Only do not forget, if I wake up crying
it's only because in my dream I’m a lost child
hunting through the leaves of the night for your hands,
for your caresses like the wheat,
the flashing rapture of shadow and energy.
O my dearest, nothing but shadow there
where you walk with me through your dream:
you tell me when the light returns.
Bucky never talks about what happened to him behind enemy lines, which only makes it worse. Steve’s imagination runs wild – he’s sure that he was tortured in the bowels of the HYDRA base Steve rescued him from, but outside a few scrapes and bruises, there’s not a mark on him, just the empty, numb look in his eyes. On leave in London, Steve watches him try to chase it off in the usual ways – with liquor and music and women – but none of it works. The futility of it isn’t lost on Steve, who has spent a lifetime getting to know Bucky better than he knows himself.
They came up together in Flatbush, without fathers, but surrounded by broad-shouldered working men with stern-set mouths and wide, calloused hands. Steve had been an only child, from good Anglo-Irish stock, with a dead war hero for a father and a selfless mother who worked long hours in a TB ward in the city. Bucky’s father, a bohunk and a dock worker, had skipped town before he was born, and he’d been left behind with three sisters, struggling to keep the family afloat until his sisters had married and cancer had carried away his mother.
The two of them had always fallen back on each other – finding work, finding places to live, finding ways to keep going. But then Bucky had left and Steve had been left behind. Now that they’re together again, it feels the same and entirely different. He can feel Bucky sizing him up, taking in everything that’s changed, and it makes him uneasy. The way Bucky looks at him – accusatory and unsure, knowing but unfamiliar – burns a hole right through him. It’s worse when Bucky doesn’t look at him, though – when he pulls his gaze away, it’s like losing him all over again.
Steve puts together his team, keeps Bucky close, and they head out into the field.
Bucky smokes in front of him now, and it makes him feel more different than ever. Back in Brooklyn, Bucky had been too aware of how the smoke closed up Steve’s lungs, and he’d take his cigarettes out on the fire escape or out on the street. But now Bucky does it right in front of him – his lips pursing around the filter, a glow of ember and a puff of smoke.
He doesn’t laugh as easily. He keeps his face expressionless and his body still when it’s not in use. Steve sees him kill people – enemy combatants, sure, but people nonetheless. It shocks him a little at first, how Bucky doesn’t flinch at the sharp crack of the bullet leaving the barrel, at the spray of blood and the pink ooze that follows. But months float by, and then Steve does it too, and it starts to seem less and less shocking, even if it never seems less awful.
There’s always a little comfort at the end of the day though – around campfires or camp stoves, sipping from Morita’s flask with Bucky pressed up beside him. Despite everything, there’s something about Bucky that still feels the same, still smells the same. In Brooklyn, the sun had risen and set with Bucky, and that’s still the same, too. A joke’s not funny unless Bucky’s laughed at it. A corner’s not safe to turn until Bucky’s given them the all-clear. Steve’s not good enough unless he’s satisfied with what he sees reflected back to him in Bucky’s face.
They all double up on tents when they’re in the field and Steve, of course, bunks with Bucky. He likes falling asleep to Bucky’s deep, quiet breaths. He likes being the one who holds him when his nightmares shake him awake. There are times when the war feels terrible – nothing but death and gore and fear – but there are other times when, in the dark of night Bucky lets himself sob into Steve’s shoulder and lets Steve tangle a hand in his hair. There are times when it feels like they’ve stepped into a place where, pushed up against the immediacy of their potential deaths, they can be honest and physical and real with each other in a way that never felt right back home.
“It’s not so bad,” is what Steve says on those nightmare-nights, with Bucky’s body trembling in his arms and his lips brushing against the damp skin of Bucky’s neck, “It’s not so bad.” He doesn’t know what that means. It doesn’t mean anything. But it slows down Bucky’s breathing, makes him go slack against Steve’s chest until he finally pushes away, turns over, and goes to sleep.
Steve had never thought of what it would be like to be with another man. Not once. Not until he’d woken up in a pup tent in the middle of the Ardennes with Bucky’s hand pressed between his legs.
“The hell, Buck,” Steve hisses into the dark, grabbing him by the wrist hard enough to hurt.
“s’ nothin’,” Bucky whispers, his voice is slurred – with sleep or arousal, Steve doesn’t know. “Nothin’.”
Just the barest hint of moonlight slips through the olive canvas tent – enough to see the shine of Bucky’s eyes in the dark. It had been nearly this dark in the lab where Steve had found him, strapped to a gurney and abandoned (where Steve almost lost him).
Bucky’s fingers slide against his fly, short fingernails scraping against rough fabric, and Steve feels a familiar rush of blood to his groin.
“Steve,” Bucky bites out, sliding out of his grip and palming Steve’s erection whole.
“Shut up,” Steve grabs him by the back of the neck and hauls him close, grinding his hips into Bucky’s warm hand.
“I need—“ Bucky chokes out before Steve’s mouth crashes against his. They both know how that sentence ends – since Steve pulled him out of that hellhole, a thick cord of need has stretched between them. At that first contact, something inside Steve slides and locks into place.
What follows is graceless, artless and sloppy – pants shoved down to knees, a swipe of slick from a container of Vaseline issued by the Army to prevent chapped lips – the press and jerk of fingers and hips. It doesn’t matter that Steve’s never done it before, he knows well enough what Bucky wants, and hell maybe he has thought about it before.
Even though he doesn’t make a sound, Bucky’s warm and whole and alive underneath him, gripping the arm Steve has wrapped around his ribcage. Steve sinks his teeth into Bucky’s shoulder, biting into his shirt to stifle his own groans, wondering what it would be like to lay Bucky out in a bed, in a place where they could be alone and not buffeted on all sides by sleeping soldiers.
It’s not enough – will never be enough. After Bucky comes, clenching and spilling hot and sticky on Steve’s bedroll, after Steve empties himself into Bucky with a gasp, Steve rolls Bucky out of his own mess and pulls a blanket over them both. He falls asleep with Bucky’s back to his front, watching the broad line of his shoulders rise and fall with each breath.
They don’t talk about it in the morning, just pull up their trousers and crawl out of the tent for the horseshit Dum Dum calls coffee. Steve’s sure it shows, sure everyone can hear the way his heart is pounding so hard it feels like it’ll beat it’s way right out of his chest. But none of them so much as look at him sideways and, at least for now, it feels like a secret.
They spend a long month in the woods, working their way inland, taking out HYDRA squadrons as they go. The war changes them – toughens them up, strips away the softness of youth and replaces it with hard grit. Everything starts to bleed together – the good and the bad mixing up, the meaningful and meaningless stuff that lies between the fixed points of love and war. There are fine distinctions between the sickly stench of death, the tang of gunsmoke, and the heady musk of Bucky’s skin. Between the feel of a rifle in his hands and the feel of Bucky’s mouth under his. Between the things that make them instruments of battle and the things that make them men.
Bucky disappears every once in a while – on special assignments that take him deep into enemy territory. He comes back haunted, his wounds covered in patches of gauze from field medics. He never tells Steve where he goes or what he does, just falls into his arms without a word.
No one says it, but he’s sure the rest of the team has figured out something’s up. Steve sees the knowing looks they seem to draw from the others whenever they disappear behind tent flaps. Steve doesn’t care; when they get out of this – if they get out of this – he can still be normal. He can still marry Peggy and do all the things he thought he would.
There are moments in the daylight, too, lying in fox holes or gullies, waiting for a HYDRA unit to pass by with their backs pressed against the earth and wind rustling the tree boughs above them. Out of sight of the other commandos, Bucky lets his hand brush against Steve’s, or sidles close enough to him that their shoulders touch. There are moments when they’re secluded enough that Bucky slides his hand – calloused and rough, the creases stained brown with dirt and gun oil – into Steve’s, and the warm, sweaty press of Bucky’s palm against his fills him up.
They make Steve’s heart glow: those simple, sexless moments. He might be a million miles from home, in a foreign body in a foreign country, but with Bucky he isn’t alone.
“’m not a queer,” Steve tells him one night, buried in the circle of his arms. Before the serum, it was an accusation he’d faced on a daily basis, and it had only ever meant shame. Erskine and Howard fixed up his body – made him strong and immovable – but he’s still sick in his mind, in his heart. He has to be, to want Bucky this much.
“You’re not.” Bucky’s fingers stroke through his hair. “This’s nothin’. Gotta take a little comfort where you can, an’ that’s all there is to it.”
“Wish I didn’t want it so much, is all.” Steve watches Bucky hard, tries to make out his features in the gloom. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for – more reassurance that he isn’t different, or maybe he just wants Bucky to say that he wants him, too. “Did you ever…back home?”
Bucky rolls away, onto his back, blinks and looks away. He shakes his head. “Never wanted anybody else. Not even—“ he hesitates. His voice drops so low Steve has to struggle to hear it, “Just you.”
The words clang around in Steve’s chest, so hard it hurts. The only thing for it is to take Bucky’s face between his hands, lean over him and kiss him senseless.
There’s nothing else to say after that.
Before they head into the Alps, Phillips grants them a week of leave in London. They can’t get across the Channel fast enough. They leave the Commandos in a bar, drunk and sweaty and happy, and head out into the cool night.
Bucky pulls them into a dark alley, and Steve’s pulse ratchets up. It’s too dangerous like this, where anyone could walk by. The thought that Bucky might hold him or touch him or kiss him here sets his blood on fire. But instead Bucky takes a long swig from his hip flask, opens his jacket, loosens his tie, musses his hair and puts his cap on crooked. He tells Steve to lead him into the nearest hotel, and to play along.
By the time Steve pulls Bucky into the closest hotel lobby – a dark dingy space with an ancient innkeeper seated behind a tall desk, a wall of keys behind him – Bucky’s stumbling and slurring. Steve’s seen him drunk enough times to know that it’s an act and he silently praises Bucky’s ingenuity. It’s the only way they won’t look suspicious.
“m’friend here’s had a few too many,” Steve explains, trying to look sincere. “Can’t take him back to barracks like this.”
The innkeeper looks up at him skeptically, with beady eyes dark behind half-moon glasses, but when Steve pulls out his wallet, he presses a set of keys into his hand and waves them upstairs with a warning to keep the blackout curtains drawn.
They climb a rickety set of wooden stairs to a dimly lit hallway that reeks of dust and the decades-worth of bodies that have slept and dreamt and fucked here. Bucky’s hands shake as he shoves the key into the lock and turns the knob. The room’s not much – just a narrow bed pushed against one wall, a desk, a chair, a sink, a moldering rug covering the floor.
Steve shakes hard as he shoves the door closed, as he pushes Bucky back until he falls down on the bed, bouncing on squeaky springs and grinning up at him. Steve smiles back. He can’t help it. He shouldn’t be, it certainly isn’t their first time together, but he’s all jangled nerves and painful hope and so much fucking joy. He covers Bucky’s body with his, kissing him hard, sliding his arms between Bucky’s shoulders and the bed, letting himself press their bodies together in a way he still can’t quite wrap his head around.
Steve pulls away, just far enough for his fingers to pull off Bucky’s tie and work down the line of buttons at the front of his khaki shirt. “Off,” he murmurs when he’s got the whole thing undone, and Bucky leans up to pull the shirt down his arms. Steve’s hands slip under his white cotton undershirt next, and then that too is pulled over his head and lies in a heap at the foot of the bed. Steve pulls of his own layers and lets them fall to the floor in a crumpled pile.
Bucky’s body is like a drug. Like a damn narcotic. Steve’s always been fair – pale and pink and freckled – but Bucky’s skin is all golden brown. Dark hair swirls around his chest and nipples, casting a long shadow that stretches down his belly and disappears under the waistband of his Army-issue shorts. His body is dotted with scars – old ones from old scrapes, warehouse slip-ups and prizefight punches, memories from a time when he’d do anything to earn a buck. There are new scars, too: ugly purple lines that hint at things Bucky still won’t tell him about.
He pushes Bucky’s shoulders down and kneels on the floor between his thighs, running his hands up Bucky’s legs before wrapping his fingers around the button that holds his pants together and pulling. He looks up to see Bucky’s hands fisted in the sheets. Steve can feel his knees trembling, the fabric of his pants sliding against either side of Steve’s waist. He guesses he knows why: this isn’t like all the times in the woods, when they’d had to be quiet, when they’d pretended that what they did together was just for comfort. There’ll be no pretending after this.
It’s always Bucky who’s done this – swallowed him down into the heat of his mouth, telling him it’s okay if Steve wants to pretend he’s a girl. Steve doesn’t. Each time it happens, he’s painfully aware that it’s Bucky – Bucky with his hair messed and his lips reddened from friction, with his eyes glassy and dark, with his own cock flushed and hard and clenched in his fist, just out of Steve’s reach. Steve’s spent so much time wanting it, and not wanting to want it, but all he can think of now is how much he wants Bucky to know what it’s like. How much he wants to give that to him.
Steve unbuttons the fly of Bucky’s pants, pushes the fabric aside and takes him in hand; he hears Bucky let out a huff and drop his head down against the bed. His skin is velvet-soft, stretched tight against the hardness of his cock. At the first exploratory touches of tongue and lips and teeth, Bucky’s hands tug hard at the sheets, but he doesn’t make a sound. For once they don’t need to be absolutely silent, but all Bucky can manage are a handful of helpless, quiet whimpers as Steve’s mouth finally closes around him.
He’s learned a few things in the dark, in the tent – what feels good and what doesn’t, on him at least, and he puts his new knowledge to work. Steve finds a heavy, unforgiving rhythm, with one hand tight at the base of Bucky’s shaft and the other slowly opening him up. Bucky comes with a gasp, his shoulders bucking up off the mattress and his legs wrapping around Steve’s torso.
Steve keeps his mouth on Bucky until at last he pushes him away with a groan. And when Steve rises up, covering Bucky’s body with his and pushing inside, Bucky’s all delirious smiles and clutching hands and soft cries.
After he comes, before he falls asleep, he engraves the scene onto his memory (he wishes he had a damn sketchbook) – the way Bucky looks in the low lamplight, naked and reaching for him with strong arms, the way Bucky falls asleep, with his head on Steve’s shoulder and their legs curled up together.
He’d hoped to wake up next to Bucky – to see what he looked like in the pale morning light, tangled up in sheets that smelled like them, like sweat and spunk and sex. Instead, he stretches out and finds that he’s alone in the bed, that Bucky’s standing naked at a mirror with the curtains pulled open, dragging a razor along his jaw.
“’time is it?” Steve slurs. The light glints off of Bucky’s damp chin.
“Oh-six-hundred,” Bucky looks over and smiles, “Don’t wanna be late for the rendez-vous.”
Bucky brings the kit over – the razor blade, a warm washcloth, a tin of shaving cream and a brush – and sets up on the rickety nightstand. He steps between Steve’s parted knees; Steve slides his fingers into the matching grooves above each of Bucky’s hips and presses his mouth to the flat plane of his belly, not minding the coarse hair scratching the end of his nose.
“Ease up, soldier,” Bucky murmurs, angling away from him and dipping the bristle end of the brush into the shaving cream. “Captain America with a beard on his face. Ain’t right.”
The cream is cold as Bucky spreads it across his jaw. Bucky drags the razor over his cheeks, across his upper lip, up the sweep of his neck, with an intense look of concentration on his face. He’s meticulous – more so than Steve’s ever been. It takes a full ten minutes – ten minutes of breathing him in, heady musk mixed with the crisp scent of shaving cream, ten minutes of watching the pink of Bucky’s tongue caught between pursed lips – before he finally sets the razor down.
Steve’s hands land on his waist, pull him down until his knees settle on either side of his hips, lines them up and brings them off with one big hand. Bucky comes with his head against Steve’s shoulder, whispering words Steve still doesn’t dare say – about the wideness and deepness of what this is and has been and could be. An improbable century later, Steve will remember it as the last time he let himself be soft-hearted – warm and full and open – with Bucky in his arms and in his lap, filled with ideas about a future that didn’t yet seem impossible.
In an hour, they’re on a transport ship back to France.
Everything goes gray after Bucky falls. He’d died reaching out for Steve, and hadn’t he lived the same way?
Steve gets reckless after that – stupid. Nothing matters. Not Peggy. Not the war. Not nothin’. And when he drives into the ice, when his forehead hits glass and a sheet of blood falls into his eyes, it doesn’t feel that terrible. Maybe it’s just the part of him that's broken inside, but it feels right. It feels like the end.
Coming back from the ice, alone and adrift, feels like the worst thing that could have happened. Steve feels like his heart’s been scooped out. He feels hollow and numb and beaten in a way that is entirely unfamiliar. He presses on, though. He doesn’t know how to do anything else.
And then Bucky’s back – but he’s the Winter Soldier now – and everything starts again. Old wounds rip open, old pain surges up again. Steve and Natasha and Sam tear apart D.C. to get to him, and they do. And then Bucky’s lying in a SHIELD infirmary, strapped to a sterile bed in a sterile room, with a metal arm that only hints at the horrors he’s seen since the last time Steve saw him and failed to save him.
There ought to be something to say when he sees Bucky again for the first time after the long fight, drugged up and passed out. Something meaningful or poignant.
“Why’s all that stuff still on his face?”
Coulson gives him a sympathetic look. “We only just got him down,” is what he says. They’d changed him into a hospital gown and patched up his wounds, but his eyes are still blacked by kohl, smeared across his eyelids and packed into wrinkles Steve doesn’t remember.
Steve wets a towel in the room’s sink, wraps an end of it around his fingers and swipes gently across Bucky’s eyes. The dark grease turns greasier, then wipes away. Water pools in the corners of his eyes and runs down the sides of his face in grey rivulets.
With a clean face, he looks like Bucky. He doesn’t look like Bucky. Steve doesn’t know who this man is, and at the same time he knows everything about him. He’s only knocked out for fifteen minutes before he starts to twitch, to come around under the restraints. Like Steve, his body burns through things too fast now.
The doctors tell him to stay away, so Steve keeps his distance when Bucky wakes up. He lets Bucky be managed by psychiatrists and Natasha, who speaks to him in Russian and is tied to him in ways Steve doesn’t understand.
Steve stays in the observation room, falling asleep with his temple pressed against the glass and his mouth hanging open. He wakes up to Coulson’s gentle nudges or Tony’s hard kicks. It comes to him that he’d never told Bucky that he’d loved him. He’d been too wrapped up in what that might have meant, too consumed by his own fears about deviance and degeneracy. How stupid. How stupid.
And then it’s all he can think about. It colors his whole world. He goes home for a change of clothes. He loves Bucky. He eats a white-bread sandwich and drinks black coffee in the SHIELD canteen. He loves Bucky. He listens to the doctors’ hopeless diagnoses. He loves Bucky. He watches as Bucky sweats and struggles under his restraints, as he sleeps, as the color fades and rises on his cheeks. He loves Bucky.
It’s not fair, he thinks, that Bucky had never known this. That Steve had held it inside himself for so long. It makes him mad at himself, at how selfish he had been. If he’d only told him the truth back then, what a refuge it would be now.
It’s a long six months before Bucky’s calmed down and healed up, before the doctors let Steve into his tiny, white-walled cell.
He sits on a cot with his back pressed to the wall. A cigarette trembles between the nicotine-stained fingers of his right hand. His hair is long and dark and tangled.
“Natashenka thinks I should trust you.” His voice creaks like he hasn’t used it, but Steve’s heard him screaming and knows that’s not true.
Steve crosses his arms and widens his stance. They’re being watched. He has to soldier his way through, just like he’s been doing for weeks and weeks and weeks.
“Do you remember me?”
Bucky tips the ash from the end of his cigarette into a plastic ashtray on the bed next to him. He looks up at the mirrored glass that separates them from the viewing room.
Steve swallows and looks at the floor. He doesn’t know what that means.
“I remember London. The last thing before…”
“You remember London.”
Bucky gives a strangled scoff. “They pulled that out of here,” he taps the side of his head, “A few other things, too.”
Steve’s heart feels too big for his chest. Frustration burns the back of his throat. If only they weren’t being watched, he thinks, if only he were somewhere he could run and scream and punch things until he’s forgotten all the time that's come between them.
Then Bucky laughs, tilting his head back against the wall. “I remember…I remember holdin’ your hand in the woods. Did that—“
Steve smiles, tight and strained, and hopes it doesn’t look like a wince.
Bucky looks at him with pursed lips.
“You’re makin’ me nervous,” he shrugs one shoulder, “Standin’ around like that.” He nods towards the chair - the white molded plastic chair Natasha sat in while she called him back in a language Steve didn’t understand. “Come on an’ sit down.”
Those words. The look of practiced nonchalance on his face. It hits Steve in the gut, hard enough to wipe away the horror of coming back, of seeing Bucky come back. Steve sits. Bucky sets a fresh cigarette between his lips, next to his half-burned one, lights it and passes it to Steve.
He’s never smoked before, but the serum takes away most of the burn. He doesn’t know if this means that things will be all right. He doesn’t know if anything will turn out the way it’s supposed to, the way he wants it to. But as he sits and smokes, as Bucky passes him the ashtray and tries to tell him about the odd fragments of memories SHIELD’s psychiatrists have called up, what he wants doesn’t seem so far away.