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War is dirty. This isn't something that Bucky didn't know before getting into it—he was never one of those boys who thought about the glory, pictured himself marching around in clean uniforms as if going in somewhere and fighting people and killing them wasn't going to be dark, and dirty, and hard—but he never imagined the days and nights in the mud, slogging forward step after step because the mission is more important than any one of them.

"All right," says Steve, sun disappearing behind the hills. Earlier he talked about pushing onward in the night, but the terrain is too treacherous, he runs the risk of losing more men than the territory he'd gain so they'd be better off settling in for the night, mud or no mud. The cover of darkness isn't an advantage when it just makes you more vulnerable.

"Don't suppose there's anywhere to wash," says Bucky, pulling his helmet off and pushing his hair back, leaving a fresh streak of mud at his temple.

"Sure, there's a giant tub with golden faucets right around the corner here," says Dugan. "You think the Cap would stop us for anything less than four stars?"

"You know what? Fuck you," says Bucky, but he grins at him all the same and, hell, at least it stopped raining. The stuff isn't as good for washing the mud off as a guy'd think, everyone just ends up disgusting and cold.

"There's a stream," says Steve. "No fluffy towels, though."

"You're all assholes," says Bucky. "Is it so wrong to want to wash the mud out of my shorts?"

"If you'd quit sticking your hand down there, it wouldn't be a problem," says Dugan.

Bucky just waves a hand at them and stalks off, carefully over the unfamiliar terrain towards the sound of running water. He probably isn't going to bother washing up, the mud's good camouflage and at least it doesn't smell bad, but he knew if he took off Steve'd probably follow him, and if Steve follows him then at least they'll get a few moments alone.

A faint rustling is his only warning before Steve's hand is on his shoulder, big and solid in a way that's only now starting to feel familiar to him.

"You've got something in your hair," says Steve. "I'd get it out, but..."

"You'd end up leaving something even worse behind?" says Bucky, and shrugs. "I'll live"

There's just enough light left to make out the colors of Steve's uniform, the colors of the forest and fields around them, as the evening fades into gray. Even through the dirt, the tears, and the scorch marks, those colors shine through. Steve shines through.

"The guys'll be joining us here in a minute," Bucky says.

"In a few minutes," says Steve. It still isn't enough time, but then it's never enough time. His arm circles Bucky's waist, rucks up his uniform which is so sodden in places it's sticking to his skin. He runs the flat of his hand over Bucky's abdomen and ribs, a secret moment of tenderness.

The mud on his skin smears under Steve's hand, still wet and pliable there, not yet solidified into a crust.

"Jesus," he says, and laughs softly. It feels like the moment could be broken so easily, but at the same time feels like Steve won't let it. He's only awkward emotionally now, not physically; just because Bucky's a man hasn't made him any smoother, and just because they've been friends since they were kids doesn't make the words come easier when Steve tries to talk to him about this.

But touch is a language they both speak.

"I gave them something to do," says Steve, which means they really do have minutes and not just moments, that Steve has carved out this time for them alone. Bucky doesn't actually know what they guys think of them, what they assume they are, but they've never given them any grief about it when they've given them grief about just about everything else right down to their taste in music and alcohol, so either they know and they're carefully steering clear or they have no idea at all.

Bucky's not actually sure which one he prefers. The second is easier. It's safer. But the first means acceptance.

"Sit down," says Steve, and Bucky braces his back against a tree and does, it doesn't matter to him how wet the ground is. It'll matter when they try to get some sleep, but it doesn't matter right now. Steve kneels on the wet ground next to him, pushes a hand up under his shirt again and traces patterns in the slick of mud he finds there.

"What the heck are you doing?" Bucky asks him, pulling his shirt up so he can see.

"I don't know," says Steve, and grins at him and it's awkward and endearing at the same time. Bucky has no idea how he was ever supposed to not fall in love with him. It just seems impossible. "Drawing?"

Bucky wants to ask him to put a hand in his pants but he can't, not right now. Not till they're safe in a room with doors and locks or when they're a lot more desperate than this. He'll make do with what he can get, Steve's hand on his skin tracing lines and pictures onto it, his finger moving slowly and surely.

Steve pauses for a moment, glances around then leans in for a kiss. It's not long, but it doesn't need to be. For all his lack of practice, Steve's the kisser Bucky always wanted him to be. And maybe Bucky's had enough practice for both of them over the years, he's teaching Steve through osmosis every time they touch.

"If I come in my pants, do you think anyone will notice?"

"If you come in your pants," says Steve, and hearing him say the word come without a hesitation or stutter turns Bucky on more than any words should, "then you're a lot more sensitive than I ever gave you credit for."

"My imagination is good for many things," says Bucky, and shifts in his seat and watches Steve draw a line of intricate symbols along his stomach. "Does that mean something?"

Steve shakes his head. "I don't know if they actually say anything," he says. They aren't letters, and it isn't any known language. "But you know it means something."

"Yeah?"

Steve kisses him again, a swift and fleeting kiss, like he thinks he needs to steal it from him. "Yeah," he says. "It means..."

Bucky wants to know what he's thinking, but at the same time he already knows what it means. Steve means the same thing writing it as Bucky means laying back and receiving it. I love you. I want you. I need you. Over and over again.

Sometimes Bucky wants to talk about what they're going to do after the war, how they're going to be with each other. This thing of theirs, it had already been going on without a name for a long time, but it was here in the battlefields of Europe that they first touched. That they first did something about it. What's it going to be like when they get home again? Should he even be thinking about getting home at all?

"This one here," says Steve, drawing an arrow in the mud towards one solitary symbol, "means 'you're amazing'."

Bucky can't see it. It's too dark now, he can only make out large shapes, only knows what Steve is doing to his body through touch. But he can feel it when Steve says it, and can imagine that little symbol, that flight of fancy, imprinting itself in him. Tomorrow maybe he'll wash and all evidence of it will be gone, but invisibly it will be on his skin forever now. He will always remember this moment. He will always have this.

There's a noise in the underbrush and Steve pulls his hand away, Bucky yanks his shirt down and stretches his arms out wide.

"You call that washing?" says Dugan. "The stream's a good ten feet away from you."

"What's the point?" says Bucky. "I'll just get dirty again. I got the chunks out at least."

He wants to feel a little bit civilized again, though, so he gets to his feet and moves to the bank of the stream, cups his hand in what he hopes is clear flowing water and washes his face with it. It seems good, and for the first time in hours his face doesn't itch with cracking patches of mud. No one comes to join him, but he can hear Steve and Dugan still behind him, can hear the rest of the guys too, now that he's listening, not too far from here.

Bucky never imagined these parts of the war at all. He never knew what kind of lands he'd find himself in, what kind of jobs he'd be doing. He never imagined the people, his people. And he especially never imagined his Steve.

"Come on, let's make camp," says Steve, his voice calling Bucky instinctively back. Back from the stream, back from his mental meanderings, back to his side. He can feel the hieroglyphs on the skin under his shirt and hopes that he manages to keep them for a little while.

War is dirty, but that doesn't mean that something beautiful can't come from it.