The mid-morning sun beat down on the back of Bucky's neck; his mouth was dry, he was getting a headache from squinting, even with the hat, and he was sore in every muscle, including some he'd forgotten he had. He hitched his pack off the sore spots on his shoulders, but it slipped back in ten or so steps, settling right where it had been. A long strand of hair had come loose from the ponytail he'd put it in, tickling his nose, and in general, Bucky felt gritty, sticky, and worn to the bone. He lifted his hat off, wiped his hair back, and then settled it on his head again, feeling the prickly heat start up all over his scalp as soon as it was covered. The asphalt radiated heat, sending up shimmering waves that danced ahead of him, forever just out of reach. Just like the desert, except the desert had never achieved this level of humidity; it made Bucky feel like he was trying to breathe underwater.
As he walked, all around him stretched fields of furrowed earth, or stubs, or fields of tall corn and wheat and other things, plants he couldn't identify beyond 'mostly green'' and 'leafy'. The fields went all around, to the horizon, with little islands here and there of houses, barns, outbuildings, and what Bucky guessed were silos or something for grain. Sometimes there were horses or cows, standing and switching their tails; once or twice there had a been a dog, barking from a porch or road, tongue lolling, too hot to give chase. Windbreaks of trees - evergreens, or leafy types - stood motionless in the hot air, and everything seemed muted, muffled, holding its breath under the dome of the sky.
And oh, the sky…. The sky was endless. Under it, Bucky felt small and thin, like a shadow, or a ghost. Insubstantial.
It was so very quiet that Bucky heard the sound of a lone bit of machinery long before he saw it. He came up a little rise and around a curve, boots crunching on the gravelled verge alongside a field that was only half harvested. Furrowed earth and a litter of chaff and stubbs gave way to tall stalks of grey-gold wheat, and the big, faded-red machine halfway down one row was making a clattering kind of noise. And then it made a noise that even Bucky, Brooklyn to the bone, could tell was a bad one.
The engine cut off, whirring down to silence, and the man sitting up in the seat, under a patched sun shade, just sat there for a moment as the little cloud of tan dust settled around him. He fished out a crumpled red bandana and wiped his face and the back of his neck.
"Well, jeez Louise," the man said mildly, and Bucky felt a sudden, giddy surge go through him: fondness, longing, amusement - hope. And he had to laugh.
"Language, Cap!" he called, his voice hoarse and startlingly loud in the silence.
The man's head whipped around, making his hat tumble off, and Bucky laughed again, because...it was just so good - so good - to see that sun-tanned face and gold-brown hair, grown out ridiculously into a sweat-spiked mess. Steve squinted over the fifty or so meters between them, and Bucky obligingly swept off his own hat, crumpling it between nervous fingers.
"Brooklyn?" Steve said, his voice going a little high, and that giddy feeling - heart pounding, head spinning - swamped Bucky again, and he felt himself grinning, an unfamiliar stretch of muscles.
"Hey, Cap," Bucky said, and watched as Steve slung himself down from the seat of the machine, stuffing the bandana into the back pocket of his jeans. The jeans were faded nearly white, the thin overshirt a faded green, and the white tee under stained with sweat. As Steve waded through the dry stalks of wheat, Bucky could see he was fuzzed all over with golden dust.
Steve stomped closer, slipping on dry clods, then he stepped out onto the grassy verge and stopped, a couple feet from Bucky. Even his eyelashes, Bucky thought distractedly, were gold.
"Damn, Brooklyn. I can't believe you're here," Steve said, and Bucky shrugged, shuffling his feet a little, ambushed by emotions he couldn't even name. They made his eyes prickle and he blinked hard.
"Yeah, long time no sss-" Bucky started, voice dissolving into a sort of undignified squeak as Steve took two steps forward and enfolded him in a huge, hot, bone-cracking hug. Steve smelled like sweat and dust and, very faintly, citrus. Bucky stiffened for a moment, then went limp and let his head come down on Steve's shoulder, clutching fiercely back. He felt as if he'd been drifting, all this time; just floating, no purpose, no direction. And here, pressed up tight against Steve's sweaty, messy bulk, he settled. Anchored, finally.
They seemed to stand there forever, in a circle of heat and silence, just breathing. Bucky felt the weight of days and nights and miles pulling him down; all he wanted to do was be still. Steve's arms loosened and he stepped back, reaching up to rub the back of his hand once, quickly, over his eyes. "I can't believe you're here. Look at your hair, jeez! How'd you-? Why are you-? Aw, Buck…." Steve said, and stopped, and Bucky knew Steve had finally registered how Bucky's left sleeve was empty; how his arm just...ended, a few inches below his shoulder. Bucky felt that old, familiar anger and aversion well up in him...and drain away. This was Steve.
So he shrugged again, instead, looking at Steve, feeling a crooked smile tug at his lips. "Guess I wasn't watching where I was going," he said softly, and Steve forced a little smile, wobbly at the edges.
"Ah hell," Steve said. He reached out and deftly unhooked Bucky's pack from his shoulders, swinging it up onto his own broad back by one strap, his other hand settling on Bucky's left shoulder, up close to his neck. His fingers were warm, and dry, and a little rough, and the touch made Bucky shiver. "C'mon up to the house and get a drink. I won't be startin' the Beast up again any time soon," he said, jerking his chin at the hulk of metal that he'd abandoned in the field.
"Broke, huh? What'ja do to it?" Bucky asked, and Steve snorted.
"It's almost seventy years old. What haven't I done to it?"
"Seventy years?" Bucky asked, twisting a little to look back at the machine as Steve guided them both down the verge, continuing Bucky's route for another couple minutes until they came to a gravel road with a cattle guard, and a tilting black mailbox with 'Rogers' painted in sky-blue.
"Was state-of-the-art in my great-grandpa's day. Or maybe great-great…." Steve shrugged a little, grinning. "Can't afford a new one, and don't have much call for one, anyway. Not farming so many acres, any more."
"Looks like a lot to me," Bucky said, as they walked up the gentle curve of the drive, heading for a stand of trees clustered around a sturdy-looking house. It was two storied, white boards and trim, with a deep porch around two sides holding a glider and a scattering of chairs. It was so perfect and pretty it made Bucky's head spin.
"Nah. Only about eighty acres, now. Used to have over two thousand, when Grandad was a boy." Steve shrugged again, his smile automatic but his eyes distant, and Bucky wondered if he were sad, or sorry, or resigned. As they got closer, Steve's arm slid away and he ushered Bucky up the porch steps to a fancy screen door, cut wood in patterns over the screen. Up close, Bucky could see that the paint on the house was worn, here and there, showing silvery-brown wood underneath. "C'mon in, Brooklyn. Make yourself at home."
"Might be sorry you said that," Bucky joked, but God, he wanted to. He was so damn tired.
Inside, the house was dim and cool, compared to the road. Bucky stood still for a moment, blinking, while Steve found a spot for his pack near the door, and toed off his boots. After a moment, Bucky bent down and worked his own boots off, standing them beside Steve's on a little round, red-and-white rug of braided fabric. Steve's socks were mostly white; Bucky's were worn Army wool.
"So, how-? How did you get here? Did you drive? Car break down?" Steve asked as he moved back through the house, Bucky padding after him, taking in more of the rugs - red and white, blue and white, red and green - on softly polished plank floors. The walls were cream, studded with pictures and paintings, and the furniture was old, but comfortable looking.
There was green and brown linoleum in the kitchen, in big diamonds, and worn green paint on the cupboards and drawers. The pulls were little half domes of dull metal, and the table under the windows had salt and pepper in cobalt-blue shakers, and a matching sugar bowl brimming with square cubes.
"Nah, I walked, mostly," Bucky replied. Steve gathered a pair of glasses from a glass-fronted cabinet and turned on the tap.
"Yeah." Bucky stood in front of a door (bathroom? cellar?), and studied the calendar hung there on a nail. It was black and white, with sunrise and sunset times in red ink, and little notes about crop plantings, harvestings, the weather and holidays all around the edges. It said 'Mercer County Mercantile' across the top. Steve, or somebody, had crossed off the days, up to that day.
"I got out...little over a year ago. Had to do some, you know...physical therapy and stuff." Bucky turned away from the calendar to find Steve right there, holding out a glass, and he took it gratefully. The water was cold and almost sweet and just so good; Bucky didn't stop until the glass was empty and he was panting a little, his mouth wet. "God, that was good."
"Well water's the best," Steve said. He took Bucky's glass back and gestured with his hand toward the table, and Bucky went, settling with a little groan into an armless wooden chair. The seat had a squarish pad tied on, covered in faded green and brown striped fabric. Net curtains billowed slightly in a slow breeze, and a moment later Steve came over with another glassful of water, putting his own down opposite Bucky's place.
"I got kinda sick of people ordering me around or feeling sorry for me," Bucky said, looking out the window at - holy crap - actual chickens. "I just...needed to get away from it for a while. From, just...stuff," he finished lamely, running his fingers over the diamond pattern cut into the clear drinking glass. He looked up at Steve, shrugging his shoulders, little crooked smile that he didn't mean on his lips. "I just- After all your talk, all your damn stories about wheat fields and apple pie..." Bucky huffed out a strained laugh, hoping his voice didn't sound as shaky as he felt. "This seemed like the only...real place left in the world."
Steve looked back at him for a moment, and Bucky couldn't tell what he was thinking, at all.
"I dunno," Bucky said. And he really didn't. He'd been okay, walking. Anticipating. Hadn't really noticed the heat, or how dry his mouth had gotten; how tired his body had become. A trucker had dropped him where I-94 intersected State 49, around ten a.m. the day before, and he'd headed out, thankful for the GPS on his phone. He'd left the 49 behind and followed a tangle of roads until after sundown. He'd sat down under a tall pine that seemed to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, and dozed restlessly for a handful of hours, getting up at dawn to gulp down the last of his water and head out again.
And now he just felt...dry. Dry, and sore and so, so tired; a little queasy, even.
Steve's hand folded around Bucky's forehead, cool from the glasses, and Bucky shivered, eyes going shut. "You got a little fever, I think," Steve said softly. "Sun-touched." He walked away, busying himself near the sink, and Bucky slumped back in his chair. He was halfway asleep, blinking slow, when Steve finally came back with a couple of plates. One had thick wedges of watermelon on it, and the other had slices of tomato and cucumber.
"C'mon, eat up, you'll feel better. Grew these myself," he added, a little grin and a duck of his head, and Bucky snorted.
"Got a Victory Garden and all, huh, Cap?"
"Just eat," Steve said, pushing a fork at Bucky, and Bucky did.
The watermelon was cool and succulent and sweet, the tomato and cucumber tangy with salt, wet and crisp and fresh. It was the best food Bucky had eaten since...ever; it seemed to fill him up slowly, like dry earth under a raincloud. He could feel his cells just drinking. He sat back with a little sigh when he was done, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand as he looked up to see Steve cutting out a last bite of his own melon from the green rind.
"Jesus, that was good. That was really good, Cap, thanks." Bucky drained the last of his water, and Steve raised an eyebrow. "Nah, I'm done."
"Done in, more like." Steve looked at him for a moment, and Bucky wanted to duck away, squirm down in his seat. But he gritted his teeth and sat still, meeting Steve's gaze. "Yeah," Steve said, after a long moment. "Why don't you get your stuff and get cleaned up. I'm still on the clock, but you can lay down for a bit, get some shuteye. All right?"
"I - "could help" was on the tip of Bucky's tongue but...he really wasn't sure if he could. A shower would be good, though; he was pretty sure he smelled kinda ripe. "Yeah," Bucky said finally, and levered himself upright, back and legs twanging, stiff from sitting. Steve took the plates to the sink and turned on the water to rinse them off, and Bucky shuffled out to get his pack. On the way back, he stopped to look at a scatter of pictures on a shelf. There were family groups, in sepia and black and white, and fading color. Steve in his basic training portrait, looking absurdly young and fresh-faced, not even peach-fuzz on his cheeks. Another in his uniform, with his arm around a stooped old man in overalls with crutches that came up around his elbows, and one, not in a frame, tucked back behind the rest. Creased and smudged, faded a little, it was a picture from over there.
It was Steve, Falsworth, and Morita, lounging on top of a tan Humvee with no doors. Dernier and Jones were on the ground, leaning against the dented side. Jones was asleep (he could sleep anywhere, any time) and Dernier was holding a letter in his hand. Dugan was standing in front of the vehicle, arms in some crazy pose; telling one of his ridiculous circus stories. Bucky wasn't in the picture, though - he'd taken it, he remembered, with the little disposable camera he'd got in a care package put together by kids at his old high school. Everybody was looking at Dugan, grinning, laughing.
Everybody but Steve, who was looking straight at Bucky, little smile on his face. Bucky remembered that look, how it had seemed to slide right into him, and see everything that he was. How it had seemed to offer...something. Something Bucky had been too unsure, too scared, to reach for. Bucky swallowed, and jumped a foot when Steve came into the doorway between living room and kitchen.
"Bathroom's upstairs," he said, and Bucky followed Steve up the softly creaking steps, and down a short hall. Steve gestured left. "Bathroom's there. There's towels and soap and stuff; spare toothbrush in the drawer if you need it. Bedroom's over here." He opened a door and waved his hand into a dim room, with the corner of a bed just showing. "Sheets are clean. Just...you know…." Steve turned and looked at Bucky, reached out and tugged him close, as if compelled, and hugged him again, hard. "Get some rest, Bucky. Okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Bucky said, and Steve smiled slowly and then went back, down the hall and down the stairs, and a moment later outside, the screen door creaking shut behind him. Bucky stood there for a moment, eyes shut. And then he went in to take a shower.
He woke with a little start, lying on something soft, a cool breeze playing over his face. His arm went out, pure reflex, feeling for the weapon that should be right there, and a dull ache went through him, arm and back and belly. He gasped softly, fingers clenching into a fist. He'd just laid down for a minute, just so his head would stop spinning. He had to get up, had to move, he was on duty….
"Cap?" he whispered, and there was a little noise, a soft creak. Bucky squinted in the dimness, at the shape that was standing, silhouetted in the golden light of an incandescent bulb.
"Yeah, Brooklyn. All's quiet. My watch," Steve said, and Bucky could have cried from relief. He nodded mutely instead, and turned a little on the mattress, curling deeper into the soft sheets, the faded quilt. He was safe; he could sleep. And in a few moments, he did.
The light is so bright, it's blinding. It's like being under a hammer, with the desert as anvil. And Bucky is forged steel, crushed between them. Heated and overheated and beaten out thinner and thinner until he shatters, and the world shatters with him; flying apart, fire and smoke, fanged wind, red noise, forever….
Bucky woke up shouting, clawing away from whatever was entangling him. He hit a hard floor and rolled, scrabbling, crawling. He found a corner and wedged himself in, heart pumping, hands reaching for the weapon that wasn't there. Hands. Hand. His body remembered, quicker than his mind, and throbbed old pain through an arm that no longer existed, reduced to ash and dust. Bucky shuddered and coughed and gasped for air, then deliberately rapped his head back into the wall behind him once, twice… The third time was hard enough to knock him dizzy and then he just sat, his limbs knotted up and shaking, his vision slowly clearing to show him Steve's spare room, pale-gold light slanting in through open windows and light, billowing curtains. Bucky concentrated, panting, cataloguing details; something he'd learned to do, to get himself to focus on what was around him. On what was; distracting his brain until he could deal with his brain.
There were cream-white walls and a ceiling of combed plaster, wide plank floors that were a soft, greenish-brown, like a new acorn. A bedstead of chipped white enamel over black iron, spread with tangled white sheets and a quilt in blues and greens and golds, starbursts on white, little knots of red thread. Heaped pillows, one on the floor, now, with a cut-out decoration on the open end. A wardrobe stood in one corner, the same warm green as the floor, the paint rubbed off and showing dark wood at the corners and along the edges.
A desk was against another wall, the roll-back top rolled most of the way open, with drawers and cubbies and pigeon holes; an enameled tin cup of pencils and pens, a crooked stack of notebooks and writing paper. There were pictures on the wall, two or three, framed and colorful, but Bucky let his gaze slide past them, not needing the details. He was awake enough, finally, to know where he was, and that he was okay. Mostly okay.
He cupped the stump of his left arm in his hand, kneading carefully through the thin sleeve of his tee-shirt, trying to relax the tense muscles, to massage away the phantom pain that made his nonexistent arm burn and cramp, made invisible fingers curl into a claw. As his breathing gradually slowed, and his heart stopped knocking against his ribs, he could feel the tension slip out of his shoulders and, grudgingly, the 'phantom' dissolved and he was left with only the few inches of scarred, knotted muscle and skin, aching under his hand.
Bucky sighed, his tight-curled legs sliding down to sprawl on the cool floor, his right arm flopping bonelessly into his lap, his head tipping back and his eyes falling shut. After a couple of minutes of just breathing, in slow ins and outs, while the shook up bits of himself settled into some kind of order, he realized he urgently needed to piss, and he was starving. With another sigh - huge and heavy, this time - he climbed shakily to his feet, groaning a little as sore muscles complained. He went across the hall, and halfway there he heard the screen door creak open and bang shut. Steve, coming or going. The bathroom was as crazily perfect and weathered as the bedroom, with a big, claw-foot tub, the tall shower head rising above it like a stainless steel daisy, and a porcelain sink sunk into a repurposed dresser.
Bucky's shirt clung to his back and ribs; he felt sticky and clammy and generally gross. His fingers rasped over his chin, against stubble that was starting to itch, and his hair was a mess, slept on wet and now hopelessly tangled, sticking to his neck. Bucky sighed (third time's the charm!) and decided to shower again. He cranked on the water, knowing from earlier that it would take a minute to warm, and crossed back to the bedroom to root around in his pack for something that was - hopefully - not too dirty.
But his pack wasn't there. He stood in the middle of the room, knowing he'd propped it right up by the head of the bed, right in reach. He looked under the bed, and then, hesitantly, opened the wardrobe. And there it was, tidily laid out on the bottom, under a pole with a dozen empty hangers.
The floor outside the room creaked, and Bucky startled. He jerked around from staring at his pack to staring at Steve, who was standing in the doorway, a laundry basket in his hands.
"Morning, Brooklyn," he said, with a huge grin. "I heard the shower, figured you were up." Bucky just blinked at him.
"M-morning? But I just...laid down." Bucky nervously raked his fingers back through his hair, wincing at a particularly bad tangle. "It's not...not even noon."
"You slept the clock around and then some," Steve said, walking inside and putting the basket on the rumpled bed. "It's nearly nine. I hope it's okay that I...I did your laundry. I had a heap of my own and it seemed like-"
"No, no, it's..that's...great, that's- Oh, hell, I left the water running in the shower." Bucky felt weirdly anxious and exposed, standing there in his sweat-stained tee and underwear, sleep-rumpled and confused, while Steve looked….
Well, Steve looked like some poster for All-American, home-grown perfection in his blue jeans and white tee, checked shirt hanging open over it, golden hair and golden skin and summer-blue eyes. The swooping, giddy feeling Bucky had kept running head-long into, every time he looked at Steve, came back with a vengeance, and Bucky suddenly, distractedly, needed to not be thinking about how Steve looked.
"Fuckin' Captain America. Too precious for this world," Bucky said, his voice a little wobbly, and something unknotted with a little jerk in his chest when Steve just grinned harder and rubbed the back of his neck, little glint in his eye.
"White bread an' apple pie," Steve said; old joke, old tease, and Bucky laughed outright, a little too loud and a little too much but, Christ, it felt good. It felt safe, to fall back on that, the familiar give and take. "Get cleaned up and c'mon down. I got breakfast going."
"Yeah, okay," Bucky said, and when he rummaged out boxer-briefs and tee and jeans from the basket, they were still warm, a faint citrus-smell on his clothes now, just like Steve's. His socks were rolled Army-style, little lumps of worn-out green. Little lumps of kindness that made Bucky sniff hard and get himself into the shower, double time.
Bucky spent the morning trailing around after Steve, eating the food Steve kept handing him. Hell, he wasn't gonna turn down fresh-made pancakes, and crisp bacon, peaches like little balls of fuzzy sunlight and sugar, banana bread thick with pecans. And the fucking apple pie, made by an actual farmer's daughter down the road somewhere; Steve's neighbors, apparently.
The actual farmer made an appearance sometime after noon, when Steve had been leaning into the guts of 'the Beast' - his combine - banging and cussing for half an hour, while Bucky lounged in the shade and made sarcastic comments about his abilities as a mechanic. The heat was syrup-thick, sticking in their lungs and all along their skin.
The old guy - white-haired, rake-thin, and wearing bib overalls - drove up in a rattletrap old Ford and limped through the wheat, calling out a hello, giving Steve an easy smile with strong, white teeth. He leaned in over the engine just like Steve had, and peered closely at this and that, asking questions, brow furrowed. Ten minutes later, under his direction, the machine roared to deafening life. It coughed out smoke and then settled to a bone-rattling rumble.
"Thanks, Del, thanks so much," Steve said, and stuck out a grease-streaked hand. Del shook it without a thought.
"Dinner down at the VFW tonight. We gonna see you, Stevie?" Del asked, and Bucky snorted incredulously and then looked away, fighting a manic grin. Stevie.
"You sure will. Me and Buck, we'll be there. Bucky! This is Delmar Boone. He was with the Big Red One at Gela in 1943."
"Sir," Bucky said, and straightened up, stepping forward to grasp the thin, callused hand Del held out. "James Barnes. It's an honor to meet you."
"Any friend of Stevie's here is a friend of ours. Known this boy since Hector was a pup," Del said, squeezing Bucky's hand and then letting go. His gaze settled on Bucky's arm - what was left of it - and he reached out again and patted Bucky's other shoulder. "You come on along tonight. Merlin Freely's loaned us his smoker, and we're gonna do us up some barbeque."
"Yes, sir. I'd be happy to."
Del nodded and then turned back to Steve. "Think you can get this cut before tomorrow? They say a storm's comin'."
"I'm gonna try. Probably do alright, now that you've got her goin' again," Steve said, patting the dusty flank of the combine. Del grinned and touched his fingers to the ratty brim of his baseball cap. The grubby white and navy hat had a 'North Dakota Certified Seed' patch on it.
"You're learnin' still. Give it a few more years and you might just get the hang of it," Del said, and Steve laughed. They both watched the old man hobble his way across the furrows, and give a little toot of his horn as he drove away. Steve waved, and then sighed and looked up at the sky.
"I gotta get the rest of this wheat cut, Buck. Probably gonna' take me right up until sunset. You can just...go on back to the house and relax. Have some lunch or something, whatever you wanna do."
"Can I help?" Bucky asked, saying it out loud, this time. Not like he had a clue what he could do; he wasn't really even sure what the machine did or how it cut wheat or...anything. And there was only one place to sit on it, and he sure couldn't rake up wheat into those little stacks or whatever the hell they were. If that's what you even did to wheat. Christ, who knew?
"Nah. I been doin' this for a couple years on my own, I got a system," Steve said with a grin, pausing to wipe sweat off his face with a greasy hand, and leaving a streak behind. "You just go have some more pie. You're so damn thin, Bucky," Steve said, and his voice went soft and serious, the look in his blue eyes making Bucky look away. Not pity, no; Steve didn't pity. Steve loved, and worried, and cried over broken stray dogs in the middle of a village road. Steve had a heart as big as his North Dakota skies, and everything in Bucky yearned wildly toward it.
And skittered away, cringing.
"Guess I should'a bought me that bike instead of new boots. Stevie," Bucky said, and Steve's expression went from serious to horrified, flushing under his tan.
"Oh, hell, don't you dare, Brooklyn, nobody calls me that-"
"Except old men who probably saw you in diapers," Bucky said, and they were both laughing, shoving at each other and scuffing up dust. Steve pulled Bucky close and gave him a little hugging shake, leaving fingerprint marks of grease on Bucky's old Army tee. Bucky could smell the scent of it - of Steve - all the way back up to the house.
Steve came in with the last of the light, fuzzed with dust and looking tired, shoulders bowed. Bucky'd spent the day watching Steve's chickens, or the previously unguessed troop of cats that lived in the barn, or eating, or napping, propped up on the padded glider, his eyes slitting open every now and again to watch the plume of pale dust that marked Steve's progress through the field. He poured Steve a glass of lemonade and watched him drink it down in one long, long gulp. Watched his throat move and the way his eyes fluttered shut, dusty-gold lashes against freckled cheeks.
"Jeez, Cap, you look out on your feet."
"Oh, I'm alright," Steve said, putting the glass in the sink and wiping his hand over his face and back over his hair. Bits of chaff and dust slid out, and he made a little face. "I need a shower. Probably already got started at the VFW."
"You're not...too tired?" Bucky asked, half hopeful and half not. Not looking forward to being stared at by old geezers in overalls or their wives, but wanting, very much, to go somewhere where everyone...got it. Or most everyone.
Steve shook his head, smiling. "Nah. I'm alright. Got it all cut, too." Steve reached up, stretching his arms over his head, leaning from side to side with a little groan. His shirt rode up off his hips, his jeans slid down just a little, and Bucky took in the pale stretch of skin between both with a blink and a gulp. He looked away a little too slow, seeing Steve's gaze find his and the knowledge of where he was looking cross Steve's face. Steve looked down, a ghost of a smile curling up the corner of his mouth. Then he turned on his socked feet and padded away.
A moment later, Bucky heard the shower come on and he sat down hard in a kitchen chair. He was right back where he'd started, almost four years ago; right back there wanting Steve, any damn way he could get him.
The VFW was both worse and better than Bucky had expected. It was a plain, brick-built building in a town called Beulah, just a little over ten miles from Steve's farm. Inside, a gleaming linoleum floor held trestle tables draped with plastic cloths and folding chairs in rows. Two fire doors were propped open in the back, letting in a steady trickle of sweet-spicy smoke and women and girls carrying trays of cooked meat and heaps of grilled corn on the cob.
A pass-through to an industrial-looking kitchen held more pans and bowls of baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, three-bean salad, and fruit salad. Fluffy heaps of whipped Jell-O and Cool Whip, studded with marshmallows, coconut and nuts, sat cheek-by-jowl with baskets of sliced bread and stacks of golden cornbread. An entire separate table was reserved for pie, cake, and something gooey and chocolatey that Steve said was "Mississippi Mud Pie", in a tone of abject reverence. About half of the men and women there were already sitting, paper plates and plastic forks in hand. Little kids ran and darted about in the open space.
Everyone, of course, knew Stevie. An hour in, Bucky's sides hurt from attempting to control his hysterical laughter, and he was stuffed to the gills on smoked pork and chicken and brisket, helpings of every side, and yes, Mud Pie, which Bucky thought was damn good but nothing compared to the lemon meringue. The men all clapped Steve on the back or took his hand from where they sat, some with canes or walkers. Women with lined faces and grey curls kept patting Steve on the cheek, and little kids either giggled from a distance, or hurled themselves on him, leaving sticky smears of barbeque sauce on his arms.
Steve...just took it with a grin and ducked head, his cheeks pinking, his hair side-parted and combed like some matinee movie star. Bucky watched him talk to tottering senior citizens and toddlers alike, relaxed and easy, as happy, it seemed, to discuss the weather or wheat or something called DeKalb hybrids as he was to talk about puppies or 4H projects or a sparkly skirt on a girl that looked like a tiny, dark-haired fairy.
And the whole time - the whole time - Steve kept Bucky right there. Introducing him, talking him up, bragging on his record and his supposed heroics and staying, always, on Bucky's left. Giving him cover and support that Bucky didn't realize he needed (wanted, craved), until the second time someone had come up on that side and startled the hell out of him by putting a hand on his shoulder.
It was a whirl of voices and faces and hands sticking out to take his, and a couple hours in, when people were starting to box up leftovers and stack the chairs away, Bucky was long past ready to go. One of the women - Del's wife Susan, apparently - pushed a foil-lined box into Steve's hands, assuring him he'd gotten some choice cuts of the pork and chicken. "And I saw you makin' cow eyes at my lemon meringue," she said to Bucky, smiling, and put a foil-covered paper plate in his hand. Bucky just knew there was a saved-back slice in there.
"Best I ever had, ma'am," Bucky said, ducking his head, and she patted him and smiled at Steve, and then they were walking out, and climbing up into Steve's old blue and white truck, a relic of his father's teen years. As they drove over the narrow roads, the only lights for miles were the headlights and a thin, sickle moon overhead. Far out, over the plains, lightning flickered, pink-white, behind bulkheads of clouds. Warm air pushed in at them through the open windows, and the droning call of cicadas was in Bucky's ears. He put his hand out into the stream and let the air push his flattened palm up and down, back and forth. Riding the slip like a bird or a jet, content to just glide.
"Never thought I'd be okay, out in the country," Bucky said softly, as they slowed to turn up Steve's drive. The denuded wheat field looked sad and tired right now, but soon it would be thick with new growth again, Steve had said; he'd be planting the winter wheat in a month, maybe less. "I thought I'd miss the city, you know; thought all this quiet and empty would make me crazy."
"Does it?" Steve asked, pulling the truck to a halt and shutting it off, turning off the headlights so that they sat in shadow, a lone bulb up on a pole near the barn the only illumination in the cab.
"It really doesn't," Bucky said. He unlatched the door and climbed out of the truck. Steve did the same, and they climbed the porch steps to sit, by silent, mutual agreement, on the glider, the little cache of leftovers on the porch floor beside them. A push of Steve's toe set it to sliding, back and forth, and Bucky twisted a little so that he could see Steve more clearly, drawing his leg up, foot under his opposite knee. Steve was still mostly a shadow; clearer, as Bucky got his night-sight back, but still no details.
Maybe that made it easier.
"I thought...after you left, I'd go nuts over there, too. Lost my shield, you know? Not your fault," Bucky added, at a small, distressed noise from Steve. "You did your time and you got out, and I didn't...I wasn't mad at you for it. Mad at myself, mostly, for bein' so stupid."
"Stupid about what, Buck?" Steve said softly, and Bucky took a deep breath, nerving himself.
"About a lot of things. About what I wanted. About what was real, and what wasn't. It only took me...six months to fuck up so bad..." Bucky paused for a moment, his throat closing, and Steve shifted a little closer, one broad hand reaching out and settling on Bucky's tucked-up knee. "I got them killed, Cap, I got them all killed." Bucky stopped again, this time so he could gasp air into his lungs, eyes stinging, and Steve's hand tightened on his knee.
"It's not your fault, Buck. It's not. I still talk to Carter sometimes, you know. She told me; told me what a cluster-fuck it was. You did the best you could, Brooklyn. I know that. I know it."
"Don't feel like it," Bucky said, and sniffed. Steve fished in his back pocket and pulled out a pale square. He shook it open and handed it to Bucky, and Bucky snorted in watery amusement. Of course, Steve had a damn handkerchief. Bucky wiped his nose and sat there, the little square crumpled in his fingers. "Thing is, I work best on your six, Cap. I trust you and I just...don't fuckin' trust anybody anymore. And…."
"And what, Buck?" Steve asked, and his voice was so soft, his hand easier, now, on Bucky's knee, fingers lightly stroking instead of gripping. Bucky shivered.
"And I...really fucking missed you, Cap. Steve. I really...fucking missed you. After I got out, after...all the hospitals and shit...I felt like a damn ghost. Like I was just walkin' around Brooklyn waiting for the sky to fall. Didn't make any sense, and then I finally got the last of my stuff, you know, and that damn picture was in there…."
Bucky stopped again, and Steve made a little noise, obviously remembering what picture Bucky was talking about. Taken with the same camera that had taken the one in Steve's house, this one was just Steve and Bucky, sitting side by side on a crumbling wall in their gear, weapons leaning against their thighs, their heads close together as they looked at some bit of intel. And Bucky had, without thinking, looped his arm around Steve's neck, and Steve had his fingers casually tangled in the hand that Bucky had let fall over his chest. They were touching from knee to hip to chest, obvious, really, if you looked, and Bucky had been pissed as hell at Morita, for a while, for taking it.
But then Steve's tour was up, his whole hitch in the Army was up. He'd come to say goodbye and they'd ended up just holding on, for long, silent minutes, pressed heart to heart in the undersea gloom of the tent. Steve had kissed Bucky, just the once, soft and reverent, and then he'd gone.
Bucky had about worn the damn picture out, looking at it. It had felt as if he'd missed out on the best thing his life might ever offer him; like he'd looked away for one moment, and the light had just gone out of everything. That picture was in his pack right that minute, safe inside a zippered pocket, worn and fragile and so, so precious.
But not nearly as precious as the man, the living, breathing man, sitting right there.
"That was a really good picture," Steve said, a smile in his voice, and Bucky sniffed, scrubbed his nose with the now-damp handkerchief, then laughed softly, a little choked.
"It really was. And I just...I saw it again, after all that time, and I realized...I had to come find you, I had to see if...if I hadn't fucked it all the way. If it wasn't too late."
"It's not," Steve said, so low it was almost a whisper, and he leaned in, just like the picture, so close, his heat and his scent and his breath on Bucky's skin. His forehead rested against Bucky's forehead and they just breathed together for a moment. Then Bucky shifted a little, and Steve did too, and then their mouths were touching, slow and easy, the lightest of pressure. Bucky didn't even really open his mouth, and Steve didn't either, and then Steve pulled away the tiniest bit, leaning into Bucky's forehead again.
"I never knew, not for sure, if- God, Brooklyn, you almost died and I'd never have known."
"I'm an idiot, Cap. I should'a said something, or...wrote. Something. I was just…." Bucky tipped his head up and kissed Steve, this time a little harder, a little deeper, his hand going up to fist in Steve's overshirt, hitching himself forward on the padded seat of the glider so he was leaning into Steve's warm, solid body. Christ, it felt so good.
Steve tasted like salt and sweet, and his hands were easy on Bucky's ribs, on his shoulders. He just held on, letting Bucky push him back and get a hand into his hair, messing up that perfect 'do, dragging his fingers through it as he tried to get even closer. Steve's arms were around him, urging him, stroking and squeezing, and Bucky ended up half on Steve's lap, breathing hard.
He leaned back for a moment, because he just had to see, and Steve reached up and tugged the elastic out of Bucky's hair, letting the long strands fall forward, curving around his cheeks.
"You're so damn...pretty," Steve said, teasing lilt in his voice. "Just like one'a those French girls."
"All-American golden boy," Bucky teased back, and then he ducked his head a little, splaying his hand on Steve's chest, feeling the solidity of him, the reality of him. "I never expected to come home, Cap," Bucky said softly, and Steve made a hurt little noise and tugged Bucky close again, and kissed him until they were both breathless, flushed and shaking.
"Steve," Bucky breathed, and Steve got his fingers in Bucky's hair and tugged, lightly.
"Come upstairs with me?" he asked, and Bucky nodded against his mouth, smiling.
Steve's room was all in shadow, with a bar of illumination from the barn-light falling diagonally across the bed. Bucky would always remember that night - that first - in that light; the shadow and shine, the muscles of Steve's chest and belly and thighs rising from darkness and subsiding again, parts of him lit up and glowing, parts of him hidden.
They were too new-foal shaky and unsure, in those long moments, to do more than press skin on skin, mouth on mouth. Bucky knelt over Steve's thighs and kissed Steve's collarbones and sternum; caught one nipple in a gentle bite and rubbed a sweat-slick thumb over the scar that creased the other, legacy of that other place, that other time. Steve's whole right side was laddered with the little marks of war, and Bucky wanted to touch them all. Acknowledgement. Reassurance. Proof of life.
So he couldn't pull away when Steve's hand slid from his shoulder to the top of his arm, and down, gently cupping the scarred stump of flesh there. He feathered kisses over it until Bucky wanted to scream, or cry, or...something, his breath coming in shocky-short gasps, almost sobs.
"Sorry, I'm sorry, Buck-"
"No," Bucky said, and he lifted his head from Steve's bicep, seeing the clear blue of his eyes, and the fall of antique-gold hair, the hollowed shadow of his cheek and throat. "No, it's okay, it's good, it's...so much."
"Okay, okay," Steve said, and Bucky squirmed backward and dragged his hand down Steve's ribs to the arch of his hipbone, the taut curve of his belly, the silken, hot length of his cock. He kept sweeping his fingertips over it, from crown to root and back again, curling his fingers under to comb through the wiry curls at the base. "Ooh," Steve sighed, and Bucky laughed softly.
"Yeah, f-fuck yeah." Steve's hands were on Bucky's thighs, on his hips, just touching and tugging and holding on tight, and Bucky leaned forward and took Steve's cock into his hand, pressed his own cock on top, grinding, sliding. And then Steve's hand came over his, fingers lacing together, and Bucky shuddered and curled down over them both, his mouth sloppy-wet on Steve's chest.
Steve's other hand kept moving, touching - raking down Bucky's spine and up to twist in his hair and down, again, to clutch at his thigh; to steady him when he lost his balance a little, swaying too far. The air in the room was thick with heat and humidity, thick with the smell of them, salt and musk. Skin on skin on skin, slip and catch, the sudden slick of precome under Bucky's thumb and Steve arching helplessly, a bitten-off cry rasping out of his mouth.
"Come on, honey, c'mon, oh fuck," Bucky said, his own voice gone to a hoarse whisper. Steve squeezed with his hand, and Bucky sped up, his hips grinding down, his balls against Steve's, the throb of them seeming to bloom out into his belly and down his thighs, a tingling ache that was piercingly sweet.
"Buck, Bucky," Steve said, and then curled up and yanked at Bucky's hair, lining them up, mouth on mouth, just as he came, hot and slick against Bucky's fingers and his cock. Bucky could feel every pulse, the length of his, and he followed Steve over the edge with a shuddering groan.
It seemed to last forever; was over far too soon. Bucky slumped on top of Steve, panting, feeling the rising push of Steve's chest against his own, the heave of their bellies, their hands trapped between them. Bucky's whole body tingled, his knees ached, and he wanted a drink. But more than anything, he just wanted to stay right where he was for as long as possible. Steve's free hand stroked down his back, over and over, and Bucky finally turned his head a little, kissing Steve's cheek.
"Okay?" Steve murmured, and Bucky smiled against his skin, tasting salt on his lips.
"Yeah, okay. You fuckin' idiot."
"I gotta ask," Steve said, but he was laughing, and Bucky was, and they rolled apart, sprawling on the bed. "Oh, that was…."
"Sticky," Bucky said, and laughed again. He struggled up onto his elbow and then up, to the edge of the bed. Steve's fingers touched his back and slid down, slowly.
"Yeah. N'I need a drink." Light flashed, suddenly, an actinic flare, and Bucky and Steve both flinched. A moment later, a slow rumble of thunder shivered through the air, and the breeze puffing in the window was discernibly cooler.
"Guess Del was right. Here comes the storm. I gotta shut some windows," Steve said, rolling upright, and onto his feet. He headed toward the door, tripping a little over the discarded tangle of their jeans and shirts, and Bucky snorted.
"Watch where you're goin', Cap."
"I left the truck windows down!" Steve called, and Bucky heard him thumping down the stairs, and then the creak and bang of the screen door. Bucky got up and stretched, hard. He felt warm and heavy, sated in a way he hadn't felt in a long, long time. He stepped carefully across the room and into the bathroom, doing a quick clean-up at the sink before going downstairs. Steve was in the living room, shutting the windows, and Bucky went back to the kitchen, getting glasses down from the cabinet. The foil-covered plate of lemon meringue pie stood on the counter, and Bucky poured out lemonade and then got a fork.
"Just gotta get a couple upstairs shut. The weather always hits the west side of the house." Steve leaned in the kitchen doorway, a shadow, little gleams of detail picked out by the soft glow of the dim light over the stove. "Midnight snack?"
"Thought we could share it," Bucky said, and carefully stacked the pie on top of one of the glasses. Steve came forward and just as carefully lifted the glass and pie out of Bucky's hand, and put it on the counter.
"I like it that you're comfortable raiding my icebox naked," he said, tugging Bucky against him by his hips.
"I like that you like it," Bucky said, feeling stupid and turned on and...giddy, again. Still. Like a kid with a crush. His hand, resting on Steve's forearm, slid up until it came to rest on the little string of numbers and letters tattooed across Steve's left bicep.
Latitude and longitude. 'What's that?' Bucky had asked, a month into knowing Steve; thirty days that had felt like forever, and like nothing at all, and like the end of the world.
'That's home,' Steve had said.
"Home," Bucky said, echoing the memory, and Steve stroked one hand down Bucky's back, slow caress.
"If you want. For as long as you want."
"Might want forever," Bucky said, and looked up that inch or so necessary to meet Steve's gaze. “I dunno if I will, or if I can, but I want...to try."
"Okay," Steve said, and he smiled, wide and tender, so much joy in the look he gave Bucky that Bucky's heart ached, pounding in his chest.
Sometime later that night, so late it was nearly morning, Bucky woke with a little start. Steve's arm was heavy across his ribs, Steve himself on his belly, his face turned toward Bucky, one leg hanging out off the edge of the bed. Bucky smiled sleepily at him and then turned his face to the window, watching silent lightning flicker in the clouds, pink-white. He counted under his breath, one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-, and thunder rumbled, but far away, like a train on a distant track.
Rain was pattering down outside, a thousand tiny little pops, and the cool breeze that lifted the curtains and flowed over Bucky's face was clean and rich with the smell of wet earth and ozone. It was like wine; intoxicating. Bucky took a long, long breath in, all but tasting it on his tongue, and Steve moved a little, his fingers curling against Bucky's skin.
Bucky breathed in, and breathed out on a sigh. He was safe, and he wasn't alone anymore. He was finally home, after so very long, in a way he'd never thought he could be, ever again. And he had Steve, right there, close as a heartbeat, real as apple pie.
Bucky traced the little numbers and letters of Steve's tattoo, and tugged the sheet and quilt a little higher over both of them. Then he let his eyes slide shut, and finally slept, content.