky. Your name is Bucky Barnes.” The blond man purses his lips, and refuses to look away. “Well, technically your name is James Buchanan Barnes, but that’s quite a mouthful. I always called you Bucky.”
The Winter Soldier cocks his head, running metal fingers down the lines of the man’s frown, over the tears trapped in eyelashes, waiting to fall. The man does not even flinch, though the Soldier jumps when warm fingers wrap around admantium skin, clinging to the plates of his deadly palm.
“Tell me something …” the Soldier begins, interrupted by the expression on the other man’s face. It shows all his teeth, but is oddly light, like the sun through stained glass when he had been sent to kill a priest. Smiling. The man is smiling. At him.
“Tell me something true?” the pale, strong man says, as if he is quoting the Soldier, who had not said that at all. It has never mattered, the truth. He is not sure he knows what truth is.
The man’s fragile, human skin has warmed the metal of his hand, and the Soldier discovers that he does not want to let go. “My name is Bucky Barnes,” he tells this stained-glass man, sounding out the words, and then loses his breath in the startling warmth of Captain America’s embrace.