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The Cost of It

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Bucky doesn't really notice till they're in a meadow in France, finding a quiet, safe spot to stop and stuff something in their faces, enough to keep going for a little while longer. But once he notices, it's hard to stop. He still doesn't get what happened to Steve to make him the way he is, but he understands enough to know that Steve's pretty much a perfect specimen now, the kind of man they'd all be lucky to be half of, and perfect specimens aren't supposed to looked hunger-pained and gaunt about the edges, especially just after eating.

He doesn't say a word, though, and if Steve even knows he's looking, or figured out that he saw something out of the ordinary—as if everything about Steve isn't out of the ordinary for him now—he doesn't say anything the next time he falls into step next to Bucky and they tramp in the shadows on their way to the next target.

It would feel weird to ask if Steve is all right, because by definition Steve is always all right now and is probably enjoying the fact that for the first time in his life people don't have a reason to ask him if he's all right every day, but Bucky looks for signs that he knows he isn't, that he knows there's something wrong. It's only because he's looking so closely, following him in private moments, that catches Steve hiding in the woods eating some wild mushrooms and dandelion greens on the sly, stuff he picked up off the ground, stuff they probably trampled over, and that is just not okay. It's not okay.

The next time they actually have a meal, Bucky slips him some of his own ration on the sly; if he's lucky, Steve will never even notice he did it. Yeah, maybe he'll feel it later, but it's not like he's giving up all his food. Bucky's a soldier and he knows that food is fuel: he needs it just to keep going. He just figures maybe, for Steve, he can do with a little bit less. It helps, he thinks, but under cover of darkness he still finds Steve scarfing down some burdock and sorrel that are growing nearby and figures at this rate they're about a heartbeat away from Steve needing to kill and eat small rodents, and eat them raw on top of that because they don't dare to build a fire here.

And yeah, there are worse things, but Bucky just can't. This is Steve, and Steve deserves better.

"How bad is it?" he asks one evening.

They've just come back from a raid, just a minor weapons cache it turned out, nothing challenging even without Captain America there to blast through the low-level Hydra agents who'd been guarding it. Still, it's enough for Steve to misinterpret the question.

"Bucky, it was just a scratch, it's already healed," says Steve. He turns up the inside of his wrist for Bucky to see, and actually it's a little eerie that it is completely healed already, without so much as a mark.

"I mean the hunger," he says, and Steve's hand drops like a stone. "How bad is it?"

"I'm fine," says Steve shortly. "Don't worry about it."

"If I don't worry about it, who will?" says Bucky, and because they're alone he dares to reach up and trace the line of Steve's jaw. "You've still got muscles in places I didn't even know muscles could grow," he says, "but your cheeks are hollow. When's the last time you looked in a mirror?"

"It's not compromising my ability to do my job."

"Yet," says Bucky. "What's going on, Steve? Is it some kind of Hydra thing, did they do something to you?" The bemused look in Steve's face tells him right off that's not it at all. "What's going on?"

Steve sighs and runs a hand over his face, prompting Bucky to drop his. "It's the serum," he says, gesturing vaguely at his body, "and everything. My metabolism runs fast."

"How fast?" says Bucky. He's already noticed that Steve runs hot, from nights spent huddled on the ground, but it doesn't tell him what he needs to know.

"About four times average," says Steve. "More or less. They probably would've tested it to get an exact number, but they didn't end up locking me in a lab after all so all I have is Erskine's best guess."

"Four times?" says Bucky. "Four times, for real? Jeez, Steve, you know that means you need to be eating way, way more food than the rest of us, right?"

"We don't have that much food," says Steve. "It's all right, Bucky. I make do. And when we're back at base camp, I make up for it." Bucky seriously doubts that, but at least Steve'll be getting more, and more of the right stuff, even if it's still not quite enough. "I get by okay."

"Okay's not enough," says Bucky. "We need you at your best, Steve." And then, because he thinks it'll work better. "The war needs you at your best."

"Buck, I'm not going to let you down—"

"You've never let me down, Steve," says Bucky. "Not before the war, and not now. This time I'm not going to let you down. Let me talk to the guys—"

"No, the Commandos don't need to know," insists Steve, so rapidly and firmly that Bucky isn't sure how they even got there. "You know them, Bucky, they'll try to give me some of their own rations, and they need those. We need all of you at your best, too. I'll just keep on doing what I've been doing."

"Scavenging?" says Bucky. "You know it's not enough." And maybe they can't get enough for him, maybe it's just not possible when they're out here like this, but they can damn well try. "Let me help you at least. We can pick up some extra supplies someplace. I can stuff my pockets full of nuts." When Steve smiles at the image, Bucky presses his advantage. "It doesn't have to be your secret, you know. The army made you who you are, so us grunts can at least help keep you in action."

"If I find out anyone has been going without for me, I'll put an end to it," says Steve. "I mean it, Bucky. That means you, too. No more slipping me anything."

"You knew?"

Steve actually blushes, and Bucky finds himself irrationally glad than he can still find some of the old Steve in there. "I was really hungry," he admits. "I told myself I'd only let you do it a couple of times. I'm sorry—"

"Shut up," says Bucky, nudging him with his elbow. "We'll make this work. No more of this damn noble suffering, you got me? We're a team, and you're not selfish for asking for what you need to survive."

"I won't take food out of someone else's mouth because I need a little extra," he says again, like that's the mantra he's been using on himself all this time when the hunger pains get bad.

"Yeah, well, same," says Bucky, "and you needing more is not the same as taking extra. Don't make me beat that into your thick skull. You know I will."

"I know you will," says Steve.

"And come winter when you won't be able to eat handfuls of grass and shrubs anymore, we'll get Stark to drop some extra rations for you out of his own pocket. You know he can afford it."

"That's not the point," says Steve, but he hasn't figured out yet that Bucky means every damn word of it. And if the rest of the Commandos aren't on board, they will be when Bucky's done with them. They owe this to Steve.

They spend the next half hour quietly picking up acorns and getting a few lucky handfuls of berries that are almost certainly not poisonous, and Bucky tries not to think about what they really are going to do in the wintertime, if the war isn't over by then.

Despite it all, despite picking up as many extra rations as they can reasonably carry when they're out on a mission (which isn't a lot more—Steve kind of had a point there), Steve still goes hungrier than he ought to, and part of that is down to stubbornness and, Bucky thinks, shame. Shame that he needs more than the average guy now. It's the same kind of stubborn that Steve has always been—acting like his physical challenges can be overcome by sheer willpower. Bucky admires him for it, because the guy's always had some guts, but he still spends a lot of time wanting to give him a good knock on the skull.

One night they're bunked down in a hollow, still a good five miles out from the target and safe as they can expect to be for the night. Bucky did some digging around while Steve was shooting this shit with the guys, has a goodly pile of greens and mushrooms and is glad they haven't had to resort to insects for protein yet. Steve would, if he had to, but Bucky hopes his hunger never gets that dire. He's not above looting wherever he can, but they're not often on the kind of assignments where there's a lot of opportunity for that. It's well past dark when Steve comes to find him, sitting with his back to an old stone wall, the remnants of a stable, he thinks, that fell to time and not to bombing.

"How are you doing?"

"I'm okay," says Steve, pressing his hand to his belly. His uniform is singed right there, but then it has been for a while and Bucky doesn't think a replacement is going to be forthcoming till they decide they want to get a clean-cut Captain America on film again.

"Like hell you are," says Bucky, picking out a mushroom he's just finished cleaning with his knife. He's practically an expert at finding and identifying them these days. "Open up."

"What?"

"Open your trap," says Bucky, holding it up close to Steve's mouth. "Incoming."

Steve still looks a bit flustered, but he opens his mouth anyway, and Bucky carefully places the food inside. When Steve closes his mouth, his lips close against Bucky's fingertips, and neither of them is in a particular hurry to keep that from happening.

Bucky's not sure he could tell you what 'that' is if you asked, but he knows that it sends a tingle right down to the base of his spine, and he sure wouldn't mind feeling that again. Guys have done worse things, he thinks. If he and Steve are close, well, they've earned it. They've been through a lot together.

They certainly don't say anything about it, and Bucky holds up another for him, pressing it into Steve's mouth so he can't protest. His hand doesn't tremble but he feels a tremble inside, something seismic and unsettling, like the earth has shifted. Steve sucks his fingertips, and neither of them talks about it but neither of them looks ashamed either. They make eye contact.

Steve lets him do it again. And again. Taking greens from his fingertips, licking peeled chestnuts from the palm of his hand, sucking berry juice from his thumb.

Steve tries to offer him something in return, but Bucky only takes one mouthful, and that only because he wants to know what Steve's fingers feel like, taste like. He licks over the callouses and sucks the tip of his finger and that's as far as he lets it go. This is for Steve, and even if it's turning into something else, if that something else is making it easier for Steve to get what he needs then this is going to be a one-sided activity for as long as it takes. Bucky thinks for a moment about being back at base camp, about what they could do alone together there, and that thought sustains him.

He offers Steve a few acorns, small and bitter but still with enough nutrients and calories to be worth something to Steve, and Steve grabs his wrist this time, holds Bucky's hand there while he sucks every finger clean. For a few moments Bucky feels like he forgets to breath, his chest tight and his head light and his body giving every possible signal that he wants so much more of that.

It's the last of what they've gathered for Steve to eat, still not enough, never enough, but better than before. They've still got their ration, saved for last to wash the taste of bitter forest greens out of his mouth.

"You're on your own for the Spam," he says, finding it hard to find his voice again; it comes out rough and halting. "If you think I'm going to hand feed that to you, you're nuts."

Steve still has his wrist and holds it tight as he leans in, and then they're kissing before Bucky can do more than blink. Not that he wants to do more than blink; he doesn't want to move away, he doesn't want to stop him or ask questions or even try to understand. All he wants to do is hold this moment for as long as he can, because it's the best and the most real and the most himself he's felt in a long time.

"I'm sor—" Steve starts when he pulls away, but hell no, Bucky's not going to let him have that, he's not going to tolerate an apology. He kisses him back, his choice this time, and if Steve thinks there's something to apologize for after that then Bucky hasn't done it right. "The other guys—"

"Can't see us right now," whispers Bucky. And even if they could...you spend enough time with people, you put your life on the line with them time and time again, and you start to turn a blind out to what they want to do with the rest of their time. Bucky knows he does it for them. There's a line he won't cross here in camp, out of discretion and also because he won't be able to relax enough to do it, but he'll walk right along the edge of that line. Neither Steve nor Bucky has ever been someone who'll back away from danger. Or a fight, if it ever comes down to that.

He lets Steve kiss him again. And then again. And he wants to let it go on all evening, till his lips are swollen and he can't see straight, but he can't.

"You need to eat more," says Bucky. "For me, Steve."

Whatever it takes.

Bucky's got a secret stash this time out, in case it comes down to that, but they're still on K rations this early in the mission, lightweight but a decent chunk of meat for a normal soldier. If it weren't for Steve's frenzied metabolism, they'd have no complaints. Steve opens the tin with a sharp crack, but hands it back to Bucky.

"Hey, I said I wasn't—" he starts, but there are utensils and he gets the idea.

"You're gonna drive me crazy," he says, and holds a spoonful up to Steve's mouth with is sucked clean away. Half the spoon disappears into Steve's mouth for a moment and Bucky feels like he's on fire, has to close his eyes and just breathe for a moment before he can offer him more.

He aches to just climb into Steve's lap, straddle him and get as close as they can, closer than they ever should, but he steels himself against the tremor that sends through him and keeps making sure Steve eats. Keeps making sure he's okay. It's practically been Bucky's life's work, so even if Steve is now in a position to take care of him the rest of the time, Bucky won't shirk this duty. He feeds him to the last mouthful, watches Steve lick out the tin and just wants so badly it's a physical pain in his throat and behind his eyes.

"Biscuits," he says, his voice cracked and broken, and crumbles one into pieces so he can give it to Steve bit by bit, feeling him lick his fingers clean. He can hardly manage to watch, but when he does Steve is looking back at him, eyes dark and intense, lips faintly swollen.

"Chocolate?" says Steve hopefully, and Bucky hates to disappoint but no such luck today. If he had any, any at all, even something he was saving for himself for a rainy day, it would be in Steve's mouth already. "Well, that's all right," he says, and takes Bucky's hand and sucks on two of his fingers with no pretense.

Bucky really does stop breathing this time, and can't think of a single thing to say. He would do anything for Steve, but this, right now, this is not for Steve. And he hopes that Steve is not doing it for him. Because this...this should be both of them. All or nothing.

He finally pulls them away, looks at Bucky for a very long time, and exhales slowly, like he's having as hard a time with control as Bucky is.

"I don't know what I'd be without you, Bucky," says Steve, pressing his forehead to Bucky's and speaking so lowly Bucky can only just hear. "You know that, right?"

"You've always been everything to me," says Bucky, and if he never gets to say that again, at least he has now, this quiet whisper of a moment that means everything. At least Steve will always know.

"We should..." says Steve, and coughs and brushes any remaining crumbs off his hands—there are none—and pushes himself off the crumbling wall and to his feet again. "We need to...." And he offers Bucky his hand, which Bucky takes and sways to his feet, taking a moment to find his balance. "That helped. Thank you."

"We'll have to do it again, then," says Bucky, proud of how normal he sounds. "Tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night," says Steve, and waits there for a long moment, still holding Bucky's hands, before they finally let go and round the wall and return to the rest of the Commandos.