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When Steve was a kid, his mom made him take a bath every Saturday night, because she wasn’t bringing some grimy little urchin with her to church the next morning no matter how much he whined. They were both stubborn as hell, but she was working full time while raising him and he was full of piss and vinegar and had nothing better to do with his time than defy her, so she mostly gave up the rest of the week. Steve wasn’t much of a whiner about most things - vegetables, bedtime, homework, itchy clothes, even scraped knees -  but baths were a special exception.

Steve thinks that God must have an extremely vindictive sense of humor, because he’d trade one of his less important fingers to have one right now. Europe appears to be about two thirds mud, and half of that is currently on his pants. He can’t even bitch about it, because this route was his idea. Bucky is under no such restriction.

“Is this entire shitty country a swamp?”

“It’s not a shitty country.”

“How the fuck would you know? All we’ve seen is the swamp part,” Bucky grumbles.

Steve sighs, boots squelching in what used to be a road. “I’m assuming there’s more to it than this.”

“People usually assume there’s more to New York than rats, traffic, and piss smell, and they’re wrong too.”

Steve smiles and doesn’t point out that Bucky was this close to reciting epic poetry about Brooklyn less than six hours ago.

Morita starts walking faster to catch up with them. He’s got a look on his face that says he’s trying not to get caught tattling to the CO.

“We might wanna start looking for a spot to take a break.”

Steve frowns. They’ve only been on the move for a couple hours. “Why?”

Morita looks shifty. “He won’t say anything, but I think Dugan’s ankle is a lot more fucked up than he’s letting on.”

Steve eyes Morita for a long moment. He’s surprised he’s speaking up on Dugan’s behalf; last he checked those two didn’t get along. He glances back, probably too conspicuously if Morita’s eye roll is any indication.

“The faster we get back to camp, the faster we can get a brace on it.”

“Just twenty minutes out of the rain?”

“Good luck with that,” Bucky snorts.

Steve looks back again. Dugan is looking pretty queasy. Well, Morita is technically their medic; he’s doing his job.

“Yeah, all right. Got any suggestions?”

“Monty and Dernier say there’s a village about a half a mile up the road.”

Bucky looks skeptical. “Both of ‘em?”

Morita’s obviously trying to be diplomatic. “Well. Monty does.”

“Uh huh. What does Dernier say?”

“Gabe wouldn’t translate it.”

“Your best guess, then.”

“Uh. The phrase ‘shit for brains’ might have been part of it.”

“Great. Very reassuring.”

Steve sighs. “Well, we’re going that way already, so I guess we’ll know who’s right and who’s got shit for brains in a few minutes.”

They keep dragging ass through the mud for nearly two miles, Dernier offering Monty a very long and multilingual “I told you so” for a mile and a half of it, before a cluster of buildings finally appears. There’s an abandoned village here, beautiful and charming and startlingly quiet. It probably hasn’t been empty for that long, but nature moves fast. The dirt roads have grown over and a few roofs that were probably getting iffy before their owners left have caved in with winter snow and no one to do repairs. A sharp chill pools in Steve’s stomach - not the usual sense that there are enemies watching, but the grief of knowing that this is what the world looks like after you lose to a guy like Hitler.

“Oh look, more mud,” Bucky says.

The door of a nearby cottage is open, so they let themselves in. It was probably pretty cozy in here once. Maybe will be again, when they’ve won.

“Half an hour,” Steve announces. “I think I saw a well outside; you might want to fill your canteens. How’s that ankle, Dugan?”

“I’ll live,” he says, in a tone that suggests he might not.

Gabe has already laid down on a bench on the far side of the room. They’ve all learned to sleep anywhere, and thirty minutes of downtime is more than enough for a nap.

Bucky ambles back to the front door. “‘M gonna go take a leak. If I’m not back in five, a sniper got me while I had my dick out.”

Steve plops down in a splintering chair and yawns. “Mm. I’ll be sure to come up with a real heroic story for your ma.”

“Thanks.”

Morita is helping Dugan ease his boot off so they can try to wrap the ankle better. They don’t seem to be quite as resentful as they were last week. Still, morale has been a far cry from the night they formed the team. Everyone was in good spirits and feeling generous toward each other while they were full of beer and fresh off escaping a HYDRA prison, but that feeling hasn’t lasted during their week-long slog through occupied territory in disgusting weather.

He closes his eyes for a minute, just to keep the dust off. He doesn’t realize he’s been dozing until Monty pipes up, “Barnes has been gone for rather a long time, hasn’t he?"

Steve’s eyes snap open and he goes from zero to sixty in about two seconds, because holy fuck , what if Bucky really did get shot with his dick out? He skids out the door and very nearly starts shouting before his brain catches up with him. If there are snipers, they don’t need his help.

He walks around the back of the building. There are footprints in the mud, but it’s not clear whether they’re Bucky’s. He keeps an eye on the treeline, watching for unexpected movement or the glint of steel. Even with his newly-flawless ears, it’s silent - no footsteps, no breathing, no nothing.

Bucky wouldn’t have gone that far for a piss. Where the fuck is he?

He wanders down the main road, still watching for hostiles. The village is eerily intact. There are a few overturned wheelbarrows and some of the houses have been looted, but mostly it just looks like everyone vanished into thin air. He decides to take a risk on making some noise.

“Bucky?” He keeps his voice low. “You here?”

No response.

“Hey Buck, you around?”

Silence.

“You’re scaring me, asshole.”

“Shhh.”

Steve jumps. “Jesus Christ.”

“Stop yelling, you’ll chase it off.”

Steve looks around and sees Bucky on the ground, ass in the air, head under a broken horse cart.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Hang on, I’ve almost got it.”

“Got what?” For someone who was whining about the mud so much, Bucky seems pretty determined to crawl around in it now.

“There’s a cat.”

Steve blinks a few times. “A cat.”

“Yeah, it’s a real small one.” He makes a kissing noise and murmurs something Steve doesn’t catch.

“You’re rolling around in soggy horse shit for a cat?”

There’s a half-hearted yowl, followed by some spitting and hissing, and then Bucky is inching back out from under the axle, holding something that looks like a wet sock left in a gutter.

“Look, he’s still a baby.”

Bucky holds up a filthy, squirming kitten, mostly white with a few gray smudges. Well, maybe. Some of that might just be grime. The kitten screeches like Bucky’s murdering it.

Steve frowns. “I wonder if his ma’s around?”

Bucky tucks the kitten into his side. “He wouldn’t look so shitty if she was.” He pulls out a grimy handkerchief and starts wiping the muck off the cat’s face. “You look like hell,” he coos, ignoring the fact that kitten is absolutely enraged by the whole situation.

Oh no.

“Buck…” Steve warns. He knows from a lifetime of very personal experience that Bucky loves pathetic runts.

Won’t even touch the pick of the litter, if recent behavior is any indication.

Bucky pouts. “What, you want me to just leave him here?”

God damn it, he’s giving Steve a look like he just asked him to throw it in a river. Bucky might turn to mush for runts, but Steve still turns to mush for Bucky.

He sighs. “Fuck. Fine, bring the goddamn cat.”

 

***

 

Half an hour later, they’re back on the road. Dugan still looks like shit, but they’ve gotta keep moving.

The kitten has decided it doesn’t mind Bucky after all. The fact that it’s tucked inside a warm, dry pocket instead of sitting in a mud puddle under a wagon might have something to do with its change of heart. Steve definitely understands the appeal of sleeping on Bucky’s chest.

“We should name it,” Gabe says.

Monty sighs. “No, we shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not as though we can keep it.”

“Hey, who’s we?” Bucky says.

Gabe frowns. “Why can’t we keep it?”

Monty’s faces creases into the look he wears when he’s thinks the person he’s talking to is a dolt but doesn’t want to say so. “What do you mean? We’re in a war zone, we can’t keep track of a cat.”

“Cats keep track of themselves,” Gabe shrugs.

“We’re not going to carry an animal around with us all the time.”

“Again, I’d love to know who ‘we’ is, since none of you have a cat in your jacket.” Bucky’s attention is only half on the conversation, with most of his focus directed at the dirty wad of fur in his pocket.

“Maybe it can stay at base, keep rats out of the supplies.” Gabe says. “That’s what cats are for.”

Monty looks skeptical. “Those rats might be beyond the abilities of one twelve-week-old kitten.”

“Cats give me the creeps,” Dugan mutters.

Morita gives him a dirty look. “Figures.”

“What? They just stare at you. Or worse, they stare behind you, like something’s back there. At least dogs don’t spend all their time giving you the heebie-jeebies.”

“Maybe not any you’ve met. My neighbor had this dog--” Morita holds his hands about a foot apart, “around this big? And I shit you not, this dog had about four hairs on its body. It was this nasty, ugly little bastard that shook all the time. Its tongue was always hanging out of its mouth. It wasn’t even old or sick or anything, it just looked like a reanimated corpse. Frankenstein’s dog. Tell me that’s not creepy.”

Dugan frowns. “What the hell was wrong with it?”

“I dunno, that breed just comes that way, I guess.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I’ll take a cat any day.”

“Why, because you knew one ugly dog?”

“No, because I like cats. Jesus, you got a brain under that dumb hat?”

Monty sighs. “Of course we had to find a white one. As though our luck hasn’t been rotten enough.

Bucky frowns. “What?”

“White cats, bad luck, remember?”

Everyone but Dernier looks at Monty like he’s got a screw loose.

“That’s black cats,” Bucky says.

“What? No, it isn’t.”

“It definitely is,” Dugan adds helpfully.

“No, black cats are lucky.”

“That’s--” Bucky laughs. “Not where I’m from. Black cat crosses your path, that’s bad luck.”

“That’s white cats!”

“Or,” Steve sighs, “They’re both just cats and their capabilities are limited to killing mice and howling bloody murder at three in the morning.” He’s always hungry in this stupid overstuffed armchair of a body, so he’s entitled to be grouchy. He’s only human. Mostly.

“This must be a European thing,” Gabe says.

“I would have said an English thing,” Monty sniffs.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Monty looks deeply offended and marches a little faster so he can go sulk. Steve sees Gabe smirking, which means he’s being an asshole on purpose. Fantastic. Should Steve say something? Is that something CO’s do? Probably not, they’re grown men and can be dicks to each other if they want.

Steve’s got a blister forming and the rain has picked up. He wishes he were back at camp, out of his soaked uniform, and curled around Bucky. He’ll get two out of three, anyway.

 

***

 

Steve had never let himself think about the fact that Bucky might die, but the fear was there from the morning he shipped out. It was really just adding insult to injury; they hadn’t gone without seeing each other for more than a week since they were tiny kids, and Steve had no point of reference for how lopsided he’d feel without Bucky. All he ever had of him was the occasional tattered letter indicating that he’d been alive two months ago. He read those letters until they were soft and ragged as threadbare sheets, hoping they were still true.

When he saw him alive in Zola’s laboratory, the relief had made his vision blur for a moment. Bucky was sweaty, pale, and unwashed, looking sicker than that time in ‘33 when he caught Steve’s flu and got it worse than Steve did. He smelled like a whole truck full of gym socks, but god, Steve could have given him a long, slow movie kiss right then and there. He wasn’t about to try to analyze the feeling; it was too big to pick apart. All he knew was that he felt every kind of dissatisfaction there was, every part of him begging for what he’d been missing. They were in a Nazi munitions factory that was set to self destruct, though, so he figured he’d save it for later.

But later never came. Steve kept trying to start something and Bucky somehow kept missing it. Steve suddenly realized he’d never had to ask before; Bucky had always been draped over him like a wet rain slicker on a coat rack. All he ever had to do was start touching him back and Bucky would give him anything he wanted.

Now whenever he tries, it’s like Bucky doesn’t even notice. He doesn’t flinch or look upset, but he doesn’t grin and melt like he used to, either.

So Steve has stopped. He can take a hint. It’s silly of him to feel hurt, because it was never that big of a deal. They were only doing what they were doing because it was easy and Steve couldn’t seem to get a girl. What were they gonna do, get married?

It’s probably just that Bucky only liked it when Steve was small. It’s a minor tradeoff for what he can do with this body, and he could probably have almost any girl he wanted now, so it’s not like it matters. Bucky’s always been his best friend, and that’s still true by any normal measure.

It had only ever been fooling around, anyway.

 

***

 

Hot water is at a premium here, and most of it goes to make the worst coffee Steve’s ever had. Thankfully, cats don’t need much to take a bath. What they do need is something to bathe in, and the kitten is already slightly too large for Bucky’s helmet.

“Gabe, you idiot, the point is to get the cat clean.”

“Judy said this one had just been washed!”

“You couldn’t find anything better than a fucking bedpan?”

Gabe rolls his eyes. “Fine, you don’t like it, you can go sweet talk the nurses. Good luck.”

The nurses have next to no patience for anyone aside from each other, but they’re particularly irritated with Bucky since he spent the whole day after he got back from Azzano evading medical treatment in increasingly destructive ways. Gabe, on the other hand, is a good-looking guy who speaks French and doesn’t steal surgical bandages and tins of vaseline. The cutest nurse has a crush on him.

“Buck, you know perfectly well they bleach ‘em,” Steve sighs. He’s half asleep by now, eyes closed and muscles limp on his cot. “We’d have guys getting cholera if they didn’t.”

Bucky grimaces. “Whatever.” He grabs the thermos from his foot locker and heads to the mess tent.

“You’re welcome!” Gabe shouts after him. He turns to Steve. “Jesus Christ, you lived with that guy on purpose?”

Steve opens one eye. “I wouldn’t say it was on purpose.”

“I mean as opposed to living alone under an old shipping crate in an alley, which is obviously the better option.”

Steve huffs and closes his eyes again. “He’s not so bad when he’s got a dance hall and a movie theater within twenty blocks.” And dry socks on his feet, and a ball game on the radio, and Steve’s lap under his head on their third-hand sofa.

The tattered hat box under Bucky’s cot meows. Steve and Gabe shush it in unison. The cat makes a louder, more irritable noise, which Steve assumes is feline for “go fuck yourselves.”

“We really should name it,” Gabe says, landing on Bucky’s bed.

Steve sighs. “It’s not like I can stop you.”

“I mean, you technically can.”

Oh yeah. “I just don’t think we should get attached.”

Gabe wrinkles his nose. “You sound like Falsworth.”

“Well, this may come as a shock to you, but he’s not always wrong.”

“He ain’t been right yet.”

Bucky returns with his thermos full of hot water and dumps most of it into the bedpan, crouching down on the dirt floor. Steve rolls onto his side to watch, and Gabe scoots over so Bucky can reach under the bed for the hat box. The kitten complains bitterly.

“Yeah, yeah, life’s a sonofabitch,” Bucky says.

He lifts the kitten out of the box and eases it into the bath. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to mind once it’s in the water. Bucky loosens the knots in its fur and picks out a few twigs and bits of grass, rubbing the crust off its toes and ears. Steve loves seeing Bucky do things like this. He remembers watching him braid Becca’s hair when they were kids, mesmerized as his fingers carefully pulled the curly strands into place. “Don’t tell the guys at school, yeah?” he’d say, all concerned, as though Steve would ever be generous enough to share that with someone else.

Once he’s gotten the worst of it, Bucky lets go just long enough to get some lather off a sliver of soap. As it turns out, this is plenty of time for the cat to escape the bedpan and make a break for it, streaking toward the tent flap like his ass is on fire.

Bucky scrambles to his feet, hands still covered in suds as he manages to crash into most of their belongings on the way out the door. “Shit!”

“Fuck!” Gabe dashes after him. Steve sighs and considers letting them sort it out by themselves. He thinks on it for about three and a half seconds before asking himself who he’s kidding.

Thanks to the half-a-bath, the cat is at least white enough to be clearly visible against the dirt. Unfortunately, this isn’t a significant enough benefit to cancel out the added difficulty of catching it with soapy hands. Bucky nearly gets a grip on the damn thing once, but it slithers out of his grasp and tears off in the opposite direction.

“God fucking damn it!” He dashes after it.

“Wait, wait!” Gabe mutters. “You’ll never catch it by chasing it, come on. It’s faster than you.”

“What the fuck else am I supposed to do?”

“You gotta be sneaky.”

“Pretty sure cats are sneakier than me, too.”

Gabe speaks slowly, like English might not be Bucky’s first language. “There’s a possibility - and I grant you, it’s a small one - that they might not be smarter than you.”

“Fuck off.”

“Or you can catch your own damn cat if you don’t want my help.”

“Oh, now it’s my cat. What happened to all that ‘we’ from earlier?”

Steve sees the kitten hunched under a nearby jeep. He strolls toward it, trying to look casual, like he just happens to be walking in that general direction, absolutely nothing to do with the cat, no sir. He’s forgotten all about the cat, he’s just taking a walk. As a matter of fact, he’s forgotten that cats exist. He certainly has no memory of the one resentfully crouching in the sludge behind a jeep tire.

It seems his acting skills haven’t improved in spite of all those awful lessons the USO made him take, because the cat shoots away from him as soon as he’s in striking distance.

He sighs. Bucky and Gabe are still arguing behind him. “It went that way,” Steve calls, running after it. They catch up to him and keep following until he sees it huddled behind an empty gasoline canister.

“Stop, wait,” he whispers.

“What are we doing?” Morita says, mocking Steve with a stage whisper.

“Fuck!” Gabe jumps. “Where the hell did you come from?”

“I was just standing here!” He looks around. “Why are we whispering?”

“The cat escaped,” Bucky grumbles.

“Oh, shit.”

“Guys, it’s behind that can,” Steve says. Bucky begins stalking toward it, but Steve grabs his arm and doesn’t think about how it’s the first time they’ve touched in over a week. “Wait, I think we need to be strategic about this.”

“Strategic?"

“Yeah.” He frowns. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. Morita, you go around the back of that tent so you’re on the other side of it. Gabe, you head that way, like you’re not even thinking about the cat. I’m gonna stand here, and Buck, you just try to go grab it like you’re not doing anything tricky. If you can just pick it up, great. If not, one of us should be able to stop it.”

Bucky nods seriously. “We’re flanking the cat?”

“We’re flanking the cat.”

They get into position. Steve keeps his eye on the gas canister and the mucky little pile of wet hair hiding behind it. When Gabe and Morita are ready, Bucky advances. Steve motions for the others to move in, inching toward the center so there’s less room for escape if it tries to make a run for it.

There’s a clatter and a burst of profanity, and the next thing Steve knows Bucky’s in the dirt, the canister is knocked over, and the cat is hauling ass toward another hiding place.

Dernier pokes his head out of his tent and says something that, based on tone and context, Steve interprets as “what the fuck are you doing?”

Bucky’s been trying to learn French. He’s not particularly good at it. So far he’s been making up for lack of skill with an impressive amount of unearned confidence.

“Nous cherchons la chatte!” He declares, scrambling to his feet. One of the nurses walking by makes a disgusted face and Dernier doubles over laughing.

Bucky frowns. “What?”

“Nope,” Gabe wheezes.

Monty pops his head out of the tent behind Dernier. “Good god, Sergeant, it’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”

“What’s so funny?” Bucky snaps.

“See, you think you said ‘we’re looking for the cat,’” Gabe giggles.

“We don’t have time for whatever this is!” Bucky dashes off in the last direction he saw the cat going, which is likely not the direction it actually went.

“Well, we’re looking for something,” Gabe snickers. They all start running after Bucky before Steve can ask, but it sounds like Bucky was probably asking after a very different type of cat.

They jog between rows of tents, making too much noise to be stealthy.

“Where would you hide, if you were a cat?” Monty says.

“Hopefully I’d be smart enough to not to run from the dumb asshole trying to take care of me,” Steve grumbles. Bucky hears him and scoffs.

There’s too much going on to notice everything and too many places a small, bendy animal could hide. A few other guys are watching them and Steve’s starting to consider asking people for help, but then they round a corner and Bucky skids to stop so abrupt he expects the soles of his boots to leave scuff marks. Gabe and Morita nearly crash into him, and Steve, Monty, and Dernier nearly crash into them.

Bucky strains to sound like he hasn’t been running. “Afternoon, Colonel.”

Colonel Phillips is standing in the middle of the path with a newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, looking like he’s been interrupted in the middle of his favorite radio program. Steve’s pretty sure he’s not suspicious. His face always looks like that. “Sergeant.”

Bucky nods awkwardly and Phillips stares at him for a beat too long before glancing back at Steve.

“Captain Rogers. You boys going somewhere?”

“No sir, just--” there’s a suspicious crash in a nearby tent. Everyone very pointedly does not look for the source. “Just getting some air.”

“Uh huh.”

“Going to check on Dugan, sir.” Morita pipes up. “He did a number on his ankle.”

“Dugan. I see.” He nods. Steve’s spent just enough time with Phillips to know that he’s having a chuckle at their expense, because his favorite jokes are the ones no one else is laughing at. “Well, look at that, his tent’s right there, isn’t it.”

Morita nods awkwardly. “Yes sir.”

There’s another crash. Nobody can convincingly pretend that it’s not coming from Dugan’s tent. Dugan’s uncontained swearing is also coming from that direction.

Phillips looks at the tent before looking back at them. He sighs as though they’re collectively a bigger problem for him than any other aspect of the war, shakes his head, and walks away, still pretending he can’t hear the obvious chaos happening behind him.

They scramble for the tent as soon as Phillips is out of sight. Just as they reach the door, Dugan hobbles outside, pressing his bowler hat to his chest and looking thunderous.

“Sarge,” he snarls.

Bucky waves weakly. “Hey.”

He sighs heavily. “Did you lose something, by any chance?”

Bucky looks down at Dugan’s meaty hand and the slightly crunched hat underneath it. “Whatcha got there?”

The hat growls.

Bucky looks up at Dugan, then down at the hat. He just looks so fucking resigned. Steve starts laughing hard enough to make his chest hurt, and suddenly everyone else has the giggles too.

Bucky’s shoulders slump and he starts laughing. “Okay, Jesus, give me the damn thing.”

“You’re fucking welcome, Barnes.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He rolls his eyes, still smiling. “Thanks for catching our stupid cat.”

“Oh, now it’s our cat.” Gabe teases.

“Fuck off.” Bucky grins, lifting the kitten up near his face. “You’re a little shithead,” he coos, “Yes you are.”

 

***

 

Steve can’t sleep. It’s noisy out in the middle of nowhere. He should be used to sleeping through anything; New York was never quiet, but this isn’t the same noise, and even in his sleep he can tell it’s not right. He can hear guys chatting in the next tent over, the wind disturbing the trees, and the thundering rumble of distant shelling too far away to worry about and too close to ignore.

He lets out a long sigh and watches Bucky. Back home he was always too vain to let more than a day’s worth of stubble build up, but now he’s got about three days of scruff on his chin. He shouldn’t look handsome like this. His eyes are shut, but Steve can tell by his breathing that he’s still awake. The cat is curled up on his stomach and purring like an idling motor.

“He’s actually pretty cute.”

Bucky smiles softly, too sleepy to make whole faces.

“Damn right,” he hums. He’s stroking the cat’s fur, which is soft and fine now that it’s clean. He looks so open and inviting. Steve doesn’t close his eyes, watching Bucky’s gentle fingers and trying to come up with a plausible excuse to go touch him.

He could just ask. But that wouldn’t seem right; they don’t talk about it, they just do it. Talking would mean that it was real, and it's always seemed important to avoid that. Steve lies in bed feeling envious of the cat and wishing it had been as real as the ache in his chest suggests it was.

“Buck?”

“Hm?” Bucky sighs, close to sleep. His eyes are still shut, but his head rolls toward Steve.

Steve realizes he doesn’t have anything to say. He just wanted a response.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep, but he wakes a few hours later feeling inexplicably well-rested. He never used to be a morning person. He kind of wants to sleep longer, but it seems like he only ever needs three or four hours anymore.

He looks over at Bucky’s cot. The cat has moved from his stomach to his pillow, because sleeping directly on Bucky’s face is apparently preferable. Makes sense; anything that willingly licks its own ass probably doesn’t mind morning breath.

Steve considers his options. He could try to roll over and sleep some more, but if he does that he’ll probably doze off two hours from now and then wake up for Reveille groggy and disoriented after a half an hour of actual sleep. Maybe he should just go for a walk or something.

Suddenly, Bucky sits up, seemingly alert. He turns and looks at Steve without saying anything.

“Buck?”

Bucky just blinks, still staring. He’s probably not actually awake; he just does this sometimes.

“Bastard Keaton.”

Steve stares back. “... Excuse me?”

Bucky points at the cat. “‘S his name.”

“The cat is named Bastard Keaton?”

Bucky doesn’t respond, just lies down again and appears to fall asleep immediately. The sound of Steve laughing doesn’t wake him.

 

***

 

Steve steps out of the tent to find Monty standing there looking sheepish.

“Good morning, Captain.”

“Hey,” he nods. Monty nods back and doesn’t leave or say anything. Steve stares.

“Something on your mind?”

“Well, I…” He shrugs. “I thought the cat might need to eat.” He holds out a tin can full of the slightly-gray powdered eggs they usually get for breakfast.

“Oh,” Steve says. “Right, good idea.” They’d given it some chipped beef last night, which had been a hit. An animal known for living off raw fish and vermin is probably the only thing that should ever be expected to eat that anyway.

A shrill, irritable meow issues from the tent, followed by a gasp and grumbled profanity. They duck inside to the sound of the cat shrieking in Bucky’s face.

“Motherfucker, what do you want?” Bucky groans. The cat releases a tortured screech like a rusted gate being opened after ten years of retirement.

Monty brandishes the can of eggs. “He’s probably hungry,” Steve says.

“Ugh, Christ,” Bucky mutters, sitting up. He pulls the cat away from his face. “Okay, okay, fine. Jesus, this is like Becca all over again.”

After a few suspicious sniffs (“Yeah, I wouldn’t eat ‘em either,” Bucky snorts), the cat crams his whole face into the can and begins making a sloppy, sticky noise that reminds Steve of overcooked greens.

“Huh. Exactly like Becca.” Steve says.

Monty frowns. “Who? How do you mean?”

“My baby sister. She was cute except for all the times she was disgusting,” Bucky grimaces.

“You named him right,” Steve says.

Bucky looks confused. “I haven’t named him.”

“Oh yes, you did,” Steve snickers. “Last night.”

“Huh?”

Light floods into the tent. Steve tenses for a moment before realizing that no one who didn’t know what was going on would walk into his tent unannounced.

Morita leans inside. “They’ve got something for us.”

 

***

 

“Move over.”

Steve is sitting in the driver’s seat and twisting around to rearrange some crap in the back of the jeep. Bucky tosses his pack on top of the existing pile and awkwardly adjusts his clothing.

Steve frowns. “Huh?”

“Scoot. I’m driving.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Oh yeah? How d’you plan on doing that?”

“You’re a terrible fucking driver, Steve.”

“Not worse than you while you’ve got a kitten squirming around in your jacket.”

“You are absolutely worse under any circumstances. Move.”

“No.”

“Steve, I value my life.”

“Get in the jeep.”

“I will, once you get outta my seat.”

“For fuck’s sake, just find someone to watch the cat.”

Bucky squints over his shoulder. “Carter’s looking all suspicious. I don’t wanna leave him at camp.”

“She’s just grouchy because she’s getting a cold and doesn’t want to admit it,” he sighs. “Find a place for the cat or quit being a dick and get in the jeep.”

“Just let me fucking drive!”

You’d think after twenty years Bucky would know better than to have a stubborn asshole contest with Steve.

“You know, I could just order you,” Steve says. He’s serious, but Bucky doesn’t notice.

“I could just order you,” he repeats in a whiny voice.

“Buck.”

“Uh oh, Captain America’s telling me to get in line.”

“What is your damn problem?”

“You’re in my seat!”

“Your seat is empty and waiting for you.”

“Is something the matter?” They both jump. God, Peggy’s quiet sometimes.

“Nope,” they chirp in unison. Bucky shifts to hide the odd shape in his coat.

She looks between the two of them and nods. “Glad to hear it.” She sniffles a bit and hands Steve a map. “The bridge to the west of the secondary ammunition dump is out; it was shelled two days ago. I recommend taking the other road to the northern bridge instead.”

“Why not the shallows near the first bridge? I’ve seen that area, the jeeps can handle it.”

She shakes her head. “You’re more likely to get shot there if recent troop movements are any indication. We’re trying to take you around the worst of the snipers.”

“That bridge is pretty exposed,” Bucky says.

“I’m aware. Neither of these options is ideal.” She clears her throat. “You’d better get going, you’ll need to cross before it gets dark.”

“Right,” Steve nods and barely keeps the smug grin off his face. “Ready, Buck?”

Bucky glares at him and climbs into the passenger seat. He might not take Steve’s rank seriously, but he’s at least appropriately scared of Peggy. The rest of the guys have also been having scraps over who drives which were miraculously resolved by Peggy’s arrival.

“Good--” Peggy cuts herself off, making an odd face that ends with a sneeze. Peggy’s sneezes are not particularly ladylike. “Oh, bloody Nora,” she sniffles. “Good luck.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “Phillips has whiskey, you know.”

“I’m not sick.”

“I’ll see if that village up the road still has honey.”

“I don’t get sick!”

“Sure,” he grins. “See ya.”

Steve shouts their orders over his shoulder and they hit the road.

 

***

 

Whenever they were walking down the street and didn’t have anything to say, Bucky used to whistle. Whenever they were waiting for the subway, he used to whistle. When he did the dishes or shined his shoes, shirtsleeves rolled up and top button undone, he’d still be whistling. Steve hasn’t heard a note since they were back in Brooklyn.

Not that it would be a good idea right now; they’re technically on the edge of occupied territory. Bucky’s quiet, having run out of ways to entertain himself an hour ago. Bastard is in the back seat sleeping on Steve’s pack, dead to the world and unbothered by the fact that he’s bouncing along an unpaved road in a vehicle with laughably poor shock absorption. Well, not laughable, exactly. Steve’s ass doesn’t think it’s funny.

Bucky’s just watching the world go by. He’s gotten better at holding still; he used to be such a twitchy kid, always getting told off or swatted on the rear for fidgeting too much in class. Steve can’t tell if the Army has grown him up or just worn him out.

It’s beautiful scenery, though. The woods are like something out of those dreamy illustrated story books Steve could only ever get from the library, the gray sunlight streaming through the branches like showers of silver dust. The ground is green with fresh underbrush and tiny sprays of early flowers that don’t mind the dim light. Someday, he’ll come here again when the war is over and they’ve won, and maybe the whole country will be like this, unmarred by bombs and bullets and full of people who’ve had quiet nights and enough to eat.

He can feel Bucky looking at him. He looks back.

“What?”

Bucky’s eyes narrow. “How come you haven’t made any progress with Carter?”

Steve schools his face and coughs, looking back at the road. He supposes he should be happy it took this long. “What do you mean?”

“She likes you.”

“Sure.”

They come around a turn and the bridge comes into view. The road staggers downhill in a series of uneven switchbacks from here to the river, thick trees and brush hiding the hills on the other side.

“I mean, maybe you’ve been getting hot and heavy every night since you got here, but that seems like the kind of thing I would have noticed.”

Steve shifts uncomfortably. “No hope of you minding your own business, I guess.”

Bucky looks unimpressed.

Steve sighs. He’s not sure whether or not to tell Bucky about his agreement with Peggy. He and Bucky have always told each other things, but that doesn’t mean her secrets are his to share.

“I’m… not sure I’m Peggy’s type, to be honest. We get along just fine, but,” He gestures vaguely. “You know how it is.”

Bucky scoffs. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re everybody’s type these days.” Oh boy, does Steve wish that were true. “Anyway, I wouldn’t put on a dress like that for somebody I didn’t want to screw.”

Steve huffs. The dress was a nice touch, Peggy deserves some credit for that one. “Red’s not your color anyway. Not sure about the cut, either.”

“Might look nice on you,” Bucky says sweetly. “You got the rack for it.”

“Ah, shut up.”

“It’s a compliment, sweetheart.” Bucky leans over like he’s looking down Steve’s shirt.

“My eyes are up here, mister.”

“Oh, they’re real nice too.”

Steve wants to keep this going and hold on to the bubbly feeling in his stomach, but the words aren’t there. He takes the turns as gently as he can to avoid jostling Bastard too much and to keep Dugan and Morita from turning this into a race.

Bucky sighs. “Seriously, pal. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime catch. Don’t waste your chance.”

Steve can’t figure out how to explain that there isn’t a chance. “I know she’s too good for me,” he jokes.

Bucky looks at him for a long moment. There’s something complicated on his face that Steve doesn’t know how to parse. “She’s too good for a lot of people. You’re not one of ‘em.”

They reach the river and cross the bridge single file. Bucky wasn’t kidding about this area; the woods seem dense from where they’re sitting, but the sightlines from the hills to the river are exceptional. If there were snipers in the trees, they’d be easy targets.

Steve wonders why there aren’t any snipers for about three seconds before a bullet cracks into the stone near the jeep. Bucky swears and Steve stomps on the gas. “Take cover!” He shouts.

All three jeeps make it over the bridge and screech into the underbrush, passengers diving into the bushes. Nobody’s dead yet.

“Hurry up!” Steve barks, shield in hand. Bucky’s screwing around in the back of the jeep when he needs to be on the ground behind the goddamn thing. A bullet whistles past Steve’s head.

“Get down, you stupid asshole,” Bucky snaps.

You get down!”

Bucky snatches his rifle from the back and crams Bastard into his jacket. “Hope Monty’s wrong about you, you little fucker,” he mutters.

Steve expects Bucky to hunker down next to him, since he’s the guy with the bulletproof shield. Instead, he dives behind a cluster of trees. He can hear the guys moving for better cover and cussing like hell. Gabe is stranded in a terrible spot, begging to get shot at, so Steve lets out a short whistle to get his attention before tossing the shield. He nearly catches it before a bullet disrupts its trajectory. He drops and rolls to pick it up, hunching behind it and dashing for Steve and Bucky’s jeep.

“Jesus motherfucking fuck.”

“You okay?” Steve whispers.

“Yeah. Shit, thank you.”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s Sarge?”

Steve looks over to Bucky’s hiding spot behind a freshly-fallen tree that collapsed without cracking, the entire root system peeling itself out of the ground along with the surrounding dirt and rocks. Bucky’s crouched behind the wall of uprooted clay and rock, rifle perched over the trunk. He looks straight at Steve with a question on his face.

Steve grabs the shield.

“Stay here; don’t move. If I get hit, make sure Bucky doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Gabe nods and Steve leaps into the clearing, shouting and generally making an ass of himself. A hail of bullets rains down from the nearby hill. He rolls behind Dugan and Morita’s jeep as he hears the crack of Bucky’s rifle followed by a soft groan. Got one.

He takes a breath and dashes across the road again, but this time the bullets come from the other side and one of them grazes his arm. He lands in a ditch and waits for Bucky to take a shot. The pause feels endless, but finally there’s another bang and the sound of a body hitting the dirt.

Morita whistles and motions for Steve to toss the shield. He does, but the snipers don’t fall for it. They’re close enough that they’re aiming for a body, not just the bullseye.

Steve sees Gabe out of the corner of his eye motioning to Bucky. He’s spotted one. Bucky fires, but this time he misses, swearing under his breath. The sniper returns fire until Bucky ducks back, crawling through the dirt for a new perch. Gabe whistles softly and points him toward a ravine.

Morita still has the shield. Steve realizes he’s going to have to leave his cover to throw it back effectively. Damn it.

Morita takes a deep breath and sprints between one jeep and another, flinging the shield at Steve. His aim is exceptional, but unfortunately, so is the sniper’s. The gunshot echoes as his left leg collapses under him.

“Morita!” Dugan snaps. Morita is totally exposed in the middle of the road. He tries to scramble to his feet, but his calf is bleeding and he can’t move fast enough. A bullet barely misses his shoulder.

Steve bolts out of the brush with his shield up, expecting to haul him out of there, but Dugan beats him to the punch. He scoops Morita up like a sack of flour and scrambles for cover, shielding him with his own body while Steve creates a diversion.

“I’m right here! Come on, shoot me!” He screams, waving his arms. From the rate of fire, he can tell there’s only one left. If Bucky can just get this last one, they’re safe.

A bullet pings into his shield. He feels the breeze of a second bullet flying past his neck in the opposite direction and the branches of a tree moving as the last sniper falls out of it.

Silence.

Steve can feel the suck and squeeze of his own heart pumping in his chest, the blood hissing in his ears. A few dizzy moments pass as the adrenaline dissipates.

Dugan is clinging to Morita like a kid squeezing a teddy bear. Morita is letting him, which makes Steve a little nervous, but he’s okay enough to be groaning and swearing, so it’s probably not a life-or-death situation.

Bucky is glaring at the trees suspiciously, but he hasn’t ordered anyone to take cover again. Steve nods. “Nice work.”

He grunts and doesn’t meet Steve’s eye. Steve watches the tiny sharp movements of his chest and shoulders. He still hasn’t come down.

Bucky’s jacket starts to squirm as Bastard extricates himself from his pocket. He looks rattled, but not nearly as rattled as he should be given that he’s only been alive for a few months and just survived a firefight. Bucky feels him moving and grabs him before he can run off, petting him gently. A slight smile forms on his lips as he lays his rifle down and scratches Bastard’s chin. He holds him up and grins, the same look he had when he was ten and found a whole dollar in the street. “Hey, I had a good luck charm.”

 

Bucky and Bastard

 

***

 

They make it to their planned stopping place later than expected due to the sniper attack, and Morita isn’t doing too hot. He’ll survive, and so will his leg, but he’s as clammy and grey as a puddle of wheat paste. Steve decides it’s worth the risk of building a fire.

“If you think I got any more good shots in me today, you’re being way too optimistic,” Bucky gripes.

“Relax. There’s no troop movement here.”

“According to what? Phillips’ week old intel?”

“It’s not a week old.”

“I’m done shooting at people for the day.”

“Good thing there’s no one here to shoot.”

“Not yet,” he glares at the flint in Dernier’s hand like he expects it to produce Nazis instead of sparks.

Bastard has decided that the coat pocket was getting too stuffy and has spent the last hour perched on Bucky’s shoulder, claws digging into the canvas of his uniform. Bucky’s moving like an arthritic tightrope walker to make sure he doesn’t fall off and gouge him.

“Just long enough to heat some dinner and get dried out,” Steve says. “I think we’ll be okay.”

“Famous last words.”

Bucky’s face only softens when he falls asleep propped against a jeep next to the fire he didn’t want.

With his usual source of entertainment asleep, Bastard sniffs at Steve’s hand. It’s the first time he’s taken any active interest in him. Being glued to Bucky for the past few days has softened him up, and he seems perfectly happy to let Steve manhandle him into his lap. He purrs when he scratches his ears. His fur is a white whisper against Steve’s fingertips, and he falls asleep in a graceless sprawl after a few minutes.

Steve tunes in to the guys’ conversation again, just enough to notice that no one is sulking, arguing, or giving each other the stink eye. Morita is fitfully dozing on Dugan’s shoulder and Monty, Gabe, and Dernier are chatting away entirely in French with no reluctance or apparent distaste for each other. It’s a goddamn miracle, Steve thinks. He feels sleepy and unbothered in a way that hasn’t been familiar in months. There’s something about Bastard purring that makes his blood feel slow.

Bucky shifts his sleep and mumbles.

“Buck?”

He shudders and frowns, shifting before he goes still again. His eyes are squeezed shut and he’s breathing a little too hard. Steve wants to go wrap around him and fix whatever’s wrong, but even if they weren’t surrounded by other people, Bucky’s made it clear that wouldn’t be welcome. He looks at his lap and sighs. Bucky’s never pushed the cat away, at least. He lifts Bastard as gently as he can and sets him on Bucky’s stomach, watching as his face softens again.

He watches them both and reaches over to give Bastard one last pet. “Thanks for taking care of him for me, pal.”

 

***

 

"God FUCKING damn it, motherfucker, you piece of steaming shit--"

"I don't think it speaks English, Sarge."

"Yeah, because it doesn't fucking do anything else either, FUCK! "

Bucky kicks the side of the jeep with a bang and shouts wordlessly before storming off into the woods. Dugan looks startled, but Steve just lets him go. He’ll give him a minute to wind down before he goes after him. The force of Bucky’s anger surprises him these days.

The mission was a piece of cake, but getting back to base has been terrible. One of the jeeps broke down about 45 minutes ago, and when they stopped to see if they could fix it, another one ended up stuck in the mud. Steve was eventually able to lever the damn thing out, but they’ve made no progress on the first one. Now they’ve got seven grown men, the gear to keep them alive, and two working jeeps to carry it all.

Dugan’s hat is off and he’s rubbing his forehead. He sighs. “Well, what’s the plan, Cap?”

Steve looks at their pathetic transportation and impressive collection of injuries.

“Sort the gear, pull out the stuff we really need. Anything we can live without stays in the dead jeep.” He peers between the trees, looking for Bucky.

“Cap, we won’t all fit with--”

“I know. Sort out the important stuff. I’ll be back in ten.” He frowns. Bucky damn near left a dent in that jeep. “Maybe twenty.”

He walks through the woods, listening for signs of life and hearing nothing but the shuffle of his feet on damp earth. The wind is gently disturbing the trees, the rustle of leaves like a wheezing sigh. Something shifts in the air. He turns.

Bucky’s crouched on the ground, feet flat and back propped against the trunk of a tree, arms resting on his knees. His head is hanging forward and he’s breathing slowly. He knows Steve is there and doesn’t startle when he sees him.

“Hey,” Steve nods. Bucky’s face looks thin and tired now that the anger has drained away, the worry it was meant to cover up showing through. That’s the thing; Bucky’s never that angry, not really. He just yells like he is so you won’t notice when he’s scared or sad. “They’re pulling essential gear to pack into the good jeeps. I’m gonna have you guys drive back.”

Bucky’s quiet for a moment, like he’s having to translate the words. “Us guys?”

Steve shrugs. “I’ll walk.”

“It’s 50 miles, Steve.”

“Only around 30 on foot; there’s shortcuts. But you’re right, I’m the only one who can walk it without too much trouble.”

“Having you gone isn’t gonna save us much.”

“Best I can do.”

Bucky huffs and look down at his fingers. He shakes his head.

“I’m coming with you.”

“What? No.”

“It makes sense. Two of us and our gear.”

He frowns. “It’s 30 miles.”

“I can take it. If you’re going, I’m going.”

“Buck, you look like you’re about to fall over.”

Bucky gives him a dirty look. “Everybody fucking looks that way. Dugan’s still shaky on that ankle, Morita needs to have a medic other than himself look at his leg, Gabe’s lying when he says that knock on the head wasn’t too bad, and Dernier and Monty are probably getting whatever Carter’s got. Everybody’s hungry and needs about a week of sleep somewhere that isn’t the ground. I’m not letting you walk through the woods in enemy territory alone for ten hours, and I’m the only one who won’t crap out halfway through trying to keep up with you.”

Steve stares at him. “Huh. I thought you were gonna try to bullshit me we could fit everybody.”

“Fuck no, are you kidding? We’d end up with our remaining pieces of shit broken down. That’ll probably still happen, actually.”

They look at each other for a long moment before breaking into giggles.

“Oh, God,” Steve snickers, “I hate this. I hate all of this. It’s bullshit.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, just keeps laughing harder and harder until he’s making no sound. His shoulders shake.

Steve falls to his knees in front of him. It feels like he’s still falling somehow, even after he hits the ground.

“Hey. Hey Buck,” he gasps. “Bucky?”

Bucky looks up at him, a weird grimacing smile on his face. His eyes are wet. “I’m sorry. Fuck, Steve. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, pal.”

Bucky starts laughing again. “No it’s not. It’s not even a little okay.”

“Okay, yeah, it’s shit. It’s shit.”

“You weren’t supposed to be here.”

Steve forgets the distance and cups his hands around the back of Bucky’s neck, thumbs rubbing his jaw. He’s sweaty and unshaven and so perfectly warm under his hands. “I know.”

“You were supposed to be okay at home, you stupid shithead. And now we’re probably gonna get shot in this fucking godforsaken forest.”

“We’re not gonna get shot.”

“We definitely are now that you’ve said that.”

Steve gets a grip on his shoulders and tugs him forward so he’s kneeling. Bucky lets himself be pulled, his forehead falling against Steve’s shoulder.

“You better at least marry Carter,” Bucky mutters. “If you had to let some mad scientists turn you into a freak and then come over here and watch me kill people, you gotta at least get that much out of it.”

Bucky's breath feels comfortable and familiar on his neck. It reminds him of sleepovers when they were kids, squeezing into each other's beds and staying up too late, skinny bare legs on fresh sheets. "I already got something out of it."

Bucky scoffs. "Not what you bargained for." Steve wants to ask what the hell that means, but Bucky straightens up and clears his throat. He pats him on the arm just a little too hard, and somehow that's the end of it.

 

***

 

So now it’s just the two of them trudging through the forest like a couple of boy scouts on a camping trip, though they’re too tired to sing obnoxious songs or fling dirt clods at each other. They sent the rest of the team on their way and left the broken down jeep for dead about an hour ago. Gabe took temporary custody of Bastard.

If it weren’t for everything going wrong, Steve could be happy like this. He’s hungry and burned out from always paying attention to what might be hiding in the trees, but the woods still feel magical. He knows there are forests even bigger than this one in America, but the widest patch of nature he ever saw before the war was Central Park. The distance between villages keeps surprising him.

He stops abruptly at a line of toadstools in the road, grabbing Bucky’s arm to keep him from crossing it. Bucky frowns for a moment before recognizing the fairy ring. He nods and walks around it, Steve following behind. He’s never questioned the superstitions Steve inherited from his mother. Steve doesn’t believe in fairies, obviously, but that’s no reason to piss them off.

Bucky’s quiet. If the guys were around, Steve would think he was embarrassed about throwing a fit earlier, but they’re alone and the silence is comfortable, just a sign that he’s cleared out the cobwebs. It feels like they should take the opportunity to talk about everything they can’t or won’t say in front of the others, but he doesn’t want to ruin the peace. They used to have a talent for being alone together in a city full of people. Now it seems like there’s eyes on them in the middle of nowhere.

 

***

 

Bucky has shifted his pack fourteen times in the last twenty minutes. Steve’s been counting.

“Need a break?”

“Nope.”

“You sure? I could use a break.”

Bucky looks at him flatly. “No you couldn’t.”

“I dunno, Buck, my chest is feeling a little tight.”

Bucky narrows his eyes and starts walking faster. Steve picks up the pace. His heart doesn’t beat any harder.

Bucky eventually slows down. He glances at Steve out of the corner of his eye as an invitation to say something and give him an excuse to throw a punch. The look is funnier than the slowing down, but there’s no good way to explain the difference now that he’s giggling.

“Hey, go fuck yourself.”

Steve laughs harder and Bucky shoves him into a tree. Steve bounces off and shoves back, prompting Bucky to tackle him. Bucky can’t knock him down anymore, so Steve catches him in a headlock.

“Now what?” Steve crows.

“Asshole,” Bucky grumbles.

“Say ‘uncle.’”

“Eat me.”

“Say it,” he snickers.

Bucky goes limp like he’s giving up and Steve’s about say something snotty, but then Bucky wrenches his arm around to twist Steve’s nipple through his shirt and all that comes out is an undignified squeak. Bucky laughs.

“Ow, you fucking--” Steve shoves him to the ground and falls on top of him. They untangle themselves from their packs and start rolling around in the dirt and thrashing each other.

Steve watches his arms and his hands, how they move and how little of his strength it takes for Bucky to feel each hit. Of course the point of this has never been to actually hurt each other, not once in their entire lives, but there’s a shift in the laws of physics when it dawns on him that he could really hurt Bucky now. He always thought they were both letting off steam when they did this, but as he lies there pretending to fight and acting like Bucky’s blows hurt, he realizes it was always just Bucky letting Steve pummel him while pulling his own punches.

And maybe, if it was anything like this before, enjoying the way their bodies knocked together. Steve catches himself moving so they’re pressed closer, so he can grab Bucky’s arms and throw a leg around his middle. He rolls them over so he’s on top.

There’s a crash in the underbrush and they both freeze. Steve sinks down, Bucky flat on the ground under him, both trying to breathe quietly. The fact that he’s noticing how good Bucky’s hair smells is ridiculous, frankly.

A twig snaps. Fuck, that was closer than the crash. Steve turns his head. All he hears is the breeze and an occasional songbird. Bucky’s face is less than an inch away, his eyes filling Steve’s field of vision. He nods almost imperceptibly.

Slowly, Steve lifts himself up just enough to look around. He sees nothing. He counts his heartbeats and waits. Bucky is reaching for his sidearm.

There’s another rustle and oh God it’s only a couple feet away and Bucky bolts upright cocking his gun and aiming--

And then he doesn’t fire.

Steve twists around.

A haggard-looking goat bleats in his face.

Bucky closes his eyes for a moment before he starts laughing. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

They’re in the middle of goddamn nowhere, Bucky sitting in the dirt and Steve straddling Bucky’s lap, howling like they’re at a Laurel and Hardy picture while Bucky points a pistol at a goat.

“Hey, it could be a Nazi goat,” Steve giggles. Bucky flops down again, flat on his back and laughing hysterically. His hair is wild and full of leaves and his grin is as sweet and messy as a popsicle in August. It’s all Steve can do not to lean down and kiss him.

 

***

 

Bucky has been visibly limping for the last hour. He must have blisters fit to kill a guy by now, and his whole body is sagging. They’ve taken breaks to piss and eat, but they don’t stop for long. Bucky keeps insisting he’d rather just get back to base as fast as they can. The terrain has been awful, full of hills and bumps and mud and rocks and two mucky creeks.

Bucky doesn’t weigh anything, not really. He certainly weighs less than three girls on a motorcycle. Steve could pick him up and carry him back and barely feel a difference.

On some level, he knows that would be the smartest way to do this. He also knows better than to offer.

“I’m sorry.”

Bucky makes a face, like he’s already sick of whatever conversation they’re about to have. “What?”

“I’m sorry. All the times I got mad when you wanted to help me with something.”

Bucky frowns at him, but there’s no anger behind it. He lets out a fraction of a laugh. “You better be, you little fucker.”

“You didn’t think I was weak, you just didn’t like watching things hurt me.”

“Wow, he has a brain after all. May I ask why you’re figuring this out at this exact moment?

Maybe he could get away with offering just a little help.

“That pack’s pretty heavy, Buck.”

“I got it.”

“I know.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow.

“I just don’t like watching things hurt you.”

He looks tempted for a second, but shakes his head. “Nah, I’m good.”

Steve grins. “I’ll give it back before we get to base so you don’t look like a gal making her husband hold her purse at Macy’s.”

“Oh, fuck you.” He shrugs the pack off.

 

***

 

They finally return an hour after sunset, so tired they damn near fall asleep on their feet. Bucky trips over a root about a mile away from the finish line and hits the ground with a slapstick tumble, but he’s loopy enough that he doesn’t really care about the bruises, either on his ass or on his dignity. Peggy greets them at the edge of the camp while Steve’s still hauling both their bags and gingerly supporting Bucky’s weight. He’s not sure what he saw on her face just then, but he thinks it might have been recognition.

Now Steve is shuffling back to their tent after letting everyone know they made it and debating whether he has the energy to shower before he goes to sleep. He steps into the tent still undecided and sees Bucky slumped on his cot, working his boots off like every movement hurts.

“Jesus, Buck.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Don’t. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

His socks have blotches of blood on them. He peels them off slowly, breathing through his nose.

“You should have the nurses look at those.”

“I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you’re right, feet usually look like raw hamburger, my mistake.”

“Please. It’s a couple burst blisters; it’s not like they’ll have to amputate.” His face twists with disgust. “Anyway, it’s not worth dealing with Judy.”

“That creek was probably full of cow shit.”

“You think there’s any cows left around here to shit in it, you’re nuts.”

“Fine then, some other kind of shit. You’re gonna get an infection.”

“I’ve got clean socks.”

Steve wants to bang his head against something. “Is this payback?”

“Not everything I do is about you,” Bucky sighs. He doesn’t bother to sound like he means it.

Steve heads for the medical tent and returns with some hot water and bandages, because everyone says yes to Captain America. Bucky’s flopped over and nearly asleep after giving up on the horror movie happening below his ankles.

“Sit up,” Steve orders.

Bucky makes a noise like that goat they almost shot and does not sit up. Steve kneels by the bed and pours the water and a handful of Epsom salts into a basin.

He gently jiggles Bucky’s knee. “Come on, big guy.”

Bucky makes another goat noise, but complies and attempts to roll up his pants.

“Oh, so they do have something other than bedpans. Interesting,” he yawns. He eases his feet into the bath with a wince, hissing. “Ow, fuck.”

“Yeah, I know, I’m sorry,” Steve murmurs. “I was thinking about slinging you over my shoulder and carrying you back, you know.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“I’d’ve had to kick you.”

“Only thing that stopped me.”

Bucky looks at him for a long minute. “You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Huh?”

“You’d’ve carried me that whole fucking way if I let you.”

“Well, sure.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and looks away. He’s tired enough that he looks weepy.

Steve gently wraps a hand around Bucky’s ankle and squeezes. He’s not sure what he means to do. He just wants to be touching him. He watches his face and waits for him to look back, but he doesn’t, his head turned away like there’s something riveting happening on the wall of the tent. He shifts and fidgets, but he won’t turn towards Steve.

Steve looks back at Bucky’s feet. He notices a stubborn smudge of dirt on his foot that hasn’t dissolved in the bath and absently slips his hand into the water to rub it off, running his thumb along the arch. It’s nothing, just a thoughtless brush, but Bucky melts all over. It’s like he’s been waiting for permission to relax.

Steve’s mind goes quiet and his hands move on their own. He doesn’t know whether he’s washing Bucky’s feet or rubbing the ache out of them, but it’s quiet and warm and Bucky isn’t pushing him away. He realizes with a sudden bizarre certainty that he’s allowed to do this because of Bucky’s episode earlier and because they knocked each other around after. It’s not clear whether the ice is permanently broken or if that tussle was just an extra handful of stamps towards his sugar ration, but he’ll take what he can get.

Bucky’s breathing is slow and deep. His eyes are closed, lips parted, and he’s grimy and bruised and lovely like nothing Steve’s ever seen. They’re both in the grip of some kind of spell, the kind that makes Steve start wanting things.

The weirdest thing is that Steve’s -- fantasies? That word makes them sound sleazy and a lot more clearly defined than they are -- they’re not always about sex, and the ones that are tend to be about something else too. He daydreams about having Bucky naked in his lap and doing nothing except feeding him orange slices, or letting Bucky fuck him and being able to read each other’s minds and feel each other’s bodies while they do it, like some kind of smutty sci-fi novel. Sometimes he just revisits memories, innocent little things from when they were kids that somehow put knots in his stomach. He remembers how strangely good it was to let Bucky pull his loose teeth, the pure, blank trust that distracted from the coppery sting. He thinks about tying Bucky’s shoes for him the summer he broke his arm, the dusty smell of August and the gritty sidewalk digging into his knee. Bucky would bitch and moan if his mom or the girls tried to help him. He just went quiet when it was Steve.

He stares at Bucky’s exhausted, blissful face and wants to climb on top of him and pin him down - not like in a fight, more like how you’d hold someone to stop them hurting themselves when they’re thrashing from a nightmare. He wants to kiss him, real slow and messy, but just until he falls asleep. He’d like that, to kiss Bucky to sleep and then stay there, crushed on top of him so they could breathe each other in and have dirty dreams.

Bucky catches himself nearly falling over. Steve comes back to reality with a slight jolt.

“You with me?” He grins.

“Mmm,” Bucky mumbles, a slight smile on his lips. His eyes are still closed. For a moment, Steve wonders if he has a shot. Probably not; Bucky’s just too tired to mind Steve being mushy.

He dries him off with clean bandages and wraps up the worst of the wounds.

“You don’t wanna sleep in your clothes, pal.”

Bucky complains a little, but does manage to get down to his underwear and under the covers. Steve’s about to turn in too when something slips under the tent flap.

Bastard meows and skitters toward Bucky’s cot at the specific speed of cats who are excited to see you, but certainly aren’t going to give you the satisfaction of running. He jumps up and squeaks in Bucky’s face.

Gabe pokes his head into the tent. “Sorry, he got away from me.” He looks over at Bucky, who’s wordlessly manhandling Bastard into a good spot against his chest. Bastard is allowing it.

“I think he missed you,” Gabe says.

Bucky smiles, already half asleep again. “Mmhm. Me too.”

 

***

 

“Steve, are you decent?”

Steve tears his eyes away from his book and squints at the closed tent flap, the toes of Peggy’s pumps just visible between the ground and the canvas. “Depends on who you ask.”

“Funny.”

“My clothes are on.”

Peggy lifts the flap and invites herself in. “Oh, The Hobbit. I’ve heard of that, is it good?”

Steve smiles as he sits up and dog ears a page. “Well, I’ve read it three times, so I’d say so.”

“I’m usually one for murder mysteries, myself.” She sniffles and suppresses a sneeze.

“This one’s more about burglary.”

“I see.” She sits down on Bucky’s cot, crossing her legs at the ankles. “Well, I’ll try not to hold that against it.”

They’re both quiet for a long moment, Peggy glancing around the tent as though she’s looking for something. She looks at him just as closely. He looks back and waits.

“Do you know, I’ve never had hay fever,” she says conversationally. “Nothing seems to get to me. Grass, oak trees, flowers; I seem to be perfectly all right with all of them. My mother has a terrible time every spring, so you’d think I would too, but I suppose I just got lucky.”

Steve wonders if he missed the first half of this conversation. “That’s nice?”

“It is, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I was allergic to plenty of things before, but now I seem to be okay. Serum, I guess.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

Steve nods. She just stares at him.

“Steve?”

Her expression makes him feel like he’s been caught at something. “Yeah?”

“I have been intermittently sneezing for over three weeks. My eyes are itchy and I look like I’ve been crying at inopportune times. It does not make me look particularly authoritative.”

“You don’t need help with that, Peg.”

“Still.”

“Yeah,” he frowns. “It’s… that’s quite the cold.”

“I don’t have a cold.”

He raises an eyebrow. “It kind of seems like you do.”

“No. You see, I feel perfectly fine when I haven’t been near you or Sergeant Barnes for a few hours. When you were gone last week, I was right as rain. I do not have a cold. I have an allergy.”

Steve blinks a few times. “To… me and Bucky?”

She rolls her eyes. “Probably not. Steve, there is one thing in this world that I am allergic to.”

“Oh.”

“Would you like to know what it is?”

He shifts uncomfortably. He gets the sense he’s not gonna like the answer. “Uh. What?”

“It’s cats.”

Fuck.

“Oh,” he says again, with less conviction in his voice than he’s ever had in his life.

Peggy sighs. “Do you have a cat?”

Steve frowns and tries to look surprised. “Where on earth would I get a cat?”

Peggy stares at him for a long moment. She looks like she’s about to say something, but her words are swallowed by another sneeze. Steve really does feel bad.

“You’re sure?”

He shrugs. “I’m very sure I don’t have a cat.”

She looks up at him again, her eyes rimmed with red. “You’re telling the truth.”

“Yeah, of course.”

Her eyes narrow. The pauses in this conversation are way too long to be comfortable. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“Does Sergeant Barnes have a cat?”

The USO acting lessons were useless. Completely useless. “Uh… No.”

“Captain Rogers.”

“... He might.”

She rolls her eyes and he wilts. “Peg, he’s… really attached to it. I don’t want to tell him he can’t keep it,” he sighs. “I’ll try to clean up and keep it out of your way, all right? It really hasn’t been a problem so far except for--”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

He blinks. “Oh.”

She shakes her head. She’s spent too much time around Colonel Phillips and she’s starting to pick up his mannerisms.

“What’s its name?”

“Huh?”

“The cat.”

Steve opens his mouth to answer honestly and thinks better of it. “Uh. Private Keaton.”

“Keaton?” She frowns. “As in Buster?”

Steve bites his lip for a moment. “Yeah, sure.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, Bucky named it in his sleep.”

“He what?”

“He--” Steve shakes his head. “Never mind. Thank you for being nice about this.”

She sighs. “You know, I don’t actually dislike cats, it’s just my nose has different…” she sneezes again. “Ideas.”

“I get it, believe me.”

“Don’t tell the Colonel, though,” she sniffles. “Granted, he likely knows already, but as long as you’re doing an acceptable job of hiding it he’ll choose not to notice.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “Speaking from personal experience?”

She looks at him sharply for a moment before smiling sadly. “Don’t get too comfortable.”

“Would he mind having a cat around that much? I mean, it’s not like they’re useless, the Navy has them on ships for--”

“I’m not talking about Private Keaton.”

He blinks. “What?”

Her voice drops. “Captain America is not immune to blue cards.”

He tenses. “I’m not… That’s not… We don’t.”

She cocks her head. “You don’t?”

“Not anymore.” He lets out a breath and gestures vaguely. “I’ll um. I’ll try to clean up a little and keep uh… Keaton out of your hair.”

“Please do. I have a limited number of handkerchiefs.”

She stands and makes to leave when the question pops into Steve’s head.

“Peg?”

“Mm?”

He hesitates, unsure whether this is asking too much of her. “About me and you... Would it be okay if I explained what’s going on to Bucky?”

She looks at him critically for a moment. “Why?”

He grimaces. “Having him loudly wonder why we aren’t, uh. Getting anywhere. I mean, I hate lying to him either way, but it’s probably making other people wonder about it too.”

Her lips press together for a moment. “No hope of him minding his own business?”

“Bucky?” he snorts.

She sighs and examines her nails. “‘Not anymore,’ you said.”

“Sorry?”

“You and Barnes.”

“Oh.” Steve clears his throat. “Uh. Yeah.”

“So at one time…?”

He shrugs. “It was no big deal.” It comes out too quiet, and he can tell from the look on her face that she knows it’s not true.

“You trust him?”

“More than anyone.” He chews his lip. “He’ll play along if I ask him to.”

She nods and something tight in her shoulders eases. “Well. I trust you. Tell him what you like.” She smiles a little. “I’m not immune either.”

She turns again, like she’s about to leave, stopping with her hand in midair reaching for the tent flap. She looks back at him.

“Thank you.”

He shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, I can’t think who else would do this.”

“It’s not like it’s a chore, Peg. I like spending time with you.”

“I scare off people you could have something real with.”

He rolls his eyes, trying to keep them dry. “Nobody I want.”

She looks sorry. “Steve, are you sure he…”

He shakes his head again to stop her from finishing the sentence. “Really, Peg, if… if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d want someone to do it for me. Besides, if they boot you for your thing with Lorraine we’ll probably lose the war on the spot.”

She laughs. “Quite right.”

The tent feels too quiet when she leaves, that unfinished question wrapping around his throat. He’s not sure of anything these days.

 

***

 

They spend a turbulent plane ride to London playing Gin and trying not to be airsick. Monty is excited to be a little closer to home and Bucky is unusually chipper at the prospect of spending some time in a city, even if it’s a city up to its neck in sandbags. He’s not even cheating, which is astonishing since he usually claims that fleecing the other guy is the only reason cards are fun.

Peggy is sneezing like crazy. Steve feels bad about that, but there’s nothing for it; there was nowhere they could have left Bastard, and Peggy wasn’t even supposed to be on this flight.

“Jesus Carter, we gotta see about getting you some Vick’s or something,” Morita says, chewing on a toothpick.

Bucky grins down at his cards and gets halfway through muttering something about how Steve would be just delighted to help her put it on before Steve kicks him in the shin.

“I’m not sick."

Morita looks up at her with a raised eyebrow. “Kinda looks like you are.”

“Well, looks can be deceiving.”

Bucky chuckles and motions at Peggy and Steve. “You two are made for each other. Sick for a month and still won’t admit it. Here I thought you’d never find another one of your kind, Stevie.”

“I have hay fever.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “Too early for that. Try another one, maybe you’ll have an excuse I haven’t heard yet. This genius ran outta ideas about ten years ago.”

She rolls her eyes. “I know the difference between a cold and hay fever, thank you.”

“So do I. Nothing’s blooming right now. You’re sick.” He looks up from his cards and frowns. “Kidding aside, you oughtta check with a doctor about that, this goes on much longer and you’re gonna get pneumonia.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Barnes, I don’t have a cold, I have an allergy to your stupid cat.”

The whole cabin goes quiet and Bucky looks like a landed fish. “Um. What cat?”

“By the way,” Steve coughs. “Peggy knows about the cat.”

Bucky glares at him. “Traitor.”

“She doesn’t mind!”

“I do mind. I wouldn’t if you’d wash your clothes more.”

A beat of silence passes before everyone starts laughing.

“I’ll admit it was a long shot.”

“Sorry you’re stuck with a bunch of smelly boys for the duration,” Gabe snickers.

“My sense of smell was evacuated to the countryside over a year ago.”

“Living on an elegant old estate, is it?” Monty chirps.

“Oh yes, it’s having a lovely time away from the badly-done latrines and all of your filthy underthings.”

She sneezes again. Bastard pokes his head out of Bucky’s pack on the other side of the cabin, yawning luxuriously. He’s been mowing down powdered milk, chipped beef, and spam for the past month and no longer fits in most pockets. He tumbles out of the bag like a sack of walnuts falling off a shelf and wanders over to see what Bucky’s doing, demanding to be in his lap.

Peggy groans. “Good god. He’s very cute, but I think I’ll go sit in the cockpit. Against all odds, I’m not allergic to Howard.”

 

***

 

Morita’s not the only guy in the room on crutches, but he’s definitely having the most fun impressing girls with stories about why he’s on them. It seems to be making up for the fact that he can’t dance.

In any case, there are a lot of girls in the bar tonight and the soldiers are significantly outnumbered. Steve can feel Peggy trying to keep her distance to give him a shot, which is sweet of her, but it’s not like he could go with anyone right now even if he wanted to. Everyone’s fully convinced they’ve got something going on, and the guys all like her so much they’d probably line up to punch him on her behalf. That stunt Private Lorraine pulled a while back, kissing him outside Phillips’ office so Peggy could look jealous? That was a stroke of genius. They really should put ladies in charge of tactics more often.

He searches the dance floor, trying to see if any of the fellas found someone, but he only sees Peggy dancing with a cute redhead on the apparent grounds that there aren’t enough men in the bar. Maybe her decision to keep her distance isn’t entirely altruistic. Peggy catches his eye and he winks at her. The redhead is looking at her like… well, Peggy won’t step out on Lorraine, but she could if she wanted to.

Bucky’s been dancing with half the bar, but there’s something off about him. Steve has felt watched all evening, not in the usual sense that Bucky knows where he is, but more like he’s being studied.

Wanted?

Probably not.

The song ends and Steve watches Peggy and the redhead squeeze into a booth next to Monty and Dernier, the girl very nearly in Peggy’s lap and openly fiddling with a lock of her hair. Christ, women really get away with murder; if he’d ever done that with Bucky they’d have been kicked out for being indecent.

“Rogers, how come the prettiest girl in here is stuck dancing with other ladies?”

Bucky appears next to him.

“Well, you’ve been busy dancing with everyone else, Buck.”

“Ha ha. Seriously, your date wants to dance and you’re sitting here like a lump. Quit brooding and go get her.”

This probably isn’t the ideal place to discuss this.

“Peg’s where she wants to be, don’t worry.”

Bucky looks at him like he’s stupid and dramatically turns back and forth between him and Peggy. “What, underneath a seamstress?”

Steve laughs, just this side of too much so Bucky will know it’s fake and no one else will. He schools his face to look like he’s about to make a joke he doesn’t want a lady to hear and leans in close, his lips next to Bucky’s ear.

“Like I said. Peggy’s exactly where she wants to be.”

Bucky senses the tension. There’s a question in his eyes. Steve takes a sip of his beer and leans in again.

“She’s not my date. But it’s better for both of us if people think she is.”

Bucky’s eyes go wide. He corrects his expression fast, laughing like Steve was kidding him. He glances over his shoulder, not quite hiding that he wants to stare. Peggy’s got her arm around the girl’s waist. Steve nudges his ankle with his foot.

Bucky turns around quickly and clears his throat. He looks at Steve like he’s seeing him for the first time. His face is strangely hesitant.

“Well,” he huffs, a sweet smile forming on his lips, “If you’re gonna just sit on your ass, you may as well buy me a--”

An air raid siren howls over the music and a groan ripples through the bar.

“Jesus, never a dull moment,” Bucky grumbles.

 

***

 

If this happened in New York, it would be chaos. Sure, people would get into shelters eventually, but not without the crowd inventing a dictionary’s worth of ways to insult someone’s mother and a whole bunch of elbows digging into a whole bunch of ribs. He keeps waiting to hear people swearing and shoving, but there’s none of the uncontrolled panic the situation deserves. He’s not sure whether it’s the natural politeness of Brits or just evidence that these people have had to do this too many times.

He makes his way to the shelter slowly, stopping to help an old man down some steps, pointing a girl back toward her mother. None of it feels real. The only light comes from the weak moon pushing through the clouds and slivers of light peeking around the edges of blackout curtains. Elderly people cling to the arms of younger family members whose eyes are still fresh. People blind from their well-lit living rooms pick up their feet and walk with their hands in front of them while they adjust to the blackness. The streets are a river of human noise, sirens smothering the city like fog.

Eventually the streets are empty enough for him to feel okay about going into the shelter himself, everyone’s as safe as they can be and they don’t need his help. Down the steps, slow and careful, don’t step on the heels of the woman ahead. The tube station is close and stuffy even in the night chill. He pauses by a wall and closes his eyes, pretends it’s the subway at rush hour. He savors the stab of homesickness just for a bit.

He doesn’t know where Peggy and the guys are, but he feels strangely peaceful about it. He trusts them, knows they’ll be safe. He passes over a drainage grate and the clammy, rotten smell that emerges makes the back of his neck prickle. Too familiar.

Where’s Bucky?

He turns around and tries to search the crowd. Bucky was right next to him when they left the bar, but they separated once they were outside, both running off to help people who looked like they needed it.

A sound like distant thunder rushes through the tunnel as the first few bombs fall. Where’s Bucky?

He’s fine, he’s underground. He’s just not underground with Steve. It’s okay.

Another rumble, more distinct. They’re closer now. Steve can’t believe how calm everyone is - a whole subway tunnel full of civilians and the only people crying are babies. A lady a few feet from him is distributing bread and cheese to her children.  More bombs drop, farther away than the last ones. Maybe they’re not bothering with this side of town tonight.

As soon as the thought crosses his mind, a bomb lands nearly on top of them, the ground shaking and dust falling from the ceiling. A murmur of worry passes through the crowd before they go back to whatever they were doing to pass the time. Where the fuck is Bucky?

He wanders down the tunnel, looking for something that might need doing, stepping over people’s feet and belongings. There’s really no room to pace, but he’s finding a way to do it anyway. God, does no one else smell that? Where’s--

“‘Scuse me sir. Pardon me.”

Bucky is gingerly squeezing past people and stepping over legs when Steve sees him. He looks up to see Steve moving toward him and sighs, his shoulders slumping.

“There you are.”

“Here I am, where were you?”

Bucky shrugs and lifts his pack to show Steve. He didn’t have that at the bar, which means--

Bastard screeches from inside, and Steve is suddenly consumed with a dizzying cocktail of relief and pure, blinding rage.

“You…” he takes a breath. “You went back to the inn. In the middle of a goddamned air raid.”

“Yeah?"

“For the cat.”

“Well, yeah, obviously.”

“Bucky.”

“What?”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?!

An older lady glares at them.

“Well, what was I supposed to do, leave him there?”

“I--” He sputters, “I mean… No! But--”

“Well, then, I had to go back!”

“You’re a fucking moron, oh my god.”

Bucky’s whole face slams shut.

“Sir, there are children here,” the lady scolds.

Steve blanches and he’s about to apologize when Bucky interrupts.

“Ma’am, your kids are what, thirteen? I’d bet every penny of my criminally small paycheck they already know the word ‘fuck’ and probably what it means, too.”

“Bucky!”

“Come on, dipshit.” He turns around and starts making his way toward an empty spot a couple hundred feet down the tunnel. Steve stammers an apology for both of them as he follows.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Steve snaps at Bucky in a stage whisper as soon as he’s caught up.

Bucky whips around. “Do I seem like the kind of guy that leaves somebody who needs me when they’re about to get a bomb dropped on them? Is that what you think, after everything?"

Steve startles. “What?”

“Answer me.”

“I… Buck, what are you talking about? No. Of course not.”

“Great, then fuck off.”

Bucky sits on the edge of the platform. Steve stares at him.

He recovers. “You fucking scared me, is all.”

“Well, turnabout’s fair play, isn’t it.”

Steve sits down next to him and thinks for a long moment. Bucky’s gruff with everyone these days, but he’s particularly touchy with him. He used to think he was just taking everything out on Steve because he trusts him - easier to bite the hand that’ll always feed you than the one that might get sick of your shit - but there’s more to it than that.

“Bucky?”

Bucky grunts, irritable.

“Are you angry at me for being over here?”

“Oh, was that not abundantly clear?”

Steve is quiet. “I mean, I figured you were kidding.”

“Kidding? You’re over here getting shot at when you had four different recruitment offices tell you not to worry about it, and you think I’m kidding?”

“Bucky…”

“And now you think I should leave the cat in an air raid.”

“I didn’t mean it like that and you know it, Jesus bleeding Christ.”

“How’d you mean it then?”

Steve doesn’t know how to explain, and Bucky will still be mad even if he does, so he just shakes his head.

Bucky scoffs. “I can’t imagine you mean it as ‘Hey asshole, stop risking your life.’ You’re the one who asked me to stay here.”

Steve feels his stomach collapse. Bucky’s not looking at him. Bastard is crying in his bag, but he doesn’t do anything to stop it.

He finally draws a soggy breath around the lump in his throat. “I didn’t mean you had to.”

Bucky frowns and looks up. Steve must have everything on his face again, because his eyes immediately soften with guilt. “Shit.” Bucky slumps. “Yeah, fuck, I know that Steve.”

“You should have gone home.”

“Nah.”

“I’m serious, you did your part, I shouldn’t have asked you.”

“Christ.” Bucky rubs his face. “Shut up, Steve, forget I said that.”

“But--”

“I didn’t mean it, just shut up.”

Bucky finally seems to notice that Bastard is upset and pulls him out of the bag, muttering nonsense and petting him until he quiets down. He sighs again, a little shaky this time.

“Look, you… you can do what you want, I’m not your ma. But don’t act surprised that I’m not throwing a ticker tape parade over you being here.”

“I had to.”

“No, Steve. You didn’t. But you did anyway, and…” He shakes his head, “And I hate that about you, and it’s also the reason you’re the best person I know.”

Steve gapes.

“It’s not always easy having the best person you know for a friend, I hope you know that.”

Steve shuts his mouth but keeps staring. “Yeah, Bucky. I know that.”

Bucky looks away. “Cut it out.”

“What?”

“Don’t bullshit me. There’s a war on, we got enough of that.”

Steve wants to yell, but he doesn’t. “Where the hell is this coming from?”

“What?”

“This,” he gestures at Bucky. “This attitude! You get all offended because of an insult I didn’t even say, but every time I try to…” he drops his voice. “Every time I say something nice or try to… do something nice, you worm out of it so fast I barely have time to catch up.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Bullshit. Okay, you’re mad and…” He slumps. “And I’m sorry, because you’re right, I’m a hypocritical pain in the ass. But are you really so mad at me you want to stay mad at me forever? You won’t let me be sweet to you, not even a little?”

Bucky turns to Bastard, who’s still jittery and clinging to him, and god all-fucking-mighty what does he have to do to keep Bucky’s eyes on him these days?

“Can you say something?”

“Jesus, be patient,” Bucky snaps. “I’m… it’s a damn landfill in here.” He taps his temple. “Give me a minute.”

He keeps stroking Bastard. Bombs are still falling outside. The dull hum of other people’s lives continues, but it feels like silence. Bucky’s hands fall to his sides, palms resting on the cement. Steve reaches over to scratch Bastard’s ears for a couple minutes before he lets his own hands settle next to him the same way.

Bucky takes a breath.

“You-- I have never in my entire life met anybody who was so easy to disappoint.” Steve starts to correct him, because that never applied to Bucky, never-- “Button it for a second and let me finish, Jesus H. Christ,” Bucky sighs. “I hadn’t worked out how to-- Look. I figured either I’d die out here, or I’d come home after a nice couple weeks being seasick on the boat and I’d have time to--” He shakes his head, frustrated. “I didn’t want you to have to see me like this, but here you are.”

Steve frowns. “Like what?”

He gestures at himself. “Like this! Fuck, Steve. Don’t pretend I’m the same as I was before.”

He knows. Bucky is rough and brittle these days. Steve catches him staring into the distance looking like he’s never slept a day in his life, but Steve feels that way too. It might be a little more pronounced on Bucky, but everyone is angry. Everyone is tired.

“I’m pretty different too.”

“Not like I’m different. You’re just…” he waves at Steve. “Tall.”

Steve swallows a lump in his throat and tries to forget the smell of the lab where he found Bucky. He fails again. He’s pretty sure he’ll fail for the rest of his life. “You know it’s more than that."

They’re quiet for another few minutes. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable either.

“Do you like me less now?” Steve asks. After the conversation they just had, the question feels like resting his hand on a door frame and waiting to get his fingers slammed.

“What?” Bucky bites. “Are you fucking-- I’m here, aren’t I? You think I’d still be in this hellhole if I didn’t--” He takes a breath, releases it through his nose. He quiets his voice. “If I didn’t love you?”

Steve’s throat turns to sandpaper. They never use that word. Steve swallows hard and wonders why that is, because god knows it’s the only one that’s ever been true. “No, I don’t.”

“Then what the fuck is wrong with you, asking me something like that?”

He takes a breath. “What makes you think I’d love you less?”

Bucky looks like a fly plinking against a windowpane. “S’not the same.”

“Why not?”

“I’m… wrong.”

“You love me?”

Bucky’s jaw shifts. “You know I do."

Steve blinks hard. Bucky says it so casually, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Then you’re as right as ever.”

“Steve…”

“I know. Me too.” He sighs. “I’m wrong too. Don’t leave me to be wrong by myself, all right?” He looks away, staring at the tracks. “That’s not how we do things.”

He can feel Bucky breathing heavily next to him. An agonizing stretch of time passes, and then a warm hand slides into his and squeezes so tight it hurts.

He squeezes back and wishes they were alone.

 

***

 

But they’re in the Army, so they’re never alone.

They spend a couple interminable days in London meeting with brass from two nations’ militaries before they’re shuffled off to a base in a repurposed country estate for more strategy meetings. Most of the time, only Steve, Peggy, and sometimes Bucky are actually allowed into these discussions, so it’s not quite clear why the rest of the team was asked to come, but the guys deserve a break and he’s not about to complain.

Underneath the barbed wire fencing and temporary guard stations, the property is beautiful, surrounded by open fields and massive, gnarled trees. Most of the furnishings have been put up in storage, but the house itself is old and enormous, with towering frescoed ceilings and velvet drapes spilling to the floor around high windows. It looks like the set of some kind of romantic movie. Steve half expects to open a door and see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart sharing an illicit kiss in front of a roaring fire.

Morita’s off his crutches and ignoring the doctor’s advice by damn near running everywhere, and Dugan’s a bad influence now that their relationship has progressed from low-level resentment to grudging friendship. Bucky’s got that pinched, grouchy-sergeant look and clearly wants to yell at both of them, but years of experience with Steve have taught him not to bother.

Gabe and Dernier have apparently forgiven Monty for being rich and British now that he’s willing to have most conversations with them in French. Steve vacillates between thinking they’re being petty and appreciating their dedication to screwing with the guy who unironically begins sentences with “I say, chaps...”

Besides, everyone’s French is improving, so no one else will announce that they’re looking for pussy next time Bastard goes missing. Once Gabe explained Bucky’s mistake to him, he just shrugged and said, “Well, that too, I guess.”

Steve feels like a bored terrier that’s been offered a trip to the park at some unspecified time in the future. Bucky loves him. Bucky loves him. Bucky settles into him when he throws an arm around his shoulders. He lets his knee rest against Steve’s when they sit next to one another. He’s still gruff and jumpy and tired but he smiles and musses Steve’s hair like he used to, because it turns out they’re still allowed to touch. Steve tries to make it look casual and unimportant, and somehow everyone buys it. Forget all his complaints about the USO acting instructor. Turns out the man was a genius.

 

***

 

Steve’s soaking in the first real hot bath he’s had on this side of the world when he hears Bucky unlock the door to their bedroom. The mansion has dozens of guest rooms, most of which have been converted into barracks and packed with bunk beds and cots. This one is tiny and plain compared to the rest of the house, but it’s comfortable, has a small adjoining bathroom, and is one of the few rooms that still has a regular bed in it. It’s usually reserved for higher-ranking visitors than Steve, but the place is full otherwise, so here they are. The guy that led them to the room was surprisingly apologetic about the fact that they’d have to share a bed.

“Don’t worry about it, corporal,” Bucky said. “This is Buckingham Palace compared to our usual digs, and that includes our place in Brooklyn.” Bucky enjoys talking to Brits about New York, especially the younger guys from little villages or wealthy country families, because they have absolutely no clue when he’s lying.

It’s a nice room though, and the real mattress is an unimaginable luxury after weeks of sleeping on the ground or in cots with as much room and padding as an ironing board. Steve hears Bucky digging around in his foot locker and muttering to himself, and for a second, it feels like home.

He hears footsteps and then a creak as the bathroom door opens wider.

“Hey, you’re here.”

“Mmhm.”

Bucky’s standing in the doorway, stripped down to his undershirt and pants. His belt and shoes are gone. “I’m shocked. Aren’t you supposed to be meeting with Colonel McMoneybags or General Fancypants or somebody?”

“Not that anyone told me, and I’m not gonna fucking ask.”

Bucky huffs and shuffles toward him. He perches on the edge of the tub and makes a show of looking Steve over from head to toe, letting out an appreciative whistle.

Steve rolls his eyes. “What?”

“God damn. Those mad scientists knew what they were doing. Look at you.”

Steve allows himself a tiny smile. “You’ve already seen me undressed, Buck.”

“Yeah, well, not like I got a chance to properly appreciate, what with other people hanging around all the time.” He’s teasing, but the way his eyes go dark is dead serious. “There’s a lot to take in.”

“We share a tent whenever there is a tent.”

“Let me have my fun,” Bucky purrs.

Steve grins and lets his legs fall open a little. “You see me stopping you?”

“Not once in your entire life, you little--”

“Be nice to me,” Steve warns, barely keeping the smile off his face.

“--tart.”

He digs his wet fingers into the collar of Bucky’s shirt and tugs. “What’d I say?”

“Jesus!” Bucky scrambles for a grip on the tub, but winds up tumbling into the water with a messy splash, sprawled on top of Steve. “What the fuck,” he splutters.

“See what you get?”

“You’re real lucky you didn’t get a knee in the balls just now.”

You’re real lucky I didn’t get a knee in the balls just now,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow.

“It would have been your faul--”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish. Steve hauls him up, digs his hands into his hair and kisses him, long and slow, the kiss he’s wanted since he pulled him out of that factory. A Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart kiss.

He feels Bucky’s body sink against his, feels the rush of his breath as he sighs. His clothes are wet and heavy, sticking to his body above the water and dragging against Steve’s bare thighs below. He breaks the kiss for a moment and lets his forehead rest against Steve’s, closing his eyes and breathing slow and deep. Water droplets cling to his cheek.

“Hey,” Steve murmurs, soft so his voice doesn’t crack. “Haven’t seen you in a while, pal.”

Bucky lets out a short, voiceless laugh and doesn’t say anything or open his eyes. He leans forward and loops his arms around Steve’s shoulders, soaking the few dry patches left on his shirt as he presses their bodies together. Steve wraps his arms around his waist. “You with me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky whispers. “Yeah, I’m here.”

Steve slides his hands under the edge of Bucky’s shirt, and Bucky reluctantly pulls his arms away from Steve’s shoulders to let him ease it off. His body has changed in the past year, the muscle hard and defined and the softness under his skin melted away. His skin is still as smooth as ever, though his hands have new calluses. Steve runs his palm over Bucky’s belly and feels him twitch and shudder as his fingers brush the sparse hair below his navel.

Bucky unbuttons his fly before he stops and sighs, annoyed.

“What?”

“Shoulda let me take these off before you dragged me into the water.”

“Hm. Remember that next time you decide to--”

This time, Bucky cuts him off, kissing him hard and leaving a sharp bite on his lip. “Don’t be a punk.”

“Can’t help it.” Steve grins. He shoves his hands under the waistband of Bucky’s pants. “Come on.”

The following struggle to get Bucky out of his clothes is not at all like a movie. It’s more like watching an overfed seal try to remove itself from a wet sleeping bag while it’s lying on top of him in the back of a taxi cab. Steve still manages to avoid a knee in the balls, but only because Bucky’s knee ends up in his stomach instead.

“Ow! Jesus!” He groans, still giggling.

“Serves you right,” Bucky says. He gives him a peck on the lips as an apology and throws his soggy pants over the edge of the tub. They land with a splat on the tile.

Steve expects Bucky to lean down and start kissing him again, but he’s just staring at him, his eyes flicking between his face and his body. He still looks surprised.

“You sure it’s not too weird?”

Bucky frowns and looks back at Steve’s face. “Huh?”

“I mean, I know it’s not what you’re used to.” He shrugs, his shoulders bumping the tub. “I think most people prefer me like this, but--”

“It’s the weirdest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Normally when I’m having a dirty dream it ends when I wake up.”

“Oh.”

Bucky kisses him again, all hot and slick. Steve drags his nails lightly down his back and grabs his ass. Bucky lets out an almost startled moan and starts rocking his hips against Steve’s, and fuck, it’s been a while. Steve feels twisted and achy and starts moving. The water is still warm and their movements are clumsy and drunk; there’s really no good way to move comfortably while confined like this or brace themselves against the smooth enamel, but it doesn’t matter. It’s been so long, and this body is so much more cooperative, and he finally, finally has Bucky. He feels flayed.

Bucky pulls away with a grimace. “C’mon, sit up.”

Steve complies, scooting back and pulling his knees up, tucking his heels behind Bucky’s ass. Bucky wraps his legs around his middle and rushes back into kissing him, squeezing him and breathing heavily.

Steve pulls him as close as they can get. “Better?”

“Mmf.” Bucky does something like a nod without taking his lips off Steve’s. He slides a hand over Steve’s chest, down his stomach and around both of their cocks. They don’t really have a lot of room to move, but they’re both painfully hard and Steve’s stomach flips at the touch. He reaches down to help and Bucky shudders, curling over to bury his face in Steve’s shoulder, obviously struggling to keep quiet. His whole body clings to Steve’s, his skin cool and goosebumped.

It feels like a risk, talking right now. But things are different; the world has changed. They both know there are things out there much scarier than the truth, and life is too short to not to tell it.

Steve pulls Bucky’s face up toward his with his free hand, cupping his jaw and tilting them both so they can look.

“Buck.” His voice comes out hoarse.

“Uh huh?”

He holds his chin, firm, but not painful. “You know you’re it for me.”

“Steve…”

“You’re it. End of story, honey.”

Bucky’s eyes are wide and black with want, his cheeks mottled pink. “Promise?”

It could have come out teasing, but it didn’t. Bucky squeezes harder and Steve’s stomach lurches.

“Promise. Oh, fuck,” He whines. “I promise.”

“Me too,” Bucky sighs, barely catching his breath. “Baby. You’re it for me too.”

It doesn’t take either of them long to finish, a stabbing rush that hits them nearly at the same time. After, they’re slumped awkwardly in the lukewarm bath water and breathing roughly, with Bucky’s face mashed into Steve’s chest. He draws lazy circles around Steve’s nipple, slower and slower as his muscles go slack.

Steve looks down and sees Bucky’s eyes close. “No falling asleep in the tub.”

“‘M not.”

Steve gives him a tight squeeze. “You sure about that?”

“Mm.” Bucky blinks and looks up at him. He frowns for a minute. “You’re a real sap, you know.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“Saying that shit while you’ve got your hand on my dick.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “I could tell you really hated it.”

Bucky rolls his eyes and gently bites Steve’s collarbone. “Yeah, it was terrible.”

“Guess you’ll want a do-over.”

“I think you owe me that much.”

 

***

 

Peggy steps onto the plane, doing a final check to make sure everyone’s on board. Steve plops down on the empty seat next to Bucky and pats his knee companionably. No one’s excited to go back to the front, exactly, but there’s a strange undercurrent of pent up energy begging to be burned off. It’s time to get back to work.

Peggy turns to Steve. “Are we ready?”

“Looks that way.”

“Where’s Private Keaton?”

“Right here,” He gestures at the cat, who’s currently crouched behind Bucky’s feet. “Might wanna keep your distance,” he calls, but Peggy’s already making a quick escape to the cockpit.

Bucky frowns. He almost looks offended. “Private?”

“Sure, he’s part of the unit, right?”

“He’s been through a firefight!”

“Sure has.”

Bucky gives him a look.

“What?”

“A private? Come on.”

“Oh. Is this you requesting a promotion for a man under your command, Sergeant Barnes?”

“I mean, I think he deserves it.”

“You’re right. Private First Class.”

Bucky sulks. “You can do better than PFC. He brought me half a mouse the other day, so I’d say he’s a pretty efficient soldier. ”

“Fine.” Steve crouches down and grabs Bastard’s paw, giving it a little shake. Bastard tolerates it with obvious disdain. “Congratulations, Corporal Keaton.”

Bucky smiles, that perfect summer sunshine grin. “That’s more like it.”