Bucky had been walking for hours along the deserted, tree-lined road when he spotted the signboard: Welcome to Hope, Washington. Population: 5,492. That was a decent-sized town, big enough he might be able to get a job doing dishes in some diner. After two days on the road and sleeping in the rough, he really wanted to find a cheap motel with hot running water and a warm bed.
The thought of that warm bed had him picking up his pace as he continued on towards Hope. Far off in the distance, towering above the sign, he could see the snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Mountains. Their solid permanence settled something inside him, made him feel almost at peace. After the news he’d just had about Gabe—No. Don’t think about it. Put it away with all the other things he didn’t want to think about.
He tugged his jacket closer to ward off the early spring cold, the old burn scars on his left arm stretching with the motion. He'd have to take the jacket off before he entered the town since most people wouldn't hire a long-haired guy in a jacket that identified him as a vet. If they didn't call him baby-killer and spit on him, he counted himself lucky.
And that stung. That fucking stung. He knew the kind of sick shit that’d happened over there. He knew about My Lai and Operation Speedy Express. He knew about the sick bastards who wore necklaces strung with cut-off ears.
But that hadn't been a lot of the soldiers he’d fought side-by-side with. That hadn’t been him, that hadn’t been his unit. Baker Team had worked closely with the Vietnamese hill tribes; trained them, lived side by side with them in their villages, even helped deliver their babies. He spent months in the jungle on long-range recon missions with his guys and the Vietnamese soldiers they’d trained. Bucky had lived that life for eight years, but coming back stateside in ‘74, feeling like he’d left pieces of his soul behind, he found out the hard way that they were all tarred with the same brush.
Sometimes he thought he would’ve been better off coming home in an aluminum box. Like Dum Dum. Like Morita. Like everyone else in Baker Team except for him and Gabe. He tightened his grip on the bed roll slung over his shoulder and kept on walking. No use thinking about it. Better to keep moving, never staying anywhere for long—that’d been his life for the last few years. His scars marked him for what he was. Even if he kept those hidden, there was no hiding the way he went elsewhere in his head when a car backfired, or when a helicopter flew overhead.
He was about to take off his jacket when he heard a car behind him. He moved closer to the road’s grassy shoulder to give the car plenty of room to pass, but it slowed down as it approached him. Bucky flinched when a siren sounded, loud and jarring and too much like an air raid warning.
The car pulled abreast of him and the window was wound down. The guy behind the wheel looked about middle age and had short-cropped black hair and deep-set brown eyes. Underneath his sheriff’s badge, Bucky could just make out the word on his name tag. Rumlow.
“Where you headed?” Rumlow’s slick smile didn’t reach his eyes and his voice sounded like he smoked two packs a day.
Rumlow nodded, eyes taking in the bedroll slung over Bucky’s shoulder, lingering on his Army-issue field jacket. “What for?”
“Just want a hot meal.” He’d eaten his breakfast of eggs and beans at a tiny truckstop around eight in the morning and it was already past two in the afternoon. He knew better than to say anything about finding a job. He could already tell what was going through the sheriff’s head: long-haired, unshaven, probably a vet. He wouldn’t be finding any work in Hope, not if this sneering, snake-eyed sheriff had his way.
“There’s a place about thirty miles up the highway,” Rumlow said. “Just follow this road all the way through town and keep on walking.”
An old, cold anger began to creep its way up Bucky’s spine. He shoved it down, scared of what it might unlock inside him. But maybe not fast enough. Rumlow’s eyes hardened and his hand twitched alongside his hip holster.
“Get in.” It was an order couched in a barely friendly tone. “I can drop you off at the town limits.”
“Is there a law against me getting something to eat here?”
“Yeah.” Rumlow’s smile was patronizing. “Me. Now get in.”
It’s not worth it, Bucky told himself. Sheriffs in small towns basically ran them. If Rumlow wanted him to go, he should go. He walked to the passenger side and got in.
The ride passed in silence, Rumlow not interested in anything beyond making sure Bucky didn’t get to set foot in his town. The town passed by in a blur outside the window, until shops and homes gave way to forest again and Rumlow pulled over by the side of the road. Just ahead of them was a bridge that spanned a river running high and fast with spring melt. Rain was starting to come down, the sort of light, persistent drizzle that would go on for hours.
“This is where you get out.”
Bucky climbed out of the car into the cold and the wet. He’d be soaked to the skin in half an hour.
Rumlow wound down the window. “Word of advice. Get a haircut and a shave before you try the next town. And a bath.” His lip curled as he gave Bucky a once-over from his hair down to his army surplus combat pants tucked into jump boots. “Oh, and lose the jacket. Wearing that flag, looking the way you do… you’re asking for trouble around here.” He wound up the window, made a three-point turn and drove back towards Hope.
Fucking arrogant jerk, safe and dry in his nice little life while Bucky and guys like him were out there in the mud and the muck killing and being killed. Who the fuck was he to look down on Bucky, or anyone who survived that fucking slaughter house of chaos and death. None of them came back whole, whether they were missing parts of their bodies or parts of their souls or both. And Gabe. God fucking dammit, Gabe. One of the best men Bucky had ever met. Gabe had made it back, but he was already dead, his body just didn’t know it yet. His death finally caught up with him two years ago. Cancer, his wife said, when Bucky’d finally tracked her down a week ago. Brought it back from ‘Nam thanks to the United States Army and Agent Orange.
He stared after the retreating car and started walking back towards town.
The car jerked to a halt after a few seconds and backed up till it was alongside Bucky. “Hey!” Rumlow yelled.
Bucky ignored him and kept walking.
“I'm talking to you!”
The car pulled in front of Bucky, angled to cut him off. He went around it and kept on walking. Rumlow surged out of the car and grabbed his wrist. He jerked his arm away, breaking the hold without even thinking about it.
“Okay, that's it.” Rumlow pulled out his gun. “You're under arrest for resisting arrest and vagrancy.” He motioned towards the car with his gun. “Hands on the vehicle.”
Stupid macho shithead sheriff hopped up on his own power. Bucky could've disarmed him in a second but he didn't want to add assault of an officer of the law to his charges. His anger was already draining out of him to be replaced by shame. ‘Nam had left him so fucked in the head he couldn’t afford to lose his temper. With the kind of training he had, there was no telling what might happen if he snapped. Gabe wouldn’t have been impressed at all. He’d been a peaceable man, an old and dignified soul. He wouldn’t have wanted Bucky honoring his memory by hurting innocents or getting himself into trouble.
But that didn’t mean Bucky could bring himself to follow orders from some small town dick without making him work for it. The blank look he gave Rumlow seemed to piss him off, so he did that some more until Rumlow brandished the gun at him. It was a petty victory but it was still something. He put his hands on the car and made Rumlow kick his legs apart. When Rumlow stood behind him to pat him down, Bucky chanted in his head not VC, not VC, hold still.
“What the fuck is this, huh?” Rumlow’s hand rested on the knife clipped to Bucky’s belt in a horizontal holster.
“Knife.” Bucky fought the urge to shake him off and take his knife back. After he’d given his only photo of Baker Team to Gabe’s wife, the knife and his tags were the only things he still had to remind him of his unit.
“I can see that.” Rumlow pulled the knife out of its leather sheath, revealing the seven-inch long double serrated steel blade. The black oxide coating swallowed all reflection as Rumlow held the knife up for a closer look. “Why the fuck do you need a knife this big?”
Rumlow shoved him. “Don’t be a wise guy.” He held the knife up to Bucky’s face. “What the fuck do you hunt with a knife?”
“We’re done here.” Rumlow cuffed Bucky’s wrists. “In the car.”
The sheriff’s office went quiet when Bucky walked in with his hands cuffed behind his back and Rumlow’s hand clamped around his shoulder. The clean-cut father speaking to a deputy at the reception counter pulled his two kids closer to his side, the typist stopped her machine-gun tapping on the typewriter and half-stood up from her chair to get a better look at him.
Bucky ignored all of it and scanned the room. There was only one door in, but waist-to-ceiling glass windows looked out onto the street. Six deputies were scattered around the room. Five gawked at him. They had the soft, complacent look of people who still trusted that their government would take care of them. He dismissed them as no threat.
Then there was the sixth guy. He sat slouched back at a desk in the middle of the room and sized Bucky up with a hard expression on his face. He was tall and rangy and wore an undersheriff’s badge. His hair was slicked straight back and his mouth was set in a humorless line. Bucky could smell the mean on him from all the way across the room.
“Morning, Lester,” Rumlow said, to the deputy standing next to the counter. The guy looked about thirty, his hairline already receding and his shirt straining to meet around his growing middle. Lester flipped up the barrier to let them enter.
“Morning, Brock.” Lester’s eyes widened as he took in Bucky. “Hey, talk about your sorry-looking humanity.” Bucky ignored him. He’d heard a lot worse.
“Just another smartass drifter.” Rumlow shoved Bucky in the direction of the undersheriff. “Rollins.” The man nodded in acknowledgment, not taking his eyes of Bucky.
“I want you to book this gentleman for vagrancy, resisting arrest, and”—Rumlow slapped Bucky’s knife on the table—“carrying a concealed weapon. He says he uses it for hunting.”
“Hunting?” Lester, who had followed behind them, gaped at the knife, then at Bucky. “What do you hunt, elephants?” He scoffed and walked away without waiting for an answer.
“You should’ve left when I told you to.” Rumlow dumped Bucky’s bedroll on the floor. “Now you're facing the ass end of a 90-day incarceration, plus a two hundred and fifty dollar fine which you don't look to me like you can pay. At ten tomorrow morning, you're going up in front of the judge.” Rumlow smirked. “After you meet him, you’ll think I’m a fucking teddy bear.”
Rumlow turned back to Rollins. “See if you can clean him up a little. Make him presentable for his courtroom appearance. Smells like an animal.”
Rollins’ lip curled. “Mitch,” he called over his shoulder to a young guy with bright red hair. His voice was flat and surprisingly soft. “Escort him downstairs.”
Mitch jumped up from his chair. “Yes sir, Mr. Rollins.” Mitch placed a hand on Bucky’s arm and gave a light tug. “Right this way, partner,” he said, talking to Bucky like he was a spooked animal. He led Bucky over to a reinforced steel door, keyed in the combination and stepped through. Rollins followed behind, the quiet violence of his presence lifting the hair on the back of Bucky’s neck.
They went down the stairs and along a narrow, low-ceilinged corridor lined with empty jail cells, three on each side. Past that were the gun lockers and the processing desk. Mitch passed his gun over to the deputy on duty. The deputy put it away and slammed the metal door shut with a loud clang.
Bucky flinched. Keep it together, Barnes.
Rollins sat down at the typewriter, inserted a report sheet and typed a few words. The keys hit with a sharp, percussive sound that echoed off the bare walls. “Name.”
The space felt airless and claustrophobic. No way out, cell bars everywhere Bucky looked. His heart rate began to climb.
He's in a pit, ten feet deep with slimy, earth walls, wooden bars caging him in at the top. Four men above him, laughing and jeering in Vietnamese. They pour buckets of stinking, muddy water over him—
“I said, name.”
—he ’s not due to report back for another two weeks. No one is coming for him. He needs to get out of the fucking hole, get out before the VC come back with their knives and their questions—
“I think those are dog tags,” someone said, sounding far away.
A hand reached for Bucky’s tags. He snapped back into the now and grabbed the hand just as it closed over the tags. It was the red-haired guy. Mitch. His eyes went wide as Bucky focused on him.
The guy at the typewriter surged out of his seat and held up his truncheon. “Let him have it or I’ll break your face.”
“He means it,” Mitch said. He sounded almost more worried for Bucky than for himself, even though Bucky still had his wrist in a grip so tight the guy’s fist was turning a mottled pink.
Truncheon guy. What was his name again… Bucky tried to drag all of himself back from that pit in the ground. Rollins. That's it. Bucky believed him. And from the look in Rollins’ eye, he was looking forward to it, too.
Bucky could take whatever they threw at him—he’d survived that pit, and the three days of interrogation that came after. But it wasn’t worth it. There was nothing here worth fighting for. Just his pride. He let go of Mitch’s hand.
With a small, grateful nod, Mitch pulled Bucky’s dog tags off, glanced at them, and handed them to Rollins.
“Barnes, James. B.” Rollins put the end of his truncheon on Bucky’s throat, a light pressure to show him who was boss. He studied Bucky like he was a bug pinned to a corkboard.
Bucky had met guys like Rollins in the army. People with violence in their soul—that’s how Gabe described them. War was their excuse to set free the evil inside them. He’d seen the indiscriminate carnage they’d left behind. Rollins wanted to see fear in his eyes. Bucky held his gaze and gave nothing back even though the pressure on his throat began to increase.
Mitch shifted, rubbed a hand over his mouth. “I’m gonna… run a make on him.” He held his hand out to Rollins. “Put his name in the Teletype.”
Rollins glared at Mitch, irritated at the interruption, but he lowered the truncheon and dropped the tags into Mitch’s waiting hand. With a nod and a tight smile, Mitch left, leaving Bucky alone with Rollins and the deputy manning the lockers.
“Get some guys down here,” Rollins said to the deputy. “Let’s clean him up before we print him. Wash the fight out of him.”
Bucky was escorted to a cell near the showers and ordered to strip. A bunch of deputies waited for him outside, chatting casually, just another day at the office. One of them was sent to get the hose ready. Bucky didn’t like the sound of that. But after what he’d seen of Rollins, it came as no surprise that he planned to make ‘cleaning up’ as unpleasant as possible. Bucky took off his clothes, folded them, and put them on the cot bed.
“Holy shit.” Mitch stood in the doorway. His eyes were wide as he took in the network of knife scars covering Bucky’s chest and right arm, and the burn scars on his left arm. “He looks like… I dunno, like somebody went at him with a hacksaw. What the hell's he been into?”
Rollins walked into the cell, truncheon in hand. Being in the army didn’t leave Bucky with many hang-ups about being naked in front of other people. But when Rollins studied his scars, Bucky’s skin crawled under his scrutiny.
“We should report this.” There was a note of resignation in Mitch’s voice that said this wasn’t the first time Mitch had seen things that pricked his conscience happening in the sheriff’s office.
“Go ahead,” Rollins said.
Mitch said nothing. Which meant Rumlow either didn’t care what Rollins got up to or he rolled up his sleeves and joined right in. Same difference, really.
Thanks, kid, Bucky thought. A for effort. You tried.
“You just do what I tell you,” Rollins said. “Rumlow told us to clean him up. He left the how of it to me.” He tightened his grip on the truncheon and faced Bucky. “Hands behind your head and turn around.”
Bucky turned, tensing up his muscles for a hit he knew was coming.
“Jesus, Rollins,” Mitch muttered. “Look at his back. He’s been through enough.”
One, two—Rollins slammed the truncheon into his left kidney. Bucky went down, strangling the scream in his throat as pain exploded through him.
No sound. Swallow it. Don ’t give him the satisfaction. Breathe through the pain. You’ve done this before.
“Rollins, what the fuck was that?” Mitch yelled.
“So he doesn’t get any bright ideas.”
Over the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears and the red haze of pain, Bucky heard approaching footsteps.
“Get him to the showers,” Rollins said.
Hands grabbed at him while he lay curled on the floor, dragged him to the shower room, and dropped him on the cold, tiled floor. He climbed to his feet, trying to hide how much it cost him to ignore the pain raying out from his back. There were more men in the room now, come to enjoy the show.
“Get a load of his scars,” someone said. “What do you think made those?”
“Knife,” someone said. “Hot iron,” someone else said. “Look at that tattoo! Is that a wolf?” They continued discussing him like he was some sideshow curiosity as he walked into a shower stall.
“Turn on the water,” Rollins said.
They hosed him down like an animal. The force of the water shoved him into a corner of the stall and pounded against him like a battering ram. He faced the wall, letting his back take the full force of the water even though spikes of pain shot through him every time the stream passed over his bruised kidney. He was almost grateful for that high-powered stream of water; it pinned him to the wall and kept him on his feet, and it drowned out everything but the loudest laughs.
When the water finally cut out, his teeth were chattering and every inch of him hurt. Mitch led him back to the cell so he could dry off and get dressed. Bucky had just finished pulling on his undershirt when he heard more laughter from the direction of the showers.
“Mitch!” someone yelled, voice echoing oddly down the corridor. “Rollins said to bring him back here.”
Mitch sighed. He didn’t quite meet Bucky’s eyes as he motioned towards the open door of the cell. “Let’s go.”
Bucky felt sorry enough for the guy that he didn’t make a fuss about being led back to the showers. There were fewer spectators this time, but Rumlow was one of them. He and Rollins stood next to a chair and table that’d been set up in the middle of the shower room. A tray on the table held a straight razor, a whetstone, a bowl, and a shaving brush. There was an air of anticipation in the room as everyone looked at Bucky.
Rollins motioned to the chair. “Sit down.”
Bucky eyed the razor. Light glinted off it’s sharp metal edge.
“I won’t say it again.”
A small room. Airless. Humid. A bare light bulb hanging in the center. Stink of sweat and filth and his own blood in the air. VC standing in the shadows, watching him.
A hard pressure against his throat snapped him back into the room. He gagged and choked as he tried to push the truncheon away from his throat.
“I warned you,” Rollins said, soft and vicious in his ear.
Rough prickle of the hemp rope tight against his neck, cutting off his air. Rope around his wrists scraping them raw as he struggles to get free. Strung up to a bamboo frame, arms burning with the exertion of holding himself upright so the rope doesn ’t cut into his neck any further. Burning in his lungs as he struggles to suck in another breath of air—
Not there. He wasn’t in that room anymore. Another room. Bright lights. Not Viet Cong trying to carve out his secrets but bored, small town good old boys using him for sport. Don’t kill them, just let them have their fun.
A deputy stepped up to him with the shaving bowl full of soap.
“Shave him dry,” Rumlow said, an ugly smile on his bony face. “He’s tough.”
Rollins pulled back hard on the truncheon, making Bucky gag and cough.
“Come on, Rumlow,” Mitch protested. “Can’t you see he’s crazy? Look at his eyes—he’s not all there.”
“Can’t you see I don’t give a shit?”
The deputy began sharpening the razor. The blade rasped over the whetstone with a melodic hum as he slid it back and forth, back and forth, harsh overhead lights glinting like white fire on its surface.
Bucky tried to hold still while a corner of his mind planned out all the steps for a getaway. Slam Rollins into the wall behind them. Take out the deputy with the razor because he was right in front of Bucky. Rumlow next. They were the only real threats in the room. The others would take one hit and play dead. Mitch left for last. He didn’t want to hurt the kid.
Dimly, Bucky registered the pressure easing off his throat as Rollins lowered the truncheon and used it to bind him across the chest.
“Better keep still,” Rollins murmured, as the deputy held up the gleaming blade. “Could get your throat cut if you’re not careful.”
In front of him, VC in a uniform, saying something in accented English, holding a large combat knife right in front of Bucky ’s face. “Barnes. Captain. Three two five five seven—” The rest is lost in a scream as the knife is dragged slowly down his bare chest. His skin splits open under the blade. Pain runs along its path, icy hot. Spreading… spreading…
Something inside him snapped. Conscious thought was shunted to the side as his body followed the plan his mind had already laid out. He shoved back hard. Rollins slammed into the shower wall with a grunt. The deputy dropped the shaving bowl and charged forward. He got a foot in the gut as Bucky jerked his head back, smashing it into Rollins’ nose with a crunch. The truncheon fell to the ground with a clatter. Bucky turned and punched Rollins in the sternum. He went down without a sound, all his air gone.
An arm clamped around his throat from behind. “That was a stupid thing to do.” Rumlow tightened his hold. “Where do you think you’re gonna go?”
Coming close was stupid. Wasting time talking was stupid. Bucky grabbed Rumlow’s arm, flipped him over his shoulder and slammed him down to the ground. Two punches to the side and Bucky was up and charging straight for Mitch. He shoved the guy into two other deputies hanging back from the fight. They all went down in a tangle of limbs.
Rollins was already on his feet with murder on his face. He came at Bucky, truncheon swinging. Bucky deflected the blow with his arm, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid the left hook to the face. Rollins’ fist glanced up off his cheek. He shook it off, stepped in close and slammed the heel of his hand upwards into Rollins’ chin. His teeth clacked together with a sharp report. Bucky punched him in the gut again.
Then it was a clear run down the corridor. Shouts rang out behind him as he ran for the stairs that would bring him up to the ground level. The security door keypad beeped as someone punched in the code. Bucky put on a burst of speed and managed to get to the door just as it swung in. He barreled through the doorway, sending the deputy about to step through staggering back into the bullpen to crash into a desk.
Bucky saw his knife still in its sheath on Rollins’ desk, and next to it, his dog tags. He grabbed both as he ran past, jamming the knife into the back of his jeans and slipping the tags over his head and under his undershirt where they belonged. A deputy shouted and stood up, hand going for his gun. Bucky knocked the guy’s hand away before shoving past him. Two more deputies were shoved aside as he ran out the front door and into the middle of the road outside.
Cars drove past, honking their horns and flashing their lights at him. Too much noise, too much movement. Get away. He just wanted to get away—from assholes looking to hurt him just for kicks, from that echoing, claustrophobic place where the walls closed in on him. He looked around, spotted a guy on a dirt bike heading right towards him. Bucky stepped into his path. The guy slowed down and tried to swerve around him, but Bucky grabbed a handlebar and yanked it to the side. He gritted his teeth and hung on through the wrenching pain in his shoulder. The bike slewed round, dumping the screaming guy onto the road. Bucky clambered on, gunned the engine, and sped for the Cascades.
Sirens sounded behind him. The rearview mirror showed him one car on his tail, red and blue lights flashing, followed by two more cars strung out in a line. He wove in and out of traffic, pushing the bike as fast as it would go, turning down smaller and smaller streets that took him away from the center of town, always keeping the mist-covered mountains ahead of him. Big, brightly-lit stores with shiny glass fronts turned into dingy diners and small shops. There was hardly any traffic in this part of the town, making it hard to lose the car following him.
The road finally began to climb when he got past the outskirts of town. He couldn’t feel his fingers anymore, and his exposed skin stung from the cold. The icy wind in his face blew away the last tangled threads of whatever got a hold of him in that cell and turned him into a goddamned feral animal chewing its leg off to escape a trap. He hated that he came back from ‘Nam wrong. All he had to do was play along with whatever sick shit Rollins had in mind, do his time, and get out. What the guy could do to him was nothing compared to what Bucky had already survived at the hands of the VC. But he couldn’t even seem to keep that plan straight in his head, and now here he was running from the law.
For a moment, he considered stopping the bike and turning himself in. But the thought of putting himself back in their hands made his gut churn. If they tried to mess with him some more he might end up killing someone. No. Better to find a way out of this place and stay low, maybe turn himself in somewhere far away from Hope.
He turned the bike off the road and cut through fields muddy from spring rains, making a direct line for the forested mountain ahead. The car followed, crashing through fences and knocking over trash cans. He got back onto the road and sped up, looking for somewhere to lose the car behind him.
There. A small turn-off onto a dirt road. The back wheel of the bike nearly skidded on the loose gravel when he braked and made a hard right, but he managed to slow the slide by dragging the toe of his boot along the surface of the road. He heard the car skidding and the patter of scattering gravel before it picked up speed again and jounced over the dirt road. So much for losing his tail.
No time to worry about that now. He concentrated on navigating the gradually narrowing dirt road. It came to a dead end at the base of the mountain, where the ground beneath changed from mud-brown soil to the gray of granite. A steeply inclined rockface lay in front of him. Water cascaded down a boulder-strewn stream bed beside it. Behind him, he heard a loud, crunching crash followed by metal scraping over stone. Bucky stopped the bike and turned to find the car lying upside down on the boulders that littered the base of the incline.
The door was shoved open and Rumlow staggered out. He stumbled over the rocky, uneven ground and looked disoriented and shaken, but at least he wasn’t dead. Bucky didn’t want that death on his conscience even if Rumlow was an asshole. When Rumlow spotted him, he fumbled for his gun. Bucky gunned the engine and took off. Halfway up, the bike went up on its back wheel when the incline got too steep and fell to the side. Bucky clambered to his feet and kept running. He was almost at the top of the slope when a bullet ricocheted off a boulder near his leg. He flung himself over the last boulder and ducked out of sight.
“I know you can hear me!” Rumlow shouted. “You’re finished! You’ve gone as far as you’re going to go! You hear me?”
Bucky ignored Rumlow’s threats and focused on getting higher up and into tree cover. The sky was starting to turn gray, and he was going to risk hypothermia if he didn’t find shelter. He climbed till he reached a small clearing at the top of the slope. Junk littered the ground, partially hidden by overgrown grass—broken machinery, the rusted bucket of a digger. It looked like a dump site for mining equipment. He spotted a trailer with its rusty doors hanging open. A quick check revealed nothing of use in it.
A brown lump on the ground turned out to be a scrap of an old tarp, moldy and stained with dirt. He cut off a strip and tied it around his head bandana style. If he died because his hair got into his eyes, Morita’s ghost would probably come find him wherever he ended up and slap him upside the head. He flipped his knife around, unscrewed the base of the hilt, and consulted the tiny compass attached to the back. As long as he continued moving roughly east, he’d be putting more distance between himself and the town.
He needed to move fast. There were about three hours of daylight left, three hours in which Rumlow and his deputies would be able to keep looking for him. Once the sun set, he’d have the advantage—moving undetected through a dark forest was something he was trained to do. He would walk through the night and be long gone from fucking Hope by the time Rumlow and his men got out of their nice, warm beds.
He tied his sheathed knife securely to his belt, crossed the clearing, and continued to climb.
He’d been hiking through dense green forest for about an hour when his ears picked out a distant roar. That was probably Chapman Gorge—he knew it was somewhere in the area. If he was heading right for it, then he’d end up trapped—that gorge would cut straight through his path. He’d have to follow it till it fell away enough that he could cross the river safely. The detour would add hours to his journey but he had no choice—from the sound of it, that river was going too fast for a safe crossing. Fucking Christ, would nothing go right for him. Hope, he thought bitterly. So much for that. Turning north to cut a diagonal path to the gorge, he set off.
About fifteen minutes later, the distinctive foghorn baying of a scent hound drifted through the pine trees. Fuck. He didn’t want to hurt people. He didn’t want to hurt dogs. But his chances of avoiding all that were getting slimmer by the moment. Pain and hunger were slowing him down. If they were close enough for him to hear the dog, they were gaining on him.
Looked like he’d have to head for Chapman Gorge after all. That might be his only chance of getting that dog off his trail. He picked up a large sturdy branch as insurance and pushed his aching legs to move faster. His world narrowed down to forcing one foot in front of the other.
All around him, the sickening sweet smell of putrefaction from vegetation rotting on the ground. The air is thick, dank, trapped by the canopy overhead that blocks out all sunlight. Hunted. They ’re being hunted. They’re two days out from their camp in Nam Dong, injured and exhausted, and they’ve got two companies of VCs on their tail. If Bucky and his guys get flanked, they’re as good as dead.
Bucky shook his head and sucked in a breath, concentrating on the sharp, tingling bite of cold air and pine scent. Different time, different forest. The baying behind him was getting closer, and he couldn’t afford to keep getting lost in his head—he sometimes lost minutes, even hours, that way. He pushed on till he emerged onto an open plateau that ended in a sheer cliff. About thirty feet below, a river rushed past, full of spring melt, its surface churning and gray with froth. The sound of its passage echoed up the steep walls of the gorge like distant thunder. There was his way out—if he managed to survive the trip. He wasn’t altogether sure if he cared one way or the other.
He looked up at a familiar, rhythmic thwapping sound. His stomach dropped. A helicopter was heading right for him. He was trapped. The plateau was nothing but windswept rock that extended to either side of the gorge. Behind him, excited shouts drifted through the trees.
The helo turned broadside and hovered above the river, nearly level with Bucky. Rollins sat in the open doorway with a hunting rifle in his hands. Everything inside Bucky went quiet when Rollins raised the rifle and sighted through the scope. He was aiming to kill—Bucky was sure of it. There would be no warning shot. There would be no turning himself in.
In that moment of perfect, silent clarity, he realized that he didn't want to die. His life was nothing much—lonely, adrift, feeling like he was half mad and haunted by ghosts—but it was his and he wasn't ready to give it up.
The rifle blast echoed through the trees, amplified by the walls of the gorge. The white water rushed up to meet him. He took a deep breath, crossed his ankles, and hit the water praying it wasn’t a mere three feet deep.
The current tumbled him head over heels and slammed him into rocks and branches. Something caught at his arm before he was ripped free. By the time he managed to get his head above water, his lungs were burning with the need for air. He sucked in a breath that was as much water as air and went under again as a bullet hit the water next to him. Close. Too close.
He stayed under, helpless to do anything but let the river sweep him along, slamming him into boulders that loomed suddenly out of the gray froth of the water. He came up for air only under the cover of overhanging rocks or branches.
The current finally slowed down enough that he had some control over his movements. The next time he came up for air, he saw fir trees growing close to the river bank. A gun went off. He jerked his head underwater. Rollins was a fucking stubborn psychopath who didn’t take well to being denied his fun. Bucky angled towards the river bank, trying to find some place where he could anchor himself and stay out of sight.
The need to draw breath was clawing at his chest when he collided with the partially submerged trunk of a fallen tree. He grabbed on and pulled himself closer to the bank, struggling against the current that threatened to rip him away. He clung to the underside to stay hidden and jammed his face into the pocket of air between the trunk and the surface of the water to suck in desperate breaths.
When the helo finally disappeared downstream, he crawled onto the bank and collapsed on the dark loam. Shivers wracked his body as he stared up at the darkening sky through the branches of the fir trees. Even through the cold that numbed almost all sensation, his body felt, in a distant sort of way, like it’d gone three rounds with a very strong bear with very sharp claws and lost. Badly.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in the river. It felt like forever, but was probably about ten or fifteen minutes. That meant he might be more than a mile downstream. Luck had decided he’d enough of a shit ride and spat him up on the other side of the river from where he'd jumped. That should make it much harder for the damned dog to pick up his trail.
When his mind started to drift, he forced himself to sit up. Warm blood flowed down the chilled skin of his arm. There was a jagged cut on his deltoid, about four inches long. The river had tumbled him around and bashed him against rocks and branches and who knew what else. It was a miracle he’d only emerged with one bad cut. The rest of it—bruises, scrapes, scratches—he could ignore.
He should probably do something about the cut while he had daylight enough to see. Using the fishing hook and line stored inside the hilt of his knife, Bucky sewed it up, hand shaking from the cold and exhaustion. At least he was also too cold and numb to really feel the hook piercing his skin. Silver linings, he thought, with bitter humor. He’d need to find some way to clean the wound properly, and soon, and get some antibiotics into his system to counter all the crap from the river and from his improvised field surgery.
When he was done, he packed everything away and climbed slowly to his feet. Night would fall soon, and it looked like rain was on the way. The dog couldn't track him through heavy rain, but it also meant he couldn’t hunt—any tracks left by deer or wild boar would be washed out. Rain also meant he needed to find somewhere to dry off and warm up. Pointing his feet towards the east, he started walking.
The forest darkened around him. Rain came sheeting down, making it even harder to see. It was full dark before he spotted a faint glow between the trees. Everything inside him yearned towards it. Light meant shelter, warmth, a place to rest. Its source was a small, single-story cabin which stood in a clearing in the forest. Next to it was a small tool shed.
He was cold, wet, hungry. His entire body hurt. A gust of wind sent cold needles of rain prickling against his skin. Fuck it. He didn’t want to die of hypothermia. He’d spend the night in the shed and be away by dawn, long before the occupant of the cabin woke.
Bucky jerked awake at the sound of a door creaking open. Light was already trickling in through a dusty window, illuminating the cluttered interior of the tool shed. Fuck. He’d overslept. Hunger, exhaustion, and loss of blood must’ve all conspired to keep him from waking before the sun came up.
Every part of him hurt—every muscle, every bone, every square inch of skin. He swallowed his groan and kept absolutely still. Jammed into the small space between two shelves, back pressed against the wall, he should be pretty hard to spot. His clothes were another matter. He’d hung them up to dry on a shelf pushed against the back wall of the shed, leaving himself in only his underwear. If anyone took a good look around, there was no way to miss them.
The door opened all the way, momentarily blinding Bucky as his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. A guy stepped in. He was short and thin, his slight build swallowed up by an oversized black T-shirt with its sleeves cut off. The light from outside limned his pale blond hair like a halo, casting his face into shadow. Bucky slid his knife behind the shelf and waited.
The guy began rummaging through the shelf nearest the door, muttering under his breath about a fucking loose screw and where was the goddamned screwdriver. His feathery hair glowed in the dim interior of the shed. His search took him closer and closer to the gap Bucky had hidden himself in. With the way the guy was pawing through every shelf, wire-rimmed glasses catching the light as he looked around, there was no way he'd miss Bucky. Just his fucking luck.
Two seconds from being discovered, Bucky stood up. He swayed as stars swam in front of his eyes. He hadn’t eaten since the small plate of eggs and beans the morning before his run-in with Rumlow, and that had been more than burned up by the hard chase through the woods.
“Jesus Christ!” The guy lurched backwards.
“I’m just passing through.” Bucky hunched his shoulders to make himself smaller, less threatening. He must look like some kind of thug—nearly naked, body bulked up from odd jobs on farms preparing for spring planting, covered in scars and purpling bruises. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The guy blinked at him and closed his mouth. He took in Bucky's battered state—gaze lingering on the dull metal gleam of his dog tags and skating over the scars on his chest and arms. His mouth flattened into a thin line, or at least as thin as those lush lips could get. “Is that a threat?”
His voice was surprisingly deep and almost jarring coming from that slim body. It carried the accent of Bucky’s home, of Brooklyn. He missed it suddenly, but the ache was for something that didn’t exist anymore—the naive, stupid kid who’d enlisted as soon as he’d aged out of foster care because there was nothing else for him.
Exhaustion tugged at Bucky. He shook his head. “Just give me ten minutes and I’ll be on my way. I’m not gonna hurt you,” he repeated, for what it was worth. His hope of getting away faded with each moment the guy spent studying him. It was hard to get a read on him, especially since his eyes were obscured by the light bouncing off his glasses.
“Okay,” he said finally. “Then don't. I'm Steve, by the way.”
That wasn’t the reaction Bucky was expecting, not with the way Steve had studied his dog tags. “Bucky,” he said, belatedly. He pulled out the screwdriver half buried under a pile of wooden shingles and held it out, handle first.
Steve took the screwdriver carefully, knobbly fingers wrapping around the handle in a sure grip. “What are you doing in my shed?”
“Right.” Steve pointed at Bucky’s arm. “You know you're bleeding, right?”
Bucky glanced at his arm. Blood was slowly seeping out of the cut and dripping down his arm. The edges of the wound had turned red and puffy in the night, a sign that infection was setting in.
“I can patch that up for you.” Steve backed up till he stood outside the shed. “Come in when you're ready.” Then, he turned and walked away. His hair glowed almost white in the direct sunlight, feathery tufts sticking out at odd angles.
That unusually pale hair had definitely come from a bottle—Bucky could see Steve's own darker blond hair showing through at the roots.
Steve went into the cabin, leaving the door open behind him. Bucky chewed on his lip and looked at that open door while the cut on his arm throbbed with an unhealthy heat. He had about three days before fever from an infection had him raving. He didn’t have time for that, not when he still needed to hike out of Hope without being seen. If he could get some clean water and food as well, that would be a hell of a good thing.
Whether he left now or followed Steve into that cabin, the chances of Steve calling the law in on him were the same either way. If Rumlow thought he was dead, he would soon find out different. Might as well run with a patched-up cut and, hopefully, some food in his stomach.
He shuffled over to his clothes, moving like an automaton with sand in its joints. He’d gotten blown up and thrown about so much in ‘Nam that he woke up stiff every morning. Yesterday’s trip through the river just made the process of getting his limbs to work properly that much harder.
He struggled into his still-damp clothes, nose wrinkling at the musty smell wafting off them. His fingers caught on tangles in his hair when he tried to comb it out in an attempt to look less like a shambling wreck. It felt stiff and matted with sand and silt after his trip through the spin cycle of the river. With his socks stuffed into his back pocket, he jammed his feet into cold, soggy boots and made his way to the cabin. He stepped onto the wooden decking and hesitated at the threshold.
Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t what he saw. Photos covered nearly one whole wall of the cabin, mostly close-ups and candids of people. Scattered among them were sketches that ranged from detailed anatomy drawings to just a collection of shapes and lines. A few of the sketches were of naked men, their beautiful physiques lovingly rendered, right down to their flaccid cocks. Bucky swallowed and looked away. There were also several canvases propped up against the wall, some half-painted, others blank. One looked complete, but he couldn’t make out much detail from where he stood at the door.
Bucky was so fascinated by the wall that it took him a moment to spot Steve in the open space of the cabin. He was standing on tiptoe, slim body stretched out as he pulled a first aid box from the cabinet over the kitchen sink. Steve’s wiry arms gleamed like ivory against the black of his T-shirt.
Bucky carefully did not look. He also carefully did not look at the slim legs and trim ass encased in tight, acid-wash jeans. Instead, he looked around the cabin, hoping to find something that might help him figure Steve out. The guy was just too damned helpful, and Bucky needed to know why.
First thing he noticed was the TV on top of the fridge, power cord trailing down the side. It was dusty and didn’t look like it’d been moved in a while—if he’d made the local evening news, Steve would probably have missed it. A bigger worry was the phone fixed to the kitchen wall. He’d have to pay careful attention to that phone. There was one set of breakfast dishes drying by the sink, one cup hanging on the mug tree to dry.
Steve put the large box down on the dining table with a thump. “Are you gonna come in or are you just gonna stand there?”
Bucky toed off his boots and left them by the door next to Steve’s sneakers. He approached carefully, very aware that he looked and smelled like a hobo who’d been dragged backwards through a mile of muddy brush in pouring rain.
Steve studied the gash on Bucky’s arm, before taking in his clothes. “Maybe you should clean up first,” Steve said, in a neutral tone. “You don’t want to end up re-infecting the wound. Bathroom’s there.” He pointed to a small room that took up one corner of the cabin. A queen-sized bed was pushed into the opposite corner. Only one side of the bed had been used, the white sheets still rumpled and unmade. “If you wanna wash your clothes, the washer is in there as well.”
“Thanks.” Bucky struggled to keep the surprise off his face. He felt like every time Steve opened his mouth, the rug got pulled out from under him. He hesitated, shame heating his cheeks. “I don’t have anything to wear.” His clothes were bundled up in the bedroll he’d had to abandon. There was a moment of silence as he eyed Steve’s slight build, not wanting to state the obvious fact that there was no way he could fit into Steve’s clothes.
“I might have something, actually.” From the chest of drawers by the bed, Steve pulled out a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. His hands tightened on them for just a moment before he handed them over. It was the first time he seemed less than fully self-assured.
In the bathroom, Bucky shook out the clothes. They felt soft in his hands, the kind of softness that came from long use and countless trips through the washer. The white T-shirt had a faded red logo printed on the front and the words Uppsala Universitet emblazoned under the logo. The plain, gray sweatpants were long even for him, and he was just a hair over six feet.
The clothes would definitely fit him. With room to spare, even. Whoever the previous owner was, he’d been built on a Teutonic scale. Bucky stripped slowly out of his clothes, and loaded them into the washer. He felt an itch under his skin as he wondered why Steve had another man’s clothes with him when he seemed to be the only person living in the cabin.
He came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later feeling clean and warm for the first time in days. There was so much dirt caked onto him that he’d had to take a few minutes to scrub down the bathtub after he was done. He’d avoided looking in the mirror above the bathroom sink while he dried off. Didn’t need to see what a fucking mess his body must look like.
Steve sat crossed-legged on the floor in front of a collapsed easel, applying the screwdriver with some vigor to a screw. The boombox on the nearby bookshelf was playing a song with a driving beat, loud guitars, and shouty lyrics. Steve’s fringe swayed as he nodded along to the song, light gleaming off his earrings; two hoops and two studs marching neatly up his earlobes. The wide neck of his T-shirt had slipped to the side to reveal one pale, slim shoulder. The fragile line of his collarbone caught at the light. A bony knee peeked out through a rip in his jeans. He seemed to glow in the brightly-lit cabin, and was just about the most beautiful thing Bucky had ever seen.
Bucky bunched up the clean T-shirt in his hand and tried not to think about the fact that he was naked under his sweatpants. He cleared his throat.
Steve blinked up at him, gaze flickering down to Bucky’s bare chest and up again. He put down the screwdriver, patted around until his hand closed over a teacup on the floor next to him. It was covered in blue smudges that matched the paint staining his fingers. He downed its contents in one gulp. “Oh, good,” he said faintly, blinking at Bucky through his glasses. “You’re done.” He set down the cup and went to get the first aid box.
“It’s okay,” Bucky said. “I can take care of it myself.”
Steve looked at the cut on Bucky’s arm, thick brows pulled into a frown. “It looks infected. Maybe you should see—” He broke off when Bucky tensed up. “You know what? My mom was a nurse, and she had very strong opinions about what goes into a first aid box.” He patted the large white box. “We’ll have everything we need right here.”
Bucky let out the breath he was holding. “Thanks.”
“Will you at least let me help?” The fierce frown was now turned on Bucky.
After years of relying on no one but himself, Bucky’s instinctive response was to say no. But he got the feeling that the frown wasn’t so much directed at him as it was on his behalf. He nodded.
“We should do this in the bathroom,” Steve said. “I’m gonna have to irrigate that wound.”
Bucky draped the T-shirt in his hand over the back of the couch and followed Steve. The rumble of the washer filled the small space as he climbed into the claw-foot tub and sat on the edge while Steve got out everything he needed. After pulling on a pair of disposable rubber gloves, Steve stepped closer to study the cut. He smelled faintly of turpentine and laundry detergent, and had laugh lines around his eyes.
As Steve pressed cool fingers to the skin around the cut, Bucky could finally see why Steve’s hair looked like he’d gotten caught in a strong crosswind. There were odd little patches of paint gumming the strands together. The patches were a soft smoky indigo, like the evening sky in that gap between the sun slipping past the horizon and the sky turning to black velvet. Steve must have run his fingers through his hair while he had paint on them. Bucky tried very hard to ignore the warmth of Steve’s breath on the bare skin of his arm.
Steve pushed up his glasses. “Ready?”
Bucky bent his arm and placed his hand on the opposite shoulder. Steve snipped through the crude stitches and tugged them out with a pair of tweezers. Bucky hissed out a breath as the cut gaped open and blood began to flow down his arm to drip onto the floor of the tub.
Steve unsealed the bottle of saline solution and squeezed a thin jet of liquid into the open wound. Bucky clenched his jaw as pain flared through his arm. Steve looked up. God. His eyes were stunning. A clear blueish green like the sea on a hot day. For a moment, Bucky almost forgot the pain. Then, Steve blinked and looked down, ridiculously long lashes sliding down to hide his eyes.
By the time all the dirt and gravel in the wound was cleaned away, the bottle of saline solution was empty and Bucky’s right hand was gripping the edge of the tub so tightly he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. Steve sealed the cut closed with butterfly bandages, applied antibiotic ointment, then covered the wound with gauze. His touch was gentle even though his face was fierce. Bucky couldn’t remember the last time anyone had taken such care with him.
When Steve was done taping down the gauze, Bucky moved to stand up.
“I’m not done,” Steve said. Bucky opened his mouth to protest but was met with a fierce glare that shut him up.
Antiseptic wipe in hand, he leaned in close to clean the scrape on Bucky’s cheek. Steve bit his lip in concentration as he worked, and Christ, the way his teeth sank into the plump pink flesh… Bucky closed his eyes, counted his breaths, and tried very hard to think of something other than how kissable those lips looked. It was a relief when Steve moved on to cleaning the other cuts and scrapes on his body.
“Now I’m done,” Steve said, when he’d applied the final plaster to a cut on Bucky’s shoulder. He stripped off his gloves, tugged off the surgical mask, and tossed everything into the wastepaper basket under the sink.
Bucky swung his legs over the edge of the tub and stood up. The tiny room swirled around him as blackness hazed his vision.
“Whoa.” Steve’s arm was warm and firm as he slid it around Bucky’s waist and lodged his bony shoulder under Bucky’s arm. “Come on. Let’s get you to the couch.”
Bucky tried not to lean on Steve too much as they made their way out of the bathroom. He wasn’t exactly small, and for all Steve’s surprising strength, he barely came up to Bucky's ear. Bucky dropped down onto the couch and tried to ignore the throbbing in his arm. His stomach chose that moment to remind him loudly and audibly of how empty it was.
Steve handed him the T-shirt hanging off the back of the couch. “When was the last time you ate?”
Bucky checked the clock. It was barely 9AM. “About twenty-four hours ago.” He pulled on the T-shirt, relieved to finally be able to hide the scars that marked his body. No hiding the thick, tangled mass of burn scars on his left inner forearm, though.
“Christ.” Steve walked to the kitchen and came back with a jug of water and an empty glass and set them down on the coffee table in front of the couch. “I’ll make breakfast.”
Bucky poured himself some water and made himself sip it even though he wanted to pour it straight down his throat. When the smell of frying bacon hit his nose, saliva flooded his mouth. He felt an almost absurd urge to cry. The kindness of strangers was a rare thing after he returned from ‘Nam, and the experience of it was almost overwhelming after his welcome to Hope. He put his head down and rubbed at his face. I want to be sedated, the singer growled. Me too, Bucky thought.
“Bucky? You okay?”
Bucky looked up to find Steve giving him a worried look. He nodded.
“Come and eat.”
When Bucky sat down at the small dining table barely big enough for two people, Steve put a plate of fried bacon, two eggs sunny-side up, and toast in front of him. He followed that with a bottle of aspirin.
“Why are you doing this,” Bucky said, softly.
Steve sat down opposite him and leaned back in his chair. “You were in ‘Nam, right?”
It wasn’t exactly a secret. Steve had seen his tags, his scars.
“I have a friend who was there, too,” Steve said. “Did three tours. He was a pararescueman.”
Bucky’s eyes widened. “PJs are hardcore. They saved our asses more than a few times.”
“Sam is…” A smile tugged at Steve’s lips. “Hardcore is a good word for it. He really believes in helping people.” He glanced at Bucky’s right arm. “Your tattoo… Green Beret?”
He nodded warily. Everyone in Baker Team had a tattoo that marked them as a Green Beret, but only four of them had a snarling wolf wearing a green beret: Dum Dum, Gabe, Morita, and him. It represented the nickname the other guys in the company had given them—The Howlers—because they stuck by each other no matter what, and they would take all kinds of crazy, stupid risks to complete their missions.
And now he was the only one left.
“Sam’s got a lot of respect for what you guys did over there. Whatever my thoughts about whether or not we should ever have gotten involved in Vietnam, I don’t think we’ve done right by all of you who made it back.” Steve picked at the corner of the table. He seemed full of restless energy, too much for his small, compact body to contain. “So that’s why I’m helping.” He stood up. “Better eat while it’s hot.” Bucky was still staring after him when he started washing the skillet he’d left soaking in the sink.
It was a relief when Steve went back to fiddling with his easel. That meant Bucky could shovel the food into his mouth without worrying about embarrassing himself. When the last piece of bacon was gone, the last of the egg mopped up with toast, Bucky chased down two aspirin with a gulp of water and sat back in his chair. He was clean, his stomach was full, his wounds tended to. He hadn’t felt this safe in a long time, and it was all because of Steve. He let himself bask in that feeling for a minute before getting up to do the dishes.
“Can I help you with that?” Bucky put away the last dish and walked to join Steve.
“I think I got it this time.” Steve tightened the screw that held the bracket for the canvas in place, tested it, and made a frustrated sound when it wobbled under his hand. “Okay, maybe not.”
Bucky pointed at the spot next to Steve. “May I?”
Bucky ignored his stiff muscles and banged up bones and sat on the floor.
“I keep tightening the screw but it never holds for long,” Steve said. When he touched the bracket, it pivoted on the screw and tilted to the left. He glared at it and raked a hand through his hair. “I can’t paint like this! People are gonna think I’m trying to be the next Picasso!”
A smile tugged at Bucky’s lips at Steve’s dramatics as he studied the easel. It looked pretty old. The wood was shiny and dark with age, and it was covered in dents and paint stains of all colors. The troublesome screw was the one attaching the bracket to the center support of the easel. When he gave the bracket a light tug, it slid out a fraction of an inch. “Stripped screw hole.” He gripped the screw head in one hand and the bracket in the other and pulled the screw right out of the hole to show Steve.
“Fuck.” Steve looked like someone had told him his dog had to be put down.
“It’s an easy fix,” Bucky said. “It’ll take ten minutes. I just need to get a few things and I can do it for you.”
“That’d be…” Steve looked at Bucky with cautious hope. “Yeah. That’d be great.”
Even though it couldn’t possibly be enough, at least there was one small thing he could do for to repay Steve for his kindness. Steve trailed after him as he went to the shed to get his knife from its hiding spot behind a shelf.
“Whoa,” Steve said, from the doorway. “That’s a big knife.”
“It comes in handy,” Bucky said.
Steve moved out of the doorway to let him out, not seeming at all worried about the huge knife in Bucky’s hand. There was a grove of aspen trees right next to the cabin, their pale trunks standing out against the darker brown of the other trees. Just the thing he needed—softwood that would resist splitting. After cutting off a suitable twig, he stripped off the bright green leaves and went back inside.
Bucky sat down in front of the easel and Steve took a seat opposite him. He felt suddenly very naked as the soft fabric of the sweatpants brushed against his dick. No underwear, his brain whispered. Jesus fuck. He should’ve been in too much pain to notice Steve, but then again, he’d never met anyone quite like Steve. It wasn’t just his physical beauty. It was… everything.
Bucky was very conscious of Steve’s scrutiny while he shaved the twig down till it was slightly smaller than the screw hole. He blew off the shavings and stuck the pared-down twig into the hole, tapping it in all the way with the butt of the knife.
“This’ll give the screw something to grip,” he said, since Steve was peering at his hands like a curious bird—a cockatiel with a bleached-blond comb. Bucky shaved off the top of the peg till it lay flat with the surface of the wood. “When this one starts to get stripped, you can do the same thing using matchsticks as well. Clean out what’s left of the peg and pack the matchsticks in there.”
He put the bracket back in place and screwed it back on, feeling the satisfying bite of resistance with every turn of the screwdriver. “If you’re gonna be tightening this up by hand a lot, you should switch to a slotted head screw. The heads don’t get stripped easily.”
“Then why’d they use other type?” Steve waved his hand at the easel. “Those, uh, Phillips ones?”
“Easier to center the power drill on an assembly line.”
“That’s weirdly specific knowledge.”
Bucky shrugged. “I had a book of weird facts.” It had actually belonged to Mrs. Edelson, his high school science teacher. But after she caught him reading it after class one day, she’d given it to him. He’d loved that book, and not just because it was one of the few things anyone had ever given him. Foster kids usually didn’t get much in the way of presents.
When he finished tightening the screw, he opened up the easel and tested the bracket. Nice and solid. No more tilting.
“I’m impressed,” Steve said, in that deep voice of his. “Thank you.” He patted the easel. “I’ve had this since art school.” The smile he directed at Bucky was almost soft. “I’m kinda attached to it.”
Bucky ducked his head and re-sheathed his knife. “Least I could do.”
“About that knife…”
Bucky held it out to Steve. It felt only fair, since he’d invited Bucky into his cabin and treated his wounds.
Eyebrows raised, Steve took it from him. Bucky tried not to focus too hard on the way Steve’s fingers wrapped around the hilt. Wiry muscles and fine tendons shifted under his skin as he pulled out the knife and turned it this way and that to get a look at it. Steve’s capable-looking hands were a little too large for him, with big knuckles and knobbly fingers. Blue paint, the same as in his hair, stained his nailbeds.
“Fucking sharp,” Steve said, as he tested the edge with his thumb.
“Army issue.” Bucky pointed at the hilt. “You can unscrew the base.”
Steve’s eyebrows shot up as the compass fell out into the palm of his hand, followed by the fishing hook and nylon line. He stared at the hook and line, the frown back. “You used this to suture your arm.”
Ah, fuck. Bucky did not want to open up that conversation because then the questions would come.
“That’s a yes,” Steve said. He put everything back into the hilt and screwed the base back on. He resheathed the knife and returned it.
Bucky was still trying to think of something to say when the buzzer on the washer went off. He climbed to his feet, muttered, “My clothes,” and fled.
Steve was curled up on the couch when Bucky got back in from hanging his clothes on the line.
“Listen,” Bucky said, just as Steve opened his mouth to say something. “As soon as my clothes are dry, I’ll be out of your hair.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
And again, the rug was yanked from under him.
“We need to change the dressing twice a day to make sure infection doesn’t set in,” Steve said. “You’re injured. You’re probably on the lam. You have nothing but the clothes you just hung up on the line. And that knife.” As summaries went, it was brutally to the point. “I can’t stop you if you walk out the door. Hell, I’ll even drop you off somewhere if you want me to, give you some money to tide you over. But I will wonder for the rest of my life whether you ended up dead in a ditch somewhere of infection. I don’t want your death on my conscience.”
“You don’t pull your punches, do you,” Bucky said, reeling a little from that speech.
Steve’s smile was wry. “I’ve been told it’s a flaw of mine.”
Feeling suddenly exhausted again, Bucky sat down gingerly in the armchair. “You’re right. About all of it. I am on the lam. And you really don’t want any part of that.” The thought of Rumlow and Rollins finding him in Steve’s cabin made his blood run cold. Steve wouldn’t go down easy, even knowing him just a few hours Bucky could tell that, and Rumlow and Rollins would enjoy making things very hard for him.
“Can you tell me why you’re on the run?”
On the run. It sounded like something from a B-movie. And yet, that was his life now. He rubbed a hand over his thigh. “I got picked up for vagrancy.” He could feel himself getting angry again at the memory. “I was just walking into town so I could get a hot meal. Maybe find work, a place to stay for awhile. The sheriff wasn’t too keen on that. So I might have… talked back a little.”
Steve nodded once, emphatic, like that was the correct and only possible response Bucky could have made.
“He arrested me.” Steve’s show of support made the next words easier to say. “I’m not… right in the head. Sometimes I get confused. About where I am, when I am.” Bucky looked down at the bruises on his knuckles. “Sometimes, if I’m pushed, I push back. Hard.”
“Did you kill someone?”
Bucky jerked his head up, horrified. “No!”
“So it was self-defense.” Steve sat on the couch radiating outrage. His arms were folded tightly like he was physically keeping himself in the seat.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. They probably weren’t gonna hurt me much, and it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. But…” The memory of the razor flickered through his mind, the feeling of a truncheon across his throat. “One moment I was in control of my body, and the next I wasn’t.” He shrugged. “Like I said. Not right in the head.”
“What the fuck,” Steve growled. He chewed on his lip as he considered Bucky.
Bucky picked a ball of fluff off the sweatpants and tried not to fidget under the intensity of Steve’s gaze.
“I told you about my friend, Sam.”
“The PJ,” Bucky said.
“It’s not really my story to tell, but what happened to you—getting confused, the extreme reactions—that sounds like something Sam would know about. He works for the VVA—”
“Vietnam Veterans of America,” Steve said. “Sam works for them. It was started a year or two ago by a group of vets. They’ve been advocating for all the Vietnam vets that came back to nothing—sometimes worse than nothing—and pushing the government to do better. Those problems you mentioned? According to Sam, a lot of vets are going through the same thing. So it’s hard for them to fit back into their old lives, or hold down jobs—”
“Tell me about it,” Bucky bit out.
Steve’s face fell. “I’m sorry.”
Bucky shook his head. “Not your fault.” He shouldn’t have taken that pot shot at Steve. The guy was just trying to help. “I shouldn’t have interrupted.”
“So.” Steve blew out a breath. “These vets are out there working together to help other vets manage those problems, and maybe, hopefully, get better. And if those bastards were fucking with you, I’m sure the VVA would have a lot to say about that.”
And there went that rug again. He stared at Steve, unable to think of even one goddamned thing to say.
“I could call Sam.” Steve leaned forward in his seat, his eyes wide and glowing like they were lit from within.
“Can I—” Bucky stood up, suddenly feeling like he couldn’t get enough air.“Can I have a minute?”
“Sorry.” Steve seemed to fold back into himself. “I know I can get a little… pushy.”
“No. It’s fine.” Bucky pointed at the door. “I’m gonna be outside.”
He stumbled onto the grass and stared at the trees with unseeing eyes. He wasn’t crazy. There were actually other vets just as messed up as him. There was an actual organization set up to help people like him. What he did in that room when he’d snapped… there might be an explanation for it. He pressed the heels of his hands against his closed eyes. Grass tickled his bare feet. After struggling alone for so long, it seemed almost impossible that there were people who could help him. He wanted that help if it meant he could have some kind of life back. He didn’t want to be a ticking time bomb.
He sat down when his knees suddenly went out from under him. It’d been years since he’d thought beyond surviving each day as it came. And now, thanks to Steve, there was a faint chance of a future ahead of him. An ugly laugh tried to claw its way up his throat. There was just the small issue of him being a fugitive standing in the way of that future.
By the time he was steady enough to go back inside the cabin, his fingers and toes felt like icicles and his ass was numb. A cool spring day was probably not the best time to be sitting outside on the ground, especially when it made all his muscles stiffen up. As he walked back to the cabin, he caught sight of Steve ducking away from a window.
Steve. The guy was a mystery and a puzzle and also too fucking gorgeous for Bucky’s peace of mind. He’d always had a weakness for people who didn’t beat around the bush. Steve was so direct he practically ripped the bush out of the ground and clubbed people over the head with it. And then there were the clothes belonging to a much larger man.
Don't think about it.
Steve was sitting at the dining table when Bucky went inside. He was drawing something in his sketchbook with a photo propped up against a glass of water in front of him, too engrossed to notice Bucky standing just inside the doorway. Bucky's lips quirked at this picture of perfect concentration.
“Your friend,” Bucky said. “Sam. You said he could help.”
Steve looked up as though surprised. “Yes.” He straightened in his seat. “Will you let me call him?”
He could do it. He could ask for help. He nodded.
Steve checked the clock. “It's nearly ten now, and DC’s three hours ahead. We should probably wait a bit to call.”
“Waiting’s fine.” Great, actually. It was stupid to feel so nervous about a phone call, but there it was.
Bucky exhaled. “Okay.”
Steve pressed his lips together like he was physically holding back words as he tapped his pencil on the table with a rapid, staccato beat. “I’m gonna keep working, so feel free to look around.” With a crooked smile, he bent his head over the sketchbook.
Bucky wandered around the living room, looking at the photos and sketches pinned to the wall. Every now and then, the quiet scritching of pencil on paper would cease and his neck would prickle under the weight of Steve’s gaze.
The photos were all of the same group of people. Some were close-ups of their faces in repose or in mid-speech. Others were candid photos—a janitor mopping the floor, a nurse bent over a patient, a teacher surrounded by young kids, a man on the phone, a girl spraying her hair up into spikes. It was like getting a glimpse into their inner lives.
Scattered among the photos were Steve’s own sketches of random parts of the human body and the naked men Bucky tried not to look at for too long. He was trying so hard to ignore those sketches that it took a moment for him to register what he was actually looking at—a postcard of Mount Fuji with Godzilla raging away in the foreground. Definitely not something Bucky expected to see among the sketches and photos, but Steve was nothing if not unexpected.
Bucky’s steps finally brought him to the one completed canvas propped in the corner. The portrait was done in rich colors applied with a generous hand. It created an almost textured surface that Bucky wanted to stroke his fingers over.
He stepped back and back again until the daubs of color resolved into an image.
The portrait was of a man in his bedroom, sitting in front of a mirror. He was softly lit while the room was mostly in shadow. A pouch full of makeup was on the dressing table, another pouch with makeup brushes next to it. An open box held a dark brown wig. The man’s graying hair was pulled back in a skull cap and his shoulders were bared in a peach-colored satin slip with a plunging neckline. Bucky could just make out the lace edge of a padded bra under the slip. Crow’s feet radiated out from the corners of his eyes, his rose-colored lipstick bled into the wrinkles around his lips.
A lump formed in Bucky’s throat. The man’s eyes held a quiet joy as he applied his eyeshadow with a brush. He looked radiant—a butterfly who couldn’t wait to emerge from his chrysalis.
Bucky was glad the man had the freedom to show himself as he was, even if it was probably for a few hours at a time—all his tools of transformation were easily hidden away. Bucky had lived with his secret for years, no real relationships, just the occasional ‘What’s a handjob between fellow soldiers when death could be moments away’. Having a few hours of time when he didn’t have to hide what he was a gift he knew he’d treasure.
He wasn’t sure how long had passed before he noticed the silence in the room. He glanced over his shoulder to find Steve staring at him with a direct, almost challenging gaze, his shoulders tight with tension.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, softly. “You made him beautiful.” Steve had an unflinching but sympathetic eye for detail. What did Steve see when he looked at Bucky? It was a thought that filled him with unease.
Of course. That was right. “Her,” he repeated. “Is she a friend?”
Steve put down his pencil and went to stand next to Bucky. “Sort of.” Steve chewed on his lip and gave Bucky a look he couldn’t decipher before he pointed to a darker patch of shadow in the room.
The shadow turned out to be the outline of a man sitting on the bed watching the woman get ready. “Oh.”
“He was my art teacher in college.” There was a note of fondness in Steve's voice. “That’s how I met Jean.” Then, more softly, “That's how I met a lot of people, actually.” Steve cleared his throat, eyes flicking to Bucky and away again. “Let me show you Sam.” He walked towards the wall of photos.
Bucky followed, unable to stop himself from staring at Steve’s pert ass shown off by those tight jeans, the seat worn till it looked soft and fuzzy and touchable. He couldn't help thinking of the clothes Steve had lent him, and who they’d belonged to, and why Steve still had them.
“Sam Wilson.” Steve tapped on the photo of a black man in an office. “Ex-PJ. Vietnam veterans’ activist.”
Wilson looked fit, but frazzled. His afro looked like it was two weeks past due for a trim, as did his sideburns. Gabe had always been very particular about his sideburns. Whenever they got back from long range patrols, first thing he did after scrubbing himself clean was shave his sideburns back to his preferred length—a half-inch longer than regulation.
Sitting by a cookfire in the village they ’d called home for the last three months. The smell of woodsmoke and roasting rodents. Duong laughing with his children, happy to see them again after two weeks out on patrol. Dum Dum giving Gabe shit as he sits on the ground in front of an upturned log, shaving his sideburns in front of a small, round mirror.
Bucky blinked. Glanced sideways.
Steve stood with his thumbs hooked into his pockets, staring at the photos. He turned to Bucky with a neutral expression on his face. “So,” he continued, as though Bucky hadn’t just zoned out right next to him. “Sam.”
“Right,” Bucky managed, grateful for Steve’s tact.
He studied the photo, curious about the PJ-turned-activist. Sam was focused and intent, a small frown creasing his brow as he spoke on the phone. His body was angled forward as though leaning into a headwind, one arm up, caught in mid-gesture. Broad shoulders filled out a long-sleeved dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal nicely muscled forearms. Files covered nearly every available space on his desk. Even the phone was half-buried under a folder. He definitely looked like the kind of guy Bucky wanted on his side.
Steve checked his watch. It was… Bucky squinted—a Mickey Mouse watch. It had a thick black wristband that hung a little loose on his thin wrist. “I think we can call him now.”
Bucky rubbed the soft fabric of his sweatpants between thumb and forefinger as he listened to Steve’s end of the conversation.
“Hey, Sam… Yeah, I’m good… No, I haven’t been eaten by a bear, fuck you… Actually, I’m calling because there’s a guy here, a vet like you, who could use your help. His name’s Bucky.”
There was an odd emphasis in the way Steve said ‘like you’ that caught Bucky’s attention. Before he could think on it, Steve held out the phone to him.
Bucky took the phone in a sweaty hand and put it to his ear. “Hello.”
“Hey, Bucky. I’m Sam Wilson. Ex-Air Force. I’m on staff at the Vietnam Veterans of America.”
“James Buchanan Barnes, but everyone calls me Bucky. Army.”
“So I hear you were in ‘Nam?”
Steve mouthed I’ll leave you to it. Before he could step away, Bucky caught his arm. The idea of revealing the demons that haunted him to a total stranger felt easier with Steve by his side. After a brief moment of surprise, Steve nodded, emphatic and sure like a soldier ready to march into battle by his side.
“Deployed in ‘66, got out in ‘74,” Bucky said, with a grateful answering nod to Steve.
Sam whistled. “Hell of a long time.”
“Yeah.” Some days, those six years felt like his whole entire life. Chaos, pain, death. The worst impulses of men set loose. Moments of camaraderie that gleamed in his memory. The experience of war loomed so large that everything before and after it felt insubstantial and unreal.
“I was there in ‘71,” Sam said. “Did three tours.”
“Steve said you were a PJ. Got a lot of respect for that. I was Green Beret.”
Sam whistled. “The snake—ah, shit.”
“Snake eaters, yeah.” Bucky's lips twitched at the old nickname he hadn't heard in years. “That’s us. Though we ate mostly rats in ‘Nam.”
“Damn,” Sam said, with an impressed whistle. “You guys stayed up in the villages with the…”
“Montagnards,” Bucky supplied, when Sam hesitated. “The hill tribes that lived up in the central highlands. Tough bastards. We trained them and they took us in like we were family.”
“That’s right.” Sam paused, as if to give Bucky time to elaborate. When Bucky remained silent, Sam said, “Steve says you could use some help. What can you tell me?”
Bucky recapped it all, forcing the words out and not glossing over all his stupid mistakes. Meeting with Rumlow, Rollins and his truncheon, the shower, the razor, the way his mind had gone somewhere else, and finally, getting to Steve’s shed. Steve frowned ferociously throughout the whole sorry tale.
“Those assholes,” Sam bit out. “Does that happen often? Thinking you're back there?”
There was no need for Sam to explain where ‘there’ was. “Often enough.”
“What sets it off?”
“Loud noises. Small spaces. Feeling trapped.” Bucky forced the next words out. “VC had me for a couple of weeks.” Next to him, Steve twitched.
“Ah, shit. I’m sorry.” Sam’s voice was soft but thankfully there was no pity in it. “Fuck. The razor.”
“Yeah,” Bucky sighed.
“I don’t like fireworks.”
“Fourth of July fucking sucks,” Bucky agreed, even though he was a little surprised by the subject change.
Sam gave a tired-sounding laugh. “I put on headphones, listen to music as loud as I can stand. But I can still feel it, you know? The vibrations.”
Bucky could almost feel it, too—the rhythmic vibration of a howitzer firing, the ground-shaking tremor of mortar bombs exploding.
“Things like that make me think I'm back there,” Sam said. “I lose time. Sometimes I get mad real easy. You have the nightmares?”
“Yeah,” Bucky whispered.
“So what those guys did to you? Man… you did good. You could've done a lot more damage, but you didn't. You got away clean.”
“I didn't want to hurt anyone.” Bucky rubbed at his temple. He didn’t realize how much he needed those words of support until he heard them.
“I get that. And I think I can definitely help you out. What I have—what you probably have, too—it's called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bucky turned the phrase over in his mind. No denying ‘Nam had been a fucking traumatic experience. Six years after the war and the memories were still so fresh he could smell the piss and shit and blood as friends bled out in his arms, hear their screams ringing in his ears. And all the time the constant paranoia—trees and high grass everywhere, knowing that the VC could be close enough to touch but you couldn’t see them coming.
“It was a hell of a fight,” Sam continued, “but we got it classified as a recognized mental disorder. Just this March, in fact. And that means it can be used as a legal defense.” Sam hesitated. “I’m gonna be straight with you here, Bucky. This approach hasn’t been tested, so I can’t guarantee you’re gonna go free, but I promise you that I will do my best to help you whatever happens.”
“Thank you,” Bucky said, past the lump in his throat.
“So that’s hurdle number one,” Sam said, voice rich with gallows humor. “We also have to prove they triggered your PTSD. Is there anyone that can back up your story?”
“There was one guy,” Bucky said, recalling the deputy with the red hair. Mitch. “I think he tried to help.”
Steve raised an eyebrow at him as if to say in the most sarcastic way possible, Really? Bucky shrugged in reply.
“Okay. That’s good to know.” Sam gave a slightly bitter laugh. “At least my faith in humanity is not totally misplaced.”
“So what happens now?” Bucky asked.
Steve swayed closer, then quickly jerked away with a guilty expression on his face. Bucky tilted the phone away from his ear and raised an eyebrow. With a grateful nod, Steve stepped into Bucky's space and leaned close to listen.
“I'm gonna consult with some people,” Sam said. “But that could take a week, maybe more. We’re seriously understaffed here. You got a place to lay low?”
“He can stay with me,” Steve said.
“Hey, Steve,” Sam said, sounding not the least bit surprised to hear Steve's voice. “That’s good. Bucky, you’ve got a fighter in your corner. He’s small, but he’s mean.”
“Hey,” Steve interjected, aggrieved.
Sam chuckled at Steve’s reply and continued. “And now you’ve got me, and everyone at the VVA as well. We’ve got your back.”
“That’s—” Bucky broke off, almost overcome. “Thank you.”
“Anytime, my man. We gotta stick together.”
They made their farewells and Bucky hung up the phone. Steve’s gaze felt heavy on him as he scrubbed a hand over his face, palm rasping over stubble. There was actually a chance he could get past the whole stupid mess. He wasn’t ready to think about it yet, though. No point getting his hopes up. So he shoved it all into a corner of his mind to be unpacked later. Or maybe never. That had worked for him since coming back. Sort of. If he ignored his reaction to Gabe’s death.
“You got more of those extra large clothes? Looks like I'll be here for a while longer.”
Steve held his gaze without blinking. “I’ve got a few more lying around.”
“Why do you have them?” Bucky asked, unable to hold back his curiosity any longer.
“Oh, you know…” Steve shrugged, causing the wide neckline of his T-shirt to slip down one shoulder. “They're great for sleeping in.” Steve slanted a look at him from under lashes so long and thick that Bucky had an irrational urge to brush his thumb over them. A mysterious smile curving his lush lips, Steve turned away and went to his chest of drawers.
It was on the tip of Bucky’s tongue to ask about underwear, but his mouth went dry when Steve bent over to rummage in a drawer. His jeans were so threadbare they looked ready to shred apart at a touch. Bucky made himself turn back to the wall of photos. From behind him, he heard a thump. He turned to find Steve placing a spare blanket, a pillow, and a stack of folded clothes on the couch.
“Make yourself at home,” Steve said. “There's not much in the way of entertainment, I'm afraid. It helps me focus.”
“That's fine.” Bucky tried not to think about the look Steve had given him and how the two of them would be spending a lot of time together in a small cabin. “I’m used to making do.”
Steve nodded. “I’m gonna start on lunch.” He pointed at Bucky. “You rest that arm. I don't want you undoing all my hard work.”
The experience of being bossed around by a small, blond, gorgeous guy was so novel that Bucky found himself seated on the couch before he quite knew what hit him. He watched in bemusement as Steve turned away with a satisfied nod and went to the kitchen.
Bucky sat quietly on the lip of the bathtub while Steve got everything ready. After four days under his diligent, determined care, the edges of the cut had sealed together and the damn thing was starting to itch. That was a good sign. Even the bruised ache had a healthy feel to it. The cut wouldn’t heal pretty, but it was definitely healing. Once the redness faded, it’d fit right in with all the other scars on his arm.
“Okay.” Steve pulled on his gloves and motioned for Bucky to hold out his arm.
Bucky’s attention switched between Steve’s eyelashes and his strong, capable hands as he picked at the surgical tape holding down the gauze. He was fascinated by the calm confidence of Steve’s touch, mesmerized by the way those slightly crooked and permanently paint-stained fingers moved against his skin. He was starting to crave it—his skin tingling in the wake of every touch. He couldn’t help wondering what Steve’s hands would feel like touching other parts of his body.
He made himself look away, gaze inevitably going to Steve’s face, so close to his own. Everywhere he looked was a risk. The mirror opposite the tub showed him the little knobs of vertebrae marching down Steve’s neck. Bucky wanted to lick every one of them, follow them down down down all the way.
Jesus Christ, he needed to get a grip. Steve had already caught him staring more than a few times. He didn't seem to mind, and even did some staring of his own, but Bucky had to do a better job of keeping himself under control. He didn’t want to creep Steve out. He was a big guy, rough-looking, and had the potential to do a lot of harm even when he didn’t want to. And Steve, despite his outsize personality, wasn’t exactly what Bucky would call robustly-built.
Steve made a disapproving sound as he peeled off the tape. “You need to keep it dry, Buck.”
“Kinda hard to keep it dry when I need to lie down in the tub just to get my hair wet,” Bucky said, glad for the distraction. “Thing’s barely bigger than a teacup.” It didn't even have a handheld shower attachment.
Steve opened his mouth, then closed it again. Bucky watched with great interest as a tide of red crept up Steve's cheeks.
Steve held up the damp dressing. Sounding oddly compressed, he said, “At least try to keep your arm out of the water.” He frowned as he cleaned off the old antibiotic ointment covering the cut. His touch wasn't the gentlest, but he was thorough and careful. “You should be on antibiotics.”
“I’ve had infected wounds before.” Bucky’s body had been a messy network of healing cuts and burns after the VC tried to torture his secrets out of him. He could still remember the hot, swollen ache, the fever chill in his bones, the near-delirium as he crept through the jungle trying to find his way back to camp. “It’s not infected. It’ll be fine.”
“It could be better than fine.” Steve got a mulish look about him. “It should be better than fine.”
“Steve.” Bucky ducked his head to meet Steve’s eyes. “It’ll be fine. If I start getting delirious, I’ll go to a hospital. And if I get arrested there, I hope you can get Sam to point his lawyers my way.”
“I would very much like to avoid you ending up back with that bunch of assholes,” Steve bit out, clearly unimpressed by Bucky’s attempt at humor.
“Then wait till I’m really sick. The hospital will have to keep me for a few days, at least.”
“That’s not funny.” Steve finished taping down the gauze covering the wound. “I am not amused.” He glared at Bucky. “Keep that arm dry.”
Bucky held back his smile and nodded meekly, earning him an even fiercer glare. God, Steve was incandescent when he was mad. Knowing that anger was on his behalf made the temptation to do something stupid almost irresistible. He pulled on his T-shirt, keeping his hands occupied to stop himself from doing that something stupid.
In the living room, Steve sorted through his collection of cassette tapes and popped one into the boombox. Guitar chords and the deep, husky growl of Patti Smith filled the room. Bucky had pretty much memorized Steve’s favorites since they were played on a constant loop while he worked.
Steve picked up one of the half-finished paintings propped against the wall and put it on the easel. Bucky watched him settle in, then opened the front door and pushed all the windows open as far as they would go to reduce Steve's exposure to the turpentine fumes. He turned back to find Steve watching him with a soft look in his eyes, the faintest hint of a grateful smile on his face.
Did Steve have any idea how he affected Bucky? That look was all it took to nail his feet to the floor. He was almost relieved when Steve turned back to the easel. It was dangerous to get used to how safe and settled he felt with Steve. He was going to get careless and leak his feelings all over the place.
Even knowing that, he couldn’t resist the pull to be near Steve. He drifted closer, fascinated by the slow, methodical process of Steve getting ready to paint—selecting the tubes of paint, squeezing deeply saturated blobs of paint out on the palette, mixing the different colors he wanted to use with his palette knife.
“Tell me about this one?”
Steve looked at the canvas. It was a collection of blocky shapes on a dark background. He picked up a photo from the table next to the easel and held it out to Bucky. “My mom. Sarah.”
“The nurse.” Bucky took the photo from Steve’s hand.
“She died when I was just starting art school,” Steve said, smile melancholy as he stared at the photo.
The photo was of a woman from the waist up, looking directly into the camera with a serious expression on her face. She had pale blonde hair and a delicate frame at odds with the bone-deep strength he could see in her eyes. Steve took after her in many ways.
“I’m sorry.” Bucky handed the photo back.
“It was a long time ago.”
From the slight catch in Steve’s voice, it may have been a long time ago, but he still missed her. He bumped Steve's shoulder in commiseration, earning himself a surprised smile.
Bucky settled himself onto the couch. He enjoyed watching Steve create—an artist in perfect control of his medium, his movements confident and sure. Since most of Steve’s time was spent preparing for a solo exhibition in early autumn, Bucky didn’t have to worry about making conversation. It made being with Steve easy. He’d left his gift for glib conversation in a shack somewhere outside Nam Dong together with several pints of his blood, left it with all the guys in Baker Team who’d come home in a metal box, left it with the guys who didn’t make it home at all.
Those unhappy thoughts were interrupted when Steve started swearing, Brooklyn accent coming out strong as he erased a section of painted canvas with a rag dipped in turpentine. He frowned at the painting for several long minutes while he tugged meditatively at his hair, leaving new patches of color behind. Bucky wanted to sink his fingers into that near-white hair and bury his nose in it.
God. He had it bad, he had it so bad for Steve.
The sharp sound of the boombox’s play button popping up signaled the cassette reaching its end. Steve gave an annoyed grunt. The painting was in a weird stage where patches of light and dark and mid-tones made up a recognizable image, but was still waiting for something to imbue it with life.
Bucky flipped the cassette and went to get a glass of water. He waggled it at Steve till he gulped it down with a mumbled thanks. Steve wiped his mouth on his sleeve and went back to work. It’d be a few more hours before he resurfaced enough to talk in complete sentences.
Bucky deposited the empty glass in the kitchen sink, got some chicken out to defrost, and thought about what to do with it for lunch.
It was still dark outside when Bucky jerked awake, the ringing phone shattering the peaceful quiet of predawn. His heart rate going at about six hundred beats per minute, he scrambled out of the sofabed as fast as his aching body would let him and went to shake Steve awake.
“Go ‘way,” Steve grumbled. He buried his head under his pillow and rolled over onto his side.
“Steve!” Bucky pulled the pillow off and switched on the lamp. “Go answer your phone. I can’t do it—I’m not supposed to be here.”
Bucky could track the slow progress of Steve’s brain spinning up to idling speed as Steve squinted at him. Bucky considered scooping Steve up, blankets and all, and carrying him over to the phone just to stop its nerve-jangling ringing.
“The phone,” Steve repeated, as though the whole concept of phones was alien to him. It’d be adorable if the ringing didn’t make Bucky want to claw his skin off.
“Yes.” Bucky ripped the covers back and immediately jerked his eyes up. Steve's slim legs were bared all the way up to the milk-pale curve of his ass where the legs of his boxers had ridden up during the night. Jesus. That was a sight that was going to stay etched in his memory. He held out Steve’s glasses while staring at the wall. “Come on.”
Bucky stood next to the phone and vibrated while Steve stumbled out of bed. Since Steve had lent all his large-sized sweatpants to Bucky, he slept in nothing but large T-shirts that ended at mid-thigh, and boxer shorts. It was a goddamned daily test of Bucky’s discipline to pretend he wasn’t going slowly out of his skull at the sight of those slim legs corded with wiry muscle. Steve was so fair Bucky could see the faint blue-green network of veins on his inner thighs.
Steve shuffled over to the phone on sock-covered feet. “Hello.” He yawned into the phone and scrubbed a hand through his hair which was sticking up in six different directions. “Sam, did you forget you’re three hours—” Steve froze, looking suddenly wide awake.
Bucky stopped breathing.
Steve’s eyes went to Bucky’s. “Yeah, he’s here.” He held out the phone.
“Sam,” Bucky said into the phone. He motioned for Steve to come close. Whatever had Sam calling this early must be important, and he wanted Steve to hear it with him.
“Bucky!” Sam’s voice was nearly vibrating with suppressed excitement. “Have I got good news for you!”
Bucky’s mind buzzed as he tried to keep up with Sam’s rapid-fire speech. There’d been a man, a vet like Bucky. He’d attacked a police officer some time last year, but he was found not guilty due to his PTSD. They had their precedent.
“We’re talking to his lawyers now,” Sam said. “They’ve got a lot of good advice for us. Don’t worry about the legal fees. We’ve got you covered on that front as well.”
‘Nam had been hell, but he hadn’t been alone in that hell, he’d had his guys and they’d had him. Ever since coming back stateside, he’d felt alone and exposed, like a cornered animal with no one to watch his back. Now, he had Steve on his side. And Sam. And even lawyers. Bucky stared at the wall, his mind blanking out.
“Bucky?” Sam said. “You there?”
Bucky registered Steve taking the phone away, heard him thank Sam and discuss what to do next, but it all felt very far away. He stumbled over to the sofabed and sat down heavily. Sock-covered feet edged into his line of vision. He looked up to see Steve hovering in front of him, an uncertain look on his face.
Bucky tugged Steve down next to him. Steve leaned against him and rubbed his hand up and down Bucky’s back. Bucky closed his eyes, tension ebbing from his muscles as Steve’s warmth seeped into him. He covered his face, his eyes suddenly burning with the hot ache of unshed tears.
Bucky exhaled. “I honestly don’t know.” He’d spent too many years of his life ignoring all the feelings he didn’t want to deal with. The terrifying realization he’d much rather look at the guys on the football team than the cheerleaders. Then in ‘Nam, a dumb kid of nineteen, some of the things he’d seen, some of the things he’d done, some of the things done to him—the only way to survive them was to never ever think about them. Some days, he wasn’t sure if he even remembered how to feel anything anymore. That numbness had been a blessing that helped him drift through featureless days.
Then he’d found out about Gabe, and stood on a windswept cliff with crosshairs trained on him.
And met Steve—Steve who was a warm, presence by his side, at once calming and blessedly distracting. Bucky wouldn’t change anything that came before because all of it had led him to Steve.
They sat together in the quiet of predawn until Steve yawned, wide enough his jaw popped. “God, I’m sorry—”
Bucky huffed a laugh. “Go have your coffee.” He wasn’t ready to consider the possibilities in front of him. Talk of lawyers and PTSD made that faint hope of a future so much more real, and the fear of losing it so much worse. No point thinking about it now. When—if—he walked out of whatever courtroom a free man, he’d think about it.
“Yeah. Okay. Good idea. I can’t process this without caffeine.” He dragged Bucky up. “Come with. We can make breakfast while we’re at it.”
“You just want me for my bacon,” Bucky said.
Steve laughed, shocked and sudden, cheeks going pink. “Maybe,” he said. His blue eyes gleamed, his hair a colorful, feathery mess. Bucky wanted to tangle his fingers in that hair and kiss the smile off those lips so badly that he curled his fingers into fists to stop himself from reaching out.
In the kitchen, Bucky fried the eggs and bacon while Steve made coffee and toasted bread. The familiarity of their routine and the simple domesticity of it all helped settle Bucky’s nerves even more.
“What do you plan to do next?” Steve made a face when he got a mouthful of too-hot coffee. “I mean, after you’re free.”
Bucky froze, a forkful of bacon halfway to his mouth. Was he being chased away?
Steve blew on his coffee, oblivious to Bucky quietly panicking across the table from him. “You can always stay here as long as you like. You know I’m gonna be here for a few more months.”
“You’ve already done so much…” Bucky put his fork down, panic easing. But then came the guilt. “I don’t want to impose—”
“Are you kidding me?” Steve’s mug hit the table with a clatter. “You’ve been doing most of the cooking, making me eat, making me drink. You've been taking care of me, don’t think I haven’t noticed. I usually drop five pounds by now!” Steve hesitated, looking suddenly guilty. “I mean… only if you want to. No obligation.”
First the hope of freedom. Now this. He had a place to stay for at least a few more months. A place with Steve in it. He’d known the guy for a week, and already he’d trust Steve at his back. After that, when Steve went back home… Well. That was a problem for later. He was a survivor, he would continue surviving.
“Thank you,” he managed. Two small words that couldn't begin to express everything he was feeling.
The way Steve brightened at his answer warmed Bucky up all the way through, leaving him almost light-headed. Steve was the best thing that’d happened to him in a very long time, and the longer he could put off saying goodbye to him, the better. He couldn’t look away from the welcome he saw in Steve’s blue eyes. He looked until a hint of color stained Steve’s cheeks and he ducked his head and took another sip of his coffee, a ghost of a smile tipping up his lips.
That feeling of warm contentment persisted through breakfast and while they stood side by side doing the dishes. Bucky was very conscious of the heat of Steve’s body seeping into his own. His arm tingled every time Steve brushed against it.
When the dishes were all done and everything tidied away, the sun was finally lightening the sky. “I’m gonna go shower,” Bucky said.
“I could…” Steve hesitated, an unreadable expression on his face as he toyed with the hem of his T-shirt.
Bucky cocked his head and waited as a strange tension filled the air.
“I could help you,” Steve said. He gestured at Bucky’s arm. “So you don’t get the wound wet.”
The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds as Bucky tried to convince himself he'd heard correctly. Steve looked almost delicate in the soft light of early morning, in his oversized clothes that accentuated his slimness. The thick fuzzy socks warming his feet only added to the overall effect. But the way he held Bucky’s gaze… there was nothing delicate in that look. It was stubborn—almost challenging.
From where Bucky stood, it looked a lot like bravado.
“Okay,” he said, voice coming out a little strangled. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but nothing in the world could make him undermine the courage it took for Steve to make that offer. It seemed like a pretty big signal that Bucky wasn’t the only one who felt an attraction. Then again, if he got it wrong, he might fuck up the best thing that’d happened to him since… he couldn’t even think of one thing that was better than meeting Steve. So he wouldn’t presume. He’d keep his hands to himself and let Steve take the lead.
Some of the stiffness went out of Steve’s shoulders. “I’ll fill up the tub,” he said, as he went into the bathroom.
The squeak of faucets being turned drifted through the door, followed by the echoing rush of water filling up the tub. Bucky thought about sitting down, but didn’t think he could sit still and wait, not when he couldn’t stop thinking about how Steve’s hands would feel on his body. Pacing seemed stupid. Taking off his clothes felt presumptuous. He put his hands in his pockets, took them out again. Folded his arms.
Steve came out and eyed Bucky’s hair. A thinking sort of frown creased his brow, then he got a mug from the kitchen. He went back into the bathroom. After a few minutes, Steve called out, “Tub’s full.”
Bucky took a calming breath and stripped out of his clothes. He folded them neatly out of long habit and laid them at the foot of the bed, placing his dog tags on top of the pile. He looked down at the scars littering his body. Waxy-looking burn scars rippled the skin on his left arm. Long, wine-colored scars slashed across his right arm and torso. He’d been popular enough in high school—on the football team, decent-looking—so for a foster kid, he didn’t do too badly in the way of dates even though he’d faked his way through all of them. Now, he felt and looked… damaged. Steve had seen him without his shirt on at least once a day for a week now, but somehow, in this context, fully naked, it just felt different.
He straightened his shoulders, willed his cock to behave, and pushed the bathroom door open. Steam wafted in the air, making it humid and oppressive, like the heat of lowland jungles.
“Can we leave the door open?”
“Sure,” Steve said, with a curious look that Bucky pretended not to see.
Steve turned away and busied himself gathering up soap and shampoo while Bucky got into the tub. If it was to give him some privacy, the idea seemed laughable as soon as he sat down. The water was crystal clear. He pulled up his knees and hoped that Steve’s glasses were too fogged up to notice that he was already half-hard. Faint hope, since the steam in the room was already dissipating out the open door.
“I’ll wash your hair first?” Steve settled himself into the small space between the tub and the wall.
Bucky nodded, not quite trusting his voice.
Steve tipped Bucky’s head back and used the mug to pour water over his hair. The position left Bucky’s neck open and exposed, but he barely even flinched. Steve’s fingers were gentle as he combed them through Bucky’s hair. By the time Steve began washing his hair, a dreamlike calm had slipped over him, lulled by the strong fingers rubbing tiny circles on his scalp. Every muscle in his body felt loose and lax, tension he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying for so long leaching out of him into the warm water. He could’ve stayed there for hours, days, happy to turn into a giant wrinkled prune just to soak up more of Steve’s touch.
Steve moved to the side of the tub when he was done rinsing out the shampoo and began washing Bucky’s body with a soapy washcloth, being careful, so careful, of all his bruises and healing wounds. For years, Bucky had been met with suspicion, fear, distaste. There had been people who were kind—there always were—but they were few and far between. Steve touched him not just with kindness, but with care.
When Steve reached the small of Bucky’s back, he paused there, washcloth just over the swell of Bucky’s ass. Water dripped slowly from the tap as Bucky tried to figure out what Steve was waiting for. No guts, no glory, he thought, and leaned forward. Bucky dropped his face onto the tops of his knees and tried not to make a sound as the cloth continued its journey downward. Warmth gathered in his groin and his dick hardened, turning heavy and aching between his legs. The silence in the small bathroom felt thick and heavy, broken only by the sound of their even breaths and soft burbles as Steve’s hand moved through the water.
“If you lean back,” Steve said, “I can do your front.”
That low, husky voice sent a shiver of desire through Bucky as he leaned back against the tub. Steve got up onto his knees, breath warm against Bucky's skin. His T-shirt collar slid down one shoulder as he leaned forward to slide the washcloth down Bucky’s chest. Bucky could see right down his shirt to his pale, pretty pink nipples. Bucky tore his gaze away, almost light-headed with desire. Steve was so close that if he turned his head, he could take Steve’s earlobe into his mouth. He wondered what those earrings would feel like against his tongue.
With one hand braced on Bucky's shoulder, Steve began to wash Bucky’s arms, scars and all, as though the scars were a normal part of him, nothing to remark on or fuss over. That calm acceptance of Bucky’s past moved him in a way he couldn’t express.
When Steve was done scrubbing off a stubborn spot of paint on Bucky’s finger, he slid the cloth down Bucky’s chest. Bucky could see the veins that ran down Steve’s forearm, past his bony wrist to thread their way across the back of his hand. Steve had strong hands. Capable hands. Hands forever speckled with paint. Looking down at Steve’s hand splayed over his naked torso made the ache in his groin worse. There was no way Steve could miss how hard he was—not when his cock lay red and engorged against his belly.
The rough drag of the cloth over his nipple pulled a sound from him—tiny, stifled—but audible in the hushed quiet of the bathroom.
Oh God, oh fuck. Now he’d done it. If Steve was only doing this to help, then Bucky had just crossed all kinds of lines. He kept his gaze locked straight ahead, breath trapped in his lungs, as he waited for Steve’s reaction.
Time stretched out as Steve remained motionless. Then, slowly, carefully, he stroked the washcloth down until one corner brushed against Bucky’s dick. Bucky bit his lip and swallowed a moan but he couldn’t stop from arching into the touch as Steve slid the cloth back and forth over his stomach. The rough texture of the cloth made his skin tingle and his nerve-endings spark. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut. Seeing Steve’s hand inches away from his dick might actually break him. Steve’s warm breath tickled Bucky’s ear in slow, measured breaths as he continued sliding the washcloth over Bucky’s sensitized skin. He was going to crack a tooth by the time Steve was done with him… his jaw was clenched so hard it ached.
Steve stroked the washcloth down the length of Bucky's leg, from the top of his thigh down to his feet, then up his inner calf till his knee. Steve paused there. Bucky was going to die, he was going to go to Hell. He spread his knees wider and held his breath as Steve slid the cloth down his inner thigh. At least his cock was out of the way, he thought, a little hysterically. He gripped the edges of the tub to stop himself from hauling Steve close and kissing him till neither one of them could remember their name. By the time Steve was done washing his legs, Bucky’s insides had turned to molten metal, and his muscles quivered with the strain of holding himself still.
Steve pulled the plug and rinsed out the cloth as the water gurgled away. “Just one more go with the clean cloth and we’re done.” When all trace of soap was wiped away, Steve stood up, picked up the towel, and waited.
This… this was definitely going somewhere. Bucky climbed out of the tub, holding that intense blue gaze as he stepped onto the bath mat. Dripping wet. Entirely naked. Dick pointed straight at Steve. He couldn’t even feel self-conscious about all the marks the war had left on his body. Not when there was a fucking dick elephant in the room.
Bucky’s breath caught as Steve stepped close and started dabbing the water off his skin. When Steve kneeled down to dry off his legs, Bucky’s heart actually stopped. Steve's face was just inches away from his groin. Jesus Christ, he could actually feel Steve’s breath feathering over his cock. Steve flicked him a look before he patted the towel over Bucky’s throbbing cock.
Mouth dry, Bucky widened his stance to see what Steve would do. He barely managed to hold back an expletive when Steve cupped Bucky’s balls, the heat of his hand seeping through the damp towel. Bucky wanted to rip that towel away so he could feel Steve’s hands on him.
He decided enough was enough when Steve stood up and continued patting his already dry chest. He took the towel from Steve’s unresisting hands and tossed it over the rim of the tub. Then, heart in his throat, he tipped Steve’s chin up with a finger, and looked into blue eyes gone dark and glassy. Steve had just tended to his battered and battle-scarred body with the gentlest care, not shying away from a single inch of him. There was no way he was getting his signals crossed—a signal like that was visible from the fucking moon. He bent his head and pressed his lips to Steve’s, soft and chaste. Questioning.
“Fucking finally,” Steve muttered. He plastered himself against Bucky, went up on tiptoe, and kissed the living fuck out of him. Question answered.
Bucky groaned at the feel of Steve pressed against him, nothing but thin cotton separating them, and the wet, velvety slide of Steve's tongue against his own. Christ, but the way he wasn’t shy about going for what he wanted was a huge fucking turn on.
Bucky reached down and slid his hand under the loose leg of Steve’s boxers to cup the bare skin of his ass. He stroked a finger along the warm, humid crease where inner thigh joined body.
“Fuck,” Steve grated out, back arching. “Bed,” he commanded.
Bucky smiled at his bossiness, got a good grip under the backs of his thighs, and picked him up.
Steve sucked in a breath. “God, you’re strong.” He tightened his grip around Bucky’s neck and hung on tight.
As soon as Bucky sat down on the bed, Steve slid his fingers into Bucky’s wet hair and kissed him with an intense and determined focus that left him reeling. Steve pulled back, placed a hand on Bucky’s chest, and said, “Let me?”
Bucky nodded. When Steve spoke to him in that heated voice, lips kiss-swollen, hair mussed and dappled with color, he didn’t think there was anything he could deny him.
Steve pressed him back onto the bed. “Tell me what you like.”
“You.” Bucky slid his hands up Steve’s bare thighs, the golden down that fuzzed them tickling the skin of his palms. “Your body on mine.”
Steve pulled off his T-shirt and tossed it aside after straightening his glasses. “Is that all?” He pushed up onto his knees and tugged off his boxers. His fair skin gleamed in the morning light. Every vein that showed through his skin, every knob of bone that stood out, every lean muscle that corded his body—all of it was perfect.
“For starters,” Bucky managed.
A tiny, very satisfied smile curved Steve’s lips as he got up onto his hands and knees and held himself over Bucky, long fringe falling forward to tickle his forehead. “I can work with that.”
Bucky slid a hand into Steve’s hair and pulled him down for a kiss, unable to resist that tempting smile. It was soft, deep, wet. Nipping teeth, sliding tongues. Steve hovered just above him as he traced his lips down the column of Bucky’s neck and up to his ear, smooth, heated skin brushing back and forth in a full body caress that had Bucky arching up to chase for more… more heat, more contact.
Bucky slid his hands up Steve’s sides, learning the shape of bones under skin, bones that seemed too fine and fragile for the strength he contained. Steve gasped and squirmed, breath hot against Bucky's ear when he hit a ticklish spot. That soft, shifting pressure was driving him out of his mind. “More,” Bucky begged. “Please.”
He arched up with a bitten-off curse when Steve settled his weight onto Bucky’s hips. He could feel Steve’s smile as he brushed whisper-soft kisses over the bruises on his body. Steve slanted a glance up at him after a kiss that came tantalizingly close to his nipple. The wicked gleam in Steve's eyes said he knew exactly the effect his restraint was having.
Everything was not quite enough. Every touch too light. He couldn’t think for the heat and pressure of Steve’s ass settled on his cock with its promise of more. His breath shuddered in and out of him as he circled his thumbs over the skin of Steve’s inner thighs.
Steve shifted lower to press kisses to the bruises on Bucky’s hips, making him twitch at the sensation of wet heat so near his cock. Steve shifted lower still, kissing the bruises on his knees and shins. Then up past Bucky’s leaking cock. “Fuck,” Bucky whispered, when Steve licked the crease of his thigh, breath hot on his cock. “You’re killing me, Steve.” He was in agony, but he loved every second of it.
“Ready for the first course?”
Bucky's laugh was abruptly cut off when Steve licked delicately at his balls. “Jesus.” Steve continued teasing him with those light little licks, hands hot on Bucky’s hips, holding him down. He outweighed Steve by at least forty pounds, but he’d ceded control to Steve in this, and God was he enjoying the experience. He drank up the affection in Steve’s eyes, his touch, even as Steve gently but surely drove him mad.
Every ounce of his awareness was centered on the wet velvety tip of Steve’s tongue as it traced patterns on his balls. When he felt like he was going to explode from the effort of not yanking Steve up to grind on him, Steve, without any warning at all, engulfed his cock in the hot, wet cavity of his mouth. Bucky’s back arched, a strangled sound escaping him as pleasure shot up his spine like lightning.
“I’m not gonna last,” Bucky choked out, sinking his hand into Steve’s hair to ground himself. It had been so many years since anyone had taken their time with him. He got cruised sometimes—a guy looking for a thrill, a seedy night away from his life—but those were quick, soulless fucks, no names, no affection. But Steve… Steve touched him like he mattered.
When Steve sat up, Bucky gave a frustrated growl. It took everything he had to force himself to lie back and wait.
Steve licked his lips and smiled, slow and sly. “Main course.” He pulled open the nightstand drawer and pulled out a tube of KY.
Laughter and slow, unhurried sex and Steve. No matter what the future brought, Bucky would never forget this day.
Steve squeezed out some lube and shifted forward, his hard cock dragging against the hair on Bucky’s stomach. Steve’s lips parted as he panted softly, the tendons of his arm shifting and flexing as he worked his fingers inside himself.
Heat crawled over Bucky’s skin. “I can—” he said.
“Next time,” Steve rasped, already sounding wrecked.
Next time—Bucky really liked the sound of that. But for now, if he didn’t get inside Steve soon, he might actually die. To hurry things along, he slid his hand between Steve’s spread thighs and stroked his palm all the way up from taint to the tip of his cock.
“Bucky,” Steve gasped. His head dropped forward as he shuddered. “Fuck. Close enough.” He wiped off his fingers on his discarded shirt and squeezed out more lube. “Ready?”
Bucky huffed a laugh. “For about thirty minutes now.”
Steve bit his lip to hold back a smile, then, like he couldn’t help himself, he leaned down to press a quick, affectionate kiss to Bucky’s lips. Despite the sheer want surging through him, that kiss undid him like none of the other kisses that came before.
He was still trying to catch his breath when Steve gripped Bucky’s cock in his hand and slicked him up. “Jesus,” Bucky choked out, hand tightening on Steve’s hip. “I’m really not going to last long.”
Steve’s smile was soft. “That’s okay. This one’s for you.” The smile turned wicked as he quirked an eyebrow. “Next one’s for me.”
“That—that sounds like a plan.”
Bucky gritted his teeth as he watched those crooked, knobbly fingers he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about slowly and thoroughly cover every inch of his cock with slick.
“If you keep that up, things are gonna be over before we even get started.”
Steve smirked and tightened his grip just enough that Bucky sucked in a sharp breath. Little shit.
“Then I guess we better get started.” Steve positioned himself over Bucky, and slowly, so slowly, slid down.
“Oh… Christ.” The tight, hot clasp of Steve’s body sinking down around his cock had him fighting the urge to grab Steve, to move. There would probably be finger-shaped bruises marking Steve's fair skin by the time they were done. Steve took his time, letting his body adjust as he sank all the way down till he was fully seated.
Steve let out a low moan when Bucky placed his feet flat on the bed for more leverage, the movement tilting him forward. “God.” Steve’s gaze roved over Bucky, his eyes hot and hungry behind his glasses. “You feel…”
Steve rocked back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm, minute shifts in angle until—he cried out, head tipped back, tendons standing out on his neck. Bucky wanted to lick the exposed curve of it, leave sucking kisses on it, mark him up. Next time, he thought, because there would be a next time.
Steve began to move faster as Bucky fucked up into him. God, Steve was gorgeous when he chased his pleasure—red lips parted, eyes squeezed tightly shut in concentration. His cheeks were pink and flushed, the color extending halfway down his chest. Bucky ran his hands up and down Steve’s sides to feel the muscles shifting under his skin as he rode Bucky. The way he looked, the way he sounded, the way he felt—tight and hot and slick around Bucky’s cock… Jesus fucking Christ.
Bucky fumbled for the lube and got some on his fingers. He gripped Steve’s cock tight, jerking him off in time with the movement of his hips. Steve felt perfect in his hand; hard, proportioned just right to his slim build. The tip was the same beautiful pink as his lips. “Next time,” Bucky said, arching up as he imagined Steve pushing into him, “I want to feel you inside me.”
“Yes,” Steve ground out. “God, yes.” He leaned down, grabbed a fistful of Bucky’s hair, and kissed him—a deep, possessive thing of teeth and tongue that left Bucky feeling indelibly marked by the time Steve pushed himself upright. Steve's arms shook as he supported himself with hands splayed on Bucky’s chest. His movements got more erratic, head hanging down as though he didn’t have any strength left to lift it up.
“Steve,” Bucky gasped. “I’m gonna come…”
“Oh my God.” Steve ground down hard on Bucky’s cock, hips moving in tight little circles. “Oh my God.”
Bucky choked off a curse as Steve’s body spasmed around him. Streaks of white spurted over his fist when Steve convulsed on top of him with loud, sobbing breaths. Bucky finally let go of the iron grip he had on himself. The tension that had him strung up tight as a wire snapped as pleasure rushed through him in long, decadent waves. His cock pulsed and twitched inside Steve as tiny sounds escaped from between his clenched teeth. He’d trained himself to come silently, but there was no way he could choke back his cries as Steve rode him through his orgasm.
With one last shudder, Steve collapsed on top of him, smearing come and sweat over both their bodies. Bucky didn’t give a fuck about the mess as he wrapped his arms around Steve and savored the aftershocks that pulsed through him. Sex for him had almost always been hurried, furtive, the fear of discovery a constant undertone, so he was going to enjoy every moment of his time with Steve for as long as he could. He tugged off Steve’s glasses and put them on the nightstand before tucking him close. The room was quiet save for the sound of their breaths and the birds chirping outside.
A few minutes later, Steve groaned and propped himself up on his elbows. He brushed Bucky’s hair back from his forehead and squinted into his eyes for a long moment.
Bucky didn’t know what he was searching for, too content and relaxed to puzzle it out. “You okay?” he murmured.
Steve’s lips tipped up. “Absolutely one-hundred-percent okay. You?”
“I’m okay.” Bucky laughed, almost euphoric. “Very okay.”
“I thought this one was for you and the next one was for me?”
“Didn't seem fair.” Bucky stroked Steve’s cheek. “Besides, I wanted to see you come.” Steve was beautiful when he came. Bucky didn't think he'd ever forget the sight.
Steve tilted his face into the caress, his eyes a soft, perfect blue. Bucky felt safe in that gaze, seen, wanted. He didn’t want to think about a time when Steve wouldn’t be there to look at him like that.
Steve lay back down with a groan. “I’ll get off you when I can feel my legs again.”
“No rush.” Bucky stroked his hands up and down Steve’s back. His slight weight felt good, comforting. The hair prickling Bucky's neck was a little ticklish, but it was a small price to pay for the warm, contented bundle of Steve practically purring on his chest.
When Bucky felt his come dripping out, he reached down and ran his finger through the slippery mess before tracing it around the rim of Steve’s hole. He slipped his finger in as his softening cock slid out.
“Bucky,” Steve rasped, voice like gravel, as a shiver ran through him.
Bucky added another finger and stroked the smooth inner walls of Steve's body. He could feel his come mixed with lube slicking the way. The thought sent a shiver of something very possessive through him.
Steve pushed himself upright, cheeks flushed. “You’re gonna kill me.”
There was a quiet, earthy joy in the way their hot, sweaty bodies slid together as they kissed, deep and unhurried, with Bucky's fingers still buried inside Steve. Their kisses gentled into an exchange of breaths and ended with Steve smiling down at Bucky. It was a soft smile, full of a warm light that filled Bucky's heart with a sweet fullness.
When Bucky tugged Steve down to lie on his chest, Steve went without protest. He snuggled close and gave a contented sigh. Bucky closed his eyes and let himself dream of a future with Steve.
Chester stepped into the squat, square building that housed the Sheriff’s Office and county jail. A deputy leaned against the counter separating the waiting area from the bullpen, chatting up the typist with permed hair trying to do her work. Another deputy was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the desk. He chewed tobacco while talking loudly to a third deputy. Every single one of them had the soft look of men accustomed to three squares and a comfortable bed to sleep in at night. He could smell the smug condescension and braggadocio in the air.
He stood at parade rest, fixed his gaze on the Romeo at the counter, and waited.
After fifteen seconds, Romeo twitched and looked up. He stared at Chester, taking in his Army uniform and beret with its rank insignia with complete and utter incomprehension.
Chester sighed. He did not suffer fools gladly, and the man in front of him was clearly a fool. “Who's in charge here?”
“Sheriff Rumlow,” Romeo said, eyes wide.
Chester raised an eyebrow. The deputy stared at him like a startled sheep, clearly realizing something more was expected of him, but not sure what. “Go get him,” Chester barked, hoping to startle some sense into the man.
“Right,” Romeo stammered. “I’ll just…” He turned and nearly ran into the depths of the office.
Five minutes later, Romeo reappeared followed by two men. Unlike the deputies in the office, these two were hard men. The first, clearly in charge, walked with the swagger of a bully who had badge and uniform to legitimize his bullying. The second man walked by his side like a barely-leashed attack dog. He sported the signs of a recently broken nose—bruising around the eyes and bridge of the nose.
“I’m Sheriff Rumlow,” the first man said. “This is my undersheriff, Jack Rollins. You’re looking for me?”
“That is correct,” Chester said.
“And you are?” Rumlow sounded calm enough, but Chester could detect a hint of irritation in his voice.
Chester did so enjoy poking at people who loved the smell of their own power. Their reactions were always enlightening. And amusing.
“Colonel Chester Phillips. United States Army.”
A red-headed deputy walked into the room from a security door near the back. He froze and gave Chester a wide-eyed look before hurrying over to a filing cabinet. He pulled out a file at random and started flipping through it.
Rumlow stood a little taller. “What can I do for you, Colonel Phillips?” His silent, dead-eyed shadow glared at Chester.
“I believe you have a Captain James Buchanan Barnes in custody. I’m here to take him off your hands.”
Rumlow’s expression flickered into something ugly before his smooth mask slipped back into place. Rollins’ lips had gotten even more pinched at the sound of Barnes’ name. Several deputies within listening distance froze. The redhead actually flinched.
Chester didn’t like what he was seeing. No, he didn’t like it at all.
“I did have him in custody,” Rumlow said. “Picked him up for vagrancy, resisting arrest, and carrying a concealed weapon.”
“Where is he now?”
Rumlow shrugged, gaze almost challenging. “Dead.”
“A decorated soldier, highly trained. Dead. While in your custody.”
“In my custody? No, sir.” Rumlow was just this side of insolent. “He busted out of here, injured quite a few of my men, too. That man was a savage. You guys should’ve never let someone like him wander around loose.”
“Get to the part where he’s dead,” Chester snapped. The Barnes Chester knew would go ten miles out of his way to protect everyone he could. If he was a danger to anyone, Chester doubted it was through any fault of his.
Rumlow’s nostrils flared at the peremptory tone. Good. Men like him, the madder they got, the stupider they became.
“Your decorated, highly trained soldier fell off a cliff into Chapman River. I can bring you to where he fell. Let you have a look at the river. This time of the year, not even the craziest idiot would go rafting on it.” Rumlow hooked his thumb through his belt loop, clearly feeling back in control of the situation. “Like I said. Dead.”
Red glanced up from the file he’d been staring at for the last few minutes. Guilt was written loud and clear on his face. Chester had found the in he was looking for. Now to rattle the cage.
He smiled at Rumlow, putting a little extra effort into making it condescending. “Do you have any idea the caliber of man Captain Barnes is? You’re all alive only because he wasn’t trying to kill you.”
“There were six of us in that room with him,” Rumlow said, bristling at the pronouncement.
Red’s shoulders had curled up nearly to his ears. Someone should talk to that boy about his tells. They were as obvious as his hair.
“Well then, next time you see him, all six of you should thank him for going easy on you.”
Rollins’ face had gotten even colder. That one was a killer—gut a man without changing expression. Chester pointed at his bruised face. “Gave you that, did he? If he was that close to you, he could’ve killed you in ten different ways. At the least. You’re lucky you still have your eyes.”
“How the hell would you even know that?” Rumlow growled.
“I trained him. I commanded him in Vietnam for six years. He had the best kill count in his unit, and his unit was one of the best in Vietnam.” Several of the deputies exchanged looks of the ‘oh shit’ variety as Chester spoke. “He’s smart, strong, adaptable, stubborn as all hell. You won’t believe the amount of pain that man can withstand. Even the VC couldn’t break him, and you best believe they tried.” He let that all sink in. “You really think a river is going to kill him?”
“I think we’re done here,” Rumlow said.
“Oh, we are far from done.” Chester smiled. He’d been told he had a gruesome smile. He considered that a compliment. He turned around and walked out to his waiting car.
“You didn’t find the Captain, sir?” Klein said, when Chester got in the back.
Of course he did. Weak from torture, nearly raving from a fever, Barnes had managed to escape from a VC base, slip through hostile territory, and make it back to camp. These pampered, small town men hadn’t stood a chance. Barnes would’ve ripped through them like the wolf he had tattooed on his arm would a day-old carcass.
Barnes was also one of the canniest soldiers Chester had ever trained. The smart thing to do would’ve been to remain in custody. Unless Barnes had changed drastically in the years since Chester had seen him, something must’ve set Barnes off. His bet was on Rumlow and Rollins.
“Where to now, sir?” Klein said, when Chester got into the back.
Chester eyed Klein’s earnest young face and considered his options. The young man was smart and did good work. They’d cover more ground if both of them went looking for information. “Drop me off at the bar we passed on the way here. Then you go find a grocery store and get information on one of the deputies. Hard to miss him—hair so red it’s like God himself set his head on fire.”
“Yes, sir.” Klein’s mouth twitched into something too uncertain to be a smile.
Poor kid never could tell whether he was allowed to laugh at Chester’s jokes.
In the nighttime quiet of the cabin, the lamp on the nightstand casting a pool of golden light on the bed, Bucky could pretend that the world outside didn’t exist. There was only him and Steve lying naked in a tangle of sheets that smelled of sex and them.
Muscles he hadn’t used in a long time ached sweetly as he lay on his back feeling warm and content with Steve half-draped over him, one leg thrown possessively over Bucky’s hip. Steve was propped up on one elbow, smiling down at him, hair still mussed from Bucky’s fingers. The lamplight turned his fair skin into sun-kissed marble and limned his hair in gold. Pink marks dotted Steve’s skin, marks his stubble had left there. Steve was the most beautiful thing Bucky had ever seen, every imperfectly perfect detail of him, from the bump on his nose to his long, crooked toes.
“What’s so funny?” Steve combed his fingers through Bucky’s long hair. He seemed fascinated by it, and now that he knew that his touch was welcomed, wanted, he took every opportunity to play with it. After years of barely being touched, two days at Steve’s mercy had left Bucky feeling as blissed out and relaxed as a cat dozing in a sunbeam.
“Your toes are perfect,” Bucky murmured.
Steve gave a low, surprised laugh. “What?”
Bucky tried to focus. Steve should come with a warning label slapped on him: Warning! Intoxicant. “Uh.” He thought about what he’d said while under the influence of Steve’s touch. “I stand by what I said.” He closed his eyes and tried not to blush.
“Well…” Steve gave an amused huff. “Thanks, I guess.” He traced a finger over Bucky’s eyebrow, down his nose, and around the edges of his lips. “Can I paint you?” Bucky opened his eyes to find Steve watching him, expression warm and soft and almost fascinated as his gaze shifted from feature to feature on Bucky’s face. “You never look the same.”
“What does that mean?” Bucky said. “It’s just my face.”
“Yeah, well I don’t know what your face is doing… Depending on the angle of the light, or your expression, sometimes you look completely different.” Steve ducked his head and peeped at Bucky from under his lashes. “I’ve filled about ten pages with sketches of your face, and I still can’t figure it out.”
A cold, tight knot formed inside him at the thought of Steve studying him so closely with his too-shrewd gaze and seeing all the bloodstains on his soul. He turned his face into Steve’s hand and closed his eyes. Steve pressed a kiss to his temple, then to the exposed side of his neck, then on the scar that ran right over his heart. There was nothing sexual in the kisses, nothing but pure affection that began to unravel the knot inside him.
“There are a lot of better-looking people out there for you to paint, Steve.”
“You’ve seen my work, Buck.” Steve gave him a reproachful frown. “You know that’s not important to me.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, on a sigh. “I’m sorry.” It was a bad attempt at deflection, and they both knew it.
“Besides,” Steve said. “Have you looked in a mirror recently? You’re beautiful. The most gorgeous guy I’ve ever met.”
Bucky wanted to ask Steve if he’d looked in a mirror recently, because he was sure that title belonged to Steve. Instead, he gestured to the knife scars that covered his body, the corrugated burn marks on his arm. “I’m really not.”
“These?” Steve touched the scar over Bucky’s heart. It was four inches long, raised edges messy and rough because it’d already semi-healed over by the time he’d made it back to camp. It was the third cut the VC officer had given him. He could remember the nauseating sensation of his flesh parting under the knife, that instant of numbness before the pain hit, the smell of his own blood and piss thick in his nose. The ones that came later, those all bled together in a haze of pain. “These tell me that you've been through hell, and you're still here, and still choosing to be a good and kind man.”
Bucky turned away, eyes burning with unshed tears. To him, they were a sign of his failures, reminders of the violence in his past.
Steve kissed his temple again. “You are.” The words Steve whispered against his skin like an incantation sank deep to etch themselves into his bones. “I'm so glad I met you.”
Bucky grabbed Steve, curled around him and hugged him tight, wishing he could tuck himself inside the giant heart that beat in a chest too narrow to contain it. He buried his face in Steve’s neck and dragged his warm scent into his lungs. Feelings he didn’t know how to express choked him, feelings he’d thought lost to him forever after everything he'd seen and done to survive the war.
Steve held him tight and stroked his hair. His touch was gentle and soothing, like he understood how fragile Bucky felt. He held Bucky until his breathing finally evened out. “Of all the tool sheds you could've hidden in,” Steve whispered, “I'm glad you chose mine.”
A soggy laugh escaped Bucky. He wished he could stay with Steve for as long as Steve would let him, but the world was out there, waiting. Time was running out for him. Once his arm was healed, in another week, maybe two at the most, he’d have to leave. He was a fugitive now, and staying with Steve was not the act of a good man—it was the act of a selfish one.
But at least there was one thing he could give Steve before he left, the one thing that Steve had asked for. “Okay,” he whispered. “You can paint me.” From the way Steve’s arms tightened around him, he knew what Bucky had left unsaid.
Bucky had agreed to sit for Steve on Thursday night. By the end of Friday, Steve had pages full of Bucky in various poses as well as a camera roll full of photos. He’d worked at a feverish pace, like he could also hear that clock ticking down in his head. Steve’s plan for Saturday was to capture everything on paper in greater detail.
Bucky lay on his back in Steve’s bed, head pillowed on his left arm. The mattress was bare since they'd washed the sheets yet again. Not that Bucky was complaining. Running out of sheets because they couldn't seem to stop having sex was the furthest thing from a problem in Bucky's mind.
At Steve’s instruction, he wore his black undershirt and a pair of comfortable sweatpants so faded they were nearly white. Steve had picked the undershirt because he wanted the Howler tattoo to be visible. It also left most of Bucky's scars exposed, but with the way Steve treated them like they were a normal part of him, he found he didn’t mind. His hair was spread out in an artful disarray which had taken Steve about ten minutes to arrange to his satisfaction.
Bucky had one foot propped up on the bed, the other leg straight out, as he stared up at the wooden rafters. One tiny spot on the small of his back itched because it always itched when he had to keep still for any length of time. The healing scab on his left arm itched. His ass itched. In about half an hour, he was going to need to take a leak thanks to the big cup of coffee he’d had at breakfast. Thank God sniper training meant he could ignore all that and be the best artist model he could be. If only the other Howlers could see him now—they’d give him so much shit. The thought, as always, made an old, familiar ache flare up.
Steve sat on the floor to Bucky’s right on a cushion he’d dragged off the couch. His sweatshirt had slid off his shoulder while he drew. Bucky wanted to lick the sharp point of that exposed shoulder. And he could, too. He could lay Steve out on the bed in the bright light of mid-morning, lick and nibble at that point, suck marks into the vulnerable hollows under Steve’s collarbone. He could take Steve apart with fingers, lips, tongue, and teeth.
“Try to look dreamy.” Steve sounded distracted as his pencil flew over his sketchpad.
Bucky coughed and shook the lustful thoughts from his head.
Dreamy, Steve said. He wasn’t sure his face remembered how to do that. When he looked in the mirror these days, all he saw was someone tired and haunted. But because it was Steve, he was going to fucking well try.
He let his eyes go unfocused and sank into the memory of falling asleep to the sound of Steve's soft, rumbling snore. Steve liked his space when he slept, but in the darkest hours of the night, he would gravitate towards Bucky's warmth and burrow into his back. Bucky could still feel the sharp points of Steve’s bones pressing into his skin. It was like being spooned by a bony little cat that wouldn't stop purring.
“That's perfect,” Steve said. “Maybe try for a little less amused.”
“Yes, sir.” Bucky decided it was probably best to keep that comparison to himself.
Bucky was finally thinking about taking that leak when he heard a car approaching the cabin. His eyes locked with Steve's as they both scrambled up. Bucky scanned the cabin to check for signs that the place had more than one occupant. Plates and cups from breakfast were all dried and put away. His boots were stashed under the bed.
Steve ran to the window and peered out. “Fuck. It's the police.” He turned to Bucky with fight in his eyes. “I'll go talk to them. Go hide in the bathroom.”
Bucky shook his head. “They’ll make some excuse to go in there. I’ll be under the bed.” For what it was worth, he added, “Don’t piss them off, especially if it’s Rumlow or Rollins.”
Resolve firmed every line of Steve’s body. He had the soul of a warrior, and that both awed Bucky and terrified him, because he had a feeling Steve never met a fight he’d walk away from. He hated having to hide while Steve faced whoever was coming alone, but if they caught him here, it’d go so much worse for Steve. The thought of Steve refusing to back down for Rumlow or Rollins sent chills down his spine.
The car had just rolled to a stop when Bucky remembered the toothbrushes. Fuck. There were two of them in the cup by the sink. He slid out from under the bed and commando crawled into the bathroom, grabbed his toothbrush and towel and dragged everything under the bed with him just as someone knocked on the door. He regretted being less diligent about sweeping under the bed now, as his nose itched from breathing in the dust. It was still better than hiding up in a tree in a tropical jungle, trying to keep still while bugs and snakes crawled over him.
He heard the sound of the front door opening. “Yes?” Steve said.
Bucky wanted to bury his face in his hands at Steve’s belligerent tone.
“I'm Sheriff Rumlow, this here's Deputy Jones.” Rumlow recited the words as if by rote. “We’ve been going door to door to let people know that there's a fugitive on the loose in this area. He's armed and very dangerous. Have you seen or heard anything unusual this past week?” The volume of his voice went up and down, like he was looking around as he spoke.
There was a short silence as Steve pretended to give this some thought. “No, can't say that I have.”
The sound of Bucky’s breathing was loud in his own ears as he waited for Rumlow to respond. It was taking too long. Something was wrong.
“What's your name?” Rumlow asked. Gone was the bored tone from earlier. “I haven't seen you around before.”
Bucky’s instincts screamed at him to get out from under the bed, to protect Steve.
“Steve Rogers,” Steve replied. “I rented the cabin from Mike Ballard a few weeks ago. Here to get some painting done.”
Rumlow made a noncommittal sound. “If you do notice anything unusual, don’t try to engage with him. Guy’s a killer. You call us.”
“Got it,” Steve said.
“Mind if I use your bathroom? This is the third place we’ve visited.”
Rumlow lied like a pro, Bucky would give him that.
“Knock yourself out,” Steve said. “You need to go, too, Deputy?”
The deputy gave an uncomfortable cough. “No, thanks. I went at the last house.”
Bucky shoved himself deeper under the bed and held his breath as Rumlow walked past on the way to the bathroom. His shoes tracked soil onto the clean floor of the cabin, fine clumps of dark brown loam that Bucky wanted gone. He glared at the shoe prints until Rumlow walked out the front door, and the sound of the car faded into the distance.
Steve was standing by the window, arms folded, when Bucky crawled out from under the bed. “He knows I’m here,” Bucky said, still clutching his toothbrush like an idiot. It suddenly felt like an omen, a sign that it was time for him to go.
“You don’t know that.”
“I got a feeling, Steve, and I learned a long time ago to trust that feeling.” Bucky put the toothbrush down on the nightstand and patted the dust from his clothes. “I can’t be here when they come back.” He thought about Steve getting arrested for helping him,Steve defiant to the last with that crooked spine that wouldn’t bend. Rumlow and Rollins wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to break him.
Bucky’s stomach churned at the thought as the clock in his head ticked louder and louder. Thanks to a bend in Chapman River, the cabin was only a fifteen-minute drive from town. Too fucking close. He had to go now.
He could see that Steve wanted to argue, but from the furious look on his face, he didn’t exactly disagree.
“Fine.” Steve’s jaw was set and his eyes blazed a brilliant blue. Bucky’s heart ached as he tried to memorize everything about him.
Steve turned away and grabbed his sketchbook. He scribbled something down and tore off a section of the page. “My address and phone number in New York. Sam’s number in DC.” He shoved the paper into Bucky’s hand. “You come find me. I’ll pack up here and be home in a week.”
“Steve.” Bucky memorized the information and folded up the paper. “You should stay, finish your art… You’ve been working on it for so long.” He went to the chest of drawers and pulled out his clothes. He hadn’t worn them since he’d arrived at the cabin. He took off his sweatpants and stepped into his cold, stiff jeans. He pulled his socks on and stepped into his boots. From the nightstand drawer, he pulled out his knife in its leather sheath.
Steve glared at him, walked into the bathroom and came out with the first aid box. “You think my art’s more important to me than you?”
“It should be,” Bucky whispered, refusing to look up as he pulled up the back of his shirt and fastened the knife to his belt. He hadn’t worn it since he’d gotten to the cabin. Putting it back on felt like a full stop in his time with Steve.
“Don’t you dare,” Steve said. He grabbed the backpack hanging from a hook by the door and brushed past Bucky. He put the first aid box in it, then, from the chest of drawers, he dragged out a pile of clothes and jammed them on top. One sweatshirt he tossed to Bucky.
While Bucky pulled on the sweatshirt, Steve grabbed his wallet from the nightstand. “Here’s three hundred. Don’t argue for fuck’s sake,” Steve said, when Bucky opened his mouth. “We don’t have time. Sam can wire me some more.”
“This is not a fucking handout.” Steve shook the money at him. “I expect you to put three hundred dollars back in my hand yourself. In New York. Where you will come find me.” Just for a moment, Steve’s resolve cracked, revealing the fear he was hiding. “I just found you, Bucky. I don’t want to lose you.”
Bucky caught Steve up into a tight hug, pressing his cheek to Steve’s temple. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Sorry that he was so messed up he’d fucked himself over with the cops. Sorry he had to run. Sorry he had to leave Steve.
Steve pulled back. His eyes were wet and shining, but he was encased once more in iron will. He kissed Bucky, hard and desperate and afraid. “This isn’t goodbye, you hear? This is ‘see you later’. You come find me.”
It was selfish, and a bad fucking idea, but he didn’t have it in him to do the right thing and stay away from Steve. “Okay.” He pressed his forehead against Steve’s as the timer counted down in his head. “I’ll come find you.” One last desperate kiss, and he made himself step back.
Bucky had just picked up the backpack when a familiar voice shouted from outside the cabin. “James Buchanan Barnes!” Jesus fuck, this was bad. Everything went quiet in his head as his body prepared itself for a fight. “Come out with your hands up! We've got the place surrounded so don't do anything stupid.”
Before Bucky could stop him, Steve dashed to the window and shouted, “I already told you there's no one here but me!”
“Your clothes line says different, friend,” Rumlow shouted back. “You usually wear extra large men’s shirts?”
Bucky swallowed a curse at Steve’s rashness as he peeped out the cabin windows one by one. Deputies with guns were keeping an eye on all the exits. Too many of them. Rumlow must have had several teams in the area going from house to house.
“Yes, I do!” Steve’s hands balled into fists. “Those shirts are from Sweden! I’ve had them for ages!”
“Stop,” Bucky said. He went to Steve, staying out of sight of the window, and put a hand on his shoulder. “There's no way out.”
“There's gotta be—” Steve’s furious whisper was drowned out by the sound of several cars arriving. Now that they had the cabin surrounded, there was no need for stealth. Doors opened and closed. A dog started baying. Jesus Christ, not that fucking dog again.
“Better quit while you’re ahead, Rogers.” Rumlow’s hoarse shout was full of a gloating smugness that made Bucky want to punch him so bad. “We’ve got the best damned bloodhound in the county that says Barnes is in there.”
“Steve.” It took all his years of training to keep his voice calm. He’d fucked up. He'd put Steve in danger by staying too long. Steve had to get safely out of the whole mess or Bucky would never forgive himself. “You lie to them, you hear me? You tell them I threatened you, that you were scared for your life.”
“No.” Steve spoke with an unshakable conviction that was absolutely terrifying. “That's gonna make it worse for you.”
“I don't care!” Bucky cupped Steve’s face with his hands. This time, he didn’t try to hide one bit of his fear and desperation. “If you end up in jail because of me—”
“Barnes!” Bucky’s lip curled at the interruption. “I hear you're some kind of super soldier. Got a congressional medal of honor for valor. Don't seem very valorous now… hiding behind some tiny punk of a guy. You gonna let him take the fall for you? I'll charge him with obstruction of justice, harboring a wanted fugitive. I'll throw the fucking book at him.” There was a pause. “But I tell you what… I‘m feeling generous. You come out now and we won’t press any charges against him.”
Bucky had zero faith in Rumlow’s ‘generosity’, but what choice did he have. If there was even a glimmer of a chance that Steve could escape this whole mess, Bucky had to take it.
Steve must have seen the decision in Bucky’s face because he began shaking his head. “No,” he said, as Bucky pulled him into a tight hug.
Bucky tried to memorize the feel of him, his scent, the way he fit just right in Bucky's arms.
“Don't do this, Buck,” Steve begged. “You can’t trust him.”
He hated being the cause of the agony in Steve’s voice, but his safety came first. And there was only one thing that might get him to listen.
“I need you to call Sam for me, okay? You need to stay out of trouble to make that call. Don’t believe what you see on TV, they don’t have to let you make a call if you get arrested.” He’d spent enough time on the streets to know that.
Steve’s shoulders slumped. “I know,” he said softly. “I’ve been arrested before.” But Steve being Steve, he straightened right back up. “I’ll call Sam. But I’m going out there with you so there’s at least one witness to you getting charged.”
Bucky wrapped Steve up in one last tight hug that Steve returned with equal fervor. He hoped to God he’d have the chance to ask about that arrest record. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.” He pulled himself away before his resolve could weaken, opened the door, and walked out with his hands up.
Rumlow stood with his arms folded, flanked by Rollins and another deputy. Both of them had their guns up and pointed at him.
The clearing in front of the cabin had been so peaceful when he’d been out there earlier. Wind had rustled through the leaves as he’d hung up their clothes, his feet sinking into the fresh green grass. Now, it was full of cars, a stupid dog that wouldn’t shut up, and men with guns.
“Turn around and get on your knees,” Rumlow said. “Hands behind your head.”
When Bucky turned around, Steve was already standing on the porch in his bare feet. Bucky willed him to stay quiet, to not get involved, to remember his promise. Steve practically radiated fury as he watched the deputy cuff Bucky and read him his rights, but he stayed on the porch.
“Check for the knife,” Rollins said.
The deputy nodded and patted Bucky down. He pulled the knife out from the back of Bucky’s jeans and handed it to Rollins. When the deputy yanked Bucky upright, his worst fears came to pass.
From behind him, Rumlow said, “Bring the little guy, too.”
Cold fury erupted inside Bucky. His hands curled into fists behind his back even as he shook his head at Steve. Say nothing, do nothing, bide your time. It was advice for both of them. If anything happened to Steve, Bucky would hunt down everyone involved, he didn’t care how many years it took, and pay them back tenfold. He had a very good memory for names and faces and the VC had been the harshest of teachers.
But of course, now that Steve had no reason to hold back, he seemed to grow three inches in height from sheer righteous fury. “Yeah, that’s right! Bring the little guy,” he yelled, as a deputy cuffed him. “I’d love a front row seat to how you treat decorated vets in this town of yours!”
Steve was going to give Bucky a heart attack if he didn’t stop antagonizing Rumlow.
The deputies were leading them both away when two more cars pulled up. One was a black Ford Lincoln Continental with a full-bird Army colonel’s rank displayed on the bumper plates, the other was a State Patrol car. From the sour look on Rumlow’s face, the newcomers were not welcome to the party.
The Continental’s back door opened and Colonel Chester-fucking-Phillips himself stepped out in his army greens. What the fuck was going on. What was his former commanding officer doing out here? Steve mouthed What the fuck? in Bucky’s direction. He shrugged in reply, because he honestly had no fucking clue.
An even bigger surprise stepped out of the car after Phillips—the redheaded deputy, Mitch. He had the look of a man preparing to face a firing squad, his already pale face almost white. Rumlow’s sour face turned black the moment he caught a glimpse of that red hair.
The Colonel surveyed the scene in front of him. His expression indicated extreme disappointment with everyone and everything in the clearing. Even the dog fell quiet under the force of that glare. Bucky knew that look so well he would have been amused if he wasn’t still trying to wrap his head around Phillips’ sudden appearance. Bucky was sure it came with strings attached—altruism was not the Army way.
A black man with silver at his temples stepped out of the State Patrol car. He had a quiet air of command and didn’t seem intimidated at all by the colonel standing next to him, or the glowering sheriff and his stone-faced undersheriff.
“Barnes.” Phillips nodded in his direction. Bucky snapped to attention, right arm instinctively trying to salute even though it was cuffed behind his back.
To Rumlow, Phillips said, “The United States Army has a particular interest in that man you’ve got there. I would be very displeased if anything happens to him while he’s in your custody.”
And there it was. Nothing for nothing. The Army hadn’t given a fuck about him in all the years he’d been back, but now they’d found a use for him, a colonel would be displeased if something happened to him.
“That’s entirely up to him,” Rumlow snapped. “He’s the one who attacked my men first.”
“That’s interesting,” Phillips said, in a tone that indicated it was clearly not. “I have a very different account of what happened from one of your men.”
Rumlow glared at Mitch. Mitch’s face turned even paler, but he squared his shoulders and met Rumlow’s glare head on. “It wasn’t right, Brock, and you know it.”
“What I know—” Rumlow broke off, jaw ticking. He turned to the black man, who was watching everything with a neutral air. “Captain Rhodes.” Rumlow sounded extremely pissed. Anything that pissed Rumlow off was a good thing in Bucky’s book. “You’re a little outside your jurisdiction.”
“I’m just here as an impartial observer.”
Rumlow’s jaw ticked some more as he looked from Phillips to Rhodes and back again. Bucky hoped he cracked a tooth. Rumlow turned his head and growled at Rollins, “Let Rogers go.”
Bucky’s knees went weak from relief. Steve would be fine. As long as he was fine, whatever came next, Bucky would be fine, too. With a clink of metal on metal, Rollins uncuffed Steve, who moved to stand next to Bucky.
Phillips raised an eyebrow at the way Steve was clearly aligning himself with Bucky.
“You people can stay here and chit-chat.” Rumlow motioned to the deputy holding Bucky. “I have a job to do and a fugitive from the law to book.”
“Are you going to let them take him?” Steve said to Phillips.
Bucky twitched at the challenge in Steve’s tone. Years of Army training was hard to shake.
“The United States Army respects the rule of law.” The look Phillips gave Rumlow was more than a little loaded. “But since my schedule is free for the next few days, I will be keeping a close eye on the process.”
“I’m coming with you,” Steve said.
Phillips studied Steve, face completely expressionless. Many ranked officers had quailed under that scrutiny but Steve stood his ground. “Why not,” Phillips said, eventually. “I may have some questions for you.”
Bucky didn’t know whether to be relieved or scared at the thought of Steve elbowing his way into proceedings.
“I have to make a phone call first.” Steve enunciated every word calmly and clearly so everyone in the clearing could hear. “I have a friend in the Vietnam Veterans of America who’ll be very interested to hear all about this.”
God, Steve was glorious like this. Terrifying, but glorious. Bucky wanted to kiss him so bad. About as badly as he wanted to muzzle him and shove him into a room somewhere to keep him safe. Not that Steve would ever put up with that, but a guy could dream.
Phillips gave Steve a sour look. “Make it quick.”
Rumlow looked like he wanted to punch something. Bucky took a very petty and savage delight in that.
Now that Steve was free and Bucky suddenly had a colonel looking out for him, even if there might be a price to pay for that help, he actually found it in himself to be amused at the thought of Phillips trying to browbeat Steve into submission. He silently wished his ex-CO luck. Phillips would find the experience worse than herding goats. Bucky knew this for a fact, having met more than a goat or two in ‘Nam.
Steve marched back into the cabin, his spine ramrod straight. In Vietnam, Bucky had seen men faced with adversity. Some stepped up, some broke, some gave in to the monsters that lurked inside themselves. Steve… he would’ve stepped up.
“I don’t need to wait around for this bullshit,” Rumlow growled. He motioned to his men. “Let’s go.”
Rhodes started walking to his car.
Rumlow stopped in his tracks and glared at him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“My schedule’s free, too,” Rhodes replied, with a bland smile. “Impartial observer, remember?”
As Bucky was shoved into the backseat of a car, he could’ve sworn he heard the sound of Rumlow grinding his teeth clear as day.
Two deputies led Bucky down to the jail in the basement of the Sheriff’s Office. Rhodes followed behind them, his quiet air of authority helping to keep Bucky calm as he walked down the narrow passageway that led to the booking area. He was still jumpy, he still hated the way the walls pressed in on him, but knowing that he had people here looking out for him helped keep the flashbacks at bay.
The booking process went a lot faster under Rhodes’ watchful eye. There was no getting hit by a truncheon, no getting hosed down, no attempted shaving. He was printed, charged, and deposited in a cell in under thirty minutes. The cell door was slammed shut with a resounding clang that made him flinch.
Rhodes stepped up to the bars. “I’ll come by to check on you every day.”
“Thank you,” Bucky managed.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you here,” Rhodes said. “I'm gonna make sure something is done so no one else goes through what you did.”
“That’s good,” Bucky said. A lot of people said a lot of things that didn’t amount to shit. But this guy, he felt rock solid. If he said something would be done, it was going to get done.
“I’ll be seeing you.” Rhodes nodded before turning and walking away.
He wasn’t alone this time, he reminded himself, as Rhodes’ footsteps faded into the distance. All the same, Bucky hoped Sam could work a miracle and get him out as soon as possible.
He lay down on the narrow cot and stared at the ceiling. Somewhere above him was Steve. Bucky hoped to God he was staying out of trouble. At least worrying about him helped to pass the time. He hated being underground. Cut off from natural light, there was no way to tell the time—hours could be passing, or minutes.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before he heard approaching footsteps. He sat up as a deputy unlocked the cell door and motioned him forward. “You’re free to go,” he said, gruff and unfriendly.
The guy sneered as Bucky walked past, but he didn’t give a fuck. He was free to go. He was free to go.
He followed the deputy up to the bullpen where Steve and Phillips waited for him beyond the barrier. Steve looked mad as hell as he stood with his arms folded, a deep frown on his face. If Bucky wasn’t in a room full of unfriendly strangers, he would’ve vaulted the barrier to hug Steve and not let go for a week. From the way Steve swayed forward, Bucky wasn’t the only one who desperately wanted that hug.
Someone stepped in front of him, blocking Steve from view. It was Mitch, holding a stack of papers and a box that held his things—knife, dog tags, even his old jacket and bedroll.
“Once you sign these,” Mitch said “you’re free to go. The Sheriff’s Office has decided to drop all charges against you.”
“How’d that happen?” Bucky glanced about the bullpen. The other deputies continued talking and going about their business as though Mitch and him didn’t exist. Denial—the easiest way to absolve themselves of blame.
“After Rumlow spoke to a guy from that veterans’ association your friend mentioned, and the Colonel vouched for your character, he decided to call it all a misunderstanding.”
Misunderstanding. Bucky’s lips twisted. Being at the center of Rollins’ crosshairs was no misunderstanding. He’d make sure to pass on that bit of information to Captain Rhodes. Bucky eyed the young deputy as he signed the release papers. “You gonna be okay here?” he asked in a quiet undertone.
Mitch shrugged, which was answer enough. He lowered his voice. “I’ve been thinking of getting a job somewhere else for a while now. Captain Rhodes said he’d put in a good word for me.”
Bucky nodded, one weight off his mind. He didn’t like the thought of Mitch trapped in this town after he’d pissed off most of the sheriff’s department. “That seems like a good idea.”
Mitch shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I’m sorry. For… For not stopping them.”
Bucky recognized the haunted look in Mitch’s eyes—the guilt and shame of someone who’d been tested and found himself revealed as less than he thought he was. Bucky had seen it too many times on too many young faces during the war. Even though he was still pretty damned furious at how he’d been treated, he knew how hard it could be for a young, inexperienced guy to stand up to the older members of the team.
“You tried. It’s not easy being the rookie. But when it mattered, you did the right thing. I owe you.”
Mitch’s smile had more than a touch of self-loathing in it. “I think we’re square.”
Bucky wished he could do more for the guy, but it wasn’t his forgiveness that Mitch needed now. It was his own.
Mitch looked over Bucky’s shoulder, straightened up and assumed a businesslike air.
“Still here?” Rumlow said, from behind Bucky.
“Just finishing up the paperwork,” Mitch said.
Bucky collected his things and turned around to face Rumlow.
“Best get out of town as soon as you can, Barnes. You might not be so lucky a second time.”
If it was another time and another place, Bucky would invite Rumlow outside to continue the conversation. Instead, he did the smart thing and kept his mouth shut, although he wasn’t above giving Rumlow the blank look that pissed him off.
From where he stood ten feet away, Phillips, who had ears like a bat despite his age, barked, “Did you say something, Sheriff?”
A look of pure loathing flashed across Rumlow’s face. “Not to you,” he growled at Phillips, before stalking off to his office.
Times like these, Bucky remembered how much he’d enjoyed serving under that cantankerous old man. Phillips took care of his men, and wasn’t afraid of steamrolling anyone who got in the way of that. All his amusement fled when he noticed the way Mitch’s shoulders slumped when the door closed with a bang. He might be getting out of Hope, but Mitch was stuck for a while yet.
“Be careful, kid,” Bucky said, softly.
Mitch gave him a weak smile. “Good luck out there. And… thank you for your service.” He stapled the release papers together and slipped them into a file, avoiding Bucky’s eyes.
Bucky nodded, not knowing how else to respond. He’d enlisted because he didn’t know what else to do with himself after aging out of foster care, killed when he was told to kill. And then, through sheer dumb luck, he’d made it out when so many others hadn't. He wasn't sure any of that was deserving of thanks.
Mitch gave him a tight smile and turned away. Bucky stared after him for a moment before walking out to the reception counter where someone lifted the barrier to let him through. His feet took him straight to Steve’s side. “Let’s get out of here,” he said to Steve and Phillips, very conscious of all the eyes watching them.
Once on the pavement outside, Steve looked him over. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” God, he wanted to hug Steve. Because that was when he’d really be okay. “Everyone was… professional.”
Steve let out a little sigh of relief. “Good.”
“Your friend tells me you’ve been staying with him for about a week,” Phillips said.
“That’s right.” Bucky wished he was back at the cabin with Steve right now.
“I also said Bucky’s been through enough and deserves a rest.” Steve folded his arms and glared at Phillips.
Bucky looked between the two sour-faced men. That must’ve been an interesting car ride to town.
“He can answer for himself,” Phillips said. He turned to Bucky. “Private Klein can drive Rogers back to the cabin. There’s something I want to discuss with you. We can do that over a late lunch. My treat.”
And here it came. He’d finally find out why the Army had decided to involve itself in his life again after not giving a shit about him for the past six years. He caught the brief flash of worry on Steve’s face. “If it’s all the same to you, sir, you can drop us both off at the cabin. We can talk there just as well as we can here.”
Phillips gave him a level look and waited with the expectation that Bucky would change his mind. He shrugged apologetically. Phillips sighed as though Bucky was a trial sent from above to test his patience. He waved them into the car parked at the curb and got into the front. “Back to the cabin,” he said to Klein.
Bucky sat quiet and tense in the car. Steve was right next to him, but Bucky couldn’t touch him even though he desperately wanted to, not with his old CO in the passenger seat. It didn’t help that he kept expecting to hear a siren behind them, or to see flashing lights in the rearview mirror. He didn’t really relax until the clearing finally came into view. The unassuming little cabin at its center held some of his happiest memories, and he just wanted to be back inside it with Steve.
“Barnes,” Phillips said, once the three of them were standing in front of the cabin. “Walk with me.”
Steve looked at Bucky. Bucky nodded. It was time to get it over and done with. He had no interest in anything the Army had to offer him. He could see the shape of a future for himself now, and he wanted it. With a last suspicious look at Phillips, Steve went inside the cabin.
Bucky swallowed a sigh and kept pace with Phillips as he walked to the edge of the clearing. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Seems like you've still got a lot of the skills you picked up in the Army.” Phillips assessed Bucky with that penetrating stare of his. “You escaped from a county jail and eluded capture. And here you are.”
“And here I am,” Bucky said.
They stood under the shade of the trees, the early afternoon sunlight filtering through the leaves to dapple them. Other images tried to overlay the view in front of him—burning jungles after a napalm strike, churned up turf after heavy shelling, dead and dying soldiers littering the ground.
He forced the memories away, focusing instead on the clothes on the line flapping in the soft breeze that blew through the clearing. His clothes mixed with Steve’s clothes. Such a mundane, every day thing, but that made it all the more precious to Bucky.
“The United States Army has a need for men like you, Barnes.”
Bucky stared down at the grass that carpeted the clearing. “In what capacity?”
“We are putting together a team of specialists to carry out targeted strikes around the world in high security areas.”
Of course. “You're putting together a team to carry out assassinations on people the government thinks are a problem.”
Bucky had worked with the CIA while in ‘Nam. He didn't like their methods, didn't like their secrecy, or their very questionable understanding of morality. He didn't want to live in the shadows like the operatives he’d met, forever tangled up in their own lies.
“Yes.” Phillips looked like he was sucking on a lemon. “That is what we are doing.”
Bucky could always count on the old man to be brutally honest. At least he also appreciated that honesty returned in kind.
“I’m grateful for the help you've given me,” Bucky said, “but I'm not interested.” He was done with having blood on his hands. A movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. Steve had come out onto the porch and stood there with his arms folded—Bucky’s very own sentinel watching over him.
Phillips looked between them. He nodded to himself. In the war, the officers had all closed a collective eye to what went on between the soldiers. They needed battle fodder more than they needed to root out homosexuality among the troops, so Bucky wouldn't be very surprised if Phillips knew about him. Even though he wasn’t in the army anymore, the knowledge sat uneasy on him, left him feeling exposed.
“What do you plan to do with yourself, Barnes?”
Bucky tried not to look over his shoulder at Steve. “Well... that veterans’ association sounds like something I’d like to help out with.” Sometimes he hated that he’d made it back alive when so many of his buddies hadn’t. Knowing Gabe had made it too had been a comfort, but that was lost to him now. Maybe if he could help others like him, like Gabe, he might feel like he deserved the life he was getting to live now. And if the VVA could help him sort out his own fucked up head, that would be great, too.
Phillips was a hard man to read, his craggy face about as expressive as a rock, but as the silence stretched out between them, Bucky got the feeling his old CO approved of his choice.
“You take care of yourself, Barnes,” Phillips said, finally.
“I will, sir.”
Phillips’ gaze slid to Steve. “Watch out for that one,” he said, the faintest glimmer of amusement in his eyes. “Born troublemaker.”
“Yes, sir.” Bucky bit back a smile, even more curious about what had transpired between Steve and Phillips on the way to the jail.
“Look me up if you change your mind.”
“I will, sir.”
He wouldn't. And from the sardonic twist to Phillips’ lips, he knew it, too.
Steve came to stand by his side, glaring at the car as it drove away, as though he half-expected Phillips to turn around and make a grab for Bucky. “What did he want?”
“To recruit me.”
Steve slid him a glance. “What for?”
“Wetwork.” Bucky grimaced. The word felt distasteful on his tongue. It didn’t belong in this place.
Steve frowned. “Is that…”
“What you think it is?” He nodded. “I was very good at what I did.”
“What did you tell him?”
Steve looked at him, nearly vibrating with repressed energy. “I’m glad,” he said. As soon as the car disappeared from view, he muttered, “I thought they’d never leave,” and threw himself into Bucky's arms, knocking the air right out of him.
Bucky gave a surprised laugh and buried his nose in Steve’s hair. He breathed in the unique mix of generic shampoo and turpentine as Steve clung to him so tightly that Bucky could feel the points of his hipbones. He took his first easy breath since Rumlow had knocked on Steve’s door. It felt like an eternity ago even though it’d been no more than hours.
He didn’t resist at all when Steve grabbed his hand, pulled him into the cabin, shut the door, and pushed him back against it. Steve kissed him hard, pinning him like he was afraid Bucky was going to disappear on him. There was anger and fear and desperation in that kiss, and Bucky accepted it all and gave back all his relief and joy at being back in Steve’s arms in exchange.
The giving seemed to calm Steve, the kiss gentling before he pulled away just enough to stare into Bucky’s eyes. Without anger to mask it, Bucky could see the fear Steve had been hiding all day in the shuddering breaths he took, and the fine tremor that ran through his body. Bucky took off Steve’s glasses and pulled Steve into another kiss, an apology for everything he’d put Steve through.
Steve had been afraid for him... He didn’t know what he’d done to deserve that, but there was no way in hell he was returning this gift. When they broke apart, he threaded his fingers through Steve’s hair. It was a tangled mess, like Steve had raked his fingers through it again and again.
“I was so scared,” Steve said, blinking myopically up at him.
He put Steve’s glasses back on for him. “Could’ve fooled me.” A smile tugged at Bucky’s lips as he recalled a little pillar of outrage taking on Rumlow. He could smile now that the danger had passed, but while it was happening, all he’d felt was a gut-clenching fear for Steve’s safety.
“Best defense is a good offense.”
“Of course that’s your motto.”
Steve traced his fingers over Bucky’s face, over the curve of his lip, like he was memorizing his face by touch. “I want to get out of this place.” He dipped his head and looked at Bucky through his long lashes, a hint of uncertainty in the way he chewed on his lip. “Come back with me to New York? My place is small but there’s enough room for both of us and you know, no pressure, you can have the couch if you’d rather not—Why are you giving me that look.”
Bucky touched Steve’s cheek. He wanted what Steve was offering so much, but… “I need to get better. Find a job. I can’t just… live off your generosity.”
Steve made a scoffing noise. “Of course I’m charging you rent.” He sounded very much like someone who’d tripped, fallen, bounced upright and announced: I meant to do that. “I’m just really flexible on the credit terms.” He gave Bucky a look that was frankly unfair—eyes wide with appeal, lips quirked into a winsome smile.
Christ, what a little manipulator. Bucky wouldn't have him any other way. “Alright,” he said. He didn’t have the strength to fight both himself and Steve.
Steve’s smile was like sunshine on a clear day, almost too bright to look at directly. When Bucky thought of the future ahead, he couldn’t hold back his own answering smile.
Alby, thank you for going above and beyond to create the gorgeous art in this chapter in one evening. I'm still internally screaming. They're BEAUTIFUL. <333
Bucky stood in a corner of the art gallery and watched people drifting from one portrait to another, joining up into groups to talk for awhile before splitting apart again. The room was in constant flux, and the center of it was Steve. People drifting past kept getting snagged into his orbit by the force of his personality, coming close to ask him about this or that portrait. He glowed almost incandescent in the overhead lights of the gallery, metal studs in his ears glittering like stars. With his bleached blond hair, black leather jacket, torn jeans, and paint-stained white Adidas, he stood out among the fashionably-dressed New York crowd. Natasha, the flame-haired gallery owner, knew exactly what she was doing when she advised him to dress like he was going on a date. But then again, Bucky was biased—to him, Steve would stand out in any crowd.
“Who’s that?” Bucky angled his head towards Natasha, who’d joined him in his corner. Like him, she knew the places that afforded the best view of the room while allowing the observer to remain inconspicuous.
Natasha looked over to where Steve was talking to a short, officious-looking man, a semi-glazed look in his eyes. “Robert Bell. Art critic.”
“Steve looks pretty bored.”
Natasha turned towards him and pinned him with flat stare. “You are not to go anywhere near him. He needs to schmooze for at least an hour.” Her lips quirked. “Then you can go rescue him.” She went back to scanning the crowd for more art world big shots to introduce to Steve, confident that her order would be obeyed.
Steve surreptitiously scanned the room as he nodded at whatever Bell was saying. When he spotted Bucky, he gave him a small, private smile. Bucky returned the smile, warm with the glow of Steve’s attention.
Looking at Steve now—confident, assured—it was hard to imagine the nervous wreck he’d been for nearly the whole of September as he worked night and day to put the finishing touches to his pieces. Steve was at his easel when Bucky left to start his shift at a bodega near the apartment, and he was there when Bucky came home. Keeping Steve properly nourished, hydrated, and rested pushed even Bucky’s skills at herding grown men to the limit and, as the former captain of Baker Team, his skills were not inconsiderable. Steve would apologize to him in those short moments when the real world penetrated his focus, but Bucky would kiss him and tell him it was okay. They took care of each other. It wasn't like Steve didn't hold him till he stopped shaking on nights he woke up with nightmares.
“Oh,” Natasha breathed, pulling his attention away from Steve. “She came.” She pointed to a tall, elegant woman with long ginger-colored hair walking in the gallery doors.
“Pepper Potts.” Natasha watched the woman with the focus of a predator. “A very wealthy patron of the arts. If she decides to support Steve…” She straightened her already immaculate jacket and strode off, black heels clicking purposefully on the wooden floor, determined expression shifting into a welcoming smile.
Bucky turned his back to the room when he noticed the speculative glances of people passing by. The back of his neck prickled and his hand twitched with the urge to check that his tie was on straight. He found himself looking at the portrait of Sarah Rogers. It was one of two centerpieces of the exhibition. He’d seen Steve work on it nearly from start to finish, but seeing it like this, hanging on the wall at eye level, lit from above by track lights adjusted to show it to maximum advantage, he could finally appreciate the full artistry and magic of Steve’s work.
Sarah sat on her bed, wrapped in a light blue robe, brushing out her fine, shoulder-length blonde hair. The watery morning light from the window picked out the frayed hems of her sleeves and the shadows of exhaustion under her eyes. Behind her, a nurse’s uniform hung on a hanger hooked to the closet door.
The expression on her face—that was what Bucky loved most of all. She looked calm, focused, determined. His men had the exact same look when they got down to the business of checking weapons and strapping on protective gear after they’d been given the order to prep for action. Battle ready. Her enemies were different, but she was as brave and determined as any of them.
He missed them suddenly with an ache that left him breathless. Gabe. Dum Dum. Morita. The rest of the guys from Baker Team; Joey, Manuel, Paul, Delbert. And fast on the heels of that came the crushing guilt. He should be six feet under with them, not standing in the middle of a brightly-lit art gallery in his nice shirt and tie, the tie that felt like it was choking him. He knew what this was—this feeling like he didn't deserve to be alive, to be happy. Survivor’s guilt. That's what his therapist called it. She'd taught him to identify it and to acknowledge it. The harder part was trying to move past it. He forced himself to relax his shoulders and neck, and to remind himself that he was trying to do something worthwhile with the life he’d been granted.
“Sam.” Bucky hid a flinch of surprise when Sam stepped up next to him, fit and handsome in his cream turtleneck and brown sport coat. “You made it,” he said, glad for the distraction.
“Steve’s first solo exhibition? Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Sam gave him a wry smile. “Plus it keeps my mom happy. It’s been too long since my last visit.”
“Bet she’ll be glad to have you back for good, then.” He knew Steve was also looking forward to the day Sam moved back to New York. The VVA was setting up a chapter in Queens, and Sam would be transferring there in January.
“Oh yeah.” Sam patted his trim stomach. “My waistline’s gonna go, but it’ll be worth it. Which reminds me, I spoke to the guys working on the Queens chapter. Told them I know a guy who’s perfect for the vet outreach program. They’re keen to meet you.”
“You know I’ll take any job they’re willing to give.” Vet outreach, janitor, he didn’t care—as long as he could contribute in some way. In the meantime, he worked at the local bodega stocking shelves. The pay wasn't much, but his needs were few. The first time he’d paid his share of the rent to Steve, he’d nearly cried.
“I know.” Sam’s smile was understanding as he clapped Bucky on the shoulder. “But I think you’ll be great at outreach, so let’s start with that first.” He turned back to the painting. “Steve is really something,” he said, with a look of wonder on his face.
“Yeah. He is.” And Bucky would never stop being grateful that he got to share a life with him.
“She must’ve been a hell of a woman.” Sam turned to face him. “Have you seen it yet?”
‘It’ being Steve’s portrait of him. The other centerpiece of the exhibition. It was prominently displayed on the other side of the room, and was probably why people kept staring at him as they walked past.
Bucky shook his head. He’d been avoiding it all evening. He’d been avoiding it for months, actually. Steve had a singular ability to see the truth in a person’s soul. Bucky wasn’t ready to know what truth Steve saw in his. He was no nurse, or PJ-turned-veterans’-advocate, he hadn’t been out there saving lives. Some days, his soul felt like a filthy, tattered thing with frayed edges still soaked with the blood of all the lives he’d taken and the friends he’d left behind.
Sam put a comforting hand on his shoulder, seeming to understand his reticence.
“Have you?” Bucky asked.
“Guy’s obviously in love,” Sam said, pulling a face. “You're not that good-looking.”
Bucky choked back a startled laugh. “Fuck you.”
Sam laughed, loud and boisterous. Steve looked over from where he was standing with Natasha and Pepper Potts. His lips had the faintest hint of a pout, like he wished he was there with them, then Natasha put a hand on his arm, pulling his attention back to the conversation.
“Man, look at you. You're just as bad as him.” Sam’s eyes twinkled with mischief, before turning serious. “All kidding aside, it’s probably his best work. I think you'll like it.” Sam clapped him on the shoulder and moved on to the next painting.
Bucky continued making his way around the room, avoiding all eye contact. Each portrait he saw marked time in his life since he’d first met Steve in the spring. Jean sitting at her dressing table while she got ready for her date—he’d seen that the day he met Steve. Sam at his desk in the tiny cramped room that served as his office—Bucky had been there for the whole process of it. Steve had started on the initial sketches and studies when they were back in his apartment in New York, put paint to canvas half a month later when Bucky got his job at the bodega.
The time he’d come home from his therapist’s office and locked himself in the bathroom for an hour because talking about Morita’s death made him feel like he’d lost his friend all over again. The first stupid argument because Steve always left the toothpaste uncapped and Bucky had been cranky after a night full of bad dreams. Steve surprising him with a candlelit dinner on the three-month anniversary of their first meeting. All those moments came back to him as he slowly made his way to Steve’s painting of him.
His steps got slower and slower as he walked through the gallery, but finally, he stood in front of it. He had a vague idea of what it would look like since he’d posed for it—he knew he’d be lying down, staring up at something—but all the details that Steve would add to reveal the person, that he had no clue about.
The portrait was one of the largest in the whole collection. Embarrassed by the idea of studying an image of himself closely, his gaze landed on the label first. Unlike the other labels, this one didn’t include his name or an asking price. When Steve had told him that it wouldn’t be for sale, Bucky had breathed a sigh of relief. It felt like a private thing, something that shouldn’t be hanging on a stranger’s wall.
With no excuse left to put it off any longer he made himself really look. Steve had painted him lying on his back in a field full of fresh spring grass, his head pillowed on his left arm. His long hair lay loose, falling to just past his shoulders. It looked dark and lustrous, more like his hair now than the neglected, lifeless hair that came from long months on the road. Steve had managed to capture the dreaminess he’d been after, and it was hard to believe that his face could look so peaceful and free of care. The faintest hint of a smile tipped up one corner of his mouth as he stared up at the gentle blue of the sky above. The chain of his dog tags was visible around his neck, disappearing into the neckline of his white tank top, the shape of them visible under his shirt.
The violence of his history was written on his skin for everyone to see. Scars from knife wounds, shrapnel, bullets, burns. The snarling wolf of his Howler tattoo. Steve hadn’t sugar-coated any of it. Bucky leaned closer and squinted at the painting. Some distance behind him, small and almost completely overgrown by the new grass that grew up around it, was his unsheathed knife. Even further in the distance, he could just make out the barrel of a machine gun, the strap of a helmet. Tiny little glimmers of dull gold twinkled in the grass around them. Spent bullet casings.
“What do you think?”
Bucky turned to find Steve standing next to him, looking almost nervous as he fiddled with the strap of his watch.
“I thought my shirt was black.” It was the only thing he could think to say, everything else still too big to put into words.
Steve blinked. “Well—I—White worked better for what I wanted to show.” He bit his lip as his gaze roved over Bucky’s face.
“Like a fresh start?”
“Yes!” Steve exclaimed, with some relief. “Like that. And the grass. In spring.” He glanced behind him before taking another step closer to Bucky.
He’d met Steve in spring. The grass in the clearing around the cabin had been that exact shade of green. “My knife is in there.”
Steve nodded. “You had it when I met you. You used it to save your life. You told me that everyone in your unit had the same knife, and that it’s one of the few things you have left to remind you of them.” Very softly, he added, “It helped you find your way to me.” He took another step closer, close enough their shoulders were almost brushing. “And the other things… well. I hate that you were in that war, that you had to go through all that, but it happened. And I would never dishonor you by erasing it.” He added, low and worried. “Is it—okay?”
“Thank you,” Bucky whispered, eyes burning with unshed tears. When he looked at the light-drenched portrait, it wasn't shame that he felt, or guilt. He felt, not quite peace but, acceptance. This was the life he'd lived, and even though it had marked him, he was still mostly whole and still capable of finding happiness. He should have had more faith that Steve saw and accepted him for all he was—wounded still, but healing and trying. After all, Steve believed in him like no one else had, he’d trusted Bucky with his heart, hadn’t he? It was a gift Bucky would treasure with every cell in his body for as long as he lived.
He tangled their fingers together and squeezed. Steve’s eyes widened in surprise at the uncharacteristic act before he squeezed back. It was still hard to overcome his fear of showing physical affection in public, but here, now, he wanted to try. Ignoring the curious murmurs behind them, he lifted Steve’s hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “Thank you.”
Alby, thank you for all the support and help while I had a last minute panic over this epilogue. You helped make this chapter so much better! And thank you for more wonderful art <333