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It is hard to believe, what has happened to Steve and yet not hard at all; the vessel that held him then should always have been bigger, stronger, touched with greatness. It is the body that matches the big heart, the one that stood up for stupid stray mutts with cans on their tails and little kids pushed down on the playground and got the shit kicked out of him more often than Bucky cared to think about, added a few cracked ribs to weak lungs more than once. If the body was the temple of the soul, Steve's was the cathedral his avenging angel deserved now.

Bucky has never known how to behave in church. You would probably have to believe in God first.

He believes in Steve, mostly because it's too crazy for him to have made up even if he had lost his mind strapped to a table in hell. And as it becomes more real, he forces himself to be more clear because miracles are something you don't waste, whether you understand why they came or not.

"The medics said you wouldn't let them look at you."

Steve has always been a mother hen, and isn't that a laugh, given how many times Bucky's had to look after him. "Oh, for the love of - Steve, I'm fine, I mean, I just walked thirty goddamn miles." He would sooner walk it again, this time barefoot over broken glass, than let a doctor touch him again. He's fine. Everything has stopped bleeding, it's fine. "How hurt can I be?"

Penetrating blue eyes look at him, see so much and when did Steve learn to look at people like that, expecting the lie, the half-truth? Was that something that a doctor had done to him remaking his body, or was that something he'd learned posing for posters and smiling in a way that didn't touch his eyes? He would never have guessed the Captain America in the pictures was Steve, not the way it had been instantly clear in the factory no matter how big he was now.

Whoever it was who did that to him, to his Steve, Bucky hates them.

Steve, meanwhile, is giving him The Look. How he can still look that pathetic when he's got a good five, six inches and at least fifty pounds on Bucky now is both profoundly wrong and weirdly reassuring, as are all the reminders that his Steve is still somewhere in that mountain masquerading as a man. "Bucky, let me help, okay? Get you cleaned up at least. Who knows what kinda dirt you coulda got in those cuts on the way back and lockjaw is no joke."

"How would you know? The one thing you NEVER got, something to keep you from flappin' your yap." Steve's voice is the same and Bucky hopes he never stops talking again.

"Jerk. Shut up or I won't bother heating up the water, just grab a scrub brush and some degreaser from the motor pool."

"Jeez, Steve, you sure know how to sweet talk a guy. Aren't you even gonna buy me a drink first?"

"Bucky, cut me a break here, I did actually, literally, jump through fire for you." Bucky's breath catches a little bit thinking about that, the horror and wonder of it. Fortunately, Steve does not see that because he is rummaging tiredly in the pocket of his torn-up jacket, tosses a small silver flask at him. "There. Now take off your shirt, you smell like a fire in a pigsty."

He fumbles the cap off and takes a swig, almost coughs. It's strong, but more than that it's high-class hooch, moreso than the likes of them could ever afford at home anyway. Sweetly earthy, it coats a thin layer of numbness over raw throat and mind both; there is nowhere near enough in it to get as unfeeling as he would like but he's grateful for what there is. "Unexpectedly classy, Rogers. They payin' you for two guys now since that's how big y'are?"

Steve shrugs, ears reddening. "People give me things. I don't know why. Shirt, Bucky."

He would gladly give Steve the shirt off his back, he thinks muddledly, fever, lack of food and blood loss making him loopier than a few ounces of fancy Scotch ought to, and would have before but--

"What's so funny?" Steve's smile is lopsided and gentle.

"It won't fit you. I mean, it wouldn't have before but now I'm pretty sure you couldn't get an arm in there, ya moose. Never could do anything halfway."

Steve shakes his head and smiles as Bucky finally pulls the shirt over his head. Somehow, since it's Steve, he feels less horribly naked than the last time he'd been told to strip although he still closes his eyes and takes another swallow from the flask. It is almost more than he can stand, the gentle hands sponging away blood and dirt, until Steve starts talking again. "You know, this reminds me of the time Ethel Kowalkski's brother caught you looking in the window--"

It could not possibly be less like that, and he lets out a harsh surprised bark of laughter. "She should have pulled the blinds."

"She probably wasn't figuring on someone climbing the tree. Anyway, you limped for a week."

Bucky snorts. "Like you can talk. With you around, probably stopped more bloody noses than St. Kate's Hospital."

"You always patched me up, though." Big as he is now, it is still Steve's deft, gentle touch. "Just like this." He is swabbing the cuts with iodine, something slick and sticky slithering over the burns. Bucky can't breathe, caught between the memory of those hurts being made and Steve's hands and warmth sealing them over, wonders dimly if this is what asthma feels like. Steve stops as he stiffens, hand closing over his nape. "Just like this," he whispers again, his breath feathers over Bucky's ear, over and over until the panic eases enough for him to finish what he's doing. "I'm going to let you take care of the rest, okay?"

"Man, Rogers, just like you to leave a guy hanging." Again, it could not be less like that but Steve hears what he really said.

"Bitch, bitch, bitch." He kneels down and takes Bucky's boots off. "Jesus, Barnes, we could win the war in a half-hour, just wave those socks at the Krauts. Except that's probably against the Geneva convention."

"Yeah, well, I think that only counts if THEY give a shit."

"Yeah." Steve's mouth is grim and Bucky wishes he hadn't said it.

Maybe that's why he says with elaborate casualness, "You know, as long as you're down there..."

Steve looks up at that, something raw in his eyes even as he wrinkles his nose and laughs. "The way you smell right now? Pass."

Pieces shatter and reform like a kaleidoscope and Bucky closes his eyes, too tired to think about anything any more, to even care that he's stripped to the skin before Steve is satisfied and dresses him again in things that must be his, too big but clean and warm and with that faintly summery smell of warm skin.

***

The problem with being drunk all the time is a) the US Army and b) it doesn't help as much as a guy might think. Bucky has figured this out before a week has gone by as they get shipped back to London for reassignment and debriefing. What will take more than a week to figure out is Steve.

Captain goddamn America rates his own tent, and Steve being Steve hates being set aside from everybody else whether it's because of his health or now because he's a movie star, so it's constantly full of the last of the 107th, as well as the other flotsam and jetsam they picked up in the factory. "Really, really corny movies." His ears are red again.

"Who cares, Steve? Just tell us if you met Lauren Bacall," Morita smirks. The others shout out their dream girls too, and Steve grins and shakes his head.

"You guys, are dames all you think about? Never mind, you hang around with this jerk," he smacks Bucky on the shoulder and almost knocks him over, "I know the answer to that." Steve is handling teasing a lot better than he did once; Bucky remembers when he was the only one who wouldn't get a suspicious glare and clenched fists for kidding around. He is happy for Steve, that his new skin fits him more comfortably but it leaves Bucky feeling strangely hollow. Unnecessary. Steve can more than fight his own battles now.

"Yeah, well. What does that say about you, ya punk, that I hang out with you?"

Steve huffs an unexpected laugh, eyes going warm and wicked. "You know, before I went AWOL to hump your sad asses back, Colonel Phillips told me he didn't expect a chorus girl to understand strategy."

The guys roar with laughter; Bucky, surprised but never one to let anybody have the last word, even Steve, gives him a smacking kiss on the cheek. "You do look good in tights. But honey, please, you gotta shave more often, I'm gettin' rug burn."

***

What Steve doesn't understand, although he has the slightly sick feeling Agent Carter might have, is that Bucky's flirtation when they met wasn't actually meant for her. She was competition for Steve's attention, that's all. There is not enough whiskey in the pub for that realization, although Bucky makes a truly heroic effort.

The crowning humiliation is waking up to puke and realizing that he doesn't know where he is, but someone had stripped him to boxers and dogtags and put him to bed with a bucket next to him - one guess who that must have been. "You done?" Steve asks quietly when he's caught his breath, disposes of the bucket when he nods and brings him a glass of water. "Want to tell me what this is about?"

SURE, Steve, Bucky thinks while suppressing the urge to start hysterically laughing. There is nothing I want to talk about more right now than how I've gone queer or maybe just insane. "About? Other than I shoulda had more sense than drinking straight whiskey after weeks on starvation rations with the Krauts and it got away from me?"

"Bucky..." Steve sighs and doesn't press; Bucky wonders a little desperately what he sees but Steve's eyes are still clear and warm on his. "Get some sleep."

He returns to the chair he's apparently been trying to sleep on and Bucky growls. "You kiddin' me? If anybody should be sleeping in the chair - there's room for both of us here, just keep your hands to yourself." He smirks to make it a joke, rather than a prayer. For what, exactly, he's not sure. "Not like it'd be the first time we've had to share."

"Yeah, yeah. If you throw up on me I'm punching you in the nose. A less idle threat than it used to be." Steve comes over and stretches out, drops the blanket over both of them. "Seriously, Bucky, get some shut-eye. You need it. Don't think I haven't noticed."

"Easier sometimes than others, Mother. But if you'd just shut up I think I can get there." The snap in his voice is empty, his hand on Steve's for a moment crushing-hard before he turns over to curl into the pillow, away from the warmth he can still feel against his skin, something that feels like sun beating down on pavement in Brooklyn rather than the shadows under German woods. And he does sleep, eventually.

Despite the best intentions, he wakes tucked against Steve, cheek on his chest. He noses in and tastes, takes a step closer to hell because he has to; Steve's skin, both salt and sweet, forcibly reminds him of licking cotton candy and sea spray off of his lips. The sense-memory is as far away from where they are and who they have become as Coney Island itself and he wants it with that same simple and physical greed.

"Jesus, Bucky." Steve's voice breaks a little, and Bucky looks up into hurt and confused blue eyes, catches his breath at that look. "You too, huh?" Steve tries to turn away and pull the covers over himself, and Bucky is torn between wanting to run and homicidal rage. Bad enough if he has made unwanted indecent advances, but the thought that someone else has makes him want to hurt something, someone.

"What do you mean, me too? Who's been--"

"For Christ's sake, Bucky, we've known each other how long? You know I wouldn't have said anything, wouldn't have cared, wouldn't have...woulda done anything for you. Anything. Jesus, I lo--" His eyes are wet and furious. "I love you," he finished the sentence, looking more lost suddenly than angry. "But no, then I was just a skinny punk you felt sorry enough for to hang out with. You don't want me, you want Captain America. I've gotten used to that from strangers, but you?"

"Steve, no," Bucky chokes out, appalled. "It's not like that-"

"What is it like, then?" Steve's voice is dull as he huddles in on himself; it is as if he is trying to shrink back to someplace familiar and forgotten.

"It's not THIS," Bucky says, pushing up and jabbing a finger into Steve's ribs hard enough to make his head snap up, a snarl flash across his lips, to look at him and meet his eyes when he did. "You think the body's what I want? You came, when everyone else had given up, because of me. You came, you knew, you know. Everything. You're the last safe place in the world and it's got nothing to do with being a musclebound ox."

A spasm of pain crosses Steve's face. "You don't - you always will be, with me, safe. You don't have to -"

"Of course I don't have to. I want to. Because life is too short and you don't think anybody has to do anything, not for you. It's going to stop, this everything for everybody else and not for you because I'm here and I will and I want to. Because it feels good and I want to make you feel good." Steve licks his lips uncertainly, eyes huge, and Bucky leans down to kiss him, tangles his hands into dark gilt hair as lips meet lips. It is a long tense moment before Steve sighs, hands that had come up to push at Bucky instead slipping shyly around him as Bucky nips at his lower lip, sucks on it and hums soft approval at the harsh sound in Steve's throat, the restless arch of his body beneath Bucky's pushing up for more contact, more friction, more. Steve's color is high, his breath short as Bucky has to come up for air, something bruised and raw and trusting all at once and it's like the world settles back into its spin because this Steve is HIS Steve. "There you are," he whispers, throat closing. "I'll take care of you, Steve. Let me take care of you."

"Jerk," Steve whispers, a caress. "Take care of each other."

"That's good because honestly I don't know what to do next," Bucky says with a crack of laughter. Steve rolls his eyes and smiles as Bucky bends to kiss him again and for a good long while that is enough, learning the taste of Steve's mouth, the ticklish tender places when he draws his nails down his sides and that he could probably get him off just playing with his nipples as Steve lets out a breathy moan and rocks his hips against Bucky's. He is caught up enough in watching Steve's face that Steve's hand closing around his cock is a surprise, the light experimental squeeze and Steve's thumb brushing gently over the tip lighting up his body like a rocket.

"Yeah?" Steve asks huskily, and Bucky can't find enough breath to say 'yes,' just nods and kisses him again, reaches for him. The silky weight and heat of Steve's dick in his hand, the intent look on Steve's face turning to something like abandon at his touch is both dizzying strange and viciously hot. Steve's hand tightens on him as he bites his lip, the arch of his neck so perfect that Bucky has to bite it, hips rolling against him as Steve jerks him off in smooth steady strokes, a little twist of his wrist that drives him nuts thinking about Steve touching himself like that, wonders if Steve's thought about this before when he does that and he's never going to be able to touch himself again without that picture in his mind or this one, Steve's eyes blown and wild, the blue only a faint circle around his pupils and his lips bitten red, flush spread over his chest and his hand on Bucky's cock.

"Fuck, Steve, now, please," he moans. Some small dim part of him is embarrassed by the needy whine in his voice except for the effect it has on Steve, who jolts as if he's been struck. He spends thick and hot in Bucky's hand and it's pleasure in that control, in knowing he'd done that that carries Bucky over too, breathing in harsh gasps as Steve moans again at the hot splash of Bucky coming against his belly. They collapse together, sticky, sweaty, happy and things will be complicated after, in the morning, in the field but right now there is nothing complicated at all, just Steve, holding onto him as if he will never let go.

"We'll get better at that," Steve pants.

"Impossible," Bucky murmurs, and closes his eyes, basks in it, in him, smiles as Steve brushes kisses over closed eyelids.

***

The suit does not stop bullets; Howard had specifically pointed that out. That is the shield's job, and Steve's reflexes, and Bucky's, although Steve keeps telling him it isn't.

The hell with THAT noise, Bucky thinks.

Some days there are just too many goddamn bullets to keep track of and the stupid thing about the one that hits Steve is that it wasn't even aimed, a ricochet that he doesn't even notice in the heat of the moment, or so he tells Bucky when they are running like hell from exploding buildings and furious Krauts and Bucky sees the spreading stain purpling the blue.

"Bad luck," Steve winces and smackes at Bucky's hands as he tries to look at it an hour later, dug into a thicket while Jones and Morita putz with the wireless to yell for a pickup. "I can still use the arm. We don't have time for this."

"We don't have time for you to keel over from blood loss, either!" Bucky rips at his collar fastening, heart hammering. Jesus, there's a lot of blood..

"He's got a point," Falsworth murmurs in that posh Brit tone that makes everything sound reasonable. "There's quite a large artery in that area, better to take care of now than wish we had later if we need to walk back." Steve can't really protest that, although Bucky can see he'd like to; he stays still although he glares at them both as they work. "Nasty, you've got a bit of the scalemail from the suit in there with the bullet; it keeps cutting you so you don't heal up. The good news is, it's not too far in, mostly lodged against the bone. I think I can get it out and then you'll be right as rain." Falsworth's voice is easy and clinical and Bucky is grateful for that because HE'S mostly trying not to puke.

"Don't bother with that," Steve says brusquely as Falsworth goes for a syrette of morphine. "Won't work, none of it does. Just get it out."

Falsworth blanches a little bit under the tan and the soot, and Bucky tries very hard not to think about that. "Tell me what I can do, what you need me to do."

"It'll want packing, gauzes and such. Iodine. Barnes, get the kettle hot so I can have a decent wash-up, get things cleaned up enough to see what I'm doing. Mostly just get your hands clean, hold what I give you and give it back when I ask you for it."

"Okay. I can do that." He has the feeling that Falsworth just wants him out of the way and not hovering, but on the off chance he IS actually being useful he assembles things as Dugan and Dernier keep watch. "How's that radio coming, guys?"

Morita makes a face. "Nothin'. Piece of shit."

"All right then, let's to it. Cap, you going to be able to stay still?" Falsworth is done scrubbing hands and pouring boiling water and iodine over the forceps.

"Yeah. Just do it."

Steve closes his eyes as Falsworth digs for a few minutes in raw flesh, pulse hammering at his throat and lashes flickering. He does not start to shake until the bullet has slid free and Falsworth goes back in for the bits of scale armor it carried with it; Bucky sets the supplies back on Falsworth's pack and holds him at that, one arm around his chest and the other where neck and shoulder meet, bracketing the damage, steadying him. Bucky knows he is not nearly strong enough to hold him still if he pulls away but it seems to ground him a little, enough for Falsworth to grip the offending bits of metal and pull them out. Steve is white as a sheet by the time he's done, breathing in great gulps. "That it? You got it?"

"'Deed we did, Cap. Hold still and we'll get you bandaged up, be good as new in no time."

It is the first time Bucky has seen Steve look tired since they've been overseas, but he doesn't flinch as they wrap the wound and Steve rotates his arm carefully. "Okay. Okay, that's good."

It's so far from good good can't see it from there but it's as much as they can do, Bucky thinks savagely as Falsworth breaks into his jealously guarded hoard of tea and sugar. "So not the time-" Dum Dum growls, and Bucky understands it, that temper that is so much easier than fear, than seeing the man who can rip the hatch off a tank like another man might open a bottle looking pale and sick and mortal. Understands it, but wants to punch him nonetheless.

"It's exactly the time," Falsworth says coolly, pressing a revoltingly sugared cup into Steve's hands, "unless you want him to go into shock. Don't hear you firing, so Jerry can't be that close." Steve stares at the cup for a moment as if it's too much effort to pick it up and drink but after a moment he does, gulps down scalding liquid and climbs to his feet.

"Dum Dum's right, we need to keep moving. Pack up the radio, Gabe, Jim. We'll try again in a few miles."

They make it all of two miles before the next encounter, a short ugly firefight that leaves Steve sluggishly bleeding again as he slings the shield to his back. "Don't." Bucky's voice is quiet and urgent, desperate, even. "Let us fight."

Steve bites down on a flash of temper, eyes glittering. "I'm not in any danger. Long way to being tapped out."

"We can't give you anything, you goddamn stubborn tank, so quit making it worse," Bucky hisses. "It is shit for morale to know you're causing your CO pain. Sir."

"Is getting your squad hurt better? Great. I'll just sit the next one out then."

Dernier spouts off a sourly humorous string of French and Jones can't stifle the snort. "Think we could all use the laugh, Gabe." There's a little snap of command and temper in Steve's voice, for all it is joking.

"He said, 'I hate it when mom and dad fight,'" Gabe said, studiously not looking at either Steve or Bucky, and the silence was absolute and total until Steve's harsh chuckle.

"And which - never mind, I don't wanna know. Keep moving."

"Can we stop for ice cream?"

"Shut up, Dugan." Steve mock-scowls ferociously

Morita grins, irrepressible even here, even now. "I want a puppy."

"Don't make me turn this squad around!" Barnes growls, and they are hardened professionals, that should not be funny but sometimes the only thing you can do when you're covered in blood and mud is laugh, instead of scream.

They make it back without any further engagement, proof to Bucky that God must still like Steve at least, since by all rights all of occupied France should have heard them along the way, cackling like loons.

***

Hours and a debriefing almost as painful as the op later, Bucky brings food and a fresh towel filled with snow for Steve's shoulder to replace the one that has melted away. It looks it aches like a sonovabitch, Steve's skin almost blue-white, but it's the only thing that helps numb the pain of injury. Bucky sits down with a sigh to watch him, make sure he eats; the transition he went through demands an incredible amount of fuel and he shorts himself in the field, eats the half-rotten things nobody else can without getting sick to keep the rest of them from going hungry.

The silence stretches out, and finally Steve looks up. "Can't be like that out there, Bucky. I'm not fragile and you can't protect me. Yes, it hurts, but tomorrow it'll be knitted up and in a week there won't even be a scar. Anybody else had taken that hit, he'd be in a lot worse shape, and so would the rest of us getting him out. This is what I was made for."

"Due respect, but you're wrong," Bucky said steadily. "Maybe if there was that whole army like you they were gonna try to make, maybe if if that sorry Hydra son of a bitch hadn't killed the doc and he'd had a plan for how to help you if you got hurt. But you're worth a lot more doing the things nobody else can than being a human one of these." He tapped the shield next to him. "It's a tool, and a symbol, but it's not all of you, not by a long shot. You see things once and remember them, you can tell the intel people, draw pictures, make maps. You climb and jump like a cat to get into places the rest of us can't, you run like a horse to make sure nobody breaks away to give warning. You can take out a whole platoon without any more sound than meat hitting dirt. And you give people hope. Not us, not me or Falsworth or Dernier or Dugan or Jones or Morita. You, and you can rant at me about how that's not right or fair and well, things aren't but when have they ever been? I'm just saying, Steve. Let us do for you what we'd do for any CO, any special ops, who wasn't you. Let us protect you better, now that we've seen what happens when we're careless. Let us do our damn jobs."

Steve's breath sighs out as he half-smiles at Bucky, heart in his eyes. "Fine. You be less insubordinate and I'll be more careful."

"See that you are," Bucky rasps, knowing very well he won't. "Do you need more ice?"

Steve grimaces. "No. Starting to cramp now. Food helped, think maybe I could sleep now." He looks sideways at Bucky. "Might feel better yet with someone to keep me steady."

Bucky smiles helplessly. "Any excuse, huh."

"Shameless. Get in here."

He strips to undershirt and shorts, slides in behind Steve and holds him the way he had when Falsworth worked, arm loosely lapped over broad chest and forehead against his nape. However, the way Steve relaxes against him with a raspy hum of contentment, the way his cock registers Steve's ass pressed up against it represent definite improvements.

Steve chuckles low in his throat. "Awww, Buck, you're such a hopeless romantic."

"Fuck you," Bucky mumbles against his shoulder, which is a mistake because it brings up very much the wrong sort of mental picture for calming the hell down. They have not actually done that yet; neither one of them quite knows how that works, and given the total lack of privacy they're usually afforded they are agreed it is a Very Bad Idea to try and figure it out in the field. That will not change tonight, surrounded by other tents and Steve hurt, but it doesn't mean they're not both thinking about it, Steve's hand coming up to bring Bucky's down over his belly, fingers laced into his as he presses back against him.

"Comfortable?" Bucky mumbles, trying for acid and coming out more breathless.

"Darnedest thing, feels like something's poking me," Steve says innocently, snuggling back against him.

"Steve, don't make me hurt you," Bucky chokes, kisses him between the shoulder blades and it is almost enough.

"Do you ever shut up?" Steve eels around in his arms and tangles his fingers in Bucky's hair, kisses his protests silent. He should be smarter than this but Bucky is deeply, horribly grateful that he's not, muffles his moan against the uninjured shoulder and then bites his lip not to gasp as Steve kisses his way down his body. It isn't hard to be silent when both of their careers depend on it, but it's a damn shame is what it is, dark and silent and as still as they can stay. In some far-off place in the back of his head not taken up with the contrast of Steve's gentle callused fingers and his mouth, oh sweet Jesus his mouth there, Bucky promises himself the next leave they get he's going to turn every light and lamp on, every candle he can beg or borrow to burn the sight of Steve taking him apart onto the back of his eyelids, see it even in the dark.

***

Bucky half-awakens every time Steve shifts afterwards; it is the least restful sleep ever and he is ridiculous grateful for it, for being able to do it. He is also ridiculously grateful when the next morning, they get their orders to come back to London for an emergency briefing; it means that everyone can rest and regroup a little. He steadfastly refuses to think too hard about what else it probably means, that their next fight will take them back to Schmidt and Zola face to face. Bucky is not ashamed to admit he is afraid of Schmidt, but Zola is another matter; he is not sure he will be able to take him alive, that the rage that Zola wrote on his bones with needles and scalpels and clever little electrical instruments is something he can control - or even wants to. He hopes like hell if they find them, Steve gets there first so he doesn't have to find out what he's capable of now. There are worse things than death, like being in the hands of a monster or becoming one.

They load up in Stark's little silver plane and Agent Carter is there to pepper Steve with questions, beautiful worried brown eyes shining. This too is a source of shame because Jesus, a beautiful dame as opposed to him, there is no question what the better deal is for Steve. Steve, of course, has never known what's good for him and Bucky has never let go of a good thing when he's managed to get hold of it, so there they are. Mostly he doesn't think about a time when he will have to push Steve away so he can have a normal life, or as close to one as what he's become will allow; there's a good enough chance one or both of them won't make it far enough for it to be an issue.

Bucky hopes that if it comes to that, it's him, because he doesn't think he knows how to be the guy who left any more. Even if he can, there's no question the world needs Steve Rogers more than Jim Barnes' boy, and that was true long before they made Steve into Captain America.

Stark drags Steve off not long after they land to test some new gimcrack or other; Bucky imagines it'll be his turn later to be gifted with some fantastic new gadget, a new piece in Howard's personal chess match with HYDRA. Howard's a fun guy, and under other circumstances - Bucky can't quite imagine what those would have been, but saying they had met somewhere - he probably would have liked him well enough. But he can't quite shake the feeling that for Howard, this is still a game and one he doesn't have much skin in at that, just his pride. He wouldn't wish it on the guy, though, that he lose enough for it to be real. He knows that feeling too well.

Agent Carter, on the other hand, knows more about what's going on than any dame should have to. Knows more about a lot of things than any dame should have to and most fellas come to that, he thinks as she stops in front of him, just out of arm's reach. "Walk with me, Sergeant Barnes," she murmurs, not quite an order, and he falls in beside her.

"Ma'am?" he replies, an inquiring tilt to his eyebrow as she led him into the little closet of an office set aside for her, closed the door behind them.

"This...isn't a "ma'am" conversation, James." She takes a deep breath as he instinctively bristles at the name. "I won't make him choose between us," she says baldly, brown eyes fearless and unreadably dark on his. "Will you?"

His color drains, teeth baring. In England, they lock you up for what they do. "I don't know what you're implying, ma'am."

"Peggy," she says fiercely. "Call me Peggy, for God's sake. Do you think I don't know? I'm a covert operative, I've served tea to Heinrich bloody Himmler. If I didn't know how to spot tells I'd have been dead fifty times over. I'm telling you, bring him home to me safe and I don't care what you feel or what you do about it. Get him killed and I'll make it my life's work to make you wish it had been you."

"Ma--Peggy. If that happens I'll let you." He smiled bitterly. "He doesn't--not like that."

"If you think I believe that, or worse, if you actually do, you're a purblind idiot," she says crisply. "He always swings back to you--the needle on a c-compass." She bites her lip and Bucky thinks about that, about her picture in Steve's compass and all the ways you use to guide your way home. "It needn't change anything, him and me. It'd tear the heart out of him. I just - let me give him the things you can't, and you give him what he needs. It's enough. Because it's him, it's enough."

He stares at her as if she'd taken leave of her senses, says slowly as if to a child, "You're about as crazy as he is, stiff with self-sacrifice, fucking stupid with it. D'you think he'd go for that for a minute?"

"It's nothing to do with self-denial. It's to do with reality," she snaps. "You and I, James--"

"Bucky," he replies, gently and firmly, still confused as to how this could POSSIBLY have anything to do with the real world. "It's Bucky. Only my ma ever called me James, for the man she married. Who was a worthless drunk."

"You and I, Bucky, we're realists." Her eyes blur with tears, although her voice is still level. "And the reality is, we're each only half of his whole. But together we might be enough. And truth be told I'd rather the devil I know..." She tries to smile.

He almost laughs, eyebrows climbing to his hairline. "You would, would you? Are you offering me your soul?" He reached out and trails his knuckles along her jaw; she stiffens and he smirks to hide the stab. "Ah, so it's just one boy from Brooklyn who rates that then?"

"Oh, fuck you and your ridiculously fragile ego, you have Beelzebub's own charm and well you know it. I'll not give you what he doesn't know about or agree to, he'd never understand or forgive either of us and surely you know him well enough to know that." Her breath hitches with temper and he sees what Steve sees, the steel, but is attracted to the strain instead. Oh, what she's willing to do for Steve and it works on him in ways he hadn't expected.

"I do. I wasn't sure you did. He's not the...sophisticated kind. Pax, Peggy?" He offers his hand, simple and straightforward, if anything possibly could be in this convoluted mess.

"Pax, Bucky. And he may surprise you. He has me, many times over."

He leans in and kisses her on the cheek, high beside the ear. "Fair enough. I should go."

"Sergeant," she says easily as she opens the door, all composure again except for the burning dark eyes.

"Ma'am." He nods, with the respect not for a commander but for a worthy sparring partner. "We'll talk again." There is something in his voice that he himself does not recognize until much later as the beginning of...hope.

***

There's no time to hesitate, to second-guess, to do anything but move, throw himself between the goon with the blaster and Steve's vulnerable sprawl. This was what he was saved for, he thinks as he braces his feet and levels the gun.

Then there's a lifetime of seconds measured in years hanging over the edge of the ravine, half-shriek, half-sigh as the metal gives way and Steve's hand closes on air. The rush of wind feels like the undertow of a receding wave and the cry that rips out of his throat, echoes in Steve's is strangely muffled by it, air buffeting like water and the river beneath him like earth as he strikes the surface.

Strangely, his last regret is for Peggy as the water closes over his head. Sorry, he wants to say, I wanted to be the devil you knew.

The surface shimmers from below, the color of summer-blue eyes and he smiles as everything slips away.