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The Howling Commandos do not fall into fame so much as wake up in a barn to find it stealing all their pants and rations. They most emphatically did not start out as the Howling Commandos , not even to the other units - they were SSR Strike Force One, or Rogers’ Raiders if they were feeling frisky. But then they come staggering back after one mission to find a USO film crew milling around outside of Philips’ tent, smoking over their bags of camera gear, and Steve is clearly the only one who has an inkling of what’s going on because one of the guys sees them stumble up, frowns, looks straight at Steve and then boggles, a real genuine boggle, his eyes going out of his head. “What the hell - is that - Holy Christ - Rogers?”

“Who’s that?” Bucky mutters, poking Steve in the ass with the butt of his rifle.  

“Stage manager,” Steve says under his breath, clearly wishing to be somewhere else, anywhere else, ideally on another planet. “Hello, Tom.”

The guy’s still gaping, his hat threatening to come off. All his camera lackeys are staring now too. “Rogers, what in the name of hell happened to you?”

“Nazis,” Steve says, visibly remembering that his face, right arm and entirety of his hair are covered in dried blood. Behind him Monty has a bruise like a pomegranate on his cheek and Dum Dum is missing half his mustache. Everybody is covered in river mud to the waist and only Bucky doesn’t have a layer of soot on him, courtesy of his sniper distance. Steve rolls his shoulders, kind of sheepishly; if Bucky weren’t basically numb from the elbows down he’d probably care too. They look disgusting. They’re carrying intel and there hadn’t been time to find a creek and wash.

“Nazis… happened to you,” Tom repeats dazedly.

“More like we happened to them,” Bucky mutters, out of patience. His fucking feet hurt. “We’ll be happening to you too if you don’t move. Captain,” he adds pointedly.

“Right,” Steve says, and his general aura of impending doom is momentarily dispelled by Bucky hustling them all into the command tent.

Phillips makes happy grunts over their intel, promises a meeting with Carter in an hour, wrinkles his entire face at their… everything and sends them off to wash. The camp is a couple miles down the road from the nearest town, which means they get to take turns scrubbing and swearing under the wooden barrack showers that feel kind of like being peed on by an elderly cat. They stumble out, dry off best they can and and beeline for the mess.

Steve’s generalized aura of muscles and patriotism gets them moved along the line pretty quick. Bucky glares a second helping of beans out of the KP guy, shovels half of it onto Steve’s plate and pushes his breadroll onto Gabe’s. Dernier produces an unlabeled bottle of sauce out of his jacket and passes it around. Nobody says a word and everything is as it should be: they all developed the post-mission silent meal ritual pretty quickly, having learned the hard way that when they’re all tired and hungry the best thing they can do for each other is shut the hell up.

After forty minutes of silent industrial-grade munching, they are not much more given to conversation but much less likely to attack each other with the nearest eating utensil. Dernier collects his sauce and Bucky finishes mopping the sauce off his plate with the last third of Monty’s bread roll. They finish up and file out as a group, ready for the intelligence debrief and daytime rest - only to get ambushed by the entire film crew directly upon exiting the tent.

“Rogers,” Tom the stage manager says, all traces of boggling gone, getting in Steve’s face with a gleam in his eye. Steve clearly recognizes this gleam, if his sudden look of panicked evasion is anything to go by.  

“Tom,” he says, and anybody who doesn’t know him as well as Bucky does would say he doesn’t sound scared at all. “Nice seeing you, but -”

“It’s lucky we ran into you, see,” Tom says, smoothly moving with Steve as he takes an abortive step forward. Bucky’s impressed. “We’re here to do some filming on-site. Sent directly by Senator Brandt. Colonel Phillips signed off on it.”

Steve shouldn’t look so damn surprised at being sold up the creek by the brass. He shoots Bucky a look that says abort abort abort requesting emergency evac but Bucky, whose feet no longer hurt and whose stomach is at least somewhat full of meat hash and beans, returns him a look that tells him just how impressed he isn’t. He’s willing to let this play out naturally.

Steve, abandoned by his men, turns back to Tom. “That’s - great,” he says to Tom through his teeth. “But I really don’t think we have the time. We’re an active unit, we can’t just - ”

“Captain Rogers,” comes a familiar voice, and Steve whirls around. “Peggy,” he says, in tones of near-religious gratitude. “I mean - Agent Carter. We have a - briefing. Debriefing. Sorry, Tom, I don’t think we can film anything right now -”

Carter cocks her head. “What’s this about filming?”

“Nothing,” Steve says desperately. “No filming at all.”

“For the USO,” Tom says, leaning around Steve’s bulk to look Carter up and down. “Gotta get some reels of the troops, war bonds and such back home. Get everyone’s spirits up. Show Captain America in action, have him say a few lines. We got some scripts here,” he says, waving a hand at a camera lackey, who scampers up with a fistful of pages; Tom takes one and holds it out. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Captain America, and I’m here to tell you, your contribution is needed -”

“And this would be filmed now? Here?”

“Outskirts of camp, yeah,” Tom agrees, lowering the scripts. “No sensitive material, nothing classified - we just need some real soldiers, some real trees, sortathing. Authenticity. Lighting’s good, got the equipment - we get Rogers here his lines and some props and we’re in business.”

“I see,” Carter says. “Well. We certainly can’t disappoint the USO.”

Steve looks at her. She smiles. Steve looks back at Tom. No mercy there. Bucky pulls out a cigarette and lights it. Next to him Dum Dum is starting to grin like a pumpkin.

Besieged on all sides, Steve turns back to Tom. “Fine,” he says, defeated. “Let’s just... get it out of the way.”

“Sure, sure, won’t take twenty minutes,” Tom says, not even bothering to sound convincing as he grabs Steve’s shoulder and starts tugging. “Come on, Rogers, let’s get you all made up - and your men, of course,” Tom adds.

Bucky says, “Wait, what?”

-o-

The next several hours hit an exact midpoint between fascinating and abominable. Bucky always likes knowing the back end of things, how things work, so it’s a bit of a treat to see the USO camera team unfold their giant bags and trunks of equipment and descend like a plague of locusts on a patch of woods just outside camp.

On the other hand, it’s also him being descended upon.

They get staged to within an inch of their lives. Steve sits down in one of their foldy chairs with resigned familiarity and submits to a lackey brandishing a frightening array of makeup brushes at his face. Bucky watches, mildly alarmed, until another lackey grabs his arm and tries to give him the same treatment. Bucky eels away just in time; he doesn’t like people waving anything too close to his face these days and his hair looks goddamn fine, thanks. That he can still style pretty easy and makes sure he does, every morning: his eyes might be bruisey and his cheeks gaunt but he’ll have shaved and his hair will damn well have pomade in it.

The lackeys dab cautiously at Morita, work around Dernier’s bristles and ignore Gabe entirely. Monty just vanishes without a trace, which at least spares the harried lackeys having to cover up his giant bruise with greasepaint. Dum Dum, on the other hand: the lackeys are near hysterical trying to figure out what to do with his singed face, and Dum Dum’s staunch refusal to shave off the rest of his mustache results in the filming assistants desperately creating a hastily stuck together replacement of horse hair, harvested from a live French horse.

Carter watches - sorry, supervises - all of this with barely disguised glee. Bucky can’t say he’s not having a good time either, watching three filming assistants edge closer to the skinny nag munching grass in the field near camp. “Bet you a dollar it kicks one of ‘em clear across the field,” he says under his breath, lighting a cigarette.

“No bet,” Carter murmurs back, bracing her folder arms on the fence next to him. “What’s that in real money?”

“Not a clue,” Bucky says. That actually might be a donkey, now that he’s looking: those ears look a little long and those legs look a little short for a horse, but what the hell does he know, the only time he sees horses is when he’s in the city getting a glimpse of carriage riders in Central Park. “That thing look like a donkey to you?”

“You know, I think it might be,” Carter says pensively as the thing lifts its head, takes one look at the three assistants creeping towards it and runs for the hills.

Watching three Hollywood guys chase a probable donkey across a pockmarked French field is all well and good, but not as good as watching Steve get put through his paces like an animatronic puppet. “Every bond is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun,” he recites, his eyes begging for death, and Bucky and Carter smile sweetly from the other side of the cameras and continue to deny him. They’re probably at least fifty percent responsible for the genuine rage in Captain America’s eyes as he talks about shelling the Schutzstaffel and routing the Krauts. “I’m going to strangle you both,” he hisses at them the next time everybody breaks for five minutes, Tom and the camera people huddling around the reels of footage. “With my bare hands. Both of you.”

“Actors,” Carter comments airily, to no one in particular.

“So highly strung,” Bucky agrees, reveling in the look of incandescent murder in Steve’s eyes.

Bucky and Carter get away with not being in the spotlight for a good long while, mostly by standing to the side smoking and silently promising nothing short of the apocalypse to any lackey unlucky enough to make eye contact. There’s a photographer running around taking pictures any old how, from every angle; it’s harder to avoid him since he just seems to be photographing the chaos at random, but Carter always manages to hide her face when the lens turns their way, even if at one point she has to spin Bucky in front of her to do it.

Monty reappears, four cartons of cigarettes in each hand, and filming takes a break as the entire unit descends on him like there’s a homing beacon in his underpants. The filming assistants watch jealously as Bucky passes his matches around, and Steve gives them mournful looks from where he’s trapped by four lackeys and Tom with a hand trying valiantly to encircle his bicep. Bucky wanders over there and gives Steve a cig, and the look of desperate suffering on his face has Bucky grinning on his way back to Monty, where the photographer has now popped up and is making noises of ecstasy about the composition, about how this would make the perfect group shot.

What the hell. Bucky sidles in between Dernier and Monty and tugs Gabe behind him, and when the photographer gets his camera up he even grins around his cigarette. The photographer loves them, takes a couple more shots and then shoos them around, telling them to look hold their rifles and look ‘eloquent’. Bucky’s not sure the guy knows what the word means. He rolls his eyes and brandishes his gun with the rest of the guys, though. It’s not the worst way to spend an afternoon.  

But it does start to drag on, as Tom sees the photographer making happy noises and decides to get involved; there are a lot more elaborately posed shots after that, and then they want to film more “war scenes” with Steve, and then they get a reporter in, two reporters, who want to interview Cap and his men, and oh, goody, they can get it on film too? Oh happy day. Bucky stays well away from that one, lurking along with Carter behind the camera setups, grinning back at Steve’s dire looks as he gets hustled in front of a backdrop for an interview. Steve, unwilling to step into the fire alone, snags the two people nearest to him - Dum Dum and Gabe - by the shoulders and marches them over with him.

There’s a moment where Tom and the two camera guys stare at Gabe, but Steve keeps an arm clamped around him and Dum Dum both and so they can’t really say anything, not with Steve’s jaw set like that. Gabe just stares back at him with that calm, even look he does so well, and after a second Tom decides they’re wasting daylight and starts snapping his fingers for the cameras to roll.

They get filmed, and posed, and filmed again. Monty finally gets made up too, the lackeys applying coat after coat of makeup to hide the bruise on his jaw. The reporters want to do filmed interviews, which Tom allows, but then they only manage to catch Morita and Gabe and Dum Dum all at once because Bucky and Monty and Dernier skipped off for a convenient smoke break. They watch the other three guys get asked tough, meaty questions like what are some words you have for the folks back home and what’s your best advice to those trying to support the war effort. These are all asked by the reporter in the grey fedora; the reporter in the black fedora all but rolls his eyes when they’re asked but defers to what’s clearly his senior partner.

But Black Fedora does eventually get his moment to shine. “So,” he finally says. “Tell us about your Captain. Stickler for rules, is he? Uptight?”

The commandos all stare at him. Steve’s on the other side of the clearing, now on a solo interview with Grey Fedora. Behind the cameras Bucky and Carter’s eyes meet; they exchange glances with Monty and Dernier. They know Steve can hear that from all the way over there, and when Bucky leans over to look at him the slight curl to Steve’s mouth means that he did.

“You know what? He really is,” Morita says suddenly to Black Fedora, leaning forward like he’s got a lot to say and has finally gotten the chance to unload. The man needs an Oscar. “Never a toe out of line. I can’t believe it sometimes. The guy’s like a schoolmarm.”

“Really,” Black Fedora says, scribbling away in his notebook. Thank god Bucky and Carter are behind both interviewers and out of sight, because Carter looks like she’s about to pop a vein and Bucky’s biting his own cheeks to keep a straight face.

“Oh, yeah,” Dum Dum agrees earnestly, after a glance at them, picking up the thread. “Straight-laced and on the narrow, our Cap. Regular old mother superior.”

“Rules and regulations all the way,” Gabe says, solemn as the grave. “As by the book as it gets.”

“Barely lets us get away with swearing,” Dum Dum says sadly, and it’s clearly all Steve can do to keep his own face still with Bucky bent double and pounding his own thigh, out of sight behind the camera.

“Profanity is a mockery of good language,” Steve offers his own interviewer on the other side of the clearing, turning to stare nobly into the middle distance like he’s looking for freedom. Carter has to turn away with her shoulders shaking. Bucky’s bent over with his head practically between his knees.

“That’s very interesting,” Black Fedora says, bent over his notebook so he doesn’t catch how every commando is slowly melting down under the pressure of keeping a poker face. Dernier has his hat held over his face, for chrissakes. Even Monty’s staring at the sky with his lips pressed together. “And how does that sit with you, gentlemen?”

“Oh, you know,” Dum Dum says. “Can’t complain. All the speeches, though,” he says, almost as an aside. “It can wear a little. Duty and honor are good and well and all but a guy can only hear about the true meaning of patriotism so many times in a day, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Morita agrees, nodding. “Sometimes he’s just a little too inspiring, you know? Especially before coffee in the morning.”

Steve is struggling to keep up his rictus of patriotism. Dernier looks like he’s seeing God. Bucky has entered a parallel universe where good things are happening to him for once. Profanity is a mockery of good language, Carter mouths at him, eyes wide, and Bucky has to go and clutch a tree until he stops giggling.

-o-

“Profanity,” Dum Dum declaims later, sitting around the fire, “is a mockery of good language. It is an affront to the vocabulary of both the speaker and the audience. We do not swear here in the Army, no sir, we do not disdain our own good characters so -”

Bucky loses it, clapping his hands together, practically rolling with laughter. “I,” he gasps, “have heard Steve say fuck nine times in one sentence, and it wasn’t even a long sentence - ”

“Nine times! I’ve counted fifteen,” Dum Dum exclaims, breaking character.

“You ever seen him cuss out a broken art pencil? Fifteen is nothing, I’ve counted twenty.”

“What are you counting his fucks for, huh?” Morita says good-naturedly.

“It’s ‘cause the resta you assholes can’t count,” Bucky says, wiping a tear from his eye. “‘S’why I’m Sergeant. Speaking of, what the hell happened to the old quartermaster? Monty?”

“Pneumonia,” Monty says laconically from the other side of the fire. “Got sent home, lucky devil.”

“Fuck,” Bucky agrees. “New guy’s an idiot and a bastard, just what we needed.” Gabe’s radio stuff is busted again; on the one hand that’s good, because better Gabe catch a bullet in the radio than in the ass, but on the other hand, that means Bucky’s got to plod on over to Supply and make some miracles happen. They’ve got to be back out in the field in two days and Bucky likes to get supply stuff out of the way early, just in case any of their needs are shorted, unstocked or plain old nonexistent. The old quartermaster hated their unit, but at least with him Bucky had established an understanding.

Sometimes Bucky wishes Stark were on base full time, because he’s always thrilled to give them stuff. His oodles of money means he never has shortages and never runs out, though Bucky would wish for it a whole lot more if Stark’s stuff wasn’t mostly prototypes whose favorite thing was to explode the minute they got out of test runs. “Ugh. Jonesy, looks like we might be picking through the wires on our own again. Maybe see if another unit wants to trade.”

“For this?” Gabe says with his eyebrows up, dragging his long-range radio set up from his side and turning it to show off the giant hole blown in its center.

“Sure. It’s a highly valued combat trophy, full of genuine Nazi bullets. Guaranteed fresh from the source.” A laugh runs around the circle. “It’s a one of a kind. Won’t find another like it.”

“They should have you out there doing bond sales, Barnes,” Morita says. “You’d sell towels to a fish.”

“He’d thank me for the bargain, too.” More laughter. Bucky keeps his eyes on Gabe’s busted radio. “Though if it’s all the same I’ll leave that shit to Cap. Where the fuck is he, anyway?”

“Still filming,” Monty says.

“What, in the dark?”

“They brought their own lights. Giant umbrella-looking things.”

“Christ.”

“Think they’re glad to have us finally out of the picture,” Gabe says mildly.

“Naw,” Morita says, eyes going wide. “You think?”

Dernier rattles off something fast and mocking, and Gabe laughs and says, “Yeah, though I don’t think we could have kept that up for much longer. I saw some assistants laughing, they definitely would’ve caught on.”

“Caught on to what? Nothing but god’s honest genuine truth got said out there,” Dum Dum says, his hand over his heart. “I said not one single lie. Did any of you lie, boys?”

Solemn headshakes all around. “Not at all.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Never.”

Bucky shakes his own head in tragic disappointment. “And you say I belong on camera. Every last one of you is doomed to life onstage.”

“Shit, I’ll take it,” Morita says, raising his mug of terrible Army coffee. “Ship me back to California, I’ll dance to whatever tune they play.”

“Damned to Hollywood,” Gabe agrees, giving it a pensive, serious nod. “Hell. There are worse ways to go.”

-o-

Of course, they weren’t always such beautiful paragons of togetherness and modern inclusivity.

The second week out of the cages - after the first week of getting to camp, getting debriefed, going through the harried Army doctors, then Steve forming his strike team by holding a friendly hand out with a metaphorical grenade in it and all of them cheerfully pulling the pin - they’re still in London. Steve’s locked up with the brass - and the beautiful, outspoken, brunette Agent Carter - and Bucky’s trying to remember how to be a Sergeant when he’s still having trouble remembering right from goddamn left every fucking morning. It doesn’t help that Monty - Lieutenant Falsworth, rather - is technically his superior officer but knows, as they all know, that after the cages it’s Bucky who’s in command. They all look to him, and for all that Monty’s taking it gracefully Bucky knows it’s gotta be uncomfortable, because Christ knows he is.

At least there’s no fucking shortage of shit to do. They all need to be outfitted and measured and debriefed and caught up to what the fuck is going on after five months stuck in a Nazi basement. There’s reams of paperwork and meetings, too, because the SSR is an international outfit and Monty and Dernier, an actual goddamn Lordship and a demolitions expert, aren’t exactly random foot soldiers. Their militaries want to keep track of them. Well, the British Army does; on Dernier’s side, the Résistance is basically foaming at the mouth to get him back in the front lines on their terms. And that’s all besides the whole situation of, well, Jonesy and Morita.

So Bucky, somehow ending up as the de facto Voice of Captain Goddamn America, gets to go to meetings and shout, go to the quartermaster and shout, and then go to seedy bars and listen to Dernier shout at three different representatives of the Résistance, two of whom appear to be relatives. He gets Steve to show up and loom at a couple of lieutenants, shows up and looms himself at couple of different clerks, and salutes so much he feels like his arm is going to fall off. Then Howard fucking Stark wants him to come in for weapons testing, then he wants all of them to come in for weapons testing, and then some asshole in Supply won’t give Gabe the right goddamn radio equipment so Bucky has to go and shout some more.

He’s busy, is the point. They’re all fucking busy. They’re busy enough doing enough discrete separate things that they have not, point of fact, exactly consolidated as a unit, and that means when they do have downtime Bucky has to make sure they all spend it together. Unit camaraderie is important. And they don’t have it yet. And sometimes there is friction.

Some times it’s a little worse than others.

It’s just after dinner. They’ve got a fire going at the edge of camp. Monty’s sacked out with his hat over his eyes and Morita’s playing solitaire. Dernier and Gabe are out somewhere - Bucky hadn’t been able to corral them in time - and Dugan’s mending holes in his socks and keeping up an amiable sort of monologue at the entire universe.

Bucky has laid awake and begged for sleep the past three nights in a row so he’s honestly not sure how he’s upright right now, let alone if his eyes are open and pointing in the same direction. He’s making coffee over the fire and it’s taking up all of what he’s generously calling his attention, but some external information is starting to filter through the dense pink fog surrounding his brain.

“It’s not right,” Dugan is saying. “I mean, it’s just the order of things, isn’t it? Everybody with their people, doing their part. The 92nd is here now, and the 366th - Jones could go to them, they’d take him. We’d put in a good word and he’d be bumped to corporal, even. We should tell him he’s got the option, at least. He might be glad to go.”

Bucky usually cuts this sort of thing off at the pass. When he was younger it was with a fist, but he’s learned to use his head as something other than a blunt instrument since then. Usually he changes the subject, tells a joke, buys another round or, once, tips a guy’s stool with the edge of his shoe so he went flailing onto the floor and the whole bar started laughing about that instead. On rare occasions he followed his ma’s advice and had a few quiet conversations that ensured a certain person never came back to a certain gym, or bar, or poker game.

Bucky spent a good two to three years being the local neighborhood punching bag, at least until his family moved fourteen blocks over to a slightly different neighborhood and he hit a growth spurt that suddenly made him the biggest eight year old around. And Steve was always a skinny bastard but until he got the scarlet fever his heart worked okay, and he capitalized upon those early years of relative good health and mobility by enthusiastically punching the snot out of somebody nearly every damn day.

Only he couldn’t just get into scraps over whose damn marble was whose like everybody else, he had to go and make things fucking - Arthurian. Steve had been left alone with too many library books as a child, many of them completely unsuitable for and in fact highly dangerous to a three foot tall nutcase wielding ten thousand pounds of personality, and as a result Steve knew words like equality and justice and moral imperative and used them in ways no self-respecting eight year old could dream of.

That meant he and Bucky met when some of their less charming classmates had cornered Bucky in an alley, again, and taken issue with the fact that he was not fully Irish nor wholly a Jew, again, and this was apparently an unpardonable fault in his character that could only be remedied by pushing him down the grocery cellar stairs, again. Except this time Steve happened to be passing by, and he saw, stopped, put down his little lunch pail and picked up a brick.

Ever since then Bucky’s been pretty on that Arthurian shit too.

“I mean, it’d probably be for his own good,” Dugan continues, not noticing the temperature dropping over on Bucky’s end of the fire. “Jones is a good kid and all, but maybe he’s just better off with his own unit.”

“His unit’s dead,” Bucky says. Dugan looks up, surprised. “You were there.” It’s how all three of them met: them and fourteen other guys, all that was left of their decimated company.

“Well, yeah, but -”

“We’re his unit.”

“Sure, yeah, but. He’s colored,” Dugan says, like he’s reasonably and indulgently pointing out a fact that Bucky didn’t already know.

“Yeah, Dugan?” Bucky carefully focuses on pouring the watery coffee into his mug. “That’s not news.”

“I’m just saying -”

“What are you saying?”

“Well - it’s just that he’s - ”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Bucky snaps . “Yeah, he’s colored! And he’s a Jap, and he’s a Brit, and I’m a queer - and I’m starting to realize why they call you Dum Dum, pal, because you’re a fucking idiot. Shut your goddamn mouth about that shit before I decide this squad would be better off without your precious fucking idiocy. That’s an order.”

Dugan stares at him, mouth open, and Bucky’s brain catches up too late to the checks his mouth is cashing. “You’re a queer?”

Bucky stares right back over his cup of joe. The coffee’s boiling hot, enough to burn if he splashes it direct enough; the tin mug itself isn’t that sturdy, but if he strikes with the edge he’ll almost certainly split skin. He said what he said. “That’s right, Dugan,” he says tightly. “I’m queer as a three dollar bill. And if you got a problem, we can solve it right now.”

He hears himself say it, he knows he’s talking, but somehow everything feels both highly immediate and very far away. He’s never quite been - well - the whole damn neighborhood back home knows they’re fairies, but they all think it’s Steve bending over for Bucky and the two of them never disabused anyone of that notion. They’ve run from the cops, and Steve’s gotten jumped twice for looking fey, and Bucky was there to whale in for the second time, and god knows Bucky’s been in plenty of fights all his own but not like - this. He’s never looked a man in the eye and said yeah, I’m a fucking pansy, you fuck, what the fuck are you gonna do about it?

This, a distant giddy part of Bucky thinks, is what Steve must feel like all the goddamn time.

Dugan’s staring at him like he’s sprouted antlers and declared himself Fuhrer. On his left Morita is slowly lowering his cup, eyes going back and forth like he’s not sure who he’ll have to tackle first. Monty’s cracked an eye under his hat, even. Bucky doesn’t drop Dugan’s gaze for a second. “You think I’m joking, Dugan?” he says, because it’s what comes next. Nothing feels real yet. “I’m not. About any of it.”

“You -” Dugan manages, still stuck somewhere in the discovery phase of this conversation. “Then - but you - then - you and -”

“Me and who, Dugan?” Bucky says, sounding so flat and empty and calm that even the faraway laughing part of himself is unnerved.

It seems to be dawning on Dugan that there’s absolutely no way this ends well, for any of them but especially for him. Bucky knows he’s walked them all directly into deep horseshit, but right now nothing in him seems to care. There’s steam coming off his mug but Bucky can’t feel the heat at all. He’s watching Dugan, waiting for the twitch, the gesture, his muscles slowly winding up like a spring tightening for the leap.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Gabe’s voice says, somewhere behind them. “Agent Carter wants you over in the map room.” There’s a crunch of boots over dirt. “Urgent, she said.”

It breaks the spell. They all look at Gabe, Bucky and Morita turning around; Gabe looks back at them, his face giving no indication that he’d heard any of that, one way or another.

Bucky slowly puts his mug down. “Copy, Jones,” he says, his voice sounding a little more like his own. He stands up. “I’m coming.”

He leaves the circle of firelight, heading to the map room, in the center of camp. His hands and legs still feel distant and numb. He should probably tell Steve. That’ll go great. So I’ve just told Dugan I’m a fruit! Well, the whole squad actually. But don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it all under control. Any minute now!

Jesus hula-hooping Christ, he’d told half his unit he was queer. Why’d he stop there? He already practically filleted himself, filled his pants with mustard and threw himself to the dogs. He should have told them all about how his mama kept kosher - well, sometimes - and that he and Steve had been fucking each other practically since they figured out what their dicks were for. Why the hell not. If he’s throwing out secrets like confetti then what the hell’s another few!

He stops in one of the narrow gaps between barracks buildings, a space too thin and full of mud to qualify as an alley. He puts both hands out and leans against the wall, head down, staring at nothing.

What the genuine bona-fide fuck is he doing.

He wishes he could send a telegram to his mom. HEY MA STOP FUCKED UP BEYOND BELIEF STOP ANY ADVICE HOW TO KEEP UNIT FROM KILLING ME IN MY SLEEP STOP LOVE YOU STOP. Hah. She would say well darling use your head make sure it doesn’t happen but her eyes would say kill them first and da would say, well, son, have you tried buying them a drink? And Steve -

Well. Steve is not going to know about this. His ma is all the way across the ocean but Steve is here and currently capable of picking up a dump truck. He doesn’t pull punches when it comes to Bucky and they can’t afford that sort of - that - but - hell, Bucky had been ready to do it himself -

Bucky puts his forehead against the wall. He would’ve punched out Dum Dum. He was ready for it. He wouldn’t have stopped. And it would’ve felt good, all the mess inside of him suddenly snapped into focus by the rage, the hunger, oh, it’d feel so good. He wanted it, he could see it all in his head - the way his fist would break Dugan’s cheek -

Bucky bends down to throw up, making sure nothing gets on his boots. Dugan’s his ally. His squadmate. They were in the fucking cages together, jesus christ, and shit-talking or not here Bucky is just waiting to turn on him like a rabid dog.

There’s something inside of him that wants blood, now. He doesn’t know if it’s newly grown or if it just - woke up. And it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s all fine. It’s great . Looks like war is just the place for him.

Bucky spits on the ground, once, twice, and walks away.

-o-

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Monty and Morita aren’t all that chatty by nature, so it’s not exactly like they’re not speaking to him, but Dugan’s been avoiding Bucky’s gaze and also being left alone with him, too. Bucky’s expecting some kind of eruption, and he’s braced for it: either Dugan will round up some good ol’ lads and jump him after dark one evening or the camp will suddenly be alive with rumors and men who won’t speak to him, won’t look him in the eye. Dugan won’t go to the brass; as Captain America’s sergeant, with no actual proof Dugan won’t get far with a dishonorable discharge. Far easier to get the whole camp to quietly turn on him without getting any officers involved. And without anyone to watch your back - well. It’s easy to die quick on the front, and this makes it quicker. Problem solved. It’s what Bucky would do.

Instead, barely two days later Dugan corners him behind the latrines with a constipated look of conflict on his face. “Look,” he hisses. “You’re - you’re a, whatever, a three dollar bill, but you don’t - I’ve never seen you - you never - not us, right? You never -”

Bucky stares at him. “Dugan, what the hell are you talking about?” He’d been prepared for a group kicking in the dark, not a red-faced Dum Dum alone just after lunch, and it’s throwing him off.

“I’m talking about you,” Dugan barks. “You ain’t randy for any of us, are you? ‘Cause if you are -”

The second Bucky gets it he bursts out laughing, maybe louder than he would have, but he thinks he can be excused on account of being hysterical. “Dugan, none of your unwashed hairy asses interest me,” he manages, hiccuping with mad laughter. “You think - oh, Christ, you think I’m looking? We’re at war, you think I have time for this shit? I can barely find my dick in the morning, let alone use it,” and he dissolves into giggles again, wiping his eyes. “Oh, this is rich. This is priceless.”

“You swear you don’t?” Dugan says suspiciously. “Nobody?”

“Nobody, Dugan. You ever see me getting friendly with anybody? I’m like a fucking monk out here.”

“Really,” Dugan says, but his shoulders are lowering a little.

“I - I left a guy back in Brooklyn,” Bucky says before he knows he’s going to say it. And - well, if you turn it sideways and squint and maybe turn down the light, it’s sort of even true. There’s a skinny fucking shortass that Bucky won’t ever see again. “And I don’t cheat.”

If none of them have figured out he bites pillows for Steve then he’s damn well not going to tell them. Thank god Steve moons so visibly over Agent fucking Carter, and that Bucky was too homesick and heartsick and actual-fucking-sick-sick to talk to anyone about Steve before Steve actually showed up.

“I haven’t told Rogers,” Dugan says abruptly. “Or - anyone.”

Bucky stares at him, frozen on the brief, mad thought that Dugan somehow read his mind, but then he snaps out of it. “Steve knows,” he says, after a second of lightning-fast calculation. “We grew up together. He - doesn’t care.”

“Looks like neither does anybody else,” Dugan says sourly, but the resentment there is - shockingly minimal. If Bucky’s reading him right Dugan’s mostly upset at being caught so by surprise, and at turning out to be the only one who cares about it.

Out loud, anyway.

“Dugan,” Bucky says. “I’m here to help Steve win the war, alright? He’s my best friend. I’m here to watch his back - and yours. That’s it. I’m here to do the job, nothing else.”

Dugan grunts, eyeing him again. “As long as our backs is all you’re watching -”

“Oh, fuck off, Dum Dum,” Bucky says, but he’s laughing again, a little. “You keep flattering yourself like this I might start thinking there is something about you worth looking at.”

“Hey!” Dugan sputters, eyes going comically wide. “I’m not - you - I don’t swing that way!”

“But whaddaya mean, doll?” Bucky can’t help the devil’s impulse to flutter his lashes and pout like Hedy Lamarr. “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”

“No!” Dugan yelps, backing away. “I don’t!”

“Well if you’re sure…” Bucky purrs, pressing his hand to his breastbone, and Dugan just turns right around and books it, disappearing around the corner. Bucky has to lean against the latrine walls so he doesn’t laugh himself sick.

The conversation with Gabe goes a little differently.

“I heard what you said,” Gabe says, as they’re going over the new radio equipment the next night, making sure everything’s correct. “About me.”

“Yeah,” Bucky mutters. “Look, don’t worry about it, I just told him -”

“I can speak for myself,” Gabe says evenly.

Bucky’s head pops up over the radio block. Gabe’s looking back at him, steady and calm. As Bucky had been, telling Dugan he plays on the other side of the street.

“If I can’t stick up for my friends then I shouldn’t have any,” Bucky says after a second, holding Gabe’s eyes. He knows how this argument goes, he’s had it often enough with Steve. “I’d have done the same for any of the others.”

“You would,” Gabe agrees steadily. “But none of them are black.”

“Well. No,” Bucky says; alright, maybe this isn’t just another conversation with Steve. “But - you weren’t there. I couldn’t just say nothing.”

“Plenty of things get said about me when I’m not there,” Gabe says easily. “You won’t change that, not even with orders. It’ll just start getting said when you aren’t there either.”

Bucky sets his jaw. He knows what it’s like, when nobody wants you there; for him the feeling’s years dim but he’s seen the effects on Steve every day, until the war. It’s not good. It can twist you up. Worse: it can get you killed.

“Look,” Bucky says, taking a breath. “Jones. We need you. You’re the only one of us who speaks German and English and French and you’re our radio man besides. But you will be getting shit, from our own goddamn side, and if you’d rather not deal with it on top of everything else -”

Gabe looks utterly unsurprised, and utterly unmoved, too. “I’m not going to run away, Sergeant Barnes.”

“That’s not running away , it’s common goddamn sense.”

The corner of Gabe’s mouth goes up, but it’s no kind of smile. “Is that how they’ll paint it? A black man in Captain America’s unit - but only for a second. Only until they start the real missions. He backed out, or he got moved out. Either way: he’s gone. How’ll that go, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Fuck.”

“Mhm.”

Bucky blows out a breath. “You really backed yourself into a corner here.”

“Almost as bad as you did,” Gabe says equably. “I’m a grown man, Sergeant Barnes. I can handle a few words about how maybe I ought to know my place. You have enough to worry about.”

“But I am your sergeant,” Bucky says. This really isn’t like his arguments with Steve at all. “It’s my job. I look after my unit. That’s you too. I - I get it. I’m not your ma. But when it comes to your safety - ”

“Dugan wouldn’t have done anything,” Gabe says. “He’s all talk. You know that.”

“It starts with talk,” Bucky says, a little helplessly.

“I know,” Gabe says, and yeah, of course he does. “But I told you. I can handle talk. You want to help? Keep me on Captain America’s team. Keep on picking off Krauts with your rifle. You’re sergeant: you make sure I’m alive and present to do my job. Everything else - that’s mine. It has to be mine.”

“Yeah, but. Jones,” Bucky says. “You’ve been a friend to me. I want to be a friend to you. Somebody insults you, I can’t sit by and just listen.”

Gabe sighs. “It’ll be called favoritism,” he says quietly, looking away for the first time, back down at the equipment. “And people will wonder, why is the black man on Captain America’s team? And they won’t know about the German and French and the radio, or if they do they won’t care. And that’s where talk will matter: if Dugan gets drunk and maybe jokes about how his sergeant is a fairy, and people know that sergeant goes out of his way to speak for me, to keep me in his unit -”

“Fuck,” Bucky repeats, under his breath. “Shit. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Gabe says. “You’re not a bastard, Barnes. I just wanted to let you know. We have to play the hands we’re dealt.”

“If I’d kept my fucking mouth shut,” Bucky mutters.

“Then you wouldn’t be who you are, I imagine,” Gabe says. “Just as I wouldn’t be, if I didn’t stand for myself. These are the cards; we play them.”

“I could’ve played it a little smarter,” Bucky says sourly.

“Well, no one’s come with torches and pitchforks yet,” Gabe says, shrugging. “But I doubt we can rely on this kind of luck, going forward.”

Bucky blows out another breath, cheeks rounding. “Yeah,” he agrees. He really shouldn’t have been so dumb, but it didn’t kill him and that means there’s room to go forward. He can do damage control. He can be less dumb.

“Alright,” he says, half to himself. “Thanks, Jonesy. Listen - I know I just said a whole thing about being your sergeant and all, but you catch me being an idiot again, you let me know, alright?”

“You do your job, I’ll do mine,” Gabe agrees, back to picking over the radio wires, and all Bucky can do is nod to that.

-o-

Bucky never gets less busy. He makes sure of it. There are always problems to solve, even on leave, and some of them are even real ones. The food problem, for one. Steve eats like a diesel engine now and they just can’t carry enough to keep them all fed properly. Steve can get by for three days straight on almost nothing, but after that he starts falling asleep on his feet, a strange kind of sleep that’s almost some kind of torpor. They find that out the hard way, during week four of Rogers’ Raiders’ existence as a merry band of idiots doing god knows what behind enemy lines in Lorraine.

One week during leave a whole new shipment of American troops comes in, and Bucky spends a solid day with four greenies from Texas, talking and listening and fleecing them at poker, then another day bent over bits of wire and paracord with Morita and Dernier, both of whom grew up around trees and meadows and cows or whatever. Nature. Point is, both of them know a little something about wild animals and how to turn their frolicking woodland selves into dinner.

That works to keep him occupied during missions, too: more or less every spare minute goes to doing what he can to wring calories out of the Western Front. Their improvised rabbit snares work decently well overnight, and one time as they’re walking along a canal Bucky cobbles together a shoddy fishhook out of wire and string mostly just for the hell of it - except when he drags it along through the water as he walks he somehow manages to find what must be the most desperate fish in all of France.

The thing just goddamn jumped right on his hook and bit, and Bucky will go to his grave denying any yelp, squeak or minor scream that may have issued on his part when the slimy fucking thing leapt out of the water and started thrashing at the end of his line. It was fucking huge, too, the size of his forearm, and once Gabe stopped laughing himself sick he actually went over to help.

“Every one of you is a hyena ,” Bucky yelled as the rest of the bastards cackled themselves to pieces, occasionally giving a flail or high-pitched shriek as they did impressions of someone who definitely wasn’t Bucky. “Laugh it up! Jonesy’s the only one getting fish tonight, fuck every last one of you!”

So the unit’s on board, more or less, if only for the entertainment value. They stay at a Belgian farm safehouse for three days and Bucky spends damn near all of it with the farmer’s daughter, which gets him a lot of looks from Steve, the guys and the farmer; Agathe has a face like a rouged brick, a body like a stalled tractor and right now she’s most beautiful girl in the world because she’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of which bits of the landscape humans can put in their mouths and which are better off left alone. Bucky gives her his best knife in return - not a Nazi one, thought she’d looked enviously at it; they’re in occupied territory and if she’s found with it that’s a hanging - and the next night in the field Bucky makes the team dandelion salad.

“Join the Army,” Morita says, dribbling more of Dernier’s unidentifiable brown sauce on his portion of greens. “Where every day is an adventure and your officers make you eat weeds.”

“You don’t want it, give it here,” Bucky says through his own mouthful of weeds.

Morita hunches over his tin plate. “Fuck off! I didn’t say I didn’t like it.”

“At least it’s fresh,” Steve says, munching down on a dandelion head with a determined expression. “Beats another ration of tinned spam.”

Steve gets in on the food hunt too, despite being abominably bad at it. His enormous new hands are good for punching, but tiny fiddly work like setting delicately-balanced snares is still a little beyond him. Bucky sets him to finding mushrooms and nuts and bird eggs, and he gets used to poking Steve and demanding, “Okay, what do you smell?” whenever in the middle of the forest because once prompted, Steve will always look a little surprised and say birds , or water, or uh… some kind of fur animal, and occasionally the ever-useful “shit, gunpowder!”, which means they get to ambush a Nazi patrol and take their ammo and eat their rations, too.  

So when they’re not actively sabotaging the Reich Bucky has them all foraging like wild Indians. The rest of the guys think Bucky’s just a glutton, a picky eater, and Steve thinks he’s doing it for him and is too guiltily grateful to actually bring it up. Since everybody gets free fresh food out of it, none of the rest of the guys really want to complain.  

Bucky doesn’t know why he’s always fucking hungry now, starving, why he just can’t seem to get enough, but honestly who the fuck knows at this point. It’s probably stress. At least he can get to sleep okay these days, if only because he’s so damn tired he’s ready to drop at the earliest possible opportunity.

And Bucky’s still getting fucked, if a little less frequently than he’s used to back in Brooklyn, but boy howdy, if ever quality made up for quantity it’s here and now. Steve is so much happier, so much easier in his body, he never - he used to get the angry kind of self-conscious, no matter what Bucky did or said, and it would make him stiff and defensive and bring a sour note into something that should have been only sweet. Now Steve’s effusive with happiness, and despite their tacit agreement not to fuck in the field Bucky can feel Steve’s regard in the looks he gives, in the way he smiles at Bucky in whatever godforsaken hole they’re liberating this week. Bucky’s never seen those smiles on Steve’s face before. He’s so damn happy to be here with Bucky, thinking he’s making a difference at last, and Bucky will be the last guy on earth who’ll puncture that for him.

It should’ve been obvious to him once Steve got to war he’d never want to leave. Bucky knew from the beginning fighting made Steve happy, so he shouldn’t be surprised and he definitely shouldn’t be hurt. So he isn’t. He focuses on the good, on Steve’s new, wondering smiles, and he enjoys what he can get when he can get it.

But it took them a while to get there, too. Steve kissed him right after Azzano, the factory burning behind them, but after those maybe five minutes between him and Bucky against the tree they’d barely had time to make eye contact, let alone touch. Steve finally cornered him on base nearly two weeks later, after dinner in the shadows of the motor pool, invisible behind the hulking Jeeps. Steve said he wanted to talk alone and Bucky led them there and Steve took his arm and pressed close, trying to kiss on him and look into his eyes.

For a second Bucky froze, there, because it was a massive, unfamiliar body pressed to his, a stranger, and something defensive and fast scrawled up his spine. But then Steve tried to get an arm around his neck like he always did, a little clumsy still, and Bucky bounced back quick. This was Steve. This was Steve, and always would be, now, and god damn him if Bucky was going to be a bitter little fuck about it.

So he let Steve kiss, and he kissed back, but now he was the sour note as Steve smiled into his mouth. Bucky knew about Agent Carter, then, and he couldn’t help but think about it even as he knew, he always knew something like this would happen. Hell, he worked for it: with the war and everything that last year he worked so goddamn hard to give Steve a happy ending, find him a great girl so Steve could see he had options, so he could have something real. They’d barely fucked that year, Bucky away at training and knowing deployment was coming, Steve sharp and unhappy that Bucky spent every free minute trying to get them dates when he was home.

Steve didn’t like it. Bucky bit his tongue and swallowed down.

Bucky’s not stupid, is the thing. He got himself to corporal by being great with math and letters just when the staff sergeant had really needed it, and the last month of training he’d been working mostly in the main office, doing papers and crunching numbers for troop movements, logistics, supply. By the time his last leave and marching orders came around he had a better picture of the war than most, and what he knew was that infantry’s job was cannon fodder and his own odds of survival were, shall we say, slim to none. He’s a realist. He had no delusions of grandeur. Even if he didn’t die, which was statistically highly unlikely, there was still no reason not to hedge his bets and do the best he could by Steve, who wasn’t legally family, not next of kin, who wouldn’t get a single fucking thing if Bucky corked it.

Except Steve went off and fucking turned himself into Superman, which Bucky should frankly have accounted for in his calculations because he knows Steve and Steve is god’s most ornery little miracle. When Steve gets mad things happen, one way or another, and apparently Bucky getting put somewhere Steve couldn’t get at him was enough to crank that mad up to eleven and break the laws of goddamn physics.

Steve told him about the - procedure, the process, when he finally got Bucky alone in his Captain’s quarters two weeks after Azzano. He kissed on Bucky and squeezed the back of his neck and put a hand over his head, a little wonderingly, like he couldn’t believe it either that he could look down at Bucky these days, and he told him about how he stepped into a metal coffin and screamed and came out a new man.

Bucky had to swallow and turn his head away, when Steve told him about the needles, but Steve was telling him at the same time as he was kissing towards his mouth so Bucky ended up refusing that, too, and Steve drew back. Bucky didn’t mean it but somehow he couldn’t find the words to say that, either, and he couldn’t make himself look back at Steve’s face. His new square-jawed face.

But Bucky’s not stupid and he’s not proud, either. He’ll take Steve any way he can get him, for as long as he can. So long as Carter isn’t a done deal this can still be his, except now was the absolute worst time to think about Agent Carter and the way she smiled at Steve, the way Steve smiled back, and -

“Bucky,” Steve said, and - Steve was uncertain, Bucky realized, looking back at him, and that jarred him more than any new muscles and height did. Steve was never uncertain. If Steve wasn’t sure anymore - if he didn’t want this -

But whatever Steve saw in his face was enough to break through the moment because Steve’s face turned hard and set the way it did whenever he saw a wall in front of him that would really do better to get out of his way. “I love you,” he said harshly, like he always did, like it was a baseball bat swung against the entire universe. There was no doubt anywhere in his eyes at all. “I love you,” he repeated, and Bucky couldn’t help but kiss him then, even if he had to tip his head up at a strange new angle.

Ages ago Bucky used to care, if maybe Steve was using him as one big fuckyou to the world and all society. He doesn’t anymore. He figured, what does it matter? The end result is the same. Steve loves him. Steve will go to bat for him. Steve kisses the same, and he knows how to touch Bucky, and this would probably actually go somewhere if not for the sudden pounding on Steve’s door.

They spring apart like scalded animals, heads whipping to the door, but it’s only another aide demanding his pound of patriotic flesh. “Captain Rogers, this is Private Hopkins,” the aide calls, muffled. “Are you in? Colonel Phillips needs you at HQ.”

“Tell him I’m coming,” Steve says, clearing his throat.

“Yessir, Captain Rogers.” Steve shoots Bucky a look; Bucky nods and waves his hand at him, go, go, wiping his mouth and catching his breath. They wait until the aide’s footsteps die away, the flush still high in Steve’s cheeks, and Steve shoots him one torn look, steps in for one brief peck that lands mostly on Bucky’s left nostril and walks out the door.

It’s a full month and a half until they get another moment to themselves, bunked together in Steve’s rooms, but they don’t fuck right away. “Give me a minute, I want to see what the hell I’m putting my hands on here,” Bucky mutters, a little more comfortable with Steve’s hulking shoulders now, and Steve blushes and lets him.

Steve’s jaw changed shape. Bucky takes Steve’s head in his hands and turns it back and forth a little, side to side. Steve’s eyes are the same color. His hair is too. His skin is pinker but his nose is still crooked, a big pointy beak too big for his face. Bucky can’t look at his mouth too long so he moves to his chin, newly square and covered in reddish-blond bristles. Bucky rubs his thumb over the pale stubble and moves down, thumbs pressing gently to the front of Steve’s throat.

Steve takes the scrutiny with shocking equanimity. He barely squirms, keeping his feet planted and his arms loose by his sides. He lets Bucky take his jacket and shirt off, standing there in just his trousers and A-frame, and his blush deepens even as he rolls his eyes at Bucky’s mouth dropping open. Bucky doesn’t care: he’s glazing over a little, staring at that chest.

“You can touch, you know,” Steve finally says, somewhere between smug and embarrassed, starting to shift from foot to foot. “I don’t charge.”

“You could,” Bucky says dazedly, his hands going up on automatic to press flat against Steve’s chest. Jesus, it’s like upholstered marble. “And this sprouted on you all at once? Christ, no wonder it hurt. Where’d all this extra mass come from?”

“Stark said something about cascading radiation particles,” Steve says, but he too sounds a little distracted now: Bucky’s hands have landed on his nipples.

Bucky takes mercy on him and raps his knuckles a couple times on one massive pectoral. “Are you sure you’re not just hollow on the inside now? Like one of those nesting doll things?”

“Pretty sure,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow, probably to distract from how he’s not so subtly flexing under Bucky’s hands. “Got my organs in there and everything.”

“Shame,” Bucky says hazily, back to running his palms down Steve’s abdomen. “I could’ve finally had some extra storage space for dry socks.”

Steve bursts out laughing, his giant body shaking under Bucky’s hands. “You’d use me to store socks?”

“Hey! That’s no laughing matter! Dry socks are serious business, you lout, you ain’t had to march yet, you don’t know what they’re worth!”

“Fuck you, Barnes, I’m not your laundry basket,” Steve says happily, so naturally Bucky has to goose him, then duck Steve’s yelp and swipe. From there it’s full-on war: they fall half onto Steve’s narrow cot and damn near flatten it, the metal squealing alarmingly as they roll off and hit the floor with a thump. After a minute of tussling Bucky ends up straddling Steve’s waist, hands on Steve’s over his head, a move that used to be as good as a pin for Steve’s smaller body but now - now Bucky’s learning the error of his ways too late, because now it’s like a toddler straddling a tank.

Steve grins up at him like he knows exactly what Bucky’s walked himself into this time. “Jesus Christ,” Bucky mutters, deciding to lean into it. “I’m like a chipmunk on a clydesdale. I bet you could pick up a Jeep.”

“I can pick up the Harley,” Steve murmurs, blushing tomato red but still sounding amused. “With three showgirls on it.”

“You sound so sure of that,” Bucky says suspiciously.

“Oh, I am,” Steve says. “That’s the final act of the show: I pick up a motorbike with Marie, Sally and Edie sitting on it and I lift ‘em all up over my head.”

“You do not.”

“With one hand.”

“You fucking liar,” Bucky says, which makes Steve hmm thoughtfully and then stand up and lift Bucky over his head.

It happens so fast Bucky can barely flail, let alone go for the knife in his boot. “Steve!” he squawks, and Steve’s laughing, his grip firm and sure on Bucky’s thigh and shoulder, his whole bodyweight held up high easy as you please. “Want me to do it one-handed?” he offers smugly, the bastard; “No,” Bucky yelps, fighting the urge to writhe or scratch or jab at Steve’s inner elbow until Steve drops him. “Put me down, you asshole!”

Steve makes like he’s gonna set Bucky down on his head, then like he’s gonna throw him, and he’s laughing the whole time as Bucky promises egregious suffering upon his family line for several generations. When he finally sets Bucky on his feet he looks so pleased with himself, so golden and flushed, that naturally Bucky has to step in and hook a foot around his ankle and send him crashing down onto the floor.

Bucky follows with a tackle. “Captain America, huh,” Bucky grunts, scrubbing his knuckles over Steve’s hair, “I’ll show you Captain America,” and Steve’s laughing, laughing, cackling like a crazy man as Bucky gets all over him and tries to forget about anything that isn’t here or now or immediately relevant to putting Steve in a chokehold.

So that’s all - happening. Steve still wants him, and as long as it’s on offer Bucky’s taking, and at least his dick still works right six times out of seven and on the seventh he can roll over and pretend.

So then there’s just Agent Carter.

Agent Carter and Sergeant Barnes aren’t friends: anybody in the SSR will tell you. They’re the two nightmares on either side of Captain America, and when on base they’re most often found in the war room, making blank, unforgiving eye contact over maps, schedules, supply dockets. When they speak to each other without the Captain around it’s in the carefully polite way two people use when they both know there’s no chance of them getting away with murdering each other.

Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter actually get along like a goddamn house on fire, once Bucky sacks up and goes to give her the shovel speech on Steve and gets a beast of a different color entirely.

“Steve’s the marrying kind,” Bucky says right away, hard and abrupt because he doesn’t believe in drawing out agony any longer than absolutely necessary. They’re in one of the back rooms commandeered by Stark for all his boxes of equipment; Carter’d taken one look at him and led him in here, shutting the door and putting her back to it. It’s nearly four months after Azzano and they only came in from Belgium yesterday and Carter had been right there when they rolled in to HQ, and Bucky took one look at the flush on Steve’s face and the light in Carter’s eye and the way they stared at each other and known his time was up. It was over. Time to be a man.

So here they fucking are. “He really likes you,” Bucky continues. “He’s serious about you. I just wanted you to know where he stands, here, and make sure you know, if you decide - well, an agent could go far, with a husband like Captain America.”

Carter considers him, her face unreadable. They’d run two missions together by then, Carter being the main intelligence liaison with the Résistance, and Bucky knows he won’t get any kind of read off her if she doesn’t want him to, just like he knows she doesn’t show much of what she’s feeling, especially on base. Still, he’d expected something from her, telling her that her sweetheart’s ready to put a ring on it.

But she’s just looking at him. “A husband like Captain America,” she repeats, slowly.

“Look,” Bucky says, because he wants this conversation to end yesterday. “Steve’s - He can be clueless but he’ll listen and he’ll do right by you. I don’t want to pressure you or anything, alright, but whatever you decide, you do right by him too, okay?”

Peggy just looks at him. “And who’s to do right by you, Sergeant Barnes?”

Bucky meets her gaze, stare for stare. He doesn’t know what she’s implying but he doesn’t like it. "Oh, I'm sure there's a girl or two out there with room in her… heart for me."

“Oh really.”

“Really.”

Carter cocks her head. “So you and Steve are just very good friends.”

Approximately ninety different sirens start a haunting klaxon wail in Bucky’s skull. “Not sure what you mean, Agent.”

“So he doesn’t fuck you?”

Bucky’s jaw clenches up so hard he thinks he maybe hears a tooth crack. He’s going to drown Dugan in a backed-up toilet. “That’s a very serious allegation, Agent Carter.”

“Let’s not pretend we’re idiots, Sergeant Barnes.”

She’s just looking at him, her mouth tight and her eyes fierce, and he can’t tell what she wants from him here. He can only stand his ground and stare woodenly into her eyes. “Captain America ain’t queer, ma’am, and neither is any one of his model strike force. Everybody knows that.”

Carter’s lip curls. “Barnes, that is the biggest load of horseshit I’ve heard since my latest propaganda briefing from the Third Reich.”

Bucky curls his lip right back, not breaking eye contact. “That so?”

“Oh come now,” she snaps, exasperated. “You can’t honestly - oh, I haven’t the time for this. Barnes. Listen. You’re with Steve, and I have no problem with that. And if you have no problem with that, then there’s no reason for us to - preclude each other. We’re on the same side.” She sighs, briefly rolling her eyes skyward. “I’d like for us to be on the same side.”

Bucky gapes at her. “What?”

Carter glares at him. “You need me to repeat myself, Sergeant?”

Bucky gapes some more, completely blindsided. This hadn’t even been in the realm of possibility when he’d thought of how this conversation would go, when he’d realized he needed to have it. “Carter,” he says slowly, groping for sense. “You can’t be saying what I think you’re saying.”

“Oh, can’t I?” Carter’s chin goes up, a familiar worrying glint in her eye. “Either tell me no, right now, and this ends. Or say yes, and we figure something out.”

This ends. She can’t mean what he thinks she means. “Carter,” Bucky says, willing her to understand. “Steve - you don’t understand, he -”

“Oh, yes, do tell me all about Steve.”

“He wants you,” Bucky says, raw, giving up. “Bad.”

“I’m well aware.” Carter smiles. It’s mirthless. “But you were there first.”

Bucky very nearly snarls. “I am telling you, you can have Steve. I came here with him practically on a silver platter - ”

“Oh, can I? You think that’s how it works? You think Steve will let you go?” Carter bares her teeth at him. “I wouldn’t. Steve’s a bit of an idiot when it comes to this but do you really think he wouldn’t have forged on regardless, with me? He’s had a thousand moments with me alone. What exactly do you think is holding him back?”

Bucky recoils, stung. “I - I’ll - ”

“No, you won’t,” Carter says. “I won’t do that to him either. No. I told you. We can get what we want. If you can share, I can share, and we can make Steve the happiest bastard alive if you let us.”

Bucky raises his hands, a little helplessly. He feels a little bit like the times just before dawn, just after shelling: like he’s maybe not in his body anymore, and he’s probably not hearing right, and there’s absolutely no way to be sure he ain’t dreaming. “Carter - you - how would that even work?”

Carter rolls her eyes. “Use your bloody imagination, Sergeant. Steve keeps assuring me you have one.”

“Carter,” Bucky says, a little desperate, trying to make her understand. “Look. This isn’t just - it’s not - it’s not going to be a fun little experiment, this is for keeps. If you do this you’re going to keep doing this, because he’s going to propose. The only reason he hasn’t dragged me in front of an altar yet is because it’s illegal, and even then I’ve seen him get this - this look on his face, and if you think I haven’t thought about finding a man-sized dress and a near-sighted minister -”

Carter starts laughing, then, incredulous like she can’t believe what’s coming out of his mouth, which is great because Bucky honestly can’t either. He’s never told anybody this. “Are you - oh, he would,” she says, gasping a little. “You’re quite right, he would. That idiot bastard.”

“You see what I mean? Steve’s not going to do it by halves,” Bucky says. “He’s not - it’s not one person or another with him, he really does care about you and me at the same time -”

“So? And?”

“So he’ll want to be married to both of us!”

“So?”

Bucky’s hands go in the air again, exasperated. “So you wanna live with his moping, carrying on about how he’s living in sin or whatever damn Catholic thing? Because he won’t marry just you, either, not if he thinks it won’t be fair to me.”

Now it’s Carter’s turn to throw her hands up. “Fine then. We’ll marry me off here in London, hop the Channel, find you that blind minister and make an honest woman out of you in France. Steve can have both bloody weddings if that’s what he damn well wants. We’ll honeymoon in Italy, once we’ve damn well taken it. Give Steve an incentive to topple the Reich by next Sunday, if we tell him - ”

“You think that’ll work? Jesus, Carter, we had that news crew surprise us just last week, you think this won’t be a scandal?”

“We’re spies. You think we can’t keep a secret?”

“I’m not,” Bucky says automatically, even though on those last two missions yeah, he was, and he got commended for it, too. “Just - I - you saw it, you just told me!”

“I have Steve taking every available opportunity to tell me all about how smart you are, and how strong, and how handsome, and how you have the bluest eyes in all of Dover or some such insanity, I lost track at some point. I’m fairly sure there’s no one else getting such privileged informational treatment -”

“I told my unit,” Bucky blurts. “That I’m a fruit. Two weeks in.”

Carter stops midsentence. She opens her mouth, closes it, and gives him a deeply assessing look. “Well,” she says. “That changes things somewhat.”

“They don’t know about Steve,” Bucky says shortly. “Or me and - Steve. We don’t fuck in the field. Everybody can see he’s gaga for you and I’m keeping things quiet. So.”

“And I haven’t heard a thing,” Carter says thoughtfully. “And I have been listening.”

“I nearly punched out Dum Dum over it,” Bucky mutters. “Morita and Falsworth were watching. I uh. Made it pretty clear I wasn’t going to - back down.”

“Well.” Carter just looks at him some more, but this time it’s the dual-vision look she gets when she’s thinking hard and fast and reading the inside of your own head off your face. “If they haven’t told yet… They may be waiting for an opportunity, but I doubt it. None of them speak ill of you, or Steve. Quite the contrary, in fact. And all of them are good operatives but none of them are spies, and I am a very good spy. The only one who’d be capable of dissembling to this extent would be Falsworth, though only if he thought he stood to gain from it, which I can’t imagine he will. We’ve gotten very lucky here.”

“I know,” Bucky mutters. “I was a fucking idiot. I got lucky.”

“Quite.”

“Steve doesn’t know,” Bucky says. “That I told them. He doesn’t know they know.”

Carter frowns. “You didn’t tell him.”

“You know what he’s like. He - if he knew, if he knew I just came out and said it like that, he’d do it too. You know he would. He’d want it to be fair.”

Carter sighs. “He would, wouldn’t he.”

“So I’m telling you. I don’t know if this will work. He - he doesn’t like it, Carter.” Bucky scrubs his face. “I’m not just talking out my ass when it comes to an - arrangement, either. He hates keeping me a secret as it is.”

Carter arches an eyebrow at him. “What’s he been doing with you, announcing it at every ballgame and street corner?”

Bucky glowers at her. “It’s like you didn’t hear a word I said.”

Carter gives a little hah under her breath. “Relax, Sergeant. We win this war, nobody will care what Captain America’s sticking his cock into.”

“Carter,” Bucky exclaims, half laughing, half scandalized.

“So?” Carter says, and she’s starting to grin, wide and feral. She’s planted her feet. “What’ll it be, Barnes? If it’s that you don’t want women, don’t worry, I shan’t hold it against you.”

The way she smirks afterward, sly and obvious and making it a double entendre, makes him laugh again, helplessly, and oh, Christ, she’s flirting with him. Good flirting, the fun kind - she wants this to work, Bucky realizes, like a fucking idiot. He’s used to feeling a little slow next to Carter but this really does take the cake. She wants this bad - she wants Steve bad, she’s willing to do this, to agree to some kind of - of crazy fucking marriage heist and break the fucking law.

“Alright,” he says, and somehow he’s smiling - Christ, there’s been so much smiling in this conversation, what the hell, in and of itself that’s already a miracle. But the girl Steve likes wants him back as bad as he does, so the very least Bucky can do is set his back to this and try. “Alright. We’ll try it your way. We still gotta convince Steve of this, you understand.”

Carter just rolls her eyes again. “Bring him to my rooms tomorrow night and I’ll open the door in garters and a negligee, he’ll agree to anything we want.”

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky swears between his teeth. “Woman, you are dangerous.”

Carter smiles like a wolf and pats his cheek with one callused hand. “Why don’t you just call me Peggy, darling.”

Bucky gives in. What the hell’s one more insanity in this fucking fever dream of a war. At least when this blows up in his face it’ll only be metaphorically. He sighs. “Call me Bucky.”

“Mm. I rather thought only Steve calls you that.”

“Well. Yeah.” It’s true; the name doesn’t really stick with others much - it’s a little kid nickname and it shows, and in the unit he’s Barnes or Sarge, and absolutely nobody else out here has the balls to call him anything but Sergeant . Bucky shrugs. “I’m Jamie at home.”

Carter raises an eyebrow. “Irish?”

“Yeah. On my dad’s side.”

“Alright. James, then.”

Bucky narrows his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “Margaret.”

Carter narrows her eyes right back. “Tomorrow night,” she says. “Nine o’clock. Wear something decent.”

Bucky draws a cross over his heart. “My best garters and negligee,” he promises.

“Now that I may have to see,” Carter says, sounding frighteningly like she means it, and leans in close and plants a big waxy kiss over his cheekbone. “Tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

“Carter,” Bucky growls, but she just wiggles her fingers at him and sails out of the closet, leaving him to scrub lipstick off his cheek and wonder if all that really all just fucking happened.

-o-

She doesn’t really open the door in garters: she opens it in a robe, barefoot with her hair down, and Bucky practically feels the steam coming out of Steve’s ears the second she smiles at them from the doorway. She opens the door and steps back, Bucky plants both his hands between Steve’s shoulders, and between the two of them they get Steve into the townhouse, if only to keep Peggy’s virtue from getting spilled into the street or something.

Bucky planned to leave them to it, but Steve turns around at the last second and grabs Bucky’s arm and hauls him in like a life preserver. Carter gives Bucky a disapproving look, too, that tells him all about what she thinks of his trying to scamper. “I wasn’t aware you were that averse to women, James,” she says archly, and which makes Steve’s head whip around and Bucky sputter.

“Girls - women are great,” Bucky protests, trying to linger in the entryway. He really doesn’t want to be left spectating when Carter rips Steve’s clothes off and pounces. “I like women fine. I just, uh…”

Carter snorts. “Save it. We know your first choice here and it certainly isn’t me.”

“We’re doing this now?” Bucky says, a little pitifully.

“Oh, I’m sorry, should I have served you tea first? Sack up, Barnes.”

Steve’s looking between both of them now with cautious eyes. “I’d appreciate it if somebody filled me in here,” he says warily.

“Right,” Carter says. “Steve, you’re not just fucking James anymore. I want in on this too.”

Steve reacts pretty much the same way Bucky had, in that his jaw drops and he looks at Carter like she’s stripped naked and painted swastikas on her nipples. “Uh,” he says eloquently.

“Yes, I know all about it. James here came to me to hand you off like a virgin bride and I confirmed some matters. I’m not averse to your relationship,” Carter says briskly, her chin up. “But I’d quite like to be having fun too, Steve, and I wanted to let you know what’s between you and James shouldn’t preclude what could be between you and me.”

“Uh, yeah. What she said,” Bucky says, figuring it’s safer to tack on to Carter’s proposal than try and explain to Steve on his own.

Carter rolls her eyes. “So that’s that. You could be with James and I could be with you. If you’re amenable.”

Steve opens his mouth and shuts it again several times over the next few moments. “Really?” he finally manages. “You mean it?”

“Yes,” Carter says firmly.

“I’m in if you are,” Bucky says, and Steve looks from him to her to him and then sweeps both of them up, one in each arm, tugging them close.

“Lucky. How did I get so damn lucky,” Steve mutters, and once again it looks like something might be about to happen here just as the wail of the air raid sirens goes up.

All of them jerk back, startled, and look up at the ceiling. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” Carter snaps, exasperated. “This is why we must win the war, so I can fuck whenever I want to,” and Steve and Bucky both let out twin barks of startled laughter. “Come on. There’s a private shelter in the backyard. It’s not very big but I’m not traipsing out to the public one in my gown and drawers.”

They go, Carter leading the way through the small trap door in the tiny overgrown back garden. It’s cold in the bunker, the cement a little damp, and it’s exactly as small as promised so they end up pressing to Steve on either side, huddling up to his giant shoulders for the legroom as well as the warmth. They listen to the planes whistling overhead and lean on each other. It’s dark and cold and damp and a small tiny space closed in but somehow Bucky doesn’t feel like he’s choking. He feels alright. He leans his head on Steve’s shoulder, just a little, and closes his eyes.

-o-

Carter gets him a photo, and Bucky gives it a careful trim and sticks it in Steve’s compass. Carter wears lipstick, all the time, come hell or high water, and she makes sure to leave blood red smears under Steve’s jaw, over his neck, on his collar. It’s a delicate balancing act, making it obvious without compromising Carter’s reputation or making Captain America seem like a womanizing floozy, but somehow they manage to swing it.

Carter and Bucky stay frostily polite to each other, which at first makes Steve regard them with a frown line between his eyebrows and then later with a little grin, delighted to be in on the secret. They do inevitably edge closer together - Carter occasionally needs a sniper for her field missions, so she requisitions Bucky and they spend some time hiding in shrubbery or pretending to be a married couple behind enemy lines. Occasionally it does feel a little like a strange little timeshare - Bucky comes to Steve’s quarter sometimes and he isn’t there, out with Carter, but he imagines she gets the same, with him spending every other waking moment with Steve out in the field. And Bucky can go where Carter can’t - the men’s showers on base, for example.

Not that he was expecting Steve here, when he trudged in to wash with almost hot water for the first time in a week. It’s so late it’s almost early, because during regular hours these showers are off-limits to everybody ranking lower than lieutenant. Bucky’s alone and expecting to stay that way, so he tenses and opens his eyes under the spray when he hears the sounds of the door opening and footsteps on the tile.

“Just me,” Steve says, rounding the partition. “Thought I’d find you here. Water’s hot, huh?”

“Depends how you define it,” Bucky mumbles, leaning his forehead back against the tile and letting his eyes slip shut again. “Warmer than barracks showers.”

The sounds of Steve stripping are familiar background noise. Steve always drops his pants first and then his shirt, the animal. Bucky barely startles when Steve steps to his back under the shower, then shivers all over at the heat of him, making the lukewarm water seem cool.

Steve gets Bucky round the back of his neck and drags him close, palming a handful of soap to dump in Bucky’s hair and start scrubbing. “How’s supply?”

“New quartermaster’s a pain in the ass,” Bucky mumbles, face half mashed into Steve’s collarbone. “Says he don’t care if I’m coming from Cap or God himself, he’s not rushing anything. He’ll learn.”

“He’d better. We leave tomorrow at 0900.” Steve drags his nails down the thin skin behind Bucky’s ears, but Bucky’s too tired to squirm for more than a second; Steve takes pity on him and tightens his grip on Bucky’s neck instead, shifting around to start rinsing his hair.

“You alright?” he asks quietly, under his breath almost. Bucky shuts his eyes tighter and presses a little closer to Steve’s neck. Steve asks him this sometimes, only ever when they’re alone. He’s done it more in the past six months than he has in the past sixteen years.

There’s really only one answer to that. “Fine,” Bucky mumbles, like he always does.

“Alright,” Steve agrees like he always does, and rubs a little more gently at Bucky’s skull. Bucky brings a hand up to Steve’s shoulder and holds on. It’s not even a lie. Bucky is fine. He’s keeping busy. He’s solving problems. Things are going just fine.

-o-

The next time they’re back in London is two weeks later, and this time Bucky’s on a special mission. He spends his R&R day out on the town, completing his previously identified objectives. Steve’s at some bigwig meeting all day but they’ve got standing plans to meet for dinner, all three of them: both a hello and a way to do an informal debrief of the strike unit’s last mission so Carter gets kept in the loop, regardless of what any man officer decides. The rest of the guys are all scattered around, treasuring their brief twenty four hours free of each others’ ass cracks, so Bucky spends his day alone.

He sticks to public places, though. Thank god London hosts HQ. When Bucky’s not on duty he likes to see people, hear them, move with them even as they all thoroughly ignore each other: the uniquely urban experience of solitude in a crowd.

He completes his objectives. The day goes quick. He goes to check if Carter’s still at HQ; she isn’t. He pokes his head into the main office anteroom to ask the aides if they generals are done with Captain America; they aren’t. It’s half past seven already so Bucky gives it up and heads out, thinking he’ll at least be able to act as the advance party.

The brindle stray that hangs around the SSR building follows him for a couple of blocks until he gives it the chunk of bread in his pocket. Now that he’s more or less solved the rations problem in the field he can afford to spend one night on base being a little hungry.

It’s not far from there to Carter’s place, the second to last home in a block of townhouses that just happens to have most of the middle bombed out, like a giant mouth came out of the sky and bit and left dribbling crumbs of rubble. She opens the door still in her uniform, heels not even off. “James,” she greets. “Steve not out yet?”

“No, and probably gonna miss dinner,” Bucky says apologetically. “The aides all told me to go away and not bother coming back later.”

“Did you eat?”

“Yes,” Bucky lies, then before she can zero in on it and pry every secret he’s ever had out of his mouth he says, “I have something for you.”

“Do you,” Carter says, folding her arms and leaning against the doorjamb.

“Well, uh.” Bucky can’t help avoiding her gaze a little. The gifts had seemed perfectly fine when he’d gone about acquiring them, but now he feels like a five year old presenting a pretty lady with a handful of mud.

“Well?” Carter lifts an eyebrow.

“I know it was your birthday last week,” Bucky begins, bringing the handkerchief-wrapped bundle out of his pocket - a nice clean ladies’ handkerchief, he’s not an animal. “But what with us being in Toulouse and all, we didn’t really get to... ”

“What did you - oh. Barnes.”

“You mentioned how hard it was to find a good switchblade,” Bucky babbles, “And you said it was almost as hard as finding good lipstick, so -”

Carter cuts him off with a crushing arm around his neck, dragging him into a one-armed hug. “Stop talking, Barnes.”

“I hope it’s your color,” Bucky mumbles against her cheek.

“You moron,” Carter says affectionately. “Thank you.” She kisses him, once, firm, just far away enough from his mouth to be able to claim propriety in bad light. “Come on, I’ve got a bottle of gin hidden somewhere, let’s get pissed while we wait for Captain Yankee to escape his medal meeting.”

They end up sitting on her bed and talking shop for over two hours, the bottle nearly untouched between them. They start off complaining about the quartermaster, then the aides, then the British regimental liaison; Carter’s cutting little comments about officers and agents in their mutual acquaintance are fucking hilarious, so naturally Bucky has to give as good as he gets and do impressions of them until she’s fallen on her elbow on the bed, holding her side with laughter. It’s good. They’ve never had any time alone before, always in rooms full of Steve or officers or soldiers, and Bucky never knew Carter could be anything other than a blunt instrument in a razor-sharp outfit. He sees the look in her eyes, the loosening sprawl of her body, and thinks maybe she’s thinking the same of him.

“Where the bloody hell is Steve?” Carter finally complains, which Bucky has been wondering about himself. “We don’t have all bloody night. Some of us have work tomorrow.”

“Meetings always run late,” Bucky says gloomily, with the experience of a man who’s been left alone to snore with his cock out a time or twenty.

Carter sighs deeply. “Well. I suppose we’ll have to get started without him, then.”

Bucky just blinks stupidly at her at first, because - well - she might kiss his face when he gets her presents but they’re not, well. Bucky would say they’re both Steve’s, except Carter isn’t any man’s anything, except maybe, for some, their worst nightmare.

“Come on, Sergeant,” Carter says, smiling at him in a particularly dangerous way. “Don’t you want to help me test out my presents?”

“Uh,” Bucky manages, because he got her lipstick and a switchblade, but you don’t exactly say no to a woman like that, do you? Besides, she’s got to know that if she carves him up Steve’ll be mad at her. “Uh…alright. Sure thing.”

Carter produces the knife and checks the heft, tossing it up and catching it, testing the edge with her thumb. The blade is incredibly sharp; Bucky knows because he spent forty minutes with a whetstone last night making sure of it. Carter makes a noise of approval and stands. “Yes, this will do nicely.”

“Do I get a hint as for what,” Bucky says cautiously, standing up too.

Carter’s smile is carnivorous. “Why, pet. Don’t you enjoy surprises?”

“Depends on the kind?”

“Oh, relax. You’ll enjoy it. It’s a crying shame you’re in uniform,” Carter adds, flipping the knife in a perfect arc and catching it effortlessly. Her eyes stay on Bucky. “Otherwise my new present and I would help you undress.”

Bucky’s mouth goes dry. For a crazy second he wants to say fuck the uniform , but he already barely has time to put his pants on in the mornings without having to sew them back together too, so. “A crying shame,” he agrees hoarsely. “You could, uh, help me undress the, uh, normal way, though.”

“No, I don’t think I will,” Carter muses, and steps back and sinks easily into the ancient floral armchair in the corner. It’s threadbare and patchy and Bucky can smell the dust from here, but that doesn’t matter: for her it’s a throne. When she crosses her legs, neat, Bucky has to swallow. “You’re going to put on a show for me,” she orders, walking the switchblade over her fingers. “Start with the tie. Slow.”

For a wild moment there’s a bubble of unhinged laughter building in Bucky’s throat, thinking of the body under these clothes, fishbelly-pale and seeming to grow thinner by the minute. Yeah, what a show that’ll be. Bucky knows when he looks good and this isn’t it. This hasn’t been it in nearly a year.

Well, if Carter wants to count his ribs she’s welcome to it. It’s not like Bucky has it in him to refuse.

He does go slow, partly to mask the shake in his hands and partly because he really doesn’t want to pop a button. He eases the tie out of its knot and drapes it loose over his neck, starting in on the shirt, but he only gets it unbuttoned to his navel when Carter seems to lose patience, flipping the switchblade in her hands again and beckoning to him with one finger.

He goes, standing almost at parade rest in front of her, but she keeps beckoning until he - oh. She wants him to - oh, god. Bucky climbs up, butterflies in his stomach, kneeling on either side of her thighs. He doesn’t dare sit, but Carter just smirks and pats her lap, condescending somehow, and Bucky has to look away as he sinks down, cheeks flaming.

“Well?” Carter says, flicking one of his shirt buttons. “Get on with it.”

Bucky gets on with it. He doesn’t know if it’s the gin finally kicking in or if it’s Carter, staring up at him with open greed in her eyes, but his whole body is going warm and easy and the edges are softening out of the world. Carter watches hungrily as he fumbles the last button open, then raps his knuckles with the flat of the knife when he goes for his belt.

“Ah ah,” she says. “Not yet.” Then she completely undermines her own words by hooking the tip of the blade in his undershirt, using the point to drag it up his chest, bunching under his armpits. Bucky’s nipples tighten immediately from the cold, small muscles in his belly jumping, and the shiver is entirely out of his control.

“Disrespecting the uniform after all, ma’am?” he says hoarsely.

“It can handle a little disrespecting,” Carter says, and he might be imagining the faint hitch in her breath. “Come on now. Get the rest.”

Bucky gets back to his belt, fumbling it open and sliding it out of his pants. The scent of arousal starts to rise off Carter like perfume and it doesn’t smell too different, really, from Steve’s. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that he’s skinny and pale; she’s staring at his chest with naked satisfaction. He gets the belt out of its loops and lets it tumble to the floor.

Carter raises her hand up and drags it through his hair, ruining the line of the pomade. Bucky can’t care: she’s using her nails, short but still noticeable, scraping over his scalp and giving short little tugs. Bucky’s eyes want to close and he tips his head back into it, wishing she’d pull just a little harder, the way Steve does when he’s got Bucky braced underneath him, legs spread wide, clawing at the mattress. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Bucky’s eyes flick open at the touch of cold steel, the knife laid flat against his temple. “You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you,” Carter says, meditative. Her pupils are blown. She didn’t do it to get his attention: she just wanted her knife to his face. Her other hand gathers a handful of hair and gets a good grip. “You like this?”

Bucky can only nod, tugging harder on his scalp. “Yeah,” he rasps. “Yes.”

“Good work with the blade,” Carter says, thoughtful, approving, ghosting it down his cheek. “I bet I could give you a shave with this, even.”

Bucky’s breath catches and suddenly he wants it, him in Carter’s lap just like this, Steve holding him still by the hair while Carter drags the knife all over his face. He can practically feel it already, the rough scrape over his skin, down his throat, and he can’t help the little noise he makes low in his chest.

“Oh, yes,” Carter agrees, breathless. “You like that.” Bucky can’t deny it. “Maybe we’ll set that up for you, pet. You like the knife, hm? I know. I do too.”

Carter’s hand leaves his hair, and Bucky opens his eyes again, barely realizing he’d closed them. Carter’s hand comes back up, and this time she’s holding the little golden tube of Victory Red. She uncaps it with her teeth, the top half dropping down into her lap; her other hand sets the flat of the knife against Bucky’s jugular, pressed cool and close. She switches her grip on the lipstick tube until she’s holding it like a dart.

“I suppose if we can’t properly test the knife we’d better be extra thorough with this,” she says. “Open up.”

Oh, god. This is Steve’s drag ball phase all over again, except this time it’s Carter and she’s got a knife. He doesn’t know if it’s better or worse with the knife. He’s so hard he could pound nails. He opens up.

The look in Carter’s eyes as she drags the lipstick over his mouth is indescribable. There’s a fascination and a satisfaction there, a curiosity and a delight all wrapped up in something that’s almost smug. Bucky can barely breathe. It’s nothing like Steve looked when Steve did this to him, and somehow exactly the same. Steve and Carter both look at him like they’re winning.

It’s been so long since anything lit in him like this. Maybe not in the whole last two years: between the training and deployment all the fun he and Steve had feels long ago and far away, belonging to the part of Bucky that was young. It’s been so long since he got anyone’s full attention like this. The way Carter’s looking at him now is both familiar and new and incandescent, and it’s taking over.

With a fluid movement Carter drops her arm and stabs the knife into the seat cushion, freeing her hand up to grab Bucky’s jaw. He starts and then shivers as steadies him, holds him still and does his top lip. Her eyes lid halfway, watching him. Bucky can’t look away.

“Such a very pretty thing,” Carter says, low and satisfied, and this time Bucky’s cheeks must flash as crimson as his mouth. Carter smiles like a crocodile and flicks his shirttails to either side, baring his heaving chest. She uses the hand in his hair to haul him to her mouth as the other she sets onto his sternum, sinking her nails in and dragging her hand slow, so slowly down, leaving five singing lines from his chest to his belly.

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky gasps, when she frees his mouth. “If this is - what you do - to Steve -”

Carter laughs, her teeth sharp and white in the dim room. “This? Oh, pet. I should ask what he does with you, that I can get all this without having hardly put any effort in.”

She flicks his left nipple and Bucky gasps, curling over. “No wonder he comes back looking like he fought a dragon,” he manages, bracing himself with both hands on the chair’s armrests; the welts were always gone by the time Steve got back to him but sometimes the lines of broken skin weren’t, evidence of raking nails, and Bucky had maybe wondered but he’d never thought about the concept as applied to himself. It’s a bit of a shock to find he likes it.  

“Has he been going easy on you?” Carter coos. “Do the two of you fuck sweet, missionary under the covers? You kiss like him, you know. I wonder who taught who?”

“Uh,” Bucky manages, because missionary under the covers is definitely not what he would describe as the statistical average of his sex life, but also, hey, what’s wrong with a little missionary, and frankly he has no earthly clue who taught who what let alone about kissing but he doesn’t get to articulate any of that because Carter clearly gets bored of his two seconds of silence and goes for his mouth instead.

The door creaks open, which Bucky vaguely registers with whatever remaining bits of his brain aren’t covered in lipstick and on fire. He definitely registers it when Carter pulls away, though, wiping saliva off her chin and turning to a stock-still staring open-mouthed Steve.

“Steve, it was a meeting specifically for you to hold still while the brass to wank it to you,” Carter says, like she doesn’t have Bucky panting in her lap with his tits out. “How on earth did it take you this long to get out of it?”

“Uh,” Steve says intelligently. “I. Uh.”

“Yeah,” Bucky rasps, scraping together words as best he can. “When you coulda been here wanking it to us instead.”

Steve’s looking at them like he opened the door expecting a bedroom and instead walked into the temple of El Dorado. “Come on now. Get your clothes off,” Carter says amusedly, her voice only a little bit hoarse, and Steve snaps out of his stupor and scrambles to obey.

“You shoulda been here earlier,” Bucky gasps, as Carter gets back to dragging her nails over his sternum.“There was a knife involved.”

“Oh yes,” Carter purrs. “Sergeant Barnes here certainly gives the most thoughtful birthday presents.”

“Ah shit,” Steve says, stopping with one leg in his pants and one out of them, his face creasing up. “We missed your - I’m sorry, Peg, I didn’t get you anything -”

“Nonsense,” Carter says. “Of course you did. You’re here, aren’t you?” The knife is suddenly in her hand again, and she flicks it open so the point has Bucky raising his chin. “You’re going to fuck him quite hard while I watch.”

Steve gapes. Bucky swallows. Carter grins, the smudges of lipstick on her cheeks detracting not one bit. “Well? Get on with it.”

And so Bucky gets railed up the ass while a beautiful British spy twirls a knife and watches from the sidelines, her face smeared with lipstick from Bucky’s own mouth. Sometimes he wonders exactly when his life went so comprehensively off the rails, but usually those moments happen during something even more insane than usual, so he doesn’t exactly get a chance to introspect. He can’t now, either, not with Steve coming back from the bathroom with the Vaseline in his hand, backing Bucky onto the bed, Carter climbing up to loom over him with her curls falling around her face.

“Go on, kiss him,” Carter says, cupping the back of Steve’s head, and she guides a cherry-red Steve down to Bucky’s mouth.

This is familiar enough that Bucky can taste the waxy lipstick, the flavor registering on his tongue as Steve braces over him on his forearm and delves in, his other hand sliding up Bucky’s thigh. Bucky holds onto Steve’s biceps, his eyes open but unseeing, wishing his pants weren’t in the way so he could feel Steve’s bare skin on his thighs. “Isn’t that pretty,” Carter murmurs above them, her hand stroking over Steve’s hair.

Steve comes up red-mouthed, licking his lips like a dog. “How do you want him,” he says roughly, all traces of earlier shock gone, and he’s talking to Carter but he’s looking right in Bucky’s eyes. Bucky shudders all over.

“I think we should get rid of all this, first,” Carter says, plucking at Bucky’s open shirt, his rucked-up undershirt. “Get him out of those pants and drawers.”

Steve gets to it, shucking him like an ear of corn, and Bucky barely has to move at all to make it happen. Carter starts stripping too, above him; Bucky gets distracted as Steve’s working off his shoes, watching Carter undo her blouse and wiggle her skirt off, staring up at her from below as she settles above his head in just her stockings and brassiere and panties. He wasn’t lying when he told her he liked women fine, he does, it’s just he’s always liked Steve more, but now Carter’s right fucking there and she’s got a body to make a blind man beg and she knows it.

She leers down at him, clearly enjoying the slack-jawed look on his face. “You know, it’s possible I’ve missed my calling,” she says, her callused palm going to Bucky’s jaw again, tilting his face back and forth. “What do you think, Steve? Could I have had a future as an artist?”

“That is definitely art,” Steve agrees, his eyes alight. Bucky glares back and fights the urge to turn his face and shut his eyes. He survived Steve’s drag ball phase - though it’s looking more and more likely it was never a phase, just a chronic condition gone dormant - but only barely, and seeing Steve’s own mouth blurred and pinked with lipstick is frankly unfair and unsportsmanlike. “You know what? You should try it,” Steve says. “You’re the art director here, Pegs. What’ll we do with him?”

Carter’s expression is nothing short of wicked. “Get him ready. Don’t go easy on him,” she orders, and Bucky could have told her that’s a waste of breath, Steve wouldn’t know easy if it bit him, but this time Steve must really take the words to heart because he just grabs Bucky by the hips and gets to hauling him around like a sack of flour. He hitches Bucky’s legs up around his waist and damn near bends him in half, kneeling up so Bucky has to tense and scrabble around to keep his shoulders from sliding him up the bed and onto Carter. “Christ, Rogers!”

“You hear the lady,” Steve says, utterly unrepentant, and then he’s got the Vaseline open and the smell starts to suffuse the room. Bucky’s breath catches on automatic, Pavlovian, and Steve winks at him before ducking down, sucking his cock in and pressing two fingers right away to his hole.

Bucky makes a noise that he will deny all evidence of later, jerking a half curl-up on the bed. Carter leans forward and braces both hands on his shoulders, pressing him in, holding him down, and Bucky’s hips buck up at the pressure. His face burns anew, grateful that Steve’s body mostly covered the reaction from view - but Steve definitely felt it, and the look he shoots up at Bucky with his mouth full definitely tells him all about that.

Carter’s now looking down at Steve with that open-mouthed predator’s smile, her eyes wide with delight. “Steven, you continue to be more and more a surprise and delight every single day.”

Steve pulls off Bucky’s dick to give Carter a look that would be puppyish with adoration if it wasn’t also rank with vile mischief. “Wait ‘til you see what I can do with my cock in him,” he says, like he isn’t talking to a lady, though maybe at this point Carter’s something entirely beyond that, and anyway Bucky can no longer think when Steve sinks down all the way and rubs his other hand over Bucky’s balls.

“I look forward to it,” Carter says, digging her fingers in just as Steve really doubles down.

“You two are - oh you fucking bastard,” Bucky whines, as Steve presses his fingers in and does something unspeakable with his tongue. “Haven’t - haven’t either of you assholes ever heard of - of foreplay?”

“Why, pet,” Carter says, beatific. “That’s what the switchblade was for.”

“I’m never giving you anything ever again,” Bucky moans, complaining even as he’s doing it, handing it all over. Steve’s looking up and Carter’s looking down and they’ve both got the same fascinated look on their faces, like they can’t quite believe he’s giving it all up for them, and, well, okay, Bucky can’t quite believe it either, but here they are. Bucky can feel his eyes trying to roll back a little with every thrust, Steve setting a rhythm, and between that and the knife and the lipstick it’s barely a minute before Bucky has to flail at Steve’s head, grabbing for purchase. “Steve - Steve if you don’t -”

“Hush, pet,” Carter says, as Steve pulls off wetly and draws his fingers out of Bucky’s hole. “Watch his face for this part,” Steve says, like he’s commenting the weather, and Bucky squeezes his eyes shut in self-defense as Steve repositions and gets his cock right, starting to push in.

It’s always a little bit of a blur for this part. Bucky mostly knows that he’s clawing at Steve’s arms, looking for purchase, as the familiar feeling of yes takes over his body and gently blows his brain outside his skull. It’s not even orgasm: that’s different, that’s it’s own thing, but these first few moments of pure overwhelming sensation are what Bucky chases, every time.

Steve starts biting, sharp and low down on his chest where it’ll be hidden by his undershirt, and Bucky comes back a little to the hot, smooth glide of Steve’s cock in his ass. Bucky’s eyes slip open; Carter’s staring down at him like she’s just won a million dollars and he’s her cash-check prize. Steve moves upwards, kissing up Bucky’s neck, scraping his teeth, planting his hands and his knees so he can start showing off for Carter, giving it to Bucky with his whole new massive fucking body.

It’s pleasure like violence, and Bucky finds himself making noises he didn’t know were possible. Steve working him over, Carter looking down at him with something like greed in her eyes - it’s fucking unreal. Bucky never knew he wanted to see Carter eager, her hand between her own legs, kneeling up over him as she gets what she wants; she’s making noises too now, hitching breaths, and she’s not holding him down anymore but Bucky feels pinned anyway, by the attention and the hunger and the triumph in her gaze.  

Bucky doesn’t see either of them come. Steve gets back up to his mouth again and pulls him in close, his palm wrapped around the back of Bucky’s head, and Bucky gets to bury his face in the crook of Steve’s neck, then right in his chest as Steve rears up with Carter’s hand on his chin and goes to kiss her. His hips don’t let up for a second, driving into Bucky like an engine, and Bucky’s eyes slide shut of their own accord as the pleasure builds and builds and breaks over him, leaving him with nothing but the feeling of being lax under Steve, surrounded and warm.

They sprawl out, after, Steve rolling off Bucky to mirror him, flat on their backs on either side of Carter. It must be a full ten minutes before any of them move; Bucky’s slowly coming out of the fuzziness but he’s in no hurry. None of the sticky or slimy or itchy feelings have kicked in yet and he wants to keep that going as long as possible.

Finally Carter sighs, sits up, pokes her leg out, snags Bucky’s pants from the armchair with her foot and extracts his cigarettes and matches. Bucky gropes around the bedsheets, the pillows and finally Carter’s knee until she takes pity on him and hands him one, already lit. “Saint,” Bucky mumbles, sticking it in his mouth and sucking down a lungful.

“Wow,” Steve mumbles from her other side, on a five-minute conversational delay since his goddamn afterglow lasts thirty goddamn minutes. “That was… really… wow.”

“Quite,” Carter agrees, blowing a stream out up at the ceiling.

“When he… and then you…”

“Mhm.”

“Wow.”

“Yes. I’m very glad this whole deal worked out,” Carter says, satisfied. “Happy birthday to me indeed. Though I must say, I was rather surprised that James wasn’t nearly as averse to this… unconventional arrangement as I might have expected.”

Steve jerks a lazy thumb over at Bucky. “Buck dated a girl for nearly six months a couple years ago and came home to me every night.”

Carter looks over, interested. “Really?”

“Really.” Bucky sighs. Deb Rubin was the only girl he’d ever met who actually wanted to go to the NYU mathematical sciences library, not because she was going with him, but because it was the mathematical sciences library. She didn’t care that he wasn’t from a respectable family, she just wanted to talk about astronomy calculations for hours. She’d link his elbow in hers and tell him all about the latest article she read in Scientific American. She knew Bucky was quote-unquote strange about Steve. She didn’t care. Bucky really liked her.

He wouldn’t have asked her to marry him. He wouldn’t ask anyone to share him with Steve, especially since he knows what Steve’s like, the pull he can exert like fucking gravity. No dame should have to compete at all, let alone compete with that, or so Bucky thought before he met Margaret fucking Carter, who plows through Steve’s gravity like a panzer. She’s not sharing Bucky, anyway. She’s not sharing anything: she’s decided they’re both of them hers, apparently.

Bucky rolls over to eyeball her. “I was surprised a lady like you would go for this kinda thing, let alone suggest it.”

Carter snorts, twin plumes of smoke coming out of her nostrils. “I spent six years at an all-girls’ boarding school, pet. You haven’t seen wild until you’ve spent a year with the Blitherford Girls’ Academy, sixth form.”

“Blitherford,” Bucky repeats, aghast.

“Quite. We were colloquially referred to by the adjacent boy’s school as the Blivvies.”

Bucky has no words for this abomination. “Blivvies,”  Steve manages.

“You haven’t a leg to stand on, Steven, you named him Bucky,” Carter says.

Steve gives up and loses it laughing, curling up on the bed. “What,” he gasps, still come-dumb, “what, he doesn’t look like a Bucky?”

Bucky glares at both of them. “Something wrong with my name?”

“Oh, no, pet, not at all,” Carter says, her eyes dancing. “It’s a wonderful name. For a teddy bear, or maybe a sheepdog -”

Things do not improve appreciably from there. At one point Bucky has to kneel up and smack Steve repeatedly with Carter’s pillow, Carter cackling like a witch and egging him on from the sidelines. Steve grabs Bucky around the waist and tackles him back down onto the bed again. Carter lives up to her saboteur reputation by crippling Bucky’s defenses via tickling. The drop he’s waiting for never comes. Bucky laughs and laughs and laughs.

It’s a good fucking night.

Bucky sleeps dreamless, deep and straight through the last few hours until dawn. The next morning Carter kisses Steve, wipes the last of the lipstick off Bucky’s face, kisses Bucky and then sends them out in shifts. Steve leaves first, legging it out the back garden, and Bucky climbs to the roof and gets back down to street level two blocks away, innocent as a lamb and in no way having anything to do with Agent Carter’s virtue. They meet up in breakfast mess, sitting shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee and eating their oatmeal silent but all pressed together, and Steve nudges him with a crinkle-eyed grin before taking off for his morning briefings. Bucky heads out too, in good spirits, at least until some aide runs up to him outside of mess and tells him Phillips wants to see him in his tent.

“Sergeant Barnes,” Phillips says, the minute Bucky steps in and salutes. They’re alone in the tent, paperwork spread out over Phillips’ camp desk. “I had a lieutenant in here this morning telling me some cock and bull story about Rogers, as if I gave a damn what the man does with whatever’s in his drawers.”

Bucky’s finding it a little hard to concentrate, because last night is still playing itself in glorious technicolor across the inside of his eyeballs. He’s pretty sure he’s still got lipstick on both his ass cheeks. “Sir?”

“Your Captain, Barnes,” Phillips says. “Some lieutenant came in telling me how Rogers is one bent pencil or some damn thing, god knows what the hell they’re calling it these days. A fruitie-loo, a limp wristed lute player, a good old fashioned faggot.”

Phillips is grimacing like he’s smelled something bad; Bucky doesn’t know what his own face is doing because he can’t feel it anymore. “Sir -”

“I told him if he wants to blue card Captain America then first, he’s insane, and second, he can kiss every ass in the United States Army and he can start with mine. Captain America is a decorated combatant, the leader of an incredibly successful strike force and a critical weapon in the war against the Reich. He’s our only supersoldier, for fuck’s sake.” Phillips tosses his pen down. “I told him I won’t hear this kind of dissent in the ranks and I meant it. I don’t want to hear anything about it.” Phillips’ eyes are hard. “Am I understood?”

Bucky’s body begins responding to him again and he snaps off a textbook salute. “Perfectly, sir!”

“Then get out of my office,” Phillips grunts, and Bucky steps back out into the watery London sunshine, the world turned on its ass and what feels like a solid block of lead lodged deep in his belly.

Somebody just tried to blue card Captain America, and Phillips sent them packing.

Somebody just tried to blue card Steve, and the Colonel is fucking covering for him.

Bucky feels the hysteria building in his chest again, but by now he has lots of practice swallowing down crazed laughter. Whatever saint or guardian angel or whatever taking an interest in Bucky sure has a fucked up sense of humor, or is maybe just bored enough that watching him scuttle back and forth between luck and idiot disaster is its only entertainment. He blurts out he’s a fairy: his unit barely cares. Steve falls for Agent Carter: she wants a fucking threesome. Some asshole rats out Steve, and the ranking officer tells Bucky to go take care of it.

So now Bucky just has to get rid of the problem.

A lieutenant. Well. That narrows things down some.

Bucky, walking unseeing back to the edge of camp, runs smack into Dum Dum. He opens his mouth to apologize, but one look at his face stops him.

“It wasn’t me,” Dum Dum says, his jaw clenched so hard his mustache is quivering. “I know I don’t always - ”

“What?”

“It wasn’t me,” Dum Dum repeats. “I didn’t tell anyone.”

Bucky’s hands slowly curl into fists. “You didn’t tell anyone,” he repeats.

“I heard it. This morning,” Dum Dum says. “I was waiting to give Phillips the supply chit like you said and I heard someone talking to him, about - Rogers’ unit. About a court martial. And then Phillips asked for you.” Dum Dum swallows, a highly uncharacteristic look on his big, ruddy face. “So I wanted to tell you. It wasn’t me.”

Bucky relaxes, minutely. “I know it wasn’t you, Dum Dum. You ain’t that dumb.” He believes him, but - he remembers what Gabe said, too. “I know you wouldn’t tell, but - never mentioned anything like that in passing? Made a joke after a few beers, talked about me -”

“I don’t talk about that shit,” Dum Dum says, relief switching him back to familiar irritability. “You or otherwise. No. I know it could get you carded out, Barnes, I - I wouldn’t. I didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, suddenly aware that they’re still out in the open, still exposed; he looks around and there’s nobody but he still jerks his head back to their corner of camp. “Come on,” he says, leading them into their main tent. Dum Dum goes. “Have you heard this anywhere else? Any rumors, any talk?”

“No,” Dum Dum says, shaking his head. Bucky briefly closes his eyes. Thank god Carter is who she is and that they’d started doing what they do, because now it’s more or less public knowledge all throughout camp that Captain America is sweet on Agent Carter.

“Alright,” Bucky says, taking a breath to tell Dum Dum to keep quiet about it, just Morita pushes his head into the tent. His eyes go from one to the other and land on Bucky.  “What’s going on?”

“Someone blabbed to Phillips and tried to blue-card Barnes,” Dum Dum says immediately, before Bucky can say nothing or, failing that, slap his hand over Dum Dum’s mouth.

“What?” Morita’s face stiffens. “Did they -”

“Phillips ran him out of the office and told me to take care of it,” Bucky says shortly. “I’m taking care of it.”

“Who was it?”

“Somebody with too much time on his hands,” Bucky says dismissively. “I’m handling it. It’s not a problem.”

Morita’s eyes flick to him, to Dugan and back again, but he just grunts and backs out of the tent. “Carter wants you,” he calls, a little muffled by the fabric. “HQ map room, soon as you can.”

“Copy,” Bucky says; Carter would have been his next stop anyway, he realizes. She knows everybody on base and practically everyone in London, seems like, which Bucky envies and would rival if he was in London enough and had the time. She can help him nail this down. He can still get this sorted without any of it getting back to Steve.

“Alright,” he tells Dum Dum. “I gotta go. I’m handling this, alright? Don’t tell Rogers.”

“Alright,” Dum Dum agrees dubiously, but he stands aside and lets Bucky go as he leaves the tent and heads off to headquarters.  

He finds Carter in the map room, but she takes one look at his face and leads him to the closet that serves as her office. Bucky comes in, shuts the door behind him and drags a chair in front of it. “Somebody knows,” he says flatly. “About me. And they told Phillips.”

Carter stares at him, but to her credit doesn’t miss a beat. She never does. “And Phillips told you to sort it out?”

Bucky looks at her sharply. “You knew Phillips knew?”

“Phillips doesn’t care,” Carter says. “Half the WAC are snogging each other and the entire Navy’s queer, and they don’t assign a particularly hidebound man to head the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Phillips is a pragmatist and he isn’t blind. When Steve jumped into Austria for you do you think he thought, oh, they must be such jolly good pals?”

Bucky drops into the chair, blowing out a breath. “I ought to just fucking assume it’s painted on my back at this point, shouldn’t I.”

“Not quite,” Carter says. “We’ve managed some discretion, and you’ve said you don’t fuck in the field. Your unit knows you’re… a fruit, but do they know you’re with Steve?”

“Not sure,” Bucky says shortly. “Pretty sure they all thought he was railing me before we started our little tango, but now… I don’t know. I think Jones knows what’s really going on. Maybe Morita too.”

“Would either of them have told?”

Bucky keeps staring at the wall. “No.”

“No?”

“They have more to lose than I do.”

“So someone must have seen you,” Carter says, thinking aloud. “Recently, I imagine, since the longer Steve’s here the happier Command is with him. Have you and Steve done anything lately? Any dark corners, anyone overhear you through the walls?”

“No,” Bucky says, shaking his head, because they hadn’t. Both of them had long ago learned to fuck quiet, and they weren’t stupid, they never - “Fuck. The showers. He came in as I was finishing up, we - showered together.” Bucky closes his eyes briefly. “We didn’t do anything. He just - hugged me. We kissed.”

“Was this the officers’ showers?”

“Yeah. Special unit NCOs get to use it after midnight.”

“Hmm,” Carter says. “A lieutenant, Phillips said?”

“Yeah.”

“A lieutenant,” Carter repeats thoughtfully. “One without many friends, I imagine, if he’s got the time and inclination to go putting a word in the ear of the brass. An American… one who isn’t too familiar with the SSR, if he thinks taking it to Phillips was his best bet. Alright. I think I can get a name for you, pet.”

“Don’t go out of your way -”

“Don’t be stupid, James. I can do this faster than you can. The sooner we get this done the better.”

She’s as good as her word. It’s barely four in the afternoon when she catches hold of him again, in the corridor on his way back from the map room. “He likes to drink at the King’s Head tavern on Wimbley Street,” Carter says in his ear, her hand brushing over his coat. “Tonight will be no different, I imagine. I was right - not a popular type. Works in the censor’s office.”

“That explains it,” Bucky mutters; the censor guys are all either bureaucratic diehards or fairy boys themselves, people who are loners or keep to their own.

“Make sure you end this. Definitively,” Carter instructs, and Bucky gives a sharp nod that she returns before disappearing off down the hallway.

Bucky gets out of the building before he digs his hand into his coat pocket and brings out the little piece of paper, unfolding it. The service photo and the name underneath it are unfamiliar, but that doesn’t mean much. Bucky memorizes it, takes his matches out, lights a cig and uses the match to burn the little scrap of paper to ash.

There’s not much else to do but wait, so Bucky goes off and does suitably sergeanty things all day until the sun sets, the last light slipping over the horizon, and Bucky sets out of his quarters to find Gabe, Monty and Morita in the hallway, all standing around together, lounging against the wall.

He has a bad feeling he knows what’s going on here, so he shouldn’t be so surprised to see them all lined up outside his door, standing around like they’re waiting for the goddamn band. “What the hell are you doing?” Bucky hisses. “What are you - Monty, you too? What the hell!”

“Relax, Sarge,” Morita says. “We’ve got it handled.”

“Dum Dum and Frenchie are dishing booze out in mess,” Gabe says. “By tomorrow morning we’ll have twenty, thirty guys who’ll swear up, down and sideways that we were all getting drunk in the rec tent tonight.”

“Where did they get - never mind,” Bucky cuts off, because one of the first personal rules he’d made for himself as sergeant was never ask where the Frenchman and the circus guy get their alcohol. “Why the hell are you…”

“And long as nobody sees the rest of us, we’re good,” Morita says, continuing on like Bucky didn’t say anything. “We just need you to get Cap to swear it too.”

“He will,” Bucky says automatically, still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on here. He’ll have to feed Steve a story, the guy’s shit at lying at the spot, but -

“So we’re fine,” Morita says. “All our asses covered.”

“Covered from what!”

Morita shrugs expressively. “Whatever the fuck we’ll be doing tonight, I guess.”

“Oh yeah? What the fuck is that, then?”

Gabe turns his gaze skyward, face the picture of innocence. “I was under the impression we were here to pay a visit to one of our fellow soldiers,” he says lightly. “Explain to him the nature of inter-unit cooperation. Bring unto him the good word.”

Morita spits. “I was thinking we maybe wouldn’t use words.”

“How do you even know about this,” Bucky says, hands wanting to curl into fists at his sides.

“Dugan said you told him not to tell Rogers,” Gabe says. It’s his turn to shrug. “He didn’t tell Rogers.”

“And you didn’t tell me jack shit at all,” Morita says. “So here the fuck we are.”

“I repeat,” Bucky says through his teeth. “What the hell are you doing.”

“We gotta spell it out for you?” Morita says.

“Apparent-fucking-ly!”

Morita shrugs again, looking away. “I got an uncle like you.”

Gabe sighs. “And I know a little something about prejudice.”

Bucky stares at them. He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, or one of them to start laughing, or - or something. “Ri-ight,” he says slowly, when none of that happens and this reality continues to get madder by the minute. He turns to Monty. “What’s your excuse?”

Monty lights his cigarette. He takes his time about it, lighting his match and bringing it to the cig with his usual fastidiousness. “How many times is it you’ve saved my life now, Barnes?”

“Wasn’t counting,” Bucky says warily.

Monty takes a drag, looking up to meet Bucky’s eyes, steady. “I’m not counting this either.”

“After all, we were never here,” Gabe says reasonably.

“And this never happened,” Morita agrees. “Now where’s the sonofabitch we’re messing up tonight?”

“He’s an officer,” Bucky warns.

“Oh, even better,” Morita says.

“Yeah, it’s like a fuckin’ birthday party out here,” Bucky says, giving up. “Listen, Jim, Jonesy - you just play lookout on this, alright? If we get caught I don’t want it coming down on you. No, I mean it. This is my bullshit and I’ll be damned if I drag you into anything that might end in a tribunal. You know there are assholes out there itching to get at you. We’re not giving them a reason.”

“Get fucked, Sarge,” Morita says amiably. “We’ll hold him, you punch.”

Bucky throws his hands up. “We’re not - oh, for fuck’s sake. Monty, help me out here.”

“Why, Sergeant,” Monty says dryly. “Don’t I get the same tender considerations?”

Bucky glowers at him to let him know how funny he’s not.  “You’re an officer, I don’t look out for you.”

“Right,” Monty says. “So, shall we say, as an officer - or at least the only one here with this strange little pip on my shoulder -” he flicks his lieutenant’s stars - “I say we’re all here to assist our good sergeant with his endeavors. Whatever they may be.”  

“Yeah, but can you listen to me while you’re doing it,” Bucky growls. “I’m not doing this for fun, you assholes!”

“Shit, Sarge, I don’t even know what fun is,” Morita says.

“Couldn’t even spell it,” Gabe says mildly.

“Is it a kind of vegetable? Can you eat it, d’you think?”

“You know what? Fine,” Bucky growls. “Let’s go. You guys want a fun night, I’ll show you comedians some fun,” and he sets off out of the building, not looking back to see if they follow behind.

They all do, of course. Nobody says much on their way through the streets but they all walk together, falling into the usual marching pairs, Morita and Monty, Bucky and Gabe. They reach the tavern in short order, the street largely deserted; it’s chilly outside, the windows of the building showing slivers of warm light around the blackout curtains shuttered down. Strains of music can be heard from the inside.

Bucky leads them around the side of the building, a decent way from the front door. “You two, go to the other end of the alley in case he does a runner and gets away from me,” Bucky tells Morita and Gabe. “I’ll grab him the minute he steps out. Monty, you go by the door back door in case he goes out that way. Give a whistle if he comes out.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Dark hair, little shorter than me. Lieutenant. American. And we might be here a while,” Bucky warns. “Going in to get him’s too suspicious and there’s no telling when he’s going to come out.”

“We ate our dinner,” Gabe says amiably. “Got nowhere else I have to be tonight.”

“Yeah, I’m just standing up a hot date with my bedroll,” Morita says. “But I know she loves me, she’ll understand she has to wait.”

“Alright, Abbott and Costello, get to it,” Bucky says, and it turns out they’re not waiting long at all, before the tavern’s back door swings open on the right uniform and Monty gives an obviously fake cough around his cigarette.

Bucky peels off the wall he’s been holding up, putting own his own cigarette under his boot. Mister lieutenant is drunk but not that drunk so Bucky stays quiet, matching his pace as he goes for the latrines. He waits until the guy’s zipped back up again; as much an advantage as it could be to catch the man with his dick out, Bucky would really rather not have to scrub some other guy’s piss out of his uniform.

“Hey,” Bucky says instead, the second the guy shifts back from the urinal. “Lieutenant Holt, isn’t it?”

The guy snorts, zipping up. “What’s it to you?”

“Heard you were in with the brass recently,” Bucky says mildly. “Heard you had a lot to say about Captain America.”

Holt turns, frowning, and then his eyes widen. “You?”

“Me,” Bucky says, stomping on Holt’s foot and using the reflexive curling-up to sock him twice in the gut. It only takes two sharp steps to have his back against the wall next to the latrine stalls, Bucky’s forearm against his throat, and Bucky pins him easy while he’s still gurgling and wheezing and trying to figure out what happened.

Bucky waits a second to pull out his knife, though. That, he wants mister lieutenant here to see.

“What - the hell - ” Holt jerks and coughs, held up straight mostly by Bucky’s forearm, starting to struggle, but he settles down quick once Bucky gently lays the point of his knife just below Holt’s left eye socket.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Bucky says. “We haven’t met. But you seem to think you know a lot about me, so I decided we should have a chat. I’m Sergeant Barnes. And it’s my fucking captain you tried to sell up the creek this morning.”

Holt opens his mouth but Bucky jerks his arm against his throat and cuts him off. He’s not done talking yet. “I don’t know what the fuck you got against Captain America,” Bucky says. “Or if you’re just a bastard with too much time on your hands. But I’ll say this only once: you didn’t see anything. You didn’t see shit. Nothing to report, nothing to speak of. And you won’t see anything. You’ll make sure of it. Understand? Because the alternative is we do this all over again, pal, and except next time I come around I cut your fucking eyes out.”

Holt’s panting, eyes fixed upon the tip of the knife. Bucky holds them there for a second, getting the point across, then takes a swift step back and lets him go. The guy slides down the wall, coughing. “See you around, sunshine,” Bucky says, and turns around to go.

He barely gets a breath of warning, but Bucky ducks under the swing like it’s been telegraphed and mailed to him in post. It’s effortless to slam Holt against the wall again, this time held to his tiptoes, Bucky’s knife never leaving his hand. “Hello again, honey,” Bucky says, just as sweet as before. “Miss me already? Did you just not get enough?”

“Fuck you,” Holt hisses, breathless but spitting mad.

“Not on your life,” Bucky says. “But I can do you a favor. I get it. It’s why you tried to take a swing. It’s not really a threat, is it? Not when I can get you sent home, right now.” He drags the tip of the blade until it’s resting on the outer corner of the eye socket, poised to dig in and lever up. His hands feel steady as a stone. “You think one would be enough? To get you discharged?” Holt swallows. Bucky smiles. “What do you think, sweetheart? Maybe we should do both. Just to make sure. No?”

He can feel a presence at his back, another; Monty and Gabe and Morita, drawn by the noise and shown up to do their own looming. Bucky doesn’t look away from Holt’s face and he doesn’t change his smile.

“You won’t do it,” Holt says, after a second. Bucky’s got to admire the guy’s bravado. “You’ll get court-martialed. I know Colonel -”

“How do you think I found out about you, sweetheart? Who do you think told me? Please go tattle to an officer. All you’ll be doing is coming right back to me.”

“You can’t do this,” Holt says, despite the evidence that Bucky is, in fact, doing this. “You can’t get away with it. You - you cut me, the whole camp will know -”

“I can do whatever the fuck I want,” Bucky hisses, dropping the smile. “I can slit your throat right now and go right to Colonel Phillips and tomorrow he’ll tell General Eisenhower well sir you’ll be pleased to know just last night Captain America’s unit discovered and executed a HYDRA spy yes sir thank you sir. Oh we tried to keep him alive, sir, we tried everything we could, but you know those suiciding HYDRA bastards, sir. It was all we could do to catch him at all. And then we get a commendation, and my captain gets another medal, and you are dead in the dirt, sweetheart. A sad letter and a flag for your mama. That’s the only way this goes.”

“I suggest you believe him,” comes Monty’s mild voice from the dark. “It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”

That’s what gets him; Bucky can see it in Holt’s eyes, even in the dim light. Monty’s nonchalance, the comfortably waiting dark shadows behind him. Bucky retracts his switchblade, the knife disappearing with a snick, and steps away. “Lucky for you I didn’t come out to get my clothes dirty,” he says, giving Holt a harsh pat on the cheek. “Now toddle off, sweetheart. Make sure we never hear of you again.”

Holt’s eyes dart from him to Morita to Monty behind him, and for a second there Bucky really does think this will have to get serious, that they’ll have to make the lesson stick. But Holt’s guardian angel must finally snort awake and give him some frantic taps to the shoulder, because he stays still for one more second before lurching away from the wall and hurrying past them, a walk not quite a run.

They stand in the alleyway watching, all of them faceless shadows in the dark. Bucky pockets his knife. “Well,” Monty says, when the footsteps have well and truly died away into London street noise. “That seems well taken care of, gentlemen. I suggest we call it a night.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees, his voice sounding a little strange to himself now that it’s his own again, no knife or threat in his hand. “Good job, all of you. Next time we find a bar drinks are on me.”

“We’ll hold you to that, Sarge,” Morita says, same amiable tone as before. Gabe claps his shoulder and nods; Bucky nods back. They walk out of the alleyway. They disperse into the night.

Bucky walks a block, two, three, then realizes he’s lost count somehow and it’s really been more like fifteen or maybe twenty. He realizes if he keeps going like this he’ll end up stumbling right into the Thames. He needs to report back. He goes to find Steve.

Carter and Steve are sitting together around Steve’s tiny card table, a chair left open and a pack of cards in Carter’s hands. They haven’t started playing yet. Steve cranes his head around to look. “Hey, Buck,” he says, pleased. “Where you been?”

“Dum Dum and Frenchie found alcohol,” Bucky says, shutting the door behind him. The warmth of the room is almost stifling after the cold outside. Carter’s looking at him; he meets her eyes and gives a slight nod. She nods back. “Had to make sure we’d still have a unit in the morning.”

“And you didn’t bring any back for us?”

“Of Dum Dum’s booze? Rogers, I don’t want you to go blind.”

“Oh, come on, can’t be that bad,” Steve says, grinning at Carter, and she turns to smile at him, indulgent. “Probably wouldn’t even be permanent.”

“Ain’t you had enough being a science experiment?” Bucky asks, cuffing the back of Steve’s head as he goes to sit down, next to Carter.

“But it worked so well the last time,” Steve says, wide-eyed. “Aren’t you always telling me, to make sure science works you gotta do it again and again?”

“I can think of a few other things we could do again and again,” Carter says primly, shuffling the deck of cards. “Shall we play for who’s in the middle tonight, gentlemen?”

Steve’s mock innocence goes to hunger quick. Bucky sits back in his seat. The door is closed and locked on them. Nobody will come in and see. He took care of what he had to. Today, his job is done.

“Give that deck here, I don’t trust either one of you cheating assholes,” Bucky says, holding his hand out, and starts dealing the cards to play.