When Bucky was eleven he caught a fever so bad he almost died. Steve told him, after, how the priest had wanted to give him Last Rites and the whole building had held its breath but Bucky remembered none of that. All he remembered of that week was a thick shivering heat that had draped itself across his aching body like a blanket, like a barrier with him on one side and the rest of the world on the other. Reducing the figures standing over him and the weeping coming from the corner to echoes of a place he was leaving behind.
He thought that must be where he was now. He was soaking and shaking and he couldn't catch his breath, couldn't get his eyes to focus in the artificial glare of a sickroom. There were men standing over him. He couldn't make out the words but he knew they were talking about him. One of them was a doctor.
“Pop?” He tried to reach out but something was stopping him.
The voices went quiet. There was a new noise now: something buzzing under his skin and filling his ears, getting louder and faster and almost drowning out the soft laugh from somewhere above him. There were fingers sliding through his hair and he couldn't see anything, just darkness and shapes reaching out from it.
There were hands on him and he couldn't move away. There was a voice and that was wrong too.
“Yes,” he was told. “Yes, I suppose you could call me that.”
Bucky was pretty sure he was already dying by the time they pulled him from his cell. His ribs were busted, his lungs felt like shredded wet newspaper, and he could barely get his feet under him as he was dragged along the corridor with angry shouts fading behind him. They were going to use him for target practice or sling him in the incinerator, or whatever else they did with workers who couldn't work anymore, and the only clear thought in his head was that the people back home who loved him would never know what had happened to him. There would be a knock on his folks' front door and a telegram and a new gold star to replace the blue one in their window and that would be it. They wouldn't even get a body to bury.
He was expecting the incinerator but instead they took him all the way to the other side of the factory, to a room that stank of carbolic soap and things left in the dark to rot. There was a narrow table with five black straps hanging from it and a guy mopping blood off the floor and Bucky found he could fight after all. It didn't make any difference.
He didn't notice the guy in the corner until they had him strapped down; a soft-looking guy with glasses and a clipboard he was frowning at, mouth a small displeased pout. He glanced across at Bucky and his expression grew even less pleased.
Good. “You a doctor?” Bucky's fingernails scrabbled against the table; sharp edges grated inside of him. “Yeah, you. You a doctor? Sure look like one. Nice clean shirt and fancy little tie. Or a—maybe a butler, huh, Fritz? Gonna—you gonna fetch me some schnitzel, you Nazi fuck?”
The guy smiled thinly and said something to the guards that Bucky's German wasn't good enough to catch. He turned away for a long moment, doing something with his hands that Bucky couldn’t see, and when he turned back around he was holding a syringe. Bucky's heart stopped dead in his chest. He was sick and this guy was a doctor with a syringe full of something, but it sure as hell wasn't medicine.
It wasn't just one syringe. Bucky snarled and wrenched against the straps, eyes fixed on the syringe the doctor set down beside others on a metal tray he handed off to one of the guards. “Hey, what the hell's in that?” he demanded as the doctor examined the row of syringes and selected one filled with a milky liquid, repeating it in German when they ignored him. “What is that?”
The doctor didn't even look at him. “Don't try to think about it. It's beyond you.”
There was a tray full of syringes and a small, soft hand he couldn’t shake off. Two fingers tapping at the exposed inside of his elbow and then a sharp push and acid clawing through his veins, right to the heart of him. There was a tray full of syringes but Bucky lost count after the third one and after that he could only scream.
He didn't die. They thought he would and he thought he had but he didn't die and the doctor looked at him differently after that.
The doctor's name was Zola and he was there every time Bucky didn't die. He told the guards where to cut and what to break and when to force Bucky's mouth open and then seal it and his nostrils shut until he swallowed something thick and cloying that caught against the back of his throat and left him vomiting up blood twenty minutes later. He held up syringes filled with different colored liquids and waited for Bucky's breath to grow short before he pushed the needle in. There was the smell of burning and a voice counting backwards in German, and someone in the room was making soft hurt little sounds but the machine above him was switched on and he couldn't see anything.
He heard them bring in other prisoners. There were distant screams and choking noises that seemed to go on for hours. He tried not to think about it. He saw things in the dark and tried not to think about them either.
He opened his eyes and Zola was there with his smile and his greedy eyes and his hands that were sometimes hot and sometimes cold but always slightly moist. Zola's face shifted and now it was Father Hallahan, the old choir master. His eyes had been greedy too, but his hand was always very cold and dry as he rested it on a bare arm, a knee, the sharp wing of a shoulder blade, and never anywhere else, but oh, how he'd wanted to and how they'd all known and never said a word.
Something split open inside of Bucky. Like thin skin caught between knuckle and teeth.
“Describe the sensation precisely,” Zola instructed.
Barnes. James. Sergeant. 32557038.
“Can you feel that?”
Barnes. James. Sergeant. 32557038.
“Can you feel that?”
He could hear music, just on the edge of his hearing, something soft and sweet with no kind of a beat but nice to listen to all the same. He hadn't heard music like that since he was last home and his mind followed it there. His folks and the girls. Mrs Lyznicki upstairs, who'd taught all four Barnes kids the piano and still offered Bucky a peppermint and a cigarette every time he stopped by. Danny Brown and the O'Reilly brothers. Big Charlie, who ran the news stand on the corner and always held back a copy of Black Mask for Bucky. Rita Watson, who worked behind the counter at Woolworth's on Fulton Street and could dance the Lindy better than anyone. Steve. Steve most of all.
There was the whine of something mechanical powering up and Steve was gone.
Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038.
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. There was something in the room with him that he couldn't see, could only hear its heavy breath and the padding of its feet as it paced back and forth in the shadows. It wanted something from him, just like Zola did and just like Hallahan had and Bucky didn't know what he had left for them to take. Little Becca stood at the foot of his bed and he screamed because she couldn't be here, it wasn't safe.
Damp fingers stroked his cheek. “Even in death you can help the scientific process,” Zola told him.
Even in death, but Bucky didn't die.
Barnes. Sergeant. 3255703.
Barnes. Sergeant. 32557.
There was someone in the room with him that he couldn't see. There was a voice and he knew that voice and he knew those hands pulling him off that table and onto his feet and here was Steve: the size of a house and wearing a costume and, sure, why not. Why not.
There was no way Bucky could walk but he did it anyway.
Somewhere between watching Zola escape with a lunatic who tore his own face off and Steve making an impossible leap through fire Bucky was starting to realize that this might not be a dream after all. Steve was here and he was enormous and he'd come for Bucky. He'd appeared out of nowhere and gotten Bucky off that fucking table and Bucky still didn't understand what any of this meant until he was outside and the yard was cold and wet and filled with American soldiers.
“Steve? Is—is this—What did you do?”
He wasn't looking at Steve but he knew that smile in his voice all the same. “I told you, Buck. I joined the Army.”
For all Steve's big talk, it quickly became clear that he didn't have a clue what he was doing. That wasn't really anything new when it came to one of Steve's harebrained schemes, especially the ones that somehow ended up working, but this time he had several hundred men looking at him like he was the ranking officer and Steve was looking at Bucky like he always did when he knew he was in over his head but was too damn proud to ask for help.
Bucky pulled him to one side. “Do you know where we are?”
“Krausberg.” Steve copied his low urgent tone and serious expression without seeming to realize he was doing it. He looked like an actor playing a soldier in a movie. “Austria, thirty miles north of the line. We need to get the wounded seen to.”
That was Mrs Rogers' son all over and he wasn't wrong, but Bucky shook his head. “We're in enemy territory and the enemy knows our position. We need to be somewhere else.”
Whatever crazy adrenaline it was that got him onto his feet and out of that factory had started to wear off, leaving a sour taste. His mouth was too dry to spit. Bucky absently noticed that his hands were shaking and his teeth starting to chatter even though he didn't feel cold. He didn't feel much of anything.
“We load the wounded onto the trucks,” Steve was saying. Christ, he was as tall as Bucky now, maybe taller. “Anyone who can't walk. Keep going and don't stop until we have to.”
“Two hours. Keep going for two hours and then regroup. Send out scouts. We're probably gonna wind up in a fight anyway, but we ought to avoid it if we can. I know that's a new concept for you.”
“Well, I'm adaptable.”
“I guess so.” It came out sounding bitter, and Bucky didn't know what to do with that. It looked like Steve didn't either and none of this was helping so Bucky gave himself a shake. “Okay, so we got a plan. Let's get them moving.”
There were less wounded than they had any right to expect and it didn't take long to get them loaded onto the trucks. Even so, by the time they were through, some mechanism inside of Bucky had shut down. His legs refused to support him and the world had narrowed to a few, blurry feet in front of him. He let himself be coaxed onto the last of the trucks; steady hand beneath his arm and familiar voice in his ear.
Bucky grabbed hold of Steve when he tried to leave and got caught on the sight of his own arm. He was wearing Steve's jacket. When did that happen?
“Bucky?” Steve said after a moment. “You need me to stay with you?”
He said it like he'd actually do it, the big dope, but Bucky shook his head impatiently. Struggled for the words he needed. “Dugan,” he said. “And Jones. And a Limey called Falsworth, maybe. Those are your guys. You aren't sure about something, you ask them. They'll help you and make it look like nothing. Dugan and Jones. They're your guys.”
Steve's face cracked open at that and Bucky had to look away. Steve's arm was warm and solid and completely unfamiliar in his grip. Bucky let go.
Steve cleared his throat. “Dugan and Jones?”
“And maybe Falsworth.” Bucky looked down at his hand; curled it into a fist and spread the fingers wide again.
He didn't feel much of anything.
The medic tried to get him to lie down once Steve had gone but Bucky jammed himself into the furthest corner and pushed his forehead into his knees. Screwed his eyes shut against the darkness and didn't think about anything at all.
The journey back to base was painfully slow. Most of the freed prisoners were suffering from a combination of exhaustion and starvation, but among them was a member of the Italian resistance, caught attempting to sabotage a supply line. On his advice they traveled a meandering route south along the roads least likely to put them in the path of German patrols. The temperature dropped and Steve tried to get Bucky to hang onto the jacket but Bucky wasn't the one with a big white star like a bullseye right in the center of his chest.
Besides, like he told Steve when he handed it back, the thing was so full of holes it wasn't like it was going to keep him any warmer than the walk would.
Steve looked even bigger and less like himself in the light of day. Like a hero from one of those goofy serials he liked so much; like something not quite real. He marched with Bucky at the head of the column and slowed his pace every time Bucky fell behind a step, catching his eye like he thought they were doing this together. Like he didn't even realize he was the star of this show. They didn't encounter a single enemy patrol. Every man who walked out of that prison camp made it back to base and most of them climbed down off the vehicles for that last stretch so they could finish on their own two feet.
It was easy for Bucky to slip away in the commotion of their return. Medics were threading their way through the crowd and someone was going to point him out eventually but he needed to do this first. He found a sheltered spot around the back of the motor pool where someone had dragged a bunch of crates together and piled up some well-thumbed copies of Yank and Eyeful. The ground was littered with cigarette butts and there were wads of dried chewing gum crusted along one side of one of the crates like barnacles on the hull of a ship. He would have to be quick.
Bucky took a deep breath and then skinned his sweater up over his head and let it drop next to the stack of magazines. He squeezed his eyes shut for the count of three and then made himself look down.
It took several seconds for what he was seeing to sink in. Sallow skin, dog tags, and chest hair; ribs and hipbones—both closer to the surface than they ought to be—and that was it. That couldn't be it. He looked closer: examined his arms from every angle, ran his hands over his chest and sides, and almost wrenched something trying to see his own back. Distantly, he registered the way his heart was starting to pound in his ears and the harsh trapped sound of his own breathing. He found faint bruising around the point of an elbow, some cuts and scrapes that he might have gotten during the escape. And that was it. Nothing worse than a kid might get after a fall on the school yard, nothing to show for what they did. That couldn't be it.
Eventually, he found what he must have been looking for: three pink circles on the front of his left shoulder. They sparked beneath his fingertips and for a moment he could smell smoke and feel leather straps biting into his chest. He could smell smoke and then burning flesh and feel the scratch of wool as they pulled his sweater to one side. The guard had a scrape on the soft part beneath his jaw: he must have caught himself shaving.
Three neat circles in a row. The one nearest his collarbone was a rosy pink while the one on the outside was so dark it was almost red and the middle one was an irritated shade somewhere between the two. They had worked their way outwards.
He ran his fingers back and forth over the shiny raised skin and listened to his breathing slowly even out. After a while he put his sweater back on.
It was nice back here. Quiet. Smell of gasoline and running engines instead of all those damn trees Europe seemed full of. He could stay here and listen to the distant sounds of camp and not have to worry about what his face was letting show or pretend that he still remembered how to act like a person. Pretend that he didn't see the guys watching him and wondering exactly what he did to come back from that side of the factory when no one else had. What he did to be in better shape now than when they fought like demons to keep the guards from taking him.
Bucky wondered about that too and then he made himself stop. He could stay here but he knew at least one person who would come looking for him eventually.
“You eaten?” Bucky asked Steve when he found him loitering outside the mess tent. He'd lost the helmet at some point and picking him out in the sea of olive-drab took longer than Bucky would have once thought possible.
“I was waiting for you.” Steve looked him over. “You see the medic?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said and then stopped, confused by the lie and how automatically it had fallen out of him. “I mean nah. I'll go later when they're finished with the guys who need it.” He could see Steve gearing up to argue so he lowered his voice and sharpened its edges, conscious of all the ears around them. “I just marched fifty-odd miles across two countries. I'm not about to drop dead any time soon.”
Steve got a pissy look on his face. “More like forty. You were snoring in the back of a truck for the first ten while the rest of us were marching.”
That little punk. Bucky wasn't finding much funny these days, but Steve always had been his exception. It wasn't enough to make him laugh and shove Steve like he might have once done, but he found half a smile from somewhere and Steve looked like he'd just won the goddamn lottery. Jesus, this kid. What was Bucky even supposed to do with this kid?
“So, you gonna buy me dinner or what?”
The mess tent was packed with jostling bodies and the wet industrial stench of cheap food cooked in bulk. It was how Bucky always imagined an orphanage would smell though he hadn't realized it until his first week of Basic. When they reached the front of the line they discovered the source of that smell was meatloaf and a pile of rubbery grey mush calling itself string beans. Bucky would swear he'd eaten more meatloaf and string beans since he joined the Army than in the twenty four years before then combined. That was probably something he'd complained about once.
The two of them wound up with seats on the second of four long narrow tables when a group of guys spotted Steve and scrambled to their feet. Steve started to protest until Bucky kicked him hard in the ankle and sat down.
“Captain.” One of them nodded, all of eighteen years old and painfully solemn in the way Bucky remembered Steve being at that age. “Sergeant Barnes.”
Bucky nodded back, feeling like shit when he realized he should know the kid's name but couldn't call it to mind. “Private.”
Steve echoed him and then sat down, looking aggrieved. “They didn't have to—”
“You just saved the lives of everyone in this place,” Bucky cut him off before he could really get going. “You too good to let them say thank you the only way they can right now?” That shut Steve's trap and Bucky did laugh then, almost. “It's not all about you, Rogers.”
He watched Steve chew on that along with his meatloaf and string beans. It used to be that eating too much or too quickly would give Steve a stomach ache, but that obviously wasn't an issue anymore because once he got started he practically inhaled the entire tray and then frowned like he was wondering where all the food had gone. He set his fork down slowly and folded his hands. His eyes skipped across Bucky's tray and then off to the side, where they were still serving, before turning away, only to return a minute later. The third time he pretended to be scratching the side of his face so he could cast longing looks at the food he got another kick.
“You're gonna put everyone in here off their food with those big sad eyes of yours. You look like a dog outside a butcher's window.”
Steve considered that, thumb rubbing along the side of his chin. “Huh,” he said. “Think you must've got me confused with the way you look whenever Annie Graham walks by.” He got to his feet. “Want anything?”
“Yeah.” Bucky's answer was pure reflex. “Dodgers tickets and a friend who's not such a wiseass.”
“Sorry. Fresh out.”
There was something kind of impressive about how much Steve could eat. Kind of horrifying too. Bucky picked listlessly at his own tray, his stomach a shriveled dead thing inside of him, and watched as Steve went through a second and third helping with no sign of slowing down. “Is this new or is this how much you'd have put away back home given the chance?”
“Little of both, I think,” Steve said through a mouthful of mashed potato.
Bucky glanced back and forth along the packed table but no one seemed to be interested in anything beyond the mechanical action of lifting fork to mouth. He kept his voice low all the same. “They tell you this was gonna happen before they did all this?”
“My appetite? Uh, no, it never came up.”
Yeah, Bucky bet it hadn't. “That's convenient. Anything else they forget to mention?”
Steve looked annoyed. “Not that I've noticed, but I'll make sure to keep you informed.”
“You do that.”
From the other side of the tent, meatloaf and string beans slapped against waiting trays. Two guys behind Bucky were arguing peevishly about baseball without either of them sounding like they had the first clue about the game except for how it was ruined now girls were allowed to play. Four seats away, a skinny fair-haired kid in the remains of a Polish uniform had fallen asleep at the table, cheek pillowed on his folded arms, and his neighbor was taking the opportunity to relieve him of his meatloaf. Bucky pushed a grayish lump from one corner of his tray to the other.
“Bucky,” Steve said, too calm and reasonable. “You know I had to—”
“What do you think this is anyway?” Bucky's fork shrieked against the tray and the grayish lump trembled. “Think this is meat?”
He didn't look up but he could tell the exact moment Steve dropped his eyes. “I don't know. Cut it open and see.”
Bucky put his fork down.
Steve went back to his own meal. His fork rose and fell a little slower than it had before and it looked like the food wasn't sitting entirely right with him. He'd get used to it: he was a soldier now, just like he'd wanted. Following in your father's footsteps must seem more romantic when he was a war hero who never came home instead of a guy like Bucky's pop, who had an explosive temper he turned on everyone besides his own family and a leg that didn't work right when the cold weather set in. He had gone real quiet when Bucky came home and said he'd enlisted. Proud but quiet.
He and Steve had gone together. They'd waited until Christmas and Steve's annual bout of winter flu were out of the way and then marched into that recruiting station like they had any idea of what they were signing up for. The recruiter must have had a quota to fill or something because he'd tried to get Bucky to sign up for the Marines, but Steve had his heart set on the 107th and it wasn't like the pay was any better than the regular Army. Outside, afterwards, Steve had glared at the poster of Uncle Sam and thrown off the arm Bucky tried to sling around his shoulders. It hadn't even occurred to Bucky that they wouldn't take Steve. Sure, he was a buck ten soaking wet, with weak lungs and a bum heart, but he was smart and he was stubborn and he was worth any ten of those 1A Joes back in that waiting room. Bucky had stood there helplessly watching the bitter clench of Steve's jaw and wondered for the thousandth time why no one else ever seemed to see that.
That guy Erskine had seen it, or so Steve believed. Bucky wasn't so sure. Steve had been singing the guy’s praises when he finally gave Bucky a straight answer about what happened to him, but seemed like if Erskine had really seen Steve then he wouldn't have thought he needed to put him inside the body of Charles Atlas just to make him worth something. He wouldn't have felt like he had the right to strap him down and inject him with God knows what and just hope it wasn't going to kill him or turn him into another Schmidt or worse. What else had they forgotten to mention? What else had never come up?
Steve could have died and Bucky would have never even known. He could have died and they would have all just shaken their heads and made a note of it on their clipboard and tried again. All part of the scientific process. There were always more rats in the cage.
A touch to his arm jolted Bucky from his thoughts and almost sent the metal tray flying. “What?”
“I was saying we should probably go get cleaned up. I can smell you from here and you don't wanna kill the doc when he finally gets a look at you.” Concern sat differently on Steve’s broader face; the expression just a fraction off and worse, almost, than if they'd given him a whole new face to go with the new body. No one who hadn't known him before would even be able to see what was wrong. They wouldn't be able to see what had been done to him.
“Bucky? You hear what I said?”
“Yeah. Sure.” Bucky scrubbed a hand across his face. His jaw was coarse with stubble and the left side throbbed sharp and unexpected beneath his touch; his fingers found the rough edges of a scrape across his cheekbone, dried blood clinging to it. When did he get hit? “Go on. I'm listening.”
“You all right?”
“Yeah, you kidding? 'Course I am. I'm just... just tired, I guess.” He said the words without thinking and it was only after they'd left his mouth that he realized how true they were. He felt worn down to his bones.
Steve glanced at the food still on Bucky's tray and then up again, those two lines between his eyebrows deepening. “You wanna go somewhere? I don't—” Steve made a face that was entirely familiar. “I just meant— I got a tent. They said I've got a tent that's just mine. Perks of being a chorus girl around here. You could lie down for a while. If you want.”
Steve's hands lay on the table between them. Long fingers, broad palms, and scars across the first two knuckles of his right hand from every time he'd thrown a punch and cut himself on the other guy's teeth or missed and hit something even less forgiving. Bucky had spent years trying to teach him how to land a punch; longer trying to teach him how to block since the idiot was too damn stubborn to run away. His hands hadn't changed, nor had the way he twisted his fingers together and dug his thumbs into his palms when he was trying to pretend everything was fine.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Okay.”
He didn't remember how they got to Steve's tent, just lay down on the cot when it was in front of him and curled onto his side. His breath shuddered in and then out again.
“Bucky? Bucky, can I...?”
There was a man standing over him and he was tall and broad and wrong, but his voice was the same and his hands were the same and for a moment all Bucky wanted was to reach out for one of those big scarred hands and tug until Steve lay beside him on the cot. Close his eyes so he wouldn't have to see what had been done to him and say I'm bored, tell me something. He could smell smoke and sickness and two grown men who hadn't washed in entirely too long, but the blanket under his cheek still carried enough of Steve that he could breathe in and pretend they were home. That beneath them were couch cushions and if Bucky listened hard enough he'd be able to hear his mom singing quietly to herself in the kitchen as she got ready for a new day. That he and Steve could stay safe and warm and ignorant until Evie was sent to call them to breakfast because the war had never come for either of them.
Bucky rolled onto his other side, putting his back to the rest of the tent. “They'll be moving us soon. Maybe you should find out when.”
The new position made his bruised face start pounding, hot and sharp. The ear on that side didn't feel right either but he stayed where he was. Steve's boots scuffed against the groundsheet he was enough of a big shot to warrant and then he said, “Yeah. Good idea. I'll let you know what I find out.”
Bucky didn't say anything. After a moment he heard the tent flap open and close again, and he was alone.
“Do try to relax, Sergeant Barnes.”
The syringe was empty this time when they pushed it into him. There was a man standing over him and a leather strap biting into his arm and he couldn't stop his heart from racing, couldn't move away even though his skin was crawling every place he was touched. The syringe was empty when it went into his arm but when they took it away and placed it on the metal tray it was as red and swollen as a well-fed tick.
It wasn't just one syringe.
“We expect your full cooperation in this matter, Sergeant.”
The room was too bright and stank of carbolic soap and stale cigarette smoke. First they made him strip down to his skivvies and then they all gathered around to see if they could tell what had been done to him. There was a photograph on the far wall of twenty identical men in white coats sitting and standing in two neat rows in front of a large country house, and beside it an old map of the world with a stylized compass and strange serpentine monsters roaming the seas. Here be dragons. Their hands were cool and impersonal as they moved him where they wanted him; his throat tightened at the look in their eyes.
“We expect your cooperation.”
There were three men standing over him and they were talking about him and he could understand every word. He didn't know whether that made it better or worse. The light was too bright and positioned behind them so when he looked up at their faces all he could see were black shapes.
Clammy fingers brushed against his shoulder. “Photograph this. When did this happen? Sergeant Barnes, when did this happen?”
It took him a moment to respond; he'd forgotten that he was supposed to answer when they asked him questions this time. He lied to them and didn't think about why.
“Hmm, not necessarily anything out of the ordinary. Document it all the same. Let's get some X-rays.”
There was the whine of something mechanical powering up.
Bucky came back to himself with a jolt. He'd become so lost in the background hum of voices that it took him a moment to realize one of them was speaking to him. “Yeah?” His voice didn't sound right. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, Steve? What?”
Those two lines were back between Steve’s eyebrows. “You all right?”
“Sure. I'm great.” There was a mostly empty glass in front of him and, coming into focus around him, one of those authentic English bars that were all wood and wool and queer brass shit on the walls. The guys had dragged him in here a couple of hours ago and half the city had followed. The place was filled with soldiers of every stripe and a battalion of smiling, bright-eyed girls who flitted from sailors to airmen to infantry and never went thirsty. The air was thick with laughter and bitter British tobacco and someone was playing a piano, badly, in the other room. Bucky couldn't quite identify the tune.
He only realized he'd drifted away again when he was brought back by a soft laugh. “Look at that; not even nine and you're getting sleepy.” Steve was smiling but his eyes were sharp. “Can't handle your liquor or just getting old?”
Bucky's grin felt like it belonged on someone else's face; muscles stretched unnaturally around too many teeth. “It was listening to you drone on that did it. Will you go ask them already? They're gonna say yes.”
“Maybe,” Steve said. “Probably,” he amended at Bucky's look. “It's just a lot to ask.”
“Yeah, but they're a bunch of idiots who're all gonna jump at the chance to follow Captain America into the jaws of Death.” Bucky drained his glass and signaled to the barman for another. “Buy them a drink first if it'll make you feel any better.”
“I guess. Speaking of that, you gonna slow down any time soon?”
“Why? You need me to drive you home at the end of the night?” It was snide and childish, but so what? He could drink if he wanted to, the world owed him that much.
“They took blood today, right?”
“Blood, piss, hair... I'm surprised there's anything left of me. They were thinking about taking spinal fluid 'till I told them they'd better knock me out first or I was gonna knock all of them out.”
Steve grimaced. “Yeah, that one's no fun.”
The doctors hadn't even told Bucky what they were about to do. They'd just gotten him to sit up and pushed his shoulders forward with their cold hands and then he'd caught sight of the size of that needle and, just like that, he'd reached the end of how much of his cooperation he was willing to give. They'd get what they wanted eventually and he'd catch hell once word got back to his superiors, but he'd seen the needle and the look on the doctor's face and something inside him had snapped. They had no idea how lucky they were that he didn't start putting his fists through everything in sight like every instinct had been screaming at him to do.
Of course, that wouldn't exactly have ended well for Bucky either.
“I'm fine,” was all he said. “We're on leave, aren't we?”
“Guess we are.”
Bucky tilted his glass so that the last dregs of amber liquid caught the light. “Where'd they put you anyway? Someplace ritzy?”
“Got its own bathroom. Four walls, couple of doors. It's just a few streets over so I guess I won't need that ride home after all.”
“Huh. Sounds nice. They got me sharing with Dum Dum.”
The piano player started butchering a new song and Steve shifted in his chair. “You can see it if you like,” he said. “I mean. Say you had too much to drink and don't wanna walk all that way. If you want.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Bucky said, distracted by the new song. He knew this one, he'd played it the last time he was in England.
Steve squeezed his shoulder and then went to join the guys in the other room. Bucky rubbed the spot where Steve's thumb had pressed, just for a second, and flinched as the piano player hit a wrong note. No one else noticed. A whole bar full of people and not one of them noticed, they just kept laughing and smiling and acting like nothing was wrong. They made it look easy.
It must have been easy for him too, once. He'd seen men, good men, kids as young as Becca bleed out under a hot sun and still been able to smile at a pretty girl; he'd killed men with his own two hands and still been able to kiss his mom when he came home on leave and bow his head for grace at her table. Five months ago he had played this song in a bar not unlike this one and Nolan had gotten all the boys singing along. There had been a darts match with some British airmen and a good-natured argument over whether America had stolen Alfred Hitchcock and exactly when they planned on returning him. One of the barmaids had sat on Bucky's knee and Sanford had challenged Dugan to an arm wrestle and bought the entire bar a round when he lost.
It had been easy. What did it say about him that he found it easy when it was only other people getting hurt?
There was a burst of laughter from the other room. A different song was playing and there was a new whiskey on the bar in front of him. He couldn't remember it arriving but he took a sip anyway. It was helping; he thought it was helping. Not making things better, exactly, but dulling the edges just enough to pretend that the tight jangled feeling throughout his body was something familiar, was something like those fits of restlessness he used to get back in Brooklyn. Those times when his skin and his life and all the things he loved most in this world felt like a cage he could only escape on a dancefloor or with cold tile beneath his knees and a stranger's hands in his hair.
Bucky rested the glass against his lower lip. There had to be places like that in London: New York had plenty if you knew where to look, if you knew who to ask. He let himself think about it. And then he thought about letting someone touch him, of hands stroking his face or down the center of his chest, and he had to set down his glass and flatten his palms against the bar.
Voices filtered through from the other room. Dugan and Jones and the rest of his squad was through there. Steve was through there. Bucky didn't need to give them any more reasons to look at him like he was something they couldn't rely on.
Steve came back and Bucky smiled at him like it was easy.
Two hours and three whiskeys later Bucky found himself standing outside the bar trying to ignore the slow churning in his gut. The night was bitter against his sweaty face and so dark that he and Steve were forced to linger by the entrance as they waited for their eyes to adjust. The others had wandered off while Steve was settling the tab but hadn't made it any further than the end of the street. Bucky couldn't see anything more than flickers of movement in the dense black, but he could easily hear Dugan and Falsworth still arguing about God knows what. The rest of them had joined in, gleefully stirring the pot in two languages.
“You ever think a city could get this dark?” Steve's voice was hushed. “Even when you told me about it in your letters I didn't believe it. Agent Carter tried to describe it when we were still in New York, but I guess it's something you gotta see for yourself.”
“Works though. It's kept them safe.”
“Yeah.” Bucky tipped his head back. There was a thick slice of moon somewhere behind that overcast November sky but even if the clouds parted it wouldn't be enough to make out targets. No wonder the German pilots gave up. “You think I can smoke?”
“Don't see why not. You're on your own if an Air Warden catches you.”
“What a pal. I'm more worried about Falsworth.” Bucky ran a thumb along the edge of the pack of cigarettes he'd discovered in his coat pocket. They were Raleighs, which was probably why they'd lasted this long, but he wasn't feeling all that particular right now. He made an effort to straighten his shoulders, unpleasantly aware of the way his cuffs scraped against the tender insides of his wrists and the rasp of his unbuttoned collar against his throat. His blood felt hot and sluggish inside his veins but he was cold and shivery on the outside, like the opposite of the baked Alaska his aunts made his mom every year on her birthday.
“Or you can wait a minute and smoke at my place,” Steve said.
“My place. A few streets over. I thought...” Steve tailed off and cleared his throat. “Thought you were coming back with me. Save you from going all the way to the other side of town.”
“Oh.” Bucky remembered now. “If I— if I got too drunk to walk, right? Nah, I think I'm okay. No need to put you out.”
Steve's face was a pale oval blur with shadowed hollows where his eyes and mouth should be. It was impossible to make out his expression. “You aren't putting me out.”
Something about the way he said it made Bucky's shoulders tense up. It was one thing for Bucky to joke about turning into Steve, it was another thing entirely for Steve to decide this meant it was suddenly his job to keep an eye on his wayward friend. Things hadn't changed that much. Bucky took out the pack of Raleighs and started patting down his pockets for a light. “I'm not the best company right now.”
“Yeah, but I'm used to that.”
It was a joke, but for some reason it hit Bucky exactly wrong. His hands were stiff and painful in the cold and his head was starting to pound and someone had taken his damned lighter without asking or returning it when they were done. He was sick of people taking things from him.
“I'm heading back with the fellas,” he said, a little sharper than he'd meant to. “They waited for me in this and it'd be pretty lousy of me to just tell them to take a hike now, wouldn't it? Besides, you got an early start tomorrow, don't you? Isn't that what Her Majesty said?”
The white plumes of their breath coiled and died in the air between them. Steve hadn't moved but somehow he seemed further away than he had a minute ago; the sharp silhouette of his officer's coat smaller and slightly hunched. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I guess she did.” He reached into his coat pocket and then held out his hand. “Here.”
Bucky let something drop into his palm. It was a cigarette lighter; the metal smooth and warm from Steve's breast pocket. Bucky turned it over between his hands. “Since when do you carry a lighter? You don't even smoke.” It came out sounding more like an accusation than he had meant it to be.
“Not as much as you.”
“Hmm.” It took Bucky a few attempts before he managed to coax a flame long enough to light a cigarette. His eyes fell to half mast as he drew smoke deep into his lungs, holding it there for as long as he could before letting it lazily curl back up his throat and out into the air for the light wind to scatter. He cocked his head at Steve. “You want one?”
“...mm? Oh. Yeah, I— yeah, okay.”
Bucky squinted at him but Steve's face was still little more than a white shape in the darkness and gave nothing away. Probably, he was smiling that tight little fuck you smile he always wore whenever he thought someone was daring him to do something and expecting him to fail. Bucky shrugged and lit another cigarette, stealing the first sip of smoke before handing it over. His fingers brushed against the rough leather of Steve's glove as Steve took it from him and then the cherry glowed bright as Steve inhaled.
Bucky licked his lips. “You gonna puke?”
Smoke stuttered into the night air as Steve laughed; a good clean healthy sound from his strong new lungs. “I was twelve. You gonna hold onto that forever?”
At the end of the street, Morita swore explosively and someone else let out a whoop loud enough to rattle window panes. There was the sound of boots scuffing against brick and then a torrent of indignant French punctuated by Falsworth yelping, “Oh, that is not on! That is absolutely not on!” Somewhere a dog started barking.
Bucky tried to pass the lighter back but Steve waved him off. “You need it more than I do. Hold onto it 'til you find yours.”
Bucky slipped it into his pocket, cradling it inside his cold palm. “All right.”
“Besides—” he could hear the teasing note in Steve's voice, could almost make out the curve of his smile. “—this way I get to bum smokes off you whenever I want.”
“That's what you think.” Bucky's lips were stinging. He licked them again. “You don't even smoke.”
“Well, maybe I'll start.” There was something about the way he said it that made Bucky want to see his face. He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, confused.
Further down the street, the fight had died out as quickly as it had started and the idiots were now belting out an off-key rendition of My Buddy like the maudlin pack of saps they were. The dog stopped barking and began howling as if in accompaniment.
They were going to get themselves arrested at this rate. It was very tempting to let them. “I gotta...”
“Right,” Steve said.
There was still something strange about his voice and Bucky hesitated before a window slamming open and a woman's angry voice made the decision for him. He gave Steve a nod he wouldn't be able to see before heading up the street to do his job.
We expect your full cooperation.
There were straps holding Bucky down as he clawed his way out of the dream, still choking on the rubber tube down his throat and the ice water flooding his lungs. All around him and inside of him was cold and dark and he couldn't get free, couldn't get off this table. There was something moving in the corner of his eye and he had to get away and he had to remain perfectly still or it would see him and he would be next.
Gradually, the panic receded and he became aware of the sagging cot beneath him and the shadowed white walls of his assigned quarters drawn in close around him. There was no machinery or exposed brickwork. No straps. He had gotten twisted up in his wool blanket, that was all. He realized he was shaking, his fingers hooked deep into the mattress and his breath coming in irregular hitching gasps from lungs still convinced they were drowning. He stared at the ceiling with his heart clattering against his ribs and there was no glint of light on small round glasses; no excited scratch of pen across paper. He was lying on his cot in his assigned quarters in London and he was here and he was safe.
Something moved in the corner of his eye and he stopped breathing.
“Kid?” A sleepy grumble from the other cot.
Bucky shook his head, not trusting any noise he might make. His fingers ached sharply when he pulled them free and used them to cover his mouth. The other cot creaked once and then was silent.
After a while, Bucky took his hands away and wiped them on his shirt. They were barely shaking at all now, so he used them to untangle his legs from the blankets and sat up, slowly so the cot wouldn't make any noise. His heart was still racing and his throat felt scraped raw but he counted breaths and reminded himself of where he was and where he was not. He was getting better at doing this quietly.
He sat like that for a long time before he made himself lie down again.
Desperate as the top brass had to be, not even they were dumb enough to send a newly-minted squad out under a green commander without any kind of additional training. The SSR and a British agency that no one would say much about had bases scattered all across England where they were to be instructed in camouflage and sabotage and the fine art of not getting themselves killed as soon as they were dropped behind enemy lines. Before that, however, they were rounded up and shipped off to the Scottish Highlands for ten days of commando training.
Dugan stared out of the window, grim-faced and shaking his head as the train carried them through mile after mile of sodden countryside. “They're punishing us, Jimmy. I swear to God they're punishing us.”
“Don't call me Jimmy,” Bucky said automatically, eyes fixed on the world racing past. The rain made it impossible to see anything clearly but there were wide fields and winding stone walls that gave way to distant snow-capped hills. The seven of them had the carriage to themselves and Bucky had immediately claimed one of the window seats, Dugan opposite him and the rest of them occupying the remaining bench seats in a loose sprawl of kicked-off boots and cigarette smoke.
On Bucky's left, Morita was engrossed in a Hopalong Cassidy he'd picked up back in London from a shipment that arrived just as they were heading out. Bucky hadn't seen a book fresh out of the box since he'd last been in England and it was habit more than anything else that made him grab one from the pile. It was sitting in the bottom of his pack and would probably stay there until one of the other guys wanted to trade. Bucky wasn't reading much these days.
He pressed a little closer to the glass.
“How do you know I was talking to you?” Dugan's reflection looked far too pleased with itself. “You ain't the only guy here called Jimmy, Jimmy.”
“There are precisely no guys here called Jimmy,” Falsworth said in what Dugan called his schoolmarm voice. It did make him sound kind of like Sister Eunice.
Bucky wondered if Steve had noticed that too. He turned to Steve, sitting in the seat closest to the corridor on the opposite side, and was startled to find him already watching Bucky. Bucky couldn't quite read his expression, but it was something close to the quietly pleased look he sometimes wore whenever he had a good day at work or got a new commission and, like always, the corners of Bucky's mouth wanted to curl upwards in response.
Instead he raised his eyebrows and Steve shook his head. He must just be glad to be doing something useful.
Bucky went back to the window with its wide fields and mountains. The back of his neck prickled but he didn't turn around again.
Commando training wasn't what he’d expected. Instead of an Army base they were stationed in an enormous country house made of stone the same faded gray as the sky. The only part of the landscape with any color to it was the grass: an unnaturally bright green that spread out in all directions, sloping upwards into hills dotted with hedgerows and flocks of slow-moving sheep. It rained most days, but on the days it didn't the air tasted of salt and rang with the wheedling cries of large white gulls. There were other trainees, most of them civilian though they all wore the same fatigues and dragged themselves through the same assault courses and maneuvers. Bucky had been in good shape before Austria and wasn't in bad shape now, but there was something about the combination of the physical training and the damp weather that had made a low-grade ache set up home in each of his major muscle groups. It was worst in his arms and chest but there wasn't a square inch of him that didn't feel worked over. It was like Basic all over again.
They didn't get much free time, but when they did Bucky found himself drawn to the shoreline. There was a rocky outcropping looking out over a colorless stretch of sand that ran down to the water where Bucky liked to sit and let the hiss and crash of the waves fill his head. The sun set early at this time of year so sometimes he could barely see the water, but today it was gunmetal gray and stalked up and down the beach like some caged animal.
Dugan and Jones had come with him this time. It had become a popular pastime to sit and watch the waves and Bucky would usually end up with company if he sat there long enough. It was raining steadily. Dugan claimed not to believe in umbrellas, saying a hat was all a man needed, but as the rain grew heavier he had grudgingly accepted the second umbrella; holding it with a scowl and his face turned away like it had nothing to do with him. Cold drops struck the side of Bucky's neck and slid down his collar but he couldn't make himself move any closer to Jones and the shelter of his umbrella.
Last night hadn't been a good night. There had been something strapped to his head and a voice saying repeat after me and he'd opened his eyes to a face hovering over him and a hand reaching out. If it had been anyone other than Steve he would have broken their arm. Maybe worse.
There had been no sleeping after that, but Bucky had turned his back on Steve's wide eyes and excruciatingly careful words and pretended until morning call. He could tell that Steve was pretending too so he didn't fetch the flask out of his pack, even though he could still taste metal on his tongue and hear the sound Steve had made when Bucky hurt him. Morning had eventually arrived, and the day's training followed. Steve was a little quieter than usual, maybe, but he seemed unnaturally well-rested for a guy who'd lain awake all night filling the room with his silence. Bucky, on the other hand, felt like his entire body had been hollowed out and stuffed with wet sand. He had avoided the mirror when he shaved.
Water slid past his collarbone and he twitched.
Beside him, Jones sniffed loudly. “I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I think Dum Dum's right: we're definitely being punished for something. Who thought building a house all the way out here was a good idea in the first place?”
“Limeys.” Dugan blew water out of his mustache. His refusal to acknowledge the umbrella in his hand meant it wasn't doing the best job of keeping the rain off him. “Dumb Limeys who want us all to drown before we even get to Europe.”
“We're in Europe right now.”
Dugan looked at him scornfully. “Don't be stupid.” He swung his legs a couple of times, the toes of his boots picking chunks out of the wet sand. “Hey, Barnes, what d'you reckon's worse: freezing our nuts off here in Arisaig or roasting them back at Camp Hulen with Corporal Dyzk screaming at us every damn day? Huh. I guess that's how he got his voice so high.”
Summer in East Texas hadn't been roasting: it had been boiling. A thick humid weight that clogged the lungs and made each limb feel like it weighed a thousand pounds. Like the worst parts of a New York summer but with more meatloaf and ten mile speed marches carrying full winter gear. They used to take bets on who would faint this time.
Bucky would still take it over the cold and he'd take either one over Fort Dix, where they'd done the first leg of Basic. Better anything than Jersey.
He said as much and it must have been the right answer because they both laughed and launched into the usual bellyaching about Hulen's hardass training cadre of NCOs. Dyzk had been reassigned by the time Jones went through Basic and had therefore been transformed into some kind of semi-mythical terror that didn't sound much like the shrill little guy Bucky remembered.
Bucky closed his eyes. Unlike the rest of him, they felt hot and dry and all day there had been a dull pressure building behind them that was just beginning to edge into pain. Clamps on the sides of his skull, holding him in place, making sure he couldn't turn away. He opened his eyes and looked out across the water. One of the other trainees had told him that the locals called it a loch, even though it led out to the sea, and laughed when Bucky asked what locals? He hadn't met a single Scottish person so far. Most of them were English or French, though there was a German guy and a few other accents he couldn't pin down. The guy he'd spoken to was a Jew from Czechoslovakia who had gotten himself and his younger brother out in time but been forced to leave the rest of his family behind. Mother and father, another brother, cousins, uncles and aunts. A girl he'd been going to marry.
“Terrible,” he said. “The things that happen; the things people do. Terrible.”
“Yes,” Bucky said.
“Hey, Cap, maybe you can settle this,” Dugan said as Steve sat down between him and Bucky. The sea looked darker now and had advanced halfway up the beach. The rain had stopped. “We're not regular Army anymore, right? And Howard Stark himself is making you some kind of fancy suit, and we've got Falsworth and Frenchie, God help us, so what the hell kind of uniform are we all supposed to wear?”
Bucky had no memory of any part of that conversation.
“I don't know.” Steve bumped his shoulder lightly against Bucky's before straightening up again. He hadn't brought an umbrella but his coat was only a little damp around the edges. He must have been in another of those hush-hush meetings with the brass that he wouldn't talk about. “Hadn't thought about it. What do you want?”
That seemed to stump Dugan. Jones made a thoughtful noise. “Nothing made of wool anyway.”
“What about you, Buck?”
“I don't care,” Bucky said without thinking. Then he caught the expression on Steve's face and quickly corrected himself. “I mean— A coat. I want a coat. Double breasted. And a good pair of boots. No hat.”
Dugan laughed. “No hat. Was he this much of a girl about his hair back in Brooklyn?”
“Worse,” Steve said, which was pretty rich coming from a guy who fussed with his bangs as much as he did. “What color coat?”
He would too. If anyone could get the United States Army to give Bucky a pink coat just to prove a point it was Steve Rogers. “Blue,” Bucky said. Just in case.
A sharp gust of wind came up from the sea and Jones shivered. “I'm going to head back. Maybe I'll have time to dry out before whatever they've got planned for us tonight.”
“You mean you want to see if Mademoiselle Claudette is back from her hike and needs someone to rub her feet,” Dugan snorted as he clambered to his own, considerably less dainty, feet. He wasn't wrong and Jones hadn't been shy about saying the same thing earlier, so it took Bucky a moment to realize that the glare Jones shot Dugan was because he hadn't wanted to mention it in front of Steve.
Bucky was still frowning when Jones stood up. “Are you coming?”
“Nah.” Bucky tilted his head back to look at him. “You can leave me and Steve those umbrellas though, that'd be good. And tell Mademoiselle Claudette I'll be happy to rub her feet any time she likes.” He didn't even know which one was Claudette. There were three girls training with them—all young and French and pretty enough to catch Jones' eye. Probably, she was one of the brunettes; he seemed to remember a conversation with Jones in a hastily-dug foxhole about girls with brown eyes.
Jones scoffed. “Not a chance.”
They did leave the umbrellas though, and Bucky could hear them yapping about it all the way to the top of the lane. Dugan seemed to have already forgotten that he'd ever picked up an umbrella and had returned to his original position that they were for sissies.
A seagull landed on the beach and began stabbing its beak into the wet sand. It looked just like the ones that terrorized the boardwalk at Coney Island and they watched it for a while before Steve drew in a deep breath and said, very seriously, “You know, it's kind of a cliché.” He nodded solemnly when Bucky looked at him. “Sitting in the rain, staring moodily out to sea. It's kinda old, Buck.”
A startled breath left Bucky at that; it almost sounded like a laugh. “It's a classic, you ignorant jerk,” he heard himself say. “Besides, it's stopped raining.”
Steve made the same face he always did whenever Bucky burdened him with facts. “Barely. What's that word your mom has for this kinda weather?”
“Dreich.” The word seemed to fit here in a way it hadn't quite back in New York. Like it had needed a wider and wilder skyline to really belong on his tongue.
“Dreich,” Steve echoed with the same satisfied look from the train. “That's right.”
Steve's hand was resting on the rock between them. After a second's hesitation, Bucky reached for it.
His fingers were cold enough to make Steve gasp when Bucky pulled Steve's wrist out from his sleeve and turned it over in his hand. Steve's wrist was thicker than it used to be, but just as pale, and with that same triangle of freckles nestled on the outside next to a subtler curve of bone. There was no sign of bruising.
“Oh,” Steve said softly as Bucky moved his wrist this way and that. “It's— Come on, it's fine. You didn't hurt me.”
He didn't seem hurt but Bucky remembered the noise he'd made. “Did it even bruise?”
“Well, I don't want to dent your pride, but...” Steve shrugged, fingers curling into his palm. His nails were clean and clipped short; the skin around them pink and healthy. Blue veins ran like tree roots beneath the thin skin of his wrist. “I'm pretty hard to hurt these days.”
A cold wave went down Bucky's spine. “That's not a challenge,” he snapped, though of course Steve would see it that way. “Just because you don't catch pneumonia every time the wind changes anymore, doesn't mean you can't get hurt. There's plenty of ways to get hurt out here.”
He hadn't meant to say that and realized his mistake even before he saw it on Steve's face. He let go of Steve's hand and watched as it hung suspended in mid-air for a couple of seconds before slowly sinking. “Bucky,” Steve began in that new careful voice of his that made Bucky want to punch him.
“Don't,” he said and Steve nodded.
“All right,” he said, looking out to sea, mouth pressed into a flat line. “All right, Buck.”
Down the beach, the seagull had been joined by three more, all of them beating a hasty and undignified retreat when they misjudged how far the next wave would reach. Something inside of Bucky's chest ached.
“Remember that seagull?” he offered into the quiet. “The one who—”
“Oh God!” Steve's face was already screwing up into an expression that was nowhere near as annoyed as he liked to pretend. “I remember you laughing like a jackass instead of helping.”
“It was everywhere!” Bucky protested, just like always; a well-worn script he could follow in his sleep. As familiar and thoughtless as picking out Clair de Lune on the piano. His fingers twitched. “Poor thing must have been sick.”
“Made me sick,” Steve grumbled but he was smiling now, small and crooked, and if it was a little strained around the edges and not exactly the expression Bucky had always known then it was the closest thing to it he was ever likely to see again. “I still say it was the same one stole my hotdog that time. Bastard had a grudge against me. Seem to remember you laughing then too.”
“That's cos you're a funny guy.”
Steve bumped his shoulder against Bucky's but didn't move away this time. The sea sluiced up and down the beach and Bucky didn't think about what lay on the other side of that water or how close he had come to crossing it one more time. He let Steve's broad shoulder rest against his own and then, when it got too cold, they went back to the house.
Bucky left the bodies in a ditch. Most of the blood had soaked into their uniforms but he wiped his knife on the nearest one's sleeve and then kicked fresh snow over the top until only the faintest tinges of pink showed through. One of them had been carrying two tins of sausage meat and the other had a bar of chocolate and half a pack of cigarettes so he pocketed those first.
It was a little after dawn. Over the past hour, the dark of the forest had given way to a soft flat gray that made the trees look like streaks of graphite across a page. Bucky had woken in a cold foxhole with Dugan snoring into his shoulder and an itch beneath his skin that had driven him out into the trees with his Thompson cradled close and snow crunching softly beneath his boots. It hadn't been a surprise when, after twenty minutes of walking, he heard voices: they'd known there were Germans patrolling the border between Belgium and France when they decided to cross through the Ardennes Forest and they'd been lucky to avoid them so far.
Or someone had been lucky. His guys weren't the ones back there in a ditch.
Bucky adjusted his grip on the Thompson. Around him, the forest was silent. It was easy to imagine he was the only living creature for miles, even though he had seen at least three rabbits during the night and was less than a mile from camp. Without thinking, he altered his course to sweep wide. No harm in doing another circuit before he made his way back. The immediate threat had been dealt with and no one would be awake except for Morita on the last watch of the night. He had time to scout the route ahead.
By the time he returned to camp everyone was up and moving. Dernier and a couple of the French guys were rolling up the tarps they had used to cover the mouths of the abandoned foxholes they had been lucky enough to stumble across—remnants of the last war—and Morita was doling out strong-smelling coffee from Jones' steel helmet. He was the only guy on their squad who still wore one and had resigned himself to handing it over each morning so it could be used to boil water for coffee or shaving.
Dugan grinned when he saw Bucky. “Told you.”
This was directed at Steve, who was standing off to the side with Jones and one of the guys they had pulled out of that Hydra base. Steve sipped coffee from a mess cup as he watched Bucky approach. “I guess you did.”
“What'd you tell him?”
“That you'd be back as soon as you smelled coffee.”
Bucky couldn't argue with that. “Here.” He tossed one of the cans of sausage meat to Steve; a sneaky underarm throw that Steve caught easily in one hand. “Merry Christmas.”
Steve didn't protest when Bucky took the cup of coffee from his other hand. “You're kinda late,” he said mildly, thumb rubbing across the letters and numbers stenciled onto the can's lid. “For Christmas.”
“And you're kinda ungrateful. Anyone ever tell you that?” Bucky wrapped both hands around the stolen mess cup and hissed as warmth sank like knives into his aching fingers.
The corner of Steve's mouth and one eyebrow ticked upwards in acknowledgment. “How many were there?”
“Just two. Regular Nazis, not Hydra.” They hadn't seen any Hydra since the base in Namur, hadn't seen any Germans at all until Bucky had overheard those two arguing about whether those were bootprints they had found or the disturbance had been caused by an animal. The one on the left had a better eye than his friend but it didn't help him much.
Bucky swallowed a mouthful of bitter coffee. “They aren't gonna find them any time soon but we don't want to be here when they do.”
“We're moving out in ten,” Steve said. “I want to be out of these woods and into France by midday.” He nodded at the man beside him. “Michel was saying his cousin has a farm outside Rethel. We'll head there. Rest up and push on to the rendezvous point tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah?” Bucky caught the way Michel was trying not to stare at the can in Steve's hand and dug the second one out of his coat pocket. Michel and his guys had been in that base for less than a week but they already had that gaunt hollow-eyed look that tugged at Bucky like a hook beneath his ribs. The Belgian civilians that made up the majority of the workforce had been in even worse shape.
Michel grinned widely. “Thank you, my friend.” His knuckles showed white around the edges of the can as he held it to his chest. “It is true. My cousin is welcoming you. All of you. He is happy.”
“And you're sure you wanna head back to Reims?”
“Yes, yes,” Michel said and then frowned and spoke in rapid French.
Jones nodded slowly. “He doesn't think it'll be a problem. The train they were caught trying to derail was outside the city and none of the local German officers were there, just Hydra. Some of his guys will have to make excuses for why they haven't been at work all week but they'll be careful.”
One look at Steve told him he didn't like it any more than Bucky but it wasn't their choice to make. “Okay,” Bucky said and Michel beamed.
They reached the farmhouse an hour after sundown. Snow was starting to fall as they stood awkwardly on the doorstep while Michel and his cousin wept and pressed desperate kisses to each other's cheeks. Bucky glanced sideways at Steve and wondered if he was thinking about the way he’d wrapped himself around Bucky in that Austrian forest; the way he’d pushed his face into the side of Bucky's neck and shuddered all over like Bucky didn't stink of sweat and terror and his own piss. Wondered if he was thinking about the way Bucky had tried to push him away at first before fisting his hands so tight into that circus outfit of a shirt there had been rips when he finally let go.
Eventually, a middle-aged woman in a man's woolen sweater came out of the farmhouse and ushered everyone inside, scolding Michel and the man Bucky assumed was her husband as she did so. Her eyes widened when one of the French guys presented her with the two dead rabbits he was carrying; slung over his shoulder with their heels tied together with wire. Bucky had shot them with his pistol a few miles back and he guessed that was what the guy was telling her as she turned that astonished look on him.
“For you,” Bucky said in halting French. “Thank you very much.”
She shook her head fiercely. “No,” she said in the same language. “No. Thank you.” And then something that had Bucky casting around the cramped hallway for help. Jones and the others had already stamped the snow from their boots and moved further in towards what smelled like a kitchen with a wood fire.
“She says that they are the ones who should thank you for bringing Michel back to them.” One of the French guys had lingered in the doorway ahead; looking back with serious eyes and a crooked smile that had to be hurting his split lip. “Most people who disappear don't come home again.”
Bucky opened his mouth but didn't know what to say so he just nodded and held very still as she kissed him on both cheeks.
The rabbits were turned into a thick stew. Wine and bread and several types of cheese were brought out and the small farmhouse was soon ringing with laughter. Michel's cousin and his wife lived there with their young son and daughter, who had sliced bread and poured wine and gawked at Morita until their mother said something sharp that made them both flush to the roots of their hair and disappear upstairs for the rest of the night.
“Think they were stunned by your beauty, Jim,” Dugan said, plucking the bottle of wine from his hand. “There's no accounting for taste.”
“Oh, I don't know.” Falsworth tilted his head to one side. “The light in here is rather becoming.”
“It does lovely things to your eyes,” Bucky agreed.
Morita snatched the wine back and blew them all a kiss.
Two of the men had families of their own close by and only stayed for a glass of wine, but with twelve people remaining the kitchen soon grew hot and crowded and Bucky had spent the past week thinking he would never be warm again so he told himself to be grateful. He traded barbs with Dugan and provided sly asides to the story Morita was telling and with every minute that passed his chest grew tighter and a single bead of sweat crawled down the length of his spine. At the lady of the house's request, they had left their weapons in a side room and without the familiar weight slung across his shoulder he felt edgy and off-balance.
After a while he unbuttoned his coat and tucked himself into the corner beside the outside door with his back to the wall and a cold draft raising the hairs across the nape of his neck. A glass of wine was pressed into his hand; the taste was rich and sour and made him wish for a cold beer or a Coke. Jones and one of the French guys—the one with the split lip who had helped Bucky earlier—joined him by the door until Jones was called away to translate a conversation between Steve and Michel's cousin.
Across the room, someone dropped a glass and several voices immediately rose in a mocking roar. Bucky's hand snapped to his shoulder holster before his brain caught up and he exhaled harshly, heart knocking against his ribs. Beside him, the French guy had startled badly and now let out a shaky breath. “I thought...” He shook his head, self-mocking. “Foolish.”
“Hey, did you see me go for a gun that isn't there?” Bucky asked him. There was more than a little self-mockery there too. “See?” He showed the guy his empty holster. “That would have been a real help, huh?”
As he'd hoped, it made the guy smile but it didn't linger. “I keep thinking I am back there,” he said quietly.
Bucky let out a long breath between his teeth. “You smoke?”
The guy still looked a little shaky but he took a cigarette and let Bucky light it for him. He was half a head shorter than Bucky and leaned in close to the flame, the light playing across the cut on his lip and the bruises mottling his narrow jaw. His name was Daniel, Bucky suddenly remembered. They had all introduced themselves after Namur and Daniel had made him think of Danny Brown, who worked for Bucky's pop and had shipped out for the Pacific around the same time Bucky was coming back from North Africa. His folks had gotten a letter a couple of weeks after Bucky's but there had been no follow up telegram for the Browns to say that it had all been a mistake, that their son was all right after all.
They smoked their cigarettes and tapped the ash into an empty flowerpot on the windowsill. To either side of it, figurines made from glazed clay and smooth river stones jostled for position among small pots of herbs, like Bucky's mom kept by the kitchen window back home. If he rubbed the dry leaves between his fingers they would smell just the same. Daniel was swaying a little, half from the wine on his breath and half from exhaustion on top of his injuries. Between the battle and the introductions, Dugan had taken a look at him and diagnosed nothing worse than bruises and a couple of cracked ribs, but Bucky knew how it felt to take that kind of a beating and then do a full day's work. Daniel had kept up well on the journey and hadn't said a word but he'd clearly been in pain a lot of the time.
He looked like he was in pain now, one hand spread across his ribs and breathing in slow shallow gasps. He was frowning at the cigarette like he was starting to think it may not have been a good idea. “May I see the box?”
Those had been his last two so Bucky had dropped the empty green box into the flowerpot they were using as an ashtray. He fished it out and brushed it off before passing it to Daniel, who turned it over between surprisingly delicate hands. His smile looked genuine this time. “Eckstein No. 5. Of course. My mother used to smoke these. Junos too, before the war.”
At Bucky's raised eyebrows his smile deepened, making his eyes crinkle attractively at the corners. “She is German and has terrible taste in cigarettes. We all tell her this.”
“Well, there's thanks for you,” Bucky teased gently. “I can take my terrible cigarette back if you don't want it.”
“No, no, it is good. It makes me think of her and of home. I will smoke your terrible cigarette and think of her and then I will make her laugh when I tell her how I smoked one of her old cigarettes with an American soldier. It will make her happy.”
Bucky nodded. After a moment he said, “Maybe don't tell her where I got them.”
“Are you joking?” Daniel dropped the box back into the flowerpot. “That will make her more happy. No one hates the Nazis like my mother.” He grimaced suddenly, face going tight and hand fluttering against his ribs. “It's fine.” He waved off Bucky's concern. “It doesn't hurt.”
It was a lie but it was the kind of lie Bucky was used to; the kind that made him feel fond as well as exasperated. “They really did a number on you, didn't they, kid?”
“Mm. There was a guard in that place. He did not like how slow I was working.”
On the other side of the room, Dugan and Morita had claimed the kitchen table and gotten a card game going with two of the French guys. Dernier was standing behind Dugan, saying something that made the French guys laugh and Dugan glare suspiciously and hide his cards. Steve was still deep in conversation with Jones and Michel's cousin, expression serious and light catching on the strong new line of his jaw.
“Yeah,” Bucky said quietly.
He took a drag from his cigarette and watched Morita deal another hand. “Was there—” He grimaced and rubbed the side of his face. Scowled. “In that place. Was there a doctor? Not— not one who helped out. One of theirs. Someone who took guys from their cells and didn't bring them back. You see anyone like that?”
They hadn't found an isolation ward during the assault or after; no sign that there ever had been one, but that didn't mean anything. It was easy to hide one room in a factory. Just because they hadn't seen it didn't mean it hadn't been there.
Beside him, Daniel sighed. “No,” he said. “No one like that.”
“Okay.” Bucky nodded. He took another drag of his cigarette. “Good. Yeah. Good.”
Later, Bucky slipped out the back door into the garden. It was cold enough to make his teeth ache but he pulled in deep gulping breaths all the same, feeling like he'd had his head held underwater all night and was finally coming up for air. Muffled laughter came from the kitchen and he let it drive him further down the garden. The snow had stopped some time ago and the world was a smooth glistening white as far as the eye could see. He tipped his head back to look at the sky stretched above him—pure black with pinpoint stars and a pale bloated moon half-hidden by clouds. It reminded him of something.
The garden sloped gently down to a small orchard. In a past season, the branches would have been fragrant and laden with fruit but now they were bare and rattled irritably when Bucky set his back against the tallest tree. His fingers tapped at the pouch on his belt where he kept his cigarettes and lighter but didn't open it. The tree's branches cut blacker lines across the black sky.
He hadn't been able to believe the night skies when he first left the city; how everything seemed so much larger and sharper and colder than when seen from his own neighborhood. First Jersey, then Texas, then lying awake in Fedala, still shaking and compulsively patting at himself, his chest, his belly, to reassure himself that he wasn't hit and was still alive, unlike so many of the guys he'd been joking with on a ship only hours before. He had shared a cigarette with a marine who had gotten separated from his own company, the two of them passing the butt back and forth with unsteady hands as he looked up, understanding for the first time how little he and the things he wanted out of life really mattered in the grand scheme of things.
He started at the back door opening and the spill of light and noise from the kitchen. It clicked shut and the silence stretched out until: “Thought I'd find you out here.”
“And you did. Gold star for Steve Rogers.”
It was too dark to see much of anything but there was another pause, Steve hesitating by the door, before the sound of boots on snow. It didn't take long for a patch of darkness to sharpen into the tall, broad-shouldered shape that had almost stopped startling him when he looked for Steve. Bucky walked up the garden to meet him.
“Hey,” Steve said. “The party's inside. What you doing out here?”
“Just getting some air.” The moon was covered by clouds now and there seemed to be fewer stars.
“Not much like home, is it?” Steve looked out across the garden towards the crooked stone wall and the fields beyond it. His breath clouded thick and even. “Don't think I knew snow was meant to be white until I came to Europe.”
One side of Bucky's mouth pulled upwards; not really a smile but not really anything else either. Snow in Europe looked like a fairy tale, like something from a book Bucky would have read to his sisters when they were little. Back home, it was a stinking gray and brown menace that clogged up the streets for months at a stretch, ruining the shine on his shoes and leaving a filthy scurf all along the cuffs of his good wool pants. One time, Bucky had stepped off the curb onto what he'd thought was an inch of snow and found himself soaked up to the knee with two old broads in fur coats laughing at him. Even now, it was hard to miss a New York winter.
“You need me for something?”
“Besides your sparkling company?” After a few seconds Steve cleared his throat and said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact. Michel's cousin has a truck we can use. Save us walking another hundred miles to Nancy. He says there's something wrong with the engine, but if you can get her going she's yours.”
Despite himself, Bucky felt interest rise. “My own truck.”
“That we'll have to leave in Nancy. I told him you'd take a look. She can't be any worse than that old wreck your folks have.”
“Careful,” Bucky warned. He loved that old wreck. He still remembered the excitement when his pop first brought her home and how the world had seemed a little brighter, a little more filled with possibilities once they could all pile into the Sedan and choose a direction. Usually, that meant Montauk, because Bucky’s mom had an old school friend with a guesthouse a stone’s throw from the lighthouse and only charged them for food and hot water, but the potential had felt endless. Even after the business was doing well enough that they could afford to replace her, his pop had held onto the old girl and he and Bucky kept her ticking along between them.
“Sure,” he said. “I'll take a look, see what I can do. But if I get her started I'm driving.”
Steve shrugged. “Seems fair.”
He had just started to say something else when the back door swung open and light spread across the garden, followed by Dugan's voice. “Barnes! You out here?”
Either the light from the kitchen was blinding him or he was even drunker than Bucky had thought if he couldn't see the two of them standing exposed in the middle of the garden. Bucky called back anyway and Dugan stumbled across the snow, cursing under his breath. “John Mark wants to know if you want the rabbit skins.”
A rank cloud of wine and cheese accompanied the words. Bucky wrinkled his nose. “Who?”
“Jean-Marc,” Steve said. “Michel's cousin.”
“That's the one.” Dugan made a face and thumped a fist against his chest until he knocked loose a ripe burp. The stench of wine and cheese intensified and was joined by something meaty that made Bucky's stomach turn. “He said you got one of them right through the eye and the skins are yours if you want 'em.”
Bucky stared at him and then turned to Steve for help. “What the hell am I gonna do with two rabbit skins?”
“Make a pretty fur trim for your coat?” That was about as much help as he should have expected from Steve, really.
“Maybe I'll make you some gloves.”
“I already got gloves.” Steve held up his hands to prove it even though the dummy had left said gloves back in the house. The heat hadn't seemed to bother him like the rest of them but he'd confessed that he didn't really feel the cold anymore either. Bucky still didn't know how to feel about that.
Steve wiggled his bare pink fingers. “You're the one who doesn't wear them.”
“Can't shoot with gloves on.”
“Can't shoot if you lose your fingers to frostbite either. Not well enough to hit a rabbit's eye at twenty paces.”
Dugan laughed obnoxiously. “He only hit one in the eye. The other was kinda sloppy, Barnes. You damn near took its head off.”
It was stupid to be annoyed but Bucky felt himself bristle all the same. “I'd like to see you do better without a rifle. Or with one, for that matter.”
“So use a rifle.” Dugan shrugged, unconcerned, and swayed a little on his feet. It was probably uncharitable to hope he'd overbalance and fall face-first in the snow. “Don't see why you don't anyway. You always used one before.”
“You did?” Steve asked.
Bucky ignored him. “We're not out here shooting rabbits.”
“That's a crying shame. Could do with more of that stew.” Dugan let out an earsplitting yawn, moonlight glinting off his back teeth, and listed a little to one side. “They're good people, huh? For Frogs. Real... real welcoming. Hey, what do you fellas say we just spend the rest of the war here, huh? Drink wine, eat cheese, shoot rabbits. Forget about the rest of that stuff. What do you think?”
“I think you'd need to learn French,” Steve said.
Dugan snorted. “Hell, I can do that. No problem. Make Gabe happy, huh? Said he was gonna cry if anyone asked him to translate anymore tonight, the big baby. Can't handle his drink, that one. You remember, Bucky? Remember London last summer, how drunk he and the rest of those wet-behind-the-ears replacements got?”
“No. Spose you wouldn't, would you. You were just as bad as him. Couple of lightweight kids.”
Bucky frowned but Steve was smiling. “He's always been like that. He gets drunk and then he wants to dance and then he wants to sleep. Never takes much.”
Which was pretty rich coming from him. Steve had never been able to drink anything except weak beer without it upsetting his stomach; even then it would only take a couple of glasses before he launched into a tirade about whatever was chapping his hide this week and then passed out mid-sentence as soon as he caught sight of a flat surface. At least Bucky liked to dance first.
“I could tell some stories about the pair of you,” he said. “Don't think I can't.”
Dugan made a rude noise and Steve just kept smiling.
After Dugan had made his way back to the house, muttering to himself about dumb kids who didn't have the sense to come in out of the cold and swaying worse than ever, Steve said, “You know, that's not a bad idea.”
If it was one of Dugan's ideas then Bucky had his doubts. Those words didn't exactly fill him with confidence either: he'd been on the wrong end of far too many thrashings, detentions, and other unpleasant consequences that he could all trace back to Steve saying you know, that's not a bad idea in that particular tone of voice. “What, spending the war here? You'd get bored.”
“Learning French. We should learn French.”
He said it like he was expecting Bucky to laugh. Bucky frowned. “Me and you?”
“All of us. The whole squad.” Steve warmed to his theme once he saw Bucky was listening. “The fight's gonna move into France soon, everyone knows it, and we could use all the help we can get. Michel's group aren't the only ones around. They're gonna know the area better than we do: troop movements, who we can trust, where we can make a difference. And we—”
“Yeah, okay. I don't need a speech.” Bucky turned the idea over in his head. It made sense. They'd been taught a handful of useful French phrases after Arisaig and the Army had drilled just enough phonetic German into them to ask enemy combatants to lay down their weapons and point in the direction of their headquarters. A little more couldn't hurt and would help keep the men busy during downtime. When soldiers got bored they had a tendency to get stupid and destructive and this particular squad of idiots didn't need any encouragement on either front.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay. It'd be better for Dernier too, right? And Gabe. They're probably sick of him being the only guy on the squad he can talk to.”
Steve smiled. “That too.”
“Okay,” Bucky said, tilting his head back to look at the sky, breathing in deep. “So we learn French. But you're telling them.”
They took it better than Bucky expected. It probably helped that Steve followed his advice to cut the speeches and word it closer to a challenge than an order; something to get their competitive sides all fired up and eager to prove what they could do. That was a trick Bucky had learned long before the war and Steve's sour look said he recognized it all too well.
Of the men, Dugan was the least happy with the announcement and Dernier the most. Bucky had never seen him grin that wide unless it was following some kind of explosion and he was practically rubbing his hands together with glee by the time Steve had finished. Falsworth, unsurprisingly, met the news with the same air of polite boredom as he did everything else and simply took his pipe from his pocket and began to pack it with slow, studied precision. He rarely smoked out in the field but the scent of his tobacco lingered longer than cigarette smoke—or was just more unfamiliar to Bucky—and he carried a thick fug of it wherever he went. The politely bored expression didn't waver as he made an acerbic comment when Dugan's grousing about having left school behind years ago went on just a little too long.
Dugan rounded on him. “Hell, no wonder you're all for it. I bet they taught you French at that hoity-toity prep school of yours, didn't they?”
Falsworth blinked slowly. “Of course.” Then he said something that sounded French enough to Bucky but made Jones cough into his sleeve and Dernier throw up his hands and direct a long passionate tirade towards the ceiling of their billet. The only word Bucky could make out was imbeciles.
“Hey, teach me that,” he said, speaking up for the first time since Steve had called everyone around the large kitchen table where Bucky was carefully breaking down and cleaning his Thompson and the Colt pistol that sat in a holster against his ribs. He had finished both in the time it took for everyone to have their say and moved on to sharpening the knife he kept in his boot. “That's French for 'Oh my God, I'm surrounded by idiots', right? Teach me that. God knows it'll come in handy.”
Dugan's eyes narrowed. His mustache twitched.
“Yeah,” Steve said, scenting victory. “Come on. Teach us that.”
So the seven of them began French lessons. Even if they weren't part of an official battalion they were still subject to the whims of the brass and more often than not that meant brief, terrifying periods of getting shot at followed by countless hours of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Some guys took up idiosyncratic hobbies, like Aaronovich and his cat’s cradle or Nolan and his matchstick tricks, but mostly they read books, played cards, and generally shot the shit, so putting that time towards something productive came as a welcome change. Quiet moments at base or out in the field now meant lessons from Dernier and Jones and they practiced until their heads felt fit to bursting and Dugan started throwing things at the nearest wall.
Steve picked it up the fastest. Unbelievably fast, really, and it was another sign that whatever those scientists had done to him it went a little deeper than the extra inches and hundred pounds of muscle, because the Steve Bucky had known back in Brooklyn never used to be a quick study. He was smart as hell but missed too much school and never seemed all that interested in most of his lessons, especially Latin. Every time Bucky tried to show him how easy it was he got his head bitten off. French, though, was something Steve took to like he was born for it. Like the words were already inside his head and he'd just been waiting for someone to draw them out.
Steve was fast but Bucky wasn't bad either. He did pretty well with the vocabulary and his accent was improving, according to Dernier, who turned out to be both hilarious and deeply strange once you could understand what he was saying. Within just over a month Steve was on his way to fluent and Bucky was able to hold a simple conversation with a Cajun sergeant from the 82nd Airborne platoon that had temporarily been assigned to them to destroy a Hydra base in Czechoslovakia. Half of the paratroopers had never seen combat before but they were trained to within an inch of their lives and there were enough veterans from Sicily and Anzio to balance it out.
“Nice fella,” Bucky remarked to Dernier when the sergeant excused himself to go chew out a couple of his men who seemed to have confused an order to dig a trench with one to stand around shooting the breeze.
Dernier sniffed. “That was not French.”
That night Bucky woke with the taste of blood in his mouth and his heart trying to thrash its way out of his chest. Like a thing of pain and fear, like it could escape the silver glint, the outstretched hand, the touch that said nothing, meant nothing, and took everything from him. Like he could ever escape once he'd been chosen.
His lip was bleeding. He had bitten it, maybe, or pressed his fist too hard against his face as he slept, trying to keep something in. It throbbed in time to his slowly-calming pulse as he lay shivering and breathing in the familiar smell of unwashed bodies and plastic from the tarp covering the foxhole. There had been a bird singing outside, or in his dreams, perhaps, but all he could hear now was his own ragged breath and the steadier inhale and exhale of two people behind him. When he turned his head he could make out Morita's wool cap and a shapeless lump of olive-drab beyond him that could be anyone. Anyone at all.
Bucky dragged his teeth across his split lip. There had been a bird in his dream, maybe, but the details were already fading, leaving nothing behind but a heavy helpless weight like a boot planted in the center of his chest. He found himself thinking of the guy who had introduced himself in Arisaig, the Czech Jew, Felix, who had fled his homeland with his younger brother only to turn around and walk back into the fight. It wasn't a sure thing that they'd send him back to Czechoslovakia but it wasn't unlikely either. He could be here right now. He and the rest of the recruits they had trained alongside would have shipped out months ago, maybe before Bucky and his guys had destroyed their first Hydra base. How many of them were still alive? Felix and those other brave souls, Mademoiselle Claudette with the aching feet and the brown eyes Jones had liked so much. Were they out there fighting for the world they wanted to see or lying in a trench not unlike this one, one they had dug with their own two hands and then lain in with a neat hole in the back of their head as it was filled in again.
Or worse. There was always worse.
The boot pressed down and Bucky twisted up onto his knees, fumbling with the tarp until he found an opening and emerged into the cool damp night. His lungs and throat burned as the air fogged thick in front of him, merging with the dense white mist that had descended overnight and turned the woods into something not quite real.
A shadow detached itself from one of the trees and Bucky had his Thompson up and aimed before he recognized Jones' silhouette and the hasty, “Just me, Bucky. I got this watch.”
He was a fraction too slow in lowering his weapon, he could see it in Jones' posture, but neither of them said anything as Bucky joined him. Spring had arrived early in the region and the last of the snow lingered in clumps around the bases of the taller trees. There was a large moon overhead, a week past full, and it caught the mist so it seemed like it was glowing too, like it was creating its own light. By that light he could make out the road winding through the trees but not the trenches that lined the far side, identical to these, each covered with a tarp and packed with sleeping soldiers like sardines in a can. The woods were quiet enough to hear the scuff of cloth against dirt as men turned over in their sleep, sighs as they dreamed, Dugan's familiar snore coming from an unseen trench on the other side of the road. Bucky automatically tried to pick out the low wheeze and rattle of Steve's sleeping breaths before he remembered that Steve didn't sound like that anymore. That he never would again.
Bucky jolted when Jones tapped a cigarette packet against his arm. He stared blankly at the outstretched hand and its box of Pall Malls before grimacing and pulling out his own Camels. They had been at an Allied camp two days ago and he could still afford to be picky. Steve's lighter was a cold weight in his hand and he hesitated, not wanting Jones to see his hands shake, but he struck a tiny flame on the first try and held it perfectly steady for Jones' cigarette and then his own.
Jones tried to start a conversation in French but fell quiet when Bucky shook his head. Inside his pocket, his thumbnail caught on an imperfect join along the lighter's edge. Steve hadn't asked for it back yet but he watched Bucky with it sometimes like he was thinking about it or like he had something to say about how most of the cigarettes Bucky smoked these days were German brands. Bucky almost wished he would say something about that but fighting with Steve wasn't going to fix anything. He sighed and rolled his shoulders. Besides the restlessness, the muscle pain and headaches that had started in Arisaig hadn't really gone away. Most days it was just pressure at his temples or a burning sensation in his arms and legs but some mornings his thighs sang with a pain not unlike the year he turned fifteen and shot up half a foot overnight. He'd been shorter than Steve before that.
The ache was always worst in the mornings and eased off throughout the day. Obviously, he was tensing up in his sleep and aggravating strained muscles, but it was hard not to feel like it was the things that happened in his dreams staying with him. Like his body remembered even when he didn't.
Beside him, Jones said something. It took a moment for Bucky to respond. “What?”
“Are you still feeling that digging too?” Jones gestured at his own shoulder. “I thought I was pretty tough but my arms are killing me. You too, huh?”
“Oh.” Bucky dropped his hand. “Yeah. That's right.”
The sky grew lighter and then, when the rest of the camp was awake and ready, Bucky shared a look with Steve and then climbed back down into the trench he'd dug with his own two hands.
He had checked his weapons as dawn broke and then again before he looked for Steve but his hands sought out the shape of them as the tarp was secured above him. His Thompson lay on a blanket to his left, but his first shots would be made with the Colt so he slid it from his shoulder holster as he breathed in and out and narrowed his focus to the task in front of him.
They had left a gap in the tarp on the side nearest the road and Bucky raised himself up to check his line-of-sight. His was the last trench in the row. Opposite him, the top of Falsworth's beret and then his forehead and eyes emerged and he and Bucky exchanged nods through the tangled bushes. Like Bucky's, the tarp covering Falsworth's trench was covered in a thin layer of dirt and sticks that would make it seem like nothing was amiss from the road. Dernier was three trenches to Bucky's left, Morita opposite him, and the remaining places were filled with the men the Airborne sergeant had singled out as having the best aim and the steadiest nerves. Bucky had impressed upon all of them how important it was they not hit the trucks.
Beyond Falsworth, past the treeline, Steve was waiting with half of the remaining men and the rest were with Lieutenant Graham behind Bucky. He stared into the mist, searching for a glimpse of blue, but there was nothing.
Before he dropped back into the trench, Bucky looked to his left. The mist was thinner in the relatively open space of the road and he could easily see the dark shape of the tree stretched across it. Bucky had taken charge of the digging—organizing shifts and making sure none of these dumb kids tore their hands up too bad to hold a gun—but he’d also kept an eye on the discussion between Steve and Lieutenant Graham. Graham seemed like a decent guy but he was a little slow to realize he wasn't the ranking officer here, no matter how Steve was dressed, and not being taken seriously pushed Steve's buttons like nothing else. The two of them had a difference of opinion on which tree would do the best job of stopping the Hydra convoy due to pass through the next morning on its way to pick up a shipment of equipment from the base. Steve probably didn't even realize how much more threatening that expression looked now he had the muscle to back it up. To his credit, Graham didn't back down and Bucky was wondering if he needed to intervene when Steve turned on his heel, walked up to the nearest tree, and pushed it over.
His eyes had gone to Bucky as the tree fell, like he could have heard the low sound punched out of him from that distance. The kid in the trench next to Bucky cursed and dropped his shovel and that got Bucky moving again, heart pounding shamefully in his ears as he went back to his work.
Bucky's tongue found the edges of the cut he had made during the night. It wasn't as bad as it had seemed and barely twinged at all now. He dropped back down onto his heels and winced as something dug into his thigh. It was the book he had traded with one of the paratroopers last night, finally accepting that he wasn't going to get more than a chapter or two into the one he had been carrying around since Arisaig. He’d hoped he would have more luck with this one, since he’d already read it a few years back, but he'd still been staring at the first page when the Airborne sergeant dropped down next to him and said he'd damage his eyes trying to read in this light. Dugan had scoffed and told him Bucky was a sniper.
“With a Tommy gun?” The sergeant had looked skeptical and Bucky gave him the same line he’d given Steve and Dugan back in France but he was less sure of it now. When he and Steve had first put this squad together he’d chosen the Thompson because he’d thought they’d need all the firepower they could get. It had made sense at the time. Now, though, he found himself thinking about that fork in the tall tree a few hundred yards up the road and how, if he had a rifle, that would be a good place to settle in and pick off the Hydra soldiers without having to worry about the angle of the trucks.
The sergeant still hadn't believed Bucky was reading and picked up their earlier conversation. Bucky's French wasn't good enough to catch all of it but that didn't seem to matter, the guy just wanted to talk and Bucky could do that. He could sit and keep an eye on his men and listen to this guy talk about Louisiana and his sister's cooking. Bucky almost said I've got sisters too but didn't. He thought about the last letters he got from home; how strange it was to think of them so far away and going on with their lives. Evie shipping out to the Pacific as a nurse, Mary gone back to working in the flag loft, and Becca living her dream of working at the garage now that so many guys had gone off to fight. Their letters had been full of news and excitement that he could recite line for line without any of it making any kind of sense to him. It was a different world.
A whistle cut through the air. Two piercing notes from the sentry up the road, echoed by Morita in case anyone failed to hear it. Sixty seconds.
Bucky checked his sidearm and let the weight of it in his hand focus him. Sooner than he'd expected, the rumble of engines reached his ears and then tires on a gravel road. The noise grew louder and then two trucks rolled past before the third one stopped exactly where he'd hoped it would when he was planning the placement of the trenches. He inhaled the sharp smell of gas and rubber and slowly exhaled the tension from his shoulders as he eased up onto his knees. The truck's door swung open and the driver got out, anger plain in every line of his body despite the suit and mask. His mouth was the only part of him left uncovered and it opened wide and red as he shouted something that got more Hydra soldiers in masks out of the back of the truck.
Some of the guards took their masks off inside the camp. You could see their faces. You could see the soft fleshy part beneath their jaw where a razor might catch. You could see the boredom in their eyes.
Bucky's breath hitched and he forced it to smooth out again.
There was no one getting out of the back of the second and fourth trucks but the drivers looked just as unhappy as they made their way forward to see what the problem was.
Bucky waited until the driver of the fourth truck had caught up to the others and then he stood and pulled the trigger four times. Headshot—headshot—left shoulder—stomach.
His shots were a signal for the others to open fire. Bucky dropped into a crouch as screams and the rattle of semi-automatics filled the air. He scanned the road before zeroing in on the soldiers he had shot: two of them were unmoving but one was flopping around like something pulled out of the Hudson and the other managed to haul himself up onto one elbow just long enough for Bucky to shoot him in the throat. The soldier who had been gut-shot was shielded by the other fallen bodies. Only a single gloved hand was visible as he clawed at the road, trying to drag himself towards the nearest truck.
Bullets shredded the bush to Bucky's right and he ducked. His heart was as loud as the gunfire as he searched for the shooter in the chaos. A Hydra soldier had taken cover behind one of the third truck's wheels and spotted Bucky's blue coat through the bushes. Bucky fired twice, missing both times. He dropped to the bottom of the trench, arms covering his head as bullets sliced the air and preparing himself for the grenade that would follow.
Abruptly, the shots cut off. There was shrieking followed by a single report and then the only noise was the ringing in Bucky's ears.
Slowly, he uncovered his head and reached for his Thompson before looking over the edge of the trench. The Hydra soldier was lying on the ground and Falsworth was standing over him with a twist to his mouth and that strange British sidearm of his in one hand. He nodded mildly at Bucky, like he'd spotted him across the room at a church social. “That's the last of them.”
“Any of ours hit?” Bucky retrieved his Colt from the bottom of the trench and reloaded it, slinging his Thompson across his shoulder.
“Not that I know of.”
To either side of Bucky, men were warily emerging from their trenches and looking around with the stunned expressions Bucky remembered from his first skirmish. The road was littered with dead Hydra soldiers and the paratroopers from the treeline were swarming in and out and around the trucks, checking for anyone they might have missed. Steve was among them, shield in hand, and he shot Bucky a grin before disappearing into the back of a truck. Bucky checked his watch. The whole thing had taken less than three minutes. The four Hydra soldiers Bucky had shot were still lying where they had fallen and even at this distance the sound of harsh, sawing breaths was clear.
The gut-shot Hydra soldier had managed to drag himself a few feet from the other bodies and rolled onto his back. A small black handgun was lying on the ground beside his right hand but his spasming fingers were unable to get a grip.
He went still as Bucky came closer. Not all of the guards had taken their masks off. There had been nothing but black goggles and a thin smile as Bucky's hand was slowly pried out of its tightly-clenched fist, one finger at a time. Nothing to tell him whether the guard who was smiling was the same one who had winked as he curled his palm around Bucky's throat to feel the shape of the tube, or the one who had yawned as he rolled the machine into position above Bucky and turned the dial.
The Hydra soldier opened his mouth and Bucky put a bullet in it.
At the beginning of April Falsworth took a hit to the leg and they lost him for the rest of the month. The seven of them had been combing through what was supposed to be an abandoned town just north of Bolzano in Italy and he hadn't moved fast enough. Or at least that was what Dugan had grumbled as he bandaged Falsworth up after the rest of them dealt with the gunman.
Steve took it the hardest; far harder than Falsworth, even before he was moved to a hospital in the north of England where his family could visit. Bucky had to remind himself that Steve might have seen a lot of bloodshed these past months but he hadn't seen any of his guys catch worse than the odd graze or some stray shrapnel. He didn't get it and Bucky had never wanted him to get it, never wanted him out here once he realized what it was really like, but it didn't matter what Bucky wanted.
“Look,” he finally snapped. “That's a million dollar wound he's got there. He gets to walk with a stick for a few weeks and go home and see his wife and kids. You know how many guys pray for a wound like that?”
He shook his head at Steve's frown. “Christ, I'd hate to see you if one of us really got hurt. I really would.”
Another thing that happened in April was Bucky got issued with two new pieces of kit. The first was a lightweight version of his blue coat; identical down to the last stitch but better suited for the warmer days ahead of them. The others grumbled when issued their own summer gear, claiming that most of the places they ended up were still stuck in winter, and Bucky shared a look with Steve, wondering how the two of them had gotten saddled with this bunch of wimps. Not one of them would survive a New York winter.
The second and more interesting piece of equipment given to Bucky was the rifle he had requested after the Czech base. He was familiar enough with the way the Army worked that he'd expected to maybe get something by the end of the year, if he was lucky, so it came as a shock when he was presented with the exact make and model of rifle he'd asked for within a week of handing in the paperwork.
“The perks of being on Captain America's team,” Jones observed as Bucky turned the rifle over between his hands.
“Looks like,” Morita said. And then: “What else do you think we can get?”
It turned out that the US War Department had over ten thousand Johnson M1941 rifles languishing in a warehouse. Originally, they were meant to go to the Netherlands but now the plan was to donate them to the Free French later that month, on the idea that they might as well go to whoever was willing to use them to shoot Nazis. Dugan had laughed himself sick once he realized Bucky had asked for a rifle the Army had so little faith in that it would rather hand them out like Red Cross donuts than issue them to the troops, but the laughter stopped once he saw Bucky use her out in the field. It shouldn't have come as a surprise: Bucky had been a sharpshooter with the 107th and carried a rifle for most of the two years he and Dugan had been fighting alongside one another. Out of everyone, he knew the kinds of shots Bucky could make.
Though he didn't think he'd ever made shots quite like this. He hadn't realized how bad his old rifle must have been until he fitted a scope to his Betsy and saw how much clearer and sharper everything was. He would never have been able to set up position this far out with his Springfield and trust he could make the shot.
He had been lying in wait for forty minutes now. Long enough to watch his squad and the six members of the French resistance cell they were working with approach the bunker and make their way inside. The cell had ties to Michel's group, despite being based over a hundred miles south, and one of Michel's guys had traveled down to make the introductions and vouch for both sides. Eloi was one of the guys they had pulled from that base in Namor and he and Dugan greeted each other like old friends, despite him not speaking a word of English and Dugan still barely able to string half a dozen words of French together.
From Bucky's position he had an unobstructed view of the two main exits. The third exit was on the far side of the bunker and had been rigged during the night by Dernier and one of the resistance guys to blow if it was opened, causing a cave-in that would seal the entrance and trap anyone trying to leave that way. Bucky was almost seven hundred yards from the bunker: too far to hear what was happening inside but he had cleared enough like it over these past months that he could imagine what things looked like below ground.
Movement at the south entrance and Bucky put his eye to the scope in time to see three men in lab coats make a break for the treeline. He dropped all three before they made it halfway. More tried to flee through the entrance on the north west side of the bunker and he took care of them too.
During a lull he scanned the area through his scope. The subterranean levels would be too tight for Steve to use his shield but he had his pistol, which was just as effective at putting targets down and getting them to stay that way. Though from the way Steve was acting lately he didn't think he needed either weapon. There had always been a level of confidence in the way Steve wore his new body and what it could do, but these days he was downright cocky. Last week he had thrown a man clear over a ten foot wall with one hand and looked ready to stop a tank with his fists until Dernier brought out the explosives. If Bucky didn't know better he'd say Steve was showing off but there was no one out here to impress.
It had been almost twenty minutes since anyone came out of either entrance when he caught a flicker of movement to the south. He followed it with his scope and saw a scrap of white cloth tied to the barrel of a gun, warily followed by Morita's face and a quick wave telling him to come in.
“Kinda jumpy, aren't you?” he said when he joined Morita. “I wasn't gonna shoot you.”
Morita eyed the piles of dead Hydra. “Better safe than sorry.”
He was avoiding Bucky's eyes and looked more rattled than he ought to be over a few dead Nazis. Bucky was about to ask what his deal was when Steve, Dugan, and four of the French guys emerged from the bunker, all of them grim-faced and moving like they’d been on their feet for a week. Bucky took in Dugan's tight expression before focusing on Steve. “You searched it already?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “There's nothing. They're setting it to blow.”
There were three specks of blood on the side of Steve's jaw. His shield was on his back and his pistol in its holster but he didn't seem to be carrying any of the papers a bunker that size should have. He met Bucky's eyes: defiant, like he always was when he had something to hide.
“There's nothing?” Bucky asked carefully.
“Nothing we need,” Steve replied, looking at the bodies sprawled across the grass. Bucky followed his eyes and it was only now that he registered how many of them were wearing lab coats. He turned back and Steve was watching him, expression unreadable and fingers twitching at his sides.
“No prisoners?” They had only learned of the bunker in the first place because of reports of people going missing from local villages.
Something flickered in Steve's eyes, too fast to follow, but he just said, “No.”
He wasn’t lying. Suddenly Bucky didn’t want to know the truth. “Right.” He swallowed, turning back towards the bunker. “Okay. Let's burn it down.”
They followed the French guys to a camp beside an abandoned cottage out in the woods. In years past, the cottage must have been an impressive sight and the people who had lived there would have owned most of the surrounding land, but now the roof was caved in and the white-washed stone a dingy gray almost entirely overrun by some kind of creeping plant. The front door was missing and the back rooms had obviously been set on fire at some point. Bucky had slept in worse places, and expected to do so again, but the cottage's main function was to store weapons for the resistance and let groups of people gather without drawing attention.
A celebration had been planned for after the mission but the mood was subdued, spreading from those who had gone into the bunker to the larger number who had stayed behind. Still, one of them had shot a pig and Georges, the cell's leader, brightened as he strung it up by the ankles and told the gathering crowd about hunting in these woods with his father when he was a boy. He drew a line with his finger down the center of the pig's belly, showing them where he was going to cut, and Bucky went to walk the perimeter. By the time he returned the sun had set and people were passing around bottles and hunks of bread and cheese as pork sizzled over campfires. Summer was still more than a month away but the night was warm and the woods filled with the sound of a thousand buzzing insects that could almost be the natural chatter of a city if you didn't think too hard. Bucky found himself sandwiched between Dugan and Eloi, who wanted to give Bucky the same message from Daniel he'd delivered earlier and have Bucky translate the insults he and Dugan were exchanging regarding each other's parentage, sexual prowess, and ability to hold their drink. It was a while before Bucky could make his escape and approach the girl sitting a little apart from the main group.
He had spotted her when everyone was being introduced. There were more girls carrying guns than Bucky had thought to expect when he signed up for this war but she was the only one in Georges’ group. She hadn't been one of the six chosen to take part in destroying the bunker and her eyes had flashed angrily at the announcement but there hadn't been a chance to talk to her before now.
“Hello, miss,” he said in French. “Good evening.”
She didn't look up from where she was sharpening her knife with long resentful strokes of a whetstone. “I'm not going to fuck you, American.” Her English was heavily-accented but precise.
“Well, not with that attitude,” Bucky retorted in English and then, in French: “No, no, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I want to talk to you only.”
“Talk to someone else.”
Bucky wavered, aware of eyes on his back as he stood there like some pimply kid being shot down at a dance. She seemed to mean it and the last thing he wanted to do was pick a fight but the glimpse he'd caught of her rifle had gotten him over here and it was enough to make him try, “You're a sniper, yes? Me too. Look.”
He unslung his rifle and held it between both hands. She finally raised her head and ignored his rifle in favor of giving him a narrow-eyed glare that took him in from head to toe and clearly found him wanting. He gently waggled his rifle and her eyes dropped to it, widening just a fraction. “It's a Johnson M1941.” Bucky stumbled a little over the numbers. “We call them a Betsy. It's her name.”
The girl looked at him again. “Your French is appalling.” She still hadn't switched from English.
“If I don't practice I won't get better,” he said, stung. “I am trying, no?”
She made a peculiarly French movement with her mouth. Dernier sometimes made the same expression, usually in response to something Dugan had said, and Bucky still wasn't sure exactly what it meant. Something dismissive, anyway. Her eyes were very dark and her brows heavy but well-shaped; her nose had been broken at some point and inexpertly set, the line of it a little crooked with a small pitted scar across the bridge. It was unexpectedly charming. She slid her knife into a sheath on her belt and held out her hand. “Let me see."
With only a slight hesitation, he handed over his rifle and watched anxiously as she felt the weight of it and looked down the barrel. Her mouth twisted again. “You use a scope?”
He took the scope Howard Stark had designed for him from his pocket. She hummed with interest and attached it to the barrel, taking aim at the chimney of the ruined cottage. “They give this to all Americans?”
“No. Uh, it's only for me. Only mine. Special?”
“Yes. That's right.”
She hummed again and his fingers itched as she examined his rifle with no sign of wanting to give it back. “This is an American gun.”
“Do you know how to shoot it?”
“The bullets go in here and come out here,” he said, pointing. “So they tell me.”
Her eyes flicked up to him again before she grunted and finally handed his Betsy back. “A pretty toy, but I think you will find mine is more better.” She picked up her rifle and rested it across her knees, patting the stock fondly. “His name is Lee Enfield. He's a handsome boy, isn't he?”
“Beautiful,” Bucky said with feeling. “He is French?”
“With such a name? English.”
“Ah. Can I?”
She looked at his outstretched hands just long enough for him to feel foolish and then handed her rifle over. It was lighter than the Betsy and maybe a fraction shorter overall but the barrel was longer and the balance good. “What is... how long to shoot? Distance?”
“The firing range,” she said in English and then three times in French when he stumbled over the pronunciation. “Four hundred meters on a bad day. I've taken a German officer's head off at over five hundred without a fancy American scope.”
“You're very good.”
“Yes, I am. Are you?”
He shrugged. “I get much practice.”
She considered him and then nodded curtly at the space on the log beside her. “You look like an imbecile standing there. Touch me and I'll cut your throat.”
There was enough room for him to sit a careful foot and a half away. He folded his hands together and tucked them between his knees where she could see them. “My name is Bucky. What's your name?”
“Anaïs,” she said. And then, in French: “Do you have any chocolate?”
Anaïs had grown up on a chicken farm outside of Dijon and been a better shot than her father and all four brothers by the time she was twelve. She sneered when Bucky admitted to not having picked up a gun before Basic but ate all his chocolate ration and seemed prepared to put up with his appalling French; correcting him sharply and making him repeat himself several times until she would roll her eyes and mutter, “Close enough,” before moving on.
After a while Bucky became aware of a small dark man watching them from the other side of the clearing. Everyone else had lost interest once it became clear Bucky wasn't going to be sent away with his tail between his legs, but something about this guy's attention made Bucky's skin prickle. He tilted his head towards Anaïs. “Your husband?”
“Ah, I understand. I also have beautiful young sisters.”
Her upper lip curled. “You aren't going to get punched. He's more jealous of me than of you.”
Bucky frowned, not getting it. Anaïs raised her eyebrows and said very slowly, like she was speaking to a particularly stupid child, “He thinks you are handsome. He has terrible taste.”
It was all right that Bucky flinched; any man would flinch at that. He didn't let himself look back at Anaïs' brother as the back of his neck grew hot and his chest turned to ice and sank down to his knees. The same sickening drop as that time he went for a drink with the fellas after work in a perfectly normal bar, turned around so Jimmy Collins could introduce him to his cousin and came face to face with a guy he'd exchanged suckjobs with in a bathhouse a couple of weeks before. He'd recovered fast but the collision of these two separate parts of his life had left Bucky shaken all the way through. Even worse was the way Jimmy Collins' cousin tried to talk to him afterwards, kept trying to talk to him and even waited outside his work, which finally made Bucky take him by the arm and tell him very quietly and very seriously that if he ever came near Bucky again he'd regret it. The hopeful smile had been replaced with a resignation that made him look a lot older and he'd sounded older too when he promised to stay away. Six months later their eyes met across the main room of the Three Bells and Bucky had told himself that it was relief he felt when Jimmy Collins' cousin turned away.
“Ah,” Anaïs said. “He winked at you. You missed it.” Her eyes were fixed on Bucky's face and whatever she saw there made her say, sternly, “It is a fine thing to be winked at by a handsome man like my brother.”
“You're...” All the French had gone out of Bucky's head. He switched to English. “You're teasing me.”
“Perhaps.” She changed language with far more ease. “I used to pull the wings off flies when I was a child. You get a taste for it.”
“You know, it's illegal in my country. That kind of thing.”
She looked at him with something between pity and contempt. “Yes, but we are not in your country, are we?”
“Making friends?” Steve asked when Anaïs got bored of Bucky and told him to go away. Steve had put in his time talking with the guys and playing Captain America for their new friends, but for as long as Bucky had known him there would always come a point when Steve detached himself from the main event. Bucky would find him deep in conversation with some old coot or sipping a beer at the bar and watching the dancing. Or getting his ass kicked out back in an alley. Mostly, he didn’t mind when Bucky tracked him down, but there was something unwelcoming in the flatness of his tone and he didn't so much as glance up from the map he was poring over. Bucky sat down anyway.
Steve had found a quiet space around the side of the house. His gloves lay on the ground beside his knee and next to them was a pile of documents with Steve's compass resting on top like a paperweight. It was closed so Bucky couldn't see Agent Carter's picture but he knew it was there.
“Thought you said the bunker had nothing.” Bucky nodded at the documents. They all had the Hydra symbol stamped on the top but didn't look familiar.
“It didn't,” Steve said, glancing down at them and then briefly at Bucky without meeting his eyes before looking away again. “One of Georges' guys had them. Said he took them from a convoy a couple weeks ago.”
Bucky pinched the nearest corner of the pile of documents between his thumb and first finger and tugged lightly, pulling them out from beneath Steve's compass. “Looks like some kind of request for equipment,” he said after a few minutes. “They're building something—some kind of weapon?”
“That's what we thought, only some of the pages make it sound like it's something they already made. Or something they lost. I'll have Jones look at the German tomorrow. I'm checking whether any of those numbers are coordinates.”
Bucky made an approving noise, still leafing through the pages. Most were columns of numbers with only the unfamiliar German words to set them apart from the papers he used to process all the time back home. The rest were less recognizable and full of German phrases—most typed but others written in several different hands—that he had to sound out in his head to decipher. He made it through a few sentences but something about it made him uneasy so he put them to one side and closed his eyes. Jones would do a better job anyway.
The wall was solid and cool at his back. Beneath his left hand was the familiar shape of his rifle and paper rustled quietly to his right, close enough that he could almost imagine the weight of Steve's shoulder against his. Further away, people were talking: Jones' pleasant baritone, Morita's startlingly high-pitched laugh, scraps of French and English. The hum of insects living their brief lives and wind moving through the trees. The smell of cooked pork alongside the fires and wine and the stale gunpowder he didn't even notice anymore unless he thought about it; the rich scent of the earth and the trees and even the river now he knew it was there. If he looked up he would see the sky above him; stars competing with clouds and a pale moon hidden by the angle of the house.
Despite himself, Anaïs' words found their way back in. He'd locked that part of himself away when he chose to carry a gun for his country and that kind of talk here, now, made about as much sense as his sisters at boot camp, Mrs Lyznicki playing on his Saturday afternoon baseball team, or Steve at the Penn Post Baths.
He cringed guiltily away from that last thought. 'Queer' was something that used to get thrown at Steve a lot, at both of them when Steve’s mouth got him into fights Bucky couldn’t let him finish alone, and it made his chest go cold every time because he could see exactly what it was those assholes saw. Two guys as handsome as them, and Steve that delicate kind of handsome that girls didn't much like but plenty of guys did. There were guys as small as Steve at the places Bucky went, none of them lacking for company, and the thought had crossed his mind that Steve would have more luck if he liked fellas before Bucky's brain caught up and viciously stamped it out. Steve deserved better than his best friend thinking about him like that.
Gradually, he became aware that the papers had stopped rustling and when he turned his head Steve was watching him. There was nothing delicate about Steve anymore, nothing that would get him accused of not being a real man, and maybe he was as grateful for that as the serum's other effects. Steve still looked a little sore from whatever had been eating him earlier, but mostly curious. “Penny for your thoughts?”
For some reason, the question startled Bucky. He couldn't say what he'd really been thinking so he said the next thing that came into his head. “Do you like your new body better?”
Steve frowned and Bucky stumbled over himself to clarify. “I mean—not the part where you don't get sick anymore and you're strong as an ox. Not that. But looking different. Bigger. You're taller than me now, right? What's it like—is it better?”
Bucky waited, fingers tapping against the stock of his rifle while Steve thought about it. “I guess,” he finally said, looking out into the trees and giving Bucky the proud line of his jaw and the familiar crooked shape of his nose in profile. “It's different. Still feels like I'm getting used to it. Half the time I look down and I'm surprised all over again. Like I'm hitching a ride and I'll have to get out eventually.”
A chorus of laughter echoed from the back of the house and Bucky shivered. “Thought you said it was permanent.”
“It is. At least, they think it is. No one really knows.” Steve glanced at Bucky out the corner of his eye, lashes sweeping low as he smiled. “I like being taller, I guess. Makes it easier to see in a crowd.”
“Did it hurt?” Bucky's mouth asked without his permission. “You said...” Steve had said a little, which meant like hell, but that wasn't what Bucky meant. “It hurt when they did it to you, the machine, but what about after? Your muscles or your, your head. Did they— does it hurt now?”
Steve's face turned soft and a little wondering. “No,” he said. “Nothing hurts anymore. Soon as I stepped out the machine it was all gone.”
“I'm glad as hell,” Bucky said fiercely.
Steve smiled, face still soft. “You know, I went to Moe's after the procedure. I shouldn't have, but. Ethel served me a Reuben and a Coke, just like always, and never even knew it was me. I bought a paper from Big Charlie and he asked if I was new in town.”
“You blame them?”
“Guess not. You recognized me.”
Had he? Bucky remembered a voice and hands and knowing it was Steve long before he could get his eyes to focus on that face floating seven or so inches higher than he was expecting it. He wasn't sure recognition came into it. He knew Steve and he'd known Steve even when he looked more like Steve's older brother than the skinny kid he'd left back in Brooklyn. Or maybe like Steve's mom had been able to afford to take him out of the city for his health, like she'd always talked about, and years had passed since Bucky last saw him instead of months. Like he'd grown up without Bucky there to see it. Grown into someone who was still Steve in all the ways that counted but didn't quite fit like he used to and the constant shift between the familiar and the new prickled at Bucky in a way Steve's presence never used to.
“Well, sure,” he said. “I'd know that beak anywhere.”
The corners of Steve's eyes crinkled as he laughed under his breath, too quiet to hear.
Neither of them picked the conversation back up. Steve returned to his map and Bucky rested the back of his head against the cool stone wall. Anaïs had been lying about her brother, trying to get a rise out of him. Some guys swore women could always tell but that hadn't been Bucky's experience and even in France no man would look at another man like that while surrounded by strangers carrying guns. The idea was insane. Bucky had tried to make himself look safe but Anaïs' brother hadn't been fooled; Bucky hadn't been safe since they first put a gun in his hands and he would cut both those hands off before he put them on someone who didn't want him to, but this guy couldn't know that. He imagined if it was Evie or Mary or, God, even little Becca with her gun and her broken nose and a big man with cold eyes and a rifle sitting down beside her. He'd watch closely too.
Laughter came from the back of the house and Bucky craned his neck trying to see. Anaïs had been lying but the idea had taken root anyway. That dark look but with a smile this time, an invitation that he could respond to if he chose. He'd almost forgotten what it was to be wanted; to touch someone and let himself be touched for no reason besides making each other feel good. The trees were thick here and the guys were used to Bucky going on patrols. No one would miss him.
“What you looking for, Buck?” Steve asked.
Bucky leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “Nothing.”
He didn't think any more about it until weeks later. Falsworth was back but on light duties and confined to base while the rest of them were sent to western Italy to help a combined force of US and New Zealand soldiers take a bridge and the strategically important town that lay on the other side.
Afterwards, Bucky found himself sharing a pack of cigarettes with an infantryman and watching from the top window of what might have once been a school as the engineers examined the bridge. Command hadn't decided whether they wanted to blow the bridge or fortify it but it looked stable from here; the German explosives strapped to the main supports hadn't gone off, due to some divine hand or fault in the mechanism, and Dernier had poked briefly at them before declaring it was a mystery that would wait for the morning. It was morning now—late morning—but Dernier and the others had all retired to the beds arranged for them.
Bucky should have done the same but he had come here instead and the infantryman had followed. The guy had been one of the first to snap to when Bucky called for a charge in the wake of Steve's insane run into machine gun fire and he and a few of his buddies had stuck close to Bucky after that; helping to flush out the remaining Germans and then get those who surrendered rounded up and locked in the basement of the town hall. They would be moved later today, but until then they were being guarded by the men who seemed least likely to lose their heads and take the night's losses out on an easy target.
One by one the others had peeled off but this guy stayed. He was a thin restless fellow around Bucky's age, with an angular face and a long upper lip that would suit a mustache. He had to be tired: he'd been on his feet as long as Bucky. Longer, maybe, though Bucky himself felt less tired than hollowed out and strangely over-energized. Over-aware of his body: the beat of his pulse, the bitter smoke on his tongue, the space between him and this guy who had to have given Bucky his name at some point during the night so he couldn't ask for it again. His voice was worn and rough and deeper than you'd expect from a guy his size as he told Bucky about his family back in Philadelphia. Out here, it always came back to home and family, like they were all desperate to prove they had been someone else once. That there were people who had known them before they had a serial number and a gun in their hands.
Bucky looked out the window as the guy moved onto talking about the girl he'd been living with back home. From here, you could see the full length of the bridge and the ruined fields beyond. The place Steve had made his stand. Most of the bodies had been cleared overnight but there were still olive-drab shapes bobbing further down the river, snagged on rocks or branches. The current was strong and there were still men unaccounted for. Maybe they would find them if they followed the river far enough, but maybe not.
“And I love her, of course I do,” the guy beside him was saying. “But she's got all this stuff, right? Powders and creams and all kinds of bottles everywhere. In the john, all over the dressers, and it's like every time I go to get something out of my own goddamn dresser I'm knocking her stuff everywhere, you know? And it all ends up on the floor. All of it. Hairpins and, and everything. You know?”
Bucky froze and cut a look sideways. The guy's eyes darted away fast enough that he had to have been watching for Bucky's reaction. He stared out the window, blinking like the rising sun hurt his eyes, and sucking anxiously on the cigarette Bucky had given him.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to pretend he didn't understand. To commiserate with this guy about his girl or change the subject or do any of a hundred other smart things, just like every other time since he left Brooklyn. Just like he’d promised himself he would. But instead Bucky heard himself say, “Yeah, I've been known to drop those myself.”
The guy's eyes met his. They were red-rimmed and had shadows beneath them but there was something dark and bright there that Bucky hadn't known how much he missed until he felt the answering kick in his gut. “I was hoping you had.”
There was a chair just the right height to wedge under the door handle. There wasn't a bed but they didn't need one. The guy let Bucky back him up against the wall beside the window, eyes wide, and a helpless, “Christ, you're gorgeous,” falling from him before Bucky kissed him to shut him up. Kissed him until he was making desperate noises and grabbing at every part of Bucky he could get his hands on. He palmed the front of Bucky's pants and Bucky rocked into it for a few delicious seconds, panting against his mouth, before dropping to his knees.
To his right there was a stain on the rug where the German sniper had bled out with Bucky's bullet in his throat but above him the guy laughed, shocked and breathless, as Bucky got his pants open and pulled out his cock.
If they were back home Bucky would take his time. Tease a little, rub his cheek against the hardening shape in the guy's pants and use his tongue to get him good and riled up before he let him push past Bucky's lips, but there were several hundred soldiers mere yards away and this was madness so Bucky just opened his mouth and sucked him in. A needy sound left him at the first taste. How had he made himself forget how good this was? The smell and the taste and the weight on his tongue. The guy wasn't big so it didn't take much effort to swallow him down. He made a wounded sound, pulling at Bucky's hair until Bucky pinched him hard on the thigh and he jolted, grip loosening and gasping, “Sorry, sorry.”
Bucky kept one hand on the guy and struggled to unbutton himself with the other. It had been too long since he last let himself have this, too long pretending this was something he didn’t need, and he was already hard enough to hurt, shuddering as the cool air caressed him. He shuddered again just at the thrill of exposing this part of himself to a man who liked what he saw, sucking harder beneath the heat of that attention.
Too soon, the guy was groaning and spilling down Bucky's throat. Bucky swallowed around him, working his own cock. He could come like this, on his knees with his mouth full, but the guy pulled him to his feet so fast it should have made his knees ache and shoved him against the wall. His pants were yanked down to his knees. It was clear the guy didn't really know what he was doing and he could barely get half of Bucky in his mouth but Bucky was already worked up enough that it didn't take much before he was choking out a warning and then finishing in his own hand while the guy watched with wide eyes.
The force of it made his knees buckle and he let himself slide down the wall until his bare ass hit the floor with a thump, legs sprawled in front of him and the air cold on his wet cock.
“Okay?” the guy asked, dazed and a little desperate.
Bucky wiped his hand on the rug beside the blood stain and let out a shaky laugh.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”
As the days grew warmer they moved up into northern Italy. Allied forces were gaining ground in the rest of the country but Hydra and the regular German Army still had a stranglehold on everything north of Bologna and well-established supply routes to all the major cities. The seven of them spent a few weeks up in the mountains with a group of communist partisans, destroying weapons caches, sabotaging supply lines, and arguing about politics until it was almost a relief to say goodbye.
They made their way south and hitched a ride with a line of supply trucks heading to the same Allied camp they had marched into after Krausberg. Things had been fairly static in the region these past months, but the increased number of troops and air of expectation made it clear they were gearing up for an assault of some kind. Bucky had been part of that first wave into Sicily last summer. He and Dugan and the rest of the old hands had shown the replacements how to roll rubbers over the barrels of their weapons, keeping up a steady stream of chatter so none of them had a chance to think about the madness of what they were about to do. That had been Bucky's first fight with a full set of stripes and he'd been so focused on not letting his men down that there almost hadn't been room for him to be afraid for himself.
It was early evening by the time they piled out of the supply trucks. They caught a few curious looks but no one was brave enough to try and get between them and a hot meal and a shower.
Steve disappeared to report in after a cursory scrub down but the rest of them lingered beneath the lukewarm water. It had been almost a month since they'd had a chance to do more than brave the occasional dunk in a frigid mountain stream and Bucky had been unprepared for how good it would feel to get properly clean. To scrub soap through his greasy hair and scour the sharp angles and crevices of his body until the blood sang in his veins and it felt like a living thing again.
He didn't look until right at the end. A quick glance at his shoulder to confirm what he already knew and that was all. He dried off and pulled on a clean uniform then went to see about finding them somewhere to sleep.
Before dinner and the showers there had been talk of exploring the camp and seeing if there were any guys they knew stationed here, but the mood after was more subdued. Like the sight of their own fragile bodies peeled of weapons and armor had taken some of the bravado out of them, making it harder to keep ignoring the exhaustion weighing them down. With unspoken consensus they made their way to the six-man tent Bucky had secured, sinking onto their cots with the groans of much-older men.
Dugan let out a louder groan when Jones said something in French and Bucky responded. “No, no. Come on. We're finally back on American soil, can't you bums speak English for once?”
“Do I dream or are we still in Italy?” Dernier asked in Italian.
“He is confused, I think,” Bucky replied in the same language.
“Enough with the French!” Dugan threw his pillow at Bucky, missed, and scowled when Morita plucked it neatly from the air and tucked it beneath his head. “Frenchie must have learned enough English to keep up by now. Been working for the US Army long enough. Makes more sense for one guy to learn one language than six guys to learn a different one anyway.”
“Five guys,” Jones corrected him. “And he knows English just fine. He can understand you, he just doesn't want to speak it.”
Jones shrugged. “Says he doesn't like his accent.”
Dugan looked incredulous. “Why's that stopping you? Falsworth's fruity accent never once stopped him from flapping his gums, more's the pity.”
Falsworth's tart response and the back and forth that followed was something Bucky had learned to tune out by now, so he turned back to Jones. They didn't really do lessons anymore, just conversations where Jones would occasionally give him the French word he needed or correct his grammar, but lately they had been working on expanding his vocabulary and giving him a range of different ways to say the same thing. Jones was more patient than Dernier and seemed to enjoy teaching as much as Bucky had come to enjoy the challenge of learning.
“You're good at this,” Jones said after letting Bucky run his mouth about Ebbets Field and the last game he'd seen before he shipped out with only a couple of corrections. Dugan had reclaimed his pillow and he and the others had settled into a halfhearted round of cards that Morita seemed to be winning, to Dugan's further annoyance. “Really good. You never try to learn a language before? And I don't mean enough Italian to ask a girl the fastest way to her bedroom.”
There had been enough English and French speakers among the partisans that Bucky hadn't needed to use much Italian but he'd been surprised at how easily it came back to him. There had been Italian guys in the 107th who took care of bartering with the locals and Bucky's job had usually been to stand there and smile, which would sometimes get them a couple extra eggs or a little milk in exchange for cigarette rations and manual labor. He hadn't made much of an effort to pick up the language in those summer months, but he must have absorbed more than he'd thought because after the first few days he'd found himself able to hold down a conversation pretty well. Maybe a little better than he'd let on.
“Latin at school.” He shrugged. “Some Yiddish from a neighbor. Bit of German here and there—couple of lessons from Diehl in exchange for writing a letter to his girl, but just bits and pieces. Never really had much opportunity to learn.”
“Well, you know, opportunities don't just come along. You wait for opportunities and you're going to be waiting your whole life for someone else to come along and make things better. And that's never going to happen.”
“You sound like Steve,” Bucky said with a smile that grew as Jones tried and failed to hide his pleasure at the words. Christ, he was young.
“I hear my name?” Steve hadn't lost his instinct for knowing when people were talking about him, but the serum had done away with those flat feet you could hear a mile off and the entire tent jumped as he ducked through the entrance.
Steve looked far too pleased with himself; either from sneaking up on them or because of what he'd heard. Bucky gave him a flat look. “I don't know. Did you?”
“Bucky was just paying me a compliment.”
“Shows what you know.”
Steve's expression grew even more smug but there was something unbearably fond there too. Something that made Bucky want to hook an arm around his neck and drag him in to mess up that pretty hair and make him curse and try to dig an elbow into Bucky's ribs. But they hadn't done that in years, even when there was nothing but Steve's prickly pride to stop him, and these days a move like that would more likely end with Bucky twisting helplessly beneath Steve's arm. Held there until Steve decided to let him go.
The final inch of Bucky’s cigarette was making his mouth feel dry. He stubbed it out and wet his lips as he took the bundle of letters Steve was carrying.
That woke everyone up. The Army's mail service was notoriously slow and irregular at the best of times, and it was even worse now they didn't stay in any one place for more than a few days at a time and rarely knew where they were going to be from one week to the next. None of them had seen a letter in over a month.
Apart from Dernier, everyone had at least one letter. Bucky had six and Morita eyed him suspiciously. “You got a fan club or something?”
Dugan gave a put-upon sigh. “Barnes always gets the most letters. It was the same in Africa and Basic.” He settled his bulk carefully across his protesting cot and folded his hands behind his head, his own letter resting on his chest over his heart. “Never seen a guy write so many letters neither. Used to write them for some of the fellas, didn't you? Like you didn't get enough writing at school. Couple of blue letters for a pack of smokes—wasn't that your going rate?”
“Why? You looking for something to send the missus?”
One of Dugan's hands went to the letter on his chest, covering it completely. “Watch it.”
Steve had three letters. Bucky passed them over. “You got one from Mary and Becca, one from my mom, and the other I don't know.”
“Mary and Becca?” Morita perked up. “You got two girls writing to you, Cap?”
“They're my sisters.” Bucky put the same warning into it Dugan had.
“So why they writing to him?”
“Always did like me better than Bucky.” The words were flippant but his face was soft and a little surprised as he looked down at the letters and the urge to throw an arm around the big dummy and shake him was almost unbearable.
“Oh, so all those letters are from your sisters.” There was an edge to Morita’s voice and a grin spreading across his face like he'd just learned a good secret. “And here I was thinking you had a string of girls back home. Guess you're all talk.”
Bucky couldn't remember ever talking about girls with Morita, but that was the kind of thing people always assumed about him and it was safer if he let them. He shrugged.
“Don't listen to him,” Steve said. “When he left for Basic half the girls in Brooklyn went into mourning. You'd have thought the Pope died.”
He ignored the startled look Bucky threw his way and the guys laughed, turning back to their letters. Steve didn't stay long after that. He'd been given time to deliver the letters and see to some other business but he was wanted back at the command tent and the mood turned quiet once he had left. Bucky sorted through his letters, lighting another cigarette as he tried to decide which to open first. One cot over, Morita poked a socked toe into Bucky's leg and stared meaningfully at him over the top of his own letter until Bucky rolled his eyes and threw a cigarette at him. As the only one without letters, Dernier had curled onto his side with his back to the rest of the tent, looking small and wrong in US Army fatigues. Bucky wondered when he last heard from his family or friends back in Marseille.
The thought stayed with him as he read his letters, tapping ash into a mess can. There was one from his mom and pop, one each from Mary and Becca, another from just his mom, and two from girls he knew back home. Joan Russell said she'd seen him in a newsreel and thought he looked as handsome as Buster Crabbe, which made him snort.
“What?” Jones had raced through his two letters with a pinched look to his mouth before setting them aside and taking out his book. It wasn't one Bucky recognized so he must have swapped it with someone earlier today; one of the guys on the supply trucks or here at camp. He was the only guy Bucky had ever met who got through books faster than he did, though their tastes didn't overlap much and the only author they could fully agree on was Jack London.
“Nothing,” Bucky said. “What're you reading?”
Jones tilted the squat colorful book so Bucky could read the cover. “Robert Frost. I finally found someone who'd take that Lippmann off my hands.”
His curiosity must have come out sounding like genuine interest because it made Falsworth look up from a letter he had to have read over a dozen times by now. “Do you like poetry, Barnes?”
Bucky considered him, uncertain whether he was being laughed at, and Dugan took advantage of his hesitation. “Sure he likes poetry. He knows a great one about a girl from Tallahassee, don't you?”
Bucky did but he ignored that and told Falsworth, “Not really. My pop's crazy about it so I grew up with it always kinda there but it never did much for me. Well. Some stuff I like.”
“Like Frost?” Falsworth put down his letter and leaned forward. The quality in his voice Bucky had thought might be mockery was now more clearly that of a man with a passion and not unlike Steve whenever he used to talk about art or the war. It had been a long time since he heard Steve talk about art. “Keats? Tennyson?”
“Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred?” Bucky shook his head. His cigarette was down to a stub and he took a careful final sip of smoke before grinding it out in the mess can. “That's one of his favorites. I learned it for a recital when I was ten.”
“We all learned that one,” Dugan grumbled, clearly still holding a grudge towards whatever poor doomed soul had been responsible for his childhood education. “And that one about the burning deck. Christ, it's been thirty years and I still remember how that lousy thing goes. Probably remember it on my deathbed. I'll open my mouth to say an act of contrition and out will come The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled. Christ.”
“God'd probably prefer that,” Morita said.
Bucky rubbed his knee. It was strange to try and think about poetry without also thinking about his pop: impossible to separate the two. The warmth in his chest when he heard a familiar verse didn't belong to the words themselves but to the way his pop would sit in his armchair after Sunday dinner and recite them. Bucky's feelings about this weekly ritual had gone through changes over the years: cycling through awe and impatience and finally settling on a kind of protectiveness for this fierce and fragile part of his pop that he held out in his cupped hands for his wife and children to see but kept hidden from the rest of the world.
Along with that was the guilt that his pop hadn't managed to pass that devotion on to any of his children any more than they'd inherited his fair hair or taste for pickled beets. Falsworth was still waiting for an answer so Bucky shrugged apologetically. “It's not really my kinda thing. Give me an HG Wells or a Hammett any day. Sorry. Gabe's the one who went to college.”
“To study French, not poetry.”
“Well, you're the one reading it, aren't you?”
Disappointment showed on Falsworth’s face before it was replaced by his usual polite disinterest and he went back to his letter.
Noise from the outside filtered in through the thin walls of the tent: jeeps moving across dirt; men calling to each other; two guys with flat Midwestern accents walking along the row of tents and complaining about some dirty Mick who'd taken them at cards. Dugan's head went up but then someone further down the row yelled that there was another dirty Mick here they could talk to if they wanted to lose some more money and some teeth while they were at it. Janovich and Nolan used to get into it like that when they’d been too long on the line and anyone could be an enemy if you looked at them the right way. It all felt real in a way his mom's letter about visiting her sister's youngest and their new baby didn't.
Bucky shoved his letters into his pack. “I'm gonna head out. I'm with Steve tonight, keep the big guy company.” He'd been planning to bunk with the guys like usual but he had secured a two-man officer's tent for Steve in a different row and it would probably be empty for a while. Steve was an awkward and unenthusiastic room mate, unused to sharing what little space he had, but he knew how to be quiet and wouldn't mind finding Bucky there.
“I was gonna deal another hand,” Dugan protested.
“Then you ought to be glad I'm going,” Bucky said. Dugan huffed but didn't argue.
Jones got to his feet too. “I'll walk with you. I've got to take a leak.”
“Gabe,” Bucky said, slinging his pack over his shoulder and picking up his rifle. “Buddy. If you haven't figured out how to do that by yourself by now then I don't know what to tell you. I'm not holding your dick.”
Jones made a face. “Damn right you're not.”
“I thought it was girls that all went to the bathroom together,” Morita said.
Dugan grunted. “Sounds about right.”
Outside was a little cooler than the tent but not cold enough for the way Jones pulled his fatigue jacket close around himself. The sky was thick with dark clouds and the air heavy and fragrant, like rain was on the way. Most of the men were turning in for the night, gathered in tight knots around the mouths of tents, but there was a light showing in the command tent up ahead and guards patrolling along the edges of camp. Jones seemed lost in thought as they picked their way through the line of tents so Bucky finally said, “You get a letter from your brother?”
Jones started and then shook his head, grimacing. “According to my dad he's still in college. He's been talking about the Navy again though. We're all telling him he can do more good where he is than out here but he's never been all that interested in what's good for him.”
“Yeah, some kids are dumb like that,” Bucky said dryly. “Gotta be some kind of idiot to give up a cushy college life for a hole in the ground out in the middle of nowhere with people shooting at him, huh?”
“Yeah, the same kind of idiot who'd give up a cushy office job.” Jones flicked him an amused sideways look before sobering. “It's different. He knows they'll never take him with his eyes being what they are, but he's still gotta prove himself. He's been talking about dropping out and joining the Navy ever since Doris Miller died, and of course there's Dad and all of that to live up to. And now his big brother's on a team with Captain America. They saw me in a newsreel back home—you believe that? Me on a newsreel.”
“Me neither. Now I can't even get that boy to write back and he really thinks he's got something to prove.” Jones blew out a frustrated breath, frowning at a jeep rolling past. Music was playing on a radio somewhere, the song soft and familiar but a little too quiet for Bucky to pin down. “Younger brothers always think they've got it so hard. Dad says my Uncle Wilbur was the same. You get that in your family? You're the eldest, right?”
Bucky shook his head. “I only got sisters. Maybe the other two feel that way about Evie, but I don't think so. I think girls are different.”
“Yeah,” Jones sighed. “Aren't they just?”
“Reading your girl a bedtime story?” Steve asked as he ducked into their shared tent.
Bucky shot him a look and continued wiping down the firing pin of his rifle. The rain had started up almost as soon as he and Jones parted ways and the relentless drumming against the roof of the tent filled him with the same sullen restlessness he used to get back home whenever his mom told him and his sisters they'd just have to play inside today. Given the choice, he'd happily read or play records for hours but with the choice taken away all he wanted was to run through the streets.
There were no streets out here but the same impulse tugged at him. First, he had tried to read his letters again and then taken his book out of his pack, even though he'd read it twice already, but finally he had settled in to clean his rifle. The familiar routine and feel of her beneath his hands had taken some of the edge off but he still felt brittle somehow. Not right in his own skin.
The rain had eased off to a light pattering. There were droplets caught in Steve's hair and darkening the shoulders of his jacket, which he shrugged out of and held indecisively between his hands before draping it across the small wooden chest at the foot of his bed like Bucky had. The air in the tent was too humid for anything to dry but it was the best they could do. There was barely two feet of space running between his cot and Steve's and it felt like far less with Steve looming over him, the muscles of his back moving beneath his thin shirt as he found a towel and scrubbed it across his hair.
“So how's your girl?” Bucky held up the firing pin and examined it carefully, checking the spring one last time before sliding it into the back of the bolt and fitting the retaining block in place. When he glanced up Steve had turned around with his hair fluffed across the crown and his brows drawn together.
“Are you... talking about Agent Carter?” Steve's cot creaked ominously when he sat, elbows resting on his knees and towel bunched between his big hands.
“Who else am I gonna be talking about? Colonel Phillips?” Bucky reassembled the bolt and slid it back into the receiver. “I didn't think the war had changed you that much.”
“You're hilarious,” Steve said, like he always did when he couldn’t think of a comeback. “She's not my girl. And she's not here.”
“Mm.” The stock snapped back into position with a satisfying sound and he used a spare cartridge to secure the hammer block pin. “So where is she? On vacation?”
When he looked up from his work Steve's eyes flicked from Bucky's hands to his face and then off to the side. “I doubt it. Howard's here. He's got some new toys for us to look at that I think you're gonna like. And he says he's got some ideas for your rifle.”
“He can keep his mitts off my rifle is what he can do.”
The thrill of getting to work with the famous Howard Stark had lasted about ten minutes after meeting the man, and it only took that long because Bucky had been too dazzled by all the gadgets and machines that looked like they'd been lifted straight from the pages of Amazing Stories to pay much attention to the man himself. Stark was a genius, no doubt about that, and Bucky was glad he was on their side, but that didn't stop him from being an ass who had gone out of his way to make sure everyone in the room knew Bucky was only there as a favor to Steve.
The way he looked at Steve got under Bucky's skin too: like a man congratulating himself on a job well done. “You can tell him my rifle's just fine. I don't need it to turn cartwheels.”
Steve ignored that. “And he was talking about a motorcycle for me.”
“Since when can you ride a motorcycle?” Steve could barely drive a car, no matter how many times Bucky had taken him out in his family's old Sedan. He’d always liked bikes though and would hang around and moon whenever there was one in the shop being fixed up.
“Since Hitler taught me,” Steve said completely deadpan and then smirked at whatever expression Bucky's face was making. “The guy who played Hitler on the USO tour. He taught me.”
“Huh.” Bucky turned back to his rifle. The extractor lay to the side on the grease-stained towel spread across his cot. He wiped it carefully on a corner and pushed it into position on the bolt with the cartridge before fitting the cocking handle into place. “He's not gonna make it fly is he? Because I remember that not going so well for him.”
“No, no flying just... gadgets. Missiles. Maybe a flamethrower. You should see the designs he's got drawn up. You'll like it.”
Bucky grunted. “You gonna let your hair dry like that?”
Steve muttered something under his breath before tossing the wet towel on top of his fatigue jacket and going through his pack. He emerged with a comb. “Don't suppose you got a mirror?”
“Not in this purse,” Bucky said. Steve's had broken during a tumble down the side of a gorge earlier in the week and Bucky had traded his with a tiny old Italian woman in exchange for letting him and Dernier hide in her cellar until the Hydra patrol had passed and they could rejoin the others. The old bat had taken him for a pack of Junos and a full magazine while she was at it. “Got to stop by supplies tomorrow. Don't worry, I'll let you know if it looks worse than usual.”
Steve made do with the bottom of a mess can and Bucky focused on his rifle, sliding the link into the plunger and fitting the bolt stop and bolt stop plate back into position. They worked in silence, the only sounds from the camp outside and the snap-snap of his rifle coming together beneath his hands. The rain had stopped.
“How long you think we'll be here?” Bucky asked once he'd reattached the barrel and run through his final checks. He'd only done a field strip but he would fully dismantle and clean his rifle tomorrow and see if anyone in camp had a spare extractor that would fit: this one was getting a little loose. He laid his rifle to one side and wiped his hands on the towel, worrying at the grease beneath his nails. “The guys have been stretched pretty thin these past months and we're due a furlough. You think they'll send us back to London?”
Steve sighed. “I don't know, Buck. I guess we'll go where we're needed.”
“Right. Ours is not to reason why, huh?” Steve looked at him oddly, the tracks of his comb standing out in his damp hair. “You remember when I learned that for that recital?”
“Remember threatening to strangle you if I had to hear it one more time. The one with the widening gyre too.” Steve stopped fussing with his bangs and returned his comb and mess can to his pack, speaking over his shoulder. “There's a briefing tomorrow at oh eight hundred. I already told the guys. Word is someone matching Zola's description has been spotted near Turin. They might want us to move on that.”
Bucky's hand closed around his rifle. “Well, I guess that's worth sticking around for.”
Steve lay down on his cot to read his letters. Bucky glanced up from packing away his cleaning kit and saw he'd chosen the one from Mary and Becca first. If it was anything like the letter Becca had sent her big brother Steve could look forward to hearing about all the serials he was missing and how unfair it was that she wasn't allowed to try out for the All-American Girls Baseball League. Maybe she'd ask Steve to write to their folks and try to change their mind too.
The corner of Steve's mouth crooked fondly in response to what he was reading and Bucky looked away.
As he stretched out on his own cot it occurred to him that this was what evenings might have been like if Steve had ever taken him up on his suggestion that they get a place together. Fridays and Saturdays were meant for drinking and dancing but during the week the two of them would have settled in like this; both of them reading or Steve drawing, perhaps, and the wireless playing in the background. Maybe on opposite sides of a sofa, idly kicking at each other's feet like they used to do round Bucky's place on new comics day. With both their salaries they could have afforded somewhere nicer than the rat traps Steve always ended up in and Bucky could have gotten out from under the loving watchful eye of his folks. It had sounded like a fine idea to Bucky but Steve hadn't agreed, just kept brushing him off and telling Bucky he ought to be saving that money his folks weren't charging him and then, finally, snapped that he wasn't interesting in paying rent for a place he'd have to clear out of every time Bucky wanted to bring one of his girls home. Bucky hadn't asked again. Hadn't called on Steve for a while after that either and Steve hadn't apologized because that's not how the two of them were, but he'd shown up weeks later claiming to want to see some dumb new monster picture and then sat through the whole thing and Bucky talking excitedly about it afterwards and that was the end of it.
Bucky rolled his shoulders and rubbed absently at his bicep. He thought about trying to read his letters again, or making a start on his own but instead he pulled out his notebook.
A lot of soldiers carried notebooks and he'd been no exception. His last one had been taken from him along with everything else at Azzano but he'd picked this one up a couple of months ago in a ransacked office, along with a decent bottle of Cognac that the seven of them had shared later that night. The notebook had been in a drawer with two more, both filled with notes that had gotten everyone at intelligence very excited but turned out to be some bored Hydra bureaucrat’s attempts at plotting out a detective novel, but this one had been empty, the spine unbroken and the leather cover smooth beneath his fingertips. It was barely the size of his palm and slipped easily into his pants pocket.
The first few pages were filled with notes in the same careful handwriting that used to win him prizes at school and he flicked through those, licked the end of his pencil and wrote the date and then F's leg still stiff. Extractor needs replaced. S motorcycle—FLAMETHROWER? Poss Z sighting near Turin.
The words twisted together on the page. He closed the book and watched his stained and callused fingers touch the smart blue cover before slowly turning it over and opening it so that the last page with its upside down lines looked like the start of a new book. He tapped the pencil three times against the empty page and then quickly wrote 3 weeks in N. It with partisans. Me & Drn separated from others & hid in old lady's cellar while she made nice with H. patrol. Smell of damp, onions & motor oil. Could see a spider web where I was crouched & bundles of flies wrapped up like Christmas presents but no spider. Got called idiots when we rejoined the others. S said he wasn't worried but he's still a lousy liar.
Bucky frowned down at what he'd written, itching beneath his skin and dissatisfied. He put the pencil down and closed the book, resting his hand over it, and glanced across at Steve who was still reading his letters and smiling to himself. Bucky looked back down at his book and then picked his pencil up again.
On June 6th 1944 the Allied forces launched a full-scale attack on occupied France. Airborne units dropped behind enemy lines and transport ships choked the channel, spitting out wave after wave of men into the path of machine gun fire all along the coast. Steve had argued that he ought to be among them, but Bucky had already been through two beach landings on two separate continents and told himself there was no way the brass was going to feed Captain America into that kind of meat grinder. He kept quiet and exchanged a relieved look with Dugan when their team was given different orders.
When the Allied forces landed at Normandy Bucky and his guys were three hundred miles away, sabotaging railway lines with the French Resistance under Plan Vert and keeping the Germans from sending reinforcements to the coast. Throughout France other resistance groups were doing the same as well as setting light to fuel and ammunition depots, destroying electrical facilities, cutting telephone and teleprinter wires, and generally turning the entire country into one giant angry wasp nest. They were too far inland to hear the bombardment along the coast but you could feel it all the same: a tremble in the air like distant thunder, like something vast and inevitable drawing closer.
Four days after Normandy Bucky let a guy fuck him for the first time. The day had seen another rail yard destroyed and cheers as Steve literally pushed a train carriage onto its side; on top of that, word had reached them of British and Canadian successes on the coast and it had turned into a celebration. One of the trains had been carrying a case of brandy and once that had made its way around the circle a few times it was easy for Bucky to catch the eye of the quiet French guy who had been watching him all week and then slip away from the campfire. Bucky had done it the other way around a few times back home and once or twice been drunk enough to let a guy slide wet fingers up his ass when they were sucking on him, but this had always seemed like a line he shouldn't cross.
Though it was hard to remember why when he was being touched with rough, insistent hands and kissed like the guy couldn't believe his luck. Bucky had taken several pulls of brandy and felt nothing, but the secondhand taste of it from an eager mouth made him feel heady, like he could do anything. There was nothing but spit and it hurt worse than he'd thought it would, but it also made him come so hard it knocked something loose in his head and he was still giggling breathlessly as the guy grunted into the back of his shoulder and finished.
He returned to camp feeling raw and scraped up but buzzing beneath his skin like the first time he'd let another man put their hands on him; young and dumb and scared out of his wits but astonished at his body and all the new ways it could feel. Something had shifted inside him at that and he'd been terrified it would be written all over his face, like everyone would be able to see what he'd let another man do to him, how he'd liked it, but no one had noticed then and no one noticed now. Most of the time no one noticed the big moments that happened on the inside.
Once the beaches had been secured at Normandy and there was no actual danger, the SSR finally let Steve run out of a boat and onto the sand with a dozen bemused and starstruck infantrymen behind him and an oily little fellow filming it for the folks back home. The rest of them got to stand around looking pensive and pointing at maps for a cameraman who hadn't worked with them before and received a short, sharp lesson on what happened when he tried to edge Jones and Morita out of shots. In the weeks since the landings someone had done their best to clear the small stretch of land and make it into something the cheering masses would be proud their war bonds had made possible, but things looked a little different outside the frame. The scars carved into the earth by shells barely registered anymore, but the debris that even now washed up on the shore made it real: a canteen, a boot, unidentifiable scraps of olive-drab cloth. There were men Bucky had gone into the water with at Fedala, at Sicily, and nothing of them had made it to shore except scraps like that weeks later. Probably the sea would be giving back pieces of the men it had swallowed a hundred years from now.
Soon enough they were done playing at movie stars and sent after Hydra again. To Greece this time, on the trail of a Hydra facility rumored to be working on a new kind of biological weapon. If there was any truth to the rumors Bucky and his guys didn't get to see it as an alarm started wailing almost as soon as they entered the bunker and they were all lucky to make it out before the explosion went off.
“And that, gentlemen, is the problem with Hydra,” Falsworth remarked as they tried and failed to find a safe way into the smoking remains of the facility. “No sense of sportsmanship.”
“Oh, yeah,” Morita said. “That's their problem.”
Bucky shrugged. “Hey, if Hydra wants to blow themselves up and save us the trouble it works for me. I'm on board with this new strategy. Makes our job easier.”
That got general grunts of agreement but Steve didn't look happy. He had circled the area twice and tried every entrance, even making it halfway down a wrecked flight of stairs before they crumbled beneath him and he had to leap up to catch Bucky and Dugan's outstretched hands.
“This doesn't smell right,” he said when Bucky took him to one side. “Hydra don't just give up like that.”
“Schmidt pushed the self-destruct button the first time you came after him,” Bucky reminded him. “These assholes are all cowards.”
“Maybe. But we don't know how deep that explosion went. Or how deep this place goes. Taking out the upper levels is a good way of making us think the whole place has gone up and stopping us from seeing what's down there, don't you think?”
Bucky let out a breath through his teeth. Past Steve's shoulder the mouth of the destroyed stairwell was still coughing out tendrils of the thick, black smoke that he could feel sinking deep into his skin, coating the back of his throat. He’d be able to smell this place on all of them long after they left.
“Maybe,” he said. “But you can't know that and there's nothing we can do about it right now. Right now we need to get the guys moving and make it to the extraction point. Put it... put it in your report. Maybe they'll send someone to check it out.”
Steve's expression said he didn't believe that any more than Bucky but he didn't argue.
After Greece they divided their time between ambushing convoys along the Austrian border and kicking their heels back at camp. Bucky even let himself be talked into letting Stark fit an upgraded telescopic sight to his rifle and was startled by the first genuine smile he'd ever seen the man make when he had to admit it was better. He got an even brighter smile with a showman's edge to it when he asked what was the hold-up with Steve's motorcycle, and then a ten minute monologue that he mostly tuned out as he pored over the design schematics. The thing wouldn't fly but it looked like it would do just about anything else you wanted and Stark flat-out laughed when Bucky said he was already plotting how to steal it away from Steve.
The weather had grown warm over the past weeks and sweat pooled in the small of his back as he tested his new scope out in the field. He and his rifle knew each other well enough by now that he could choose the best position on a distant hill and wait for the six-man Hydra patrol to cross the open valley below while his guys stayed safely out of sight.
Beneath him, the ground was chalky and full of stones that bit into his hips and forearms as he fired off a final shot to signal to the others that they could move in to search the bodies.
“You're doing that wrong,” Morita said.
Bucky took his eye from the scope long enough to give him a narrow look. Morita had taken a knock to the head earlier that day when the floor of the attic he had been searching gave out beneath him and he'd wound up in the kitchen. His pride had taken the worst damage but he was still having trouble focusing so he'd agreed to watch this show from the cheap seats with Bucky.
He'd also agreed to be quiet. “You think you can do better?”
“Not the shooting.” Morita spoke in the thick, overly-precise way of someone who had to concentrate very hard on what they were saying. It wasn't unlike the way he sounded after a few drinks. “I mean, I guess you hit everything you meant to. That's what you do. But that rifle's a semi-automatic. You don't need to chamber a round after every shot, you're wasting shells.”
“Oh.” Bucky blinked. “Right.”
In the valley below, Steve and the others had broken cover and were moving quickly towards the fallen Hydra patrol. He watched them through the scope and then moved his rifle to one side so he could take in the entire scene at once. “I trained on a Springfield. Bolt-action. Sometimes I forget this girl doesn't need that.” They'd issued him with the Springfield back in the States, after North Africa and before Europe, and he'd carried it until it was taken from him at Azzano. He hadn't loved that rifle like he loved this one but there was something satisfying about pulling the bolt back that he missed. Like punctuation at the end of a sentence.
After a moment he said, “You use a Betsy with the Rangers?”
“Nah,” Morita said. “Just in Basic. Why'd you ask for one if you're not used to it? They could have got you a Garand easy as anything.”
“Yeah, they tried me on a Garand before the Springfield. We didn't get on.”
“But why a Betsy?”
Steve had reached the Hydra patrol and Bucky put his eye back to the scope to watch him turn out the first body's pockets. “There was a guy,” he said. “A marine. When I landed at Fedala with Torch I lost my weapon as soon as I hit the beach—I still don't know how. I ended up with this marine who got separated from his squadron; it was me and him and a couple other guys. He had a Betsy, all the marines had them, and we were pinned down so I borrowed his rifle and I took a shot. I liked the way she handled.”
He remembered lying near the beach afterwards; after the shooting had stopped and before the marine got hustled away somewhere else. They had shared a smoke, fingers brushing against each other and Bucky's heart pounding, not quite believing he hadn't left some important part of himself back on that beach. In the dark the marine had reached out across the space between their bodies and rested two fingers against Bucky's wrist. It was a light touch, an asking touch, and Bucky could have given in to it, let his hand be drawn down to the front of the marine's pants and let himself be touched in return. Guys did that sometimes in the dark, it didn't mean anything. But Bucky had made a promise to himself that he would leave all of that back in Brooklyn so in the end he just folded his hand around the marine's fingers and held them, felt them tremble, before letting go.
“Fedala,” Morita was saying. “That's near Casablanca, right? You see that movie?”
“I was kinda busy at the time.”
“Yeah, me too. My girl saw it though. Not then, after. She's out in Maryland—you know, translating—but they sent her to this camp first. This different kind of camp to teach the girls all the military words they'd need to know. That was one of the movies they showed them. His Girl Friday, too.”
“Nicer than where she was, that's for sure.” Morita was quiet for a moment. In the valley below, Jones turned to face Bucky's position and held up a pack of Eckstein No 5s with a smile and then elbowed Dugan when he tried to snatch them from him. It didn't look like anyone had found much else. “Shizuko thought it was the best joke she ever heard when I told her I'm learning French. A Jap with no Japanese speaking French. Said she laughed so hard her roommate thought she was having an attack.”
“Shizuko.” Bucky tested the name on his tongue, feeling the shape of it.
“Yeah. That's my girl. Her folks are a little more traditional than mine. No one in her family called James.”
“Hey, James is a fine name.”
“Popular anyway. It's so fine how come you don't go by it neither?”
“You know how many Jameses there were on my street? In my family? I got my pop and three more just counting uncles and cousins and not one of them gets called James unless his mom's tearing a strip off of him.”
“Where'd you get 'Bucky' from anyway?”
Movement below drew Bucky back to the scope but it was just a couple of pheasants pecking at the ground beneath a hedge. He held them in the crosshairs, weighing up fresh meat for dinner against giving his guys an unnecessary scare and let them go. Morita was waiting so he shrugged. “Story I got told was my cousin Hattie couldn't say her Js when she was a kid so I got called Bucky because of my middle name and it just kinda stuck. I don't know about that, I was too young to remember. I've just always been Bucky.”
Steve signaled that they were finished. He and the others paired up and began hauling the bodies somewhere it would take a little longer for them to be discovered. The pheasants had disappeared. “They're just cleaning up down there. We can join them in a minute.”
“You can see that?” Out the corner of his eye Morita was squinting down at the valley. “I see dots. Small dots.”
“I've got a scope.”
Morita muttered something beneath his breath that Bucky pretended not to hear and neither of them said anything else before they went to rejoin the others.
As useful as his rifle was, there were still missions where Bucky chose the Thompson instead. Hydra wasn't always accommodating enough to build their facilities within range of a sniper's perch: sometimes they dug them into the sides of mountains or, in this case, so far out in the middle of flat Dutch countryside that even Bucky's new scope wouldn't do any good. The facility had looked like a small farmhouse in the grainy photographs Agent Carter pinned to the board in the briefing room, but there were four levels of rooms and endless winding corridors beneath it.
Bucky liked to be behind his sniper's scope. He liked enough distance to take in the entire situation and watch over his guys, but there was something to be said for going in with them too. The facility was small enough for the seven of them to tackle alone. His Thompson and Steve's shield got them through the first line of defense and then everyone broke off into smaller groups to work their way down. He and Steve usually stuck together when Bucky went in with them and there was a twisted part of him that almost enjoyed it, that thrilled at the way he would turn and Steve would already be moving the shield to cover him or how Steve could pause in a certain way and Bucky knew to move forward to take point without a word being said. Any of that new awkwardness between them fell away in these moments, replaced with a closeness he hadn't known he could have with Steve. One that left him restless and strangely guilty afterwards.
He and Steve tore through the second level like a single, unstoppable force before splitting up to search through the wreckage. Above them were offices and below them Morita and Falsworth were handling the labs, but this level was a mixture of sleeping quarters and workstations and Bucky had a feeling this was where the paperwork would be kept.
Despite that, he was empty-handed when he rejoined Steve, going through one of a dozen gray rooms. Like the others, there was a desk and a cot in opposite corners and two doors, one of which had been wrenched off its hinges. In the middle of the floor was a man with a broken neck and sightless blue eyes that Bucky avoided as he stepped over him to join Steve by the desk. “Find anything?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Maybe. What do you think of this?”
The folder he handed Bucky had the Hydra emblem stamped on the front and contained something that might be a medical file. Attached with a paperclip were two photographs of what looked like the same hand and a folded-over sheet of butcher's paper with a crude drawing that it took Bucky a moment to realize was a brain from several angles with different sections circled and annotated. The rest of the file was made up of loose sheets that looked a lot like the shipping inventory Georges' man had found a few months back. Every piece of paper had the Hydra emblem at the top.
“These guys remind you of Jidge Peters at all?” Bucky carefully folded the butcher's paper back along its creases.
Steve looked at him, startled and amused. “Now you mention it.”
Jidge Peters' family had lived in the same building Steve and his mom moved into when he was nine. Jidge's usual temperament was a kind of dreary, gummy-eyed apathy but he was capable of unexpected displays of cruelty when the mood took him and Bucky had once bloodied his nose and kicked his ass from one end of the street to the other for making Mary cry. More than his apathy or his cruelty, Jidge had been known for his mom writing his name in careful block capitals on everything he owned: clothes, toys, books... No one was sure whether Mrs Peters had been worried about Jidge having his few possessions taken from him or, as Bucky personally believed, she thought her son was so dumb he'd forget his own name if he wasn't constantly reminded of it.
Maybe Schmidt thought the same.
On the wall above the desk hung a large cork board. In the bottom left corner was a photograph of two young girls and a smiling woman, a handful of movie stubs, and a desiccated leaf carefully held in place with a pin, but apart from that every available inch was covered with reports and diagrams. “You gone through these?”
“Not yet. I was saving that for you.”
“And it's not even my birthday.”
Whatever response Steve was opening his mouth to give was lost as Bucky caught movement in the second doorway. His bullets struck the Hydra soldier high in the chest and as they fell their hand opened and the grenade rolled to a stop beside the guy with the broken neck.
Bucky was moving before he knew he'd made the decision but Steve was faster. He surged forwards, shoving Bucky behind him so hard it sent him crashing into the far wall. The impact knocked Bucky's feet from under him and the breath out of him so he could only watch as Steve threw himself onto the grenade. The vibration shuddered through the floor as it went off.
There was a high-pitched ringing in Bucky's ears as he clawed his way across the floor, mindless with panic, but Steve was already sitting up. His eyes were wide and blue beneath the cowl and Bucky's stomach lurched until he realized Steve had thrown the shield on top of the grenade and his own body on top of that. The shield had absorbed the impact. He was solid and whole and alive beneath Bucky's hands. He was fine.
A sound left Bucky that was almost a laugh but Steve's face had gone from shock to anger and just like that a switch flipped in Bucky and he was furious too. Rage he hadn't known was inside of him erupted, driving both of them to their feet, grabbing and pushing at each other and Bucky had air now so he used it on furious, helpless words that shredded the back of his throat and blocked out whatever Steve was shouting at him.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“What were you thinking?” Steve's face was brick red and his hands bruising as they took Bucky by the arms and shook him. “I've got the shield. I've got the serum. You would have killed yourself!”
Bucky shoved at Steve's chest with the heels of both hands. Something in him was boiling over, wanting Steve out of his sight and at the same time wanting to hook his fingers into him and hold on tight, pull him in close as he could get. Steve wasn't any better: pushing Bucky away and then grabbing fistfuls of his jacket like he couldn't make up his mind. Bucky had been so afraid but now anger filled that space inside of him, anger and some other desperate feeling beneath it and Steve was so close: his red face and his furious eyes and the hot strike of his breath against Bucky's cheek. The leather and smoke and Steve smell of him. He was so close and Bucky wanted him gone and he wanted him closer. His eyes fell to the angry shape of Steve's mouth and when he looked up again Steve had gone still and his eyes were wide. Bucky licked his lips and Steve's eyes dropped to follow the motion and he had one second to think oh before Steve was kissing him.
Steve’s mouth hit his like a punch. His hands were on Bucky’s face, rough leather holding him where Steve wanted him, making Bucky shudder and claw his own hands into those stupid straps across Steve’s chest to drag him in closer. His back struck the wall and a startled sound left him as Steve hoisted him up. He was taller than Steve like this, legs automatically going around his waist and Steve crowding in tight with a strangled groan.
“Cap! Bucky! You clear along here?” Morita sounded like he was halfway between them and the north stairwell. They froze, eyes locked. “Monty's found something you should see.”
Bucky unpeeled his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Be right there,” he called, cringing at the hoarseness of his voice, hoping it didn’t carry.
Steve was still holding him up against the wall but he let him down slowly and Bucky's knees wobbled a little before he was steady. His whole body felt like he'd been pulled apart and put back together different. Like he'd stepped through a door that had been there his whole life and ended up in a room he never knew existed. He couldn't stop staring at Steve.
It was nothing to the way Steve was looking at him. He'd lowered Bucky to the ground but he hadn't stepped back and he was taller than Bucky again, broader, and with a wet shine on his plush lower lip. Bucky's own mouth throbbed and he touched his tongue to his lip, feeling his gut go tight when Steve's eyes flicked down to watch.
“We gotta...” The words came out thick and heavy. Like he'd been kicked in the head and couldn't be sure his body would do what he told it. “We gotta go. We got a mission here.”
“And after?” Steve's voice sounded just as rough.
This close, Bucky could feel the heat rolling off of him; could feel the strength in Steve's powerful body even when it wasn't touching him. He didn't look like he'd been kicked in the head, he looked determined, intent, and Bucky's skin prickled hot because this was Steve. Skinny, too-serious Steve who got a nosebleed the first time he asked a girl to dance and kept his spare key under a fucking rock two feet from his own front door. He could plan an attack and lead a charge and take out a roomful of armed men in a matter of seconds but he was still the Steve Bucky had known all his life and he needed to catch his breath. Needed to think.
“After, we'll talk,” he said. “We'll talk about this.”
Steve stared at him a moment longer and then nodded. His eyes went to Bucky's mouth again, hand twitching at his side like he wanted to touch and the memory of that leather glove against the side of his face made the breath go out of Bucky. Made him imagine that cool, rough touch tracing his swollen lip and he forced himself to step away. To focus on the job.
The device Falsworth had found looked like the kind of thing that would interest Stark, so they wrapped it carefully in a bed sheet and put it in a bag with a handful of files and anything else that looked important. The folder Steve had found went in the bag too and Bucky watched silently as the zip was drawn over it. The meticulously-labeled brain had unnerved him but when he thought about it now it was the photographs that made him wonder. Why take two photographs of the same unremarkable hand? Why include both when there was no difference between them? These questions and more chased themselves around the back of his head as they finished clearing the base.
By the time the charges were set a dull pain had taken root behind Bucky's eyes and his body ached all over. He felt ready to curl up and sleep for a week but they were in the middle of Friesland: a day's drive and a border crossing from their rendezvous point and further still from his own cot. Something about this mission seemed to have had the same effect on the rest of the men because the mood was sullen and fractious as they made their slow journey home.
Worse than his own exhaustion and the short tempers all around was the impatience Steve was broadcasting. Ever since the grenade it was like a wire had been strung between them, connecting him to Steve, keeping him excruciatingly aware of Steve's body and where it was in relation to his own. Nothing showed in Steve's expression but his fingers drummed against the shield. The grenade had destroyed the leather straps and until they could be replaced he was forced to hold it between both hands like a little kid; like the little kid Bucky had once known who would grip his sketchbook in the same way and frown as easily as other kids smiled.
He would think of that kid and then he would meet Steve's eyes and that look plucked the wire between them, sent vibrations down the line that shook Bucky all the way through and made his thighs burn where Steve had gripped tight enough to bruise and held him up like he weighed nothing. Beneath that look he could feel the hungry, searching shape of Steve between his spread thighs and his entire body would flood hot and strange and force him to look away.
It was four days before they were back in London and Bucky could let himself look back. Steve had his own private officer's quarters on base but Bucky couldn't imagine having this conversation under the Army's roof.
“You've got a place in town, right?” he asked Steve under his breath as they sat waiting to be called in for debriefing. “You said that before, that you've got a place.”
That had been months ago and Steve hadn't mentioned it since. For a moment Bucky thought maybe he was remembering wrong but then Steve gave him a quick sideways look and nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, leave it to me.”
Leaving it to Steve meant Steve disappearing into a meeting with Colonel Phillips and emerging twenty minutes later with three-day passes for the entire squad. That raised everyone's spirits and after a round of whoops and back-slapping it was unanimously decided they celebrate with drinks at The Whip and Fiddle. Steve was the guest of honor but he begged off with the phoniest reluctant smile Bucky had ever seen and some excuse about paperwork that the guys groaned at but seemed to buy nonetheless. It would look strange if Bucky didn't join them but he hovered uncertainly until Steve took him to one side and slipped him a torn-off piece of paper with an address scribbled on it.
“Come by at eight,” he said quietly and Bucky nodded.
It was still light when Bucky made the walk from The Whip and Fiddle to Steve's place. The evening was warm with a light breeze and people were making the most of it. He smiled at three old women sitting on fold-out chairs who watched him pass with open interest, and stepped off the sidewalk to avoid a gang of shrieking kids in pursuit of a battered soccer ball. Two girls with their hair done up in braids were playing some kind of jump rope counting game he remembered Becca and her friends being mad for when he shipped out for North Africa and having outgrown by the time he returned.
Several houses were in the process of hanging their blackout curtains and more already had theirs in place. One of the streets he walked down carried a vivid reminder of why: a gap like a missing tooth in an identical row of houses. Out front, a small boy was wobbling along the white-checkered edge of the curb with his arms flung out to the sides like a tightrope walker but he stopped and stared as Bucky passed.
The address Steve had given him was for a faded blue door between a dressmaker's and a hardware store. Both stores already had their windows covered with thick black cloth but a young woman with a toddler on her hip came out of the hardware store and the smell of paint and shaved metal was the same as Mulligan's, where Steve had worked for two years before Lonnie Chambers got his draft notice and the clerking position at the pencil factory opened up. Bucky looked down at the familiar loops of Steve's writing and chewed the inside of his lip.
He had sat in The Whip and Fiddle drinking watery beer and trying not to check his watch every twenty seconds. The guys had been full of good humor and plans for what they were going to do with their three days but he couldn't remember a single thing they'd said. He'd nodded and made all the right noises and asked himself if he was really going to do this. He'd still been asking himself that when his watch showed five to eight and he found himself on his feet saying his goodbyes. His departure was met with jeers and accusations of being an old woman until Dernier muttered something sly and not entirely beneath his breath to Morita about a girl, so Bucky just winked and let them think that.
It took a little more than five minutes to find Steve's place but the door opened almost as soon as he touched the buzzer. Steve's face showed naked relief before he got it under control and Bucky followed him up a narrow staircase, heart pounding. The stairs went up one floor and then split off to one apartment on the left and Steve's on the right, above the dressmaker's.
Once inside, the apartment was a wide L-shape with a small kitchen tucked into the bend and a few mismatched pieces of furniture, including a sofa covered with sprigs of pale blue and white flowers that looked like it had been there since the last war. There was a window overlooking the street and a couple of closed doors that presumably led to the bedroom and john. The place looked clean enough and was twice the size of Steve's room back home, but the air felt stale and smelled like the meat and fried potatoes that must have come in the balled-up paper on the kitchen counter beside the pot full of wooden spoons. There was no plate in sight so either Steve had cleaned that away but left the paper or he'd eaten his dinner straight from its wrappings, probably standing over the sink like an animal.
“It's nice,” Bucky said, stepping past Steve to take a proper look. He straightened a painting of some milkmaids and idly poked at the narrow bookcase beside it. There were a couple of authors he recognized but the entire second shelf was dedicated to well-thumbed books by someone called Agatha Christie. He flicked through Death in the Clouds before replacing it and wandering over to the window. The top section was open, just a crack, letting in the distant sounds of those kids still chasing after their ball and someone listening to one of those British radio plays Falsworth tortured them with. The house across the street hadn't put their curtains up yet either and he watched a woman dance a baby around the room like his mom used to do to get Becca to stop crying. “You're really coming up in the world, kid.”
“Bucky,” Steve said right behind him and Bucky almost jumped out of his skin. He hadn't heard Steve move but now he was standing very close, wearing civilian clothes that somehow made him look even broader and with mint on his breath. His hair was a little disheveled, like he'd combed it carefully earlier in the evening and been running his hands through it ever since.
Bucky was still looking at his stupid hair with a lump in his throat when Steve put a hand on his arm, just above the elbow, and leaned in. Bucky stopped him with a hand in the center of his chest. “What happened to talking?”
“Mm?” Steve searched his eyes. “Oh. You... you really meant talk.”
“Yeah.” Bucky swallowed. Steve's chest was warm beneath his shirt and solid as a brick wall. “You don't think we need to?”
Steve's face had been soft but it turned petulant when Bucky pushed harder, putting some space between them. He looked over his shoulder and the woman was still trying to get her baby to stop crying, looking on the verge of tears herself, but if she looked up she'd be able to see them as easily as they could see her. “Help me get these goddamn curtains up.”
They worked in silence. Steve seemed subdued but there was something pleased around his mouth, like he thought putting up the curtains meant he'd gotten his way instead of it just meaning one of them had the sense God gave a flea. There was an overhead light but Steve turned on the tall brass lamp in the corner and the room was suddenly full of shadows and strange angles. For a moment it looked like Steve was going to rejoin him by the window but then he sat on the edge of the couch, looking expectantly up at Bucky and so entirely the dumb kid Bucky had been looking out for his entire life that Bucky said, “Maybe this was a bad idea.”
Steve was on his feet in an instant. “No. Don't say that.”
It was easier to see the difference when he was standing. The height and the thick muscle straining his shirt across the shoulders and biceps; muscle he had used four days ago to pin Bucky against a wall while Bucky clawed at him, wanting skin, wanting him closer. Bucky put his hands in his pockets. “This kinda thing happens, you know? Guys get their wires crossed. They're out in the field too long and their buddy almost bites it and it messes with their head. It happens to normal guys all the time.”
“Right,” Steve said. “Sure. But me and you aren't exactly normal guys, are we, Buck?”
A draft crept through the window behind Bucky, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He and Steve stared across the room at each other for a long time before Bucky could get his throat to work. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means I saw you in The Three Bells.”
The words were so far from what Bucky had been expecting to hear that they made no sense at first. Once they did, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. “When?”
Steve's mouth twisted. “The day before Pearl Harbor.”
A high, breathless sound left Bucky. Not really a laugh.
Steve kept talking. “You were seeing Lucy Chapel at the time—remember her? I asked if you wanted to see a movie Saturday and you said her folks were going out of town so you were gonna spend the whole weekend at hers. You sounded pretty happy about it. Mrs Lennox was out of town that weekend too, visiting her daughter out in Newark, so I thought maybe I could bring someone back. So I went. And I saw you. With a guy.”
Bucky shook his head, still feeling like he was falling. “You never said.”
“No. Guess I didn't. I was gonna. I was gonna find you the next day and tell you what I'd seen and I was gonna ask... Well. But then there was the attack and everything was different.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said weakly. Pearl Harbor changed everything. He couldn't even imagine the life he would have had or the person he could have been if it never happened, but right now none of that was anything to Steve casually admitting to picking up guys in The Three Bells and knowing about Bucky doing the same. “Jesus. Did you... was that somewhere you went a lot?”
Steve let out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a choke. “First time. First time there and who do I see across the bar but Bucky fucking Barnes all over some dockworker. I thought I must have hit my head on the way in.”
“Hey, I'm sure the guy bought me a drink or something,” Bucky protested. “I'm not easy.”
That got the smile he'd expected with a dirty crook to it he hadn't. “I don't mind easy.”
“You fucking sweet talker.” Nothing he wouldn't have said a week or a month or a year ago, the same thoughtless back and forth he and Steve had always shared but with a new weight to a familiar jibe. Something charged and not exactly comfortable like it had been before but not bad either. The glint in Steve's eye and the way it made Bucky's throat go dry wasn't bad. “That was two years ago. All this time, you never said a word.”
Steve's smile tightened. “Yeah, well. I don't know if you heard, but there's a war on. It never seemed like the right time. And I know you. You didn't see me like that, still didn't even after all this.” He gestured vaguely down at himself and shook his head when Bucky opened his mouth, to say what he didn't know. It wasn't like Steve was wrong. “But then sometimes I'd think you did. Lately, I'd swear sometimes you looked at me like maybe things had changed for you and you wanted this like I did.”
He paused like he was waiting for Bucky to say something. Bucky still had no idea what to say, so he pushed his chin forward and raised his eyebrows: what you gonna do about it? The glint came back into Steve’s eye.
“Seemed like you wanted it in Holland,” he said, coming closer, and Bucky's entire body thrummed like a new engine at the way he moved. “And I don't think you've changed your mind.”
“That a fact?”
“I think so.”
Bucky tried to make the grin pulling at his mouth look more like a smirk. Like something less giddy and dumb. He leaned his shoulders back against the wall and watched Steve prowl towards him; half the way he’d watch a guy wind his way through a crowded bar and half him and Steve refusing to be the first one to blink once a challenge had been made. There wasn't as much difference between the two as he would have thought. “You wanna know what I want?”
Steve stopped just within arm's reach and it was worth it to see the smug look drop off his face when Bucky slid a hand beneath his belt and tugged him forwards. It was more obvious this time that Steve didn't know what he was doing so Bucky took control of the kiss, spreading his hand across the base of Steve's throat when he tried to push forwards too eagerly and feeling him tremble at the touch. Bucky pulled back just enough for Steve to see his expression.
“I want you to put your hands in my hair when I suck your dick,” Bucky told him.
Steve's eyes were huge and dark, his pulse racing beneath Bucky's fingertips. His hands hadn't moved from his sides. “I... I can. I can do that.”
“Good.” Bucky kissed him again, letting go of his belt to hook his fingertips over Steve's waistband, hot skin and stomach muscles jumping against his knuckles.
He turned them so Steve's back was against the wall and began unbuttoning Steve's shirt. For a moment, Steve just looked from his face to his hands before a jolt went through him and he took over, skinning out of his shirt and undershirt so fast a button pinged against the glass ashtray full of pennies on the end table. Almost before they were off he was pulling at Bucky, dragging him into a kiss, breath hitching as Bucky explored the thick muscle of his arms and chest. There was so much of him, every inch thrilling beneath Bucky’s touch. A thumb against his nipple made him squirm and run a hand through Bucky's hair, proving he did know how to listen. It tightened to a fist when Bucky broke the kiss to lick across his nipple and suck it between his teeth.
“No pulling,” Bucky said as he got down onto his knees and unfastened Steve's pants. God, he smelled good and muscles tensed deliciously across his stomach when Bucky sucked kisses over them and mouthed at his hipbone. “Later, yeah. I like that. But right now I want to concentrate and I think you want that too. Right?”
“Right,” Steve echoed, deadly serious. He was a sight like this. Bucky had always known that pale Irish skin flushed down to his chest but he'd never seen it like this before and the dissonance flickered uneasily in his gut: the Steve he had grown up with red and grinning as they horsed around in a fire hydrant and the gasping musclebound one tenting his pants inches from Bucky's face, staring down at him like he was committing the image to memory. Like later he was going to pull his sketchbook out from beneath his bed and balance it on his skinny knees to draw.
Steve's hand was still in Bucky's hair but it moved to his face when Bucky leaned back. His thumb grazed the evening stubble at the corner of Bucky's mouth; a pricklish, electric touch that Bucky chased, dragging his lips from the base of Steve's thumb to the tip and sucking it into his mouth. Steve's thumb tasted like salt and clean skin with maddening traces of leather from his gloves that made Bucky groan, eyes falling shut and reaching down to palm himself through his pants.
He barely heard Steve gasp, “Wait, Bucky, wait—” and only opened his eyes when Steve's thumb was ripped out of his mouth so abruptly it made a wet, smacking sound and the nail caught against the roof of his mouth.
Above him, Steve's chest was heaving and he had one arm thrown across his face. Bucky didn't understand until he saw a wet patch spreading across the front of Steve's pants and smelled the sour twist in the air.
“Oh, wow.” Bucky rocked back onto his heels, the corners of his mouth curling up helplessly. “Steve.”
Steve's shoulders flinched in and he was still hiding his face so Bucky rolled up onto his feet and rapped his knuckles against Steve's forearm. “Hey.”
“What did you expect?” Steve sounded furious with himself and when he let his arm fall his face was tight with humiliation. “I go from nothing to— to you on your knees with your mouth. What the hell did you think was gonna happen?”
In retrospect, it had been obvious Steve was a virgin but Bucky hadn’t realized when he’d said it had been his first time at The Three Bells he’d meant it was his first time trying to pick a guy up, or that he hadn’t tried since. There were a dozen places in New York Steve could have gone to, before or after the serum, and walked out with pretty much any guy he wanted. There could have been girls for him too, especially once he got big, but Steve had always said he was waiting for the right one and he wasn’t the kind of guy to play around now just because he could. The thought crossed his mind that Steve's waiting for the right partner might be the same as Bucky's I'm too young to settle down, something to cover up the fact that there was never going to be a right girl for him. But then there was that picture in Steve's compass.
Bucky shook his head. It had been a long time since he was in Steve's shoes but he remembered what a serious business his first time had been; how he'd been so focused on doing it right that enjoying himself had been besides the point. What a catastrophe the slightest fumble had seemed. That probably went triple for Steve, who'd had longer to work himself up and was prone to turning everything into life or death anyway.
“I thought you were gonna give me something to put in my mouth and I'd get you off,” he said. “That's not what happened?”
That just made Steve’s scowl deepen. One day this would be distant enough for him to see the funny side, but they weren’t there yet. Bucky squeezed Steve’s shoulder, ducking a little to meet his eyes. “Hey,” he said quietly. “I liked it, okay? I thought it was hot. I like that you want— that you want it that much. That's what I really want.”
Instead of shying away like Steve usually did when Bucky tried to be sincere with him he held Bucky's eyes for a long moment and then unexpectedly stepped in close and wrapped his arms tight around him. “That's what I want too,” he murmured against the side of Bucky's neck, his breath raising goosebumps.
“Well, you got it,” Bucky said, surprising himself by kissing Steve on the cheek. It was something they hadn't done since they were kids but he liked it so much he did it again, Steve's cheek as warm and smooth against his lips as his back was under Bucky's palms. Steve turned his face slightly and Bucky left another kiss at the corner of his mouth, stroking the satiny skin at the small of his back. “You got me. You got me here in your apartment for a whole three days just like you wanted. What we gonna do to pass the time? Got a deck of cards?”
He could feel it against his mouth when Steve smiled and grinned in response. “See, this is what no one tells you. Sex is one of those things that gets better the more you do it. It's usually pretty bad at first.” Steve's hand stopped where it had been running promisingly down the length of Bucky's spine so Bucky quickly added, “And this wasn't bad. Which means you and me are already ahead of the game.”
He tucked his fingers into Steve's belt again, giving it a gentle tug. “You're gonna want to take these off. It's not gonna be fun if you leave it.”
“Don't have to tell me that,” Steve grumbled, stepping out of Bucky's arms. He paused when he'd gotten his belt unbuckled, eyes flicking up and down Bucky's body. “You planning on taking your clothes off at any point?”
“You planning on giving me a reason to?”
That lit a fire under Steve. They wrestled each other out of their clothes, pushing and laughing and ending up in the bedroom. The curtains were already up but there was enough light coming through the open door to see the outrage on Steve's face as Bucky tripped him and sent them both sprawling across the bed. A musty smell rose from the sheets but Bucky only had half a second to notice before Steve crowded on top of him and grabbed his cock.
Too hard and Bucky hissed, “Easy, easy,” closing his hand over Steve's until he gentled his grip and gave Bucky a long stroke that made his toes curl. “Spit in your hand.”
Steve did and the pull became slicker, a tight wet friction that curled up his spine and dragged approving noises from him. Steve kept looking back and forth between Bucky's face and the head of Bucky's cock appearing and disappearing between the tight circle of his fingers, like he couldn't decide what he wanted to watch more. “You like this,” he said and then immediately looked mortified when Bucky started to laugh.
“You got your hand on my— on my dick. I'm kind of easy like that.”
Steve got a determined look on his face. “You want me to suck you?”
“I like this. This is good.” Bucky squirmed as Steve grew bolder and started to experiment with his touch, calluses rubbing circles beneath the head and then down the length of him to cup his balls and make him gasp. It was almost too much; that large warm hand and the strength of him cradling the most vulnerable parts of Bucky. The way he lingered over the smooth, ticklish skin on the insides of Bucky’s thighs where he was almost as pale as Steve. “Can— you can kiss me.”
“Can I?” Steve murmured, unbearably pleased with himself but immediately leaning in to do what Bucky asked. Steve’s strong body pinned him down as his big hand made pleasure curl tighter and tighter in Bucky’s gut until Bucky stopped him, not wanting this to be over too soon.
Steve had gotten hard again while he was touching Bucky. He let himself be rolled onto his back, cock thick and leaking against his stomach as Bucky stroked both palms from the bottom of his rib cage to the pale hairs dusting his thighs. The sight made Bucky's throat itch. He licked his lips and looked up to meet Steve's eyes. “You remember what I said I wanted you to do?”
Steve remembered. He pulled a little as he shook and cursed beneath Bucky and even kicked a few times, but he was clearly trying his best and he smelled so good and fit so perfectly down Bucky's throat, filling him up so nicely, that Bucky didn't even mind. A particularly sharp tug made Bucky moan around him, grinding down into the mattress. He pulled off and gasped against Steve's hip, using his hand to keep Steve on the edge while he tried to calm down. God, he was going to come if Steve did that again. Steve's hands petted feverishly through his hair and he was saying something now instead of just making sounds, pulling at Bucky and pleading, “Bucky, come here. Come up here.”
There was a blue vein visible beneath the pale skin at the crease of Steve's thigh. Bucky followed it with his tongue, sucking a kiss to the base of Steve's cock and licking along the length to get the head back in his mouth. He'd barely gotten a taste when Steve grabbed him beneath the arms and hauled him up the bed and under Steve's body so quickly and effortlessly that it knocked the air from him. He opened his mouth to protest but then Steve was kissing him, devouring, and rutting against Bucky so perfectly that all he could do was hold on until Steve made a strangled noise and came between their bodies. Steve was a dead weight on top of him, breath almost cool against Bucky’s overheated skin, but after a moment he moved just enough to wipe a hand through the mess and wrap it around Bucky. It didn’t take long for that slick, demanding grip to drag Bucky over the edge with him.
As their breath evened out, Bucky waited for Steve to move away. Not far, probably not to fetch a nice cool glass of water and something to clean up the jizz he'd left all over Bucky's stomach, but away. He wasn't crushing Bucky anymore but he was still a heavy weight across the side of his chest, head resting above his heart and tension creeping into his shoulders.
Bucky hesitated before bringing a hand up to lightly rest on the back of Steve's neck. His heart gave a little kick at the way Steve sighed and went loose beneath his touch, the arm he had slung across Bucky's ribs tucking a little more securely around him.
They lay there long enough for Bucky to remember he hadn't eaten and idly wonder where Steve had gotten his parcel of meat and fried potatoes, if there was more, when he felt Steve drag fingers across his stomach and then heard his mouth working. “You know,” Steve said after a moment, “that doesn't taste great.”
“That's yours.” Bucky didn't open his eyes. “Mine tastes amazing.”
Steve made a soft amused sound. His thumb stroked back and forth over one of Bucky’s ribs, just firm enough not to tickle. “Might have to ask you to prove that.”
His dry tone made Bucky smile. He stretched luxuriously, wiggling his toes like he was at the beach, feeling that warm as Steve nudged one of his legs between his. “Oh, well. Buy me dinner and there’s a chance I could be persuaded.”
Summer settled into Europe. On their way through the Seine-et-Marne countryside they came across a laden cherry tree that Morita scaled, throwing down fistfuls for them to catch. The sun was almost at its height and they had another day before they were due to meet their contact in the next town, so they sprawled beneath the tree's shade and gorged themselves on the tart, sweet fruit; spitting stones and dozing in the drowsy midday heat and almost forgetting the war for a few hours.
Bucky stood watch. They hadn't seen anyone all morning except two women on bicycles and there were no reports of enemy activity in the area but he was never going to be at ease in countryside this open. He knew exactly how far away death could hide itself and still reach you. His fingers drummed against the stock of his rifle as he fought to keep his eyes on the surrounding fields and hedgerows instead of drifting towards Steve. Steve's hair was very bright in the afternoon sun, his fingers and mouth stained red with cherry juice and Bucky wanted to kiss him. It seemed impossible that he had known Steve all his life, had known him and loved him and looked at him every day without wanting this. Steve’s eyes met his and it was like electricity, like the air before a storm.
Back in London they had agreed not to do anything out in the field but that night Bucky climbed down from the hayloft for a smoke and Steve backed him up against the outside wall of the barn. “Your mouth, your goddamn mouth,” he said even as he kissed Bucky, sounding almost angry about it, leaving Bucky unable to do anything but kiss back just as furiously and then clamp one hand over Steve’s mouth while he worked the other inside his uniform pants.
Towards the end of the month they made their way to the liberated city of Caen and caught a ride east with a company of British troops on some forty-and-eights. Bucky and his guys had seen plenty of the armored boxcars while they were sabotaging railway lines under Plan Vert, and once freed a carload of POWs headed God knows where, but this was the first time they'd ridden in one. It was less fun than the pulps made it sound and everyone was a little green around the gills by the time they arrived at the town where the region's British, Polish, and Canadian forces were being billeted. Bayeux hadn't been as badly hit as some, but the invasion had left its mark and Bucky was lucky to secure them a small house on the outskirts of town while they waited for a ride back to England.
“You should read this when I'm done,” Jones told Bucky on the second day.
The house he’d found them had three dinky bedrooms and an outdoor privy with bullet holes in the door. The entire place stank of cat piss and British tobacco, but there was a front room with a few battered armchairs and a coffee table big enough for Bucky to lay out his rifle and cleaning gear. It also had windows that caught the evening sun, so after dinner he’d found himself joined by Jones and Steve: one reading a book left by the house’s original occupants and the other frowning over a map of the region Bucky had borrowed from a Canadian corporal at the PX.
“Can't read French.” Bucky didn't look up from his notebook. After cleaning his own weapons and Steve's pistol he had settled in to write about the British corporal he'd gotten talking to on the way here. The guy's brother was stationed in Naples and apparently knew a guy who'd gotten his hands on a Luger that had made him the envy of his company. As he talked, the corporal's eyes had flitted curiously across Bucky's coat, searching for some kind of insignia and only finding the SSR's wings all of them except Steve had sewn onto their left sleeve. Once it became clear he wasn't going to ask, Bucky introduced himself, hiding a smile at the way the guy instantly relaxed when he realized he was talking to a sergeant and knew how he was supposed to act.
“You speak it as well as I can,” Jones said, ignoring the skeptical noise Bucky made. “Reading's easier.”
“You know, my dad taught himself to read and speak French while he was out here. There's no reason you can't do the same.”
That got Steve to look up from his map, interrupting the rude response on the tip of Bucky’s tongue. “Your father served?”
Bucky already knew this story so he watched Steve's face when Jones nodded and said, “The 369th.”
Steve's expression didn't disappoint. “The Hellfighters?”
“That's right.” Jones' spine straightened. “The Harlem Hellfighters. You know, they've got another name for them out here? They fought so bravely that the French called them Men of Bronze and gave them all the Crois de Guerre, the highest honor you can give a soldier. My dad has his on the wall of his study.”
“Hell of a thing to live up to,” Bucky said quietly.
“Yeah. Tell me about it.”
“You must be proud of him.” Steve had that half-hungry, half-wistful look he always got whenever talk turned to fathers.
Jones shook his head, not a denial but a gesture towards it being more complicated than that. Something harder to understand when your father was safely dead and a hero instead of alive and beloved and difficult. “Yeah, of course. Me and my brother have always been proud of who our dad is, what he did. It's not something you can understand when you're a kid though, not until you're out here and see it for yourself. He never tried to stop me learning German but I knew he didn't like it. He was a lot happier when I switched to French, even if he didn't approve of my reasons.”
A slow smile spread across Jones' face. “The girls were cuter.”
“Ah,” Steve said. “Now you sound like Bucky.”
Mentioning German reminded Jones that it had been a few days since they practiced, and by the time Dugan joined them he and Bucky were lazily arguing about baseball while Steve—whose grasp of German extended as far as asking for directions and telling enemy combatants to lay down their weapons—chimed in every time he heard a name he recognized. Neither of them spoke it as well as they did French, but Jones had learned at college and Bucky had a working knowledge of the language that relied heavily on scraps of Yiddish he'd picked up from Mrs Lyznicki and the six months he spent waiting tables at a German restaurant on Atlantic Avenue when he was eighteen. If he'd known how easy it was to improve he would have made more of an effort earlier.
Dugan scowled from the doorway. “Like the Frog talk wasn't bad enough, now you want to be Krauts.”
And if he'd known how much it would annoy Dugan he would have been speaking German on a daily basis for the past two years. “Good evening, Mr Dum Dum. You can join us. We were saying the Red Sox are the worst team in all the league and we hope Ted Williams is better at hitting Nazis than he is at hitting the right side of the infield.”
Jones snorted and Dugan's scowl became a glare. “Don't talk about my team or even say that man's name if you're going to talk Kraut. Hell, I came back to hear some English for a change.”
“Weren't you with Falsworth and the 3rd Infantry?” Jones took pity and switched to English.
“What's your point?” Dugan dropped into the remaining armchair and thumped his boots up on the table, making the pistols jump and ignoring the look Bucky shot him. “And if His Lordship's lot wasn't bad enough—gassing on about cricket and horses, for Christ's sake—there's some of them who talk that made-up nonsense. You remember, Bucky? Remember Tunisia and those jumpy little fellas with the jeep they called something stupid?”
They'd come across the jeep broken down by the side of the road between Bizerte and Tunis. Bucky and his squad had passed a company of Gurkhas headed in the opposite direction, long curved knives shining at their belts, so it couldn't have been there long but the driver and his passenger were already miserable in the heat and pathetically grateful when they stopped. Bucky had taken a look beneath the hood while Dugan, Nolan, and Sergeant Mathis shot the breeze and passed out cigarettes, and the two men were already in better spirits by the time he announced it was a simple fix and sent them on their way.
“Jam jar,” Bucky said. “And they called us septics.”
Dugan must have forgotten that because he looked insulted all over again. Jones' forehead wrinkled. “Why?”
“Septic tanks—Yanks. It's like a code, it all has to rhyme. So car is jam jar, hat is tit-for-tat. That kind of thing.”
He looked over at Steve as he explained but Steve was already nodding. “Yeah, I've heard it. One of the lighting guys with the USO was from London and he used to talk like that, make the girls laugh. Huh. You know, I thought...” But instead of saying what it was he'd thought he cleared his throat and told Jones, “I think it's just guys from London.”
The gears were visibly turning inside Jones' head. “Yeah. Yeah, there were some guys at the bar one time who talked like that. It's interesting how it has to rhyme but the number of syllables doesn't have to match. I mean, every community has its own slang and particular way of talking but they don't have to rhyme. It must make it easy to learn.”
“All right, college boy,” Dugan grunted. “The Army's not paying you to learn how to talk like a Limey. Fat lot of good that is to anyone.”
“I just said it was interesting.”
“Hey, why doesn't Dum Dum introduce you?” Bucky ignored Dugan's betrayed look, more interested in the way Steve was concentrating very hard on picking at an imaginary loose thread on his knee and not meeting Bucky's eyes. “He can take you there now and you can ask them all the questions you want.”
Dugan took his time following Jones out; feet leaden, jaw mutinous. “I swear to God if you two clowns start talking in rhyme I’ll kill you both. You’ll be first, Barnes.”
When they'd gone he turned to Steve. “Okay, let's hear it.”
Steve made a face but didn't pretend not to know what Bucky was talking about. He sighed. “Do you know what fondue is?”
“Right?” Steve said a little too forcefully. “Well, one time I heard Howard ask Agent Carter if she wanted to stop somewhere for a late night fondue and I thought...”
Bucky got it immediately and started to laugh. “You thought it rhymed with screw. And it doesn't?”
“No! Apparently, it's just cheese and bread.” Color had come into Steve's cheeks; still embarrassed but pleased at Bucky's reaction, at making him laugh. He shook his head. “Don't ask me why they need a fancy word for that. You think it's French? Sounds French.”
“Maybe. We could have asked Gabe if you weren't worried about letting the guys know what a dirty mind you got.” The curve at the corner of Steve's mouth deepened, just a little, in a way that made Bucky want to do something stupid like climb on top of him and kiss it off his face. Bucky licked his lips and turned away. His notebook had slid down between the cushion and the side of the chair and he had to dig around to recover it and his worn stub of a pencil. “Don't worry, Rogers. I always knew you were a degenerate.”
“And where do you think I get that?” Steve asked, low.
Bucky didn't look up from his notebook as he replied, just as quietly, “Same place you can get it soon as we're back in England.”
Across the room, Steve let out a noisy breath with a laugh beneath it. Bucky kept his head down so Steve wouldn’t see how wide and dumb he was smiling as he began to write.
“Tell me something, Cap,” Dugan said a few weeks later as they rattled through parched Italian farmland in the back of an open truck. “Barnes here is full of shit, right?”
Instead of England, command had left them kicking their heels in Bayeux for eight days before calling them back to Italy in a state of great excitement. A platoon from the 8th Indian Infantry Division had stumbled across a Hydra outpost near Padua that had been abandoned in a hurry and without the usual level of care taken to destroy everything left behind. Intelligence was still going through the documents, but they had passed on the locations of several weapons caches and storage facilities in northern Italy and Bucky and his team had put that information to good use. The resulting fireworks and the offer of a lift from a passing farmer meant spirits were high as they made their way towards camp.
He was glad to hear Dugan speak up, even for a joke at his expense. They had stayed in Bayeux long enough for the mail to find them and Dugan receiving two letters instead of the customary one from his wife hadn't gone unnoticed. The second letter also being in a woman's hand—far neater than Clara Dugan's unsteady scrawl—had prompted Morita to crack a joke that turned Dugan's face bright red and made him snap that it was from Nolan's sister. He'd glanced at Bucky as soon as he said it and no one had said anything else until Steve and Dernier joined them to say some of the Brits had started a soccer match and needed extra players.
Later that evening, Bucky had found Dugan smoking out in the backyard by himself and they'd stood in silence for a long time before Bucky said, “I should have taken care of that. That was my responsibility.”
Dugan put his cigar out on the low stone wall and said, “Don't be so damned stupid,” before going back into the house. He hadn't said much since then.
“As a rule, yeah,” Steve said, grinning when Bucky made a half-hearted attempt to kick him from the other side of the truck's bed. The others had caught the mood and were grinning too, only Dernier missing out because he was sitting up front with the driver. “But what in particular?”
“Way he tells it, you used to be a skinny little fella who got sick all the time. That's not true, right?”
“No, it's true,” Bucky insisted, even thought he was sure he'd never put it quite like that. He tucked the letter he’d been reading into his pants pocket and smiled sweetly, ready to lay it on thick now Steve had chosen how he wanted to play this. “He caught everything going. Had Polio two, three times. If he was at death's door we knew it was because it was a day ending in a y.”
Steve narrowed his eyes and Bucky realized he was about to regret this as Steve turned back to the others.
“Well, there was one time it was the other way round,” Steve began in his obnoxious storytelling voice and Bucky rolled his eyes, knowing exactly where this was going. “When Bucky was eleven he caught a fever so bad he almost died. Priest came round to deliver the Last Rites and Bucky's pop smacked him in the mouth.”
Steve dragged the story out all the way to camp and Dugan was still smirking as they sat down to dinner. Out in the field, Bucky never noticed himself feeling hungry but he must have developed a taste for Army slop because once it was in front of him he couldn't get enough. The next few days were uneventful. Bucky exchanged a Dickens for something with the promising title The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde and he and Steve took in a movie. It was just some gangster flick on a crappy projector in a packed tent that smelled like a locker room but Bucky sat in the dark next to Steve, not even touching him, and felt strangely giddy and restless. Like he wanted to buy Steve an ice cream or a packet of peanuts. Give him something simple and good and untouched by all this. Instead, he led Steve back to their tent and got down on his knees and sucked him, slow and relentless, the way he liked best, and then stroked his fingers through Steve's soft hair when he fell over himself to return the favor.
The summons came after breakfast on the fifth day. Colonel Phillips had arrived at camp yesterday and already looked right at home, glowering at them from behind his desk like they were wasting his time, but it came as a surprise to find Agent Carter waiting at his side. Last Bucky had heard, she was in Holland. It was the first time he'd seen her out of uniform since that night at The Whip and Fiddle but this time she was dressed to blend in instead of turn heads, in a simple skirt and blouse. She looked as composed as ever but there was something strained about her all the same, something tight around the eyes and mouth, and her right arm was held across her body in a neat sling. Like always, her eyes went straight to Steve and stayed there and Steve's face showed surprised pleasure and then concern.
“It seems to me you boys have gotten a little too comfortable here at camp,” Colonel Phillips said as they all crowded in front of him. Dugan knocked Morita with his shoulder and then grunted at the kick to his ankle. “A little bored. Want to get back out there and do the job your country is paying you to do. Well, lucky for you, Agent Carter has just what you're looking for. Agent Carter.”
Agent Carter approached the board that dominated the left side of the command tent. Usually, there would be at least one fussy little corporal pecking away at a typewriter or hovering in the corner with an armful of files the Colonel may need, but today the tent was empty apart from them and a fat bluebottle doing lazy figures of eight overhead. A new map had been fixed to the board. Bucky didn’t recognize the town or the two middle-aged men in the collage of photographs pinned to either side of it, one wearing wire-frame glasses, obviously taken at a variety of different times and locations with a long-lens camera.
“Gentlemen, the two men you are looking at are Vincenzo Offredi and Bruno Lombardi. Both are Italian scientists recruited by Hydra at the beginning of the war and, according to every source we have, both work directly under Arnim Zola.” She paused to let that sink in. “We have been aware for some time that these men are working out of a Hydra base near Kiev but so far conditions have not been right for a full-scale attack. As long as they stay where they are we cannot touch them.”
She tapped a red fingernail against a photograph of a man with dark brows and a strong jaw beginning to run to fat. “Thanks to the recent intelligence gathered at Padua we know Lombardi was in Genoa ten days ago. We believe he was there to meet with a German engineer in connection with the development of a secret Hydra weapon, but that is just speculation at this point. Our agents tracked him to Treviso and then to a town on the Piave river fifteen miles north.”
“Is he still there?” Dugan asked quietly. Boots scuffed against the dirt floor.
“Unfortunately, we believe Dr Lombardi returned to Kiev last night. He is, once again, out of reach.” She tapped his face again, looking like she wished he was in front of her and her nail a knife, before turning back to her audience with a deep breath. “However, something else came to light while we were tracking Lombardi. Something interesting about the town where he was staying. People from nearby towns have been reported missing. Strange machinery has been heard late at night and the locals all seem to share a taste for wearing black and carrying guns.”
“You think it's a Hydra base,” Steve said.
“I think it very well could be.”
He was studying the map like he'd be able to see the Hydra emblem stamped across the center of town if he looked close enough. “Was this in the information from Padua?”
“Among other things,” she said, and for a moment Bucky could feel her eyes rest on him but when he looked up from the picture of Lombardi she was already turning away. “Nothing definite, but there are pieces that fit now we know what to look for. References to a castle, which could be talking about the remains of an old stone building to the east of town. Requests for equipment. If there is a base it would seem that it's well-hidden and still in the process of being built.”
“A company from the 34th Division is making its way to the town as we speak,” Colonel Phillips said, drawing their attention away from the board. The bluebottle whined past his ear and he swiped at it irritably. “They'll provide support if you do find something. Grab your gear. Stark's getting his plane warmed up and I want that bird in the air within twenty minutes.”
“We've missed our window with Lombardi,” Agent Carter added. “But he was there for a reason. Anything he left behind could be of use.”
Steve nodded slowly. “So what you're saying is: this place is an ant's nest and you want us to kick it over and see what comes crawling out.”
“Well,” she said, smiling. “That is what you do best.”
Stark's plane was as Bucky remembered. After Krausberg he and Steve, and a handful of others the brass thought might have something useful to say, had been rounded up and were back on English soil before the day was out. Bucky had pretended to sleep the entire way. Now, as then, the plane reeked of expensive alcohol and cheap perfume, and the sense memory of a headache pulsed red behind his eyes. The men were spoiling for a fight which made the tight space feel even closer, overcharged. Dugan planted himself at the very back, away from the windows; hat between his hands, pale and sweating and ready to take a swing at anyone foolish enough to point out that he only got that way on planes. Bucky shot warning looks at Morita and Dernier and received wide innocent eyes in return but they let him be.
Steve had taken the seat across from Bucky, helmet and shield propped up beside him. He was frowning as he read through the file Agent Carter had pressed into his hands before they left. The others had been boarding the plane and hadn't seen the way she looked up at Steve as she gave him the file, or the way he looked back, but Bucky had. “Says here Lombardi's a biologist. Specializes in cell-preservation and... regeneration?”
Bucky made a noise to show he'd heard but didn't pause in his weapons checks. The guy wasn't even in the country anymore. There was nothing in that file he needed to see.
“I met Lombardi at a convention once,” Stark called from the cockpit, twisting around in his seat and not paying nearly enough attention to what was going on outside this tin can with his name stamped on the side. “Before the war, obviously. Tedious conversationalist, terrible taste in music, and he was wearing the most unbelievable tie but he knows his stuff. Not just biology: he was almost able to keep up when I was explaining the principles behind gravitic reversion technology and the effects of isotopic decay. He's quite a mind.”
“He's a Nazi,” Bucky said.
“That he is. That doesn't stop the man from being one of the leading minds of his generation. Science and scientific progress exist outside of the politics of the day: our focus is the future.”
“So you'd work for the Nazis if they gave you a bigger budget than our side?” Jones looked up from the map, eyeing Stark from beneath his brows.
His voice was flat but that didn't throw Stark off his stride. He was the kind of guy whose smile got wider and more obnoxious the more disapproval got thrown at him. “Well, of course not. Frankly, I don't think they'd have me even if I were amenable. What I'm saying is it's too bad you missed Lombardi because you might have had a decent shot at convincing him to come over to our side. As long as the man gets to listen to substandard opera and has his own lab with hot and cold running lab assistants, he'd probably be happy to sign on the dotted line. A man like that, science is his true passion.”
“He wouldn't be doing much science in a prison cell,” Bucky said.
Stark took a moment to fiddle with a dial and flick a couple of switches before turning around again. He looked amused. “You really think the SSR is about to waste talent like that keeping him locked up? The Strategic Science Reserve? No, he'd have been working alongside me in... three months. Four, at most.”
The plane lurched and Bucky's Colt almost slipped through his fingers. He met Steve's eyes. “The United States government wouldn't give a job to a guy like Lombardi,” Steve said firmly. “Not someone who's worked with Zola. Done the things he's done.”
“See, that's what I like about you, Rogers: you're an idealist.”
Stark kept talking and someone else said something but Bucky was looking down at his Colt. It was a good weight in his hand. Solid. He should be more careful about holding onto it.
“It doesn't matter,” he heard himself say, loud enough to cut through the raised voices. He slid his Colt back into its holster. “That asshole's long gone. The town is our mission: focus on that.”
There were grumbles but everyone settled down. Falsworth moved to sit next to Jones so they could look over the mission brief together and Stark finally remembered which way he was supposed to be facing. They were ten minutes from the drop zone.
Steve still had the folder in his hand but he was looking at Bucky. After a moment he leaned forward and said, “Is your holster bothering you?”
The words made no sense. “What?”
“Your shoulder holster.” Steve's eyes flicked to the side and then back again. “Did you take a different one?”
“Oh.” Bucky dropped his hand. “No. It's fine.”
In the end, it didn't take much of a kick. Simply walking into town with the 34th was enough to fill the streets with Hydra soldiers. Up until now, every base had been a collection of isolated buildings, either built by Hydra or seized and repurposed, usually out in the middle of nowhere. This was the first time they'd seen an entire town taken over.
The 34th hadn't faced Hydra before but they were seasoned troops and there were enough of them for Falsworth, Dugan, and their own captain to each take a platoon and work their way through the streets while the rest of them made for the north side of town. Three stories of pale brick and glass stood apart from the other buildings. According to the brief, it had once been a hospital or a convalescent home of some kind but was now the heart of this operation. Something good that Hydra had taken and hollowed out and turned into something they could use. Like the prisoners they took; like this entire town. Jones, Morita, and Dernier circled around the back with a squad but Steve had never met a front door he didn't want to kick down and Bucky could feel that same dark urge rising in him now. There were two guards at the entrance. Bucky shot one and Steve's shield took care of the other.
Speed was always the deciding factor at this stage: hitting the enemy as hard as you could before they even realized you were there. Steve caught his shield on the ricochet and kept running through the main entrance. He was a big target going in blind; trusting his reflexes and Bucky, half a step behind, to keep him from getting hit. The entrance opened up into a wide space with doors to either side and an overlooking balcony. Bucky dropped three soldiers taking aim from the balcony and another at a side door. In the center of the room, Steve bounced his shield off the heads of two soldiers and a column, did a somersault to catch it and landed with it and his own body between Bucky and a burst of fire from the other door. Bucky slapped Steve's shoulder and they spun around together so Bucky could shoot the firing soldier and run for the cover of the front desk, as Steve sent his shield spinning up to the balcony to take out another black mask.
By now, the 34th were pouring in through the door, yelling and shooting as Hydra soldiers filled the gaps he and Steve had made. Steve caught Bucky's eye, and Bucky fired off another shot before vaulting over the desk and joining him at the central door opposite the main entrance.
Steve's eyes were bright behind the mask. “Looking pretty comfy behind that desk, Buck. Miss your old job?”
“And give up all this?” Bucky shot another soldier coming in from the side and waited until it was clear that was the last of them. He exchanged nods with the two sergeants leading the 34th before they split up, taking their men through the east and west wings of the building. Leaving the central corridor to him and Steve. “Ask me again some time.”
Whatever this place had once been, it was Hydra now and he and Steve had been taking apart places just like it for the better part of a year. It was automatic the way he fell into step behind Steve; the way he matched his breathing and could almost imagine their hearts beating the same steady pulse.
Ahead of them was a blind corner. Bucky didn't know whether he heard footsteps before or after Steve raised his shield, but he was already bringing his rifle up as the first Hydra soldier rounded the corner. He shot the first three and Steve's shield scattered the others, with him following in its wake. Steve still hadn't learned how to fight but that didn't matter when you could punch through a brick wall. A kick sent one guy smashing through a closed door and the others were quickly dispatched by his swinging fists or Bucky's bullets. One soldier tried to take cover behind Steve as he grappled with two others. He aimed his weapon at Bucky, only to have Steve grab the barrel and pull so hard that he was too surprised to let go and was sent flying down the corridor to land in a pile at Bucky's feet. The heel of Bucky's boot finished him off.
A quick glance and a nod and they were moving again. As they passed through endless pale corridors the sense that this place had once been something else grew stronger. There was still a lingering softness, signs that the rot hadn't completely taken hold yet. It was also becoming clear that the place was severely undermanned: when it was fully up and running, a facility this size would give them a lot more trouble.
At the end of one corridor was a stairwell they followed up to the second floor. They ran into Morita and a squad from the 34th and helped them drive a platoon of Hydra soldiers back through a series of pristine, empty white rooms until they met Dernier and Jones coming from the other direction.
Jones had a bloody rag taped to the side of his neck. His face was tight with pain but he batted Bucky's hand away when he tried to take a look. “I'm fine. He just pinked me. I lost two guys coming up that stairwell but the east section is clear.”
Jones shook his head and winced. “It’s all rooms like this, and a bunch more that look like hospital wards but there’s no one in them. We didn't find any machinery either. They're not making weapons.”
The room they were standing in looked like a lab without equipment. Everything was clean, harsh edges with well-lit corners and doors that locked from the outside. Something about the expectant blankness made Bucky uneasy. He met Steve's eyes and Steve nodded. “Keep looking. They meant this place for something. Bucky and I'll head up to the third floor.”
The third floor was tighter than the two below. As soon as he and Steve left the stairwell they came under fire from Hydra soldiers who had retreated higher and higher and were now making their last stand. Between the shield and Bucky's rifle, they drove them back until the corridor split and they were pinned down from both sides. The soldiers up ahead were making a lot of racket but seemed reluctant to break cover and press their advantage. Bucky couldn't even say what it was that made him glance back the way they came but he did and that was when he saw Lombardi slip out of a disguised side room and into the stairwell.
“Steve,” he yelled, firing past the shield as a Hydra soldier glanced around the corner and sending them back with a yelp and a curse. “I've got eyes on Lombardi. South stairwell.”
A grenade bounced off the wall and came to a stop beside Bucky's boot so he kicked it back the way it came and took cover behind the shield. “Lombardi,” he repeated, raising his voice over the explosion and following screams. “South stairwell.”
“Go,” Steve said. “I've got this.”
Neither of them took their eyes from the corner up ahead but Steve leaned back so his shoulder knocked against Bucky's chest. “Course I am. Go.”
Bucky took one hand from his rifle just long enough to squeeze Steve's shoulder and then he was off and running. He burst into the stairwell and looked down just in time to hear a door slam. At the bottom was a metal door that had been wedged shut, but he rammed his shoulder against it until he was through and into a room with humming pipes and a steel hatch. Wrenching it open revealed a set of stone steps and the stench of stagnant water. He followed them down, rifle held ready, and stretching his senses out as far as they would go: ready to home in on the sound of footsteps or any flickers of movement in the dark.
The stairs led to a small room with black mold creeping up the walls and an iron ladder leading down. At the bottom was a tunnel extending in both directions with a stone walkway on one side and foul-smelling water running alongside it. There was barely any light and the water was loud but he held himself perfectly still, poised on the balls of his feet, straining his ears until he caught the sound of shoes on stone.
He took off in that direction, rounding a corner to see the tunnel opened up ahead and Lombardi climbing off the walkway and into the cockpit of what looked like a small submarine. The Hydra agent who killed Dr. Erskine had tried to escape in some kind of submersible and only failed because Steve was close enough to dive in after him. Bucky was two hundred yards away and Lombardi was already inside and reaching up to pull the hatch closed. He was going to get away.
Bucky's body was moving before he made the conscious decision. He dropped to his knee, aimed, and pulled the trigger in one fluid motion and watched as the bullet passed beneath Lombardi's arm and shattered the glass hatch of the submersible. The report and Lombardi's surprised shout echoed off the curved walls of the tunnel as he fell back.
There was panic on Lombardi's face as he scrambled back onto the walkway, and he was staring around blindly like he couldn't see Bucky bearing down on him. Bucky's boot caught against a loose stone and Lombardi turned, eyes wild, and pulled a pistol that he fired twice. A bullet whistled past Bucky's ear as he twisted out of its path. He fired again, hitting Lombardi in the wrist and making him cry out and go to his knees, pistol clattering to the ground.
Lombardi squinted, confusion giving way to something else as Bucky approached. “The American...” he said in Italian.
“Dr. Lombardi, I'm not going to hurt you,” Bucky said in the same language.
A hoarse laugh left Lombardi. His hand clutched his shattered wrist as a pool of blood gathered on the stone. Not enough blood to worry about—if Bucky had clipped an artery they'd know about it. His pistol lay a little too close to his right knee and Bucky edged forward enough to give it a kick, sending it skittering across stone and into the water with a muted splash. Lombardi didn't even glance in its direction. Sweat plastered his hair to his brow and he was breathing heavily, but his eyes were those of a boy examining a bug pinned to a board as he took Bucky in from head to toe. “Well, that's interesting.”
Bucky swallowed. “I give you my word. If you come with me a doctor will look at your wrist and you... You won't be hurt.”
There was no sign Lombardi had heard him. His pupils were very dark and wide; like staring into a pit. “How far away would you say you were when you made that shot?”
“What?” A cold finger ran down Bucky's spine.
Lombardi's eyes slid to the side, looking at the wings on Bucky's left shoulder with a strange, longing expression. “I have wondered—” he began when Steve's voice rang out from further back in the tunnel.
“Bucky? Bucky, are you down here?”
Bucky didn't look away from Lombardi but his attention switched to Steve, like it always would, and in that instant Lombardi's eyes met his and then he wrenched his jaw to the side and bit down. For a moment Bucky just stared, and then comprehension kicked in and he lunged forward, grabbing at Lombardi's face as Lombardi grinned, a foam-filled rictus. “Hail Hydra.”
It was too late. Bucky pried Lombardi's jaw open but the stink of poison and burnt flesh was everywhere and Lombardi thrashed once, twice, and then went still beneath him. Bucky held on, fingers digging into the sides of his face and the other hand twisted in the front of his shirt like he was getting ready to shake him, before letting him fall. “Damn it.”
He stood and Steve came skidding into view at the bend in the tunnel. He caught sight of Bucky immediately and ran towards him, slowing as he got closer and realized what had happened.
“He had something in his mouth.” Bucky's fingers itched and he wiped them on his pants. “Like the guy who killed Dr. Erskine. He just bit down and... Guess he didn't want to work for the good guys after all.”
The regret on Steve's face was for the failed mission, not Lombardi himself, but Bucky couldn't find it in himself to share it. Not when it meant Lombardi couldn't look at anyone else the way he'd looked at Bucky. There had been something in his eyes beneath that cold curiosity. Something like recognition, though Bucky was sure they’d never met before. He shivered and scooped his rifle up from where he’d thrust it to one side as he reached for Lombardi, running his hands over the barrel and sights to reassure himself there was no damage. It was a good thing he hadn’t attached his scope. “It was a long shot anyway, right? He wasn’t even meant to be here, so it’s not like we lost anything. Is the hospital secure?”
“Mm?” Steve dragged his eyes away from the submersible. “Oh. I don’t know. I came after you.”
Warmth settled in Bucky’s chest, thick and dumb. “What, don’t think I can handle myself against one old man?”
"Never could against Principal Byers," Steve said, because the important thing to remember about him was he was an asshole. "And he had to be pushing ninety. You understand why I'd be concerned."
"Principal Byers loved me," Bucky corrected hotly. "He knew you were a bad influence. He knew. Always told me I shouldn't be hanging around with that Rogers kid."
"That's good advice."
Bucky shook his head. Idiot. "Come on, they're not paying us by the hour. The guys will be wondering where we got to."
"Yeah," Steve said. He stepped in close and for a moment Bucky thought he was going to kiss him, but he just touched Bucky’s arm and then slid his hand down to settle over Bucky’s on his rifle. He squeezed and Bucky’s chest squeezed too. When Steve turned back up the tunnel, Bucky followed.
Bucky woke up gradually. First, he was aware of lying on his side with solid warmth all along his back, an arm around his waist and legs tucked up close behind his. More details began to take form through the haze: the distant murmur of voices; the loose feeling in his chest; the kisses pressed to the back of his shoulder. The arm around him shifted and there was a slow stroke down his chest, across his stomach and hip and up to his ribcage in a lazy caress.
Awareness didn't pull him any closer to the surface and he floated. Warm and safe and being touched, with Steve, feeling good, everything warm and good and easy and he sighed contentedly.
It took a moment for him to realize the hand had stilled against his stomach and Steve was shaking behind him. Longer to understand that the shaking was Steve laughing. “Mm? What?”
“That's the girliest noise I've ever heard out of you,” Steve said.
“What?” His meaning sank in slowly and indignation pulled Bucky most of the way awake. “No. Shut up.”
“No, seriously. It was like this.” And then Steve let out a helpless little sigh, sounding like a fairy princess and absolutely nothing like any sound that had ever come out of Bucky. He tried to elbow Steve and roll over but Steve forced him onto his belly and settled his weight across Bucky's back, warm and heavy and shaking with laughter deep in his chest. His thighs squeezed Bucky's between them, toes brushing his ankles.
“And what about you?” Bucky squirmed just to feel how Steve's grip tightened. “Feeling a guy up in his sleep like some kind of pervert. They got names for guys like you.”
“What kind of names?” Steve asked, low, just behind his ear. He left a kiss there and another at the corner of Bucky's jaw.
“Idiot, mostly.” Bucky hid his grin in the sheets.
“Mm, tell me more,” Steve said and then sighed right in Bucky's ear, that same dumb sound Bucky hadn't made, laughing when Bucky made another attempt to dig an elbow into his side. Steve caught his hands and stretched them above Bucky's head, lacing their fingers together as he spread kisses across his neck and shoulders. Pleased just to have Bucky under him.
Bucky curled his toes against the sheets. Beneath the lingering smells of sex and cigarette smoke he could still pick out traces of the oil they had put in the bath last night. The brothels in the newly-liberated Paris might be wall-to-wall chandeliers and Champagne, but after weeks in the field the sight of that old clawfoot had almost brought Bucky to his knees. As well as its own bathroom, their room had a wide, too-soft bed and a window overlooking the courtyard where the Nazis had executed two spies the previous month, but the main thing to recommend it over any of the other brothels in town was its ties to the resistance. The girls who worked here had spent the war concealing weapons, sheltering people, and keeping their ears open. It had been the perfect place to meet with a contact who had information about a shipment of Hydra weapons, and by the time he left it had been so late that the lady of the house suggested they stay the night.
The guys weren't expecting them to rejoin them in the next town before late morning, and it had been weeks since they were back in England; longer since they'd been able to steal more than a few minutes to themselves. They had politely accepted the offer and been led up the narrowest set of stairs Bucky had ever seen to the very top of the house. Every so often, the sound of the girls laughing with each other or entertaining customers had reached them, and if Bucky closed his eyes they could almost be back in Brooklyn with its thin walls and loud neighbors. They could almost be home.
Faint light came in around the edges of the filmy curtains. It was early morning and Steve was a warm, solid weight on top of him; sucking kisses across the back of Bucky's shoulders and lazily rutting against his ass. They could look for that oil and slick up the inside of Bucky’s thighs and he could squeeze them tight together; make a warm space for Steve to fuck into and give Steve a slippery hand to wrap around Bucky. They'd done that last night and a shiver of pleasure went through him just thinking about it, but now with Steve hard against him, hot breath on the back of his neck, and that solid strong body bearing him down into the mattress, Bucky wanted him inside. They hadn't done that yet but the idea crackled beneath his skin.
“You wanna?” he asked.
“Mm?” There was a little teeth in Steve's kisses now; an edge that always came out as he started to get worked up.
“You wanna put it in me?”
Steve's hips jerked hard before going still. “Oh. You'd... let me do that?”
Something about the way he said it rubbed Bucky wrong, made him want to have his hands free and his feet beneath him. He aimed a grin over his shoulder, not quite meeting Steve's eyes. “Let you, he says. I like it, dummy.”
“You did it before?” Steve's voice sounded strange; flat and tight and like he was a little further away all of a sudden even though Bucky could feel the weight on his chest like he hadn't before, making it harder to breathe.
“Are you jealous?” he asked, incredulous.
“No,” Steve said but he was and sounded as annoyed about it as Bucky. Bucky pushed against him and Steve let him go, face drawn in unhappy lines when Bucky rolled onto his side. “I just didn't think. Back in Brooklyn?”
“No. Over here.”
Steve liked that even less. “Oh,” he said.
The easy heat of before was draining out of the room. Bucky searched Steve’s face, the two lines between his eyebrows and sulky tension around his jaw, and thought very seriously about kicking him off the bed. Some of that must have come through because Steve cleared his throat, trying for casual. “You like it?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “It feels good.” And then, deliberately, meeting Steve’s eyes and making himself smile slow and lazy: “At least it did when those other guys gave it to me. But, you know, it’s hard to be sure. Maybe they just knew what they were doing.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed and his hand came to rest on Bucky’s hip. “Oh, yeah? That’s what you like?”
“I like a lot of things,” Bucky said, pushing his hair back and watching Steve watch the flex of his bicep. He left his hand tucked casually behind his head and raised his eyebrows. “I mean, I’ve given it to plenty of guys so I guess I forget how it could be kinda intimidating, maybe. I guess a guy might be scared he’s not gonna measure up. That he might not have what it takes to really show a guy a good time and give him what he wants.”
The expression on Steve’s face didn’t know what it wanted to settle on. His hand tightened. “Is that so.”
He and Steve stared at each other until Bucky broke. The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched upwards, an echo of Bucky’s grin, before he slapped a scowl over it and shoved Bucky flat on his back. “You’re an asshole.”
“You knew that going into this, pal.”
Bucky got the oil from the dresser and greased up his fingers. He'd meant to do this part fast because if there was a moment that would make Steve balk this was it, but Steve's eyes were hot and intent as he watched Bucky press fingers into himself and it made him want to make a show of it. Feeling sexy and ridiculous, he pulled one knee up and spread the other wider as he curled his fingers. The heat in Steve's eyes licked through him, made him ache and want in a way this part of it hadn't last time. He hadn't known this could feel good. He explored the slick glide of his fingers across his rim and deeper, breath hitching, almost forgetting his audience until Steve grabbed him by an ankle and yanked him down the bed, pulling Bucky's fingers out and pushing in with two of his own.
That punched a high sound out of Bucky and Steve kissed it from his mouth. He rolled them onto their sides, hitching Bucky's leg high on his hip so he could work thick fingers in and out of him. Deeper than Bucky could reach. Steve was hard against Bucky's stomach and Bucky fumbled to get a hand around him, wanting Steve to feel this too. Then Steve twisted his fingers and Bucky lost the rhythm, kept losing it until he was just panting into the sheets. Every part of him bright sparks and shivering nerve endings. Steve found his mouth again and they kissed until Bucky had to break away, gasping for breath and everything drawing up tight as Steve stroked him from the inside and bit kisses into his throat.
“Come on,” Bucky panted. “Come on, do it now.”
“You could come like this, couldn't you?” Steve sounded wild. “I could make you come just from this.”
“Shut up. You wanna do this or not?”
Steve just kept sliding those big, blunt fingers in and out and Bucky pushed his face into the sheets again because, yeah, maybe Steve could make him lose it just from this, without even touching his cock. He made a sound at the top of his throat and that decided things for Steve. He pulled his fingers out and pushed at Bucky's hip, trying to put him on his back, but Bucky got onto his hands and knees and stuck his ass in the air.
Even then, Steve didn't get with the program. He smoothed his palms down Bucky's back, across his hips, and the wet trail of the fingers that had just been inside Bucky made him shiver. He shivered again as Steve cupped his ass in both of those big, warm hands, spreading him, and screwed his eyes shut at Steve's indrawn breath as he looked at Bucky there.
And then Steve was pressing in. Fast enough that Bucky made a strangled sound but it was a deep touch against places that were aching for it; soothing and lighting him up at the same time. Deep enough that he groaned and arched his back. Steve’s hands were bruising on his hips; his breathing harsh and almost pained as he held on, rocking in uncertain little hitches before getting the idea and drawing what felt like most of the way out, a long drag against Bucky's insides, and then driving back in and knocking the breath from him. God, that was good. Steve moved in him; not fast but with power behind each thrust, driving him down onto his forearms. Steve’s hands stroked restlessly across his back, his sides, his hips, like he couldn’t get enough of touching Bucky.
The initial burn had faded to a delicious stretch. Steve's cock was a thick line of pressure inside him, driving Bucky's breath out in dumb little gasps and sending sparks through him with every snap of Steve's hips. Every part of him felt full; his cock heavy between his legs. He reached for it and gave himself two good strokes before changing his mind and groping blindly behind him until he could catch hold of Steve's arm and pull him down over Bucky's back.
Groans left them both at the change in angle but this was better. Now he had Steve warm and solid along the entire length of his back, his ragged breath against Bucky's shoulder, and that closeness that had made him want exactly this. He tugged at Steve's arm again until Steve got the idea; bracing himself on one forearm and wrapping the other arm tight around Bucky's chest to grip the opposite shoulder. The position forced Bucky's legs wider; letting Steve in deeper and bringing Bucky close enough to rut his aching cock down into the mattress. Bucky grabbed at the back of Steve's neck, craning around for a kiss and Steve gave it eagerly, moaning into Bucky's mouth and his hips grinding in hard.
Steve pulled away with a gasp. His open mouth rested against the back of Bucky's shoulder for a moment, the barest hint of teeth, and then he was pulling out, pulling away, and rolling Bucky onto his back.
“Oh, fuck you, Rogers!”
“Like this,” Steve said. “Can we do it like this?” He was already sliding back in as he said it, hands on the undersides of Bucky's knees, pushing him up and open and settling into the cradle of his hips.
It felt deeper like this and Bucky's hands went to Steve's arms, fingers digging into the muscle. “Guys don't do it like this,” he said stupidly.
Steve looked down at him, flushed and amused and gorgeous. “Well, I won't tell the union if you don't.”
Any further protests Bucky might have had were driven out of him by the first thrust. It was almost too much like this; on his back with Steve over him, watching his muscles move and pleasure chase itself across his face. Steve was watching too, eyes dark and a rough sound leaving him as Bucky curled a hand around his own cock and started to stroke himself off. Like this, Steve was close enough for Bucky to run his other hand up over the hot, smooth skin of his chest and pull him down into a kiss that Steve chased; bracing himself on his forearms either side of Bucky's head, boxing him in and meeting Bucky's need with his own.
Everything was winding tight and hot inside Bucky. The new angle made Steve’s cock drag across that spot inside of him with every thrust, made him choke back cries and clutch at Steve’s shoulders, his back, anything solid he could hold onto. Steve made a low, hungry noise at the back of his throat, weight on one hand and the other on Bucky’s face. He dragged two fingers across Bucky’s lower lip and groaned when Bucky took them in mindlessly, tasting sweat and his own skin. His fingers in Bucky's mouth ignited something in Steve, made him thrust harder and faster, hitting Bucky right where he wanted it and making pleasure build until his skin could barely contain it.
He trembled on the edge. Steve’s body covering his; Steve’s mouth against his throat, the desperate strike of his breath. As if from a great distance he heard, “God, Bucky,” very soft, and came just like that.
He almost missed it when Steve came. The world had been knocked off its axis but he blinked his eyes back into focus and Steve was still on top of him; gasping into Bucky's shoulder and pounding away. Bucky laughed and gripped the back of his neck with a shaky hand. “Yeah, come on,” he urged. “Come on, big guy. Just, ah, just like that.”
Bucky ran both palms down the long sweat-slick curve of Steve's spine to squeeze his ass; laughing at Steve's startled sound and moaning as Steve ground hard against places that were starting to get sensitive and came wet inside him. Muscle flexed beneath his hands as Steve screwed himself deep into Bucky's body one last time before finally stilling.
Neither of them moved for a while. Bucky stroked meaningless patterns across Steve’s back, his chest feeling full and tender as Steve’s breath slowed against his throat. Steve might have fallen asleep like that if the twinge in Bucky’s lower back hadn’t made him shove at the big lump until he grumbled and pulled out, rearranging them so he was lying flat with Bucky held close to his chest. He brushed fingers through Bucky's hair and kissed the top of his head, making a pleased noise when Bucky craned his head back for a real kiss. Bucky had half expected him to be smug after proving himself, but instead he was quiet and practically humming with contentment. Sweet, almost, in the way he stroked his thumb across Bucky's cheek as they kissed and moved his hand back to Bucky's hair when he lay down again.
The sun was higher now, the light coming through the curtains a pale gold. From the street came the sound of carts rattling across cobblestones and people starting their day. The house was waking up beneath them too; on the edge of his hearing he could make out two of the girls arguing about whether the milk had gone bad and the distinctive laugh of Inge, a cheerful girl from Alsace who had been happy to smoke Bucky's cigarettes and chat in German as they waited for their contact to arrive. Bucky had driven himself mad tapping his pencil against his notebook and trying to describe that laugh—like an old Buick struggling to turn over but light at the same time. Girlish. He still hadn't gotten it by the time Steve had finished filling the bath, but then Steve was watching him from across the room with dark eyes and unbuttoning his shirt and everything else became suddenly unimportant.
Bucky moved his hand from Steve's ribs to spread across his stomach. The skin was warm and sticky; rising and falling with each steady breath. Without looking, his fingers found the fading scar where a sniper had caught Steve at a town near Lyon the previous month. The shot had rung out and Steve had seemed to fall for a very long time, the moment stretching impossibly like a rubber band, and then snapping back into place and everything happening at once. Hunting down the sniper while Morita shouted into the radio and Dugan bent over Steve. There had been so much blood.
There was another scar on the outside of Steve's thigh where the second bullet had caught him. That one was just as faded as the first and in another few weeks both would be gone entirely. Nothing to show for what had happened.
Steve sighed and stroked down Bucky's arm. “He got me good. Guess that makes you the only guy left on the squad without a scar to show off. At least until the serum takes care of these.”
“Lucky me. Do I get a prize?”
“Sure. Give me twenty minutes.”
Bucky snorted and even without seeing Steve's face he knew what expression would be there. He was always so pleased with himself when he got Bucky to laugh.
He let Steve move his arm back across his chest, fingers tucked against Steve's ribs and Steve's big warm hand cupping the back of his elbow. In the street below, someone walked past whistling a tune Bucky didn't recognize and then stopped to talk with a woman he knew, asking after her son's health. Bicycle wheels rattled over stone and a man called out a girl's name. It all felt very far away.
“You've wanted this for a long time,” Bucky said into the quiet. “Before Pearl Harbor.” It wasn't something Bucky had really thought about before he said the words out loud, but it didn’t feel like new information either. Some part of him had known.
The slow, steady thump of Steve's heart against his cheek picked up but there was no sign of it in his voice. “Yeah. Guess I have.”
“Is that why you never wanted us to get a place together?”
“No. Well, not just that.” Steve was quiet for a moment, his fingers moving restlessly over the ticklish skin above Bucky's elbow. “Would you still want that? After the war ends.”
“You think it's gonna end?” Bucky joked weakly, glad Steve couldn't see his face.
“Can't last forever. What do you say?”
There was one thing Bucky needed to say. Something he’d come to realize Steve was never going to be the one to bring up, and that lent an edge to his voice. “What, you and me and Agent Carter all tucked up tight together?”
Steve's hand stilled. “I keep telling you it's not like that.”
“Yeah, you do. You keep saying that, but you’ve still got her picture in your compass, haven't you?” Just like when they were kids and the girl in the year above that Steve liked had won some kind of prize and gotten her picture in the Brooklyn Eagle. He'd cut that picture out and kept it tucked in the back of his sketchbook where he thought no one knew about it. Probably, he thought no one knew about this.
Beneath him, Steve had gone tense. He didn't say anything and after a moment Bucky asked, “Do you love her?”
He'd joked about it and talked around it but he'd never come right out and asked. And here he was, the world's biggest idiot, waiting to do it until he was naked and lying right on top of Steve with nowhere to hide. No way for Steve to miss the way his heart was hammering as he waited for the answer.
“I could,” Steve said eventually. “Yeah. I could. If things were different.”
“You want a family.” Bucky wasn't sure whether he meant it as a question or an argument but it was true. Steve had always wanted his own family, Bucky's had never been enough.
“I want this more,” Steve said.
All the breath went out of Bucky. He shook his head and tried to get his lungs working again while Steve stroked from his elbow to his shoulder and back down. When he was sure he wasn't about to embarrass himself he lifted his head to eye Steve narrowly. “You asking me to shack up with you, Rogers?”
“You've been asking me since we were nineteen,” Steve pointed out. He gave a pained grunt when Bucky settled more of his weight across him; huffing dramatically and pulling a face as Bucky rested his chin on his folded arm. “God, how do you weigh so much? Guys over here are skin and bone but I swear you keep getting bigger.”
It would be more believable as a complaint if it weren't for the appreciative hand running across Bucky's back and shoulders. “Says the guy who's had his fat ass parked on top of me all morning.”
“Didn't hear you complaining.” And there was the smugness at last. “Didn't hear you say yes to getting a place either. What, not so hot on the idea now you didn't come up with it?”
“Okay, taking another guy's idea and repeating it back to him now you've finally caught on that it's a good one doesn't make it yours.”
“So you think it’s a good idea.”
Bucky dug a knuckle into Steve's ribs and felt the flinch go through the big powerful body stretched out beneath him, followed by a shake of laughter that never left Steve's chest.
“God, I don't know,” Bucky said on an exhale. “What would that even look like?” He'd seen guys sometimes at the bars; guys who came there together and sat drinking and looking out at the room full of men with the soft pleasure of belonging instead of a hunter's assessment and always left together at the end of the night. He'd known some guys made sweethearts of each other and some of them even lived together, like man and wife, but that was so far from anything he could have that he hadn't let himself think about it. Just kept asking Steve to room with him until he eventually stopped that too.
“Like this,” Steve said. “Just like this but all the time.”
“Just you and me?”
“Yeah.” Steve's mouth twisted down at the corners. “Well, I mean. Unless you don't think you can give up girls.”
That startled a laugh out of Bucky. He hadn't said anything these past months but he'd still thought Steve knew; it hadn't occurred to him he might not. “That's not gonna be a problem.” Steve's eyebrows drew together and Bucky shrugged. “One favor this war's done me is it's given me a few more years before people start asking themselves why that Barnes kid hasn't found himself a nice girl yet. What's wrong with him.”
Steve blinked. “Oh,” he said, and then: “Oh. Huh.”
The look on his face was not unlike that time they saw a picture in one of his mom’s magazines of pineapples growing in fields, instead of on trees like they’d both assumed. Like his entire worldview was realigning itself around this new knowledge. Bucky kissed him on the chest, tasting salt, and laid his cheek down on the same spot. There was a chair in the corner where they’d left their civvies. Shirts and pants draped across the back so they wouldn’t crease; shoes tucked in a neat row beneath the seat. Bucky smoothed his hand up and down the muscle of Steve’s side before drifting inwards again.
Steve’s hand covered his as his fingertips found the ragged edge of the scar. “What?” Steve said lightly. “Were you worried?”
There had been two shots and Steve had taken an impossibly long time to fall. That alley had been full of gasping breath and blood. Bucky could still feel it on his hands and the terror of not knowing where it was coming from or how to make it stop. He remembered how Steve had clutched at him, the blue of his eyes; how Dugan had needed to shove him to get him moving again. Then he had taken care of the shooter, not knowing if Steve was still breathing back in that alley, only able to breathe himself once he saw him grimy and bandaged in that hospital bed.
“Nah,” he said. “We made a deal, remember? I’m holding you to that. Besides, my guy’s pretty tough.”
“Yeah?” Steve’s thumb stroked the back of his hand. “That’s what I am? I’m your guy?”
Bucky tucked his smile against Steve’s chest and closed his eyes. “Yeah. I guess you are.”
The sun was warmer now; bright enough to see through his eyelids. Downstairs, a door closed and footsteps moved back and forth as the house came fully awake. They would need to move soon. Wash and dress and rejoin the men. Rejoin the war. But Steve's thumb moved slowly across Bucky's hand and his heartbeat was steady beneath Bucky's cheek and the world could give them just a little longer.
Three weeks later they were at a Hydra facility in Yugoslavia. According to intelligence, this base didn't manufacture any weapons itself but was a way station for all kinds of equipment moving in and out of eastern Europe. There had been references to it in documents taken at Padua, but it wasn't until a new leak that the SSR suddenly decided it was worth pulling them off their current mission and putting them on the first available plane.
It was hard to see what all the fuss was about. The facility was two storeys of ugly concrete, with three more carved out of the stone beneath it and a skeleton crew that was easily dealt with. It might have held weapons at some point, but either the intelligence was out of date or the place had been cleared out in a hurry because their first sweep didn’t turn up anything more interesting than a dozen crates of explosives and the usual ray guns. Keeping those out of Hydra’s hands wasn’t nothing, but it still felt like they were missing something. After a quick conference they split up to search further.
Bucky and Jones took the second level. They had been on the road since yesterday morning and as they finished clearing the east sector, Jones' stomach grumbled loudly. He made a face. “Don't look at me like that. Tell me you haven't been thinking about those pigs we saw on the way in and remembering that pork we had with Georges' group.”
Bucky hadn't been thinking about the dead pig hanging by its ankles but he was now. He was still thinking about it when Jones made a curious noise and stopped just inside the room he had entered ahead of Bucky.
There was no warning in his stance but Bucky edged cautiously past him, weapon ready, taking in every corner of the square room with its harsh lighting and low ceiling. Along one wall was a metal workbench with tools and machine parts strewn across its surface, and a tin plate containing a handful of screws and cigarette butts. There were larger pieces of machinery on the floor—gears and a coiled length of hose beside some steel panels—but it was immediately clear what had caught Jones' eye. The machine was large: perhaps seven feet high and four wide, made of sleek dark metal. There was a door set in the front, hanging slightly ajar.
A blurry, distorted version of Bucky was reflected in the machine's casing as he drew closer. There was a strange, peppery smell that grew stronger when he used the barrel of his Thompson to ease the door open. Inside, was the same sleek metal as the outside but with small holes punched at regular intervals along the top panels and the bottom panels removed entirely. Two of them were lying propped against the inside of the machine; the spaces behind them a gutted mess of tubes and wires with a hollowed out place on the left where something about the size of a football had sat. There was a powdery, white crust around the holes in the panels and on the floor of the machine.
He was still puzzling over it as footsteps approached. They were Steve's so he only glanced to the side when Steve drew level and made the same sound Jones had.
“Huh,” Steve said. “Looks kinda like the Vitaray machine they put me in when they injected me with the serum.”
A chill went through Bucky. He raised his Thompson slightly. “You think it's dangerous?”
“Don't even think it's plugged in. Howard might want a look at it though.”
Bucky exchanged a look with Jones. “Tell me you're not planning on carrying it.”
Steve snorted softly. “Wasn't my first idea. Could really use your mom's old Brownie now, couldn't we? Hmm. Give me your notebook.”
Bucky watched as Steve flipped to a page in the middle where there was no writing and began to sketch the lines of the machine. Morita had come in with Steve and he and Jones were picking through the pieces on the workbench, wondering if there was anything worth taking. Some of the scraps there and on the floor had obviously been part of a different mechanism; a second machine, small enough to move in a hurry. Bucky nudged a metal circlet with the toe of his boot and examined a length of copper wire, but it wasn’t long before he found himself drawn back to the first machine.
It was deeper than it looked. Easily deep enough for a man to stand inside. Near the top of the door was a small window. The door was several inches thick and the glass no different; round like the window of a submarine and bolted in place. Some of the white powder had settled in flakes along the inside and he reached out to touch it.
“Buck?” Steve stood at his shoulder. “This place is a bust. Nothing to do but lay down some charges and radio command. You coming?”
Bucky looked at him and then back at the window. His reflection blinked. “Yeah,” he said, pulling his hand back without making contact. Wiping it on his pants anyway. “Yeah, I’m coming.”
There was a bird singing outside the window. Mr Sommerstein kept pigeons on the roof of their building and in the cold, damp months when his arthritis got bad he’d let Bucky help. He showed him how to feed them and keep the cages clean and sometimes, when he thought Bucky had done a good enough job, he’d let him wring the weakest bird’s neck and take it home for his mom to put in the pot.
It wasn't a pigeon. Bucky's family had moved out of that neighborhood just before he turned thirteen, when things finally began to turn around for them, and Benny Lam had taken over caring for the birds. It wasn't a pigeon: no bird could make that kind of a sound. Music, just on the edge of his hearing, something soft and sweet with no kind of a beat but nice to listen to all the same. The kind of music his mom liked to listen to at the end of a long day, and sometimes she'd pull Bucky's pop to his feet and the two of them would take a slow turn around the room while Bucky and his sisters pretended to roll their eyes and squabbled over which record to put on next.
Steve was there with his mom. Mrs Rogers waved Bucky off with a tired smile so he held out a hand and made his eyes real big until Steve laughed and took it. Steve had dark circles beneath his eyes, like he was just getting over some kind of illness, and he couldn't dance worth a damn but he let Bucky lead him carefully around the room and he never stopped smiling the whole time. Beautiful.
Steve's hand was big and scarred and so warm. The music played and Steve smiled as Bucky held his hand between both of his own and slowly, methodically broke the fingers one after the other. Snap-snap. Snap-snap.
Steve was on the table. The straps were hanging loose at the sides instead of fastened across his bare chest but he didn't move. His eyes were very blue. Zola handed Bucky a knife and closed his soft, pale hand over Bucky's, like he was teaching a kid how to write. He and Bucky pressed the tip of the knife to the hollow of Steve's throat and slowly dragged it down the center of his chest to the waistband of his pants.
Bucky looked at Zola for approval and Zola nodded. “Good work, son.”
Bucky opened his eyes. Above him was a low, sloped ceiling split by wooden beams and an attic window. Moonlight spilled across the small room, catching on the dresser, the crooked pictures on the walls, the rocking chair in the corner where he and Steve had left their uniforms. It lit on Steve lying beside him; face soft and open, one hand curled at his chest and the other stretched across the bed like he was reaching for Bucky in his sleep. His hands looked fine, his bare chest smooth and unscarred, but that didn't mean anything. Just because you couldn't see something didn't mean it hadn't happened.
Minutes passed as Bucky lay there watching the rise and fall of that broad chest and wanting nothing more than to lift Steve's arm and curl in beneath it, to let that warmth and steady heartbeat lull him back to sleep. To feel safe. But then Steve's fingers twitched against the sheets and Bucky slipped out of bed. He dressed quickly, stealing glances over his shoulder as Steve grumbled and rolled onto his stomach, taking over most of the bed and making it creak loud enough to be heard all the way to Brooklyn. Last night, even with a closed door between them and the rest of the house, he and Steve had barely dared do so much as kiss once they'd settled down on that old thing. Steve mumbled something incoherent into the crook of his elbow but didn't wake, and Bucky lingered for a moment more before gently pulling the door closed behind him.
The stairs creaked almost as bad as the bed, but he kept his steps light and no one stirred as he passed by bedrooms and then the front room where Dugan's snores competed with Falsworth's whistling breaths.
The attic had been stifling but outside it was obvious that summer had passed. Earlier in the week there had been rain and something of it lingered; a dampness in the air, a slight give to the ground beneath his feet as he followed the path through Dernier's sister's vegetable garden.
Both of Dernier's brothers and his younger sister had been killed in the early years of the war, but his surviving sister, Odette, lived with her three children and her late husband's parents on a sprawling farm in northern Marseille. It had been two months since the city was liberated by French and US forces and five days since Dernier decided he wanted to see his sister. Odette was a hearty woman in her early forties and her eldest daughter a sensible, stocky fourteen year old, but her husband's parents were old and frail and the farm had been struggling since the war took first their son and then all of their hired hands. Bucky and the others had been put to work straight away. Most of them were city boys who barely knew one end of a cow from the other, and Dernier no different, but Odette watched her brother with warm eyes and when they finally stopped for dinner Bucky overheard her tell him, “This place needs a man.”
The night was clear and the moon bright enough for Bucky to find his way. From the long grass came the drone of unseen insects, thinner than it would have been even a week ago and the first ground frost would silence these last stragglers. As Bucky rounded the feed barn he paused, inhaling the rich, rank smell of animals and the sharper twist of motor oil: there was a light in the small garage at the back of the property.
He hadn’t come out here looking for company, but curiosity drew him onwards. The garage door was open and as he came closer Morita stepped into view; shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows and woolen hat pulled low. He set down a wrench and selected another from the half dozen laid out on the cluttered workbench before ducking beneath the hood of Odette's old truck. That afternoon, Bucky had taken a break from hammering in nails to investigate the cause of the truck’s tinny rattle and habit of refusing to start. He’d been unsuccessful and meant to take a second look, not expecting someone to beat him to it.
Besides Morita, there was someone on the battered old sofa slumped against the left-hand wall. Bucky couldn’t see them but he could smell brandy and hear the ancient piece of furniture complain beneath their weight. He knew it was Dernier even before the slurred question that drew a grunt from Morita.
Neither of them had seen Bucky. He looked from the lamp-lit garage to the wide, empty fields where he and his rifle could walk for hours without meeting a single soul. And then he scuffed his boot loudly against the ground and stepped inside. Morita looked startled when he emerged from beneath the truck's hood but Dernier's face split into a welcoming smile. Beside him, the sofa was covered with cogs and wires and the shell of one of his magnetic explosives, but they had obviously been set aside some time ago in favor of the half-full bottle set perilously close to his boot. He grasped the bottle by its neck and waved it at Bucky until Bucky took it from him and drank.
The brandy was sweeter than he had expected and burned pleasantly. He offered the bottle to Morita. “You know engines?”
He'd meant it to sound friendly but something made Morita’s chin come up. His eyes had dark bags beneath them and twitched between Bucky's face and the bottle before he took it and a long pull. It wasn't his first of the night. “I ought to, it's what I do back home. You too, huh?”
“No,” Bucky said, surprised on both accounts. He hadn't known that about Morita or realized Morita thought it about him. “Just sometimes. My pop's a mechanic so I grew up with it. I help out when he's short.”
Morita’s head cocked to the side and Bucky moved past him to take a look under the truck’s hood. There was an oily rag with a set of pliers and two bolts on top of the injection pump but otherwise it all seemed the same as it had that afternoon. He wasn't looking at Morita but felt his attention sharpen. “He got his own shop?”
“Yeah, he and my uncle got a place back in Brooklyn. Family business.”
“And you don't work for him?”
This was starting to sound familiar. If he didn't know better he'd think Morita had been taking notes from his Aunt Lyddie. “Nope,” he said, flat enough that Morita just nodded and didn't ask any more questions while Bucky took his time examining the engine, trying to work out what Morita was doing.
Finally, he had to admit defeat. “Okay,” he said, aiming for rueful instead of grudging. “What did I miss?”
Morita's grin was sly. “Well, you know, I don't feel so bad now I know you're not a fellow professional. Take a look here.”
They worked on the engine in a companionable quiet. Bucky had left his coat back in the room but he rolled up his shirt sleeves and propped his rifle against the side of the truck. Over on the sofa, Dernier worked on the brandy and sang snatches of French songs under his breath, voice creaky and falling silent for long stretches of time where he just stared darkly at his hands before giving himself a shake and launching into a different song. He had gotten back onto the one about Jean the shepherdess with her white basket when Bucky asked Morita, “You get this from your pop too?”
Morita scoffed like this was funny in a way Bucky didn't understand. “It was a guy from town. He would come up and fix Dad's truck—that piece of shit only broke down every other week and he wasn't about to buy a new one—and I'd watch the guy work. After a while I guess he gets sick of me sitting there doing nothing so he starts to teach me. Been working for him fifteen years now.”
“Huh. So what does your dad do?”
A smile tucked itself into the corner of Morita's mouth. “Would you believe I grew up on a peach farm?”
“Hell,” Bucky said, “I'll believe anything.”
“Course, the government took it,” Morita said, later, after the three of them had dragged the sofa outside and passed the brandy back and forth until there was nothing left. Smoke from Bucky's cigarette curled lazily between them and the night sky while the one he had given Dernier became a drooping pillar of ash tucked between his first two fingers. Dernier had stopped singing. He might have fallen asleep with his eyes open and fixed wetly on the stars. To the other side of him, Morita rolled the empty bottle between his palms and glared out at the dark fields. “Three generations of my family have worked that farm and they just took it, like it meant nothing. Like we ain't even Americans anymore.”
His fingers closed around the bottle’s neck like he was thinking of throwing it. “There's nothing you can have that they can't take from you.”
Steve would have something to say about that but he wasn't here and Bucky knew better. He examined the glowing end of his cigarette. “You gonna get it back?”
“Yeah.” Morita blew out a noisy breath, letting the bottle fall harmlessly to the soft earth between his feet. “Some neighbors are taking care of it. He and my dad grew up together 'cept his name is Eriksson instead of Sato or Yamamoto so he and his family get to stay in their own home. He's a good guy. He writes, says how the trees are doing, but. Well. Let’s say I got a little less faith in human nature these days, so I figure maybe I'll pay him a visit after all this is over and make sure he remembers what a good guy he is. Real friendly, like.”
“Well, you want some company for that you just say the word. Steve, too. He's always wanted to visit Fresno.”
“No one's always wanted to visit Fresno,” Morita retorted but the words were too surprised to hold any bite. He was quiet for a moment. “Yeah, okay. Maybe I’ll take you up on that. Hey, why don’t we all go, huh? Wouldn't that be a sight: all you bums rolling into my hometown. Put you to work picking peaches.”
“I do not want to be a farmer,” Dernier said, making them both jump. Bucky hadn't really thought he was asleep but it hadn't exactly seemed like he was listening either. “My father was a tailor. He made the most beautiful, beautiful suits. People would travel—they would come from many miles away to have my father make them one of his beautiful suits. It is a special thing, I think, to create beauty with your own hands. A rare thing in this world.” Ash dropped across his and Bucky's pants as he swung his arm in an emphatic gesture towards the sky.
They waited but that was it. Morita patted his knee. “Don't worry, Frenchie, you don't have to pick peaches. You can teach my nephews to blow shit up and sit out on the porch looking at the stars. That's okay.”
“You get skies like this in Fresno?” Bucky asked.
“I don't know. Never spent a whole lot of time looking up.”
“They must make them short out there.” Morita flipped him off and Bucky grinned, tipping his head back to blow smoke up towards the sky. The constellations were familiar and easy to pick out but it was the harvest moon with its shadowed face that drew his eye. “Looks like a big Buffalo nickel you could just pluck out of the sky, doesn't it?” he said, to himself as much as anyone else. “Makes you almost believe Stark when he says we're gonna have a guy walking on it within ten years.”
“Baloney. I'll believe it when I see it.”
“I don't know, it looks awful close from here. And bright. It's brighter out here than in London.”
“Yes,” Dernier said. “Of course. Nowhere in the world is dark like a blackout. You know what they say about a city in blackout? That we light candles for prayer and we blow them out for the wishes we are too ashamed to let God overhear. London is an entire city blowing out candles and wishing for the bombs to drop on their neighbors instead.”
Bucky rested his cheek on Dernier's bony shoulder. “See,” he told Morita. “This is the kind of stuff we'd miss if we never learned French.”
The first frost came towards the end of the month and the nights were quieter after that. All reports said this was going to be a hard winter, but even with early morning frost cracking beneath Bucky’s boots and his breath clouding in front of him it seemed mild compared to last year. Part of it was those strange aches and pains he’d been full of the previous winter. The headaches and muscle pain had lingered into spring and tailed off as the weather grew warmer. He only thought of them now because this kind of weather always made his pop walk a little slower and groan as he sank into his armchair in the evening, unscrewing a tin of sharp-smelling liniment to rub into the ruined flesh above his knee.
Bucky and his guys spent the final weeks of October on the trail of a Hydra captain who had deserted his post and taken two hundred of his men deep into the Black Forest. Word was, they were planning to set themselves up as a small independant army, but it turned out they actually meant to hand themselves over to the regular Nazis and hope they—and their stolen Hydra tech—would be welcomed with open arms. It was a genuine pleasure to ruin their day.
Once that situation had been dealt with, they returned to base and were barely given time for a hot meal and a shower before a new target was set in front of them. A flyby over northern Hungary had uncovered a weapons factory on the edge of a forest near the Austrian border.
Photographs showed a concrete fortress similar to Krausberg. The main building and smaller structures were surrounded by a twenty-foot fence, topped with barbed wire and manned by armed guards checking every truck that came in. The photographs were good but they couldn't compare to seeing it with your own eyes. Bucky cleared his throat and handed the binoculars to Steve, who lay on the overhang beside him. “You think he's in there?”
Even without the binoculars, the size of the base was obvious. It had been a while since they tackled anything on this scale so they'd been given a company from the 82nd Airborne, fresh from Operation Market-Garden in the Netherlands and no longer the eager green troops they had been before the summer. The Cajun sergeant who had missed his sister's cooking and been so encouraging with Bucky's appalling French was back in Louisiana, minus a leg and three fingers, courtesy of Normandy, but the rest of the men were waiting with Dugan and the others in a small wood set a couple hundred yards back from the overhang. They had been told to keep the noise to a minimum, but the evening was still enough that their voices carried.
“Maybe.” Steve squinted into the binoculars, ears pink and vulnerable in the chill. His helmet lay on the ground between them. “There’ve been reports of Schmidt in eastern Austria and we know he's got a base somewhere in the mountains.”
After a moment Steve glanced at him. “Oh, you mean... Yeah. Maybe. Building weapons is what he does.”
Bucky made another noncommittal noise. He rested his chin on his folded forearms. In another few hours it would be full dark and they would make their attack, but there was still light enough to see four trucks moving up the dirt road and being waved in through the gates. Guard towers were set on either side and, as he watched, their spotlights flickered into life; first one side and then the other.
“There's gonna be prisoners,” he said quietly.
He and Jones were leading the squad that found them. The base was larger than they were used to, but that didn’t matter once they’d broken through the outer defences. These places all burned the same.
Inside, the resemblance to Krausberg was stronger. Even the cages were the same: iron bars that stretched to the ceiling either side of a corridor you could watch the guards walk the length of and wonder who they were going to take this time, if this time it would be your turn. The smell of death was the same. There were over two dozen cages with too many men crammed into them. Most of the prisoners were civilians but at a glance Bucky could see US, British, and French uniforms, as well as several men dressed like Germans who banged their hands desperately against the bars and cried out in what Jones thought might be Russian.
Bucky was helping one of the Russians—a kid, really, with huge pale eyes and lice crawling through his shorn hair—when a commotion broke out. He pushed his way through the crowd to find Jones and one of the airborne arguing with an emaciated man with a rangers badge on his sleeve.
“Hey! What's the problem here?”
Exasperation was clear on Jones' face. He started to answer but the ranger's fever-bright eyes seized on Bucky like a man sighting a lifeline.
“Please,” he said, his accent east coast and thick with something that had settled in his lungs. “You’ve got to— My buddy. My friend. They took him and they— when they take them we get the bodies, see? For the, the incinerator. But we never got Johnny's. He's still up there and he might be, he might be hurt. You gotta let me look. We can't leave him behind.”
The paratrooper was asking who took his friend but no one was paying him any attention. Bucky followed the ranger's shaking finger down the long corridor, to a set of stairs leading up into the dark. He swallowed. “They took him up there?”
“Yeah.” Beneath the dirt, the ranger’s face and hands were heavily bruised; like he’d fought like the devil itself to hold onto something. “They took him and he never came back. None of them ever come back, but we didn't get the body this time. He's still up there.”
All of the cages were open by now and the freed prisoners were growing restless without direction. There were men who could barely stand and others fighting over the weapons taken from the dead Hydra guards. Angry voices rose from within the crowd and the paratrooper shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Sergeant Barnes, we need to move or we're going to have a riot on our hands.”
The ranger's eyes didn't leave Bucky's. “I'm not going without him.”
Something inside Bucky sparked into life. “I'll go,” he said. “I'll find your friend. You stay with the others and I'll find him, okay?”
Shocked tears welled up in the ranger's eyes and he opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before words spilled out of him in a torrent. So grateful it made Bucky feel ashamed. “Yeah. Yes. Thank you. His name's Johnny, Johnny Farnham. He's got black hair and he’s tall and...Thank you. You'll find him?”
“I'll find him.”
He turned to Jones but Jones was faster. “They took his friend five days ago. That’s what he didn’t tell you. He’s been gone five days, Bucky, he’s dead.”
“How long was I gone?”
The words swung out of him, ugly, and Jones flinched like he'd been hit, eyes wide. They stared at each other and the best part was Bucky didn’t even know the answer to his own question. He’d never asked, never mentioned it, and no one else had mentioned it either. All these months they’d all been pretending it never happened, and he’d pretended hardest of all. Bucky didn’t know how long Zola had him on that table but it was longer than five days, it had to be, and who knows how long it would have been if Steve hadn’t come for him. If he hadn’t tried.
“I'll go with you,” Jones said.
Bucky shook his head. “You get them out of here. Meet at the treeline and I'll find you. I won't be long.”
“Bucky, this isn't—”
“I won't be long.”
The sound of Jones and the airborne herding the prisoners out took a long time to fade behind him even though he was almost running by the time he reached the end of the corridor. He headed up the metal stairs to a catwalk. His Thompson was a solid weight in his hands; his heart pounded in his ears. As he moved through the factory there was distant gunfire and the unnatural whine of machines powering up, getting ready to spit out a pale blue fire that burned and consumed and left nothing behind. He paused at a corner and a tremor went through his boots as Dernier's timed explosion took out the command center, right on schedule. This whole place would be coming down soon. Two Hydra soldiers appeared in front of him and he shot them both without breaking stride.
There was no reason for him to know the way but somehow he did. His breath was coming in harsh gasps now. There was a corridor and a set of steps and then another corridor and halfway along it an open door. Inside the room everything was tinged green like a nightmare and the cold air carried the smell of rot and carbolic soap and something else. There was a table in the center of the room.
Machines crowded around the table. There was a metal tray with three empty syringes and a pool of clear fluid that caught the light and looked almost silver. The table was empty, the straps hanging loose, but there was something moving in the corner of his eye.
There was something moving in the corner of his eye and Bucky turned. There was a second table. He held his Thompson in front of him as he came closer, and his heart was beating itself bloody against the tight cage of his ribs but everything was soft and slow, like walking through water, like a dream, like one of those dreams where you know what's about to happen but you can't turn away. The tips of his fingers tingled and there was a rough rhythmic scraping at the back of his throat but it was distant, like his body didn't belong to him. It kept moving closer. The other smell was stronger here and the straps were hanging down, swaying gently in a draft coming through the tall windows. This table wasn't empty and the smell was, the smell was...
It was the smell that had woken him. Something rank and familiar cutting through the haze. He frowned up past the writhing machines at the ceiling, his hand aching and blood sizzling in his veins. He knew that smell and those wet, snapping sounds and he could hear music, just on the edge of his hearing; something soft and sweet and another voice singing along, slightly out of tune. There was something moving in the corner of his eye and when he turned his head he found himself face to face with Nolan. Nolan's head lolled to the side, blue eyes wide like he was asking Bucky if he believed this shit. There was a smear of blood on his lower lip.
Bucky looked into Nolan's eyes. And then he understood. Nolan was looking at Bucky and Zola was standing over Nolan, painted red up to the elbows and singing quietly along with the radio as he rummaged around inside Corporal Freddie Nolan's chest.
Bucky must have made a sound because Zola's eyes moved to him behind their round little glasses. He smiled.
When Bucky was nine his cousin Maggie broke both her legs falling from their fourth floor fire escape, and Bucky had been sent to fetch his Uncle Stu from his foreman’s job at the slaughterhouse. He’d had nightmares for a month. It was impossible now to know how much was what he’d seen and how much was the overactive imagination of a young boy raised on pulps, little Maggie’s screams still ringing in his ears, but it wasn’t the blood that had haunted him, or even the smell, but the dumb bovine terror of the cows when their time had come and they didn’t understand anything except waiting for the knife. His nightmares had been full of wide eyes and panicked breathing and the knowledge that nothing he could do would make it okay. He thought his eyes must look like that now as Zola came close.
“His heart gave out,” Zola said. “The same tests we performed on you two days ago, but you lived and he did not. The human body makes mistakes, it is... flawed. Unpredictable. Mistakes are made and then we open the body up to see what went wrong.”
Damp fingers brushed against Bucky's cheek. “Even in death you can help the scientific process.”
Bucky couldn't speak, couldn't move, couldn't breathe as Zola touched a fingertip to the dip in his chin and then stroked over his throat and down the center of his chest, finger catching against the wool of his sweater.
“When your heart gives out,” Zola murmured, “I will cut you open and we will see what went wrong. You have lasted the longest but I am in no rush. I can be very patient.”
His finger slowed as it reached the waistband of Bucky's pants, his eyes holding Bucky's, and for a second Bucky knew he wasn't going to stop. Knew he was going to slip his cool, dry hand down the front of Bucky’s church pants and something hysterical broke loose inside him at that, a sharp snap. A high, helpless sound escaped him and Zola smiled. He tapped his finger twice against the button of Bucky’s pants before he went back to Nolan, humming that tune Bucky didn’t quite recognize. Bucky could still feel that damp touch on his cheek as he looked down at the table. He looked into wide blue eyes, his head filled with a high-pitched sound and the fingers of his left hand shrieking as he curled them into his palm.
There was someone in the room with him. He knew that voice and he knew those hands and that face. There was someone who didn't belong here and they were speaking to him. “Is... is that? Steve?”
“Yeah, Bucky, what are you doing?”
“Steve,” Bucky said again, his own voice sounding very far away, like it was coming from a station with bad reception. “Look, Steve, it's Nolan.”
Both of Steve's hands were on Bucky's face. His eyes were very blue. “Who's Nolan?”
The dry touch and the smell of worn leather and gunpowder didn't belong here. The question didn't belong here. “He's...” Bucky took a step back, shook his head. “We. Steve?”
Something had stopped inside of him. Steve was standing in front of him; tall and broad and strange. One of them didn’t belong here but Bucky wasn’t sure which of them it was. After a moment Steve nodded. “Okay. We're leaving.”
“Wait, we need to...” Bucky tried to look at Nolan again but Steve was blocking the way. He clasped his big hand across the back of Bucky's neck, forcing him to meet his eyes.
“He's dead, Buck. I need you with me, okay?
“Yeah.” Bucky blinked and the room snapped into focus. “Yeah, okay.”
He followed Steve out of there.
The high-pitched noise was back in Bucky's ears as they made their way through the burning factory, but everything had sharpened to an edge inside of him and he knew exactly what he was supposed to do. His Thompson was in his hands and there was a Hydra soldier in front of him and then there wasn't. Again and again and again until there was nothing left. The factory was on fire and an explosion almost sent them to their knees as they descended a set of stairs leading to another catwalk that cut across the factory floor. Then he and Steve were out in the yard and it was cold and loud and filled with American soldiers. His head was on fire. The guys were there and his Thompson was in his hands and there was nothing wrong with him and then Steve took Jones not far enough to one side and asked, “Who's Nolan?” and Bucky walked away.
There were a bunch of guys standing around with nothing to do so Bucky grabbed six of them and Morita and went to see about getting some vehicles started. One of the men was a captain but he followed Bucky like a lamb.
Later, he found himself sitting in the dirt with his back against a low stone wall and a broken-down rifle in his hands. His heart jumped but it was a German Karabiner, not his rifle, safe back in England. His Thompson was on the ground beside him and on his other side was Dugan, sitting against the same wall and smoking one of his awful cigars as he watched the treeline. No one else was in sight but the background murmur of a crowd told him they hadn't gone far. The sky was the pale gray of dawn. In front of Bucky was a clearing leading to a dense woodland, but he knew without turning that there was a field behind them and a road that ran past the abandoned house where they would wait for an extraction. The ground was cold beneath him. The back of his throat burned and there were flecks of vomit on his boots, but he couldn't remember throwing up any more than he could remember where he'd gotten the Karabiner. He looked down at his hands but they were perfectly steady, like they always were now, so he watched them piece the rifle back together as Dugan smoked silently beside him.
He had reassembled the bolt and slid it back into the receiver by the time Steve's footsteps approached. There was a long pause before Dugan hauled himself to his feet with a grunt and Steve took his place. He sat closer than Dugan, knee almost brushing Bucky's, but Bucky didn't look up from his work.
“You know, you've probably got the cleanest weapons in this man's Army,” Steve said.
Bucky didn't bother pointing out that the rifle wasn't his. Steve knew that already. “I like seeing how things fit together. He does too.”
“Yeah.” Zola had to have been in that room only minutes before but there had been no sign of him. He’d weaseled his way out again, just like last time. Bucky snapped the stock into place. “We both like taking things apart, except I like putting them back together once I'm done. Can't say the same for poor Johnny fucking Farnham.”
Bucky's hands stilled. “Yeah. Or Nolan.”
Steve waited and then said, “He was your friend?” like he didn't already know the answer.
“He was.” There was dirt beneath Bucky’s nails and in the creases of his knuckles. One of his nails had split down to the quick. “Him, me, and Dugan went through Basic and then North Africa and Sicily together. Freddie Nolan from Massachusetts. He was a good guy. Funny. Liked Dick Tracy. Could sing almost as good as my mom. And Zola killed him and cut him open just so he could see what he looked like inside.”
“You saw that?” Steve's voice was tight, his breathing very controlled.
“I was gonna be next. He was looking forward to it. He just hadn't found what would kill me yet.”
Steve didn't say anything and after a moment Bucky forced a rusty laugh, hurting his throat. “Hell, maybe he does like putting things back together. Maybe he was gonna stitch me and those other guys up once he was done and he was trying to make himself his very own Frankenstein's monster out of GIs.”
“You know what he was trying to make.”
And this, this was another thing they'd never talked about in all these months but, yeah: Bucky knew. He'd known ever since Steve told him about the needles and the Vitaray machine. Or earlier than that, maybe. Maybe since the moment he looked up and saw Steve standing over him, so big and strange.
Bucky curled and uncurled his left hand. “Yeah. Thank Christ it didn't work.” Zola would never have left a successful experiment to die in the explosion. If he thought for one second Bucky had what he wanted he'd never let him go.
Beside him, Steve was silent. When Bucky finally turned to look at him there was dirt smudged on his jaw and he looked as worn out as Bucky felt but his eyes were certain. “We're going to get him. Zola. We're going to stop him and make sure he never does this again.”
Bucky shook his head. “He's already doing it. Right now. He's got some new guy strapped to a table somewhere and he's... He's not going to stop. He likes it too much to stop.”
“Then we'll have to stop him. Me and you, right?”
He said it like he believed it and Bucky wanted to believe it too. All the impossible things he'd seen in this war, all the impossible things they'd done together, maybe they could do this too. Maybe then it would finally be over.
“Me and you,” Bucky echoed. “Yeah. Stopping that little bastard would be something, wouldn't it? That'd be a real good day.”
There was metal beneath his hands. He pushed it away and leaned to the side, knocking his shoulder against Steve’s. Steve’s breath caught and after a moment he put his arm around Bucky, squeezing tight when Bucky didn’t move away. They sat like that for a few minutes as the sky grew lighter and voices rose and fell just out of sight, and then Steve took his arm back and it was time to get back to what they were supposed to be doing.
“So, tell me about this place we're gonna get together,” Bucky said.
Beside him, Steve jolted even though he hadn't been sleeping. As they moved further into Austria the temperature had dropped sharply and their breath showed white in their pup tent. From outside came the rhythmic knocking and scratch of Falsworth cleaning his pipe and making fussy, disapproving noises beneath his breath at the state of his tobacco. Steve's watch had ended not long ago. Bucky had woken him and then, instead of climbing into the warm mummy bag and lying there staring at the ceiling of the tent, he'd taken his rifle and walked the perimeter before returning to sit with Steve. They hadn't said much, but they'd shared a cup of watery coffee and a cigarette from a pack Bucky took from a German scout two days ago.
During his sweep, Bucky had passed through the sparse woods where they had made camp to the edge of a steep slope. At the bottom of the slope was a valley with a single road running through the center. In a few hours, one of the Hydra scientists that had escaped the Hungarian base with Zola two weeks ago would drive down that road and Bucky would shoot out one of his tires. If the scientist survived they would have someone to bring back to Colonel Phillips, and if he didn't the files he had on him would be enough to make up for it. Either was fine with Bucky.
Steve's breath was warm against Bucky's throat. The mummy bags encased them both from head to toe but the shape of his body was a solid and familiar pressure along Bucky's side. “Big windows,” he said at last, voice rough and slow like Bucky had woken him after all. “A view that isn't someone else's kitchen. A big bed. Warm. Each of us gets a nightstand so I don't have a pile of your dumb books taking over mine.”
“Mm.” Bucky didn't point out that he wasn't the one who had put Death on the Nile by Steve's side of the bed the last time they were in London.
“A fire escape so we can sit out on hot nights,” Steve continued through a yawn, cuddling in closer. “An automat on the corner so neither of us has to embarrass ourselves pretending we know how to cook. One of those big sofas like your Aunt Una’s got. Warm. Somewhere in Vinegar Hill, maybe. Or near the park. Close enough we can see your folks and the girls at the weekends.”
He must have felt the way Bucky tensed at that because he drew back, trying to see his face. “No?”
“What if... we didn't go back to Brooklyn.” Bucky shifted, trying not to move his legs too much so he wouldn't be reminded how little he could. How trapped they and his arms were. He looked up at the sloped plastic suspended between him and the night sky as he put into words something that had slowly been taking shape in his head for a while now. “What if we went somewhere no one knows us?”
“Like Chicago. Or San Francisco or, I don't know, Jim makes California sound pretty good. They got peach trees there. And beaches.”
“Mm. You look good with a tan.” Steve blinked sleepily at him, a little notch between his brows. “What would we do in California? Besides eat peaches and lie on a beach.”
Bucky had never gotten that far. “We'd think of something.”
“You wanna go back to bookkeeping?”
“No.” Bucky shifted again until Steve's knee knocked against his and then settled firmly across Bucky's lower legs. The weight made his chest feel lighter somehow. “I don't know what we'd do. Just... something new.”
The wind had picked up outside. Branches creaked overhead and something not secured fast enough broke loose and made a plastic flapping sound until Falsworth got it under control. Footsteps moved past the tent and the fire popped and crackled as more wood landed on top. Steve was quiet, breathing slow against the underside of Bucky’s jaw, and then he said, “Yeah, okay.”
“Sure.” Steve settled down, nuzzling into Bucky's shoulder. He yawned and when he spoke again his voice was thick with approaching sleep. “You've been following me all through this war so I guess that makes it your turn. Wherever you go next. I'm following you.”
When Bucky signed up for this war the recruiter glanced through his file then asked how he’d like to join the Marines. Before that they'd weighed and measured him; checked his eyes and his reflexes and made all kinds of approving noises that made him stand up straight and squirm inside. According to the recruiter, the Marines was just the branch for someone with Bucky’s potential, and even then he’d known the guy was blowing smoke up his ass but that didn’t mean he was immune to it. He might have said yes if it hadn’t been for the thought of Steve going through his own examination, his heart set on the same regiment both their fathers had served in.
If Bucky had signed up for the Marines he might never have heard the name Hydra. Most likely, he'd have ended up in the Pacific; maybe even found himself getting patched up by Evie while he was out there. She'd never been much of a writer, but he'd had six letters from her now and each one felt real in a way those from New York didn't. Maybe it was the words she used or the way she would sometimes press too hard with the pen, or maybe it was something that made it past the sterile V-mail paper. A sense that if he lifted the original to his nose he wouldn't smell rosewater but the same blood and gunpowder his own world was steeped in.
Evie sounded tired in her letters, but in good cheer and full of admiration for Australia and the people she was working with. He would have liked to have seen it, and her too. Sometimes it felt like she and the rest of his family were a piece of him that had been carved out; something vital and close to the heart. Something that hurt in its absence.
But Steve had said the 107th so Bucky said no thanks and the recruiter shrugged like it was all the same to him.
“This thing's not going to last long anyway,” he'd said. “Those Japs and Krauts are going to find it's not so easy fighting a real army. You boys will all be home for Christmas, mark my words.”
All the papers were saying the same and Christmas had seemed like a long way off back in the January of 1942, so Bucky had believed it. He'd stopped believing it after the first year and stopped thinking about the war having an end at all for a long time, but as the winter of 1944 drew closer there was a growing sense that it might finally be within sight. The Germans were being beaten back on every front and Hydra had gone quiet too. There hadn’t been a straight fight since Hungary and Agent Carter’s network of spies hadn’t heard so much as a whisper in weeks. Optimism spread as easily among soldiers as despair and even the veterans began to talk about victory like it was just around the corner.
All that changed with the German attack on the Ardennes. Command called it the last desperate act of a dying animal, but that animal still had sharp teeth and claws and enough artillery to send the Allied forces into a panicked scramble as they tried to keep them from crossing through the forest and into France. Bucky and his guys had traveled that same route the previous winter. He remembered the snow and the heavy quiet: walking for hours among the straight rows of trees and feeling like the only living creature on earth. He couldn't even imagine what it was like now.
The Ardennes seemed to have reminded Hydra of their own teeth and their squad spent December going from one fight to the next. January already looked like more of the same, but in the middle of all this there was a genuine miracle. Home for Christmas was a little beyond Steve's abilities, but he somehow secured them all passes for five days of leave in Paris. Even after everything they'd been through and the countless times Steve had pulled their asses out of the fire, Bucky had never seen the guys look half as impressed as when he produced those slips of paper.
Since Steve had gotten them the leave, Bucky played his part and found the two of them a civilian hotel near the Gare du Nord railroad station. It had four walls, a bed, and an owner who couldn't be less interested in what they used that bed for as long as Bucky threw a half dozen packs of Lucky Strikes into the deal. As an open city, Paris had survived the occupation with most of her buildings and monuments showing little sign of the suffering felt by her people. Walking through her streets felt like entering Rome after the liberation and sitting outside a cafe, watching Steve sketch the Colosseum on a napkin and thinking about how some things were strong enough to outlive this war. He and Steve slept and screwed and saw the sights and on the second evening Steve pushed the tube of slick into Bucky's hand and said, “I want to try it.”
He looked more like he wanted to start a fight. Probably would if Bucky did anything dumb like ask if he was sure or act too enthusiastic about the idea. So Bucky just set his book to one side and said okay, like his heart wasn't pounding and his skin didn't feel suddenly electric. He couldn't resist leaning in for a kiss though, and the line of Steve's mouth was softer afterwards.
Once his mind was made up Steve was an impatient little cuss, so Bucky made him wait; kissing him slow and then spreading him out and sucking on him until he was sobbing out all kinds of threats before reaching for the slick. Holding him between Bucky's mouth and his fingers until he couldn't form words at all. He tried to turn Steve onto his belly, but the second he pulled off Steve was rolling onto his side and pulling Bucky down behind him and that was even better. Sliding into Steve, the slick tight heat of him and the greedy way he pushed into every touch was a pleasure that went bone-deep, that stayed with Bucky for hours afterwards. It was something to hold onto when he woke silently in the night and was drawn to the window; smoking to give his hands something to do, wanting his rifle. Steve never said anything on those nights, although he always woke a few minutes after Bucky. Sometimes he'd stand watch beside him, tapping his own cigarette from the pack, eyes on the street below, but on the last night of leave he took Bucky back to bed and covered him with that big, powerful body and fucked him so slow and so deep there wasn't room for anything else.
Getting back into the field was a different kind of comfort. His rifle and his men and a mission in front of him. The new year was four days old and they were headed to the Haute Savoie to investigate something the Maquis had found in the hills. From the description, it could be one of the new Hydra facilities that had begun springing up to replace the ones they had spent all of last year burning to the ground. Cut off one head and two more shall take its place.
They hadn't worked with the Maquis in this region before so it was a surprise to see a familiar face among the group waiting for them. The scarred and broken nose was the same and there was the same impatience in her dark eyes, but she looked thinner and had grown her hair longer, wearing it twisted into a chignon against the nape of her neck like Bucky's mom.
She frowned when Bucky jumped down from the back of the truck. “I remember you. The American with the gun.”
“Well, I should hope so. Hello, Anaïs. How have you been?”
Her eyebrows shot up towards her black beret. And then she scowled. “Your accent is still terrible.”
It was a three mile walk through the hills to join the rest of her cell. The Maquis in this region was said to number close to a thousand: not quite on the scale of Auvergne, but a formidable force all the same and valuable allies. Including Anaïs, there were four women among the fifteen Maquis who had met them but she didn't look any happier when Bucky fell into step beside her on the narrow path. Her English rifle hung from her shoulder on a stiff new strap. Bucky passed her a bar of chocolate that she accepted wordlessly before pulling a pack of German cigarettes from the pocket of her long shapeless coat. There was a bloodstain on the corner of the pack but that didn't bother him. He could barely remember a time now when it had.
“Where's your brother?” Bucky asked. A light snow had started to fall and the ground was growing steeper and rocky beneath their feet. Ahead of them, a man slipped and cursed beneath his breath but kept climbing. “The one with terrible taste who thinks I'm handsome.”
She was silent for long enough that he already had his answer and was trying to think of a way to take the question back by the time she shook her head. “We don’t know. He is gone. He went to meet a contact and then... nothing. We heard nothing, he was just gone.”
The snow wasn’t getting any heavier but showed no sign of stopping either. The light was growing dim. Voices faded in and out around them: Steve speaking in quick easy French; a woman complaining about her blisters; Falsworth mangling his vowel sounds until the man he was talking to switched to English with a polite lie about needing the practice. The woman leading the group called back to assure them that the ground leveled off after this slope and they ought to reach camp by nightfall.
“He could come back,” Bucky said, throat tight. Remembering the small dark man who had watched over his sister. “It happens. This war just... people get lost and sometimes they find their way back. There's still hope.”
“Yes,” she said dully. “Please, tell me more about how this war is. My country was only occupied by the Nazis for two years before your country even thought to look outside its own back yard. Surely, you know more about it than I do.” Bucky didn't say anything and she exhaled explosively, scowling against the snow. “It is not hope. Knowing someone is gone but not knowing how or why is not hope. Hope is a stupid word people tell you when they want you to stop talking about it, to stop speaking your brother's name. Hope. It would be better to have a body to take home for my mother to bury.”
A hawk circled overhead. Further along the path, Dernier laughed at something Jones had said and whistled the first few notes of a tune Bucky didn't know, making the men around him groan. They walked in silence for a few minutes and then Bucky asked. “What is his name?”
She glanced sideways at him, startled. The wind whipped loose tendrils of her dark hair against her cheeks. “Jean-Jacques.”
“Jean-Jacques,” he repeated carefully.
She stared at him, brows drawn together, before making a scoffing noise and shaking her head, turning away like that would hide her expression. “Idiot. You cannot even say his name right.”
“Tell me again.”
They spent the night at the Maquis camp and destroyed the facility soon after first light. It was only the first fight of a long month. After France they moved into Romania and then Bulgaria, following breadcrumbs that led to a factory producing the submersibles that Lombardi and the man who killed Dr Erskine had both used for their failed escapes. Stark still had parts of the one from Brooklyn in his lab, but it didn't seem like the SSR was in any hurry to make their own version.
Which didn't mean they hadn't been busy. Bucky and his guys returned to news that sent them up into the Austrian Alps, to an isolated town on the edge of a lake.
At the center of the town stood a bell tower. It was made of stone—beautiful like everything was in these small mountain towns—with narrow windows overlooking the intersection of two streets on one side and the town square on the other. Perfect sightlines. It was exactly the place Bucky would have chosen to set up position if the Hydra sniper hadn’t gotten there first.
He lay slumped in a corner of the bell tower, with holes from two of Bucky's bullets in him. The first had been taken from the ground, at an angle bad enough that Bucky had only managed to clip the side of his jaw, and the second was directly between his thick black goggles. That one had been taken at point blank range after Bucky's guys cleared him a path to the tower and he ran up all one hundred and twenty two steps. Hydra were having less luck stopping Bucky now he'd taken the nest. He had felt the wind of one bullet and there were several more lodged in the thick wooden shutters, but between him and his guys on the ground, no one was getting near the tower
It still wasn't clear what Hydra was doing here. The town and surrounding mountains looked like they belonged on a postcard but there was no strategic value to something this small and remote. No road wide enough for them to bring in the equipment they would need to build a factory. No nearby towns to provide workers. No sign of the people who had once lived here. Not long after the shooting started, two buildings on the far side of town had exploded without any of Bucky’s guys being anywhere close. Maybe going through the rubble after this was all over would provide some answers.
It wouldn't be long now. Bucky sent a cluster of black uniforms scrambling for cover directly into Steve's path on the northern side before switching back to look across the town square. Morita and Falsworth were pinned down at the entrance to an alley, but Dugan was there with what looked like a modified Panzerschreck. His whoops carried above the explosion.
Later, Bucky couldn't say what made him turn: whether he'd heard something or it was sheer dumb luck that meant he was facing the bakery across the square when its front wall crumbled outwards to reveal a tank pushing through the rubble. Someone shouted. Bricks turned to powder beneath the tank's treads, and Bucky was still wondering how the hell it got inside the bakery in the first place when the barrel swung upwards and he jumped out the window.
The shell hit the tower while Bucky was still falling. The heat of the explosion slammed into his upturned face and then his back slammed into the ground and the world went black.
Black lightened to gray and became the cloudless sky above him as dust and fragments of stone rained down, slow and soft as feathers. Light touches like raindrops patted against his face. Chips of stone and wood gently bounced off his blue coat. A piece the size of a baseball struck his thigh just above the knee, but the impact felt far away, unimportant. Like there were several layers of thick blankets between it and him. He blinked slowly. His hands opened and closed on the snow beneath them. And then he sat up.
Breath punched his lungs open and pain rushed in to fill the space. So much pain he could only gasp through it, his back on fire and every last piece of him ringing like a struck fork. This had to be what getting hit by a truck felt like. A thin groan escaped between his teeth.
Fifteen yards away, a middle-aged man in a suit and wire-frame glasses was staring at him. He must have come out of one of the untouched buildings beside the town hall. He stared at Bucky and then up at the ruined top of the tower and then back at Bucky. Bucky lurched to his feet with a pained grunt and the man took a step back. He had a pistol in his hand but didn't seem to realize it. They stared at each other for a long moment and then the man took off running, heels kicking up snow. Bucky staggered after him, his head spinning and his heart battering against the aching drum of his ribs and where the hell was his rifle? He pulled out the Colt but it slipped through his fingers and into the snow. He took another step after the man, two more, stronger now, and the guy had a head start but Bucky could catch him, he knew he could, just like he knew somehow it was very important that he did. He was halfway across the street when Steve came tearing around the corner of a building, eyes wide and frantic beneath the mask.
“Bucky!” He looked half out of his mind, grabbing at Bucky's arms and searching his face. “I saw it and— I thought you were in there.”
From the other side of the tower came shouts and then the unmistakable sound of a tank hit by a modified Panzerschreck. Bucky looked past Steve's shoulder to the alley the man in wire-frame glasses had ducked into. A motorcycle revved and then shot across the street and around the corner of a house. Bucky watched it go, a chill running down his spine though he couldn't have said why.
“No,” he said. “I got out.”
His back shrieked when he twisted to look up the destroyed tower, seeing for the first time what the tank had done to it. The entire top ten or so feet where he had stood was gone. Gray pulsed at the corners of his vision and his knees wavered but held firm.
“I... I dropped my rifle,” he heard himself say. His voice sounded strange, like someone doing a bad impression, the rhythm halting and unnatural. “Came down to get it. I was already out when it hit.”
“You dropped your rifle?”
“Yeah, Rogers, I told you.” That was better: angry instead of shaken. That was the kind of feeling that could slam down behind a guy’s eyes and block out everything else. He stepped back out of Steve's hold. “I was hanging over the side, taking a shot, and someone fired one of those blue weapons at me. I ducked out the way and dropped my rifle. You better be glad I'm such a butterfingers or I'd have been in there.”
As he'd hoped, that distracted Steve enough to let it drop. The destruction of the tank seemed to have signaled the end of the fight and Steve squeezed Bucky's shoulder hard enough to hurt before going to check in with the others. Jones and Dernier joined Bucky as he kicked through the snow at the base of the tower. It was thick here; almost a foot deep in some places and soft. It was fine. He'd already recovered his Colt, but it was Dernier who found his rifle. It must have hit a hard patch of ground at a bad angle: the barrel was bent and the scope a twisted, shattered thing that Dernier fished out of the snow and turned between gloved fingers.
He tsked. “I thought Stark Technology was supposed to be tough.”
Bucky held his rifle between both hands and didn't say anything. Jones nudged him. “We'll get you a new one when we're back at base. Remember how fast they found this one? The ink didn't even have time to dry. Nothing's too good for Captain America's team, right?”
“Except for missions where it is warm,” Dernier said.
“It's February. Nowhere in Europe is warm.”
Bucky ran his fingers along the cold, slippery metal of the crooked barrel. It was possible someone who knew what they were doing could hammer it back into shape—Stark, maybe, or one of those other guys who knew all sorts of things about weapons that the men who carried them didn't. There was a chance it could be fixed, but a greater chance it would blow his hands off the first time he tried to fire it. It was just a gun, anyway. Just a weapon. No great loss.
“Guess I'm down to the Colt,” he said quietly.
Dernier exchanged a look with Jones. “Well, perhaps this is not so.”
He led them to a house across from the town hall. The windows had been blown out and there were scorch marks up the walls. Glass crunched beneath their feet as they followed him down the narrow hallway, stepping over two Hydra soldiers, and into a back room with at least twenty Thompson submachine guns stacked in a pile in the corner. There was also ammunition, a dozen or so grenades, and one pair of US Army-issued boots with broken laces. The room stank of gunpowder but there was a different smell beneath it; something damp, like old leaves caught in a storm drain. Something rotten. The smell and the boots gave Bucky pause, but he crouched beside the pile of Thompsons to select the best one. His back twinged but that was all.
Dernier shrugged when Jones asked in a low voice what he thought the stockpile meant. “It means our best shot has more than a pistol. Other than that, I cannot say.”
The Thompsons were all the same and not what he wanted, but Bucky took his time choosing one before filling his pockets with ammunition. He and the others were dividing up the grenades when Steve called out from the street. He and Falsworth had taken a look at the two buildings on the far side of town but the explosion hadn't left much behind. Falsworth thought there might have been a basement or some other hollow space carved out beneath them, but there was nothing left but rubble so they were heading out. Morita had even found them a couple of trucks.
Steve's eyes went to the Thompson. “Going back to the classics?”
“For now.” Bucky shrugged the Thompson’s weight higher on his shoulder. He carried one just like it all the time; there was no reason for him to feel so off-balance. He forced a smile. “Soon as we're back in England I'm gonna make Stark's day and tell him I need a new scope. He's been nagging on about some improvements.”
Steve returned the smile. “Ask him nice and he'll probably make it turn cartwheels.”
They passed by the tower on their way to join Morita and the others at the trucks. Bucky had left his rifle on the steps inside the tower; out of sight from the street but that didn't stop him from glancing in that direction anyway. Steve was too busy frowning at the top of the tower to notice. Bucky's chest tightened as they crossed the street where the man in wire-frame glasses had stood and stared. At the time, Bucky had been too dazed to register it, but there had been recognition in that look. He'd looked at Bucky like he knew him.
And the funny thing was Bucky felt like he'd seen the guy's face somewhere before too. He just couldn't remember where.
Four days later they surprised a Hydra convoy coming through a mountain pass and got their hands on a working radio. It was rare enough for a convoy that size to even be carrying a radio—catching them unprepared enough that they didn’t have time to destroy it was an unprecedented bit of luck. Morita ran his hands over the squat black box with the Hydra symbol stamped on the top and grinned. “Now we can hear what they don’t want us to.”
They stumbled across another piece of luck as they moved further into the mountains. The cottage was little more than two rooms and a partially-collapsed roof, but the larger room was dry and secure and the only other inhabitants were old bird nests and small, scuttling things that retreated to the shadows without a fight. It would be their first night in weeks with something besides flimsy canvas between them and the bitter cold, and the mood was high once Bucky had cleared the surrounding area. Dugan and Falsworth even relaxed enough to start arguing about that damned Bing Crosby song again.
The cottage’s only furniture was a kitchen table and two handmade wooden benches, similar to church pews and about as comfortable. They smashed one up to build a fire and dragged the other close enough for Dernier to sit as he made a stew of K-rations and the rabbit Bucky had shot that morning, slow and torpid in the cold. After dinner, Dernier joined Jones and Morita at the table to fiddle with the radio and mutter about what they’d already heard. Not a base, not yet, but something about a train. Enough to keep them in the mountains instead of heading back to base like they’d planned.
Steve had met Bucky’s eyes when they heard who was going to be on the train. Bucky hadn’t said anything, just finished reassembling his Thompson and taken it for a walk along the perimeter. He walked for a long time; found old, broken fences half-buried in snow and a well with the bloated body of a sheep or goat quietly rotting at the bottom, but nothing to suggest any recent human activity. The valley spread out white and empty in all directions. The stars were hidden by thick clouds. Back at the cottage, he squeezed into the space Dugan and Jones made for him on the bench and held his bare hands up to the fire. If anyone noticed he wasn’t shivering they didn’t mention it.
One by one, the men took their mummy bags into the corners. Usually, Bucky took one of the middle watches but he was too restless to lie down. He pulled out his notebook. Tapped his pencil against the page and finally let himself think about it. About Zola. About his little smile and his soft hands and his needles. About making him pay. All these months chasing Hydra, chasing him, and never a glimpse of the man himself, only the shadow he cast; wider and wider until it felt like there was nothing left untouched. Like there was no escape.
And now Zola was almost within reach. He had seemed like a small man when Bucky was first brought into that room and on the other side of that catwalk. Bucky wanted him to seem small again.
“Penny for your thoughts?” The question made him start. He blinked at Steve as he sat down beside him on the bench. The fire was burning low. Steve threw some more wood on top and poked at it, light catching in his hair and the relaxed lines of his face. The radio and its news had filled him with the same good mood and sense of purpose as the men and he was glowing with it. Beautiful like this, with his broad shoulders and easy confidence and if it had taken the war for Bucky to see him like this then maybe that was okay, maybe it was okay that the war had given him something instead of just taken.
The men were asleep. Bucky could tell without looking just like he was willing to bet Steve could, but he pitched his voice low all the same. “He thinks I’m cheap and easy.”
That got him a small, sly smile. “Just how I like you.”
Steve’s eyes dropped to the notebook, still held open against Bucky’s thigh, pencil in his other hand. This notebook was small like the others, with a gray cover and two pale yellow stripes running down the side nearest the spine. Steve had bought it back in Paris, at a small stationery store near Notre Dame while Bucky had been distracted picking out cards for his family. Even after being in his pack for months it still smelled new. When he cracked it open the smell of ink and new paper made him remember Steve secretly buying it for him and then leaving it beside Bucky’s paperback on the nightstand for him to find the next morning. He’d shrugged when Bucky looked at him. “You’re gonna need a new one soon.”
Since the summer Bucky had filled three notebooks and was almost a third of the way through his fourth. He touched two fingers to the stripes. “I like it.”
Steve had shrugged again, turning away so Bucky couldn’t see the pleasure on his face and that was the last time either of them mentioned it. Bucky had finished his old notebook yesterday and tucked it into his pack before pulling this one out. The first page was still blank, only a dark gray smudge where his pencil had rested against the paper. He put it away, taking out his cigarettes and lighter instead. “Guess I don’t have much to say after all.”
“You ever think about doing that after the war?” Steve asked.
Bucky lit a cigarette, pulling smoke down into his lungs before passing it to Steve. They shared like that, sometimes, out in the field. Not because Bucky was down to his last pack—the convoy had been good for more than the radio—but because of the way their fingers brushed against each other as they passed the cigarette back and forth and the slight dampness left by their mouths on the paper. A small, simple intimacy that had to stand in for all the ways Bucky wanted to touch Steve and couldn’t. The closest they could get to a kiss out here.
He replayed Steve’s words. “What, writing? That’s not a real job.”
“Oh, right,” Steve said. “Unlike drawing.”
Across from the stove, Dernier coughed and rolled over in his sleep. He had been fighting a cold for the past week, breath thick and raspy at the back of his throat, and a thin whistling snore joined Dugan’s at the new position. Beside him, Morita grumbled but didn’t wake. Bucky frowned at Steve. “You went to school for that. You’re good at it. Writing’s not something I’m good at, it’s just something I do. It’s not like I’m working on the great American novel here.”
Steve took a drag from the cigarette, not meeting Bucky’s eyes. “It’s about the war, isn’t it?”
Outside, the wind was starting to pick up. The windows rattled and Bucky automatically reached down to touch fingers to his Thompson, propped against the side of the bench. “Some of it,” he said.
“Well, you’re a name now, Buck.” Steve blew out smoke, clumsily tapping the ash on the floor. No matter how many times Bucky had seen him smoke he still looked like he wasn’t quite sure how this cigarette had ended up in his hand or what he was supposed to do with it. A rush of affection gripped his chest as Steve used the cigarette to gesture at him, like an actor in a movie. “On the newsreels and everything. There’s people who are gonna want to know what Bucky Barnes thinks about the war.”
Bucky laughed shortly. “Christ. No, they don’t.” He took the cigarette back from Steve and blew a perfect smoke ring, just to make Steve look at his mouth. “Maybe I’ll write about you,” he told Steve when Steve’s face took on a determined expression and he reclaimed the cigarette. “Tell the world the true story of Captain America.”
“As long as you give me half and only tell them the good stuff.”
“Nah,” Bucky said quietly. “I don’t think it works like that.”
Steve didn’t hear him, too engrossed in trying to blow his own smoke ring. He managed a wobbly oval that immediately fell apart and got that look in his eye that meant he would be practicing until he made himself sick or got it perfect. “You could be a journalist,” he said. “There’s the GI Bill. Plenty of guys doing that. You could go to college, do anything you want.”
“Sure,” Bucky said, airy even though the idea was interesting. Something to think about. “When I’m not lying on a beach and picking peaches.”
Steve was quiet for a long moment. “I thought you’d want to go home.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, glancing down at his Thompson. “Me too. Remember when I told you this war's given me a few more years before people start asking questions? Well, what do you think's gonna happen if me and you go home and get a place together and not a girl in sight? It's not gonna take long to put it together. We can't go home and have this too. And I want this more.”
Steve was silent at his side. Bucky plucked the cigarette from between his fingers and flicked off the excess ash before taking a drag. “It's better this way,” he said quietly. “In California we can be whoever we say we are and no one's gonna care that we look kinda like those two handsome guys from the newsreels. It's gonna be a different world.”
The touch on his shoulder made him look up and then Steve’s hand was on his face, turning him enough to kiss. A simple press of lips but firm, with intent behind it. Like a period at the end of a sentence. Bucky unexpectedly felt his eyes prickle as Steve drew back and looked into the fire, blinking rapidly.
“Sounds good,” Steve said.
When Bucky was eleven he caught a fever so bad he almost died. Afterwards, Steve came in with his pinched face pale and his eyes wide and stricken.
“You almost died,” Steve said, looking like his whole world had shifted on its axis and he didn't know what to believe anymore. “You... you fucker. You're not allowed to do that!”
In three years of friendship, Bucky had never heard Steve use that word before and he grinned, delighted. He still felt too weak to lift his head from the pillow and he'd been confined to bed and not even allowed to read to stave off boredom, but they'd finally allowed Steve to visit and he was using language that would get both of them the belt if they were overheard. “Now you know how I feel, squirt.” Steve shook his head, looking like he was going to argue or cry or something stupid like that so Bucky kept talking before the kid had a chance to embarrass himself. “Hey. Okay, tell you what. We'll make a deal, right? Me and you. I won't die if you don't, okay?”
Steve looked dubious. “I don't see how that's supposed to work. One of us is gonna die eventually, Bucky. That's what people do.”
“Nah.” Bucky waved that off. He smiled wide and bright with a child's certainty that he had survived the worst that life could throw at him and now nothing could hurt him. He felt immortal. “You don't die without me and I don't die without you. We're gonna live forever.”
He must have sounded as sure as he felt because Steve nodded solemnly. “Okay,” he said. “Deal.”
They shook on it. Steve's hand warm and certain in his.
“Good.” The room was starting to spin again. Bucky lay back and closed his eyes. “Now I'm bored. Tell me something.”
He gradually became aware that he was lying curled up against something warm. He shifted in his sleep, the dream still clinging to the edges, not awake but not really asleep anymore. There was solid warmth all along his side and fingers stroking through his hair. That was what had woken him. He made a sleepy inquisitive noise.
“Shhh.” Gentle lips pressed against his temple. “Go back to sleep, Buck. Tomorrow's gonna be a real good day.”
So, this fic basically came about because of two things: the montage of Howling Commandos wartime shenanigans, and the marked difference between that Bucky and the one who came to Steve's rescue in the alley. "I feel like there's a story there", I thought and, well, this is my version of it.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it, comments and kudos are both very appreciated!