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Baghdad Waltz

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Steve awakens abruptly to the harsh, jaunty tones of a cell phone. Next to him, Bucky burrows his head deeper under the covers with a mumble.

“’S yours,” Steve thinks he hears. Bucky’s arm slides around his waist, and Steve feels his hand fall softly against his side.

No, it most certainly is not his, because his is in his pocket, and his pants are far away. Steve reaches against the counterforce of his boyfriend’s pull and snags the cell off the nightstand with the tips of his fingers. He checks the caller ID.

SGT McConnell

“It’s your squad leader.” Steve throws down the comforter and taps the phone against Bucky’s head.

Bucky recoils from the light and the blaring sound, pressing his face into Steve’s bare chest. “What’s he want?”

“I don’t know, Buck. I didn’t ask him.” The smile on Steve's lips is fond as he taps again.

With a growl, Bucky reaches up, grabs the phone from Steve’s hand, presses the receive button, and holds it to his ear. “Hello?”

Steve can’t make out the words on the other end, but he can make out that they’re frantic. Bucky’s body goes rigid against him, and Bucky pushes himself away in order to sit up. McConnell’s voice, loud and legato, fills the space between them.

“What do we do?” Bucky asks, his own words measured and even by comparison.

More unintelligible panic seeps into the room. Steve sits up next to Bucky and tries to read the situation from his face. His lips are parted, brows drawn together the way they do when he’s engineering through a problem - though Steve would sure like to know what kind of problem has McConnell calling in hysterics when Bucky isn't even supposed to be drilling for another four days.

“Are we officially on orders?” Bucky motions to Steve then, pointing to the remote on the nightstand. When Steve hands it to him, he turns the TV on to ABC, to live news coverage of both towers of the World Trade Center belching smoke and flame.

It takes several moments for his sleep-addled brain to register what’s happening, but once it sinks in, Steve covers his mouth with his hand and mutters “Oh my God” against it. He looks over at Bucky, who’s flung down the rest of the covers and is crawling out of bed.

“Zuccotti Park?” Bucky asks. He’s pacing now, naked, alternating between glancing at the TV and the floor. His body is a lean line of wiry muscle, sculpted and groomed with the fastidiousness of a man who lives as if he’s still beholden to the rigid statues of the New York City gay scene, his old habits holding fast despite Steve’s insistence that he doesn’t have to be that way for him.

Now Steve’s phone actually is ringing. He scrambles out of bed and uses the sound to locate his jeans, which are crumpled in the corner next to the book shelf.

Bucky’s voice dimly registers in the background. “I dunno. Depends on traffic in the Brooklyn-Battery. I can be ready — ”

Steve presses the receive button on his phone. “Ma.”

“Where are you?”

“Bucky’s.”

“Oh, thank the Lord. Just stay there, okay? Did you see what happened? Are you watching?”

“Yeah.”

His ma draws in a shaking breath. “All those people…”

Steve knows what she’s thinking, and if she weren’t sleeping off her latest round of chemo, he’s sure she’d be trying to hitch a ride to Manhattan right now to go help treat the wounded. He feels a sudden pang of guilt that he’s not with her. He should be with her. He should be taking care of her, despite her firm insistence that she's fine. That she's out of the woods now. At the very least, he shouldn’t have stayed over at Bucky’s. Again. 

Bucky's pacing abruptly stops, catching Steve's attention. Steve doesn’t make out what his ma says next, because all he can hear is —

“Roger that. See you soon.”

The breath rips out Steve’s chest as the pieces slam into place. He stumbles distractedly through repeated confirmations that he’s safe and that his ma is safe and that they’ll call each other later. By the time he hangs up, Bucky’s in the bathroom, filling the sink with water.

“Sergeant Z’s gonna kill me,” Bucky says, running his fingers through his dark hair, now wild with sleep and day-old product. Woefully and deliberately out of regs until the last possible second. Very Bucky. He touches the sideburns that shouldn't be there, the scruff along his jaw - that sharp, handsome jawline that Steve kissed last night. 

Steve leans rigidly against the door jamb. “Where are you going?”

“Zuccotti Park.”

“Who’s going?”

“As many as we can get. At least me, McConnell, Z, Alvarez, and Kwon.”

Steve crosses his arms tight over his chest. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Help, I guess.” Bucky shrugs, but the movement is tense and forced. “I dunno. Whatever we can do. We haven’t been formally activated yet, but we can’t just sit around and do nothing.” He turns off the sink, bracing himself heavily over it, and looks down into the water. The faucet continues dripping until he fiddles with the hot knob, finessing it the way it must be finessed in order to stop leaking. Bucky glances into the mirror and catches Steve's reflection. “Let’s go to the roof.”

Bucky brushes past Steve as he exits the bathroom, leaving him staring dumbly at his own serious face. From the bedroom, Steve hears the loud scraping sound of the dresser opening, and he follows it, snagging the pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt Bucky throws at him. They're his own, part of the growing collection of clothes and personal items he keeps here now after being forbidden from keeping anything more than a toothbrush for a whole goddamn year.

They dress in silence, slip on Bucky's two pairs of flip-flops, and make their way up the flights of stairs that lead to the roof. There, they join the small crowd of residents who greet Bucky by the name most know him by.

“Jamie,” Mrs. Griffith says, laying her wizened hand on his arm. “Oh, Jamie.” It’s all she can say to him as her eyes glimmer and spill over.

Bucky pats her hand with a sorrowful smile, and they all watch the horror unfolding across the river. The horror that Bucky is about to be swallowed up by. From Bucky’s Red Hook apartment, it all seems frighteningly close, so close that you could almost reach out and touch the smoke.

Steve feels two of Bucky’s fingers reaching for his own, brushing cautiously as Bucky gnaws on his lower lip and stares out at the blackening skyline. Steve takes hold of those fingers and squeezes them tightly, with every bit of himself that he can, because he knows it's all Bucky will give him with other people around. And Steve swallows down a lump of nausea as Bucky predictably yanks his hand back, nausea that blooms as they take the steps back down to the apartment. Bucky closes the door behind them and pauses, hand pressing hard against its surface, fingernails going white. And Bucky's mouth opens like he wants to say something, and Steve waits for it, wants desperately to hear it, because Bucky's inner life is always so shrouded, so guarded, and he's scared now, he's.... But then Bucky's in motion again, blowing past Steve, stripping off his sweatshirt and heading back to the bathroom to shave.

While Bucky readies for God knows what (does anybody know what the fuck is actually going on over there?), Steve does what he does when he’s stressed out: he tidies. He starts obvious. Two shiny condom wrappers on the floor. Pieces of clothing. He finds his underwear tossed atop the dresser, which look to have come precariously close to knocking down at least one of the three framed photos there. Bucky’s dad posed in front of the Blackhawk helicopter he would die in eight months after the photo was taken. The two of them at age 13, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, grinning with braced teeth at the Nirvana concert Steve’s ma escorted them to. The two of them, arms similarly draped, Steve kissing Bucky on the cheek as Bucky holds out the shot of vodka that commemorated the start of his 21st birthday bar crawl. One year after the drunken proposition and kiss that changed everything between them.

Steve heaves a deep, shaking breath. Okay. Break down the steps. Get dressed. Don’t want the last thing Bucky sees you in to be—

Steve kills the thought fast and hard, but puts on his clothes from yesterday all the same. He then strides over to Bucky’s closet and pulls out the nicest battle dress uniform he can find. Warm weather fabric. The one with the sharpest creases along the arms and legs. He lays it out on the bed and takes stock of his boyfriend’s part-time career. Specialist Barnes, U.S. Army. Airborne patch. Air Assault patch. Unit patch. He then pulls out the jungle boots he knows are the most comfortable, even though there’s still dirt on them from his last field training exercise. He goes to the kitchen and comes back with a wet paper towel to clean them off, then pulls a brown t-shirt, Bucky’s favorite underwear, and a pair of black socks from his dresser. He lays everything on the edge of the bed he just made, where Bucky won’t be able to miss it.

Steve hears Bucky start the shower then, and he starts to panic. He’s running out of time. Time for what, he won’t dare say, but he picks up the pace anyway. He pulls some of Bucky’s TA-50 gear from the closet — belt and suspenders rigged with canteens and ammo pouches — and takes it to the kitchen. He fills the two canteens with water and rummages around the cupboards, grabbing fistfuls of granola bars and beef jerky and whatever compact, shelf-stable foods he can find. He doesn’t know what’s Bucky’s and what’s his roommate’s, but she’s not here to ask, so he takes whatever he finds. He pauses periodically to tune in to the voices of the ABC news commentators, who stutter and haw as they try to narrate the pandemonium. Each additional detail seems to ratchet up his dread tenfold.

Bucky’s phone rings again. Caller ID: Ma. Steve holds the phone in his hand as his reeling brain vacillates between two possible responses. His thumb cuts a path through the muck of his waffling and presses the receive button.

“This is Steve.”

“Steve, honey. How are you?”

He doesn’t even know how to characterize his current mood. It’s tumbling somewhere between terrified and numb. He must sound brittle, because Winnie modulates her tone to exude maternal calm.

“It’s okay,” she says, inferring his terror. “You’re fine. Is Jamie there?”

“He’s in the shower.” His voice grits like gravel.

“Did he get activated?”

Steve shakes his head until he remembers that she can’t see him. “No, but a bunch of them are going there anyway.”

There’s the briefest hitch in Winnie’s breath, which she exhales out like a slow wave. “Do you know where he’s going?”

Steve tells her everything he knows, which he quickly realizes is pathetically little.

“Have him call me before he leaves, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey.” Her tone is one she might use with scared dog. “What are you doing right now?”

Steve looks at his piles on the counter. “Packing food. For him.”

“Did you call your ma?”

“Yeah.”

“You gonna go see her when Jamie leaves?”

“Yeah.” Did he just whimper?

“Okay. You’re okay. It’s okay. Jamie will be okay. This is his job.”

Steve bites down on his molars. “I hate it.”

Winnie Buchanan, former soldier and current Army widow extraordinaire, relates. She shares a story about George deploying during Desert Storm that has a hypnotic effect on Steve, most certainly from the lulling inflection and cadence of her words. Her nurse voice, Bucky calls it. One of her nurse voices, anyway. The good cop to her jarring, curse-filled repertoire saved specially for idiot doctors, which has occasional applications to her spawn and their associates when behaving like idiots.

After a discordantly curt reminder that he tell Bucky to call her, Winnie says farewell with the sun-kissed affection of his own mother. Steve seizes enough foresight to plug Bucky’s phone into its charger on the kitchen counter, then he begins stuffing the empty TA-50 ammo pouches with the junk food he forged. He thinks to make something more substantial and collects ingredients to make PB&J, turning and stalling once, then twice, as if he’s lost in the kitchen he’s been in half a thousand times.

His mind’s chaos gives way to white noise, his sandwich-making motions automatic, and through the murky silence he hears himself praying underneath his breath. Christ, he hasn’t prayed in so long that he’s surprised his mouth even remembers how to do it.

Time falls away like ash. Steve slips two sandwiches into ziplocks and turns to set them on the small table in the center of the kitchen. He startles when he sees Bucky standing there in full uniform, shaved and clean, handsome as the devil and, of course, smiling. Steve wants to scream and shake that smile off his face. It’s not even real, anyway. Just Bucky’s typical worn out production of cavalierness.

Bucky looks down at the sandwiches and at his stuffed TA-50. “You did that for me?” he says, his smile curving. The softness of his baby face clashes violently with the grim adultness of his battle dress. “Thank you.”

“Your ma called. Call her back.”

Bucky’s expression falls slack. He opens the large cargo pockets on his right and left thighs and slides one sandwich into each. “C’mon, Steve…”

Steve tightens his hands into fists. “Why do you have to go?” It’s a stupid question, and one he knows the answer to. It’s more of a question to the universe, to the galactic sadist who orchestrates the smashing of planes into buildings and who sends his boyfriend into the jaws of hell to chase their flames.

“This is literally why the National Guard was created.” Bucky points in the general direction of Manhattan Island. “That over there.”

“I should be going with you.”

“After your ma’s been in remission six months. That’s what you agreed, remember?” Bucky circles around the table and stops a few feet short of Steve. In his boots, they’re just barely the same height. “When that day comes, I’ll walk you to the recruiter’s myself.” He grabs his gear off the tabletop, slides the suspenders over his shoulders, and buckles the pistol belt in the front.

Bucky pauses and regards Steve, offering another smile, this one warm and stripped of pretense. For a second, Steve’s certain Bucky’s going to reach out for him, but instead he turns on his heel and walks to the hook by the door. His body draws a different line in uniform, one sharp and infused with purpose. He lifts his motorcycle keys from the hook and drops them on the floor. He retrieves them with trembling fingers and shoves them into his pocket.

The imaginary tar that held Steve back gives way, and he rushes to Bucky, throwing his arms around him from behind and pulling him in as tightly as he can. His blue eyes quiver back and forth as he scrambles for reasons why he has to go with him, or why Bucky has to stay here. He entertains the insane thought of lifting Bucky’s Gerber from his pocket, flipping it open, and jamming it into his thigh, because at least he wouldn’t be going to Manhattan. It’d be well worth the possible assault charge and the dissolution of their whole relationship, because at least Bucky would be alive and not burned to a crisp inside 1 World Trade Center.

“I’m coming with you,” Steve says. Bucky stiffens in his arms.

“Like hell.” Bucky grabs Steve’s forearms, breaking his hold, and turns to face him. “Like hell you are. Not riding with me, anyway.” Bucky digs his fingers into the thick muscle of Steve’s shoulders. “No.” He shakes his head, already anticipating the course of Steve’s arrogant logic. “No. You’re staying here. I don’t care if you did rustle up some wack job cabbie who’d take you. You’re staying.”

Fuck you is Steve’s first thought. I love you is his second. That’s the one he says aloud.

Bucky slides his hands up to the place where the curve of Steve’s neck begins. “I love you, too.”

They hug properly this time, and Steve’s hold is just as desperate as before. He breathes a shaking sigh of both relief and anguish when Bucky returns that desperation. Steve pulls in the lingering scent of Bucky’s shampoo from his still-damp hair, and he wonders how an infantryman could smell so sweet.

Bucky’s the one to draw back first. He glances over at his phone on the counter, and Steve turns to retrieve it. Bucky dials his mom, frowns, and slides the phone into his left pocket.

“Network’s down.” Bucky’s face bears its first signs of real fear now, eyes wide, chin working back and forth as he tries to judo himself around a problem with no viable solution. “Shit,” he breathes, then steels his yawing jaw. “I gotta go.”

“Okay.”

Bucky grabs his motorcycle helmet, and Steve follows him down the stairs.

“Check on Mrs. G before you leave, will ya? She wasn’t looking so good.” Bucky says, glancing back at Steve for confirmation.

Steve nods and trails him down more and more stairs to the ground floor, his body stiff and resisting, as if he’s gone spontaneously arthritic. They stop just short of the door that leads outside, the threshold passing into the land where someone who knows someone could see Bucky in uniform, kissing and touching another man, and kill his Army career with one gleeful stroke.

Bucky peers out the window, down the street to his bike, the black 1978 Triumph Bonneville he and his dad rebuilt from a rusted pile of neglect. Steve can see the ticking of Bucky’s jaw, and he wonders what he’s thinking. He wants to ask but doesn’t, because he doesn’t want Bucky to tell him what he already knows. That he’s scared. That he’s worried he might get hurt or worse. That someone might die because he wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to help them. He also doesn’t ask because he knows Bucky needs to be brave right now, and Steve needs to be brave right now, too.

Bucky turns around and takes a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling. “Here we go.”

You. Here you go, Steve thinks.

Steve reaches forward and lays his hand on Bucky’s chest, over the words telling everyone who owns him right now. But who’s Steve really kidding? Bucky loves the Army. He lives for this. This is who he chooses to be, who he’s wanted to be for as long as Steve has known him.

“Don’t be a hero. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Bucky's mouth cocks into a half-smirk. “I’ll try not to.”

“That’s not good enough.” Steve fists the lapels of Bucky’s uniform, his metal rank insignia digging into his palms.

Bucky lifts his hands and lays them on Steve’s cheeks. They’re warm and damp with sweat. “I’m gonna be okay.”

Steve kisses him. He doesn’t know how to convey everything in that kiss. His love. His fear. He doesn’t know if it’s enough, if Bucky knows just how much he loves him.

And then the kiss is over, and Bucky’s hands are leaving his face. And he’s backing toward the door, sliding his helmet over his head. He smiles once more, brilliant, all teeth, and then he’s gone.

Steve stands in the foyer for God knows how long. Long after he hears the rumble of Bucky’s engine die down to nothing. Long enough to think through half a thousand tragic scenarios and the devastation he would face in the wake of any of them.

Eventually, a flow of kinetic energy drags him up the stairs, back toward Bucky’s apartment. He keeps his promise to check in on Mrs. Griffith along the way, who pulls him into her apartment and sits him down on the couch with a cup of weak coffee. He holds her hand as she cries. Together, they watch in horror when the south tower collapses in on itself. It’s breathtaking and harrowing, and Steve feels a shadow of shameful relief as well, because he knows Bucky can’t have made it to Manhattan by then.

But when the north tower collapses at 10:28, Steve knows there’s a chance that Bucky was there, that he was inside or just outside. He knows that Bucky might now be crushed under 110 stories of rubble. Shaking and sick to his stomach, Steve leaves Mrs. Griffith with her own sorrow and climbs the remaining stairs to Bucky’s apartment. There, he collapses on the bed, on Bucky’s side, and curls his large body into a ball. He tries to call him. He tries five, ten, fifteen times, each met with the infuriating blare of his cell carrier’s network error message.

Somehow through the chaos, a call eventually comes through to him, and Steve nearly bursts into angry, bitter tears when he sees that it’s his ma. He answers, choking back his emotions, because the last thing she needs is to worry about him. So he pretends he’s fine, even though his voice is so thick and unsteady that she must know he’s lying. He does find some comfort in her words. In the way she calls him ‘darling.’ The way her assurances that Bucky is okay seem like they might even be true, through some feat of maternal manipulation.

With her blessing, Steve stays at Bucky’s, just in case he comes home. He stays and worries and forces himself to stay still, because if something horrible did happen to Bucky, Steve wants to preserve the evidence that he lived here. The razor he left on the counter. The sweat pants he dropped on the floor of the bathroom. The flip-flops kicked off at the door.

Steve stays and he wallows in his helplessness, tuning in and out of the continuous live coverage. He sees survivors on TV, a lot of them, covered in dust, and he dares to hope that Bucky might be with them. As he waits, something brews inside of him, something like resolve, borne out of the terror of not knowing whether the man he loves is alive or dead.

And he promises himself that, somehow, he is never going to feel this way ever again.

Chapter Text

 


 

January 9, 2008

The quiet before a breach is pure electricity, one of the purest moments on any modern urban battlefield — at least, far as Bucky’s concerned. Even today, when everyone’s tired and their motivation is waning, Bucky can feel the charge running through almost every man. And even though this must be the two or three hundredth breach for both Sergeant Rhodes and Sergeant Dugan, both of them are alert and on-point, passing their energy and confidence onto the men in their squads. The synchronicity of second platoon is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and Bucky quietly beams with both pride and lingering joy from the lemon pound cake he found in his MRE at lunch today.

Lieutenant Shen, on the other hand, doesn’t quite seem to be feeling it today. Not as much as he usually does, anyway, which Bucky notes with concern. Shen has been a true blessing to the unit, and Bucky’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop with him since the first day they met. He’s racked his brain trying to find Shen’s fatal flaw, figuring that all lieutenants must have one, but the man has proven himself almost uncannily functional.

Bucky exchanges glances with him, lifting his eyebrows. Shen blinks sharply and shakes his head, as if he’s trying to rattle something loose in his head, then nods to Bucky. Bucky then makes eye contact with Rhodes, who nods to Trip, who pops a smoke grenade and throws it down the road they’re about to cross.

Dugan’s squad provides cover while Trip leads Rhodes’ squad across the road to their target, a two-story cement block building reportedly housing a cache of bomb-making supplies. Bucky watches them stack up on the door, Trip first, then Rhodes, Ward, and Reyes, and finally Foggy as the breach man. On Rhodes’ signal, Foggy kicks down the door, and the squad files into the building to start clearing rooms.

Bucky looks over his shoulder toward the approaching footfalls of Sam and his platoon, who have come to pull security so that the rest of Bucky’s platoon can approach the target. Sam smiles covertly, so as not to provoke Lieutenant Sitwell. Bucky gives a brash wink back, Sitwell be damned. Bucky then turns his attention back to Shen, who signals to Dugan to lead the rest of them across the road. They move fast and low, and as they pass through the smoke, Bucky breathes in the spent firecracker smell with a feral smile.

Once in the building, Bucky, Parker, and Shen stay near the entrance, surveying the platoon and keeping their eyes peeled for unexpected insurgent activity. Bucky also watches Sam’s platoon file into the street, silently critiquing everything he doesn’t like about the way they move and communicate and blaming it all on the toxic idiocy of their platoon leader. He doesn’t notice that Shen is down until he hears Parker squawk out a loud “Oh shit,” followed in rapid succession by a sickening thud of body against concrete.

Bucky unleashes a curse of his own when he sees Shen on the floor, his body waving and arching in an awful chorea. Parker’s already fast at work, God he’s fast, kneeling beside Shen and laying his hands on his shoulders. He looks up at Bucky.

“Help me roll him, Sergeant.”

Bucky lays his rifle on the floor and drops down to one side of Shen, then helps Parker roll him off his face. Parker stops them once Shen’s on his side, steadying him there while his body dances, his eyes rolled back into his head, his breath coming sharp in draws that time with the rhythm of his movements. Parker checks his watch.

Bucky catches Foggy and Reyes staring. “Eyes on the room,” he snaps, partly for tactical reasons, yeah, yeah, but mostly because he doesn’t want them to see their platoon leader like this. He doesn’t want them to feel the fear and helplessness he feels as Shen writhes under his hands.

“What do you need, Doc?” Bucky asks.

“Have someone call in a nine-line to the CP and get an ambulance,” Parker replies.

“Need us to do something, Sergeant?” Foggy asks.

“Yeah, track down Ward and have him call the CP and tell them we need medical.”

“Tell them Lieutenant Shen’s having a seizure,” Parker says. He checks his watch again. “At least a minute long.”

Foggy nods and bounds off — as fast as Foggy Nelson can bound — to find Ward and his radio.

“Anything you can do?” Bucky asks.

Parker shakes his head. “Just have to wait it out. He should stop soon.”

As if on cue, Shen’s body slows, his breath dropping into a less terrifying rhythm. The whites of his eyes disappear as his lids close. It feels like a relief for all of them, even as Shen lolls on the cusp of consciousness.

“You’re all right, Sir,” Parker murmurs. Bucky’s not sure if Shen can hear him, but he likes that Parker says it anyway.

The calming of Shen’s body sets off a cascade of worries in Bucky’s mind, because there’s almost no doubt about what this means for the platoon. Parker makes eye contact with Bucky, the very deliberate kind, and he conveys the exact bleakness that’s settling heavier upon Bucky with every passing second. He can practically hear that long-awaited other shoe finally drop.

Shen groans, smacks his lips a few times, and looks up at both of them.

“Do you know where you are, Sir?” Parker asks.

Shen blinks a few times. “Umm, California?”

“That’s right,” Bucky says, squeezing his shoulder. He smiles and hopes it appears genuine.

“You ever had a seizure before?” Parker asks.

Shen doesn’t say yes. Not verbally, anyway. But the expression on his face, the sudden aversions of his eyes, tells his truth clearly.

“How many?” Parker’s voice is low.

“One,” Shen murmurs. “Two months ago. Thought it was a one-off.”

Parker looks at Bucky again, his mouth pressed into a troubled line. He shakes his head so slightly that if Bucky weren’t expecting it, he might have missed it entirely.

“We’ll get you taken care of, Sir. Your evac is on the way,” Bucky tells him.

“Bird?” Shen sounds hopeful.

“Sorry, Sir. No bird today,” Bucky says. It’s almost sad to watch Shen’s face fall when he realizes he won’t even get a free helicopter ride out of all this.

“Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky turns his head toward Foggy.

“They stopped the exercise.”

“God damn it,” Bucky mutters.

The heavy, lumbering steps of Dugan announce him before he can even open his mouth. “Hey, everything okay in here?”

“Lieutenant Shen had a seizure.”

“Oh, shit.” Dugan comprehends the significance of this immediately, his ginger brows falling precipitously as he approaches Shen. “Hey, Sir. Hang in there.” He points to the doorway. “Docs ‘re here.”

Shen gets loaded onto a litter and carried out to a modified Humvee by the National Training Center medics. When word gets around that the exercise has been stopped, the entire platoon gathers in the front room where Shen went down. Bucky explains the situation while Parker briefs the other medics on Shen’s condition. The three NCOs attempt to quell the grumbles and expletives, as well as unsolicited interpretations of the situation from the more seasoned and cynical among them. Dugan and Rhodes clamp it down with blunt assurances that Captain Barton will work it out, though all three of them know it’s a line of unadulterated bullshit.

They all file out into the street of the mock-up urban training environment, which bears such a resemblance to the streets of Mosul or Fallujah that Bucky sometimes forgets that they’re stateside. They watch Shen get loaded into the back of the ambulance, and Bucky thinks to comment that this is definitely not how things will be when someone needs an evac downrange. But surely they must all know that. He decides not to be an asshole about it, because they already have enough to worry about now.

Since they’re all lallygagging around anyway, Bucky walks to where his two squad leaders have gathered two buildings down from their target, and he holds out his hand to bum a smoke from Dugan.

“Though you only smoked downrange,” Dugan says, handing Bucky a Camel and a lighter.

“Or when we lose our platoon leader five weeks before deployment,” Bucky says around his cigarette, then lights it.

Rhodes scratches underneath the chinstrap of his helmet. “Guess that makes us kinda screwed, huh?”

“Kinda really fucked, yeah,” Bucky replies.

“Oh, man, what happened to Shen?”

Bucky smiles at Sam as he approaches and opens up a space for him in their three-man NCO circle. Sam waves away Dugan’s offer of a cigarette and claps Bucky lightly on the back in greeting.

“Seizure,” Rhodes says.

“Wow.” Sam cranes his head to get a look at the Humvee as it rolls off toward the Fort Irwin medical center. “Awful timing.”

“Better now than in six weeks,” Bucky says. It’s the only bright spot he can manage to pick out of all this.

“I liked that guy,” Sam says, slinging his M-16 over his back. “He actually seemed competent.”

“I’d even say highly competent. For a lieutenant,” Bucky qualifies. “Nice guy, easy to get along with. Much better than—”

Dugan shushes him loudly as Sitwell passes their group with one of the squad leaders from first platoon. Sam’s posture slinks and his expression goes dull, like maybe he’ll blend into the scenery if he acts inconspicuous.

“Good afternoon, Sir!” Bucky calls, which is followed by the snort of a suppressed laugh from Dugan.

Sitwell makes an unconvincing show of being unbothered by Bucky’s enthusiastic and highly sarcastic greeting of the day. “Sergeant Wilson, don’t forget to help me brief the platoon on tomorrow’s exercise. 1700 sharp.”

“Yes, Sir,” Sam replies crisply.

They all watch Sitwell as he slinks off down the road, probably to go cram his nose up Barton’s ass.

“Does he need you to wipe his ass, too?” Dugan says when Sitwell’s out of earshot.

“And is it just me, or does it sound like he really has to stop himself from saying ‘boy’ every time he talks to you?” Rhodes adds.

Sam’s expression is grim. “He’s gonna get us killed.”

Bucky exhales a frustrated cloud of smoke from his nose. “He’s the rare type of semi-moron who also happens to think he’s Audie Murphy.”

“But he went to Duke,” Rhodes says, capturing precisely the imperious intonation Sitwell adopts when bragging about his alma mater.

“Who says we need a PL anyway?” Dugan looks at Bucky. “Or maybe we could commission you up with one of those old timey battlefield promotions.”

“Yeah, right.” Bucky laughs. “Kill me now.” He elbows Rhodes. “You wanna put a butter bar on someone, this is your man. You and Foggy, couple of the most overpowered, overeducated knuckle draggers I ever worked with.”

“Seriously though, fellas, this is a problem.” Dugan catches sight of Parker and waves one of his giant hands at him. “Hey, Doc! C’mere!”

Parker breaks from his conversation with Mack and jogs over to the circle of NCOs. They draw him into their perimeter, where he stands at a loose parade rest.

“Rest, Doc,” Bucky says, and Parker drops his hands to his side. “What’s your honest opinion on Shen’s status?”

“Yeah, Sergeant, he’s out. Like out-out-out. If it’s not something temporary like meningitis, he’ll probably also go to med board. And he didn’t look that sick to me since we’ve been here.”

“Me neither,” Dugan says, followed by a hearty “Fuck.”

Bucky nods and takes a long drag on his cigarette. He runs through a list of potential candidates to fill Shen’s spot, and his options are so sorry that he wishes he hadn’t gone through the exercise at all. Everyone he can think of is under-qualified, elsewhere assigned, or either mean or dumb as shit.

But in a dark corner of Bucky’s mind, an idea starts to percolate. The logical part of his brain dismisses the idea out of hand as glaringly idiotic at best and unconscionable at worst. The self-preserving part of himself, atrophied from years of abuse, stays noticeably quiet while his reckless side spins a colorful rationale for why it’s a fantastic idea.

Sam points at Bucky. “Oh, no. I know that look. You’ve got an idea. Parker, remember this look in the future.”

Parker smiles awkwardly, looking as if he’s been snared in a trap with no escape.

“Oh, shit,” Dugan says, crushing his cigarette under his clomping foot. “Here we go.”

“No, no, it’s a good one, Doc. Don’t worry.” Bucky’s smoke wags between his lips as he speaks. “There’s a solution to this.”

“You got an extra lieutenant in your pocket or something?” Rhodes asks.

Bucky tilts his head to one side, then the other. “You could say that.”

———

January 14, 2008

Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Bucky sits in the waiting area outside the battalion commander’s office, his legs bouncing with the restless energy that assails him every time he’s not doing something. Six years on active duty have accustomed him to an operations tempo that’s not compatible with long periods of sitting. Unless, of course, it’s in an up-armored death mobile bursting at the rivets with testosterone and firepower. Or on overwatch, staring through a scope, waiting for—

Bucky crosses his arms tight and gives his head a rough shake. No use thinking about that shit.

Some of the bouncing is also nerves. His men’s anxious energy has become his own, especially since their ship is still skipper-less and Iraq is T-minus four weeks away. Despite the setback with Shen, who was diagnosed with adult onset epilepsy and is being unceremoniously fast-tracked out of the Army, the men still appear to have faith that everything is going to work out. The majority of them are first-time deployers, and they’re just glad to be getting sand in their boots regardless of who’s going to be leading them through it. Most tell him they’re excited. A couple confide in him that they’re scared. He thinks the scared ones might have it right, but maybe that’s just his last deployment talking. God, he hopes so.

Lieutenant Colonel Fury’s secretary glances over at him, her mouth pinched into a sour pucker. Mrs. Llewellyn has been in that desk so long that she’s probably seen a half a dozen commanders sitting where Fury sits now. She’s practically an institution in the 107th, grandmotherly in appearance but not at all in demeanor. Some previous commander’s wife who got sick of him boning around with her friends and decided to stake a permanent claim in his territory. Unlike some of the other civilians employed by the 107th, she’s not a woman who responds to the charms or flattery of dashing young infantrymen. Hell, she barely even responds to basic politeness. Maybe because she’s a northerner, though not one to be lured into chumminess by others of her kind. Bucky knows, because he’s tried to play New Yorker with her, even though he’s not really one himself. He’s tried and failed from every other angle he can think of, too, and the purpose of charming her in the first place has been long forgotten in the midst of his dogged efforts.

But when she looks over at him, he smiles at her anyway, and he knows he’s easy on the eyes when he does it. It’s the smile that gets him free drinks and expedited paperwork and hook-ups and other unearned bonuses that pretty people get. And today is no exception, because Mrs. Llewellyn’s lips soften by the very faintest of measures and, hell, he will take it. About time something good happened this week.

Her phone rings, and she answers it with the affected congeniality she reserves only for the commander himself. When she hangs up, she dries into a husk again.

“The colonel is ready for you,” she says.

Bucky rises, grabs his patrol cap from the small table beside him, and shoves it in his cargo pocket. He nods and coos his thanks to her as he passes, crossing the threshold into the spacious expanse of Fury’s office. The place is immaculately organized, not a loose paper in sight. Fury’s waiting for him, his hands folded on his desk, his expression both wary and curious. He eases Bucky out of attention as soon as he enters the position and tells him to sit down.

“Sergeant Barnes. What brings you here?”

Bucky crosses his ankle over his knee. “Well, Sir, I’m a bit concerned about this situation with our platoon leader, and I thought I’d offer a possible solution.”

It took him the entire drive to work to be able to squeak out these words without sounding too eager or too desperate. Without sounding as absolutely pathetic as he feels about this entire scheme.

“We already have a solution,” Fury says.

Bucky’s heart races with the falling of his face. “Oh. Captain Barton didn’t mention anything.”

“We’re going to pull Lieutenant Murray out of the S3 shop,” Fury says.

The way he says it, though, it’s almost like bait, and Bucky’s not one to leave perfectly good bait just sitting there, especially not when it can get him what he wants.

“Is there a problem, Sergeant?”

Oh yes, he’s sure of it now. He sees the glimmer in Fury’s eye, the one that’s not made of glass, just daring him to try to shoot this terrible plan out of the sky. But Bucky will be damned if he’s not going to make Fury work for it a little.

“Well, that all depends,” Bucky says.

“On what?”

“On how badly you want this platoon to come back from deployment intact.”

“I know about the FTX,” Fury tells him. “If that’s what you’re gonna try to use to dissuade me.”

“It’s not that Murray got his platoon lost for seven hours or that they made it all the way to the fence, though I truly have no idea how he did that.” Bucky edges forward in his chair. “It’s that Sergeant Washington was telling him the whole time that they were off-track, and Murray wouldn’t hear it. He insisted he was right. Said over and over that he aced the landnav course at OCS, which anyone with a working brainstem could do. Now, I know you’ve never been a platoon sergeant before, but I get real nervous around lieutenants like him, because that shit gets people killed real fast.”

“Sergeant Barnes, I’m running very low on options here. Finding the platoon leader of your dreams isn’t really practical right now.” Despite the gruff frankness of his words, Fury sounds genuinely apologetic.

“With respect, Sir, I’m not looking for the PL of my dreams. Just one who’s gonna show me some basic respect. That’s all.”

Fury shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you, Sergeant.”

This, of course, is exactly where Bucky wants him.

Bucky relaxes his posture and sinks back into his chair. “Well, like I said, I do have an idea.”

Fury turns up his hands. “I’m all ears.”

“I know a guy.”

Fury snorts. “Of course you do.”

“First lieutenant, graduated first in his class from West Point — no shit, first in his class. That’s not a figure of speech. He’s Airborne qualified, Ranger qualified, and, get this, a Middle Eastern area specialist. Speaks Arabic, even. Got snatched up by CENTCOM right after graduation, for some God-awful reason, and he’s been rotting away at the Pentagon ever since. Some aide de camp for some general.”

The pace of Bucky’s words is giddy, and he can’t help but draw an unflattering comparison to a middle schooler gushing about the cute boy who sits in front of him in English class. A lifetime ago, that cute boy actually was Steve Rogers, and Bucky actually would have been that gushing middle schooler, if he wasn’t determined to never utter a word to anyone about finding anyone with a penis attractive.

“So you want some PowerPoint Ranger with chair ass to lead your platoon in Iraq in four weeks?”

“To be fair, Lieutenant Murray is also a PowerPoint Ranger with chair ass, with none of the other bells and whistles.” Without any more good intel from his Pentagon spy, Master Sergeant Nguyen, the only other selling point Bucky can make is a reiteration of, “He’s good.”

Fury’s look is penetrating and painfully incisive. “Friend of yours?”

Bucky feels intense heat in his ears. “Kind of.” He brings his hands together and pulls them apart slowly as he speaks. “We floated apart over the years. All my deployments, him going to the Academy, shit happens. But he’s good. And a genius. Like a Mensa-level genius. Also not an exaggeration.”

Fury leans back in his fancy chair and appraises Bucky’s falsely confident posture and his tense expression. “Would you be able to work with him?”

“Absolutely,” Bucky says. He spits the words with the force required to overshadow the obvious doubt he has about this possibility, which he prays Fury doesn’t pick up on. “Like peanut butter and jelly.”

Okay, now he’s just being arrogant — and lying like a whore, to boot.

“Did you bring this up with Captain Barton?” Fury asks.

“Not yet.”

“I take it you’re familiar with the chain of command.”

“Yes, Sir. I am.” Bucky is plaintive, and very sincerely so, because this is an obvious foul on his part. “I’m also trying to manage a lot of anxiety with my men around this, and if we have a shot of making this work, I knew I’d need to go straight to you.”

“I can’t just make a by-name request,” Fury says.

“Here’s the brilliant part, Sir.” Bucky’s back on the edge of his chair, gesturing to explain the intricacies of backdoor administrative work-arounds. “He’s got so many unique qualifiers that you could send up a tasker to branch requesting an individual augmentee with his specific qualifications. First lieutenant, Airborne, Ranger qualified, foreign area specialist, language proficiency in Arabic, you know. There can’t be too many O-2s with those qualifications out there.”

Fury swivels in his chair. “And you think this guy’s worth the heartburn I’m considering putting myself through to make this happen.”

“Sir, you won’t regret it.”

After Fury dismisses him, Bucky throws a final smile and a wave to Mrs. Llewellyn, joking with her that she’ll miss him while he’s downrange. She replies with a firm “Unlikely,” though he swears to God there’s a faint quirk at the corner of her shriveled mouth.

He joins Rhodes outside, who’s staring across the street at a gaggle of privates being smoked within an inch of their lives.

“I do not miss that,” Rhodes says, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Y’know, I kinda do sometimes. Everything was much simpler then.”

“That’s the truth.” Rhodes looks at Bucky. “How’d it go?”

“I’m cautiously hopeful that Lieutenant Murray will not be our platoon leader on this deployment.”

Rhodes’ eyes go wide. “Holy shit, I didn’t even know that was a possibility.”

“Neither did I, until now. But this other guy I told you about might work out, if his unit lets him go. Fury seems onboard.”

“Hopefully they’ll have a little compassion in their hearts. It’s cruel to chain an infantryman to a desk so young.”

Bucky smirks. “I know. Poor guy.”

Bucky bites back an unbidden follow up, which would have gone roughly like, ‘But that fucker completely deserves every minute of it.’ He’s done a lot of work over the years to calm the bile that would surge in his gut every time he thought about Steve Rogers, but he supposes a betrayal which cuts that deep never does heal completely.

But still, he’s excited. He’s so goddamn excited about the possibility of seeing Steve again that he’s sure his shame must truly be dead.

“Hey, wanna go to Jack’s?” Bucky asks.

“Little soon to celebrate, isn’t it? No, wait.” Rhodes smiles. “Megan, right?”

Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“The bartender.” Rhodes’ smile gets even bigger. “The one who’s always sliding you free drinks.”

“Oh, yeah.” Bucky pumps some energy into his tone. “Yeah, she’s cute.”

“I’m sure if you tell her you’re deploying, she’d—”

“Yeah, thanks, Jim.” God, he wishes he had a cigarette. “I don’t need a lesson on how to hook up with a bartender. It’s not that fucking hard.”

Rhodes holds up his hands, palms out. “All right, don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

Bucky frowns and digs deep to muster something emulating interest. In the background, he hears some lucky NCO screaming his lungs out at those poor privates, and he would give anything to be that guy right now.

“Maybe I’ll ask her out,” Bucky says.

“You’d be crazy not to. But you’d also be crazy to do anything more.”

“Don’t worry, the last thing you need to worry about is me settling down with a lady bartender from Fayetteville.” Bucky smiles now, because at least it’s honest.

“Well, of course not.” Rhodes holds up his index finger. “First you’d have to marry and divorce a stripper. That’s the proper sequence. Stripper, then bartender.”

Bucky touches his hand to his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Now, is that before or after I buy my new Camaro at 17% interest?”

Rhodes laughs. “After, man. After. That’s how you trade up to the bartender. With your sweet ride. ”

“Well, I’m glad I have you here to set me straight.” Bucky chuckles at his turn of phrase and wishes Sam was here to appreciate it.

“Wanna grab Tim, too?” Rhodes asks.

“Sure. Don’t want him to get butt-hurt and think daddy’s playing favorites.”

Later that night, when Bucky is fantastically wasted on vodka, he flirts excessively with Megan the bartender and makes out with her very publicly while she’s on her break. She’s nice enough but boring, and she tastes like cigarettes and has none of Natasha’s intelligence or beauty or charm and, God, he misses her sometimes, because at least she also smelled good and tasted good and kissed well and knew that he doesn’t like to have his junk groped like he’s a fucking piece of meat. So when this chick goes for his dick, he swats her hand away, and when she asks him what his problem is, he calls her a fucking slut, which seems to hit her squarely in the self-esteem — or lack thereof. It gets her to fuck off with the added bonus of Bucky coming off like a misogynistic piece of shit, and he sneaks past Dugan and Rhodes and beats a hasty retreat to the darkness of the parking lot, where he stumbles around until he finds his truck and crawls inside to sober up a little before trying to drive home. He’s so fucking drunk that it’s something of a feat to get in the cab with his lift kit, but he makes it up after a couple embarrassing tries.

He turns on the truck, cranks up the heat, and tries to get serious. His usual routine. He tries to plan for the next day, because, fuck, he has to work. Fuck. But all he can think about is Steve. Steve, Steve, Steven Grant Rogers. Steve in middle school, quiet and brilliant and mysterious. Steve in high school, tall and bold and athletic. Steve after high school, the man who touched him and held him and loved him. Who kissed him. Kissed him on the cheek. Kissed him on the lips. Kissed him everywhere else. Who kissed his stomach and his hipbones and, Jesus. Fuck Megan the bartender. Fuck her cigarette mouth. He thinks about Steve’s mouth. His incredible mouth. Those lips. He imagines what it would be like if the lips he was kissing tonight were Steve’s lips and not hers, like he has imagined with so many women before. So many men. He imagines if it was Steve’s hands on him and not hers. He shouldn’t think about them, because their time has come and long, long gone. But he has so many memories, so many that swim to him now, and the vodka makes everything pulse with life, just like his groin is pulsing, and Bucky slouches back in the driver’s seat and unzips his pants, because he’s remembering so viscerally, so overwhelmingly, what it's like to have Steve's mouth on his cock, hot and wet, Christ, that man could suck it… Bucky glances out all his windows, bleary and hurried, then pulls out his dick and jerks himself with crude haste. It doesn’t take much to make himself come, which he does with a rough shout that fills the small space of the cab.

It’s so loud that he scares himself, certain that he was heard by a passing group of young soldiers he recognizes from his own company. They look vaguely in his direction and keep going, but the mood has already been thoroughly soured. Some mood, anyway — an about-to-be-deployed platoon sergeant sitting in his truck, drunkenly masturbating over his ex-boyfriend — that fucker, that fucking selfish asshole — in some shitty Fayetteville bar parking lot on a work night…. And all he really has anyway are a bunch of crappy memories, a body that's sobering up way too quickly, still no platoon leader, and now a handful of come.

Pathetic.

Chapter Text


January 30, 2008

Steve Rogers very deliberately stopped believing in the Christian God when he was 21, when the cancer his ma had been battling on and off since he was 10 cut a fatal path into her brain. Atheism always felt unbearably cold to him, so he’s settled on the vague, purgatorial expanse of agnosticism. But even though he’s long since left behind the various incarnations of God supplied by the Catholic church, Steve still has a clear idea of what Hell is. He knows, because he’s in it right now. And both the road to Hell and every cobbled street within it is paved with PowerPoint.

Just make it look better,” Captain Long told him. ”Better, Lieutenant Rogers.” Steve’s very reasonable response of “Better how?” was met with no answer other than ”You’re the genius. Figure it out.” Opaque as a hunk of coal and just about as helpful in the context of this task. Steve has checked over the content half a dozen times. He’s seen enough junior officers in positions like his get reamed for missing or misrepresenting crucial details in front of very high-ranking men (always, always men). He vowed after witnessing his first professional evisceration that he would never be responsible for anything that would bring discredit upon General Phillips and their colleagues at Defense Intelligence and CENTCOM. He only wishes that the other personnel on the task force shared his commitment.

With a huff of defiance, Steve decides not to change a single thing before sending the slides back for Long’s approval. When the email comes back five minutes later saying “See? I knew you knew what was wrong. Don’t play stupid, Rogers,” Steve can’t help but laugh. He doesn’t have much occasion to laugh at work, and the small laughter he does enjoy is typically of the ironic or sarcastic sort.

Steve threads his fingers behind his head, stretching the sore muscles of his chest. The tiny buttons of his class B uniform shirt strain threateningly, and he eases up. He went up a size after the first time he sent a button flying across his cubicle, which earned a slew of half-bitter comments from others about how wish they had the problem of being so jacked that their uniform didn’t fit. Steve has never told them the flip side of this problem — how, at eight percent body fat, he never makes weight and has to be tape-measured biannually to ensure that he’s not too obese to be in the military.

Practically right on the hour, Steve has to piss. He’s taken to drinking massive quantities of water to force himself to leave his office regularly throughout the day. It’s one of the only acceptable excuses to stop working in this department, which has been rather accurately compared to geopolitical analysis sweatshop. On the way to the latrine, he hears Master Sergeant Nguyen announce him with a loud “Piss break!” to which Steve replies with a hearty “Yep!” It’s this exact shtick every day, and Nguyen seems to have an endless appetite for the exchange. They all do what they can to disrupt the tension in the office, even if it’s childish and uncreative. Steve takes his time on his way to the latrine, slowing in front of his favorite pictures mounted in the hallway. MacArthur standing at ease with his corncob pipe. Eisenhower at the helm of a jeep. Chesty Puller with his flattened, crooked smile.

First Lieutenant Steve Rogers quietly kindles a fantasy of climbing through the ranks, earning a long and dignified career through hard work and intelligence, leading men with proficiency and inspiring them to be better. He has a fair sense of his skill in the work and intelligence departments, but he’s utterly clueless about his ability to lead or shape men in any real capacity. Training doesn’t count for shit, General Phillips is very fond of telling him. Being First Captain during his senior year at the Academy doesn’t count for shit. Getting passes on all his leadership tasks at Ranger School doesn’t count for shit. Steve has to fight very hard against the looming possibility that nothing he’s done in his entire career to date has counted for shit.

On his way back from the bathroom, he makes a quick swing by the civil affairs team, where’s he’s greeted by the unfriendly grimace of Captain Adams.

“Lieutenant Carter around?” Steve asks.

“Just got out of a meeting.” Adams jerks his thumb back toward her office.

Adams has had a thing for Sharon for precisely as long as she and Steve have been dating, and despite Adams’ palpable smarminess, Steve keeps things cordial and nods his thanks as he walks by. Sharon is one of the few lieutenants in their corridor who has an office rather than a cubicle, and she routinely contends with barely-concealed envy and speculation about how many dicks she had to suck to earn both the office and all the rest of her professional accomplishments. In response, Steve ran a little counterintelligence operation through Nguyen, who spread the patently untrue rumor that he’s got a quick, violent temper and that anyone casting aspersions on Sharon Carter would receive a swift, proficient beat down in retribution. Steve has cultivated just the amount of cold distance from his colleagues to leave them wondering about the stability of his temperament and restraint. Thus far, the gossip around Sharon seems to have cooled off, allowing her some meager peace to come in and just do her job, sans sexist debasement.

“How was the meeting?” Steve asks, poking his head in Sharon’s door.

She turns in her chair to face him, her mouth curving into that very particular smile of hers. Small but knowing. Warm but guarded. “Excruciatingly boring. The usual.”

“I’m gonna be late tonight,” he tells her. “I can take the train.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ll come pick you up. How late you think you’ll be?”

Steve shrugs. “General Phillips is preparing for his teleconference with General Petraeus, and I think he wants to bounce some ideas off me.”

“Very nice.”

“I know, right?”

“Just call me when you’re done, and I’ll swing by.”

“Sounds good.” Steve sighs and looks over his shoulder to where Adams is eyeballing him. “I’d better get back.”

Steve almost moves to close the space between them, because he just wants to feel her hand in his for a few moments. It’s hard sometimes to modulate his behavior at work when their lives are so different at home. No touching in uniform. No kissing in uniform. He even tries to keep the first name use down to a minimum, even though he’s not explicitly required to do so. At the Pentagon, appearances are everything, and as an officer and Academy graduate, any rule that applies to the average soldier applies to him at least tenfold.

Sharon wishes him luck with Phillips. Her smile warms further with pride, and Steve returns it with gladness.

As the day wears on, the team runs low on energy and even lower on patience as they spool down their furious preparations for next week’s briefing of General Petraeus and his command team downrange. Steve reviews three additional sets of PowerPoints, scowling at the glaring inaccuracies and typos, willing himself not to rip his cuticles out with his teeth. It’s 19:30 by the time everyone has cleared out, and only then does Steve feel confident enough to send the slides to Phillips’ secretary for an additional review.

It’s nearly 20:00 when he goes into his meeting with Phillips, toting along all the essentials - his best pen, green federal notebook, one coffee. Phillips looks so relieved to have caffeine hand-delivered to him that Steve is concerned he may do something so brazen as to thank him for it.

“Sit down,” Phillips says, gesturing to the small table in the corner of his office.

Steve sits, his posture ramrod straight, then gets out his notebook and readies his pen. Phillips turns his old, veiny hand over in a gesture that tells Steve clearly that this is off-record time. Steve closes his notebook, and Phillips stares at him for long enough that Steve starts to feel heat in his ears.

“Do you like being here, Rogers?” Phillips finally asks.

In this job, Steve has gotten pretty good at avoiding this kind of lieutenant bait, but this particular morsel might be unavoidable. “I find the work satisfying and challenging.”

“That wasn’t the question. Do you like it?”

Steve sets his mouth into a firm line. “This isn’t what I signed up for.”

“No, I imagine it’s not,” Phillips says over the rim of his cup.

“I’d rather be in the infantry, Sir—“

“You are in the infantry, Rogers.”

“I know, but… I mean…” Steve reddens further under Phillips’ withering scrutiny. “Don’t get me wrong, it feels good to know we’re helping soldiers in the field, but—”

“But you’d rather actually be in the field.” Phillips raises one of his eyebrows, and below it, his iris glimmers. “And where would you rather be right now?”

“Benning. Bragg. Downrange. Put some of this knowledge to work on the ground.”

There’s a heavy beat of silence before Phillips speaks. “I got a tasker from branch looking for someone with such specific qualifications that it practically said ‘send us Lieutenant Steve Rogers, ASAP.’”

“From where?” Steve works to contain the excitement in his voice, but it still pitches up tellingly.

“82nd Airborne, 107th Infantry Battalion’s looking for a platoon leader. I don’t know what happened to the old one, but I’m guessing it’s not good. They’re leaving for Baghdad in 12 days.”

Steve swallows the saliva that’s pooled in his mouth. “Twelve days.”

“Short fuse, I know.”

Steve rubs the fabric of his black tie, frowning. “I don’t know if I’m ready to be a PL...”

“Lemme let you in on a secret, Steve.” The rare use of Steve’s name is enough to imbue Phillips’ next words with exponentially more significance. “No platoon leader is ready for war. Not a single one. That’s why you have your NCOs to square you away. They actually know what they’re doing.”

Steve’s frown deepens. He knows that every single worry he has right now has been the worry of every honest lieutenant who ever led an infantry platoon in combat. But still, something childish in him rages against being thrown in a position where he won’t know what to do, and where he’ll have to rely on the benevolence of men who will probably look upon him as an idiot and a nuisance.

“Is this a choice or an order?” Steve asks.

“Your choice, but you have to make it fast. I need to know within 24 hours, if you want a shot at it. If you say yes, you’ll have to be out of here in three days so you have time to in-process at Bragg.”

Steve sits frozen, save for the tapping of his finger against his green notebook. As much as he fears it, he’s fantasized about this scenario countless times, like when he used to chronically imagine that his dad was really Harrison Ford or Nolan Ryan and not the man who left his ma and him when he was thirteen months old. Steve opens his mouth to ask Phillips what he would do, but —

“Your choice,” Phillips says, heading him off with a hard emphasis on “your.”

Steve nods. “Did you want to talk about the meeting with General Petraeus? Is there anything more I can help you with?”

Phillips stands, signaling the end of their time together. “You’ve done enough for General Petraeus. Go home and think about this.”

Steve nods again and excuses himself back to his little cubicle. He settles into numbness as he changes out of his uniform and into his civilian clothes, and that numbness stays with him while he waits for Sharon in the south parking lot, his breath making thick plumes in the sharp winter air. When Sharon pulls up in her Civic a few minutes later, he barely feels the warmth when he gets in the car.

“How was the meeting?” she asks as he buckles in.

“I got an offer from General Phillips. To deploy.” Steve spits it out fast and blunt, then tries to shrink back into his seat, as if he could hide, as if hiding could resolve this decision without any heartbreak. He looks at his hands.

“Where?”

“Iraq.”

She’s staring at him now, her eyebrows arched high. “When?”

“It’s an emergency fill. Some PL went out of commission and they need an Airborne-qualified lieutenant. Somehow, my name came up.” Steve pauses, and his hands fidget. “They’re leaving Bragg in 12 days.”

Sharon’s face falls. “Wow. That’s really soon.”

“I know. It’s not ideal.” Steve lifts his head and finally musters the guts to look at her. “But it’s an incredible opportunity,” he adds, biting back his enthusiasm when her lips press tightly together.

“No, of course.” She shifts the car into park and takes her foot off the break. “You’ve been screwed out of a leadership position long enough.”

“I’m sorry the timing is so bad.”

“No, Steve, this…” Sharon stops and touches her hand to his. “This is a good thing for you. You’ve earned it. Probably several times over.”

“Thank you.” He rolls his wrist, threads their fingers together, and squeezes his gratitude.

Sharon squeezes back. “Is it unsupportive of me to have mixed feelings about it?”

“No. Not at all.”

In fact, Steve thinks it would be odd if neither of them had mixed feelings about it. After a year together, their relationship seems to have just hit its stride. They’ve blown past the opening blitz of lust, onward to the pure harmony of two people with the same drives, the same priorities, and the same goals. This deployment, despite its obvious necessity for Steve to have any clout as an infantry officer, is a definite setback for them.

Sharon smiles, her eyes bright and watery in the dimness of the overhead light. “I’m very happy for you. This will be so good for your career. About damn time, too.” She hesitates. “And I’m also scared.” Another pause. “And I’m also kind of pissed that it’s so last minute.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Sharon shifts in her seat, facing him as openly as she can. Her tone is firm and strong. “Don’t be sorry. You’re going to be such an asset to them. They’re so lucky to have you.” She lifts her hand to his cheek. “You were born for this.”

Steve lays his hand over hers. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, and I think there’s a celebration in order. Where to?”

“Ethiopic?” Steve looks and sounds hopeful, even though he knows Sharon loves their food just as much as he does.

Sharon smiles and puts the car in gear. “You got it.”

———

The next day, Steve is restless. Sitting at his desk, he can barely concentrate on anything except the racing of his thoughts. So much to prepare. So much to study up on. So much to dig out of his mental West Point vault, things he hasn’t used since those long weeks spent training in the muggy southern wilderness and the desert landscape of the Mojave, trying to lead a platoon of strangers to simulated victory against people playing at insurgency. It’s so preposterously detached from the reality he’s about to walk into that Steve wonders if the training will be valuable at all.

He hasn’t told Phillips yet, not even when he trolled through Steve’s bullpen, wordlessly peering at him from under those heavy, solemn eyebrows as he made rounds with the other team members. Steve’s chosen to run the clock out all the way until 16:00, when most of his colleagues will be bullshitting and clearing out for the day. He’s set on absorbing these last tedious hours of office drudgery, knowing well that it may be one of the last times he’ll be in a proper building for nearly a year.

At 16:30, Steve takes a heaving breath and pushes back from his desk. He takes his time on the way to Phillips’ office, straightening the few things atop his desk, triple checking to make sure he has his CAC, stopping by the drinking fountain to wet his parched mouth.

“Well?” Phillips says when Steve steps through the doorway.

Steve stands in front of Phillips’ desk at parade rest, a formality long abandoned since becoming his aide. “I accept.”

Phillips smiles. Actually smiles. If Steve didn’t think it was because he was truly happy for him, he’d be offended. “Good.”

The rest of Phillips words are a blur, but the gist is clear: Steve’s gonna be busting his ass like a madman for the next three days, throwing away his cushy DC life so he can pick up his filthy, crude infantry life. Say farewell to craft beer, to privacy, to reliable public transportation, and to female companionship. Say adieu to sanitation and clean water and a life free from malaria risk.

Before he goes home, Steve slowly packs his personal belongings into a couple of reusable Whole Foods bags. Books on the history of the Middle East. Fiasco. The Handbook of International Foreign Policy. Two Arabic dictionaries and a book of grammar. Several back editions of Foreign Affairs Magazine. A stress ball. Five notebooks he’ll need to gut and shred the contents of. His two favorite pens. A picture he keeps in his desk of Sharon and him at a Nationals game, Steve’s third and Sharon’s twelfth. Until he was stationed here, he couldn’t name a single woman who liked baseball. He almost didn’t know what to make of it when Sharon suggested it for one of their dates. Now he’s pretty sure it was a sign.

The next two days are a frenzied blur of running around to offices and regions of the Pentagon he forgot existed. Travel. Finance. Personnel. Records. The team is shaken by the suddenness of his departure, and Master Sergeant Nguyen arranges a last minute going-away party for him the night before his scheduled departure from Dulles. Steve’s initial impulse was to turn him down, though actually doing so would have been wholly impossible, given Nguyen’s impassioned insistence that they give him a proper sendoff. Steve wanted his last night to be with Sharon, and he’s certain that she wanted the same, but he compromises by telling Nguyen that he’s only staying till 21:00, because —

“Oh, don’t worry, Sir. I get it,” Nguyen said. Then winked.

When Steve and Sharon arrive at O’Malley’s on his last night, he’s patently shocked by the turnout. In addition to the entire task force, there are people here that he only recalls meeting once or twice, as well as most of the folks from Sharon’s team. Captain Adams looks damn near gleeful to see him leaving, but Steve’s not worried. Sharon would openly despise Adams if she weren’t the consummate professional, and Steve trusts her. He’s always trusted her, and in turn, she’s become one of the very few certainties in his life.

General Phillips shows up toward the end of the night with a telltale green plastic certificate holder and a small box. Steve eyes it and wonders what’s in it as Phillips threads through the crowd, which is growing rowdier with each additional round. Phillips pulls in everyone’s attention with his booming voice, gruff from age and from hard decades of deployments all over God’s green Earth and beyond, missions upon missions, some so classified that they’ll probably never see the light of the public eye. He calls Steve up to stand next to him and gestures at him with his beer mug while he addresses the crowd.

“It’s not very often we get a ring knocker fresh out of the Academy. When Lieutenant Rogers came to us, I was sure he was gonna be a prissy, privileged prima donna who was about to be a colossal pain in my ass for the next three years. I also wondered who he pissed off to get this assignment, because this is grunt Hell if there ever was one.”

There are whoops from the other infantrymen among them, along with a loudly belted “hooah!” from Nguyen. Phillips pivots toward Steve to address him directly.

“But not only are you not a sniveling shit head, you’re actually kinda pleasant to be around. You brought that giant brain of yours here and put it to good use without making the rest of us feel like complete idiots in the process. You have a gift for analysis, a mighty work ethic, and you lead by example every single day. I’ve never seen you turn down an offer to help someone, no matter how goddamn stupid the request was. I gotta say, Lieutenant Rogers, I’m gonna miss you.

“Colonel Fury’s a fortunate man, because he’s got the task of taking all the raw material you have and making you into a platoon leader. And if what you brought to this task force is any indication of what you’re gonna to bring to the 107th, I say your new CO and those apes you’re gonna lead are some lucky sons of bitches. And one day, you’ll probably be back here, sitting in my office, turning the tides of war.”

Phillips puts down his beer and nods to Nguyen, who pulls a piece of paper out of the green certificate holder. Everyone preemptively places their drinks on the tables in front of them and rises to their feet.

“Attention to orders!” Nguyen calls. In a mass Pavlovian response, all military personnel in the room snap to the position of attention, even those who weren’t invited to the party. Nguyen reads from his award citation:

“We hereby grant First Lieutenant Steven Grant Rogers, United States Army, the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his exceptional service as aide de camp and Middle East subject matter expert for Joint Task Force Polaris from August 2006 to January 2008. During this period, Lieutenant Rogers demonstrated exceptional skill, proactivity, courage, and diplomacy in bringing attention to crucial flaws in previous approaches to earning goodwill with local leaders on the ground in during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lieutenant Rogers also served as the task force liaison to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, facilitating the infusion of crucial cultural context into the strategic vision of General David Petraeus and other leaders of the Multi-National Force in Iraq. His selflessness, intelligence, dedication, leadership, and can-do attitude reflect highly upon himself, Joint Task Force Polaris, the United States Army, and the Department of Defense.”

Steve keeps a stoic face as Phillips clips the medal to the pocket of his dress shirt, but inside, his stomach is floating. This isn’t some mundane token of service given to anyone who departs the Pentagon for their next duty station. This means something. After all of his doubts and all of his fretting, Steve now holds some small proof that his work has meant something. He glances over at Sharon, who’s beaming at him, her hand pressed over her heart, beautiful and proud.

There are some toasts and good-natured ribbings that follow, and the rest of the evening is nice enough. But Steve is ready to go long before everyone else seems to be ready for him to leave, and at 20:40, he tracks down Sharon, because all he wants to do now is take her home. In the cab back to their apartment, he holds her hand and kisses the back of it, and she slides in close and lets him enfold her, resting against him as the cityscape slips by outside the window.

Their apartment is a complete mess. It’s been difficult for Steve to pack, having scarcely a clue what to bring to Iraq. Captain Barton sent him a welcome packet and a packing list, but Steve doesn’t know what to really bring with him. What the rest of the guys are bringing. The ones who’ve been downrange already and know what really needs to be brought. So he’s bringing what’s on the packing list, plus whatever he’s been able to rustle up from online message boards. Extra baby wipes. Head lamp. Sock, socks, and more socks. Bore snake. Baby powder. Chapstick. Sunscreen. His duffle bags lie against the wall of their bedroom, stuffed and straining like big green sausages.

He stands in their room, the room that used to be just Sharon’s. The day she invited him into her home was one of the best days of his life, a message to him that this is something real. This is love. This could go somewhere. With Sharon, he can have the life he wants and the career he wants. No sneaking, no codes, no constant worrying. Nothing like before, when all he could be was someone’s dirty secret.

His face sours, because Bucky Barnes is not welcome in the home he shares with Sharon. Indeed, he’s not welcome anywhere at all in Steve’s mind. Fortunately, the sensation of Sharon’s arms sliding around him pulls him from the vacuum of his swiftly mounting bitterness and resentment. She presses her body against his back and rests her chin on his shoulder.

“It’s gonna be so strange to not have you here.” She squeezes him tighter.

Steve hugs his arms over hers. His throat feels thick and tight. “I’m gonna miss you.”

“Me too.”

Steve sighs as Sharon’s hands travel over his chest. God, how is he going to go nine months without being touched? He supposes he’ll have mid-tour leave, but five months is half a lifetime in deployment years. He wonders what he’ll be like then and fervently hopes that he’s the same man on the other side of this.

“Lie down on the bed,” she tells him.

She undresses him slowly, tenderly, touching and kissing every bit of flesh she exposes, like she’s trying to memorize every rise and fall, every hair, every curve and corner of him. When he’s naked, he does the same but with less patience. She doesn’t seem to mind, though. Not when he’s licking her nipples. Not when he’s dragging his mouth down the soft valley of her stomach. Not when he’s eating her pussy and fingering her until she comes. He, too, wants to remember her. Her taste. The sound of her voice as he pleasures her. The feel of her warmth as he slides inside of her. The pressure of her legs around him, her fingertips digging into the muscle of his back as he fucks her. He takes it all in, senses wide open, his eidetic memory copying down every detail. And then he comes inside her, as deep as he can push himself, lust-drunk and moaning, and it’s still not nearly enough.

Sleep typically comes easily to Steve after sex, but not tonight. His mind buzzes with whatever he might label his thoughts and feelings about leaving Sharon. His emotions sway unsteadily between sadness and joy. Concern and relief. Excitement and regret. Deploying is as much a sacrifice as it is a boon, and Sharon’s staunch support of him makes the wavering and confusion much easier to tolerate. He could only imagine the pain of having a partner who doesn’t understand the selflessness and responsibility inherent in soldiering—

Something grinds and screeches loudly inside of Steve, so visceral and wrenching that his entire body tenses against its force.

No. No, no, no. Fuck you, Bucky Barnes. That was different. That was something else entirely. Wasn’t it?

Steve wrestles briefly with the fierce grip of their history, twisting it and crushing it into nothing with relative ease. He’s very good at this now. The man that he is now can abolish the past and every regrettable moment in it with deadly proficiency, a product of the six years he spent deconstructing and renovating himself into what he needed to become. The process has been painstaking. Deliberate. Brutal and meticulous. He’s created the perfect scaffold over which to lay his future, one impermeable to everything that has ever wounded him before.

And somehow, he’s found a companion who’s built the same for herself, his philosophical and intellectual counterpart, a partner who’s predictable and solid. He can build a future with her. He wants to build a future with her. In this moment, he wants it badly, like he wants to breathe his next breath, with a feverish desperation driven by the imminence of his departure.

“Sharon.” Steve squeezes her shoulder. He can tell from the rate and depth of her breath against his chest that she’s still awake.

“Hmm?”

Steve wets his lips, which are dry and stiff. “Will you marry me?”

Sharon lifts her head from his chest, propping herself up on her forearm. The surprise in her face quickly gives way to delight. “Really?”

Steve nods and swallows.

“Yes.” Her smile brightens, spreading wide until it crinkles the corners of her brown eyes. “Yes.”

“I’ll get you a ring when I get back.” Steve pushes her long, blonde hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry. I know I didn’t do any of this the right way.” He feels heat climb into his cheeks.

Sharon gives his chest a reassuring pat. “It’s okay. You know I’m not much for jewelry and big productions anyway.”

“You’ll really marry me?”

“Of course I will. I’ve wanted to marry you since the day we met.”

Steve is grinning now. “Really?”

She nods seriously. “I knew you were the one. From that very first conversation, I knew.”

He lifts his head to kiss her. It’s soft and measured, everything their relationship is. Just right. Just as it should be. Everything in its place, dress-right-dress. The closest thing to perfection he has ever touched.

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

February 10, 2008

Bucky already knows it’s going to be a rough day when a strip of light streaming through the window hits him squarely in the face. He lifts his hand to block it, because it’s overwhelmingly bright even from behind his closed eyelids. Slowly, millimeter by millimeter, he opens his eyes and squints up at an unfamiliar ceiling. His senses slowly begin re-connecting to his brain, wire by wire, a process muddled by the alcohol still circulating in his body.

He looks down at the weight he registers on his chest — an arm, thick and muscular, draped over him possessively. Bucky turns his head toward the owner of that arm, Mr. Tall, Blond, and Beefy from the club last night. The guy’s on his stomach, still asleep, breathing quietly, the covers pushed down to where the small of his back slopes up to the rounded rise of his rear. Bucky slips his hand under the covers, down his own body, where he feels the band of his underwear, his ridiculously expensive, black, Calvin Klein fuck-me briefs that make his package and ass look incredible. Well, apparently not too incredible, considering that they’re still on.

Bucky tries to piece together the events of last night. He got to the club around 10:00 and had a shot. Then another. Then got cruised a few times, which he entertained but ultimately turned down. Then he danced in a sea of beautiful Southern boys. Then drank more. Then finally locked down on this guy, who sauntered up to him like a golden beach god, chiseled and sexy with his chin-length blond hair, looking like the stunning love child of Kurt Cobain and a Baywatch extra. Then Bucky’s pretty sure he slammed down another few shots and moved to the dance floor with the guy, where everything got real hot and real nasty. Then they went to the parking lot… he thinks. That’s where things start to get spotty. He must have gotten into a vehicle — fuck, did he drive? — and somehow ended up in this apartment on a platform bed so low to the ground that he could probably fall out of it and not wake up.

He shifts his hips. Nope, doesn’t feel like he got fucked.

“‘Good morning,” the guy says, his words shaped with an accent Bucky can’t quite place. A lazy smile spreads across his face.

Bucky returns the smile half way while he continues processing his scrambled trajectory into this guy’s bed.

The guy folds his arms atop his pillow and rests his chin on them. “Did you sleep all right?”

“I guess.” Bucky frowns. “I think?”

“You don’t remember, do you?”

“Gets a bit fuzzy after the dancing.” Bucky drags his knuckles back and forth across his eyes, as if he could rub away the lingering haze of drunkness if he scrubs hard enough.

“You asked to come home with me, so I brought you here.”

“Thank God,” Bucky says under his breath. He’s usually pretty good about not driving drunk, but once he gets past seven drinks or so, all bets are off.

The guy continues. “Then you took off your clothes and my clothes and tried to blow me.”

Bucky raises his left brow. “Tried?”

The guy’s lazy smile dims into something resembling, of all things, concern. “I didn’t think it was right to let you do it. You were very drunk. I stopped you, and you argued with me about it, and then you passed out.”

Bucky presses his hands against his face and speaks his halting words into his palms.

“Great. Yeah. Wow.” He shakes his head. “Sorry. You were probably expecting a lot more than that.”

Bucky sure as hell was expecting more, anyway. What an idiot, getting so wasted on his last weekend stateside that he didn’t even get in one last good fuck before going to the sandbox.

“I had no expectations.” The guy reaches over and brushes Bucky’s chin with his thumb. The gesture seems incongruently intimate, considering Bucky doesn’t even know his name. “If you want to, I’m still up for it.” He rolls over onto his side to face Bucky, bearing the broad range of his chest.

It’s tempting. It’s really, really tempting. And if Bucky was a little drunker, he might say yes. Last weekend was a total bust, getting brought home by some other guy who insisted that Bucky top him, when all Bucky wanted was to get fucked into oblivion. Jesus, what a waste of a night. He didn’t bother sticking around for the hand job the guy spontaneously tried to give him, shoving him away and pointing out that he can give himself a perfectly good hand job any time he wants.

At least if he was a little drunker, Bucky could maybe dismiss his own embarrassing behavior last night. But he can’t. And all he can think about is what a fool he must have looked, near-naked and drunkenly arguing about his capacity to suck dick before losing consciousness in God knows what condition. Not letting this beautiful man give him the thing he wants most seems a fitting punishment for making a complete ass of himself.

“Nah,” Bucky says. “I gotta get going. Work stuff.”

“Maybe I could give you something before you leave?”

Oh, he knows he shouldn’t say yes. If he doesn’t deserve to get fucked, he doesn’t deserve any other parting gifts, either. Still, the guy’s hand travels the space between them, edging down to where Bucky’s morning wood is tenting the sheets, and it stops just short of where Bucky’s leg begins. The guy’s got manners, that’s for sure.

Bucky looks at the guy’s face, which is open and warm and seems caught somewhere between hopefulness and restraint. And before he can undermine himself with more half-hearted punishments for being a flagrant lush, Bucky nods his assent.

The guy takes his time, and in doing so, Bucky can see why he insisted on coming home with him. He moves with grace and ease of self, like he’s never been ashamed or uncertain of anything in his entire life. He draws the sheets down with care. Kisses his way down Bucky’s chest, stopping to flick his tongue and graze his teeth over his nipple. He hooks his fingers beneath the band of Bucky’s fuck-me briefs and slides them down gently, setting them to the side rather than tossing them. Odd, and strikingly familiar. It’s enough for Bucky to suddenly remember that this isn’t the first time he’s been with him, though it may be the first time they’ve done anything in the light of day.

Bucky’s mouth falls open when the guy goes down on him, the wet heat hitting him with the intensity of a bucket of ice. God, it feels good, especially mixed with the wooziness and the awakening of that deep, raw drive that drags him up to Chapel Hill over and over again. Bucky lifts his head to watch, and he isn’t quite prepared for how hot the guy looks bobbing up and down on his dick, the full spread of his naked, six-foot-who-cares body lying across the width of the bed. Christ, he’s hung. And hard. And even though he has clear talent in the blowjob department, Bucky stops him, touching his finger to the light scruff on the guy’s cheek.

“I changed my mind. About the other thing.”

The guy sucks him from hilt to tip, slow and obscene, then pulls off of him. “Really?”

Bucky nods.

“Are you sure?”

Bucky sighs. “Listen, you wanna fuck me or what?”

The guy beams, his eyes crinkling with the intensity of his smile. “You’re grumpy in the morning.”

Grumpy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Ever since Nguyen told him that Steve got slotted as their new PL, Bucky’s been a quietly flaming wreck. When he was cooking up this harebrained plan, he never actually thought it would work out. And now that it has, he’s had to fight minute-by-minute not to crack apart with anxiety and regret.

“Sorry,” Bucky says.

He means it, too. This guy’s nice and considerate, not like most of the assholes Bucky follows home, and the last thing he deserves after last night is more unearned hostility.

The guy reaches his long, heavy arm over to the nightstand, where he pulls a bottle of Gun Oil and hands it to Bucky.

“You don’t wanna do it?” Bucky asks. 

“I know you’d rather do it yourself,” the guy says as he tears off a condom from the roll he grabs from the drawer.

He’s right, but Bucky snorts anyway. “Yeah, you know me so well.”

“You do realize that this is the fifth time you’ve come home with me in the last four months, don’t you?”

Bucky freezes. “No way.” There’s no way he’s been with the same person five times in the past four years, let alone the past four months.

“Good to know it was so memorable.” The guy gives a friendly chuckle.

Fifth? Are you sure?”

The guy nods.

“Huh. Okay.”

Bucky rolls over onto his side, ass facing the guy he’s apparently been with five times and whose name he doesn’t even know the first letter of. He draws up his right leg, lubes up his finger, and starts to fuck himself open. He takes his time, letting a rash of intentionally dirty sounds escape him, because it's all just for show. He's a pro at taking dick, even without all the exhibitionistic prep shit he's doing now. All he needs is a little lube on the cock and a few deep breaths, but some guys like to watch, and so Bucky gives them something to watch. And this guy watches intently, blue eyes blown dark, lips parted, while he rolls the condom down over his monster cock.

After he’s ready enough, Bucky slides off the bed and pads to the en suite bathroom to wash his hands. Yeah, he’s definitely been here a few times. He remembers the towels, steel gray laid atop dark blue. He carefully avoids looking in the mirror, not wanting to spoil his fragile hope that he doesn’t look like a complete mess.

The look on the guy’s face when he walks back into the bedroom also helps keep some of that hope afloat. His eyes track Bucky across the room as he makes his way to the bed, predatory in a very flattering sort of way. Bucky crawls on the bed and braces himself on his hands and knees, spreading himself wide. He takes a deep breath to try to clear out the continuous stream of worry that’s been scrolling nonstop through his mind for the past week.

“So if you know me so well,” Bucky says, glancing over his shoulder, “you know how I like it.”

“I do.”

Bucky can feel the bed shift as the guy comes up behind him, settling between his legs. The guy caresses him, runs his hands along his ass and up his back.

Bucky clenches his jaw and pushes back against the guy as he starts to slide in, taking him with well-practiced ease. God, he loves it. The feeling of fullness. The thrill of being desired. This small, priceless window of time during which he can stop controlling. Stop containing. Stop lying.

“Make it good,” Bucky tells the guy when he finally sinks in all the way.

The guy wraps a strong arm around Bucky’s torso and pulls him up until his back is flush against his chest. Both arms encircle him then, and Bucky releases a shaking breath, eyes wide, reeling from the sensation of being impaled so deep and held so close.

“I always make it good,” the guy murmurs, breath hot against Bucky’s ear.

“And I want it hard.” Bucky lets his head loll to the side while the guy nuzzles and kisses his neck. “I want you to fuck me like I’m not gonna get fucked again for a long time.”

“Going somewhere?”

“Shhh. Just… ” He doesn’t want to think about any of it. Not Iraq, not the Army, not Steve Rogers. “Just fuck me.”

The guy releases Bucky and guides him back down until he’s on his hands again. Bucky exhales a long breath as the guy moves into a deep rhythm, slow at first but escalating into just the kind of pounding he wants. His eyes roll back and his head drops as he fully relaxes into it, eased along by the warm touch of the guy’s hands, one grabbing Bucky’s shoulder tight to pull him back against his thrusts, the other traveling his spine, his chest, his stomach, finally coming down to pump his dripping cock. Somehow, this guy knows just how to touch him. Just how to fuck him. He seems to knows just how bad Bucky needs it, how he needs something to carry with him, something to remind him of who he really is when he feels foreign to himself.

Bucky lets himself be loud. He lets himself groan and grunt and swear with abandon, as if this is the last time he’ll ever get to be honest again. And when he finally comes, he doesn’t try to catch his load, allowing himself to shoot off all over the guy’s sheets. It feels wonderful to not hold back, just like it feels wonderful when the guy finally shudders against him with a sharp gasp, pushing in, pulling close.

They stay like that for several long moments, the guy still inside Bucky, his hips pressed against his ass, his big hands holding him. If Bucky could stay like this forever, he would. Just like this. Full. Close. Secure.

But it can’t last forever, and it doesn’t. The guy goes soft and slides out of him, and while he takes care of the condom, Bucky sits on his knees and adjusts to the stark feeling of emptiness. His brain starts to spool up again, churning out a stream of nervous bullshit, when he feels warm pressure on his back.

“Are you okay?” the guy asks, rubbing his palm across Bucky’s shoulders.

“Yeah. Thanks.” He forces himself to smile. “That was really good.”

The guy smiles back “It was really good. Would you like breakfast?”

Nope. No way.

“Sure,” Bucky says, betrayed by his own childish yearning for companionship, he supposes.

Bucky watches the guy dress in a pair of jeans and a maroon ribbed sweater that hugs him in all the right places — as if there are any wrong places on the guy’s entire body. He throws Bucky a wink, then heads to the kitchen to start breakfast. Bucky sits for a few more minutes, his eyes glazed and unseeing as he wonders what the hell his problem is for feeling so miserable after such a good lay. He’s pulled from his thoughts by the aching of his legs, and he stiffly works his way to his feet. He hunts around the bedroom for his clothes, putting on each article as he goes. He sure as hell threw them, probably in a wild frenzy of vodka-driven lust. He manages to find everything except one sock, and for the life of him, he can’t figure out how he could lose it in a room so neat and sparsely decorated.

“What shall I do if I find it?” the guy asks after Bucky joins him in the kitchen.

Bucky shrugs. “Toss it. Keep it. Jerk off in it. Your choice.”

Bucky sits on one of the stools at the island in the center of the kitchen and watches the guy prepare breakfast. The kitchen is bigger than his, and Bucky lives in an actual house. In fact, he can’t remember ever seeing an apartment this big in his life, and he figures it’d fetch for at least $15 million in New York money.

He nurses a cup of coffee in silence and swivels around in his stool to scan the apartment, familiarizing himself with this place he’s allegedly been to so many times already. Modern furniture. Select abstract paintings in gray and blue. Something about that palette stabs him in the chest, maybe because it reminds him of the way Steve used to paint when he was feeling low. He averts his gaze to the rectangular coffee table, upon which rests, of all horrifying things, textbooks on advanced anatomy and physiology. Bucky swallows his coffee hard.

“You’re not an undergrad, are you?” he asks.

The guy laughs. “No. Graduate.”

Thank God. No need to add “cradle robber” to his list of dubious accolades. Not that the guy could pass for anything younger than 25.

The guy looks up from the thin strips of salmon he’s laying on a plate. “Can I call you some time?”

“Oh, no.” Bucky shakes his head. “No.” He moves in for a swift correction. “That wasn’t a personal no. It’s just that I’m gonna be out of the country for a while.”

“Deploying?”

Of course it must be completely obvious, between his haircut and the tattooed string of M118 sniper rounds trailing down the back of his upper right arm. “Yeah.”

The guy gives him a small smirk. “Excited?”

Bucky tilts his head to the side, a perplexed look settling on his face. “That’s not a word people usually use.”

“No, but are you?”

“Of course.”

Bucky’s been itching to go back. No, scratch that — he’s been dying to go back. He misses war like he misses all his other addictions when parted from them. He misses the excitement. The shifting, asymmetrical battlefield. The camaraderie. The way the rest of the world seems so trivial once a few bullets scream by.

The guy carries two plates over to the small dining table in the living room. “I was in Afghanistan for almost a year.”

“Really? When?” Bucky gets up then and starts helping the guy bring dishware and food to the table.

“2002.”

“What?” Bucky’s voice climbs with excitement. “Where were you?”

“Here and there. I was FSK. That's Norwegian special forces.”

Bucky stops and grips the back of one of the dining chairs, heart launching into a frenzied clip. “I know what it is. Were you Task Force K-Bar?”

The guy hums his confirmation with the jut of his chin.

“We were there at the exact same time." Bucky can barely contain himself now, bounding after the guy as he heads back to the kitchen to grab more breakfast items. “I was with the 101st. Wait, were you part of Operation Anaconda?”

"I was around. On the edge of the valley looking for—  what do you call them? 'Squirters?'"

"Fuck, you could probably see me! I was with the Rakkasans, clearing that shit out."  

The guy turns, his hands full of butter and two different kinds of jam. He looks at Bucky with such fondness that it’s almost embarrassing. “I would definitely remember seeing you.”

Bucky feels his face warm, and he smiles.

Together they lay out a spread of cheeses, butter, jam, bread, and smoked salmon on the table, along with more coffee. They dig in, and the guy gives him a short biographical sketch. Son of the CEO of Bank Norwegian, which explains the nice apartment. Currently getting his masters in exercise and sports science, which explains the books. Aspiring to be a personal trainer and gym owner, which explains the hot body.

“Why’d you get out?” Bucky asks, airing not a little of his own insecurity about ever leaving the Army.

“I want to plant roots,” the guy replies, then takes a large bite of bread topped with a thick slice of brown cheese.

Bucky sputters. “In North Carolina?”

“This is just for school.”

“But why UNC? Seems like you could afford something better. Harvard, Yale, those types.”

The guy gives a self-effacing smile. “I’m not really Ivy League material. I’ve been told that I have more heart than brains. My brother is the smart one.”

Bucky waves him off. “Brains are overrated, anyway.” He thinks immediately of Steve, how all his brains couldn’t stop him from being a selfish prick, in the end. “Plus, it’s not like UNC’s a bad school.”

“I’m moving to New York when I graduate this spring to open my gym.”

“You’ll have some stiff competition,” Bucky warns.

The guy gestures firmly at him with the butter knife. “Yes, but my gym will be the best.”

“You should check out Brooklyn. Way better than Manhattan, any day of the week. That’s home for me.”

“So you are not at all biased.”

“Of course I’m biased.” Bucky drains the last of his coffee from his cup and pours more from the carafe. “I’m also right.”

“Have you thought of getting out?” the guy asks. “Going back home?”

Bucky’s answer is sharp and decisive. “No way. The only way I’m ever getting out is in a body bag. Plus, the way I’m going, I’ll make sergeant major by 35, so…” He shrugs, as if the rest of the answer is self-evident.

“Too bad,” the guys says quietly.

Bucky lets his words hang between them, not certain how to respond. He settles for checking his watch, an act which nearly gives him a small heart attack.

“Shit, I really gotta go now, for real,” Bucky says, thinking of the pre-deployment briefing he has due to Morita at 14:00 that he hasn’t even touched yet. He chugs down the coffee he just poured, wipes his mouth with his napkin, and stands. “Thanks for breakfast. Thanks for everything.” He smiles. “It was nice.”

“Of course.” The guy stands with him. “Would you like a ride to your car?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” Bucky follows the guy back through the kitchen, toward the door.

“Are you okay to drive?” the guy asks.

“Yeah,” Bucky lies, because from how loopy he still feels, he absolutely cannot be sober yet. “Can I grab a bottle of water for the road?”

“Only if you let me give you my number.”

Bucky stares at the guy for a few moments, searching his face, which is earnest and handsome and confident. There are a hundred reasons not to take his number, all of which are very good, but he still pulls out his phone from his jeans pocket and hands it to the guy.

The guy’s smile is triumphant, and when he hands the phone back, Bucky bursts out laughing.

“Thor? Your name is Thor?” Bucky looks up at him. “Are you kidding?”

Thor seems to have been through this routine at least a dozen times before, handling Bucky’s skepticism with good humor. “It’s actually pronounced ‘tore.’ Thor Odinson.”

“Thor,” Bucky pronounces correctly. “Well, all right, Thor Odinson. I was gonna say I’ve never slept with anyone named Thor before, but we both know that’s a lie.”

“And your name?”

“Sam Wilson.”

Thor holds out his hand. “Very pleased to meet you, Sam Wilson.”

— — —

Thor takes him back to his truck, which is still parked at the club. They kiss goodbye, a real kiss, and Thor tells him to be safe on deployment. Bucky waves as Thor drives away in his Land Rover, then stands outside his truck for a good few minutes, running his hand up and down the back of his head and wishing he had a smoke.

When he finally starts to feel the nip of the cold, he gets in his truck, turns on the engine to get the heat going, and pulls his breathalyzer from the glove compartment. He breathes into it and waits, swearing under his breath when he pops a BAC of .11. He pounds the bottle of water, reclines his seat, and starts running through his platoon roster. He reviews names on first pass, then names and hometowns on second pass, then names, hometowns, and birth months.

Barton. Sousa. Morita. Rogers, fuck. Fuck. Rhodes. Dugan. Mackenzie. Triplett. Ward. Nelson. Parker. Wilson. Reyes. Rumlow. Gomez. Maximoff…

Bucky runs through the expanded list two dozen times, until he has the information down even colder than he did before. By that time, he finally blows low enough that he probably wouldn’t get charged with a DUI if he got pulled over for the speeding he plans to do. The 75 mile ride back to Fayetteville is scored to alternating tracks of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, a necessary soundtrack for someone who’s struggling to keep his eyes open. It’s a little after 11:40 when he shuffles through the front door, straight into a wall of breakfast smell. Looks like he didn’t miss Sunday brunch at the Wilson-Barnes residence.

“Hey, you,” he hears Natasha say from inside.

Bucky sets his keys on the table at the living room entrance and smiles when he sees her seated on the couch, her legs folded underneath her. “How was your weekend?” he asks.

“Good, when Sam wasn’t being harassed by Lieutenant Shitwell.”

“That asshole called me three times yesterday,” Sam says from the adjoining kitchen. He pokes his head in the entryway and beckons Bucky with the wave of his hand. “C’mere.”

Bucky goes to the kitchen and whistles when he sees everything Sam’s prepared. Cooked veggies, sausage links, cheese, a bowl of beaten eggs, cut fruit, the whole works. If he’d known Sam was making frittata, he might have eased up on all the bread and cheese at Thor’s place.

“Here,” Sam says, wagging a small sausage link in Bucky’s direction.

Bucky grins and bites off half of it. Sam pops the remainder in his mouth.

“Oh, wow,” Bucky mumbles through his chewing. “What’s that?”

“Apple sage.” Sam smiles. “Good, huh?”

Bucky makes a loud sound of approval. “Too bad I already ate.” He lifts and lowers his eyebrows suggestively.

Sam turns back to his preparations, pouring the veg, sausage, cheese, and eggs into a large cast iron skillet on the stove. “In a metaphorical way or a literal way?”

“Both. I stayed for breakfast.”

“You what?” Natasha yells from the living room.

“I’m old and needy,” Bucky says. “Though, to be fair, he was very charming.”

Sam shakes his head. “Most Southern guys are, until they’re dragging you behind a pickup truck or hanging you from a tree.”

Bucky sides up to Sam at the stove. “Oh, he’s not Southern. He’s from Europe.”

“Oh, really?” Sam intones with curiosity, raising his pinky. “Lah-dee-dah. I bet he—”

There’s a sudden weight on Bucky’s shoulder, and he startles, whipping around, heart galloping, fists tense and ready. Natasha’s right there, right there, closer than she knows better than to be, hand already retracting from him.

“So, spill it,” she says, stepping back and exchanging a look with Sam that Bucky doesn’t miss. “What’s his name?”

Bucky takes a deep breath to calm his surging blood and attempts to mirror her effortful nonchalance. “Thor,” he pronounces incorrectly, “though he says it’s really ‘tore.’ And yes, that’s his real name,” he adds.

Natasha regards him for a few moments with an unreadable expression, the one that makes her among the best interrogators in the standing Army. Her face softens, and she takes him by the wrist, her movements slow and deliberate. “Come tell me about him.”

“Hey, I wanna hear, too,” Sam says. “Lemme just throw this in the oven.”

Bucky follows Natasha out to the living room, where he flops down on the couch and rests his head in her lap. His body sinks heavily into the cushions as a wave of exhaustion crashes into him, a wave that's been chasing him for... Jesus... years, probably. He closes his eyes while she plays with his hair. It feels so good — the soft scrape of her short fingernails against his scalp, the gentleness she gives to him, the permission to be cared for, just for a few minutes. 

“All right, out with it,” Sam says, stationing himself in the doorway.

Bucky cracks his eyes open and tells them everything he can about Thor. It isn’t a whole lot, but what he does describe is embarrassingly impressionistic and giddy.

Natasha lays her palm on his forehead. “Maybe you can bring him to the Army Ball next year. I think we’ll be back just in time for it.”

She’s joking, of course, but it doesn’t mean Bucky doesn’t entertain a brief fantasy of him in his green service uniform with the gorgeous Thor Odinson on his arm. His fantasy also includes a very jealous Steve Rogers glaring over at him from across the room. It then concludes with him reeling and disintegrating with humiliation as everyone in the room realizes what he is, as their faces twist in disgust and horror—  

“I wouldn’t have to find another date if you didn’t dump me.” Bucky gives her a scowl of feigned outrage.

"Now, why would I do that?" Natasha strokes her thumb across his eyebrow, pressing a little too hard. 

Bucky's mouth flattens, and he swallows heavily as he averts his gaze from hers. Sam is watching them closely, relaxed in the shoulders but tense in the face. Bucky's not sure what he knows, and he hopes it's not much. Bucky's never dared to ask, because he's hardly proud of the way things went with her. With what he did to her. 

She dips her head, drawing his attention back to her brilliant green eyes. “You smell like a brewery. Go take a shower.”

"Yes, Sergeant." 

“You’d better start putting the breaks on,” she says seriously. “Or you’ll be in a world of hurt this weekend.”

Bucky rises smoothly to his feet and crosses the living room to the stairwell. “I’m gonna shower, then head to the office.”

“All right, Cinderella,” Natasha says, glancing at his one bare foot. “Did you at least get Prince Charming’s number?”

Bucky gives a sober laugh as he climbs the stairs. “There are no Prince Charmings in this world, Nat. Just a bunch of assholes pretending that they’re not the type to royally fuck you over.”

“Does that include you?” she calls after him.

Of course it must, given their history. And Bucky also thinks about Steve. How abruptly he ended things. How swiftly and completely he extricated himself from Bucky’s life. There had to be a reason, something Bucky did wrong. Whatever it was, it must have been pretty awful — maybe even worse than awful, because he didn’t even realize he did it.

“I guess so,” Bucky replies, then heads to his room to get ready.

Chapter Text


February 13, 2008

Pope Air Field, Fort Bragg

“I don’t even know what to say anymore, we’ve done this so many times,” Winnie says, running her hand down Bucky’s arm.

“Maybe ‘head on a swivel,’ ‘keep your head down,’ ‘don’t get shot in the head’?” Bucky suggests

Winnie makes a sound as she shudders. “Enough of that. But yes, keep your head on a swivel and be careful and call.”

A shout erupts from across the enormity of the waiting area, over from where many soldiers have already lined up with their things. It’s Luis Gomez, by the sound of it.

“Hi, Mrs. Barnes!”

Despite being neither a missus nor a Barnes, Winnie waves over at Luis and the other members of Bucky’s platoon who’ve taken to yelling greetings at her.

“They’ve got it bad for you, don’t they?” Rikki says, glancing over her shoulder to look at the shouting, waving throng of men. She’s tense, pulling the long sleeves of her cardigan over her knuckles, her posture slouched in an attempt to hide the solid two inches of height she has on Bucky.

“They’re all idiots,” Bucky says offhandedly to his sister.

Bucky doesn’t blame her for being uncomfortable. Hell, he feels uncomfortable for her. Extra vigilant and fit to fight, he’s ready to glare down any ass wipe who looks even mildly disturbed by her presence. So far, people have been so consumed by their distress over their separation from their own loved ones that they don’t seem to have noticed Rikki at all.

He continues to scan the room. Not just for her but for himself, too. He’s been fighting a steady pulse of anxiety since last night over his inevitable reunion with the ex he hasn’t seen in six years. That Steve still hasn’t shown up is more than a little disconcerting.

“If you see Steve Rogers, don’t freak out,” Bucky says, quickly and blandly, like maybe they'll miss it completely if he just says it casually enough.

“Excuse me?” Winnie says. She looks as if he just told her that he’s pregnant, her face drawn in an uneasy combination of shock and, God, why does she sound excited?

“Are you fucking serious?” comes Rikki’s much more reasonable response. Her mouth sets into a snarl. “Why?”

“Because he’s my platoon leader,” Bucky mumbles, his gaze drifting to anything and anyone in the room besides his mother and sister.

“What?!” Rikki’s eyes go wide as her voice accidentally drops into a distinctly un-womanly register. She looks around frantically, fearfully, then drops a dainty f-bomb. Winnie puts a reassuring hand on her forearm.

Bucky sighs. “Look, it’s a long story, and it’s fine, and… it’s fine. It is what it is.”

“Oh, honey,” Winnie says, “no wonder you look so nervous."

"No but, seriously, how the fuck did that even happen?" Rikki asks. "Who did you piss off? Like, cosmically?"

"Are you even gonna be able to work with him?” Winnie asks.

“I told you, it's fine,” Bucky snaps. If he had a time machine, he’d jump in it, take it to NTC, and punch himself in the fucking mouth for even thinking Steve Rogers’ name again.

“Well, if I see him, I’ll be sure to kick him in the balls for you, since you probably have to be professional and all,” Rikki says.

“Yeah, that won’t draw any attention to you,” Bucky replies, then immediately regrets it. He looks at her with the most apologetic expression he can manage. “Sorry, Rik.” He nearly keels over with relief when she lets out a quiet laugh.

“It’d totally be worth it,” she says with a wry smirk.

“Just be sure to get it on video, will ya?” Bucky tries to joke. He tries, but the words still try to stick in his mouth, and the image that enters his mind strikes him as cruel and sad.

He holds out his arms to Rikki. “I better get going.”

Rikki closes the distance between them and hugs him tight. Her body feels thin and delicate in his arms.

“Stay safe, keep your head down, and don’t do any stupid shit.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it.” She squeezes him for emphasis. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He pulls back a little and kisses her on the cheek. “Love you.”

“Love you too, Jammers. See you on leave.” She lets go of him and steps back, her expression as solid and firm as her conspicuous jaw and cleft chin.

Bucky turns to his ma, who long ago stopped being a wreck at these things. He imagines she’s hardened herself to it after four times. The first time, she was a complete mess, barely letting him get on the plane to Afghanistan. Steve had to practically drag her away — Christ, she made a scene. In his mind’s eye, he can see them with sharp clarity, his ma in Steve’s arms, crying against his chest, Steve looking at him like he’d just had his heart ripped out but still hadn’t fully realized it yet…

Now, Winnie enfolds him into her arms with the composure of a bear. He hugs her back tightly, bending to accommodate her height. They exchange “I love yous” in hushed tones, somber but secure.

Bucky’s never gotten overly emotional at these things, and today is no exception. He stoops to grab his bags, flashes the women of his life a bright smile, and heads toward the area where the other soldiers are waiting — the ones whose families were too poor to fly in to see them off, the ones with no families at all, or the ones who’ve already said goodbye.

Bucky throws his bags against the wall with the others, his duffle standing out by how worn it is compared to most of the others. He searches the room once more, making out the turquoise of Rikki’s sweater as she and his ma head toward the exit. In a sea of Army Combat Uniforms, it might be difficult to make out one lost lieutenant, if it were anyone but Steve. His height and breadth alone make him stick out in any room, and Bucky can’t imagine that’s changed much with the passage of time.

With a huff of frustration, Bucky turns to his men and starts making rounds down the line. The energy is tense but excited, especially among the first-timers. Even through the nervousness, Bucky can still feel a swell of pride as he passes them by, a sensation that floats him for a few moments until he picks up the acidic sound of Brock fucking Rumlow’s voice.

As a rule, every unit has at least one shitbag in it, the type of guy who would steal your uniform out of the dryer even if it had your name on it, and second platoon is no exception. So when he picks up the foul words “…with that tranny…,” Bucky's hardly surprised.

But he still stops in his tracks and sucks in a breath to quell the rush of anger that tightens his shoulders. He was waiting for something like this, of course, but that doesn’t make his wrath any less pointed. He makes a quick calculation about how to address it, his general choices being ‘scream like a drill sergeant’ or ‘go quiet and scary.’ Bucky turns on his heel and takes three strong steps up to Rumlow, who looks suddenly on the verge of shitting himself.

“Push.” Bucky’s words are glazed ice.

Rumlow waivers. “H-how many, Sergeant?”

“Shut your fucking mouth and push.”

Rumlow drops into the front leaning rest position and begins doing pushups. Bucky sinks down into a crouch next to him.

“Keep your shit attitudes to yourself.” Bucky glares at Rumlow so hard that he’s sure he must feel it against his temple. “Got it?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Push until I tell you to stop.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Bucky stands. “Sergeant Rhodes,” he calls down the line.

Rhodes turns and makes eye contact. “Sergeant Barnes.”

“Make sure your soldier continues pushing until I come back.” Bucky speaks loudly, so even soldiers in first platoon can hear him and see Rumlow pushing at his feet. “He’s having problems regulating his speech.”

“Roger that, Sergeant.”

Bucky continues moving down the line, nodding as he passes Rhodes. He makes contact with each man in his platoon, asking how he is, whether he’s anxious, whether he said goodbye to his family and, if he has no family, paying particular attention to his integration with the other soldiers. They all put on a good front for Bucky, smiling, joking, though he can see the way their trepidation mismatches their mouths and eyes. He stops in front of Parker and calls down to where first platoon is gathered.

“Hey, Sergeant Wilson,” Bucky calls. Sam cranes his head back and Bucky waves him over.

“Hey, Doc,” Sam says.

“Morning, Sergeant Wilson,” Parker greets

“Look at my medic, Sergeant Wilson. Notice anything interesting?” Bucky says.

Parker’s cheeks flush under Sam’s scrutiny, even though it does’t take him more than a few seconds to see the badge on the left side of Parker’s chest, just above his U.S. Army tape.

“Hey, expert field medic,” Sam says, holding out his hand to Parker. “Congrats.”

Parker shakes Sam’s hand. “Thanks, Sergeant. It was a really hard course. I barely finished.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky says, laying his arm over Parker’s shoulder and giving him a quick pull in toward him. “I saw your scores. You destroyed it. Just snuck it in right before deployment like it wasn’t anything.”

Parker, of course, would never admit to such a thing, giving one of his macaroni and cheese smiles instead.

“Soon you’ll have your combat medical badge,” Bucky says. “That’s a big deal.”

“Honestly, Sergeant, I hope I never get one of those.”

Bucky lets go of Parker’s shoulder and steps in front of him to ensure a solid line of eye contact. He speaks in a low voice. “Someone’s gonna need you on this deployment, Doc. Probably for something serious. You need to be prepared for that.”

Bucky doesn't want to be the old man who tells stories, but sometimes he has to be. He's told Parker about his other deployments — a few stories, anyway. Scenarios they don't teach you in Whiskey training. And Parker's the kind of guy who wants to know. Thank God.

“Hooah, Sergeant,” Parker says, nodding once.

“We’re gonna have a party for you when we get back.” Bucky points to his badge. “This is a big deal.”

“Hooah, Sergeant.” Parker looks around and down the line. “So, also, some of the guys were wondering, is our new PL here, or…?” He shrugs hesitantly.

Bucky exchanges an uneasy look with Sam. “He should be along soon,” he tries to assure Parker.

“Not a good sign,” Sam mumbles in Bucky’s direction. “Maybe Lieutenant Murray wouldn’t have been so bad after all.”

“Shhh,” Bucky says, casting another glance around the waiting area. “He’ll be here.” He almost says ‘I hope,’ but at this point, Bucky's not sure if he would mean it if he said it.

— — —

Steve is flushed with embarrassment when a staff duty NCO drops him off at the air field with only 30 minutes to spare before boarding time. The look on the guy’s face doesn’t help, either. It’s a look that speaks to every stereotype about lieutenants, how they can’t find their way, how they’re always eight up, how they have to rely constantly on the competence of enlisted men to even arrive in the right place at the right time in the right uniform. How was he supposed to know that the cab company he called isn’t allowed on base? Was it in the welcome packet? Did he completely miss it? Surely he would have remembered it, if it was there. But maybe he missed it. God, he must have.

He rushes toward the sliding glass doors of the holding area where they’re supposed to gather, swearing under his breath. His enormous bags bounce and sway inelegantly as he runs.

“Steve?”

It takes a few steps for him to thread together the disjointed pieces of person, place, and time, but when he finally assembles them, his racing heart catapults itself into his throat. He turns toward the sound of his name, and there at the entrance of the building stands Winnie Buchanan and next to her —

Erik’s name comes to mind. However, the person standing next to Winnie bears only a passing resemblance to the all-state wide receiver whisked off to Ohio State on scholarship at the tender age of 17. Short hair is now long, broad stature now lithe, classically formed face now contoured and highlighted with skillful application of makeup. The boulder of confusion that rolled over Steve when he heard Winnie’s voice rolls over him a few more times, but his legs still carry him forward to where they’re both standing.

“Steve,” Winnie says again, his name uttered like a breath of relief.

“Holy shit. Steve Rogers.” Erik’s voice is high and dripping with spite. “And put your eyeballs back in your head.”

“Rikki’s transitioned. She’s a woman now,” Winnie says with no further ado, nodding at her own statements like she’s confirming them for herself as well.

Rikki gives her thanks to Winnie and crosses her arms over her chest which, Steve now notices, has two new additions.

Steve blinks a few times, his brain pathetically slow to catch up to the reality of what he sees before him. He works his jaw to the side as he formulates an appropriate response. He’s not inherently bothered by this stuff. He’s holds the same live-and-let-live attitude most native New Yorkers adopt when raised in a city where practically anything goes. But what Steve can’t reconcile is how he never saw any sign that Erik wasn’t profoundly male. In fact, he was always a specimen of masculinity, rugged and handsome and consumed by traditionally male pursuits, which makes the leap from the past to the present a very far one.

“Congratulations,” Steve says.

Rikki appears gobsmacked, then pleasantly surprised, and the venom is absent from her voice when she replies with a curt “Thanks.”

Steve slowly shakes his head in a futile attempt to bring clarity to the cesspool of nonsense he’s waded into. A larger question then settles on him, dragging along with it the proto-realization of what their presence signifies.

“We're just seeing Jamie off,” Winnie says.

Steve feels his face contort into something that he’d probably never want to see in the mirror. Shock, he supposes it must be. Maybe even horror.

Rikki is clearly enjoying his discomfort. “You’re even in the same platoon. Oh, and he’s also your platoon sergeant.”

“That’s…” Steve falters.

That’s what? Unbelievable? Inhumane? So statistically improbable that it might as well be impossible? Another sick joke from the universe?

“You better not fuck him up again,” Rikki says. “Or I swear to God, I will get on a plane myself and hunt you down and—”

“Rikki,” Winnie interrupts, not even daring to let her finish her thought. “Enough.” She glances over her shoulder, through the sliding glass doors behind her, then looks up at Steve. “You’d better get going, honey.”

Steve is still utterly bogged in absurdity of this seemingly handcrafted nightmare scenario. Winnie Buchanan is here. Erik Barnes is a woman now. Bucky Barnes, a man he banked on never having to see again for the rest of his life, is going to be his second in command for nine fucking months.

Sure. Why the hell not?

“Yeah, I’m going,” Steve says, hitching his bags back up his shoulders from where they’ve slid down his arms.

He looks at Winnie, and despite how abysmally fucked this entire morning has been, he can’t help but feel a surge of fondness for her. His face, still drawn in a look of confusion, softens. This is the woman who was his mother when his own was too sick to care for him. This is the woman who comforted him, fed him, and completely sustained him after his ma died, when nobody else was there. When everyone else had abandoned him.

Winnie takes a few steps forward and wraps him in an awkward hug that he can’t return because of the weight he’s hefting. The hug is brief, but her maternal warmth permeates him to the core.

“Take care of yourself. And Jamie.” The last part is clearly a request for civility just as much as it is a request for her son’s safe return. It also speaks to the gravity of Steve’s role as a leader, where his decisions determine who lives and who dies.

Steve nods in return. He’s not a monster. He’ll take care of Bucky just like he’ll take care of his other men, not that it means he has to like one single moment of it. He takes one last look at Rikki, whose expression has taken on the veil of coldness he always hated seeing on Bucky’s face. God, they look alike.

Steve rushes into the building and scans the field of digital camouflage. For what or whom, he’s not even sure. He supposes he’s looking for Bucky, the only person he would even recognize, and he can almost hear the universe cackle. He stands in the middle of the waiting area, frozen stupidly, until he’s accosted by a Specialist named Triplett.

“‘Scuse me, Sir, are you looking for alpha company, second platoon, 107th?” Triplett says.

Steve straightens his posture. “Yes, Specialist. I am.”

Triplett smiles. “Glad to hear it, Sir. We were getting worried.” For a second, it almost looks like he’s going to give him a friendly clap on the shoulder, because he seems like a friendly-clap-on-the-shoulder type of guy. But he doesn’t. “This way, Sir.” He jerks his head toward the west wall and leads him over to where the company is lined up.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Triplett calls as they approach a clump of soldiers.

Even though Steve obviously knew to expect it, the sound of that name violently stirs up the oatmeal he had for breakfast. He can feel himself start to drag, like suddenly his bags are too heavy and his body is too weak to carry him forward.

Sergeant Barnes, as he’s now known, turns around. The concept of time standing still in a moment of great fear or awe always struck Steve as cliched and poorly representative of reality. But now he gets it, because that’s the exact effect seeing Bucky has on him.

As impossible as it would be to not recognize him, Bucky has changed. The baby softness of his face has burned away, leaving behind it hard, serious angles. His gray-blue eyes, so often alight with intensity and amusement, are narrow and wary. He’s smiling, because that’s what Bucky Barnes does, but all the color and brilliance is gone, leaving behind a husk of cool composure. And for a man who’s had to fight for every ounce of muscle ever to grace his body, he seems to have cracked the code, cutting a sharp triangle of masculinity visible even in the looseness of his uniform.

“Sergeant, I found Lieutenant Rogers.”

“Nice work, Trip. I was beginning to think he’d never show up.”

Steve bristles at the slight, but lets it go. “Thank you, Specialist Triplett.”

Triplett reads Steve’s nod of dismissal with ease and leaves him alone with Bucky.

“Sergeant Barnes.”

“Lieutenant Rogers.” Bucky gives him the once-over from toe to head, his gaze evaluative in a way that somehow makes Steve feel small and inadequate. “Lemme go grab Captain Barton.”

Steve watches him walk down toward the front of the line and wonders why he didn’t just take him to Barton in the first place. He understands that he’s been thrown into a fully functioning system of well-established relationships. He knows he’s at a disadvantage on all fronts and will have to fight a constant headwind of doubt and mistrust until he proves himself worthy. He can glean all of this just from the way that Bucky talks to Barton as they approach, informal and conspiratorial, glancing over at Steve as they speak.

Bucky then leaves Barton’s side and goes to talk to some of the other men. Barton greets Steve cordially enough, though from the look on his face, he’s clearly annoyed.

“Lieutenant Rogers.”

Steve snaps to the position of attention. “Sir.”

“Jesus. At ease.” Barton lays his hand on his hip. “Thought you weren’t gonna make it.”

“I apologize, Sir. Transportation issues.”

Steve then notices a mottled, shiny scar that runs up the left side of his neck. Even though he met Barton when he arrived at Bragg, this is the first time he’s noticed it. He wonders how he possibly could have missed it earlier. It seems un-missable.

“IED,” Barton explains in a flat tone. “Now, come with me. We’re gonna talk the whole way over, ‘cause I don’t know you from Adam, and I’m about to give you a platoon, for some —”

“Sir!”

Barton halts mid-sentence and turns toward the sound of an approaching first lieutenant, a guy who looks far too young to have decided to abandon his hair completely.

“Is this the new PL?” the lieutenant asks.

“Yeah. Lieutenant Rogers, this is —”

“Jasper Sitwell, Howlie 1-6.”

Steve’s eyebrows draw together.

“That’s my callsign,” Sitwell says with a smug smile.

“I know what it is,” Steve tells him. “I’ve just never heard anyone introduce themselves that way.”

Sitwell’s face falls. “Well, can’t practice too much.”

Steve glances over at Barton, wondering what he makes of the type of man who introduces himself by his radio callsign. From the look of befuddlement that Barton seems to be fighting, Steve feels better about his own.

“We’ll catch you later, Lieutenant. I’m gonna introduce Lieutenant Rogers to First Sergeant.”

“Good to meet you, Lieutenant Rogers.” Sitwell holds out his hand for Steve to shake. “I look forward to working with you.”

“Same,” Steve manages to say without sarcasm.

Steve walks with Barton, who looks relieved to be leaving Sitwell in their wake. They pass by a soldier who appears to be in the middle of a smoking, from the way that a staff sergeant named Rhodes is ordering him to keep pushing. Rhodes nods and greets them as they pass, and Barton introduces him as one of Steve’s two squad leaders.

“I’ll be honest, Rogers,” Barton continues when they resume walking, his voice low but words abundantly clear. “You weren’t my first choice for this position. Hell, you weren’t even my choice at all. Our last PL was very good. Very experienced. The men liked him. And here you are, a guy who’s been sitting at a desk since he got commissioned, and I don’t know a damn thing about your ability to lead or operate in an urban combat environment.”

Steve tells him how he was at NTC just four months ago and how he graduated from Ranger school five months before that, hating how desperate he sounds to impress upon Barton that he’s not a complete idiot.

“Well, that’s nice, we’re not deploying to Appalachia, are we?” Barton says. He purses his lips. “Let’s just say that if Barnes hadn’t forced the situation, you wouldn’t be here.”

Steve stops fast. “What?”

Barton turns, and Steve’ll be damned if he doesn’t look amused. “You didn’t know? When Lieutenant Shen broke, he went over my head, straight to Colonel Fury, and insisted that we bring you in as a replacement.”

There is so much incredulous rage coursing through Steve’s body that he can’t even formulate a reaction that would be anywhere near professional. He momentarily fears that his heart is pounding so loudly that Barton might be able to hear it.

“That’s not gonna be a problem, is it?” Barton asks. His voice is pleading. “There’s not gonna be any shit between you, is there? I already had this talk with Barnes, and he assured me there wouldn’t be any weird shit with you two.”

“No, Sir. Everything will be fine.”

Steve’s reply is completely automatic. He has absolutely no evidence that anything will be fine. He’s functioning on pure instinct, saying whatever Barton needs to hear to move as far away from the subject as quickly as possible, before he says something to make the man resent his presence even more.

He’ll deal with Bucky later. That’s for goddamn sure.

“Remember this moment,” Barton tells him, “because if anything comes up between you two, anything that compromises our mission in any way, I’m gonna go fuckin’ ape shit — ape-fucking-shit — on both of you. And you’ll regret it deeply. Got it?”

Steve repeats his assurances, and Barton seems satisfied. They continue walking down the line, where Barton introduces him to First Sergeant Morita, a compact, gruff man who looks like he’s been scraped along the bad side of Uncle Sam’s shoe one too many times. He also meets Second Lieutenant Sousa, the executive officer, who seems friendly and green and appears wildly out of place in the presence of the surliness of Barton and Morita.

Barton pulls Steve aside again, telling him to throw his bags next to his own.

“Anything I should know about Sergeant Barnes?” Steve asks. Aside from the obvious fact that he’s a selfish, manipulative piece of shit, of course.

“Don’t get between Barnes and the men. Don’t even try. They’ll bayonet you to death before giving up their loyalty to him,” Barton warns.

Of course they would. But that wouldn’t be so bad. Steve might actually welcome a good bayonetting right now.

“If anything,” Barton continues, “Barnes is too risk averse. He had a lot of losses in his previous units, so you might need to push him.”

There’s a gap in his rage, and some echo of some ancient warm feeling for Bucky shines through it. He clamps down on it though, because anger is the only safe emotion right now when it comes to Bucky Barnes.

Barton leans in. “Listen, that look on your face? It was on mine, and every other lieutenant who ever stood here waiting to fly half way around the world to Hajiland.”

Steve bristles at the slur and entertains letting out a hearty laugh at how grossly Barton has misinterpreted whatever face he’s making right now. “Roger that, Sir.”

There’s a small commotion near the door to the ramp where their chartered commercial plane awaits. The battalion sergeant major bellows over the din that they’ll begin loading in five.

“Ready for this?” Barton asks, walking to the wall to collect his bags.

“As I’ll ever be.”

———

Though hellishly long, the flights to Iraq are occupied almost entirely by conversation with Captain Barton and First Sergeant Morita. Wedged between them for all three legs of the flight, Steve barely had time to be nervous or continue kindling his anger toward Bucky. His conclusion by the time they disembark at the Baghdad Airport is that he likes both of them.

The soldiers of the 107th Infantry Battalion deplane, collect their bags, and load them into a truck in with such stunning orderliness that Steve can barely believe it. It feels so good to be on his feet, breathing in fresh air, that he wouldn’t have cared if it took twice as long. The weather is dry but mild, and there is a collective groan when they’re shepherded to a group of waiting Chinooks that will take them the rest of the way to Forward Operating Base Renegade.

“How many more fucking flying metal tubes they gonna shove us in today?” Steve hears one soldier complain. He couldn’t put his own sentiments any better.

“Better than taking the daggone road,” his other squad leader, Sergeant Dugan, replies. “Unless you enjoy the sensation of getting blown to tiny pieces.”

Steve manages to mostly avoid Bucky on the ramp, but he doesn’t strike it lucky enough to avoid getting on the same helicopter as him. When they get buckled into one of the two center-facing rows, Steve looks down the line of men across from him and notices that he’s seated himself in the wrong place. Despite his personal feelings, he should be where Bucky is — the last man in the row, closest to the door, last one in, first one out.

Bucky makes eye contact with him and smiles a few degrees warmer than the ice job he delivered back at Bragg. Steve carefully keeps his face marble-hard, which isn’t difficult with the low simmer of contempt flowing through him.

They make it to the base and are ordered to unpack their things in their containerized housing units, which are assigned by name and rank. Steve ends up in a two-man trailer with none other than Howlie 1-6 himself, because after a day like today, why wouldn’t he be stuck for nine months with a man who already annoys the hell out of him?

The trailer is fairly large for two men, and he has his own desk, bed, wall locker, foot locker, and nightstand. There are sandbags stacked high and tight along the sides of the trailer, and Steve wonders how often the base gets attacked.

“Isn’t this great?” Stilwell says.

Steve unfolds the sheets and blankets he was issued and starts making his bed. “What?”

This!” Sitwell annunciates the word with reckless enthusiasm. “Deployment. Leading. Putting all our training to use.”

Steve looks across the trailer to his roommate. “Better than office work, I suppose.”

“You’re from the Pentagon, right?”

“Yep.”

“Man, that’s some luck. I’m jealous.” Sitwell pulls several books from his duffle bag and starts arranging them on top of his desk.

Steve watches him line up his collection of hardcover bestsellers by Colin Powell, John McCain, and Norman Schwartzkopf, followed by such classics as The Art of War and On War. It’s enough to tell him that Sitwell’s not being at all sarcastic in his envy of Steve’s career. Steve looks down at the class ring on his right hand and slides it off discretely.

Sitwell continues talking while they unpack their things. Steve hears all about Sitwell’s illustrious years at Duke, the FTX he led last year, and how he came this close to making it through Benning Phase of the Ranger course, curse his blasted left shoulder. As he speaks, Steve finds himself looking forward to the days and nights his platoon will be spending outside the wire, patrolling all day, sleeping in the dirt underneath some Humvee or on a pile of rocks. By the thirty minute mark, Steve is already building some skill in tuning him out, but he immediately re-orients to Sitwell’s voice when he hears “Barnes.”

“I feel bad for you,” Sitwell says.

For a moment, Steve wonders if his frustration and anxiety around working with Bucky is somehow coming through in his body language. He’s usually good at maintaining a steady facade of strength or indifference, but he’s tired enough that perhaps his cracks are showing.

“Why’s that?” Steve sets up a framed photo of Sharon on his nightstand.

“He’s insubordinate. Thinks he’s right about everything. He’s never said anything even remotely complimentary to me.”

Steve searches his roommate’s face, which appears entirely serious. Steve fantasizes about vocalizing his response, which would go something like ‘and what would he possibly have to compliment you on?’ After all, any honest lieutenant would admit that an NCO who’s been in the Army for eleven years knows more than they do about petty much everything.

The insubordination part, however, gives Steve pause.

“Good to know,” Steve replies.

Sitwell points a firm finger at him. “Don’t be afraid to discipline these NCOs. They think they know everything and that they can question you whenever they want, but they can’t. That’s not how the chain of command works. And don’t be stingy with your counseling statements. You need to set the precedent that you’re in charge.”

Steve clenches his jaw, stemming the tide of irritation that’s dangerously close to creeping up his face. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Sitwell crosses the room, veering discomfortingly deep into Steve’s personal space.

“I also heard Barnes is a fag, but nobody has proof.” Sitwell says in a low voice. “Not yet, anyway,” he qualifies.

A manic rash of images bombards Steve’s mind, unbidden and profoundly unwanted. Fucking Bucky. Sucking his cock. The way Bucky looks when he comes. Holding Bucky’s hand, kissing him, being held by him. Christ, meeting him on the first day of seventh grade, the new kid who said that everyone at his previous schools called him Bucky, even though he’d later admit that it was the first time he’d ever used the name, that Steve was the first one who ever called him that, and maybe he’s the last one to ever call him that —

Steve grimaces and makes a low, grumbling sound as he tries to shove the memories away.

“I know, right?” Sitwell shakes his head “Disgusting.”

———

The next day, there’s a long and painful series of in-processing briefings, the first of two days’ worth. Some sorry sack NCO who looks like he’d rather be on shit burning detail lackadaisically runs through the rules of the base and passes out General Order Number 1 on a series of laminated cards. (“An inspectable item,” the NCO warns.)

In short:

No private weapons.
No entering mosques without permission.
No booze.
No booze.
Seriously, no booze.
No drugs.
No porn.
No photographing detainees.
No photographing any access points or guard towers.
No gambling.
No destroying historical or religious artifacts.
No exchanging currency at unofficial rates.
No proselytizing.
No stealing from combatants or local nationals.
No sex with the locals.
No sleepovers with members of the opposite sex.
No elective surgeries.
No getting pregnant.

As Steve’s physics professor would say, these rules are all straight from the New England Journal of Duh. But somebody must have done each of these things, or else there would be no need for such an exhaustive list of obviousness.

After the briefing, which his entire platoon survived without anyone falling asleep, they’re all sent to the armory to pick up their weapons. Steve is issued an M4 rifle and an M9 pistol, as well as a magazine of ammo for both. He monitors his own movements closely, watching and mimicking Dugan and Rhodes to make sure he doesn’t look like a tool. He’s not stupid — he knows how to handle a weapon. But he’s mindful of anything, any nuance, that might call attention to his greenness. He’s glad when Bucky avoids direct contact with him, reading his animosity loud and clear.

Back in his trailer, Steve dons the drop-leg holster he bought on Amazon before he left and slides his pistol into it. He pauses for a few moments, reveling in the feeling that he’s made it, that this is why he joined the Army. And as quickly as that feeling emerges, a heavy counterweight is thrown on the scales, one that tells him that this is not at all why he joined, because this is all just show. This is surface. This is the level at which Steve has been operating for 99.9 percent of his career to date. Surface. Even his Pentagon work, important as it may have been, was done in abstraction. The real reason he joined…

Right now, Steve doesn’t even know why he really joined, and that realization is both unexpected and deeply disquieting. At the Pentagon, he was sure he knew. At the Pentagon, he thought he joined because he wanted to be a great leader of men. At West Point, he thought he joined to carve an avenue into an eventual political career, laughable as that now seems. Before that, when he first applied to West Point, that was just pure spite. And before that, the single reason he wanted to join the Army was because he wanted to share more of his life with a man he now can’t even stand to look at.

Steve sighs heavily and looks over at his nightstand, to the photo he took of Sharon when they spent Christmas together in New Hampshire. It’s his favorite because it’s perpetually fresh and alive, no matter how many times he looks at it. She’s at the kitchen sink in the cabin they rented, hair mussed, no makeup, wearing a flannel shirt she’s practically swimming in. She looks surprised, but pleasantly so, like she just turned and spotted an old friend she adores. It had been so long since someone looked at him that way, and he thinks this was the exact moment he fell in love with her.

He misses her. He misses her already. And he hopes to God that he keeps missing her for as long as he’s here.

———

Bucky needs coffee. Badly. And given the length of the line at the Green Bean kiosk, so does every other soldier on the base. He plants himself reluctantly next to Foggy and Mack, but only after stalling and waffling and questioning just how dire his need for caffeine really is. It’s not like his men are dying to stand in line next to their platoon sergeant for the next 45 minutes, and he’s far from in the mood for conversation. But oh, does he need coffee, and between this line and the shit show at the post exchange, this is by far the better of two terrible choices.

“Hey, Sergeant,” Foggy greets.

Bucky knows Foggy is older, probably nearly the same age as he is, but his face has a childlike patina that always hits Bucky sideways. Especially when he remembers that the guy’s got an Ivy League law degree. Or maybe it hits him sideways because what kind of fucking idiot with an Ivy League law degree joins the infantry as an enlisted man? But they’re around, all right. The second careerers, the old men, the engineers and teachers and other assorted morons who think the Army’s a good place to get valuable life experience. Or maybe they’ll say it’s patriotism, that they wanna do their part, but Bucky doesn’t buy that line of tripe for a second. Not anymore. Not this war. Not after one of the bloodiest years on record. Not when most of the country strains to remember that there are still two full-blown wars going on.

“How’s it going? Settling in okay?” Bucky asks them.

Foggy points to Mack, then back to himself. “We’re roomies.”

“Good deal.”

Bucky’s words are reflexive, and he tries not to frown when he says them. It makes sense alphabetically, but even still, his best soldiers tend to clump together when he really needs them spread throughout the unit to keep the wayward ones in check. But Bucky’s not god of the alphabet or whatever lazy method was used to room everyone. Must have been alphabetical, because he had to trade a full carton of smokes to Sergeant Thomas so that he could move in with Sam.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Sergeant, but you don’t look so good,” Mack says, crossing his massive arms over his chest.

If Bucky looks a fraction as bad as he feels, he must look like steaming bucket of smashed assholes. He’s been white-knuckling it since day before yesterday, keeping his hands clamped tight to his sides so nobody can see them shake. Going to the bathroom every hour to wash the sweat off his face. Regulating his breathing to stave off the nausea.

“One of those vaccines they give us always makes me feel like shit for a week,” Bucky lies, because it’s easy to blame everything on the toxic concoction of drugs the docs shoot into them before shipping.

“Yeah, they’re pretty bad,” Foggy says.

Foggy says it casually, but there’s something in that baby face of his that makes Bucky feel completely transparent. It’s like Foggy can see every drink he ever slammed down in his entire life. Every reel and stumble. Every shameless, drunken blowjob he’s given. Every random, nameless fuck. Every miserable hangover. He starts to feel sick again, and he’s not sure if he’s glad or not when he sees Steve coming at him from the left.

Yes, he’s being a complete prick, but Steve looks remarkable — truly remarkable — in uniform. Anyone with eyeballs would say the same thing, so Bucky cuts himself a break for the appraisal. Steve walks with gliding confidence, like he was custom-made for this deployment, like he’s been here a dozen times already and knows the terrain like his own name.

But a man like that is dangerous, and confidence like that gets people killed fast. Bucky hopes for all their sake that it’s just a carefully sculpted impression, something they teach at West Point to impart artificial gravity onto a bunch of college babies who barely know how to tie their own boots the right way.

Bucky faces Steve as calmly as he can, a glaring contrast to the sharp jerking motions of Mack and Foggy as they pull into the position of attention. They greet Steve in unison, with such precision and seriousness that Bucky nearly laughs.

If only they could card through the catalogue of memories Bucky has, like the one of nineteen-year-old Steve Rogers in Central Park, high on acid, down on one knee in front of the statue of Robert Burns, reciting ‘To a Mouse’ at the top of his lungs in the most fantastically terrible Scottish brogue—

He smiles at the memory of the Steve he used to love, but it only lasts a moment. The reality of Steve, this Steve, the Steve who despises him, is a heavy one. As heavy as his voice when it makes out the sound of Bucky’s name.

“Sergeant Barnes.”

“Yes, Lieutenant Rogers?”

“Come with me. I need to speak to you in private.”

Bucky casts a mournful glance at the kiosk he apparently won’t be visiting any time soon and agrees to follow Steve. And follow he does, walking two steps behind him, as if they’ve never met. As if they’ve never hugged or fucked or laughed together.

When they’ve moved to a sufficiently deserted corner of the base, dangerously close to the wire, Steve stops and begins laying into him.

“Captain Barton told me about your scheme to get me here.”

He doesn’t know why, but somehow, some appallingly naive part of Bucky thought that Steve might never learn of his involvement in his assignment here. He hopes this isn’t an indicator of his predictive abilities on this deployment, because if it is, they’re all screwed.

Steve glares at him hard from beneath his tightly drawn brows. “Do you have a network of spies at the Pentagon? Have you been stalking me this whole time?”

Bucky thinks he might be smirking, and not in a friendly way. He’s smirking because he actually does have a spy at the Pentagon and actually has been keeping tabs on his ex for the past six years. From the way Steve’s looking at him right now, with disgust and anger, Bucky feels like he’s been cast in the role of crazy jilted lover, the type who boils rabbits alive.

“Are these actual questions?” Bucky asks. “Or are you just throwing out a bunch of bullshit assumptions and seeing what sticks?”

“Just stop,” Steve says, his voice firm and controlled. “Stop. Stop whatever little fantasy you’ve cooked up about us and what’s going to happen on this deployment. Stop your scheming, stop your manipulating. Just stop. Right now.”

“Not manipulating. Not fantasizing. Just wanna get home alive.”

“You don’t get to control my life,” Steve grits out. “Not anymore. That’s not how things work now.”

Bucky could slap the show of hurt right off that man’s face, because if anyone gets to play damaged after the catastrophic destruction of their relationship, it sure as hell isn’t Steve Rogers.

Bucky tilts his chin up. “Maybe just keep in mind that if I hadn’t recommended you for this job, you’d still be sitting in some cubicle playing secretary to General what’s-his-fuck.”

Steve takes an imposing step forward. “Don’t you think for a second that you know anything about the work I did.”

“All right. All right,” Bucky surrenders. Not because he wants Steve to feel any satisfaction at all, but because if he keeps going like this, he’s liable to lose the small amount of food he’s been able to keep in his stomach today.

The placating seems to go over well, and Steve’s intensity dims a few degrees.

“Here’s how it’s going to go,” Steve says. “I’m going to be nice and professional for this deployment, and you will be, too. And we’re going to get everyone home, and then one of us will change duty stations, and we’ll never have to see each other again. Until then, you wanted me here so bad, I’m here, let’s make this work.”

Bucky nods, even as he currently doubts their capacity to even have a civil conversation, let alone co-lead a platoon. “Yes, Sir.”

Steve nods back, once, then turns and strides away.

———

Sam stares at Bucky when he enters their trailer, hands thrown up in a gesture of exasperation when he sees that he didn’t bring any coffee.

“Line was an hour long.” Bucky explains. “Sorry.”

Sam checks his watch. “You’ve been gone an hour.”

“Yeah, well, I got detained by Rogers.”

More like cornered and flayed. He’s still trying to work out his irritation, even after taking a very long walk around the base to cool down. But the more he thinks about their conversation, the angrier he gets. Who the fuck does Steve think he is, anyway? How can Steve accuse him of being controlling when Steve was the one who summarily called time of death on their relationship without even giving Bucky a chance to figure out what the hell went wrong?

“He seems like an asshole.” Sam sits on the corner of Bucky’s desk. He looks tired but content. All the NCOs do. Deployment is an old hat they slip on easily.

“Pretty much.” Bucky lets himself drop heavily on the edge of his bed. He shouldn’t say it, because Sam will most certainly go ballistic, but he has to tell someone or else he’s going to explode. “Didn’t always used to be.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Because I know him.”

Sam’s face drops. “From where?”

“Home.” Bucky raises both of his eyebrows in a way that hopefully explains what he doesn’t want to say out loud.

Sam’s a smart guy. He also knows Bucky and a large chunk of his sordid history with a guy named Steve. It doesn’t take him long at all to assemble the pieces of this laughable puzzle.

“No.” Sam shakes his head, as if that will somehow make this lunacy untrue. “That’s the guy? The guy?”

Bucky gives a small smile, an apologetic one, and rises to answer the door for whoever just started knocking on it.

When he opens it and sees Natasha there, he’s overcome very briefly with relief — until he does the arithmetic and realizes that he’s now going to have to field the dismay of two friends instead of just one.

She starts in on Bucky right away. “Can we talk about Platoon Leader Ken for a minute?”

“Oh, no. Don’t encourage him,” Sam tells her. “Rogers is the guy.”

“Which guy?”

The guy,” Bucky says under his breath.

Natasha’s face cycles through a range of emotions like Sam’s did, except hers settles heavily on anger. “The guy who dumped you while you were in Afghanistan?”

“Yes, that guy,” Sam says.

“You set all this up, didn’t you?” Natasha’s eyes narrow.

“I — it was — no.” Bucky holds out his index finger. “No. That wasn’t it. He was qualified. I knew him, we needed a guy, that’s it.”

“You’re such a liar,” she replies. “Are you going to frag him or something?”

“No! Of course not. Jesus.”

“Oh, I bet it’s worse than that,” Sam says to Natasha. “He’s gonna try to get him back.”

Bucky feels himself shrinking under their ire while they tag-team him.

Natasha tilts her head sharply. “Why? Why would you even want him here at all? If he couldn’t even support you through one deployment, what does that say about his ability to support this platoon? That’s a character problem.”

“It’s different.” Bucky doesn’t know exactly how, but he knows this is different. “This is professional. That was personal.” He turns to Sam. “And no, I’m not gonna try to get him back. That ship has sailed and crashed and is resting at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.”

“You’re something else,” Natasha says, deathly serious and deeply disappointed. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Always chasing something.” She stops there and leaves the rest unsaid.

Bucky flops down on his bed and covers his eyes with his hands with a grumble. “Okay, can we just drop it? Nothing’s gonna happen. We’ll work together, get the job done, get everyone home. It’s gonna be fine.”

“Do you really believe that?” Sam says.

Bucky nods, but only because he can’t bear to force one more lie out of his mouth.

Chapter Text


February 17th, 2008

Steve’s pacing, but only because he’s not sure what else to do to discharge the nervous energy tingling in his body. He can’t possibly check over his things again — the notebook, pen, and personnel roster he’s laid out for his meeting with Bucky — because he’s already checked them five times. He’s stacked them, unstacked them, laid them side by side, and shifted their alignment on his desk by millimeters, each adjustment dealing an additional blow to his self-esteem.

Steve spent the morning arranging everything in his room precisely, ensuring that his picture of Sharon is very conspicuously pointed toward the center of the room, where no visitor could possibly miss it. He also already stole Sitwell’s chair and brought it over to his desk, parking it as far away from his own as he reasonably could without making the distance too obvious. After all, Steve said he’d be professional. He said he’d make it work. And he plans to honor those words.

He's been unfair to Bucky since he came to the unit. He knows it. Frankly, it’s been both surprising and embarrassing to witness his own inability to temper his anger, which is a thousand suns more intense than he ever anticipated it would be so many years after their breakup. He thought he’d gotten over it. He thought he’d grown past it, shed himself of such baseness, but for the first three days after reuniting, the only emotion that’s stirred in Bucky’s presence has been pure animosity.

Steve’s working on it, though. He really is. He’s trying to heed his own words, because he’s willing to bet that Bucky is going to fulfill his end of their bargain. He’s been breathing deeply and reminding himself of Bucky’s good qualities. His experience. His intelligence. His dedication to the men. Sometimes his meditations have been interrupted by flashes of rage or, worse, flashes of memories, oftentimes good ones, which make Steve rebound with more anger over everything lost between them.

Needless to say, the process has been exhausting. But Steve’s trying. And he’s working his hardest to ignore the hypothesis generating in his mind, the one that posits that his anger isn’t really about the past. It’s about the present. Because if he doesn’t keep Bucky away, if he doesn’t hold him at bay with hostility or regulations or protocols, then, God, he doesn’t even want to entertain what might really be left between them after the hurt settles. Not because it might be something bad, but because it might be something good.

And that is a terrifying thought.

Steve pauses his pacing, pushes out a long exhale through puffed cheeks, and jumps at the brisk pair of knocks at his door. Steve steels himself, makes his footsteps firm and confident, and lets Bucky in with a well-controlled greeting.

Bucky takes off his patrol cap, stops in the middle of the room, and does an obvious 360 degree survey of the space. Steve notes with some satisfaction that he makes a hard pause at his nightstand before he moves on.

“My fiancee,” Steve tells him. “Sharon.”

Bucky turns to him and smiles. “Congratulations.”

After knowing Bucky for ten years, Steve would like to think he’s pretty good at gauging when the other man’s being sarcastic. He’s always had a streak of it, though it seems to have taken a darker turn since they parted ways. But to Steve’s surprise, he doesn’t hear any indication of scorn in Bucky’s voice.

“Have a seat,” Steve says, gesturing to Sitwell’s chair.

Bucky lays his weapon on the floor and sits, face impassive, knees spread wide, and sets his notebook on the edge of the desk. He has a nice case for it — or one that was probably nice at one point. The digital camouflage fabric is worn and the colors have faded unevenly. The BARNES name tape velcroed across the top is coming up at the edges, and his E-7 rank looks pretty beat, too. Steve imagines he must already be close to making E-8, a true feat for someone so young.

Steve sits and opens his notebook to the first of several notes he made for himself last night. “I think we should take some time to discuss some of the strategies I’d like us to implement while we’re here.”

“Strategy, huh? You do know that the platoon is a tactical unit, right?” Bucky raises one eyebrow.

“Of course I know that.” Even though Steve knows it, he still feels heat in his ears and at the back of his neck. “However, I think we need to be mindful of the strategic developments over the past year when we conduct operations in the field.”

“Like what?”

Steve’s readies himself to jump into a well-planned spiel about winning hearts and minds and whatnot, but he stops himself. Checks himself, really. Reminds himself that the man in front of him has more boots-on-the-ground experience in this than Steve could ever hope to have. So instead, he turns the question over to Bucky.

“What’s your assessment of the situation here in Iraq?”

“This place is fucked.” He jerks his head toward the outside. “These people are fucked, too.”

Steve blinks. “Okay. How so?”

Bucky leans forward in his chair. “These people hate us. And they should. We don’t belong here and we never did. You read the 9/11 report, right?”

Steve nods. “Of course.”

“So they hate us, a lot of them want us dead and gone. And the only incentive they now have to help us right now is the cash your buddy General Petraeus has decided to dole out, sometimes to the same assholes who were blowing up our men last year.”

Steve stifles a cringe. It’s a known flaw in General Petraeus’ strategy, one that Steve always imagined would elicit highly justifiable anger in the troops on the ground who lost brothers and sisters to the same men now benefitting from the policy. He sees that anger in Bucky’s face, in the hard line between his brows and the scowl on his lips

Bucky continues. “And this idea of democratizing the Middle East is arrogant and idiotic. Completely culture-blind and naive. The second we leave here, the entire region is gonna implode, and all this, all the deaths, all the dead and maimed soldiers, the civilians, it’s all gonna be for nothing.”

Steve nods thoughtfully. It’s an incisive analysis, albeit a skewed one. “General Petraeus’ strategy has reduced casualties significantly.”

Bucky sits back in his chair. His posture stiffens. “I know. I was here.”

“You were here last year?”

“With the Rangers.”

Steve frowns as he tries to work out the trajectory in his mind. “You left the Rangers to come back to the infantry? Why?”

Bucky shrugs. “Got sick of blowing people’s brains out every day.”

Steve can feel the weight of Bucky’s deployments in the room, in the lines around his eyes, in the deadness that takes them over for a few moments before passing like a cloud.

“What do you wanna see happen in this platoon?” Bucky asks, fidgeting with the corner of his notebook. “What’s your command vision?”

“I’d like to see an extension of General Petraeus’ work in this platoon. When we’re out, we’re not smashing down doors, reigning terror like a pack of monsters.”

“Steve — ” Bucky clamps down and rights himself. “Sir, that’s not realistic. We have to do raids. It’s part of our job. You can’t do a gentle cordon and search. You can’t do a sensitive snatch-and-grab. Sometimes we have to be assholes. That’s what the infantry does.”

“Our job is to attempt to stabilize this country,” Steve corrects.

“And how do you think we do that? With candy? A few sacks of flour? A cup of chai?” Bucky snorts softly. “The real work is a little more ugly than that.”

Steve taps his pen against the desk in time with his words. “But I don’t know if it has to be.”

“So what do we do about contraband? What about the bomb makers? The snipers? The guys hoarding a dozen AKs? Do we just knock on the door and ask that they pretty please give us their shit?”

Steve sighs. He looks at Bucky’s face, at the curious combination of irritation and sympathy he sees there. “No, I get it,” he concedes. “Sometimes we need to bang down doors. But we also need to establish community ties. Get to know the locals. Build trust.”

“I agree. That’s just good soldiering. But you’ll see how fast trust gets abused around here.” Bucky takes a bite at his lower lip. “Everyone learns in their own time.”

Steve finds himself leaning in now, as if he could impress his opinions upon Bucky by sheer force. “I want the men to see the local nationals as people whose country we’ve invaded. I want them to feel empathy for these people.”

Bucky crosses his legs at the ankle. “I understand what you’re saying. But just know that there’s a downside to that, too. Too much compassion and these guys won’t be able to do their jobs. They won’t be able to make sense of the things we’re gonna ask them to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“You get these guys all sympathetic to the local cause then ask them to conduct a raid, they’re gonna to hesitate. They’re not gonna do the things they need to do to stay safe and keep others safe.”

Steve lets out a small sound of acknowledgment. “Well, at the very least, I don’t want any use of the word haji in this platoon.”

Bucky tilts his head to the side. “Some might say the word is adaptive.”

These words trip Steve up, not just because they don’t make sense at face value, but because they also speak to the level at which Bucky understands this war. It’s a level Steve has never had access to, something that can only be earned through years upon years of hard, experiential learning. It realigns his conceptualization of their dynamic even more, so that his next words are spoken with curiosity rather than disgust.

“How could a racist slur possibly be adaptive?”

“It creates a layer between them and us that lets the men do the things they have to do.” Bucky lines up his hands on the desk between them, demonstrating a partition. “Again, it goes back to empathy. You want enough that they’re not committing war crimes but not so much that they can’t work effectively.”

“Well, I don’t want to hear it. The hajj is a sacred religious obligation. I don’t want it turned into hate speech.”

Bucky nods. “It’s in your purview to shape the language, but they might still say it out of habit.”

“Then they’re going to get a counseling statement each time they use it.” Steve presses the tip of his pen hard onto the paper of his notebook. “That’s all the administrative punishment I can do at my level. Captain Barton uses the term freely, so I doubt he’ll support me much on this.”

“Okay.” Bucky nods again. There’s something about it that’s perfunctory, something that grates Steve the wrong way.

“You don’t agree.”

“Look, I’m not not onboard with this stuff. I get it. I agree with most of it. But it’s part of my job to challenge you, isn’t it?”

“As long as we’re on the same side at the end of the day,” Steve says.

“Of course. That’s the way this works.” Bucky smiles then, cautiously. “You’re gonna have to break all this down Barney-style for the guys. Most of the guys are pretty smart, but their education levels are all over the map. And I think they should hear it from you, not me.”

“I agree.” Steve jots ‘Simple language’ in his notebook, underlining it twice. “Speaking of, give me a rundown on everyone.”

Bucky talks animatedly as he gives Steve the scoop on the men in the unit.

“Tim and Jim are both really good, but if anything happens to me, have Jim take my place. You can temporarily promote Mack to squad leader.”

Something in Steve constricts then, suddenly and sharply. He clears his throat and listens as Bucky continues.

“Trip, Ward, Mack, Parker, and Foggy are all solidly reliable. Reyes is quiet, but very competent. Maximoff’s getting his citizenship, so he sometimes struggles with English and American cultural norms. Luis and Wilson are kinda fuck-ups, but they’re still good soldiers, overall.

“And I’m pretty sure Rumlow is a for-shit psychopath,” Bucky says, then gestures to his face. “Nothing behind the eyes. I’ve never seen a single glimmer of compassion or kindness in him. I’m looking to peg him for some UCMJ action as soon as I can make a case for it, ‘cause I don’t want him here and neither do a lot of the men. So watch him close.” His mouth flattens into a line. “On the other hand, he’s a very proficient killer. So if you need something done, you need a gunner, he’s not the worst choice. Just watch him.”

The rest of their conversation is remarkably civil. Dazzlingly professional. By the end, Steve is nurturing the hope that they might be able to work together without incident. This lukewarm detachment they seem to have formed with each other seems good. Safe. Steve’s zone of maximum efficiency.

“Hey,” Bucky slaps his hands on top of his thighs. “Let’s go see if we can rustle up a terp. I know you speak Arabic, but you’ve got better things to do than translate for us.”

“Where do we get one?” Steve asks, rising to his feet.

Bucky stands along with him. “Don’t worry. I know where to get all the good stuff downrange.”

Of course he does.

— — —

Bucky wipes his sweaty palms on his pant legs as he descends the three stairs from Steve’s trailer. He takes a deep, quiet breath and lets out a silent ‘thank you’ to whoever’s listening for the fact that he didn’t lose his lunch. Or that he didn’t offer any obvious clue to his disappointment over the revelation that Steve’s engaged to a very beautiful woman.

He always figured, even when they were dating, that Steve would end up with a woman. Their relationship seemed to be an anomalous blip in a steady stream of heterosexuality for Steve. And why would he want the drama of being a homo when it’s so much easier to just be straight? Why would anyone want that? Bucky sure as hell never wanted it, stuck with it as he seems to be.

Bucky walks on Steve’s left side as they head to Natasha’s shop, because if anyone can rustle up an interpreter for them, it’s her. There’s tension in both their bodies, virtually palpable, and Bucky imagines it creating a repulsive field around them as they carve their way through the base to the human intelligence hub. The quiet isn’t easy. It’s thick and awkward, but at least they’re not screaming at each other, so there’s that.

Natasha’s office is bustling, and he and Steve walk into a hard wall of suspicious looks from the military intelligence geeks. This is just the analysis hub. The real human intelligence collection work goes on in a dark corner of the base, where suspects are held and interrogated by Natasha and her team. This is the front office, which is morally clean and tidy. From the back of the open room, configured as a giant bullpen, Natasha spots them and comes to greet them. She looks so different in uniform, her hair pulled into a perfect red bun, her cosmetics dialed down to the type of modest accent her commander will allow.

“Lieutenant Rogers. Sergeant Barnes.” She nods to Steve and smiles at Bucky. “What can I do for you?”

Bucky makes formal introductions. “Sir, this is Sergeant Romanoff. She’s a 35 Mike who always knows what’s what with detainees and all things HUMINT.”

They shake, and Steve — more irrepressible proof of his straightness, Bucky supposes — is instantly mesmerized by his close proximity to Natasha Romanoff. Not even his little Barbie Doll fiancee can save him from it. Natasha knows it, too, because her hand lingers in his for a few moments longer than it needs to, and he just goddamn lets it.

“Got any terps?” Bucky asks, shooting her a glare that belies his congenial tone.

Natasha ignores it and sucks in a breath between her teeth. “No natives.”

“Nine limas?”

“Nope.”

“What the hell are we supposed to do?” Bucky casts a glance at Steve, not even thinking that he probably doesn’t have a clue.

Natasha jerks her thumb in the direction of a specialist sitting in a chair against the wall, reading a field manual. “I’ve got a Papa.”

Before Bucky can even voice his many, many objections to bringing on an analyst as an interpreter, she calls the soldier over. Bucky still objects, loudly and pointedly.

“No way. Analysts speak shit Arabic. My Arabic’s probably better than his.” He gives the soldier a once-over. He looks solid enough, fit, composed. In short, not your typical junior enlisted intelligence soldier.

“What was your language proficiency score, Jones?” Natasha asks.

“3+, 3+.” Specialist Jones says this to Bucky, in a way that almost dares him to object again.

“Great, you can read and listen to the news. Whole lotta goddamn good that’ll do us,” Bucky grumbles. Next to him, Steve smirks.

“It’s Iraqi dialect,” Jones says. “And I speak at a 3 level.”

Bucky scoffs. “No way. You—”

Bucky’s next slew of protests are interrupted by the barrage of fast Arabic that comes out of Steve’s mouth. At first, all Bucky can do is stare and try to comprehend the bizarreness of this born and bred Brooklyn boy, the one who’s probably never even traveled out of the country before now, as he wields the language like it’s his first. Bucky strains to pick out a word here and there, which drives home the realization that his own Arabic is actually quite terrible. He can’t tell even what he’s talking about — not even the basic subject. And when Jones replies with similar smooth cadence and ease, Bucky knows that his objections are about to be overruled.

“We should take him,” Steve says to Bucky when the guttural flurry terminates. “It’ll save the risk that we’d take by bringing on a native terp.”

While Bucky appreciates the deference in Steve’s tone, there’s still something fishy about all this. SIGINT doesn’t just leave gifted linguists to rot like this.

“What’re you doing here, Jones?” Bucky asks.

Jones shrugs. “Not much of anything right now, Sergeant.”

Bucky’s eyes narrow. “Why are you here? Don’t you have a TS clearance or something?”

“Yes, Sergeant. But my first sergeant thought I’d be better suited for the field.”

Bucky’s scrutiny deepens. “You have some malfunction or something?”

“Sergeant Barnes, he’s good to go,” Natasha assures him. “No red flags. There’s a reason he’s here and not in the motor pool.”

“The motor—” Bucky stops himself, sparing everyone a vitriolic rant on the Army’s gross incompetence at allocating resources.

“I’d like to be in the field, Sergeant.” Jones seems to swell at this, full of the knowledge that In The Field is the true pinnacle of soldiering.

“Yeah? You wanna get your street cred by roughin’ it with the grunts? You wanna get yourself a shiny combat action badge so you can show it off to all your little MI friends?”

Jones, to his credit, seems only mildly flustered by the accusation. “I just wanna do something that actually matters, Sergeant.”

Bucky stares at him hard. Jones seems earnest enough, though he clearly has a little too much Victory Punch in his veins. Bucky looks over at Steve, who raises his eyebrows at him expectantly.

Bucky looks back over at Jones. “What’s your name?”

Jones looks confused and points to his name tape. “Jones, Sergeant.”

“Yeah, I can read, y’know. What’s your real name?”

“Gabe, Sergeant.”

“All right, Gabe.” Bucky gestures toward the door. “Let’s go find your CO and get you attached to our unit.”

Jones follows Steve out of the building, and Bucky shoots a look over his shoulder to Natasha. Her face is cryptic, completely opaque, and Bucky’s not sure what to do except smile in return.

———

February 28, 2008

“All right, everyone, line up with all your shit over here.” Bucky points to his left, to a stretch of dirt beside the row of Humvees parked end-to-end in front of them. “Sergeant Dugan, Sergeant Rhodes, start your PCIs.”

Steve watches the men as they scramble in a line with gear and begin showing their squad leaders everything they’ve packed. Halfway through, Steve decides to walk the line behind them, looking over their shoulders, making small notes to himself about who seems organized, who seems slow, who’s quick to help others. The men greet him nervously as he passes, reminding Steve of just how far he still stands outside of his own platoon.

He’s burbling with nervous energy and hates that he’s so anxious about such a simple mission. He’s supposed to be the bastion of solidity, even if he only has theoretical knowledge of what will be their first mission outside the wire. After sitting down with Bucky and the squad leaders last night, where they rehearsed today’s soft search in excruciating detail, Steve knows all he really has to do is show up. And even if he didn’t do that, this mission would function every bit as well. It makes him question his position entirely. It’s as if every gram of confidence he’s built since they arrived here, paltry as that sum is, has been stripped away by the apparent fact of his own purposelessness. Right now, the men seem to need him like they need an extra 50 pounds of gear on their backs.

Steve walks back to his own pile of gear, and he takes a deep swig from one of the two full canteens he has strapped to himself. He’s glad when Bucky makes his way over to him, as if he senses Steve’s feelings of worthlessness and his need for something of even modest importance to occupy him.

“I have the squad leaders do the checks beforehand, since they have closest eyes-on of everyone,” Bucky says. “They’re usually pretty good about not forgetting stuff.” Bucky jerks his head toward the Humvees. “C’mon. Lemme show you what we pack.”

Steve follows him over to one of the vehicles they’ll be taking today. Bucky pulls open the back hatch and starts pointing to the boxes, containers, and kits stored there.

“First responder kit. Aid and litter kit. Checkpoint kit. Two cases of MREs. Extra water. Extra fuel. Mortuary Affairs Kit.” The mortuary affairs kit lies next to several 25-pound bags of flour and a large box of cookies whipped up by the dining facility staff.

“Who does that?” Steve asks.

Bucky slams the back door shut. “Does what?”

“Pick up bodies. If something happens.”

“We do.” Bucky says this like he can barely comprehend the question. “Who else is gonna do it?”

“Mortuary affairs?” Steve feels like an idiot the moment he says it, once his brain processes the ridiculousness of such a prospect.

Bucky chuckles. “No. We get the honor of scraping up our buddies’ guts and legs and arms and God knows what else.”

In front of that chuckle is a grim smile, flat and strained. Steve wonders if Bucky’s had to do that for any of his men. It seems like an obscenely cruel thing to do, tantamount to picking up the remains of one’s own family.

“You got all your gear?” Bucky asks

Sir, Steve thinks to add for him. “Yes.” He almost responds automatically by asking if Bucky has his, but he knows the answer must be yes.

In fact, Steve has checked and re-checked his gear half a dozen times, and that’s just today. Because the last thing he needs is to have one of his enlisted soldiers catch him in the field without the proper equipment.

“All right,” Bucky says, clapping his hands together. “Let’s go meet and greet the local nationals.”

When individual checks are done, Bucky yells to everyone to gear up. They load into four Humvees and rendezvous with first platoon to form a convoy into the Rusafa district, with Sergeant Wilson acting as convoy commander. Steve rides in the back seat of the fourth vehicle, which has Mack as driver, Maximoff in the front passenger seat, Ward on the turret, and Rhodes in the seat across from him.

“First day out,” Rhodes says, smiling brightly while he kicks at the back of Mack’s seat. “How we all doing today?”

“Hooah, Sergeant,” Mack says with enthusiasm.

Maximoff gives a thumbs-up.

Rhodes turns to Steve. “How ’bout you, Sir? Feeling okay?”

Steve forces a firm nod, despite the spike in his anxiety as their vehicle passes through the gate and out onto the road. “Good to go, Sergeant Rhodes.”

“Outstanding.”

Maximoff turns in his seat to look at Rhodes as he speaks. “Hey, you know our new intel guy?”

“Jones.”

“He and Trip are cousins.”

Rhodes’ mouth goes crooked with disbelief. “No way.”

“Yes way.” Maximoff cranks his torso around further. “Did you know, Sir?”

Steve can’t help but smile a little in return. It’s the first time one of the junior enlisted soldiers has addressed him without first being prompted.

“No, I didn’t know that. Those are some odds.”

“Maybe this will be lucky deployment.” Maximoff’s demeanor shifts even further into the relaxed, optimistic territory he seems to perpetually occupy.

Bucky explained Maximoff as being in a constant state of relief that he’s no longer living in whatever former Soviet shit hole he was born into. Steve’s not sure if he buys that all the way, but he wishes he could be as happy to be where he is as Maximoff seems to be.

Steve tries to calm himself by looking out the window. The city is cleaner than he thought. More modern. Less third world than he was expecting. Granted, they’re still well ensconced within the city limits, traveling just outside the green zone. But still, he marvels at how he could know so much information about the region and yet still experience the city with such surprise.

They’re only on the road about 20 minutes, much of which is spent navigating through traffic. By this point in the war, the people of Baghdad are well versed in convoy operations, regarding them as they pass with wariness, indifference, or veiled contempt — and that’s if they’re even regarded at all. There are no children running up alongside the vehicles, smiling and holding out their hands for candy; no joyful men and women waving their thanks to them. Those ready-for-print images may very well just be fabricated war lore percolated through the ranks to foster the false impression that they’re actually wanted here.

The vehicles eventually slow to a stop alongside a strip of apartment buildings, and Steve takes another deep breath. Even though this mission is pretty paint-by-numbers, there are still plenty of opportunities for Steve to make mistakes that will undermine his already shaky role in the platoon.

“Ready?” Rhodes says, mostly to him. His face is kind, and Steve wonders how many lieutenants he’s said that to over the years.

“Let’s do it,” Steve says, injecting a bolus of confidence into his voice.

The platoon dismounts from their vehicles and gathers in front of the apartment building they’re planning to search. This is a technically a “cordon and knock,” a kinder, gentler, un-targeted search. Sitwell’s platoon moves swiftly to cordon off the search area, surrounding the apartment building and stationing men by all the exits and in a wide radius around the site. Sitwell does a lot of yelling, and although Steve’s never been much of a yeller, he still adds it to his list of things not to do if he wants to avoid looking foolish in front of his men.

Bucky approaches him from the vehicle just ahead, looking calmer and fresher than Steve’s seen him all deployment. He offers Steve a smile.

“Okay, whenever you’re ready,” Bucky says. The other men around them cast uncertain glances between Steve and Bucky, in a way that makes it abundantly clear that they know who’s really in charge of this unit. And it certainly isn’t Steve.

Steve gathers his NCOs and recapitulates the plan they discussed last night, where first squad will start at the top floor and and second at the bottom, working their way toward the middle floors in tandem. First squad will take Jones to interpret, and Steve will go along with second to do the same. All the intel they have suggests that they’re not going to run into much trouble, causing Steve to quietly wonder what the hell they’re doing here in the first place.

Rhodes and Dugan rally their men and head toward their respective targets, flour and cookies in hand.

“Sergeant Barnes, you’re with me,” he reminds Bucky, which is unnecessary given Bucky’s insistence last night that he work the building by Steve’s side. Although leadership would be best split between the two squads, Steve has decided to interpret it as an instructive opportunity, one that requires him to place his desire to do his job correctly over the balking of his ego.

Bucky nods. “Roger that.”

Steve bristles at yet another ignoring of his rank, but he tables the emotion and walks with Bucky toward the building. The squad assembles in front of the door of the first apartment, with Steve wedged impractically in the middle of the group. Reyes knocks on the door, and Steve makes to move toward the front to greet the homeowner. Bucky’s hand on his shoulder stops him.

“Stay back ’til it’s clear,” Bucky says.

Steve suppresses his desire to shrug Bucky’s hand off and holds fast, eyes locked on the door in front of them. Despite the cordial nature of the search, the team is edgy, gripping their rifles tight. The door opens slightly, enough to reveal a fearful and suspicious strip of a young woman’s face. Steve moves with care to the front of the squad.

“Peace be onto you,” Steve greets in Arabic, keeping his smile steady and relaxed.

“And onto you.” Her voice is barely audible.

Steve introduces himself and finds himself stumbling over explaining their reason for being there. He didn’t think of how difficult it would be to tell a scared woman that a group of American soldiers is demanding to enter her home to search it for contraband.

She calls into the home for her husband, who comes to the door after a tense delay. Steve repeats himself for the man, and he can feel the men begin to shift uneasily.

After a long pause, appraising all of their faces, the man opens the door and lets them in. The men file into the building tactically, telling the woman and her two children to move against the wall. They yell in English and pointing aggressively to the wall. Steve’s stomach twists at the raw, brutish energy the squad gives off when in operational mode, which is reflected in the wide eyes and terrified grips of the woman and her kids.

Steve repeats the instructions politely in Arabic, giving them to the patriarch so he can give them to his family. Taking in the family’s increasing discomfort, he then changes his mind and asks the man to instruct his wife and children to wait outside the apartment so that they don’t have to be left alone in a room with male soldiers while the man escorts them through his home. The relief on the faces of the husband and wife is palpable, and the woman and children move outside quickly.

Starting in the living room, Nelson, Reyes, Ward, and Rumlow begin the search process. They upend furniture. Tear rugs off the walls (“So many fucking rugs,” the men complain repeatedly). They rip clothes out of the closets and food out of the fridge. They throw shelved items onto the floor to search in them and behind them. They move from room to room, trashing the place, while the man looks on in barely contained horror as the contents of his life are spilled and kicked and treated like garbage. Any item that seems suspicious is inquired about by Steve, and every possible threat is determined to be nothing at all. Bucky stands by and watches the search, speaking up every now and again to point out another possible hiding place. He does it with a nonchalance that makes Steve feel sick.

The entire search takes thirty minutes and yields absolutely no contraband at all. The family didn’t even have a single rifle for home defense, which would have been allowed. At the end, they all gather in the wrecked living room, then bring the woman and children back into the home to re-unite with the man. They move to him swiftly, his wife beside him, their children behind him, shielded from the only real threat in their home — the men who’ve just trashed the place.

Steve motions to Trip and Rhodes to bring the 25-pound bag of flour and cookies. They set the flour in the kitchen and offer the cookies to the family. The man and woman refuse but allow their children to creep forward and take two cookies each.

“Not so many,” the man says.

“Please. As many as they like,” Steve says to him. The children bite into them, their enjoyment weighted down by the impinging stress of seeing their home wrecked by a band of uniformed thugs.

The man and woman offer smiles and “goodbyes” in English as the squad clears out, but it’s obvious that both pleasantries entirely forced. The soldiers say goodbye in a way that’s distressingly casual, and they exit the apartment to move next door.

It takes them five hours to clear the entire building, and for all the extraordinary mess they made, the search yielded nothing of import. No explosives. No bomb making equipment. No extra rifles or cell phones. Steve apologized to each family, feeling especially terrible when a couple of heirlooms were broken, knowing that words couldn’t possible repay the damage or stress or feelings of violation. Later, when the platoons regroup to mount their vehicles and head back to base, Bucky offers Steve an assessment of this mission.

“These people have been searched up the yin-yang over the past couple of years. Their shit was seized ages ago, if they had any at all. This was just a warm-up op for the unit. More of a presence mission than anything,” he explains.

The explanation only sours Steve’s mood further, to the point where all he’s left with is a feeling of profound emptiness.

They take the long way back to the base, for the sole purpose of establishing presence in the neighborhoods. They make it back to the base without incident and commence the long post-mission inspection and cleaning process of their equipment and vehicles. It’s almost 18:00 by the time they’re done, which includes an after action review with Barton, Morita, Bucky, Rhodes, and Dugan. Steve schedules an additional meeting with Bucky at 19:30 and makes his way to the dining facility with his two squad leaders while Bucky stays behind to talk with Morita.

After dinner, Steve heads back to his trailer to change into a clean uniform, and he’s forced to hear the sound of Sitwell recapping the entire day for him, as if he wasn’t even there. As if pulling security around a cordoned area in a peaceful neighborhood is anything worth describing. Despite his gradually ratcheting nerves, Steve is grateful when the clock hits 19:25, because the stress of sitting down face-to-face with Bucky is far superior to the frustration of listening to his roommate’s asinine commentaries on the obvious.

The walk to Bucky’s trailer is shorter than expected, so short that Steve is shocked how close their units have been to each other this entire time. He stops in front of the door for a heavy beat of silence, reads19:28 on his watch, and knocks firmly. Sergeant Wilson greets him at the door and lets him in, and Steve praises him for his work on commanding the convoy today, because he’s willing to bet that Sitwell has never given Wilson a word of praise in his life. Wilson takes the compliment with a relaxed smile that a more cynical man might read as pandering, then calls over to Bucky that he’s heading out — but not before giving Bucky a look that Steve can’t quite decipher.

Bucky’s waiting for him at his desk, where he’s set one chair on each end in the same configuration as Steve uses when they meet at his place. Bucky’s uniform coat is draped over the back of his chair, leaving him in a tight-fitting sand colored t-shirt that skims the contours of his chest, shoulders, and arms. Steve feels a sharp clench in his stomach, and his glance drifts to Bucky’s left bicep, to the rounded black line peeking out from under the sleeve of his shirt. He can’t see enough of the tattoo to make out what it is.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky asks. The concern in his voice and the earnest smile on his face makes what Steve’s about to say that much more difficult.

Steve sits in the chair across from Bucky, lays his rifle on the floor beside him, and breathes out a long sigh through his nostrils. “It’s ‘how are you feeling, Sir,’ Sergeant Barnes. I’m your platoon leader.”

Bucky’s face falls. “I know that, Sir.”

“Today you addressed me inappropriately almost the entire mission. In front of the men.” Steve carefully manages the tone of his voice to keep the tension out of it. “You need to address me as ‘Sir.’”

“Understood, Sir.”

“Is it understood?” Steve asks the question honestly. “You’re their role model. What you do, they’ll do. If you don’t treat me with the respect my rank warrants, whether you think I deserve that respect or not, the men are going to follow suit.”

Bucky nods. “It’s tough with you sometimes. I’m not used to talking to you like this.”

“Look, B—” Steve pauses sharply when Bucky’s name almost spills out of his mouth. “You can’t talk to me like I’m your friend. You just can’t.”

“Don’t worry, you made it very clear a long time ago that we aren’t friends.” A sullen line forms between Bucky’s dark eyebrows.

“Don’t. Just don’t.” Steve looks down at his lap. “Please.”

“Yes, Sir.” The resignation in Bucky’s voice is painful.

“We have to make this work. We have to.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Steve swallows the discomfort in his throat. “And I want Jones to teach everyone some Arabic. What happened today, with everyone yelling in English, that won’t fly.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Steve sighs again and presses his hand to his brow. He wants to make a light comment, something — anything — that’ll ease the anger or disappointment whatever emotion is boring into him from the man across the table. But Steve doubts that there’s anything that could possibly lighten the space between them, which seems to be filling by the second with unspoken words and ancient hurt.

Steve grabs his weapon, rises to his feet, and looks down at Bucky.

“You gonna make me stand, too?” Bucky says, referring to the protocol that would require him to.

“No,” Steve says softly. “Good night, Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky’s eyes go dead. “Good night, Sir.”

Chapter Text


March 21, 2008

“So then Parker spills his drink on a Marine, right? This gargantuan Andre the Giant guy, and Parker’s apologizing, and the guy’s all like ‘you fucking clumsy idiot,’ even though Parker’s the least clumsy guy on the face of the planet, and it was that lug nut’s fault for backing into Parker in the first place. So this guy’s buddies are all closing in, each jarhead dumber than the last, and I know we’re about to get into an epic brawl of the grunts. And here comes Wilson, and he’s all like ‘boo-yah, devil hogs!’ which, I swear, about made all their heads explode. And Parker’s all like ‘easy, easy, guys,’ and they’re all about ready to dog pile Wilson — get it? Dog pile? So I’m all like, ‘shit, better get Doc outta here so he can patch us up when this all goes to shit.’ And then here comes Sergeant Dugan, fucking wasted — and you know how he gets when he’s tanked. So he swaggers up and starts pulling rank, and it turns out Andre the Giant is a fucking E-7, but Dugan didn’t give a shit and was, like, pushing us all back and shit, like he was gonna throw down with this gorilla. But then, this master guns comes in and starts barking at his guys, no shit, barking, knife handing — ”

“He wasn’t actually barking,” Trip clarifies, holding his palm out as if to stop the waves of hyperbole flying off Luis.

“No, but, man, is sounded like it, right? So Sergeant Dugan starts howling, like for real howling, and that gets all us howling, and all those jarheads shuffled off like little bitches.” Luis laughs with a force that’s wildly disproportional to the humor in the story and turns in his seat to look back at Bucky. “It was awesome, Sergeant. You shoulda been there.”

“The hell were you guys doing in Jacksonville, anyway?” Bucky asks.

Luis exchanges smiles with Private Wilson in the driver’s seat and Trip in the back. “Just wanted to have a look at the competition, that’s all,” he explains, as if the Marines are some bullshit small town rival football team rather than their brothers in arms.

“Well, you better hope you never have to work with any of those Marines in the future. Those fuckers know how to hold a grudge.” Bucky looks at Trip, because he knows he’s the only one in the vehicle who might give him an honest answer to the more pressing question he has. “So, Sergeant Dugan went with you?”

“He went separately, Sergeant. With Sergeant Grims. We weren’t, y’know, together or anything.” Trip’s mouth twitches, but his story jives with most of what Bucky knows about Dugan — the perpetual bachelor and resident old man who lives vicariously through his subordinates in a way that’s well past being cute. The image of Dugan being drunk in front of the men flips Bucky's stomach in on itself, and he grips his M4 tightly on his lap.

He peers over Luis’ shoulder to the clear stretch of road ahead. In his gut, something else rolls — a different kind of sickness. Empty roads, empty marketplaces, empty villages, they all give him the willies. Sometimes it’s nothing, but sometimes it’s a herald of chaos and death. He can’t say for sure why he wanted to ride in the lead vehicle on the way back to the base today, but he’s learned not to ignore the gnawing of his instincts.

As deployments go, this one has been almost forebodingly uneventful so far. Nobody’s gotten hurt. Nobody in the company’s gotten killed. Granted, it’s only been a month since they became operational, but after the carnage from Bucky’s last stint in the sandbox, he’s been growing increasingly discomfited. Worse is the smoothness with which he and Steve have somehow been managing the platoon and their professional relationship. All combined, Bucky finds himself impatiently waiting for the other shoe to drop, not because he craves the fight but because he knows it’s coming and hates the tension of not knowing when it’s going to strike.

As if waiting for that exact thought to pass through Bucky’s mind, Reyes calls out over the radio from his position on the turret.

“Hey, Wilson. There’s something in the road ahead.”

Everyone in the vehicle leans forward, straining to make out the dark dot down the road. They’re approaching the outskirts of the city, at the point where the bareness of the desert starts to show signs of human life. It’s a stretch of road that hasn’t given them any trouble yet, which could mean that it will continue to be safe moving forward. But it could also mean the exact opposite, that they’re somehow due for trouble. The rational calculus is impossible to work out, which is why Bucky’s taken to trusting the vague unease in his body over any other metric short of hard intelligence.

Bucky feels the vehicle start to decelerate.

“Keep pace, Private Wilson,” Steve orders him over the radio from one vehicle back, where he’s acting as convoy commander.

“Sir, there’s something in the road ahead,” Wilson replies.

“Can you ID it?”

They all squint harder, and Bucky assembles the pieces quickly based on the many enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures briefings he’s had over the years.

“It’s a person,” Bucky says.

Wilson relays the information to Steve with hot urgency, his hands gripping tightly onto the steering wheel.

“Keep pace,” Bucky reminds him.

Wilson glances back at Bucky doubtfully. Then, in an unusual show of allegiance, he ignores Bucky and turns to Steve for direction.

“Shit, Sir.” Wilson takes his foot off the accelerator. “Shit, can we slow down?”

“Keep pace, Wilson,” Bucky repeats, letting his irritation strengthen his tone. “Lay on the horn.”

Wilson slams his hand down on the horn. The person doesn’t move. Bucky bites his lip at the sudden realization that the person they’re careening toward is not large enough to be an adult. Bucky knows, because there are two adult-sized figures on the left side of the road, pointing and gesturing toward the much smaller person in the road.

“What do I do, Sir?” Wilson calls over the radio, his voice pitched into a yell.

They all hear Steve make a small noise of uncertainty, as if he’s considering violating standard operating procedure of convoy command just because Wilson is upset.

Bucky growls and climbs forward, cramming himself past Reyes' feet on the turret, and snatches the hand radio from the front consul. “Everyone keep pace,” he orders the convoy.

Wilson lays on the horn, beeping furiously, but does as he’s told. Everyone in the vehicle braces themselves in horror as their Humvee plows over a child who can’t be more than four or five. The thump of her body against the front grill is loud and sickening, but it’s drowned out by the massive explosion that goes off directly behind them, shaking their vehicle.

“IED, IED, IED!” Bucky calls into the radio. “Move, move, move!”

The radio erupts with expletives and more shouts of “IED, IED, IED!” just as they’ve been trained to do, and the convoy surges forward to clear the area. Bucky twists around in his seat to look out the cracked back window, and he breathes a sigh of relief when he sees five fully mobile vehicles behind him. Above them, Reyes does a sweep of the area, confirms that the IED was a miss, and confirms that the convoy is intact. Bucky hears Steve over the radio re-confirming that all vehicles are good to go, and he slumps back into his seat with quiet “fuck” as he tries to calm the jackhammering of his heart.

“Shit,” Trip mutters across from him, eyes wide. “Holy shit.”

“Wilson, you okay?” Bucky asks. He leans forward and lays his hand on Wilson’s shoulder.

Wilson swallows. “Yeah.”

“Luis?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” His words spill out forcefully, in a way that suggests the opposite.

He turns to his left. “Trip, you okay?”

“Fine, Sergeant.”

“Hey, Reyes.” Bucky pats Reyes’ calf and looks up into the turret. “You good?”

“Hooah, Sergeant,” he calls down.

Bucky nods longer than he needs to and takes a deep breath. His mind replays the sequence of events, and he analyzes his decisions with each iteration, eyes closing against those last few seconds in particular. The agony of helplessness. The flash of terror on the child’s face as she realized that they weren’t stopping. The crushing impact of frail flesh upon metal. Bucky pushes hard against it, punts it down the road for future Bucky to deal with, and opens his eyes again.

The ride back to base is uneventful and silent, save for routine flat-voiced check-ins between Steve and each vehicle. Bucky feels a hum of anger whenever Steve’s voice comes through the speakers, and he decides with not a little spite that he’ll be the one calling a meeting tonight.

When they pull up into the motor pool, everyone dismounts, the usual chatter dulled down to only the exchanges required to conduct post-mission inspections. Bucky makes a point to check in with the men in the other vehicles, then pulls Wilson, Luis, Reyes, and Trip aside.

“Don’t worry about the vehicle,” Bucky tells them. “I’ll take care of it.”

The four men exchange uneasy looks.

“Are you sure, Sergeant?” Trip asks. “I mean, I’m okay with helping, if you—”

“I don’t need help. I need you all to get out of here, grab some chow, and check in with your squad leaders before lights out.” Bucky makes eye contact with each of them. “Got it?”

“Hooah, Sergeant,” they all reply.

Bucky jerks his thumb to shoo them away and interrupts Steve, Dugan, and Rhodes, who’re clumped together doing their debriefings.

“Make sure you check in with your guys before bed,” he tells Dugan and Rhodes, then points to Steve. “And I need you to meet me here at 19:00 so we can go over what happened back there.”

Steve gives a frown of confusion but nods his agreement. “I’ll brief Captain Barton and First Sergeant in the meantime.”

“You do that.”

Bucky walks away then, fists clenched at his sides, molars grinding together. His mind starts racing through all the things he wants to say to Steve. All the ways he fucked up today. All the implications of his fucking up. He storms back to his trailer, hoping that Sam’s there. When he’s not, Bucky paces the length of their room and rehearses all the ways he’s gonna rip Steve’s ass, feeling his anger redouble when he questions whether he’s really angry at Steve or whether he’s angry with the barbarians who would force a child to stand in the road to be convoy bait.

Bucky grabs his patrol cap and his rifle and stands in front of the mirror that’s installed next to each door of each trailer. The look that’s there now, the one that’s showing all his tiny cracks — the cracks the Army made, the cracks that life made even before he ever raised his right hand to take his oath — that look just won’t do at all. And so he thrusts his chin out and sets his face into a hard scowl, because that's what hard men look like. Men who kill kids and sleep well at night. Men who don't get hurt when they hurt others. Men who never feel pressure behind their eyes. Men who never have to blink and turn away because their hearts are breaking open. Men who don't have to drink themselves into oblivion because the thought of one more moment spent as Bucky Barnes is too overwhelming to bear.

Maybe one day he'll finally get the hang of it.

— — —

At 19:00, Steve makes his way along the dark row of vehicles in the motor pool until he comes to the single stall illuminated by a flood light. Bucky’s there with a bucket of water and a few rags, staring at the front of the Humvee parked there. Steve reaches down and picks up Bucky’s uniform coat, which looks to have been tossed in the dirt, and drapes it over his forearm. Steve is careful to make his footfalls heavy so that Bucky can hear him approach, and he stops a good ten feet shy of him. Whatever Bucky called him here to say, Steve knows it’s not good, because he knows a very pissed off Bucky when he sees one.

“You wanted to see me, Sergeant?”

Bucky turns to face him and slides on a pair of latex gloves as he speaks. “I wanted to talk about what happened on the road, Sir.”

“All right.”

“You made a mistake. A bad one.”

“Did I?”

Bucky turns back toward the vehicle, wets one of the rags in the bucket, and freezes for a moment.

Steve’s eyes trail over the front grill of the vehicle, which is caked with gore and sprayed with blood. He swallows heavily as nausea creeps up his throat.

With a sour expression, Bucky begins wiping the blood off, carefully avoiding the pieces of child that he’ll have to scrape out somehow. “You know the protocol, Sir. When we’re in a convoy, we don’t stop for anyone. We give warning, they don’t move, we keep going.”

Steve runs his hand over Bucky’s uniform coat, smoothing the fabric down over his arm. His fingers trace absently over his name tape. “I know that’s the protocol. But was that really necessary, in this case?”

Bucky’s voice rises as he responds. “You know why we have standard operating procedures, Lieutenant Rogers?” He glances over at Steve, even though the question is obviously not intended to be answered. “We have them so we can act the way we need to act without having to think.”

“We shouldn’t be running over children,” Steve snaps. "Period."

“No shit, but that’s the fucking tactic, Steve — sorry. Sir.” Bucky breathes a heavy sigh as he wets and wrings out the rag over the bucket. “That’s the point. They know we want to stop for kids. Especially for kids.”

“We could have tried to swerve around her.”

“Into the fucking ditch, where there was probably another IED waiting for us?” Bucky pushes his gloved finger between the grill grates and gags as he unsticks a chunk of flesh. “That was a textbook tactic. Textbook. We stop for the kid, BOOM! Everyone in vehicle one looks like this” Bucky holds out his finger, which is smeared with blood and a clump of human tissue. “Trip, Luis, Reyes, Wilson, me, we’re all fucking pink mist. And this kid, too.” He wipes off his finger on the rag and visibly tries to swallow down another gag. “She was dead no matter what.”

Steve's own stomach lurches ominously. “You jumped the chain of command when you got on that radio.”

Bucky whips around, eyes blazing. “You were supposed to tell Wilson to push forward. That was your job. And guess what? You froze. You froze, and because you did, you were going to leave the choice in the hands of a fucking private. So yeah, I jumped in, because no junior enlisted soldier should have to live with thinking it was his choice to run over a kid. That choice was made for him by some general somewhere, and it was supposed to be reinforced by you. You froze, I took over. Bam. Now it’s my choice, not Wilson’s.”

Bucky turns back to the grill and starts digging out the gore with angry vigor, coughing, gagging, clearing his throat, grimacing as he dislodges everything and wipes pieces of kid into that filthy rag. When the grate is clear, he gives it a final wipe down with a clean towel and throws the rags and his soiled gloves into a nearby trash barrel. He then turns until he’s canted toward Steve, though he’s careful not to look directly at him.

“We have to protect these men, Steve. They’re our children.” Bucky makes no move to correct himself. “Everything else is bullshit. Fuck your career. Fuck the mission. The only thing that matters is keeping those guys alive. If it's between running over a kid and keeping our men alive, I'll hit 50 fucking kids before I let any harm come to them.” Bucky finally makes eye contact then, fierce and cold, serious as the grave. “Those are our men. Your men. Start fucking acting like it. Sir.”

Everything descends on Steve heavily. Bucky’s words. The tone in which he spoke them. The weight of the new context Bucky has introduced to the events of the day. In those moments today, those moments where Steve so utterly failed, all he could see was the rightness and wrongness of killing a child. What he failed to consider was the cost of his indecision on the men. His men. A very serious error, indeed.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Bucky tells him, “I’m gonna go puke.” He throws the bloody bucket water on the ground and tosses the bucket against the wall. He then grabs his rifle from where it’s propped against the tire and yanks his coat from Steve’s extended hand. His footsteps are steady as he walks away, but his shoulders are hunched high, barely able to keep his head up.

Steve stands there for a long time. He’s not sure how long. Long enough for the nausea to pass. Long enough for his error to sink deep into his viscera. Long enough to wonder what it must have taken for Bucky to become the person he is now. Eventually, he finds his footing and turns off the flood light, but not before casting a final glance at the vehicle. It looks like it did this morning, like it never plowed over a little girl. Like it never became a weapon wielded by a war-hardened platoon sergeant. A platoon sergeant who used to be a skinny kid with thick, dark, flopping hair, the kind that had a little wave to it, a gentle curl that faded once he grew it long and then cut it short after enlisting. Sometimes Steve wonders if it was ever there at all, if maybe he remembers it all wrong. If he remembers Bucky all wrong.

Struck by a sudden longing for contact with someone who doesn’t yet view the world with blood-tinted glasses, Steve walks to the phone trailer, where he hits a rare patch of low activity and only has to wait ten minutes to get a phone. He calls the only person he ever calls, the only person in the world who seems to know for a fact that he’s not an incompetent idiot or a heartless bastard. He breathes an audible sigh of relief when Sharon picks up on the other end.

“Hey, babe.” Steve speaks quietly, trying to create privacy where very little actually exists. A private first class in the next stall looks over at him, and Steve shoves aside some automatic self-scolding about maintaining officer bearing, because, God damn it, he deserves to have a life, too.

“Hey!” Sharon whispers. “Can you call back in an hour?”

Steve swallows. He wants to say “Sure, of course, no problem.” He even tries to say it. He opens his mouth for the words, but they hold fast in his brain.

“Are you okay?” Sharon asks. Then, without waiting for his response, she continues with “Hold on just a sec.”

On the other end, he hears muffled conversation between Sharon and some male voices. After some further muffling, she gets back on the line, her voice clear and worried.

“Okay, I’m here. What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Steve wants to spill every detail of the convoy today. Every second he’s recorded in his memory. Every shout from his men, every tink of raining dirt and rock against metal, every cough and gag from Bucky’s throat. He wants her to know the concussive boom of an IED, the feel of it shaking the earth. He wants her to know the conflict clawing at his heart, where he’s ashamed — ashamed — for not confidently ordering his men to murder a little girl.

Steve wants her to know all of that. But not a single word of it comes out.

“Steve, please. Talk to me.”

“It’s nothing.” He frowns. “I’m okay. You didn’t have to leave your meeting. Who’s it with?”

“That’s not important.”

Which means that it’s with someone very important.

“Colonel Engles? General Holt?”

“I’m here now. I’m listening.”

He bites his lip. “It’s just some stuff with my platoon sergeant.”

Oh, no. No, that is definitely not the direction he wanted the conversation to go, but go there it does, with the determination of a loose cannon.

“I thought you said he was really good.”

“He is.” Steve pinches the bridge of his nose as the layered meaning of those words sinks deep into his chest. “We just don’t see things the same way.”

Sharon makes a small, thoughtful sound. “Isn’t that a good thing sometimes?”

“It’s Bucky Barnes,” Steve blurts out, then prepares for the hard slap of regret that’s about to boomerang back into his face.

There’s an excruciatingly long pause on the other end of the phone, one that throws Steve’s heart rate into a frenzy.

“The guy from before,” Sharon says, her voice desiccated.

Bucky Barnes is only spoken about vaguely or euphemistically in their relationship, usually referred to as “the guy from before” or “your… friend,” awkward beat between words very much included. It started on that one drunken night last year when Steve decided to be painfully honest, when the weight of Bucky seemed to be the single thing keeping him from entering an authentic relationship with Sharon.

So he spilled it. Some of it, anyway. The friendship part. The sex part. He glossed over the love part, because he never wants Sharon to know how much he loved Bucky. And not just because he’s still devastated by what happened between them, but because he keeps that love in such a deep place within him, such a secret, private place, that he can’t bear for anyone else to look at it. Nobody gets to see that. That’s Steve’s alone. It’s Steve’s to carry and live and die with.

“Yeah. Him.”

“Okay.” Sharon offers a few moments more of thick silence. “Is there anything I should be worried about?”

“No. Absolutely not. Not at all. Believe me.” Steve’s assurances come out with stern force. Very official.

There’s another long pause. “Okay. I’m concerned about you, though. You don’t sound very good.”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Okay. Well, we can talk about what’s actually going on later, when you’re ready. How’s everything with the roommate?”

Steve skirts over the latest of Sitwell’s exploits before curving the conversation toward her. Something in him has turned sharply, and he’s overcome with the hot, thrumming certainty that if he says one more word about this deployment, he’s gonna flip the table he’s at or throw the phone across the room. It’s an unsettling sensation, if only because he so rarely feels the type of anger that makes him want to wreck something. His anger is usually turned neatly inward, where it can’t hurt anyone but himself.

They talk for a few more minutes before Sharon tells him that she has to get back to her meeting. Steve is disappointed and sad that she has to go, and he hates that he feels that way. He hates that she’s the only person who makes him feel loved, and he adores her for it at the same time. He adores that she would leave a meeting with at least one very high ranking man who probably already doesn’t respect her, just to listen to him stall and lie and talk around the truth and complain about his roommate. He adores that she knows when he’s giving her the run-around and calls him on it. He adores her. And, God, he misses her. He misses the light she brings to his life, because it’s dark as hell over here on the other side of morality, and he could really use something to keep him warm in the cold of it.

When he returns to his trailer, Sitwell isn’t there. It hits Steve that it’s Friday night, which still means something on deployment, even with the six or seven-day work weeks. Steve fills the time alone with things that that are supposed to be pleasant. A luxuriously long six-minute shower where he tries to wash off the awfulness of the day. A few chapters of Starship Troopers. A good jerk, which ends up not being very good at all because his memories of his last night with Sharon are spliced with deeply unsexy things like spilled heirlooms and terrified children. His hand pauses on his softening dick, and he thinks getting off tonight might ultimately be a lost cause.

But then, his mind starts weaving down a dark, dark path, to the deepest vaults of his wank bank, where he finds an old reel of memory featuring a very sultry Bucky Barnes grinding down on his cock, his head thrown back, eyes closed, his body lean and glistening with sweat in the moonlight, his husky voice murmuring filthy things about how big and hard Steve’s dick is, how good it feels inside him, how he wants to ride it all night, how he wants Steve to stroke him, shove up into him, make him come so hard —

The memory does the trick with stunning efficiency, and Steve climaxes with a mixed rush of ecstasy and shame. He reminds himself in a post-masterbatory flood of panic that this doesn’t mean a single thing about Sharon or Bucky or himself. It’s just a wank and that’s it. And that is it.

But after that hiatus of panic, Steve’s mind does go back to Bucky as he tries to fall asleep. He wonders if Bucky lies awake like this — certainly not jerking off to memories of him, but maybe thinking about the heirlooms and the kids and explosions and the tinks of rock and the oddness of nonchalant abuse. And Steve hopes that Bucky does think about those things. He hopes that Bucky’s bothered by them. Because if he’s not, then he really can’t be the man Steve fell in love with so long ago. Not even a distant shadow of him. That old love of theirs may be buried and gone, but the thought of Bucky’s goodness being consumed by war is almost too awful to imagine.

And in this moment, even though God is long dead to him, Steve still prays that Bucky is awake right now, just like he is. Thinking.

———

To say that Bucky woke up the next morning wouldn’t be exactly factual. He’s been up all night, his mind traipsing through the usual children’s treasury of mayhem he’s witnessed and perpetrated in this country and its neighbors all the times he’s been over here. It always comes out at night, when he’s perched on the edge of sleep, when his defenses are down and his distractions are gone. In the past, he used to get up in the middle of the night and run, back when he was with the Ranger Regiment. Back before he became just a regular Joe again, subjected to the rules and curfews of regular Joes. Returning to the flock from special operations has mostly been a relief, but there are times when he’d give his left nut to roll with his fellow operators again, to return to the smooth simplicity of his work with them, where all he needed was time and patience, good aim, and a reliable spotter.

But all those heads and chests he blasted open are now the stars of his nightmares and his nighttime attempts to reconcile killing with the insistence of his conscience that killing is wrong, wrong, wrong. He can tell himself that they deserved it, that somehow, every person he’s harmed has earned it in some abstract or literal way. It’s enough to get him to the end of each day and to push his men there with him, but its effectiveness has a very short half-life. Being a career aggressor requires far more maintenance than he ever thought it would. Never read that fine print in his first, second, or third Army contract.

Across the room, Sam shifts under the covers and lifts his head.

“You awake?” Sam asks

“Yep.”

“Feeling any better?”

“Yeah.” It was much easier to tell Sam he was sick with food poisoning last night than to tell him he was sick with shame and disgust.

“Someone in the DFAC has a grudge against every damn one of us.”

“What did they think was gonna happen when they hired hajis to cook for us?” Bucky slaps his palm flat against his forehead. “Oops. Not supposed to call them that.”

“Says who?”

“Rogers.”

“What are you supposed to call them?”

“‘Local nationals.’”

Sam snorts. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

“He’s right, though.” Bucky lets his hand flop to his side. “I mean, Specialist Abbas is Syrian, right?”

“Yeah. I try not to say it around him.”

“Gonna take some serious practice. Been saying it for four years straight.”

“You and everyone else.” Sam sits upright and stretches his arms over his head. “But yeah, maybe he’s not wrong.”

Never — not once — did Bucky ever think not to say it. His platoon sergeants and squad leaders throughout his career used it with abandon, and his platoon leaders never expressed any discomfort at its use. Only Steve Rogers has ever raised the notion that it might be inappropriate to use ethnic slurs to describe the people they’re supposed to be helping.

The moral correctness of Steve hangs in the air for a few minutes before Bucky rolls out of bed and pads to his wall locker for a clean uniform and his shaving kit. It’s Saturday, and given yesterday’s events, Steve granted the platoon a respite from their usual PT this morning. Theirs is the only platoon in the company that PTs on Saturday, but Bucky agreed to the extra exercise with great enthusiasm. If he had to distill combat survival down to one factor, it would be fitness. Strength. Speed. Power. Endurance. A strong, fast man who can carry himself long distances will stand a greater chance at survival than a slower, weaker man, after accounting for the mind boggling randomness of injury and death in the theater of war. Bucky’s seen the fittest operators die within three hours of landing in country, just as he’s seen men like Foggy Nelson come out of war unscathed. But he can’t accept that there’s nothing any of them can do against the roulette wheel of fate, and even the illusion of agency can mean the difference between life and death for some men. He’ll take any bit of control that he can get, imagined or otherwise.

After a shave and a shower, he puts on his uniform, grabs his rifle, holsters his pistol, and heads out the door. With an hour to spare before their monthly command information briefings start, Bucky decides to try his hand at the phones, because Rikki’s birthday is today, and he at least owes her the courtesy of a brotherly 2:00 am phone call.

And, of course, this would be the exact time that his plans are interrupted by the yowling of the sniveling shit stain and village idiot of Alpha Company, Lieutenant Sitwell.

“Sergeant Barnes!”

Bucky slows his steps and grinds to a reluctant halt. He loosens his grip on his rifle and turns neatly on his heels toward the offending voice.

“Lieutenant Sitwell.”

Sitwell closes the distance between them, stopping a few paces short of Bucky. “Come with me, Sergeant,” he says in what Bucky imagines must be his best impression of an authoritative tone.

Sitwell starts to walk away without waiting for any reply, until he realizes Bucky’s not following him.

“What’s up, Sir?” Bucky calls after him, because he’s not about to start taking orders from assholes outside his chain of command without good and clear reason.

Sitwell spins around and turns a brilliant shade of pink while the barrel of his rifle ghosts a few discomforting inches toward Bucky’s body. Not enough to be properly aimed at him, but enough to let Bucky know that he’s considering it. “I gave you an order, that’s ‘what’s up,’ Sergeant. Come with me. Now.”

It takes every ounce of the small reserve of energy Bucky has to keep his eyes from rolling. “Yes, Sir.”

Sitwell marches him halfway across the base, and Bucky blisters with anger when he figures out that he’s being taken to Alpha Company command. He should be on the phone right now, talking to a mumbling, half-awake Rikki. Or, at the very least, he should be weathering Daisy’s cursing at him over his calling at such an inhumane hour. In either case, he should not be here, being ordered around by this cretin and dragged off to the command team for God knows what.

Bucky takes off his patrol cap as they enter the trailer, which Captain Barton shares with First Sergeant Morita, Lieutenant Sousa, and the commander, executive officer, and first sergeant of Bravo Company. Barton and Morita are seated at Barton’s desk, waiting for them with expressions that lay somewhere between annoyed and expectant.

“Sir,” Sitwell says, snapping to the position of attention in front of the desk. “I’m here to address the matter of Sergeant Barnes and —”

“What’s going on here?”

Bucky cranes his head toward the sound of Steve’s voice and the heavy steps that accompany it. Christ, does he look like he has a case of the ass, his blue eyes ablaze, his full lips drawn into a frown.

“I’ve got this handled, Steve,” Sitwell says.

Steve flanks Sitwell, stiffening to his full height. “I heard you talking to Sergeant Barnes earlier. Disrespectfully. So I’ll ask again: what’s going on here?”

“Funny you should mention disrespect,” Sitwell says, tossing a contemptuous glance over to Bucky. “That’s exactly the reason I’ve brought Sergeant Barnes here today.”

“I think you need a refresher course on chain of command, because if you have a problem with my platoon sergeant, you bring that to me.”

“Maybe I question your capacity to take care of this situation.”

“And what ‘situation’ is that?” Steve asks.

Sitwell turns to Barton. “Sir, last night I was in the motor pool, grabbing something I left in our vehicle, and I overheard a conversation between Lieutenant Rogers and Sergeant Barnes that I found very disturbing.”

“So you were eavesdropping,” Bucky says.

“Don’t interrupt me,” Sitwell snaps back.

“Watch your mouth, Sitwell.” Steve barks the order like it’s actually his to give, and Sitwell flinches.

Barton slams his hand on the desk. “All of you, shut up.” He makes hard eye contact with all three men. “Get to the point, Sitwell.”

“Sergeant Barnes yelled at Lieutenant Rogers like some drill sergeant. He was disrespectful and insubordinate. I think he should be reprimanded.”

Bucky snorts, shaking his head. Morita's mouth twitches.

“Sir,” Steve interjects, “Sergeant Barnes was pointing out a crucial error I made while acting as convoy commander. And yes, his tone was brusque. He was also in the process of removing pieces of a child from the grill of our vehicle with his bare hands so that one of our junior enlisted men didn’t have to do it.” He looks at Sitwell. “If you’d exercise a little empathy, you could imagine how disturbing that would be. Not that I think you would ever do anything so compassionate or self-sacrificing for your soldiers.”

Bucky’s mouth quirks into a small, appreciative smile, one which sharpens when Sitwell starts sputtering inarticulately in response. All that Duke learnin,' and he can't ever seem to string three words together when it actually matters. Steve talks over him, addressing Barton directly.

“Sir, Sergeant Barnes and I have had several productive discussions about our command dynamic and have been working very well together. Lieutenant Sitwell’s concerns are unfounded and are based on an incident that’s been taken completely out of context.”

Sitwell points a menacing finger at Bucky. “He’s always like this! He keeps getting away with doing and saying whatever he wants!”

Barton, bless the man, has a chuckle at this while Bucky and Morita exchange amused looks.

“All right.” Captain Barton holds up his hands. “Sitwell, you’re dismissed. Next time, use the proper chain of command.” When Sitwell continues to stand there, Barton raises his voice. “That’s your cue to go away now.”

Like the good little tool he is, Sitwell snaps to the position of attention, performs a smooth turn, and takes his leave.

Barton takes a deep, tired breath and re-orients himself. “Now, is there a problem here? A real one?”

“No, Sir,” Steve and Bucky say together.

“Because you both told me that there wouldn’t be any drama. You promised me you could make this work.”

“Sir, everything’s fine. Sergeant Barnes has conducted himself with professionalism and integrity from day one,” Steve says.

Bucky feels his face warm and wishes he could will it away, if only because ‘blushing damsel’ is not exactly his best look — especially in uniform.

Barton’s eyes travel back and forth between the two of them. “All right. You’re both dismissed.”

Steve looks over at Bucky, his expression warm. Bucky nods his gratitude and tries not to read too much into it.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Morita says. “Stay back a few minutes.”

Bucky presses his lips together. “Yes, First Sergeant.”

Bucky throws one final glance at Steve, who’s making his way to the exit, and he finally lets himself smile fully. He smiles because in this moment, he sees Steve, the old Steve, his Steve, the Steve who can be unrepentantly feisty and uncompromising and won’t let a single speck of bullshit fly without calling it out. The Steve who’s compassionate and fiercely loyal. The Steve who was his best friend for ten years and whom Bucky loved more than any other person alive.

To his immense surprise, Steve returns his smile. It’s small, almost imperceptible, but it’s there.

Morita takes Bucky back to his desk and offers him a seat. “You okay, Jamie?”

“Yes, First Sergeant. Why?”

“You look like smeared dog shit.”

Of course he does, not that he likes hearing it. He’s been averaging three hours of sleep a night since he got here, his old reliable sleeping aid being inconveniently banned from the base several times over. He used to be really good at running on fumes, but he figured it was only a matter of time before he started slipping.

“Just getting old, I guess,” Bucky says.

“You’re 29. You don’t get to say you’re old until you’re at least 30.”

“I feel pretty fuckin’ old, that’s for sure.”

He wishes he could tell Morita that 29 is not only gay-old, it’s practically gay-dead, not that it matters. Not like he’s ever going to settle down, at this point. By the time he does his 20 or 30 years, he’ll be so physically wrecked and psychologically fucked up that he might as well join the goddamn priesthood.

“Yeah, four deployments’ll do that to you.” Morita smiles, as much as Morita ever does smile, which looks thin and painful. “How’s Rogers?”

“Very high speed. The men like him. Soon, they’ll probably even respect him.” This comes out perfunctorily, but after a few moments of reflection, Bucky realizes that he’s actually being honest.

“They’ll follow whatever lead you give them,” Morita reminds him. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“All right. Need anything? Men need anything?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Just need to get back out there, ASAP. The guys are a little shook up from yesterday.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Combat engineers are gonna need a week-long escort, and you’re on deck.”

Bucky nods. “Good. Good. You let 'em sit too long, they start to get scared. Gotta keep ‘em moving.”

Morita huffs quietly. “Ain’t that the truth.”

When he finishes with Morita, Bucky smokes the fastest cigarette he’s ever smoked and runs to the base theater to make it in time for the first briefing. Steve’s at the back of the room, carefully making confirmatory eye contact with Sergeants Dugan and Rhodes to ensure that everyone’s seated and accounted for. Bucky stands next to him against the wall.

“Thank you, Sir,” Bucky says, clasping his wrist behind his back.

“For what?”

“Defending me.”

Steve crosses his arms over his chest, and the faintest hint of color graces his cheeks. “Lieutenant Sitwell does not get to fuck with you. Not you, not any of my men.”

Bucky nods and feels his disappointment settling in his smile, which shifts and brightens when Sam joins them a few moments later.

“I don’t know what you did, but Sitwell is going ballistic,” Sam mutters.

Bucky shrugs “I still don’t know why he’s got it out for me. I’ve never actually done anything to him. The only thing I can think is that I don’t spend enough time licking his ball sack and telling him how great he is.”

“Bitched at me for a full twenty minutes straight, not letting me get a word in. Barnes this and Barnes that. Words I haven’t heard since the SAT. ‘Malicious degenerate. Arrogant philistine.’”

Bucky belts out a laugh. “Malicious degenerate.” He turns to Steve. “You hear that, Sir?”

Steve tsks. “And a philistine, to boot. Terrible. Can’t have that in the infantry.”

“Heavens, no.” Bucky grins. “I may be slightly arrogant, though.”

“Oh, just ‘slightly’?” Sam says.

“I think you earn the right to be a little arrogant when you actually know what you’re doing,” Steve says. “Sitwell, on the other hand—”

Steve’s words cut off when Lieutenant Sousa catches his eye and waves him down to the front of the theater where he and Barton are standing.

“Well, I’ll see both of you later,” he says to Bucky and Sam.

“Take it easy, Sir,” Sam says.

“Talk to you later, Sir,” Bucky adds. Steve nods back at him.

When Steve’s out of earshot, Sam makes a small concession in a low voice. “Fine. He’s not awful.”

“Told you.”

“But I’ll never forget what he did to you, no matter how not-awful he is. And I swear to God, you try to get back with him or some crazy shit like—”

“Listen, just drop it, okay?” Bucky clenches his jaw and crosses his arms tight over his chest.

"Stop making googly eyes at him, and maybe I will."

Bucky snaps his head toward Sam and hisses through his clenched teeth. "Will you shut your fucking mouth?"

Sam shakes his head, because he doesn't fucking get it. Because it's not his ass and career and motherfucking life on the line if anyone finds out what kind of person he likes to fuck. And fuck that, because he doesn't even want to fuck Steve. He doesn't want to fuck any guy. Never fucking has. Never one fucking time. Not really. Not deep in his core, that smoldering place where his shame roots and pulses.

"This is me warning you," Sam says softly. "As your friend. That's all. There's no way the two of you end well."

Bucky scoffs. "No fucking shit."

He knows this, of course. And yet...

Nobody has ever accused Bucky of making good life choices.

Chapter Text


April 15th, 2008

The room smells like bullshit. The scent of it is so clear that even Steve can detect it, which he marks as a sign of progress. After two months in-country, he’s finally finding his footing as a deployed soldier and leader. With Bucky’s help, he’s learning the hidden nuances and protocols of deployment that nobody ever taught him at the Academy or anywhere else Stateside. He’s getting wise to the bullshit, like the stuff swimming around all of them at this moment. Major Coulson, some MI guy in Sergeant Romanoff’s company, doesn’t seem to notice it. Or if he does notice it, he’s being very careful to not call the old man out on it.

Next to Steve, Bucky’s brow furrows while he listens to Major Coulson’s terp, Faisal, translate for Hamid Nazari. Nazari is of Saddam Hussein’s former officers who’s now tapped into the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni militia group that’s been collaborating with U.S. forces for years. He claims that he has information about someone who might have some connection to the Islamic State of Iraq. He’s being obnoxiously circumspect about it, though, skillfully wriggling around Coulson’s questions while throwing out just enough information to keep Coulson from walking away and taking his money with him.

Technically their presence is a courtesy, something Bucky talked his way into by selling Steve’s expertise in “Middle Eastern affairs” to Coulson’s aide. Steve smiled at Bucky’s vagueness and his passionate salesmanship, a smile Bucky returned when Steve insisted to the aide that Bucky come with him to act as a tactical subject matter expert, an equally vague description of his platoon sergeant.

Ever since that night in the motor pool, they’ve fallen into a comfortable command rhythm, a civil and highly professional collaboration. Steve’s not exactly sure of the mechanism behind their synchronicity, but they both seem to have shifted some stubborn pieces within themselves to accommodate the other. It’s a movement that feels very… familiar.

Bucky shifts his legs, and his warm knee comes to rest against Steve’s own. They’ve been cramped in the back corner of the room, sitting on the floor on two thin cushions, their chai cups long empty. The two of them had to sit just-so in just the right place, at Bucky’s insistence. In full view of the door and as far away from the others as the little room will allow.

Bucky’s irritability and uneasiness have been radiating off him ever since they sat down. He’s been antsy from the get-go, upset that they weren’t allowed to bring any firearms with them to the meeting, objecting so vociferously that Steve had to pull him aside to help him calm down. The looks Coulson’s team members gave Bucky — like he was some raving, strung-out headcase — made Steve’s blood pound hot in his ears. Coulson was the only one who seemed to have any empathy, even though he held firm on his stance. Nazari’s not the kind of guy you insult like that, because he’s connected. And worse, he’s skittish.

And so both their pistols and rifles are back outside with the rest of the platoon, which has been pulling security for Coulson’s team all day. Steve tries to focus on Nazari and not the squirming man next to him, but Bucky’s sudden interjection pulls him back.

“Hey, Faisal,” Bucky calls out while the terp is in the middle of a sentence. “Ask him if this ‘someone’ is a relative of his.”

Everyone in the room looks back at Bucky, their expressions running the gamut from irate to perplexed. Faisal in particular looks horrified by the wildly out-of-turn comment. Nazari cants his head to the side like a bird of prey.

Bucky might be a skilled salesman, but he’s a pretty terrible diplomat. And Steve wonders how he was ever a sniper, given how impatient he’s proven himself to be on this deployment. But Steve’s not about to leave him flapping in the breeze, so he asks Nazari himself.

“This person you’re speaking about, the one connected to the Islamic State, is he a relative? Brother-in-law? Cousin? Cousin-in-law?”

Nazari’s mouth opens, then closes again.

“What did Rogers say?” Coulson asks Faisal, who translates while Coulson keeps his eyes locked on Steve.

“I knew it,” Bucky murmurs beside him, intuiting the gist of the exchange. “Same shit, different asshole.”

“Who is it?” Steve repeats. Faisal translates.

“Who are you to ask? You’re not military intelligence.”

Steve pushes his chin out. “And how do you know that?”

Nazari smiles over the lip of his chai cup and takes a small sip before this next words. “I’m a career soldier, Lieutenant. I know.”

“Well, you’re not a soldier anymore, are you? Right now, you’re just an old man. One who seems to be wasting our time.”

“And you are a beggar acting as if he is rich.”

“We just want to know if you’re trying to get us to do your dirty family business for you.” Steve holds up his hand, palm up, in a way he hopes conveys openness. “That’s all.”

“He’s my wife’s cousin,” Nazari says, his expression unperturbed. “But that does not make it any less credible.”

“Is that so?”

Steve’s in a corner now, and he can feel himself tense defensively. Nazari’s argument is perfectly feasible, but Steve can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more, something like fear beneath Nazari’s cool veneer.

“You can either believe me or not.” Nazari's shoulders roll into a shrug. “It makes little difference to me. But it could make a big difference for you, could it not?”

“You know it would.”

Nazari takes a breath so deep that even Steve can hear it in the back of the room. His fingers tighten around the old clay of his teacup. “Giving you this information may put me at risk.”

“But you must be at risk anyway, or else we wouldn’t even be here," Steve points out, eyebrow cocking. "Let’s not pretend you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart."

“The Islamic State is growing dangerous.” Nazari speaks the words in a low voice through a tight jaw, a tone that drops down ominously into Steve's gut.

“Yeah, no shit,” Bucky mutters once Faisal gets out his translation.

Steve nods thoughtfully. “Well, good thing we brought lots of money with us. Money that could get you out of here. Of course, we would need a name.”

The air in the room seems to grow thicker and heavier while Nazari contemplates. Steve is very, very far outside of his lane right now, but he’s also riding the thrill of knowing that he might actually be doing a small bit of good in a war where there’s not a whole lot of good to go around.

“Khouri. Rami Khouri.”

“Do you have any hard evidence?” Coulson asks Nazari while his aide jots down the name.

Nazari’s sharp, brown eyes pass around the room. Steve can feel Bucky stiffen at his side, like he always does whenever Nazari starts looking around the room or at the door or the window.

“I can get you a few emails.”

The conversation goes on for some time. Steve settles back into his proper role as an observer, but not before exchanging a look with Bucky. Bucky gives him a smile, one that’s been tamped down from something bigger that he might show in private, and Steve gives him the same.

When the meeting finally ends and Nazari gets his cash, Steve and Bucky beeline it out of the building and back to their men as fast as they can while still maintaining military bearing. Steve watches as Bucky reclaims his weapons with relief that’s almost painful, if only because it speaks to how unsafe he constantly seems to feel. More so than the rest of them. So much more.

Steve sees Coulson approaching, and if he didn’t have to represent his platoon and the entire 107th in this moment, he would outright bolt in the opposite direction. He knows he overstepped his boundaries egregiously, in a way that could most certainly earn him a counseling statement from Barton — or worse.

“Interesting move back there,” Coulson says, his tone light and observational. “I’ve never had infantrymen commandeer one of my meetings before.”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“No, I don’t think you are, though I do think you might be in the wrong branch.”

“I’m quite happy where I am, Sir,” Steve assures him. “And Sergeant Barnes was the one who started that line of questioning, not me.”

Coulson looks over at Bucky, who looks almost tearfully thankful to have a lit cigarette in his mouth. “Well, then maybe he’s in the wrong branch.”

Oh, how Steve wishes that Bucky weren’t in the infantry. It’s the ideal environment to bring out the most destructive parts of him, the ones that make him an excellent grunt but a generally dysfunctional person. At least, that’s been Steve’s very limited experience. He’s still learning who Bucky is now. Slowly. As the trust between them rebuilds from the razed pile of rubble they started this deployment with.

“Is there anything else you need, Sir?” Steve asks Coulson.

Coulson gives him a long look, an evaluative one, but shakes his head. “No. Go to your men, Lieutenant.”

Steve gives him a curt nod and does just that.

———

Walking away from their vehicles after post-mission checks and maintenance feels like a warm salve over Bucky’s cranked up body. Of course, this effect is diminished somewhat by his scheduled meeting with Steve, which Bucky refused to postpone despite Steve’s offer to do so.

He doesn’t have much of an excuse to avoid it, because their meetings are not nearly as bad as they used to be. They’re no longer intensely awkward or sodden with unspoken resentment and pain. Somehow, they’ve managed to pack all that away, though Bucky’s not quite naive enough to believe it’s gone for good. It’s merely been socked away for some rainy day down the road, when the conditions are just right for all their soggy, backlogged garbage to come spilling out. For now, Bucky’s content to keep it locked up, because the space between them has finally become habitable. Maybe even comfortable.

“Fucking Rumlow.” Bucky shakes his head as they review their personnel roster for updates. “He’s toeing the line. Doing a good job, even. Slippery fuck.”

Steve crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. “Remind me what he did back at Bragg.”

“One DUI. Coming to formation late a few times. Nothing we could administratively separate him for. Maybe back in 2000 we could have cut him loose, but not in the middle of a troop surge. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a bad conduct waiver to get in the Army in the first place.”

“Well, continue to keep eyes on him. There’s not much we can do until he makes another major mistake.”

“Oh, believe me, I’ll be watching.”

Steve checks off something in his notebook. “How’s the Arabic coming?”

“Jones has been quizzing everyone to death. Including me.”

Steve nods. “Great.”

Steve jots more things in his notebook while Bucky looks around Steve’s room. Steve has populated it with more signs of himself since they first arrived, particularly in the tight row of books lined atop his desk. Books on the Middle East, political philosophy, international relations. Bucky’s not sure where this regional fixation came from. The Steve he knew didn’t give half a shit about the Middle East or Central Asia. The Steve he knew would spend long hours painting to the sound of Robert Plant’s dynamic vocals pitching high up toward the ceiling. He’d read, but it was all fiction and poetry. Flannery O’Conner. James Baldwin. Pablo Neruda. Virginia Woolf. Joseph Conrad. Chinua Achebe. Jorie Graham. They would lie in Bucky’s bed, with Steve on his back holding a book above him while Bucky rested his head on the flat plane of Steve’s stomach. He’d slog through his roommate’s stack of New Yorkers, which she adamantly subscribed to but never actually read, and Steve would absently play with his hair and trace the shell of his ear with his finger, and sometimes when Bucky wasn't expecting it, he’d touch the tip of Bucky’s nose and say boop or beep, and it was just... strange and delightful and such an utterly Steve thing to do.

“So, Mack.” Steve flips through the manila folder he brought with him. He stops at a copy of Mack’s enlisted record brief. “Have you sat down with him to prepare for the E-5 board?”

“Yes, Sir. He’s gonna kill it.”

“Of course he is.” Steve smiles, his fondness for their men plain in his blue-green eyes. “Also, we need to talk about Foggy’s—”

Steve’s voice is cut off by the lifting wail of the incoming alarm, and after a couple seconds of frozen terror, Steve drops to the floor so fast that he looks like he’s prestidigitated himself out of the room entirely.

Bucky watches him scramble under the desk they’re sitting at with the speed and adrenaline of a first-timer, all life-and-death and seriousness. Bucky drops casually to his knees and crawls under the desk after him, where he sits next to Steve with knees up, forearms resting atop them. He looks over at Steve, whose face is taut, his jaw clenched, as if he actually expects a rocket to fall right through the ceiling on top of them. Bucky clamps down hard on the smile that’s threatening to crack his grim expression, but he can’t stop it. The pressure surges, and like the explosion that Steve seems to be expecting, he bursts out laughing.

Steve glares over at him. “This isn’t funny.”

Bucky nods. “Yes, it is.” His laughter rolls unabated. “Your face…”

The last thing on Earth Bucky expects to hear is the compressed puff of air that comes out of Steve’s mouth, which quickly escalates into laughter that’s been absent for so many years of Bucky’s life that he barely recognizes it.

They laugh through the screaming of the alarm, until tears are coming out of both of them. Until Bucky’s cheeks and diaphragm hurt. Until the all-clear alarm sounds and the giddy energy pouring out of both of them subsides with the threat.

Bucky sighs, letting out a last pair of chuckles. “We survived.”

“Oh, shut up.” Steve smiles as he wipes his face with his palms. “That was my first one.”

Bucky glances over at him, breathless not just from the laughter. He’s become acutely aware of all the places where their bodies are touching. Their shoulders. Upper arms. Thighs. He holds tightly onto these few moments before Steve inevitably breaks contact and gets back to business.

“Guess we should get off the floor.” Steve looks over to Bucky, as if he’s looking for permission.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, resigned. “Guess so.”

Neither man moves for several minutes of heavy, fidgeting silence.

“Do you want to lift together some time?” Steve finally asks.

Bucky stops the overexcited agreement that tries to catapult out of his mouth, the one that goes roughly like 'God, yes, please let me watch your incredible body lift impressively heavy things in skimpy, tight workout clothes.' Instead, he gives a cool smile, a pair of mellow nods, and self-congratulation for composing himself like an adult rather than a pathetic loser who has pined for Steve Rogers squatting in tiny shorts ever since he first saw him do it at sixteen years old. Christ, if that's not motivation to keep things nice and cordial for a while longer, Bucky's not sure what is. 

"Great," Steve says. And he grins and looks down at the floor between his feet, his cheeks pink even in the shadows.

———

April 26, 2008

“Man, I’m gonna be sore tomorrow,” Bucky says, pulling his arms behind his back to stretch his chest. He touches his fingertips to the rifle he has slung over his back and runs them over the smoothness of the stock.

“But is it worth the bragging rights?” Steve smiles over at him.

“Oh, hell yeah. Don’t think I won’t rub that in your face for the next week.”

“You enjoy your few days of gloating until I hit my 275.”

“Yeah, right.”

Of course, Steve actually is right. He’s always been stronger. Faster. More coordinated. When they first became friends, they used to sit for hours and make up stories about who Steve’s dad might be. They decided he was athletic, maybe a professional wrestler or a baseball player. They decided that he must be someone with a very important job that he had to do, which is why he left. This interpretation was a kindness to Steve more than anything, because as far as Bucky was privately concerned, Steve’s dad was just a deadbeat piece of shit. But still, he helped Steve look for Joseph Rogers, a name so common that there were at least two dozen of them in the phonebooks at the Brooklyn Public Library. They checked all five boroughs, calling every listing and coming up with a whole lot of nothing. They then concluded that he must be in New Jersey, or maybe Connecticut. This was the only logical explanation. That would be another search for another day, which never came to pass. Bucky was glad when Steve seemed to give up on the whole thing, even if it was just because his ma got sick again.

Bucky slows to a stop at the smoke pit, where he snags his cigarettes from the black gym bag slung over his shoulder and offers one to Steve, which he declines as usual. The air is cool and crisp, which draws out the goosebumps on Bucky’s sweat-damp skin. It’s quiet, especially for a Saturday night, and Bucky shoves aside the wave of reflexive nervousness that tries to crest in him.

“You think we should get an exception to policy?” Bucky asks, his voice tight.

It’s a hard question to grind out, because if Steve’s not on the same page as he is, their hard-earned, tenuous progress could unravel under the presumption of a closeness that’s not really there.

Steve tilts his head, then nods. “Probably a good idea.”

Bucky can’t help but smirk around his cigarette. An exception to policy will prohibit them from being charged with fraternization for spending time together like this, since they have a pre-established relationship prior to Steve commissioning. Never mind all the years of rage and bitterness, which they’re continuing to ignore quite artfully.

“Sharon got picked up on the O-3 list,” Steve says.

And, of course, Steve turns the conversation toward her. Bucky’s noticed the pattern countless times. Get close, bring up Sharon Carter. Get close, bring up Sharon Carter. He’s trying to see it as a sign that they’re verging on friendship, rather than feeding the misplaced jealousy that stirs in his gut. In high school, they used to talk about stuff like that all the time. Steve’s girlfriends. Bucky’s crushes. Of course, there were more than crushes, but he never told Steve about those. Bucky couldn’t bear for him to know what he actually did behind closed doors. He was far too ashamed and far too scared of being rejected by the best friend he ever had in his life.

“Wow,” Bucky says, trying not to sound as acutely disinterested as he actually is. “Good for her.”

“She’s earned it.” Steve’s smile is warm and deeply fond, and Bucky wonders if Steve ever had that smile for him. That stabbing sensation in Bucky’s gut intensifies.

Bucky exhales a slow stream of smoke from his nose. “You’re a lucky guy.”

Steve nods, and his gaze dulls as it drifts to the ground. “I am.”

Thank the Lord, this swiftly spiraling conversation is interrupted by a loud guffaw, one that neither of them could ever misplace. On the dimly lit gravel walkway, they can make out three figures, swerving, giggling, talking so loudly that other soldiers yell for them to shut the fuck up as they pass by the rows of trailers.

The three clowns finally step under a light, and Bucky can clearly make out an over-the-moon drunk Rumlow, Wade Wilson, and Luis. Bucky curses under his breath, snubs out his smoke in the dirt, and throws the butt in the bin.

“Hey, you three.” Bucky points to them, and the sight of him is enough to stop them dead in their tracks.

“Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit,” Wilson repeats as the reality of what’s happening settles upon him. He snaps to attention, as if that could possibly do anything to curry favor in his very fucked condition.

“What’s goin’ on, fellas?” Bucky asks, looking them up and down, watching for swaying, listening for slurring, smelling for fumes. Senses sharp. Judgment fierce. 

“We’re jus goin’ to the PX for some, uh…” Luis pauses and points to Rumlow.

“Doritos,” Rumlow says. He holds up a bag that’s half eaten already. “Want some?”

Bucky ignores Rumlow and gets menacingly close to Wilson, who reeks of nacho cheese and vodka. They say you can’t smell it on someone, but Bucky can detect it from five klicks away. Something inside him goes buoyant, deep in his belly.

“You boys been drinking?”

Bucky’s attention travels from soldier to soldier, from Rumlow’s defiant ‘fuck you’ face, to Luis’ hanging head, to Wilson’s wide eyes and yawing jaw.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Wilson finally says.

Out of the shadow of the smoke pit, Steve emerges, his sneakers landing sternly with every step. When the men catch sight of him, the “oh, shits” begin again in earnest. Luis salutes Steve, a potentially fatal error on a no-salute base and a fine indicator of just how impaired he is.

“Where is it?” Steve asks, his voice low and dangerous.

“In our room,” Luis confesses.

“All right, let’s go,” Bucky says, keeping his voice steady despite the confusing mix of enticement and anger and disappointment brewing in his chest.

The men lead Bucky and Steve back to their trailer in stumbling silence. Bucky glances over at Steve as they walk. His expression is grim, and his jaw looks tight enough to snap. This is the first real disciplinary problem they’ve had in the platoon, and it’s a damn serious one at that. If Steve’s thoughts are anywhere close to where Bucky’s are, he’s probably wondering just where the two of them fucked up.

Back at their trailer, Reyes comes to attention when they step through the door.

“I didn’t drink any of it, Sir,” Reyes says immediately to Steve.

“And yet, you didn’t report it to anyone,” Steve replies with a glare.

Reyes stiffens. “I’m sorry, Sir.”

Bucky watches as Wilson retrieves three large mouthwash bottles filled with blue-tinted alcohol from his footlocker. One of the bottles is over half empty, an amount probably equivalent to a fifth.

“When did you get these?” Bucky asks, taking the bottles from him.

“Yesterday, Sergeant,” Wilson says.

“You drank all this tonight between the three of you?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

Bucky takes a long look at all four soldiers. When he says his next words, he ensures that they’re measured and even.

“Get some sleep tonight, because tomorrow morning, we are going to smoke the everliving fuck out of all of you.” Bucky points at Reyes. “You, too.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” they all say.

Bucky turns to Steve. “Sir, can you stay here while I get the MPs? I want breathalyzers on all of them. I’ll go get rid of these.” Bucky raises the bottles in hand.

“My pleasure, Sergeant.”

When Bucky leaves their trailer, he has every intention of taking the vodka to the MPs. He really does. It's important. It's evidence. The men fucked up, and they need to be disciplined. And as he walks, an idea begins to grow, an urgent one, and it strengthens little by little with each step that he takes. And then, somehow he's not even on his way to the MPs at all. He's going to his own trailer. And the idea is blooming and inevitable, and then he's walking through the door, and Sam is out for the night, and he empties out his footlocker, lines up the bottles along the bottom, and covers them strategically with gear and personal effects. As he does this, his mind doesn’t even attempt to generate a rationale. It’s probably for the best, because there is absolutely no logical or ethical reason to not dump out every single blue ounce into one of the Porta-Johns right this second.

He works automatically, powered by a deep and well-used algorithm that tells him that if he has access to booze, he needs to keep that access. And if he has that booze, he needs to hide it. Just in case. As he’s become accustomed, he banishes away any fledgling thoughts about consequences and carries on with his night as if everything is completely fine. Because if there are two things that Bucky can do better than anyone in the entire 107th, it's lie and avoid, especially when it comes to the truth

And, indeed, it is completely fine. Great, even. Bucky smiles when he grabs the MPs and tells them that his guys are drunk and that he dumped the booze already, despite how pissed off he is. Despite how much he’d rather not spend his Sunday morning smoking the shit out of his men. He smiles because those blue bottles are his now, and right now, because of that fact, there’s not a single thing that could be wrong anywhere in the entire universe.

———

Steve walks with a practically bouncing Bucky to Captain Barton’s trailer to fill him in on the events of the evening. Steve wonders if he’s happy because Rumlow blew a .13 on the breathalyzer, which may be enough to get him the discharge Bucky so desperately wants.

Barton answers the door in his PTs, which reveal the gruesome extent of the burn scars and other IED damage covering his left arm and leg. Steve has trouble keeping his eyes on Barton's weary face as he leans agains the door frame.  

“What happened?” Barton asks.

Steve fills him in on the situation, along with the most-definitley-intoxicated BAC levels of all three men.

“Lemme guess, the ol’ mouthwash care package?” Barton raises an eyebrow at Bucky. For a moment, the two exchange the special look that only NCOs give each other, the one that Steve has trouble describing. He forgets most days that Barton was an NCO before he commissioned as an officer, making him a rarity and a man Steve feels very fortunate to serve under.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Okay, I’ll let First Sergeant know. So what’s the plan?” Barton asks Steve.

“We’re going to smoke them,” Steve says. “Early tomorrow morning. I’d like to have you there, as well as First Sergeant Morita and Lieutenant Sousa.”

Bucky glances over at Steve and gives an approving look.

Steve continues. “And I’d like to do it outside the junior enlisted housing so that the men can understand some of the consequences of putting the entire base at risk by violating the first General Order.”

Demonstration of force is a known and tested deterrent on the battlefield, and the same principle applies to corrective actions within a unit. And, of course, group physical punishment is a tradition as old as the Army itself, and administering it is one of the secret joys of leadership. Steve hasn’t smoked anyone since the academy, and he’s mildly disturbed by how much he’s looking forward to it.

“Good, good. Sounds good to me,” Barton says, nodding.

“This is also Rumlow’s second alcohol-related offense in twelve months,” Bucky says. “I’d like him to be processed for administrative separation.”

The corner of Barton’s eye crinkles. “Barnes, you honestly think I can justify separating anyone right now, given the current climate?”

Bucky frowns and shifts his weight forward. “But Sir, the policy is clear on—”

“I know the policy. We’re also on brigade wide stop-loss, so that ties my hands for any separations short of Chapter 8 and felony-level shit.” Barton shakes his head in defeat. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t like him, but for now, he stays.”

The vein on Bucky’s temple pops, a sharp contrast to the forceful politeness of his words. “Yes, Sir.”

“I’ll be there. So will First Sergeant and Sousa.”

“4:30, outside the shower trailer in section four,” Steve says.

“Whew! Gonna make everyone’s Sunday shitty, huh?” Barton grins, and Steve notes that he seems to have found the one thing that gets the man excited. “Go big or go home, right?”

Steve glances over at Bucky, who has his arms crossed and is gazing off into the darkness, out toward the wire, expression blank. Steve exchanges a few more logistical comments with Barton and then they're off again, Steve following Bucky's firm-stepped lead as they head back to the junior enlisted quarters. He can't quite get a read on what's going on with Bucky, why he's not only pissed off but also quiet. After spending this entire deployment twitching and cursing in every stretch of uneasy silence, the change is notable.

“Where are we going now?” Steve asks.

“Need to give Doc a heads up, in case something goes south tomorrow.”

“How hard do we plan on smoking them?”

“Hard, and they’ll be hung over and dehydrated, so I want him to be there just in case.” Bucky stops in front of one of the trailers and looks to the ones on the left and right. “I think this is the one.”

Bucky knocks and Jones answers. He sputters out a formal greeting to both of them.

“Yeah, yeah, thanks, Jones. Is Doc here?”

“Hey Parker,” Jones calls. “Sergeant Barnes and Lieutenant Rogers are here to see you.”

Steve hears a muted “shit,” then some shuffling, then the sound of a jaunty video game tune being muted. Parker comes to the door in civilian clothes, eyes big and curious and darting between them, and his body waffles between the positions of attention and parade rest.

“Hey, Sir. Sergeant. How, uh... how are you?”

"Relax, Doc," Steve says with the loose wave of his hand. "We've got a little mission for you." 

They fill him in on the details. Parker looks disappointed and offers to bring banana bags.

Bucky then presses his shoulder against the doorjamb and leans into it, real casual, folding his arms over his muscular chest. There's a space where Bucky's gray Army PT shirt ends and his bicep begins, and the skin there is so, so smooth, a polished, tanned surface that runs down to the tightly chorded muscles of his forearms. Steve clenches his fingers tightly at his sides. 

“Oh, and I wanted to ask you about some graffiti that someone reported in the latrines,” Bucky says to Parker. He hitches his thumb over his shoulder, toward said trailers. “Seems we’ve had a rash of dick-and-balls graffiti lately. Really impressive ones, too.”

Parker crosses his own wiry arms in a tense imitation of his platoon sergeant's stance. His voice ratchets up high. “Oh, really? I didn’t notice. It’s probably Wilson. He’s always drawing weird stuff.”

Bucky nods slowly, his mouth curling up. “Okay. All right. I’m just saying, maybe keep an eye out, yeah?”

“Absolutely, Sergeant. Definitely.”

On their way over to brief Rhodes and Dugan, Bucky takes Steve to the latrine to show him the graffiti gracing the door of each stall. As dick-n-balls go, they really are very impressive.

“I told ya,” Bucky says. He points to the hair on the balls and the slit drawn at the head of the dick. “Just look at the detailing.”

“You really think Parker did this?”

“Nah. It’s just fun to tease him. This is definitely Wilson’s handiwork.”

The squad leaders take the news worse than anyone. Dugan’s face goes red and sweaty, and Rhodes makes a baleful promise that they won’t be able to lift their arms for at least two days, once he’s finished with them

Afterward, they linger outside while Bucky smokes another cigarette. Steve doesn’t like the smell, never has, but Bucky looks like an advertiser’s wet dream every time he takes a puff. Maybe it’s the tall, dark, and handsome part, or the shape of his mouth, or the way it seems to give his voice a gritty edge that’s just—

“So, how do you want me to participate tomorrow?” Steve asks, distracting himself from that very unsettling line of thought.

“I figure I’ll be the loud angry asshole and you can be the creepy quiet one. Good cop, bad cop.” The cherry of his cigarette glows in the dark as he takes a drag on it.

“So, I’m the bad cop?”

Bucky breathes out the smoke over his shoulder, away from Steve’s face. “Oh, hell yeah. It’s always the quiet ones who are the scariest. You know that. The screamers, they’re obvious. They’re just discharging all their pent up energy. But the quiet ones, nobody knows how to read them.”

“I think I can do quiet and scary.”

After a few last hasty drags, Bucky scrapes the tip of his cigarette over the sole of his running shoe and drops it the butt into the canister. “Well, we’d better get back. Almost curfew.”

Steve looks at his watch, baffled at how it went from 9:00 to 11:50 so fast. “Yeah, don’t wanna turn into a pumpkin.”

Bucky laughs, a fantastic sound when it’s genuine. When it’s not tinged with bitterness or sarcasm. “You never did look good in orange,” he says, then winks.

Steve smiles, even though he probably shouldn’t. Their conversations do this sometimes. They take a turn toward the past, not the facts of the past but the dynamic of it. It’s nice. Of course it’s nice. But it also strikes a dissonant chord in Steve, because Bucky and Sharon are two notes in his life that can’t be played together like this without marrow-deep pain.

Back in his trailer, Steve gives Sitwell a heads-up about the smoking, which is now a mere four-and-a-half hours away. He invites him to come, even though Steve knows he probably won’t.

“I bet Sergeant Barnes is great at smoking soldiers,” Sitwell says offhandedly as he draws down his comforter.

That’s all he says. It’s not a particularly damning statement, and it’s not even spoken with scorn. But all Steve can hear is insult. Maybe he’s just hearing the ghosts of all the other insults and slights Sitwell’s lobbed at Bucky over these past months, the ones Steve usually just lets go.

“What is your problem with him?” Steve lays his hands on his hips. “Seriously. What is it?”

Sitwell sits on the edge of his bed. His expression loses every bit of edge, every tinge of sourness. For the first time since Steve’s known him, Sitwell is being very serious.

“My problem with Sergeant Barnes is that he’s a drunk.”

“A drunk, huh? Thought you didn’t like him because you think he’s gay.”

Sitwell shrugs. “I don’t really care about that. At the end of the day, that’s his choice. Long as he doesn’t hit on me.”

Steve rolls his eyes at the very notion that Bucky would ever hit on Jasper Sitwell.

“What bothers me is Barnes’ irresponsibility, and the way he’s never held accountable for anything because he’s got more skill identifiers than anyone in this unit. He could drunk drive his truck through the wall of Captain Barton’s office, and he probably wouldn’t even get an Article 15. It's just not fair.”

“He can’t be that bad,” Steve replies. “If he were really a drunk, like you say, he would have been counseled at some point. He would have gotten a DUI. Something. His record is clean.”

In fact, Bucky’s record is not just clean of disciplinary action. It’s exemplary. It's the kind of record you do a double-take at just to make sure you don't have two incredible soldiers' files stacked together. Hell, the man has a Silver-fucking-Star, though Steve couldn't rustle up the citation for it and has no idea what it's for. He doesn't know how to ask. He's afraid to ask, though he's not sure why.

“Barnes is very good at managing his impression. He’s a likable guy. People like being around him. Barton likes him. First Sergeant likes him.” Sitwell holds up his index finger, pointing it emphatically. “But he’s had his soldiers call him in the middle of the night, when they really needed him, and he was too annihilated to even talk to them. And it’s not just a few beers on the weekends. We’re talking black-out drunk, multiple times a week.”

Steve frowns. He thinks back to when he and Bucky were together. Yeah, he liked to drink. And yeah, he could drink. God, could he drink. But he was young, and it was all just fun. Wasn't it? And it wasn't that often, was it? And Bucky always went to class. He always went to drill. He was always there for his family and for Steve — at least, until he wasn’t. And that certainly wasn’t alcohol’s fault.

“That doesn’t sound like him,” Steve says, his tone flat.

Sitwell sighs. “Look, you probably think I’m just an asshole who’s got some grudge. I get that. But I know men like him. My dad was like him. Good man. I don’t doubt that Barnes is a good man. I’m pretty sure he is. But he has a disease, and one of these days, he’s going to get himself or somebody else killed because of it.”

“Well, if he really has that bad of a problem, maybe you should try supporting him instead of undermining him all the time.”

“He’s not going to ever get help if he doesn’t experience any consequences. As long as he’s the golden goose around here, he’s going to keep destroying himself and putting people at risk.” Sitwell purses his lips. “Something has to change.”

Steve turns away and starts undressing. He doesn’t want to look at Sitwell right now. More than that, he doesn’t want Sitwell to see any of the concern that he feels settling on his face.

“It’s not your job to make Sergeant Barnes experience consequences,” Steve says, pulling off his t-shirt. “Just try being a good leader. Treat him like you’d treat one of your soldiers who was struggling. With understanding and compassion. You’re definitely not doing that.”

“I know.”

“Did you ever go to Barton or Morita?”

“They would never believe me. They adore him.” Sitwell pauses. “And I know I’m not liked. I know I’m a pain. I’m not blind to it.”

Steve wads up his PT shirt, walks to his wall locker, and shoves it in his laundry bag. He then turns and looks over at his roommate, at the man who’s been an obstacle and a nuisance and a barely competent leader ever since they met. And for the first time, Steve feels sympathy for him.

“Try harder,” Steve tells him. “Be better. We have to be better. Both of us.”

Sitwell looks down as his hands and nods.

———

3:45 comes in the blink of an eye. Steve drags himself to the latrine, noting that the dick-n-balls fairy has even visited the officer/NCO section. He shaves, showers, dresses, and walks to Bucky’s trailer, standing outside until the other man is ready. When Bucky finally comes out, it’s with a lopsided grin and deep, dark bags under his eyes.

They walk the rows of trailers until they come to the dwelling of their victims. Bucky uses his Common Access Card to override the door and flips on all the lights. Steve follows him in and watches Bucky unfold the scene, feeling both unease and awe as Bucky unleashes a side of himself Steve has never seen before.

“Get your asses out of bed! Move it! Move it!” Bucky yells, kicking Luis', Reyes', and Wilson's beds as he passes them. He stalks to Rumlow's bed next, eyes flashing and predatory. He tears the covers off of him and rips his pillow out from under his head, tossing it across the room. He leans in close and screams in Rumlow's terrified face.

“Wake up, motherfucker! Get your fucking psychopathic ass out of bed! Now!” 

Steve's entire body seizes up painfully as he watches the scene unfold, as the men scramble out of their beds, rattled and scared. The smart ones already dressed in their combat uniforms the night before, but Luis rummages through his wall locker for a clean uniform while Bucky screams at him to hurry the fuck up or he’ll be late for his own smoking. Steve very calmly tells the others to come to the position of attention in front of the door, remembering his role as the quiet, scary one.

Eventually, Luis joins the other three on the imaginary line Steve’s situated them along. The ones who drank look awful, swollen, their faces marked by a rough few hours of sleep on twisted sheets. Bucky marches them single file down toward the showers, where there’s a wide rectangle of dirt perfect for smoking hapless soldiers upon. A few people have already showed up, including Parker — looking young and serious — and First Sergeant, who looks only slightly better than the men they’re about to destroy.

“Front leaning rest position, move!” Bucky calls, and all four soldiers get into the push-up position. “Start pushing!” he yells. “What the fuck are you waiting for?”

Steve recognizes the tactic. Give the order to get into the push-up position, fail to direct them to begin doing pushups, then blame them for not doing something that was never instructed. Create the feeling of incorrectness. Make them question protocols. Increase the probability that they’ll mess up. Punish more. It’s a brilliant and cruel cycle.

Dugan and Rhodes arrive, and Bucky gives him a signal to stand back for the time being. The two men nod and watch over the process with unmasked enjoyment.

“Flutter kicks!” Bucky calls, and the four men flip rapidly onto their backs, legs stretched out in front of them. “Go!”

The men begin moving their legs up and down in a scissor-like movement. Steve walks over to Reyes, who’s clearly attempting to conserve energy by making his movements small.

“Bigger, Reyes,” Steve says to him, his face a mask of hard, unforgiving marble.

Reyes presses his lips together and corrects himself. Steve looks to the small crowd that’s gathered around them. Barton and Sousa. Every soldier in second platoon. Sitwell, Sergeant Wilson, and a couple soldiers from first platoon. Most have arrived in rumpled PTs with yesterday’s scruff still on their faces.

Bucky starts yelling again, his voice furious and burning with something Steve can’t quite put his finger on.

“Did any of you think of what might have happened if we were called up on QRF last night? What if your brothers needed you outside the wire, and you were too fucking drunk to go help them? What if this base got attacked, and you were too drunk to tell whether you were shooting a combatant or your own fucking family?”

Steve very suddenly remembers his conversation with Sitwell. Bucky continues his brutal assault.

“Stop! Side straddle hop! Move!”

The men roll to their sides and rise to their feet. They’re flagging, sluggish and sickly, except for Reyes, who looks merely tired and inconvenienced. Bucky orders them to start doing jumping jacks, and it’s not long at all before Rumlow bends over and vomits on his boots.

“Keeping moving, Private Rumlow!” Bucky yells after he’s done heaving.

Rumlow closes his eyes, mumbles something, and resumes the exercise. Next to him, Luis must have caught a whiff of the puke, because he’s the next one to blow, turning to the side to spare his boots.

“The squat thrust!”

The men groan and follow his command. Luis stops, dropping flat on his stomach, trying to catch his breath. Steve walks over to him and crouches next to the pile of vomit Luis left earlier.

“I didn’t hear Sergeant Barnes tell you to stop. Did you?”

Luis growls. “No, Sir!”

He pushes up his body and resumes the movements. He’s slow as molasses and twice as sloppy, but he’s still moving. Steve stands and walks slowly along the line of men, giving each a pointed stare as he passes while Bucky continues chewing their asses.

“What you did was a betrayal to everyone here. You betrayed me, Lieutenant Rogers, your squad leaders, First Sergeant, Captain Barton, and everyone who depends on you. Your brothers.” Bucky visibly grits his teeth, and his yelling kicks up so loud that they can probably hear him at the front gate. “If anything happened to them because of your irresponsibility, because you just wanted to have a good time, you would have never forgiven yourselves!”

“You’re all a disappointment,” Captain Barton says plainly. “I expected better of you.”

“We trained you better than this,” Morita adds.

“It’s a privilege to be in this unit, men. Don’t forget that.”

Steve turns toward the sound of Colonel Fury’s voice and catches Bucky doing the same. Fury nods to both of them, then fades back into the crowd.

“Now I’m gonna turn it over to your squad leaders, who are very excited to impart some more wisdom onto you.” Bucky nods to Dugan and Rhodes, who are both chomping at the bit.

“All right, ladies,” Dugan bellows with glee. “The bear crawl! In a circle! Move your asses!”

Bucky and Steve step to the sidelines, where nearly half the company has now assembled. The faces of those watching are mixed with amusement, irritation, and pity.

“Nice work,” Steve tells Bucky.

“You too, Sir. Figure we’ll let them go for another ten minutes, then call it.”

Steve nods. “Good.”

When it’s finally over, there are three piles of vomit, four soldiers covered with sweat and dirt, and a thinned out crowd of spectators. Some have gone to chow, some back to their trailers for more sleep. Steve tunes into the nagging whisper in the back of his mind, the one that wonders if maybe they went too far. But when he reminds himself of the potential consequences, the gross violation of a multiply stated rule, he returns to a feeling of correctness about the whole thing.

Steve looks over at Bucky, who seems to have been stripped of all his energy, like he shouted it clean out of his body. He watches Parker examine the men with with heavy eyelids, his mouth turned downward.

“You okay?” Steve asks.

“Fine,” Bucky says. “I think I’m gonna head out.” And with that, Bucky turns and begins to walk away, not even waiting for permission to leave.

Before he registers his own movement, Steve lays his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, stopping him. This isn’t right. Bucky doesn’t just leave like this. He doesn’t just leave his men behind without at least checking on them.

“Hey, hold on.”

Bucky looks back, then down at Steve’s hand. Something in him brightens then, just slightly, and he raises his eyebrows.

“Are you okay?” Steve repeats.

“I’m just tired.” Bucky smiles softly. “I’m okay.”

“All right. Go get some rest.” Steve squeezes his shoulder and drops his hand back to his side.

Bucky nods. “Thank you.”

Steve frowns as he watches Bucky walk off, but he re-orients quickly and starts making the rounds that Bucky would normally make. He talks with each man quietly, asking if he understands why he was punished, asking if there’s anything the command team can do to support them. The men are all docile and repentant, and Steve feels even better about their decision to discipline them so ruthlessly.

When Parker gives all four men a clean-enough bill of health, Steve thanks him, checks in briefly with his squad leaders, and makes his way to the phone center to call Sharon. Happiness blooms within him at sound of her voice, at the way she tells him she misses him, at the updates she gives about Adams and Nguyen and her promotion ceremony on Friday.

But through their conversation, Steve’s mind wanders. Back to the smoking. Back to Bucky. Back to his conversation with Sitwell. And Sharon’s voice begins to sound very far away.

———

Back in his room, Bucky strips down to his underwear and crawls into bed, hiking up the covers over his head with a long sigh. He closes his eyes. He tries to relax. He grumbles and tosses while sleep evades him for over an hour. He blames the room for being too quiet. He blames Sam for having a life and not being here right now. He blames Rumlow for being a psychopathic dirtbag and a bad influence on the others. He blames Barton for not letting Bucky toss that sack of shit to the wind, for not letting him send Rumlow back to whatever meth den in Spokane his parents birthed him into. He blames Steve for caring, for not seeing into the storm of shame that fueled every furious word out of his mouth this morning, blames him for not seeing the way he turned every berating syllable back in on himself tenfold. Because he deserves every word and more, especially given what he’s about to do.

Bucky sits up, eyes locking onto the foot locker just beyond the edge of his mattress. He debates, even though he knows which side has already won. But he still tries to reason it out, if only to say he gave it a shot. He debates himself for so long that the arguments on both sides lose all meaning, becoming merely a smashed up collection of letters, form with no function. So his body takes over, pulling his hand down to the bottom of that footlocker, to the opened bottle of vodka his men were chugging at last night. He pulls off the cap and smells it and, oh, he loves that smell, misses that smell, misses that burn, the way it unfurls the knots of fear and worry and self-loathing within him, if only for a little while.

He takes two large swigs and then a third, just for good measure, then tucks the bottle back into the footlocker that will probably never be inspected. Not his locker. Because Barton and Morita trust him. Because, somehow, their field of vision only extends to the edge of his accomplishments and not a single inch further.

Bucky flops back down on the mattress and pulls the covers back up over his head. The vodka burns warm in his stomach, and he promises himself that this is a one-time deal, just to give him a short respite from his own thoughts. Just a few hours of sleep. That’s all he needs. And tonight, he’ll take it to the john and dump it all out. And Sam and Steve and everyone, they’ll never know it was here. And everything will be fine. Everything will be absolutely, completely fine.

Chapter Text

 


May 13, 2008

“All right, children, everyone calm down,” Sergeant Rhodes says, pressing his palms toward the floor in a downward motion. The men grumble and shift where they stand, but they still snap their yaps shut on command. Rhodes then motions Vanna White-style to the stack of identical white boxes beside him. “There’s one for each of you.”

“Is it bad I am so excited?” Maximoff asks Ward, grinning.

“Of course not. Need to make up for all those Christmases you never got to have in the shitty Soviet Union,” Ward says, his face as flatly bemused as it ever is.

“In American occupied Iraq, Christmas comes whenever the American public remembers that we’re over here,” Bucky says in the general direction of Maximoff and Ward. “Which is rarely,” he murmurs to Steve, who snorts quietly in reply.

Still, it’s a nice gesture for the men. It makes them feel supported amid the daily boredoms and moral rigors of deployment, an external confirmation of what Bucky and Steve and the entire command team attempt to impart to them as often as possible. You’re doing the right thing, and the things we ask you to do are not on you; they’re on us. Of course, the American public has virtually absolved itself of any responsibility for the incursion into Iraq in the first place, cheerfully forgetting how they blindly trusted Congress to approve the invasion despite no credible evidence linking Saddam Hussein to 9/11. But that’s neither here nor there, Bucky supposes, because today, the American public is giving them presents.

Rhodes and Dugan arrange the men in a semi-circle around the stack and start passing boxes down the line. Dugan repeatedly growls at them to “just pass the daggone boxes, for Chrissakes” as the men predictably shake them and try to hold onto the ones they perceive to be filled with the most nicotine or caffeine or quasi-pornographic materials.

Bucky stands outside the circle with Steve, watching the excitement on their faces. It’s nice to see them enjoying themselves after such a rough month. Although here hasn’t been much combat excitement to speak of, their patrols have been peppered with more bodies than Bucky would have expected at this phase in the war. The sectarian violence isn’t quite as bad as last year or the year before, but it’s been enough to rattle the men, especially when the bodies have been of women or children or when the feral dogs have gone after the remains of someone’s grandmother or cousin or daughter.

“Sousa said these came from some elementary school in Killeen,” Bucky tells Steve. “Odds are, most of them are complete shit, but there might be one or two that were packed by someone’s dad or mom who’s been downrange before. Meaning there might actually be something good in it.”

“What constitutes good?”

“Anything with a stimulating effect.” Bucky ticks his head to the side. “Or baby wipes.”

“Hey, Sir, we got leftovers for you and Sergeant Barnes,” Rhodes calls over to them, holding up the last two boxes.

“Check with the other platoons to see if they want them,” Steve says.

“Everyone’s got ‘em, Sir. These are extras.” Rhodes shakes them and raises his eyebrows at Bucky. “Don’t tell me you don’t wanna know what’s in the mystery box.”

Bucky points back and forth between Rhodes and Dugan. “You two got one?”

“For Chrissakes, just take ‘em already,” Dugan says. “They sent enough for a whole brigade.”

In the background, the men begin bossily insisting that they take one, as they’re inclined to do when they’re in large numbers and can get away with sassing leadership en masse.

“Fine, fine,” Bucky replies, not about to get into an argument about a box filled with 90 percent garbage, anyway. The men pass two boxes to Steve and Bucky.

“Okay, open ‘em up!” Rhodes says.

The room fills with the sounds of tactical knives and multi-tools opening and slicing into tape. Bucky pulls his Gerber and cuts open his and then Steve’s, his heart beating with a level of excitement that’s totally disproportionate to what he finds inside.

As he should have expected, Bucky’s box is a technicolor nightmare of Jolly Ranchers, black licorice, and Smarties. It was as if this kid — no doubt an agent of the Islamic State — had a personalized list of his least favorite candy and sent it for the distinct purpose of torpedoing his morale. Bucky groans his disappointment and shoves the bags aside until he reaches a DVD of Rocky IV and pair of black and gray argyle socks that he is definitely going to wear in uniform at some point.

“Ha!” he says to Steve, brandishing the DVD with a grin. “Check it out.”

Steve looks up from his box, and his puzzled expression dawns into such a show of childlike elation that Bucky hopes none of the other men can see it. It’s not because he thinks it’ll damage Steve’s image — indeed, such a naked show of humanity would only endear him further to the platoon. It’s because Bucky selfishly wants this moment all for himself. These moments, these precious moments where they give each other joy, are more intimate than any physical act that’s ever transpired between them. It’s alway felt that way to Bucky. This has always been the good stuff. The best stuff.

“‘If he dies, he dies,’” Steve says in his finest Dolph Lundgren impression, which is orders of magnitude better than his Robert Burns impression. Looking the part doesn’t exactly hurt, either.

“‘I must break you,’” Bucky replies. 

“‘He’s not a human. He’s like a piece of iron.’” Steve pauses and glances up in thought. “I think those are actually all of his lines in the whole movie.”

Bucky smiles again and puts the DVD back. He then pulls out the card, which is drawn in crayon on white construction paper. It’s a picture of a large aircraft dropping bombs on a burning city.

“‘Thank you, army man! Kill the bad guys!’” Bucky reads aloud, then looks over at Steve. “Holy shit.”

“Future grunt?”

“Well, from the looks of it, future Airman.” Bucky makes a sour face and peeks into Steve’s box. “What’d you get?”

“I think someone’s daddy or mommy packed mine.” Steve tilts it toward Bucky, who lets out a gasp at the four cartons of Marlboro Lights and six tins of Copenhagen packed tightly inside.

“Son of a bitch,” Bucky says under his breath. “You got the mother lode.”

“Want them?”

Bucky snatches all four cartons of smokes, stacks them at his feet, and closes his ankles around them as the other men in his vicinity begin to eye him sharply. There’s no way he’ll smoke all of them before they go home, but they’ll make good trade with the other NCOs. He tells Steve to try to pedal the dip to Barton and Morita, especially if he needs a favor from them.

Steve points to the inside of Bucky’s box. “We should watch that.”

Bucky can’t stop the corners of his mouth for pulling upward over the informality with which Steve just suggested they hang out and watch a movie together.

“Any time,” Bucky says, trying earnestly to sound cool. Containing his emotions around the deepening of his relationship with Steve has become a second occupation for him lately, and he’s almost getting good at it. Almost.

They take a few moments to watch the men react to their gifts. There’s cackling laughter over some of the odder fare. A women’s workout DVD. An earwax cleaning kit. A large bottle of lube, accompanied by a shout of “That should last you about a week, Wilson.” Foggy whoops over the stacks of baby wipes and Five Hour Energy shooters in his box, as well as the sudden clout it’s earned him with the others.

“Hey, Sir.” Bucky pauses, tripping over the question he’s wanted to ask Steve for the past week and a half. He doesn’t know why it’s been so damn hard to choke out every time he tries, like it’s coated in dirt and cotton balls. “I have a question, and feel free to say no, because it’s not really protocol.”

It’s not protocol at all. And if he didn’t have a company commander who’s so painfully averse to the spotlight inherent in his position, Bucky would probably never have the chance to ask it at all.

Steve puts his box under one arm and looks over at Bucky, his blue eyes placid and curious. “Sure.”

Bucky takes a deep breath. “So, I just re-upped, and I was wondering if you’d deliver my oath on Friday during formation.” The words come out like a long breath, monotone and rushed. In the few seconds between the end of his sentence and Steve’s reply, Bucky bites down on the inside of his lower lip.

Steve’s face softens further, to the point where there’s not a trace of soldier, not a whisper of officer or West Point, not a single hint of anything terrible that’s ever happened between them.

“I’d be honored.”

Bucky’s smile is controlled, but the crinkles at the corners of his eyes betray him. “Cool. Great." He looks down at the toes of his boots, heat rushing to his cheeks. "Thank you.”

———

May 14, 2008

It’s quiet today. Even with the chatter and the routine clangs and scrapes of work being done, it’s still quiet. Perhaps being on Quick Reaction Force duty makes the quiet seem more obvious — or more ominous, given how twitchy it’s making his NCOs. But unlike Bucky, Steve has always been good at quiet. It’s like a warm hug, and he wonders if it only still feels that way for him because those warm arms haven’t yet tried to shank him in the kidneys.

Steve is at home in the quiet because quiet is how boys have to be when their mothers are very sick for many years. Quiet is how boys have to be in order to pay attention in class, to remember every word on every blackboard and overhead projection so that they don’t have to study, so they have time at night to make dinner and take out the trash and sort the bills and fill out all the checks. Quiet is how boys bring home perfect grades so that their very sick mothers never have to worry about them getting into college. Quiet is also how these boys create space for the loud boys who balance them, the ones who laugh and joke and charm with enough force to drown out the wailing black holes inside.

Steve now watches one former loud boy in particular, the one whose first words to him at age twelve were “You got any gum?” He said it like it was an emergency, like he needed it to MacGyver some doomsday device the Soviets planted at the Empire State Building. Neither of them realized that the Cold War had ended nine months earlier, because there had always been a Cold War for as long as they’d lived.

Of course, Steve did not have any gum, and that loud boy didn’t seem to think to ask anyone else. Instead, he plopped himself in the next desk over and stated that nobody seems to have any gum in New York, and what’s the deal with that? No Mountain Dew either, so what did they drink, anyway? Coke? He had a weird accent, like Brooklyn overlaid awkwardly with Texas, a street-tough, banjo-tight twang that got him mercilessly teased for about three days before he started whipping out jokes. Good ones, too. Raunchy ones. Ones that scandalized the quiet boys and simultaneously made them envy his easy confidence and wit. It wasn’t a secret that this loud boy was also very nice. Despite his penchant for blue humor, he never said a disparaging word about anyone except himself, which he did in spades and to great acclaim.

Steve later learned that this loud boy was actually a quiet boy who only played loud, who wore loud like a brightly-colored costume to distract from the grayness he carried in his chest. Even after they became best friends, even after they began joining their bodies together, Bucky only hinted at the grayness, like he was afraid that if Steve ever saw it, he’d wither and die under its bleakness. And no matter how deep Steve would dig, no matter how many assurances he would give of his love, no matter how tightly he would hold the man that boy became, he could never once lay eyes on it. Not fully, anyway.

Right now, that former loud boy is leaning against the back door of his up-armored Humvee with a barely-smoked cigarette burning between his fingers. He’s talking to Jones, his brow furrowed, rubbing his knuckle over the divot of his chin the way he does when he’s deep in thought. He glances up often, like he’s checking in with his brain, and Steve catches enough choked, guttural syllables to piece together that they’re practicing Arabic. He listens closer, casually, still going through the motions of double-checking the gear in the back of his vehicle. Bucky hits his consonants with hesitation, closing his mouth around them self-consciously. Steve tries to douse out a bright flare of hurt because Bucky asked Jones to help him practice and not Steve. But then, he supposes it’s not really his place to want things like that.

The quiet around them electrifies when Ward picks up a call from the command center and hands it over to Steve. Steve straightens his posture as he listens to Sousa relay orders. Their mission is to escort the EOD team to a site between here and Fallujah, where a convoy has an IED-totaled truck and at least one unexploded secondary device at the scene. It sounds like half a dozen other missions they’ve already run while on QRF duty, which have all been woefully — or, Steve would say, blessedly — anticlimactic. By the fifth mission, the men were growing complacent, their energy low, their situational awareness perfunctory. And so Steve started drilling them. And hard.

Steve rallies the platoon, calling out a summary of the mission and tacking on a hearty “Let’s move it!” for good measure. The men jump into action, slamming down the rest of their caffeine, stomping out their half-smoked cigarettes, mounting their vehicles. Dugan, Rhodes, and Bucky gruffly motivate them along, even though it’s not necessary anymore. The men know exactly what to do and at what pace they’re demanded to move. The drills have paid off, despite the initial eye-rolling and puffs of breath that told Steve quite enough of their opinions on the matter. But here they are, falling precisely into place with the professionalism of men several times their rank, and Steve smiles. This is how lives get saved. This is the kind of platoon he will command. These are his men.

Steve sits in the back of his Humvee with Parker, watching him take digital photos of Trip and Jones in the front seat while their small convoy carves through the traffic. Jones grins back at Parker against his protests to just act natural. Ever the documentarian, Parker treats this self-appointed position with as much care as he does his medical duties, though he seems to spend at least half his time dissuading the men from making obscene gestures. To distract from the tension, the known unknowns of this mission, Trip lays in on Jones. There’s a theatricality to it, like he’s posturing a bit for Steve, which is not a little flattering.

“Back in high school, Gabe was always real cool with the ladies,” Trip tells Steve from the driver’s seat, glancing around Rumlow’s legs as he stands on the turret. “He’d plan his whole schedule around whatever girl he liked, just so they could be in the same class.”

“Oh, no.” Jones looks out the passenger window, and pretends to be interested in the dull scenery outside.

“Until he gets his sights set on this one girl, what was her name? Maria?”

“Marie.” Jones groans.

“Marie. Yes. So he starts following Marie, who’s just crazy beautiful. He does the whole schedule thing, sits next to her, uses his many charms. Look at that smile!” Trip points to his cousin in the passenger seat, who gives a demonstration. “How can anyone resist that?”

“Marie could.”

“Yes, she could. She puts up with his, I guess I’d affectionately call it ‘stalking,’ for about three weeks. Tried to be nice about it, humored him a little at first. Then, she gets kinda burnt out on it. But she doesn’t just tell him. She decides to show him.”

Jones covers his eyes with one hand, still smiling. Trip lets the anticipatory silence escalate.

Next to Steve, Parker gives a loud sigh. “And how did she show him?” He fiddles with the camera on his lap and mumbles, “As if we haven’t heard fifteen thousand times.” One corner of his mouth is turned up, though.

Trip glides right over Parker’s mumblings and continues Operation Embarrass Gabe Jones in Front of Command. “Well, one day, she walks right up to Gabe in the hall, arm and arm with her best friend Tonya, who is also very lovely. And Marie dips Tonya down like an old V-Day picture and plants one square on her mouth.” He cranes his head to look back at Steve. “You know the picture, right, Sir?”

“Yeah.”

Steve knows it well. In fact, he pulled the move with Bucky in Prospect Park the summer of 2000, at the Celebrate Brooklyn! music festival. It was nighttime, it was warm, and they were in love. Steve thought he was being romantic, that Bucky would think it was sweet, but instead he was mortified. Bucky laid into him right there in the park, about how everyone saw them, and Steve was confused, because they had been holding hands part of the night, when they were sitting in the grass together, and everyone saw that, so what’s the goddamn difference? Everything, Bucky said. Everything’s fucking different about it. Don’t ever do that again. They dropped it like a hot rock and never spoke of it again.

Steve looks at both Trip and Gabe, trying to gauge their feelings about women who kiss other women in the hallway at school. Their smiles are good-natured, untinged by disgust or revulsion. The joke is clearly on Jones for being cocky and presumptuous.

“Well, that’s one way to get your point across,” Parker says, then snaps a picture of Steve.

Steve looks over at him then, and Parker’s expression tenses. Steve wonders what his face must have looked like to compel Parker to take his picture in that moment. He feels the need to see the picture, then to tell Parker to delete it, and this need perplexes him. He wills himself to smile, if only to ease the crease between Parker’s eyebrows. It seems to work a little, but Parker also puts the camera back in its case.

“You got a girlfriend, Sir?” Trip asks.

Steve brightens at the question, stomach unclenching a little as his thoughts turn to Sharon. “A fiancee, actually.”

He flips his wrist and checks the time. She's still in bed, probably. Maybe just beginning to stir. She always wakes up just a few minutes before the alarm goes off, no matter what time she seems to set it for. And so he would often wake up to the feel of her moving, the sound of her sighing, maybe rolling over toward him, sliding in close, her body warm, wrapping her arm around his waist, sliding her thigh across his, pressing her breasts against him. Sometimes she would reach down and play with his wood and... he definitely shouldn't keep thinking about that.

“That’s it? That’s all we get?” Jones says.

“She’s a captain," Steve says, shifting in his seat. "Works in civil affairs at the Pentagon.”

“Whoa.” Jones twists around his chair to look back him. “Never met an officer with an officer wife. Fiancee,” he corrects. “One who outranks him, even.”

Steve shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me. She’s an incredible woman. She’s earned it.”

Her incredibleness strikes him hard sometimes. In those moments, Steve wonders what the hell she’s doing with someone like him, why she isn’t already married to someone equally amazing. Most men couldn’t handle being with a woman like her, he supposes. The type of woman who doesn’t need any external confirmation of her worth as a person. The type of woman who is never going to give anything less than her absolute best, even when her talent and competence intimidate the men around her. The type of woman who is strong enough to also feel and love and not see those things as a liability.

He doesn’t deserve her. Not when he’s here like this, the concept of her growing more abstract day by day, their worlds pulling apart mission by mission. Steve doesn’t deserve her when a smile from his platoon sergeant sets him alight, when the flex of his bicep ties a knot in Steve’s stomach. He has to fix it, somehow. Fix all of this. Set things right again. But he doesn’t know how. He doesn't know if he wants to know how. 

Thankfully, they pull up on the convoy just then, sparing Steve from this perilous line of thinking. They dismount from their vehicles, and Bucky nods over at him from the vehicle immediately ahead and begins to take stock of the scene, his weapon gripped tight. Ward pads up to Steve with the radio so that he can call in an update to the base.

After apprising the unit of their status, Steve walks up to Bucky, who’s staring at a thick grove of young palm trees approximately 150 meters away.

“Don’t you think this seems like a real convenient place for us to all be stopped?” Bucky says. His posture spring-loaded, the muscles at his jaw ticking.

Steve looks up and down the line of vehicles, twenty in all, with the two convoys combined. The traffic is light, the kind of light that throttles up the adrenaline and puts a smart man squarely in heebie-jeebie territory.

“Hey, look alive, everyone,” Steve calls out.

His men look plenty alive, but it’s the other soldiers who have him worried. The ones who’ve been stopped here for the past couple hours. They’re lallygagging, lethargic and hot and bored. They’re not grunts. They’re transportation. They’re logistics. Their radars are tuned to an entirely different frequency, the kind of frequency that is going to get their heads blown off.

So when they hear the first tell-tale twang of a bullet strike against metal, there is a span of seconds where most of those soldiers don’t move. Steve and his men catapult into motion, moving for cover behind their vehicles, rotating their turrets, opening fire at that dense grove. Rumlow grins perversely as he unleashes the violent loudness of the .50 cal machine gun. Bucky and Dugan and Rhodes yell orders down the line, driving their index fingers downward at those stunned soldiers. They finally collect their wits and their training kicks in, but not before someone screams for a medic. Parker sprint past Steve toward a casualty they’re dragging behind one of the trucks. Not one of his, Steve notes with some shameful relief.

“Here, Sir,” Ward says, offering him the radio.

Across the gulf separating their vehicles, Bucky is unloading his magazine. Steve’s never seen him fight before, never seen the way he channels his ambient intensity into lethal force. He’s calm, like he was born to put bullets into people, and it’s enough to make Steve want to puke.

Steve re-orients and picks up the radio to call in a Troops in Contact report. He gets the first couple of lines in when, in a sudden axial tilt, time begins to drag out, like a rubber band stretching. A deafening sound blooms slowly in the air, and Steve’s flying forward, airborne, with only the toes of his boots dragging across the asphalt. His stomach launches into his throat with the velocity of his body, and he hits the ground on his forearms, letting out a grunt as the air slams out of his lungs and pain and the world goes blotchy and RPG RPG RPG—

RPG RPG RPG — voices and voices of his men and others, and a few meters away, there's the scraping of dirt, and Steve watches Ward push himself up from the ground and crawl forward toward him on his hands and knees, unsteady but then thrusting the radio handset in Steve’s direction when he reaches him. Ward looks down at him, chin scraped and bleeding, expression oddly clear— how the hell is it—? 

“Call it in, Sir. I’ll give you the coordinates,” Ward tells him.

Steve blinks up at him, tries to comprehend his composure when his own heart is trying to explode through his ribcage. Everything lurches, and a wave of nausea barrels over him, but he's gotta call it in. Call it in. Call it in, Steve. Call. It. In. He starts to push himself up, cringing in pain as sharp, tiny rocks dig into his arms and palms, and suddenly, there’s a hand on him, and he’s being wrenched over on his back, and Bucky is there, his eyes wide, teeth gritted, pressing one hand into his shoulder to hold him down while the other feels around his body for injuries. Steve grabs his roving hand and stops him.

“I’m okay. I’m okay.” He squeezes just below Bucky’s watch. Squeezes his hand. “I’m okay....”

Bucky stares at him hard, like he’s not sure whether to believe him. His mouth draws into a frown, but he nods and sits back on his heels. Around them, the chaos is still unfolding, bullets ripping, men yelling, but the two of them are suspended outside of time, where the only real things are Bucky’s hand on his shoulder and the barely veiled terror in his eyes, those eyes that are swiftly clouding over with rage —

And then Bucky is gone, stalking back powerfully to his vehicle like he’s bulletproof. He flings open the door of his Humvee and throws himself into the back of it. Steve works with Ward to call in the coordinates, keeping an anxious eye on Bucky all the while, and the call is over by the time Bucky kneels between their two Humvees with an AT-4 anti-tank grenade launcher on his shoulder. Steve clenches his jaw and motions for Ward to resume cover behind their vehicle, taking it beside him. A fast puff of flame and smoke shoots out the back of the launcher, followed by the sound of an earth-shaking explosion as the rocket hits home.

There is a swell of whooping, as well as a hearty volley of shots from all the turrets. Bucky drops the spent launcher on the ground and walks — walks — back to his vehicle to take cover. Fucking idiot. Bucky exchanges a few high-fives with the other men he’s covering with, his face a mask of solid contempt. He resumes his fighting position smoothly, lobbing more shots around the back of his vehicle with that same deadly precision through the definitely-not-regulation mounted scope on his standard issue rifle. Through the noise, Steve hears the radio kick to life as his air support is confirmed.

They keep shooting, all of them, slamming in new magazines amid the plinks of returning fire. After a handful of slug-slow minutes, the tasks of battle, the back-and-forth, become routine. Almost boring. Steve's heart settles into a steady rhythm — thump, bam-bam-bam, thump, bam-bam-bam — until he hears the telltale brrt! of an incoming A-10 Warthog. There’s some cheering even before the canon unleashes a barrage of firepower on the palm grove, which sends sparks and smoke and flame into the air, ripping the trees and people there to pieces. The shouting crests, and even Bucky is yelling, pumping his fist into the air with a burst of manic laughter while whoever was shooting at them is burnt up and blown apart. The A-10 comes in for another pass, as if there’s actually anyone left to annihilate, and Steve feels a tight smile pull at the corners of his mouth.

Then they wait. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten. When no additional shots come from the brush, everyone starts letting down their guard, righting themselves, shooting the shit. Steve calls in an update to the base and overhears a nine-line medevac being called for the casualty. Or is it casualties? Steve rises to his feet, his knees shaking, his forearms burning, and he moves his way down the line of vehicles to check in with his men. He goes to Bucky first, scowling, fixing to call him out for his nonchalance back there, for moseying into line of fire like Clint Eastwood with a death wish.

“Sir,” Bucky starts, “we should—”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Steve sees the men turn toward the sound of his voice, which is pitched too loud and aggressive, he knows, and he tries to calm the anger heaving in his chest.

“Sir?”

Steve shakes his head. It’s not even worth it. Whatever he has to say, Bucky will just deny it or dismiss it or excuse it, none of which will lead to any sort of desirable outcome. “Never mind. We should what?”

Bucky jerks his thumb toward the remains of the grove. “We should go check it out and see if there are IDs and anything else we can collect for MI.”

“Fine. Have Dugan take three men and have Rumlow and Reyes provide overwatch.”

“Sir, I was gonna go with—”

“No.”

One corner of Bucky’s upper lip curls, but he concedes.

“Sir,” Ward says lowering the radio from his ear, “dustoff inbound. ETA three minutes.”

Bucky turns down the line and yells. “Mack! Pop colored smoke!” He points to the side of the road, to an expanse of dirt suitable for a Blackhawk to land in.

Steve watches as Mack tosses a canister of purple smoke in the clear stretch of dirt beside them. And when the dustoff comes, Steve watches Bucky turn away and light a cigarette, his expression solemn. It’s not for the soldier. Steve knows that. Bucky’s too hard to care about someone else’s man.

It’s for the pilot. It’s for George Barnes.

Steve sides up to Bucky and slings his rifle over his back. Bucky raises his eyebrows and silently offers him a smoke, and this time Steve takes one. He lights it with his trembling, blood-scabbed hands, and he inhales and coughs and Bucky laughs. It tastes fucking foul, but he smokes it anyway. They take a few steps forward and stare at the side of Steve’s vehicle, the side that took the RPG hit that launched him and Ward into the dirt on the other side. The front door is blown off, hanging by the bottom hinge. The back door is bent inward at a jarring angle. The glass is blown out of every passenger window.

“Shit,” Bucky says.

Steve nods.

"Shit."

———

It’s late by the time Steve gets in a call to Sharon. Their debriefing took nearly an eon, at least half of which was spent with the NCOs and Captain Barton reminiscing about all the times they’ve seen an A-10 obliterate something in front of them. Steve finds himself wishing he could relate, wishing he could find joy in what happened today, but he can’t.

Tonight, he tells Sharon about their mission. He doesn’t know why he chooses tonight to be honest, when he’s lied by omission so many times before. Maybe this is the way he starts fixing things. By being honest.

“Jesus. Are you okay?” she asks after he relays the police report version of events, the who, what, where, when.

“I’m fine,” he assures her. “Definitely not the worst TIC we’ve gotten in.”

In the quiet on the other end, Steve realizes his mistake. He rubs his hand over his forehead and swears to himself.

“You’ve been in TICs before?”

Steve lets his silence answer for him.

“Why didn’t you tell me? You never mentioned anything before. I mean, I thought it was strange that you hadn’t seen any action yet, given how long you’ve been there, but…” Sharon’s voice trails off with a quiet sigh.

“But?”

Steve knows what comes after the ‘but,’ and he wants her to say it. He wants to hear it. He needs to hear her say that she didn’t think he would lie to her. He needs to hear her get angry. He needs to hear himself in her voice, back when he begged Bucky on that scratchy line from Afghanistan to trust him and to let him help.

“I realize that I can’t know what you’re going through. Not really,” she says, her tone kind but also resigned. “I’m not there. I’m not living your life. But please don’t think I’m not strong enough to hear it. I’m your partner, Steve. I’m here for you. I want to support you, if you’ll let me.”

Steve swallows hard against the tightness growing in his throat. He makes a small sound letting her know that he hears her, but that’s all he can manage without giving himself away.

“I know you might feel that there’s a wall between us now, but there doesn’t have to be one. You don’t need to put one up to protect me from your life.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve grits out.

“Babe, you don’t need to be sorry. I just want you to trust me, that’s all. Let me help you. Let me be here for you. Please.”

Steve nods, even though she can’t see him.

“Did you find out when you’re coming home?”

“First through fifteenth of September.”

“I can’t wait to see you.”

Steve drags his knuckle over his eye, wiping away the blurriness. “Me, too. I miss you. So much.”

“I miss you, too. Every day.”

“I’m so sorry.” He feels his face tightening, filling with ominous pressure. He takes a deep breath, one that shakes until he claps his hand over his mouth to silence it.

“Steve, I love you. You don’t have to be sorry. You don’t even have to tell me everything. You deserve privacy, and I imagine you have friends who understand what you’re going through better than I do. But I love you, and you don’t have to hide your life from me to protect me. I’m in this with you for the long haul, remember?”

Steve lays the receiver down on the table and lets out a single muffled sob into his his palm. He ducks his head low so that the soldiers on either side of him can’t see, screwing his eyes shut to prevent any tears from escaping them. He doesn’t even know what he’s crying for, why he feels his heart breaking, why such loving words are so painful for him to hear. He doesn’t understand a goddamn thing that’s happening right now, and admitting confusion, claiming ignorance, has a calming effect.

It takes him a while pick up the phone again, but when he finally does, he tells the God’s most honest truth.

“I love you, too.”

———

May 16, 2008

On Friday, Bucky is called in front of the entire company at their monthly formation, a dog-and-pony show that not even Barton has been able to condense to shorter than an hour. The four platoons of Alpha company, 107th Infantry Battalion, stand at ease while Steve informs them of Bucky’s decision to give the Army four more years of his life. There is a wave of “hooahs!” and shouts from the platoons, as well as a few from the sidelines, including Natasha. Bucky can hear Sam’s voice over the rest of them, yelling “Take it!”

Bucky chuckles to himself. He must be some kind of idiot to serve himself up to Uncle Sam like this again, to ensure that the only dick he’ll be taking on the regular for the next four years will be the big green weenie. But God, he loves the Army, he loves this life, with almost the same ferocity that he loathes it.

Bucky prepares himself to take the oath, pulling in a deep breath, clearing his throat. He’s memorized it, by this point, having said it and observed it more times than he can count. However, Steve asks first for a few moments to address the company, an unexpected move that cranks up Bucky’s anxiety. It’s a new variable, one he wasn’t expecting, and he doesn’t like new, unexpected variables. Especially not during ceremonies that are supposed to be prescribed and orderly. Leave it to Steve to turn everything upside-down, to tear apart the procedure manual and re-craft it as if he knows better than all the very smart men who preceded him. It used to be infuriating, but he does it with such frequency — and often to such successful ends — that Bucky has largely resigned himself to standing back and watching him go.

As he speaks to the company, Bucky watches him. The proud line of his posture. The fine angles of his face. The confidence with which he projects his words into the desert air.

“I don’t think I have to tell you how much of an asset Sergeant First Class Barnes is to this unit. Most of you already know that, even if you’re not in second platoon. But Sergeant Barnes is far more than the sum of his tactical knowledge and proficiency as an infantryman. Since I began serving with this company, I’ve watched him care for his men with toughness, compassion, and respect. I’ve watched him mentor young soldiers, shaping them into tomorrow’s leaders and better men.”

Steve is wearing the finely-tuned veneer he brought with him from the life he’s created since they’ve been apart. It makes sense, given his current position at the company helm. But just below that, maybe perceptible only to him, Bucky finds rawness there, an echo of the Steve he used to know. The one he fell in love with. The one who loved him.

Steve continues.

“I’ve watched Sergeant Barnes sacrifice and assume burdens in ways that most of you will never know to ensure that you come out of this deployment stronger, that you make it home safely, that you can rest your head on your pillow at night and know that you did the right thing. We are all so fortunate to have to opportunity to serve with such an exemplary soldier, such a caring leader, such a good man.”

Steve looks at him then, and he’s not speaking to the company anymore. Not really. “Sergeant Barnes, the Army is so much better for your being in it. And we are so much better for your being with us.”

Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ. Bucky blinks against the fullness behind his eyes.

“Ready?” Steve says, quietly and only to him.

Bucky nods. “Yes, Sir.”

Steve turns to the company, then snaps to the position of attention. “Company!”

The leader of each platoon, with Sergeant Rhodes pinch hitting for Steve, yells: “Platoon!”

“Attention!”

Every service member present snaps to attention at the resonant call of Steve’s voice. Bucky admits with great reluctance that Steve seems to have been made for this. Commanding men. Shifting paradigms. Changing minds.

Steve makes a knife-sharp 90 degree turn in his direction. “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”

Bucky lifts his right hand, palm toward Steve, who begins administering the oath.

“I, state your name.”

“I, James Buchanan Barnes.”

Steve continues, and Bucky repeats each line.

“Do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;

“That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;

“And that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“So help me God.”

“So help me God.”

Steve’s mouth curves into a small but earnest smile. “Congratulations, Bucky.”

Bucky returns that smile tenfold. In this moment, it’s as if they’re the only two people in the whole Middle East, maybe even the entire universe.

“Thank you.”

———

The platoon engages menial jerk-off duties for the rest of the day, which Bucky treats with as much enthusiasm as he can muster for the task of supervising an all day, base-wide garbage pickup. He’s floating through the tedium on the knowledge that he gets to see Steve tonight. Not just see Steve, but be alone with Steve while they get down to the important business of watching Rocky IV. He already told Sam to make himself scarce for the night, which earned Bucky a weary roll of the eyes that’s less hostile now that Steve is finally starting to grow on Sam.

Bucky has ideas for the night. Tentative ones. Ones that scare the piss out of him and send his brain into a giddy frenzy. Maybe they’ll sit next to each other on Bucky’s bed. Maybe they’ll start kind of far away, like pals, and then Bucky will get up and grab something. Maybe his canteen. And then he’ll sit down again, but a little closer this time. And then maybe they’ll laugh, the rollicking kind of laugh that is expected from terrible Cold War dramas, and someone’s hand will fall between them, and maybe the other person’s will fall close by. Maybe their pinkies will touch. Then maybe they’ll look at each other, like the kind of look they shared this morning, and Steve will say something like “I’ve missed you,” and Bucky will say, “I’ve missed you, too,” and maybe their fingers will thread together, and maybe Steve will touch his leg, or put his arm around him, and then the energy will grow so tense between them that they can only crack through it by kissing, and then touching, and then Bucky’s brain veers into all sorts of territory that gives him a little more of a boner than is appropriate for the middle of the duty day.

Those thoughts all float him until 18:00, when they’re released for the evening. It’s then that Steve finds him, and Bucky can already tell from his face that he’s going to cancel their plans. Something about mandatory fun with some other lieutenants, because surely they didn’t have anything better to do than play ping-pong sober at the rec center. Bucky is absolutely crushed, and he wants to believe it when Steve tells him that he was really looking forward to spending time together. He seems serious. He seems disappointed. Bucky brushes it off, gives him a very chummy clap on the shoulder, and says they’ll do it next week. Steve frowns and congratulates him again and slinks off to his trailer.

Sam’s a very good sport about it and offers to hang out, as long as Natasha can come over, too. When she arrives, Sam and Bucky are stretched out lazily on their beds, which are pressed into the corners of their rectangular trailer, arranged so that they can lie in them and watch the same equidistant TV. They’re all in their PT shorts and t-shirts, the only uniform comfortable to wear now that it’s getting so hot. Natasha lays her rifle on Sam’s desk and pulls her hair out of the tight bun she typically keeps it in. Her red mane spills down her back, and Bucky smirks from his bed as he watches Sam watch her.

“Congrats, Jamie,” she says, walking toward him. She eyes the empty space next to him on his bed, and Bucky holds out his leg to stop her, pressing his argyle-socked foot into her abdomen.

“Nuh-uh,” he says. “I stink.”

Natasha grabs onto his calf and lifts his foot to her nose. “No, you don’t.” She doesn’t even seem remotely surprised that he’s wearing unauthorized clothing.

“Your boyfriend looks very sad whenever you flirt with me, Nat.” Bucky nods over to Sam, who plays into the bit and frowns theatrically when Natasha glances back at him.

She redirects her attention to Bucky. “You’ve been awfully evasive lately, Sergeant Barnes.”

He takes a long drink out of his canteen and winks up at her. He extends his foot into the soft flesh of her belly, pushing her back further. “Go see your boyfriend.”

“C’mon, you’re giving me a complex over here,” Sam says.

With a skeptical rise of her left eyebrow, Natasha squeezes his calf, then lets it go and walks to Sam's bunk to lie down next to him. Bucky breathes out a very quiet sigh of relief, because if she’d insisted on lying next to him, she most certainly would have caught a whiff of the watered down vodka he’s drinking. To celebrate, he told himself when he fished the bottle out from between the sandbags outside their trailer, the side of the building kept in perpetual shadow. He’s drinking to celebrate and, very secondarily, to help dull the nagging ache he feels over Steve not being here with him right now.

“So’d you at least get a bonus out of all this?” Sam asks. He links his fingers with Natasha’s in a way that makes Bucky feel acute hatred both of them.

“Oh, yeah. I made them work for it. They settled on 20k.”

“Holy shit,” Natasha says, lifting her head. “For what?”

Bucky chuckles. “Well, Ranger qualification and sniper qualification were probably 10 or 11 thousand of it.”

“You finally gonna get a new bike?” Sam asks.

“Nah.”

He can’t blame Sam for his insensitivity over his bike, because Bucky has never told him that it was his father’s. He’s never told him that he would never, ever give it up for anything, that it’s the only thing Bucky has left of him, that if he hit direst financial straits, Bucky would sell his own body for cash before even thinking of selling that bike.

“What about the rest of the bonus?” Natasha asks.

“For hopping on the trail.”

Sam barks out a rough laugh “Oh, that I would pay to see. I would go to basic training and do it all over again to experience you as my drill sergeant.”

“It was either that or recruiter duty, and after hearing your stories, I think I’d rather eat a bucket of shit than try to convince people that the Army is a good life choice.”

“You’d be terrible at it,” Natasha says. “You’d just rant about Bush and lecture those poor kids on the futility of war.”

“I wouldn’t say that all war is futile.” Bucky gestures around the room with his canteen. “Just this one.”

Natasha shifts, sitting herself upright against the wall, her legs draped over Sam’s. “Speaking of wars, it seems like you’ve got quite the ceasefire with Lieutenant Rogers.”

“Oh yeah?”

There’s a knock on the door that Bucky barely startles at, a welcome side effect of his current beverage selection. He yells aloud for whomever to come in, propping himself up on his elbows.

Of all the motherfuckers he expected to walk through that door, Jasper Sitwell is definitely the last of them. Bucky takes a deep swill from his canteen and stares at him impassively.

“Sergeant Barnes.” Sitwell nods to Bucky, then over to Sam and Natasha. “Sergeant Romanoff. Sergeant Wilson.”

They all offer a cursory scatter of “Sirs,” and Sitwell grips his patrol cap tightly in his hands as he looks back at Bucky.

“I just wanted to congratulate you on your re-enlistment.” Sitwell gives something that Bucky would mistake for a genuine smile, if he thought the man capable of giving one.

“Uh, thanks.” Bucky’s brain glitches and then helps him offer a marginally more appropriate response. “Thank you, Sir.”

“Yep.” Sitwell nods, then does that weird smiling thing at all of them. “Well, I’d better be going. Mando ping-pong going on, apparently.” He shrugs. “Anyway, congrats, and, um, okay.”

With that, Sitwell pulls some composure from somewhere in himself and exits the trailer, leaving behind a trio of gobsmacked NCOs in his wake.

“What the fuck was that?” Bucky says, giving a low chuckle. “Did you two see that?”

“That was…” Sam falters. “I don’t even know what that was.”

“That, my friends, was Lieutenant Sitwell trying,” Natasha offers.

“Trying what?” Bucky mutters under his breath.

Natasha uncrosses her arms and lays her hands on Sam’s leg. “Now, back to Steve Rogers.”

“Are you still holding a candle for that asshole? ‘Cause it sure looked like that this morning.” Sam’s words spill out like he’s been holding them in all day, and maybe he has.

“He’s not an asshole.”

“Oh, okay. See, because I thought dumping your boyfriend while he’s out hunting Osama bin Ladin would be considered an asshole thing to do.”

Bucky’s eyes pinch into a glare. “Are you gonna keep holding that against him forever? He fucked up.”

“And when did he admit that?” Sam’s body tenses with energy, and he sits up on his elbows to mirror Bucky. “When did he apologize for this so-called fuck-up of his?”

Bucky’s mouth opens reflexively, but no answer comes forth. Steve has never admitted to anything. Never really gave himself the chance. By the time Bucky came back from Afghanistan, Steve was gone, along with all of his things. His clothes. His toothbrush. His razor. His books. His easel and palettes. His record player and albums. No note. No epilogue. Their last words were during that phone call, one Bucky made from a shitty Kandahar hotel room using the phone card Steve bought him before he left. They only made through six months of deployment. Six fucking months.

Sam lowers himself slowly back onto the mattress, frowning deeply. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

With that, Bucky slams down the rest of the contents of his canteen and drops it onto the floor. The hard plastic bounces loudly on the linoleum.

“Hey, you guys wanna watch Rocky IV?”

“Yes, I do,” Natasha says.

Sam stares at him, his eyes filled with disappointment. But Sam must see something in his face, something pathetic, no doubt, because he quickly softens.

“Wanna come over here?” Sam pats his mattress. “We can all hang.”

Even through the steady pulse of agony, Bucky smiles. And he means it. He loves Sam and Nat, and they love him. And for now, for tonight, that’s enough.

“Sure. Just lemme go brush my teeth.”

Chapter Text


June 23, 2008

Steve does a final check through his meeting items, each neatly scrawled in his green notebook, each item driven through with a solid line. In the background, he hears Bucky’s footfalls as he paces the length of the trailer. Bucky’s amped up today, restless and distractible. There’s been a knock in their engine for the past few weeks, a retraction from wherever their relationship was steadily going. It’s been confusing, both the fact of it and Steve’s internal reaction to it. Maybe it’s good that Bucky’s pulling away, but Steve didn’t expect to feel so disappointed by it. Disappointed and, frankly, relieved.

It’s all just old patterns playing out again. Different song, same dance. Collide and withdraw, collide and withdraw. It explains the specter of doom looming over every lifting session, every evening spent together outside the purview of their professional duties. It explains the sensation of riding on a comet hurtling toward the Earth in slow motion, where the view is spectacular but the endgame is disaster.

“Foggy,” Bucky says, remembering one final agenda item. His pacing stops, and he sits down on the edge of Sitwell’s bed. “He didn’t pass his run on his diagnostic PT test.”

Steve looks through his folder and finds the scores from Foggy’s last record PT test. “How is that even possible?”

Bucky reaches under Sitwell’s comforter and pulls loose the tight hospital corner of the sheet underneath, then resumes his pacing. “Obviously we’re not running enough. And guys like him, they’ve gotta work twice as hard for the same results.”

Steve hears the self-reflection in Bucky’s voice. Bucky’s always had to lift harder, eat more, train more frequently to keep a level of fitness that Steve could maintain with substantially less effort. “How can we help?”

“I’ll run with him. We can do some sprint work at the south wall on Sundays.” He passes the desk where Steve sits and, once again, his pacing stops.

Steve frowns and taps his pen against his thigh. The last thing Bucky needs is to commit himself to more involvement with the men, especially in domains where he should let his squad leaders take charge.

“Maybe Maximoff could help him,” Steve suggests.

“Not his problem,” Bucky says, his words hushed.

Steve turns in his chair to face Bucky. “No, but he would be happy to help, and—” He halts mid-sentence when he sees Bucky standing in front of his nightstand, the framed photograph of Sharon in his hands. Steve swallows. He thinks to tell Bucky to put it down, but he can’t think of a good reason why. Bucky has the right to look at her. He has a right to see who’s replaced him.

“What did I do wrong?” Bucky asks, staring down at Sharon’s face. “What did I do wrong that she never did?”

The questions hit like a sledgehammer, and Steve has to repeat it to himself to ensure that he’s heard correctly. “What do you mean?”

Bucky puts down Sharon’s picture with such care that it could be mistaken for reverence. “Why did you leave me? What did I do wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Steve says, trying to temper his voice make the words sound true. They’re not true. Not at all. But he’d rather betray the truth a thousand times than start this conversation right now.

Bucky spins around. “Bullshit. That’s bullshit. You don’t leave somebody because they didn’t do anything wrong.” His mouth draws into a deep frown. “So what did I do? What did I do that was so horrible?”

Steve slams his notebook shut. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Too bad. You owe me, Steve. You owe me an explanation. You owed me one then, and you owe me one now.”

Steve scowls as irritation spools up in his chest like a jet engine. “I don’t owe you anything.”

“The fuck you don’t.” Bucky’s eyes flash, his words hurling out of his mouth like projectiles. “How could you dump me while I was deployed? What the hell happened to ‘I love you, Bucky,’ ‘I’ll be waiting for you, Bucky,’ ‘I’m proud of you, Bucky’? Because you said all those things before I left, and then six months later, you tell me it’s over. So what the hell happened?”

Inside Steve’s chest, that spooling engine explodes in a hot burst of incendiary rage. All that old hurt, all that unspoken pain, burns through his body. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad without the indignity on Bucky’s face, the anger there, as if he held no blame for any of it. As if his dysfunction was just a delusion in Steve’s mind. Steve rises powerfully to his feet and closes the distance between them.

You left me!” Steve says. He hates that he’s yelling. He hates the chaos in it. But it’s the only choice available to him in this moment.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

You left for Afghanistan.” Steve drives his index finger into Bucky’s chest, just to the right of the rank insignia at the center of his sternum. “You volunteered to go on active duty. You chose to leave me behind.”

“So you ended ten years of friendship and the best two years of our lives because I wanted to go after the murderer who attacked our city?” Bucky huffs an incredulous burst of air. “What the fuck kind of sense does that make?”

Steve’s jaw clenches hard. “You could have died. For nothing.”

Bucky’s face twists in confusion and what Steve thinks might also be disgust. “For nothing, huh? So, everything we did over there was just for nothing?”

“You catch Osama bin Ladin while you were there? Stomp out Al-Qaeda? Get rid of the Taliban? Make any real difference at all?” Steve cants his head at an arrogant angle. “No?”

Bucky’s fists curl tight. “You have no idea what that deployment was like. You can barely even understand this deployment, let alone the shit I did downrange — the shit I had to do — while you were drinking your fucking Starbucks and voting for America’s Next Top Asshat.”

“You’re right.” Steve nods in concession. “I don’t know what you did, because you never talked about it. Because you never said anything real. Just bullshit. Just bullshit and lies and evasions.”

Steve’s finger is back on Bucky’s chest, this time pressing down on the corner of his name tape that’s curling up from its velcro base. It’s so nonchalant, so automatic, that he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

“I do understand one thing, though,” Steve continues. “You chose the Army over us. Point blank.” He looks hard into Bucky’s eyes. “All I wanted was you. More than that, I needed you, and you chose not to be there.”

“You needed me, huh? Jesus Christ, I was only gone for eight months. You couldn’t even wait that long to get laid?”

“Oh, please. Don’t even pretend that’s what I meant, or that I’m that shallow, because you know that’s crap.” Steve pauses, shaking his head, profoundly disappointed that Bucky could even fathom that their breakup was about something as trivial as sex. “You chose the Army, Buck. You became Yankee fucking Doodle out of thin air, chose to deploy, and you decided to stay on active duty. Did you just expect me to be your secret long distance boyfriend while you deployed every five minutes? Until you hit your twenty or thirty years?”

Bucky gets so close that Steve can see the intermixing flecks of blue and gray in his eyes. His voice drops to a harsh chill to match their color.

“I stayed on active duty because you left me. What the hell reason did I have to come back? And, don’t forget, you chose to apply to West Point, on a fucking whim, apparently. You chose to become an officer. You put up that barrier between us. You didn’t even give us a chance to fix things, because by the time I got back, you were already at the Academy.”

Steve opens his mouth to speak, and he intends to say something cruel, something unforgivable, something that would destroy any chance of any future relationship forever. He tries to think of what something might be, those terrible words, but they never come to him. They’re not inside of him, and they’ve never been inside of him. Instead, he speaks from his heart. He speaks from the core of his hurt and love, the part of himself he’s kept walled off for all these desolate years.

“I applied to the Academy because my mother died, and the man I counted on most, my best friend, decided he’d rather go fight a war he didn’t even care about rather than stay and let me love him.” Steve lets out a quiet sigh. “I could handle you shutting me out, never opening up. I accepted that about you when we became friends. But when you wouldn’t even let me try, when you chose to run away, when you left me alone with my dying mother, when you made sure we couldn’t talk more than two times a month because you just had to go to war…” Steve bites down on his lip. “How could I trust you after that?”

Bucky takes a few steps back, stricken, as if those words had been a physical jab to the face. “Steve…”

Steve closes the gap between them, not about to let Bucky escape his next words. “I think you left because you couldn’t handle being in a real relationship. An intimate, loving relationship. You couldn’t handle something real and good and stable, because you thrive in disorder. And you’re so bent on thinking you don’t deserve love that you pushed away the person who loved you more than anyone. I never asked a single goddamn thing of you except to stay. And you wouldn’t. Because you were too scared.”

The pendulum swings, as it always does, bringing with it Bucky’s brutal, defensive counterattack. Steve braces himself for it, squaring his shoulders against it.

“Well, you wanna know my theory, Professor Rogers?” Bucky raises his eyebrows and fits a bitter smile on his lips. “I think you just wanted to play happy little homo for a while. Try it on for size. I think you just wanted to dip your dick in the gay pool. Check that block off, scratch that itch. You didn’t want a ‘real relationship’ with a man. With me.” Bucky pulls his palm flat against his own chest. “See, I don’t get to choose. I don’t get to opt out like you do. I don’t get to ask for the check when shit gets real and go play normal with a woman. This is my fucking life. And when shit got real with us, when I needed you to really love and support me, you decided it just wasn’t worth it.”

Steve feels himself sway a little, staggered by the utterly incomprehensible turn of Bucky’s logic.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he manages to reply.

“And, really, I get it. I mean, why would you want me when you could have your cute little blonde wifey, your little GI Betty Crocker?” Bucky’s smile grows even wider in proportion to the hurt in his voice. “You know, the one you can take to the company Christmas party without having to worry about the boss firing you or puking at the thought of the two of you fucking.”

“How dare you. How fucking dare you.” Steve doesn’t know what’s more offensive, the insult against Sharon or the notion that being male had anything to do with Steve leaving him. “All these fucked up ideas you have about being gay? Don’t you dare pretend that they’re my ideas. Don’t put your shit — whatever this is — on me.”

As if someone suddenly ripped all of the energy out of Bucky, the vitriol drains from his face, leaving behind a husk of stark resignation.

“Grow up, Steve. Stop pretending that we were gonna move to Vermont and get civilly unified or fake-married or some bullshit like that.”

They talked about it. When the civil union law went into effect in the summer of 2000, they talked about it. They’d only been dating a few months, but they were over the moon in love with each other. They talked about moving to the Green Mountains, buying a few acres of land, building a house. Maybe they’d have a cow or two and some goats. Bucky always insisted on the goats, because they have a lot of personality. They revisited the idea so many times, each time more whimsical then the last. They’d grow big Vermont beards. They’d chop wood. They’d make cheese. They’d sell it at the farmer’s market. They’d have a dog and three cats. They’d have kids. Bucky would always go quiet then, and the dreamy look on his face would crumble into sorrow. And no matter how many times Steve would ask what was wrong, the conversation would always end there.

“Why was that so hard for you to imagine?” Steve asks. “Why would that have been so terrible?”

Bucky looks down at the floor. “As if you wouldn’t leave me anyway. As if you wouldn’t be ashamed of me.”

Steve presses his palms hard against his temples as he strains to understand. “What is this? What is all this, Bucky? Where the fuck is this coming from?”

“I want you to be happy,” Bucky says, looking back up at Steve. He smiles again, mournfully. “I really do. You deserve it. You deserve a real life and a real relationship with Captain Barbie in your little D.C. Dream House. With your little fucking lawn. Your little fucking lawn gnomes.” His voice breaks. “Your little fucking kids.”

Steve wanted all those things with Bucky. He would have given anything to have those things with Bucky. And the thought of Bucky choosing to leave, the thought of him running away, foreclosing on the beautiful life they could have had together, it makes Steve so sad, so angry, that he can’t even stand to look at the man he used to adore.

“Fuck you.” Steve’s tone is low and raw. “Get the fuck out of my room.”

It’s incredible, morbidly awe-inspiring, to watch the play of disbelief and pain on Bucky’s face. Steve doesn’t know why Bucky would have expected anything different, why this conversation would have gone anywhere but where it did. Bucky’s eyes search his, looking for what, Steve’s not sure. Steve stays steady, the only sound in the room his breath as it passes heavily through his nostrils.

Eventually, Bucky takes a halting step. He pauses and opens his mouth as if he’s got one more barb to deliver, maybe one more murmur of disappointment. But nothing comes out. He seems to find his impetus and walks past Steve, his footfalls quiet, his shoulders hunched, his head bent. Just like that night in the motor pool. He leaves in a way that’s entirely unremarkable, and the emptiness he leaves behind is devastating.

———

June 24, 2008

It’s 1:40 in the afternoon and, somehow, Bucky is still hung over. He’s hungover, and the blazing sun is baking him, drawing out the sickly sweet smell of old booze from his pores. They’re all so rank and sweaty from the blistering heat that his stink is mixing with everyone else’s, blessedly — hopefully — indistinguishable except to his over-sensitized perception.

Right now, they're waiting. They're standing around on the outskirts of yet another shitty town they’ve been tasked to patrol just to patrol, waiting for Steve to decide how they're going to get home. Bucky stares at him while he looks over his map, gaze indifferent, mouth pulled into a tight line. He can't name the feeling he has right now. It's either rage burning so hot that it feels like pure whiteness or he's completely emotionally shut down. It's probably not the first one, because since leaving Steve's trailer last night, he hasn't really felt anything toward Steve at all. Especially not rage.

But maybe he’s got the target wrong. Maybe the rage is toward himself. Maybe that’s what this is. Rage over being such an idiot. For being so naïve. For thinking that he and Steve could be anything but colleagues — and distant colleagues at that. He's also angry at himself because he's starting to think Steve was right. For all the ire and insult Steve’s words kindled in him, maybe he wasn't entirely off the mark. Maybe going to war wasn't all about justice or revenge. Maybe he also had to go because what he had with Steve was too much. Too much of what, he can’t say. He can’t dig into it very deeply. Not with a headache like this. Not with a brain of cold mush.

Bucky listens as Steve talks over the return routes with Dugan and Rhodes. Bucky wishes Steve would just make up his fucking mind already, but that might just be the hangover talking.

“Ward said he picked up a warning about IEDs on Route Indigo. EOD’s already been there twice today.” Steve rubs at his sweaty brow.

“Only other option is to go the way we came,” Dugan says, “But that’s rule number three on the list of dumb shit not to do on deployment.”

Bucky wonders what the first two rules are. Surely one must be ‘Don’t fall back in love with your supervisor-slash-ex-boyfriend.’ Another might be ‘Don’t binge drink half a fifth of vodka the night before a mission.’

“I know it’s bad.” Steve looks over at Bucky. “What do you think, Sergeant Barnes?”

Bucky looks down the road. “Your call, Sir.”

Steve sighs, as if it burdens him to speak. “I’m asking for your opinion.”

“Both choices suck. You know there’s danger on Indigo. There could possibly be danger on Baghdad.” Bucky shrugs one shoulder. “You’ll have to pick which one probably sucks less.”

Steve stares at the map for a few more seconds, then folds it up with sharp, decisive movements. “We’re taking Baghdad. Get everyone back in their vehicles.”

Bucky nods, then yells to the men to finish their smoking and gabbing and mount up. He power smokes his own cigarette while everyone gets into place, then heads to the lead vehicle to take his seat. Steve, moving with furious purpose, glides past him.

“I’m taking lead,” Steve says over his shoulder, not even bothering to stop. “Take my seat in three.”

“You shouldn’t be in the lead vehicle,” Bucky calls after him halfheartedly, pointing out an obvious error in judgment that’s clearly intended to be a ‘fuck you’ more than anything else. It’s not like Bucky doesn’t deserve a little ‘fuck you,’ if only as payback for the borderline insubordination.

Steve ignores him and loads himself into the back seat, slamming the door hard. Bucky stops and glares at that door, past the armor plating, to the man inside. He sucks down a few final drags of his smoke and crushes it in the dirt. From the turret, Trip gives him a smile and a nod, which Bucky returns perfunctorily. Bucky then walks back to the third Humvee in the four-vehicle patrol and sits in the front passenger seat.

“Hey, Sergeant,” Jones greets from the back. “Where’s L.T.?”

“He wanted to ride in the front.” Bucky works hard to school his voice toward neutrality.

“Oh.”

Even first-timers know it’s a dumb move. Bucky wishes he could enlighten Jones with the full context of why they’ve switched places. Right now, Bucky wishes he could tell everything to everyone — or even just someone — because he’s about goddamn sick of lying every goddamn minute he’s outside his trailer. It’s exhausting. And he sure as hell couldn’t tell Sam, because Bucky couldn’t handle another rejection from another best friend.

“Wait, we’re going back on Baghdad?” Mack says as the convoy starts moving south, shooting Bucky a concerned look from the driver’s seat.

“Indigo’s a hot mess. We decided to come back this way.”

“All right.” Not typically one to hide his feelings, the lack of further comment is undoubtedly a feat of restraint on Mack’s part.

“It’s the right choice, given our options,” Rhodes confirms from the back.

Bucky nods and puts on his radio headset. He looks up the turret at Rumlow and feels himself grimace.

For most of the ride, Bucky stares out the passenger window, tuning out the radio chatter between the vehicles. The landscape is a long, monotonous stretch of brown, so bland that it pushes him deep into his mind. He thinks back to last night, looping through his conversation with Steve, dissecting it, choking it off when it cuts too deep. He squints when the sun blasts him in the face, which shoots a line of hot agony directly into his skull.

He makes a promise to himself that from here on out, he'll only use alcohol to sleep, and only if he can’t get to sleep any other way. There’s little that can compare to the terror of waking up at 5:00 in the morning, still half-drunk, knowing you’ve got to leave for a mission in three hours. Unfortunately, alcohol’s the one thing that quiets his mind enough to let him rest, the only thing that dulls the memories enough, a backlog of horrific things from multiple deployments that he's never actually processed. Deaths he’s never grieved. Shame he’s never allowed to fully sink in. Awful shit from years before he raised his right hand the first time. All coupled with the fear — the mind-bending terror — that he never let himself feel, because who has time for that downrange?

He’s so lost in his thoughts that when the radio chatter picks up into a frenzy, Bucky takes several seconds to orient to what’s happening. Through the cacophony, he picks out screams of “stop, stop, stop,” “gunner down,” and “wire,” and even though he can’t see up ahead, his mind assembles enough pieces to know that they need to stop, and now.

The convoy slams to a halt just before the second Humvee rolls between those fatal streetlights. Time slows and Bucky’s senses sharpen. He rips off his headset and tears out of the vehicle, already projecting the image in his mind’s eye of what he’s going to see in that first vehicle. The gunner. Shit. Shit. Trip. Trip is going to be dead, and very violently so. And everyone in that vehicle —

Bucky’s heart lurches in his chest. Steve. Steve is in the back seat. He’s in the back seat of that vehicle because he stubbornly insisted on being there. It should have been Bucky. It should have been him. And if it were him, maybe he’d have seen the wire. Maybe he would have remembered this part of the road, where the streetlights first start as they head closer into Baghdad. Fuck, he should have remembered this part of the road. He should have noticed that the usual traffic had died down to nothing. Maybe if he hadn’t been staring into space. Maybe if he hadn’t been hungover. Maybe. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Bucky yells to everyone to take defensive positions because, of course, this would be a mighty fine time for an ambush. He then runs up the parked line of vehicles, slinging his rifle over his back as he goes. He hears quick footsteps behind him, Parker’s, and Bucky yells to the soldiers to make way. They part swiftly, then move into fighting position.

They get to the lead vehicle just in time to see Steve crawl out the back. He’s covered — absolutely covered — in blood. Helmet. Face. Body armor. Legs. He moves slowly, his eyes wide and glossy, and he wipes at his face repeatedly with the bloody sleeve of his uniform.

Bucky grabs him by the shoulders. “Steve,” he says, leading him away from the vehicle. Bucky repeats his name until Steve finally looks at him. He blinks, confused.

Bucky’s about to say something more, he’s not sure what. Something comforting, something kind. But in his periphery, he spots Jones approaching the vehicle, looking both deeply afraid and intensely curious. Bucky reaches toward Dugan, who’s sweeping the landscape with his rifle. He keeps his other hand locked on Steve’s shoulder.

“Tim, get Jones.” Bucky points to Jones’ rapidly approaching figure. “Get him.” He tries to snap his fingers, but they’re wet with blood from Steve’s jacket.

“Aw, shit.” Dugan slings his rifle and runs to intercept Jones. Jones fights him, shoves him in the chest, his panicked voice rising, asking what’s wrong with Trip, what happened to him, what happened to him. Dugan holds him back and, with the help of Reyes, gets him steered toward the back of the convoy.

Bucky’s hand automatically returns to Steve’s shoulder. He passes a glance at Parker, who’s looking in the back seat and holding his hand lightly over his mouth. Bucky’s never seen him flinch or hesitate, not once, so he can only imagine how bad it is.

“Close the door, Doc,” Bucky tells him. “Just close it for now. I’ll take care of him.”

Parker drops his hand. It strikes Bucky very suddenly that Parker and Trip were roommates. Parker does what he’s told, closing the door slowly, not hard enough to latch it but enough to shield the view.

From the turret, Luis looks down at Bucky, concern etched on his face. Bucky points his index and middle fingers at his own eyes, signaling to Luis to keep scanning the area. Luis gives a firm nod.

Bucky swears under this breath and brings his attention back to Steve. His mouth is hinged open, and Bucky can see why. He pulls his canteen and douses the cuff of his own ACU coat, then wipes away the blood from Steve’s lower lip. “It’s okay,” he says softly. “I got it.” He keeps wiping, starting with the splatter on his forehead, moving down his nose, over his right eyelid, down each cheek. Steve’s looking at him now, his eyes still wide, pupils dilated.

Bucky wants to touch him. He wants to lay his hand on Steve’s neck. Caress his face. Pull him in close. Hold him.

But he doesn’t. He can’t. And he doesn’t even know if Steve would want it. He keeps his hands firm on his shoulders, though, sensing that it’s grounding him. In fact, it may be the only thing grounding him right now.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asks. It’s an awful question, because the answer is obviously no. But he asks it anyway, because he has to do this awful thing so that he doesn’t do a stupid thing.

Steve’s Adam’s apple bobs when he opens his mouth to speak. Nothing comes out. In the distance, Bucky hears Rhodes yell to everyone to stay sharp. Worry creases Steve’s brow.

“It’s okay,” Bucky tells him, moving to Steve’s side and wrapping his arm around his back, over the rise of his body armor. He starts to walk Steve toward the back of the convoy, and the other soldiers stare in horror as they pass. Bucky quickly debates what to do with him. Jones can’t see him, and he can’t stay in the lead vehicle. He settles with taking him to the second Humvee, telling Ward to go to the third so that he can take Bucky’s place.

Parker joins them, guarded and pale, arms crossed over his chest. He purses his lips, and his dark brown eyes move back and forth in tiny little flicks, as if he’s pushing through some deep equation in his mind. He then relaxes his hands at his sides and moves to Steve’s side.

“I’ll take care of him,” Parker murmurs to Bucky, laying a tender hand on Steve’s shoulder.

Bucky frowns but nods anyway. As much as Parker shouldn’t be tending to anyone but himself, he’s one of the only people Bucky would trust to care for Steve right now. He doubts that it’s rational, but he feels it strongly.

“Here, Sir. Let’s sit,” Parker says, guiding Steve to take a seat in the back, his legs hanging out of the vehicle. Steve’s expression shifts slowly out of shock and begins to resemble worry.

“Need to cut the wire,” Steve mumbles to Bucky. “Gotta get back.”

Bucky lays a hand on his shoulder again and squeezes. “I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry.”

Steve gives a single nod, and Bucky takes a few steps back, heavy and regretful. He feels the gears shift inside of himself, and he moves back into action, sending Maximoff and Reyes to cut the wire strung tight between two opposing streetlights. He then grabs a body bag from the mortuary affairs kit in the back of the first Humvee and steels himself to fill it with Trip’s body.

Rhodes approaches and grabs the other end of the body bag to unfold it. “You want some help?”

Bucky wants to say no. Desperately. He wants to spare Rhodes the burden of handling his own man’s remains. But practically, it’s going to take real effort to get Trip’s body out of the vehicle, and it would be disrespectful and graceless for Bucky to try to pull him out on his own.

“Yeah, thanks.”

It’s bad. Very, very bad. The wire went through Trip’s mouth. The upper half of his head lies on the floor, where Steve’s feet would have been. The bulk of the body was pushed off and rests partly in the seat and partly on the floor. From the pattern of blood, it appears that Trip’s body fell almost entirely on Steve’s side, sparing Maximoff in the seat across. God, Maximoff must have been shaken, too. Probably helped pull Trip off of Steve. Shit. Bucky wishes he’d thought of that before sending him to cut the wire. Shit. What the fuck is wrong with him?

Then he remembers. Then he hates himself.

Rhodes and Bucky work quickly to put Trip’s remains in the body bag, both seeming to find their special place easily. The place where soldiers go when they have to do the unthinkable. The place that allows them to complete the mission and table the horror and sickness and fear for a later time. They load Trip’s body into the back of the vehicle and start rallying everyone to get in their Humvees so they can finally get the hell out of here before more bad shit happens. Bucky digs his woobie out of his assault pack and drapes it over the mess of blood in the back, cringing, wondering briefly if he’ll ever be able to use it again without thinking of Trip and Trip’s blood and Trip’s mutilated body.

When they’re mounted up, Bucky, Rhodes, and Dugan make the rounds with all the men to check in. Jones is a wreck, but Reyes, Mack, and Foggy are looking after him. Steve has moved into dark, stony silence, responding with only a faint nod when Bucky asks if he’s doing okay. Bucky makes a special point to praise Luis for his quick thinking, jumping on the turret as soon as Trip went down. He also sends Maximoff to the fourth vehicle, where they have an extra seat in the back, leaving Bucky alone in the lead vehicle with Private Wilson and Luis. Bucky settles in the front passenger seat and looks over at Wilson, who’s mouth is caught somewhere between a frown and a sneer.

“That was fucking balls-ass fucked up.” Wilson lays his shaking hands on the steering wheel and grips it tightly. He looks into the back, at the parts of the mess Bucky couldn’t quite cover.

Bucky nods. “Yeah, it was.”

“I should have seen it.”

“Hey.” Bucky reaches over and firmly taps the 82nd Airborne unit patch on Wilson’s right arm, drawing his attention back. “We all missed it. Luis missed it, Trip missed it, Lieutenant Rogers and Maximoff missed it. I missed it. Everyone missed it. They’re almost impossible to see.”

“I still should have seen it.” Wilson curses softly.

“This was not your fault.”

“I’m beginning to sense a little bit of a trend when I drive lead,” Wilson replies. “People tend to die.”

Bucky thinks back to the little girl they hit. He thinks back to Wilson’s fear, his apprehension, his frantic need to be told to swerve around her, and his grim resolve when he realized he couldn’t.

“We have you drive lead because you can handle it.” Bucky sets his jaw firmly and slides on his headset. “You could make a good career out of this, if you’d just stop getting in so much goddamn trouble.”

Wilson puts on his headset as well. “Right now might not be the best time to convince me to re-enlist, Sergeant.” He’s smiling, though, and in that smile, Bucky sees himself.

“All right, Private Wilson,” Bucky says over the radio. “Let’s get this convoy home.”

Chapter Text


When Bucky become a senior NCO, nobody ever told him that half his job was going to be paperwork, piles upon ungodly piles of forms and reports and counseling statements. And this paperwork is typically demanded at the most inopportune times, such as immediately after one’s convoy returns to base after the crippling loss of a soldier. Before they can even get Trip’s body to mortuary affairs, Morita is in Bucky’s face, demanding a verbal briefing. Bucky muddles his way through it as best he can while half-watching Steve blink and try futilely to report the situation to Barton. It’s a relief for everyone when Barton ends Steve’s pathetic efforts with an uneasy smile and a clap on the shoulder and walks him to his trailer.

After spending nearly two hours assuring the command team that Steve’s decision to take Route Baghdad was sound, Bucky goes to see Steve in his room. When he arrives, he finds Steve sitting at his desk, clean and dressed in his PT uniform. He’s staring at the incident report form on his laptop, fingers hovering over the keyboard, cursor planted on the line where he’s supposed to type his name. Bucky watches him for a few minutes, watches him strain to even type the first letter, and Bucky finally pushes the laptop aside and pulls up a seat next to him. Steve murmurs half of an objection.

Bucky tries to talk to him, without much success. Steve’s repertoire of responses is limited to bare words and simple body language, and his dirty blond eyebrows slowly furrow with every failed attempt to do better. Bucky wonders if Parker dosed him with a couple lorazepam or something, and he actually hopes that he did, because if that's not the case, then... well... fuck. Bucky again fights a powerful urge to comfort him, to lay his hand over Steve’s, maybe squeeze it, to physically tell him the ‘I’m sorrys’ and the ‘I still love yous’ that he can’t bear to say after everything that went down between them yesterday.

At a loss, Bucky offers to take him to the chaplain, the wizard, anyone else who might be able to help. He offers even though he doesn’t want Steve to talk to any of them. With Steve the way he is now, they very well might relieve him of command, or worse, secure him a one-way ticket back Stateside. Steve shakes his head at each suggestion until Bucky proposes that he lie down — just for a quick nap, he clarifies, after Steve balks over all the paperwork he has due to Barton tomorrow. As if he’s in a condition right now to do anything more than breathe. Bucky walks him over to his bed and pulls his blanket over him, stealing a few moments of contact by laying his hand on Steve’s shoulder. Maybe he’s just imagining it — Christ, he could be — but something in Steve seems to settle under the weight of his touch. With a weary smile, Bucky turns back toward Steve’s desk, stopping fast when he hears the other man’s muffled voice.

“Sorry, Buck.”

Bucky frowns. “For what?”

“…I’m so sorry.”

By the time Bucky scans through the catalog of things he might be sorry for, Steve’s breathing has already shifted into a slow, deep rhythm. Regardless of what it’s for, Bucky sure as hell has more than enough sorries to give back.

“Me, too.”

Bucky works for the next few hours at Steve’s desk, filling out a massive collection of post-incident paperwork and completing whatever he can of Steve’s reports. Somewhere in that timeframe, Sitwell comes home, but he’s quiet and respectful, even after curfew starts. Around 1:30, Bucky’s vision starts blurring from exhaustion, and he takes his laptop back to his own trailer. He talks briefly with Sam, who honors his request to save the details for later, because he’s got something more important to do right now — namely, grabbing every drop of remaining alcohol in his possession and dumping it into the blue waters of the nearest Porta-John. As liquid hits liquid, Bucky promises himself that he’s done drinking, that his first stop when they get back to Bragg is AA. His resolve is deathly serious, which is the only appropriate response to what his drinking made him do today. 

The next two days are so blessedly busy that Bucky barely has a chance to think, let alone process one solid granule of the emotions roiling inside of him. He works closely with Morita, Rhodes, and Barton to ensure that all of the moving parts fall into place just so. After pulling out of his stupor, Steve inserts himself into the process as much as he can. But his helpfulness is limited, and Bucky’s not sure if he can chalk it up entirely to Steve’s ignorance of the intricacies of managing the death of a soldier. Bucky assigned him the task of securing emergency leave and arranging travel home for Jones, something simple to keep him occupied and make him feel useful. Bucky doesn't think that he’s up for anything more than that, even if Steve would never admit it himself.

Steve goes where he needs to go and does what his responsibilities require him to do. Physically, at least. But wherever he is, it’s clear that his mind is far away, tucked inside itself, no doubt churning with the same things every leader churns in his head when he loses his first soldier — or any soldier, for that matter. What if. I should have. If only. The bottom line is always the same: my soldier is dead because of me. And that line of guilt is not even taking into consideration the personal horror of watching his soldier die in front of him. On top of him. For all the awful shit Bucky has seen in his many deployments, Trip’s death may very well be the worst. He wonders, very reluctantly, if Steve will ever be able to come back from this.

For now, Bucky watches him from a distance. He’s made a few more attempts at conversation, only to be met with dead eyes and cold, curt responses. It’s day one of deployment all over again, except instead of brimming with composure, Steve now seems fragile. Apparently it’s only Bucky who sees him this way, because Morita makes a point to mention on several occasions how well he seems to be holding up. Bucky agrees with Morita, hoping that he’s right, hoping that maybe their years apart have made his old reads on Steve obsolete. Maybe he’s doing well after all. With no relevant data points to anchor him, Bucky’s left with only his guesses and doubts.

The day after Trip’s death, the Combat Stress Control psychologist visits the platoon to debrief. The men go quiet. Steve and Bucky watch the one-sided production from a distance, arms folded. It’s all very well meaning, very proactive. But infantrymen generally approach all things mental health with caution and wariness, partly because most Army shrinks don’t know shit about being in combat, so what could they possibly have to say? There’s also the unspoken understanding that the wrong words could get a man pulled off duty, which is the last thing any of them want right now. If anything, dedication to the unit digs even deeper in the face of a fellow soldier’s death. Each man covers down harder, watches his brother closer, renews his commitment to getting everyone home alive. And no man’s hurt, no matter how profound, is worth risking the integrity of the unit they have left.

The second day after Trip’s death is his memorial service. Bucky and Rhodes scramble to get a good picture of him, preferably one in uniform, preferably not the ridiculous mugshot everyone gets in basic training. Fortunately, Parker has a fantastic one on his digital camera of Trip in all his gear, his face a warm, handsome glow. It’s such a precise embodiment of the light he brought to the unit that Bucky tears up at the sight of it blown up, framed, and situated beneath the boots, rifle, and helmet they arrange at the front of the chapel. He lets himself have that moment, very carefully, which Rhodes mercifully ignores. Rhodes already had his moment yesterday, and one moment’s about all a leader can afford in the first week of loss.

At 16:00, soldiers assemble in the chapel for the service. The turnout is immense, though not at all surprising. The whole company shows, in addition to a collection of men and women from various support units, people who know Jones and knew Trip through him. Natasha’s stuck in the field this week, and Bucky laments her absence. But at least Sam’s here, and he takes a seat directly behind Bucky as the service begins. Having him there seems to pull some of the tension from Bucky’s spine, offering a counterbalance to the unsettled energy coming off of Steve beside him. Bucky tries to read his face but can’t. It’s hard, glossed over, clearly a piece of window dressing hung to keep the rawness out of sight. It’s there, though. Bucky can feel it like he feels his own heartbeat. Maybe it’s for the best, especially when it’s time for Last Roll Call. Bucky braces himself and feels Rhodes on the other side of him do the same.

Morita plants himself at the front of the chapel and commands everyone to their feet. He then runs down the rolls for the company, calling out the name of each soldier in the unit alphabetically. Each man replies with a “Here, First Sergeant!” of varying degrees of tone and stability, some booming, some tight and modest, some already cracking.

Trip’s name is saved for last.

“Specialist Triplett.”

The room is silent.

“Specialist Antoine Triplett.”

Silence.

“Specialist Antoine Michael Triplett.”

There is a response now, as the ceremony typically goes. There’s a scattering of sniffles, along with the sound of a man very quietly sobbing while the rifle detail just outside the chapel conducts a three-volley salute. The sniffles and sobs come to a crescendo as Taps plays. This is good, Bucky thinks, his mind drifting far enough to keep his chin from quivering. Get it out now. Mourn so you can carry on. He wants them to do all the things he can’t afford to do right now.

Bucky does his duty afterward, making his rounds, accepting condolences from higher-ups and NCOs from the other platoons, giving condolences to Trip’s friends and once again to Rhodes, who’s lost men in previous units but never quite like this. Even Sitwell comes up to him and offers a few kind words. At one point, Bucky scans around the chapel for Steve. Not tough to pick out a man who stands six-foot-three in boots, so Bucky’s able to conclude quickly that he already left. He does find Sam, though, who gives him a mournful smile from across the room. Sam stays with Bucky until the very end and helps clean up.

After, Sam stands with Bucky as he chain smokes two cigarettes in silence. Sam’s seen nearly every season and every mood of Bucky Barnes, and when they get back to their trailer, Sam knows that he needs a very long hug and a few episodes of In Living Color, which Sam first introduced him to when they met as roommates at the Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course. They take off their ACU jackets and sit together on Bucky’s bed, eating from the box of Ho Hos Bucky’s ma sent with the note “For my little snack cake,” likely written for the sole purpose of embarrassing him in front of at least one other person.

Despite the loss, Bucky laughs with Sam and enjoys the feeling of being cared for, both here and at home.

“When’s your leave again?” Bucky asks Sam in the middle of the show’s credits.

“August.” Sam smirks. “Right around the time when the devil’s gonna take a big, gritty sand shit on this entire country.”

Bucky shoves the last of his Ho Ho in his mouth and talks around it. “Want me to send you anything while I’m home?”

“No, thanks.”

Sam wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulder and pulls him close. Bucky wants to relax into him. He really does. But Sam’s physical displays of closeness are confusing for him, because he’s not sure if Sam’s doing it because he knows Bucky craves physical affection or if he’s doing it because he genuinely wants to be close. Lord help him if it’s both. For a man who presents himself as almost vehemently heterosexual, there are enough moments between them that Bucky sometimes questions whether Sam’s feelings for him are entirely platonic. Sometimes he's afraid that Jamie and Sam are going to end up being Bucky and Steve, and it makes him never want to touch Sam ever again. And it also makes him so, so sad.

“You okay?” Sam asks. Bucky can feel the movement of Sam's chin against his head.

He nods against Sam’s clavicle.

Sam pulls him closer. “My little snack cake.”

Bucky clasps his hands together on his lap with a sigh and allows himself to be held.

———

Steve knew it was wrong to leave as soon as he walked out of the chapel. He knew it was wrong, but he had to go, because he truly did not know what he was going to do if he stayed. Maybe he would have held himself together. Maybe he would have done what he pictured himself doing back when he was at the Academy, sad as it is that he imagined such things. So many of them did, because they knew they were all going to at least one of two wars after graduation, and in war, soldiers die. The math is breathtakingly simple.

Back then, Steve pictured himself standing strong and stoic, comforting his men, a pillar of strength for them to lean on. A real leader. The type of man he carefully sculpted himself into during his time at West Point. A far cry from the soft and powerless man who wept and worried for Bucky Barnes while he searched for survivors at Ground Zero and chased the Taliban around Afghanistan. Steve harbors a deep fear that he might still be that weak man underneath everything, that this is who he really is and that this part of himself is re-emerging, coming to reclaim its natural place. He scowls at the thought of it and walks faster.

On the way back to his trailer, Steve stops by the phone center and tries to call Sharon, waiting in line for an hour just to get her voicemail. He calls multiple times, growing more detached and reluctant with every failed call, eventually realizing that he has no idea what he would say to her if she picked up.

How could he possibly convey to her what happened two days ago? How could he describe what it felt like to have his soldier’s decapitated body and head fall on his lap? How could he tell her what it felt like to be covered in Trip’s blood? To taste it in his mouth? To smell his shit when his nervous system so violently shut down? To have the man he used to love grab at his shirt cuff like a little kid and wipe that blood away like it was playground dirt? And how could he tell her that it was all because he made the wrong choice as a leader? How could he tell her that it was his fault? How could she ever understand any of that? How could he ever even say the words?

Steve lays the phone on the receiver and gives the next soldier his seat. He drifts back to his trailer and finds Sitwell lying in bed in his PTs, reading John McCain’s “Character is Destiny.” Half of a joke blooms and wilts in Steve’s mind.

“How you holding up?” Sitwell asks.

Steve snorts and sits down on the edge of his bed, laying his rifle next to him. “I don’t even know how to answer that.”

“You left early.”

Steve presses his palms together. “I’m aware of that.

“Losing a man is hard.” Sitwell’s expression is solemn as he puts his book down on his lap.

“Oh, yeah? How many have you lost?”

Sitwell sighs. “I meant it as—”

“A platitude. That’s what you meant it as.”

“Look, if you’re gonna be an asshole…” Sitwell tenses and trails off.

Steve raises his eyebrows. “If I’m gonna come into my own room and be upset after one of my men was brutally murdered, then what?” He cocks his head. “Then what? What’s gonna happen?”

“I’m just trying to be supportive. I’m sorry Triplett died.” Sitwell shrugs one lazy shoulder. “It sucks.”

Steve can’t say exactly why those words and that single shrug light up his insides the way they do. He can’t trace the cryptic path between Sitwell’s efforts at kindness and the wild explosion of fury that rips through his chest. There is no path. Not one that makes any sense, anyway. It doesn’t make sense when Steve stands and storms over to Sitwell’s bed with eight powerful strides. It makes even less sense when he rips the book off the other man’s lap and throws it as hard as he can against the wall.

“Hey! What the hell—”

“Oh, I’m so sorry about that. Really, so sorry.” Steve’s shoulders rise and fall sharply in an exaggerated shrug. “Man, that sucks.”

Steve then looks down at where Sitwell’s boots and sneakers are lined up neatly beneath his bed. He grits his teeth and sends them flying across the room with a pair of swift kicks.

“Having your shit kicked around is really hard. Golly, so fucking hard. I know. But, gee-fucking-whiz, this stuff happens!” Steve’s yelling now. Maybe he’s even screaming. He’s so out of his head with rage that his calibration is completely obliterated.

Sitwell scrambles back into the corner of his bed. “What the fuck, Rogers?”

For the first time in Steve’s life, he fantasizes — very briefly — about taking another man’s life. He settles instead for bending down to eye-level and forcing his ire through his clenched teeth.

“You’re lucky I’m throwing your stuff and not throwing my fists against your face, you disingenuous, sniveling piece of shit.”

While Sitwell sits, dumbfounded, Steve lets his anger carry him back to his side of the room, where he grabs his rifle and makes for the door. He reaches for the knob and pauses.

“If I were you, I’d keep my fucking mouth shut for a couple days.” Steve glares back at his roommate. “Think you can manage that?”

Sitwell nods with an impressive level of calm.

It’s well after dark by the time Steve settles down. It’s a herculean task, because his mind keeps flashing back to horrific things. Trip’s severed head. The dazzling spray of blood. The thump his head made when Steve pushed it off his lap onto the floor. How Steve could see where Trip’s tongue disappeared down his throat — down his fucking throat. He sees the aftermath. The way his men stared. The look on Bucky’s face. He hears his furious words and revisits his wildly inappropriate assault on Sitwell who, God damn it, was only trying to be kind to him.

He makes three loops around the entire base perimeter, earning suspicious looks from the guards with each pass. The images flash and flash, but by the end of the third loop, he’s built some small skill in distracting himself from them. He mentally walks through the procedure to clean his rifle. He recalls the step-by-step directions to make chili in the slow cooker. He tries to think about Sharon, hoping it might help, but he’s repelled by the remembrance of her innocence.

Gravity pulls him away from the perimeter and toward the senior enlisted quarters. He doesn’t think or plan his way there. Instead, Bucky’s door seems to appear in front of him through serendipity, and Steve tries be surprised by his unconscious decision to land here. He stands outside for a while, listening for sounds inside. He hears what he thinks might be TV, along with intermittent rumbles of men’s voices laughing, one of which definitely belongs to Bucky. Steve doesn’t know how he’s managing to find anything funny right now, and he envies Bucky’s ability to pack everything away so tidily. But then again, maybe Steve doesn’t want to be such an expert in traumatic loss.

Steve’s fist hovers an inch from the door, coming in for several failed attempts to knock until he finally forces his knuckles against the surface. Sergeant Wilson comes to the door, and Steve’s relieved when he invites him in without anything more than a greeting.

Bucky’s face grows serious when he sees Steve, and he slides off his bed to meet him at the door. He looks comfortable, dressed down in his ACU t-shirt and pants. Steve’s gaze pauses at Bucky’s incongruous argyle socks for several disbelieving seconds.

Bucky crosses his arms and uncrosses them almost immediately. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

Bucky and Wilson stare at him, their expressions expectant, and it suddenly feels very wrong that he came here. Steve’s mind blows outward, forming a barren vacuum in which no coherent thoughts seem to be able to materialize.

“I should go,” Steve says, absently fingering his pistol holster on his right leg.

Wilson gestures toward him. “No, Sir. You stay, I’m gonna go.”

Steve doesn’t argue. Instead, he watches Wilson put on his boots with deft swiftness. He then watches Wilson glance over at Bucky, giving him a look that only Bucky must be able to understand. Steve wonders how long they’ve been friends and realizes how terrible it is that he never bothered to ask.

As Wilson leaves, he holds up two fingers to Bucky, who nods in reply. Something close to envy burns in Steve’s gut, even though he’s not sure exactly what he envies.

“You can put your rifle down,” Bucky tells him, pointing to his desk.

Only when Steve looks down does he even remember that he’s holding it. He lays it on the desk and stands in the middle of the room, his hands flexing a little, as if they don’t quite know how to behave without a weapon in them.

Bucky takes a few steps forward, stopping an arm’s length away. “How you holding up, Sir?”

“Don’t.” Steve shakes his head. “No ‘Sir.’ Not now.”

“Okay. How are you?”

Like back in the phone center, Steve finds that he doesn’t have words for how he’s holding up or what he’s feeling right now. But unlike back in the phone center, he thinks Bucky might understand what lies in the silence.

Bucky’s expression contorts in concern. There are lines on his face that weren’t there before. Small wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. A deep line between his brows, etched there from three full deployments’ worth of stress, along with every train-up and redeployment in-between. Steve’s not sure how the aging algorithm works, how wrinkles and burned-off baby fat conspire together, but Bucky looks far more handsome pushing 30 than he ever did at 22.

“Do you wanna talk?” Some of Bucky’s concern seems to lift, possibly with effort, as if Bucky thinks Steve’s words will come if he only seems friendly enough. It’s the look and tone one might offer a scared child or a skittish dog, and Steve doesn’t find either patronizing.

“Not really,” Steve replies.

“What do you need right now, Steve?”

The sound of his name shakes something loose in him, and several possibilities die on the tip of his tongue. They’re all completely outside the bounds of the way that reality is currently configured, all vestiges of the past trying to take root in the wastes of the present. He wants something that he has no right to ask for and no right to receive.

But he wants it still. Because Trip is dead. Because he caused Trip to die. Because he’s stranded himself on a sinking island and feels so devastatingly, painfully alone.

Bucky’s frowning now, his jaw clenched so tightly that Steve can see it tick. His fingers twitch, then his forearm, and then he’s reaching out, tentative, like Steve is made of a fire he has to touch.

Bucky lays his hand on the vulnerable juncture of Steve’s shoulder and neck, and Steve chokes off a pitiful little sound from his throat. Relief crests within him, and it’s only in this moment that Steve understands how scared he was that Bucky would never touch him again.

“It’s okay,” Bucky whispers.

Steve nods.

Bucky’s hand slides down Steve’s collar, down to the zipper of his ACU coat, which he pulls down with clinical composure. Steve shrugs his coat onto the floor, and his heart kicks into a gallop when Bucky drops into a crouch and starts undoing his sidearm holster. He unclips it from Steve’s belt then goes to work on the thigh straps, and Steve sucks in a quiet breath when Bucky’s knuckle inadvertently brushes against his crotch.

Bucky lays the holstered pistol on the floor and stands. Without a word, he takes Steve by the hand and leads him over to his bed.

Anxiety permeates every capillary of Steve’s body when they lie on top of the comforter and Bucky pulls him close. He guides Steve’s head to rest on his shoulder and pets his head in a way that’s almost maternal. Somehow, it’s completely congruous, completely Bucky, an epitome of everything he does day by day to care for everyone in this unit but himself.

Steve attempts to relax. He takes a few deep breaths. He breathes in the smell of Bucky, which he’s always strained to describe. Something warm and lightly piquant, something distinctly masculine. Along the edge of Bucky’s well-worn and stretched t-shirt collar, Steve sees a sparse growth of dark chest hair, which Bucky always shaved or waxed away when they were together. Steve touches it with his fingertips.

“Yeah, I’m a big, hairy gorilla now,” Bucky says in a tone that strains to excuse his own natural form.

“I like it.”

Bucky snorts and gives Steve’s head a gentle pat.

For a long time, Steve lies in the sound of Bucky breathing, his gaze following the metronomic rise and fall of Bucky’s well-muscled chest. When the pull becomes too great, Steve unfolds his arm from where he’s tucked it against his own body and lays it across Bucky’s waist.

“Are you supposed to feel empty after?” Steve eventually asks.

Bucky lifts his hand from Steve’s head and slowly runs it up and down the bare parts of Steve’s arm. Even though his hand is warm, it leaves goosebumps in its wake.

“I don’t think there’s any right way to feel,” Bucky says. “You might feel empty or numb. Maybe angry. Maybe sad.”

“I freaked out at Sitwell today.”

“Yeah?” Bucky sounds pleased. “What’d you do?”

“Screamed at him. Threw his book. Kicked his shoes.” Steve winces at the memory and feels the hot burn of shame at how ridiculous, how utterly insane, it sounds now.

“Good for you. I’m surprised you lasted this long.”

“I feel stupid. I was furious, and he didn’t deserve it. He’s been trying.” Steve pauses and bites the inside of his lip. “I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to beat his face until he was…” Until he was what, Steve refuses to say.

“That’s how it is for a lot of people. You get mad, really fucking mad, because it feels so much better to be angry than sad or hurt.”

Steve watches his own fingers trail over Bucky’s skin. The ridges and dips of his collar bones. The hollow of this throat. The pleasing rise of his Adam’s apple. The ball chain on which his dog tags hang. Steve touches him with the fascination of a man who’s never touched another man before, even though his fingers have traveled these paths countless times.

“How do you handle this life? How do you lose men and keep going?” Steve asks.

Bucky shifts and bends his right arm around Steve so he can push up the left sleeve of his t-shirt. Steve lifts his head and looks at the thin tattoo that winds upon the surface of his upper arm. It’s a Fibonacci spiral, and when Steve looks close, he sees that the line is composed of a long sequence of names strung together.

“These are soldiers I’ve lost,” Bucky says, using his pinky to trace the line from the tight center outward. “The ones I was really close to, anyway. My friends. My men. Most died in action. One guy killed himself. One OD’d. Still casualties, as far as I’m concerned.”

Steve traces the spiral from the outside in, until their fingers meet. “I’m so sorry.”

“You never get used to it.” Bucky abruptly draws his hand away and pulls down his sleeve over the tattoo. “You shouldn’t, anyway. Not if you have a heart.”

“But how do you move forward?”

Bucky shrugs one shoulder. “Personally, I stay busy. Why do you think I deploy every five minutes? So I don’t have time to think about it.” He shifts his weight, until he’s flat on his back again. “This is the only place where anything makes sense, anyway.”

Steve settles his head back on Bucky’s shoulder and lays his palm on his sternum. “How do you figure?”

“Everything’s simple here. The tasks are simple. The mission is simple. The details, yeah, they’re all jacked up and morally fucked. But people like me can thrive here. Thrive in the disorder, as you put it.” Despite the bitterness in the words Bucky’s borrowing, his tone is fond. “Back home, all this stuff has no place. Nobody wants to hear it. And who wants all that space to think and feel it? Too much space. Too much time. Too much nothing for all this shit to fester in.”

A hesitant question rises up Steve’s throat and stops at his glottis. He swallows uncomfortably around it until it finally dislodges and leaves his lips.

“Is that why you drink?”

Beneath him, Bucky tenses.

“Who told you that?”

“I just heard.”

“I don’t drink anymore. I’m done with that. But yeah, it helped. Temporarily, anyway.” Bucky takes a pair of deep breaths, the kind you take on purpose. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and I shoved away a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have. Stuff I should have dealt with a long time ago. Now it’s all there behind this partition.” He forms a flat plane with his hand and draws a vertical line with it in the air. “And there’s so much garbage backed up, and the pressure’s so great that there’s no way to pull out even a little bit without blowing the whole thing to hell.”

Steve imagines a viscous membrane, black and alive, pulsing and bulging with all the evil Bucky’s experienced, every ghost and demon he’s carried with him since long before he came to Brooklyn.

“What does that mean for you” Steve asks.

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to live without war anymore. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

Bucky lays his hand on top of where Steve’s rests at the center of his chest.

“I don’t want you to be like me,” Bucky tells him. “You have a chance to do things differently.”

There’s an unsettling irrefutability in Bucky’s tone, like he’s resigned himself to whatever fate a man like him is destined to have. Steve thinks of Mr. Keating down the hall, out of his mind with the horrors he saw in Vietnam, booby trapping his front door, hoarding supplies, screaming in the middle of the night. He hanged himself with a belt in his closet on Steve’s fifteenth birthday, and when Steve volunteered to help the super clean out his apartment, because Mr. Keating didn’t have a relationship with any of his next of kin, they found fourteen guns, five knives, and two presumably functional grenades. He thinks about Mr. Keating and then imagines Bucky, and he’s stricken by the ease with which he can interchange the two.

“Give yourself some time to feel this stuff,” Bucky tells him. “Feel the grief. We have time. We tell ourselves we don’t, but we do. Even if it’s just ten minutes a day to be sad or pissed or guilty, take that time. Let the pressure off. Don’t wait until you can’t even touch it because its so toxic.”

“I’ll try.”

Silence settles on them like a blanket, and in the quiet, something in Steve, something staunch and stubborn, falls away. Space emerges where there was none before, and in that space arises the words that Steve should have said so many years ago.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Steve pushes down on Bucky’s chest, like doing so will help Bucky know how sincere he is. How wrong he was. “I’m so sorry for leaving you the way I did.

Bucky touches his lips to the side of Steve’s head. “That really fucked me up. Really bad.”

“I know. I know it did. But I was so hurt. I couldn’t hate my mom for dying, but I could hate you for choosing to leave.”

“Did you really hate me?”

Bucky sounds young, nervous, like the day he told Steve he was gay, his face blanched, fingertips trembling. How could he ever hate Bucky? How could he ever hate someone so desperate to be loved?

“No. I never hated you.”

Bucky pulls him close, but there’s angry energy in his muscles. “I wish you’d just waited. We could have worked it out when I got home.”

“I don’t know about that,” Steve frowns as he considers the possibility. “There was something not right about our relationship. Something deep. It’s like you weren’t ever settled, like you were just counting down the days until we failed. And then you left, and everything went to shit, and it was like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And I was so mad at you for that.”

“I thought about what you said. About why I left.”

Steve tilts his head up, surprised. “Really?”

“I tried to think about it, and logically, it doesn’t make any sense why I’d do that. But maybe there’s something beyond logic there. I don’t know. I’m not good at thinking about myself that deep. Maybe because I know I’m gonna see a lot of really fucked up stuff if I look there.”

“We all have fucked up stuff. I wish I could take back what I did to you. I wish I could go back and fix my fucked up stuff.”

“I wish I could, too. Maybe I wouldn’t have left.” A frustrated breath leaves Bucky’s nostrils. “I don’t know.”

Steve’s fingertips drift back to the hair on Bucky’s chest. “Do you really believe what you said before? That I was just playing gay?”

Bucky hesitates, then finally says “I don’t know.”

“You know, there really are people who like both men and women. One’s not a consolation prize for the other.” Steve lifts his head then, so that he can look Bucky in the eye. So that Bucky can never deny Steve his own truth, because he must be able to see it in his face. Steve feels it there. “I didn’t love you in spite of the fact that you were a man. I loved you because of it.”

“Steve—”

“It was real. What we had was real.”

Bucky lays his hand on Steve’s cheek, and he seems to unfurl, open up, almost like he believes him this time. A sweet smile blooms on his face, on his beautiful mouth. And Steve doesn’t stop Bucky when his hand curves around the back of his neck and pulls Steve’s head down, when he tilts up his clefted chin just enough to touch their lips together.

Steve doesn’t stop a damn thing. He doesn’t fight the gravity that draws him into Bucky, into his kiss, into his touch, which has been stripped of its maternal tenderness. As the kiss deepens, Bucky’s hands grasp and travel Steve’s body with greedy fervor, like he’s afraid he might evaporate at any moment. And when Steve shifts and settles on top of him, he swears he hears an “Oh, God” just below Bucky’s breath.

The feel of Bucky fucking his tongue into his mouth, the sound of him breathing, the weight of his leg as it wraps around him, it all unleashes something unruly and visceral in Steve. It sucks the present out of the room — the war, their ranks, the death and guilt and sand. It sucks all that out and replaces it with the past. Here, they’re not Sergeant Barnes and Lieutenant Rogers, the men who command the second platoon of the first company of the most elite regular infantry unit in the Army. Here, they’re Bucky and Steve, two friends who fell for each other, two men who are fantastically in love, two lovers who can’t stop touching each other, who make love often and with abandon, who know each other’s bodies better than they know their own.

In this past, all the horror, the gore, the blood, the mind numbing trauma, the heartache of losing Trip, all of that falls away. And in this unburdened space, Steve feels himself get hard. Maybe he should be ashamed for it, and perhaps some part of him is. But when Bucky slides his hand between them and grasps the straining hardness he finds there, Steve whimpers and pushes himself into Bucky’s palm.

Steve slides his tongue out of Bucky’s mouth and pulls away. Bucky’s eyes are dark, his blown pupils pushing his irises into thin blue rings. Steve slides Bucky’s shirt up his belly, and Bucky helps himself out of it before sending it flying across the room. Steve then pulls off Bucky’s dog tags and lays them on the corner of the nightstand. Before the he went to West Point, he always thought they were so sexy on Bucky. But now that he’s had to wear them for six years straight, he sees them for the nuisance they really are. He thinks to suck on Bucky’s nipples, scrape them with his nails and teeth the way Bucky likes. Maybe if he were more patient, he would. Maybe he’d touch every rise and ridge of Bucky’s incredible torso because, Jesus, Steve knew he was fit, but Christ.

Steve’s not patient, though. He’s ravenous and fraying, and all he wants to do right now is rip off Bucky’s clothes and make him come.

It all goes. Pants. Underwear. Those fucking argyle socks. And when Bucky’s finally naked, Steve settles between his legs and looks up at him, at his flushed and curious face. He then wraps his hand around Bucky’s cock, which rests hot and heavy in his grip. It’s the first and only cock he’s ever held besides his own, and he breaks briefly from the torrent of his lust to appreciate it.

“You have a perfect penis, you know,” Steve says. “You could be a penis model.”

“Um, I think that’s called pornography, isn’t it?” Bucky raises a skeptical but amused eyebrow.

“No, I mean like for a textbook. Like for a urology textbook.” As Steve talks, he tilts said perfect penis, runs his fingers along the shaft, traces delicately around the head. “‘Here is an ideal specimen of a circumcised penis. See the handsome frenulum and the noble crown. Observe its perfect balance and symmetry.’”

Bucky breathes out a laugh. “Alright, alright. You gonna put my handsome frenulum your mouth or just compliment it all night? Not that I mind the compliments, but—”

Steve cuts Bucky off by going as far down on his dick as he can, which he’s impressed to learn is almost all the way before he starts to choke. Bucky’s words are swallowed by a loud groan, followed by a slipstream of breathy and profoundly sexy sounds as Steve works him over. Most of the finer art of cock sucking gets tossed across the room with Bucky’s clothes, leaving behind Steve’s wandering fingers and raw enthusiasm. Bucky pulls a breath between his teeth when Steve ghosts over his hole, and Steve feels the weight of Bucky’s hand on him, stopping him.

“Hold on,” Bucky says, then reaches over to his nightstand. From it, he procures a bottle of lube and hands it to Steve, who promptly chuckles.

“Isn’t this from Private Wilson’s care package?” Steve asks, turning the bottle to inspect the labels.

Bucky props himself up on his elbows. “Yeah, I traded him a carton of smokes for it.”

“Oh yeah? How’d that conversation go?”

“I told him I have to jerk off a lot.” Bucky shrugs with a grin. “Pressures of leadership and whatnot.”

Steve pushes Bucky’s knees up so he can get better access to him. He feels the movement of the bed as Bucky drops back onto the mattress. Bucky’s breathing deeply, eyes closed, getting himself ready, and he lets out a dirty moan when Steve slides his index finger inside him. Steve’s cock stiffens uncomfortably at the practiced ease with which Bucky takes him in, and his mind veers briefly from his present task to other thoughts, like how he wants to be in there, how he should just free his dick from his pants and shove up into him. Fuck him right here.

Something stops him, though. Some force without clear form. Steve pulls his attention back to the gorgeous man splayed out before him, the very first person to really open him up, the one who helped him learn let go and give himself over to his body. The man who tore out his gauges and checks and balances and taught him that it’s okay to writhe and cry out and make a mess on the sheets.

While he fucks his finger in and out of Bucky’s ass, Steve goes back to Bucky’s cock, taking it in his free hand and brushing his lips over the head.

“What do you think about?” Steve asks.

“Huh?”

“When you jerk off. What do you think about?”

Steve goes back down on Bucky while he utters a simple list of things, his voice tense and gritty and punctuated by the sounds of his enjoyment.

“This. You… You inside me. Any part of you…. Your fingers. Your tongue…”

Bucky squirms, his legs shifting, and Steve can tell he’s already getting close. He goes in for the coupe de grace, fondling Bucky’s prostate and loosening his throat. He slides a hand under Bucky’s ass and coaxes him up, letting him know he can fuck his face and feeling pretty damn brave for it. Bucky gathers the two fistfuls of comforter and takes the offer with some restraint, fucking up into Steve’s mouth while Steve focuses on keeping his gag reflex in check. Bucky continues his gravelly narration of his jerk-off fantasy, and Steve grinds his hips into the mattress to get whatever small relief he can.

Fuck… I think about your cock. Your big, hard cock…Fucking me… So hard…”

Bucky repeats “so hard, so hard” until he finally gasps, and Steve braces himself for the load that Bucky shoots down his throat, which is so far back that he doesn’t even taste it. He holds Bucky’s cock in his mouth until it stops pulsing, keeping his finger pressed on that sensitive place within him. His own cock throbs in time with his heart, as it has been since they started kissing, but he resigns himself to the discomfort.

Steve pulls off and out of him then, smiling despite his neglected hard-on and the ache in his lower back from awkwardly folding his tall frame on the mattress. He’s been trying not to think about how ridiculous the scene looks, the unwholesome picture Sergeant Wilson would see if he walked in now — Bucky sex-addled and buck-ass naked, Steve almost completely clothed, contorted at the foot of the bed between Bucky’s legs, his own legs half hanging off the bed, with a family-sized tent pitched in his uniform pants.

Bucky doesn’t seem worried about that, or anything at all, for that matter. He’s blissed out, eyes still closed, breathing deeply. He seems relaxed for maybe the first time since they’ve been deployed. He feels for Steve’s hand and grabs it, because despite how utterly nasty Bucky can be, how filthy his mouth and his mind are, he’s one of the sweetest people Steve has ever known. He craves tenderness even more than he craves the heady madness of fucking, and after wiping his hand off on his pants, Steve makes his way back to Bucky’s side, enfolding him, reversing their earlier positions.

Bucky makes a sound of deep contentment and drapes his leg over Steve’s. His hand travels down the midline of Steve’s abdomen, over his belt, and comes to rest on his erection. Steve takes in a deep breath through his nose, not only because he’s desperate for relief but because he’s fighting a brutally unfair uphill battle pinning his desire for Bucky against what he knows is the right thing to do.

“What do you think about when you jerk off?” Bucky runs his hand slowly over the bulge in Steve’s pants. “I told you what I think.”

Steve feels his face redden from embarrassment and shame, because not only does he remember all the times he’s thought of Bucky, he very clearly remembers of all the times he’s thought of Sharon.

Bucky works open the top button of his pants. “Do you ever think about me?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathes.

“Doing what?”

Steve swallows heavily. “On top.”

Another two buttons come undone, and Bucky slides his fingers inside the slit in the front of Steve’s briefs, caressing the hot skin of Steve’s cock. “Riding this?”

Steve musters every ounce of moral strength within himself and stops Bucky’s hand with is own. He holds it there for a few moments, heart pounding, chest heaving with the anxiety of his indecision. The memory of every ecstatic moment Bucky has given him collides violently with the commitment he made to Sharon, the deep abiding love he has for her. And the love he still feels for Bucky is also there, a third vehicle in this cataclysmic collision that only makes the gnarled wreckage uglier.

In the end, the only really option Steve sees is to remove Bucky’s hand and clasp it over his own heart. Bucky frowns, of course he does, but he doesn’t seem shocked.

“You don’t want me?”

“I do. You know I do. But I can’t.”

Bucky buries his face into the crook of Steve’s neck. He then lets out a small laugh. “I was supposed to be comforting you. I was supposed to make you feel good.”

“You did. You did make me feel good. And I like to make you feel good.” The matter-of-factness with which Steve says this surprises him, as does his comfort with the present tense. “But we can’t do this again.”

Bucky nods. His voice holds no bitterness. “I know.”

Steve sighs, pressing his nose against the top of Bucky’s head. His hair doesn’t smell sweet anymore. Not like it used to.

“So, are we friends again?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah.” Even though it’s not really what friends do, Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand. “But if we’re gonna be friends again, you can’t badmouth Sharon. That’s not okay.” The wrongness of acknowledging her while he’s holding someone else only just begins to settle upon him, and it’s enough to loosen his grip on Bucky.

Bucky reads the message and lazily draws his limbs back toward his own body. “I was totally out of line when I said all that. I’m sorry. She sounds like a good person.”

“She is.”

That wrongness blooms in the room like a swift, poisonous algae, and Bucky sits up until he’s seated on the edge of the bed. He looks tired, and the crease between his eyebrows is back.

Steve slides off the bed, adjusts himself, and buttons up his pants, each one of these an easy task now that his boner has been completely vanquished. He pads across the room and starts collecting Bucky’s clothes.

“Do you have someone?” Steve asks, because if they’re friends and all, this is the stuff he figures they can talk about.

“Not really.” Bucky scratches his chest, and his mouth quirks into a smile that’s somehow both fond and despondent. “There’s this one guy I slept with a few times. Five times, he says. Five times in four months. For me, I guess that’s practically married.”

Steve rights himself from where he’s bent to pick up Bucky’s underwear. “That’s it?”

“No, that’s not it-it. There’ve been other guys. But that’s the longest term one, I guess.” Bucky looks down at his hands, which are wringing between his thighs.

“That’s…” So many words come to Steve’s mind, all of them painful. The thought of Bucky being alone all these years, not being held, not being held at night by someone who loves him, is so awful that it makes Steve feel sick.

“‘Pathetic’ is the word I think you’re going for.” Bucky looks up with that smile still on his face.

Steve walks to the bedside and hands Bucky the clothes he’s collected. “I was going to say heartbreaking.”

Bucky takes his clothes and fishes out his stupid socks from the pile, then puts them on as he talks. “Want me to get you anything while I’m on leave?”

Steve frowns at the predictable evasion. He doesn’t answer for a little while, because he can’t think of anything he wants from New York. He can think of a bunch of other things he wants. He wants Bucky to get the hell out of the Army so he can have a life. He wants Bucky to stop sabotaging his opportunities to have the things Steve knows he wants. He wants Bucky to get help to address all the terrible things Steve can’t even begin to imagine he’s experienced. He stews while he watches Bucky dress, but the little looks and smiles Bucky gives him along the way thaw his displeasure enough that he throws out an answer.

“I want you to bring me two side-on-tops from Papaya King.”

Bucky pulls his pants over his ass, which looks objectively phenomenal in the briefs he’s wearing. “Jeez, get one wiener in your mouth and it’s all you can think about.”

Steve laughs as he walks over to the nightstand and picks up Bucky’s dog tags. He approaches Bucky just as he finishes tucking in his t-shirt and slides the chain over Bucky’s head. The tags make no noise when Bucky pulls out his collar and drops them inside his shirt, thanks to the worn rubber silencers he has on them.

Bucky then makes some dubiously necessary adjustment to Steve’s clothes, taking a few liberties by dipping his fingers below the waistband of Steve’s trousers to re-tuck his shirt. When he appears satisfied, he lays both hands on Steve’s shoulders and looks into Steve’s eyes with the naked earnestness that rests just below his salty, sarcastic exterior.

“You’re not alone with this, Steve. What happened to Trip, to you, what might happen later, you don’t have to bear it alone. I’m here for you, no matter what. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thank you,” Steve says quietly.

“Can I kiss you?” Bucky asks. “One last time?”

Steve blinks through the sudden blurring of his vision and nods.

The kiss they share is soft and bittersweet, infused with the finality and closure they denied each other so many years ago. At first, it all seems fine, a natural ending to this phase of their lives together.

But then Bucky begins to pull away, and a surge of terror spikes in Steve’s body. Steve reaches out for him, pulling him into his arms with the frantic desperation of a man clutching onto a life preserver in a flood. He’s scared, so incomprehensibly scared, and it’s only when Bucky returns his embrace that he realizes he might not be the only one.

They break the kiss and hold each other tight, their hearts pounding, fingers digging. They only get a few moments like this before a loud knock tears through the air. Bucky startles so intensely that Steve can barely keep hold of him, and when Bucky pushes him back by the shoulders, his eyes are wide and wild.

Pain descends on Steve, settling heavily on his face, and he cups Bucky’s cheek for the briefest of moments before stepping back and creating a platonic distance between them.

“Come in,” Bucky calls, then checks his watch with a quiet “fuck.”

Sergeant Wilson opens the door slowly, as if he’s expecting the scene he nearly walked in on, and when he steps into the room, Bucky gives him an Academy Award-winning smile.

“Hey, Sam. We were just gonna dip out for a smoke before curfew.” Bucky sits on the edge of his bed again and begins slipping on his boots.

“Better make it fast,” Wilson says, glancing down to where Steve’s uniform coat and pistol lay at his feet. He then looks up at Steve and raises his eyebrows in a decidedly suspicious way.

If he’s really Bucky’s friend, Steve figures he’s already got the correct sight picture in his head. But still, he feels himself flush as he picks up his weapon and uniform coat, putting them on with crisp, practiced movements. His gaze flits over to Bucky, who’s started a line of smalltalk with his roommate that Steve can barely hear over his receding concentration. Their words take on a milky, underwater quality, and Steve’s mind once again tries to spool up the hideous 3-D pictures show of sorrow and guilt that brought him here in the first place. Trip. Sitwell. Sharon. Trip. Trip’s head. Thump

“I’m gonna head out,” Steve says, pulling the zipper of his coat up to its regulated position. He walks to Bucky’s desk and gathers his rifle in his hands.

Bucky stands quickly. “Wait, you don’t wanna—”

“Sergeant,” Steve replies, half intending do re-assert his authority to grant himself his exit. But when he sees the look on Bucky’s face, the pleading there, begging him to change the way things went before, begging him to not run away, Steve lets himself be moved.

“We'd better hurry,” Steve says instead, checking his watch.

Bucky smiles and fishes his cigarettes from his nightstand. “Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 

 

July 2, 2008

Despite this being his seventh time home from deployment, counting all his leaves and redeployments, Bucky still can’t help the tears that blur his vision when he first sees his ma and sister in arrivals at Laguardia. The happiness and relief that wash through him at seeing them safe — safe and normal — is almost overwhelming, and he wonders briefly how he can still feel anything at all. So many guys he knows don’t seem to remember how to feel, after a deployment or two or five. After observing him for the past few weeks, he wonders if Steve’s headed down that road, too.

Since Trip’s memorial, Steve’s managed a skillful impersonation of getting back in the saddle. Bucky’s been watching him, though. He knows what to look for, because he’s seen it in so many men. He’s been looking for the dark circles under the eyes. The thousand-yard stare once the camera of command has panned away. The heavy, burdened tenor of the quiet when it falls between them. Steve seems to have finally crossed that inevitable line, one that infantrymen cross by necessity, where the internal strife begins metabolizing into numbness or anger, because there’s not a lot of room for anything else in war.

For as much as he understands it conceptually, he doesn’t know the logistics of how other soldiers gut out their feelings with such proficiency. Bucky’s always burned so hot and bright, ever since he was a kid, and not a single day goes by when he doesn’t feel a menacing tide of sadness or shame trying to consume him. He can’t succumb to it, and he can’t seem to turn it off, so he’s cultivated great talent in kicking things down the road. He’s practically a professional at packaging up those feelings, balling them up tight with twine, and giving them a hard punt into the future. The future, of course, tries to catch up with him at the end of each day, which is what the booze is for. Was for. Because Bucky Barnes doesn’t drink anymore. Not after Trip. He’s done, and things are gonna be different this time.

His ma breaks her stoic Army Mom facade when she sees him, cupping her hands over her mouth while Rikki lays a comforting hand on her shoulder. When Bucky drops his bag, Winnie pulls him into her arms with tearful desperation. She grabs him like he’s six years old again, like she’s yanked him out of the street just in time to save him from getting plowed over by Chief Perez’s Pontiac Bonneville.

“I can barely get my arms around you,” she eventually says, rubbing his back with a tear-thickened laugh.

Bucky breathes out a chuckle and sniffles, taking in the lingering smell of conditioner in her wavy grey-brown hair. “Not much to do downrange but lift,” he lies.

She pulls back and lays her hand on his cheek, where he’s already got a day’s worth of stubble there that he has no plans to shave today or tomorrow. Her hazel eyes are warm and fond and glistening, and he lays his hand over hers with a smile.

Rikki steps forward and pokes Bucky in the back until he hugs her. They embrace tightly, and she continues Winnie’s teasing for being huge, then asks him how much he benches now, what he’s eating, what supplements he’s using. It’s flavored like the conversations they used to have as brothers, and even though they’re both different now, the familiarity is very welcome.

The sunburst of joy is ephemeral, as it always is, and when it explodes into dust, anxiety fills the vacuum. It’s insidious. For Bucky, it’s always insidious. Whenever he comes home, he thinks that maybe this time he’s got it. Maybe this time he’ll remember that New York is not Iraq or Afghanistan — not only remember it, but know it. But each time, the truth evades him. The panic steals through him and corrupts his senses. The arrivals area grows louder. The people around him edge closer. The temperature climbs and soaks his undershirt. The egress pathways grow hazy and complicated—

Winnie takes him by the arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

Bucky looks down at her and nods, grateful that she’s done this enough times and loved him for long enough to know that his nerves are a mess of frayed wires right now. He had a small fistful of Benadryl on the flight over from Germany, but the first couple days are always a little more intense than substances can fully manage. All three of them know that he’s going to spend the next few days holed up in his ma’s apartment, breathing his heart rate down to normal whenever the neighbor slams his door. Petting Oscar until he gets swatted. Sleeping in fits and starts until he gets used to the sounds of the city and the rhythm of the sun and moon on this side of the world.

They fall into the taxi line, where Rikki starts her pre-brief for the week. She pulls a pair of white-rimmed mod sunglasses from her purse and slides them on, then stares out into the street with the cool composure she left behind in New York when she saw him off at Fort Bragg in February.

“We have reservations on Saturday at Candle 79,” she tells him. Her blue maxi dress drifts in the summer breeze, along with her long chestnut hair. “If you can handle some vegan food.”

Bucky drops his duffle on the concrete. He pulls out on the collar of the navy blue long-sleeved shirt he stupidly packed, trying to ventilate himself in the heat. “Hey, I like Candle 79. Not as much as Daisy, of course.”

“Rikki’s vegan now, too,” Winnie says. “And I’m almost there.”

Bucky chuckles. “Ladies, I will eat whatever you put in front of my face, as long as it doesn’t come in a brown plastic bag.”

“Eight o’clock. Sharp.” Rikki’s face is mostly stern, save for the small upward quirk at the corner of her mouth.

Bucky makes a point of referring to her as “lady,” “woman,” or “girl” as often as he can, even when it’s not really conversationally necessary. Even if it makes him sound like a fag. He knows it makes her happy, and he hopes maybe it offsets some of those times she still gets called “sir.”

He snorts. “You know I’m in the Army, right? I do know how to be on time for things.”

“Well, you like to run off and do your own thing, so consider this your first of several reminders. Saturday. 8:00. And then next Saturday at 7:00. You’re gonna help me out with that, right?”

“Of course I am.” Bucky looks over at Winnie. “You coming, ma?”

Winnie shakes her head and nudges her children forward in the creeping line. “I have work.”

“Shit, they still got you working nights?”

“Honey, I’m at Mount Sinai now, so I work any shift they want me to. Lord knows they pay me enough.”

Bucky slides his arm around her shoulders and pushes his bag forward with his foot. “About damn time.”

They exchange more talk in a variety of very safe subjects until they finally get a cab to Brooklyn Heights. In the back seat, Bucky feels himself crash hard. While his ma and sister talk, he watches Queens go by as they cruise down 278. From his vantage point in the front passenger seat, he takes in the spectacular view of Manhattan that always makes his chest feel tight and warm at the same time. Sometimes he thinks that being able to see Manhattan like this is the best part of living across the river. You can’t really see it when you’re in it, but from here, God, it’s glorious.

When they finally get to the apartment, it’s nearly noon. Rikki runs out and grabs sandwiches while Winnie gives him the tour which, given its modest size, takes about five minutes.

“This is a real nice place, Ma.”

Winnie ducks her head with uncharacteristic reserve. “Well, I figured I wasn’t getting any younger.”

“Hey, you deserve it.” He smiles when she looks back up at him. “You deserve a nice place that’s all your own.”

She gestures absently to the couch he’ll be sleeping on for the next fourteen days. “Doesn’t leave a lot of room for you, unfortunately.”

Bucky walks over to the couch, upon which she’s left a gym bag of clothes he keeps here just for leave. He fishes out a black Evil Empire t-shirt he’s never been able to part with and pulls off his sweat-damp shirt and undershirt. His ma turns away, as if she actually thinks he might have some modesty left, and he manages to barely squeeze himself into the shirt that’s been with him since he and Steve were studying for AP exams together.

He lays the gym bag onto the floor and drops heavily onto the couch. He drinks a glass of iced tea Winnie brewed on the roof while Oscar rubs himself along Bucky’s shins, leaving behind strips of orange fur. Winnie leaves him alone while she busies herself around the apartment, putting away the dishes, scooping out the litter box, things she doesn’t need to do right now but does anyway because she knows he needs the time alone.

Amid her bustling, Bucky thinks about his men. He wonders what they’re doing right now. He wonders if they have a mission today. He wonders if Rhodes is filling in for him okay and if Mack is filling in for Rhodes okay. He re-activated his phone before he left and is expecting a phone call from Steve on the fourth for an update and — fuck. The fourth. Well, at least he knows now what he’ll be doing that night, and it sure as shit isn’t going to involve watching a theatrical display of massive explosions designed to emulate a fucking war.

When Rikki comes back, she plants herself on the couch next to him and drops a reuben and a paper plate onto his lap. He unwraps his sandwich like a gift and smells it, his eyes rolling back. It’s hot and real and fresh, and that’s more than he can say about anything he’s eaten downrange in the past five months. He takes the biggest bite he can, moaning over how delicious it is, and Rikki waves a napkin in his direction.

“Your face.”

“Mmm, I don’t care,” he mumbles with his mouth full. He holds the sandwich toward her, licking thousand island off the sides of his mouth because he knows his bad manners drive her nuts. “Want some?”

“Dude, I’m vegan, remember?”

“So what’s in your sandwich? Tofu?”

Rikki regards her sandwich thoughtfully. “There are these things called vegetables, and they’re really good for you, and they can be configured into sandwich form.” She shows him. “See?”

“Huh. I almost forgot what a fresh vegetable looks like. That actually looks really good.”

She takes the other half of her sandwich and lays it on the plate he’s not using. “You can have it.”

“I’m not taking your food.”

“I’m not gonna eat it, anyway.”

“Why? You don’t like it?”

She doesn’t respond, and she doesn’t take back her sandwich. They all know why she’s not eating it. Unlike Bucky, Rikki Barnes has always converted food almost instantaneously into muscle and, as she’s fond of putting it, “That’s not really the aesthetic I’m going for these days.”

Still, Rikki sneaks a steady stream of potato chips from his bag while they eat and, eventually, Bucky does finish her sandwich. There’s no arguing with her, and it falls in line with silent rule of their family that each member generally gets to kindle their unhealthy behaviors in peace.

Despite his weak efforts to stay awake until nighttime, Bucky’s out cold before two. When he wakes up, it’s dark, and his head is canted back at a wicked angle that gives him a worm’s eye view of the ceiling fan spinning above him.

It reminds him of when he was a kid, when he’d look up at the ceiling fan in his bedroom — somehow, no matter what base they moved to, his room was always the same — and he’d think about Blackhawks. He’d think about the thump-a-thump-a-thump-a of the rotor blades cutting through the air. He’d think about how cool his dad looked in his pickle suit. How cool his dad’s job was. How he got to tell the other kids, whose dads were clerks or grunts or cooks, that his dad was a pilot.

Stupid. How could he be so fucking stupid?

———

On Friday July 4th, Bucky is awoken by two things: the shrill blare of his cell phone and four sets of claws digging violently into his torso. His eyes fly open in time to see Oscar in mid-air, spring-boarding off of him like a gymnast, and the room fills with his shout of “Ow, you fucker,” followed by the cackle of his ma from her room.

Bucky lays his hand over his racing heart and checks the caller ID. It’s a 703 area code, and his heart rate kicks up into fifth gear when he realizes that it’s probably Steve. He clears his throat, trying to kick loose the nerves bunched up there, and accepts the call.

“Sergeant Barnes.”

“Hello, Sergeant Barnes. This is Lieutenant Steve Rogers calling from Alpha Company, second platoon, 107th Infantry Battalion of the—”

“Yeah, yeah, all right. Cut me some fuckin' slack.” Bucky smiles and rubs the sleep out of his eyes.

“Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“It was actually the cat that woke me by mauling my chest with his talons when he heard my phone ring.”

“He was sleeping on your chest?”

Bucky shrugs to nobody. “I guess so.”

Steve makes a small sound of endearment. “That’s adorable.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty cute.” Bucky pats his stomach to coax the cat back up, who’s currently eyeing him from the floor. “Happy almost 30th birthday.”

“Is that what they’re calling 28 now?”

“See, I’m doing you a service. I’ll keep saying that you’re almost 30, and then when you turn 30, you won’t have a meltdown because I’ll have you prepped for it.” Bucky holds his hand out for Oscar, who leans just out of his reach, coy little bastard.

“Who says I’d have a meltdown at 30, anyway?”

And thus illustrates one of the key differences between mostly straight guys and gay guys, as least as far as Bucky’s got it figured. At 30, Bucky’s going to wallow in his doomed, eternal singleness by way of an epic, catastrophic meltdown. He’s practically already got it planned. Of course, such plans necessitate copious amounts of alcohol, and he hasn’t developed a contingency plan for the event that he’s still clean and sober at that time.

“Doing anything special for your birthday?” Bucky asks.

“Well, Colonel Fury got a bounce house, which should be fun. And Sitwell swears that he aced the Clowning 101 survey course at Duke. But he did get a B minus in the lab, so although we’ll probably have balloon animals, they may not be very pretty.”

Bucky smiles with aching relief over their hard-earned return to The Way They Used To Be, which he pegs at around circa 1999. That was when the stride they hit in the friendship department was starting to wobble a bit under the weight of the quietly blooming attraction between them. Of course, Bucky had carried a torch for Steve since the day they met, but it was only in the last year of the millennium that Steve started to shift. Held eye contact a little longer than was polite. Sat a little closer than the space required. Put his arm over Bucky’s shoulder a little too often and pulled him a little too close.

For all he longed for it, 1999 panned out to be one of the worst years of Bucky’s life, because he suffered profoundly under the presumption that nothing would ever, ever come of it. He drank a lot that year. Mostly alone. Often to the point of puking or losing consciousness. Thankfully, never both at the same time.

But this is better. This is better, because Bucky knows that chapter of their lives is finally closed. He’s been trying to tell himself that he’s okay with it, that this is better, figuring that if he repeats it to himself enough, that truth will manifest.

“Did you finally work things out with Sitwell?” Bucky asks

“Yeah.” He leaves it at that.

“How’s everyone?”

“A little lost without you, but Rhodes and I have been trying to pick up the slack.”

Bucky hears the smile in Steve’s voice. He hopes Steve can hear his, too.

They chat for fifteen more minutes, talking shop as much as they can over a dubiously secure line. In that time, Bucky finally cajoles Oscar back onto his stomach, where sits like a bemused sphinx while Bucky pets him. Bucky has to stop himself from voicing the acute sadness he feels when Steve has to let him go. He wishes that Steve was here, sitting on the couch with him, drinking a cup of coffee and checking the news on his phone. Just sitting here. That’s all.

Bucky keeps smiling through the pain. “Well, tell the guys I say hi. Tell them to drink water and change their socks and wash their nasty asses.”

Steve laughs. “I will quote you verbatim.”

“Oh, they’ll love that.”

“Say hi to your ma and Er—” Steve catches himself and corrects swiftly to “Rikki.”

“Ma!” Bucky calls out toward her bedroom. “Steve says hi!”

“Steve Rogers?”

Bucky lowers his voice and talks fast before his ma tears out here with a thousand questions. “Okay, gotta go. Happy birthday. I’ll eat two wieners for you.”

“You’d better.”

Bucky hangs up after their final goodbyes, just in time for Winnie to bombard him with questions. He briefs her in partial truths, lets her know that things are good between them now, that they worked everything out. His energy around the subject fades fast when it fully dawns on him that his ma is wearing her uniform.

“You’re working again?”

“Time and a half,” she tells him over the rim of her coffee mug.

He sits up fully, once again insulting the cat. “Why’re you working so much?”

Winnie is quiet for a few moments. Bucky tries to fill the silence with everything he can think of, like: did they raise the rent, are you sick, are you gonna retire early—

“I’m helping your sister pay for her surgery.”

Bucky frowns. “Insurance doesn’t cover that?”

“I don’t think insurance covers it for anyone. Certainly not Rikki. Her insurance is terrible.”

“I thought the business was doing pretty well.”

Winnie puts down her cup on the kitchen table and pulls out her lunch bag from the fridge. “It is, but they’re still shy of turning a profit. Daisy had to pick up a white hat job with the Federal Reserve to keep them in their apartment.”

“Shit.”

“What’re your plans today, honey?”

Bucky folds his arms over the back of the couch and rests his chin on them. “I dunno. Maybe get a bagel.”

Winnie tips her palms up toward the ceiling. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Winnie opens the fridge and gestures at things that Bucky can’t see as she talks. “Well, there’s lots of fruit in the fridge from the farmer’s market, and I have some romaine lettuce and salad stuff, too. There’s a really good Thai restaurant two blocks south, if you want something more substantial.”

“Are they gonna have fireworks this year?”

“Right over there.” She closes the fridge and points toward New Jersey.

Bucky runs hand through his hair with a sigh. “When will you be home?”

“I’m working a double, so probably after ten.” Winnie clears a couple of plates off the counter and sets them in the sink. “Could you do the dishes while I’m gone?”

“Sure.”

She stops and crosses her arms over her chest, looking at him with unmasked concern. “Are you gonna be okay tonight?”

“Sure.”

“I’m sure Rikki and Daisy would be happy to have you over.”

“I’m fine.” Bucky smiles in an attempt to make it seem true. It feels flat, and based on the way her lips thin, it probably is.

“Are you going to see any friends while you’re home?”

“Like who?”

She shrugs. “Anyone.”

“No.”

Winnie nods shallowly. “Okay. Well, I hope you at least get to relax a bit today.”

“Sure, Ma.”

After she leaves, Bucky spends the next two hours staring at the ceiling, trying to talk himself out of rushing out to buy a fifth of vodka at the liquor store on the corner. He could drink it all and nobody would know. And he’d be able to relax. And he’d sleep through those fucking fireworks like they were a lullaby. And he wouldn’t feel the awful, gaping emptiness burning in his chest.

He manages to peel himself off the couch around ten, but only because he has to take a piss. He figures he might as well shower while he’s in the bathroom, and since his ma’s not home, he stands under the water until his skin goes pruney, his thoughts circling around that night with Steve. How Steve made him feel so good. How it felt so right to be together like that. How obvious it quickly became that it was actually very, very wrong. How vulnerable he felt after, not only because he opened himself but because Steve saw how pitiful he is, how desperate he is to be loved by anyone, even someone who’s completely unavailable. He drives his shame into himself like a dagger.

Eventually, Bucky dresses and leaves the apartment. He stays close to the buildings he passes, hands crammed in his pockets, gaze shifting uneasily over the urban landscape. He does stop by a bodega, but only for some gum, a pack of smokes, and a couple Cherry Cokes for later. He finds a mediocre bagel shop and gets an everything with chive and onion cream cheese, ‘cause he doesn’t have anyone to impress today. He makes it home before his anxiety cripples him and eats his bagel standing at the counter. He barely tastes it.

When night falls, he queues up Led Zeppelin on his iPod and blasts it as loud as it goes. He balls himself up on the couch, face pressed into the cushions, and plays Steve’s favorite album on a merciless, self-pitying loop while explosions light up the skyline.

———

On Saturday night, just after appetizers and just before the main course, Daisy Johnson proposes to Rebecca Barnes at Candle 79 — gets down on one knee with a ring and everything. Rikki is shocked to tears. Winnie cries, too. Bucky is blindsided by a terrific surge of anger and anxiety, and he barely musters enough self-control to mutter a perfunctory ‘congratulations.’ Nobody hears it, because it gets drowned out by joyful weeping and the clapping of some daft tourists.

Between kissing Rikki’s mascara-stained cheek and clasping Winnie’s outstretched hand, Daisy gives him a look, hard and knowing, one that makes Bucky want to fall through the floorboards. She sees right through him. Always fucking has. Like Foggy Fucking Nelson. She knows. She’s never said it, but she knows everything. Everything. She must. There’s no other explanation for the way her stare shreds up his insides.

Bucky stands, because he absolutely has to, because his lungs are seizing up and the room is impossibly small and hot right now, and he tries to ignore the confusion, hurt, and concern in Rikki’s eyes as he leaves the table. He waves a hand behind his back, as if to swipe her feelings away, then takes the stairs down to the first floor and bolts out the front door. He gasps when he hits the night air and bends at the waist, every breath feeling like he’s sucking it in through a straw stuffed with gauze. People are looking at him, watching him hyperventilate and, of course, nobody does or says anything. Just another crazy man losing his shit on the streets of New York City. Move along.

And that’s fine. Bucky wouldn’t even know what to tell them anyway, because his thoughts are a fetid pile of shameful garbage. Yeah, my sister just got engaged, and I’m losing my fucking mind because she’s four years younger than me and somebody loves her so much that she wants them to be wives together in this shitty, hateful world — wives, for fuck’s sake — and they’re both idealistic idiots and I’m so fucking jealous that I could rip my own fucking guts out with my bare hands and thanks for asking.

He manages to reign it in, closing his eyes and taking breaths slowly through his nose. The panic, the hyperventilation, it all usually happens when he comes home on leave. But the difference is that it typically kicks off only when something bad happens. This? This is just low. Low and sad.

When he stands to his full height, he blinks through the black splotches and reaches into his pocket for his phone. He reads a text from Rikki, asking if he’s okay, and he cranes his neck to look up at the second floor of the restaurant where their table is. Just this small act fills Bucky with dread, and he gives a mournful sigh and texts back that he’s fine but that he has to go home. She replies with a frowney face that nearly kills him. But still, he can’t. He just can’t.

So Bucky untucks his polo shirt and lights up a smoke. Then he walks. He walks and smokes until he gets to Central Park, where he hangs a left and skirts the perimeter on 5th Avenue. At Grand Army Plaza, he sits down wearily on the edge of the Pulitzer Fountain, marveling at how he can feel so exhausted after having done absolutely nothing his entire leave. Nothing except regret and worry and sleep and remember the weight of Trip’s severed head in his hands and think about how much better everything would be if he were drunk.

He pulls his pack of smokes, matches, and his phone from his pockets and lights another cigarette while he scans through five new texts, four from his ma and one from Daisy:

Are you okay?
Do you have enough money for a cab?
Do you want me to come home?
I love you sweetheart
You could have at least TRIED to act happy. Shit

Bucky’s knee starts to bounce. He shoots off an “I’m fine” to his ma and an “I’m sorry” to Daisy, then takes a long, bitter drag off his cigarette. He pokes around his phone, scrolls through his contacts, noting with dismay (but not surprise) the paucity of actual friends on the list. He doesn’t even have Steve’s number, because they’ve only been remotely civil with each other for a small handful of months.

He scrolls down and nearly blows by the letter O completely when he’s stopped by THOR ODINSON :)

Thor Odinson. All caps. Smiley face.

Bucky bites at his thumbnail while his thoughts fly into a dervish of indecision. But his fingers move faster than his mind can settle, and before he even fully knows what he’s doing, he’s sent off a simple Hey! It’s Jamie Barnes.

The reply is almost immediate.

I think you have the wrong number

Bucky panics, briefly, then remembers that it’s not the wrong number so much as the wrong name.

Sorry I meant Sam Wilson. And I have an explanation for that I swear.

He stomps his cigarette butt decisively into the ground and resumes gnawing his thumb until he gets a response.

Didn’t think I’d ever hear from you again Sam/Jamie :)

Holy shit.

I’m on leave in NYC til the 14th. Bucky pauses before adding the next part. Wondering if you wanted to meet up.

I’m in NY too! And yes absolutely ;)

Bucky runs his hand up the nape of his neck and smiles. Maybe this week won’t be so terrible after all.

———

By Wednesday, Bucky’s actually feeling pretty good. He smoothed things over with Rikki and, to a lesser extent, Daisy. He went to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with Winnie yesterday and didn’t let his anxiety around being in a crowd of tourists get the best of him. And at six this morning, he ran the Brooklyn Bridge over to Battery Park and then back, sending a bolus of endorphins into his bloodstream that seem to be circulating there still.

Now, once again, he’s on the Upper East Side, walking up East 57th with a day bag slung over his shoulder and a smoothie from Whole Foods in hand. He’s been fantasizing about tonight for the past few days, trying to create the scene in his head by pulling old memories of Thor from the spotty collection of drunken fucks he has stored in his mind. He remembers some things with exceptional clarity. He’s hot. He’s hung. He’s good in bed. He remembers other things too, like the fact that he’s nice, that he makes breakfast, that he’s considerate. Bucky’s not quite sure where to fit those last things into the scene, but he finds that he can’t discard them, either.

Bucky’s so down to fuck that he can barely contain his energy around it. There’s an angry, empty space that Steve left in him that night they were together, when Steve refused to fuck him because he suddenly grew a conscience and decided to draw an arbitrary line around the act. But that’s just fine, because now Bucky’s got someone who’s probably more than happy to plow him until he’s so fucked out he can’t even move. And Bucky’s ready for it. He’s freshly shaved and impeccably groomed, looking fine in olive green shorts and a black tank to showcase his deployment muscles. If anyone will appreciate them, it’ll be the guy whose future gym he’s currently trying to track down.

In the waning daylight, Bucky eventually does find it — what’s there for him to find, anyway. The place is still in the very early stages of renovation, freshly gutted of whatever was here before. He steps inside cautiously, feeling intrusive despite being invited. The space is immense, ideal for its new purpose, and when Thor emerges from behind a wall of plastic sheeting, Bucky’s already smiling.

“Nice place you got here.” It comes out smooth enough, which is a feat given how Bucky seems to have forgotten just how ridiculously good looking Thor Odinson is. He didn’t know that beer goggles could actually go in reverse.

Thor smiles as he approaches. “I’m glad you found it.”

There’s an awkward moment where neither of them seems to know what to do, whether they should shake hands or hug or stand an acquaintance-length apart. They settle for standing slightly closer than acquaintances might, close enough for Bucky to smell Thor’s cologne, far enough away to ache for more closeness.

“You cut your hair.” Bucky gestures to his own hair, which, pushing past the limits of regulation, is about the same length.

“Does it look okay?” Thor asks, turning his head to one side and then the other. His insecurity is entirely feigned.

“I think you could have absolutely any haircut and still look amazing. That’s a gift.”

“Speaking of, I have something for you,” Thor tells him with a playful grin. “You have to close your eyes, though.”

Bucky closes his eyes, because he’s generally not one to turn down gifts from smoking hot Scandinavian guys.

“Now hold out your hand.”

He does. A piece of fabric drops into his palm, and when he opens his eyes, Bucky sees a sock. His sock.

Thor lets his hand fall back to his side, but not before brushing his fingers against Bucky’s. “I found it behind the dresser when I was moving.”

Bucky breathes out a laugh. “Guess I’ll have to call you Prince Charming now.”

“You can call me whatever you like.” Thor winks. “Want me to show you around?”

“Absolutely.”

Thor gives him the grand tour, speaking in lofty, questionably hyperbolic terms about how his gym is going to be a “comprehensive wellness experience,” complete with a massage clinic, yoga, personal training, and physical therapy services. Bucky tunes in and out of the spiel as he battles his distraction over Thor’s tan skin, exquisite musculature, self-possession, and easy charm.

“Want to get out of here?” Thor finally asks when they make their way back to the entrance.

“Yes.” Bucky almost adds “please” but chooses not to sound quite that desperate.

“Let me call a car.”

Thor calls a car, because apparently he has one on standby 24 hours a day, and it takes them about eight minutes to pull up to the towering behemoth that is 1 Central Park West. The car stops outside the front entrance, and Bucky looks out the window at the doorman, frozen in incredulity.

“You live here?”

Thor nods.

“Jesus,” Bucky says under his breath, then gathers the courage required for him to step out of the vehicle and into the unknown.

The thing is, he doesn’t know how to do any of this sober. He doesn’t know how to flirt, how to be sexy, how to be cool. Bucky’s reminded of how many decisions booze made for him over the years so that he didn’t have to. He’s also reminded that the only man he’s ever fucked sober is Steve. And suddenly, when the elevator doors close behind them, he’s scared to death.

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” Bucky confesses, gripping the strap of his bag tightly.

“Right now?”

“In general. And right now.”

Thor looks over at him, his eyes placid. “We don’t have to go to my apartment. We don’t have to do anything.”

“No, I want to. I just…” Bucky shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

A few seconds of silence pass.

“Coming back can be tough,” Thor says quietly.

Bucky looks down at his feet and wishes that’s all this was.

When they get out of the elevator, Thor leads him down the hall to his apartment, a two bedroom, two bath expanse of modern luxury, cut with those same clean lines as his apartment in Chapel Hill. Bucky drops his bag on the floor near the couch and walks to the window, which offers a panoramic view of the sunset over Central Park and the Manhattan cityscape that is the most literally breathtaking thing he’s ever seen in his life.

“Holy shit.” Bucky touches his hand to the glass. “Holy shit. I’ve never… Wow.”

Thor approaches him from behind, careful to stay within Bucky’s peripheral visual field. He lays his hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Thor tells him. “Take some time and relax. Make yourself at home. Have a drink, if you’d like.”

Bucky sets his tone to the degree of resolution he only wishes he had internally. “I don’t drink anymore.”

“Good.”

“Good, huh?”

“I get to see the real you.” Thor smiles with an earnestness that’s almost embarrassing.

“Well, don’t get too excited,” Bucky tells him. “I’m probably better wasted.”

Thor squeezes his shoulder. “I doubt that.”

Thor walks back toward his bedroom, and Bucky wanders around the apartment. He looks at Thor’s books and doesn’t remember a single title he sees. He sits on his couch for a minute or two, crossing his legs in a few different and uniquely uncomfortable configurations before standing and wandering again. He browses around the kitchen, opening and closing the cupboards, finding all the liquor — so much liquor — and, miraculously, leaving it be. When he hears the shower start, he grabs his bag and walks slowly to the master bedroom.

Thor’s room is as meticulously clean and tastefully decorated as he remembers. It creates an illusion of vastness, one that makes Bucky feel small and unsure. He peels off his tank top and socks, drops his shorts, then stuffs them all into his bag, where he’s got a change of clothes, lube and condoms, toiletries, and Benadryl.

Bucky touches his fingers to the waistband of his underwear and wonders whether it would be slutty to take them off already. Whether this whole endeavor makes him slutty. Of course, it’s pretty pointless to be concerned about being a slut after he crossed that line eons ago — not just crossed it but gleefully skipped over it with wild, drunken abandon.

But he cares now. Beyond any reasons he can see, he cares. Where he once privately regarded his sexual exploits with something resembling pride, he now regards that history with chagrin. And suddenly, Bucky feels very old. Old and used up. And, at the same time, way too damn young to be either of those things.

Bucky keeps his underwear on and lies down on Thor’s bed. He stares at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of Thor in the shower. He tries to get himself in the mood a little, tries to picture Thor naked and wet, maybe touching himself, stroking that huge cock of his. But the image in Bucky’s mind emerges in only two dimensions, flat and factual and uninspiring.

The water shuts off, and Bucky takes a deep breath, shifting, trying to relax, clenching and unclenching his hands, touching his still-soft dick through his briefs and mumbling at it to wake up already.

Thor comes out wearing a towel around his waist. He looks incredible, far better than Bucky’s memory of him and even more built than the lines of his clothing suggested. He gives Bucky a small smile and lies down his side next to him, towel and all.

The look at each other for for a few long moments, neither making a move to touch the other. Bucky’s muscles tense as the discomfort of not knowing how to do this — how to do one simple thing he’s done a thousand times — grows worse. Eventually, the eye contact is too much for Bucky to keep, and he presses his palms against his eyes with a sigh.

“God, why is this so awkward?” he murmurs.

“I didn’t realize it was awkward.”

Bucky lets out a sigh. “I’ve been thinking about tonight ever since Saturday, and I had this very clear idea of how everything was gonna go, what I’d say, what I’d do. I had this whole nasty script in my head, like I’m tell you to do this to me and that to me, and you’d be like ‘oh yeah,’ and then we’d fuck, like, ten times.”

Thor’s blond eyebrows climb with amusement. “That’s a lot.”

“But now that I’m here, and I’m thinking about all that, I’m telling you about it, it all just sounds so…lame. Lame and sad. My sister just got engaged. That’s where I was on Saturday night. Her girlfriend popped the question right in the middle of dinner. She’s 25, and she’s already engaged.” Bucky lays his hand on his forehead, like maybe it’ll help him contain the stream of honesty flying out of him right now. “I mean, fuck, I’m 29, and I’ve only had one real relationship. One. In my entire life. The rest has just been me fucking around, trying to fill empty space with dick and vodka and whatever else I could cram in there.”

This is the first time Bucky’s ever acknowledged aloud that he uses sex and alcohol for the same purpose. And it comes out easy, like its just been waiting for the right moment. Maybe it’s because Thor’s seen it so many times. And it’s not like he doesn’t know, on some level, what Bucky’s about. It can’t be that subtle.

“I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me,” Bucky says, lips pulling into a frown. “And I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, because we were just supposed to hook up and fuck and have a good time.”

Thor touches his fingers lightly to Bucky’s bicep. “Like I said earlier, we don’t have to. We can grab dinner and come back and hang out. Talk. Watch TV. Like a date.”

Bucky snorts in a way that belies how much he likes the idea. “A date, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” Bucky looks up and to the left, doing some quick math in his head. “I haven’t been on a date in six-and-a-half years.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s been a while.”

“Well, for food, there’s Thai, Italian.” Thor smiles. “Middle Eastern.”

“You’re gonna laugh, but Middle Eastern actually sounds great. They never let us eat the local food, even though it’s a thousand times better than DFAC food.” Bucky turns on his side to face Thor, propping his head up on his hand. “It’d kind of funny, I’ve been pretty much eating only fruit and salad since I got here. My mom got all these strawberries at the farmer’s market, and I ate probably two pounds in one day. She was like, ‘did someone break in here and steal our strawberries?’ I’m like, ma, I haven’t had fiber in five months. Cut me a break.”

Thor pauses for a moment, hesitating, while his face flushes pink.

“About a month after I came back from deployment,” he finally says, “I went to the doctor. I was worried, because I was shitting every day. He asked me what the problem was, and I said I thought it was normal to shit only once a week.”

Bucky laughs. “For three hours at a time.”

“Yes.” Thor laughs now, too. “Exactly.”

“I always tell people they haven’t known suffering until they’ve had to live off MREs and DFAC food for six to twelve months.”

Thor’s reaches out and runs his fingertips along the raised veins atop Bucky’s hand. “This is not a very sexy conversation, is it?”

“No, but it’s a real one. And that’s pretty fucking great.” Bucky turns his hand over and watches Thor’s fingers trail over the lines of his palm. “Do we have to go to the restaurant, though? Going out to eat isn’t really relaxing for me.”

“No problem. I’ll have someone pick it up.”

Bucky grins. “Well, then, it’s a date.”

They both dress and chat in the living room while they wait for the food to come. They talk about Thor’s family, how his dad was trying to groom him to take over the bank, but Thor turned him down because he couldn’t stomach the idea of sitting behind a desk for the rest of his life. They talk about Bucky’s family, about his ma and Rikki, a terse sentence about his dad being dead, then about Daisy, since she’s going to be family soon.

They continue talking over dinner, sharing dolmas, halloumi, and hummus with pita bread. They even share their main courses. It’s casual and easy, like how things used to be with Steve. It dawns on Bucky that he seems to have a type — tall and blond, confident and a little rigid. Someone who can contain his energy, keep him tethered to the ground. It’s a very nice feeling, one he nearly forgot.

After dinner, they start watching Transformers, which for Bucky is like watching Michael Bay take a giant crap on his childhood. Thor seems to enjoy it, because unlike Bucky, Transformers cartoons and toys weren’t his lifeblood growing up. Much of Bucky’s sourness is neutralized when Thor puts his arm around him and pulls him in close. Bucky cuddles with him the way he wouldn’t let himself cuddle with Sam, because there are no hidden or mixed messages about what’s going on here. This is a date, a for-shit date. Jamie Barnes is on a date.

Things do heat up, gradually and organically. About three quarters of the way into the movie, they start kissing, and Bucky straddles Thor’s lap so that he can run his fingers through his hair, touch his face, and grind against him. They make out for a long time, until the movie’s over and the title menu starts repeating on an obnoxious loop. They take that as their cue to move to the bedroom, where they strip each other out of their clothes and continue their kissing on the bed. They kiss for what seems like forever, until the heat and pressure in Bucky’s groin grow almost unbearable and he asks Thor to fuck him. Bucky even lets him finger him and lube him up, because Thor asks to and he’s sweet about it, and because Bucky really wants him to.

Thor asks him how he wants it and— he wants it face-to-face, so they can kiss, so Bucky can wrap his legs and arms around him and lose himself in the closeness, God the shit he fantasizes about sometimes. But just the thought of it makes him flush with embarrassment and, below that, abject fucking terror. So he asks for it from behind, but close, deep; he wants to feel him, and Thor says “Yes” and gives him exactly what he wants, sliding his huge cock in gently, kissing his shoulder, his neck, and it’s hot and slow and deliberate, and Bucky gives himself over to it, even as he works to still the writhing, primordial part of him that is still crying out, warning him— but it's okay, he brought poppers, he just— he just needs a little hit or two and it's fine. Thor drives into him, Jesus, so fucking deep that he can feel it in his guts, his huge arm wrapped around him, holding him, he takes another hit to relax, it's fine, God, it's good, it's so fucking good— and Bucky comes after just barely touching himself. Thor fucks him through it and then stills, groaning loudly against Bucky’s neck.

After settling into the warmth of the afterglow and, eventually, cleaning up, they turn the lights out and crawl into bed. Thor holds him, and Bucky lets himself be held, tense and worried as Thor begins to drift into sleep. He wonders if two Benadryls will be enough to keep him from thrashing around. He wonders if Thor will still be the same in the morning, if he’ll still want all this. He wonders if it’s okay to feel this good, this safe. He wonders if this could be something. Something real. He then wonders where the catch in all this is, and he doesn’t have to try hard to find it. Because in a week, he’ll be back in Iraq, back to being Sergeant Fucking Dickhead Barnes, who lives almost every day of his life as a bold, hypocritical lie.

Almost every day. But not today.

“Goodnight, Jamie Barnes,” Thor says, kissing the top of his head. “It was nice to finally meet you.”

Bucky stares up at the ceiling. He forces a smile into his voice.

“Goodnight.”

———

By the time Bucky gets to Rikki and Daisy’s apartment on Saturday afternoon, he’s already teetering on the edge of a panic attack. He made the mistake of taking the train to Park Slope, a colossal miscalculation of his capacity to handle stress today. Floating high on how good he’s felt since Wednesday night, he decided that it would be a fantastic idea to take the 3 and F trains from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope on a Saturday afternoon. He was able to white-knuckle through it, barely, but now he’s digging deep just to craft the mere appearance of being okay. Because tonight is Rikki’s big party, and he’s not about to ruin any more of her personal milestones while he’s here.

When Bucky gets to the apartment, he’s struck by two things: first, the odd decorative balance stricken between hacker lair and Pier One Imports catalogue, and second, the sound of Daisy’s rising voice as she tries to impress something important about a garbage disposal to whoever’s on the other line. Rikki leaves him standing in the doorway while she flits around the room living room in an old Sleater-Kinney t-shirt and cut-offs, opening and closing drawers, calling out to Daisy, “nope, not in here” and “not here, either.”

“What’s wrong?” Bucky finally asks, when the nervous, frustrated energy in the room starts becoming unbearable.

Rikki gestures sharply to the sink. “The garbage disposal’s broken, and it’s been almost impossible to get someone here to fix it.”

“And your landlord’s not doing anything about it?”

“We’re not renting.”

Bucky’s eyebrows climb in disbelief. “You bought this place?”

Rikki nods, then says in a low voice, “Kind of regretting it, at the moment.”

Bucky slams into yet another wall of envy for his sister, and he fights an angry urge to tell them that they’re screwed and they’re just gonna have to figure it out themselves. But he knows he’s only angry at himself, and he’s getting about sick of using his self-loathing as an excuse to screw up other people’s lives.

“All right, where are your tools?” Bucky asks. “I’ll fix it.”

Rikki puts her hands on her narrow hips. “Like what?”

“Screw drivers, wrenches, that stuff. Basics.”

“We don’t have any.” Rikki winces preemptively.

“You don’t have screwdrivers? Are you serious? How is that even possible? You’re an engineer.”

“Software engineer,” she corrects. “Not quite the same as a garbage disposal repairman.”

“They didn’t issue you a full set of tools when you joined the lesbian brigade?”

Daisy growls then, drawing their attention to her as she tosses her phone on the couch. “Unbelievable.”

“Daisy, how do you not have tools?” Bucky asks, then gestures to the two sprawling computer work stations against the wall. “How do you build all this shit without tools?”

“I have tools, but they’re this big.” She makes diminutive lengths and diameters with her fingers. “Maybe Carol has some.”

“Oh, Carol definitely has some,” Rikki replies, then turns to Bucky. “I’ll go see if she’s home.”

Rikki leaves him alone with Daisy, who gives him the type of smile that she typically gives him, an effortful one that’s just a little sour.

“You know how to fix a garbage disposal?” she asks, crossing her arms.

“No, but I’m sure the internet does. What’s the problem, anyway?”

“It’s been making a nasty grinding noise. I think something’s caught in it.”

“Probably clogged up with chia seeds and kefir grains or whatever you vegans eat.”

He tries for a joke, a nervous one, and he feels a steep pitch of relief when Daisy’s smile goes genuine. For a moment, anyway.

“Are you gonna be okay tonight?” she asks, and once again, that acrid essence infuses back into her face.

Bucky purses his lips but then nods. “I think so.”

“Coco’s is pretty busy, especially on a Saturday night.”

“I’ll just step out and take a breather, if I need it.”

Daisy’s eyes narrow. “Please don’t fuck this up for her. She’s been waiting for her surgery forever, and she’s scared, and she just wants to have a good time tonight.”

Bucky frowns at the way Daisy so easily implies that he’s a fuck-up, despite the fact that she has plenty of evidence to prove it. He also frowns because it hadn’t even dawned on him that Rikki might be struggling right now.

“I didn’t know she was so scared.”

Daisy shrugs. “Well, you haven’t exactly been spending much time with her since you’ve been back. She misses—”

The door opens then, and Rikki walks in with a brilliant smile and a large canvas bag. “Okay, I’ve got tools!”

Bucky and Daisy smile back at her, throwing her off any possible scent of conflict, and Bucky grabs the tools and gets to work.

It takes him an hour-and-a-half, but he successfully dismantles the disposal and dislodges a shard of hard plastic that somehow made it into the sink. Daisy thanks him wholeheartedly and offers to clean up the mess and return the tools so Bucky can spend some time with his sister.

Bucky finds Rikki in her room, seated in front of an antique style vanity that clashes with the rest of their decor. Bucky imagines it was purchased with the sort of wide-eyed, irrational infatuation with which he purchased his truck. Maybe it was one of those props of femininity that she sorely needed to feel good about herself.

At any rate, she looks at home in front of it, wearing a bold print dress with thick straps to minimize her shoulders and a cinched waist to create the illusion of hips she doesn’t have. She eyes him in the mirror as he walks in, and he sits on the edge of the bed just behind her.

She looks back at her reflection and frowns, pulling her hair up and letting it down again, turning her head, tilting her chin. She sighs loudly and lets her mass of hair drop, then runs her fingers hard around her jaw, like maybe if she presses hard enough, she can re-shape it.

“I look like you in a dress,” she says to him, her frown sharpening into a scowl. “Everything that makes you handsome makes me look like a drag queen.”

Bucky treads very, very carefully here, marshaling all his mental resources to find that delicate balance between validation, support, and honesty.

“You don’t look like me in a dress. And you don’t look like a drag queen.”

“You know I have to shave twice a day?” Rikki runs her hands over her cheeks and chin, pausing to poke angrily at its cleft.

“What about electrolysis?” Bucky says. “They… you do that, right? Trans women?”

“Well, it’d be about two or three hundred hours of treatment just for my face, at about fifty bucks an hour, so that’s ten to fifteen thousand dollars right there. And then getting my face to look more feminine, that’s another fifteen to twenty thousand.”

“Jesus Christ. How much were your boobs?”

“Eight thousand.”

“And the one next week?”

“Thirteen thousand. Plus whatever we spend on the celebration tonight.” Rikki smiles at him in the mirror. “You can’t even say it, can you?”

“I can say it. What’s it called again?”

“Vaginoplasty.”

“Yeah, turning your dick and balls into a beautiful vagina.”

Rikki snorts, smiling fondly. “You don’t even know what a vagina looks like.”

“Like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, right? Like a flower?”

“Yes, exactly.” Rikki leans close to the mirror and begins painting her lips a deep mauve pink color.

“And I know what a vagina looks like. You don’t think I tried really, really hard not to be the way I am?”

Rikki presses her lips together to even out the color and glances back at him. “I didn’t know that.”

“I’m so fucking desperate that I even tried it last year.” Bucky’s words sound pitiful to his own ears, so he can only imagine how they sound to his sister. But he still keeps going, because he figures this is something siblings can talk about. “I have this friend who agreed to be my beard for the Army Ball last year. She was basically my fake girlfriend until she left me for my best friend.”

“Ooh, cold.”

Bucky feels his face heat, because his relationship with Natasha was so much deeper than that. But this is the story he's decided on, because it's the story that he can live with telling himself. “And, I mean, we tried. She was a good sport about it. And she’s the type of woman who’d give literally any guy a boner. That’s how hot she is.”

“No dice?”

“I always start off okay, but I can’t keep it up unless I think about being with a guy, and that’s just rude to think about someone else during sex.” Bucky shrugs. “So we stopped.”

Rikki turns in her seat to look at him. “You really hate being gay, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he says through his teeth. “Of course.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I just wanna be normal. I don’t wanna be part of a group of people who have to have a big fucking parade every year to prove that they’re legitimate human beings. They call it Pride, but it’s just an overcorrection for all the shit gay people go through every day. Like, oh, here’s one day that we can be relaxed and happy and mostly not afraid of being harassed or looked at like we’re a bunch of deviants and child molesters. And it just ends up being a big fucking spectacle for straight people to gawk at, anyway.”

“Wow.” Rikki turns back to her vanity and pulls her hair back once more, twisting it into a messy bun. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

Bucky looks down at his hands and tries to fight off the nagging voice in his head that tries to delegitimize her experience of gayness. After all, she got to be straight until she started transitioning two years ago. But that voice falters quickly in the face of her life now, where she’s more at risk for being harassed, beaten, and murdered than he ever was for wanting a dick in his ass. All his old self-hate suddenly seems so petty, so immature, an unshakable vestige of that scared little faggot forged in the midst of the AIDS crisis and the unrelenting hostility of Deep Southern hatred.

“What would dad think?” Rikki asks him, her voice soft and uncertain. “Of me? Of this?”

“You know how he was,” Bucky says.

Rikki fidgets with her engagement ring. “Not really. Not with stuff like this. My memory of him gets worse every year.”

“He’d be proud of you.” Bucky reaches forward and lays his hand on her shoulder. He feels his throat tighten. “He’d be happy for you. He’d want to walk you down the aisle.”

“Would you?”

Bucky’s mouth goes slack as he processes the question.

“Walk me down the aisle,” she adds.

Bucky pulls his hand away and brings it close to his body. “Why? Why me?”

Rikki spins around on her stool, not about to let him get away. She reaches out and clasps his hand in hers. “You’re my brother. You’ve always supported me.” One half of her mouth curls up into a cheeky smile. “And I just want you to. So you should say yes.”

Bucky can think of a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t be honored with something like that, how he doesn’t deserve even the implication that he’s worthy of taking his father’s place. But looking at the expectancy in Rikki’s eyes, eyes that match his own perfectly, eyes that match their father’s, there’s no way he could deny her.

“Of course. Of course I will.”

———

Saying that Coco’s is pretty busy on a Saturday night turns out to be the equivalent of saying that water is a little bit damp. Nobody bothered to mention to Bucky that it’s the most popular queer bar in Brooklyn, so not only was he not expecting it to be packed, he wasn’t expecting it to be packed with a bunch of gay people.

Bucky leaves within the first ten minutes of being there, just to get out. Just to get some air. He smokes and walks the sidewalk from one end of the block to the other. He then calls Thor and talks with him for a few minutes, asking him to tell jokes, talk about his day, anything to distract him. Thor ends up regaling him with a story about skiing with his family, where he was racing with his brother and made the wager that he could ski better and faster with his eyes closed than his brother could using all his faculties. The ending is predictable, with Thor ending up face-down in a snowbank, but he tells it with such enthusiastic self-deprecation that it’s actually very funny, and it gives Bucky enough energy to hang up with him and venture back into the bar.

He wanders around, drinking glass after glass of water to wet the dryness of his mouth, putting on a production of mingling, saying hi to Rikki and Daisy but not wanting to monopolize their time. At one point, Bucky gets wrangled by a guy named Jon, a friend of Rikki’s, who asks if he’s Rikki’s brother, the one in the Army. Without thinking to lie, Bucky says yes, breaking out in a cold, anxious sweat, and Jon brings him to a small group of men gathered at a round table in the corner of the bar. There’s a pitcher of beer there, and Jon pours him a glass and puts it in front of him. Bucky’s heart races, and like in the airport, everything gets louder and sharper and closer.

But he can’t leave. He can’t bail out again. He can’t be the brother who can’t ever be around because he’s too scared to function in the real world. So he does some rationalizing around it, weighing the pros and cons, and his hard fought and long held resistance cracks under the pressure of his obligation to be present.

So Bucky drinks.

And, Christ, he needs it. Jon and his friends are a bunch of flamers, a troop of worn out stereotypes, the kind of gay that makes Bucky ashamed for all of them. So he drinks, paying for round after round of shots until he stops caring about their flapping hands and asinine conversation about celebrities or cute boys or whatever the hell else he can vaguely glean while trying not to lose his shit. Eventually, he starts actually enjoying himself, starts finding the conversation interesting, and that’s when he knows he must be pretty fucked up.

Things go all right until he gets up to go take a piss. And when he comes shuffling and weaving back to the table, Jon leans over the table conspiratorially, raising his eyebrows. He then asks the question that completely lays waste to the modest amount of control Bucky’s managed to maintain in the midst of this epic shit show of a night:

“So, you ever killed anyone?”

Bucky smiles, like he’s been waiting to answer this goddamn question all night. He reaches over and grabs the untouched shot of tequila sitting in front of Jon, slams it down, then lays the glass face down on the table.

“Jon, my friend.” He gestures to Jon, then the other men at the table. “My friends. You wanna know if I’ve ever killed anyone?”

Jon and three of the other guys nod and say “yeah,” but the fifth guy looks to have already pieced together where this conversation is heading. That guy, the smart guy, sits back in his chair and visibly clenches his jaw.

“All right, friends, let’s count.” Bucky lifts up the right sleeve of his t-shirt and angles his elbow to the ceiling so he can point to the string of sniper rounds tattooed on the back of his upper arm. “Okay, here we go. One, two, three…”

He stops and looks at the men with dismay as the amusement fades from their faces. It pisses him off, and he raises his voice as he continues.

“What, you guys don’t wanna count with me? C’mon, these are all the fucking hajis I killed when I was a sniper.” Bucky starts his counting over “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen — Oh! Number seventeen was a kid whose head I blew off because he was running munitions to some insurgents with a wheelbarrow.”

Bucky smiles at the horror on the men’s faces and lets out a burst of humorless laughter.

“But wait, there’s more! So I’m watching this kid go back and forth, back and forth, and my spotter’s telling me yeah, there’s a bunch of fucking rounds in there, and yeah, intel on the ground says the same, so I fucking man up and do my fucking job, and I spray this fucking kid’s brains all over the fucking ground and, wouldn’t you know, that wheelbarrow tips over, and it was filled with fucking bricks!

His words fly out with a manic fortissimo that makes every man at that table squirm. But just as much as they fidget and writhe in their discomfort, Bucky can see that those fuckers are actually enjoying something about this, like a bystanding rubbernecker enjoys the gnarled, gory mess of a fatal car crash.

“And on this deployment — my fourth deployment, guys, holy shit — I blew up a few fuckers with a grenade launcher, then watched their remains get smashed to hamburger by the fucking autocannon from Fairchild-Republic’s gift to mankind, the A-10 motherfucking Warthog.

Bucky grabs another full shot from in front of what’s-his-fuck — Steve? Mitch? Peter? — and tosses that one down the hatch, too. What’s with these guys and not drinking their shit?

What’s-his-fuck reaches his hand across the table and stops it just shy of where Bucky’s own is pressed into the finished oak. “Hey, I think maybe you should lay off the—”

Bucky lifts his palms and presses them to his cheeks. “Oh, and I almost forgot! How could I forget? Yeah, I ordered my driver to run over a little kid standing in the middle of the road. Exploded her all over the front of the vehicle. Whew, guys, I’m telling you, if you’ve never seen a little kid explode before...”

He gags and very narrowly stops himself from puking all over the table.

But he’s gonna puke soon. He can feel it. So he stands, bracing himself against the table as the room spins violently. He looks down at the undulating collection of idiots in front of him and points his finger at all of them as he yells.

“So here’s a take-home lesson for you stupid fucks. The next time you fucking faggots think you wanna ask a veteran if he’s ever fucking killed someone, why don’t you try to have a little fucking tact, you know, maybe some basic human decency. Or better yet, why don’t you get your faggoty asses down to the fucking recruiter and sign the fucking line, and then you can see first hand what it’s like to kill some poor—”

Bucky feels a hand on him then, gripping his arm hard. He whips around and drives his elbow into the face of whoever’s fucking stupid enough to touch him when he’s like this. He reels with the momentum. Stumbles to keep himself upright. And when he gets a couple of his bearings back, he looks up and sees Rikki cupping her hands over her mouth, her face contorted in pain. There’s fear in her eyes when she looks at him — honest-to-God fear — and when Bucky tries to reach out for her, she steps away.

“Oh my God, Rik, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, oh my God, I’m so sorry…”

He repeats himself while he watches her assess the damage. Her lip is bleeding pretty badly, and she wipes the blood off with her hands until Daisy comes to her side with a napkin. Daisy tends to her fiancee for a few moments, then glares at Bucky with such intense resentment that his insides lurch.

“You need to leave,” she tells him. “Right now.”

Bucky grabs the back of a nearby chair to try to steady himself. He keeps repeating that he’s sorry, sorry to both of them, sorry to the men at the table, sorry to the many staring queer people who overheard his homophobic ranting.

“I’ll call you a cab back,” Rikki says, dabbing at her lip. “Let’s go outside, okay?”

Bucky nods, nausea bubbling back up his throat, and he lets her take him gingerly by the arm and lead him out of the bar. Before they get out the door, Daisy shoves an empty plastic bowl in his hands, the one they put snacks in at the beginning of the night. To celebrate. To celebrate for Rikki.

“Wha’s this for?”

Daisy claps him on the shoulder. Hard. “So you don’t ruin the cab driver’s night, too.”

The night gets very spotty then. He doesn’t remember if he and Rikki talked while waiting for the cab and, if they did, what they talked about. When the car arrives, Rikki tells the cabbie the address and gives him enough cash to pay the way back to Brooklyn Heights, where Winnie is waiting for him.

He’s too proud to barf on the cab ride home, but he does barf almost immediately after he gets out, all over the sidewalk, right in front of where his ma’s waiting for him. It’s only as he heaves that he realizes how much he drank, and it’s also then he realizes that he forgot to eat dinner. Winnie watches him vomit with an expression that’s difficult for him to read when he’s so drunk. Maybe something between disappointment and pity. Something he never wants to see on her face again.

The last thing he remembers is her tucking him in on the couch, propping him on his side with pillows before she leaves for her shift at the hospital.

“Love you,” Bucky mumbles. “Sorry ‘m such a fuckin’ fuck-up loser.”

She touches his head gently. “Shhh. Go to sleep, honey. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“ ‘kay. Bye, Mama,” he mumbles, then passes out.

———

The next morning, Bucky wakes in the same position he passed out in, his pillow soaked with drool. Fortunately, that’s the only thing it’s soaked with, and he reaches down to his crotch and says a small prayer of thanks that he didn’t piss himself, either.

He very, very slowly sits upright on the couch, and from the way the room cants off its axis, it’s clear that he’s not sober. He stands, still fully dressed, and braces himself on the furniture and along the wall as he makes his way to the kitchen for some water.

At the table, he sits and gradually pieces together the events of the night. As each piece falls into place, he feels sicker. Not the sickness of a hangover, but a deep, existential sickness. Bucky clutches his head with his hands and grimaces over his utter failure. His failure to stay sober. His failure to be a good brother. His failure to Trip and to himself and to everyone he’s ever hurt or failed to protect because of his drinking.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, once, twice, five times. He waits until the succession stops to check it, because when someone sends a sequence of texts like that after a night like last night, it’s never anything good.

There’s an old one from his ma from last night, asking him to let her know he’s okay. He answers that one right away, because Christ, it’s the least he can do for being a drunken, puking wreck in front of her.

Then there are the six rapid-fire texts from Daisy, and Bucky’s breathing goes shallow and fast as he presses a shaking finger to the screen to view them:

I know your family has this weird thing where people get to self destruct without any accountability to anyone else. But I’m not going to play along. Because it’s wrong.

You’re an alcoholic.

You went to war a bunch of times and got messed up, so everyone thinks you’re entitled to act however you want, drink as much as you want, do whatever you want. Maybe you are entitled to do that. Maybe you’re entitled to drink yourself to death.

But you’re not entitled to hurt Rikki. You’re not entitled to hurt your mom. You don’t get to do that. That is not your right, no matter how much you’ve sacrificed. You don’t get to ignore how much you hurt everyone else just because you’re in pain.

You’re an alcoholic, and you need help. And if you want to get better and you want help, I’m here for you. But if you keep going like this, I’m not going to be able to have a relationship with you. And that would suck, because you’re going to be my brother-in-law, and I think you’re a good person.

It goes without saying that you need to apologize to Rikki. So I want you to come over and have dinner with us tonight so we can all talk. Your mom, too. Let me know.

Bucky presses his hand to his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut as he tries not to cry. Part of him wants to cry, though. Cry for all the pain he’s caused. Cry for how fucked up he seems to irredeemably be. Cry in relief that somebody finally noticed how fucked up he is and actually said something about it.

But he doesn’t cry. He tries to let himself, thinking it might feel good, but he can’t. Instead, he drinks more water, texts Daisy to tell her that he’ll be there for dinner, and drags himself to the bathroom to shower. When Winnie comes home, she asks if he wants to go to brunch, and despite feeling like absolute shit, he says yes.

He says yes to everything that Sunday. Yes, he has a problem. Yes, he needs help. Yes, he’s going to get help when he comes home from Iraq. More than AA. He’s going to self-refer to the Army Substance Abuse Program. He knows Barton, Morita, and Steve will support him, and if they do, his career might survive it. After dinner, when he texts Thor, he says yes to coming over. And when Winnie jokingly asks whether Thor is his boyfriend, Bucky gets her enthusiastic blessing to go see him when he says that yes, maybe Thor is his boyfriend. Because they kind of might be together now.

On Monday, Bucky calls USAA Bank and arranges for a transfer of $17,000 to Rikki’s account, almost his entire reenlistment bonus, with instructions to deposit the money next week when he’s back in Iraq. He then asks Thor to go with him to the tattoo shop, where he gets Trip’s name added to his Fibonacci spiral.

Later, when he and Thor are lying on a blanket in the grass in the middle of Central Park, Thor asks Bucky if he can hold his hand. And Bucky says yes, and they hold hands in front of all of Central Park and God and everyone else.

And for the first time in a very long time, despite all the heartache he’s felt and caused over the past week, Bucky thinks that maybe — just maybe — things are going to be okay.

Chapter Text

September 2, 2008

Steve doesn’t remember ever being afraid of flying. He’d never been on a plane before joining the Army, not once, but since then, he’s taken more flights than most people he knows have taken in a lifetime. Planes to the South for training. Planes to and from the UK for more training. Planes to the Middle East and back. Hell, the Army even took him up in a plane five times just so they could push him out with a parachute. With the exception of his second Airborne jump at Fort Benning, Steve has never felt afraid to be in the air. Until now.

Maybe it’s the “little bit of chop” that’s been tossing their plane around for the last hour-and-a-half, causing the passengers around him to gasp and blurt out shocked cries whenever the aircraft lurches. The energy in the cabin is sharp with fear from the rows and rows of bow-tense bodies, and Steve’s been consciously working to relax his muscles, to close his eyes and remind himself of the mathematical probability of this plane crashing. He remembers reading once that there are approximately 100,000 flights worldwide on any given day, 36 million per year, give or take. And he supposes that even if a hundred of those flights went down in a year, a probable overestimation, there’d still only be a .00028% chance of this plane going down today. Of course, the peace he finds in this logic is periodically dashed by the middle-aged woman next to him, who’s grabbed his thigh twice already, scaring the bejeezus out of him each time. She’s apologized repeatedly, looking only half sorry to have done it.

“You just seem very solid,” she told him with a nervous laugh.

The humor he finds in her comment is pitch black, if it could even be called humor at all. She has no idea, no clue whatsoever, how brittle he is right now. How terrified he is, not of this plane crashing, but of the what’s waiting for him in DC.

Steve has replayed the night of June 26th in his head so many times that it’s verging on obsessional. At this point, it’s even superseded the number of times he’s replayed Trip’s mutilated body falling on him and dousing him in hot blood. He’s not even sure which one is worse now. Having Trip die on him is the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, but Steve decided that cheating on Sharon is probably the worst thing he’s ever done. But after deciding that, he wasn’t sure whether it was worse to dump Bucky while on deployment or to suck Bucky’s dick while engaged to Sharon, and the process of trying to decide which deplorable act wins first place has been sickening and ultimately pointless. It’s pointless because both are impossible to take back, and both are rooted entirely in Steve’s moral failing as a partner and a human being.

So, maybe that’s why he’s crawling out of his skin. This pitching plane is delivering him straight to the ruin of his own making. Worse, he has no idea what’s going to come of any of it, and the terror of not knowing is worse than any he’s ever had on any patrol or convoy or raid.

But fear hasn’t been Steve’s only emotional companion recently. There’s also been ample confusion, accompanied by deep and exceptionally misplaced jealousy. Bucky went on leave and came back almost an entirely different person. He was evasive at first, denying that anything special happened with a furtive smile that screamed the opposite. Steve went through the list of some possibilities — ma doing well, sister doing well, get some good sleep, eat some good food — and got a “yes” to all. For fun, just for some friendly, friendshiply good fun, Steve then asked if Bucky had a new boyfriend or something.

That was when all the pieces slammed together with concussive clarity. Bucky’s secret little smile exploded into a grin, and Steve didn’t know if he should give him a high five or rip his pillow off the bed and scream into it. Fortunately, he didn’t do either, pulling from the special reserve of self-control he has saved for when the world flips over ass-backwards and he has to pretend like he’s totally okay with it.

So, Bucky Barnes has a boyfriend, one he calls regularly whenever they're on the FOB. And foremost on Steve’s mind is how much he would have appreciated even a fraction of that effort from Bucky back when they were together. He also wonders how Bucky is going to make space for this guy in a life that’s completely inhospitable to their relationship, either by way of regulation or by way of Bucky’s expertise in creating the conditions for relationships to die.

But managing Bucky Barnes’ life is not Steve’s job and never was, so Steve will do what friends do. He’ll support Bucky. He’ll do his best to appear happy for him. And when everything goes to hell, he’ll be there. Because that’s what friends do, and that’s all they are now, even if it punches Steve in the sternum every time he remembers it.

There’s a change in the tone of the engines then, followed by the pilot’s announcement that they’ve begun their final descent to Reagan. The announcement is followed by a smattering of claps and a murmur of “Thank you, Jesus” from the woman beside him.

Even in the midst of his relief, there’s a small part of Steve that prays to an empty sky that maybe this will be one of those .00028% planes, because plummeting into the Atlantic would probably be a more merciful fate than what’s in store for him on the ground.

———

When Steve sees Sharon in the arrivals area at Reagan, the last thing he expects is for her to start running toward him. It’s not a very Sharon thing to do, as far as he knows her, but from the way she deftly moves in strappy sandals and an A-line dress, it’s as if she’s trained for it the entire time he’s been gone. He feels his face contort into something that’s definitely not the scripted response for this moment, something closer to fear than affection. It doesn’t seem to deter her, though, especially when he drops his carry-on bag. She rushes him and throws her arms tightly around his neck, pulling herself against him with a strength that belies her smallness. And despite the fear, Steve envelops her, drawing her in with the same force, lifting her off the ground with ease.

“God, I missed you,” she whispers against his cheek.

Warmth blooms in his chest then, up his neck and into his face, heating him with something more than shame for what he’s done to her. He’s missed her. He’s missed the solid core of her, her unwavering steadiness, her unselfish support of him despite every effort to hide himself from her. He’s missed the smell of her and the way she smiles for him and not for anyone else. The weight of their separation descends on him, and his throat feels thick when he tells her that he missed her, too.

They walk to baggage claim with their arms around each other while Steve answers questions about the flight, which he succinctly describes as “fucking terrifying.” And, God, it feels good to be able to say that. He doesn’t know how she’s able to pull honesty from him so effortlessly. Steve pushes back the insidious creep of anxiety and puts it in the same place he’s been trying to put his unease over being unarmed in such a crowded place.

He wonders how people can walk around so casually without having something in their hands. A rifle. A knife. Even a sturdy piece of wood. As they wait for his bag, Steve entertains various scenarios of what would happen if a shooter or bomber came in through this door, that other door, or that corridor. He imagines who he’d push out of the way, how he’d shield Sharon’s body, which exit he’d take them through, which everyday object around him he could repurpose into a weapon. He wonders how Sharon can feel so relaxed against him, how she’s not fighting to keep her eyeballs from scanning the building like he is. He wonders if these habits, habits that have helped keep him alive downrange, will die when he finally comes back — if he even wants them to.

Steve tells Sharon that he’s game for an early dinner at Ethiopic, because at the moment, it feels true. But when they arrive and there are no more doors to walk through or traffic to navigate, the gulf between them begins to expand, the one born from 6,200 miles, 201 days, and 57 missions of difference.

“How are the men?” Sharon asks, taking a sip of the bland Ethiopian lager they both ordered. It’s the first question she’s asked about Iraq today, and from the upward shift of her tone, she doesn’t seem sure that it’s safe territory.

Steve drains the rest of his beer from its glass and politely waves off the waiter when he asks if he’d like another. “They’re fine.”

Sharon nods and gives a small smile. There’s no expectancy there, no pressure to spill. Just open space, an invitation for anything Steve has to offer, even if it’s just silence.

Steve wets his lips, wishing he’d taken the waiter up on his offer for more beer. He drinks from his glass of water instead and fights the announcement of Trip’s death when it tries to tumble from him.

“Excited to rotate back Stateside,” Steve tells her. “Home stretch.”

“What day are you coming back again?”

“November 22nd.”

“Good. Just in time for Thanksgiving.”

“I should be able to make it up to DC by that Wednesday, as long as there aren’t any issues that come up.”

“I can come down to Bragg, you know. I’m happy to.” Sharon folds her arms on the table. “Maybe you can introduce me to Bucky.”

Steve takes another hurried gulp of water, and in an undeserved twist of karma, the waiter chooses that exact moment to deliver their food. He lays everything out on the table and describes each item on the two samplers they ordered, and by the time the fanfare is done, it’s as if Sharon never implied that she should meet the man Steve just cheated on her with.

They spend most of the rest of their dinner in silence that vacillates between companionable and painful for Steve. The pain comes in waves, always on the heels of his unrelenting conscience. He should tell Sharon now. Right now. About Trip. The memorial. Sitwell. Bucky. He almost does it. He works himself up for it while he picks at his fried croaker fish. But then Sharon tells him that some of the members of Steve’s old team want to have drinks tomorrow night at O’Malley’s, and maybe it’s the wrong thing to do, but Steve lets this be his new benchmark for telling her. He needs to rest and have that conversation with a clear head. So he’ll tell her in two days.

He only hopes he can make it until then.

———

It’s dark by the time they get to the apartment. Sharon’s hasn’t changed anything except the comforter, and she apologizes for it, saying that she wanted everything to feel like home for him. It doesn’t feel like home to Steve. Not at all. But it’s not for want of her efforts. Even the painting on the easel in the spare room, the one he didn’t have time to finish before his sudden deployment, doesn’t feel like his. He barely remembers the guy who painted that, barely remembers the way he thought about the world. He wonders if that man was a better man or if he was just a bad man who didn’t yet realize it.

Steve unpacks his duffle and takes a shower. He makes it fast, like he’s still downrange, and when he gets out, he and Sharon drink camomile tea and catch up on the final season The Wire. It used to be his favorite show, but now he hates every goddamn minute of it. He doesn’t say a word about it, just sits with his hands clutched tightly around his mug, jaw clenched and ticking while Sharon furtively glances over at him ever few minutes. She stops the DVR about half way through the first episode and flips it to The Office instead. She moves closer to him then, just a little, and lays her hand face-up on the couch next to his thigh. He can feel the uncertainty behind it, an uncertainty that’s at least a little warranted. But he can’t stand her discomfort, never has been able to, so he lays his hand on hers and accepts her fingers when she laces them together. She exhales deeply and squeezes, running her thumb gently over his.

They head to bed at around 10:30, going through the motions of brushing their teeth and getting ready as if there’s been no seven month interruption in their routine. Steve doesn’t miss the way Sharon’s eyes travel his body when he strips down to his underwear and crawls into bed. And even though he tries not to watch as she undresses, he still catches a flash of one pale breast as she slips on a satin camisole and tiny matching shorts that he’s never seen before.

They fall into their usual sleep configuration, Steve on his back, Sharon pressed against his side with her head on his shoulder. He fights his brain as it flashes back to his night with Bucky, and he tries to pull himself out of his head by smelling her hair and running his hand along the silky material of her pajamas. Her smell is sweetly floral, nothing like sand and sweat and spent ammunition. The hand that roves over his chest is smooth and uncalloused. Her energy is strong but contained, like a well-controlled burn.

And when she lifts her head to kiss him, her lips are soft and determined. The urgency of her kiss grows, and Steve opens his mouth to her as his cock begins to stiffen. He pulls in a sharp breath through his nose when her fingers land eagerly on his dick, dipping below the waistband of his underwear to stroke him. God, it’s been so long since he’s been satisfied, since someone else has touched him in earnest, except—

Except Steve is then reminded of why he’s barely touched or kissed Sharon since he’s been back. He’s reminded of where his mouth and tongue and hands have been and the pleasure they gave to someone else. And with the heaviness of this acknowledgment, the stirring in his groin flags. She must feel him going soft, because she pulls her hand from his underwear and draws back from their kiss with a self-conscious smile.

“Sorry,” she says as the apples of her cheeks turn pink. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I'm sorry. ” Steve touches one of those embarrassed cheeks with his knuckles, even though the embarrassment should be entirely his. “It’s not you. I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“I know. I’m being selfish. I’m sorry.” Sharon lowers her head back onto his shoulder and lightly pats his chest. “I’m just really glad you’re back.”

Steve kisses the top of her head, frowning. He wants to tell her that he’s glad to be back too, but all he can think is how badly he wants to be in Iraq again. He already misses the simplicity of it. The predictability of the chaos there. It’s just like Bucky said — in Iraq, everything seems to make sense. He couldn’t see it until he got outside of it. And here? There’s no training for what he’s gotten himself into, no manual or drill to fall back on, and no one to call for backup.

“I love you,” Steve tells her, because it’s the God’s honest truth, even if his actions suggest something different. He decides then that he won’t be intimate with her until the truth is out, because it’s the least he owes her for completely betraying her.

Sharon smiles against him. “I love you, too.”

She falls asleep quickly in his arms, but rest evades Steve entirely. Before deployment, he always thought their place was quiet, but now he hears everything — the footsteps upstairs, the rush of the plumbing next door, the voices coming up from the floor. Every sound seems to push a little bit of adrenaline into his bloodstream, which builds until he can’t stay still anymore. He slides out from underneath Sharon, careful not to wake her, and walks to the window in the bedroom to make sure it’s locked. He then goes around the rest of the apartment, checking the windows and door as he patrols. He looks over the courtyard outside, scanning for signs of activity and finding none.

When Steve’s satisfied that the apartment is secure, he lies down on the couch and tries to fall asleep. When the couch feels too uncomfortable, he tries the floor, then the chair. It’s nearly sunrise by the time he makes it back to bed, having not slept at all. There, he curls on the edge of the mattress, facing the door, his mind trapped in a loop of worry and regret that doesn’t cease until well after daybreak.

———

“So, I was thinking about the spring,” Sharon says from the bathroom, where she’s putting on her makeup.

Steve sits heavily on the edge of the bed to pull on his socks. The task feels disproportionately immense and tiresome. “For what?”

“The wedding.”

It’s fortunate that Sharon’s not in the room at that moment, because it’s impossible for Steve to suppress a grimace. He feels anger at her for bringing up their engagement and immediately castigates himself for it. He presses his hands to his face and sighs heavily into them.

“Can we stay in tonight?” he asks, dropping his hands to his lap.

Sharon leans out of the bathroom doorway. Her blonde eyebrows are drawn inward. “Is something wrong?”

If he were a more sarcastic man, he’s ask aloud if there was anything that wasn’t wrong right now.

“I don’t want to go to a bar. I don’t want to sit around drinking with a bunch of people I don’t even care about anymore.” Steve shrugs. “I’m sorry. I just don’t.”

The last thing Steve wants is to talk about war, and he knows the guys’ll ask about it. Congratulate him on it, even. He doesn’t know what he’ll say, either, especially with a few drinks in him. More than that, he can’t help but wonder if this is the last night he and Sharon will have together, because God knows what she’s going to say to him tomorrow. And for right now, maybe for just one more night, he can pretend like there’s nothing fatally wrong between them. He’s obviously skilled at this type of pretend, given how easily he was able to disregard Sharon’s entire existence for nearly four hours last week.

Sharon approaches him, the gossamer fabric of her sleeveless shift dress swishing as she walks. “Of course we don’t have to go. I shouldn’t have scheduled it so soon, anyway.”

She reaches out for him, and Steve wraps his hand around her thin wrist to stop the tenderness she’s about to show him.

“I told you it was okay when you asked me,” he says. “I just don’t want to go anymore.”

Steve lets her go then. Undeterred, Sharon touches his face anyway.

“Sure, babe. I’ll give them a call. What would you rather do instead?”

“I don’t know. Order in. Watch something. Something low-key.” He leans into the warmth of her hand.

“Sounds great. Guess I should change, huh?”

Steve touches the hem of the dress she’s referring to, then the smooth skin of her thigh below it. “You don’t have to.”

“No?”

“Only if you want to.”

Sharon smiles and runs her hand through his short hair. “It is pretty comfortable.”

Steve wraps his arms around her waist and pulls her in between his legs. He looks up at her, chin resting on the soft rise of her belly. She looks ethereally beautiful in rose pink, her long blonde hair flowing down her chest to where cut of her dress dips low.

“What’s wrong, Steve?”

“Nothing.”

“You can tell me, you know.” She pets his head, just like Bucky did. “You can tell me anything.”

Steve’s eyes flutter closed, but only for a moment. He then dips his chin and presses his cheek to her belly instead. He holds her there, enjoying the feel of her hands on him, listening to the sound of her insides.

“I just want to have a nice night with you,” Steve murmurs. “That’s all.”

“Sure. Then that’s what we’ll do.”

They order pizza and split a bottle of red wine, which they enjoy on the deck overlooking the courtyard. It’s warm and clear outside, and the setting sun paints the sky a brilliant spectrum of orange and pink. Steve keeps the conversation entirely centered on Sharon. Sharon successfully thwarting Captain Adams’ advances. Sharon spending a long weekend in Boston with her aunt. Sharon training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October.

He watches her smile and feels her easy presence. He notices the little details that he’d nearly forgotten — he shape of her little toes, the knobbiness of her knees, the way her cheekbones seem to pop when she grins. He especially notices how alcohol brings out her Piedmont drawl, the one she spent four years at Virginia trying to eradicate. It’s adorable, and he delights in parroting back the occasional “y’alls,” extra syllables, and gerunds with severed g’s, earning him a hearty thwack on the shoulder and a friendly reminder about how people from New Yawk City tawk.

After dinner, they open another bottle of wine and yell at the contestants on The Bachelorette, which Sharon TiVo’d and stockpiled for them to hate-watch. After several drinks, Steve’s developed the most fantastic tunnel vision, one that shields him from all thoughts about Bucky Barnes and Antoine Triplett and IEDs and dead civilians. Actually, he does have one passing thought about Bucky, in which he finally understands why Bucky likes to drink so much. Even though he’ll probably regret it tomorrow, he feels like a million bucks tonight, and a little myopia once and a while never hurt anyone, did it?

In the middle of the third episode on their queue, Steve gets up and walks to their en-suite bathroom. He braces himself against the wall while he pisses to help counteract the tilting of the room. It was hard to tell sitting down, but now that he’s up and about, he realizes that he most certainly drank way too much. Fortunately, he’s an excellent marksman, because he also realizes that he forgot to put the seat up.

Steve steps back into the bedroom, where Sharon is there waiting for him, standing in the middle of the room with her panties dangling from her hand. Steve freezes, locked in a very unfairly matched battle between yesterday’s promise to himself and the very forward and very sexy advances of the woman in front of him.

The choice is practically made for him when Sharon drops those lacy panties on the floor and comes after him, pulling his head down to kiss her. Steve doesn’t stop her. He doesn’t push her away, doesn’t use his rehearsed lines about needing more time, doesn’t keep his tongue in his mouth. The wine seems to have spirited away all of his noble intentions, leaving behind a weak, touch-starved, and thoroughly intoxicated man unable to resist his own desire.

Never one to be shy, Sharon grabs his hand and guides it up her dress and between her legs. She’s already wet, and she lets out a shuddering sigh when he rubs two fingers over her clit. The sound of her, the feel of her, the obliteration of her inhibitions and his own, it all pulses its way down to his cock. Steve backs her up against the edge of the bed and pushes her down on it, hard enough to please her but not hard enough to hurt. She hikes her dress up over her hips and grabs for his crotch, where he’s busy fumbling open his pants. When he’s finally freed himself, he lifts her legs over his shoulders and slides his hands under her ass to lift her.

“Still on the pill?”

She nods and takes his dick in her fist, giving it a few ardent pumps. “Yeah, so don’t hold back.”

Steve outright growls at that, a bedroom sound that hasn’t left him in many years. He then pulls her hips up and off the edge of the bed and drives into her. All of the worry, fear, guilt, and anger he’s carried with him from Iraq seems to break down with every thrust, like releasing a pressure valve he didn’t even know existed. It burns off bright and fast like white phosphorous, and the whole thing is rough and loud and embarrassingly short. Steve comes before her, shooting his load deep into her body, and he apologizes breathlessly as soon as he regains some of his wits.

“I’m sorry,” Steve pants as he pulls out of her. “Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll be good to go again.”

She holds out her arms to him, motioning him toward her. “It’s fine, baby. C’mere. Take your clothes off and lie down with me.”

Steve smiles when she calls him “baby” in that sweet drawl of hers, and he presses a kiss to her calf before he lowers her back down on the mattress. He does as she asks, and Sharon pulls off her dress and casually touches herself as she watches him disrobe. She dips her fingers inside of herself and wets them with the come he put in her, and the image alone is enough to jolt some life back into his spent cock. Sharon’s always been like this with him, unabashedly sexual and unapologetically real. The poise with which she operates in her professional life is no less honest than the way she is now, and Steve could only hope to one day hold such a dichotomy with her grace.

Sharon lies on her back and opens herself to him, and Steve settles down on the bed next to her. He lovingly regards the litheness of her body and the flush that colors her pale skin, and he takes over for her with his right hand while he cups her breast in his left. He knows exactly what to do, exactly what turns her on, because she’s never hesitated to tell him. He works his mouth over her nipple while he works his fingers over her pussy, his hand remembering every angle and point of pressure effortlessly. 

It doesn’t take long until she’s pulling his hand against her and pushing hard against it, crying out as her climax takes her. Steve has been praised plenty for being a giver, but he secretly gets off on it, and by the time her orgasm ebbs, he’s already hard and ready for more. They fuck again, slower this time, and by the time they both come again, Steve thinks he might actually be able to sleep tonight.

“Didn’t think we’d have to change the sheets so soon,” Sharon says as she settles against him.

Steve pulls her in close and hums his agreement. Christ, he put so much come in her that he almost feels bad about it. It can’t be very pleasant for her. He didn’t even think to fire off a test round beforehand, because this wasn’t supposed to happen.

None of this, not one bit of it, was supposed to happen.

He’s starting to sober up. He can feel the thick tendrils of guilt coming alive in his head, curling around the small joy his compartmentalization has afforded him. He reaches over to the nightstand and clicks off the lamp, and in the dark, after the “I love yous” settle, Steve is afraid.

 ———

Friday comes like a freight train, barreling in and jerking Steve awake with a gasp so loud that Sharon comes rushing in to make sure he’s okay. It’s nothing, he wants to say. Just a simple wire strung across a simple road. Just some blood, is all.

He’ll get his chance for that, though he’s not completely sure when. What Steve is sure of is that his head feels ready to explode from the wine, and he almost wishes that it would so that he could be put out of his misery.

While Sharon makes coffee, Steve puts on a pair of West Point sweatpants and a white undershirt and pads to the bathroom to look for pain relief. He opens up the medicine cabinet and is grateful for the ibuprofen he finds. He shakes out four tablets and swallows them with a cupped handful of water, and it’s only when he puts it back that he catches the bottle of St. John’s Wort on the bottom shelf. As he turns the bottle, he frowns at the label’s bold claim that it “promotes a positive mood.”

Steve has been in the Army long enough to cultivate a keen eye for euphemism, especially when it comes to mental health. “Relaxation training” becomes “battle readiness training.” “Post-traumatic stress disorder” becomes a “combat stress reaction.” And in this case, he’s pretty sure that “St. John’s Wort” is code-speak for “antidepressant that won’t screw up my career.” And learning that Sharon’s been suffering to the point of medication while he’s been fucking around downrange turns all his wavering squarely on its head. A strange calm washes over him when his decision becomes clear. She needs to know now. He can’t make her wait one more hour — one more minute — for the truth.

Of course, all that calm collapses when he remembers what’s on the other side of that truth, and his stomach cramps in on itself as he makes his way to the living room.

“Morning,” she calls from the kitchen, then pokes her head out the doorway. “Want some coffee?”

“No. I need to talk to you.”

“Well, good morning to you, too.”

Sharon’s mouth quirks up in a wry smile, but she’s sportingly follows him to the living room. She brings a cup of coffee with her and sits facing him on the opposite end of the couch. Steve looks down at his shaking hands and clamps them tightly together.

“That bad, huh?” she says. “Thought we didn’t do serious first thing in the morning.”

“It can’t wait.”

Sharon’s smile fades, and she brings her coffee mug down to rest on her lap. “Okay.”

Steve winces and tells her about Trip. He keeps his tone clinical, giving the police report version that holds none of the horror or guilt or confusion. As he talks, Sharon’s expression shifts through concern, shock and, finally, deep sadness. He doesn’t need to ask to know who the sadness is for, because he knows it’s for all of them. Because that’s the kind of woman Sharon is.

“Babe, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. I tried calling, but you were probably working.” He keeps his tone factual, not wanting to imply that anything he’s about to say is her fault. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so…” Steve tries to recapture that feeling on the day of the memorial, but it’s hard to even imagine it now, let alone embody it.

He continues. “I was in a bad space, so I went to see Bucky. I knew he’d understand what I’d been through. Probably better than anyone. He’s seen so much horrible stuff, and I thought he’d get it.”

Sharon’s lips thin. “I imagine he’s seen a lot.”

Steve opens his mouth and takes a deep breath. He stops there, poised on the edge of speech, hovering at the point from which they can never return. He then clenches his jaw shut, pulling up all the courage he can muster, and says it.

“We had sex.”

It takes a few moments for the disbelief to settle on Sharon’s face. But when it does, its every bit as bad as he expected it to be.

“Oh my God,” she says, and that disbelief sharpens into dismay. “Oh my God, Steve…”

Steve leans forward, finding his momentum, imploring her to hear him. “And I’ve regretted it every single moment since it happened. Every single moment. It was unfair to you, and I was weak and fucked in the head for letting it happen. And I know that doesn’t excuse any of it. And I can’t apologize enough for betraying your trust.”

Sharon closes her eyes, and her eyebrows furrow while she tries to comprehend the depths of that betrayal. She lifts her fingers to her forehead, as if to touch a sudden pain there. “So, you had sex with him, and then you had sex with me? Did you even use protection?”

How the does he even say it? How the fuck does he tell her what he did? How does he tell her that he sucked Bucky’s dick like it was a lifesaving measure? That he stuck the same finger in Bucky’s ass that he stuck in her just last night?

“It wasn’t that kind of sex.”

Sharon shifts uncomfortably, shoulders tensing and climbing high. “God, Steve, do I need to get tested?”

Steve’s voice falters, cracking under the weight of his words. “I don’t know.”

“How could you?” She’s angry now, brown eyes flashing. “How could you sleep with me after that? How could you not tell me? Do you have any idea how messed up that is?”

“I did not intend to sleep with you,” he tells her, cringing at his words while spilling out even more words that sound awful and wrong. “I wanted to talk to you first. But, last night, I just… I was drunk, and I wasn’t thinking.”

“For a guy who’s so goddamn smart, you sure have a lot of problems with thinking.”

“Sharon, I’m so sorry.” Steve shifts closer, toward the middle of the couch. He’s desperate now, desperate to soothe something that he has no right or ability to soothe. “I am so, so sorry. I fucked up bad. I know I did.”

Sharon closes her mouth and begins to nod slowly. Her gaze drifts to the floor beside her, and when she finally speaks again, her voice is quiet.

“I actually believed you when you said I didn’t have to worry about him.” She smiles at Steve, but there’s no joy in it. “Pretty stupid, huh?”

“I don’t love him,” Steve grinds out, fists balling in the fabric of his pants. “I don’t want to be with him.”

“Do you really think that matters now?”

Of course it doesn’t. It never mattered. It never mattered at all.

“No.”

Sharon goes quiet again. She tries to take a sip of her coffee but aborts it after one try, setting the mug on the coffee table next to them. She crosses her arms over her chest and pulls them in tight, looking into the middle distance like it has an answer to this cluster fuck. And maybe it does, because her verdict comes back quickly.

“You need to go pack your things, and you need to leave.” She nods to herself then makes eye contact with him. “Yeah. That’s what you need to do.”

“Sharon—”

She cuts him off. “No. You don’t get to say anything else right now.”

She stares him down, watches his face twist in anguish with the kind of deft coolness he’s only seen in professional settings.

Finally, Steve rises to his feet, but that’s all he can do at first. He stands there, swaying a little, his mind desperately scrambling for anything that might save them. Some confession, some emotion or truth he’s never revealed. But real life doesn’t work like that, and Sharon Margaret Carter doesn’t work like that, either.

When Steve finally gathers the means to walks to the bedroom, he sees the tangled mess of sheets and feels disgusted. Disgusted with himself for what he’s done to Sharon and disgusted for all the things he didn’t do. He barely registers his movements as he shoves his clean and dirty clothes back into his green duffle bag and packs away the toiletries he just unpacked yesterday.

It’s all over so fast, and when he brings his belongings out to the living room, Sharon is still seated where she was. Only now, she looks composed, clear and self-assured. She looks at him with an equanimity that makes him want to scream at her, because doesn’t she know what’s happening right now?

“I can’t marry a man I can’t trust to be faithful to me for a few months,” she says. “I can’t marry a man who turns to someone else for comfort and then doesn’t even have the decency to tell me before fucking me.” The word “fucking” pierces the air like a knife.

“I’m sorry,” is all Steve can repeat as numbness washes over him.

Sharon presses her lips together. “I thought you were the one, Steve. I really did. And I had no idea I could be so wrong about someone.”

Steve knows it won’t make a difference, not now, but he has to tell his truth to her one last time:

“I’m so sorry, Sharon. I love you, and I never, ever meant to hurt you.”

“I’ll put your things in storage. You can get them when you come back.”

She turns away from him then, toward the blackened screen of the TV. She takes her mug back into her hands and once more lifts it to her mouth, only to set it back on the table again.

It’s his cue to leave, and Steve respects her for her resolve. He walks to the door, not even thinking to take one last look at the place, and grabs his boots by the mat before stepping into the hallway.

The door closes behind him and he stops. He looks down at his bare feet, at his sweatpants and undershirt, and he tries to remember what he’s supposed to do next. Behind him, he hears the sound of quiet weeping, and inside, he feels nothing.

———

It’s easy for Steve to change his flight from September 14th to September 7th, once he plays all the cards he never played back when he had some self-respect. He plays the soldier card. The deployment card. The leadership card. The “my men need me” card. And in the end, the airline representative not only changes his ticket but upgrades him to business class for the flight to Berlin. She even thanks him for his service, which is good for a laugh.

However, it turns out it’s not so easy to get back into a war zone when nobody’s expecting you. Steve is stuck in Kuwait for two days just trying to get a ride into Baghdad, going back and forth with Sousa, who goes back and forth with XO of the 107th, who goes back and forth with the XO of the 88th Transportation Battalion. Barton eventually gets him on the line and asks what the hell he’s doing back so soon, and although he doesn’t buy that Steve just missed having sand in his eyebrows, he finds him a lift with some Northrop Grumman contractors.

It’s incomprehensibly hot. A different kind of hot from DC. The kind of heat that stifles the breath and seems to defy the laws of reality. But Steve is glad for it, because its means he’s home now. When he goes to company HQ to sign in from leave, even Barton has resigned himself to removing his jacket to try to beat the heat, which the air conditioner can’t seem to touch

“Trouble in paradise?” Barton asks, rocking back in his chair.

Steve slides his signed leave form across Barton’s desk and falls into a loose parade rest. “Just want to save some leave, Sir.”

“For your honeymoon?” Barton raises an eyebrow.

Steve doesn’t answer, which he imagines is answer enough.

“I’m sorry, man,” Barton says. “Third time was a charm for me, so hang in there.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You should go talk to Sergeant Barnes. He’s got some good news.”

“Where can I find him?”

“Slumming around the motor pool.”

Steve nods once. “Thank you, Sir.”

“Good to have you back, Steve.” Barton offers a crooked smile. “Now we can get some shit done.”

Steve snaps into the position of attention. “Yes, Sir.”

He does find Bucky in the motor pool, though he’s not exactly slumming. He’s up to his elbows in Humvee guts while a pretty female specialist gives him directions. Steve stops a few meters away, slings his rifle over his back, crosses his arms, and looks on.

“Like this?” Bucky asks. His arm jerks as he cranks a socket wrench.

“Just like that,” the specialist says with a grin. “You’re a natural, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Well, it’s ‘cause you’re such a good teacher.” Bucky glances up at her and winks.

Bucky’s not a mechanics prodigy or a novice by any stretch of the imagination. He started working on cars and motorcycles with his dad almost as soon as he could hold a screwdriver. Hell, Bucky could probably disassemble and reassemble that entire Humvee singlehanded, which is more than the mechanic who’s “teaching” him could do. But Bucky likes to flirt, especially when there’s no chance of it going anywhere, so he’ll make up stories of ignorance on any number of subjects he knows just to enjoy the exchange.

“Yeah, he’s a real natural, all right,” Steve says.

The look on Bucky’s face when he lifts his head pulls the first smile that Steve’s had since the night before Sharon left him. Bucky looks happy, lighter, as if some burden has been siphoned out of him like poison. Steve wonders what that burden was or whether this is just the lingering glow of new love.

“Hey, Sir.” Bucky thrusts the socket wrench toward the specialist, who takes it from him with a perplexed look, as if she’s just realized her utter insignificance to him. Bucky grabs a clean rag from a nearby workbench and wipes the grease off his hands and forearms as he approaches Steve.

Steve uncrosses his arms. “Captain Barton said you had some good news.”

“Whoa, whoa, hold on.” Bucky holds out his dirty right palm to Steve. “First, what are you doing back so soon? What happened?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Bucky’s eyes narrow, but he nods. “Fair enough. To be continued. So…” He stops and looks around the stall at the assorted junior enlisted soldiers bustling about. “Hold on.”

Bucky jogs back to the work bench, throws the towel in a bin, grabs his rifle and ACU coat, and thanks Specialist Soto for teaching him about engines. She gives him a goofy smile, despite the earlier slight, and invites him to come back anytime. When he sides back up to Steve, he’s electric, and when they get out of earshot of the other soldiers, the good news spills out of him like a torrent.

“Okay, so remember our old friend Colonel Nazari? Whose wife’s cousin has ties to the Islamic State?”

“Rami Khouri.”

“We found him. Apparently when Nazari flew the coop, Khouri got nervous and moved around a few times. But we got fresh intel on a location, and we’re gonna go get him.”

Bucky smiles then, the predatory type of smile he gives when he’s raining down hurt on someone. Steve wonders if he smiled that way when he used to blew people’s heads off for a living.

“When?” Steve asks, lifting the front of his patrol cap to wipe off the sweat pooling on his forehead.

“Well, now that you’re back, we should go ASAP, before he gets wise and decides to move again.”

“Snatch-and-grab?”

“Yep. Night’s probably best.”

They’ve done random night raids before, but never a nighttime snatch-and-grab. It’s a different animal entirely, carrying with it a different degree of danger. A man who knows he’s being hunted is dangerous, and Steve hopes he can contain his untouched agony for long enough to lead a successful mission.

“Let’s see if we can go tomorrow or the day after,” Steve says. “Wanna go with me to sell it to Barton?”

“Absolutely.”

They change directions and head toward company HQ.

“How are you?” Steve asks.

“Good.” Bucky snorts. “Bored.”

Steve looks down at his feet as he walks. “Sorry.”

“Hey.” Bucky jabs his elbow against Steve’s arm. “We are gonna talk later. You can’t get out of it, you know.”

“Let’s get Khouri first,” Steve says, looking over at Bucky.

When Bucky looks back at him, he’s discretely biting his lower lip. He’s worried, but he concedes.

“Deal.”

The next night, second platoon stacks in front of the back door to Khouri’s two-story home. They’re geared up in night vision goggles, armed to the teeth, with third platoon and a squad of military police there to back them up. Steve can feel the nerves in himself and in his men, but it’s the good kind of nerves. The kind that’s going to bring in Rami Khouri alive tonight. According to intel, Khouri’s an IT guy, not a fighter, but they’ve learned not to put too much stock in what MI tells them. If there’s one thing Steve’s learned on this deployment, it’s that any man can become a killer if stressed just the right way.

Rhodes and Dugan do silent checks with their men and signal their readiness to Bucky. He nods to Steve, and Steve signals Reyes to breach the door. It bursts open with a loud crack, and the two squads file in. First squad takes the first floor with Bucky, and Steve follows second squad upstairs. The men move swiftly and quietly, with a smooth mastery of tactical procedures and signaling that sets off a burst of pride in Steve. His men are professionals. His men are proficient. And that means his men are dangerous, which is exactly what they’re going to need to be to get home in one piece.

Upstairs, the squad splits off into two teams to infiltrate the two bedrooms simultaneously. Steve leads Foggy and Reyes to the first room while Rhodes takes Ward and Rumlow to the second. When his men are positioned for breach, Steve drives his foot into the door in tandem with Rhodes.

The door flies open, and there’s screaming. Two kids, one old woman. All screaming. The kids are screaming in terror, the woman in fierce indignation. While Reyes begins his search of the room, Steve and Foggy point their rifles at them and yell for them to get on the floor face-down. The two little girls cower against the old woman, who screams at them to get out of her house, get out of her house, you beasts, you beasts, these are children, you beasts, poison to you, poison to you.

The old lady then reaches out and takes a swipe at the barrel of Foggy’s rifle. Fortunately for her, Foggy’s not an infantryman at heart, or else she’d have a few bullet holes in her by now. Her resistance pisses Steve off, and he comes frighteningly close to kicking her in the back to get her on the fucking floor.

He doesn’t, though. He changes the cadence of his voice to very loud and very slow. He speaks to the trembling girls first, whose faces are gnarled little masks of horror. Night vision devices on fully armed infantrymen appear terrifying even to adults, but to children, they turn men into very literal monsters. Steve suddenly perceives himself clearly, imagines how he must look, hears how angry and menacing he sounds, and he takes a deep breath and lowers his voice.

He tries his commands again, with the gentle tone he’d give a frightened American child. Foggy helps, mustering a smile and giving small words of encouragement in Arabic whenever the kids do something Steve asks. Good, good girl, very good, no afraid. The girls look to Foggy like a doughy beacon of warmth and safety, as absolutely fucked up as that notion is, and they finally lie down on the floor with their faces pressed to their folded arms. Their breaths come in little hiccuping gasps.

When the girls are down, the old woman yells more, more curses, more names. Finally, Khouri shouts at her from the next room, telling her that she needs to do what the soldiers say. She spits out a few more choice insults and finally does as they’ve been instructing her for the last five minutes.

“Watch them,” Steve tells Foggy, gesturing to the bodies on the floor. He then looks to Reyes. “Anything?”

Reyes shows Steve the four small flip phones stacked in his palm. “Found these behind the bookshelf. There are five more.”

Steve nods. “Good work. Both of you stay here.”

They give a pair of “hooahs” in reply.

In the next bedroom, Steve walks in just as Rumlow is dragging Khouri up to his feet. Khouri’s wrists are snared tightly in a pair of zip cuffs that are obviously too tight. Khouri looks at the rank on Steve’s chest and tries to plead with him

“Please, Sir.” His English pronunciation is precise and accented with a flavor of the UK. “These are very tight. Would you please tell your men to loosen them?”

Khouri is a slight man, not much older than Steve, with delicate features and a full head of dark hair. His face is plaintive and possibly even a bit remorseful. And Steve doesn’t give a single fuck.

“Get him to the MPs,” Steve says to Rumlow. He looks to the woman who’s lying face-down on the floor, then to Ward and Rhodes. “Nice work.”

Ward nods. Rhodes smiles uneasily.

Steve doesn’t smile back. Instead, he follows Rumlow and Khouri down the stairs, his rifle trained at the back of Khouri’s head. While Rumlow hands Khouri over to the waiting MPs, Steve glances over at Bucky, who’s standing in the middle of the living room the men trashed during their search.

“Find anything?” Steve asks.

“Three laptops. SIGINT will be very happy.”

“Good.”

Steve looks around the room, at the upended furniture, the books and trinkets spilled on the floor, and the carelessly tossed textiles. He thinks about the four people upstairs, afraid and angry, and he thinks they’ve all had about enough for one night.

“All right, Sergeant Barnes. Round everyone up. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Bucky nods. “Yes, Sir.”

———

By the time they get back to base, it’s nearly sunrise. They get Khouri processed with Sergeant Romanoff, who looks elated to have him on her interrogation docket. Steve thinks Khouri’s going to crack easily; Romanoff takes one look at him and tells Steve that he’s already cracked.

With first platoon out on a mission, Bucky comes back to Steve’s trailer to debrief. And the second they lay their rifles down, Bucky’s on him.

“You gotta tell me what happened, Steve.” Bucky lays his hands on his hips “Because that was not you tonight.”

Steve lets out an ambiguous huff. “Then who was it?”

“Some guy who’s got shit he’s taking out on other people. Some guy who needs to spill it before he puts a round in someone he shouldn’t.”

Steve walks over to his bed and sits on the edge of it, dropping his head into his hands. “I wonder if there’s anything else I could fuck up in my life right now.”

Bucky shrugs one shoulder. “You didn’t fuck up tonight. But you could have. Easily.”

Steve lifts his head and looks up at Bucky. “I did fuck up tonight. I was cruel. I was mad. You should have seen the way they looked at me.”

“Who?”

“The family. The men.” He drags his hand over his scalp. “Fuck.”

Bucky sighs and crosses the room. He takes a seat on the bed next to Steve, close enough that their shoulders touch.

Steve takes one deep breath and then another, a half-hearted delay that gives way to the truth fast. “Sharon left me.”

Bucky’s jaw drops. “What? What happened?”

“I told her.”

The word “about” dies on Bucky’s lips as the realization settles upon him.

“Fuck…” Bucky lifts his hand to his mouth and looks over at Steve with wide eyes. “Fuck, I’m so sorry.” He shakes his head. “I’m so, so sorry. I never should have—”

“No.” Steve heads him off with a glare that he hopes impresses upon him the seriousness of his words. “You’re not responsible for this. This is on me. Not you”

Beside him, Bucky tenses. His voice is rough.

“That’s bullshit, and you know it. I kissed you. I literally took you to my fucking bed.”

Steve stops himself from placing his hand on Bucky’s thigh, bunching it into a fist instead. “It was my choice, Buck. I could have said no at any time. That was my job, and I failed. I failed both of you.”

“You didn’t fail me. That’s not how it felt.” Bucky frowns with another sorrowful shake of his head. “I’m just so sorry.”

Steve tries to say something else, something comforting, but his throat tightens up and doesn’t let anything pass.

“What can I do?” Bucky asks, laying his hand on Steve’s back. “What can I do to help you?”

Steve’s face fills with horrible pressure. Bucky’s expression is so kind, his touch so concerned, and it’s so much more than what Steve deserves after everything that’s happened. Everything he’s done.

It’s more than Sharon. It’s everything before her, everything that led to her and everything that destroyed his life with her. It’s his abandonment of Bucky all those years ago, his anger toward him, his treatment of him when he got to Iraq. It’s his withdrawal from Sharon, his assumptions that she wouldn’t understand him. It’s Trip’s death. It’s his weakness, his want for comfort, his choice to come to Bucky, his stupid, stupid choice to touch him, to kiss him, to make love to him, because for Steve, it wasn’t just a blowjob. It came from love. Because he loves Bucky Barnes. He loves Bucky, and he let that love for Bucky devastate his love for Sharon, corrupt the beautiful life they had, the seamless trust they had, the whole goddamn future they had, because they had a viable fucking future together. And now, Bucky has someone else, someone he loves and who loves him back, and Steve has nothing but a pile of regrets. And it’s entirely his own fault.

Everything swells in him then, the anguish, the self-loathing, the shame and disgust. It swells and expands and breaks past its thin, jury-rigged containment like it was never there at all.

“Just don’t fuck up your relationship the way I fucked up mine.” Steve’s chin quivers, and his vision goes hot and watery. “Be good to your guy. Better than I was to Sharon.” He forces out his next words in a sob that’s barely understandable. “Better than I was to you.”

“Oh, Steve.”

Bucky moves his hand to Steve’s shoulder and pulls him in. Steve resists at first, tries to hold himself steady, but Bucky’s insistent. He tucks Steve’s head under his chin and wraps his other arm around him to enfold him. Steve breaks apart there. Cries harder than he’s cried since his ma died. And Bucky holds him through it, gently rocking him. He might not be a natural at fixing engines, but he’s a natural at this. Always has been, ever since Steve’s known him.

“I’m sorry,” Steve eventually murmurs when he’s cried himself out. “It’s not your job to take care of me whenever I fuck up my own life.”

“Of course it is. You’re my friend. I mean, it’s not like you wouldn’t do it for me.”

“You’ve never done this.” Steve sniffles and wipes at his face. “I’ve never seen you cry. Not like this.”

Bucky shifts his chin and lays his cheek on Steve’s head. “I’m not exactly a role model for stuff like that. Remember what I said? Don’t be like me.”

Steve grasps onto Bucky’s forearm, his small way of holding him back. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”

“C’mon, Steve.” Steve can hear the smile in his voice.

“What’s he like?”

Bucky makes a small hmm sound. “Well, he’s tall. He’s blond. So I might have a type.”

Steve gives a choked laugh.

“He’s nice and affectionate. And he’s considerate. And sweet. He’s really hot. He has a huge dick. He’s really good in bed. He’s rich. And he’s a personal trainer who owns his own gym. And he’s really honest, and he's passionate about his work. He’s former special forces. And—”

“Are you sure this guy’s real? Kinda sounds like you’re making him up,” Steve says, trying to mold the acute sting of jealousy he feels into something less toxic.

“Oh, he’s real. Wanna see a picture?”

Steve tightens his grip on Bucky’s arm. “I don’t think I can handle that right now.”

Steve shuts his mouth tight when he recognizes the implication of his words. But if Bucky took anything inappropriate from them, he doesn’t show it.

“You’ll find someone, Steve. I know you will. You’re a catch-and-a-half.”

Steve exhales deeply and closes his eyes. He lets Bucky hold him until his arms get tired. And when they finally part ways to get some shut-eye, Steve feels hollow and exhausted. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he can start filling that emptiness with something good. Something better. He’s not sure exactly what that means or how he plans do it, but in this moment, it feels like hope.

Chapter Text

October 2, 2008

“Not feelin’ good about this mission. Not one bit.” Sam stomps his boots on the floor to settle his feet in them. He laces them up with sharp, jerking motions.

Bucky slides on and secures his armored tactical vest, patting down all of the pouches, counting magazines and clips through the fabric with his fingertips. “Yeah, well, gotta get it done.”

“You don’t feel it?”

Bucky’s not sure where it came from, whether it’s just the sheer amount of time spent downrange or whether it’s something honed from years of special operations, but his intuition around operations like this one is so accurate that he’s almost inclined to call it something else. Something that would get him laughed out of a room of his peers, probably. He wonders sometimes if he over-identifies with the enemy, if he’s tapped into their brutal intelligence in a way that other men can’t be because they fear what that kind of intimacy might mean — that they’re un-American, that they’re sympathizers, bleeding hearts, traitors. It’s dangerous territory, and if not managed properly, it can break a soldier down, make him doubt his purpose, his mission, his own fundamental sense of self.

But Bucky’s already doubted all of these things in the dark hours, and somehow, he carries on. He thinks it might be a gift, though he’s not sure if it’s one he really wants.

“Of course I feel it,” Bucky says. “They probably knew Khouri would fold in a second, so they’re gonna try to put themselves at least two steps ahead.”

Sam stands and bounces on his toes, then rocks back on his heels. “And what the hell are they gonna leave behind for us?”

“Well, guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

“I miss Afghanistan, y’know?” Sam tilts his head with a whimsical glimmer in his eyes. “Get some of those ANA guys, put ‘em right out front, have ‘em take point, have ‘em take all the shit first.”

They did some of that on Bucky’s last deployment to Iraq. On joint missions, they’d always put the Iraqi soldiers up front. The purpose was ostensibly to show the Iraqi people that their own troops were spearheading operations, that leadership in the war effort was changing hands. But all the American soldiers loved the arrangement because the Iraqis were the first ones to go down. The first ones to step on IEDs. The first ones to get shot. To Bucky, it always meant one less American son or daughter sent home in a bag, and that was a moral arrangement he could sleep peacefully with.

“I hear you,” Bucky says seriously. “I’m not feelin’ hot about this one, either.”

“You think your man’s gonna be up for it?”

Bucky tosses a look over his shoulder at Sam’s smug face. “You mean my boss?”

“Sorry, your former man.” Sam grins. “Not the new one.”

“He’ll be okay.”

“He’s looking a little twitchy.”

Bucky shrugs. “We could all stand to be a little twitchy today.”

Steve’s been doing pretty well, all things considered. Better than Bucky would be doing if their places were exchanged. Hell, sometimes Bucky thinks he’s taking it worse than Steve is, especially knowing that he was the catalyst for it. He’s the reason Steve cheated on Sharon, after all. He’s the reason Sharon left him. Bucky’s been a lot of awful things in his life, a lot of things he’s not proud of, but “home wrecker” is a new one. A new personal low. He tries not to think about it, tries to remember that Steve’s a grown man who made his choices, but it still eats away at him like a cancer. When he sees Steve touching his brow when he thinks nobody’s looking, when his eyes are screwed shut and his chin starts to tremble, Bucky know he’s the reason for it...

They do the rest of their final gear checks in companionable silence. Bucky’s had Sam in his life for so long that he sometimes takes for granted how easy things are between them. Even when they’re pissed off at each other or have one of their rare but epic fights, they never lose their true north. It’s a comfort Bucky’s not sure he could live without.

“I’m just glad we’re going together,” Sam says, laying his kevlar helmet on his head and snapping the chinstrap.

“Damn straight. And since your boss suddenly decided to be a leader and not a giant fuck stick, I think we’re gonna be okay.” Bucky smirks, even though he’s provisionally impressed with Sitwell’s turnaround.

“I don’t know what happened to him, and I don’t care. Just get us home, man. Just get me home to my mama for Thanksgiving.”

“A-fucking-men to that.” Bucky grabs his pack of smokes and zippo and shoves them in his left cargo pocket. “‘Bout sick of this shit.”

Sam makes a thoughtful sound. “I never, ever though I’d hear you say that.”

Bucky walks to the mirror next to their door and gives himself the once-over, making sure everything sits right along the planes of his shoulders and hips. “I’m ready to go scream at kids for a couple years. Let off some steam.”

“How’s that gonna work with your Norwegian suitor?”

“Well, he’ll just have to fly down and see me, I suppose,” Bucky says with the saucy cadence of Scarlett O’Hara.

Sam walks up behind him, and Bucky makes some room for him in the mirror’s reflection. “Fly himself to Fort Benning on the weekend?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Little Sunday morning booty call?” Sam gives Bucky’s ass a slap on the word ‘booty.’ “Because you know that’s the only time off they’re gonna give you when you’re a drill sergeant.”

“A booty call doesn’t take that long, y’know. But I realize it’s been a while since you got laid.”

“No thanks to your ass always being here.”

“Just tell me to fuck off, man. You know I will.”

Sam gives a dramatic sigh. “Well, that would require my girlfriend to actually be on base once and a while. I’m glad she’s getting her field ops but, damn, I am lonely.

“It’s okay, Sammy. I’ll keep you company.” Bucky lays a peck on Sam’s cheek.

“You’re my favorite side dish, Jamie Barnes. You know that, right?”

“Boy, you really know how to make a guy feel special.” Bucky brings his arm around Sam’s back and gives his armor a clap. “Now let’s go get some bad guys.”

———

At the mission staging area, Bucky checks in with Rhodes and Dugan, who are trying to get the men jazzed up with slaps on the back and a few rounds of “ready to go fuck up the Islamic State?” They’re trying to keep the edge of doubt out of their voices, just like Bucky’s trying to do for them. Bucky scans the throng of dismounted men until he finds Barton and Morita, who may not be thrilled by this particular mission but seem very thrilled to at least be on some mission. Barton weaves himself through the mass of his company, brandishing his crooked mouth and easy confidence, bolstered by the surly grunts of encouragement from Morita at his side. The energy is on point.

Bucky finds Steve and Sitwell double-checking supplies in the back of one of the vehicles, talking quietly through the op. First and second platoons breach the facility, third and forth pull security. As of three days ago, both signals data and human intelligence assets confirmed that an Islamic State cell has been seen entering and exiting a two-story building on the outskirts of Khalidiya. Personnel movement has also been linked chronologically and proximally to IED strikes between Ramadi and Fallujah.

It seems like a solid mission. It really does. The data point to it. The logic points to it. The HUMINT points to it. And yet, It feels off. It’s just a whistle, just a little hum of wrongness, formless and vague. But it is absolutely there.

Bucky closes the distance to Steve, laying heavy steps on the ground to herald him. Bucky knows twitchy; he lives twitchy more than he’d ever admit. Steve still turns fast and jerky, like he was yanked by some invisible string, and Bucky greets him and Sitwell with a nod.

“Morning, Gentlemen. Ready to go cause some trouble?”

“Absolutely,” Sitwell says, slamming the back hatch of the Humvee shut. “Have you seen Sergeant Wilson?”

“Back there, Sir.” Bucky jerks his head toward the back of the convoy.

Sitwell makes a face, something he’s been trying lately, something approaching a genuine smile, and makes his way to his platoon sergeant.

Bucky gives Steve the once-over from toe to head, checking his gear. He’s never once seen anything out of place, but he still does it before every mission. Deployment logic would suggest that maybe it’s the thing keeping him alive, and Bucky doesn’t mess with deployment logic.

“How you doing?” Bucky asks quietly.

“Okay. Feeling good.” Steve’s brow is set in a tense line that tells a different story.

“You got the heebie jeebies?”

Steve purses his lips and looks at a spot on the ground a few meters away. “I don’t know why. There’s something…” He hesitates. “I don’t know what.”

“Okay, good.” Bucky quickly move to clarify. “I mean good because I’ve got ‘em, Sam has ‘em, Dugan and Rhodes have ‘em, so at least we’re all on the same page.”

“It’s a good plan,” Steve says, shaking his head. “All the constituent parts are good.”

Bucky fishes out his cigarettes and puts one between his lips. He talks around it while he fingers through the contents of his cargo pocket for his lighter. “But when you smash it all together, the pucker factor goes up big time.”

“Exactly.

“It’s gonna be okay. We’re all ready for whatever they have in store for us.”

“You’re right.”

Bucky lights up his smoke and inhales deeply. It’s over two hours to Khalidiya, and they’re not stopping along the way. Not voluntarily, anyway. So they’ll be pissing in Gatorade bottles and channeling their anxiety into whatever conversation they can still manage with a bunch of guys they’ve been nuts-to-butts with for the past eight months.

Steve watches him smoke, making no attempt mask his interest. Bucky notes the joint sensations of self-consciousness and delight curling in his chest, and he wonders why Steve’s attention still has the ability to knock him out of sorts. Even after all these years. Even now that Bucky’s happy with someone else.

“I want you to stay by me,” Steve says as Bucky scrapes his cigarette butt along the bottom of his boot.

“What?”

“Stay by me.”

Steve’s tone is clear — it’s not “stay by me and protect me.” It’s “stay by me so I can protect you.

Bucky pockets the cigarette butt and looks squarely at his platoon leader. “You’re scared.”

“Please.” Steve takes a step forward, until the gear on their chests nearly touches.

“I can’t promise that. I might be needed somewhere else.”

“Just try.”

That sick, nervous feeling — the nagging ache of Bucky’s intuition — sharpens. “All right. I’ll try.”

Steve nods, and the two serious lines above the bridge of his nose soften. “Good.”

The space between them thickens, electrifies, becomes tangible and a little frightening. Bucky’s thankful when the sounds of Barton and Morita’s voices cut through that space, demanding that they all mount up so they can get this show on the road.

“See you in Khalidiya,” Steve says, plain as anything, completely divorced from whatever was just going on inside him. Between them.

Bucky watches him circle the vehicle to take his place in the back seat. He stands there for a few moments, heavy and confused, until Rhodes snags him and shakes him out of it.

The men are ready, Rhodes says, and Bucky is glad. They’ll need to be.

———

When they finally roll up on the facility two hours later, the nebulous nervousness around the mission takes a swift and penetrating form. The quiet smacks Bucky upside the helmet as soon as they dismount. It’s jarring and unnatural. There should be some sound. An air conditioner. The wind. Some distant cow. The slow drag of the Euphrates. The soundtrack of life in this ancient land is silent, and Bucky shudders.

The company meets the quiet with their own brand of it — infantry quiet. The rustling of pant legs, the bouncing of gear, the light hiss of a tactical whisper. First and second platoons line up on either side of the metal double doors they plan to blow down, as third and fourth platoons surround the building to pull security. At the front of the line, Rhodes watches over Rumlow as he sets up the C4 charges on the doors’ hinges and locks. Bucky rushes up to where Steve is pressed against the concrete of the building. He runs in a low crouch, keeping his core solid to center himself while all his gear shifts about his body. He settles just behind Steve, trailing his attention up and down the lines of kneeling men. They’re itching to file in just as much as they’re dreading it, all except Rumlow, the tip of the spear, who looks ravenous and roiling and ready to blow shit up. Bucky’s glad to send him in first.

Steve looks behind his shoulder, nods once to Bucky, then makes eye contact with Barton down at the end of the line. Steve’s presence is calm and calming, stable and grounded. It’s everything a platoon sergeant could want from his platoon leader, and yet, Bucky still can’t kick the free fall sensation in his stomach. He thinks to maybe reach out to Steve, touch his back, see if he can’t siphon off some of that coolness or maybe inject Steve with some of his nerves. Something to balance them out. But he knows better. Instead, Bucky leans to the right, trying to look down the wall on the other side of the doors. Trying to see Sam. Trying to get a feel for first platoon’s readiness, even though he’d be powerless to change it. Steve reaches back and gives him a stern pat on the side of the arm, signaling for him to pull in tight against the wall.

Final checks leap down the line from man to man, a chain of thumbs-up running all the way back to Barton and Morita. There’s a dense pause while Barton and Morita confer, but moments later, Bucky feels Reyes’ hand drop onto his shoulder, which prompts him to lay his hand on Steve’s shoulder. He feels the muscle below his hand shift when Steve reaches out to Ward in front of him.

Bucky feels the shift, his shift, as his body readies for the unknown. His vision narrows. His heart dips into a low, steady rhythm. The free fall in his stomach becomes kinetic energy, like a shot of amphetamine driving through his veins. At the front of the line, Rumlow raises his hand with the detonator in it, and all the men dip their heads in unison, helmets becoming shields.

A burst of sound cuts through the air, followed by a two thuds as the doors fall to the ground. The men of Alpha company rise tall and filter into the building in two serpentine columns of aggression. Bucky follows Steve into the building, and even though their platoon is cutting left to the stairwell, Bucky looks at the open expanse of the first floor and tries to take in as many details as he can. Plans change, missions deviate, and he needs to know it all. Just in case.

The first floor is a cross between an industrial kitchen and a lab. Along the wall are vats and cylindrical tanks. A stainless steel bench rests in the middle of the space, lined with burners and steel kettles. He wonders if they’re still hot, if there’s residue in them. Whatever it is they’re cooking up, Bucky’s pretty sure it’s not edible. He looks to Steve, whose eyes are trained on that same sinister equipment. From his grave expression, Steve appears to be entertaining some of the same nightmare scenarios that are careening through Bucky’s head right now.

Rhodes leads second platoon up the stairs to whatever awaits them. Their intel stopped at the front door, so what’s up there is anyone’s guess. Bucky looks over his shoulder at the men behind him, to their fearful but committed faces. He gives them a smile, a confident one, one he pulls from the bullshit factory where he manufactures artifacts of straightness and simulations of respect and self-assurance. Reyes’ bitch face, constant even amid such uncertainty, seems to lighten by the barest of measures. A large, open-mouth smile blooms underneath Dugan’s ginger mustache, and Bucky wishes he had more of Dugan’s recklessness. He used to. He’s not sure where it all went. Maybe he left it here on his last deployment.

Rhodes pulls the formation up the stairs and into a corridor, where he stops them. The men reflexively press against the wall as they assess the situation. Three doors are visible, all closed, and in the eerie glow of the fluorescent lighting, the hallway becomes a morbid gameshow shtick. It’s a Monty Hall problem, something behind each door, except instead of a car or a goat, maybe they’ll get an ambush. Maybe Muqtada al-Sadr. Maybe an all expenses paid trip to the gates of hell. It doesn’t help that the place is dead silent, save for the eerie hum of electricity coming from above. It’s quiet enough for Bucky to hear his heart, which has begun to beat insistently.

There’s a plan for this general situation, of course. The platoon splits into fire teams, which is what Steve communicates to Rhodes and Dugan by making a trident with three gloved fingers. Rhodes and Dugan mirror the gesture for all the men, who nod in acknowledgment. Steve points to Dugan and then to door one, then to Rhodes and door two. He then turns back to Bucky and points to three.

Bucky leans in and whispers next to Steve’s ear. “Start with three.”

Steve’s eyebrows pull together, but only for a moment. Those brows part and then rise, along with a nod when Steve recognizes the advantages of systematically clearing in reverse. It’s an unexpected search pattern, and in this situation, unexpected is one of the few assets they have at their disposal.

The platoon skirts down the hallway, taking defensive position while Bucky, Steve, Mack, Maximoff, and Ward stack up on the wall alongside the door. Bucky hates that Steve’s here, that he’s right behind him, that he’s so eager to be close. He shouldn’t be clearing any of these rooms, just like he shouldn’t have been in the lead vehicle the day Trip died. But Steve’s going to do whatever he wants, clearly, and this is neither the time nor the place for a conversation about tactical stupidity.

When everyone is in place, Bucky plants himself squarely in front of the door. He becomes the fearsome beast he’s trained himself to be, dauntless and lethal. Bucky slams his boot against the door, bursting it open, and he immediately notices two things as he steps inside. The first is the rock in the middle of the room, and the second is the man scrambling up from where he was crouched on the floor next to it. Bucky’s brain makes a few trillion calculations, all of which conspire to bring his rifle up to his face and aim at the fucker as he dashes toward a door leading to the next room. He hears Steve and Rhodes yelling behind him, feels Steve grabbing him by the body armor, yanking him backward through the doorway, but Bucky still gets a burst of three shots into the man’s spine.

It’s the last thing he does before everything goes black.

 

******

 

******

 

Steve got a hammock for his ninth birthday, something he requested repeatedly, obsessively, because he’d swung on one at camp the summer before. He remembers the way his ma smiled, soft and alive, when he opened the box and laughed in the intense way children do when their deep wishes get fulfilled. He set up the hammock on the roof of their building that same day, built the frame all by himself. And when he was done, he and his ma laid on it for hours, his head resting on her bony shoulder, swinging, reading, listening to the traffic, drinking pink lemonade. After sunset, they split a Snickers and listened to the fireworks over the river, because they couldn’t see them from their building. And she kissed his head —

Or was it his eye? It seems like it should be his eye. His left eye. Because he can feel the leftovers of her kiss there, the stabbing, throbbing pain of never being able to touch her or talk to her again. He feels them swinging again, only something’s off now, like the hammock’s stretched out, scraping against the hot asphalt of the roof. And above him, the sky is a blur. He blinks to try to clear it, but it keeps coming in white, and then he blinks again, tilts his head back, and Mack is there, face stony, and he’s saying watch it, keep him steady, there you go.

Mack looks down then, and his face changes, takes on a manufactured patina of reassurance.

“Hey, Sir. We got you,” Mack says, and for a moment, Steve wonders who he’s talking to. He becomes acutely aware of the pressure of Mack’s hands digging into his armpits. There’s another pair of hands, Rumlow’s, that have him by the legs. Rumlow’s face is tight and red with effort, and he’s looking over his right shoulder, grunting out curse words that Steve can somehow hear over the shouting. He sways as they step, and his lower back scrapes against — the stair. They’re on stairs. They’re carrying him down stairs.

He chokes then, coughing loose something that sloshes in the back of his throat. He works it to his lips, cringing at the metal he tastes, and spits out a thick clot of blood. Nausea rolls over him so forcefully that he starts to panic, and he panics even more when he tastes that blood fully, and his heart slams frantically against his chest when he sees Trip in his mind, falling into pieces, blood gushing out of him, onto his face, onto his lips, where it’s flowing now in a steady stream. Steve tenses, spitting out more blood, and he looks up at Mack.

“Put me down,” Steve grits out, his words coming in a rough slur. His stomach lurches.

“Hold on, Sir,” Mack tells him. “Just a few more steps.”

They jostle Steve down the last couple stairs and lay him not-very-gently on the cement of the first floor. As soon as he hits the ground, Steve rolls over and hawks up more blood from his throat. Drops of red hit the floor rhythmically, dripping from his face, and he breaks out in a sweat as the nausea hits him in another brutal wave.

Mack crouches down next to him. “Sir, we need to get you out of here. You need a litter?”

Steve shakes his head weakly and pushes himself up to his hands and knees. Mack and Rumlow help him to his feet, a godsend, because the room goes black for a few frightening moments when he blinks. And then again. And he closes his right eye, just his right eye, and it’s black again. He reaches up to touch his left eye and can’t see his own hand approaching.

“C’mon, Sir. Let’s go.”

Mack leads him out of the building and men swarm around them. Steve stares at them, trying to name them, trying to tag them, Maximoff, Ward, Luis, Wilson, and where’s Bucky, where the fuck is Bucky, and he remembers Bucky, remembers the IED, the one disguised as a rock, and he pulled him, and then…

Steve wheels clumsily and grabs hard onto the front of Mack’s tactical vest. “Where’s Bucky?”

Mack’s head tilts. “Who?”

“Bucky…”

Steve lets Mack go, tries to push off of him to give himself some momentum, but Mack holds fast. Steve’s head jerks as he scans his surroundings, the swirl of soldiers dashing around him, searching the first floor, the distant pops of M4 rounds. He mutters “Bucky” under his breath until he catches sight of Parker next to a body laid out on the ground just outside the building. Parker and Foggy and first platoon’s medic, Kaplan, are all there. They’re kneeling by the body, their movements purposeful and quick, and Steve wrenches his arm away from Mack and staggers over to them.

Steve stops again when his vision splotches luminous black, and when colors return, the body just out of his line of sight. He watches as Mack jogs over to Parker and says a few things to him in a low voice. Parker glances up from his work on the body, glances at Steve, at whatever the hell he must look like now, then goes back to his work. Steve can’t make out what Mack’s saying, not with all the bustling around him, all the shouting, all the orders passing around, Rhodes’ voice, Barton’s, Sitwell’s. He doesn’t hear Bucky’s. He knows Bucky’s voice, like he knows his own mother’s — God, but does he ever remember her voice? — but he doesn’t hear Bucky's voice. Mack pats Parker on the back and rises, gives the body a mournful look, then lopes back toward the building.

“Hey, Sir,” Parker calls to him. “How you doin’ over there?”

Steve opens his mouth and plans to say something that makes sense, but what comes out is “Yeah.”

“Yeah? You get your bell rung?”

“Yeah. How many?”

“How many what?”

“Time.”

Parker dips his chin to check his watch. “Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Steve blinks slowly. Fifteen minutes until what? He doesn’t even remember the purpose of his question.

“What’s the date?” Parker asks.

“October.”

“Who’s the president?”

“Bush. No. Yes. No, Bush.”

“You wanna come help me over here? He’s been asking for you.”

Steve chokes on more blood. Coughs it up. Spits it on the ground. “He” could be anyone. Anyone, really. Anyone in his platoon. Some of his men really like him, maybe enough to ask for him. So it could be anyone, he thinks.

He sees legs first. Watches for a few dumb seconds as Kaplan cuts off a boot, moving carefully around the spike of rebar jutting from the top of a foot. The legs are naked, what little clothing left is cut away. Naked and bloody, both legs are bleeding from a wall-to-wall spray of shrapnel wounds, each one snaking out a rivulet of blood. More blood from another piece of rebar lodged in a knee, blood from a chunk of calf sheared off. Steve’s eyes pause, frozen in morbid curiosity, at a bloody groin, where Foggy is holding pressure. The whole area is a mess of white soaked red. A naked torso, pristine, toned, and flawless, the only plane of skin unmarred. And an arm, an arm Peter Parker is stuffing gauze pads into — into — because there is a massive, gaping hole where much of a forearm should be, a canyon carved into skin and muscle, into bone, two pink bones, one shattered and missing a chunk. Steve can’t remember which bone is which.

He’s sweating again, he can feel cold beads pool up on his forehead, on his upper lip, marrying with the blood there. Steve shudders, because he doesn’t want to see the face, because he knows who it is, and he doesn’t want to know. His stomach lurches again when he looks, accidentally, because he hears a loud groan coming from that body, the first sound it’s made, and he sees Bucky’s face, eyes still closed, head lolling, and—

Steve takes a handful of stumbling steps to the left and vomits up dark blood and peanut butter crackers from his MRE. He sways, bracing one hand on his knees while he wipes his mouth with the back of his other sleeve. Bucky. He can’t quite meld the two together — the broken body and the person, his friend, the man he loves, that face, mostly spared save for angry, open gashes on the chin and brow. He threads together bits of nonsense into a coherent logic — Bucky had his weapon up to his face, and his arms and hands took the brunt, because he had to shoot that guy, just had to, stupid fuck, stupid fucking fucker. Maybe the only reason a piece of rebar isn’t sticking out of his head is because he was too fucking stubborn to let the guy go. Maybe he’s alive because of it.

He’s alive, and Steve can’t care that he can’t make complete sense of it, that he can’t really believe it. He has to get back, because that’s Bucky, and he has to be there, because he promised. Friends make promises like that, promises about what one will do if the other falls, I’ll be there, Steve told him. I’ll be right there, no matter fucking what. It was serious enough to earn a superfluous f-bomb, because this is one of those things you just cannot fuck up. No matter what. So he’ll be there, no matter fucking what. No matter if Bucky lives, no matter if he…

Steve rights himself, works up more blood from the back of his throat, and goes back to Bucky, correcting his course a few times when he veers too much. He drops to his knees next to Bucky’s right shoulder, which is bloody from a wound in the muscle there, bloody all the way down his right arm from tiny holes where ball bearings are lodged, tears where screws and other shards of metal have ripped through him.

“Hey, Buck.”

Bucky’s head rolls to the side, toward Steve, and he mumbles something Steve can’t understand.

“It’s okay,” Steve says, because he doesn’t know what else to say. He looks for a place to touch him, a place to hold him, and in that moment, all he can see is wounds and places he cannot be.

Something flips then, like a switch, and Bucky’s mouth opens. He takes in a few breaths, ragged and wheezy, and his eyes fly open, wild and terrified. Bucky gasps, tries to suck in air. He looks up at Steve, and that terror gets bigger. Bucky lifts his right hand and reaches feebly for Steve’s face, and blood spills down his hand, down his wrist, because his index finger isn’t there anymore. There’s just empty space now, empty space meeting mangled flesh.

“Doc,” Steve says, and he takes Bucky by that bloody wrist, because he can’t watch that stump try to reach anymore.

Parker looks up from where he’s busy trying to salvage what’s left of Bucky’s arm. He freezes, just for a second, like he’s trying to snap out of a trance.

“His breath,” Steve says.

Parker re-orients quickly, taking in Bucky’s distress, the bulging veins on his neck, the blue that’s beginning to tint his lips, and Parker swears as he digs his stethoscope out of his medical bag. He puts it on and leans over Bucky’s body, pressing the chest piece to various places, auscultating systematically. Upper, lower, over, upper, middle, lower. Parker then scrambles to his feet, snatches up his medical bag, and plants himself next to Steve.

“You’re gonna have to move,” he tells Steve, gesturing brusquely toward Bucky’s head.

Steve moves over a little, taking Bucky’s wrist with him. Bucky’s fighting him, and Steve doesn’t know why. But really, he can’t tell if Bucky’s fighting him or wanting him, and it perplexes him that he can’t tell the difference. Parker scoots in close and swabs over the right side of Bucky’s chest with an alcohol pad.

“You have a collapsed lung, Sergeant. So you know what that means.”

“Fuck,” Bucky breathes.

For the first time since Steve’s been here, Parker smiles, wryly and half way. “Yeah, fuck is right.”

Parker digs through his bag again and pulls out a long and frighteningly thick needle. His gloves are bloody, so bloody that he can’t work open the package. He tosses it to Kaplan, who’s part way through bandaging Bucky’s calf, and Kaplan manages to get enough traction with his fingers to tear it open.

Steve’s and Bucky’s attention doesn’t leave the menacing needle as it’s passed from Kaplan back to Parker. Bucky’s already labored breathing hitches when Parker uses two fingers to trace a line down the center of his chest and over his right pectoral. Parker positions the needle at the edge of his fingers and glances at Bucky’s straining face.

“Ready?”

Bucky hesitates, eyes flitting back and forth from Parker’s face to the needle, and he nods.

Kaplan pauses his bandaging and watches Parker with keen interest. Foggy seems torn between staring at the blood dressings underneath his fingers and gaping at Parker’s unpleasant task.

Parker makes a tense but determined face and pushes the needle hard into Bucky’s chest, through the mount of thick muscle there, into his chest cavity. Air hisses loudly out of the needle, and Bucky gasps again, harshly, arm curling against Steve’s grasp. When Bucky finally exhales, it’s with something close to relief.

“Okay, keep that there,” Parker tells Bucky. He then pulls a roll of gauze out of his bag and hands it to Steve. “Wrap his finger,” he instructs. He also hands Steve two gauze nose plugs. “And these are for you.”

Steve unceremoniously shoves the two plugs up his bleeding nose, wincing at the sharp sting. He then goes to work bandaging the stump where Bucky’s finger used to be. He fumbles with the gauze roll, distracted by looking down repeatedly at Bucky, who’s drifting on the brink of consciousness. Steve looks to Foggy, who’s been tasked with holding pressure on the juncture between Bucky’s thigh and pelvis, then down to Kaplan, and then to Parker, who’s back on Bucky’s left side, checking the tourniquet around his left bicep.

“Better save that arm, Doc,” Bucky mumbles.

“Doing my best, Sergeant.”

Steve finally gets the tape off the gauze so he can unroll it, a minor miracle with how badly he’s shaking. He positions Bucky’s hand, really looking at the stump for the first time, at the trickle of blood, at the bone and flesh. It’s cut in a flattish plane, as if chopped off deliberately, if a bit sloppily. Steve tries not remember the history of that finger, the triggers that it’s pulled, the lines that it’s traced over Steve’s face, the paths it’s traveled over his body, the way it threaded so easily with Steve’s own when things were quiet and they were alone and they needed to be close.

“Uh, Parker, you better get over here. This isn’t slowing down,” Foggy says. The pressure dressings below his hands are completely soaked through with blood, and Foggy’s pale, freckled hands are drenched in it.

Parker switches places with Foggy. He lifts the dressings, and deep red blood gushes in a way that’s mortally unsettling.

“Shit. Okay.”

Parker digs through his bag and procures several packages of hemostatic dressings.

Bucky stirs at the sound Parker’s voice, maybe the concern in it, and his blue eyes crack open. He blinks heavily and makes a face like he’s forgotten something important. His eyes roll over, stop when they get to Steve, and Bucky grimaces while his remaining fingers curl around Steve’s hand.

“It’s okay, Buck. You’re gonna be okay.”

As consciousness takes hold, Bucky’s jaw clenches tightly, and his breathing starts coming in quick huffs through his nose.

“What did you give him?” Steve asks Parker.

“Five milligrams of IV morphine. He was in a lot of pain. I didn’t know he had a collapsed lung.” Parker shakes his head as his lips press tight.

“Give him more.”

“I can’t,” Parker tells him, obviously trying to bite his words back. “He’s lost too much blood, and he’s in respiratory distress. I’m not gonna risk it.”

Steve glares at Parker. Tries to, anyway. He’s not sure how it’s coming off, if Parker can read his displeasure, his horror, his fear. Maybe he does. Steve looks to Kaplan for a second opinion, and all he gets is a firm nod of confirmation.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Parker says then.

Bucky lifts his head and mouths a soundless “yeah.”

“I have to do something, and it’s gonna hurt a lot. But I gotta do it so that you stay alive.”

Bucky nods, lets his head fall back, and closes his eyes. His Adam’s apple slides as he swallows. Steve takes advantage of the lull and bandages Bucky’s stump as fast as he can, knowing that he might not get a chance to in a minute or so. He’s thankful for these few moments of peace.

When the hemostatic bandages are readied, Parker tosses the bloodied dressings aside. He takes a deep, quavering breath and says, “Here we go.”

Steve has never, ever heard Bucky scream. Not really. Not reactively. Not in pain. He’s never heard anything like the sound coming from him right now, a scream of pain so intense that his whole body bows. His remaining fingers grab Steve’s like he’s hanging from a cliff by them, and Steve grabs back, squeezing Bucky’s hand with both of his, his own teeth grinding, eyes welling, stomach twisting. Parker shoves the hemostatic gauze into Bucky’s body, packing it tight, while Bucky screams and spasms. It must only take a handful of seconds, but it feels like an hour of agony. And when Parker’s finally finished, Bucky sags, his bottom lip quivering, tears streaming down the sides of his face, breathing harsh and unsteady.

Steve pats Bucky's hand and turns his head toward the sound of an approaching jog, turning until he can get the person in his monocular line of sight. It’s Sergeant Wilson, and he kneels on the other side of Bucky, directly across from Steve, and lays his palm on Bucky's shoulder above where the tourniquet is pulled tight.

Steve takes a moment to look around, because he doesn’t know — doesn’t have a clue — what’s going on around him. He doesn’t know if they caught someone, if they found something, if they’re in danger, if they’re clear. The energy is restless, but the chaos seems controlled. Men from their platoon look over at them when they pass, curiosity seeming to edge out their shock or dread. They try not to stare too long, and sometimes they’ll try to say something like “hang in there, Sergeant,” but it always sounds weak and tentative. Nobody teaches you things like this, what to say when your platoon sergeant, the man you trust the most to be there for you, is laid out in the dirt, naked and bloody, screaming and shaking and crying. In the background, dimly, Steve hears Parker tell Kaplan to start an IV line for fluids.

Steve’s grateful for Wilson’s presence, which is steady and controlled. Wilson smiles when Bucky looks over at him. Bucky tries to give him one back, but it’s twisted all wrong.

“Doc’s gettin’ you all patched up,” Wilson assures him. He looks down Bucky’s body, down to his groin, and his smile drops, just for a moment, before he picks it back up again. “Your ultra high-speed expert field medic.”

“Told ya you’d get your combat medical badge, Doc.” Bucky tries to smile again.

“And I told you I didn’t want it.” Parker’s face is hard and serious. Angry.

“Yeah, well, tough shit, Peter Parker.”

Bucky’s hand trembles in Steve’s as he slips further into shock. Steve can feel Bucky’s pulse beneath his fingers, fast and weak. His breathing is rapid again, body tensing, shifting, like something is crawling inside his skin.

Bucky lifts his head, suddenly very interested in what everyone’s doing to save him. He looks down at where Parker’s taping over the dressing he just packed, and Steve can see his attention trail over a few inches, to the mess of bandages over his genitals. Bucky’s eyes go wide, and he tries to sit up all the way, tries to look closer, tries to rip his hand from Steve’s to reach down, to see what’s underneath or what’s not underneath.

“What the fuck?” Bucky says. It starts out as a disbelieving whisper and escalates rapidly into sheer panic. “What the fuck? What the fuck?”

Steve doesn’t let him go. “Shhh. It’s okay.”

“What the fuck? What’s wrong with my dick, Parker?”

“You’re gonna be okay, Sergeant,” Parker says. It’s a flat, unconvincing assurance.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Bucky shouts.

Everyone knows that any answer aside from an enthusiastic “you’re good” means that it is definitely not good. Steve feels sick again.

Bucky grows frantic and tries harder to reach for those bandages. When Steve won’t give him his right hand, he tries with his left, tries to lift that gutted, limp, useless forearm until Parker tells Wilson to hold him down at the elbow. Steve presses on Bucky’s shoulder, presses him down to the ground, where Bucky fights with surprising vigor to see what’s become of him.

“Where’s the goddamn dustoff?” Steve asks to nobody in particular.

“Captain Barton called it a while ago,” Foggy tells him.

Steve yells Ward’s name repeatedly, his voice cracking. The men around them echo Ward’s name, belt it out like they know how important it is. Below Steve’s hands, Bucky continues to struggle, yelling at them to let go, to just fucking let go.

“Hey!”

They all turn to the sound of that voice, to Barton, who’s stalking over to them with heavy, purposeful strides. Barton slings his weapon over his shoulder and gets on his knees just above Bucky’s head. He takes Bucky’s head firmly in his hands, his scarred hands, and Bucky looks up at him, jaw yawing, teeth grinding, breath heaving, like a cornered animal.

“You need to calm down so these guys can save your life.” Barton jerks his head over to Kaplan, who’s waiting with an IV needle and bag in hand. “Okay?”

Bucky's upper lips curls, bearing his teeth, and his eyes lock onto Barton’s upside-down face like he’s fixing to fight him.

“You need to trust me. Do you understand?”

After a few labored huffs of breath, Bucky nods. Steve feels some of the tension in him slack.

“Sergeant Rhodes and Sergeant Dugan are going to take care of your guys while you’re getting better,” Barton tells Bucky. “And your dustoff is inbound. Five minutes.”

Bucky’s eyes flicker closed. He mouths something over and over, like a prayer he wants to keep secret. Steve thinks it might be “thank God.”

Barton takes one look at Steve and says, “And you’re going with him.”

The thought to balk crosses the syrupy muck Steve’s mind. He should be here, he thinks. Maybe doing something. He doesn’t know what. He doesn’t remember the mission, not exactly. He can’t recall the writing in his notebook, can’t see the shapes or angles of the lines. There’s just silence and vastness where that memory should be.

Barton gives Bucky’s face a gentle pat. It’s the most warmth Steve has ever seen from him. And then he’s gone, back to hollering at the men to wait for the chemical corps before they start moving shit around.

“Hey,” Steve says to Bucky.

Bucky opens his eyes. They’re watery and exhausted and bloodshot. “Hey.”

Steve doesn’t know where to touch him now, now that Kaplan’s feeding a needle into the top of the hand he was holding.

“You’re gonna be okay,” Steve says.

Bucky’s lower lip quivers. “No, I’m not.”

Steve doesn’t have an answer to that. He doesn’t have a counterpoint. He doesn’t even have stern retort. He just sits there like an idiot, like a goddamn fool, leaving a blank line where comforting words should go. Instead, he lifts his bloody hand and rests it on Bucky’s forehead. Bucky’s eyes close again, tightly, and his face becomes a mask of pain.

——--

The Blackhawk comes, landing in a patch of dry earth adjacent to the building. Steve stays at Bucky’s side as much as he can, even though they won’t let him carry the litter. They do let him hold the IV bag, which he does with grave seriousness. They’ve covered Bucky’s middle with a blanket, affording him some small dignity, and Kaplan and Foggy have to hold it in place as the rotor wash threatens to carry it away.

Steve’s hurting in earnest now. His head’s pounding viciously, his legs stinging, probably from kneeling so long. He feels less sick now that the helicopter is here, less helpless, less ineffectual.

Steve passes the IV bag to one of the flight medics, a Specialist named Johnson, and the team gets to work loading Bucky into the helicopter. Steve swears he hears his name then. It’s hard to tell over the monotonous din of static resonating in his head and the thumpa-thumpa of the rotors. When he hears it again, louder, he turns and sees Maximoff bolting toward him with something in his hand. Maximoff stops, shielding his face from the whipping wind, and hands Steve something.

“Here, Sir. Sergeant Rhodes found this.” Maximoff is yelling, he has to, and it makes his accent stronger.

The something is covered in tan leather, about three inches long and an inch wide. Steve rotates it, straining to understand it, and it’s only when he turns it just the right way that he starts to comprehend what he’s holding. It’s the red that gives it away, shiny red with a core of off-white. A finger. Maximoff gave him a severed finger sheathed in a combat glove. Bucky’s finger. Bucky’s glove. Steve blinks away the blurriness, the wetness, the incomprehensible reality of this moment.

“Is he going to be okay?” Maximoff asks.

“Looks like he'll live,” Steve says, too quietly for Maximoff to hear him. He has to repeat himself.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Steve nods along with it, knowing the lie was too quiet to discern.

Maximoff reaches out and lays his hand on Steve’s upper arm. “Tell him I’m praying for him.”

“I will.”

“And for you.”

“Okay.”

Maximoff takes a few steps back, not yet turning away, his expression downcast but somehow still quietly optimistic, like he knows beyond doubt that everything’s going to be okay. Steve wants that. Steve wants just a little bit of that. He tells himself to remember that face, hold it in his heart, because he’s probably going to need it soon.

Steve turns back to the helicopter, holding Bucky’s finger. He’s not entirely certain how he should hold it — or whether it’s even viable anymore. He makes a soft fist around it and steps up to the door, where Parker’s leaning down and saying something into Bucky’s bloody ear canal. Bucky listens, smiles crookedly, and mouths something that looks like “bullshit.” Parker nods matter-of-factly, gives Bucky a wink, and leaves him in the flight crew’s care. He gives Steve a modest nod as he walks by, and it’s only now that Steve can see how beat he looks.

“Parker,” Steve calls after him.

Parker turns, somehow still able to appear expectant and willing, ready to do whatever is asked of him.

“I’m very proud of you,” Steve says.

He doesn’t know if he has a right to be proud of Parker. He didn’t train him. He didn’t make him into the man he is. But he’s proud. And he’s thankful. But it’s more than that. His gratitude to Parker for saving Bucky is so immense that he could never speak it without giving himself away completely.

Even though he’s tired and covered in Bucky’s blood, Parker smiles. “Thank you, Sir.”

———

Once they’re airborne, Johnson tends to Bucky. Wraps his right bicep with a blood pressure cuff. Starts an O neg blood transfusion. Administers prophylactic antibiotics. Checks his dressings. Dresses wounds that they didn’t have time to care for earlier, mostly the smaller ones on his face and arms. Steve watches it all from a nearby jump seat, where he’s being assessed by a young medic named Bowen.

“How you feeling, Sir?” Bowen’s blue eyes are sharp and evaluative.

Steve looks down at his hand, where he’s still got Bucky’s finger secured in his grip. A strange possessiveness washes over him, like giving that finger to Bowen will take something away from him. Something important.

“I have this.” Steve reluctantly holds out the finger to her. “It’s his.”

There’s a moment of computation as Bowen processes what she’s being offered. She takes it from him, takes one look inside the glove, and lights up.

“Johnson!” She turns to look at him. “We got his finger!”

“Excellent,” Johnson replies. He rises from where he’s seated next to Bucky and takes the finger from her. Steve doesn’t know what he does with it next.

From the floor, Bucky watches his severed finger get passed around, and from the look on his face, he can’t seem to decide if he’s happy or horrified.

Bowen turns back to Steve. “On a scale from zero to ten, zero being no pain at all and ten being the worst pain imaginable, how much pain are you in right now?”

There are so many different kinds of pain competing for his attention. The stabbing in his head. The pounding in his face. The throbbing and stinging in his legs.

“I don’t know.” Steve shrugs. “Seven.”

Bowen procures a pen light from her breast pocket and shines it in each of Steve’s eyes.

“Any dizziness?” she asks him.

“Yeah.”

“Confusion?”

“I think, maybe.” Definitely.

“Anything else I’m missing?”

“Nausea.”

“Okay. How bad, zero to ten?”

“Six. And there’s static.” He points to his head.

Bowen doesn’t miss a beat. “Okay, maybe some tinnitus. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Four.”

“Okay, close your right eye. Now how many?”

Steve doesn’t have an answer for her, though he’s relieved to at least see some vague shadows now.

“I can’t tell.”

Bowen pockets her light and slips on a pair of nitrile gloves. “I’m gonna feel around your face, okay? See what’s going on.”

Bowen begins pressing around Steve’s skull, palpating around his eye, his brow, his nose. Steve startles when her finger dips in a place it shouldn’t, like the bone there has completely fallen away.

“Do you remember what happened?” she asks him while she continues to feel around.

“Sergeant Barnes entered a room. There was an IED. I tried to pull him out. I don’t remember after that. Until the stairs.”

“Maybe you got hit by Sergeant Barnes’ kevlar when he was thrown back.”

Steve frowns. That would make sense. He looks down at his lap then, at the blood there, at his empty chest, and he suddenly wonders where his rifle is. Where his tactical vest is. Where his helmet is. Where his pistol is. They’re all gone. Everything. All his gear, gone. He has nothing but his uniform. How did he not realize that until just now?

Bowen sits back on her heels. “Okay, got all your teeth?”

Steve feels around his mouth with his tongue and nods.

Bowen then starts feeling around Steve’s legs. There are smears and droplets of blood from thigh to calf. It’s Bucky’s blood, Steve thinks, until Bowen’s hand hits something that makes him hiss.

“Whoa, got something here. Hold on.”

Bowen reaches into a nearby medical bag and grabs a pair of trauma shears. She cuts open his pants, both legs, flaying them open from his boots to the hem of his underwear. When she pushes the fabric away, Steve is dumbstruck by all the places where shrapnel hit him. A big piece of it — a bolt, from the looks of it — is deeply embedded in his thigh, the head of it almost flush with the muscle. And there’s a spray of smaller wounds, like the ones all over Bucky’s arms and legs, tiny ball bearings pocking him.

“I didn’t know,” Steve says, shaking his head. “How did I not know…?”

“Adrenaline’s a hell of a drug.” Bowen smiles at him, holds that smile steady even when she gets no response, and goes about bandaging him up.

Steve swallows heavily, ambivalent about wanting an honest answer. “What’s wrong with me?”

“You probably have a mild brain injury. Your face is probably broken. Your nose is broken. The bone around your eye is definitely broken. The shrapnel, obviously. I’m not entirely sure what all’s wrong with your eye, but I don’t see any puncture wounds. Your pupil’s blown and won’t contract, so it could be a few things.”

“I can barely see out of it.”

“They’ll take a look at it in Baghdad, and they can repair the rest of your face at Landstuhl or Walter Reed.”

Bowen digs through plastic container and pulls out two bottles of pills. She shakes out four from one bottle and one from the other into her hand. When she realizes he has no canteen, she snags him a bottle of water.

“Take these,” she says. “Can’t give you anything stronger ’til we get you a CT scan and see how your brain’s doing. One’s for the nausea.”

Steve stares at the pills in his hand. He can’t go to Walter Reed. Bucky’s going there. Steve already knows that. He also knows that Bucky’s getting med boarded. It must be obvious to Bucky, too. To everyone in that Blackhawk. But Steve can’t afford a med board. The unit can’t afford it. They can’t lose both of them.

Steve takes his pills and drains the whole bottle of water. While Bowen works on his legs, he looks down at Bucky. His eyes are closed, but not in the way eyes close during sleep. Maybe he’s trying to shut out the pain. Maybe he’s pretending he’s somewhere else. Back in New York. Back in the arms of someone else. Or maybe he’s alone. Maybe he’s crawling into a hole, completely alone.

“Can I sit down there?” Steve asks Bowen as she tapes a final square of gauze over his shin.

She looks over her shoulder, at Bucky and at Johnson next to him. When she looks back at Steve, she spends an unusual amount of time searching his eyes in silence, maybe working through some flow chart in her head.

“Sure. Just keep this straight.” She gives his right thigh a soft pat and turns her attention to the other medic. “Hey, Johnson. Can you help me with this paperwork?”

Johnson makes a face, and then Bowen makes a face back at him. Steve can’t really understand the exchange, but it results in Johnson leaving Bucky’s side and joining Bowen in the row of jump seats.

When Steve moves, there’s pain everywhere. He clenches his teeth and quickly unclenches them when he remembers he can’t breathe through his nose. Slowly, he settles on the floor next to Bucky, stretching his right leg out and curling his left leg in.

“Bucky.”

Bucky turns his head toward him and opens his eyes. “Hey.” His gaze flits around Steve’s face. “You look like shit.” He lifts his right forearm and holds up his hand.

Steve takes Bucky’s hand in both of his, like before. All three are still painted with dried blood. “How you feeling?”

“Okay.”

Of course, Bucky doesn’t look okay. Not at all. He’s a mess. Covered in wounds and blood and sweat and bandages. Filled with metal and fear and agony. Steve feels himself starting to cry again, and he dashes away the tears pooling in his intact eye with the palm of his hand.

“We’re almost there,” Steve tells Bucky, blinking and looking at the sky outside the window.

“You don’t know that.” The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirks up. “Don’t make shit up.”

Steve lets out a tremulous sigh. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“I want to say things. I have something to tell you…”

Steve’s voice breaks, cutting his words off. Bucky must sense what it is, must have enough conscious awareness to synthesize the clues, and his face changes. But it doesn’t open like Steve wants it to. It doesn’t invite those words, the words Steve hasn’t said in over six years. Instead, a scowl forms, angry and intense, and his hand goes limp.

“Don’t. Don’t you dare tell me. I don’t wanna hear it.” Bucky glares at him with ice in his eyes, forcing syllables out like they’re poisoning him. “I mean it.”

Steve lowers his forehead to where their hands are joined, careful to avoid Bucky’s raw, bandaged stump. He’s not even thinking about how he must look, how they must look together. Steve keeps his words, choking them down along with the lump in his throat. He feels Bucky’s pulse beneath his pinky, stronger and slower than before, and despite the wrenching pain in his heart as it tears open, Steve is overwhelmed with gratitude.

In the end, Steve says it anyway, deep under his breath. The sound dies in the din of the aircraft.

Chapter Text

Bucky spends the next eight days drifting in and out of sleep. Sleep from morphine. Sleep from anesthesia. Sometimes when he wakes up, Steve is there. At first, Bucky thinks he’s hallucinating, because why would Steve be there? But he eventually figures that if he was hallucinating, he’d probably hallucinate a Steve who didn’t look like such a mess, one who wasn’t in a hospital gown and robe, one who didn’t look so sullen and nervous and swollen. Occasionally, Steve talks, but most of the time he’s silent, ghosting in and out with the blinking of Bucky’s eyes.

Bucky usually pretends to sleep when they come and clean his wounds and change his dressings. He thinks he might have most of the medics and nurses fooled, but one nurse always calls him out on it. She’s a local German civilian with the same gray-brown hair and stout stature as Bucky’s mother. She tells him that she knows he’s awake because he’s terrible at pretending not to be in pain, a hilariously ironic assessment of someone who’s made a small career out of concealing his misery.

Sometimes he stays silent when she comes. Sometimes he gets pissed off at her voice and her hands and lets her know it. Regardless of what he does, she tells him about his injuries every day. Damage, treatment, prognosis. Her lessons are always prefaced by a small lecture about why he needs to understand his injuries so that he can recover faster. She tries to appeal to him as a leader and an infantryman, tells him that he needs proper intelligence in order to successfully complete his mission. Boy, does he have some things to say to her about the importance of accurate intelligence, but he doesn’t say them. He’s usually too tired to fight her much.

So he takes it. He takes it because she also tells him every day that she’s seen a lot of guys worse off than he is. He still has four limbs. Two eyes. A beating heart. An intact set of guts. He’s not brain dead. He can still feel his toes. The list of things that aren’t wrong with him is extensive, and maybe once or twice, it’s been enough to calm the tempest of cruel ire that boils underneath his skin.

He blew past the denial phase of grief the second he woke up in Khalidiya. The pain was too great to pretend it away, and he immediately accepted that after four deployments and hundreds of missions, his number was finally up. It made sense, he supposed. So the anger barreled in next, crashing against him in waves and waves that hit him still, each wave somehow stronger than the last. Every moment he’s not sleeping, he’s seething, because the list of things that are wrong with him is also extensive. Terrible and inescapable.

His foot is broken. His knee is shattered. His calf muscle is badly damaged. His pelvis is broken. His femoral artery was ripped open and repaired. His radius and ulna are fractured, almost — but not quite — beyond repair. The soft tissue of his forearm was gutted. His severed finger was replanted. He’s still full of shrapnel. He has a brain injury. He lost one testicle and very nearly lost the other. His dick is… there. A portion of it, anyway. The nurse’s voice always gets dim and distant when she gets to this point, and Bucky’s not sure if it’s her or him. Something about lacerations and reconstruction and salvaging. There’s enough dick for her to shove a catheter up, at least. Bucky sure knows that.

Bucky tried to look at it once. Only once. The day after his sixth surgery, he dared to lift up the covers, dared to pull up his hospital gown. He was prepared for the worst, but what he saw was the truncated remainder of his dick smashed against his body beneath a yellowed vacuum-assisted closure device. He could make out the lines of sutures trailing over his flesh, each of them a scar in the making. He could see a too-thick tube shoved up into it, one that suggested he might still be able to pee out of it, thank God. He looked at it until his mouth filled with saliva, then covered it again so that he didn’t puke all over himself.

There was something to see, though. There was something there. There is something there. It’s not completely gone. He thought for sure, back in Iraq, that it was completely gone.

He feels like he should be grateful but, somehow, he’s not.

———

Today, when Bucky wakes up, Steve is there again, sitting in the chair next to his bed. He looks better. The white of his left eye is white again, not that horrible bloody red that Bucky saw when he first looked up at Steve from the dirt. And the blue of his iris is back. His nose looks straight enough. The bruising has gone from purple to green and yellow.

Bucky still doesn’t really know what happened to Steve. It’s been tough to see through his own pain and lingering horror, which is so immense and intense that even his deep concern for Steve can’t quite survive in it. The pain is with Bucky right now, as it always is, a constant, moody companion that eats his patience like sustenance. He hasn’t pulled from his morphine drip in many hours, because he’s been stuck on that hazy precipice between sleep and awake, where the pain is profound and vibrant but still unreachable. And now that Steve is here, the part of Bucky that wants to be present keeps his hand from reaching for the pump at his side.

Steve’s in uniform today, a crisp, new one. New name tapes. New rank. New unit patches. Fresh and spiffy and ready to go… Bucky doesn’t know where. It’s the first question he asks, yanking Steve from his unfocused staring into nowhere. Steve looks surprised that Bucky’s even awake, let alone talking, let along talking coherently. Steve’s hands grip the arm rests of his chair tightly.

“Baghdad,” Steve tells him in a low voice.

“Good.”

Steve looks down at his lap, at where his knees crest and slope down to his shins.

“The unit needs you,” Bucky adds. “They need closure.”

“On what?”

“You. Me.”

Steve snorts quietly. There’s nothing derisive about it. “You act like you’ve done this before.”

“My squad leader died on my second deployment.” Bucky leaves a palpable full-stop there, because there are few things he’d like to recall less than the sight and smell of Sergeant Anderson’s body, charred and twisted almost beyond recognition. Almost. “Need to see you and know we’re okay.”

Bucky could see it already on his men’s faces — not just the miserable sheen of pity but the shadow of doubt and fear over what it means to lose a core member of platoon leadership. But it’s more than that, because if the most highly trained and experienced member of the team can get blown to shreds, what does that mean for the regular Joes? The ones who aren’t operators and career murders? What does that mean for the Luises and the Foggys and the Joneses? The Maximoffs? The one-termers who are looking for a place to sleep, money for school, citizenship, and the laughably euphemistic “life experience”?

“You want me to say you’re okay?” Steve asks, his brows sliding upward in a slow look of disbelief.

“Say that I’m fine. On the mend. However you wanna spin it. Just spin it right.”

“You think they won’t find out when we’re all back at Bragg?”

Bucky lifts his right hand to his chin, scratching the healing gash there with one of his good fingers. “That doesn’t matter. They just need to stay focused and make it home to their families next month. That’s the most important thing. Get them home.”

“Do you know when you’re going home?” Steve asks

Bucky shrugs. “Maybe a week til I go to Walter Reed. Dunno know when I’ll get transferred down to Womack. Ma’s already trying to get me diverted somewhere else. Calling her congressman or some shit.”

His ma has been far less composed than Bucky ever expected her to be, in the few conversations they’ve had since he’s been here. He’s not sure why she’s being this way. Everything he knows about her, her tough compassion, her many years in the military community, her own previous experience as a soldier, all of it suggests a woman who’d rise far above the usual handwringing routine. But she hasn’t. The first time he got her on the phone, she cried. Cried. Not even Rikki cried, and she cries when something is very cute.

Steve nods. “Will your ma be there when you arrive?”

“Yeah. She’s got some vacation.”

Silence stretches out between them. There’s something approximately unpleasant about it, between the hum of anxious energy coming off of Steve and the way the quiet seems to highlight the varying textures of pain in Bucky’s body. It could also be the way Steve is staring at the floor, tense and wary.

“What about him?” Steve asks.

Bucky’s throat goes dry — or maybe he’s just realizing that it’s been dry all along. “Who?”

Steve looks Bucky dead in the eyes and tilts his head at a long-suffering angle.

Bucky remembers this line of questioning, questioning about a man whom neither of them will name aloud. What to do about Thor Odinson. What to tell him. When to tell him. Only Bucky’s not sure if Steve’s asked him these questions already or if they’ve just been circling above his hospital bed this whole time — circling around with all the other what-ifs and if-onlys. Until this point, Bucky’s never felt strong enough to hold the questions in his mind for more than a few moments. The handful of times he’s tried, he’s become so overwhelmed with despair and rage that he’s had to shove them aside with drugs or drown them in hate.

But Bucky tries to hold the questions now, as carefully as he can. He tries not to smash them into atoms. He tries to imagine action and reaction, tries hard, but he falls short with a noncommittal grunt.

“You are gonna tell him, right?” Steve asks.

Tell him. Tell him. Hear his voice on the phone and tell him. Tell him that his skin is full of holes and that those holes will all become ugly, permanent marks. Tell him that he’s had so many parts of his body harvested and grafted onto other places that he looks like a patchwork monster. Tell him that he’s going to be disabled for the rest of his life. Tell him that his dick is not even half there now, and the part that’s left looks like it was rummaged from a meat grinder and reassembled. Tell him that he’s just another Iraq War sob story now, and not even the type of shredded-dick wonder who ends up in the Times because some woman found the courage to love his mangled body. He’ll never be that story, because gay men don’t do shredded-dick wonders. No fats. No femmes. No guys over 30. No body hair. In-shape only. No cripples need apply.

Bucky shakes his head.

Steve’s eyes narrow. “Why?”

“I don’t want him to try to come see me. Because he would.”

Steve waits, as if Bucky’s withholding some final, necessary logic to make this all seem reasonable. But no other logic avails itself, not in Bucky’s mind and not in the space between them.

“So you’re just not gonna tell him,” Steve says, his voice thin and distant.

Bucky winces at a rolling pain that cramps its way up his leg. “Please just drop it.”

“No.” Steve shakes his head. His lips press into a tight, determined line. “No. You can’t do that. You need to tell him.”

Bucky hasn’t had a drink in months, not since New York, but some vestige of drunkenness overtakes him then. The part where he drifts outside of himself, where he can watch over his own shoulder at whatever act of lunacy he’s creating. He feels that disembodied floating, a very old friend of his, and marvels at how easily he can muster it sober. Maybe what he needed was the right stimulus, the precise combination of physical and emotional agony. And maybe he needed the right target, someone for whom he’s harbored a small lifetime’s worth of devastating emotions, someone who’s made him ache and burn and whither and suffer with an intensity no other human could match. And maybe he needed that target to tell him the plain truth, which comes out arrogant and moralistic from his cheating mouth.

Everything happens just-so, just perfectly, and Bucky watches himself go ballistic.

“What don’t you fucking understand about this situation?” Bucky says, balling his blanket and sheets in his hands. “What the fuck do you think my life is gonna be like now?”

In a weak feat of strength and coordination that feels superhuman, Bucky throws his bedding off his body.

“Look at me,” he says to Steve, forcing his words out between his teeth.

Steve stays frozen, save for the widening of his eyes, and Bucky repeats himself.

“You stand up and you fucking look at me.”

When Steve does as he’s told, Bucky tries not to show his surprise. Instead, he makes a hard plane with the fingers of his right hand, his newly reattached index stiff and discolored, and he gestures to the appropriate parts of his body as he speaks. The plasma-wet bandages. The knotty rows of staples. The cast on his foot. The brace around his knee.

“So, which part do you think he’s gonna like the most? Maybe the shrapnel wounds? Maybe how they rebuilt my arm out of my pelvis and muscle from my back? Maybe how they grated the skin off my ass to patch up my calf and cover all the shit they tore out of me to fix my arm? Maybe he can enjoy the way I limp for the rest of my life because my entire fucking knee was shattered and still, after two surgeries, can’t be fully repaired.”

Steve follows Bucky’s hand dutifully, bearing witness to him. Steve’s cheeks and lips begin to blanch a sickly shade of pale. His fingers, hanging loosely at his sides, tremble.

Bucky presses on. His voice rises and smashes against the walls and spills out the open door into the hallway.

“And maybe he can come visit while the nurse is wiping my ass, because I can’t even walk to the fucking bathroom to shit like a normal person.” Bucky grabs the thin hem of his hospital gown and yanks it up, exposing his shame to both of them. “Or maybe he follow the trail from my piss bag up into my pathetic little half-dick. Bet he can’t wait to get that thing in his mouth. I mean, just look at it!”

Steve shushes him, imploring him to lower his voice. Bucky makes it louder.

“‘Sure, I could have any man in New York City, but I’ll take the old, crippled, mutilated sack of shit I’ve been dating long distance for three months!’ That’s exactly what he’d say, Steve. Exactly. You’re right. ‘I could fuck any guy in the world, but I choose the flaming pile of wreckage in room 307.’”

“Shut up,” Steve hisses, pointing to the open door. “Someone’s gonna hear you.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Oh, like I give a fuck. What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Bucky catches sight of a young medic walking past his door and calls out to him. “Hey, you! Yeah, you. Guess what?”

The medic, Specialist Rosenblatt, takes a hesitant step into the room. From behind his glasses, his eyes go glassy and confused. “What, Sergeant?”

“I’m a fag, and I like to suck dick. You wanna know how many dicks I’ve sucked?”

“Don’t answer that,” Steve tells the medic, deathly serious, then glares at Bucky.

Rosenblatt visibly clenches his jaw shut. Bucky persists.

“I’ve sucked so many dicks that I’ve fucking lost count.”

“Okay… That’s okay.” Rosenblatt nods, his face earnest and compassionate.

“The fuck it is,” Bucky spits. “Fuck you.”

Steve walks over to Rosenblatt and leads him out of the room. Bucky can hear Steve apologize for him, tell him that ‘he doesn’t mean it.’ That he ‘isn’t thinking straight.’ He tries to make excuses, and Bucky yells the miserable truth from his bed.

“Oh, I fucking mean it! I know exactly what I’m saying!”

There are more murmurs. Bucky waits them out, chest heaving, breath passing loudly through his nostrils, hands clutched over his chest, balled feebly in the fabric of his gown. He’s so flushed with rage, so out of his mind with pain, that he doesn’t even know what to do next. He can’t think of a single thing he can do. He can’t run. He can’t fight. He can’t stand. He can barely even string two thoughts together. All he can do is lie there and clench his useless hands and reel while anguish pulls him deeper into the mattress.

A few minutes later, Steve is back and closing the door gently behind him. He stops there, face so close to the jamb that they’re nearly touching, and lays his hand on the heavy wood. Steve speaks against its surface, and Bucky can barely make out his words with his good ear.

“If you care about him, even a little, you’ll tell him. Tell him you’re hurt. Tell him you’re gonna live.” Steve turns his head to the side but still won’t look at Bucky. “You don’t wanna see him? Fine. But he has to know.”

Bucky then does the thing he’s been avoiding since he first opened his eyes back in Khalidiya: he thinks about Thor. Really thinks about him. Lets himself imagine his face and remember his kindness. Remember the tenderness with which he held him. The sweetness of his smile. He lets himself sit with the devastating realization that things will never be the same between them, even if Bucky did muster the courage to let him visit one day. Bucky couldn’t bare to see the sadness in his eyes, couldn’t stand the thought that he might stay by him, sacrifice a part of himself to the false hope that maybe they could one day be together like they were. He squeezes his eyes shut and wills himself to be still. He wills his face to become a mask.

While he fights himself in darkness, Steve crosses the room. He shuffles around Bucky’s bed, gathering his blankets. Bucky opens his eyes to watch Steve cover him up. Steve is pale again, and the skin on his forehead is damp with sweat. He makes it back to his chair in time to drop heavily into it, and his head dips low between his knees.

“Are you okay?”

Steve’s hands threat together at the back of his neck. He nods, barely, and takes a very deep breath.

“Do you want me to call him when I get back to base?” Steve asks, not moving.

“Steve, that’s….” Bucky shakes his head. “That’s not fair.”

“I just wanna make sure it gets done. You have enough to worry about.”

Of course. Bucky wouldn’t trust himself to do it, either.

“My phone’s in my locker,” Bucky tells him. “Sam has a key.”

“Okay.”

“Will you update Sam and Natasha for me?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Your eye’s gonna be okay?”

“Yeah.”

The silence is back again, save for the crisp sound of new uniform and the creaking of plastic upholstery as Steve rights his posture. Steve’s face has color in it once again, but he still looks very far from well. His dirty blond eyebrows gather together in a serious groove.

“In the helicopter, why wouldn’t you let me to say it?”

Bucky pulls his blankets closer and turns his head away. He can’t give Steve one more second of vulnerability, and he can’t — he won’t — send his mind wandering down that road. Not for one fucking second. After long, pathetic years spent hoping that Steve would one day love him again, the cost of even glancing down it would be impossible to bear.

“I just told you why,” Bucky says quietly.

Bucky’s hand drifts down to the side of his right thigh and lands on the button that controls his morphine pump. He takes it in his fist and presses it with his thumb.

“Please leave.”

There’s a heavy beat of silence before Steve stands. Across the room, Bucky can see part of Steve’s face in the mirror above the sink. The pain in it has softened, becoming something close to… Christ.

“I mean it,” Steve tells him. “You won’t let me say it, but I mean it.”

Bucky presses the button again. Then again.

“My plane leaves for Kuwait this afternoon.”

“Okay.”

Steve stands over him for a few more moments, looking stricken and wan, then makes his way to the door.

“I’ll see you back home,” Steve says with finality, then leaves.

“Okay,” Bucky whispers.

In Steve’s wake, Bucky’s body fills with heavy heat. It’s supposed to feel really good — it usually does, for the first few minutes. But all it does now is dull the edges of his consciousness. Blur his sorrow a bit. It’s not nearly enough, though. Not enough to swallow him up. Not enough to make him forget. So he waits until the nurse comes to lecture him, and he begs her for something more, just this once.

He must look pretty wretched, because she shoves a fentanyl lollipop in his mouth to shut him up while she tends to him. He drifts off somewhere around “you’re very lucky, Sergeant Barnes,” and for a few beautiful moments, he pretends that it’s actually true.

———

October 12, 2008

When Steve’s helicopter lands at Forward Operating Base Renegade, he knows it’s for the last time. Certainly there’s a strong chance he’ll be sent back to Iraq in a year or two, but it’s unlikely he’ll be back at Renegade. The realization falls upon him like an anvil, crushing him with unspeakable relief.

This war has been nothing that he thought it would be, bearing only a passing similarity to the wars he learned about at West Point and The Pentagon. He imagined there would be a discrepancy between the strategic vision and the reality on the ground, but he never imagined that policy’s departure from reality would verge on delusional. Nothing he learned prepared him for this. Nothing he learned warned him of the decisions he and his NCOs would have to make, the real decisions, the ones tantamount to choosing between a bullet to the brain or a knife to the heart. Steve thinks back to his naiveté, his shining innocence, and feels disgust.

Steve almost didn’t make it onto the plane to Kuwait. After walking away from Bucky bedside, he stepped outside his room and froze — froze, truly, like his body didn’t remember how to walk. Like all of his muscle memory had been wiped. He stood there in the hall, his stomach curled up inside his throat, paralyzed by the frantic thought that maybe he’ll never see Bucky again. Maybe he could die in one of the many surgeries he still has to endure. Maybe he could throw a clot from his leg and stroke out. Maybe a piece of shrapnel could dislodge and sever some deep artery, and they wouldn’t catch it in time because Army doctors are slow and disinterested. And so why wouldn’t he just fucking say it, because what if? What if…?

He did move, eventually. Poor Specialist Rosenblatt roused him with a gentle hand on his arm. Asked him if he was okay. Steve thinks he might have shaken his head when he meant to nod, because Rosenblatt coaxed him down the hallway to a small lounge, where he plopped Steve down at a tiny table with a cup of coffee and told him about Brooklyn. He told him about how Prospect Park looks in the spring. How cool it feels underneath Endale Arch on a hot day. He talked about his sister’s wedding at the boathouse, how the lake was covered in a thick layer of reeking water fern. Steve never told Rosenblatt that he was from Brooklyn, and given how diligently he hides his accent, there’s no way he could have known. But, somehow, he knew. He knew exactly what to say.

Steve signs in at the company and is waylaid by the entire command team, Fury included. All they know is that Bucky is currently not fit for duty, and they’re starving for details. Steve’s hackles rise in the midst of their questioning, and he thinks to ask why the hell they think they deserve to know any of it. But he keeps a cool exterior, one that’s probably closer to cold, and plays the hand Bucky told him to play. Sergeant Barnes is doing well. He’s in good spirits. He’s hopeful about the future. He maybe takes it too far with that last one, because they all seem a bit surprised by it. But then Morita says “That’s Sergeant Barnes” and, suddenly, Steve’s entire narrative seems to satisfy them.

Steve pops four ibuprofen on his way out the door. He’s had a constant headache ever since the explosion, one that waxes and wanes but never stops. He’s been quietly frightened by it, by everything that’s different now. The static. The way he drifts in and out of conversations. The things he can’t remember anymore. He hasn’t fully tested it, but he knows something is terribly, terribly wrong.

“Sir, wait!”

Steve stops and turns at the sound of Sousa’s voice. Sousa bounds after him, down the stairs, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand and waving a piece of paper in the other.

“I almost forgot to tell you. Your, um…” Sousa looks down at the paper in his hand, expression pensive. “Captain Carter called while you were in Germany. Many times. She wants you to call her ASAP.”

Steve’s brain slowly computes Sousa’s words, which clash so discordantly with Steve’s last encounter with Sharon that he can’t formulate a response.

“I guess she’s listed as your emergency contact, and she just got a message saying you were medevaced. No details, of course. So she tracked down the company HQ number, somehow. My number, actually.”

“What what she like?”

Sousa blinks at the question and answers carefully. “She was definitely concerned. Angry at the runaround.”

“Did you tell her anything?”

“I just told her what I heard. About your face. The coughing up blood. The thing when you got back here.”

Steve’s jaw tightens. “I wasn’t coughing up blood. There was blood running down the back of my throat from my face. That’s completely different.”

Sousa looks down at his boots, and Steve tries to remember that he literally is just the messenger.

“Sorry, Sir. I was just telling her what I heard. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but she’s been calling every day.”

Of course, her messages were never relayed to Landstuhl, where he languished for days upon days, helplessly fretting over Bucky whenever he wasn’t attending one of a dozen appointments for ocular tests, ENT checkups, neurology consults, and surgery follow-ups. But none of this is the fault of Dan Sousa, a hapless butter bar who spends most of his days accounting for gear, making and receiving phone calls, and drafting memos for the commander.

“Thanks, Dan. Sorry for snapping. And I’m sorry you got stuck in that position. I’ll give her a call today,” Steve says, pulling off a damn fine impersonation of nonchalance.

“Okay, good.” Sousa draws his lips inward, as if they could capture the words he already said. “That’s not what I meant—”

“I know what you meant.” Steve offers him a thin smile. “I’ll see you later.”

Morita told Steve he could find his men at the base chapel, pinch hitting for another battalion to spare them having to clean up after a memorial service for one of their guys. Steve enters the chapel silently, where he leans against the back wall, arms crossed, and watches his men work. They’re quiet, but not as quiet as he feared they might be. There are still little jabs and dirty jokes being tossed around, par for the course in any infantry unit. Steve wonders if he should find something untoward about their joking like this after a memorial service, but with everything they’ve seen, all the violence and death, maybe this is how they push forward. This is how they process and stay the course — the course that leads them back home.

Luis is the first one to glimpse him, and he nearly drops the garbage bag he’s holding out for Jones at the refreshment table. Luis calls out to him, loudly enough for his voice to resonate off every surface. Steve’s chest clenches at the exuberance, at the fondness and relief on Luis’s face. Luis’s call is followed by others — Dugan’s, Private Wilson’s, Maximoff’s. It’s overwhelming, almost alarmingly so. But then, it doesn’t take much to overwhelm Steve these days.

The men gather around him as he walks toward them. They don’t ask about Bucky, maybe on purpose. Instead, they ask about Steve. Is he okay? How was Germany? Did he eat good food? Drink any beer? Is he staying through the end of their deployment?

Steve marshals them to arrange a platoon’s worth of chairs in a circle. They sit and look at him expectantly, hopeful and anxious. He gives them a briefing on his own condition, keeping everything appropriately vague. He then tells them about Bucky, and unlike with the command team, it’s painfully difficult to lie to them. But he does lie. Mostly. He tells them that Bucky’s hurt badly, that he’s going to have a long recovery ahead of him. But he remembers the importance of closure and consistency, how the Bucky recuperating in agony at Landstuhl needs to be the same Bucky the men know and love. And the Bucky they know is not a despairing, bitter pessimist. Frankly, that’s not the Bucky Steve knows, either.

The men take the news with grace and maturity. And when Steve tells them that the platoon will be base-bound until they go home, they don’t ask why. They don’t press him to tell them that it’s because his brain is so scrambled and that he’s not even cleared for physical training, let alone missions. They seem content with the idea that maybe they’ve done enough on this deployment. Afterward, Maximoff hugs him. Dugan and Rhodes clap him on the back and make plans to meet after breakfast tomorrow.

After some cursory milling about, trading nods and pleasantries, Steve takes his leave. On his way out, Parker follows him and asks how Bucky really is. Steve marvels at how adeptly Parker shifts in and out of seriousness, able to yuck it up with the men in one moment and then stare at Steve like he is now, grim and painfully grown up. Steve thinks back to Bucky. He slips clean out of the moment, until he’s standing back at Bucky’s hospital bed. He thinks back to Bucky’s eyes, scared and furious and desperate. He thinks back to Bucky’s body, fragile and already wasting away. He thinks back further, to the dizziness and the blood and the sounds of Bucky screaming, and his vision goes splotchy while his stomach threatens to eject its contents at Parker’s feet.

Parker nods and says okay, it’s okay, I understand, and other well-meaning shit. Steve works to stay composed and walks away when he can’t.

He walks and, at some point, the walking turns into wandering. He weaves a drunkard’s path around the base, one that miraculously gets him the senior enlisted housing by sundown. When Steve gets to the trailer that Bucky and Sergeant Wilson share — or, he should now say, shared — he pauses. He tries to use his breath to untwist his insides, a very fine idea that has little effect on actual reality. He’s not sure how long he stands out there, but the moment he hears Wilson’s voice inside, his fist slams twice on the door. It’s so reflexive, so urgent, that it startles him.

Wilson invites Steve in quickly and warmly, offering him the chair at his own desk. Wilson joins Romanoff on the edge of his bed, all of them very obviously clumping on one side of the room. Bucky’s furniture and personal effects lay across a great expanse, untouched, like museum pieces. A choking, sinking feeling claims Steve, and he has to check with his fractured memory twice to make sure Bucky didn’t actually die. He doesn’t remember him dying. He remembers him alive. Screaming. Yelling. Swearing. Fighting. Dead men don’t do those things, and Steve lets himself feel calmed by that.

Glancing slowly between the two NCOs in front of him, Steve is struck by how unguarded they look. Of course, they want something from him, but it’s more than that. Bucky’s absence is palpable, and it feels like someone’s torn the scaffolding out of every dynamic that existed before he was blown up. All the tidy boundaries and pedestals suddenly mean nothing, and the nothingness left behind is good and real.

Wilson’s hands clasp tightly over his knees. “How is he?”

Romanoff holds her hand out to Wilson. “No, first, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” Steve tells them.

“Really?” Wilson asks. “Because you did not look fine a couple weeks ago.”

Steve tries to smile, unsure if he’s doing it right. “It looked more dramatic than it actually was.”

Wilson gives him a look of distant incredulity, so similar to the one Bucky wields that he must have picked it up from him. “Even the part after the helicopter?”

“Where’d you hear that?”

Wilson jerks his head toward Romanoff. She floats Steve an apologetic look.

“It’s fine now,” Steve tells him. He’s so eager to dash away this part of the conversation that he dives straight into a place he wants to be even less. “Bucky’s in rough shape.”

Steve realizes his error only when he sees their responses, the slow dawning of confusion, and then amusement. Their expressions are an uncanny mirror of each other.

“We’re talking about Jamie, right?” Romanoff clarifies.

Steve rubs his brow with a long sigh. “Yeah.”

“Okay, first the update, then you have to circle back to that, whatever that was,” Wilson says, grinning. "Bucky, huh?"

“His injuries are extensive. I still don’t know most of the details.” Steve certainly recalls the list of the basics, yelled at him scornfully, the physical evidence of them burned into the backs of his eyes. “We didn’t talk a lot. He had so many surgeries that he was always in prep or recovery. And the nurses didn’t like me creeping around.”

“But you did anyway,” Wilson says.

Steve nods.

“How’s he doing?” Romanoff asks.

“Not good. He’s really upset. Really angry.”

“At who?”

“I don’t know. He’s worried about how he’s going to look when he’s…” Steve strains for the right word to use and settles on “better.”

“That’s not surprising,” Wilson says. “He’s always been very conscientious.” He also seems to do a little straining for the right adjective.

“You mean vain,” Romanoff corrects.

Wilson shrugs one shoulder. “No matter how messed up he was, at least he looked good.”

“Does he have a drinking problem?” Steve asks.

Both Wilson and Romanoff seem to deliberate internally on the question. Romanoff’s fingers thread and unthread. Wilson’s mouth twists to the side. Wilson voices his conclusion first, though his tone is only marginally conclusive.

“Nah. Not really.”

“Yes,” Romanoff states. “I’d say yes. Definitely.”

There’s a wordless exchange between the two of them, in which Romanoff is questioned with the disbelieving rise of Wilson’s eyebrows. Romanoff holds her ground.

“It’s true," she says to Wilson. "You don’t want to see it, but it’s there.” She looks to Steve. “I see it.”

Steve nods. “He’s going to need a lot of support from us. I think he’s going to struggle when he gets back, functionally and emotionally.

“I’m up for PCS in a few months,” Wilson says.

Romanoff frowns. “That’s gonna be really hard on him.”

“I know.” Wilson shakes his head at the obvious futility of fighting the monstrous Army human resources apparatus. “Number’s up, though.”

“I’ll be around for another year or so. He’ll be discharged by then, I imagine. And you’ll be around, right?” Romanoff asks Steve.

“Yeah, I think so. I just got here.”

In truth, given the unusual — and, he’s learned, heavily orchestrated — circumstances of his assignment with the 107th, Steve’s really not certain what the Army will do with him when they return Stateside. He trusts that they’ll err on the side of inaction and situate him at Bragg until they send him downrange again.

“Okay.” Sam pauses, heralding the change in topic. “So, what’s a bucky and what’s the story?”

“Bucky is a nickname, and the story is that when we met on the first day of sixth grade, that’s what he said his name was.”

“He said his name was Bucky?” For the first time since Steve has known her, Romanoff smiles in full, broadly and carelessly.

“He said, ‘that’s what all the kids called me back in Kentucky.’” Steve finds Romanoff’s smile contagious, even though he still can’t completely shake the feeling that they’re talking about someone they’ll never see again. “Took him until age 20 to come clean and say that he made it up. But that’s what I learned to call him, and I never stopped.”

“He does not look like a Bucky,” Wilson says.

Steve supposes that he might be right, even though Steve’s never seen him as a James or a Jamie. Not once. Of course, he never thought to ask if Bucky even wants to be called that anymore.

“Well, that’s good, because he’ll murder me if you repeat it. So please don’t.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

“Steve,” he says. “Call me Steve.”

“Sam.”

“Natasha.”

They all bask in this rare moment where the Army doesn’t exist, where their uniforms are just ugly, checkered cloth and their trailer is just a room. The moment stretches until it pops delicately, like a bubble.

“I need to get in his wall locker,” Steve finally says.

“I’ve got a key.”

Sam stands, crosses the threshold to Bucky’s side of the room, pulls out his dog tags, and uses the key strung along with them to open Bucky’s locker. It reminds Steve of a friendship necklace, two jagged halves forming a heart, and he wonders if Bucky had Sam’s key in the same place — wherever those dog tags are now. He can't remember. He had them in his hands that night—

“I should probably pack his things,” Steve says, rising. “Send them to his mom.”

Natasha stands with him. “We’ll help.”

“I need his phone first. I have to call his boyfriend.” Even now, after all these weeks, the word feels wrong in Steve’s mouth.

Sam turns around and looks at Steve, his expression drawn and serious. “You don’t have to do that. I can do it.”

Steve waves him off. “I told him I would. Then I’ll call his mom and get her address.”

Sam searches Steve’s face, like he’s trying to suss out some ulterior motive or satisfying explanation for why Steve would volunteer for something like that. Steve had almost forgotten the baggage that preceded him, all the half-decade-old dirt that Bucky flung around for Sam to see and take on and build a fort of loathing out of. Still, Sam doesn’t seem to find whatever he’s looking for, maybe because Steve’s so bare and pitiable right now. He hands Steve Bucky’s phone, which Steve powers up. He holds it in his hands and thinks about Bucky’s hands holding it.

“Do either of you know the code?” Steve asks when the home screen lights up.

“7480,” Natasha says briskly. The corner of her mouth curls up. “Mean anything?”

Steve shakes his head, his first lie of the hour.

“All right, Yankee Doodle,” she says, calling him out on it quickly. “Let us know how it goes.”

There’s playful kindness in her eyes that only thinly veils the concern there, and Steve can see why Bucky likes her so much.

“Will do.”

———

While Natasha and Sam begin packing Bucky’s things, Steve makes the too-short walk to the phone center. He’s rehearsed his lines more times than he can count and still can’t get them even close to right.

So far, he’s got:

Hello, this is Lieutenant Steve Rogers…

No.

This is Lieutenant Rogers, platoon leader of second platoon, Alpha company, 107th infantry battalion, and I’m calling on behalf of one of my men, Sergeant First Class James Barnes, who requested that I contact you [Mr. Thor Odinson, Norwegian Multimillionaire Sex God Personal Trainer] to inform you that Sergeant Barnes was involved in a…

No.

That he sustained injuries from an IED…

No.

That he was wounded on a mission and has been evacuated to Landstuhl…

No.

Evacuated to Europe for further evaluation and treatment, and he requests that you [Mr. Blond Hugedick who is Very Nice and Sweet] please not attempt to contact him during his recovery…

Or, rather, he requests that you please wait for him to contact you when he’s ready.

Needless to say, Steve is nervous.

Miraculously, Steve not only reaches Odinson but also slips into some preternatural flow state that allows him to deliver a near-flawless report on Bucky’s status. As all of Bucky’s blushing hype would suggest, Odinson takes the news admirably. Among his many qualities and talents, Steve had forgotten that he’s also a former military officer, enabling him to pull off such an artful combination of earnest concern and coolheaded understanding that it makes Steve want to gag.

And Odinson thanks him. Thanks him. Thanks him for his concern and for taking such good care of his men. Steve fights a crazed impulse to spill everything, to say who he is, to say that he knows Bucky, that his name is Bucky and not Jamie or James or Jim or whatever Odinson knows him as.

But Steve thinks that if he told him that, maybe he’d have to tell him everything else. Maybe he would also have to say that he dumped Bucky while he was on his very first deployment in Afghanistan. Then he would say that there’s technically nothing between them except a tacit agreement that they’re friends again. Then he’d say that he’s the one who broke Bucky’s heart and, if Bucky can be believed, sent him spiraling off on a six-year-long war orgy that’s left him emotionally deadened and in a near perpetual state of moral crisis. Might as well add that he assigned Bucky to lead fire team three, which got him blown apart physically and probably psychologically and likely disabled him for the rest of his life.

Steve hangs up the phone before he says anything stupid, and he reflects for a few hot, shameful minutes on how he finally got everything he wished and prayed for all those year ago.

When Bucky first went to Afghanistan in 2002, Steve stared at the ceiling and imagined war for hours on end. He nearly lost his job at Strand for not being able to concentrate enough to even properly shelve books. He resented Bucky daily for choosing to perpetrate violence overseas rather than stay with him. And in those hours and minutes and moments, Steve wanted Bucky to get hurt. Just a bit. Nothing too serious. Enough to bring him home alive. Maybe enough to get him out of the Army. Bucky never wanted to be a grunt, anyway. Not really. He chose the infantry his senior year of high school for the credibility it would afford him later, but he never intended to stay. He was pre-medical in college. He was brilliant. He could have been anything. Absolutely anything.

In those days, “what if” came to rule Steve’s life. What if Bucky went to war and never came back? What if he died? Maybe worse, what if he didn’t come back because he adapted? What if Bucky ran so far away that he tumbled off the edge of a cliff he could never un-tumble from, where men drop into the hands of war and somehow become it, take it into their bodies and into their souls? While Steve stared at the ceiling and tried to work and tried not to tear all of his cuticles out, he sometimes wondered if Bucky was already gone, and the thought filled him with such terror that he began to pray. Steve prayed that Bucky would get hurt. Just a bit. Nothing too serious. Morning and night, over and over. Just a bit. Nothing too serious.

And now Bucky really is hurt, and it’s not just a bit. And it is very serious. And he’s never, ever going to war again. And Steve is sick off the fruit of his terrible wishes and disgusting prayers. What kind of man wishes something like that on someone he loves?

Steve is so disquieted by his thoughts that he almost forgets to call Sharon. For the first few weeks after their breakup, he almost always forgot that he was supposed to not call her. His righting reflex was all wrong, upside down and inside out. And now it’s both of those things again, and Steve’s not even sure anymore which way is up. They say when you’re disoriented underwater and you can’t tell where the surface is, you’re supposed to follow your bubbles. But there aren’t any bubbles to follow here, and Steve can’t seem to make any with all the air punched out of his lungs.

His fingers find their way, though, shaking a little as he dials. A trilling sensation vacillates in his chest, darting hummingbird-fast between hope and dread with every ring. Sharon’s voice hits the line like a canon.

“Steve?”

He wonders if she’s been answering every 703 area code number like that for the last week.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, thank God. Thank God.

Steve drifts back to the sight of those words on Bucky’s dry lips. He should have offered Bucky water. He should have called out for it. Taken it from someone else, anyone else. He should have tried to—

“Steve?”

“I’m okay,” he says.

“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for so long.”

“I know. I heard.”

“After the first message, they wouldn’t tell me anything because I’m not family. Your XO was the only person who’d give me any information, and he didn’t seem to know what was going on, either…” Sharon lets out a long breath, steady and deliberate. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Steve’s not sure if he’s going to be able to sell that storyline, but he’ll damn well try.

“Your XO said you nearly died.”

“Yeah. I guess I did.”

A mere three minutes after setting foot on Baghdad soil, Steve got dizzy, vomited, and passed out in a succession so quick and violent that he doesn’t even remember it. His heart rate apparently dropped so low that they had to pump him full of atropine and pace it externally. The official diagnosis was orbital floor fracture with entrapment of the inferior rectus. He recalls snippets of men’s voices going on about the oculosomething reflex and somethingcardia and how it explains the nausea and vomiting. All the medics missed it, maybe because it’s something that usually happens to children. Steve hopes Bowen didn’t get in trouble for it.

“I was so worried about you.”

Steve closes his eyes against a swift flood of regret. He’s tried so hard not to think of Sharon these past few weeks, how badly he hurt her, how deeply he betrayed her. But her concern is so raw, so utterly sincere, that it burns right through him. Right through his poise and pretense.

“Bucky got blown up really bad,” he says, hating himself for telling her but unable to stop it. “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to hear about him.”

“Is he going to live?”

“Yeah. But I don’t know how well.”

There’s a long pause on the line. If not for the distant sound of horns and ambient interstate noise, Steve would wonder if she was still there.

“Steve,” she begins, slowly, “do you know why I left you?”

“I think I have a pretty good idea.”

“I don’t do cheating. It’s a hard and fast rule for me.”

“I know.”

He knew. He knew, and he did it anyway. Surely there’s a special place in Hell for men who know and do it anyway.

“Despite that rule, there’s a small chance I might have considered trying to work things out with you. I really did think you were the one, Steve. I wanted to be with you more than I ever wanted to be with anyone.”

Steve can hear the pain in her voice, still as fresh as it was the day he told her. He can hear the self-blame there, the sour, lingering awe over how she let herself be betrayed by someone she trusted so fiercely.

“But,” she continues, “I only would have considered that if the person had been someone else. Because I don’t think you’re being honest with me, or yourself, when you say you don’t love the person you cheated on me with.”

She’s very careful to avoid any indication of maleness in her words, properly paranoid about who may be listening somewhere between Iraq and DC.

“Sharon, I—”

“Please, just wait.” Steve can hear the thin, weary smile in her words. “I’m not going to compete in a race I’ve already lost. And I’m not going to be your second choice for the rest of my life.”

“You were never…” He shakes his head soberly, even though she can’t see it. “That’s never how I thought about you.”

“What I’m saying is, you hurt me, but I almost think it was inevitable. Whether it was a physical or an emotional affair, it was going to happen sooner or later, as long as that person was in your life.”

There’s a reaction in Steve, like the brutal kick of a horse, that moves to deny it. It’s a stubborn, ignorant refusal to accept that he’s the kind of man who rolls over and lets history blindly define his future. But given what the past few weeks have borne out, it seems once more that he’s not the kind of man he thought he was.

“Maybe,” Steve admits.

“I still care about you, Steve. And I’m still angry and hurt. And I know this is probably confusing, and it’s not how breakups are supposed to go, but I want you to know that I’m still here for you, in some kind of way.” Sharon pauses and utters a small sound of frustration. “I’m sorry, I just… I don’t know what the boundaries are now. We’re not engaged anymore, so I can’t be that for you. But I know I can’t just pretend that I don’t care what happens to you. Not after everything.”

Jesus. There’s never been an act in Steve’s life so selfless or valorous that it could possibly balance out the suffering he’s caused her. And yet, here she is, giving him kindness, creating a new way of being with him that has no template. She’s created it from her heart, from the strength of her own internal compass, and he wonders how he could have ever — for one moment — failed to see how rare and important she is.

Steve covers his eyes with his hand in a poor attempt to hide his pain from the other men in the room. “Thank you,” he whispers.

“Is he coming Stateside?”

“Yeah. Walter Reed, probably.”

“Let me know if there’s something I can do, like if his parents need a point of contact for lodging in Bethesda. Master Sergeant Nguyen might know—”

“Don’t tell Nguyen,” Steve says. “Bucky doesn’t want people to know how bad off he is.”

“Okay. What’s going to happen with you?”

He gives her the bullet point version, the only version he can give without slipping into the quiet panic that has been his closest companion since the attack. Desk duty, he tells her. More testing. More appointments. God knows what, after that.

“Are you still thinking of flying up here for Thanksgiving?” she asks.

“I have so much shrapnel in my body right now, I don’t even want to think about flying commercial.”

“God, Steve, I hate it when you lie about being okay.” Her voice is low and heated, a tone she seems to realize is too intimate for what they are now. She corrects it. “But you don’t really owe me honesty anymore, I guess.”

Steve drops his hand from his face, letting it fall heavily on the table. “Fine. I’m not okay. You happy?”

“No.”

“But I will be okay,” he tries to assure her. “I just need some time. And I just wanna go home.”

“Okay. All right. Maybe I’ll drive down and see you for Thanksgiving. Bring your things.”

“I probably won’t have a place by then.”

“Christmas?”

“Okay.”

“Do you have people you can be with for the holiday?”

Steve’s eyes dart back and forth. Right now, he can’t see any Thanksgiving scenario where he’s not alone in a hotel room. “I might, yeah.”

“Okay. Good.”

“I have to go.”

“Please keep in touch,” Sharon says. “Let me know how everything goes.”

“Okay.”

Steve hangs up. He can feel the soldiers in line behind him shifting, rising up on their toes, straining to look into his cubicle to see what the hold up is. Too bad, he thinks, because he’s got one more call, the one to Winnie Buchanan.

He and Winnie share a secret darkness, one she confessed to him as she comforted him after his mother’s funeral. She whispered her prayer to him, her prayer about Bucky, and told him that any good mother would pray for the same. Just a bit. Nothing too serious. He wonders if she feels as terrible as he does for even thinking it, let alone wishing it on the tail end of every breath.

But it’s too late to take it back, and it’s too futile to regret it. They all have to be strong now, as strong as Bucky has been. They have to meet his raging despair with courage. They all have to hold the hope that he can’t.

So that’s exactly what Steve is going to do. And history, which will beg to repeat itself once more, will just have to be disappointed.

Chapter Text

November 5, 2008

“God, this place. I can’t believe they have you here, of all the places.”

It’s the third time Winnie’s said it in the four hours she and Rikki have been here. She says it with disgust, with a sharpness that bleeds into her movements as she circles Bucky’s bed and pulls his sheets tight over his body. Bucky strains to not tell her to cut it out while she undoes all the work he did to arrange everything just-so. In his month he’s spent lying flat on his back, he’s learned the exact way to arrange his bedding to maximize his comfort. He knows the places that get too cold, the places that get too warm, the places where even the weight of a blanket feels too heavy. But Winnie undoes it all, tugging and tucking the covers like an angry habit.

“It’s fine, Ma. Haven’t seen a single cockroach. Everyone’s on their best behavior now.”

“Even the rats,” Rikki says from her chair in the nearby corner, where she’s been busy clacking away on her laptop ever since the novelty of this morning’s reunion wore off.

“Still,” Winnie says, smoothing over Bucky’s waffle quilt with her weathered hand. “I don’t want you here. I wish I could take you home.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky tells her. “Just sit down. Please.”

Winnie lays her hands on her hips and scans his bedside table. She’s already arranged the pink water pitcher and plastic cups and magazines and everything else in a configuration that suits her. No, not quite, because she now finds some intolerable flaw in the angle of his straw and inches it to the right. It’s directly in his line of reach now, where he’s almost sure to hit it with his clumsy left hand when he comes in to grab it.

Rikki sets her laptop on the floor and walks over to Bucky’s bedside. She holds out her phone to him. “Here. Daisy sent you a picture of Oscar.”

One side of Bucky’s mouth pulls upward, and he reaches out to touch the screen. He presses it with his replanted finger, feeling nothing, settling uneasily in the notion that Oscar’s orange fur would feel like nothing, too.

“Maybe you can print it out and tape it to the ceiling,” Bucky says, pulling his hand away.

Winnie sighs heavily. “They should be moving you around more.”

“I can barely walk right now. And please sit down.”

“Are you using those?” Winnie points to the pair of crutches leaning against the wall.

“Yeah, I can use those.”

In theory. He hasn’t yet. He’s been nervous about bearing any weight on his left forearm, because it hurts like a motherfucker just looking at it.

Winnie takes her seat next to Bucky’s bed, perching on its edge, her body loaded like a spring. “They should have physical therapy in here working on your fingers and hands.”

“I just got here last night. I don’t—”

His protests are interrupted by a sharp knock at the door jamb. A doctor comes in without being invited, a young civilian wearing blue scrubs and a white lab coat. He introduces himself as Dr. Patel in a thick South Asian accent.

“How much longer until he goes to Fort Bragg?” Winnie asks on the heels of the doc’s introduction.

“Ma,” Bucky says.

“We’re working on getting him transferred from the 107th to the Warrior Transition Battalion down there. He still needs three more surgeries here before we can release him.”

“What surgeries?”

Bucky sits up, lifting his back off the bed. “Ma.

Dr. Patel looks at Bucky. “Do you wish for me to share that information?”

God, how Bucky wishes he had the courage to be honest and tell him ‘no.’ He doesn’t want his mother to have any more inroads into him. He doesn’t want anyone, not even the woman who gave birth to him, to know what lies beneath. What lies upon the surface is quite bad enough.

Bucky lets himself fall heavily back against his mattress. “It’s fine.”

Dr. Patel thumbs through Bucky’s chart, his movements unhurried amid Winnie’s silent pressure. “One more surgery for his right knee. One for final adjustment of the orthopedic hardware in his right foot. And one more for…” He pauses. “…Further repair of shrapnel injury.”

Bucky hopes that his gratitude is evident on his face when Dr. Patel makes eye contact with him. It’s a funny way of saying that he’s getting his missing right nut replaced with a prosthetic, but he’ll take it.

“Then the transfer?” Winnie confirms.

“After recovery, yes. I’d imagine he’ll be there around the first or second week of December.”

“Did you start my med board?” Bucky asks.

One of Dr. Patel’s eyebrows rises. “You’d like a med board?”

Bucky flexes and un-flexes his hands, his movements stiff and painful. “I told literally every single person at Landstuhl that I want a med board. How can it not be in my chart? I mean, I can’t even feel my trigger finger.” Bucky holds it up and demonstrates how he can barely move the thing.

“Well, they’ll assess your condition again at Bragg. It takes time for a replanted digit to heal. Your arm and knee are more likely to be the disqualifying injuries.”

“I don’t really care which one gets me out. Whichever gets me out fastest.”

“I’ll note it in your chart and pass the word along to the WTB.” Dr. Patel smiles in a way that makes Bucky think he might actually follow through. “Given the extent of your injuries, they may make a case for an expedited board.”

“I know.” Bucky lets out a huff of frustration. “I just don’t know how many times I have to ask.”

“Sergeant Barnes, the Army is not exactly in a hurry to let soldiers go these days. You must understand that.”

“C’mon, Doc. Really. Look at me. You ever seen anyone with all this stay in?”

“No.”

“All right, then. So what’s the hold up?”

“A med board is going to be your unit’s decision, not ours. But we can start putting together the documentation, if you’d like.”

“Yes. Please.” Bucky tacks on a “thank you” as Dr. Patel steps into the hallway, which is received with a good-natured nod.

Winnie stands up again, eyeing the doorway Dr. Patel exited through. “I don’t like him. You think they’d have better doctors at the Army’s flagship hospital.”

Sinking flagship hospital,” Rikki mumbles from the corner.

Bucky grits his teeth while frustration seeps out of the fragile container he’s been trying to keep it in. “Just give it a rest, will ya? Jesus. He’s actually a good one, believe it or not.”

“I won’t apologize for wanting you to be taken care of.”

“They’re doing the best they can.”

Winnie bends down to her purse and pulls a small bottle of lotion from it. She dabs some of the thick cream in her hands and rubs it in methodically. Her eyes un-focus as her hands move, mouth pursing sharply, like she’s stuck on the unsolvable problem of her broken son. She then approaches Bucky’s right side, takes his hand in hers, and squeezes a small glob of lotion onto the center of it. Despite the crepiness of her skin and the faint, early spots of aging, they’re the same hands that massaged eczema cream into his fingertips and palms when he was young, back when his world was already more cruel than he could stand. Her motions are deliberate, firm, bearing down into muscles he didn’t realize were so tight. She passes over the seam of his index finger cautiously, smoothing into territory where her touch becomes dull. His hands are fine, only the smallest bit dry, but she seems to need this for herself.

“When’s the 107th returning to Bragg?” Her tone is shaved of its critical edge, rounded and soft. It’s the voice she once used to tuck him in at night.

“End of this month,” Bucky says.

“Steve will be there?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s he doing?”

Bucky shrugs. “Don’t know.”

“You haven’t talked to him?”

“Can’t exactly call him, can I?”

“What about Thor?”

The one subject Bucky wants to talk about about less than his mangled dick and balls is Thor Odinson. 

“Steve called him for me.”

“Do you think he’ll come see you?” Her eyebrows rise expectantly — and why wouldn’t they, after every shining thing Bucky’s ever told her about him?

Bucky takes a deep breath against a swift advance of irritation “No. I don’t want to see him. I told Steve to tell him that.”

“You should let him see you.”

“Don’t.” Bucky slaps her hand away, regretting it instantaneously but too sodden with anger to apologize. “Just don’t. I don’t need your fucking guilt trip, too. I’m a fucking adult, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Winnie blinks, eyes wide, and gathers her hand to her chest. She folds her other hand over it and pulls it in tightly. Maybe he yelled it, he must have, because Rikki’s mouth is gaping.

“Don’t talk to me like that.” Winnie’s voice is thin. Breathless. “You don’t get to talk to me like that.”

Bucky drops his gaze from her wounded face. He feels the heat in his own, and he traces over the waffled rise of his blanket with the tip of his nerve-dead finger.

“Sorry. Just need my meds,” he tells her, because it seems like a reasonable excuse to give.

Winnie lifts her chin, composing herself, re-gathering her toughness around her like armor. “You’ve got to stay ahead of the pain.”

“I know.”

“I’m gonna grab some coffee,” Winnie tells him, reaching down for her purse. She turns to where Rikki is sitting. “Want any, honey?”

“Sure,” Rikki replies. “Thanks.”

Winnie leaves without offering to get Bucky anything. He deserves that, but he doesn’t dwell on it, because he’s just glad she’s gone. She’ll be at least a half hour in that miserable cafe line he hears the nurses complaining about.

“Cut her a little slack,” Rikki says, eyeing him cooly.

Bucky sighs. “Why’s she being so annoying?”

“C’mon. Think about it.”

It takes him several moments to register what Rikki’s talking about. It’s a memory he’s worked so diligently to block out that he has to dig deep for it. But when he glimpses it, it slams into him with the force it always has, stealing his breath, punching his gut. He remembers sitting in a hallway in a hospital very much like this one, digging his nails into the bare flesh of his legs as he tried not to cry in front of all the soldiers who passed by. He remembers the distant murmurs, the sobbed words of his mother as she clutched the arm of her husband, who was only still warm because machines kept him that way. She begged Bucky to come in to see him, to say goodbye. Even Erik had agreed, because at age nine, even he seemed to know that it was the right thing to do, to spare himself years of unborn regret.

She begged him. Bucky shook his head. She told him he would never forgive himself if he didn’t say goodbye. He didn’t tell her that he had already condemned himself to that, that he was already unforgivable in this life and the next. He stayed and made her cry, and he sat in the hall and choked on his shame, pressing red half-moons into his skin, while his ma and Erik told his dad that they loved him, that they would see him in Heaven. Bucky already knew that this is how it would always be anyway, the three of them in one place and him in another. So why put on a production that suggested anything different?

That same pang of shame finds its way into him again, and he takes it in like an old friend. Bucky never bothered to think of what this must be like for his ma, to see her son ruined and pained, yet another Barnes sacrificed on the bloody alter of Uncle Sam. Another era, another hospital, another man, but the fear must be the same for her.

“I just wish she’d stop being such a control freak,” Bucky says, tempering his annoyance with all the sympathy he can muster.

“She loves you and she’s worried. This is how she shows it,” Rikki says.

“I guess.”

Bucky winces as his arm begins throbbing. It does this often. Takes him by surprise. Asserts itself the moment he forgets how badly he’s hurt. The pain is deep, the pain of mismatched bones trying to knit together below the slab of muscle grafted from his back. Sometimes Bucky plays chicken with the pain, mostly out of boredom, trying to see how bad it’ll get before he caves and uses his meds. He could stay ahead of it. Probably should. But he craves the extremes of pain and numbness, because it’s one of the few things he can control. He doesn’t hit his morphine drip, though. Not yet. He won’t hit it until his teeth begin to clench, and he’s not even halfway there. Instead, he tunes in to the steady sound of clacking keys, imagining what his life might be like if that were his occupation. Sitting. Typing. Frowning at a screen.

“What are you working on?” Bucky asks.

“Just trying to break into a network security program Daisy wrote.”

“No dice?”

Rikki gives a dry smile. “If I were half the software engineer she is, I don’t even know what I would do with myself.”

“You two are good together,” Bucky says. “Even if Daisy doesn’t like me.”

“She likes you. She sent that picture of Oscar for you, y’know. She talks about you. Worries about you.”

Rikki stops typing, closes her laptop, and lays it on the floor. The threads her long fingers together over her trim stomach, over the cable knit of her lavender sweater.

“You can stay with us, when you finally come home,” she tells him. “We have a spare room.”

Bucky snorts, even as he’s secretly delighted by the idea. “Yeah, right. Better clear that with the tower before you make any offers.”

“Daisy suggested it.”

Rikki opens her mouth to say something else and stops. Her blue eyes drift away from Bucky’s face and trace down the length of his body. There’s nothing judgmental in her expression, no pity or sorrow. And when her gaze meets his again, there’s determination there.

“I hope you still intend to follow through with your promise,” Rikki says.

“Which one?”

“To get help for your drinking.”

Instantly, Bucky bristles, his face going sour. “I’m not drinking, Rikki. Do I look like I’m drinking?”

Rikki stiffens, but she doesn’t relent. “No, but don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about it.”

Oh, but she’s got him there. The morphine is fine, an adequate substitution, but Bucky wasn’t even two weeks into his hospital stay before he started thinking about drinking. He misses it acutely, especially its singular ability to put him into dreamless sleep. Whatever they’ve got him on is shit for that, offering him a mere three or so hours of uninterrupted peace in any given day. He never thought lying in a hospital bed for a month would be exhausting, but he feels worse than he did even at the end of Ranger School, when they could all barely haul their weary, starved carcasses into the position of attention.

So, yeah, he’s thought about drinking. A lot. And very fondly.

“I’ll do the best I can,” Bucky tells her halfheartedly. “That’s all I can do.”

Rikki nods slowly. “I’ll take you to meetings. I already checked, and there’s one two blocks away from our place.”

“I’ll try. I will.”

He might.

Bucky looks at the clock on the wall and figures he’s got about ten minutes before his ma is back with coffee. He looks down his body, down to the disconcertingly modest rise between his legs, and remembers that it’s up to him to empty his bladder now. It’s a new liberty they’ve granted him that is now starting to seem more like a punishment than a gift.

“I’ve gotta piss,” Bucky says, grimacing at the need to announce it at all.

Rikki straightens her posture. She looks around the room and rises when she catches sight of the bedside urinal on his side table. “Okay. Do you, um, need help?”

Bucky glares at the plastic jug they expect him to use and does a miserable calculation over whether it’s more embarrassing to piss in that unassisted or ask for Rikki’s help to stumble his way over to the bathroom. The indignity is vastly different, almost impossible to compare, and Bucky decides that he could at least parlay a trip to the bathroom into a small mobility exercise.

Bucky jerks his head toward the door to the private bathroom the Army so generously afforded him. “Help me out, will you?”

Rikki’s at his side in a heartbeat, tall and solid and healthy. He gives her the briefing on what not to touch, what needs to go where, and it takes them nearly five minutes just to swing his legs off the bed to get him sitting on the edge of it. Every inch traveled produces an avant-garde jazz production of pain, each injury a different instrument barreling into all the others at a wild pitch. He breathes his way through it like a woman in labor, shaking this head in disbelief, finally pressing his morphine pump out of sheer desperation.

Rikki leaves him to regroup on the edge of the bed and moves to bring along his IV stand. They give it a few minutes to kick in, and it’s enough to inspire him to try to stand and lean himself into the pair of crutches Rikki grabs from the far wall. He stands, armpits pressed hard into the pads, weigh balanced on his left leg. He tests some weight on his right, bearing down on heavy boot that covers his foot, and immediately regrets it. He then tries out some pressure on his left arm, and he’s surprised and pleased when the pain is manageable.

Rikki stands at his side, arms bracketing him protectively, while he shifts and tests and gathers some base of strength from which to move forward.

“You okay?” Rikki asks when he finally settles.

Bucky takes a deep breath and finds his makeshift center. “Yeah. Okay. Here I go.”

He moves. Slowly. Inelegantly. Rikki pulls his IV stand along and expertly paces him, keeping her smile contained, encouraging him forward firmly. He has to stop for a moment, just shy of the doorway, but not because he’s tired or too pained to go on. He stops because he has another calculation to make, a cruel one, another impossible choice that leads to mortification either way. But it’s not as though he has much dignity left; he can feel the air on his bare ass.

He shoos Rikki away from him and crutches the remainder of the way into the bathroom. She stays close, arms folded over her chest, stepping out of the doorway but lingering just outside it.

Bucky stands in front of the toilet, still perched on his crutches, staring down into the water while he tries to think his way through a thick, toxic cloud of emotion. Chief among these emotions is fear, which has already set in enough to shake his fingertips. He’s scared — scared to perform the most basic motions required to take a simple piss, motions that have been thoughtless and natural and easy for over two decades, motions so practiced that he could do them perfectly in the dark, blacked out after a night of hard partying.

And here he stands, trembling at prospect of lifting his hospital gown and exposing himself to the private audience of his own eyes and hand. He’s avoided it with remarkable skill — as much as he could, anyway. Parts are unavoidable. His half-empty scrotum rests differently between his legs. What’s left of his dick falls differently, incompletely. And it’s lifeless, now, unmoved even by his natural circadian rhythm. He still hasn’t dared to touch it once, hasn’t even dared to look at it in passing. The one time he used the bedside urinal he did it blind, hiding the process below his gown, imagining himself in a vast poppy field in Afghanistan, young and intact, relieving himself in a brief window of tranquility, naive to the man he would one day become.

Bucky lifts his right hand, pocked with shrapnel scars, and ghosts it over himself, eyes widening at the feel of things that should’t be there and things that should be there but aren’t. He pulls his hand away and sways, bouncing a few times to regain his balance.

“You okay in there?” Rikki asks.

Bucky scowls and sets about the awkward process of turning himself around, the crutches creaking and squealing while he grits out a snarled string of curses. He gets really fucking brave — or perhaps really fucking careless — and squats as much as he can until his good leg gives and he lets himself fall back onto the toilet. He lets out a bark of pain at the reminder that he still has a hairline pelvic fracture. Rikki pops her head in at the commotion and raises one well-manicured eyebrow.

“I could have helped you, y’know,” she says, holding out her hand for the crutches.

“Just…” He presses his lips shut before he can tell her to fuck off and hands her the crutches. “Give me a minute.”

Rikki disappears with them and he sits, adjusting himself so that he can piss like a goddamn woman. Like a useless fucking eunuch. Bucky seethes quietly, breath loud and shallow, his glare turned inward at how incomprehensibly pathetic he’s become.

He sits long enough that Rikki dips back into the bathroom to turn on the sink, calling it “a little mood music.” Bucky’s too furious, too humiliated, to even offer an acknowledgment.

It works, eventually, but only because Bucky starts to zone out from sheer exhaustion. He tries to tell himself that he should be grateful that he can pee almost of his own volition. He’s tried to remember his nurse from Germany, her stark frankness, her demands that he keep his predicament in its proper perspective.

But God damn it, he is not grateful. Especially when he tries to stand. The grab bar is on his left side, impossible to grasp with his splinted forearm. His right leg, which is turning out to be more of an honorary leg than anything, can’t even bend because of the brace around his knee.

He’s stuck. Stuck. An Army Ranger with four deployments, who’s maxed every PT test he’s ever taken, who’s sprinted through combat and clawed his way up ragged Afghan mountains, is stuck on the fucking toilet. He’s stuck because he’s too scared to touch his own flesh. Stuck because he’s too scared to accept that he will never jump or sprint or climb again, that he’ll never feel the full weight of his dick in his hand again, that he’ll never feel at home in his skin again, that nobody will ever want to touch his naked body ever again.

He is stuck. Absolutely, insurmountably stuck.

Bucky presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, pushing them as hard as he needs to drive back the ruthless onslaught of tears. His mouth twists into an ugly shape, a shape he’d be ashamed to ever show anyone, now that he’s a grown man. It’s the kind of shape his mouth took when they lowered his father’s body into the dirt.

He stays like that in silent agony, jaw clenching, chin quivering, every ounce of his concentration laser-focused on not losing it, on not letting anything come out of him. Not a tear. Not a sound. He hasn’t lost it yet, not like that. Not in years. Not since Steve. He’s managed to burn up all his sadness and convert it to white anger, a skill he owes to a career of dealing and receiving death. He’s not really sure what would happen if he let himself cry, what it would look or sound like, and he’s not about to find out now. Not on a toilet — and certainly not on a fucking Army toilet.

Bucky pulls it together, slowly. He wipes his face and sniffles, clearing up any remaining evidence of what might have been, and he pushes out a pursed breath of air before calling Rikki in to help him up.

In the end, it’s utterly anticlimactic. With a maternal calmness that leeches its way into him, Rikki grabs him and pulls him up and away with ease. He leans into her, an accident of momentum, and she wraps him in a warm and careful hug.

“It’s okay, you know,” Rikki murmurs against his cheek.

Bucky brings his arms around, holding the space surrounding her in a pantomime of an embrace. “What is?”

“To grieve.”

Bucky doesn’t quite know what to do with something that’s not a “cheer up” or a “think of how lucky you are” or some other manner of subtle dismissal he’s received since being blown up. He doesn’t know what to do with Rikki’s permission to wallow in the unfairness and the grimness of his future. He doesn’t know how to be told that the thing he’s already doing is what’s supposed to happen, like maybe it’s somehow part of moving forward.

“Be sad about it. Be angry. It sucks. It fucking sucks,” she tells him, tightening her grip.

He lets himself hold her then, lightly, like her body is made of thin crystal. “Yeah, it does.”

“We’re here for you. Me and Ma and Daisy. We’re always here for you. Even if Ma’s annoying. Even if Daisy’s grumpy. We love you, and we’ll always support you.”

He nods against her shoulder.

“We want you to come home.”

“I’m working on it.” Bucky stiffens defensively in her grip, but Rikki pulls him even closer.

“I know, but we want you home,” she says seriously. “You got me?”

“Yeah, I got you.”

“Good. Now, let’s get you back in bed before Ma comes back and sees your ass hanging out of your shitty little gown.”

Bucky smiles, which spreads about halfway over his mouth, and kisses Rikki’s cheek. “Thanks, Rik.”

Rikki takes a step back, still holding him steady. “Take a look.” She jerks her chin over his shoulder.

Bucky twists his head around and catches a mirrored view of himself from behind. On another day, maybe even in another moment, he might homed in bitterly on the ugly places where the docs harvested his good flesh to save his bad. But in this moment, emotionally and physically spent beyond description, the sight of his grated ass peering out from the thin, parted material of his hospital gown is outright hilarious.

And in that moment, the unthinkable happens: Bucky laughs.

———

On December 1st, 2008, First Lieutenant Steven Grant Rogers receives the Purple Heart, along with four other men of the 107th Infantry Battalion who were wounded on the Khalidiya mission. The ceremony is held in the athletic field across from the headquarters building of the 107th, a ceremony accompanied by the yelling of men as another unit conducts PT very loudly in the background. Lieutenant Colonel Fury presides over the sparsely attended event, which has been well-soured by the current drizzle and the colossal HR debacle that led to the medals being delayed for everyone involved.

The mission, as it happens, was deemed a success, despite the fact that they were obviously expected and ambushed accordingly. Steve has given up on trying to understand what success and failure are during war, just like he’s given up all the interest he ever had in earning accolades and promotion points. Once coveted like treasure, as they are by most excited young West Pointers, Steve now sees them as trinkets and tokens, mere pebbles exchanged for the sweat and goodness and innocence that they’ve all given.

He’s pleased for Ward and for the three men from other platoons wounded during that action, because they’re getting the recognition they’re owed for their spilled blood. But when Fury walks up to Steve and clips that medal to his chest, all he can think about is the absurdity of be awarded for having his face broken by another man’s head. By Bucky’s head. He thinks of himself and he thinks of Bucky, mind tumbling back to that day as it compulsively does, nausea rolling in as it automatically does, and all he wants to do is fucking scream.

But he doesn’t. They’re all home, now. They’re safe. He got them home, just like Bucky asked him to. They’re home, and they’ve spent time with their families and friends for Thanksgiving, and they’re all on the glide path to Christmas holiday block leave. In the end, Steve didn’t have to weather Thanksgiving alone. In a turn of events shocking in every conceivable way, Sitwell invited him to his home to have dinner with him, his wife, and his kids. Steve barely managed to stumble his way through that conversation without insinuating questions like: how did he not know Sitwell was married, who would possibly marry Jasper Sitwell, and who reproduce with him, not once, but twice? Of course, Sitwell’s invitation was something of a clue in itself, another window into the likability he seems to deliberately conceal from others.

After they’re dismissed from the ceremony, the company scatters. Fury granted them the rest of the day off, which feels almost meaningless, given that the unit is still lazily demobilizing. Steve walks toward Alpha Company headquarters, back to his office, stopping only momentarily to pull the medal off his chest and drop it into the trash can near the smoke pit. He looks to his left and right and is satisfied that nobody saw him do it. That is, until he checks over his shoulder and glimpses Foggy Nelson walking up behind him. The expression on his face is one of perplexed esteem, and it’s odd enough to inform Steve that he didn’t quite get away with it.

Steve turns around and faces Foggy, who stops dead in his tracks. Steve is suddenly reminded of the business he has with him, old business niggling at him for months, and he jerks his head in the direction of the nearby Alpha Company HQ.

“Come with me,” Steve tells him, then resumes his course.

Behind him, there’s a soft rush of footsteps as Foggy catches up. He stays dutifully to Steve’s left side, where a solider of junior rank belongs. They walk in silence, strides long and purposeful, as firm and composed as they can be against the wall of prickling rain coming down diagonally at them. They both breathe sounds of relief when they finally make it into the building, and Foggy follows his motions as Steve pulls off his patrol cap and shakes whatever wetness he can out of it.

In Steve’s office, Foggy becomes a tall, slightly overweight pike of obedience as he stands at attention in front of Steve’s small, cheap desk. Steve suppresses a snort that might show how tired he is of this routine, the customs and courtesies, the assumption that he’s somehow better or worth more because he signed a different contract from the man in front of him. He takes his seat behind his desk and instructs Foggy to sit as well.

“What are you doing here, Foggy?” Steve asks.

“In your office?” Foggy replies, cautiously, like he’s braced for the kind of psychological stunt a drill sergeant might pull.

“In an infantry unit,” Steve clarifies. “In the 107th.”

“I signed up for it.”

“You’re a lawyer, right?”

“I passed the bar, so, I guess. Yeah.”

“So, why did you join the infantry?”

Foggy breaks eye contact and seems to take an interest in the row of challenge coins lined up in the corner of Steve’s desk. “I want to be a JAG officer. I’ve wanted that since my first year at Columbia. But I wanted to know what the Army was really like before taking a job defending or prosecuting soldiers.”

Steve can think of at least a dozen ways his infantry experiences might make his job as an Army lawyer easier. He’ll know the rules of engagement and the challenges inherent in following them to the letter. He’ll know the stressors of prolonged warfare and remember the hot boil of vengefulness after the loss of a comrade.

Steve nods. “That’s admirable, even if it’s the wrong place for you.”

“Could say the same about you, Sir,” Foggy replies. He twists in his chair and looks over to Steve’s bookshelf, to the rows of books on the history of the Middle East, Arabic language, political philosophy, Islam, and international relations. “I mean, just look at what you read. We don’t call you ‘Professor Rogers’ for nothing.”

“Professor Rogers, huh?”

Steve smiles a little, even as he thinks back to the fight he and Bucky had — Christ, it was so long ago. Bucky hurled the name at him like a hex because Steve dared to call him out on his reasons for going to Afghanistan. Steve thinks he remembers Bucky admitting to that, to leaving because he was afraid to stay. But what if he didn’t? What if Steve is remembering it all wrong? What if his whole library is wrong now, all his memories mis-shelved?

“For officers, especially at the Academy, the infantry is the most prestigious and competitive branch,” Steve explains, dragging himself out of his head and back into the safety of their conversation.

“Was it worth it?” Foggy asks.

Steve tilts back in his swivel chair, marveling at the candidness of the question.

“You first,” Steve says.

Foggy doesn’t miss a beat. “Yes. You?”

Steve dares to be honest, because he can’t give his men anything less. Not anymore. Not after everything they’ve been through together.

“No. I don’t think so,” Steve tells him.

“Are you gonna get out?”

“I still owe the Army five more years.”

“You could change branches. Go MI or something.”

“Maybe.” Steve rights his posture and folds his hands on his desk. “I think it’s time to put in your JAG packet. You don’t belong here.”

Foggy’s fair cheeks flush the barest shade of pink. “I mean, I guess I know I haven’t been the best soldier. I’m not very athletic or—”

“I don’t mean it like that. I just want to see you in a position where you’ll thrive and get compensated for your expertise. And you’re an excellent soldier,” Steve clarifies. “You’re ethical and thoughtful and supportive. You helped save Sergeant Barnes’s life. ”

There must be something in Steve’s face then. Something he’s not meaning to convey. Something that makes Foggy’s eyes soften.

“You two are really close,” Foggy states.

Steve nods against the sudden stiffness in his neck and shoulders.

“I miss him,” Foggy says. “He was solid. He really cared.”

“He did care. He does,” Steve corrects. “He thinks about all of you all the time.” Of course, Steve doesn’t know this for sure, but he can’t imagine a universe where Bucky’s not thinking about his men regularly. As for being solid, well... it's good that Foggy thinks that. 

“Tell him I say hi, next time you see him,” Foggy says.

“You can tell him yourself. He’ll be here next week.”

Steve tries not to let himself barrel off into an emotional tangent on that very sensitive subject. He’ll have all evening to fret over it, making it similar to most of his other evenings spent worrying about Bucky.

Foggy tilts his head. “Why did you throw it away?”

“It was nothing. What happened to me was nothing. I don’t want an award for nothing. It doesn’t make sense,” Steve mutters, far less coherently than he intended.

Foggy looks at him, face curious and sincere. He regards Steve for several long moments before offering an agreement.

“I’ll put in my JAG packet in January, Sir.”

“Good.” Steve’s not sure why, but he’s relieved. Profoundly so. “Whatever you need from me, you let me know. Letters, recommendations, anything. You have it.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Steve dismisses Foggy and shoots out a few emails to Sousa and Barton before running to catch the post shuttle to the Fort Bragg housing office. He’s the only officer on the bus, which is packed with junior enlisted soldiers, a couple of wives, and three kids. Nearly half of the occupants disembark at housing, forming a queue at the front desk a dozen soldiers deep. Steve offers his advanced place in line to one of the families, taking a spot at the end of the line where he should have been all along. He’s fine with watching a string of soldiers receive keys to their first homes and apartments. Their smiles are rapturous.

Steve wonders if he’ll feel anything when he gets his keys. He's never lived in a house before. He’s never needed a lawnmower or an in-unit washer and dryer. He’s never even needed a car before now. He originally planned to get an apartment off post, before everything went to hell. But now, he needs a house. At least two beds. Two baths. One story. No exceptions. He had to fight for that, and fight he did, perhaps at the expense of someone else. He doesn’t know, and on this account, he doesn’t care. Bucky’s got some harebrained idea that he’s going to live in the senior enlisted barracks, and Steve’s not about to supply him with any more reasons why that would be a good plan.

It takes him another two hours to sign his housing agreement and get his keys, and it’s nearly sundown by the time the shuttle drops him off in his neighborhood. Steve recognizes it immediately as the same part of post where Sitwell lives, and he even passes by Sitwell’s home on the walk to his own. Steve stifles a full-body shiver against the freezing air, which is especially cruel to the parts of his body that haven’t fully dried from earlier.

But he warms a little when he finds his place, a one-story home with an exposed brick exterior and a single vehicle car port painted in green. The lawn is wide and shaded by an old oak tree. There are dead flowerbeds in the front, where maybe perennials will sprout and bloom in the spring. The home is part of a long duplex unit, but with three bedrooms — three — it’s more than Steve could ever have hoped for.

The warmth erupts inside Steve then, bursting with a painful sort of joy, when he thinks about all the days he and Bucky spent imagining a life like this. A house. A yard. Flowers. Steve would take care of the lawn and Bucky would take care of their vehicles. They’d both try to make something grow, something they could cook, squash or kale or something robust enough to endure their inexperience. They’d cook together, talk about their day, shoot the shit and bicker and discuss the world passionately. They’d sit on the couch together and hold hands and watch movies. They’d embrace in the bed they share and… and…

Steve chokes then, and he’s not entirely sure if it’s mechanical or emotional. He falls back in time and chokes some more, chokes back sick, and he bends over and breathes and breathes and breathes while the static plays softly in his head. He works his way through it — breathing, focusing, self-soothing — and finds his center, which is made of pure, molten resolve. It carries him forward to the entrance, up one modest stair that Bucky could manage in crutches, and when Steve opens the door and turns on the lights, he starts planning.

He imagines the configuration of the furniture he doesn’t yet have, one that will minimize inconvenience and maximize maneuverability. He picks which room will be Bucky’s, the largest one with the en-suite bathroom and a north-facing window. He’ll need light. Good light. Enough light to keep him from slipping further into the despair he seems mired in now. Steve hopes he’s a little better now. He sounded better, just slightly, when they talked on the phone last week. Steve called Winnie the second he got his phone re-activated, and not ten minutes later, he was hearing Bucky’s voice. Bucky called him. He wanted to talk, he must have, even though their conversation was short. It was enough to give Steve some hope — hope for what, he’s not entirely sure, but hope all the same. And with hope in such short supply these days, he’ll take whatever he can get.

———

December 10, 2008

Ever since they first met, Steve has admired Sam Wilson’s ability to exude calm. Notoriously unflappable, Sam is the glue that holds together his platoon, even when Sitwell’s idiosyncrasies threaten their equilibrium on a daily basis. But tonight, the Notoriously Unflappable Sam Wilson is radiating anxiety and excitement, rubbing his hands together and pacing wide angles around the arrivals area at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Of course, Sam was the one who demanded that they leave Fayetteville three hours ago, landing them here two hours ahead of Bucky’s scheduled arrival, as if aircraft are in the regular habit of arriving early.

“You’re making me sea sick,” Natasha tells Sam after his umpteenth pass across the room.

“I doubt that,” Sam replies, and the two of them exchange a smile that probably has a story behind it.

Steve doesn’t ask what it is. He’s so nervous that he’s afraid of saying much of anything — not because he’s afraid of saying something stupid, but because he’s afraid of saying something serious. He’s afraid of confessing any number of bothersome thoughts he’s been grappling with, like what if Bucky rejects his offer, what if he starts drinking again, what if Steve goes for neuropsychological testing and finds out that his brain really is broken, what if the static in his head never stops, what if the new platoon sergeant they get is a cad or an idiot. As optimistic as Steve has tried to be, his worries haven’t left a lot of space for it.

“How you holding up?” Natasha asks him, pulling the sleeves of her thick sweater over her hands. Maybe he and Sam aren’t the only ones who are scared of Bucky’s return. Maybe Natasha’s just a little better at hiding it than they are.

“Okay.” Steve checks his watch and then the arrivals board. His stomach flips when the notification next to Bucky’s flight from Dulles screams ARRIVED in flashing white letters. “Plane’s here.”

Steve startles when Natasha lays her hand on his shoulder. It doesn’t deter her from keeping it there while she speaks. “It’ll take a while for him to get here.”

“They should have a wheelchair or something,” Sam interjects as he joins them.

“He won’t use a chair. Not if he can crutch his way down,” Steve says.

“So, we might be here for a while longer.” Natasha takes Sam’s hand, maybe if only to keep him in place.

“Stubborn jackass,” Sam mutters, vocalizing Steve's thoughts.

After a few minutes, a throng of passengers descend the stairs, moving like a single able-bodied creature. Despite how illogical it is, Steve starts scanning, heart skipping every time he sees a man in uniform. There are several, and for each one that isn’t Bucky, for each one who walks unassisted with youthful, confident strides, Steve feels a dark stab of spite.

They wait five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty. Twenty-five. At thirty minutes, Sam calls Bucky to ask if he even got on the plane at all, only to be kicked straight to voicemail. Steve is moments away from contacting airport security when they finally catch sight of a slow figure dressed in gray-green, stilting forward, his right leg motionless, his left moving in tandem with the aluminum crutches bearing most of his weight. His attention’s on the floor several feet in front of him, and his head hangs low, partially concealing the look of rapt concentration on his face.

Sam breaks their three-person formation and runs toward him, earning a scolding from a security officer when he crosses the line into the terminal proper. Bucky hears the commotion and lifts his head.

“Hold your horses, Wilson,” Bucky calls out, picking up his pace as much as he seems able to. His face is washed pale and verging on gaunt. His uniform is at least a size too big.

Sam waits on that line, bouncing with impatience, and when Bucky finally crosses over, Sam’s on him. Hugging him. Whispering something to him. Sam’s affection is almost entirely one-sided, though, save for the burdened movement of Bucky’s right arm as it pats Sam on the back with clinical indifference. Over Sam’s shoulder, Bucky’s expression is flat, but it’s a manufactured sort of flatness that comes with practice. The type of flatness you make when you’re scared to make something else. Steve doesn’t read too much into it, though. He’s just so fucking happy to see Bucky alive and upright that he’ll gladly take him as-is.

Natasha moves in next, crowding out Sam, edging him over that line and getting him yelled at again. She kisses Bucky on the cheek and hugs him cautiously, reading him a little better than Sam did. Bucky gives her the same mechanical response, which remains unmoved even when he makes eye contact with Steve in the midst of their hug.

There’s a sinking in Steve’s chest, and it’s only then he realizes that he was nurturing some foolish hope that Bucky might react differently to him. Happier. Angrier. Sadder. He hoped for anything but the bland facade he’s wearing now. Steve hoped that he would mean something. Anything. Anything but nothing.

Natasha releases Bucky so that they can stop blocking the Arrivals entryway. She tries to get Bucky to give up his assault pack, but he won’t budge. When he gets close, Steve can see why she asked for it in the first place. Bucky’s covered in sweat. His collar and too-long hair are damp with it. He smells like it. There’s a hard channel carved between his eyebrows and a tension in his jaw that Steve’s seen before. In the hospital. In the dirt.

“Hey,” Steve says. He smiles easily, despite how clear it is that Bucky is suffering. Because Bucky is alive. Bucky is here and safe and alive.

“Hey.” The corner of Bucky’s mouth flits up, just for a moment, before being flattened by a wave of something that makes him take a deep, shaking breath.

“We’ll go get the car,” Natasha says to Bucky, stepping away and pulling a reluctant Sam along with her. “Meet us out front in, say, fifteen minutes?”

Bucky nods and stands statue-still until Sam and Natasha are out of sight. When they’re gone, he visibly sags, crutches over to a nearby chair, throws his assault pack on the floor, and drops into the seat in a rough, barely controlled fall. He growls softly when he hits the cushion, lip curled up in a sneer of pain.

Steve takes his crutches from him and sets them neatly on the floor beneath the row of seats. He takes irrational delight in seeing Bucky’s green sock poking out from the black walking brace on his right foot. It’s endearing and soft and human, and Steve chides himself for forgetting for one moment how terrifying human fragility is.

He rises, takes a seat next to Bucky, and tries to remember to thank Natasha later for giving Bucky the break he so obviously needed — and the brief alone time Steve so obviously wanted. He keeps his gaze trained at the far wall, not wanting Bucky to feel any more vulnerable than he already does.

“How are you?” Steve asks.

“Better.”

“You’re getting around okay?” Steve openly cringes at the stupidity of his question.

“Yeah.”

“So, you’re assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion?”

“Yeah. All I have to do is go to appointments and wait for my med board to go through.” Bucky snorts loudly.

Acutely aware of the unusual speed with which time seems to be moving, Steve steels himself and dives straight into hostile territory. “So, you wanna stay at the barracks, huh?”

“I don’t want to, but I don’t know what choice I have. I can’t drive because of my meds, and there’s a shuttle to the hospital from there. I’m not gonna put Sam out any more than I already have. Plus, he’s moving in with Nat, so…” Bucky shrugs, tired and defeated.

Steve takes a deep breath and dares to look over at his friend. Bucky’s wan complexion has warmed a bit, which seems to offset some of the deep purple exhaustion beneath his eyes. Even now, despite the two new scars on his brow and chin, despite the hollows below his cheekbones, despite the look of quiet suffering on his face, Bucky is still achingly beautiful.

“Stay with me,” Steve says.

“I don’t think that’s—”

“I just got a house. One story, three beds, two baths. I don’t need that much space for just me.”

“Then why’d you get it?”

“I wanted you to have a place to stay.”

Bucky sighs softly and shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

Steve shifts in his chair, angling himself toward Bucky. “I’ll take you to the hospital and pick you up. I can get a car.”

“I have one,” Bucky murmurs. “What about when you’re in the field? Or when you have to stay late?”

“I’ll talk to Barton. I’m sure he’ll be supportive. Sam and Natasha said they’d pitch in, too.”

“Oh, so they’re Sam and Natasha now? You guys friends now?”

There’s a bitterness in Bucky’s voice that Steve can’t quite make sense of. But he’s not about to feel sorry for rallying a little support, so he doesn’t mince his words.

“Yeah, we are.”

Bucky sighs again, louder this time, and lays his arms on the arm rests of his chair. He stares out at nothing for a while, face pensive. His good leg starts shaking quickly, like it does when he’s had one too many Rip-Its.

“I can’t be what you want,” Bucky finally says.

“No, no. No, I don’t…” Steve shifts even more, until his knee almost touches Bucky’s. He musters every iota of earnestness he can, because there’s no room for misunderstandings here. “That’s not what I meant. No strings attached. No expectations whatsoever. Whatever you need me to be, I’ll be that person. You want a friend, I’m there. You just want a roommate, a taxi driver, okay. Whatever you want. You don’t owe me anything, Buck. Not one thing.”

Bucky clears some roughness out of his throat. The words that follow are soft and hesitant. “I don’t know what I’m gonna be like.”

“That’s okay. Be however you are.”

“Ma and Rikki and Daisy are coming down here for Christmas.” He raises his eyebrow and looks at Steve, like maybe this is a test that Steve’s dedication won’t be able to pass.

“Great. No problem,” Steve assures him, consciously skirting around the issue of Sharon, which can surely wait for another day. “I have an extra room. I’ll get a sleeper sofa. They can take my bed. Whatever it is, we’ll work it out.”

It’s a promise of more than just accommodating his family. At least, that’s the way Steve hopes Bucky heard it. That’s all he really needs Bucky to know. That they’ll work it out. Whatever it is, they’ll work it out. Together.

Bucky nods in a slow, absent rhythm and goes quiet again. Steve can feel the intensity draining out of him, leaving behind a man who looks like he’d forfeit his entire next paycheck for one good night’s sleep.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says.

“For what?”

“Germany.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”

“I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I shouldn’t have showed you…” Bucky trails off and pulls his braced left arm off the rest between them, bringing it down to his lap.

“I’m just glad you’re here,” Steve tells him. “I’m glad you’re doing better.”

Bucky’s mouth curls into a wry smile. “But you didn’t want to hug me, huh?”

“You didn’t want it,” Steve says softly.

“No, I didn’t.” Somehow, Bucky still sounds disappointed.

Steve reaches over, unthinkingly, and touches his fingertips to Bucky’s thigh. They both look down at the place where their bodies now connect, and Steve smiles at the pressure of Bucky gently pushing back against him. It’s a request, one Steve could never deny him, and he lays his hand just above Bucky’s good knee. He doesn’t dare ruin the moment by thinking about who might be watching them, or what they might label the scene. Instead, Steve focuses on the warmth of Bucky’s leg, the undeniable proof of life it affords, and something powerful aches inside of him.

“Come stay with me. Please.”

Bucky regards Steve’s hand for a moment longer before lifting his own from his lap. At first, Steve is certain that Bucky is feeling bold and is going to lay his hand on top — and for the most fantastic half-second, he does. But then his fingers grip Steve’s, and then the warmth of Bucky’s leg is gone. Bucky relocates Steve’s hand to his own thigh, where Steve probably should have kept it all along.

But, oh, Steve’s heart pitches into flight when he feels a squeeze at the end. It’s a squeeze that tells him that he wasn’t wrong, that the Bucky he knows survived the explosion. The Bucky who craves touch like he craves air. The Bucky who loves Steve at least in some small way.

“I’ll stay with you,” Bucky says, taking his hand back and pushing it against the arm rest. “But we should get going.”

Steve checks his watch, which has definitely blown past fifteen minutes. “Oh, shit. Yeah.”

“I’m gonna need some help up.”

Steve rises to his feet and gathers Bucky’s crutches from the floor. They negotiate the procedure and pull it off without more than a grunt of discomfort from Bucky, which Steve figures is just how Bucky moves now. He hands Bucky his crutches and picks up his assault pack.

“At least let me carry your bag,” Steve says, slinging it over his shoulder.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Fine.”

Steve lets Bucky lead the way, trying not to grin in his wake.

Chapter Text

By the end of his first two weeks at the Warrior Transition Battalion, Bucky longs for the type of inert exhaustion he experienced back at Walter Reed — the exhaustion of boredom and uncertainty and impotent rage. This brand of exhaustion, the type he’s feeling as he sits in the waiting room outside the urology department, is in another league entirely. Nobody informed him that navigating the world in crutches would be the rough equivalent of climbing up a never-ending hill on his hands and knees — painful, strenuous, and demoralizing, not to mention humiliating. In addition to in-processing with an entirely new company, Bucky’s been sent all over Uncle Sam’s brown earth, crutching from department to department of Womack Army Medical Center to be evaluated by a lengthy parade of doctors and therapists. Neurology. Orthopedics. Pain management. Behavioral health. Physical therapy. Occupational therapy. With the exception of behavioral health, they’ve all taken one look at him and recommended him for an expedited med board. Bucky’s not sure whether to be thrilled or dejected, and he oscillates between these states at unpredictable intervals.

As far as behavioral health is concerned, Sergeant First Class James Barnes is the paragon of sound mental health. Maybe it’s old habit, but the second he hobbled into that clinic, he was a new man. A man who sleeps without dreaming. A man who has a well adjusted, compassionate view of his actions during war. A man who has accepted his new disabilities with composure and optimism. A man who most certainly does not feel sad or disinterested, fearful or pathologically preoccupied with the horror of the day he was blown to shreds, or any of the other horrors he’s witnessed and perpetrated during his years as an infantryman. And, of course, he’s certainly not at all distressed by the fact that his career is over, the career he’s constructed the entirety of his paltry self-worth around. No, Sergeant First Class James Barnes — soon to be worthless civilian asshole Jamie Barnes — is just fine, thank you. The psychologist ate it up gladly.

Bucky’s not exactly sure why he even bothered with the act in the first place. A few possibilities come to mind. It’s an infantry leader’s obligation to appear healthy and sane and capable of managing the physical and psychological rigors of the occupation. That’s a hard habit to break, especially since hiding himself has been a skill he’s honed mercilessly since he was twelve. Maybe it’s also that the last thing Bucky wants is to have someone in a position of authority tell him that he really is as fucked up as he thinks he is. That he really is just as broken mentally as he is physically, perhaps even more so. Maybe he wants to preserve the illusion of psychological wellness just a little bit longer, until he’s out of uniform for good. Until he’s gone from the Army and from North Carolina and from Sam and Nat and Steve and all the men who once looked at him and thought he was strong.

The thought of leaving all those things, all those people, isn’t one he can hang onto for long. It’s too inconceivable. Too terrifying. It’s like being held over a bottomless chasm by a fraying rope, knowing the plunge is inevitable but still clinging to the desperate denial of its certainty.

Bucky shakes the thought away with the jerk of his head, impervious to the evaluative glance of the other soldier in the waiting room with him. Bucky’s quickly growing accustomed to being looked at like an oddity, even in an Army hospital surrounded by sick and broken soldiers. It could be his grooming and dress, which, by any written standard, is not good. He’s already been yelled at by two officers for having his hair too long. The physical therapist, whom Bucky hated almost instantly, commented passive-aggressively about the size of his uniform. Of all the small allowances Bucky has given himself in the wake of his injuries, keeping his old uniforms has been one of the most important to him. They’ve traveled with him for the past three years, one of the only constants in his military life. They’ve kept him warm and shielded him from the sun. They’ve wiped Trip’s blood from Steve’s incredulous face. Even the loss of one — the one he was blown up in — was considerable.

They call his name fifteen minutes after the scheduled start of his appointment. They call him James. Bucky wonders if it’s a way to condition him toward his civilian fate. He remembers how proud he was to make E-7, to become Sergeant First Class Barnes. He did it younger than anyone in his peer group, because he was stronger, faster, smarter, and more talented in the art of soldiering and murder than all the rest of them. And now he’s just James. James the Lumbering Wunderkripple.

The medical assistant makes small talk with him on the way to the exam room, and she comments like everyone else does at how well he moves in crutches, like it’s a compliment to point out how fantastically he drags his broken body around. He tries to be polite and use his canned answers, but he’s starting to run short on supply. His Percocet is wearing off, and his armpits and shoulders feel like they’ve been punched enthusiastically.

She sits him down on the edge of an exam table and begins asking a series of rote questions he’s heard from every provider preceding her. The paper on the table crackles when he inevitably shifts his weight between her inquiries, a regular response to the deep ache in his pelvis. He’s been uncomfortable for so long that he strains to remember what it feels like to not have to constantly squirm or tense or clench against pain.

“And what’s the purpose of your visit today?” the assistant asks, continuing to stare at the computer screen in front of her.

“A check-up,” Bucky supposes. He stops there and hopes that the vagueness will satisfy her.

“For what?”

“Shrapnel injuries,” he says brusquely. “It should be in my notes.”

The medical assistant, probably some officer’s wife or daughter, mutters an acknowledgment and scans through his notes from Walter Reed and Landstuhl. She makes a small clicking noise with her tongue as she scrolls and nods and says “oh” and “okay” a few times.

In response, Bucky snorts and shakes his head and works feverishly to not say something rude.

When she finally swivels around again, her face is pulled back in a mannequin-like impersonation of okayness. She smiles at him stiffly, and her gaze flits down to his crotch. It only lingers there for the briefest of moments, but when she meets his eyes again, Bucky’s decided to be done with politeness.

“What, you wanna see it? Maybe take a picture?”

Her face ducks and goes red.

“This your first day on the job or something?” he asks.

“First week,” she admits.

Bucky’s mouth twists as he feels the hot burn of shame. “Sorry.”

“No,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just filling in for my friend who’s on leave.”

“Ah. Well, I’d want to take leave from this job, too.”

“I’m usually in ophthalmology.”

Bucky snorts out something close to a laugh. “That’ll teach you to help out your friends.”

“I’ll go tell Colonel Stewart you’re here. Sorry again, and I hope you feel better soon.” She says the last part hastily, awkwardly, and beelines it out the door.

Bucky nods and revels in the sterile quiet of the room when she finally leaves it. Then he admonishes himself again for being cruel, because that’s never been his way. Not with people he doesn’t know. Not with strangers who are trying to help him. He wonders if he can blame it on the pain again and decides that the excuse has grown quite worn already.

Colonel Stewart bursts into the room a few minutes later, cracking through the silence like a clap of thunder. He’s a tall, lank man who appears far too boyish to be wearing such a high rank, with a smile that’s bright and straight and a little goofy. But it’s really the hair that puts Bucky at ease, the inappropriately long flop of golden brown that nobody’s going to call him out on because he must outrank nearly everyone he meets. He introduces himself to Bucky with a handshake that seems deliberately careful, one that tells him that this guy actually read his chart before coming in. They exchange pleasantries that are remarkably pleasant, and by the time Stewart asks him to stand and pull down his pants and underwear, Bucky doesn't put up much  resistance.

Bucky hasn’t been able to completely avoid his dick anymore, now that he’s living with Steve. He’ll be damned if he’s gonna piss into jug or sit to pee in Steve’s house. Either of those options seems cowardly and shameful, though somehow less shameful than the new shape of his genitals. He actually knows the shape of them now. He took a look at them once, after an hour of psyching himself up and waiting for his doubled dose of Percocet to kick in. And even though the way he looks now is repulsive, misshapen and deficient, it’s still less terrible than he imagined while lying in that German hospital bed. 

Bucky looks up at the pocked white ceiling while Colonel Stewart examines him. He has a passing though of how many ceilings he’s looked at while a stranger has touched him and sucked him, and he finds the juxtaposition so perverse that he chokes on his own saliva.

Stewart’s hands are warm through his nitrile gloves as he gently feels around Bucky’s penis and scrotum, over the rises and valleys both natural and terrorist-made. He applies some pressure to Bucky’s real and prosthetic testicles, and Bucky shakes his head when Stewart asks if there’s pain anywhere. It’s mostly truthful.

“So, everything looks good,” Stewart says. “Things are healing nicely.”

Bucky swallows heavily. He blinks up at the ceiling tiles and opens his mouth to ask what actually happened to him — what happened, specifically, that makes things look the way they do now. He opens his mouth, and the words catch in his throat, making a little creaking sound.

“You okay?” Stewart asks.

“So…” Bucky starts, then closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “So what, exactly, happened?”

“To your genitals?”

“Yeah. Why does my dick look like that?”

Stewart says the word “you” and stumbles over it a few times, repeating it like he means to follow it with something like “you don’t even know what happened to you?” But he kindly spares Bucky the embarrassment.

“Uh, okay. You can pull your pants up, and I’ll walk you through it.”

Bucky tucks everything back into his underwear quickly and pulls up his pants. The buttons take an inordinately long time with a useless dominant finger, and his overwrought nerves don’t help, either. He can feel a sheen of sweat at his hairline from the pressure to perform the basic act of dressing perfectly, and he drops back on the table, relieved, when the task is complete

Colonel Stewart educates him with just the right amount of restrained enthusiasm for someone who’s talking about the radical alteration of manhood itself. He walks Bucky through it, making the most eye contact any Army doctor’s ever made with him, careful to speak in moderately paced layman’s terms that even a man who’s anxious out of his mind can understand.

The shaft of the penis was badly damaged about two-thirds of the way out. The trauma surgeons at FOB Renegade tried to graft tissue onto it to fill in the damaged parts, but shortly after his arrival at Landstuhl, the graft went necrotic — a word no man ever wants to hear associated with his junk. Surgeons had to remove the graft and debride the wound, including some previously healthy tissue. So rather than chance any more complications with grafts, they cut a clean line across the shaft and attached the largely intact head back on. Like with his amputated finger, Stewart explains, the microvascular surgeon was able to connect the blood vessels and nerves to preserve urinary and, supposedly, also sexual functioning. Bucky suppresses the urge to laugh bitterly at the comparison between his perpetually numb finger and the repair job on his dick.

To illustrate, Stewart draws a penis on a nearby dry erase board and cuts a red line clean through it, as if the verbal description wasn’t vivid enough. He narrates his drawing NFL-style.

“Penis tissue is largely uniform from the base to just below the glans.” Stewart runs his finger along the tissue of the drawn shaft until he reaches the head. “So they just re-attached the glans…” He draws an energetic arrow back to the middle of the original shaft. “…To healthy tissue here.”

The result: almost half a dick. And a very scarred one, at that.

“The scars will get smaller over time,” Stewart assures him with a smile that’s far too confident for Bucky to believe. “I can prescribe you a topical cream to minimize their appearance down the road.”

Bucky’s lip curls at the thought of spending one more intimate moment with a part of his body he’s now so disgusted by, the part of his body he used to love — truly — for the immense pleasure it brought him over the course of his life. Sometimes when the world seemed overwhelmingly ruthless and cold and hateful, getting lost in his own body alone or with someone else was the only way Bucky could stomach facing another day of it. And now… he can’t imagine ever having that again, and the reminder of his loss is like a slow-driven knife to the chest.

“How’s everything in terms of physical sensation?” Stewart pauses and cautiously adds on, “And sexual function?”

Bucky hopes his face looks as appalled as he feels by the question.

“I don’t fucking know,” Bucky snaps back, then tacks on a “Sir” when he remembers that he’s talking to a man who vastly outranks him. “Haven’t exactly been in the mood.”

Stewart takes the outburst in easy stride. “On that subject, we should get your testosterone levels checked.” He slides his chair over to his computer and begins typing something. “I’m putting in a lab order for that.”

“It’s… not a priority for me,” Bucky says, hoping it’ll stop him, because he doesn’t know how else to tell Stewart that his sex life is as good as over. Half-dick or no, any interested guy without an unreasonably strong scar fetish would run away screaming the second his jacket came off.

Stewart swivels back around. “Testosterone isn’t just important for libido and sexual functioning. It’s important for mood and energy and other things that impact quality of life.”

“It’s fine, really,” Bucky says, shifting his weight onto his good leg and standing. “May I be dismissed, Sir?”

Stewart gives Bucky a sour look that softens rapidly into kindness. “You’re free to leave whenever you want. I’m not your commander. Would you at least like the prescription for the cream?”

Bucky takes a long, deliberate breath. “Sure.”

Stewart types something else in his computer, then pauses to glance back over his shoulder at Bucky. “These types of injuries can be difficult to work through, emotionally. I’ve seen them in a number of folks. But the docs down at behavioral health can probably help you navigate some of this stuff, if you’d like to talk to someone. I’m happy to make a referral.”

“Thanks. I’m good.”

Stewart turns around again and clasps his hands together between his spread legs. He glances at Bucky’s left hand. “Do you have a significant other?”

For a moment, Bucky doesn’t even know how to answer the question. Six months ago, he might have answered with something coy or lightly sarcastic. Three months ago, he could have legitimately said yes. And now, Bucky can only answer with the turn of his hollowed-out cheek as his thoughts drift to Thor Odinson and how fucking badly he aches for what they had.

Stewart continues, undaunted by the silence. “Well, when you do find someone you connect with, I think you’d be surprised by how many partners are open to different kinds of sexual experiences. It helps to start figuring out what feels good to you and figuring out where the issues are, so that you can communicate that.”

“Yep. Okay.”

“And, of course, I can help on the medical side. We have drugs for ED, supplements for low testosterone—”

“Thanks, Doc. I’m good.”

“All right,” Stewart says, giving a resigned smile. “My door’s open, if you change your mind.”

Bucky crutches down to the hospital lobby with a prescription for scar cream, which he shoves deep in the cargo pocket of his uniform pants. At the bottom, his fingertip brushes a few grains of sand that somehow made it through the laundry, and the wave of longing that washes over him is astonishing. Somehow, in spite of everything, Bucky pines for that arid stretch of brown land, carved through with tendrils of the Tigris-Euphrates, the cradle of early civilization cut to pieces by foreign men and beleaguered by turmoil. He craves the sharp smell of spent ammunition and the ecstasy of destruction. And he’d give his last remaining nut for one more cigarette at the FOB smoke pit. He wonders how many more unexpected losses he’ll forced to reconcile. He wonders if the grief will ever stop.

Bucky waits at the front entrance of the building, just inside the sliding glass doors, and watches soldiers shuffle into and out of the cold. He presses up against the wall and tries to make himself small, angling and curling in on himself to hide his rank and all the badges on his chest that he earned when his body was strong and able. He lingers there until a black Toyota Tundra pulls up in the loading area. Steve waves to him from the driver’s seat, finding him easily, and Bucky beats back a surge of diffuse resentment.

Steve meets him outside the truck, looking tall and handsome and tired. He holds out his hand for Bucky’s crutches and stands by silently while Bucky goes about the cringeworthy motions of climbing into the high cab with only one good arm and one good leg. Steve learned early on not to even attempt to help him, certainly not in front of other soldiers, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to shield Bucky’s struggle from the view of others with the enviable broadness of his body.

When they’re both finally situated in the truck, Steve looks over to him and smiles.

“How was it?” he asks.

“Fine.” Bucky feeds the latch of his seatbelt into its fastener, his hands still trembling from his earlier exertion.

Steve waits a beat, as he often does, just in case Bucky has anything more to say than what absolute basic politeness demands. When nothing else comes, he shifts the truck into gear and steps on the accelerator. The truck lurches forward, accompanied by a muttered “God damn it” from Steve as he remembers how ridiculously overpowered the engine is.

“We don’t have to stay long,” Steve says when they eventually turn onto the main road. “Just let me know when you’re tapped out.”

“Too late for that.”

“It’ll mean a lot to them. They really want to see you.”

“They think they really want to see me,” Bucky corrects.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky watches Steve’s lips purse and un-purse as he works toward a response that Bucky can’t easily refute.

“It’s important for them to see you. They need it. The last image they have of you is…” He cuts off then, hands tightening around the wheel. “They need to see you like this. Getting better.”

One side of Bucky’s mouth curls up faintly. He feels something like pride welling up in him, something that pushes aside the persistent, sour boil of irritability. He’s nurtured a lot of fear about his platoon since he went down. Fear that the structure of the unit will collapse without him. Fear that his men won’t be ready for their next inevitable deployment without him. But in the two weeks Bucky has spent with Steve, those fears have been slowly dissolving. Despite the burdens that Steve is carrying, the ones he tries to hold tightly out of view, he’s taking care of his soldiers. Bucky hasn’t failed to observe the long, late hours Steve spends planning training for the next calendar year. He hasn’t missed the nighttime and weekend phone calls Steve takes from the men, always with a tone of grounded compassion no matter how late or inopportune the timing. He hasn’t missed the warm joy on Steve’s face when he talks about the accomplishments of his soldiers, from Wade Wilson’s overdue promotion to Reyes’s completion of his AA degree. And he hasn’t missed the energy Steve has put into the holiday party they’re currently driving to, energy Bucky knows that Steve doesn’t actually have.

So, for Bucky, the only thing that’s really left regarding his men is the fear that they will forget him, that his time with them will mean nothing. He doesn’t want them to remember him like he is now, fragile and weary and crippled and unshakably angry. He doesn’t even want them to remember him as the man he actually was, the man who had to drink himself into a stupor just to sleep, just to be close to another person, just to temporarily forget the deeds his country demanded of him. He wants to be remembered as the man they thought he was, confident and capable. Vicious and caring and solid. He’s not even sure how he created such an illusion at all, because he’s none of those things now. Not a single one.

“I know. You’re right,” Bucky concedes.

He digs in his pocket for a bottle of pills and pops a Percocet dry. He might be getting a little too good at that.

“Maybe try to enjoy yourself a little bit, too,” Steve says. “You should at least stay for the white elephant exchange.”

“Shit. I didn’t even—”

“Don’t worry. I got something for you.”

Bucky finally cracks a full smile. “Oh, Jesus. Do I even wanna know?”

“Nope.” Steve steals a glance over at him. “It’s good, though.”

“Better be. I got a reputation to uphold.”

In the waning light, Bucky leans close to the window and looks into his small reflection in the truck’s side mirror. He tries to put something into it, something to sharpen him or soften him, anything to counteract the vacant vestige of Sergeant Barnes staring back at him. A dash of dark humor, maybe. Or something resembling acceptance. Maybe even grace. He plays with different subtle movements of his brows and eyes and mouth. He tilts his chin and angles his head. He tries to fashion some fiction that’s easier than the truth, and by the time they pull up to company HQ, Bucky thinks he might even look content.

After two failed attempts to get the massive vehicle between the lines of his assigned parking spot, Steve finally parks the truck. Bucky watches Steve pull down the visor and check himself in the mirror. Steve grimaces at his own face and flips the visor back up a little harder than necessary.

“You look good. Don’t worry, “ Bucky tells him.

Steve gives a dry chuckle. “That’s a lie, but thanks for it anyway.”

“You really do.”

Steve looks over at him, and the expression on his exquisitely angled face flits in and out of neutrality. There’s a subtle uptake in his respiration, his broad, muscled chest rising and falling like he’s walking up a light incline. The cab of the truck charges with an intense energy that Bucky is completely unprepared for, even as he welcomes the weightlessness in his stomach. He doesn’t have moments like these anymore. He used to have so many with so many different men. He used to wield that charge like a magnet to draw in strangers and make them into his lovers. And now, that energy fills him with fear.

Maybe Steve feels his fear, because he pulls his gaze away, ripping apart their connection so violently that Bucky reaches out for him instinctively. He catches Steve by the arm and holds him like that, fingers digging into the flesh of his thick bicep. Bucky doesn’t even know what he’s grasping for or why he’s grasping for it so desperately, but he’s frozen like that, paralyzed by his own doubt and by the way Steve is looking at him, confused and worried.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks.

Bucky shakes his head faintly. He’s not okay. He’s scared. He’s fucking terrified. He’s terrified of the next five minutes. The next five hours. The next five years. And when he feels Steve’s hand over his own, so tenderly, Bucky just wants to be held. He wants it more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life. More than booze. More than sleep. More than forgiveness. He wants to sag and crumple and weep in Steve’s arms until he’s completely empty. He wants the feel of Steve’s hands gliding slowly across his back. He wants the smell of Steve’s skin to make sparks in his brain. He wants the solid weight of Steve’s body against his own from head to broken foot. He wants to go back to Steve’s campy little house and lie in Steve’s bed and forget about the Army, about the 107th, about Iraq and Fort Bragg and everywhere outside the warmth of his embrace.

And Bucky knows that all he’d have to do is ask, and Steve would gather him up and give him whatever he wanted. He’d take him home right now, if that’s what Bucky asked of him. He knows that…

“We can sit for a while,” Steve says. His finger traces over the juncture where Bucky’s arm brace meets the skin of his hand. “We don’t have to go in right away.”

Outside the truck, there’s a raucous smattering of laughs as a group of soldiers cross the sidewalk in front of them. They’re absorbed in conversation, and they don’t seem to even think to look up to see two of their leaders touching in a parked truck. Steve watches the men pass with wary eyes but doesn’t pull away. Bucky loosens his grip on Steve’s arm. He bites down on the inside of his lower lip as he works up the courage to ask for what he wants, fighting against a clamoring premonition which warns him that it’ll only make things worse in the end. Only make it harder to do what he needs to do. And when Steve takes Bucky’s hand and holds it in both of his own, careful not to turn it because he knows it hurts his arm, Bucky opens his mouth to tell him—

Both men startle at the sudden crack of knuckle on glass, bodies jerking toward the sight of Sam and Nat peeking into the passenger window. With the windows tinted the way they are, there would be no way for Sam and Nat to see their joined hands. Their serious and weary faces. There’s no way it wasn’t completely innocent, because who would expect such a dour scene on the eve of the Alpha Company holiday party?

But even still, the intrusion and the panic it incited is acutely infuriating, and Bucky can’t completely banish the anger from his face when he rolls down the window.

“You guys coming in?” Sam asks, the lightness in his voice faltering when he registers Bucky’s expression.

“Yeah,” Bucky replies automatically. “We’ll be there in a minute.”

“Better hope you get my white elephant gift,” Sam says, playing it cool and holding up the metallic green and red bag in his hand. “You will not regret it.”

“Mine’s better, of course,” Natasha counters.

Bucky feels a small smirk bloom on his face. “I’m pretty sure I can get whatever gift I want. No one’s gonna try to steal a Christmas present from a cripple.”

The image of this in Bucky’s head is actually quite funny — at least, it is at first. He imagines someone trying to steal his gift from him, and maybe he holds up his crutches or his patchwork left arm and makes a pitiful face. And then maybe someone jokingly accuses him of playing the “cripple card,” yelling it across the room in mock indignation. Maybe someone like Dugan or Private Wilson. He then imagines a scattering of good-natured laughter in response.

But then he also imagines the faces of some of the other men, the ones who look down at the floor and try to force themselves to smile. Or maybe they look at him with sad eyes. Maybe they fight back their memories of that day in Khalidiya. Maybe they feel sorry for him. And as the scene plays out fully in his head, Bucky’s smile fades.

“We’ll see you in there,” Natasha says. She tries to pull Sam along from where he seems to be stuck, staring at Bucky with unmasked concern in his eyes.

Bucky hates that look. He sees it so often now. From Steve. From Sam. From his doctors. Less so from Nat, but only because she dashes it away quickly whenever he catches her with it. He wants to scream at all of them to just act normal. Act like they used to. Act like he’s okay and that he’s going to be fine. Act like his world is not in the process of completely falling apart.

“We’ll be there in a sec,” Bucky repeats to Sam. “Save us a seat, okay?”

Sam pulls it together and manages a grin. “Don’t take all night.”

Bucky nods as he rolls up the window, and he and Steve watch the couple make their way to the company entrance.

“What were you gonna say before?” Steve asks.

Bucky unbuckles his seatbelt. “Nothing important.”

“If you need something, if you want something from me, you know it’s yours, right?”

Bucky turns to look at Steve, whose earnestness is cascading out of him, spilling into the void between them. Imploring. Offering.

“I’m fine. I am. Let’s just go have some fun.” Bucky curls his mouth into a weak smile. “Okay?”

Steve’s gaze falls to the center console that separates them. “You don’t have to pretend with me, but I get why you want to. So, okay.” Steve glances up again. “Let’s go have fun.”

Bucky ignores Steve’s desiccated tone and the pained resignation in his face. For tonight, they’ll pretend to be how they’re not, put on one final production of joint platoon leadership before the ruse starts to get too pathetic.

It makes Bucky ache. All of it. So he lets Steve help him out of the truck, lets Steve take him by the elbow and touch his waist. He lets himself grasp Steve’s shoulder and lean into him once he’s safely on the ground. He lets himself steals a few extra seconds of contact, getting closer than necessary, close enough to catch a whiff of Steve’s cologne — and, God, it makes him dizzy, because Steve knows Bucky loves that brand and used to wear it just for him. It used to make Bucky so crazy, so high on his lust for Steve Rogers, and now Bucky just wants to fall into it and never emerge again.

In the cover of dusk and shielded by the truck’s open passenger door, Steve presses his lips to Bucky’s temple. It’s so fast that it would look like an accident to anyone walking by, but it feels anything but accidental. It feels like a kiss.

And then it’s gone.

Bucky lays his right hand on the side of Steve’s neck, the most intimate gesture he can think to make in that moment. He whispers “thank you” and wants to ask for ten thousand more and then ask for everything, everything else Steve has to give.

But one is enough. It’s enough to get him into the building and through the night, through every stuttered greeting and awkward pause. It even gets Bucky to give up the bottle of whiskey that he got in the gift exchange, despite how badly he wanted tear the wax off with his teeth and slam down the whole thing right there in front of everyone.

After Steve drives them home that night, Bucky almost asks if he can sleep in Steve’s room. Just on the edge of the bed, he thinks. Nowhere near those arms and warm hands. Nowhere that might make things more complicated and defined. In the hallway just outside Steve’s room, Steve pauses and seems to wait for it. God knows he would never ask, not after promising no expectations. Bucky grips his crutches until his knuckles whiten and pain sears up his left arm.

“Can I…”

Steve lifts his brows incrementally. Bucky drops his gaze to the oatmeal-vomit colored carpeting while his brain plays through a litany of scenarios. Reflexively, his mind barrels toward the intensely physical, toward opportunities that no longer exist for Bucky or for them. Disgust and dismay crest swiftly and give way to a familiar burn of anger — anger over all the possibilities that are dead to him now.

“Thank you for your tonight,” Bucky decides to say instead. He hopes a smile will help soften the disappointment and hopes that the configuration of his mouth resembles a smile at all.

“For what?”

“Helping me be there tonight. You were right. They needed to see me.”

Steve’s head tilts in curiosity. “And what about you?”

Bucky’s sure he’s smiling now. The pull on his lips is unmistakable and deeply welcome.

“I guess I needed to see them, too.”

——

Steve doesn’t take any time off for holiday block leave. Instead, he stays on duty and mans the company so that Rhodes, Dugan, and Barton can visit their families out of state. It’s the Very Responsible Thing to do, and from a professional perspective, Bucky respects him for it. From a personal perspective, however, it’s an awful idea. It’s something the old Sergeant Barnes would do, a distraction to stave off the commotion of chaos inside. Bucky can only guess at what Steve might be running from. There are so many possibilities, and every attempt to coax Steve to be forthcoming about it is met with assurances that he’s fine. Just tired, is all.

Steve’s a pretty skillful actor now, as opaque and polished as onyx. He never used to be like that. In fact, he was always laughably easy to read, back then they were best friends. When they were together. Bucky would tease Steve relentlessly for his transparency, though he not-so-secretly admired Steve’s honest passion and his vocal contempt for fakeness. Bucky always considered fakeness to be his own greatest talent, his standard operating mode, and he wonders to this day why Steve still wanted him so close. Maybe, like so many things, Steve saw something in Bucky that Bucky never could.

But still. Bucky can’t help but lament what Steve has become. A product of his position. A product of loss. The act can’t hold indefinitely, though. In the weeks that Bucky’s been back, he’s watched Steve slip into glassy-eyed listlessness when he thinks nobody’s looking. Some nights, when he doesn’t want to be alone but is too stubborn or scared to ask for closeness, Bucky lies on the couch and tries to sleep while Steve works in the adjacent chair. Sometimes he cracks open his eyelids and sees Steve pressing his hands to his face, breath passing through his nostrils in panicked heaves that he’s obviously trying to stifle. The first time Bucky asked what was wrong, Steve startled, wild-eyed, like he’d been violently wrenched out of a dream. There was nothing Steve could say to explain it away, so he said nothing rather than burden Bucky with the truth. Incidents like these haunt them — unmentioned, unresolved — until sometimes it’s almost painful to be alone together.

And so Bucky’s immensely grateful that the house is now filled with his family. It detracts from the weight of the unknowns and the ghosts and, more importantly, gives Steve a break from fretting over Bucky’s appointments and medications and mood and sleep patterns and food intake and countless other major and minor daily concerns that he’s become obsessed with. That’s all become Winnie’s self-appointed occupation, which she undertakes singlehandedly and with vigor. Bucky accepts her doting better than he did at Walter Reed, because if he needs a break, he can always hobble to his room and bury himself in blankets and pain killers.

On Christmas Eve, Winnie and Daisy cook while Steve, Bucky, and Rikki sit in the living room and watch flames dance in the gas fireplace. Steve and Rikki have been almost civil with each other since her arrival, and Rikki has finally stopped glaring at Steve for sitting so close to Bucky on the couch. It’s a welcome change from the tension of several hours ago, when Steve mentioned that Sharon would be visiting in a few days. It earned an acrid half-joke from Rikki about how many exes Steve can cram into one room, which Bucky found both cruel and privately satisfying. Bucky hates that Sharon will be in the place he now calls home and can’t understand why the two of them have to be so goddamn mature about everything. Sharon is yet one more reminder of Bucky’s moral malfunctioning, one that he would rather never hear about again.

After dinner, they exchange gifts. Bucky is charmed by the drill set he receives from his ma, and he shows it off to Steve and plans aloud for its use before remembering that this isn’t really their house. On the heels of that comes the brutal reminder that they’re not even a couple, no matter how many times a day Bucky might momentarily forget it.

The discomfort multiplies when Steve opens Bucky’s gift, an iPod Shuffle pre-loaded with Led Zeppelin’s first six albums. Steve’s face goes pale as he stares at it and stumbles through words of baffled thankfulness. Steve’s pallor then flushes deep pink when Bucky opens his present — a full set of barber-quality clippers with beard grooming attachments. Bucky instantly appreciates the gift for its thoughtfulness and optimism, perfect for a man who will soon be able to have any combination of head and facial hair he pleases.

But despite Bucky’s naked gratitude, Steve disparages himself vocally for how practical and generic it is compared to what Bucky gave him. Despite many assurances, Steve collapses in on himself and goes quiet until bed. Steve’s distress is so disproportionate that Bucky figures that there must be something else behind it. Bucky’s no stranger to this phenomenon. It’s a well-known symptom of too much being held back by too little. It’s the same force that nearly got Bucky arrested before deployment, when he went ballistic on a guy for taking a picture of his truck outside a gay bar in Chapel Hill. It was nothing, just a random guy admiring his lift kit, but to Bucky, that photo was his entire career disintegrating before his eyes. He wonders what that iPod and those clippers are to Steve.

Later that night, when Bucky’s family is sleeping, he limps carefully out to the living room, taking a chance on being able to make the trek at least one way in his walking boot. It’s slow and awkward and painful, and he needs the wall more than he wishes he did, but the carpet is a high enough pile to muffle most of the noise. He finds Steve curled up on the sleeper sofa in a shape so small that it seems to defy the laws of physics. He stops and listens to Steve’s breathing, which is shallow enough that Bucky knows he’s still awake.

Bucky unsteadily lowers his body to sit on the edge of the mattress and lays his hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve exhales slowly, leaning back into his touch, and then turns and unfolds his body. Steve looks up at him, studies him in the low light of the Christmas tree in the corner while Bucky runs his fingers through Steve’s hair. He’s taken a page out of Bucky’s playbook and has let it get rebelliously long — by Army standards, anyway. Indeed, the man beneath Bucky’s fingertips bears little resemblance to the man who deployed with him to Iraq last year, and he bears even less resemblance to the man Bucky knew before that. Bucky’s not even entirely sure who’s here now, but he feels such raw adoration for this man and craves him so much that he can no longer hide it away. Not tonight. Not on Christmas Eve. Not after everything.

And so when Steve shifts toward the center of the bed and lifts up the edge of the covers, Bucky doesn’t try to talk himself out of crawling in with him. Steve watches with patient, soft eyes while Bucky maneuvers his injured limbs into a comfortable position. And when Bucky’s finally settled on his back, the only way he can sleep now, he extends his right arm in invitation for Steve to slide in beside him. Steve rests his head on Bucky’s shoulder and drapes his arm over Bucky’s chest. Steve holds him close, and Bucky tenses as he’s visited by a series of what-ifs — what if Steve wants to kiss him, what if Steve wants to touch his bare skin, what if Steve wants to feel him through his layers of clothing, what if he wants to see what’s underneath. But his fears can’t survive in the warmth of Steve’s affection, which he has missed so, so badly. 

Bucky barely sleeps that night, and neither does Steve. But it’s a sleeplessness that Bucky would gladly inhabit for the rest of his life.

———

  

———

December 28, 2008

When Steve opens the front door and sees his ex-fiancée standing there, bundled in a wool pea coat and lavender scarf, the last thing he expects to feel is happiness. And after how angry she was at him, how hurt and betrayed, he most certainly doesn’t expect to see that same happiness on her face. But it’s there, strong and sure as the embrace that follows. The oddness of their joy seems to follow when Sharon comes inside. He could be misreading it, though. From the way Sharon’s eyes shift as he leads her into the home, maybe she’s just nervous that Bucky Barnes is going to pop around the corner at any moment. He’s imagined a number of possible meetings between the two of them, some not entirely terrible, but Bucky squashed all that when he announced that he was taking the ladies to Chapel Hill for the day.

“They’re all out of town,” Steve tells Sharon, taking her into the living room. “He wasn’t exactly excited to see you.”

Sharon smiles thinly. “The feeling’s mutual.”

There’s nothing mean about the way she says it. It’s honest, something she would probably say to Bucky’s face, something that they might even say to each other without much offense.

Steve gestures to the couch he’s been sleeping on for nearly two weeks and takes her coat and scarf from her to hang them in the coat closet. When he returns, she’s seated on the edge of the cushion, hands rubbing slowly across the length of her thighs. He takes a seat next to her and tries to look more relaxed than she does, sitting back and crossing his legs.

“How was the drive?”

“Fine.” Sharon makes eye contact with him, but only momentarily. “And I’m sorry to be like this, but I have something important to tell you, and I’m nervous, and I just need to say it before we talk about anything else. It’s been cranking through my head nonstop since I left DC, and I just need to say it.”

Steve’s eyes widen. “Okay.”

“So, the last time I saw you, there were some concerns about… testing, which I had done last month.”

The words wallop Steve upside the head, knocking away every bit of the sparse calm he’s been able to cultivate for her. Suddenly he’s back in their apartment — her apartment — on that awful day, feeling the force of her astonished anger as her trust in him fragmented into dust.

Sharon sees whatever horrified expression Steve must have on his face and holds out a reassuring hand. “All the tests came back negative.”

There’s a long pause, a gaping ellipsis that sucks the room dry, like the way the tide peels back from the shore just before a tsunami hits. Steve’s breath halts in his chest while Sharon works to get the words out.

“Except the pregnancy test.”

If her opening line about the testing was a blow to the head, this part is the gauzy, reeling aftermath. The static. The chaos. A dozen replies start to generate in Steve’s mind, none of them making it past the first few unbelieving words.

“Steve?” Sharon’s hand drops to the couch cushion between them, almost, but not quite, touching his leg.

“How is that possible?” he finally asks. “You told me you were on the pill.” There’s no way to say it that doesn’t make it seem like he’s blaming her for it, and he hates the sound of it in his ears. But everything makes so little sense right now that Steve’s desperate for some modicum of clarity.

“I was. And you know how neurotic I am about it. But apparently I was taking something else that interferes with it. I don’t know. I didn’t know.” Sharon lets out a deep sigh, punctuated at the end with a tired shrug. “It failed, at any rate.”

Steve reaches into the disorganized vault of his memory and tries to recall the medicine cabinet in their bathroom. He remembers the bottle. He can see the color of the label and its promise to “promote a positive mood.” Did he read about that somewhere, how those pills could make contraception fail? Was it even that? Was she taking something else? Does it even matter at all?

“You know how on the fence I’ve been about kids,” Sharon continues. “And given how complicated things are right now, I didn’t really know what to do. So I sat with it for a while, and the more I sat with it, I don’t know.” She smiles then, heartfelt and alive. “I just thought about there being someone inside me, someone who came from you, something that was actually good this time, you know?”

Steve looks at her then, suddenly clear-eyed, punching through the haze of his disbelief and self-blame. Sharon only once ever talked to him about being raped when she was in college, including the abortion she had after. She said it once and never again, and only when she was drunk enough to let her guard down. She thought it might be a deal breaker for him, being with someone who’d let that happen to her. Her words, of course. He remembers being so angry that anyone would ever do that to her, maybe even angrier that she thought it was her fault. And then he was sad for what she had to do after, for the burden she carried with her, the burden she still carries with her.

And now she’s pregnant, and they both know it’s his, and she’s found something good in that, something to ease some of the pain of the past, and she looks so beautiful and vibrant now, even as she stumbles through her explanation of why she’s still carrying that part of him inside her.

“I don’t know. I just couldn’t imagine getting rid of it. It’s crazy. Truly, it’s nuts. That’s not… I’m not really the type of person who, you know, gets all mushy about this stuff. And maybe it’s the hormones talking, but when I went to the doctor and heard that little heart beat, I kind of fell in love with it.” Sharon lays her hand over her still-small belly, looking down at it sheepishly, like she’s embarrassed by all that love she feels. “I know it sounds stupid, but that’s how it felt.”

“It’s not stupid. I just…” Steve presses his palms to his temples. “I don’t know how this happened — I mean, how all this got so messed up.”

He telescopes back to a picture much larger than this room, back before he ever deployed, back to the very start of their relationship. God, what they had was good. Their smooth dynamic, their close bond, the way they brought out the best in each other… It was rare and good and remarkably stable. It was different from any other relationship in Steve’s whole life, a sturdy shelter from nearly three decades of unpredictability. And he singlehandedly destroyed it because he was weak, because his heart and his body were weak.

“But I do know how this happened,” he says, frail and faltering. “God damn it, I know how this happened. And it was my fault. It’s my fault that I wasn’t—”

“Please don’t. Let’s not rehash all that. It’s really not helpful.”

Steve chafes at being shut down, but he supposes she’s right. No matter how sorry he is, no matter how vehemently he blames himself, he can’t change what’s already done.

But he now has a chance to do right by her, even just a small one, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to squander it like he’s already squandered so many good things. He takes a deep breath, regrouping himself as best as he can.

“What do you need from me?” he asks.

“I mean, there are some things I’d like from you. Things that I think would be good.”

“I’ll give you whatever money I can.

Sharon gives a small snort. “You know that’s not an issue.”

Whatever solution there is here, Steve feels utterly blind to it. But then, very slowly, a possibility begins to emerge. It seems improbable, maybe even impossible. But it also seems like an actual solution, a mature one, something with the potential to create something right out of so many mistakes. He turns and shifts toward her, folding his right leg atop the couch, and makes the most meaningful eye contact he can.

“If you want me to marry you, I will. If that’ll make this right, I’ll do it.”

Something distant and a little melancholy settles on Sharon’s face. “I get that you want to do the right thing, Steve. I really get that. But all those things I said before are still true. I mean, he lives with you. He sleeps here.” She looks down at where her hands are folded on her lap. “Maybe with you.”

Steve couldn’t honestly deny it, even if it only happened once. Even if it was just the two of them half-awake and resting together on Christmas Eve, floating in all the words unspoken between them.

“I would never ask you that,” Sharon says, definitively. “It would be unfair to all of us.”

“So, what is the right thing here? I don’t even know, Sharon. I don’t even know.”

“Well, I’d like to know that, when I get deployed, you’ll be able to take over. Be a parent. Even if I don’t get deployed, I’d like you to be there as a father.”

“Of course I will. You know how I feel about that.” Something passionate stirs inside him, fragments of the promise he made to himself that he would be everything his own father was not.

“I want it to be loved by both of us. I want it to know you. And that’s going to be really interesting with both of us being on active duty, but I wanna try to make it work.”

Steve nods. “What about other things?” He then adds, cautiously, “What about people I have in my life?”

“I trust that you won’t let our kid be around people who are psychologically unstable. Even people who mean a lot to you.” There is absolutely no doubt that she’s talking about Bucky — or, at least, the way Bucky is right now. “I think that’s reasonable, don’t you?”

It is reasonable. Painfully, irrefutably reasonable.

“Yeah.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes. Steve uses the space to nervously contemplate how and when he’s going to tell Bucky about all of this. He has trouble imagining what the reaction will be. If it were still September, he could imagine a Bucky who would hug him excitedly. But being injured has changed Bucky, making him simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than Steve’s ever seen him, and he truly has no idea what side Bucky might fall on now.

“I’m sorry,” Sharon says, breaking through the quiet. “I know it would be easier for everyone if I just terminated.”

“No.” Steve refutes her with the firm shake of his head. “It’s not about making things easy. It’s about doing what you think is best. And it’s your choice, one I’ll support however you need me to.”

“I know you’re freaking out right now.”

“No, I’m not.”

She smiles fondly at him. “Yes, you are. You’re being polite about it, but I can tell you’re freaking out. Don’t worry, there’s time to let it marinade.”

“Until when?”

“May 27th.”

May. He can pull himself together by May. Bucky should be feeling much better by then, and maybe things will finally be settled between them. Maybe they’ll figure out what they are together. Maybe there will be more good days than bad. Maybe Steve will be able to relax and not worry so much, not have to sniff for alcohol on Bucky’s breath and try to guess how many Percocets he’s taken on any given day.

“Okay. I’m sorry. I’m just really surprised, is all.”

“I know you are.” She reaches out and lays her hand on his knee. “I was, too.”

Steve glances down at that hand and wonders how her touch can still feel so calming, so welcome, even after everything that’s happened between them. Even despite how much he cares about Bucky. Maybe because he’d give anything for Bucky to touch him like that, a simple, unexpected gesture of affection. The only time Bucky ever lays a hand on him is when Steve is helping him or when Steve is visibly upset, and even that feels detached and conciliatory. He’d give anything for the easy contact they used to have.

“How are you?” Steve asks, bringing himself back to that warm hand and the woman it belongs to. “How are you doing?”

“So far so good. Barfing a lot, but that’s normal.”

“I’m sorry.”

Sharon chuckles at his apology. “You didn’t do this to me, Steve. You know that, right? I was pretty insistent.”

He thinks to recount that night for her, remind her of the way he got drunk and let himself be persuaded by her, despite knowing it was wrong — God, he wanted her. But he has to move forward now. They have to move forward now. All of them.

“It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna make it work, somehow” she assures him.

“I’d ask you to stay with us, but I don’t even have a bed for you,” Steve says, eager to change the subject but debatably wise in his choice of direction.

“No, no, full house. That’s great. How’s it been?”

“Pretty peaceful.”

“I’d say you deserve some peace.” She gives his knee a pat and rises to her feet. “C’mon. Let’s go get your stuff out of the rental, and then we can catch up some more.”

Steve stands and looks down at her kind face, at the new fullness of her breasts. He tries to imagine the life growing inside her, but his mind goes white. He wants to believe that it’ll be okay. He really does. He can’t see it, can’t even fathom it, but for now, he thinks that maybe he can try to trust it. Trust her.

“There’s a decent Italian restaurant off post, if you’re feeling up to it,” he offers.

“That sounds great. I lost my breakfast on the way down, so be prepared for me to eat a shocking amount of pasta.”

Steve smiles. “That I’d like to see.”

———

Steve waits until after Bucky’s family has flown back to New York to tell him about Sharon. He picks a good day, a Saturday where Bucky’s managing his pain well and has been spending most of the day outside his room watching a Saved by the Bell marathon on TBS. Steve waits all day for the right moment, preoccupied by how he’s going to word it, telling himself that he’ll bring it up after the next episode. Then the next. With Bucky actually smiling and mocking the show lightheartedly, it feels impossible to bring up something so serious. Steve even entertains waiting until much later — several months later, even — to tell him, but he can see that very clearly exploding in his face. And if they really are friends, that’s certainly not what friends do.

It’s after nightfall when Steve finally tells him, and he figures that maybe they can smooth it over with some dinner afterward. He forces the words out of his mouth, past the choking sensation and the terror of uncertainty. Bucky takes the news in absolute stony silence. There are no congratulations. There’s not even something resembling surprise. It’s as if he never heard Steve at all, even when Steve begs him for a response.

So when Bucky eventually works himself to his feet and tells Steve he’s going to step outside, Steve welcomes it. Bucky does that sometimes when he’s overwhelmed or frustrated. He stands on the stoop in the crisp winter air and breathes and thinks and usually comes back better than when he left.

So Steve gives Bucky time. Ten minutes. Then twenty. He’s out there without a coat, he must be freezing by now, so at twenty-five minutes, Steve cracks open the front door to check on him.

No Bucky.

Steve frowns, slides on his shoes, and heads out to the yard. The truck is still in the driveway, not that Bucky can even drive it right now with his foot still healing. Steve walks around the house, saying Bucky’s name, looking in odd places where Bucky would never actually be. Behind the shrubs. In the shed. And when he does a full loop around the building and still finds no Bucky, panic crawls up his esophagus. He walks down the driveway, slipping on a patch of black ice and nearly wiping out face-first on the sidewalk. He says Bucky’s name again, his voice loud and shaky, his thoughts jumbled and racing, and then runs into the house to grab his cell. He calls Bucky’s phone. It rings from the couch. Then he calls Sam and Nat and tries not to sound scared. They haven’t seen him but promise they’ll check around the neighborhood. Steve snatches his keys from the counter, grabs his coat and Bucky’s, and drives.

He finds Bucky four streets down, crutching in the general direction of Sam and Nat’s neighborhood. It’s at least another mile away, but he looks resolved. Steve slows the truck and drives along beside him, talking to him through the open passenger window.

“What the hell are you doing?” Steve calls, hearing anger in his words that he didn’t even know he was carrying.

“Going for a fucking stroll,” Bucky snaps back.

His crutching picks up speed, like he’s aiming to out-limp the truck, and he gasps sharply when he hits a small slick of ice with his good foot. He steadies himself, pausing only for a beat, then resumes his course.

“Get in the truck.”

“No.”

“You’re being immature.”

“So what? I’ve earned the right to be a little fucking immature. It’s fucked up. Everything’s fucking fucked up. This is just the fucking icing on top of the fucking bullshit cake.”

Underneath the street light, Steve watches Bucky’s face contort into an angry scowl, jaw clenching, teeth bared, snarling into the darkness.

“What the fuck else could be fucked up right now?” Bucky says. “Is there anything left?”

They’re the very same questions that Steve has silently asked for days. Weeks. The past three months. He’s fantasized about screaming them, sometimes at work, sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes in the shower, sometimes when he’s trying to park Bucky’s goddamn truck. He’s fantasized about screaming them at Barton, screaming them in Bucky’s face, screaming them into his pillow, at his own reflection in the mirror. He’s wanted to scream them into the sky, out into this sick fucking universe, the kind of place that gives a single mother cancer three different times, decapitates young soldiers with piano wire, and mutilates selfless men who kill themselves in small ways, day in and day out, in order to spare other people pain.

Steve wishes he could tell Bucky that he feels the same way, that he’s just as terrified and angry and lost, all the time. But the words would be wasted on him now, dismissed as platitudes. So Steve takes another tact.

“Get you ass in the truck right now, or I’ll come out there and throw you in myself. You’re gonna brain yourself on the sidewalk.”

Bucky barks out a laugh, but he does slow down a bit. “Y’know, a good braining sounds pretty goddamn nice right about now.”

“Please get in the truck.”

“Just let me throw a fucking tantrum for a minute. Jesus Christ.”

“Fine, but will you please stop walking?”

Bucky slows to a stop and turns away from Steve, toward an empty field stretched out before him. His shoulders rise and fall as something begins to crescendo in him, and he pulls in a deep breath.

“This is bullshit!” Bucky screams into the night, as loudly as he screamed when Parker shoved him full of hemostatic dressing. The sound travels out like an explosive wave, and Steve hopes that nobody calls the police.

The passenger door opens, and Bucky drags himself into the cab with enough ease to tell Steve that he’s probably pretty high on painkillers.

“All right. I’m done,” Bucky says flatly, buckling himself in.

Steve hands Bucky his coat and starts driving. He’s pissed, and he doesn’t want to say anything to make it worse for either of them. So he drives and waits for Bucky to talk, which he does a few minutes later.

“Sorry. I couldn't handle yet another thing to feel terrible about.”

“What are you talking about?”

“C’mon, Steve. If I hadn't taken you to bed, kissed you, and had you suck my dick, which I desperately wanted, you’d be able to have a real family now.”

“You don't get to take credit for that. I already told you. I could have said no any time, and it would have stopped.” Steve takes it one step further, to prove his own culpability. “I shouldn’t even have come to see you that night.”

In the light from the console, Steve watches Bucky wince.

“A kid needs a mom and a dad. Together. In a family. A real one.” Bucky looks over at him, expression determined. “You’ve gotta make this right.”

Steve shakes his head against Bucky’s rigid thinking. Christ knows where he picked up all that nonsense. “There is no ‘right.’ She doesn’t want me back, anyway. It’s not an option.”

“Did you even try?”

“Yes.”

Bucky makes a noise that sounds both injured and impressed. “Still, it’s wrong. No kid should have to grow up like that.”

“Yeah, God forbid the kid turns out like me, right?”

Steve means for it to come out harsh, and it does. No matter what people might say about Steve and what kind of man he is, Sarah Rogers raised him right. She sacrificed everything she had, ran her body into the ground to send him to a good school and all the camps and college courses he wanted so that he didn’t languish intellectually. All his adult mistakes, especially the big ones, were certainly no fault of hers.

“That’s not what I meant,” Bucky says, plaintive.

“And what about your ma? She did a pretty good job after your dad died.”

“Oh, did she? I wouldn’t know, because she was never home. Because she had to work double shifts practically every night to keep us in our apartment.”

“That’s not the situation here. Sharon’s family has a lot of money. The kid will probably have a full-time nanny.”

“Well, good for Sharon. See, you could’ve been rich. And you blew it.”

“It is what it is, Buck. I don’t have a time machine, so this is just how it is.” Steve sighs and rakes his hand through his hair. “I don’t understand why it bothers you so much. Why it actually bothers you.”

Bucky goes very quiet, and when he finally speaks, his voice is low.

“I just hate you sometimes. You get all the things I’ve ever wanted, and now you get a kid, and you don't even want it. I can see it in your face.”

“That is not true. This just isn’t how I wanted it to happen. That’s all.”

“You should be grateful, not moping around like someone died. I’d kill for the things that fall on your lap by accident.”

Steve shakes his head, exhausted by this entire conversation. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“There’s nothing to say, Steve. It just sucks.”

They pull up to an intersection at the border between the residential community and the base proper. A left turn will take them to food and a right will swing them back around toward home again.

“Do you wanna grab some dinner?” Steve asks.

“No.”

Steve takes a carefully controlled breath and makes a right turn. They drive in silence. Bucky stares out the passenger window, scarred chin resting in his upturned palm. Steve can’t tell if he’s actually looking anything or if his gaze is dull and turned inward.

“I can’t do this,” Bucky finally says.

“What?”

“Whatever this is. With us. It’s just not gonna work.”

Even though Steve strains to define what their relationship is now, Bucky’s words fill him with dread. “In what way?”

Any way. Practically.” He pauses and then, very quietly, he adds, “Physically.”

“Bucky, I… That’s not an issue for me.”

“Well, it is for me. Plus, in five or six weeks, I’m out. And then I won’t even be able to stay here.”

“Why?”

“Civilians can’t live in military housing if they’re not family.”

“We’ll just move off post.”

“And then what?” Bucky’s looking over at him now, eyes sharp and daring him to work an unworkable scenario. “Wait ’til you get kicked out for being a part-time homo?

Steve carefully ignores the last part in favor of the first. “I don’t know. Just be together. Or not. We can just be roommates. Friends. Whatever. I’ll take whatever you’re willing to give me.”

“That’s sad.”

“What is?”

“That you think I have anything to give you.”

“I don’t want to take anything from you,” Steve tells him. “I just want you in my life. That’s all.”

“I don’t know why.”

“Because I love you. I can’t help it.”

Steve blurts out the words, sharp and frustrated and desperate. Beside him, he feels Bucky soften and open, his walls retracted in a stunned sort of processing error. For a few breathtaking moments, there are no boundaries between them, no roadblocks to weave around, no resistance to negotiate. It’s what Steve has always craved from Bucky, one of the reasons they fucked so much when they were dating. Because back then, it was the only time Steve ever got to see him unguarded like this. This is like that, somehow, and Steve would pay any price to drag this feeling into eternity.

It doesn’t last long, of course. Bucky can’t tolerate the openness, and he swings back around with a magnificent coup de grace.

“I’m going back to New York when I get out,” Bucky says plainly.

“To visit?”

Bucky stiffens against the back of his seat, jaw set firmly. Stoically. “To live. With Rikki and Daisy. So this just isn’t gonna work.”

Steve… knew. Deep beneath all of his fragile hopes and daydreams about their life together, he knew all this would probably end with Bucky leaving. It happened before. Why wouldn’t it happen again? Why would things be different between them this time, when the stakes are so much higher and the pain so much greater?

But even though the logic is entirely sound and quite possibly unstoppable, Steve still rages against it. He’s not about to write another scene to regret in the coming months and years. He’s not about to let Bucky go without a mess, at the very least. Even if it wrecks them in the process.

“Do you love me?” Steve asks. “I want the truth.”

Bucky pulls in a long breath and keeps it in, brow furrowing, until he finally says, “Yes.”

“Then stay with me. We’ll figure it out together.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I just can’t.” Bucky’s dispassionate resolve audibly crumbles with those words. It falls away, exposing the kind of bare anguish that turns Steve’s stomach.

“When will I see you again?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky says, sandpaper rough.

Steve’s imagination catapults into the future, a future with no Bucky in it. A future where Steve doesn’t get to see Bucky’s pillow-marked face in the morning and his disheveled hair; where he doesn’t get to hear his grumbling for coffee and doesn’t get to smell the sleep on him; where he never sees Bucky’s rare, brilliant smile and never hears his voice down the hall saying anything. Anything at all. A curse. A song. A complaint. A perfunctory phone call to some doctor.

He imagines a future where Bucky is far away, unreachable, hollowed out and miserable, faking wellness by day and drinking himself into oblivion by night. Steve imagines him alone and aching for comfort he’ll never allow himself, an eternal prisoner of his own self-loathing. And he imagines Bucky slowly dying from grief and guilt, wandering his own life like a phantom. And Steve is so fucking scared, so fucking sick with sadness that he has to pull into an empty parking lot.

Steve slams the shifter into park and presses himself hard against the door. His eyes prick with hot tears as he looks out the window and tries to blink them away, failing fantastically. He can’t stop them from coming, not when his heart is breaking open. And it only gets worse when Bucky unbuckles his seatbelt, flips up the center console, and slides in close.

“C’mon, Steve. Don’t. Please.” Bucky lays one hand on Steve’s shoulder, gripping weakly, even though Steve knows it’s as tight as he as he can hold him now. “I’m sorry.”

Steve shakes his head and tries to pull away, even though he has nowhere to go. Bucky’s touch feels like a wound, one he both deeply desires and can’t stand to feel.

“I’m being selfish,” Steve murmurs. “You should be with your family. I shouldn’t have so many goddamn ideas.”

“Your ideas are sweet.” Bucky slides his hand from Steve’s shoulder up to his neck. “They’re just not possible. I just don’t have anything to give to anybody, even to someone who loves me. It’s not right.”

Steve clenches his teeth together and presses his forehead to the cold window. “I hate this. I fucking hate this. I hate what happened to you. It’s all I think about, every single fucking day, and I just want to make things better. I just want you to be okay…” He chokes out a single wet sob, and his breath paints a flair of condensation on the glass.

“I think I should stay with Sam until I get out. We talked about it, and he thought it might be good, too.” Bucky’s voice is gentle, as gentle as the feel of his fingers on the nape of Steve’s neck.

Steve turns, surging with fear, every part of him begging Bucky not to take away the small time they have left. “No. Please don’t.”

Bucky cups Steve’s face in his hands. “The longer I stay with you, the harder it’s gonna be when I leave.”

“I don’t care. I don’t care if it’s hard.”

Bucky guides Steve’s head down to his shoulder, cradling him with such tenderness that it makes Steve want to scream his agony into the wool of Bucky’s sweater.

“Steve,” Bucky whispers near his ear, tenuous and halting. “I am so fucked up right now. I’m so fucked up, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get better. I don’t know if I can come back from this…”

It might be the most devastatingly honest thing Bucky has ever said, spoken like a secret that’s carving up his insides, hemorrhaging out of him like so much blood. Staining Foggy’s hands. Staining the dirt.

Steve lifts his head. His knows his face is ugly with tears and snot and heartbreak, and his words are messier still, gushing forth in a torrent of blind fear while he balls his fists in the front of Bucky’s sweater.

“You will come back from this. You have to. You don’t get to quit. You are loved so much, and your family and I, Sam and Natasha, we need you. I need you. And I want you in my life forever. Even if you move on and find someone else, you’re still my friend, and I’ll never stop caring about you. I’ll never stop loving you. I never did stop. I can’t—”

“Shhh.” Bucky brushes the wetness from Steve’s cheeks with his thumbs. “Shut up, okay? Let’s go home. Order pizza. Prank call Sitwell. Okay?”

“But—”

“I love you, Steven. You’re going to be such a good dad. I see how good you are to the men, how much you care about them. And you’re sweet and so loving to me. You take such good care of me.” Bucky smiles, and he blinks a tear out of his left eye. “But you’ve gotta take care of yourself now, ‘cause what you’re doing now, it’s gonna ruin you. It’s already happening. Worrying about me, thinking about all that horrible shit all the time, it’s gonna eat you alive.

“And that’s why I’m gonna go stay with Sam. Because I love you so fucking much, and I can’t watch you mourn me anymore.”

Steve squeezes his eyes shut and presses his forehead to Bucky’s shoulder, taking in hitching, ragged breaths, spent and disbelieving and utterly powerless to stop the future from happening. Bucky shushes him, holding him, his own voice thick with sadness. It feels like the breakup they never really got to have, except this feels so crushingly final that Steve wishes he could just cry himself into extinction right here in Bucky’s arms.

“Fuck,” Bucky breathes, then kisses Steve’s head. “I’m not dying, Steve. I’m just going to New York.”

“So why does it feel like I’m never gonna see you again?”

“Look, I just need some time to adjust to all this. That’s all. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like, but I’m gonna try. And you can take leave and come see me in the spring, and we can troll around Brooklyn together. Or, I guess, limp around Brooklyn together.”

Bucky sounds earnest enough. He sounds like he means it. He sounds like he’s going to actually try. He sounds like he really does want Steve to come see him, that he’ll be okay until then. Cautiously, very cautiously, Steve allows himself to hope for it.

“I want that,” Steve says fiercely. “I want that so bad.”

Bucky raps his knuckles lightly against Steve’s skull. “And go to the goddamn doctor already. Get your tests done. Do what you need to do to get better, too. You’ve got people counting on you, and you’re gonna have a really important person counting on you soon enough.”

“Fine.” Steve lifts his head from Bucky’s shoulder and wipes his face with his sleeve. “But I want to take you to the airport, when you go back. I want to say goodbye to you properly.”

Bucky nods seriously. “Done. ”

“I swear to God, if you even think of leaving without saying goodbye to me, I will go AWOL and hunt you down.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it.” Bucky smiles and presses one more kiss to Steve’s salty cheek. “Sam and Nat are going to take care of me, Steve. Don’t worry. And we can still talk, you know.”

“I know they’ll take care of you.” Steve pulls away from Bucky and re-orients himself to the manual tasks of driving. His arms and hands feel heavy and dull as numbness sinks into his whole body. He doesn’t feel better so much as washed out, too tired to cry anymore, too defeated to argue. “I should call them and let them know I found you. Should we see if they wanna join us for dinner?”

Bucky lays his hand on Steve’s thigh, tentatively. “Not tonight. I just want it to be us tonight.” There’s something charged about the way Bucky’s fingers slide down to the tender skin of Steve’s inner thigh, angling in just slightly. It’s not exactly sexual, but it’s something close to it. “I want to go to bed with you. I want you to hold me.”

Bucky looks down at his where his hand rests on Steve’s leg. He hesitates, taking a couple of unsteady breaths, before continuing.

“I want you to kiss me. I want to feel you on top of me, just kissing me. And I want to know that you’ll stop there.”

Steve’s heart quickens. “Of course I will.”

“You have to promise.”

“I promise. Of course I promise. I would never do anything you didn’t want me to do.”

Steve lays his hand over Bucky’s and squeezes softly, just like Bucky squeezed his hand at the airport. He hopes his squeeze conveys as much to Bucky as Bucky’s conveyed to him. He hopes Bucky feels all the love he has for him, all of the respect, all of the gentleness he feels and wants to give him.

Bucky accepts Steve’s hand in his own. “Okay. Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Nearly a week after Bucky moves out, Bucky calls to tell Steve that his med board results came in. It was fast, much faster than Steve ever thought a med board could go. Bucky jokes about it being the clearest case of permanent gimp-ism any of the docs have probably ever seen, a joke that Steve makes laughing sounds at as he sags into his office chair.

“Jeez, it’s not like I’m leaving today,” Bucky says.

There’s a rushing muffle on Bucky’s end, maybe wind passing over the speaker of his cell. Steve looks out his window and wonders where on post Bucky is. A week ago, he’d know exactly where he was. He’d be going to pick him up soon.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Well, I’ve got about two weeks of leave saved up. Figure I might as well take it here so I can spend time with everyone. It’ll take me a week to out-process.”

Three weeks. Not five or six, as Bucky suggested earlier. Bucky couldn’t have known it’d be so fast, but Christ. Like a fool, Steve latched onto those numbers with fervor. Held them like treasure. Like a promise. In his head, Steve breaks it down into days, hours, minutes. Despite the fact that each iteration produces a larger number, it still doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

Sousa glances into Steve’s office as he strolls down the hallway toward Barton’s. Steve doesn’t think about what expression he might be wearing, but from the quirk of Sousa’s entire face, he’s guessing it’s not a great one. Sousa gives him a wave, anyway.

“Big news,” Steve finally says, waving back a little too late. “How are you doing?”

“Uh, okay, I guess. My head’s kinda spinning a little.”

“I bet.”

“You should come over tonight. We’re gonna watch Spaceballs.”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve replies, trying not to sound like his stomach just launched into his throat.

It’s been an excruciatingly long six days since Bucky left, and although they’ve talked every evening, the physical separation has been difficult. Steve pretty quickly ran out of tricks and excuses to keep Bucky on the phone at night, and doing so was starting to feel desperate, maybe even a little pathetic. So they just decided to stay on the line without pretense, even if neither has much to say. They usually chat until Bucky gets mumbly and his voice fills with sleep, when all he can manage is just a few gritty “mm-hmms” to whatever Steve’s rambling on about. Sometimes Steve just keeps talking long after Bucky goes silent, talking about work, talking about safe things, staying on the phone until the hours are small. Sometimes Steve keeps the line open until morning. Sometimes he can hear Bucky breathing.

“Don’t sound so excited,” Bucky says.

“I am excited.”

“Bring your jam jams and we can have a sleepover.” Bucky says this with a thick Brooklyn accent, pitching his register high in an admirable impression of Sarah Rogers.

Put on your jam jams, and I’ll make you boys some popcorn. Good lord, the same routine until Steve was seventeen years old. Until Bucky moved out of his ma’s place and got an apartment with the concession stand girl from Cobble Hill Cinema.

“We can pile on the living room floor,” Steve says, imagining it.

“No way. Sam’s got a king size bed. A comfy one, too.”

Steve’s eyebrows rise. “Oh yeah? Spend a lot of time there?”

“Only when I have bad dreams.”

It’s clearly meant to be a joke, but it lands like a brick. Steve’s heard Bucky’s bad dreams, and there’s nothing faintly amusing about them. He’s laid in bed, fists clenched in the bedding, listening through the shared wall while Bucky moans, tosses, and gasps or screams himself awake. The memory shakes Steve, almost as badly as the reality, and he moves to change the subject.

“Mack made the E-5 list.” Steve pulls the promotion list printout from a manilla envelope and scans down to Mack’s name, which he highlighted liberally in his excitement.

“Of course he did.”  

“You should call him. He’d love to hear from you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bucky mutters.

“You prepped him for the board. Call him.” Steve stiffens his posture when Mack himself appears in his doorway, knocking on the frame tentatively. “Speak of the devil…” Steve waves Mack in. “Hey, I gotta let you go,” he says to Bucky.  

“Come after work. Tell Mack I said congratulations.”

“Tell him yourself. And I’ll be there.”

“Hey—”

Steve hangs up and slides his phone into his pocket.

Mack plants himself in front of Steve’s desk at the position of attention, a solid wall of ground pounding force with a face that Steve will never forget. “You wanted to see me, Sir?”

“At ease, Sergeant Mackenzie,” Steve tells him, standing. He holds out a hand to him and nods toward the new rank on his chest. “Congratulations.”

Mack takes Steve’s hand in his own gigantic one and gives it a firm shake. “Thank you, Sir.”

“You gonna celebrate?”

“Absolutely. If you want to stop by, Sir, we’ll all be at Mickey’s tonight.” The tone of the invitation is sincere rather than obligatory, and Steve almost regrets having to turn it down.

“I’d love to, but I’ve got something else I need to do.” Steve presses his fingertips against the varnished surface of his desk. He’s still trying to remember what he used to do with his hands, before the war. “I’m really proud of you, Sergeant. Not that I had a lot to do with it.”

“That’s not true, Sir. I always feel like you have my back. We all do. You trust us. You give us the space to grow and make mistakes. That’s important to becoming a good leader.”

Hearing Bucky’s words from the mouth of a brand new NCO feels like a kind of birth. Or maybe a rebirth. It’s a way for Bucky to live on even after he’s gone, Mack’s words harkening back to the man who once led him, who probably learned them from another man who’s now long gone.

“You’ve all earned that trust,” Steve tells him through the sudden tightening of his throat. “I’m going to have you shadow Sergeants Dugan and Rhodes on a rotating basis so you can start learning to be a squad leader.”

Mack gives a self-effacing smile. “Don’t quite think I have the rank for that.”

“No, but I’d like you to pinch hit whenever you can. And I want to sit down with you to look at your goals and see what we need to do to get you where you want to go.”

“I was actually thinking of applying to Ranger School.”

Steve nods, touching his hand to Mack’s file as an odd sort of excitement crackles under his skin. “You definitely have the scores for it. Let’s talk more on Monday at 15:00, see about getting you slotted. I’ll talk with Sergeant Dugan, too.”

Mack stands a little taller. “Hooah, Sir.”

“All right, Sergeant. You’re released for the day.” Steve gestures toward the door. “Go have fun. Safely.

“Thank you, Sir.” Mack snaps back to the position of attention, then turns to leave.

“Can you close the door on your way out?” Steve calls behind him.

“Yes, Sir.”

The door clacks shut, and a smile bursts wide on Steve’s face. He gives himself these moments to be happy for Mack, to feel proud of him, to hope for his future. This shifts into a prayer — the secular kind — that Mack makes it out of the Army alive. It fades his smile, even though Steve knows his odds are pretty good. He tries not to be too scared for all of them. He tries not to imagine them ending up like Trip or Bucky or worse, if there is a worse.

Steve closes his eyes, clears his head, and tries to sink into the quiet of the room. Under his breath, he murmurs a series of words: salamander, egg white, distill, hedge, osmosis… osmosis… something, talon, verge, quince. Osmosis…

“Fuck.”

He can still see parts of the list, the college ruled paper etched with his neat block lettering. But he can only see it in fragments now. There’s a gap that stretches from osmosis to talon, where at least two or three words lay. Steve dips his hand into his pocket, pulls out the list, and unfolds it. He stares at it, cursing silently to himself, wondering how he could forget butter and victory and cat. He scowls and tries to capture the whole sheet in his brain, scan it in like a photograph, the way he used to see things. He’s never had to think about it before. He doesn’t even quite know how to think about it. He doesn’t know how to reclaim something that he never learned, never even earned, in the first place.

Steve sighs and folds the paper back up. He’ll just have to try again later.

———

Over the next three weeks, Steve falls into two modes of operation: spending time with Bucky and waiting to spend time with Bucky. The modest restraint they showed in the days after Bucky moved out — the restraint that was supposed to make things easier on both of them — has vanished. There’s no time for that now. No time to do the right thing. No time to waste on high ideals.

It’s not lost on Steve that this new arrangement has done little to ease his obsession with Bucky. Only instead of worrying about and attempting to orchestrate every moment of his day, Steve has become fixated on having as many moments with Bucky as he can before he leaves all of them for New York. Not only that, Steve wants them to be good moments. Normal and healthy moments. No breaking down, no moping, no crying, no fighting, no reasons to create more worry between them. So Steve has to be good. On point. Fine and dandy and ready to do whatever Bucky asks of him. He’ll do anything, he’s already decided. Anything to make him happy.

So Steve drags himself heavily through slow-moving days, living entirely for the evenings and nights he spends with Bucky at Sam and Natasha’s house. It’s safer there, they both figured. Having Sam and Natasha there keeps the mood lighter. It keeps the quips and smiles flowing. It keeps them all from visiting the dark places where the unknowns live.  It keeps Steve from remembering that he’s going to be a father. It keeps him from remembering that Bucky’s leaving and never coming back.

Steve rarely goes to his own home now, and when he does, it’s only to grab new clothes, do the odd load of laundry, and shove some food down his gullet. It’s a relief to be away from home, because in the gaping quiet Bucky left behind, it’s hard to keep his mind from straying to the places he hates to go. Khalidiya, mostly. God, he might not be able to remember simple words on a fucking list, but he can remember every single detail of that day. Every smell, every sound, every wrenching second of watching Bucky writhe naked and bloody on the ground. Sometimes Steve gags. Sometimes he’s sure he’s going to vomit, just like he did when he first saw Bucky’s face and knew. And so he rushes in and out of his home like he’s on a timer, pushing through it because he knows Bucky’s waiting somewhere for him on the other side.

At first, it was strange to be in Sam and Natasha’s home. Steve wasn’t quite sure how to act in front of the two of them, especially knowing how protective they both are of Bucky and how keenly they once despised Steve. Hell, maybe they still despise him, albeit quietly. Sitting on the love seat next to Bucky, as they so often do to watch TV, Steve wasn’t sure how close he should sit, or if they should hold hands, or if they should lean into each other the way they always used to when they were friends and then more.

The awkwardness lingered until Bucky resolved the issue for them one night, pulling Steve’s arm over his shoulders and sinking against him. Sam eyed Bucky warily from the other couch, where he and Natasha were similarly arranged. Steve watched the silent exchange between the two men, one so subtle he couldn’t possibly translate its parts. It ended with a resigned shake of Sam’s head, one offset with a thin smile. Steve felt Bucky relax into him then, not even realizing he’d been holding himself back.

At night, Steve sleeps on the couch because Bucky asks him to, and he carefully keeps the disappointment from reaching his face. It’s almost enough just to know that Bucky’s in the same house, that if Steve walks down the hall to use the bathroom, he can pass by Bucky’s door and know he’s behind it. He entertains other things, entirely to himself, things that he would never ask for and may never come to pass. But he can’t deny that he wants them. Not if he’s honest.  

———

The second-to-last night before Bucky leaves is a Friday. They’re all in the living room watching the last few minutes of a movie Steve can barely recall. His thoughts have been weaving through those dark places, unable to stay the course with Bucky’s departure looming. Steve is trying to be present, trying to memorize these moments as vividly as he’s memorized so many terrible ones. He’s trying to remember the way Bucky’s hair smells, the angles of his body once padded by muscle, the way Bucky’s hand feels against his own, the exact timbre of Bucky’s laugh. Bucky’s been in such good spirits lately, and Steve hopes it’s because he’s actually doing well. He’s not sure he’d want to know, if it was something else.

The credits roll, and none of them move. It’s late, and the week has been long for all of them. Natasha stretches her arms overhead with a drawn-out groan, which turns into a yelp when Sam digs his fingers into her ribs. It earns him an elbow to the chest and is enough to get them both off the couch. They grab and squawk and laugh and tickle their way toward the bedroom, and Steve watches Bucky smile lazily in their direction.

“Bedtime, you turkeys!” Sam calls out, presumably to them.

Bucky reaches up to where Steve’s hand is draped over his shoulder and pulls on his fingers. “Wanna try out Sam’s amazing bed?”

Steve’s eyebrows gather. “Where will Sam sleep?”

“In his bed.”

“And Natasha?”

“In the same bed.”

“Like, all of us…?”

Bucky tilts his chin up so he can murmur in Steve’s ear. “To sleep, you perv.”

Steve takes a very quiet and very deep breath. Bucky can surely feel it beneath him. He can surely know how foreign this is to him — scratch that, how fucking weird this is to him.

“If that’s what you want,” Steve eventually replies.

Bucky presses a kiss to the underside of Steve’s jaw. “That’s what I want.”

“Okay.”

———

Steve’s the last one to get ready for bed, perhaps to delay the inevitable for a few more minutes. He stares into the mirror above the sink and traces a hasty mental path to how he got here from the Pentagon just one year ago. One year ago, he would be in the bathroom he shared with Sharon, wondering what it would be like to go to war. Today, he’s in the bathroom of another soldier he barely even knows, wondering what it would be like to commit a gross act of fraternization by sleeping in a bed with three NCOs, one of whom is Bucky Barnes. Not even a Mad Lib could describe such an improbable future.

Even though he’s wearing a t-shirt and sleep pants, Steve feels exposed when he reaches the doorway to Sam’s room. He leans on the door jamb and slides his hands into his pockets. He has to put them somewhere. The three of them are already piled into the bed, Nat then Sam then Bucky, and all three of them look to him and smile at his self-consciousness. Bucky is positively grinning, even giggling, and he lifts the sheets to cover the joyful half of his face.

What a life other people live. What closeness they share. The separation Steve’s cultivated over the years has left him with so little, left him aching for what the three of them seem to have so easily. And now as they’re inviting him in, he’s frozen on the edge of it, scared of what it might mean to let go.

“C’mon L.T.,” Sam says, extending his hand toward the empty spot next to Bucky. “We’re waiting on you.”

Bucky pats the mattress and seems to sober a bit. This is what Bucky wants. For Steve to be with him. To be with them. Steve swiftly moves to overthink it, to imbue it with significance. Maybe it’s Bucky’s way of taking care of him, to leave Steve with at least two friends when he goes. If they’ve all slept in the same bed, hell, can they really keep being mere acquaintances?

Sorrow seeps into him and pulls him toward the bed. He crawls in next to Bucky and lets himself be embraced in the awkward way Bucky embraces him now, with his broken arm and braced right leg and covered body. It still feels just as warm as it ever did. Just as earnest.

Bucky kisses the top of his head. “Comfy?”

“Yeah.”

“Told you.”

Steve snorts and lays his hand on Bucky’s sternum. He imagines those scant chest hairs he saw back in Iraq, resting just below his fingertips. He wonders distantly if he’ll ever see them again.

“All right, kids, ready for lights out?” Natasha asks.

“Yep!” Sam says.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Bucky adds. “What about you, Professor?”

Steve buries his face in Bucky’s shirt. “Oh, Jesus. Sure.”

———

Steve drifts in and out of sleep, trying to stay awake as long as possible so that he can engrave the feel of Bucky’s body onto his mind. He pulls himself out of Bucky’s arms at daybreak to use the bathroom, and when he comes back, he sees Sam pressed up to Bucky’s other side, his arm draped over Bucky’s waist. Steve wonders if Sam was like that before he got up, and he’s halted momentarily by a hot wave of jealousy.

He glances at Bucky’s face and finds him awake, looking up at him with fond eyes. Bucky holds his right arm out to invite Steve back into the fold and Steve accepts, but not before leaning down and pressing his lips to Bucky’s, heavy and possessive. After a stunned second, Bucky gives it right back, meeting him with equal force, and something sparks inside of Steve. Something intense and wild that has no business sparking. Steve pulls back and hovers over him for a few more tense seconds before crawling back into bed.

The Bucky of the past, Steve’s insatiable, dark-eyed lover, might have murmured any number of things then. A promise for later. A playful chiding. But this Bucky only strokes his hair and releases a deep breath when Steve’s arm settles back over his body, careful to avoid the places Sam Wilson has claimed. Steve hates his own jealousy. How misplaced it is. How selfish it is.

Bucky should be loved like this, Steve thinks. Bucky should know that he’s loved like this. Now and always.

———

At some point, Steve must fall asleep again, because he feels himself being pulled out of it by a clacking sound, then another, and by the time Steve gains enough sense to open his eyes, the door is slowly swinging closed. He doesn’t move because, beneath him, Bucky is actually asleep. And beside Bucky, the bed is empty.

From the cushion of Bucky’s shoulder, Steve looks at where his hand is pressed to Bucky’s chest, how it rises and falls with the steady rocking of Bucky’s breath. Fear blindsides him when he thinks about how close that chest came to never rising again, and he wonders morbidly how many pints away from death Bucky was. He remembers how pale Bucky’s face was, how cold sweat beaded upon it, how his lips turned blue when his lung collapsed. That unstoppable horror begins to crest, the kind that makes Steve sick, and he curls in so closely to Bucky, holds onto him so tightly, that it wakes him.

Bucky moans and brings his splinted arm up to lay across Steve’s. He grips Steve weakly at the elbow, then gives it a few soft pats.

“‘Morning.”

Bucky’s greeting is muffled by the sound of Steve’s own blood pounding in his ears.  

“You trying to squeeze me to death?”

The turn of phrase couldn’t be more awful, and Steve forces his hand and arm to relax. He tries to force his whole self to relax, breathing the way he might before weapons qualification, deep and slow.

“I want you to stay over tonight,” Steve says, impervious to how forward and unaccommodating and opportunistic he might seem. “Bring your stuff. I’ll take you to the airport tomorrow.”

“You sick of sharing me?”

“Yes.”

There’s a long pause then. Bucky runs his hand up and down the length of Steve’s forearm, over the golden hair that dusts it.

“Fine,” Bucky replies, “but you’ve gotta give me some time alone time with Sam and Nat today. I have to say goodbye.” That final word hangs in the room like a pendulous, menacing creature. Bucky’s hand stops at Steve’s wrist and then clasps onto it, as if it could tether him here. Keep him from winding down into the unknowns.

“Take as much time as you need. You don’t even have to come over at all,” Steve says, backtracking as fear and horror burn off, leaving ashen guilt behind. “We can just stay here, if you want.”

“No, I want to stay with you. I wasn’t sure if you’d… If that’d be a bad idea.”

Steve smirks. “Maybe. Probably.”

“We can just regret it later, I guess.”

“I won’t regret it. I’ll never regret being with you. Not for one moment,” Steve says seriously.

Bucky pets his head. “You’re sweet in the morning. You never used to be sweet in the morning.”

“Well, morning can’t be all that bad when you wake up in a warm bed, right? At least we’re not waking up on top of a Humvee or a pile of rocks.”

“Fuck that,” Bucky replies, chuckling.

Bucky goes quiet for a few moments, and his next words are hushed. Reverent.

“I will miss that sunrise, though. My God…”

Steve lifts his head so he can see Bucky’s face, so he can capture this moment, too. The twitching of Bucky’s scarred chin. The watery shimmer in his eyes. The pain. The loss. Steve takes it in as hungrily as everything else. He lays a hand on Bucky’s cheek and everything gets worse, though nothing spills out and nothing spills over.

Steve’s not sure if it ever will.

———

Steve leaves shortly after they wake up and retreats back to his empty house. Bucky’s grateful for his departure. Grateful for the break from the intensity. Steve’s intensity. Their intensity. It’s an intensity Bucky has trouble naming. It feels close to the way things were before he first left for Afghanistan in 2002, except then, Steve was the one being left behind. Now, it’s Bucky’s turn to be tossed aside, like all his years of service have meant nothing. Just a certificate of appreciation and a monthly retirement check. Thanks for playing, have a nice life. He still hasn’t had a chance to fully process the fact that tomorrow he’ll no longer be a soldier. He keeps reminding himself, trying to inoculate himself for when it finally hits home, but it seems too inconceivable right now.

He’s in pain today. A lot of it. He’s been loading up on painkillers at night to maintain appearances, but it’s taken a real hit to his supply. He once overheard Sam refer to his nightly dosing as “sailing the U.S.S. Percocet,” spoken in a worried tone to Nat when they thought he was conked out on the couch. But all the back channel fretting has been worth it to keep Steve from worrying, from seeing how things really are. Above all, Bucky wants to leave Steve with the impression that he’s okay and that he’s going to continue to be okay, even though Bucky doubts it frequently. Every single morning when his body is stiff and uncooperative. Every single time he strips out of his layers of clothes to shower. Every time he whips out his mangled dick to piss. Every time he sweats through surges of bone-deep pain. Every time he comes dangerously close to throwing something — a crutch, a plate, a book — because he’s so overwhelmed with anger or fear or resentment.

But today is his last day with Sam and Nat, and he’s trying to make it a good one. Despite the pain, he wants to be here for them and wants to give them the same assurance he thinks he’s giving Steve. It’s the best way to make a clean break with them, really. Bucky’s not naive enough to assume that they’ll actually stay in touch after he leaves. He knows how these things go. There will be promises that they’ll talk every week, which will turn into the occasional awkward phone call or text on a birthday or anniversary, consisting of some variant of “we really need to talk more often.” Then there’ll be another deployment, and they’ll be off the grid, and then a redeployment and then a PCS and then, knowing Bucky’s luck, they’ll probably get married and have kids, forget about him completely, except maybe late at night when the air smells just-so, and they’ll say, “man, do you remember Jamie Barnes? I wonder how he’s doing.”

Bucky knows how these things go.

Which is why he’s trying to make the best of it today, taking selfishly from and giving selflessly to both of them. While Bucky enjoys a final dose of super juicy brigade gossip from Natasha, Sam makes sausage frittata and French toast for breakfast. Natasha’s being especially affectionate with him today. That kind of thing would send him over the moon with happiness before he was blown up. Now, every touch from her or anyone else feels both greedily wanted and intensely uncomfortable. The opposing forces swirl and weave and alternate, and it’s hard to land on just one for very long.

He wants to want it completely, like he always used to, but it’s all beset by fear now. Fear that they’ll know how fucked up he is. How gross his body is. Nobody wants to be friends with a gross person. Nobody wants to walk around town with the limping guy with the ugly skin grafts and wide fields of scars covering every limb. And nobody wants to be friends with a discount eunuch. Not really. And, Jesus, when he remembers that he’s fucked Natasha, that she’s sucked his cock… He can’t imagine she doesn’t think about what he must look like now. What his dick must look like. She’s always been good at hiding her feelings, so God knows what she thinks. He tries to assume he has her compassion, which he doesn’t even really want, but at least it’s better than having her disgust.

So Bucky lets her snuggle him on the couch while Sam cooks, because she wants it and he kind of wants it, too. It’s like the old days, if he looks at it the right way. Back when he and Sam lived together and Natasha was the guest. He’ll miss this odd sort of domestic life they’ve fallen into, even if he’s just a third wheel in it.

After breakfast, Bucky and Sam sit on the couch and talk while Natasha runs to the PX to look for a DVD copy of Labyrinth, which they decided has to be the last movie they watch together.  They sit close, touching from shoulder to knee, and Bucky’s glad when Sam doesn’t ask for any more contact than that.

“So, what’re you gonna do when you get to your next duty station?” Bucky asks. “With Nat, I mean.”

“I dunno. We’ve kind of been avoiding the subject.” Sam picks mindlessly at his meticulously kept fingernails.

“You should try to make it work.”

“Well, she’s thinking of getting out.”

Bucky pulls back in surprise. “What? To do what?”

“CIA, DIA.” Sam shrugs. “You know they’d snatch her up in a second.”

“They’d be crazy not to.” Bucky tries to imagine Natasha out of uniform, working the civilian intel circuit. Maybe in a crisp suit, bossing men around. The image brings a smile to his face.

“It got me thinking, y’know?” Sam’s voice is pensive and a little hopeful. “I was gonna go for my full 20 but, honestly, I’m getting pretty tired of deploying.”

It’s not what a grunt is supposed to say, which is why it felt like a dirty secret when Bucky said it to Sam back in October. But there is such a thing as getting old in the infantry, and it happens around age 28. That Sam made it to 33 before uttering a word about it is not a little impressive.

“I was right there, man,” Bucky reminds him. “You know I was. I get it. You know you could get a job anywhere, right?”

“Yes, with all my vast experience in riding in vehicles and marching long distances and teaching men to kill better,” Sam says with a light scoff. He’s smiling, but it’s a cynical one.

“That’s what the GI Bill’s for. Go get your MBA or master’s in… what did you get your bachelors in again?”

“Mechanical engineering.”

“There you go. Go get yourself a master’s in that and go get wealthy and rested and fat and happy. Get a Prius and a house with solar panels or some shit like that.”

Sam chuckles. “Is that what you think engineers do?”

“It’s not?”

Sam seems to seriously consider it, before shaking it off with the jerk of his head. “I dunno. Maybe I’m too institutionalized. Might as well at least see if I can make E-8.” Sam goes quiet, then lets out a mournful sigh. “But what am I gonna do without you?”

“Maybe they’ll send you to Fort Drum.” Bucky looks over at Sam and elbows him several times in the arm.

“Fuck you. If that happens, I’m personally blaming you. I know you have the power to put people in whatever unit you want them in, apparently.”

Bucky presses his hand to his forehead. “Jesus. Don’t remind me.”

“I hope it was worth it,” Sam says, not very lightly.

Bucky got exactly what he thought he wanted last year, which was to have Steve Rogers in his life again. And now Steve’s here and, incredibly, Steve still loves him. He said it that night in the truck. He’s thought about saying it again, Bucky can tell. He’s stopped himself from saying it at least twice. All in all, it’s more than Bucky ever hoped would come out of his meddling, with the exception that now he can’t give Steve what he really wants. The thing Bucky wanted for so long as he searched bars and nightclubs for something even approximately close to it.

Not that it particularly matters. Bucky knows very well where the road with Steve ends.

But even still, to receive such heartfelt love and devotion, even for a short time, is a gift. One he wants so goddamn badly. He’s starving for it. Steve thinks he’s the one who’s desperate, but Bucky knows he’s just as bad. He’s just better at lying about it.

“I love him,” Bucky says, feeling suddenly fearless about it. He doesn’t know why it feels so important to say right now. It strikes him that he’s never told anyone but Steve.

For a heartbeat, Sam looks wounded. He swiftly corrects it. “Is it weird that I’m a tiny bit jealous of him?” he asks quietly, almost like he’s asking himself.

Bucky shrugs with the faint shake of his head. He doesn’t know what’s weird anymore between them. “I dunno. I’ve never been very good at this stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Feelings.”

Sam leans his head in toward Bucky. “I’m gonna miss you, my little snack cake.”

Bucky braces himself against a rush of panicked sadness, telling him that this is all wrong, that this can’t be the way it goes. He’s heard it before, nearly every day since he’s been blown up, and it never seems less true.

Bucky presses a kiss to Sam’s temple one last time. “I’m gonna miss you, too.”

———

“I like having sleepovers with you. I always did,” Bucky says, apropos of nothing in particular.

They’ve long since run out of important things to say and have taken to watching late night TV in Bucky’s bed at Steve’s place. They’re seated up against the headboard in their sleep clothes, their bodies adjacent but not overlapping. They haven’t yet overlapped, not for more than a few moments, when Steve started to put his arm around Bucky and Bucky rebuffed. Regretfully. It’s just been too much today. Too much bittersweetness. Too many goodbyes. Too much of everything. Bucky feels like the raw end of a severed nerve, craving a connection that feels too intense to hold.

“Do you think your ma ever thought we were more than friends? Like in high school?” Steve asks.  

“Oh, I know she did. Why do you think she always wanted us to sleep at our place instead of yours?” Bucky can almost see his ma’s skeptical face right now, grudgingly agreeing because she adored Steve but absolutely certain of the hanky-panky that must be going on between him and her son. Jesus, if only.

“I mean, did she sneak in and check on us in the middle of the night?”

Bucky shakes his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Steve leans in close, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “But how do you know for sure?”

Bucky’s jaw works unproductively, soundlessly, until his words finally slip out of him. “I didn’t really sleep a lot when you were over.”

“Why?”

Heat rises in Bucky’s face. “I dunno.”

“You don’t know?” Steve gives him a teasing smile. “You’re choosing this moment right now to start being shy?”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Well, now you have to tell me.”

“When we’d turn the lights out…” Bucky fidgets with the wrist strap of his arm brace with his reattached finger. It’s like touching a ball of fuzzy wool, even though the material is coarse and hard. “I’d stay awake for a long time. At least until you fell asleep.”

“Why?”

Bucky ducks his head, bewildered by how difficult the words are to get out. “It’s stupid.”

Steve grabs the remote and turns off the TV. The room falls into silence.

“Say it,” Steve insists.  

“I kept kind of hoping — a stupid hope, obviously — that you’d maybe get up and…” He shrugs. “I dunno. Crawl into my sleeping bag.”

Steve laughs, but in a gentle way, like he fully realizes how goddamn difficult — how bafflingly goddamn difficult — this is for Bucky to talk about. “Is that why you always left it unzipped?”

“I mean, I wanted to make it easy.” Bucky’s smiling now, even with his head hanging low. “So I’d stay awake, and I’d wonder if you were thinking about that, too. And I thought maybe if you woke up in the middle of the night to pee or get water, you’d come back and lie down with me. So I slept pretty light. I know it’s stupid. I was pretty stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” Steve tells him.

Steve takes a risk then and lays his hand over Bucky’s good forearm. His touch is light, tentative and comforting. This time, it’s not so overwhelming, and Bucky rotates his hand, palm-up, inviting Steve to take it.  

“Did you ever…?” Bucky starts to say, unsure of what, exactly, he’s trying to ask Steve. Nearly a dozen possibilities come to mind, but they all feel impossible to speak.

Steve presses his palm to Bucky’s and threads their fingers together. “I didn’t really know that was something you wanted from me. Not back then.”

“I assumed you wouldn’t be into that.” A cock sucking quarterback wasn’t anything you could find outside the world of pornography, as far as Bucky knew back then. “Would you have…?”

Another unfinished question, but one Steve still seems to know how to answer.

“I don’t know,” Steve says softly, sliding his thumb over Bucky’s. “I wish I knew you really felt that way. I’d give anything for that, now. Anything for those years with you. Like this.”

Another pang of sadness ripples through Bucky, this one more like grief. Grief over lost time. Lost love. Not just when they were younger but also when they broke up all those years ago. Steve ended it, but maybe because Bucky didn’t know how to keep what they had or go any deeper. He didn’t know how to trust Steve and let Steve love him. He didn’t know how to stay. He still doesn’t know any of those things. He hasn’t grown up one goddamn bit in seven years. And here they are again, and Bucky’s leaving again, and, Christ, it’s the same thing all over again—

“So, what if I did crawl in with you?” Steve asks, voice low, interrupting Bucky’s dismal chain of thoughts. “What then?”

Bucky takes a deep breath. “I don’t know. I just wanted to be close to you. I mean, I obviously thought about other things sometimes, but I really just wanted to have you like this.”

Steve leans in close, his breath warm in Bucky’s ear. “You have me like this.”

Bucky crosses his other hand over his body and lays it on Steve’s head, pulling him in, just wanting to hold him like that in a perfect moment of sweetness.

“You have me any way you want,” Steve whispers, and Bucky’s not deaf to the quiet desire there, something Steve’s probably not even aware of. He’s been so good in these last weeks, so gentle and restrained, even though Bucky has felt him get hard when they kiss. Felt his hunger. Felt those things that Bucky doesn’t seem to be able to feel anymore. And never once has he taken anything Bucky didn’t freely offer him.  

“Lie down,” Bucky tells him.

Steve leans away and looks at him, his breath already quickening.

Bucky smiles. “Go on.”

Steve scoots down the mattress and does as he’s asked. Bucky watches and hates, hates that he has to strategize about how he’s going to arrange his own body. He has to jettison his first few impulses because of the fucking knee brace alone.

So he decides to wince his way down to Steve and press up along his right side, which takes some profoundly unsexy maneuvering. He holds himself up on his healing forearm, which feels like it can take his weight for a little while.

When he finally gets in place, he looks down at Steve, dwelling on his handsome face before dragging his gaze down the length of his body. Down the curves and planes of his torso, over his belly where his hands are folded, down over the generous rise of his groin, over the length of well-muscled thighs that fill the slim fit of his USMA sweatpants. Bucky can feel Steve watching him as he appraises his body, which is appealing to Bucky in the way that a finely sculpted statue might be appealing. Very nice to look at. Vaguely moving. And there’s also that small scratch — that niggling, recurrent itch — of bitterness.

But even still, Bucky wants to give Steve something before he leaves. In case he turns out to be right. In case this really is their last night together. He wants to show him something, some part of himself, something honest. Something true he can give with his body that he could never give with his words. He’s been nearly slain by honest words, and so he learned early on to be honest this way, with his hands and his mouth and his cock and his ass, whatever he could use. It makes him almost laugh, in a deeply fucked up way, to think that maybe he’s been more honest with a nameless Chapel Hill hookup than with his own mother.

Bucky leans down and smiles, mere inches from Steve’s face. Steve returns it, and he looks so young, like a dopey 19-year-old in love.

“So, here I’ve finally got you in my sleeping bag.”

“After I pulled my head out of my fourth point of contact.”

“Yes.” Bucky runs his thumb over Steve’s bottom lip. “Well, when I got you in my sleeping bag, I definitely wanted to kiss you. I didn’t know if you’d like it, though.”

“Oh, I like it.” Steve’s mouth follows Bucky’s thumb as it moves.  

Bucky lays his fingers on Steve’s cheek and turns his head back toward him. “That’s good, because I used to dream about your mouth.” Bucky kisses him softly. “This incredible mouth…”

“Mmm, doing what?”

Bucky huffs out a laugh. “Plenty of things. But mostly this.” He kisses Steve again, then breathes, “This is the best thing.”

They kiss again, and it’s so sweet, kiss after kiss, like a gentle conversation. Like they’re trying it out for the first time, smiling and reveling in the ecstatic lightness of it. Steve lifts his hand to rest on the back of Bucky’s neck, to start to hold him. Bucky replies with a hand on Steve’s chest, sweeping close to his nipple but stopping just a little short.

“Remember when you came back from camp just before junior year?” Bucky asks, moving from Steve’s mouth down to his jaw, laying more kisses there between handfuls of words. “I swear to God, I barely recognized you.”

Steve lifts his chin with a sigh, offering himself to Bucky’s lips. “Yeah…”

Bucky rotates his hand, fanning his fingers wide, passing each one over Steve’s pectoral. Steve arches up into his touch, just a little, then seems to stop himself, pulling his breath in and holding it.

“It’s okay,” Bucky murmurs against his neck. He makes another pass with his fingers over the fabric of Steve’s t-shirt, over the taut nipple below, and Steve squirms beneath him.

“I like that,” Steve tells him, eyes closed, lips parted. He’s still holding the back of Bucky’s head, keeping him close.

“I know you do.”

Bucky kisses his way back up to Steve’s mouth, taking it harder this time, and Steve now has him with both hands, touching him in safe places, encouraging him, kissing back with that energy from this morning. Bucky shifts some of his weight so that he’s lying half on top of Steve. It hurts now, but the closeness is welcome and very well worth it. He leaves space for his hand to travel down, past Steve’s diaphragm, over his belly button, down further still, past his waistband, landing boldly on the rising swell of his cock. He sighs against Steve’s mouth. Maybe he’ll never get over the feel of it, the heady knowledge of what he can do to another man, even if his own body no longer resonates the way it used to.

Steve pulls in a sharp breath through his nose, and Bucky opens his mouth to him, meeting Steve’s tongue with his own. Steve knows how to kiss. Even before they ever started messing around, he knew how. Bucky always imagined some girl teaching him, because he kisses like a girl. He kisses like Natasha. Sensual and responsive, languorous and judicious. No boorish stabbing or weird teeth licking or swirling tongue gymnastics, the artless shit so many men seem to think is sexy. Kissing Steve is like a good slow fuck, the kind that could go on forever and never be enough.

Bucky can feel something shift in Steve, as he palms his dick through his sweatpants. Steve starts to fall into it, get lost in it, and his hands slowly start to travel. One passes down Bucky’s back, over the concave, negative space where a strip of muscle used to be. The part of his back that’s now part of his arm. Bucky pauses for a moment but pushes through it, using all his skills in denial to shove the lingering creepiness aside. He tries to breathe through the tightness in his chest and the anxiety trying to take hold there, but it crests again when Steve’s hand travels down to his ass, settling right over the mottled pink strip where they grated his skin off like he was a brick of cheese.

Bucky breaks the kiss and pushes himself awkwardly off of Steve’s body, back to his side, hand pulling away of him like he’s a hot stove. Steve looks up at him, addled and blinking, as if startled from deep sleep. The realization dawns on him exponentially, and within moments he looks horror-stricken, pulling his hands away and holding them up like Bucky’s got him at gunpoint.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Steve says roughly. “I am so, so sorry. I didn’t even… I’m so sorry, Bucky.”

Bucky has no words to describe the shame he feels, the shame Steve thinks belongs to him. The shame of not being able to be touched in ways that Steve’s touched him so many times before. Ways he used to beg to be touched.

“No. No,” is all Bucky can say, brows drawn inward, shaking his head at Steve’s stammering apologies.

“I know. I wasn’t even thinking—”

“No,” Bucky growls, suddenly angry. Suddenly furious with himself. Furious that even this has been taken from him.

Bucky leans in again, takes Steve by the chin, and kisses him with that fury. Steve’s lips are unresponsive, still frozen, and Bucky keeps kissing him, his lips, his face, muttering “it’s okay, it’s okay,” until he finally gets something back. Steve’s hands don’t return, but his mouth begins to warm, and his body settles back into something like calm. Steve shudders when Bucky goes for his cock again, which lost a little bit of life in the panic.

“Can you just let me?” Bucky whispers against Steve’s cheek. “I just want to touch you. I just want to remember you…”

When he pulls back, Steve’s eyes are glistening with recognition so sincere that it steals the wind from Bucky’s chest. Maybe it’s what Steve wants, too. Something to remember Bucky by. Maybe he’s just as scared that this is really the end for them.

Bucky looks down Steve’s body and watches his own hand slide beneath the waistband of Steve’s pants. He feels for the band of his underwear and skirts underneath it, where Steve’s cock rests. He touches it, traces the natural contours of it. It feels normal. It feels perfect. And Bucky both wants to see it and almost can’t bear the thought of it.

He bites his lip as he teeters, as he struggles against these competing forces. And in the end, he pulls his hand out and has Steve lift his ass so he can push down his clothes. Just enough to free his dick. Enough to watch it fill and rise, something he’s witnessed countless times. But this time, Bucky watches with fascination, like he’s never seen it happen before, like he has to commit each detail to his memory. And when he takes it in his hand, when he can get his full hand around and still have there be more length, he doesn’t know if it’s awe or anguish that seizes his throat.

Bucky glances at Steve’s face, which is flushed like his cock and full of consolation. Bucky has grown to hate that look, hate it so hard, so he starts moving his hand to make it go away. To replace it with something else.

It works, and Steve exhales slowly and sinks into the mattress, his hands clenched into disciplined, unmoving fists. And why wouldn’t they be, after the way Bucky reacted?

“Touch me,” Bucky says.

Steve shakes his head.

Bucky tries not to let anger overtake him again, even though he feels it burning through his guts. This shouldn’t have to be so fucking complicated. It was never complicated before. Sex used to be the one thing that wasn’t complicated between them.

Bucky kisses him. “Please. Just… stay above the equator.”

Steve regards him, his blue eyes dark and intense and penetrating, looking for permission somewhere deeper, somewhere that can’t be faked. Bucky’s not sure if he finds what he’s looking for, because those eyes roll back and close as a wave of pleasure hits him, and he grabs onto Bucky’s shoulder as if it was the sole anchor keeping him from floating away.

Bucky speeds his strokes, picking up drops of pre-cum to ease some of the friction. Steve moans and hitches up his hips in tiny rhythmic thrusts, fingers digging into Bucky’s flesh. The sight of Steve coming apart is unbelievably hot, and yet, Bucky feels nothing in his own body beyond the satisfaction of being so intimate, which is vastly more emotional than physical. His own dick has barely even stirred, and Bucky wonders if this is just how his body is going to be now, limp and sexless.

The thought very nearly breaks his heart, but he can’t hold it for long. Because Steve’s eyes open then, and he stares up at Bucky like he’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, even though it makes no sense that Steve could see him that way now. It touches that ache in his heart and soothes it, and Bucky kisses Steve again and then again, stopping only when he begins to pant, when he’s so close. Bucky tightens his grip and jerks him hard, and Steve comes into Bucky’s hand with a strangled gasp, never once looking away from Bucky’s face, like he’s coming at the sight of him. It’s wishful thinking, but for just a moment, it feels like the apex of joy.

They lie together while Steve comes down, while his breathing slows and his dick begins to rest. Bucky’s hand is still full of his come, but he can hold it for a while. These moments with Steve holding him, touching him, thanking him, kissing him, they’re too important to interrupt.

He wants this forever. This right here.

“Me too,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky realizes that he said it aloud.

He expects Steve to ask him once more to stay, to throw one last Hail Mary pass before the clock runs out. But he doesn’t. And Bucky doesn’t know if he should be grateful or crushed.

———

The next day, Bucky crutches into the Warrior Transition Battalion headquarters and prepares to sign out from his unit one last time. Steve is parked just outside the building, waiting to take him to the airport in Raleigh. He offered to come with, but this is one thing Bucky wants to do alone.

Even though it’s Sunday, there’s still a skeleton crew manning the battalion orderly room, including one junior NCO and two privates. They all seem to recognize him immediately, even in civilian clothes, and they greet him by name. It’s unsettling that they know him, and he can only imagine the context of their familiarity.

“You signing out, Sergeant?” the NCO asks, grabbing the battalion sign-in log and sliding it across his desk. He hands Bucky a pen, one with a good grip, like it was made for guys with messed up hands.

“It’s just Jamie now,” Bucky says, printing and signing his name, then reluctantly writing “ETS”  in the section that says “Reason.”

“Any last words before you’re officially a civilian?” one of the privates asks from another desk. It seems like a well-worn question, maybe one they ask everyone who’s transitioning out of the unit.

Bucky scrawls in the time and drops the pen onto the log. “Tell Uncle Sam he can suck my prosthetic nut.”

There’s something exhilarating about saying it, just throwing it out there, letting it hang in the room because he put it there. Embarrassment stirs, but it’s tempered by Bucky’s tenuous ownership of it. Because, yeah, he’s that guy now. This is just his miserable fucking lot. This is just the fucking price he paid to play soldier.

Still, the NCO laughs. A real laugh. One look at the badge on his chest tells Bucky that he’s a combat medic, and with the exception of Parker, those guys can laugh at pretty much any tragedy. It’s a means of self-preservation, the way that a grunt can laugh about blowing a haji’s head clean off.

“Take care of yourself,” the NCO says, “and enjoy some of that freedom for the rest of us.”

Bucky nods. “Keep your head on a swivel.”  

“Bye, Sergeant Barnes!” one of the privates calls behind him as he crutches out of the orderly room. Using his rank is a small act of rebellion, but a meaningful one. And Bucky can’t help but smile his way back down the hall.

———

They get to Raleigh with plenty of time to spare, so Steve parks the truck in short term parking, far away from all the other cars. They sit and listen to the radio for a while, tense and dreading. Bucky’s thoughts veer in disorganized directions, making jagged angles and shapes. Across the cab, Steve’s body is strung tight, and his molars click as he gnaws on his cuticles and stares out the window at nothing.

“Maybe I should just go in,” Bucky suggests. “Get it over with.”

Steve’s head snaps around, eyes wide and spooked. “Why?”

“We’re just delaying the inevitable, aren’t we?”

Steve frowns. “I’m sorry, I got lost in my head.” He reaches over and touches his fingers to Bucky’s hand where it rests on the seat. “I should be here with you.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m doing the same damn thing. Seems much easier than saying goodbye.” One corner of Bucky’s mouth curls up in a self-conscious smirk.  “You’d think I’d be pretty good at it by now. All the duty stations, all the moving when I was a kid, all the leave and deployments…” He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t know how to say goodbye to you.”

“It’s not goodbye.”

Bucky raises a skeptical eyebrow. “No?”

“I’m gonna come see you, first chance I get. So, right now it’s just ‘see you later.’” Steve gives a small laugh. “Plus, I don’t want the last thing you remember to be my ugly crying face.”

“It’s not ugly,” Bucky says quietly, feeling oddly sad that Steve could think that way about something so wonderfully earnest. “The fact that you feel that way, it’s not ugly.”

Steve smiles. “Well, it’s not pretty, but I guess at least it’s honest.”

“Some people go their whole lives without anyone ever feeling that way about them. Or ever saying it, at least.” Bucky takes Steve’s hand in his own. “I’m really lucky, and…”

And he thinks to say that he’s glad he got to have it, even for just one moment, something that might let Steve know that it’s okay to never come to New York, that it’s okay to move on, to be a father, to find someone else. Someone better. All the things Bucky’s pretty sure are going to happen anyway. He just wants Steve to know that he understands and accepts it. He wants Steve to know that it’s okay to let go.

“And what?” Steve asks.

“And I want to kiss you. And then I should go.”

Steve slides across the seat and wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “Okay.”

They kiss. It’s soft and sincere, and it speaks clearly for both of them, saying that it’s okay, that whatever happens is okay.

“You ready?” Steve asks, taking one more gentle kiss.

“No,” Bucky whispers. “Not at all.”

———

When Bucky’s plane touches down at JFK, it seems to taxi on the runway for days. So he’s got plenty of time to check the four text messages queued up from when he was in the air for a whole 90 minutes.

The first is from Steve. It’s a picture of his truck with the caption “Don’t worry, I’ll take real good care of her. Yee-haw y’all.” Bucky snorts fondly and texts back that he’d better not get too attached and “forget” to ship it back to New York next month.

The second and third messages are from his ma and Rikki, one with a picture of a chocolate frosted “Welcome Home” cake and another with a picture of Oscar captioned “Can’t wait to bite u.” He smiles at both and responds with a message that he made it home.

The final message is a photo from Natasha with no caption. It’s a picture of Bucky and Steve in Sam’s bed, tangled together in a sleepy embrace. Bucky’s stunned by it, so much so that he doesn’t even try to hide it from the person in the next seat. It’s so unguarded, so tender, so achingly beautiful. If love had a physical form, Bucky thinks, it would look like the two of them in that moment.

He’s so thankful that Natasha was there to capture that love between them, even if looking at it rips Bucky’s guts out. Because men like him don’t get endings like that. Men like him only get moments, little matches to light up the dark once in awhile. And though he thought he’d accepted that fact, like so many other unmovable facts of his life, he still has to press his forehead to the plexiglass window and blink back tears.

But even with his vision blurred, he texts Natasha to thank her. Because at least he has this now, proof that someone knows a part of him and still loves him. His tiny little match in the dark.

Chapter Text

In February, Steve has his first migraine.

It creeps upon him insidiously, starting as a dull pain at his right temple around 10:00 am. He’s had headaches — frequent ones — since he got blown up. Those first few weeks after the explosion were practically one continuous headache. But there’s something special about this one, especially when the pain starts to crawl behind his eye. At lunch, when he leaves his office to grab a sandwich with Sitwell, the scant sunlight feels like it’s cutting a hole straight into his brain.

“You okay?” Sitwell asks when they get out of his car.

“Why?”

“You’re squinting.” Sitwell looks up at the sky with eyes wide open, showing how obviously not-bright it actually is outside.

“Just a headache,” Steve says, tipping his chin down to let the brim of his patrol cap do its job.

But by the time they get back to the company, it’s clear that this is not just a headache. Steve closes his office door, sits at his desk, and stares at his footlong as he tries to convince himself to eat it. He was starving for it after missing breakfast, a semi-regular occurrence now that his body has decided it can only sleep soundly between 3:00 a.m. and the start of the duty day, only after he’s completely exhausted himself. He tries to find the hunger he had earlier, but all he finds is a snarl of sourness in his stomach. He wraps the sandwich back up sloppily and pushes it to the side of his desk. Desperate for any relief, he slumps forward and holds his head tightly between his hands, pressing his palm as deeply into his left temple as he can press it. It seems to diffuse the pain, dull it, spread it around a bit, but it doesn’t relieve it.

By their 13:00 staff meeting, Steve can barely stand the overhead lighting. None of them are expecting him to say anything beyond his usual personnel update, but Morita and Sam can’t help but comment on how sick he looks. Sousa suggests that he go to sick call, and Steve snaps back that the only way he would ever go to sick call is if he couldn’t fucking walk. After that little gem, Barton orders him to go. Immediately. When he stands, the impossible pain becomes impossibly worse, blotching his vision while his brain surely tries to extrude itself out of his skull. He bends at the waist and exhales vocally, and Sam walks him to his car and drives him straight to the medical clinic.

Steve has to wait nearly two hours to see a doc; half the damn base seems to be sick today. The pain is utterly unreal, searing like a pulsing hot spike through his eye socket. He shoves the heel of his palm so hard against his eyeball that he wonders if maybe the whole thing will just explode, and maybe that would finally give him some relief. He breathes and breathes and breathes, like he would if he were trying to get through his first Airborne jump again.

Sam has been sitting in the waiting room with him all this time, and Steve can now hear him bugging the nurses to push him ahead in the queue. Steve’s in so much pain he can’t even be embarrassed to let an NCO beg for him.

Sam plops down in the seat next to him with a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, man. They are not budging.”

Steve nods against his hand and thanks Sam, but he’s not even sure he’s getting the words out loudly enough for them to be heard. Every rustle sounds like thunder and lights up his brain with pain. His own quiet murmur sounds like a shout.

When Steve finally gets in to see one of the docs, his eyes are watering so badly that he wonders if maybe he could sneak in a few actual tears and have them go unnoticed. It takes the doc about three minutes to diagnose him with a “textbook case” of migraine. She uses the rest of her time to make him follow up appointments with neurology and, when she reads through his TBI notes, neuropsychology.

“What’s that?” Steve mutters around his clenched teeth. “What’s that mean?”

The doc swivels around in her chair. “Just some testing for different cognitive functions. Memory, attention, executive functioning. It’ll be down at the main hospital. Given how long you were unconscious and the confusion after you woke, I think it’s a good idea. Have you noticed any changes?”

“Memory,” Steve grits, pressing his palm back up to his left eye.

“Okay. So, make sure you go to that one, okay? We wanna see how your brain’s doing now.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he manages to say.  

Steve leaves the clinic with a prescription for sumatriptan, which he rushes to the bathroom to take with a cupped handful of water. He doesn’t even know if it’ll work, or how long it’ll take, but the pain has obliterated all sense of self-preservative wariness.

Sam drives Steve home, where he’s been ordered to stay for the next 24 hours. Steve thinks he remembers to thank Sam. He certainly remembers insisting that he can make it inside without Sam’s help. The last thing he wants is for Sam to come inside and see how he’s been living.

Steve closes the front door and locks the deadbolt. He then shambles through the living room, stopping to clumsily unlace and peel off his boots. He unzips and shrugs off his ACU coat in the hall and hangs a left into the first room, where he unbuttons his pants and hops precariously on one leg as he yanks them off. His balance is thrown, but at least his slow fall is canted in the direction of the bed he’d like to land on. He hits face down on the rumpled comforter with a groan, and gracelessly pulls his shirt over his head as he twists over onto his back.  He drops the shirt off the edge of the bed, and his body grinds to a halt.

Damn the fucking light in this room. Bucky probably hated it as much as Steve hates it right now. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes through the ruthless rhythm pounding in his head. It’s his heart, his blood, flaring and surging, and he wonders a little fearfully if it’ll ever stop. He doesn’t know what to do. What to think. How to distract himself. He wonders whether he should just dive into the pain, rush into it the way it’s rushing into him.

He seems to use up enough time half-wittedly pondering his options, and the next time he checks in with himself, the thrumming has eased up just a little. And even that incremental change is enough to bring a quiet “Thank you, Jesus” to Steve’s lips. It continues on like that, the pain bumping down in fits and starts, on and on, until all that’s left is absolute exhaustion and a dim whisper of discomfort tapping gently at his temple.

Steve moves then. Slowly. He rolls onto his side and works himself awkwardly beneath the comforter. He then presses his face to the pillow and breathes in deep, as deep as his lungs can pull. Something comforting and warm fills him, like a blanket enveloping him from the inside. The bed smells like Bucky. His sweat. His skin. His hair. Steve tries not to come in here often and tries even harder not to touch the bed. He’s scared — truly scared — that the smell will go away if he mixes too much of himself into it. But today, Steve lets himself take some of what’s left of him. He inhales Bucky into his body and soaks him in through his skin. If he concentrates hard enough, it’s like an embrace.

He only comes in here when he’s having a really bad day, or when he’s missing Bucky and can’t get to his voice. On those really bad days, he comes in here and usually sits on the floor. Then he closes his eyes and remembers, sometimes while he listens to Led Zeppelin on the iPod Bucky gave him. Steve has a few things he likes to remember most. Like the way Bucky’s face scrunches up when he’s laughing, one of those real, gut-deep laughs. They’re so rare — Steve has maybe only seen one a handful of times.

Other times he remembers this one particularly beautiful day when he and Bucky were on the Brooklyn Bridge. He doesn’t even remember what the hell they were doing there, but he knows it was before they were ever physically involved. He remembers that Bucky was drinking a bottle of expensive tourist water you buy from guys squatting next to Coleman coolers they bring from home. It was the middle of summer, and Bucky was nineteen, looking sleek and sexy in a tank top and shorts. He was drinking so greedily that a rivulet of water dripped down his chin and onto his chest, which was strong and lean from two recent weeks of hard drilling with his unit. He drank half and offered Steve the rest, and Steve was so acutely aware of Bucky’s saliva on the bottle that he blushed as he took it in his mouth. It felt almost like a kiss, with Bucky watching him like that. With his lips parted like that.

Steve used to think mostly about how erotic it was, how sensual and charged, but now he thinks about Bucky’s face. How happy and alive he looked. And it makes Steve glad to think of him like that for a little while, because maybe he’ll look like that again someday. Maybe he’ll look like that when Steve goes to see him. Maybe he’s really doing okay.  Whenever Bucky doesn’t answer the phone, Steve tells himself that it’s because he’s with his family. Or maybe he’s at an AA meeting or at the VA. Maybe he’s in therapy. Bucky tells him he’s working on getting all that stuff set up, and Steve, in turn, tells himself that it’s true.

Steve lingers for a few more minutes, and he decides he’s going to push himself up and out of bed. Maybe he’ll go to the kitchen and get some food. It seems like a good idea. He knows the movements to make with his hands and arms; he’s done tens of thousands of pushups in his life.

But something keeps him still, almost like Bucky is holding him there. And before very long, it pulls Steve into sleep.

Steve keeps his appointment with neuropsychology, but only because his migraine scared him so badly. He shows up and fills out an absurdly large packet of questionnaires. He tries to be very careful with some of them, especially the ones that clearly measure depression and PTSD and anxiety. He skews his answers tactfully, knowing that he should at least endorse some problems, having recently come back from deployment. They say it’s normal to feel a little on-edge, to be a little jumpy, to have problems sleeping. To think about the things that happened from time to time. He’s mildly concerned by how much he has to shift all the numbers to the left.

He’s then taken to a room by a young captain named Gutierrez, who introduces herself as a psychology intern. The room is very distinctly a therapy room. Steve’s been in one before, just one time. When his ma thought he needed to talk to someone about her sickness. Turns out he didn’t. Turns out it was okay just to keep it inside.

But now, he really needs help, so when she asks him about his cognitive symptoms, he doesn’t lie. He tells her about the memory problems. The headaches. How he seems to zone out and go somewhere else. She asks follow-up questions, very specific ones, and as they move through the interview, it feels like she really gets it.

And then she asks him what happened.

“What do you mean?” Steve asks

“Tell me about how you got your head injury.”

“IED.”

“Okay.”

She waits. She’s very patient. It takes her a long time to raise her eyebrows at him.

Steve opens his mouth, but his throat seems to clench up, locking his words in tight. All he tries to say is “My platoon sergeant’s head slammed into my face when he got blown up by an IED.” It’s one sentence, and a highly sanitized sentence at that, but it feels as thick as a manifesto.  

“Is it that you can’t tell me or you don’t want to tell me?” Gutierrez asks. “Is it a classified mission or something like that?”

Steve frowns and sinks back into his chair. The harder he tries to force it out, the more it seems to stick. But his thoughts aren’t stuck at all. His mind shifts back  with no effort at all, and his memories come in a relentless strafe. His senses fill with Iraq, his mouth fills with saliva, and he ineffectually tries to beat everything back while his leg shakes wildly.

“I just can’t,” he finally whispers.

“Okay.” Gutierrez scrawls something in her notepad. She doesn’t appear phased by what’s happening to him, almost like she sees this kind of minor freakout a thousand times a day. “Maybe I can just ask you some more basic questions, then?”

“Okay.”

“Were you knocked unconscious?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how long?”

Steve bites at his thumb nail. He shakes his head.

“Less than thirty minutes?”

“I think so.”

“Any other symptoms afterward? Dizziness, disorientation, amnesia?”

“First two.”

“Was it a closed head injury?”

“What…” His mind goes blank. “What does that mean?”

She gestures to her head, pointing at it sharply. “Did any foreign body penetrate your skull, or did you have a skull fracture of any kind?”

“My face broke.” Steve touches the bone below his eye. “Here.”

“Okay. Did anyone do any cognitive testing with you afterward?”

“My medic asked questions.” Steve’s eyebrows draw together. “I think I messed them up.”

“Do you remember the questions?”

“Something about the president. The date.”

“Okay.” She regards him with compassion, then sifts through the questionnaires he filled out earlier and holds one out toward him. “You sure this is accurate?”

It’s the trauma questionnaire. The one about horrible memories. The physiological and psychological reactions. The sleeplessness. The nightmares. Steve’s leg shakes harder.

“Yep,” he says.

She jots another note in her pad.

“Alright, Lieutenant Rogers. Anything else you’d like to add?”

Steve’s leg stops, and he freezes in a moment of recognition before straightening his posture. He almost forgot he was Lieutenant Rogers. He almost forgot that he’s supposed to be better than this. Stronger than this.

“No,” he states. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Not pushing.”

Gutierrez waves off his gratitude. “Everyone processes things at their own rate.  Have you been to behavioral health yet?”

“No, Ma’am. I’m fine,” Steve insists.

“Okay. Well, if you ever want to, you can always let us know. We help a lot of people process the things that happen overseas.”

Steve glances at her bare right shoulder. “You ever been deployed?” he asks, even though he already knows the answer.

She shakes her head. Her brunette bob grazes her jaw. “No. Not yet.”

“How long have you been in the Army?”

“Um, only seven months.” She looks down at the floor. The insecurity doesn’t suit her very well.  

Steve has every intention of telling her that she doesn’t know anything about combat or IEDs or watching her best friend get blown to shreds, screaming in agony because she made the wrong choice. Because she picked the wrong fucking door. The wrong fucking road. The wrong fucking time to break up.

But it doesn’t matter what she knows or doesn’t know about deployment. He still wouldn’t talk to her about it, anyway. And she shouldn’t feel ashamed for not yet enduring the hell of war. He hopes she never has to see one minute of it.

“Well, I wouldn’t have known it was only seven months, Ma’am,” Steve says instead. He tries to smile.

Gutierrez smiles back and nods her thanks. “Let’s take a break, and then we’ll get to some assessments. Any questions?”

“No.”

Steve takes his break outside, where the cold feels like a reset button. The winter air seems to siphon the anxiety out of him, leaving behind a comfortable hollowness. He wishes for a cigarette, even though he doesn’t smoke, and he has a weak argument with himself over whether or not to accost the junior enlisted soldiers grouped at the smoke pit to bum one off them. His time runs out before he can decide.

The rest of the day is a marathon of task after task. Steve defines words. He makes patterns with blocks. He picks patterns out of shapes. He traces trails from number to letter to number to letter. He spends about three hours trying to memorize words and shapes and patterns. For each task, he tries to read Gutierrez’s face to see how well he’s doing, but she maintains a carefully neutral expression the entire time.

By the time 16:00 rolls around, Steve is spent and discouraged, and the most difficult task of all seems to be waiting for the next afternoon to get feedback. He heads back to the office to check emails, even though he could do it on his Blackberry from home. He can’t go there now. He can’t sit in the silence. He can’t sit in the places where Bucky used to be.

He sleeps on the floor in his office that night.

The next day, Gutierrez tells him that everything’s normal. His memory is average. His overall IQ is impossible to calculate, since his performance on the tasks was so variable. He has superior verbal and spatial reasoning abilities. His executive functioning is average. On average, Steve Rogers is now average.

“Of course, we don’t have any baseline data to go off of,” Gutierrez reminds him. “Your educational background and some of your scores suggest that you have exceptional baseline intelligence, so it’s possible that average scores on memory and processing speed and executive functioning tasks would be considered low for you. Personally.”

Steve nods slowly. “But I’m not actually impaired.”

“Not according to the broader population. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” Gutierrez taps the top of her pen against her thigh and seems to consider her words very carefully. “A disorder like PTSD would explain a lot of these things, too. When the brain is in fight or flight mode, it’s always looking for threats, whether they’re there or not. And that can really impact one’s ability to concentrate and attend to things. That could make some of the timed tasks and memory tasks especially difficult. And in addition, if you’re having nightmares or just not sleeping well, that can impact scores, too. Also depression can have similar cognitive effects.”

“But I have a TBI,” Steve reminds her. “Not those other things.”

“With a mild TBI, which sounds like what you have, most people experience a full recovery within six to twelve months of the traumatic incident. So if you’re still having cognitive symptoms after that period, it’s more likely that there’s some other condition — probably a psychological condition — which is impacting your cognitive functioning.”

Steve pulls some command into his voice. He manages it with less control than he hoped. “I don’t have PTSD. Or depression.”

“Not based off your questionnaires.” She glances up from her notepad. “But that’s not the only information you’ve given me.”

Steve stares at her, making his face hard and impassive.

“Don’t worry,” Gutierrez says. She gives him a flat smile. “I can’t actually diagnose you unless you endorse the symptoms. Just please remember what I said earlier about behavioral health.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Are we done here?” Steve stands, imposing his height over her  and flagrantly ignoring protocol.

“Uh, yeah,” she stammers, rising. “I guess so.”  

Steve gives a single, curt nod. “Have a good day, Ma’am.”

That night, Steve lies in his own bed and calls Bucky.  It’s late. So inappropriately late to be calling. But Bucky answers after nearly five rings, and Steve can’t help but choke up at the sound of his voice.

“What’s wrong?” Bucky asks, his words muddled by sleep.

“Nothing.”

“’S late.”

“Yeah.”

Bucky lets out a long, quiet groan, like he’s stretching. “You can tell me, y’know,” he says at the end of it.  

Steve sighs and lays his hand on his stomach. “The doc said my head’s okay. I’m normal.”

“That’s good, right?”

“I guess.”

Of course it’s not, and they both know it. Steve Rogers was never normal, not when it came to his cognitive abilities. Hell, they might never have even become friends, if Steve hadn’t been skipped ahead one grade because of his magnificent brain. For Steve, normal is as good as broken.

Silence settles and drags on for a while. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable, though. If Steve tries hard enough, he can close his eyes, imagine Bucky in the bed beside him, resting in the stillness. He can imagine the outline of his body beneath the covers. The warmth coming off of him. The handsome lines and curves of his profile in the moonlight.

“I miss you,” Bucky tells him then, like he knows just how badly Steve needs to hear it. It’s clearer than all the other words he’s spoken. It’s unequivocal.  

Steve smiles with a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “God, I miss you, too.”

“I’mma fall asleep now.”

“Okay.”

“I’m here, though.”

Steve rolls onto his side and rests his phone on the pillow beside him. “Me, too,” he says, reaching out to the nothingness beside him.  

————————————

In March, Steve takes command of Alpha Company.

It all starts with Barton who, for absolutely no discernible reason, decides that it’s time for Steve to be promoted to captain. Sitting in front of Barton’s desk, Steve struggles to make sense of the words Barton strings together. Exemplary performance under extenuating circumstances. Can-do attitude. Clear and unwavering dedication to the unit. Exceptional commitment to the men of his platoon. Plays well with others. Jesus Christ, Steve nearly looks over his shoulder to see if there’s someone else standing there, someone these words are actually meant for. Someone who actually has his shit together and isn’t just dragging himself from one duty day to the next, trying not to crack apart.

“So, to give you a little experience, I want you to take the company while I’m on TDY,” Barton says. “Three weeks.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Barton gives him a crooked smile. “That was easy. I expected a little more resistance.”

“If you think I’m ready, then I’m ready,” Steve says.

“You know what I think?”

“What, Sir?”

“I think if something doesn’t change, you’re not gonna be able to do this job for very long.”

Steve tilts his head. “Sir?”

“Before I got blown up, I was fun. I always had something on the tip of my tongue. Some shit remark, some joke.” Barton smiles again, but this one’s tired and a little sad. “After, all that just shut off. Like someone yanked the cord out. Poof.” He flares his fingers out like the explosion that took those things from him. “Just gone.”

Steve tries to imagine a Barton like that. He can kind of see it a little in the blue of Barton’s eyes. Maybe a shadow of the mischief that used to thrive there.

“You’re different now,” Barton tells him. “And that’s okay. I think that’s normal.”

There’s that word again.

Barton leans back in his chair and steeples his fingers in front of his chest. He speaks mostly to the wall with occasional glances at Steve. “But there’s a point where… it’s really hard to come back. And if you can’t come back, you can’t be a good soldier. You can’t lead if you can’t connect to people. And when that light shorts out, when that disconnect happens, it’s really fuckin’ hard to get that plug back in that outlet.”

“But you did it,” Steve points out.

“I had to work my fucking ass off,” Barton snaps back. “And I nearly ended up divorced for a third time. And if I could’ve intercepted it before all that, I would’ve saved myself a whole lot of trouble.” He straightens his posture and points a scarred finger at Steve. “And I never, ever got back to where I was before. Never.”

Steve stiffens. “What are you trying to say, Sir?”

“I’m saying that either you go see a doc — about your sleep, at the very least — or I’m gonna command refer you to behavioral health. And you’re not gonna like that.”

“My sleep.”

Steve’s eyes dart back and forth as he searches for indicators that he’s sleeping poorly. Of course, he’s barely sleeping at all, but he didn’t think it was that obvious. He’s clearly been performing above standard, or else he wouldn’t be in Barton’s office right now having this awkward conversation about taking over the company.

“Lemme guess, you’re sleeping about three, four hours a night?” Barton ventures in a knowing tone. “Maybe not even that? I’ve seen you sacked out in your office. On the goddamn floor. Jesus, we can get you a couch.”

Damn. Steve forgets sometimes about the narrow glass panel in his office door. He forgets that anyone can pass by and probably see his boots peeking out from behind his desk.

“Do I have to go to behavioral health?” Steve asks.

“No. You can go to the regular medical clinic, get some trazodone or something, and carry on. Go to sleep. That’ll help a lot.” Barton gives him the knife hand now, chopping it at him in time with his threats. “If you’re not sleeping, not taking the meds, I’ll know. So don’t fuck around.”

“Yes, Sir.”  

“I wanna give you my company while I’m gone, Steve. I want you to lead. I wanna send you to the Captain’s Career Course this summer. I want you to sit for the board in May. I want you on that O-3 list in August. I want a lot of things for you. The next time you deploy, I don’t want it to be with us.” Barton gives a quick, jerking shrug with one shoulder. “No offense. I just want you to have your own company by then.”

For as much as Steve has wanted his own company, he strains to comprehend why someone would actually give him one. Surely someone must be able to see him for what he is now — exhausted, nearly paralyzed with fear and guilt, constantly strung out from reliving his deployment day in and day out…. Normal. Average.  

“Just the sleep,” Steve confirms. “Nothing else.”  

“Just the sleep. That’s all I’m asking. You’d be surprised how much better you’ll feel when you’re sleeping every night.”

“Fine,” Steve concedes.

“Good. You’ll make your appointment now.”

“Right now?”

Barton turns the phone on his desk toward Steve. “Extension 4518.”

The unit changes a lot in March. Barton goes to Fort Benning for three weeks of training. Foggy gets his transfer to JAG. Sam gets PCS orders to Fort Carson. Parker decides not to re-enlist, even when Steve offers to send him to the Primary Leadership Development Course and tries to get him a sweet re-enlistment bonus. Bucky’s replacement finally arrives from Fort Lewis and appears to be serviceable.

Steve runs the company well. He throws himself into the work full-bore, migraines and all. He works the unit hard. Campaigns aggressively with Fury for them to get extra range and convoy training hours. He PTs the crap out of them before daybreak and gives them an extra hour of free time at the end of the duty day. The leadership respects him. The men respect him. Perhaps most importantly, the job gives him a scaffold to try to rebuild his life around.

Steve tries to change a lot, too. He gets his own car, a used Toyota Corolla he buys cash off another officer PCSing to Korea. He goes to the medical clinic and gets a script for trazodone. It’s shockingly easy to lie his way through even more questionnaires. Just the sleep, he insists. Just can’t shake those deployment hours. The doc says “yeah, that happens” and barely glances at his chart. The meds don’t seem to work, at first, but when he titrates up to his full dose, it gives him another hour or two a night.

The first night he sleeps more than five hours straight, Steve wakes up in a panic, certain that he’s let something terrible happen by sleeping so long. He scrambles through the house, checking all the rooms, looking for something to be wrong, out of place, and when he bursts into Bucky’s room and sees only an empty bed, Steve is so overwhelmed with terror that he actually says Bucky’s name. He does it just once, and the sound of his voice — his yelling — startles him back to clarity. It only happens once, thank God, but it’s enough to shake him and kick off a string of awful, hyperrealistic nightmares about Khalidiya.

Steve also decides he should try to be more… normal. More average. That is what he is now, after all. After his talk with Barton, it became clear that he’s not containing as well as he thought he was. He’s been thinking about a lot of things since his talk with Barton. He starts thinking that maybe he shouldn’t keep Bucky’s room the way it is. He thinks that maybe he should wash the sheets. Every time he thinks about it, he gets scared and stops the thought cold, but at least he’s thought about it. And at least he tries not to go in there as much as he used to.

He also tries to have a life. He goes to Sam and Natasha’s a couple of times for movies and pizza. While he’s there, of course, he can’t help but ask about Bucky, and they can’t help but ask him the same. When they compare notes, the big picture doesn’t look so great. Steve thought he was the only one Bucky was dodging. It feels like dodging, anyway. The few times Steve does get ahold of him these days, he’s often either half asleep or in a rush to do something else.

The change in Bucky’s availability was so slow that it was easy at first to chalk it up to a rash of bad timing. But then, daily contact gradually became talking most days, which gradually became talking some days and, now, talking only occasionally. Sam and Nat say that they get the same treatment. They speculate a lot about what’s going on with him, and they try to be hopeful. Bucky’s told all of them that he’s getting hooked up with the VA, so they go with that story. He’s busy getting better. So far, Steve’s resisted the temptation to call Winnie, just barely. He’s had the phone in his hand with her name under his thumb at least half a dozen times. But he’s stopped himself, because he needs to give Bucky some space to find his way, just like he’s trying to do for himself.

But still, Steve worries. They all do. Especially when none of them can reach Bucky on his birthday, no matter what time of day they try.  When Steve finally does get him on the phone several days later, he has an overly elaborate story about how he celebrated with his family in Manhattan. And, gosh, he forgot his phone back in Brooklyn. And then he was just so busy getting better that, well, he plumb forgot to call back. Steve doesn’t have the balls to ask him what really happened. None of them do.

Also notable in Steve’s quest for normalcy is spending time with people he’s actually authorized to spend time with. Sam and Nat are his friends, but they’re highly illegal friends, and he doesn’t want to risk their getting in trouble just because Bucky wanted to leave behind some cute little friendship legacy. So Steve tries to hang out with other officers. He has drinks with Dan Sousa a couple times and finds that he likes the guy. It’s nice to be friends with another bachelor, if only to bypass the sting that Steve so often feels when he’s around Sam and Nat’s nauseating canoodling.  

Perhaps most bizarrely, Sitwell decides that he likes Steve. Really likes him. When he invites Steve over on March 27th to watch the Heels stick it to Oklahoma, Steve forces himself to go. It’s just the two of them, so it’s weird. It’s really, really weird. Just the two of them in Sitwell’s living room while his wife and kids play down the hall. Steve imagines he might have invited some of the other guys, given the number of snacks and beers sitting out, and he’s surprised by how sad he feels that nobody else came.

But still, it’s weird.

After a couple beers, it does start to get less weird. Sitwell yells at the TV, whoops when the Heels score, and drops shockingly funny expletive substitutions when there’s a bad call. Steve has never heard Barbra Streisand’s name taken in vain until today, screamed at the referee for failing to call what is clearly an offensive foul.

Steve doesn’t know why, but when it’s clear that the Heels have won, stuff starts to tumble out of his mouth. Stuff he tries not to talk about with Sam or Nat. Stuff he barely mentions to Dan. Stuff he couldn’t ever discuss with Bucky.

“Sharon’s having a baby.” Steve marvels at how much distance still remains in his words, even though he’s know about it for three months.

Sitwell turns toward him, a full body pivot, and gives a look that Steve could never fathom before this moment. It’s nearly ecstatic and just as strange as it is unexpected.

“You’re gonna be a dad?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

Sitwell smiles and holds out a hand for Steve to shake. It’s an awkwardly stereotyped reaction, like he picked it from a very short list of prescribed responses. “Wow, congratulations!”

Steve shakes Sitwell’s hand, which is cold and a little damp from the beer he was holding. “Thanks.”

“Wow,” Sitwell repeats. “When?”

“End of May.”

“You excited?”

Feeling candid, Steve moves his head and shoulders noncommittally. “I don’t even know. I really don’t feel a whole lot of anything, to be honest.”

The look on Sitwell’s face is openly curious, as if the concept is completely foreign to him. “Do you even want kids?”

“I thought I did,” Steve says, understating how single-mindedly he once desired fatherhood. With Bucky, of all people. Jesus, what an odd thing for a nineteen-year-old kid to wish.  

“Kids are the best,” says Sitwell. He grins in a stupid, lovestruck way that’s shockingly endearing.

If there’s one thing Steve has been the most surprised by with Jasper Sitwell, it’s who he is as a parent. His children adore him. He remembers the first time Sitwell brought him over, the way his daughters flung themselves at him when he walked in the door, even though he’d only been gone for ten hours. They regularly cling to him. He twirls them. He carries them. He throws them over his shoulder. He tickles them and laughs with them.  He compliments them and tells them jokes. He disciplines them consistently and fairly. It’s the strangest goddamn thing Steve’s ever seen, made especially strange by the impossible contrast between Sitwell the minimally competent platoon leader and Sitwell the incredible dad.

“How did you know how to be good at it?” Steve asks. His knee is bouncing again. “I don’t even know how to be a father.”

He doesn’t even know how to imagine being a father. He had such clear ideas of it, back when he was young and stupid and dreaming of moving to Vermont with his wild boyfriend, a guy who was vocally opposed to everything Steve fantasized for them, a guy who called his dreams crazy and predicted it would end with them being bludgeoned to death with bibles by bloodthirsty Christian rednecks.

Sitwell smirks in a way that’s just a little bitter. “I just do the opposite of everything my dad did to me.”

If Steve goes by that metric with his own dad, all he will have to do is stay in the kid’s life past the 13 month mark. Of course, that probably won’t quite be enough.

“I guess it just hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Steve admits.

“It will. When that kid’s born, you won’t be able to avoid it anymore.”

“Well, it’s gonna be in DC with Sharon,” Steve tells him, and he feels his face warm with guilt.

“Wait, you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Sharon didn’t want to know ahead of time,” Steve says, careful to make the distinction between bad pre-parenting and a mother who simply likes a good surprise.

“Well, it doesn’t matter if it’s gonna be with Sharon. That’s your kid,” Sitwell says, eager and sure of it in a way that Steve envies.  

Steve looks down at his lap, to the bottle he’s rolling between his hands. “I know.”

“If you don’t get it yet, you will,” Sitwell tells him, gesturing at him with his beer. “Your whole life is gonna change. That kid has to be the number one thing in your life. And if it’s not, you’re wrong.”

Steve nods. He knows that’s how it has to be. How it should be.

“And you’re gonna have to work that much harder, since you’re gonna be long distance. All your leave, it’s gotta be for that kid. All your plans, you’ve gotta consider that kid.” Sitwell shrugs. “I mean, if you wanna be a good father. You don’t have to do those things, I guess.”

“No, I… I want to be good.”

Sitwell gives him a hard clap on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay, Rogers. You’ll be good. You’ll be just fine, if you just remember what’s really important.”

Steve thinks about his promise to Bucky, how he’d use his leave to go see him in the spring. Back then, it was the only thing he could ever imagine doing with with his time off. He was so damn scared of what would happen to Bucky once he left that he would have promised him a trip to the moon, just to give him something to hope for. And Steve is so lonely for him, and all he wants is to go to him, pull him into his arms, and never let him out of his sight.  

But now Steve wonders if he’ll have to choose between being a friend and being a father. They can’t both be his number one priority. And it’s almost impossible to imagine choosing someone he doesn’t even know over the man he loves, even if that someone is very small and impressionable and made from his own body.

He dashes those thoughts from his mind with a firm shake of his head.

“God, I love you,” Sitwell says to the TV as he blows a kiss to Danny Green. “That’s my boy.”

“I thought you went to Duke.”

“I did.”  

“But you root for the Heels.”

Sitwell leans in close, like he’s about to tell Steve a secret. “I root for both,” he mutters.

Steve gives an incredulous chuckle. “What the hell do you do when they play each other?”

“I just fill with joy.” Sitwell smiles broadly.

“God, you’re weird,” Steve says under his breath.

Sitwell huffs. He’s still smiling, though. “And you’re not?”

Well, he is watching basketball with notorious weirdo Jasper Sitwell at a party that nobody else dared to attend. If that doesn’t also make Steve a weirdo, he doesn’t know what would. The corner of his mouth curls up.

“Guess I am.”

When Steve gets home that night, he’s feeling something almost like clarity. Everything’s been so twisted and muddled and wrong ever since, fuck, ever since he got to Iraq. And Steve hasn’t been able to cling to any absolute truths since then. But this becoming a father thing, it’s not going anywhere. And even though the thought terrifies him, the certainty of it now offers some small comfort, too. He thinks, very quietly, that it might be nice to have a daughter.

Steve is still a little buzzed from the beer. It’s a good kind of buzz, so when he steps in the kitchen and sees Bucky’s mug on the counter, the one he’s been keeping there because he can’t bear to wash it, he doesn’t feel the full burn of heartache he usually feels. Like with the bedding, Steve does a thought experiment, one where he imagines himself putting the mug in the dishwasher. Washing away all traces of Bucky. He tries to see the big picture. He tries to be practical. Cleaning a mug doesn’t mean that he’s erasing Bucky. It’s just a mug. It’s not Bucky. It’s just a mug.

Still, he leaves it.  

But Bucky doesn’t leave his mind. He lingers there, gently, while Steve takes his meds and gets ready for bed. He has a routine, now. The doc told him about sleep hygiene, about creating habits that prepare the body and mind for rest. He’s started taking a shower at night, in addition to the one he takes before work. He uses some fancy bar soap infused with lavender, because the internet said it’s supposed to relax him. He tries to focus on breathing deeply, clearing his mind. It does clear out, for a few moments at a time. But it always comes back to Bucky. Bucky’s face. Bucky’s voice. Bucky’s mannerisms. Bucky’s fire.

After his shower, Steve feels the pull to go to Bucky’s room. He just wants to see what’s left of him there. He hasn’t been in there for weeks, and he’s curious what he’ll feel now. He’s been keeping the door closed, and rather than it seeming like Bucky’s waiting for him behind it, it’s almost starting to feel like Bucky’s really gone. It’s almost starting to feel real. The wound Bucky left behind is almost beginning to scab over. It’s almost beginning to heal.   

He cracks open the door and flips on the light. Some of Bucky’s things are still here, things he asked Steve to hang onto until maybe he gets his own place. He  still has Bucky’s bed. The frame. The mattress. The bedding. His nightstand and dresser, which still has some of his clothes in it. Pants that don’t fit anymore. A stack of t-shirts that he now refuses to wear.

Steve stands by the door, deliberating. His good sense tells him to close the door again and move on, but the part of him that misses Bucky so badly begs him to stay, just one more night. One more, and then he never has to do it again. And when he succumbs, there’s a rush of dopamine. An exhalation of relief. An elated smile. He turns on the bedside lamp, turns off the overhead light, and buries himself in Bucky’s things. He lies on his stomach and gathers Bucky’s pillow in his folded arms. God, it still smells like him. Just like him.

There’s a rush of energy that pools in Steve’s groin, and it shames him. It seems wrong for that to be his first reaction. It usually isn’t, and he doesn’t know why it is tonight. He presses his face into the pillow and tries to think about something else.  Bucky doing something boring. Bucky watching TV. Bucky sleeping with his mouth open. Bucky fumbling with his silverware because his hands are clumsy now.

But his mind circumnavigates his efforts and lands back on the Brooklyn Bridge. It trails that thin stream of water as it travels down Bucky’s chin and drops down to his chest. It searches for Bucky’s voice and finds it in another place and time, back in Red Hook, back in Bucky’s apartment, and he can almost hear it. Steve can almost hear Bucky moaning while he fucks him, and his cock gets hot and full between his legs.

Steve grinds his hips into the mattress, and it’s almost like he’s grinding against Bucky, because he can smell him. In his memory, he can hear him. And in his mind’s eye, Steve can even see him. It’s the middle of the day, and Bucky’s just destroyed his immunology final, because he’s brilliant and that’s generally what he does to tests. And now he wants to celebrate. He’s been holding out for all of finals week, and he wants his reward for his celibacy. He wants Steve to fuck him. It’s been their plan for days and days. They’ve talked about it, worked out the details, gotten horny and turned on from just imagining it. And when Bucky comes home, he’s so ready. When he walks through the front door and throws his backpack on the floor, he gives a feral smile and pushes Steve down to the bed. Bucky climbs on top of him, and Steve can feel how hard he already is. And then Bucky pulls off his clothes and then Steve’s clothes. And Steve gets lust-drunk off Bucky’s body, his mouth, his touch, and Bucky gets on his hands and knees, says he wants it hard and rough, and he’s so fucking hot…

Steve stops rutting against the mattress and gets up on his knees, just like he did that day, kneeling between Bucky’s legs, running his hands over his beautiful ass, down his muscular back, up his flanks. He grabs the headboard with one hand and pulls his dick out of his underwear with the other, and he closes his eyes and fucks himself into his fist while he remembers what it felt like to push himself into Bucky’s body over and over, to make him moan and pant and swear and say Steve, Steve, oh Steve, oh fuck, fuck, fuck. And Steve would give anything to hear his name on Bucky’s lips, to hear his voice scrape out that sound, gravelly and needy—

Steve opens his eyes to the ceiling and stops his hand. He pauses for a moment, riding through the impulse to grab his phone off the nightstand and call Bucky right now. He does a lazy search for reasons not to call and can’t seem to find any.  So he snatches his phone with his left hand and jerks himself with his right while the line rings.

“Hey,” Bucky drawls on the other end.

Steve closes his eyes again with a loud sigh.

“Steve.”

“Yeah,” he breathes, because it’s exactly what he wants to hear. He pumps his hand faster.

“Oh my God, are you jerking off?”

“Yeah…”

There’s a wet laugh on the line, followed by a stretch where no words pass between them, where the only sounds are Steve’s rough breathing and, more quietly, Bucky’s answering breath, open-mouthed and uneven. Steve thinks, for a few hazy moments, that Bucky might even be joining him--

That is, until he hears something that vaguely sounds like “naughty, naughty.”

Steve cracks his eyes open and slows his hand. Bucky sounds like he did on those very late nights when he was still at Bragg and staying with Sam, back when they would talk in the middle of the night. Slow and tired and… off.

“How are you?” Steve asks, pressing him for more words to analyze.

“That’s not a question you ask when you’re jerking off, ya dummy. That’s a dumb question.”

Steve lets go of his cock and laments the loss of a rare few minutes of actually being in the mood. He then tucks his flagging dick back into his underwear and sits back on his heels. Another sigh escapes him, one that’s charged with something close to anger.

“I wish I could jerk off, too,” Bucky mumbles. “I’d jerk off with you, but I think my dick’s broken. I tried, but I don’t think it works anymore. It’s just dead. I think it’s a dead, dead dick.”

Steve presses his hand to his forehead. The tips of his fingers are trembling. “That’s okay…. It’s okay.”

“Says you. Says you with your perfect fuckin’ hard dick in your hand.”

“It’s not. Not anymore,” Steve tells him.

“Oh, did I kill your boner? Did thinking about my limp gross li’l dick kill your boner?” Bucky says bitterly.

“Stop it.” Steve’s mouth goes dry, and he’s just pissed off enough to throw caution to the wind. “Are you drunk?”

“Yes, Sir. I am drunk. In fact, I’m fuckin’ wasted.”

Steve thought he’d be at least a little surprised to learn that Bucky’s drinking again. He supposes he’s known it all along, deep below that hope they all tried to collectively delude themselves with.   

“Where are you?” Steve asks.

“My secret place,” Bucky stage whispers.

“Where’s that?”

Bucky snorts loudly. “I can’t tell you, or else it wouldn’t be secret anymore.”

“You can tell me.”

“Nuh-uh. You’ll just tell Rikki.”  

“Well, we care about you. We worry about you.” Steve tries to push the earnestness past the dawning fear over Bucky being somewhere, smashingly drunk, without anyone knowing where he is. “I bet it’s a pretty good hiding place.”

“Don’t try to fuckin’ trick me. I’m not a fuckin’ idiot,” Bucky spits.

“God.” Steve shakes his head. “I never said you were.”

Bucky’s next words come like a stumbling blitzkrieg, brutal and furious and unrelenting.

“Y’know what? I’m fuckin’ sick of everyone telling me I can’t drink. I shouldn’t drink. ‘Go to AA. Go to a meeting. Are you going to a meeting today? Did you go to your meeting?’ Well, y’know what? Fuck. That. I’m a fuckin’ grown-ass man. If I wanna drink, I fuc