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Baghdad Waltz

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Steve awakens abruptly to the harsh, jaunty tones of a cell phone. Next to him, Bucky burrows his head deeper under the covers with a mumble.

“’S yours,” Steve thinks he hears. Bucky’s arm slides around his waist, and Steve feels his hand fall softly against his side.

No, it most certainly is not his, because his is in his pocket, and his pants are far away. Steve reaches against the counterforce of his boyfriend’s pull and snags the cell off the nightstand with the tips of his fingers. He checks the caller ID.

SGT McConnell

“It’s your squad leader.” Steve throws down the comforter and taps the phone against Bucky’s head.

Bucky recoils from the light and the blaring sound, pressing his face into Steve’s bare chest. “What’s he want?”

“I don’t know, Buck. I didn’t ask him.” The smile on Steve's lips is fond as he taps again.

With a growl, Bucky reaches up, grabs the phone from Steve’s hand, presses the receive button, and holds it to his ear. “Hello?”

Steve can’t make out the words on the other end, but he can make out that they’re frantic. Bucky’s body goes rigid against him, and Bucky pushes himself away in order to sit up. McConnell’s voice, loud and legato, fills the space between them.

“What do we do?” Bucky asks, his own words measured and even by comparison.

More unintelligible panic seeps into the room. Steve sits up next to Bucky and tries to read the situation from his face. His lips are parted, brows drawn together the way they do when he’s engineering through a problem - though Steve would sure like to know what kind of problem has McConnell calling in hysterics when Bucky isn't even supposed to be drilling for another four days.

“Are we officially on orders?” Bucky motions to Steve then, pointing to the remote on the nightstand. When Steve hands it to him, he turns the TV on to ABC, to live news coverage of both towers of the World Trade Center belching smoke and flame.

It takes several moments for his sleep-addled brain to register what’s happening, but once it sinks in, Steve covers his mouth with his hand and mutters “Oh my God” against it. He looks over at Bucky, who’s flung down the rest of the covers and is crawling out of bed.

“Liberty Plaza Park?” Bucky asks. He’s pacing now, naked, alternating between glancing at the TV and the floor. His body is a lean line of wiry muscle, sculpted and groomed with the fastidiousness of a man who lives as if he’s still beholden to the rigid statues of the New York City gay scene, his old habits holding fast despite Steve’s insistence that he doesn’t have to be that way for him.

Now Steve’s phone actually is ringing. He scrambles out of bed and uses the sound to locate his jeans, which are crumpled in the corner next to the book shelf.

Bucky’s voice dimly registers in the background. “I dunno. Depends on traffic in the tunnel. I can be ready — ”

Steve presses the receive button on his phone. “Ma.”

“Where are you?”

“Bucky’s.”

“Oh, thank the Lord. Just stay there, okay? Did you see what happened? Are you watching?”

“Yeah.”

His ma draws in a shaking breath. “All those people…”

Steve knows what she’s thinking, and if she weren’t sleeping off her latest round of chemo, he’s sure she’d be trying to hitch a ride to Manhattan right now to go help treat the wounded. He feels a sudden pang of guilt that he’s not with her. He should be with her. He should be taking care of her, despite her firm insistence that she's fine. That she's out of the woods now. At the very least, he shouldn’t have stayed over at Bucky’s. Again. 

Bucky's pacing abruptly stops, catching Steve's attention. Steve doesn’t make out what his ma says next, because all he can hear is —

“Roger that. See you soon.”

The breath rips out Steve’s chest as the pieces slam into place. He stumbles distractedly through repeated confirmations that he’s safe and that his ma is safe and that they’ll call each other later. By the time he hangs up, Bucky’s in the bathroom, filling the sink with water.

“Sergeant Z’s gonna kill me,” Bucky says, running his fingers through his dark hair, now wild with sleep and day-old product. Woefully and deliberately out of regs until the last possible second. Very Bucky. He touches the sideburns that shouldn't be there, the scruff along his jaw - that sharp, handsome jawline that Steve kissed last night. 

Steve leans rigidly against the door jamb. “Where are you going?”

“Liberty Plaza.”

“Who’s going?”

“As many as we can get. At least me, McConnell, Z, Alvarez, and Kwon.”

Steve crosses his arms tight over his chest. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Help, I guess.” Bucky shrugs, but the movement is tense and forced. “I dunno. Whatever we can do. We haven’t been formally activated yet, but we can’t just sit around and do nothing.” He turns off the sink, bracing himself heavily over it, and looks down into the water. The faucet continues dripping until he fiddles with the hot knob, finessing it the way it must be finessed in order to stop leaking. Bucky glances into the mirror and catches Steve's reflection. “Let’s go to the roof.”

Bucky brushes past Steve as he exits the bathroom, leaving him staring dumbly at his own serious face. From the bedroom, Steve hears the loud scraping sound of the dresser opening, and he follows it, snagging the pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt Bucky throws at him. They're his own, part of the growing collection of clothes and personal items he keeps here now after being forbidden from keeping anything more than a toothbrush for a whole goddamn year.

They dress in silence, slip on Bucky's two pairs of flip-flops, and make their way up the flights of stairs that lead to the roof. There, they join the small crowd of residents who greet Bucky by the name most know him by.

“Jamie,” Mrs. Griffith says, laying her wizened hand on his arm. “Oh, Jamie.” It’s all she can say to him as her eyes glimmer and spill over.

Bucky pats her hand with a sorrowful smile, and they all watch the horror unfolding across the river. The horror that Bucky is about to be swallowed up by. From Bucky’s Red Hook apartment, it all seems frighteningly close, so close that you could almost reach out and touch the smoke.

Steve feels two of Bucky’s fingers reaching for his own, brushing cautiously as Bucky gnaws on his lower lip and stares out at the blackening skyline. Steve takes hold of those fingers and squeezes them tightly, with every bit of himself that he can, because he knows it's all Bucky will give him with other people around. And Steve swallows down a lump of nausea as Bucky predictably yanks his hand back, nausea that blooms as they take the steps back down to the apartment. Bucky closes the door behind them and pauses, hand pressing hard against its surface, fingernails going white. And Bucky's mouth opens like he wants to say something, and Steve waits for it, wants desperately to hear it, because Bucky's inner life is always so shrouded, so guarded, and he's scared now, he's.... But then Bucky's in motion again, blowing past Steve, stripping off his sweatshirt and heading back to the bathroom to shave.

While Bucky readies for God knows what (does anybody know what the fuck is actually going on over there?), Steve does what he does when he’s stressed out: he tidies. He starts obvious. Two shiny condom wrappers on the floor. Pieces of clothing. He finds his underwear tossed atop the dresser, which look to have come precariously close to knocking down at least one of the three framed photos there. Bucky’s dad posed in front of the Blackhawk helicopter he would die in eight months after the photo was taken. The two of them at age 13, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, grinning with braced teeth at the Nirvana concert Steve’s ma escorted them to. The two of them, arms similarly draped, Steve kissing Bucky on the cheek as Bucky holds out the shot of vodka that commemorated the start of his 21st birthday bar crawl. One year after the drunken proposition and kiss that changed everything between them.

Steve heaves a deep, shaking breath. Okay. Break down the steps. Get dressed. Don’t want the last thing Bucky sees you in to be—

Steve kills the thought fast and hard, but puts on his clothes from yesterday all the same. He then strides over to Bucky’s closet and pulls out the nicest battle dress uniform he can find. Warm weather fabric. The one with the sharpest creases along the arms and legs. He lays it out on the bed and takes stock of his boyfriend’s part-time career. Specialist Barnes, U.S. Army. Airborne patch. Air Assault patch. Unit patch. He then pulls out the jungle boots he knows are the most comfortable, even though there’s still dirt on them from his last field training exercise. He goes to the kitchen and comes back with a wet paper towel to clean them off, then pulls a brown t-shirt, Bucky’s favorite underwear, and a pair of black socks from his dresser. He lays everything on the edge of the bed he just made, where Bucky won’t be able to miss it.

Steve hears Bucky start the shower then, and he starts to panic. He’s running out of time. Time for what, he won’t dare say, but he picks up the pace anyway. He pulls some of Bucky’s TA-50 gear from the closet — belt and suspenders rigged with canteens and ammo pouches — and takes it to the kitchen. He fills the two canteens with water and rummages around the cupboards, grabbing fistfuls of granola bars and beef jerky and whatever compact, shelf-stable foods he can find. He doesn’t know what’s Bucky’s and what’s his roommate’s, but she’s not here to ask, so he takes whatever he finds. He pauses periodically to tune in to the voices of the ABC news commentators, who stutter and haw as they try to narrate the pandemonium. Each additional detail seems to ratchet up his dread tenfold.

Bucky’s phone rings again. Caller ID: Ma. Steve holds the phone in his hand as his reeling brain vacillates between two possible responses. His thumb cuts a path through the muck of his waffling and presses the receive button.

“This is Steve.”

“Steve, honey. How are you?”

He doesn’t even know how to characterize his current mood. It’s tumbling somewhere between terrified and numb. He must sound brittle, because Winnie modulates her tone to exude maternal calm.

“It’s okay,” she says, inferring his terror. “You’re fine. Is Jamie there?”

“He’s in the shower.” His voice grits like gravel.

“Did he get activated?”

Steve shakes his head until he remembers that she can’t see him. “No, but a bunch of them are going there anyway.”

There’s the briefest hitch in Winnie’s breath, which she exhales out like a slow wave. “Do you know where he’s going?”

Steve tells her everything he knows, which he quickly realizes is pathetically little.

“Have him call me before he leaves, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey.” Her tone is one she might use with scared dog. “What are you doing right now?”

Steve looks at his piles on the counter. “Packing food. For him.”

“Did you call your ma?”

“Yeah.”

“You gonna go see her when Jamie leaves?”

“Yeah.” Did he just whimper?

“Okay. You’re okay. It’s okay. Jamie will be okay. This is his job.”

Steve bites down on his molars. “I hate it.”

Winnie Buchanan, former soldier and current Army widow extraordinaire, relates. She shares a story about George deploying during Desert Storm that has a hypnotic effect on Steve, most certainly from the lulling inflection and cadence of her words. Her nurse voice, Bucky calls it. One of her nurse voices, anyway. The good cop to her jarring, curse-filled repertoire saved specially for idiot doctors, which has occasional applications to her spawn and their associates when behaving like idiots.

After a discordantly curt reminder that he tell Bucky to call her, Winnie says farewell with the sun-kissed affection of his own mother. Steve seizes enough foresight to plug Bucky’s phone into its charger on the kitchen counter, then he begins stuffing the empty TA-50 ammo pouches with the junk food he forged. He thinks to make something more substantial and collects ingredients to make PB&J, turning and stalling once, then twice, as if he’s lost in the kitchen he’s been in half a thousand times.

His mind’s chaos gives way to white noise, his sandwich-making motions automatic, and through the murky silence he hears himself praying underneath his breath. Christ, he hasn’t prayed in so long that he’s surprised his mouth even remembers how to do it.

Time falls away like ash. Steve slips two sandwiches into ziplocks and turns to set them on the small table in the center of the kitchen. He startles when he sees Bucky standing there in full uniform, shaved and clean, handsome as the devil and, of course, smiling. Steve wants to scream and shake that smile off his face. It’s not even real, anyway. Just Bucky’s typical worn out production of cavalierness.

Bucky looks down at the sandwiches and at his stuffed TA-50. “You did that for me?” he says, his smile curving. The softness of his baby face clashes violently with the grim adultness of his battle dress. “Thank you.”

“Your ma called. Call her back.”

Bucky’s expression falls slack. He opens the large cargo pockets on his right and left thighs and slides one sandwich into each. “C’mon, Steve…”

Steve tightens his hands into fists. “Why do you have to go?” It’s a stupid question, and one he knows the answer to. It’s more of a question to the universe, to the galactic sadist who orchestrates the smashing of planes into buildings and who sends his boyfriend into the jaws of hell to chase their flames.

“This is literally why the National Guard was created.” Bucky points in the general direction of Manhattan Island. “That over there.”

“I should be going with you.”

“After your ma’s been in remission six months. That’s what you agreed, remember?” Bucky circles around the table and stops a few feet short of Steve. In his boots, they’re just barely the same height. “When that day comes, I’ll walk you to the recruiter’s myself.” He grabs his gear off the tabletop, slides the suspenders over his shoulders, and buckles the pistol belt in the front.

Bucky pauses and regards Steve, offering another smile, this one warm and stripped of pretense. For a second, Steve’s certain Bucky’s going to reach out for him, but instead he turns on his heel and walks to the hook by the door. His body draws a different line in uniform, one sharp and infused with purpose. He lifts his motorcycle keys from the hook and drops them on the floor. He retrieves them with trembling fingers and shoves them into his pocket.

The imaginary tar that held Steve back gives way, and he rushes to Bucky, throwing his arms around him from behind and pulling him in as tightly as he can. His blue eyes quiver back and forth as he scrambles for reasons why he has to go with him, or why Bucky has to stay here. He entertains the insane thought of lifting Bucky’s Gerber from his pocket, flipping it open, and jamming it into his thigh, because at least he wouldn’t be going to Manhattan. It’d be well worth the possible assault charge and the dissolution of their whole relationship, because at least Bucky would be alive and not burned to a crisp inside 1 World Trade Center.

“I’m coming with you,” Steve says. Bucky stiffens in his arms.

“Like hell.” Bucky grabs Steve’s forearms, breaking his hold, and turns to face him. “Like hell you are. Not riding with me, anyway.” Bucky digs his fingers into the thick muscle of Steve’s shoulders. “No.” He shakes his head, already anticipating the course of Steve’s arrogant logic. “No. You’re staying here. I don’t care if you did rustle up some wack job cabbie who’d take you. You’re staying.”

Fuck you is Steve’s first thought. I love you is his second. That’s the one he says aloud.

Bucky slides his hands up to the place where the curve of Steve’s neck begins. “I love you, too.”

They hug properly this time, and Steve’s hold is just as desperate as before. He breathes a shaking sigh of both relief and anguish when Bucky returns that desperation. Steve pulls in the lingering scent of Bucky’s shampoo from his still-damp hair, and he wonders how an infantryman could smell so sweet.

Bucky’s the one to draw back first. He glances over at his phone on the counter, and Steve turns to retrieve it. Bucky dials his mom, frowns, and slides the phone into his left pocket.

“Network’s down.” Bucky’s face bears its first signs of real fear now, eyes wide, chin working back and forth as he tries to judo himself around a problem with no viable solution. “Shit,” he breathes, then steels his yawing jaw. “I gotta go.”

“Okay.”

Bucky grabs his motorcycle helmet, and Steve follows him down the stairs.

“Check on Mrs. G before you leave, will ya? She wasn’t looking so good.” Bucky says, glancing back at Steve for confirmation.

Steve nods and trails him down more and more stairs to the ground floor, his body stiff and resisting, as if he’s gone spontaneously arthritic. They stop just short of the door that leads outside, the threshold passing into the land where someone who knows someone could see Bucky in uniform, kissing and touching another man, and kill his Army career with one gleeful stroke.

Bucky peers out the window, down the street to his bike, the black 1978 Triumph Bonneville he and his dad rebuilt from a rusted pile of neglect. Steve can see the ticking of Bucky’s jaw, and he wonders what he’s thinking. He wants to ask but doesn’t, because he doesn’t want Bucky to tell him what he already knows. That he’s scared. That he’s worried he might get hurt or worse. That someone might die because he wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to help them. He also doesn’t ask because he knows Bucky needs to be brave right now, and Steve needs to be brave right now, too.

Bucky turns around and takes a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling. “Here we go.”

You. Here you go, Steve thinks.

Steve reaches forward and lays his hand on Bucky’s chest, over the words telling everyone who owns him right now. But who’s Steve really kidding? Bucky loves the Army. He lives for this. This is who he chooses to be, who he’s wanted to be for as long as Steve has known him.

“Don’t be a hero. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Bucky's mouth cocks into a half-smirk. “I’ll try not to.”

“That’s not good enough.” Steve fists the lapels of Bucky’s uniform, his metal rank insignia digging into his palms.

Bucky lifts his hands and lays them on Steve’s cheeks. They’re warm and damp with sweat. “I’m gonna be okay.”

Steve kisses him. He doesn’t know how to convey everything in that kiss. His love. His fear. He doesn’t know if it’s enough, if Bucky knows just how much he loves him.

And then the kiss is over, and Bucky’s hands are leaving his face. And he’s backing toward the door, sliding his helmet over his head. He smiles once more, brilliant, all teeth, and then he’s gone.

Steve stands in the foyer for God knows how long. Long after he hears the rumble of Bucky’s engine die down to nothing. Long enough to think through half a thousand tragic scenarios and the devastation he would face in the wake of any of them.

Eventually, a flow of kinetic energy drags him up the stairs, back toward Bucky’s apartment. He keeps his promise to check in on Mrs. Griffith along the way, who pulls him into her apartment and sits him down on the couch with a cup of weak coffee. He holds her hand as she cries. Together, they watch in horror when the south tower collapses in on itself. It’s breathtaking and harrowing, and Steve feels a shadow of shameful relief as well, because he knows Bucky can’t have made it to Manhattan by then.

But when the north tower collapses at 10:28, Steve knows there’s a chance that Bucky was there, that he was inside or just outside. He knows that Bucky might now be crushed under 110 stories of rubble. Shaking and sick to his stomach, Steve leaves Mrs. Griffith with her own sorrow and climbs the remaining stairs to Bucky’s apartment. There, he collapses on the bed, on Bucky’s side, and curls his large body into a ball. He tries to call him. He tries five, ten, fifteen times, each met with the infuriating blare of his cell carrier’s network error message.

Somehow through the chaos, a call eventually comes through to him, and Steve nearly bursts into angry, bitter tears when he sees that it’s his ma. He answers, choking back his emotions, because the last thing she needs is to worry about him. So he pretends he’s fine, even though his voice is so thick and unsteady that she must know he’s lying. He does find some comfort in her words. In the way she calls him ‘darling.’ The way her assurances that Bucky is okay seem like they might even be true, through some feat of maternal manipulation.

With her blessing, Steve stays at Bucky’s, just in case he comes home. He stays and worries and forces himself to stay still, because if something horrible did happen to Bucky, Steve wants to preserve the evidence that he lived here. The razor he left on the counter. The sweat pants he dropped on the floor of the bathroom. The flip-flops kicked off at the door.

Steve stays and he wallows in his helplessness, tuning in and out of the continuous live coverage. He sees survivors on TV, a lot of them, covered in dust, and he dares to hope that Bucky might be with them. As he waits, something brews inside of him, something like resolve, borne out of the terror of not knowing whether the man he loves is alive or dead.

And he promises himself that, somehow, he is never going to feel this way ever again.