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Turn Your Back on Mother Nature

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PART ONE

1943

 


 

The evening was a warm one as the two boys made their way home, autumn just around the corner but still too young and lazy to cool them any as they staggered down the street with their arms slung around each other. The taller boy was bent at the waist to hear a joke his friend made, mouth already poised to smile, whole body turned toward the smaller one like the head of a sunflower turning toward the sun.

Bucky watched the two boys disappear around a street corner and sighed, wrapping his arms a little tighter around his bent knees. The concrete steps he sat on leached the heat out of his body, but he didn’t pay it any mind, just rested his chin on his knee and glanced at his watch. Half past four. Steve was late.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Sometimes it took ages for Steve to get spat back out of the army recruitment center, like they were really thinking over whether or not they should take him this time. Bucky guessed Steve’s asthma always outweighed having a warm body on the battlefield eventually, no matter how tempting, and it wasn’t like Steve could hide the hitch in his breath when they listened to his lungs. He kept trying anyway. Bucky couldn’t blame him. Didn’t matter if it made Steve feel sore all over again every time, shoulders braced for the weight of disappointment; every able-bodied man was meant to go to war now, and Steve didn’t want the government to tell him he was only half of those things. Bucky knew the feeling.

“Sorry, Buck,” Steve said, jogging down the steps to join him. “Took an awfully long time for them to say no thanks.”

“I figured,” Bucky said. He stood up, dusting off his trousers. “Shall we?”

Steve nodded, so they walked back toward home together side by side. Bucky wanted to sling his arm around him, haul him in the way the tall boy he’d seen had done, laughing at whatever Steve told him. But he hardly towered over him at five foot seven, and Steve didn’t like to be made to feel small, anyway. Bucky contented himself with letting their arms brush together every once in a while as they walked, Steve’s knuckles nudging into his own like maybe Steve was thinking about holding his hand. He didn’t try, of course. But it felt like he wanted to.

“Next time you go, I’m going too,” Bucky said.

Steve glanced up, snapping out of deep thought. “What?”

“Next time you try and make ‘em take you,” Bucky said. “I’m gonna give it a go.”

“Bucky,” Steve said slowly. “There’s a medical exam, pal.”

Bucky shot him a glare. “I know .”

“So how’re you planning on getting around…?” Steve trailed off, but he gave Bucky’s chest a pointed look, and Bucky’s shoulders curled in on themselves.

“How are you?” Bucky shot back. Maybe his ailment was a little more visible than Steve’s, but it was hardly something Steve could be holier-than-thou about. At least Bucky could breathe .

Steve ducked his head, conceding that much. “You could get in a lot of trouble.”

“’S rich coming from you,” Bucky muttered.

“You’d get in more trouble than me.” Steve stopped walking, putting a hand on Bucky’s arm to stop him too. “Hey. If you say you gotta do this, I’d be a hypocrite to stop you. But you could get – it could get really bad for you, alright? You really wanna risk it?”

Bucky swallowed. “I’m a man,” he said. “That means they gotta take me.”

The worry on Steve’s face was sickening. Bucky was sure that Steve was about to say something awful, something pitying – but all Steve said was “Okay,” and then, after exhaling through his teeth, “Okay, Buck.”

“Can we go home now?” Bucky asked, jerking head in the direction of their apartment.

“Yeah,” Steve said. 

They didn’t talk much the rest of the way, both of them chewing over the reality of being the kind of men they were, whatever that meant for their future, and the war that throbbed ominously on the horizon.

 


 

At night, in the dark, Bucky took off his clothes. First his jacket, bought second-hand, cuffs re-sewn so that they wouldn’t be too long on his arms. Then his suspenders and shirt, both castoffs of his Aba's that were ill-fitting at best, followed by shoes, belt, trousers. He hid an unfashionable chest binder from the previous decade under his shirt, a relic of when the flapper-girls would flatten themselves down to fit in their sequined dresses. Bucky yanked it off with a gasp, dizzy from wearing it all day.

He honestly would’ve slept in it if he’d been able to get away with it, but several repeat experiences of waking up with his ribs bruised to hell was enough to warn him off of that. He pulled on his nightshirt instead and clambered into bed, wrapping his sheet around himself tight enough to make the shape of him indistinguishable to the human eye. Under the sheet, he could’ve been anyone.

Bucky rolled over to face the wall, spine a closed parenthesis around the roiling discomfort in his belly. 

Steve joined him after a while, flopping onto the other bed with a sigh. Bucky listened to the sound of the covers rustling as Steve got comfortable, the sound of Steve breathing. He imagined the way the streetlight outside their window would lick orange stripes across Steve’s piano key ribs, burnt gold on his flat chest. He fell asleep still imagining it – imagining, but not looking – and in his mind’s eye, Steve opened eyes the color of copper pennies to gaze at him across the distance between their two beds.

 


 

Charm, perseverance, and soft boyish muscle had gotten Bucky a job restocking the grocery store, working in the back to lift crates and organize the dry goods, the cans. Mr. Harris looked at him askance sometimes, but he paid Bucky on time and didn’t ask too many questions, so there was no use complaining about it. He could think whatever he wanted to think off the clock, as long as he didn’t make a fuss about Bucky wearing trousers on the job.

Bucky balanced a display of canned tuna with a sigh. The labels looked back at him cheerfully. Did Steve really think it was so risky for Bucky to try his luck, to see if the army would take him? Couldn’t be more risky than running around in men’s clothes calling himself ‘Bucky’, but he’d been doing that for a couple years now, and nothing horrific had happened to him yet.

It wasn’t that he wanted to go to war. Anybody who genuinely wanted to go to war was either blinded by stars and stripes or looking for an excuse to be violent, and Bucky was neither of those things, not even at his angriest. He just knew what it would mean, if he was left behind. If he didn’t even try to go. 

So he hauled bags of rice to where they belonged, stacked up cartons of eggs and produce, felt Mr. Harris’s eyes on him from behind the counter, which made him grit his teeth around a number of unsavory things a woman his age shouldn’t say in public. He did these things because he had to, to pay rent; to afford Steve’s medicines; to prove to himself and anyone watching that he could stand as tall as any other man, straight-backed and square-jawed and not at all soft at the chest or hip.

 


 

A long time ago, which felt even longer now than it ever had, Bucky had looked at Steve with wild eyes and told him he couldn’t stand to live in his family’s house a second longer. Steve, newly-orphaned, with an apartment he couldn’t possibly afford alone resting on his shoulders in his mother’s name, had only hesitated a second before he nodded firmly. 

Bucky moved in and they didn’t talk about the family he was leaving behind, the majority of whom were too busy fretting over the younger Barnes daughters to pay much mind to what Bucky did with himself. Bucky cut off his hair and his Ima just sighed. He stole his Aba's castoffs and nobody batted an eye, except to shoot him small disapproving glances every once in a while. The hustle and bustle of the Barnes household was just too busy to care, and that was almost worse, waiting for someone to say something. Gritting his teeth every night at the dinner table.

“Couldn’t you at least have gotten married first?” Mrs. Barnes asked plaintively, watching Bucky pack up the last of his things to bring to Steve’s place. 

Bucky blanched. “To Steve?”

Mrs. Barnes blinked. “To the man you’re going to be living in sin with? Yes.”

“Jeez, Ma,” Bucky said, nose wrinkling. “We’re not – come on.”

He tried to elbow past her with an open box in his arms, but she stopped him. “Think about it,” she said, a hand on his arm. She had tired circles under her eyes, unhappy creases at the corners. It made Bucky feel an acid sort of ache in the pit of his stomach to look at her. “He’s always been good to you.”

“Thought he was a bad influence,” Bucky replied, trying to joke, remembering his Ima and Sarah Rogers yelling at the two of them in harmony every time they got into trouble. “It’s okay, Ma. Least you have some more space now, yeah? Can move Becca in here.”

Becca and the twins would get on each others’ nerves a lot less if they were separated, so Bucky could allow himself to think he was doing them a favor by leaving, if he felt like lying. Mrs. Barnes looked relieved at the idea, though, and that made Bucky smile tightly as he finally managed to escape his childhood home with his things balanced precariously in his grasp.

“Married!” he exclaimed to Steve once he got back, throwing his hands up in the air. “Can you imagine!”

Steve paused where he was arranging Bucky’s books on the shelf and wetted his lips carefully. “I mean,” he started, and didn’t continue.

“Not you too.” Bucky put his favorite saucepan in the cupboard, nestling it into place in the back. Steve’s mother, for all she’d been a saint, had been apathetic at best toward cooking; she’d passed that particular gene onto her son, so Bucky brought his own kitchen utensils with him. “You gonna give me a speech about living in sin now?”

“Well, it’d get the neighbors off our backs,” Steve said lightly. The Count of Monte Cristo was too thick to fit on the shelf, so it got balanced on top of Bucky’s sci fi paperbacks. “Did you see Mrs. McFeely’s fish eye on the way over?”

“Ha ha,” Bucky said flatly. He shoved a fistful of silverware into the drawer. “Funny guy.”

“Would it be so bad?” Steve asked. He wasn’t moving anymore, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz resting on his knee. There was something in his voice that Bucky couldn’t identify, although he made himself sound carefully mild. “It wouldn’t be the craziest thing we’ve done.”

Bucky shot him a look. “Getting married?”

Steve met his gaze evenly. “Yeah.”

What was Bucky even supposed to say to that? He opened his mouth, closed it again, then turned back to the cutlery decisively. The mental image of himself in a white dress made him queasy. “I have no desire,” he said, “to be your wife.”

“Right,” Steve said. There was a moment of silence, then the sound of books being rearranged again. “Right, of course.”

Neither of them ever brought it up again.

 


 

“Not that I’m complaining about the break from getting ignored on the dance floor,” Steve said when Bucky came home from work, not bothering to look up from his sketchbook while Bucky washed his face of the day’s sweat, “but it’s been a while since we went out.”

Bucky grunted an agreeing noise as he combed water through his hair, slicking it back. It had been a while, because of work eating up his time and a general autumn malaise that exhausted him. He got a lot of looks out and about, most of them unpleasant, and that sometimes made him less inclined to invite more stares. But in the dim, friendly light of his favorite dance hall, he got fewer sideways glances, and gals would sometimes even let him spin them around a couple times before they ran off giggling. He’d speak with the lowest voice he could manage and allow himself the pleasure of leading – being the strong arm beneath a woman’s hand, if just for a dance.

Steve was usually looking at him when Bucky turned back toward him, nursing a drink, blue eyes glittering over the rim of it with an unreadable expression.

“Let’s go out tonight, then,” Bucky said, patting his face dry with a hand towel. “You’re lookin’ too comfortable on that sofa.”

Steve sighed, sounding long-suffering, but he was also smiling.

By the time they made it to the dance, Bucky was definitely ready to be moving around and showing a charming face. Putting on a show felt good, even if it was playing dress-up. Charming Bucky, pretty Bucky, he only existed when Bucky buttoned up his suit jacket and put him on, radiating the confidant resolve that Bucky had to paint on with bitter practice. Steve was the only one in the world who looked at him the exact same way when Bucky had his coat on as when he took his shirt off.

“Alright, have at it,” Steve sighed. “Don’t break too many hearts. I’m gonna get a drink.”

“Could always try your luck,” Bucky told him. “If a girl will dance with me, one’ll probably dance with you.”

Steve smiled. It was kind of sad, but it wasn’t very resentful. “Whole other ball game, pal.” He put his hands in his pockets with a shrug. “Anyway, who says the gals are the ones saying no?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “You’re all talk, Rogers,” he said, shoving Steve’s arm. “Couldn’t have a good time if your life depended on it.”

Steve shoved him back. “Show me how it’s done, then, Barnes.”

Well, with a challenge like that.

Bucky circled the room a couple times, making idle chatter, nodding at familiar faces as he saw them. If his bare cheek and narrow shoulders made him stand out, nobody said anything. The music was good and loud, and the laughter was too, conversation a boisterous wave that ebbed and flowed as the song changed.

“Wanna dance?” Bucky asked a girl toward the edge of the room. She was short enough that he could lead her well, and he liked the way she’d piled her dark curls into a careful arrangement on her head. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face and big green eyes that seemed surprised to be talked to, jumping a bit when Bucky addressed her.

“I’m not a very good dancer,” she said hesitantly.

“I won’t letcha look dumb,” Bucky promised, and shot her a grin. “C’mon.” He offered her his hand, smile widening when she took it. He pulled her out to the dance floor and caught her up in his arms, careful to keep his hands in respectful places, squeezing her hand reassuringly when she glanced doubtfully at the other pairs around them. “What’s your name?” he asked. “I’m Bucky.”

She smiled. “Bucky?”

“What’s so funny, huh?”

“Just never saw a grown man run around callin’ himself a kid’s name, is all,” she said, and Bucky grinned because she was teasing him, and also because she’d called him a grown man. “I’m Daisy.”

“Daisy, Daisy,” Bucky sang to the tune that was playing, spinning her around before he caught her again. “See, I ain’t gonna make fun of your name, ‘cause I’m a gentleman.”

“Never claimed I was a gentleman,” Daisy replied breezily, and maybe she wasn’t the best dancer in the world, but as they swept across the dance floor, Bucky couldn’t have imagined a better partner.

He was breathless and laughing by the time he made it back to Steve, having bade Daisy a warm farewell. She looked like she might’ve let him take her for another spin, but – that frightened Bucky for a number of reasons, and none that he cared to dwell on. So he tossed himself down onto the chair next to Steve with a laugh, slinging an arm around the back of Steve’s chair.

“Have a good time?” Steve asked, amused.

Bucky snagged Steve’s glass out of his hand and downed the last swallow. “Don’t I always?”

“Didn’t heed any of my advice, though.” Steve nodded toward Daisy, who was pinning a stray curl back up where it belonged. “Breakin’ hearts left and right again.”

“Oh, come on,” Bucky complained. “I’m hardly bachelor of the year, here, pal.” 

“I know you think that,” Steve said, and wouldn’t say anything else, no matter how much Bucky poked him.

 


 

Steve glanced at the army recruitment center as they passed it, and sighed, slowing to a stop. This wasn’t a place he’d tried before, so it was possible they wouldn’t recognize him, even with his reputation. This would be his fourth try.

“Well?” he asked, resigned. He looked at Bucky. “Were you serious about giving it a go?”

Bucky’s heart started beating hard enough that he could hear the rush of blood in his ears. “Yeah.”

Steve’s jaw clenched, obviously biting back saying something. Bucky raised his eyebrows, daring him, but Steve just shook his head and walked up the steps. Bucky shoved his hands in his pockets and followed him.

He’d never been inside one of these buildings. He tried not to make it obvious how out of place he felt, but he had no idea how successful he was. He was handed forms on a clipboard, and he filled them out, back tense as he printed ‘James Buchanan Barnes’ with the steadiest hand he could manage.

“What now?” he murmured to Steve out of the corner of his mouth.

“Wait for your name to be called,” Steve murmured back.

Bucky slouched a little in his chair, trying to project enough surly nonchalance that nobody would say anything to him.

Steve was called in before he was, which made Bucky’s heart race, not wanting to be left alone. Steve stood up and squared his shoulders, raking his fingers through his hair to sweep it back, then looked at Bucky. “Good luck,” he said, but it sounded a lot more like be careful.

Well, he was one to talk.

Luckily, Bucky didn’t have to wait much longer before a doctor called his name and he was led to his own examination room. He really hadn’t expected to get this far, and now that he had, all of Steve’s warnings caught up to him at once in a silent exclamation in his head. 

“Have a seat, James,” the doctor said, consulting his clipboard with a distracted, preoccupied air about him. Bucky eyed him as he sat gingerly on the edge of the exam bed – the doctor looked harried, a light sheen of sweat on his brow. “Why don’t you take your shirt off so we can get started?”

Bucky’s hands were shaking when he raised them to his shirt collar, undoing one, two buttons –

“Doctor, your wife is on the line,” a nurse said, rapping her knuckles on the doorframe. “You might want to take the call...”

The color drained out of the doctor’s face all at once. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, Mr. Barnes.”

Bucky sat with his shirt partially undone, hands frozen at the collar. The doctor stepped outside to speak with the nurse – from their hushed whispers, Bucky got the impression that his wife was about to give birth. He couldn’t move. Could barely breathe. What was he doing here, really? Steve was right, this was going to go so badly for him, and if he knew what was good for him, he’d get out now – now, with the sign saying it is illegal to lie on your enlistment forms glaring down at him in bold letters –

The doctor came back into the room looking, impossibly, more frazzled. “Apologies, Mr. Barnes,” he said, quickly consulting his clipboard again, searching through Bucky’s forms. “You’re a strong, healthy young man. Any history of family illness?”

“No, sir,” Bucky answered, pitching his voice low. He arranged his hands carefully back in his lap.

“Good luck in basic training,” the doctor said, stamping a form. “The nurse will answer any questions, I unfortunately have to go –” He pressed the papers into Bucky’s hands, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and smiled tightly before he disappeared through the door.

Bucky’s mouth hung open. The papers were heavy in his hands. He looked down at his name, James Barnes, and felt an enormous emotion roar up inside him for which he had no name.

 


 

“Well?” Steve asked, sighing as he did up his sleeve cuff buttons and shouldered back into his jacket. He wore his defeat well, he always did, but Bucky felt nauseated to see it now. “You in trouble with the law, Buck?”

“No,” Bucky answered. “No, they’re actually... sending me to basic.”

Steve went pale as a sheet. He was quiet for a long moment, half in and half out of his jacket, looking at Bucky like he couldn’t really believe what he was seeing. That was fair. Bucky couldn’t believe it either.

“Well.” Steve’s jaw moved, working around something, and then he looked away. “Damn. You did it.”

Bucky shrugged. “Guess so.”

They stood there for a while, the two boys, both turned half away from each other. Dull pain throbbed beneath Bucky’s breastbone. “You sore about it?” he asked eventually, nudging a piece of gravel with the toe of his shoe.

Steve waited half a beat before he said, “Nah. You did your duty, same as me. I’m just surprised they were ready to let’cha.”

His duty, huh. Bucky risked a sidelong glance and was relieved to find that whatever jealousy was on Steve’s face had been shuttered again behind his eyes.

“C’mon,” Bucky said, and slung an arm around Steve’s shoulders the way he always wanted to, hauling him to his side so he didn’t have to meet his eyes again all the way home.

 


 

Bucky lay in bed, looking at the ceiling, and didn’t know what to think. Steve was pretending to sleep on the other side of the room, back turned to Bucky, the notches of his spine standing out through the thin cotton of his shirt. He was hurting. Bucky knew him well enough to see the hurt coalesce in him like a physical thing, like it was something to reach out and make a fist around.

Bucky felt like he ought to be apologizing, absurdly, even though it wasn’t his mistake that had ended up with his papers getting stamped. But Steve was hurting. The unspoken if they’ll let him go, why not me? lingered between them in a miasma of unease. Of the two of them, Bucky had never once guessed that he’d be the one they let slip through the cracks.

Did Steve think he was less of a man, because Bucky slipped through? Was he upset because of what Bucky was, and what it said about him by comparison? If Steve couldn’t even beat out a dame for a uniform –

But that wasn’t fair, and Bucky knew it. Steve had never once talked to him like that. Steve called him a heartbreaker, he called him a jerk, he called him his best guy when he was a little tipsy and more effusive than usual. The sound of Bucky’s name in Steve’s mouth had always been good and careful, landing on Bucky with an ache that was as gentle and soft as a bruise. Nothing as sharp as the way Bucky’s own mind turned and turned on itself.

Bucky gave up and rolled over, putting his back to Steve’s curled spine.

 


 

“Got all your things?” Steve asked, worrying the side of his thumb with his teeth, surveying Bucky’s packed bags. They’d been fretting over them for the better part of two hours, and Bucky was more than exhausted with it by now, hair in disarray from how many times he’d torn a hand through it, suspenders pushed off and hanging around his thighs.

“Think so,” he said. “Guess I’d better – get dressed, then. Gonna miss my train if I don’t get going.”

Steve stepped up in front of him and did up the last few buttons of his shirt for him, lingering on Bucky’s collar as his face contorted into something complicated and strange. There weren’t a whole lot of hands Bucky would’ve accepted on his chest. He put his hands over Steve’s, keeping them pressed to his collar bones, and bowed his head. 

“Lemme fix you up,” Steve murmured. He tugged his hands free, pulled Bucky’s suspenders up into place on his shoulders, then licked a thumb so he could push back an errant lock of Bucky’s dark hair. “Can’t have you goin’ off to basic looking like a scrub.”

“Gee, thanks,” Bucky murmured back, but didn’t protest it. 

Steve went and fetched his jacket, helping Bucky into it, then hesitated while he was smoothing out the lapels. “Be careful, okay?” he said. 

Bucky sighed. “Steve...”

“I mean it.” Steve’s hold tightened minutely. “I ain’t gonna be there to watch your back.”

“Don’t worry,” Bucky said. He reached out, ruffling Steve’s hair. “I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do.”

Steve laughed, but it wasn’t a particularly happy sound. “Pal, you and I both know I don’t exactly set a great example.”

“You said it, not me,” Bucky said. “C’mon. Help me with my bags.”

Steve looked like he’d have rather kept talking, kept reminding Bucky to find opportunities to stop binding every once in a while when he could, ask him again if he was certain he didn’t want to find a way to get out of this. But he didn’t end up saying anything at all, just picked up one of Bucky’s bags and raised his eyebrows at him. Bucky took a second to look, really look, memorizing Steve’s face and the way his hair swept across his brow in a lick of sunshine. The way his jaw and shoulders were squared like he expected the weight of the whole world to be lowered onto his back instead of one knapsack, small hands making sharper fists than anybody ever expected.

“What?” Steve asked, confused and a little defensive. “I got something on my face?”

“Just your face,” Bucky answered, and grabbed his other bag. “Let’s go.”

Steve took the bus with him to the train station, the two of them sitting with their knees pressed together, not saying much. What was there to be said? It was enough to feel Steve near him, the warmth of his leg seeping into Bucky’s, the familiar sound of the bus clattering down the street with its shaky metal skeleton rattling as it went.

Steve looked at him after a while with a small smile. Bucky returned it as best he could, which probably wasn’t all that great, but it was the best he could manage, and Steve was kind enough not to call him on it.

They got off at their stop and walked the rest of the way to the train, just as quiet as they had been. Steve kept inhaling like he was about to speak and then cutting himself off, shaking his head when Bucky raised a questioning eyebrow. Whatever he was going to say, he didn’t say it before they got to the train station, and by then it was too late for any heartfelt speech, surrounded by the loud clash and clamor of all the people rushing through the station. Steve kept Bucky company while he bought his ticket, then waited with him by the platform.

“Are you scared?” he asked eventually, tipping his chin up to meet Bucky’s eyes. 

Bucky paused. Swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

Steve looked down again, mouth twisting. “Yeah.”

They were silent for another couple moments, and then Bucky huffed a laugh. “What, no pep talk? That’s all I get?”

“Make it back in one piece, soldier,” Steve said, one corner of his lips raising into a wry, crooked smile. “And write to me. Don’t make me worry about you.”

Bucky’s answering “I will,” got cut off by the sound of the train whistle blowing, and the conductor’s subsequent bellowed all aboard! 

He shifted his grip on his bag, then hefted up the one Steve handed to him. Steve’s hands didn’t seem to want to let go of the straps, hanging on a beat too long, but then he was pulling away and letting both hands drop. Bucky immediately missed his touch.

“Go!” Steve yelled over the steam whistle. “You gotta go, Buck!”

How much did it pain him to say that? Bucky didn’t want to guess. He nodded jerkily, opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He leaned down and hugged Steve briefly, so much more briefly than he’d have liked, then turned and got onto the train with the warm press of Steve’s arms around him still bleeding into his body. His heart beat double-time in his chest as he jogged up the steps and fought his way to a seat by the window – he leaned as far out the open window as he could get and hollered, “Don’t do anything stupid 'til I get back, Steve Rogers!”

“How can I?” Steve hollered right back. “You’re taking all the stupid with you!”

Bucky didn’t laugh, didn’t cry, but he could feel the urge to do both bubble up in him as the train began to pull out of the station.

Chapter Text

He was given a uniform and a bunk and told to fuck off until the other recruits had been organized. Bucky fucked off gladly. He went and stowed his stuff in his bunk, grateful to see that he hadn’t packed the heaviest of everyone in the room so far. He sat on the edge of his cot and put on his uniform piece by piece, back turned to the other two guys on the other side of the room who were doing the same. He did his shirt up very quickly and shrugged into his jacket after, buttoning everything carefully, feeling his new boots heavy on his feet.

Bucky looked over his shoulder at the other men in the room and felt the first true trickle of fear slither into his belly. He didn’t know these men; they didn’t know him either, and their assessing glances discomforted him greatly.

Bucky felt himself curl inwardly, just slightly, as he braced himself for the next six weeks.

 


 

The one thing that could be said about the army was that at least Bucky never had to think hard about what he was supposed to be doing. The DI barked orders and then they obeyed them, all of them, newly-shorn heads lined up in rows. Bucky blended in as well as he could in the wash of camouflage that made up all the new recruits. He wasn’t as fast as some of the other guys, but he wasn’t as slow as some others either, and he felt a vicious sort of pride pang in the pit of his stomach when he proved his competence in drills – pushups, jumping jacks, ten mile forced-marches that made his legs feel like jelly by the time they got back to camp.

Then he fell into his cot at the end of the day and took stock of his body, feeling out every aching inch to try and test if he could keep doing this. For the first week, the answer hovered on the knife’s edge between maybe and no, but by the end of the second, he was leaning further toward yes. And wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing? He liked to think he could already feel his arms getting stronger, even though that was almost certainly a flight of fancy. Still. Felt good.

The other men paid him little mind. Bucky was quiet and well-behaved, kept to himself and didn’t talk much. He kept running a hand over his buzzed head, short hair rasping against his palm, and his stomach cramped with what it made him feel. Every glimpse he caught of his face in the mirror sharpened the ache.

On the second day of the third week, he woke up with a familiar twinge in his gut, and he realized he was celebrating far too soon.

“Shit, shit, fuck,” he breathed, frantically cycling through options in his head, trying to think of something – anything – he could do that would get him out of this mess. So far, from what he could tell, nobody suspected anything was off about him, aside from a couple sideways glances at his high voice and delicate hands.

He rummaged through his knapsack, frantically rifling through his balled up socks for something to staunch the inevitable blood flow when his hand hit a small wrapped package that he didn’t remember putting there. He removed it as quietly as he was able, careful not to crinkle the butcher paper as he unwrapped it, heart giving a jolt at the contents.

The little package of familiar hated sanitary products had a note tied onto it with twine, Steve’s hand scrawling out knew you’d forget this in his stupid loopy handwriting. Bucky clutched the packet close to his chest, breathing as best he could, bent over it with his binder biting into the soft flesh of his belly.

 


 

Bucky had always been exceptionally good at blending in when he cared to. Steve tended to stick out like a sore thumb, what with his picked fights and general air of societal discontent, but Bucky was good at following rules. At sinking into the shadows. At choosing when and how he stood out, be it on the dance floor or at Steve’s side, hollering out to keep on coming, bastards, and see what happens after the next punch –

Well, he wasn’t doing much hollering these days. The other men frightened him and their DI made it very clear that they were so strapped for time he had even less patience than usual. Training normally done in three months was now shaved down to six weeks, thanks to the dire need for more bodies on the war front, and Bucky desperately didn’t want to test his luck any further than he had already just by virtue of showing up. So he stuck to the sidelines, spoke when spoken to, and did what he did best: disappeared into the background as if he was another man’s shadow, or an echo of a sound he didn’t think he’d made.

Steve would’ve gotten into so much shit if he was here. Bucky avoided the worst of basic training hazing by making himself a difficult target – slippery, hard to find. He kept his head down in the mess hall and didn’t ever rise to the bait when someone started talking shit at him.

That didn’t help in the barracks, though, when his bunkmate Chappel hissed up at him, “You lie on your form, Barnes?”

Bucky bristled. His heart went nuts in his chest, beating so loud and so hard that it felt like it was trying to throw itself out of his ribcage. “Fuck no.”

There was a brief silence, and then Chappel sighed. “Lotta guys around here sayin’ you’re underage.”

That was what people thought he was lying about? The irony of it all was so acute Bucky barked a laugh into the quiet dark. Someone to his right snapped, “Shut up!”

“I’m twenty-two,” Bucky murmured down to Chappel. “Just got a babyface, you can thank my dad.”

Chappel yawned audibly, blankets rustling as he turned over in his cot. “Whatever you say, Barnes.”

Bucky looked up into the dark and didn’t sleep for a very long time.

 


 

In private, when Bucky was able to manage any privacy at all, he unzipped his binder and breathed harshly for the few brief minutes he could steal. His ribs were bruised. He’d known they would be, after wearing the damn thing 24/7 for weeks, but his sides were a rainbow of yellow and purple and mottled green by the time he neared the end of basic training, and he hadn’t braced himself for that. Not properly. He put a hand to his side, pressing at the tenderness he felt swell between his ribs. 

Steve would tear him a new one if he could see this, the exact same way Bucky tore into him when Steve came home from the latest fight with a new shiner and a split lip. It was the only way they could care for each other, Bucky guessed. Who else would care enough to fuss if they got hurt? They hadn’t had anyone but each other since Steve’s Ma died.

Bucky breathed deeply, in and out, reminding himself that there was a reason he was putting himself through this. That it would be worth it if only for his dog tags, which spelled out who he was in military lettering that clinked quietly beneath his shirt.

 


 

In the night, Bucky dreamed of long artist’s fingers that fit perfectly between his ribs, between the notches in his spine. He dreamed of a mouth at the nape of his neck, murmuring Bucky all sweet and soft and tender. But it was all wrong – Steve had never once curled up behind him like that, never wrapped around his body from behind. In the few times they’d shared a bed, it had only been because the heating went out, and Bucky had always spooned right up behind Steve to hold him and keep him warm. The softness of his chest fit well against Steve’s crooked back, always had.

But in the dream, it didn’t matter. Steve slid his arm around Bucky’s waist and nosed at the base of his neck, lips catching on the topmost vertebra of Bucky’s spine. 

Bucky opened his mouth to speak, to say Steve’s name, but the sound of a train whistle blowing was the only sound that came out.

 


 

Bucky snapped awake, yanking his cheek away from the cold window he’d been leaning against. He looked outside the glass, catching sight of the train stop he’d made it to, and couldn’t help his grin. One stop away. 

Steve said he’d be waiting on the platform, so Bucky shouldered into the jacket he’d set aside earlier and grabbed his cap as well, setting himself to rights. The woman across the aisle from him shot him an appraising look that would’ve made Bucky slouch back in his seat if it wasn’t so openly admiring.

He cut a figure in his dress greens, huh. Bucky had never had much opportunity to preen under someone else’s attention since he stopped wearing the frilly skirts his Ma sewed him, and he had to admit, he didn’t hate it. He liked the way gals looked at him sometimes, under the right circumstances, if he somehow managed to obscure how short and soft in all the wrong places he was. He liked the warmth in their pretty eyes. Even if he sometimes had to watch that warmth die when they realized exactly what they were looking at.

Bucky straightened his jacket cuffs and tugged at his collar, adjusting his tie ‘til it lay flat.

Gathering up his luggage didn’t take much time, since the train was hardly crowded, and his seatmate was the empty sandwich paper he’d discarded before he’d fallen asleep. He assembled his bags and things near him, listening hard for the yell of his station, heart starting to beat a little faster at the idea of seeing Steve again. God, Steve. Bucky hadn’t gone this long without him since before they moved in with each other, and it was a damn weird feeling. 

His stomach would lurch if he started thinking about what the war would be like without him, so he shoved the thought as far away from himself as he could.

The last twenty minutes of the train ride disappeared in a blur of pretty countryside and Bucky tapping his fingertips against his knee, watching Steve wave goodbye to him on the train platform in his mind’s eye. The flash and glint of Steve’s golden hair in the sunlight. The shape his mouth made around Bucky’s name, yelling it out like a prayer. 

Since when was Bucky’s name ever a prayer? It had been long enough now that he couldn’t even remember what it sounded like when Steve used to say his other name, the one he’d tried to bury. He knew Steve used to say it often – they’d been friends since they were knee-high, after all – but he couldn’t remember the sound it made in Steve’s voice, the cadence, the way Steve’s tongue had curled around the syllables. All he had in his head now was a fondly exasperated Buck and the occasional James Buchanan! that Steve only ever whipped out when he was particularly mad.

He was grateful for this, though. Steve managed to say his name like it really belonged to him, wasn’t just borrowed clothes that Bucky had managed to make off with in the night.

“Brooklyn!” the train conductor announced over the tinny train speakers. Bucky’s head snapped up. 

He disembarked with his heart in his throat, glancing around the platform until – there. Bucky’s grin split his face wide, waving wildly at Steve until they made joyous eye contact. Steve shoved his way through the throng to get to Bucky, then halted so fast in front of him that he rocked onto the balls of his feet before back down again.

“Hi,” Bucky said, smiling helplessly.

“Hi,” Steve replied, just as helpless, his answering smile like the first rays of sunshine through cloud cover. Bucky dropped his bag so he could hug Steve hard.

 


 

They didn’t speak at all on the long subway trip home, but Steve took Bucky’s hand and held it on his bent knee, clasping it tightly, their fingers intertwined. Bucky didn’t say a word of protest. Every once in a while Steve’s thumb stroked up the curve of his wrist and then back down again, catching on the heel of his hand, then smoothing out the deepest wrinkle in Bucky’s palm. Over and over, like he was trying to write something into Bucky’s bones with his touch.

 


 

“Well?” Steve asked, letting the bag Bucky allowed him to carry inside drop to the floor with a thump. “How long ‘til you get your orders?”

“Should have ‘em tomorrow or the next day,” Bucky answered, struggling out of his jacket with a grunt. He couldn’t decide if he was bone-weary or buzzing with too much energy, and he guessed that was what happened after six weeks of non-stop motion. He tossed his jacket onto the back of the sofa, then yanked his tie off too, feeling Steve’s eyes on him as his shirt followed.

“Hell, Buck,” Steve breathed. 

Bucky looked up at him. “What?”

Steve walked over with soft footsteps and put a hand on Bucky’s upper arm. For a moment, Bucky thought maybe he was feeling the new wiry muscle on his bicep, but then Steve was moving Bucky’s arm out of the way and putting his palm to the bruised flesh just barely visible peeking out over the top of Bucky’s binder.

“What did I say about being careful?” Steve asked, despairing, and Bucky swallowed around a lump in his throat.

“What was I supposed to do, huh?” He carefully took Steve’s hand away from his ribs, ignoring the ache that flared up at the movement that tugged at sore skin. “It’s not like I could wander around with my shirt off.”

Steve’s expression was overwrought, but Bucky watched him wrestle it back under control until his face was masked again. “Take it off for tonight,” Steve said, soft. “Please.”

Bucky hadn’t taken the thing off for longer than thirty minutes in a long while. He nodded, ducking his head to hide his eyes as he unzipped the binder and carefully unhooked the clasps. He hissed a breath through his teeth as he eased it off his shoulders, eyes fluttering closed with pain and relief as it slid down his arms. Steve helped pull it down the rest of the way, setting it aside, and Bucky just turned his head away when he felt small cool fingertips fit themselves to the center of the largest bruise.

“Sit down for a sec, dummy,” Steve murmured, giving Bucky a little push toward the sofa. Bucky did as he was told, sinking into the familiar weight of the couch beneath him, although he was uncomfortable with how easy it was to breathe now. There was something unsettling about missing the squeeze around his middle, used to the tightness, used to the straightjacket squeeze keeping everything that he was condensed to his core.

Making sure that whatever was inside him stayed there.

Steve returned with their first aid kit, an enormous tin relic of Sarah Rogers that they kept well-stocked after enough experience cleaning each other up after fights. Steve sat on the edge of the sofa next to Bucky and put the tin on the coffee table, then raised a damp cloth to Bucky’s chest, where he very gently sponged away the sweat and what little dirt Bucky hadn’t been able to wash. It hurt – he really was bruised to hell – but Steve was so careful, careful enough that Bucky barely even minded that he was looking at his bare chest, and that he was touching it, too. 

Steve put the cloth down and retrieved the antiseptic salve, gently rubbing it into the purple-green flowers of bruises all the way down Bucky’s ribs.

“You’ll heal up okay,” he said, pad of his thumb pressing against Bucky’s ribs one after the other to make sure there weren’t any cracks. Bucky winced, but it didn’t hurt bad enough to warrant a broken bone. One corner of Steve’s mouth quirked up. “You got buff, Buck.”

Bucky had to laugh at the non sequitur, head lolling back against the back of the couch. “Yeah, yeah. Betcha say that to all the boys.”

“Only the buff ones,” Steve told him, squeezing Bucky’s knee as he stood. “You want an undershirt, or are you good like that?”

Bucky gazed up at Steve through hooded eyes, looking at Steve looking at him. Steve’s eyes didn’t stray from his own, but Bucky could remember the first time he’d taken his shirt off around him, the way Steve had turned pink and then purple and hadn’t been able to meet his eye for a couple days after. Bucky guessed a particular pair of tits lost their novelty after a while, though he didn’t think Steve had seen many others to judge ‘em by, and the sight of him sprawled out on the couch with his shirt off wasn’t enough to turn Steve’s ears pink anymore. 

He didn’t know how he felt about that. Relieved, maybe. Probably.

“I’m good,” Bucky said. “Don’t wanna rub the salve off ‘til it sets.”

Steve nodded, reaching forward to ruffle Bucky’s hair. “I’ll get dinner goin’ then. Welcome home, pal.”

Home. Bucky stretched out further, smiling as Steve put his hands in his pockets and ambled into the kitchen to mutilate an attempt at dinner. Yes. Welcome home indeed.

 


 

Bucky slept better that night with Steve across the room from him than he had since he left. That didn’t stop him from waking in the dead of night, though, shrugging into a discarded shirt before he slinked out to the fire escape to try and ease his troubled mind. Bucky got two cigarettes in before Steve joined him, sitting with his back braced against the rail, legs bent with his knees tucked up against his chest.

“Heya,” Steve yawned, rubbing his eyes. “Budge over.”

Bucky budged over. Steve sat next to him, making a wordless grabby gesture until Bucky relinquished the pack of cigarettes and lit one for him.

“That’s gonna make you cough,” Bucky warned him.

Steve took a drag and let his head fall back while he exhaled. “I can get through one before it does.”

Bucky watched the arc of Steve’s throat while it worked around his breath, smoke curling out of Steve’s half-open mouth in lazy swirls. The cut of Steve’s jaw was sharp as a razor blade, as was the jut of his collar bones, and it made him angular in every way that Bucky wasn’t. He should have been jealous of this, and he was, sometimes; but mostly it just made a warm weight settle in the pit of his stomach, heavy in his gut. Steve was so sharp. Bucky would’ve worried over cutting himself on that small body if he hadn’t been wrapping an arm around Steve for as long as they’d known each other.

“Nightmare?” Steve asked eventually, tipping his head to the side. The glowing ember at the tip of his cigarette glinted orange-red in the depths of his eyes.

Bucky shook his head. “Just can’t sleep.”

Steve took another thoughtful drag and ashed his cigarette over the side of the railing. “Used to crawl into my bed when you couldn’t sleep,” he said, shooting Bucky an amused look. “Or are we still pretending that was you keepin’ me warm?”

Heat jumped to Bucky’s face so fast he could feel his cheeks burn. “You were cold!” he exclaimed, though it came out much squeakier than he’d intended it to. “That wasn’t bullshit, Steve, come on.”

“Uh huh,” Steve said, and patted Bucky’s knee. “Coulda fooled me.”

It had been for the cold, was the thing. Or at least somewhat for the cold. Steve was small, and got sick a lot, and Bucky’s Ma used to tut to herself under her breath about what they’d do when they inevitably had to sit shiva for him before he hit eighteen. Steve’s stubborn streak beat God to the punch, there, but Bucky had genuinely worried for him every winter, and if that meant he had to steal between Steve’s sheets like a thief to keep him safe, well –

But that wasn’t entirely it. Bucky put out his cigarette as decisively as he was able and said, “Didn’t hear you complaining at the time,” in a voice that didn’t waver.

Steve’s sideways glance was unreadable. “No, you sure didn’t.”

 


 

Bucky had to pretend to be surprised when Steve tugged on his wrist to pull him into the bed beneath the window, but he wasn’t in the least. He still tucked himself up against Steve’s back the way he always had, chin curled over Steve’s shoulder, one arm tight around that tiny waist to keep him close. They didn’t say a word, but Steve lay very still beneath Bucky’s arm, face turned into his pillow. 

In the morning, they would put themselves on again, becoming the men that they needed to be. But in the dark of their bedroom, alone except for each other, they were nothing but a couple of boys that the war hadn’t swallowed up yet.

 


 

“How d’you wanna celebrate your last couple nights before you ship out?” Steve asked, all false bravado and good cheer, pasting on a smile with his hands on his hips. “Wanna go out? The fair’s in town, I hear Howard Stark himself is gonna make an appearance.”

That was damn tempting. Bucky had always had a soft spot for science inventions, and he’d heard rumors about Stark’s flying car prototype, which would certainly make Bucky’s eyes go wide as saucers to see. He could imagine it very easily, too, he and Steve tearing out into the city together, picking up a couple girls for one of those double dates that always inevitably ended with the two of them alone and drinking together in the park. It wouldn’t be the worst sendoff Bucky could think of.

But he found that he didn’t particularly want to put on a show. He’d been playing the most dangerous game of dress-up for a month and a half, all he wanted now was to stay at home with the one person he didn’t have to dress up for.

“Let’s go tomorrow,” he said, leaning back against the window frame that he was sitting against, one leg dangling out the open window. “Catch the last day of the fair instead.” The weather was starting to cool off for real – October was just beginning to sink teeth into the year – but the evening was pleasant, and Bucky intended to soak it all up before he left. New York was a hard city, dirty and hard, and it forgot about people like him and Steve. But it was still his city. It belonged to him.

“You sure?” Steve asked, brow creasing. “Thought you’d be chompin’ at the bit to get outta here.”

You know me better than that, Bucky wanted to say. He just shook his head, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I’m still too tired.”

Steve’s face softened as he nodded, but Bucky knew he didn’t get it. Not that he knew how to explain in a way that didn’t just sound pathetic.

“You wanna put the radio on, then?” Steve asked, pushing up his sleeve that fell.

The leg Bucky had dangling down out the window swung lazily back and forth. “Will you read to me?” he asked.

“Training really toughened you up, huh?” Steve teased, kneeling in front of the bookshelf to pick one out. “I see you’re way too manly for all of our usual nonsense, now.”

If anyone else had teased Bucky like this, he’d have clocked ‘em in the mouth. But he just laughed at Steve, shaking his head, fondness catching on his tongue like a drop of honey. Sweet and small and private.

Steve sat on the couch and cracked open a well-worn paperback, one of the sci-fi novels he pretended to hate just to get Bucky riled up. Bucky closed his eyes when he started reading, letting that familiar voice wash over him, the way it always made himself wind up tight at the center as he listened to Steve speak.

He would miss this. Each step he took toward the war front felt impossible, felt like someone ought to stop him before he put his foot down every time – but he kept stepping forward, and nobody tried to intervene, and it really did look like he was going to ship out, now. The many close calls in basic training didn’t seem to amount to much anymore. The telegram with his orders was sitting on top of his dresser in the bedroom, he knew where he had to go and when, and what he had to do when he got there. The path was laid out clearly at his feet.

Steve read to Bucky steadily. He was getting more and more animated as the chapter progressed, but Bucky wasn’t paying attention to the plot whatsoever, all he cared about was Steve. Steve’s voice and gestures, hand a waving banner in the air between them. The curl of Steve’s lips, turned up in a half-smile that Bucky knew like the back of his hand. He’d recognize that smile in a lineup instantly. He’d recognize that smile in pitch dark.

Bucky watched Steve’s mouth as he read from the novel in his lap and hoped to God that if he died out there in France or Germany or wherever-the-hell else they sent him, that Steve would know he was – that they were – that he’d always –

But he couldn’t finish that thought, not even in the safety of his own head, so he didn’t try. Just felt the warmness of Steve’s lovely voice fill him up, all the way to the brim, until it would spill over and paint the room in shades of gold.

 


 

The girls really didn’t stick around too long into the double date, which Bucky figured was fair enough. He and Steve had fun anyway, sharing disbelieving glances when Howard Stark’s flying car shorted out in the middle of the demo and came crashing down onto the stage, swapping a little bag of peanuts back and forth until it was empty. Steve’s date had turned up her nose at it, but Bucky didn’t mind the accidental brush of Steve’s fingertips against his own, and he liked grinning at Steve’s exasperated look when he shoved a handful into his mouth. He’d take what little contact he could get before he had to leave, anyway. As if he could soak up touch to ration it out for later when he’d need it. 

“Probably shouldn’t get you drunk before tomorrow, huh?” Steve asked, nudging Bucky’s side with his elbow as they passed the booth selling drinks.

Bucky rubbed his thumb over his eyebrow. “Well, if you’re bein’ responsible.”

Steve snorted. “I’m always responsible,” he said. “That’s why your Ma thought I’d make a good husband.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Bucky shoved his hands in his pockets. “My Ma thought a lotta things.” Steve’s expression turned apologetic, so Bucky didn’t meet his eyes. Instead, he jerked his chin at the pop-up recruitment center, mouth twisting. “You wanna give it one last go? Steve Rogers from New Jersey this time?”

Steve’s shoulders hunched, just slightly. “I ain’t gonna stoop that low, Buck.”

“News to me.” Bucky elbowed him gently, trying to make Steve’s face stop wearing that pinched expression he hated the most. “Hey. You did your due diligence. You don’t gotta try again.”

Steve paused in front of the door, eyes briefly haunted. Then he glanced back at Bucky. “You should find a gal to dance with before you ship out. Ain’t gonna be any women for you to charm once you get there.”

The sting of dismissal made Bucky swallow, once, then twice. “Will I see you back at the apartment?” he asked after a moment.

“Depends,” Steve said. He raked his hair out of his eyes. “You gonna spend the night in your bed?”

Bucky’s face contorted, then he looked away. “Jeez,” he muttered. “Next time I poke on a bruise by accident, just say so.”

Steve ducked his head. “...Sorry.”

“Don’t get yourself arrested,” Bucky said, about to turn away, but he reached back at the last second and ruffled Steve’s hair before he disappeared into the crowd, leaving him to it.

 


 

Bucky woke up halfway when Steve entered the bedroom late that night, falling into his bed with a sigh. Bucky closed his eyes more tightly and kept his breaths even, sinking quickly back into a deeper sleep now that he had Steve at his back.

 


 

Steve didn’t volunteer how the latest attempt at enlisting had gone, so Bucky assumed it was more of the same and didn’t bring it up. They were busy getting Bucky ready to leave, anyway, and studiously not talking about so many things already that it was no trouble to add one more to the list. Steve’s eyes kept getting wild when he looked Bucky over, red-rimmed and raw, and Bucky had no idea what to do to make it better.

So he kept cracking bad jokes, buttoning up his uniform and straightening his tie, allowing Steve to fuss with his shirt collar before he put his hat on.

“Write to me,” Steve said, voice rough. “I mean it this time. I got one four-line note when you were in basic.”

“I will,” Bucky promised guiltily. “I’m sorry. I meant to write more, I just –”

“I know,” Steve interrupted. “It’s okay. I’m just gonna assume you’re dead if you don’t send me one a month, is the thing.”

He was trying to joke, but it fell very flat, and Bucky had to touch him. He had to. He curled his hand around the side of Steve’s jaw, stroking his thumb over it, catching on the juncture where the joint met his skull. Steve exhaled loudly through his nose. 

“I will,” Bucky said again.

Steve worried his lower lip between his teeth. “You might get my replies from a different address.”

Bucky blinked. “What?”

“Just, so you know,” Steve said, flustered. “Don’t worry about it. Forget I said anything.”

“Weirdo,” Bucky said, and thwacked the side of Steve’s head lightly.  “You’re freaking me out. Don’t get weird on me now, Rogers.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve said. “Forget it. Go learn how to shoot.”

“I’ll have you know I’m a great shot,” Bucky replied, grabbing the last piece of his uniform. “I’m a very impressive soldier.”

“Glad you’re feelin’ confident,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest. He couldn’t have kept the earnestness out of his smile, though, and Bucky found himself smiling back before he could think about it, striding over to gather Steve up in his arms one last time. 

He’d walked away from Steve many times in his life, splitting up for different high school classes, leaving him every Friday night to go to shul, throwing his hands up in the air and taking a breather every time Steve drove him particularly nuts. It had never been this difficult to turn his back on him, not once, because he’d never before had reason to doubt that they would be drawn together again. Like magnets. Like the tide to the shore.

Bucky clutched Steve close to his chest and pressed his face into his hair.

“Don’t win the war ‘til I get there,” Steve said, voice muffled by Bucky’s shoulder.

“I’ll win it in a week and be home in time for supper,” Bucky replied. The lie sat heavy on his tongue.

Chapter Text

Gabe Jones had tired eyes and a quiet sensibility about him, which made him invaluable in the field while he and Bucky were surrounded by a bunch of nervous chatterboxes. The two of them crowded together by the campfire more often than not, shoulders nudging together, half from the cold and half from a desire to keep the others at bay – Bucky supposed they both had reason to hang onto their distrust of the other soldiers. 

Not that anybody had enough energy to harass them, though. Their whole unit moved like sleepwalkers when not in combat.

“Who’s the letter for?” Gabe asked one evening, while Bucky took a quieter moment to make good on his promise to Steve. “Girl back home?”

Bucky snorted softly. He could perfectly imagine Steve’s face if he’d heard that question. “Naw. Best pal.”

Gabe nodded thoughtfully. “Where’s he stationed?”

“Ain’t.” Bucky scratched out a more concerning line about the weather conditions, not wanting to make Steve worry. What could Steve do about the fact that Bucky’s gloves were already worn through? Better to let his shaky hand do the talking for him and not give specifics. “Little bastard’s got asthma.”

Gabe’s glanced over at Steve’s letter, taking the envelope it had come in to study it. His brow creased. “Why’s the return address on his envelope from Lehigh, then?”

Bucky blinked. He grabbed the envelope back and narrowed his eyes at it, remembering Steve’s odd my replies might come from a different address when they were saying goodbye. What the hell did that mean, anyway? “Dunno,” Bucky said. “It’s meant to be comin’ from Brooklyn.”

“‘S probably nothin’,” Gabe said, gently kicking Bucky’s boot. “Finish up your love letter, we gotta get moving soon.”

Bucky nodded, bending over his letter once again, and wrapped up his thoughts so he could sign the page and date it. He doodled a stick figure warming its stick-arms over a fire, then added a speech bubble that read: warm me up! in big letters. He folded the paper in thirds to shove it in his breast pocket, rising to his feet with a sigh to follow Gabe to where they were handing out rations. He’d mail it later. Once he’d puzzled over the weird return address on Steve’s envelope and figured out what the hell was going on.

“He must be some pal,” Gabe remarked while he and Bucky stood in line. “Writin’ you four pages double-sided.”

“He’s long-winded,” Bucky replied, but the fondness hung heavy in his voice, blooming in an open flower in the center of his chest. “Always had a lot to say.”

One corner of Gabe’s mouth lifted. “I can tell.”

“We’re basically brothers,” Bucky added, which made Gabe’s smile grow slightly more amused.

“I gotcha,” he said, and the knowing look on his face made Bucky think that he probably did.

 


 

Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan complained like nobody else, but he was a hell of a shot, and unafraid to say so. Gabe liked him on impact, essentially, but it took Bucky two days and a real conversation before he warmed up to him, and by that time the rest of the company had more or less unified in their disgust. That just made Bucky like him more. His big arms and booming laugh made the moments between the violence that little bit more restful, his shoulders blotting out the shape of the other men behind him. Bucky was more than content to hide behind him in the moments when he was the least concerned about being a coward.

If Gabe knew what Bucky was, he didn’t say anything. Bucky thought he probably didn’t, but who could tell, with him? All he knew was that Dum Dum surely didn’t, because Dum Dum was the kind of loudmouth who’d have blurted it out the second he suspected something. 

This made Bucky anxious for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that getting through basic training was one thing, but the guys he was with now were actually getting to know him this time. He’d need someone in his corner if he wanted to keep the status quo, keep his secret, keep himself from getting kicked out of the army and sent back to Brooklyn. 

Dum Dum filled Bucky’s tin cup with coffee and clapped him on the back, hand coming up to ruffle Bucky’s hair before it retreated. Bucky’s crew cut had grown out some, enough that it reminded him of how Steve would touch him back home when Dum Dum thumbed a lock of hair off his forehead. He took the coffee. Curled cold fingers around it, breathing into the steam, and flicked his eyes up at Dum Dum, who was cleaning his rifle. Gabe had gone to report to their CO, so it was just the two of them, Bucky with his coat collar popped up and Dum Dum with his hands working methodically, disassembled rifle bits spread out on a cloth over his knees.

“We’re pals, ain’t we?” Bucky asked softly.

Dum Dum’s brows shot up. He slid a sideways glance toward Bucky. “Sure, we’re pals, Barnes. You gonna get mushy on me?”

“Don’t make it weird, Tim,” Bucky shot back, watching Dum Dum’s mustache twitch when he smiled. “There’s just something I gotta tell you, that’s all.”

Dum Dum sighed deeply. He glanced around himself, left and then right, then scooted a couple inches over so his knee pressed into Bucky’s. “Gabe already said,” he told him, voice lowering. “So don’t sweat it, alright?”

Bucky’s heart dropped all the way to his shoes. “Gabe already said? What did he say?” he demanded.

Dum Dum’s expression grew confused. “That you lied on your forms? Said you’re older than you are?”

Bucky groaned aloud, letting his head fall down into the cup of his palm. “Dum Dum, I’m twenty-two.”

“Bullshit,” Dum Dum replied, reaching out, sliding his hand down Bucky’s cheek. “Not a hair on your face, kid. You’re, what, sixteen? Fifteen?”

“I’m twenty-two,” Bucky repeated, steely. “I just ain’t the same kinda man you are.”

Dum Dum blinked. “Come again?”

“My forms don’t say I’m a man at all.” Bucky stayed bent over, leaning forward, forearms on his bent knees. “You get what I’m saying?”

Dum Dum’s mouth hung open. “You mean you’re a –?”

“Man,” Bucky interrupted. “I’m a man. I just ain’t like you, that’s all.”

Dum Dum seemed to take a moment to chew all this over. That was alright, Bucky could weather through, although the nauseous slide from second to second made his heart feel bad in his chest. Sick, he was sick at the core, and he fumbled for his cigarettes while Dum Dum sat there dumbly with his jaw still dropped.

“Well,” Dum Dum said eventually. “You’re gonna need some backup out here.”

Bucky forced his shaky hands to coax a flame from his lighter. “Don’t I know it.”

Dum Dum took the lighter out of Bucky’s hand and lit his cigarette for him, his big hands much seadier as he cupped around the thin flame. “You took a big risk, tellin’ me that. I could go right to our CO.”

“I’d shoot you if you did,” Bucky said mildly.

Dum Dum’s smile was big and real as he ruffled Bucky’s hair once more. “Attaboy,” he said, and Bucky found that he was no longer worried whatsoever.

 


 

Bucky, Gabe, and Dum Dum slept in turns. They did it sitting up, leaning on each other, Bucky between the other two, their shoulders all pressed together like a wall on either side of him.

“Your shift, Barnes,” Gabe murmured, rousing Bucky.

Bucky stretched as best he could without jostling Dum Dum. “Alright.”

Gabe was silent for a long moment, then rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Did I say the wrong thing to Dugan?” he asked. His eyes were bright in the dark, moonlight sketching out the vague shape of him. “He was askin’ questions. I just said you were young.”

Bucky didn’t move, not even when Dum Dum’s head lolled further onto his shoulder. “Naw. You said the right thing,” he murmured back. “But I, y’know. Corrected him. Set ‘im straight.”

Gabe sighed deeply as he leaned back against the dirt wall behind them. “I hoped he’d be cool. I’m glad.” He put his hand over his eyes, wiping it all the way down his face before he folded it neatly in his lap.

“How long did you know?” Bucky picked at a loose seam of his trousers. “The whole time?”

“Got some friends back home like you,” Gabe said. He knocked his boot into Bucky’s. “Guess you rang some bells. Sorry.”

Bucky huffed a laugh. “Saves me the trouble tryin’ to explain it,” he said, knocking Gabe’s boot right back. “Thanks, Gabe.”

“I gotcha.” Gabe punched his knapsack a couple times until it was more pillow-shaped. “Now watch my back so I can catch a couple z’s between Dugan’s snores.”

Bucky touched his fingertips to his mouth and found that he was smiling. “You got it,” he whispered into the dark.

 


 

“More ammo!” Bucky hollered. Rain battered down, plastering his hair to his forehead, penetrating his wool coat to soak him through. He’d never known rain this violent, and he knew his aim was suffering hard for having to squint through the sheets falling down. Someone handed him another clip. Bucky slammed it into place and rolled onto his belly again, swiping water off his face with the back of his hand before he adjusted his rifle. 

He fired three shots, and even deafened by the rain, he could see a faint shadow in front of him collapse. He spit water out the side of his mouth, then a little blood. He kept firing. People kept handing him ammunition. It was easier than he expected to sink into the routine of it, the ritual of aim, fire, reload; eventually he didn’t even notice the rain hammering the nape of his neck, timing his breaths to exhale directly preceding every time he pulled the trigger. 

The shriek of wind in his ears got louder as the storm picked up. Bucky dug his knees deeper into the mud, anchoring himself, panting out breath that fogged in front of his lips before it was snatched away. He could feel the presence of his company at his sides, all of them doing the same, elbows and knees and bellies sinking into the muck as they fought to keep their guns level and their eyes clear.

A flash of lightning sliced the sky, the heavens baring their teeth the same way Bucky did. It lit up the enemy with one thin snarl of light, which Bucky took advantage of with an open panting mouth and shoulders braced for the recoil.

 


 

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Bucky asked his CO, a stern man with a set mouth named Sergeant Jackson. Bucky kept his hands clasped behind his back, shoulders set, trying to appear professional even though he was covered in mud and a shock of red blood over one side of his jaw where it had splashed in combat. It wasn’t his blood. Bucky was trying not to think about it.

“PFC Barnes,” Sgt. Jackson said, putting his clasped hands on his desk. “You performed admirably today.”

Bucky didn’t know what to expect next. There seemed to be a but at the end of that statement, and he braced himself for it, whatever it was. “Thank you, sir,” he said quietly.

Sgt. Jackson shuffled papers on his desk, glancing toward the tent flap with an expression that Bucky couldn’t place. Jackson jerked his chin once, and another private pulled back the flap to let a woman into the room, a woman who was dressed in army greens of her own.

“Barnes, I presume,” she announced with a crisp English accent.

“Ma’am,” Bucky answered, swallowing his surprise.

“I prefer sir.” Her painted lips curled into a smile that made Bucky’s own mouth twitch slightly. “Sergeant, you may leave the room now.”

A brief flash of murder crossed Sgt. Jackson’s face, but he rose from his desk anyway, stiff-backed with dismissal. Curiosity bit into Bucky hard enough to leave marks – since when did a dame outrank a Sergeant?

“My name is Agent Margaret Carter,” she told him, crossing to the Sergeant’s desk, where she shuffled through his papers until she came up with a particular page that she squinted at. “You may refer to me as Agent Carter, or simply Agent. Understood?”

Bucky caught the yes, ma’am before it crossed his lips and gave her a quiet, “Yes, sir,” instead. She shot him a sideways glance that was deeply amused before she went back to perusing the page. Bucky saw his name at the top and breathed through the anxiety that trickled down his throat into his heart. 

“You received no training before basic, is that correct?” Agent Carter asked.

“No, sir,” Bucky said. 

Carter leaned back against the desk and tapped her painted nails against the top. “Are you aware that your accuracy in the field is that of a marksman?”

Bucky blinked. “No fuckin’ way,” he said, then remembered who he was talking to. “Uh. ‘Scuse me, sir.”

Carter snorted. “By all means, speak freely.”

“I didn’t know how to hold a gun until basic,” Bucky protested. “I’m no marksman.”

“Your Sergeant’s observations say otherwise,” Carter said. “As do my own.”

She’d been watching him in the field, huh. Bucky didn’t know how he felt about that, really, but he supposed it didn’t matter much what he thought. He worried the inside of his cheek between his teeth. “What do you want from me, sir?” he asked.

“I want you to agree to a brief transfer where I can give you proper training,” Carter said smoothly. Her eyes were on fire. “And a damn quick promotion, if you’re clever about it.”

Bucky had been trying to avoid attention for so long that he hadn’t even allowed himself the luxury of imagining a promotion this soon, if ever. He licked his lips. “A promotion to what?”

Carter tilted her head slightly to the side. She was in trousers, just like Bucky was, and he had a brief flash of connection – a same-ness, an is she like me that made his hands tremor behind his back where they were clasped in parade rest. Something hovered in the back of her eyes that Bucky thought maybe was the same feeling, a familiarity, the kind that always comes with respect.

“If I have my way,” Carter said, voice quieting without softening any. “You’ll exit my oversight a Sergeant of your own.”

Bucky was no stranger to field promotions, or jumping up rungs of the ladder that usually ought to be climbed slowly. But this was insane. “...What kinda off-color mission are you runnin’?” he asked cautiously.

“Smart boy,” Carter said, approving. “What do you know of Hydra?”

 


 

Bucky took the offer. He also recommended two friends when Carter asked him if he knew any other men whose skill he trusted, and she took down their names with a steady hand. The list was longer than just Bucky, Gabe, and Dum Dum, though, and Bucky wondered what the hell she was planning. He’d heard the bare bones of her mission, something about technology and information retrieval in the middle of Italy, but he still wasn’t clear why she chose him of all people. His supposed good aim aside.

Sgt. Jackson wore a sour face as Dum Dum, Gabe and Bucky packed up their things to follow Carter onto her helicopter. Bucky didn’t mind making him swallow this particular lemon, though, and hefted his bag onto his shoulder with a lighter step than he’d had since he’d walked onto the war front, despite his misgivings.

Most of the other men on Carter’s list were already waiting for them back at base. She’d been recruiting for a while, apparently. 

They grabbed their ear protection and buckled tight, Bucky and the other two, as well as a Japanese man who introduced himself as Jim Morita and sized Dum Dum up the second they lay eyes on each other. They held eye contact for a lingering moment, and Bucky was about to open his mouth to break the silence when Dum Dum beat him to it.

“We’re recruiting just about anybody, is that it?” he asked, eyebrows reaching toward his bowler hat.

“I’m from Fresno, ace,” Jim said flatly. “D’ya have a problem with California?”

Dum Dum blinked. “Not on principle,” he answered.

“Then shut your trap.” With that, Jim seemed satisfied and leaned back in his seat, putting his ear protection on with a sense of finality.

Dum Dum kept blinking. But Bucky thought it was with more respect now.

The helicopter took off and Bucky clutched at the seat beneath him, thinking, as he always did when his life went sideways, of Steve. What he wouldn’t give for Steve at his side with those sharp blue eyes of his just as wide as Bucky’s own. Gabe wasn’t a bad substitute, though, and Bucky didn’t exactly lean into him, but when their knees nudged together, he made no effort to pull away. Gabe gave him a small smile, shrugging in a wordless ain’t this crazy? gesture that Bucky returned helplessly.

The wind whistled past them, a hundred ghosts pulling at the helicopter as it tore through the sky with their new destination on the horizon. Bucky still had French dirt under his fingernails, tired eyes, and a heart heavy with possibility. As soon as they got where they were going, he was going to sit down and try to pen all this down to Steve, even though he didn’t know how on Earth to describe what he was feeling. Or what it did to him that he was doing this without him.

Steve would get a kick out of hearing about Agent Carter, at least, that was for sure. Bucky watched the back of her head as she turned to say something to the pilot, an earring glinting in the dim light after she tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. Bucky remembered wearing his hair long like that, remembered Steve tucking it out of his face with that stupid smile of his, saying C’mon, lemme see ya, there’s that dumb face I’m lookin’ for.

Bucky missed him so bad he had to approach the missing at an angle in his head, so it wouldn’t overwhelm him. He couldn’t look at it dead-on. He rubbed the heel of his hand over his sternum, breathing through the ache.

 


 

Turned out Bucky’s aim only got better when he was allowed to request a left-handed rifle. The expression on Agent Carter’s face when he told her that he’d been making do with a standard-issue right-handed one this whole time made Bucky bite his tongue not to laugh – her eye twitched, and the note she made on her clipboard was very decisive.

“Mr. Barnes, you are an enigma,” she said, handing off the clipboard to a harried-looking private behind her. 

Bucky didn’t much mind being an enigma, frankly.

The other guys were a unique pair as well. Jacques Dernier and Monty Falsworth joined them from France and England respectively, and after the brief awkwardness of their introduction, they slid into place like they’d been there the entire time. 

Dernier didn’t talk much, and when he did, it was a muttered word or two in French to Gabe, who Bucky was pretty sure wasn’t translating the full extent to which Dernier was funny, if their private giggles were anything to go by. Dernier was also terrifyingly good at arming and disarming bombs. He did so with a glee that Bucky would’ve found alarming if they weren’t on the same side.

Falsworth was dryly sarcastic and chirped the group immediately about how many guys named James they had on their team. Bucky thought it was best not to mention that he’d chosen James because it was so common – why would he decide to stand out more in one the few areas completely under his control? – and blandly offered Falsworth a cigarette, which he took with an equally mild “Ta, James,” and a wink.

During the day, they trained. Ran drills. Practiced maneuvers. Bucky got his left-handed rifle and refused to let it go for a couple solid hours, feeling its weight in his hands, the way the grips fit just right when he curled his fingers around them. Dum Dum clapped him on the back and whistled real low, saying, “What’re you gonna name it? Beauty like her oughta have a name.”

“What’s the point of makin’ my gun a girl?” Bucky shot back, and dug out a pocket knife so he could etch Stevie onto the butt in the best cursive he could manage.

Carter had complicated target practice set up for them, so Bucky threw himself into it with a dedication that bordered on obscene. It would have felt just like basic all over again, except for the fact that Bucky was surrounded by men he trusted this time, men he liked, who all called him Bucky with the sweet weight that a name has in the mouth of somebody glad to be saying it.

During the evenings, they collapsed in their bunks in the barracks waiting for them, two or three men to a bed while they all crowded around an oil lamp and told loud, raucous stories followed by equally boisterous laughter. Dernier produced a harmonica when egged on and played campfire songs and sea shanties, many of which none of the others knew, so they made up their own words that inevitably got dirtier as they went. Everyone was delighted to discover that Dum Dum had the prettiest, most crystal-clear high tenor voice any of them had ever heard.

Then they’d go to bed and Dum Dum and Gabe would flank Bucky’s bunk, allowing him to take off his binder for a full eight hours every night before he had to get up again. He overheard Dum Dum give a stern instruction to Dernier, Falsworth, and Morita not to bother Bucky before he was dressed in the mornings, and the gesture made Bucky lie in his bunk with his hands over his mouth for several minutes, heart on fire in his chest.

This was their lives for the proceeding weeks. Training, practicing, unifying. Bucky, the marksman; Dernier, explosives; Dum Dum, vehicles; Gabe, medic; Morita, hand to hand; Falsworth, communications and logistics – all of them chosen for their specific skill, cobbled together by Agent Carter with her shrewd gaze and long hours.

Bucky wondered absently, as he packed away his rifle at the end of a long day, who he was turning into.

 


 

“You will be deep enough into enemy territory that I cannot send reinforcements after you,” Carter told them, her shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, a large map on the table in front of them. Both her hands were braced on it, fingers splayed wide. “Your goal is to get in, obtain intel, and get out again. Are we clear? Do not engage unless absolutely necessary.”

“Sir,” Bucky said, raising a hand. “Are we really your first choice for ‘covert’?”

Her expression was very dry. “I believe you can manage it, yes.”

“It’s just that we’re sometimes more loud than we are quiet,” Bucky added. “Sir.”

“What are you, the howling commandos?” Carter replied, exasperated. “Keep your damn voices down and don’t make a racket, do your job.”

Dum Dum snorted. Dernier and Gabe shared a speculative look, and Bucky knew with a sinking feeling that the name wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“Here’s where we believe the base is located,” Carter said, smoothly skating over the snickers around the table. She pointed to a set of coordinates on the map circled in red. “The intelligence I’ve acquired suggests that it is barely operational, only maintained by a skeleton crew. Get in there and bring me back some information I can take to my superiors, boys.”

“You have superiors?” Dum Dum asked, chin in his hand. “And here I thought you were God.”

“That attitude will get you very far in life,” Carter replied, her smile sharp enough to be predatory.

 


 

Gabe and Dum Dum sat in the front seats of the armored transport after a brief good-natured argument over who got the wheel. The rest of them piled into the back rows, Bucky and the others, jammed up like sardines in their crisp new uniforms provided by Agent Carter. Bucky had his rifle at his feet, held between his knees. The name Stevie pressed against the insole of his boot.

“Who’s Stevie?” Morita asked curiously.

“Dumb pal of mine from home,” Bucky sighed. “We grew up together.”

“Don’t get him started,” Gabe announced from the front. “On Steve.”

“Hey!”

“It’s true,” Dum Dum agreed. He turned around in the passenger seat enough to shoot Bucky a toothy grin. “Got any letters recently?”

Bucky shook his head. He hadn’t in a while, actually, and was trying not to think about what Steve was up to that would prevent him from writing back. He was all too conscious of how many fights Steve got into when Bucky was there to back him up – how much worse was it now that he was on his own? If he managed to stay out of the hospital, Bucky would bake him a damn cake when he made it home.

If. If he made it home.

“I got some mail,” Morita offered, putting Bucky out of his misery, and grabbed a rolled up magazine out of his knapsack. “My sister sent it to me – it’s so fuckin’ stupid, look –”

Captain America! the cover announced in cheerful block lettering above the figure’s very blond head. Buy War Bonds and Support Our Heroes!

“Heavens above,” Falsworth murmured, blinking as he snatched it delicately from Morita’s hand. “If this man told me to buy war bonds I believe I would kick him.”

“Actual goddamn tights,” Bucky marveled, halfway between disbelief and disgust. “Where are my tights, huh? Think they come outta Agent Carter’s budget?”

“Draw a mustache on him,” Gabe suggested, so Morita did.

Bucky looked at the curve of Captain America’s bashful smile and tongued over the edge of his lower teeth.

 


 

“Binoculars,” Bucky muttered. Falsworth handed them to him. Bucky raised them up to his eyes and watched the dim shapes of Dum Dum and Morita’s backs as they crept down the hillside, toward the shape of the base in the near distance. Bucky found that he didn’t like to be separated, even with the others in his line of sight, but there wasn’t anything to be done about that. He watched Dum Dum approach the edge of the chain link fence, handing Falsworth back his binoculars as he shifted where he was lying on his belly to peer through his rifle scope instead. Something morbid, perhaps, in staring his friends down through his crosshairs, but it kept him posed to jump to their defence. To guard their six.

“Didn’t Carter say this base is largely inoperational?” Falsworth murmured. He adjusted the binoculars, zooming in.

Bucky made an agreeing noise, watching Dum Dum gesture to Morita and Dernier, waving them in.

“Then why are there twelve covered vans behind those trees, there?”

Bucky immediately grabbed for the binoculars again, aiming them toward the treeline Falsworth was staring down. His stomach dropped. “Shit,” he breathed.

Two shots shattered the silence, then a flock of birds took off from the trees with a clamor. Dum Dum’s voice yelled and cut off suddenly, and Bucky aimed the binoculars toward his friends just in time to watch five Hydra agents dressed in black to shoot Dernier in the stomach with a blast of blue light that sent him to his knees, and then toppled backward. Dum Dum’s body was already being cuffed and dragged inside, Dernier next, and Morita only barely managed to wrestle an agent to the ground before he got pistol-whipped on the back of the head. He dropped like a stone.

Bucky looked at Falsworth. Falsworth looked back at him. Gabe was still in the car, ready to be their getaway, or the cavalry if everything went tits up. This plan may have worked if the base were only operated by a skeleton crew like Carter had thought.

“We have to,” Bucky said.

“I know,” Falsworth said.

They rose from their positions like they were moving through water, somehow both weighed down and completely weightless, racing down the hill toward their friends with their hearts in their throats. Bucky missed a step and stumbled, but Falsworth caught him and hauled him forward. 

Falsworth was yelling as he threw himself at a Hydra agent, tackling him with a grunt and a knife to the ribs. Bucky fired once, twice, three times, sending two agents to the ground with gut-noises of pain. Someone knocked his rifle out of his hand, so he grabbed for his pistol and used that instead.

It was a losing fight. He knew it was a losing fight. But he wasn’t going to abandon Dum Dum and Morita and Dernier just because he knew he couldn’t win – even though he knew with equal certainty that his friends would not thank him for throwing himself directly into the fire after them. The very first mission and the Howling Commandos stepped on the goddamn banana peel. But they would be doing it together. What was the likelihood of them escaping, anyway, now that some of them had been spotted? He spared a last wish for Gabe to get the hell out of there and report back to Agent Carter, but not a particularly hopeful one.

I’m sorry, Steve, Bucky thought, as Hydra Nazis grabbed him by the arms and dragged him bodily through the doors. He was hit on the back of the head by something hard, making him go cross-eyed, sound blurring out into a fuzz of white noise ringing in his ears. I’m sorry

Then he was struck again and he didn’t think about anything at all.

Chapter Text

They weren’t the only men in captivity. The facility was mostly underground with at least six floors that Bucky had counted, although he and the other Commandos were all fairly sure there were more they hadn’t been allowed to see. They were the only prisoners on their floor, in any case, but they heard the sounds of people pacing their cells in the floors above and below them. Muffled yells when they were torn down the hall to the medical rooms, a reminder of what they were in for later in multiple languages. 

“We’ll stand in front of you,” Dum Dum told Bucky, voice low, a hand tight on Bucky’s shoulder. “Make ‘em take us first, alright?”

“I can take it,” Bucky hissed back. “What, am I supposed to just let ‘em fuck you up? Let ‘em do to you what they did to Monty?”

Falsworth looked away, crossing his arms over his middle.

“Barnes,” Dum Dum said. “They’ll do stuff to you they won’t do to us.” He said it flatly, plainly, and Bucky knew he was right. His body knew it too, giving an awful, wracking shiver. “Shit,” Dum Dum sighed, rubbing up and down Bucky’s arm with the tender kind of briskness that men have when they aren’t used to comforting.

“What am I missing?” Morita demanded. “What’s wrong with Barnes?”

“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Dum Dum snapped.

Morita’s brows arched. Falsworth and Dernier shared a bewildered glance, the concern on Gabe’s face only adding to the mortification that bloomed in the center of Bucky’s chest. He tightened his jacket again with a shudder, face burning hot, and shook his head.

“Monty came back shirtless,” Bucky whispered.

Dum Dum’s face contorted briefly before resettling. “I know.”

What else was there to say? Bucky looked at the cement floor until the wave of mortification had passed and he could grit his teeth, work his jaw around his shame and meet his team’s eyes. “We’re prisoners of war,” he said evenly. “So far they haven’t broken the rules much.”

“Well.” Falsworth murmured. “Not much.”

None of them had asked specifics on what they’d done to him, but the marks they’d left and the way he’d clammed up afterward said enough. Dernier touched the center of Falsworth’s back once, which made Falsworth’s whole body just barely lean into him.

“It’ll be fine, kid,” Dum Dum said. 

“I’m twenty-two,” Bucky tried, dredging up a smile at the old exchange, the miserable twist of it strengthening slightly when Dum Dum ruffled his hair in the palm of one big hand.

 


 

In the end, it didn’t matter who stood in front of him. Hydra still knew he was there, and they took him in turn, despite Dum Dum throwing a punch at the guard and getting a baton to the stomach for his efforts. And in the end, Bucky returned to their cell shirtless and hoarse from screaming just like Falsworth, but at least Gabe was there to catch him up in his jacket when he toppled through the cell door. He wrapped it around him, bundling him to the cot in the corner of the room where Bucky sank down gratefully, knees weak as jelly.

“Did you guys get the little fuck of a scientist?” Bucky rasped, holding his jacket closed around his horrible chest. “The fucking – the ferret bastard.”

“Dr. Zola,” Gabe said. “That’s what his assistant called him.”

“Wish they’d just put us to work already,” Morita muttered, turning away from Bucky to squint out through the cell bars. “Don’t get the point of these tests.” Bucky glanced around – the only one trying to make eye contact was Gabe, all the others were avoiding directing their faces toward him, toward his poorly-concealed nakedness. He swallowed, feeling the thickness of his tongue in his mouth. The taste of his horror filled his throat and did not stop filling it.

“Barnes,” Dum Dum said. He still wasn’t looking at him, and his whole body was stiff. “Did they... what did they...”

“They kept my pants on,” Bucky said tiredly. “You can relax.”

Dum Dum scrubbed both hands over his face with a soft groan. The whole cell seemed to relax a fraction, and Gabe sat down hard next to him on the cot with a sigh. Dernier spat a curse in French, a filthy-sounding word. Bucky may not have understood it, but he knew he agreed.

 


 

No one mentioned the softness of Bucky’s chest. They just made sure to cover Bucky back up as soon as he was with them again, touch as hesitant and respectful as they could make it.

No one mentioned, either, that Dr. Zola called for the guards to collect Bucky more frequently than he did the others, because the thought was too terrible to say aloud. They all knew why, anyway. There was no need to confirm it between each other.

 


 

Bucky thought of his apartment with Steve. He traced over every corner of it with his mind’s eye, every dusty nook, every milk-crate coffee table edge. He’d always been good at getting lost in his own head, so he used it to his advantage now, sinking into the layers of his memory that lay on him thick as paint. Steve’s tiny hands with the long fingers, disappearing inside both of Bucky’s own. The way Steve’s nose wrinkled every time he watched it happen. There weren’t many men that Bucky was larger than, and he was only a couple inches taller than Steve, for whatever little it was worth. His hands on Steve’s hands made him feel powerful. Made him feel real.

And Steve let him feel this realness, let Bucky put an arm around his shoulders, let him play-act as a big brother who’d appear right in time to rough up anybody who looked at him badly. As if Bucky had any power that Steve didn’t. As if they weren’t both disgusting in the same way. They were drawn together by the amount that they disgusted, repelling everyone but each other, their fragile masculinity cradled in each other’s palms.

Hydra kept hurting him. Dr. Zola shot his poison into the crease of Bucky’s elbow, his hungry, beady little eyes on the curvature of Bucky’s body.

“You are a fascinating creature, Barnes, James Buchanan,” he said in his thin nasal voice. He reached for the IV, twisting the knob at the hanging bag to up the dose. Bucky writhed and tried not to writhe, the burn of it tearing through his veins, every muscle he could control tensing. Every muscle he couldn’t control spasmed in turn. 

He didn’t want to pay attention to the sound of Dr. Zola’s voice, so he didn’t. He slipped back into his head. The burn shuddered through him again and again and Bucky thought only of Steve, Steve’s small hands. The cool dry press of Steve’s lips to his forehead when Steve thought he was sleeping, hand on Bucky’s shoulder, hand on Bucky’s hip when he passed him to get to the kitchen, hands, all hands – who was Bucky when he and Steve weren’t touching?

He imagined Steve touching him now. He replaced Zola and his assistant’s gloves on him with Steve’s, Steve touching his jaw, his throat, taking his pulse. Usually it was Bucky taking Steve’s pulse, making sure he was breathing after a bad coughing fit, feeling the beat-beat-beat of Steve’s pulse rapid-fire beneath his fingertips as fast as any machine gun. He suspected his own heart was doing a good imitation this time.

He burned. He ached. He thought of Steve. In his mind’s eye, Steve pet the hair back off his forehead and murmured, “You’re doin’ so good, pal. Just gotta hang on a little longer ‘til I can come getcha.”

It was a nice thought, Steve coming to get him. Bucky imagined Steve’s tiny body cutting through a whole line of Hydra agents just by the pure virtue of his incandescent rage, glowing bright as the sun behind him. David against Goliath, that was the Steve in Bucky’s fever dream, slingshot grasped tight in a fist smeared with charcoal up to the elbow. 

Bucky was deposited back in his cell after the day’s tests were complete, falling into Gabe’s arms with a body trembling from head to toe. The other men spoke to him, but Bucky didn’t listen. Their murmurs fell over him in a blanket of sound under which he slept.

 


 

“How long we been in here, d’you think?” Dum Dum asked.

Bucky was lucid enough this time to make a noncommittal sound, leaning back against the wall behind him. His eyes were closed. He had to try and get a little strength back before he was hauled out of the cell again. 

“A fortnight, perhaps,” Falsworth murmured.

“Un siècle,” Dernier muttered.

Two weeks in captivity. Carter really had been serious when she’d said she couldn’t send anybody after them – Bucky understood why, just the same as he understood that whoever gave her the bad intel she’d gotten would probably be castrated for his troubles. His mouth twitched. Small comforts.

“Dernier,” Bucky said. The little man across the cell from him startled a bit. 

“Oui?”

“You remember that song? The loud one Dum Dum dipped Carter to that time, way back.”

“You mean the time Carter kicked him in the shin hard enough to bruise for a week,” Morita corrected under his breath.

“You’re really gonna make him sing in here?” Gabe asked dubiously, skating right over Morita’s comment. “Don’t think the guards have much of a taste for music.”

Bucky heaved a sigh. “Fair enough.”

“Gabe, you are always saying, comment le dis tu –” Dernier said, waving a hand, voice thickly accented. “We must be raising morale.”

Gabe snorted. Bucky guessed the quote must have been fairly paraphrased. Gabe made a carry on then gesture, waving his hand expansively as he leaned back against the cell bars with the most real-looking smile Bucky had seen in a while. 

Dernier cleared his throat. The song came out tremulous at first, nervous, slicing the thin silence that permeated the room in a miasma of unease. But it grew bolder as it went, the chorus repeating despite the catch in his voice. Dum Dum joined in for the second verse. Falsworth too, arms wrapped around bent knees, and by the time the guards came down to bang on the cell bars with their batons and bellow “Shut up!”, the Commandos were all singing loud and raucous and almost like they meant it. 

They shut up as directed. Bucky glanced at Dernier, mouthing thank you when the guards turned their backs again. Dernier winked at him in return. 

 


 

Dr. Zola strapped him down to the table the next time Bucky was taken in. This isn’t promising, Bucky thought, and then a rubber teeth guard was shoved into his mouth, and he had more pressing things to think about. Retreating back into his head was more than a way to pass the time, it was self defense, like snatching his fingertips away from a hot pan on the stove. Zola’s instructions to his lab assistant swam through the air to him as if through water. Bucky choked on his tongue, choked on the teeth guard, choked on his own damn name when Zola asked him a question about his orders.

Then the needle was inserted in his arm again, and Bucky was gone. No one could touch him. No matter Zola’s fascination with Bucky’s terrible body, he couldn’t have his mind, not with Bucky clinging to it with both hands.

The burn came again, ripping through him once more. Bucky arched against his bonds, pain blooming bright in the center of his gut, and found himself grateful for the rubber in his mouth when he clenched down hard enough to nearly bite through it. At least Zola had the foresight to prevent Bucky from cracking his own teeth. 

The clock on the wall read 6:13pm through Bucky’s watering eyes. If he were in Brooklyn, Bucky would be laying his head in Steve’s lap right about then, just home from work. Steve would stroke careful fingers through Bucky’s hair, disturbing the Brylcreem Bucky combed into it every morning, and he would laugh dutifully at Bucky’s awful jokes. Then they would go to bed and Bucky would wish he was still laying with him, although he refused to articulate why, even just to himself. The thought was too dangerous. 

So – he rewound the thought. He went back to the moment just before, with Steve’s hand buried up to the knuckles in dark curls, the pad of Steve’s thumb set perfectly into the divut at the base of Bucky’s skull.

Distantly, he was aware of Zola snapping at his assistant, the two of them leaving the room. Bucky didn’t have the mental wherewithal to wonder why. He murmured his name and service number over and over, working on muscle memory, James Barnes, 107th, 32557038

“Bucky?” someone’s voice said, breaking on it a little, a gloved hand clapping to the side of Bucky’s throat.

Bucky blinked. A pale face came into focus, a curl of blond hair sticking out from beneath a helmet, lips parted in distress.

“Buck,” the voice said again, grabbing for the straps that bound him to the table. He ripped them open, hauling Bucky up to sitting, and there was only one man on earth who would handle Bucky with such reckless tenderness, easing the IV out of the crook of Bucky’s arm with the air of someone used to holding needles.

“Steve?” Bucky said faintly.

“Hey,” Steve said, touching Bucky’s face, his hair. “Hey, hey, there you are. I got you. I promise.”

“What the fuck,” Bucky croaked. Steve’s shoulders were broad and well-muscled. “You’re – what –”

“I’ll explain it all later,” Steve promised. “But we gotta get out now, we’re torching the base.”

Who’s we? Bucky wanted to know, but there was no time. Now that he was present in his body, he could hear a shrill alarm in the background, the shriek of it echoing through the stone hallways of the Hydra base.

“Can you stand?” Steve asked. Bucky nodded sharply.

Steve helped him to his feet – this strange, large Steve – and leaned him against the operating table so he could strip out of his jacket and put it on Bucky in one fluid motion. Bucky tried to do up the zipper with stupid clumsy fingers until Steve batted his hands out of the way and did it for him. Bucky just sat back and let him have at it, even though something manic and wild flared up in him to see Steve’s enormous hands on his body, big and strong and out of place beneath the face that Bucky knew better than he knew his own.

“Are you real?” Bucky mumbled, watching dumbly as Steve hauled one of Bucky’s arms over his shoulders as his own found a place around Bucky’s waist. “Did I dream you up?”

“If you did, keep dreaming,” Steve said.

Bucky could do that well enough. He clung to him.

 


 

The fight through the base was short but brutal. The Commandos joined forces with the other POWs they freed on their way out, rushing the gates, collecting vehicles and weaponry and whatever they could get their filthy hands on.

As for Bucky, he did what he did best. He stood on his two unsteady legs and followed Steve.

 


 

They couldn’t fit everyone in the stolen vehicles, so they all walked together, Steve and the Commandos and the rest of them. Steve led the way at the front and Bucky walked at his side, the space he’d taken up since they were knee-high; except this time Steve loomed a full seven inches taller than him, and his shoulders would blot out the whole sky if Bucky looked up at the right angle. Bucky could nearly disappear into nothing inside Steve’s jacket that he was still borrowing.

They walked until close to dawn. Many of the men began to falter as the adrenaline from the evening faded, so Steve made everyone stop and rest for a couple hours, setting up shifts to watch over everyone catching their breath.

“Are you tired?” Steve asked quietly, touching Bucky’s shoulder. “You’ve been keepin’ pace with me, I can walk slower.”

“I’m fine,” Bucky said. He was telling the truth. He could have honestly kept walking for hours more, it felt like. “Fucking starving, though.”

Steve made a sympathetic face. “Wish I could help ya there, pal. Hang tight, alright? I’m gonna circle around, see if anybody needs first aid.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. He sat where Steve put him. 

Gabe and Dum Dum were manning one of the tanks together, Falsworth was bringing up the rear alongside Dernier, and Jim was trying to fix a radio so they could potentially get a signal back to base. Bucky was alone, for the moment, back against the thick trunk of a tree. It was the first time he’d been alone in a while.

What had Steve done to get a completely different body? Bucky suddenly remembered reading Frankenstein in school and regretted not yanking down Steve’s shirt collar to see if there was a thin scar all the way around his neck. He touched his own neck, rubbing over the back of it, and consciously reminded himself to go through the motions of breathing, inhaling, exhaling. He didn’t know why it felt so much more difficult than usual.

Steve came back to him after twenty minutes, raking blond hair out of his eyes. Bucky patted the mossy ground next to him. Steve sat.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve said.

Bucky shot him a sidelong glance. “I thought you were smaller.”

“Yeah, about that...” Steve started, sounding apologetic. “I ran off and did something really stupid, Buck.”

“Can’t have been worse than lettin’ yourself get captured by Nazis,” Bucky pointed out. His head lolled back to rest against the tree, eyes drifting half shut.

Steve looked down at his crossed legs, the musculature of which stood out through his pants. “I don’t think ‘let’ is the right word there.”

Bucky wanted a cigarette so badly he could very nearly taste the smoke on the back of his tongue. “Call it what you want.”

They were quiet for a long moment, listening to the birds start to wake up in the branches above them, the hushed murmur of the other men’s voices in the dim light. Bucky put his hand on Steve’s leg, just above the knee. He squeezed. Steve’s breath catching was just barely audible.

“What the hell did they do to you,” he murmured, somewhere between awed and appalled. 

“Gave me a serum,” Steve murmured back. He took Bucky’s hand and clasped it tightly instead. “And gave New York a blackout, using all the energy it took to power the equipment.”

“I don’t suppose they’ve got any of that serum left,” Bucky joked weakly, eyeing the masculine cut of Steve’s jaw. If they gave that to him, would it – would he –

Steve shook his head, making a grief-face. The brief hope that bloomed in Bucky’s chest quietly died. This was as it should be, though – if any one man was meant to be shot up with God-potion and turned into whatever new thing was currently sitting next to him, Steve was the right call. It didn’t make the acid taste of jealous longing any less bitter on the back of his tongue, though.

“What were they doing to you back there?” Steve asked. “The stuff in the IV, that wasn’t... saline, was it.”

“I don’t know what it was.” All Bucky knew was that it hurt him so badly his limbs still ached. He rubbed his hands together to warm them, blowing hot air on cramping knuckles. “How did you know where to find me, anyway?”

Steve shrugged a shoulder. “Long story. Someone asked me if I was willing to disobey direct orders if it meant actually getting something to do, and, well.” He smiled tightly. “She happened to mention your name. Wasn’t a hard decision.”

Bucky’s stomach swooped. So Carter had gone back on her word and sent someone after them after all. The fact that Steve was her avenging angel of choice made him feel something that may have been the most intense irony of his life, or maybe relief, or possibly even nausea. He couldn’t decide.

“Besides,” Steve added. “They were havin’ me sing and dance, Buck. I needed to get outta there.”

Bucky’s eyes shot to the star in the middle of Steve’s shirt piece, white on dark blue. “Steve,” he started, realisation slowly dawning on him as he remembered Morita’s magazine. “Tell me you ain’t –”

“Captain America,” Steve finished for him, wincing. “Believe me. I know.”

This time the irony was too much for him. Once Bucky started laughing, he couldn’t stop. He laughed so hard he almost threw up. Steve rubbed his back, patting firmly when Bucky’s peals of laughter turned into coughs, and then into ragged inhalations that were close to sobs. It was a strange mirror image from how they were as children, Bucky grabbing Steve’s inhaler for him when his asthma hit, murmuring reminders of how to get himself to breathe properly. 

Steve crushed him close when Bucky didn’t stop making horrible noises. Bucky grabbed at him, got two fistfuls of blue costume material to clutch, and didn’t let go for a very long time.

 


 

“Let’s hear it for Captain America!” Bucky announced when they finally made it back, hollering it out loud and sure. “Put your fucking hands together!”

The cheers and whoops from all the men Steve had led back to base were loud to the point of deafening. Steve’s stupid bashful smile couldn’t have dimmed that sound no matter how much he tried to duck away from the attention, which Bucky kept directing at him, shoving it at him until Steve got the damn picture.

It was only once no one was looking at him that Bucky allowed his expression to sober.

 


 

“I’m fine,” Bucky bit out.

Agent Carter remained extremely unimpressed. “I find that rather difficult to believe, after being starved and tortured by Hydra Nazis for two weeks.”

“They fed us,” Bucky tried to protest.

“Go to medical,” Carter snapped. “It isn’t difficult. Bring me back a clean bill of health and I’ll believe you.”

Bucky clenched and unclenched his jaw. “I’m not fighting you because of my fragile fuckin’ ego,” he spat. “Sir.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow.

“They’ll send me home if they see me without my shirt on,” Bucky forced himself to say, avoiding looking at her directly. He’d had to tell so many people recently, and he wasn’t sure how Carter didn’t know. He felt most of the time that the smell of it clung to him, made him stink, made what he was obvious and repulsive. It startled him every time he managed to pull off his own masculinity.

Agent Carter was quiet, taking a moment of deliberate consideration. “Rogers’ mother was a nurse, is that correct?” she asked at last. Bucky nodded. “Very well. I’ll have him take a first aid tin to his tent and have him see to you.”

Bucky’s eyes snapped to her, very wide.

“I’ll also take the liberty of assigning you to his quarters, at least until we can get you boys back to civilization. He gave me the impression you two lived together before enlisting, so I assume he knows?” She retrieved her clipboard, making a couple decisive marks. She glanced up at him, gaze piercing, and all Bucky could do was nod again. “Dismissed, Barnes. Oh, and before I forget –”

Bucky paused in the middle of reaching for the tent flap. “Sir?”

Her grin was wolfish. “Congratulations on your promotion, Sergeant.”

 


 

Steve helped Bucky out of the leather jacket he’d kept zipped up since Steve gave it to him. He eased it down, laying it on one of the two cots. The bruised flesh Steve revealed was purple-green in some places, red and irritated in others, raised track marks up and down both inner arms. Steve had Bucky sit on the edge of one mattress and carefully rubbed antiseptic salve on whatever looked the most unhappy, keeping his touch light.

They had the tent to themselves. Captain America privilege, Bucky supposed.

“Was this rib broken?” Steve asked, fingertips probing the edge of a mottled area on Bucky’s side.

“Uh,” Bucky said. “Dunno. Maybe.”

“Huh.” Steve pushed a little harder, waiting until Bucky flinched away to stop. “Well, it isn’t broken now.”

Good enough for Bucky. He sat still for Steve’s attentions, letting him apply bandages to areas that strictly speaking probably didn’t require bandages, because he knew what a wreck he must look like. He knew this was just as much for Steve as it was for him; Steve, who had learned how to show he cared for people by watching his mother, whose caring had always been accompanied by hot tea with lemon or a tenderly applied band-aid, punctuated with a soft kiss to the afflicted area.

Steve didn’t kiss Bucky’s ribs when he was through with them. Bucky wondered why the hell he was disappointed.

“What am I gonna do about my compression shirt?” Bucky asked as Steve helped him pull an undershirt on over his head. He’d lost it in the scuffle at the Hydra base, same as the top half of his uniform. “Gonna be real fuckin’ obvious what I got goin’ on over here if I can’t pull something outta my ass.”

“We’ll pretend like we didn’t have any spare uniforms your size, for now,” Steve told him. “Put you in an extra baggy jacket. Carter told me she’s gonna send us back to London to regroup as soon as we get our shit together, we can find you something better there.”

The fact that Steve had already thought this through made Bucky feel something warm threaten to tie itself into a knot in the pit of his stomach. “Okay,” he said. Steve smiled.

 


 

At night, in the dark, Bucky lay sleepless on his cot across the tent from Steve. He stared up at the spot where the canvas flaps were joined together and counted the stitches, squinting. The familiarity of Steve’s light snores put him more at ease than he’d been since he’d left New York, but even that wasn’t enough to lull him down to sleep.

“Fuck it,” he muttered, and tossed the blanket off himself. Padding across the room to Steve’s bunk felt like being twelve years old again, terrified of a thunderstorm and stubbornly refusing to admit to his own terror, jostling Steve once he joined him like it was Steve that was afraid. “Budge over,” he hissed at him, shoving Steve’s shoulder.

“Nn. ‘M big now,” Steve mumbled. “Ain’t gonna fit.”

“That’s quitter talk,” Bucky shot back. Steve paused, then budged over. 

Bucky plastered himself up against Steve’s back and wrapped his arm tight around Steve’s waist, ignoring the sick lurch in his stomach when he realized how strange it was to spoon a man twice his size. Steve didn’t seem to mind, though, putting his hand on Bucky’s forearm, squeezing.

Bucky pressed his face to the hot skin between Steve’s shoulder blades, warming his cheek on him. It was strange, too, to be the one running cold. There had been a winter not too many winters ago where they couldn’t afford the heating and had resorted to drastic measures, blankets piled high, Steve’s icicle toes tucked up in the crooks of Bucky’s knees, Steve’s fingers in the wet heat of Bucky’s mouth –

“You’re cold,” Steve murmured.

Bucky made an open-mouthed yes against Steve’s back.

Steve rolled over and drew Bucky into his melting-hot embrace, shoving Bucky’s face into the crook of his neck as he lay one long leg over Bucky’s thigh. “What’m I gonna do with you,” Steve sighed, cupping over the nape of Bucky’s neck. 

Bucky didn’t have an answer for him.

 


 

In the morning, they got to pack up their shit and meet up with the other Howling Commandos in Carter’s office. Everybody appeared similarly worn out, except for Steve, who was so damn chipper it made Bucky’s exhausted blood boil. Then he had the dubious pleasure of explaining to everyone that, yes, this was his Steve, the one they’d heard so many embarrassing stories about.

Dum Dum boggled his eyes at Steve. “This is the one you said was tiny?” he demanded. “What’s your standard for big, Barnes?”

Bucky flushed. Steve leaned his elbow on Bucky’s shoulder and showed Dum Dum his best show-business grin. “I got bigger.”

“I’ll say,” Falsworth said, giving Steve’s body an up and down glance.

The whole sordid story would have to come out eventually, but for the moment, Bucky was content to leave it at that with an exaggerated eye roll.

“Gentlemen,” Agent Carter announced, clapping her hands together. “If we’re all done ogling the Captain.”

Gabe and Bucky made eye contact, and both looked away grinning.

“I’ve arranged for us to fly back to London together,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I want you all to make a full report to my superiors and tell them everything you can remember about the base you were kept in. Captain Rogers tells me you made contact with Dr. Zola himself?”

“Zola made contact with us, sir,” Morita said. “He wasn’t trying to hide.”

“He wasn’t counting on a rogue superhuman agent sweeping his test subjects out from beneath his nose,” Carter replied, smile as thin as a blade. “A rogue agent I most certainly had no hand in sending after you, keep in mind.”

Morita shot her a lazy, conspiratorial salute. “Our lips are sealed, sir.”

Carter’s expression was briefly amused, but it grew serious after a second. “The source of the bad intel I was fed has been dealt with,” she said, voice lowering. “I guarantee what happened will not happen again.”

Steve’s fist tightened on his handful of Bucky’s new uniform jacket. It really did hang down enormously on him, masking his chest, although Bucky looked more like a child than ever. Still. He’d take the victory for what it was.

“We trust you sir,” Gabe said softly.

“And if it’s all the same to you, I am well shot with Italy,” Falsworth drawled, making Carter laugh. “I am quite ready to have my English pub pint, thank you very much.”

Bucky looked up at Steve. Steve met his gaze, eyes softening, and Bucky thought – thank God. He couldn’t go back home, so home came to him. Steve’s brows drew together, expression questioning, so Bucky just smiled and shook his head. He’d tell him later. For now, it was time to turn his face north and prepare for the next leg of the war, with new friends and old standing side by side, back to back, with Bucky dead center where he belonged.

Chapter Text

The bar was crowded with noise more than it was crowded with people. Bucky left the other Commandos at their table to go sit at the bar instead, knocking back whiskey like it was water because he knew it was on Carter’s boss’ tab. The buzz had yet to hit him. It should have hit a while ago. But Bucky wasn’t thinking about that, the same way he wasn’t thinking about Steve’s newly-broad shoulders and the way they shook when he laughed at something Falsworth said.

Bucky made eye contact with the bartender, tapping the rim of his glass with two fingers. The man refilled it, and Bucky smiled tightly, draining half in one swallow.

“Got bored with our jokes?” Steve asked, putting a hand to the center of Bucky’s back as he joined him at the bar. Bucky grimaced. It took a conscious effort not to flinch away from Steve’s touch, and he was proud of himself when he managed it, sitting stiff-backed until Steve’s hand slid from his shoulder blade like oil on water.

“Got bored flirting with Falsworth?” Bucky countered, offering Steve his glass.

Steve rolled his eyes as he took the glass from Bucky’s hand and sipped at it. “How much of this have you had?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.

“Too much. They gotta be watering it down, I don’t feel a thing,” Bucky complained.

Steve gave the whiskey a dubious glance. “Doesn’t taste watered down.”

Bucky stole it back and drank the rest of it, pulling a face at the taste. He had to agree that it certainly seemed strong enough, but if he started hypothesizing why his tolerance was suddenly vastly different from what it had been, he was going to tip over the precipice in his mind – he could feel how close it was, knew his heels were right up against the edge. So he didn’t. The bar was watering down the whiskey, and Steve had never been too good at gauging alcohol in the first place anyway, that was all. That was fine.

“Maybe slow down a little, yeah?” Steve suggested, pushing Bucky’s glass across the bar when he reached for it again. “Don’t wanna have to carry you to your room tonight.”

“I’d hate to be a fucking inconvenience,” Bucky snapped, and grabbed his glass again, waving to the bartender. He saw Steve stiffen right up in his peripheral vision, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to feel chagrined. The bartender refilled his glass. Bucky downed it, the burn at the base of his throat not nearly enough to distract him from the way Steve was looking at him. “What, huh?” He demanded. “I got something on my face?”

“Just your face,” Steve said quietly. 

Bucky looked at him, tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

That was when Agent Carter walked into the room, dressed the most femininely Bucky had ever seen her, in a gorgeous red dress and her dark hair in carefully pinned curls. Steve’s face softened as he looked at her, lips gentling into the sweetest smile Bucky had possibly ever seen him wear. 

“Peggy,” Steve said, pushing off from the bar to go talk to her.

“Peggy?” Bucky repeated, dumbfounded. He’d never heard anyone call her by her first name before.

Steve smiled big and real at her, having to look down to do it, and she shook her head fondly at him. Bucky couldn’t hear their conversation – he was too far away, and his own pulse was too loud in his ears – but he could see the way their mouths moved as they spoke, and he felt as though he’d been suddenly doused in cold water.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with her, though? Carter was beautiful, terrifyingly competent, and had one of the most powerful tactical minds Bucky had ever encountered. He couldn’t blame Steve for being taken with her.

“Bartender,” he called out one more time anyway.

“I’m gonna cut you off soon,” the bartender warned him. “I shoulda cut you off a while ago.”

“I’m still lucid, ain’t I?” Bucky countered. “Not even causing half the ruckus my pals are back there.” He gave a jerk of his head toward the other Commandos, who were loudly singing along with the man at the piano.

“And you’ve had nearly enough to match them all.” The bartender slung his dishrag over a shoulder. “I’m cutting you off soon.”

Bucky slumped forward, chin resting on a bent arm. He gave another dejected look toward Carter and Steve. “Alright.”

“She’s a helluva gal, huh,” the bartender said sympathetically, following his line of sight.

“Sure is,” Bucky said, looking at Steve.

 


 

Steve ended up talking to Carter for a good twenty minutes before he ambled back to Bucky, looking pink-cheeked and boyish in a way he hadn’t since he and Bucky were actual children. “She says hi,” he said, tipping himself onto the stool next to Bucky. “And that she’d come over, but she’s afraid the guys will try to make her sing.”

“Not an unreasonable worry,” Bucky agreed. “Smart lady.”

Steve sighed dreamily. “She is.”

“Surprised you didn’t ask her to dance,” Bucky added, swirling the last of his last drink around in a little amber eddy. “Figured you’d wanna get a move on before the piano fella packs up.”

Steve made a derisive noise and leaned his elbows on the bar. “You of all people know I got two left feet, Buck.” 

Bucky could remember teaching Steve to dance in vivid detail, bickering back and forth about who got to lead and stepping on each other’s toes. It had always inevitably devolved into swaying artlessly back and forth while cackling, clutching at each other, toppling over onto whatever piece of furniture was nearest when they lost their balance. He supposed those kind of antics weren’t really feasible in the middle of the war.

“She’s nice,” Bucky said, sparing a glance toward the doorway Carter had disappeared back through. He contemplated the last swallow of whiskey, then pushed it away from himself, feeling vaguely ill. “You did good.”

Steve looked confused. “Thanks?”

“What room you got?” Bucky fished his key out of his pants pocket, squinting at the room number attached. Steve held out his own key for inspection. “What d’you know? We’re right next to each other.”

“I asked Peggy to give us adjoining rooms,” Steve admitted. “She seemed to think it was a good idea.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve, trying to decide if it offended him, other people talking over his head to make decisions. “C’mon,” he said, shoving himself up to standing. He barely swayed. “You can carry me to bed like you were threatening to do earlier.”

Steve cocked a brow at Bucky’s wording, but he stood as well with no complaint, steadying Bucky’s arm as they made their way to the staircase.

“See you at the debrief,” Bucky called out to the others. 

Morita made a dirty hand gesture and yelled back something about debriefing that made Gabe choke on his beer. Business as usual. Bucky heaved a long-suffering sigh and trudged up the stairs with Steve behind him, feeling the warmth of Steve’s gaze at his back, sinking into him.

“You coming in?” Bucky asked, eyes flicking up to Steve when his hand curled around the doorknob.

He watched Steve swallow, aborting a shrug halfway so that it became a wince. “I mean, I don’t have to.”

Bucky opened the door and grabbed Steve’s lapel to haul him in after him. He palmed the closest wall for the lightswitch, leaving Steve to close the door behind himself, and groaned low as he tore his shirt collar open. He yanked his tie off, tossing it onto the desk, then his jacket, suddenly finding it very difficult to breathe.

“Buck,” Steve said, putting his hands on Bucky’s shoulders from behind. Bucky let his head loll forward. Steve slid the flat of his hand over the back of his neck, squeezing gently. “Jeez, pal. You’re tense.”

“I’m aware,” Bucky muttered.

“Sit down,” Steve said. He steered Bucky toward the bed, giving him a little shove. Bucky sat down, fingers twitching where they were curled around the edge of the mattress when Steve sank to his knees to help him out of his boots.

“Thought you were my Captain,” he said nastily. “Not my manservant.”

“I’m your friend,” Steve said. “Quit snapping.”

Bucky shut up. He turned his head to the side, jaw working, and let Steve unlace his boots, let him set them aside. Steve sat up on his knees and put his hand on Bucky’s face, turning it so he had to look at him. “What?” Bucky asked. It came out less sharp than he’d intended it to be, wavering a little. 

“You gonna tell me what I did to piss you off?” Steve asked. He took his hand back, standing up so he could take off his own jacket. He shouldered out of it the way he’d always taken off his jackets, tugging one sleeve down before the other, contorting his body to take the strain off the kink in his back. His spine was perfectly straight now, though. The muscles of Bucky’s stomach clenched hard.

“Did it hurt?” he asked. “When they – did that to you.”

Steve held Bucky’s gaze while he unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and rolled them up to the elbow. “Yes. It hurt.”

Bucky imagined Steve’s body stretching and pulling, swelling into the creature standing in front of him. The nausea was back. “You look...” he trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

“I know.” Steve exhaled heavily. “Don’t even recognize myself in the mirror.”

“Was it worth it?” Bucky asked. He kept strangling the same fistful of sheets over and over again in his hand, thinking about Steve’s small bones cracking and splitting as they reformed into something new.

Steve’s expression tightened. “Considering you’d be dead if I hadn’t?” he asked, bleak. “Yeah, pal, it was pretty fuckin’ worth it.”

All the color drained from Bucky’s face at once. He stood abruptly, striding over to the window so he could brace his hands on the sill and look down at the street below, lit by street lamps that pooled their orange halos on the pavement. “So now you’re pretty and strong as a war horse,” he said. “And you’ve finally got a gal who’s willing to hang on your arm.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Steve exclaimed. “Buck, I know you’re mad at me for the serum, but –”

“Carter,” Bucky interrupted, whirling around. “You’ve got Agent Carter and those fucking biceps and –”

Steve looked shell-shocked. “You think I’m with Peggy?”

Bucky blinked. “Aren’t you?”

The room was silent for a long moment. Bucky breathed heavy, panting, and Steve looked at him with wild, pained eyes. He could almost taste the weight of what was about to happen on the back of his tongue, even though he didn’t know what it was going to be.

“What about me and you?” Steve asked roughly.

A strange, electric shiver splintered down Bucky’s spine. “I’m not your girlfriend,” he rasped, voice like sandpaper. “I’m not your best gal, I’m not your wife.”

“I know!” Steve cried out. “Don’t you think I fucking know?”

“So what the fuck are you talking about?” Bucky spat, baring his teeth.

“I thought you were my best guy,” Steve spat back. “I want you to be my boyfriend, you nutcase!”

There was a compliment, somewhere in that. Bucky gaped at Steve like a fish out of water.

“I was ready to marry you,” Steve continued, actually shaking with what Bucky could only assume was a mixture of hurt and frustration. “So many years ago, Buck. But you said no, so I backed off. That doesn’t mean I don’t fucking love you.”

“Okay,” Bucky whispered. “Okay, you made your point.”

“What did you think it meant when I came to find you?” Steve demanded. “What did you think it meant when I went against the only orders I ever got?”

“Meant you’re a contrary bastard,” Bucky tried, but he knew it was weak. “Steve...”

“I did it for you.” There were two spots of color high on Steve’s cheekbones, red and blotchy. “It’s all for you, so – have it if you want it. Or don’t. But knock off the goddamn martyr bullshit.”

Bucky and Steve had been doing this since they were children. Snapping when they should have been speaking softly, spitting like alley cats in a tussle. Bucky very nearly responded in kind, sneering out a I’ll just leave the martyr bullshit to you, then, shall I? before he bit it back and really listened to what Steve was telling him. Taking in exactly what Steve was laying on the line, here, what he was offering. 

He took a step away from the window, then another, only stopping when he was standing right in front of Steve. “You’re too tall now,” he murmured. “So you’re gonna have to give me a hand here, honey.”

Steve was confused at first, but then Bucky got to watch the realization bloom across his face, an expression so exquisite that Bucky was smiling when Steve got with the program and cupped Bucky’s cheek as he bent to kiss him, lips wind-chapped and warmer than anything. Bucky made a sound in the back of his throat and grabbed at him. Steve let him, arching into his touch, opening his mouth in pleased sigh when Bucky kissed him back. It was all too easy to take advantage and lick into Steve’s mouth, teasing the tip of Steve’s tongue with his own, Steve’s hands spasming in response.

“You’re it,” Bucky breathed against Steve’s mouth. “You’re the only one in the world for me. Tell me you know that.”

“I know.” Steve cradled Bucky’s face between both hands, stroking thumbs over Bucky’s cheeks. “I know, Buck. Just kiss me.”

Bucky had to lean up onto his tiptoes to do it, but Steve met him halfway.

 


 

Before, when Bucky had only just hacked off his pigtails over the sink, he turned to Steve with red-rimmed eyes and put on his cockiest grin. “How’s it look?” he’d asked, smoothing back his hair with one hand, the other perched on his hip. 

Steve had looked him over, a smile hiding in the corners of his mouth, and murmured, “You’ll do,” while he reached up and tucked a curl back into place. 

Bucky hadn’t known, then, why that made him ache. But he figured it out eventually.

 


 

“I’ve never,” Bucky admitted quietly into the dark. They both lay in the same bed, stripped down to shorts and undershirts, and Steve had yet to stop touching him. He pet up and down Bucky’s arm, his side, although he knew better than to stray too far forward from Bucky’s ribcage. The fact that Bucky hadn’t had to tell him to do so was good to the point of agony.

“Me either,” Steve replied, just as quiet. “Seemed kinda pointless if it wasn’t with you.”

Bucky snorted. “The point woulda been to get off with somebody that wasn’t your hand.”

“Nobody wanted me, anyway.” Steve rolled his eyes. “Besides, maybe everyone else just paled in comparison, Barnes, ever think about that?”

Bucky couldn’t think about that, or he might have actually died right there from how razor-sharp the sweetness was. “Sweet-talker,” he murmured, touching the perfect bow of Steve’s lips with his fingertips. “When did you get so nice, huh?”

“One of us has to be,” Steve replied, smiling beautifically.

“Shut up!”

“Make me.” Steve’s eyes glittered.

Bucky’s gaze dropped to Steve’s mouth, then back up to his eyes. He rolled suddenly, slamming Steve onto his back, and watched Steve’s eyes go wide right before Bucky kissed him hard. Steve’s hands jumped to Bucky’s thighs, hanging on, his grasp tighter than he’d ever been capable of grasping before. Bucky found that he liked it. He bit Steve’s lower lip, teeth set to soft flesh. Steve moaned, so Bucky did it again, soothing the sting after with his tongue.

“Buck,” Steve whispered.

“I’m here.” Bucky kissed the edge of Steve’s jaw, then down to his throat. “I’m right here.”

Steve’s hands flexed at Bucky’s hips, letting out a strained whimper. Bucky shifted slightly where he was straddled over him and paused, freezing with his lips parted over Steve’s pulse. Oh, he thought. So that’s how it feels when a guy gets hard ‘cause of me.

“...Sorry,” Steve muttered. “I, um.”

“That’s all it takes?” Bucky asked, incredulous. “Really?”

“Okay, wise guy, I’m a little pent up. Cut me some slack.” Steve was blushing, Bucky could see it even in the dark, and it made him grin.

“Didn’t say I minded,” Bucky pointed out, shifting again so that he rolled his hips right on top of where he could feel Steve, hard and wanting.

Steve’s breath caught. “Shit,” he hissed. Bucky did it again, kissing him as he did it, and felt an answering throb of want between his own legs. He only rarely paid attention to that part of his anatomy, disinterested at best on most days, viscerally upset on worse ones, but tonight was different. How many times had he watched Steve drawing at their kitchen table, eyeing the flex of Steve’s hand against the page? How many times had he wondered what it would feel like to have that hand on him, before he got flustered and cut off that line of thinking before it could get too far?

“Touch me,” he breathed. 

Steve’s eyes interrogated his own, trying to read him. His hand slid from Bucky’s hip to the burning-hot place where Bucky’s legs met, cupping over him with the flat of his palm. Bucky’s hips hitched, grinding against the heel of Steve’s hand on instinct.

“Oh, you’re wet,” Steve murmured, face going sweetly hazy as he rubbed Bucky with two fingers. “You like that, huh?”

“You’re touching my dick, Rogers, if I didn’t like it I’d be – oh...” Bucky’s sarcastic remark got cut off when Steve slid his hand down the front of his shorts instead. His arms trembled where his palms were planted on either side of Steve’s head. Steve’s fingers parted through the thatch of dark hair and found a place to press that made Bucky’s eyes flutter closed with a gasp, his touch feather-light, so careful until Bucky shoved his hips at his hand in an effort to make Steve touch him firmer. 

“Yeah,” Steve said breathlessly. “Yeah, alright.”

Bucky shuddered and kissed Steve with desperation. Steve kissed him back, open-mouthed and filthy, and stroked Bucky with easy circles of his fingertips that grew more confident as he saw that his efforts were succeeding. Bucky was so turned on he could feel his heartbeat in his belly, moaning directly into Steve’s mouth, hips working in time with Steve’s hand until he was coming in a sudden rush that caught him by surprise. He muffled his cry by tearing his mouth away from Steve’s and biting Steve’s shoulder.

Steve’s eyes were very wide again. “Wow.”

He was still touching him, stroking absently, and Bucky had to clutch Steve’s wrist to still him with a full-body shudder. “Ah, too much.”

“Sorry,” Steve laughed softly, pulling his hand out of Bucky’s underwear. His nose wrinkled when he got a look at his palm. “Jeez, Buck. All over my hand.”

“Hope you don’t expect me to be sorry,” Bucky shot back, voice less steady than it had been. He slid off Steve’s lap and sat there for a moment, catching his breath. Steve was looking at him with a fondness that Bucky had only rarely seen and was not used to. It went straight to Bucky’s gut. He put his hand on Steve’s stomach, smoothing down to his lower belly, watching it descend with a little crooked smile. Steve breathed shallowly. “Yeah, honey?” Bucky asked, glancing up at Steve through his eyelashes. 

“Quit teasin’ me,” Steve begged.

“I don’t think I will,” Bucky said, and finally slid his hand into Steve’s boxers to wrap around him.

He’d never touched another guy before, and especially had never touched a guy’s dick. He was startled by how silky-smooth the skin was, satin over steel, the head beading up wetness that Bucky smeared on his palm so his touch would be slicker when he stroked down. 

“Oh, God,” Steve moaned.

“Just Bucky,” Bucky said, just to be a pain. “But I’ll take the compliment.”

“Would you please – not make puns – while you’re jerking me off,” Steve grit out, hips pushing up to try to fuck into the circle of Bucky’s fist.

Bucky huffed a laugh and twisted his wrist on the upstroke, trying to get the rhythm right. “Was it always this big?” he asked, curious. “Or is that new?”

“...New,” Steve managed, flushing darker. “Serum, uh. Works all over, I guess.”

Bucky didn’t particularly like the way Steve said that, but he didn’t know how to reply in a way that would make him understand why. “Same face,” he said, draping his body over Steve’s as he stroked him so he could nuzzle into Steve’s jaw. “Same dumb laugh.”

“Are you insulting me, getting me off, or bein’ sweet?” Steve asked helplessly, squirming.

“You don’t like my dirty talk?” Bucky asked, nipping Steve’s earlobe. “Should I tell you how hot you look?”

“Buck...”

“Gorgeous,” Bucky said, moving his hand faster. “So fuckin’ pretty.” 

The praise seemed to tip Steve over the edge. His cock twitched in Bucky’s hand, coming in streaks, and he made the most beautiful noise as he threw his head back, keening. Bucky kept his hand moving until Steve’s body convulsed and he whispered, “Okay, okay,” and stilled.

Most of the mess landed on Steve’s undershirt, which was lucky. Bucky subtly wiped his hand on the hem while Steve’s chest heaved and decided that he was allowed to feel pleased with himself. Not bad, for a first go.

“C’mon,” Bucky said, and took Steve’s hand, pulling until Steve reluctantly sat up. “Get this off so we can cuddle.”

“Can’t believe you just said the word ‘cuddle’ seriously,” Steve muttered, pulling off his tank top so he could ball it up and toss it over the side of the bed. He shucked off his underwear too, which Bucky thought was a pretty good idea, so they both ended up naked when they slipped under the covers that had been kicked to the side in the scuffle.

Steve gathered Bucky in and kissed him soundly, firmly. Bucky had kissed a few girls before, but those had been goodnight kisses, soft, awkward little things. Steve kissed him with post-sex familiarity and Bucky loved it, loved him, could spend a year just trading kisses back and forth like they had all the time in the world.

Hell, maybe they did. Bucky didn’t have an eye on the clock.

“You wanna go to sleep?” Steve asked, petting Bucky’s hair back off his forehead. “It’s getting late.”

It had been late when they left the bar. Bucky didn’t even want to know what time it was now. “Will you hold me?” he asked.

Steve lay on his back and pulled Bucky with him, arranging them both so Bucky had his head on Steve’s chest, Steve’s big arms wrapped around him. He could feel Steve’s cheek press to the crown of his head and had to squeeze his eyes closed, allowing the dizziness to come and pass and leave him boneless on top of his partner.

“I love you,” Bucky said. “I didn’t say it before, did I.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “But I knew it.”

“Was it the jealousy or the handjob that tipped you off?” Bucky asked dryly, which made Steve guffaw into his hair.

 


 

In the morning, they had to shower and dress themselves up real nice to go talk to Peggy’s superiors. The meeting was long and boring and Bucky would have much rather been back at the room with Steve, fucking each other stupid. He got the feeling Steve was in a similar state, even though his mildly interested poker face was a lot better than Bucky’s, because he kept shooting Bucky these sideways heated glances every time Colonel Phillips looked away from them.

Then Phillips asked Bucky directly about Zola and Bucky clammed right up.

“I’ve heard the rest of your team’s testimony, but I want yours too,” Phillips said, steepling his fingers as he leaned back in his chair.

“Sergeant Barnes submitted his report in writing,” Steve said, icy. “Is it really necessary to go through it all again?”

“Watch your tone, Captain,” Phillips replied evenly. “Don’t think Agent Carter hasn’t warned me thoroughly about you.”

Steve’s mouth opened, then closed with a snap. “How thoroughly, sir?”

Phillips pointedly ignored him. “Barnes, I’ve got one question. Can you handle one question?”

“Yes, sir.” Bucky elbowed Steve sharply in the side when Steve made to interrupt again, making him subside into testy silence.

“Do you think he’s onto something real?” Phillips asked. “With his tests and experiments, the whole shebang.”

Bucky thought about the injections, the unnamed IV drip. He thought about how well he could keep up with Steve physically where the other Commandos lagged behind, and about the fact that he was a week and a half overdue for a menstrual cycle that made no indication of returning since his captivity, since the gut-deep burn in his abdomen caused by Zola’s drugs.

“Yes,” Bucky said, keeping his voice carefully even. “I do.”

Phillips held his gaze for a long moment. Then he nodded, sighing deeply, and waved a hand. “Dismissed, Captain, Sergeant. Carter will update you with your new orders when you have them.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bucky said for them both, since Steve was apparently incapable of being charitable. He held the door for Steve, gave Phillips a nod, and shut the door.

“Sorry,” Steve said as soon as the door was closed. “Sorry, I know, I keep going too far.”

“I’m not gonna break if people ask me a single question,” Bucky said, nudging Steve with his elbow again, but gentler this time. “C’mon. Let’s get something to eat.”

They wandered around London until they found a pub and got steak and potatoes – Bucky was sure he made obscene noises as he ate, but Christ, it was so much better than C-rations – and then split a piece of pie that had Bucky missing, absurdly, his childhood home. 

He didn’t think about his Ima all that much. Passing thoughts, an old bruise to press on, sometimes. His sisters wrote every now and then, sending letters to the wrong name, even though Bucky had been signing his replies as Yaakov since he’d moved in with Steve. And his Aba hadn’t even looked him in the eye recently enough for Bucky to remember the last time.

Whatever, he thought. I’ll try again when I’m home.

The fact that he was going to return home after the war felt like a certainty, now that Steve was here. Bucky watched Steve lick his fork and kicked his shin under the table, instigating a brief fight that was really more like aggressive footsie than anything else. 

“You alright?” Steve asked. “You got sad, there, for a bit.”

“I miss your Ma,” Bucky said.

A fine name, Yaakov, Sarah Rogers had told him, after he’d come ‘round to Steve’s as taut as a bowstring after shabbos dinner one week. Did you know Steve’s grandfather was named Jacob?

“I miss her too,” Steve said softly.

What else was there to say? Bucky popped the last bit of pie crust into his mouth and pushed the plate away from himself, nodding his head toward the door. Steve fished his wallet out of his pocket and tossed a couple bills on the table to pay for lunch, acting like a real gentleman, and slung his arm over Bucky’s shoulders as soon as they got outside. They could get away with that these days, both of them dressed up in their uniforms, free to exhibit all the kinds of soldierly effusiveness that wouldn’t give away that their shared meal had really been an undercover date. Steve squeezed Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky leaned into him. 

“Peggy said I should ask you about your rifle,” Steve said, sliding Bucky a sidelong glance. “That sounded like a euphemism to me.”

Bucky hid his smile in Steve’s jacket sleeve. “...I named it after you. Etched your name into the side.”

“Oh my God.” Steve’s shoulders shook with mirth. “Dd you think you were being subtle?”

“Oh, shut up,” Bucky said. “I lost it to Hydra, anyway.”

“We’ll get you a new one.” Steve drew Bucky into his side more firmly. “Peggy’s close with Howard Stark – getcha something state of the art, make you real dangerous.”

I kissed that man, Bucky thought, looking up in time to catch the tail end of Steve’s smile. Eight hours ago I had my hand on his dick.

He smirked to himself, biting back a laugh, and wouldn’t explain why to Steve, no matter how much Steve pestered him.

 


 

When they returned to their rooms, the other Commandos were all waiting for them in Steve’s bedroom, playing cards.

“How did you even get in?” Steve asked, mystified, and Falsworth shrugged.

“Get not between a man and bothering his Captain,” Morita said at the same time Dum Dum said, “Hang onto your keys better, dumbass.” The two shot each other the exact same indignant look at the interruption.

Steve immediately patted his pocket for his keys and pulled an offended face when he couldn’t find them. Dernier held up the key, twirling the ring on his finger innocently.

“If I had the authority to fire you, I would,” Steve announced, sitting at the table. “Deal me in.”

“I dunno, Cap, awful unprofessional to fraternize with your subordinates...” Mortia mused.

“You’re in my room, let me take your money,” Steve said.

Falsworth laughed and started shuffling the cards again. “How about you, Barnes, you want in?” he asked, talking around the cigarette in his mouth.

Bucky looked around the room at these men, these friends that he’d managed to dredge up from the dust. Dernier on Steve’s bed with his legs crossed at the ankle, fucking around on his harmonica while Gabe’s head was pillowed on his thigh with his eyes closed. Falsworth, Dum Dum, and Morita sitting around a tiny bedside table they’d dragged to the middle of the room to play poker. Steve, Bucky’s oldest friend, at one point the only friend Bucky had thought he’d ever have – his blue eyes were warm and familiar as he looked at him, crinkling at the corners, like looking at Bucky was a pleasure meant to be enjoyed slowly. 

It was October in London, and Bucky was more at home in this room in a foreign country than he’d ever been in his life.

Of course, there would eventually be winter, because there will always someday be winter; and there would be a train in the snow on which Bucky would reach for a hand that stretched toward him too late. There would be ice, and pain, and metal bolted onto unwilling flesh – but in that moment, if just for a moment, Steve and Bucky were as cocky and hopeful as they’d been passing notes in grade school. The world was bright and the war was theirs to win, theirs for the taking. They had no hunger that they could not feed. In the future, Bucky would remember this and laugh, somewhere between nostalgia and chagrin, and he would call it naive. But he would also look on it fondly.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, pulling up the last chair. “I’m in.”

Chapter Text

PART TWO

2016

 


 

Yaakov had gone by many names in his lifetime.

Only some of them were kind, and he hadn’t had the luxury of choosing many. There was his given name, and all the subsequent hated nicknames; whispers behind the backs of hands, calling him a number of unflattering things; Steve’s pretty mouth working around the name Buck; the title of Sergeant that sat heavily on his shoulders; every variation of “Rogers’ right hand man” that he wore with pride, like a banner on his chest.

Then he was the Winter Soldier, and names didn’t matter at all.

Who was he now that he was allowed to choose again? There was nothing hidden beneath his shirt anymore except scars, and those were plentiful enough to be no kind of secret – the twin half moons on his chest didn’t stand out more than any of the others did. The history books, too, were unaware that he’d ever been anything before being James Barnes, which was a gift for which he was dubiously grateful. This was not a position he had ever expected to be in.

Steve was the only one who knew any better, but he still said Buck like a privilege, like a prayer, and Yaakov had never once been tempted to prove him wrong. Yaakov – Buck – whatever Barnes-thing he was – looked in the mirror with the same mild shock that he always did these days, touching his stubbled face. His sharp blue eyes were the only familiar part that was left, not including whatever haunted man stared out from behind them.

 


 

“You want some help with that?” 

Yaakov looked up, meeting Steve’s eyes in the doorway. He’d already filled the needle, drawing amber liquid carefully into the syringe, but he’d stalled out halfway between unpackaging the alcohol swab and applying it to his leg. “You still remember how?” he asked around the syringe held delicately between his teeth, voice as low and gravelly as it always was these days. 

“Takes a lot to make me forget,” Steve replied, smiling until his words caught up with him and his face was wiped clean by horror. “Wait, I didn’t mean –”

“You can help,” Yaakov interrupted. He didn’t want to hear Steve apologize another time for something he didn’t do. “I hate this part, anyway.”

Steve nodded, staying silent. He walked into Yaakov’s room and sat on the edge of his bed, holding his hand out for the alcohol swab, the syringe. Yaakov relinquished both. Steve pushed the leg of Yaakov’s underwear up his thigh, revealing pale skin, coarse dark hair. Steve stroked his thumb over a patch of skin just beneath Yaakov’s hip and then rubbed the swab over it, more tender than he needed to be, although that was no longer a surprise. 

“You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to,” Steve said, eyes serious.

“I know,” Yaakov said.

Steve exhaled audibly. He shook his head slightly before he refocused on Yaakov’s leg, years of watching his mother perform her duties making his touch sure of itself as he did the shot neatly, cleanly. He managed it in one motion, depressing the plunger and removing the needle to recap it with a flourish, tossing it into the waiting sharps box on Yaakov’s desk. He leaned over and grabbed a cotton ball from the bag in the desk drawer to put it to the thin trickle of blood down Yaakov’s thigh. 

“At some point I’m gonna figure out how to do it so good you won’t bleed,” he promised, applying direct pressure to the tiny wound.

One corner of Yaakov’s mouth quirked up. “I’m not too fussed.”

“Lemme be fussed enough for the both of us,” Steve said, wiping the cotton ball down Yaakov’s leg to catch all the blood. “Got a bandaid?”

Yaakov knew as well as Steve did that he would heal completely in less than five minutes. Two minutes and thirteen seconds, actually, he’d timed it once out of morbid curiosity – but Steve never liked hearing how Yaakov knew down to the second how fast he healed and why, and Yaakov wasn’t in the mood to make him get the tragedy-eyes he knew from experience would last for hours. He leaned over to his desk drawer, retrieving a band-aid tin.

“Pick one,” he said, shaking the tin helpfully.

Steve selected a band-aid with two lightsabers crossing at the middle. “Natasha?” he guessed. Yaakov nodded. “Star Trek is better, but don’t tell her I told you that,” Steve added, conspiratorial. He put the bandaid over the pink dot on Yaakov’s thigh, taking a moment to kiss two fingertips before touching them lightly to the wound. Like a mezuzah, Yaakov thought, and smiled.

“I haven’t seen either, y’know,” he said. 

Steve glanced up again. “Really?”

Yaakov shrugged. “Had more important things to do when I was on the run.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed slightly, considering. “I know what we’re doing after dinner, then,” he decided. “Speaking of which. Pasta again like two pathetic bachelors, or takeout?”

“We can be pathetic bachelors who eat sushi,” Yaakov pointed out.

“Duly noted,” Steve said, reaching out a hand to ruffle Yaakov’s hair. “I’ll order your usual. Put some pants on before you scandalize the neighbors.”

Steve left to call the sushi restaurant and Yaakov got up, rifling through his dresser’s top drawer until he came up with the hoodie he’d stolen from Steve months ago. It was big on him, the hem dropping all the way mid-thigh, and that was close enough to pants, wasn’t it? He put it on and felt himself vanish inside it, swallowed up by the fabric.

He padded out of his bedroom and found Steve on their living room couch with his laptop open, phone held to his ear. “No, no crab,” he was saying, and looked up in time to watch Yaakov flop onto the cushion next to him. He raised an eyebrow at Yaakov’s bare legs, smirking slightly, so Yaakov had to flip him off. Veggie rolls? Steve mouthed. Yaakov nodded emphatically.

They were in the 21st century, him and Steve, alive and young still, despite the odds. They were ordering their supper to be delivered to a fancy apartment in the middle of New York and the only things they had to worry about were unraveling the tangled threads of Yaakov’s fucked up brain and fighting Nazis, the latter of which they had always been adept at. 

Yaakov sank into the corner of the couch and listened to the familiar rumble of Steve’s voice on the telephone.

Outside, the stars were shining, even though they were veiled by a thick layer of city smog.

 


 

First there was a trial.

Well, first there had been sixty-eight years of murder and torture, but after that, there was a trial. Steve called in all his favors, pulled every string he could make a fist around, wore himself ragged writing appeal after appeal. His efforts kept Yaakov out of a straightjacket, but he was on house arrest for six months, trial pending. They tagged him like a dog, ankle monitor leash extending five feet beyond the boundary of Steve’s apartment.

He slept. He ate. He tried not to appear threatening. He moved through Steve’s apartment like a sleepwalker, like a ghost, leaving only small traces of his presence behind him. He was as light-footed and dangerous as any other caged animal, and felt he left condensation on the underside of everything he touched, every mirror fogged, every glass ringing faintly in his wake. He woke screaming from nightmares that had Steve stumbling down the hall to rush to his side, gathering him into his arms, holding him and swaying until Yaakov quieted.

“I don’t want you to read my file,” Yaakov rasped, looking up at Steve with a wet-red face from weeping, thinking of all the material on the Winter Soldier that Steve had unearthed, compiling it from a dozen sources to stitch together a Frankentstein summary of Yaakov’s past seventy years.

“I gotta,” Steve told him, sounding wretched. “I gotta, I can’t just gonna hand it over to the lawyers without lookin’ first. But I swear, I promise, once they see what happened to you they’ll be sorry they ever second-guessed you.”

Yaakov thought second-guessing him was a sensible tactical maneuver, but he knew saying so would only prolong the argument. “Okay,” he said.

Steve pressed his face into Yaakov’s hair, his hold tightening. His hands avoided Yaakov’s chest out of muscle memory, even though there was nothing there to avoid anymore. “If you need me not to look at it, I won’t,” he said, voice slightly muffled. 

“You’ll see it all in the trial, anyway,” Yaakov said tiredly. “Might as well cut to the chase.”

He could feel the gust of Steve’s sigh against the nape of his neck. “I’m not gonna think any less of you, whatever I find in there. You have to know that.”

Yaakov didn’t know it, and wouldn’t know it until it was proven to him. But he just nodded, staying still for Steve’s holding.

“When we win the trial, I’m gonna take you to coney island,” Steve said, squeezing Yaakov again. “Like when we were kids, but this time I’m not gonna hurl after the cyclone.”

“If we win,” Yaakov said.

“We will,” Steve said, with all the self-assuredness of a man who had never done anything bad enough to be given a death sentence for it. “We will, Buck.”

Of course, in the end, they did win the trial. Yaakov’s jaw dropped, shell-shocked from the moment they unlocked the cuffs around his wrists onward – Steve wrapped an arm around him the second court was adjourned, leaping up to steer him out of the courtroom, shielding him with a grimly clenched jaw from the flashbulbs going off and the reporters hollering in the street. The sun shone down on the pavement in front of their feet like the hand of God.

Yaakov had only just come to terms with being the kind of man who would live out the rest of his days in prison until he was put down like a rabid animal. Then he had to come to terms with being the kind of man who could wander around coney island with Captain America, the two of them stuffed full of all the fried food they could handle, silent on the ferris wheel that turned and turned. At the very top of the ride, Yaakov looked at Steve, seeing the way the sunset gilded his profile rose gold. His metal hand twitched in his pocket.

Trust tasted like copper, like blood.

 


 

By the time sushi arrived, Yaakov was firmly riveted on the television, lips half-parted as he watched starships careen through outer space. He barely noticed Steve get up from the couch, although his back stiffened when he heard the lock click, grabbing the remote to pause the film. His other hand was already between the couch cushions, retrieving the knife he’d left there, whole body on alert.

He heard Steve thank the delivery man, clink of coins as money changed hands, and then the door shut firmly. Once the lock was thrown again, Yaakov could consciously relax back into the couch and stow his knife away before Steve came back.

“I think that guy figured out who I am,” Steve sighed as he sank down onto the couch again. He set the plastic bag on the coffee table, unknotting the handles to take out the little boxes of sushi and lay them out in a line. “I can always tell ‘cause their eyes get big as fuckin’ dinner plates and they try to stop me from tipping ‘em.”

Yaakov watched the easy flex of Steve’s arm as he pried the plastic clamshell top from the bottom, snapping apart a pair of chopsticks. He was still clumsy with them, clumsy and determined, after Sam had taken pity on him and showed him how. 

Yaakov was very good with chopsticks. He was very good with many implements he did not remember being taught to use.

“You’ve got a face that’s hard not to recognize,” he said, reaching for his own box. “And I’d know.”

Steve looked at him with those wide, hurting eyes of his. You’re one to talk about dinner plates, Yaakov thought.

“Well,” Steve said, and stalled out. He looked down at his lap, at the tines of the chopsticks held in his enormous hand, the same hand that had injected Yaakov’s thigh with testosterone earlier. How strange it was that something so big could handle things with such gentleness.

“C’mon,” Yaakov said. “I want to finish the movie.”

Similar to all the other times in recent memory when Yaakov expressed a desire unprompted, Steve hopped to it quickly. He retrieved the remote and hit play, the spaceship zooming off toward another distant planet, a low man’s voice saying You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

He had, though, hadn’t he. Yaakov ate his dinner and watched Steve out of the corners of his eyes.

A sweet young protagonist with blond hair and soft blue eyes made Yaakov feel a pang of fondness already. The fact that Luke Skywalker jumped into every situation headfirst, moral compass steadfastly magnetized north, hurt. He wondered if Steve saw the resemblance – if that was why he’d suggested this film.

They finished the sushi and Steve made hot chocolate over the stove, carrying two steaming mugs back to the sofa with one of Yaakov’s favorite Steve-smiles, the one that hid in the back of his eyes without touching his lips. Yaakov accepted his mug and curled cold fingers around it with a small noise of pleasure.

They ate like kings, these days, and drank like them too. He never could have imagined having so much excess when he’d been young and hungering his way through the ‘30s.

When a tiny fleet of starships attacked the Death Star, Yaakov held one of their useless throw pillows clutched to his chest. Steve lay one of his big arms over the back of the sofa and Yaakov tipped toward it on instinct, unbearably slowly, until his hair just barely brushed the inside of Steve’s bicep.

“You can – just c’mere,” Steve murmured, wrapping his arm around Yaakov’s shoulders instead, one leg coming up onto the couch so that when he pulled him in, Yaakov lay with his back to Steve’s chest. One of Steve’s legs on either side of his hips. Yaakov tried very hard to lie still and not stiffen up. 

He was getting good at that, at staying still. At first, he hadn’t been able to stomach all the touching and had broken the two littlest fingers on Steve’s right hand after being surprised by a clap on the back – he’d set Steve’s poor broken fingers himself in their bathroom once he realized what he’d done, spitting up a stream of apologies as he splinted them, and Steve just... kept hugging him, albeit with more advance warning going forward. I heal fast, he’d said, brushing the hair off Yaakov’s face with his good hand. You can’t hurt me.

You know I can, Yaakov rasped. He could. Every day he lived with the knowledge that he could, and had.

“I love this part,” Steve murmured in his ear now, one arm around Yaakov’s middle, the other still lying over the back of the couch. Luke Skywalker put his ship computer away and fired his shot on faith alone. Yaakov felt Steve’s breath on the back of his neck and wondered if Steve could tell how fast his heart was beating, pulse racing like it was trying to keep up with the Millenium Falcon in the background, like it was trying to outrun the moon.

The Death Star exploded, the good guys won, and Yaakov found himself out of breath. Steve pet through his hair absently, twining a lock of long dark hair around a finger over and over. It was maddening. 

“Well?” Steve asked. “What did you think? There are two other ones people generally agree are pretty good.”

“It was good,” Yaakov said. Was he supposed to stop leaning on Steve now? He didn’t know the rules for this, but Steve was still stroking fingers through his hair, untangling the curls, and Yaakov had to assume it was alright to stay put for the time being. “I’d watch the others.”

“It’s a date, then,” Steve said.

Huh, Yaakov thought. Steve’s words unfurled in the deepest part of his chest.

 


 

Yaakov always slept well in the room in Steve’s apartment that he’d come to accept belonged to him. He had a strange relationship with belongings, unaccustomed to owning things or space; he accumulated knick knacks and chachkies like a magpie, though, ferreting them away into knapsacks and closet shelves where he could hold and count them when he was alone. 

Space was more difficult to conceptualize as his. Steve said our apartment when he talked about the place they lived, our apartment, our home, but the words got stuck in Yaakov’s mouth and he couldn’t speak around their honey-thickness. He called it the apartment instead, or Steve’s place when he felt especially precarious in his own brain. 

His room, though. He’d decorated it himself, after some gentle and then not so gentle nudging from Steve, blue paint and sweet-smelling candles and a large dresser with many small drawers. Window screen uninstalled so he could slip out the window like a ghost anytime he pleased, vaulting right back in again before Steve could notice his absence. This place was his, his nest, his roost. Someday that thought would stop surprising him.

He lay in his bed, swaddled in several blankets, and felt a memory rise up in him as they did from time to time. He remembered covering himself in his sheet, a corpse in his own bed in the first apartment he’d shared with Steve, trying to hide his terrible body from the eye of God. It hadn’t worked then any better than it worked now. He still covered himself, layer on layer, keeping warm in the winter that Yaakov was starting to suspect he carried around with him. It was April in Brooklyn, the city beginning to warm itself again, and Yaakov was still so cold. 

But perhaps if he wrapped himself tight enough in his blankets, he would eventually thaw out.

In the meantime, he went over the evening spent with Steve in his mind, rewinding the tape every time it got stuck on the moment when Steve put his hand in his hair. The pressure of Steve’s hand on the nape of his neck, unbearable in its sweetness – Yaakov would have gone wherever that hand led, wherever it pushed him gently. 

This was not a new thought. The first thing he’d remembered, drawing Steve’s body out of the Potomac, was that this was a body he must care for. He sat on the riverbank and knew it was his job to follow him, to love him. Somehow, it had never before occurred to him that loving occasionally went hand in hand with wanting.

“Fuck,” Yaakov said into the dark of his bedroom.

When he slept, he dreamed of hands, and woke tasting copper.

 


 

“I’m going to my appointment,” Yaakov told Steve in the morning, already slithering into his leather jacket, tying his hair up into a knot at the base of his skull. “Need anything on my way back?”

Steve glanced up from his bagel, startled. “You don’t want company?”

Yaakov shifted uncomfortably and shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’s – they’re gonna take my blood.”

As weird as Yaakov got around medical professionals, Steve turned into a beast that frothed at the mouth at the first sign of anything going awry. Sometimes it was nice to have a ball of tension and muscle at Yaakov’s side to back him up, but sometimes he worried Steve would get himself blacklisted from SHIELD medbay by snapping at the doctors.

“Let me come with,” Steve said, rising to his feet with the sound of chair legs scraping. He stuffed the last of his bagel into his mouth. Yaakov twitched a smile at the chipmunk cheeks that action produced, making Steve look much younger than his ninety-eight years.

“Will you make a scene if I get uncomfortable?” Yaakov asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” Steve answered, unconvincing.

Yaakov narrowed his eyes at him as he considered it. “Fine,” he said. “But I reserve the right to kick you out of the room if you start acting weird.”

Steve looked very relieved. “Deal.”

Yaakov waited for Steve to put on his shoes and jacket, and then they left the apartment for SHIELD’s medical facility. They took the bike, because Yaakov trusted Steve more behind the handlebars of a motorcycle than he did the wheel of a car, and he begrudgingly allowed Steve to click his helmet strap into place for him like a child. There were many chafingly sweet things Steve tried to do these days, and Yaakov cringed away from many of them, but he stayed still when he could. He understood that this was the only way Steve ever felt useful to him.

He took Steve’s helmet and set it carefully into place for him in return, tucking blond hair up into it with his fingertips. They could be on equal footing, in this way.

“Hop on,” Steve said, swinging a leg over the seat to sit down.

Yaakov settled behind him, hands coming up to rest on the relative safety of Steve’s hips. “I’m ready,” he murmured into Steve’s ear. Steve nudged up the kickstand.

Steve’s hips were very solid beneath Yaakov’s hands as they drove, and he had a visceral sense-memory of how Steve’s bones had felt before the serum, sharp as a razor and just as dangerous. Steve had been criminally underestimated by nearly everyone in those days. Yaakov had known how deadly he was, and had never seen the delicate arrangement of Steve’s hand as anything other than a thin blade, a collection of bruises in the shape of a young man.

He squeezed his own hands, feeling the solidity of Steve’s body under them. If Steve tensed up, he hid it well, and Yaakov just stroked over a belt loop. The pad of his metal thumb clinked against a rivet near Steve’s left pocket.

Steve parked neatly, but he was a little unsteady as he dismounted. “Ready?” he asked, a strange brightness in his eyes. Yaakov noted it and filed it away for further interrogation later.

“Yeah,” he said. He took off his helmet and shook out his hair, feeling the curls fall down around his ears. Steve reached out and fixed a curl, tucking it back off Yaakov’s face with an unreadable expression. He took his hand back after, shoving it into his pocket, and Yaakov followed suit as soon as he was off the back of the bike.

They walked into the office side by side, footsteps falling as close to tandem as they could get, with their height difference. Yaakov was well aware that Steve towered over him, a full seven inches taller, but the way that Steve curled in on himself even now, unused to his stature – coupled with Yaakov’s straight-backed death stare – made the gap seem less extreme.

Maybe Yaakov wore tall boots on purpose. It didn’t feel like a new habit.

“James Barnes,” Yaakov told the receptionist, smiling tightly. He handed over his insurance card (stamped with the official Avengers logo, much to his and Steve’s embarrassment), accepting the usual clipboard paperwork as he went to go sit in one of the plastic chairs off to the side. Good sightlines, with his back to the wall.

“Do you really gotta fill this out every time?” Steve asked, unimpressed. 

Yaakov shrugged. “A lot can change in three months.”

He checked the box male with a decisive tick of the pen, briefly proud of himself for doing it without hesitating.

 


 

In the doctor’s office, Yaakov answered the usual questions with a tired set to his mouth. No, his scars showed no further signs of healing, still raised and pink in some areas, red and angry in others. No, he didn’t want scar cream, and it wasn’t a question of price. Yes, he did his weekly T shot on time every Wednesday.

“Do you do it yourself, or do you have someone to do it for you?” the doctor asked, flipping to a different page of Yaakov’s records.

“Steve helps,” he answered.

He read upside-down when she wrote assisted by partner in her notes. That made him want to squirm in his seat on the office table, looking guiltily at Steve – but if Steve noticed, he made no indication. 

Assisted by partner. Yaakov supposed that was closer to the truth than any other phrasing.

The doctor called in the nurse to take Yaakov’s blood, and Yaakov’s fingernails bit into the meat of his palm. Steve inched close enough to put his hand on his back, right between Yaakov’s sharp shoulder blades, stroking over the same vertebra over and over while the nurse arranged her equipment and turned Yaakov’s flesh arm over to expose the soft underside where his veins were. It was by spoken arrangement that Yaakov was only touched by female medical professionals; a male doctor had walked into his first meeting and Yaakov had gone pale as a sheet, grabbing Steve’s arm hard enough to leave a mark. The result of Steve shoving Yaakov behind his body and ushering the doctor out of the room briskly had meant more to Yaakov than he’d been able to word out loud. His choked-off thanks hadn’t been nearly enough.

The nurse put her thumb to the crease of Yaakov’s arm and said, “Ready?”

Yaakov nodded. She did her job well, though he could see Steve silently judging the way she handled the needle out of the corner of his eye. Yaakov bit back a smile.

The nurse switched vials, filling a second. There were two more empty on the tray. “How much do you need to take?” Steve asked, eyes glued to the connection where the needle met Bucky’s arm. His disgust wasn’t well-hidden at all.

“We have a lot of tests,” the nurse said. “Better to take too much now so he doesn’t have to come in again if we run out.”

“Logical,” Steve commented stiffly.

“Quit backseat driving.” Yaakov couldn’t help the rush of fondness and exasperation that shot through him in response to the steely expression on Steve’s face. “This is why I almost left you at home.”

“My husband’s the same way,” the nurse commented. The amused look she gave Steve only made him stiffen up further.

“We aren’t married,” Steve said. “Buck’s his own man.”

The nurse’s lips parted. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought –”

“Well, we aren’t.”

She bent back to her work without a further word on the subject.

Yaakov blinked, wondering why that stung. It was true, he and Steve weren’t married, and he had no misconception about it. He had a vague recollection of an argument about the word in some distant past, the two of them rubbed-raw and bristling with the same vehemence, arguing and yelling and then – Yaakov couldn’t remember. He was trying very hard these days to be kind to himself about this.

The nurse filled her four vials and put a cotton ball to Yaakov’s arm, then bright blue cling bandage. “With your healing factor, this is barely necessary,” she said, smoothing it into place anyway. “But better safe than sorry, right?”

Steve made an affirming noise low in the back of his throat. Yaakov thought about the Star Wars bandaid still on his thigh, fingertips tracing the shape of it through his jeans.

 


 

“You gotta stop snapping at the nurses,” Yaakov said when they got on the motorcycle again, going through the ritual of putting on each other’s helmets again. “What would your mother say?”

“Same thing she always did,” Steve snorted, clicking Yaakov’s chin strap buckle. “To look after you and be rude about it if I had to.”

Yaakov swallowed hard. “Did you really need much encouragement to be rude?”

Steve’s eyes softened. He touched Yaakov’s shoulder once, close to the base of his neck. “I guess not.”

 


 

When they made it back home, Natasha was waiting for them in the living room. She was one of four people to have a key to the apartment – she, Sam, Steve and Yaakov could all let themselves in anytime they liked. Yaakov wasn’t particularly surprised to see her, although his brain helpfully pulled up her dossier like it did every time it encountered a potential threat. Romanoff, Natalia Alianova. Threat level: 10. Do not turn your back on her, Winter Soldier, she’ll put a knife in your back with a smile.

Yaakov nodded at her, accepting the nod she gave him in return. He wondered what her brain supplied her about him. 

Barnes, James B. Too fucked up to hurt you without crying. 

Yaakov huffed a laugh at himself and touched Steve’s shoulder as he passed him. “Tea, Natalia?” he asked. “We’ve got that fancy ginger shit you like.”

“Yes,” Natasha said, angling her smile up at him. It was a little crooked thing, the kind of smile that one would give the only other person alive who had experienced what they had. “Thank you.”

“Everything alright?” Steve asked.

Yaakov disappeared into the kitchen to put the kettle on, leaving Steve and Natasha to discuss whatever Avengers-related bullshit was new. Maybe there would be a mission – Yaakov liked the missions, if only to stretch his combative muscles and remind himself he was still as competent as ever. He liked aiming his rifle directly over Steve’s shoulder, cutting down whoever made a threatening gesture toward him. It was one of the only times in his new modern life where he felt good in an uncomplicated way.

“What d’you say, Yaakov?” Natasha asked as he reappeared in the living room with a steaming cup for her. “Are you up for a mission? I have a promising lead on a particularly troubling Hydra outpost.”

Yaakov handed her the mug, meeting her eyes over the rim as she tugged the teabag out by the string only to dip it back in. He was glad it had never been necessary for him to tell her what to call him – she’d watched him wince slightly when she tried to call him Bucky, and had assessed correctly that Steve was the only one allowed to put that name in his mouth. She could call him James, though, when she cared to; just the same as he called her Natalia, even now that she was Natasha. They’d been many people, him and her. Sometimes he thought she was the only one who understood.

“Always,” he answered. “Just tell me where and when.”

Steve touched Yaakov’s shoulder, squeezing. “Good,” he said. Yaakov knew that it was.

Chapter Text

The ritual of putting his uniform on piece by piece made Yaakov settle in his body. First the tac pants, rough cloth with fortified knees and many loops and holsters. Leather boots that rose mid-calf. Long sleeved black shirt, kevlar vest overtop, and then the thick blue wool coat that Steve had retrieved from the Smithsonian for him with a huff of an exasperated “It’s your stuff, Buck, it belongs to you.”

James Barnes was a historical figure these days. Very little belonged to him of his past, and Yaakov was just relieved that Steve’s strongly-worded guilt trip letter did the job before he resorted to robbing the museum to try and steal more back.

Yaakov laid out all his knives on the table in the Avengers Compound’s communal kitchen, hands on his hips as he eyed the collection. He picked out several of his favorites and arranged them in their sheathes, lying flat against his thigh, hidden deep in his boot for later retrieval. Strapped to his ribs, just beneath his arm. His coat fit over them poorly, but he was unwilling to take it off, even for ease of movement – this was something Steve had given him, and he wore it with pride. Even if the man it had been tailored to was not nearly as broad in the shoulder as Yaakov was these days.

Armed, dressed, and hair pulled back, Yaakov joined Steve in the front room and looked him over. Steve was in his more subtle costume, dark blue from head to toe, pulling on his fingerless gloves when Yaakov walked in. He smiled immediately, like he always did when he caught Yaakov looking at him. 

“Ready?” he asked.

Yaakov slung his rifle strap over his shoulder. “Lead the way.”

Steve clapped him on the shoulder, then stepped out the front door to where Natasha had the quinjet waiting. 

“Took you boys long enough,” she commented once they’d boarded.

“Sam ain’t even here yet, save your whining,” Steve replied.

Yaakov took his seat and strapped himself in firmly, rifle held between his knees. Steve was in the front with Natasha, the two of them falling into their usual bickering pattern, and Yaakov found himself set at ease by the sound of their voices washing over him. It had always been like this, he remembered. Bundled in the back of an armored van, the other Commandos surrounding him with the kind of noise and clamor that could only come from deep affection.

Natasha thwapped Steve on the back of the head for making a dumb joke, the two of them laughing, and Yaakov knew this was the same noise. 

 


 

Steve in action was beautiful. The arc of his limb in motion, flex of bicep and fist, the hard and weighty sound of knuckles meeting jaw or solar plexus – Yaakov was at his back, close enough to feel the heat of his body, even through his armor. Natasha and Sam were across the base, breaking into Hydra’s records while Steve and Yaakov were as big of a distraction as they could manage. But they were good at that, at being loud. Nothing was flashier than Captain America and the oldest Hydra tool that had broken himself out of bondage.

They still worked well together, him and Steve. Steve rushed in like the tide and Yaakov followed behind, teeth bared, finger tight around his rifle’s trigger. Steve was the punch and Yaakov was the hurt that came after. Steve was the strike and Yaakov was the bruise.

“Stand down, Soldier,” a Hydra agent snarled, pinned to the wall by Yaakov’s metal hand. He writhed, trying to break free. “Do as you’re told, you filthy –”

Yaakov didn’t particularly want to hear the end of that sentence, so he tightened his hold enough to cut off the agent’s airflow. The metal plates of his arm shifted, servos whirring. He’d considered, briefly, wrenching the metal plate connecting his left arm to his shoulder from his body back at the beginning of his rehabilitation – but a hand was just a hand, in the end, and it was only as dangerous as any other individual part of himself. He was glad he’d kept it. Especially in battle like this.

Behind himself, he could hear the sound of Steve tackling someone to the floor, a head hitting the concrete with a crack and a groan. “You’re lucky I’m here with him,” Yaakov hissed, showing his own teeth. “Or you’d be dead already.”

The agent flailed a leg, trying to kick. Yaakov used his free hand to punch him in the stomach once, then again, holding him still for it with his left hand. The agent wheezed, clawing at metal fingers that did not give way.

“Buck,” Steve called out. “He’s the last one.”

Yaakov considered snapping this man’s neck. He could do it easily and with success. It would only take a single contraction of his hand, and for a moment, he squeezed harder.

“Buck,” Steve said again, this time with warning.

Yaakov forced himself to loosen his grip, grabbing a fistful of the agent's collar instead. The man gasped, panting, face blotchy red.

“So you’re America’s lapdog now,” he croaked, coughing hard. “Still a fucking pet.” 

“Such a charmer,” Yaakov said. “Betcha say that to all the boys.” He shoved him up against the wall hard enough to crack the plaster, making the agent’s eyes go unfocused, mouth slack.

“At ease, Soldier,” Steve said, putting a hand on the back of Yaakov’s neck. His voice was firm. “I can take him from here.”

And this was where Hydra was always going to get it wrong: Yaakov was glad to follow Steve, and if that made him his pet, so be it. Better to be on Steve’s leash than chained up in Hydra’s yard. Yaakov released the agent with a push and a disgusted sound, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist.

“All yours,” he spat, and let Steve put cuffs on him, hauling him to his feet once more.

Fury had a transport outside, into which they stuffed all their captured Hydra Nazis to bring them in. Sam and Natasha reappeared to help Steve and Yaakov round them all up and lead them out of the base, and now it really felt like back in the day, rounding up Nazis in a team with Steve leading them in a straight-backed line. Golden hair shining like a beacon in the late afternoon sunshine. Yaakov shadowed him with heavy footfalls.

Steve nudged the last agent into the armored car and shared a nod with the two SHIELD guards inside. He shut the big double doors with a decisive slam and thumped the roof twice, waiting until the engine started running to turn to Sam and Natasha. “Get what we came for?” he asked.

Natasha held up a tiny flash drive and wiggled it.

“Couple scientists were real defensive over it, too,” Sam added. “Seemed pretty important.”

“Good work, you two,” Steve said, grinning. His pride beamed out of him, another kind of sunlight. “Let’s rendezvous back at base, Buck ‘n I will take the long way back.”

Natasha and Sam shared a loaded glance. “Alright,” Natasha said. “Consider passing through medical on your way.”

Sam snorted. “Wanna ask for a pony while you’re at it?”

Natasha stuck her tongue out at him.

“I’ll make him get checked out,” Yaakov promised. He glanced askance at Steve, his smile a curl at one corner of his mouth. “He can’t say no to me.”

“Hey!” Steve said.

“The man’s got a point,” Sam said. “You’re lucky he uses his power for good.”

You all are, Yaakov thought, but found it prudent not to say it out loud.

 


 

‘The long way back’ turned out to be stealing a Hydra vehicle that Steve was all too eager to hotwire. Yaakov could remember driving lessons Dum Dum gave Steve in the war, the two of them manning an enemy tank, and he felt a familiar resigned dread as he folded himself into the passenger seat to watch Steve spark wires together. 

“And people call you a boy scout,” Yaakov muttered.

“Yeah, I don’t know what Tony would say if he saw me doing this,” Steve agreed, sticking the tip of his tongue out the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. “He’d be proud of me, probably. Ha!” The engine turned over with a reluctant rumble, and Yaakov gripped the armrest preemptively. 

“Does this thing fly?” he asked.

Steve’s smile was very toothy. “Let’s find out.”

Two minutes later and Yaakov was white-knuckling the armrest, head thrown back against the headrest, and Steve was grinning with his smugness radiating off him. They were smoothly airborne, because Steve was uncannily good at mastering unfamiliar machinery, although Yaakov couldn’t help but rib him a little. That was part of his job too.

“This better not go like some other times you’ve manned Hydra planes,” Yaakov remarked. “I need a better seatbelt if you’re gonna crash this one.”

“Ha ha,” Steve replied. “Why would I crash a plane with you in it?”

Yaakov slid a sideways glance over the center console. Steve was still wearing a pleasantly mild expression, but his jaw had tightened minutely, grip more firm on the steering mechanism.

“Steve,” Yaakov said, wetting his lips. “Tell me you didn’t crash the Valkyrie just because –”

“Anyway,” Steve interrupted. “There aren’t any bombs on this thing. So.”

Yaakov subsided, but the acid taste in the back of his mouth told him he’d gone too far. He was quiet for a long moment, just tasting it. Then he reached across the console and put his hand on Steve’s leg, squeezing firmly enough that the tips of his metal fingers pressed into Steve’s thigh.

“You’ve gotten better at steering,” he said. “Someday I’m even gonna trust you drivin’ a car.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Flagrantly disobeying air traffic law here, Buck.”

“But safely,” Yaakov pointed out.

Steve shot him a look like he didn’t know if he was exasperated or awed, and Yaakov smiled back, filing away this particular expression of Steve’s as one of his favorites. He squeezed Steve’s leg again.

“Got a little dicey back there.” Steve didn’t move away from Yaakov’s touch, but the muscle clenched and unclenched beneath his palm like he was maybe thinking about it. “With that last agent. You almost killed him.”

Yaakov was good at killing, and sometimes he thought it would be better if that was still the only thing he did. All this effort to reclaim his past and become someone worth being proud of was exhausting, and it would be easy to slip into the Winter Soldier’s skin again, to move from kill to kill with terrible efficiency and resolve and shut down between them. The only man he’d ever hand the reins over to was Steve, though, and Steve would never point him at a target with a kill order – Steve had sworn to him he’d never have to be that man again, back at the beginning when Yaakov had come to him half-starved and wild-eyed and desperate for direction.

Yaakov still felt half-starved and wild-eyed, most days. But at least his hands were cleaner.

“I didn’t kill him,” Yaakov said, quiet. “You told me to stand down.”

Steve’s jaw tightened again, throat working visibly before he got the words out. “Is that the only thing that stopped you? Me ordering it?”

The word yes touched Yaakov’s tongue. “...No,” he said instead. “I don’t want to kill anymore.”

Steve nodded. His shoulders were still tense.

“I don’t,” Yaakov repeated. “Really.”

“After what they did to you, I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” Steve stared straight out the windshield. “Sometimes I wish I... what I mean is, they should be dead. I could have. I don’t know.” He grimaced. “That’s a horrible thing to think.”

“We’re soldiers,” Yaakov said. “How else would we think?”

“I should be satisfied, bringing ‘em to justice.” Steve looked down at Yaakov’s hand, then back up again. “So why aren’t I?”

Because we’re fucked in the head. “Because we weren’t trained to stop at justice.”

The Commandos hadn’t had many limits, back in the day. Carter had been as ruthless as the war had required, and the things she’d had them do, or turned a blind eye toward, were as dark as they were numerous. Yaakov wasn’t sorry for this, precisely. It was some kind of relief that some of his suffering was because of his own choices, and not Hydra’s.

“I won’t kill them,” Yaakov murmured. “I promise.”

Steve made an unhappy sound. “That settles you, what about me?”

Yaakov stroked his thumb over the inseam of Steve’s tac pants, feeling the ridge of it over and over. “If I told you to stand down, would you?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Steve answered.

“Would you believe me if I told you you’re going too far?”

“Jesus, Bucky.”

“I’ll tell you,” Yaakov said. “I’ll tell you, and you gotta promise to believe me.”

“I don’t make you promises I can’t keep,” Steve muttered.

Yaakov raised an eyebrow. “Keep it, then. Say it.”

Steve made another noise and moved his leg a little, so Yaakov took his hand back, folding it in his lap again. He could take a hint. Steve needed a minute to force the words out sometimes anyway, and Yaakov could give him time. If they had anything in abundance now, it was time.

“I promise,” Steve said stiffly after a while. “That I’ll listen if you tell me I’m pushing it.”

“And you’ll keep telling me if I am,” Yaakov said.

Steve glanced down at Yaakov’s hand, then grabbed it, putting it back on his leg. Yaakov hid his smile by turning to look out the passenger-side window.

 


 

They only stopped briefly in medical. Yaakov dutifully showed the nurse the bruises on his side, and she tutted at him before telling him he was fine. Steve too, although she saw the scrape on his head and narrowed her eyes, making him go through concussion protocol just in case. Steve made faces behind her back at Yaakov. 

Afterwards, they got sandwiches. Steve got turkey and lettuce on whole wheat and Yaakov got egg and cheese on a bagel and they sat in the shop to eat it together, because they could do that, now. Steve laughed too hard at his own jokes and Yaakov laughed at him and licked a drip of yolk that trickled down his metal wrist. The sun shined down. In the light, even the bruise shadowing the bridge of Steve’s nose was beautiful, a smudge of oil paint on his face like he was thirteen in his first art class again.

“Why don’t you draw anymore?” Yaakov asked around a mouthful of poppy seed and egg. “You can afford paint and stuff no problem now.”

Steve shrugged. “Lost my muse for a while, back there.”

Yaakov flushed and didn’t ask any more questions.

 


 

A day later, Yaakov went to the mikvah. He tried to after every mission, and the attendants knew him by face now, by name. He stepped into the wash-room and cleaned himself, stripped off the clear coat of nail polish he sometimes put on his right hand, scrubbed his back and carefully probed the sun-burst of scar tissue around the socket of his left shoulder for specks of dirt. The process was as important as the mikvah itself. Yaakov had been filthy for enough consecutive years that he was hyper-aware of cleanliness now – and not just cleanliness of the body, because Hydra had always kept their weapons pristine, and the Winter Soldier was no exception. The dirtiness came from what was inside him, from whatever had taken root in the very center of Yaakov’s soul, flaring bright and high during the missions.

But every time Yaakov submerged himself in the mikvah’s clear water, another layer of Hydra muck sloughed off, leaving him as shiny and raw as any other peeled sunburn. New pink skin. An ache that was hot to the touch.

Yaakov stepped into it now and inhaled, holding it tense and taught in his throat while he dipped his head under. He wondered if God could see him after the very tips of his hair slithered beneath the water, or if he was only visible again once he surfaced. He wondered if he looked like anything at all, beneath the lattice of scars that stitched him up from head to toe.

 


 

Natasha and Sam came over for dinner. Sam cooked while Steve set the table and Yaakov opened a bottle of wine. Natasha was good at picking wine, and this one was a full-bodied red that complimented her nails – Yaakov poured her a glass and handed it to her carefully, which she took with her signature half-smile.

“We gotta do this more often,” Sam said. “I wanna see your faces when we’re out of uniform.”

“Aw,” Steve said. “You wanna see my face.”

Sam rolled his eyes and dished up beef, potatoes, brussels sprouts with garlic butter and onion. Yaakov tossed his fork from hand to hand, making lazy passes like he might do with a pocket knife, although he spared the others the threat of watching him do it with his steak knife. Natasha still put her chin in her hand, elbow on the table, and her look was very knowing. Yaakov shot her a wink as he hefted his fork behind his back and up over his shoulder, where he caught it again.

“Show off,” Steve said fondly.

Like he was one to talk. 

“Nat, tell Steve what a mess Clint got himself into,” Sam said, and Natasha laughed out loud, launching into a story about a yellow lab and some bad guys and a pizza, of all things. Yaakov ate and listened and watched Steve throw his head back when he laughed. It was good, having Natasha and Sam here, laughter passed around the table like a side dish. Steve and Yaakov tended to be more subdued when they were alone. Had it always been like this? There had been laughter between them once, there must have been, but Steve was so quiet these days. His whole self was folded up around his pain in intricate layers and Yaakov didn’t know how to pull them back. Or if he even should. 

“He’s keeping the dog?” Steve demanded, and his shock was enough to make everyone explode into peals of laughter again, Yaakov included. This felt good as well. 

After dinner, Natasha and Yaakov did the washing up. She scrubbed the dishes and handed him them to dry, and he stacked clean plates on the shelf where they belonged, glasses in the cupboard. Steve took Sam out to the garage to show him the repairs he’d made to his motorcycle, like he was a suburban father of two in a mid-life crisis. Sam was a very good sport, though, already asking relevant questions as they went.

“Did you make Steve get his head looked at after all?” Natasha asked, handing Yaakov a water glass. “I saw him get knocked down hard during the mission.”

“Yeah, I made him go,” Yaakov answered. “Did all the usual head injury crap.”

Natasha nudged him with her hip, a calculated movement of camaraderie. But all her movements were calculated, the same as his were, and it only made him appreciate them more. He never had to doubt that she was being his friend on purpose.

“Does he overreact when you get hurt too?” Yaakov asked after a moment, carefully drying a spoon. “Or flip his shit when you gotta get bloodwork?”

“I don’t usually let anyone in the room with me when I get my bloodwork,” Natasha told him. “But he’s helped me pick up my E pills without breaking a sweat.” She glanced at him, rueful. “This might just be a Bucky issue.”

Yaakov only met her gaze for a moment before his eyes flickered away. “He’s not weird about my hormones either, but he gets – crazy, Natalia.”

“You didn’t see how he was when you were dead,” Natasha said frankly. She paused up to her elbows in soapy water, blowing air out of the corner of her mouth to flip a strand of hair off her face. “The bulldog act is a step up from that.”

Yaakov didn’t really want to know what Steve had been before, if this was a step up. “He saw the scar on my belly and had to leave the room,” he said. “Has he seen yours?”

“Only the one you gave me,” she answered, tugging up her t-shirt with a wet hand to show Yaakov the splintering knot of shiny pink scar tissue right above her hip. Then came the familiar flicker of guilt at the sight of it, a twinge in Yaakov's gut, deep as a bone. He reached out and put his thumb to the center of the mass, feeling the warmth of it. Feeling the way she allowed him to do it. She didn’t blame him, he didn’t think, or at least didn’t hold it against him now; she moved her shirt back into place as soon as Yaakov took his hand back, and the scar was covered once more.

Across from that scar, Yaakov knew there was a thin silver line right where her jeans landed, because he had a twin mark to show where Hydra had cut into them both. 

Natasha brushed out a wrinkle in her shirt. “Why do you ask?”

Yaakov shrugged. “Been thinking some things. I don’t know.”

“How pleasantly vague,” Natasha said.

Yaakov looked back at the plate he was drying. “I wouldn’t want him mourning that operation the way he mourns some of others, that’s all.” He flexed his left hand, watching the fingers curl and uncurl dutifully.

Natasha’s look was very assessing. “You were never going to have children that way,” she said. “Correct?”

Yaakov wrinkled his nose, shaking his head. “No.”

“And Steve knows that.”

“...I guess.”

“He mourns the whole thing, Yaakov.” She nudged him with her hip again. “It’s not just that. It’s the whole thing.”

Yaakov was beginning to regret ever bringing it up. Did it even matter what Steve thought about the fact that he was down an organ or two? Yaakov’s body was a theater of horror no matter which way he turned it in the light, and Steve’s opinion would not change this. Steve had proven, anyway, that he would be Yaakov’s friend no matter what body he was housed in.

But what else was Steve willing to be? We’re not married, Buck’s his own man, he’d said, back in the doctor’s office, and the words had been stuck in Yaakov’s brain ever since. There was something he was missing. Something big.

“I’m just saying, you gotta get a fun decal on the side,” Sam was saying as he opened the door. “Redwing, for example, if you want another good idea off the top of my head.”

“I’ll think about it,” Steve laughed. “Hey, guys.”

“Hey,” Natasha said, and flicked water at Sam’s face. He squawked, flinching, which made Natasha very smug and Yaakov smile, even though there was a sick feeling weighing down his stomach like a stone. Natasha wiped her hands on a dish rag. “C’mon, Wilson. I want ice cream and these fools can’t digest it.”

“It’s a gift from my forefathers,” Yaakov said. “What’s your excuse, Steve?”

“The serum fixed everything else,” Steve replied, plaintive. “And it’s not so bad with cheese –”

“Believe me, man, it really is,” Sam said. “Only sayin’ this ‘cause I love you.”

Steve was already replying hotly, Sam cackling, but Yaakov was thinking about how easily Sam said it. That he loved him. He could manage it without pause or hesitation and Yaakov was so horrifically jealous that for a moment he couldn’t even breathe right. When was the last time he’d told Steve he loved him? Years ago, decades, a whole lifetime...

A fuzzy memory swam to the surface, of a hotel room that was better than they could have ever afforded on their own. I was ready to marry you years ago, Steve’s voice, and Yaakov suddenly gripped the counter behind himself tight enough to nearly crack the granite.

“...You okay?” Sam asked, and Yaakov realized the conversation around him had stuttered to a halt.

“Yes,” he answered. “I’m fine.”

Steve’s brow creased, lips parting, but Natasha beat him to whatever he was going to say by nudging Sam’s ankle with the toe of her boot. “C’mon, Sam.”

“Be thinking of you when I get my milkshake,” Sam said, grabbing his jacket. Steve flipped him off. Sam blew a kiss back.

Yaakov grabbed the door, bending his head for Natasha’s goodbye kiss to his cheek, and wrinkled his nose when Sam ruffled his hair on the way out. The two of them walked to where Natasha had parked down the street, Yaakov watching Natasha curl her hand around the crook of Sam’s elbow, and knew that Steve was looking at him. He could feel the press of that gaze like a hand. 

“Dessert?” he asked, turning to Steve. He kicked the door closed, flipping the two locks into place with firm clicks. “If you can wait a second, I’ll make brownies.”

Steve still had an expression on his face like he was about to lay the weight of his worry on Yaakov again, but he stayed quiet and just nodded. Yaakov disappeared into the kitchen and hoped that Steve wouldn’t give his question words until he had a way to answer him.

 


 

Three hours later and they were approaching the end of the second Star Wars film, Yaakov leaning his body on Steve’s again, eyes wide. Steve’s arm was around his shoulders. His hand buried itself in Yaakov’s hair, thumb stroking absently over the base of Yaakov’s skull in slow circles.

Han Solo threw his head back and got frozen at the hands of Darth Vader, and Yaakov felt a wrenching in his chest. Was this what a person looked like, being put into cryostasis? All terror and love and tense shoulders?

At least Steve hadn’t been made to witness it like Leia had.

“You alright?” Steve asked, soft.

“Fine,” Yaakov said. “But he better get unfrozen by the end of this goddamn movie.”

“Um,” Steve said.

Yaakov whirled around. “Are you fucking with me?”

Steve looked bashful, at least. “I didn’t think about this part when I recommended it. That’s my bad.”

“For Chrissakes, Rogers!” Yaakov hit pause and stood, throwing his hands up in the air. “I’m getting the brownies.”

He stalked to the kitchen, where the brownie pan was cooling on the counter. He took a knife and cut generous squares, putting a corner piece on a paper napkin for Steve and a center piece for himself. He was a little calmer by the time he went back to the living room, although his lips were pursed as he handed Steve’s dessert to him and resettled at his side. 

“Go on, then,” he said, nodding at the remote before he put his head on Steve’s shoulder. “I gotta know what happens now.”

Steve’s big hand rested on the ball of Yaakov’s shoulder, cupping over it gently, sweetly. He squeezed and hit play.

They finished the movie like that, tangled up together, and Steve didn’t even play at fighting it when Yaakov’s head drifted from his shoulder and down into his lap. He pillowed his cheek on Steve’s thigh, shutting his eyes briefly when Steve started petting his hair again. Maybe Steve liked this as much as Yaakov did. That was an overwhelming thought, and Yaakov felt that old memory tug at the back of his mind as he watched Han Solo’s frozen body get pushed into a bounty hunter’s spaceship. 

I was ready to marry you so many years ago, Buck. When on Earth had Steve said that? 

“I liked the first one better,” Yaakov said when the credits rolled.

Steve made a noise that might have been amusement or maybe chagrin. “How about Luke’s robot hand, though?”

“I got a high standard for those,” Yaakov said, tipping his head back to shoot Steve a lazy grin.

Steve tugged on a lock of Yaakov’s hair. “You aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are.”

“Lies,” Yaakov yawned, stretching like a cat. It made his shirt ride up a bit, which he had to tug back down. He caught Steve’ gaze flicking toward it though, before he looked back at Yaakov’s eyes, which was – well. That was something. Yaakov pressed teeth to the tip of his tongue. “Did you ever ask me to marry you?” he asked.

Steve’s face went completely blank. “Beg your pardon?”

“Thought I remembered something,” Yaakov said, shrugging. He sat up and grabbed for his and Steve’s trash. “Never mind.”

“Wait, what?” Steve stayed sitting exactly as he had been, not even moving a muscle. “What did you remember?”

“You saying you’d marry me,” Yaakov said. He balled up his napkin and Steve’s and grabbed the water glass on the coffee table. “Which is sounding stupider the more I think about it. Forget it.”

Steve’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Yaakov took that for the cue it was and took their garbage to the kitchen, where he tossed it into the trash can under the sink. He knew his head was fucked, and sometimes that meant getting his memories all mixed up. But that was bound to happen, after his brain had been shoved in the proverbial blender fifty times over the years. This didn’t stop the mortification from curdling in his stomach, but it made it fade quicker.

“That happened,” Steve said from the doorway. “You aren’t getting it wrong.”

Yaakov straightened and turned to him. Steve was very pale, except for a pair of red spots high up on his cheekbones. Yaakov bit his tongue again, a little harder this time.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why’d I propose?”

Yaakov nodded.

“Because it woulda made your life a lot easier if we’d merged our assets officially,” Steve answered uncomfortably. “And everyone thought we were living in sin already. It would have been safer to rent an apartment together if we’d been married, honestly.”

Yaakov looked down at the kitchen tiles. A marriage of convenience, then. His life was full of small and big ways Steve had been willing to sacrifice for him – this was no different, really, although it hurt badly to think about. Yaakov had to imagine Steve was relieved now, not to have to go through the motions of divorcing in the modern era after they both cheated till death do us part.

“Thank you for telling me,” Yaakov said, raising his eyes to look at Steve’s face. “Sorry that it came out of nowhere.”

“You can always ask me those kinds of questions,” Steve said, a pain in his voice that Yaakov couldn’t understand. “Always, Buck. Tell me you know that.”

“I do,” Yaakov said. “I do know that.”

But he was afraid that what he had to ask would hurt Steve even more.