Flat on his back and surrounded on all sides by sleeping or sleepless soldiers, Bucky stares up at the star-flecked sky and tries very hard not to think about how badly he doesn’t want to be here.
It’s chilly outside, nighttime in Italy not half as balmy as his public school education might’ve led him to believe, and the army-issued bedroll he’s been given doesn’t do a damn thing to keep out the cold. The ground is hard and unforgiving beneath his back, and Bucky aches in a full-body way that makes it difficult to pick out the individual hurts. His feet are sore from walking, his back and shoulders killing him from hauling his pack over increasingly difficult terrain. Past that, though, everything seems to blend into a steady ache that reaches right down to his bones. That makes his whole body throb like an untreated wound.
And the stupid thing – the really stupid thing – is that he’s one of the lucky ones. Bucky isn’t dead or injured or missing in action; he isn’t locked up in a prisoner of war camp, hasn’t had his head blown off. He’s still whole and intact according to every medical record he has, according to every army regulation there is.
The aches and pains, the low-grade fear, the loneliness that burns at the back of his throat like bile; all of it’s just the shit that every soldier goes through. Every man in this cobbled-together campsite has the exact same feeling of dread in his stomach like a lead weight, the same throbbing feet and the same weary heart, and it’s so fucking miserable that Bucky wants to scream, wants to cry. Wants to give it all up and make a break for it, to get on a boat back to New York and punch Steve right in the face. To scream at the bastard until his throat is raw for ever thinking that this could be glorious.
A few feet away, Bucky can hear Gabe and Dugan talking quietly about something or other. Shooting the breeze, trying to fill the space left by all faceless mugs that were lost in yesterday’s skirmish. All the men they knew well enough to recognize by face and rank if not by name; the ones that are gone now, blown all to hell and shot full of holes and left bleeding in the mud. Bucky shifts uncomfortably in his bedroll, tries to dislodge a bit of rock or root that’s digging into the small of his back without waking anyone around him up.
Every part of him hurts and he’s hungry and pissed off, and it’s not like it’s going to get better any time soon.
They’re marching north, advancing day by day, and Bucky never signed up for any of this.
He can feel a lump rising in his throat, a tightening in his chest, and for a moment Bucky is so caught off-guard that he doesn’t think to stamp it all down. Can’t do more than squeeze his eyes shut and breathe in tight, shallow breaths. To wait until the moment of weakness passes, until he starts feeling like himself again instead of some scared kid lying in the dark.
Swallowing hard, Bucky makes himself focus on the familiar sound of Gabe’s voice. Clings to whatever he’s talking about, dredges himself back out of the pit of his head and forces himself to start paying attention.
“… better than the first time I met Annie’s parents, at least,” says Gabe. There’s a small but exhausted smile in his voice, and when Bucky opens his eyes he can just make out the white of his teeth as he grins in reminiscence. The cadence of his voice is normal enough, familiar enough, that it helps Bucky to breathe a little easier. Let himself relax a little further. “Now that was a war zone, let me tell you.”
Dugan huffs out a laugh, and Bucky can hear him shifting a little in the dark.
“Keep meaning to ask,” Dugan says after a few moments of silence, a bluntly curious note in his voice. “This Annie girl – you two hitched?”
The moon is bright in the sky and the stars aren’t hidden by cloud, and Bucky’s eyes are adjusted enough now that he can make out the sight of Gabe shaking his head.
“Not yet,” says Gabe with a shrug, reaching down into his shirt to pull out… his dog tags. Bucky sits up a little in place, leans a bit closer to take a look. Brings himself into the conversation without asking.
It’s his dog tags, all right. Gabe has the chain in his hand, is letting them dangle a little against the front of his shirt. For a second, the metal catches the light – and that’s when he realizes that the glinting metal isn’t part of Gabe’s dog tags at all.
What looks like a woman’s engagement ring is looped through the chain, shiny and relatively clean next to the rough metal of the tags.
“No fucking way,” exhales Bucky, shaking his head a little in disbelief. He doesn’t think it’s a particularly nice ring, although he’s hardly an authority on the subject. But still, what the fuck, because who would willingly bring something like that into a hellhole like this?
Is that even regulation? he wonders stupidly, staring at it in dumb silence.
Next to him, Dugan lets out a sudden bark of laughter that makes one of the soldiers a few yards off startle and shift in his sleep. Gabe just turns and flashes him a grin.
“Yeah,” Dugan snorts, a teasing note in his voice. He pushes himself up into a sitting position, a patch of moonlight illuminating his face as he does so. He looks oddly naked without his ever-present bowler hat, but there’s a pleased expression on his face at the revelation. “Who the hell thought your ugly mug could’ve landed you a real live woman, Jones, I’m shocked.”
Bucky hears more than sees Gabe reach out and punch him in the arm for that, and Dugan chuckles for another few seconds.
“She made me take it over here with me, can you believe that?” asks Gabe, shaking his head fondly and with only a hint of sadness edging at the corners of his voice. “Said she didn’t want it if she didn’t get to have me along with it; that I have to bring it with me when I come back home to her, and she’ll say yes as soon as she can see I haven’t gotten myself blown up.” He laughs a little sadly, fingers toying with the metal of the engagement ring in an absent-minded way. “I love that girl,” he murmurs, quiet and contemplative. He gives his head a little shake, as though dismissing whatever he’s been thinking about. “I really do.”
And Bucky thinks that must be nice. Having someone who thinks you’re the most important person in the world, knowing they’re waiting for you once you get out of this mess. He feels a little pang in his chest, brushes it away and forces his mouth into an encouraging grin.
“What’s she like?” asks Bucky, surprising himself with the question, but he genuinely does want to know. He rolls on his side so he’s facing the two of them, so they can all talk a little easier. Gabe looks over at him, and that bright white smile is back on his face again.
“She’s a nurse back in Columbus,” says Gabe fondly, settling back down into his bedroll with one arm under his head and the other still toying with the ring on the chain, staring up at the night sky. “Annie’s the best at what she does – she’s real good with kids and whiny guys not wanting their shots, y’know? She wanted to join the Army Nurse Corps, but… well.”
Gabe shrugs a little, and it takes Bucky a half second too long to connect the dots.
It’s not like he can ever forget that Gabriel Jones is a Negro. None of them can, least of all Gabe himself. It’s something that gets broadcasted to everyone a hundred times a day; in little ways, and in big ways, and all of it right there to see right in front of everyone’s eyes.
It’s impossible to forget – but the fact remains that it’s still something that Bucky has to think twice about, sometimes. Partly all of it is so normal that Bucky just doesn’t notice a lot of it anymore because it’s just the way things are. He’s gotten real good at ignoring the stink-eye he gets from some of the other guys for his choice of company, and he probably doesn’t even register half the dumb shit Gabe has to put up with that he doesn’t.
More than that, though, it’s easy to forget because it’s just not the most important thing about him every second of every day. In the middle of a firefight, Bucky cares more that Gabe is focused and reliable and a damn fine shot; on the rare occasions they get to have something resembling a good time, Bucky cares more that Gabe laughs easily and knows how to cuss in more languages than Bucky’s even heard of. It makes it easy to think of him as just… a guy. A guy who’s just like the rest of them, who’s in the same boat as they are.
It still doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Nurse Corps probably hadn’t wanted his girl, and Bucky grunts out what he hopes is a sympathetic noise in response. After a moment, Gabe gives his head a shake.
“Anyways, she’s holding up the fort at home. Doing her part for the war effort that way.” Gabe lets out a huff of air, a sardonic little sound. “Now all I gotta do is get back home to her. Bring the ring back, get down on one knee again. Wrap her up in my arms and never let her go if I have my way of it.”
“Mmm,” Dugan hums, something uncharacteristically warm in his voice. Gabe shakes his head.
“What about you, Dugan?” Gabe asks, tucking the dog tags and the ring carefully back under his shirt. “Anyone special you want to come home to?”
“Aw, hell no,” says Dugan with a snort of laughter, as though the question itself is fundamentally ridiculous. “Love ‘em and leave ‘em, that’s what I say,” he declares raunchily, not exactly trying to be quiet, but no one around them seems to stir at his voice.
“Why am I not surprised?” Bucky says with a smirk, doing his best to talk a good game. To put on the Bucky Barnes, confident ladies’ man attitude that it sometimes feels he left back stateside. He’s all ready to make a comment about too much time getting acquainted with all the girls in your home town to pick one of ‘em, I see how it is.
Just as Bucky’s opening his mouth to say it, though, Dugan gets an almost shifty look about him. Distracted, guilty – as though he’s thought about something he shouldn’t’ve. He’s too big a man for hunching himself up and trying to make himself look small to do any real good, but he suddenly looks uncertain and melancholy in a way that catches Bucky entirely off-guard.
“Well, there’s –” says Dugan haltingly, and his words are a whole lot more quiet than they were before. He coughs, shifts his broad shoulders awkwardly. “She’s not my girl or anything.”
“Who is she?” asks Gabe, relaxed and easy and apparently not caught off guard at all. Dugan shrugs, scratches at his head a bit.
“There’s this one dame who works at a dance club in my town,” he begins, snorting a little in a mildly deprecating way. “Hell of a sleazy place. She’s a dancer – stage name’s Tallulah, but her real name’s Marion.”
“You know her real name?” Bucky asks, mildly surprised. Those sorts of establishments don’t usually like their girls handing those out.
Dugan shrugs, and it’s a controlled, self-conscious movement. The darkness makes it hard to pick out the nuances in his expression, the moonlight emphasizing some of the lines of his face and shadowing others, but from what Bucky can see he looks straight-faced and serious.
“I’ve walked her home a few times after the club closes up,” he offers up in explanation. “She’s… nice. Funny as hell, and real wise-ass when she’s off the job.” Dugan pauses for a moment, real thoughtful-like. “I think I’ll be happy to see her when I get back,” he says eventually, as though he’s deciding on it for the first time instead of just relaying the information to them. “Might ask if she wants to grab a drink instead of serving them to me, y’know?”
“Yeah,” says Bucky, taking a deep breath through his nose. The smirk slipped off his face sometime when Dugan was talking, and now all he’s left with is something blank and expressionless. He flexes his toes at the bottom of his bedroll.
There’s a persistent pounding in his ears, a tightening in his chest that he really doesn’t fucking want to think about right now.
“Yeah, she sounds nice,” says Bucky quietly. Next to him, he hears Gabe say something in agreement. He nods along, staring past Dugan with unfocused eyes into the darkness around them.
And it’s a funny thing, isn’t it. It’s funny because up until this moment, Bucky’s never once wished he had a girl to come home to. Not during the war, not in his whole life. Settling down has always been a distant concept; one of those certainties of life that lingers at the outer edges of his mind but doesn’t really affect him on a day-to-day basis. He’s always figured that he’ll get married one day, sure. But not now; not anytime soon.
Because it’s always been enough before; going on dates, having a laugh, dragging Steve along for the ride. Having a good time where he could and making sure whichever girl was making it with had a good time, too. He’s never been tempted to settle down with any of them, and at the end of the night he’s always been happy to go home to Steve. To cobble together dinner with Steve, to tell Steve about all the ups and downs in his day. To give each other shit and look out for each other and be there when Steve needed him, to make each other laugh and get pissed off about stupid shit and push through all the hard stuff until they got through to the other side.
It’s always been enough for him before now, and right now Bucky misses Steve so badly he can almost taste it.
“What about you, Barnes?” asks Dugan. The sound of his voice brings Bucky back to the present, dredges him out of memories of a beat-up little apartment with sunlight streaming in through the windows. Brings him back to the cold night air and the near-complete darkness and the snoring of their fellow soldiers around them. Bucky looks at Dugan’s silhouette against the moonlight, is just able to make out the man raising his eyebrows suggestively. “Got yourself a girl waiting for you back home?”
There’s an answer on the tip of his tongue, one that he’ll deliver with a cocky grin and a half-laugh and a little shake of his head. He even opens his mouth to say it out loud, can actually feel the words forming on his lips.
But Bucky is exhausted and hungry and so sore it hurts to move, and one of the guys in their platoon fucking died yesterday. Stepped on a landmine and got blown to hell right in front of them, no enemies and no gunfire and all of it so fast it hadn’t even seemed real. His mouth tastes like iodine water and his feet hurt and none of it’s going to get better any time soon, and all at once Bucky misses Steve so badly he can barely see straight.
Because all of this would be so much better if Steve was here with him. He’d never want it to actually happen; Steve would die out here, no questions asked, and Bucky thanks God every day that the army wasn’t desperate enough to take him. But if he was here…
If Steve was here, his stupid determination to do what’s right would be a constant reminder of what’s at stake. He’d force Bucky to think about why they’re fighting instead of drowning in everything he’s missing out on, would say just the right thing to make Bucky snort out a laugh whenever all of it got too hard, too much.
He thinks about Steve, with his pretty blue eyes and that dumb smile and the narrow frame that conceals so much that no one ever seems to see.
And somehow when Bucky opens his mouth, ‘no’ isn’t actually what ends up coming out.
“Yeah,” Bucky declares abruptly, the word escaping from his mouth before he can actually think it through. Before he fully realizes what he’s saying. He swallows hard, eyes wide, and it’s as though the word is hovering in front of him. As though all he has to do is reach out and pluck it out of the air, to pull it back in and deny it ever happened. His skin feels prickly and he licks his lips, opens his mouth, and it’s as though someone else has hijacked his brain. As though he actually can’t control what he’s saying. “Yeah, I do.”
And what the fuck.
What the fuck does he think he’s doing?
Bucky’s heard about soldiers who go off their rocker and start spewing nonsense, knows it’s a thing that happens sometimes. But he was under the impression that it generally takes more than a few months’ worth of combat for that sort of thing to kick in. His heart is racing but there’s no sign of it on his face – he’s always been cool under fire, always been able to pull the trigger and hit his target even when the world is going up in flames around him – and Gabe and Dugan are looking at him calmly but expectantly. As though they believe what he’s saying instead of seeing it for the crock of shit it actually is.
“What’s her name?” asks Gabe encouragingly, turning his head a little so that he can look Bucky in the eye a bit more easily. Dugan nods, and he’s clearly interested too. Clearly believes what he’s saying and oh fuck, what the fuck is he thinking?
He could stop talking about this right now. Could shut the hell up and make like he’s shy and doesn’t wanna talk about it, or play it off like it’s all a joke. There’s still room to back out of this before he gets too deep, before he starts saying shit he can’t take back. And God, Steve would be so angry at him right now. Lying to his fellow soldiers, to people he’s supposed to trust, who are supposed to trust him. It’s not all right, and it’s not okay, and it needs to stop right the fuck now.
“Stella,” Bucky replies instead, the word rolling off his tongue before he can snatch it back, and he doesn’t even know where the name came from. It’s like an addiction, like he’s pitched himself off a hill and there’s no going back, because he can’t seem to make himself stop.
Dugan snorts out a laugh.
“Let me guess,” he says, cocking an eyebrow and giving Bucky a wry look. “She’s 5’8, complete bombshell. Red lips, busty as hell, legs that go all the way down to the ground.”
Without meaning to, Bucky snorts out a laugh.
“Nah, not even close,” he says, and it’s as though he’s watching himself talk from outside his own head and he has no idea what the hell he’s doing right now and he can’t seem to make himself stop.
“She’s… she’s tiny as hell, just a slip of a thing,” Bucky continues, not uncertain but casual, easy. Slow. He licks his cracked lips. “Blue eyes, blonde hair…” An image of Steve’s face flashes in front of his eyes. “Prettiest lips you ever did see.”
And Bucky can basically pinpoint the moment his heart stops in his chest, because oh shit. Oh, shit.
He clears his throat a little awkwardly, fidgets inside his bedroll. “Always tries to do the right thing, but doesn’t have shit for common sense sometimes.”
“Yeah?” asks Gabe, sounding a little surprised for reasons Bucky doesn’t entirely understand. Because it’s a lie, but it’s an acceptable lie. A believable lie. And if he was telling them anything even remotely close to the true story, there’d be a hell of a lot more than surprise on both their faces right now. “Didn’t really figure that as your type.”
And that’s enough to make Bucky laugh out loud, to let out an honest to God chortle, because Gabe has no fucking idea.
“Me either, I guess,” he admits with a shrug, shooting both of them the best grin he can scrape together at the moment. It feels weak on his face but must be convincing enough. “But here we are, right?”
The conversation drifts over to something else at that point, thank God, and Bucky’s grateful beyond words because he’s having to hold himself like he’s about to take a shot in order to stop his hands from twitching, can barely think on account of the way his brain’s going off like a rocket inside his head.
After a few minutes of nodding and pretending to listen for the sake of being polite, Bucky says his goodnights and settles back into his bedroll. He rolls over so that he’s facing away from the guys, pulls the canvas tight around himself, and stares out into the darkness instead of actually sleeping.
He just stares, and breathes, and tries to figure out what in the name of God he thinks he’s doing.
The thing is…
The thing is that it’s not actually the first time Bucky’s thought about Steve that way. Not really.
Not that he’s always thought about Steve as his girl or anything, because that would just be weird as hell. They’ve been best friends since they were kids, and there’s no way they could’ve lasted all these years if he only saw Steve as someone to protect, to coddle. Steve’s kept him on the straight and narrow even when Bucky’s been tempted to stray, makes him think about other people and what they need even when all he wants to be is selfish. Steve’s kept him good, kept him from turning into the kind of bully the world seems to churn out a dime a dozen, and Bucky doesn’t actually have the words to thank him for that.
Steve’s always been there to listen to Bucky’s problems and be there when he needs to vent his frustration, to hear out all of Bucky’s hopes and dreams and the aspirations that were so far outside the realm of reality they were practically an exercise in make-believe. To shoot down his hair-brained schemes and to carry him through their old high school math and English classes, the ones taught by teachers paid so little they didn’t give a shit whether their students learned anything or not. Steve’s done more for him than the dumb bastard’s probably ever realized, and Bucky’s never thought of Steve as some dame he has to look after and provide for or anything. Not like that.
But at the same time…
At the same time, it’s not as though things have only ever been strictly friendly between them.
At the same time, Bucky remembers being sixteen years old and walking in on Steve at the wrong moment, the way Steve’s whole face went red and Bucky’s heart stuttered in his chest and the thought of saying sorry and running out the door was so unthinkable he couldn’t even contemplate it. Remembers the way Steve jolted in surprise and confusion when Bucky moved in close and wrapped his hand around Steve’s dick and brought him off with false nonchalance, remembers saying what are friends for, right? and don’t worry, Stevie, we’re just helping each other out with a forced grin on his face and his belly so twisted up with nerves he almost felt sick to his stomach. Remembers how hard he’d been, how badly he’d wanted it, how fucking good it had felt when Steve clumsily returned the favour afterwards.
It’d scared the hell out of him, the way Steve made him feel that day – no matter what kind of unruffled front he put up afterwards. He’d liked the feeling of Steve’s frail body in his hands more than he’d ever wanted to admit, had liked making Steve feel good in a way he couldn’t explain even to himself.
It happened a handful of times after that, usually when they were both drunk off their heads and could pretend it hadn’t happened in the morning. It hadn't changed things between them because Bucky hadn’t let it; was always sure to be as pointedly normal as possible the next day, to pile on the jokes and flirt with pretty girls and placate the part of himself that still wanted to touch Steve with slaps on the back and arms slung around his friend’s skinny shoulders.
And the thing is, Bucky likes dames – oh boy, does he ever. He likes the way they always smell nice and the way they make themselves up all pretty to go on dates, likes the way they laugh and the way they smile and the way they feel all soft pressed up against him. He likes the way their lips look when they’re perfectly outlined with red lipstick or when they’re smeared and swollen from kissing or when they’re wrapped around his dick, likes the sweet clutch of their bodies when he pushes inside of them. He likes the way they taste between their legs and how surprised they always are when he kisses them there, when he slides two fingers inside and laves at them with his tongue and makes them gasp and clench up around him, because what’s the point if he’s the only one having a good time?
Bucky likes dames enough that it’s always been easy to throw himself into taking them out on dates and taking them to bed, and as long as he gets to come home to Steve at the end of the day it hasn’t really mattered. He’s been able to appease that niggling dissatisfaction at the back of his head by getting Steve off about once a year and then laughing it off afterwards, and it’s always been enough until now.
Steve is the most important person in Bucky’s life; always has been, always will be. It doesn’t matter if both of them find a pair of nice girls and settle down, doesn’t matter if they both buy houses and have kids, because as long as Steve’s still at the centre of his world Bucky knows he’ll be just fine. He’s never thought of himself as a fairy before, not even when he had his hands down Steve’s pants, because it was something they did, not something they were. It didn’t mean anything, not really. One day they’d both find dames and get hitched and they wouldn’t do it anymore after that, and who even fucking cares about that shit anyways? It’s their business, no one else’s, and it’s always been something he’s tried not to think about much.
It’s impossible to not think about it anymore, though, because now every single time they talk about the girls back home, Bucky is confronted with the realization that what he already has with Steve isn’t actually all that different from what some of the guys have with their own girls, and Bucky just doesn’t know how to feel about that.
And it’s stupid, so stupid because it’s his own damn fault for making up that pile of baloney about ‘Stella’, for clinging to the lie and getting more invested in it every day.
Because talking about Steve as though he’s Bucky’s girl – as though he’s something Bucky has instead of something he maybe kinda wants every so often – is making everything in Bucky’s head get jumbled up, makes it feel as though his head isn’t screwed on straight.
“Beans, beans, beans,” Dugan groans as he joins Bucky and Gabe at one of the tables at the edge of the mess tent at basecamp, the two of them already shovelling food into their mouths. They only have twenty minutes before the next group comes in to eat, and Bucky for one doesn’t intend to leave anything on his plate. Dugan slams his tray onto the table with enough force that some of his food slops over the edge, dropping down into the seat next to Bucky with a frustrated sigh. “Always with the goddamn beans.”
Bucky pauses mid-mouthful, the instinct for not wasting food so ingrained that his eyes can’t help but dart over to the little puddle of beans and rice next to Dugan’s tray on the table. He and Gabe only just barely sat down themselves, Bucky having pulled his nightly routine of going in with two trays and grabbing chow for both of them so that Gabe doesn’t have to wait until last.
He glances down at his own plate and yeah, he understands where Dugan is coming from. Rice and beans and sliced Spam for the umpteenth time this month, but at least it’s not field rations. It’s even kinda warm, which is nice. He shrugs and swallows the food down, shovels another forkful into his mouth.
“The beans I don’t mind,” says Gabe, poking at the meat on his plate with a slightly sorrowful expression on his face. “How much cash do you think Spam’s pulled in from this war, anyways?”
“Probably way too much,” says Bucky with a weary grin on his face. “You know what they say – Spam’s just ham that didn’t pass its physical.” It’s a well-worn joke, overtold and overheard, but both of them snort a little anyways at the accuracy of the statement.
Dugan shakes his head. “Damned if I couldn’t go for something other than this shit right about now.” He shoves a forkful into his mouth and swallows anyways, a pinched expression on his broad face.
“Annie’s a great cook,” Gabe pipes up a moment later, getting that kinda-sad kinda-soppy look on his face that always seems to creep up whenever he talks about his girl. “Her pot roast’s to die for, I swear.”
“You don’t say,” says Dugan dryly, glaring down at his tray in distaste – before shooting Bucky an inquisitive look from across the table. “What about you, Bucky? Stella good in the kitchen?”
And fuck, that’s such a goddamn hilarious question that Bucky actually snorts and chokes on his current mouthful. He swallows and shakes his head, thinking about some of his memories of Steve’s finer moments in the kitchen.
“Hell no,” Bucky proclaims, trying not to laugh. He takes care with the pronouns when he speaks, carefully reminding himself that it’s Stella, Stella, Stella and not Steve. “She’s worse than I am. One time she got a dishrag too close to the stove and set the thing on fire, nearly burned down the whole apartment and both of us in it. Another time she was trying to make mashed potatoes and added sugar instead of salt.”
The guys both groan and Bucky grins at the memory of Steve’s exasperated face, the way he’d thrown his arms in the air and said like you could do better, Buck, now quit laughing and eat your goddamn sugar potatoes. Bucky can feel warmth swelling up in his belly the way it always does when he thinks about Steve. He shakes his head at the memory. “Let me tell you, it was one of the weirdest fucking things I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.”
And it’s nice – it’s actually nice, talking about Steve like this. Sharing stories and making the boys laugh, talking as though Bucky has someone waiting for him back home. As though Bucky has Steve waiting for him back home in a way that’s just a little bit different than it is in reality. Just a little bit better.
It’s funny, too, because it’s all so easy. It’s not like he has to make any of this shit up, after all. Just has to replace the name, has to remember to call Steve ‘she’ – and suddenly he has a whole lifetime’s worth of stories on the tip of his tongue. It’s ridiculous, the difference a couple of letters here and there can make.
“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” says Dugan, but he’s smiling as he says it. He raises his eyebrows. “How long you two been going steady, anyways?”
Within the privacy of his own head, Bucky panics for about half a second before arbitrarily picking the date that he and Steve moved in together. “Four years,” he says, straightforward and easy. Then he sees the way Gabe’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead, the reluctantly impressed look that steals over Dugan’s face.
And… right. That’s a pretty long time to be with a dame without getting hitched, isn’t it. He shoves down the urge to wince at his own mistake, busies himself piling soggy rice and beans onto his fork.
“Pardon, you’ve been – four years?” Gabe asks incredulously, letting out a low whistle when Bucky nods reluctantly. “That’s a mighty long time. I mean, Annie and I have only been together for a year and a half.”
“Four years and she ain’t begging for you to put a ring on her finger?” Dugan asks, shaking his head in disbelief. “Nice going. Hell, Barnes, where do you even find that kinda woman?”
Bucky shrugs, squirming a little uncomfortably in his seat. “Well… y’know,” he says, searching for something to say that won’t raise any more questions he isn’t sure how to answer. “We already live together, so –”
He’s cut off when Dugan barks out a shocked laugh, a delighted expression on the man’s face.
“Living in sin!” he crows, slapping Bucky hard on the back. Bucky winces a little bit, cussing himself out mentally, because right. That’s something the world would be upset about, if Steve was a dame. Dugan laughs again. He used to be better at this, embellishing stories and making up tall tales. Not that he’s ever made up a lie quite like this one before, but… still. “I swear, Barnes, I didn’t figure you for the type. What’s her old mama think about that?”
“Her mama’s dead,” Bucky says flatly, and his words knock the grin right off Dugan’s face. For a moment he thinks back to that day at the church service four years ago; standing next to Steve in the pews, wearing his dad’s old wool suit despite the heavy heat. How subdued Steve had been during the service, distracted and drawn-in on himself and staring ahead at the pastor as though he could see something that Bucky couldn’t. “Both her parents are. Mine too.”
The way he’d tried to pull away from Bucky afterwards, to put his head down and hide himself away when he didn’t have to, he never had to. He’d only started seeing sense when Bucky had spelled it out for him clear as day before elbowing his way inside the Rogers family apartment to help Steve pack his bags.
It had been less than a year after that that Bucky’s own parents had passed, when it was Steve standing next to him in the pews instead of the other way around.
Steve got him real drunk that night, after the service was over. Had taken him out to one of the bars around their place, had shoved shots in his hand and then beers and then water until the room was swimming.
Bucky doesn’t remember how they got home that night, but he does remember other things. The blissful numbness that wrapped around him like a blanket as the night wore on, the burn of the shots hitting the back of his throat. The way Steve kept a steady eye on him the whole night, let Bucky rant and rave and gesture wildly and cuss out everyone in the world who wasn’t the two of them.
He shrugs a little, feeling strangely defensive about the whole thing. “I suppose she and I are all each other’s got, is all.”
It’s enough to shut Dugan up, to make Gabe get this unsettlingly sympathetic look on his face. They don’t ask any more questions after that, just nod and start eating double-time again, trying to power it all down before they get kicked out in a few minutes.
And Bucky just eats automatically and keeps his eyes on his tray and tries very, very hard not to think about how true it is. All of it, even the parts that aren’t.
Because Steve is the only thing he’s got in the world – the only thing that matters, the only thing that actually counts for something. And that’s… worrisome. It makes him feel prickly and uneasy and more than a little shaken up, so much so that he can barely taste the food he’s shovelling into his mouth.
They eat until they get kicked out – and when Bucky steps out of the mess tent, it’s with a furrow in his brow and a sickly twist in his gut and a whole lot of jumbled-up thoughts running around his head.
The next time they’re back at base camp, Bucky gets a letter from Steve in the mail.
It’s a letter and a package, which means Steve probably sent it over a month ago; the military postal service is a hell of a lot slower than victory mail, which Steve has used to send him a few letters since he thinks this was written.
But v-mail is nothing more than letters copied to film; this is an actual letter that Steve held in his hand, Steve’s real writing addressing the envelope as well as the parcel tied up in brown paper and string alongside it. And Bucky’s sore as hell and exhausted from hauling supplies all day, but as soon as he sees the package he feels his whole body perk up; can’t stop the involuntary grin that steals across his face.
“That from Stella?” Gabe calls out, but Bucky already has the package under his arm. Is already darting away someplace private so he can read the goddamn thing in peace without having to lie to anyone about it, without having to pretend to be anything other than Bucky Barnes getting mail from Steve Rogers.
He darts through the camp and into his own tent, and Bucky’s barely planted himself on his cot before he’s tearing the letter open, gorging himself on the words greedily, trying to take it all in at once.
May 5, 1943
I got your last letter of April 2nd and was real glad to hear that you’re as safe and well as you can be under the circumstances. The guys in the 107th sound swell and it’s a relief to hear that you’re capable of making friends without me around to give you a leg up. (Ha, ha.) From the sounds of it you guys are getting along like a house on fire and I’m sorry I’m not there to see it.
You probably know this from letters sent by victory mail by the time this package arrives, but just in case I should let you know that I’ve found steady work so I can promise I’m not going end up dead in a ditch any time soon. Can’t say much about it on account of it having to do with ‘sensitive matters pertaining to the war’ and I know the censors won’t let this letter through if I talk about it. But I can tell you that it pays well and that most of the people I work with are real nice, even if the job itself isn’t always to my liking. (Do you remember how much I hated being the center of attention during those class plays Mrs. Ellis always made us do in the tenth grade?)
I miss you like crazy, Buck. The first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep at night is how much I wish I was over there with you, fighting by your side and knowing without a doubt that I was doing the right thing. That kind of certainty’s hard to come by right now but I know you don’t want me to say that I’m jealous of you. Even though you don’t talk about it in your letters I know that what you’re going through ain’t easy and there are probably a hell of a lot of bad days mixed in with the good ones. I’m still proud as hell and I know you’ll come home safe, though of course I’m still trying my hardest to get over there. For some reason I’m attached to the idea of having your loud mouth in my life so don’t do anything stupid and I’ll keep trying to get my ass over to you.
Just in case anyone at the censorship office gets greedy (just don’t boys, it’s not worth it) I have enclosed the following: 2 pairs of woolen socks, 1 pack of cigarettes, 1 bag of beef jerky, 3 chocolate bars, 1 tube of Vaseline,1 tin of Pomade – can’t have you looking sloppy in front of the boys – and a rosary (don’t say anything I promise you’ll appreciate it someday).
Stay warm and safe, Bucky. You’re doing the right thing and I only wish I could be right there with you.
Bucky has to read the letter over twice from start to finish before he manages to fully process what it says, and when he’s finished he flops back against the bed and lets out a little sigh he’s glad none of the boys are around to hear at the moment. Most of it’s stuff Steve’s already told him or hinted at through victory mail, but there’s something about actually having a letter in his hands – Steve’s letter, covered with Steve’s slanted printing – that hits him just a little bit harder.
And he can’t help the rush of guilty relief that clutches at his chest at the confirmation that Steve still isn’t eligible for recruitment, that Steve won’t be joining him here any time soon. Maybe it’s not nice and maybe it’s not right, but even though it’s everything Steve’s ever wanted all Bucky wants is for Steve to stay safe at home. For his best friend to stay tucked up far away where there are no bombs going off and no kids getting shot, no mud to trudge through and no certainty that it’s only gonna get worst from here on out. Bucky wants Steve to stay safe and warm and far away from this place, wants him to be able to cling to those ideals he has about doing the right thing without being confronted with the ugly reality on the ground.
Not for the first time, Bucky wonders what Steve’s secretive new job is. For a while there, all of his letters had come post-marked from New Jersey, for Christ’s sake, and Bucky’s not sure any miracle job is worth that kinda torture. At first he thought maybe Steve had gotten a job drawing posters for the Writers’ War Board, or that he’d maybe found some kinda low-impact job at a munitions plant with all the dames back home.
Nowadays, though, it looks like Steve’s been moving around a lot more. Bucky snatches up the envelope from off the bed, notices the Milwaukee postmark and snorts in confused derision. The job must be something Steve travels for, but even that doesn’t give him any hints. There’s no way to tell from the contents of Steve’s letters, either, which are all carefully written and pointedly censored. It’s the first time Bucky’s ever had to deal with not knowing what’s going on in Steve’s life – where he is, what he’s doing, what kinda people he’s spending time with – and it’s starting to drive him right up the wall.
It’s still a nice idea, though: Steve travelling around, seeing the rest of the country in the way the two of them had always wanted to. It’s a bittersweet thought but still good, still nice, and Bucky is just starting to fold up Steve’s letter to tuck it carefully back into the envelope when his eye catches the gray lines of a pencil sketch on the back of the paper.
And when he flips the letter over in his hands, his breath hitches and his heart speeds up and all Bucky can do is stare.
Damn, Stevie, he thinks, a lump rising dangerously in his throat. His fingers are clutching at the edges of the paper so hard it’s starting to crumple. Damn.
On the back of the letter, Steve has sketched out a picture of Bucky in full military uniform. Hat tipped jauntily to the side and a cocky gleam in his eyes, the Bucky on the page is smiling warmly at something off the edge of the paper. He looks clean and neat and well put-together, uniform freshly-pressed and his face scrubbed clean. Steve’s clearly spent a lot of time on his face: trying to get the curve of his mouth just right, shading around his eyes, detailing his hair in an attempt to capture the slick style he used to wear it in every day back in New York.
It’s so clearly a picture of him before he shipped out – from the last time Steve saw him, that night at the World’s Fair – that it hits Bucky like a punch to the gut.
It’s as though he’s staring at a ghost from the past. At someone who doesn’t exist anymore.
It makes him maudlin for all of three seconds before he shakes himself out of it; reminds himself that Steve sent him a package too, and there’s no way Bucky’s missing out that for another second longer. He pushes himself up into a sitting position and puts the letter down, plucks the package off the cot next to him as he tries to quash the niggling feeling of disappointment that Steve didn’t send a drawing of himself instead of a drawing of Bucky. He tugs at the strings and tears at the parcel paper, opens it up to see what’s inside.
Everything is present and accounted for in the package, and Bucky lets out a helpless groan when he holds the beef jerky up to his nose and inhales deeply, savouring the smokey smell. He’s just taking his first bite – and God, it’s so good, it’s so good – when Dugan walks into the tent. He raises his eyebrows at the sight of the opened package on the bed.
“That from Stella?” Dugan asks, with more than a little envy and awe sneaking into his voice. Bucky swallows the bite of jerky and nods with preening satisfaction, feeling warm and pleased and lucky for the first time in a long time.
“Sure is,” says Bucky, grinning hard and holding up the picture of himself from Dugan to see. He doesn’t hand it over – Steve’s name is on the letter on the back, after all – but showing him is enough to get the idea across. “She even drew me a pretty picture, see?”
“Damn,” says Dugan, shaking his head. “That’s a hell of a woman you got there, Barnes.”
And privately, Bucky can’t help but agree.
Even when Bucky has to lie about it, talking about Steve is almost like taking a hit off a cigarette or knocking back a drink after too long without a pay cheque. It’s immediate gratification, immediate relief – and the more Bucky talks about ‘Stella’, the more he realizes just how much he likes the way he feels when he talks about it. Likes the way the guys react, likes the way it makes him think about Steve. Likes the way it makes him keep Steve close, like a totem he can run his fingers over when life out here gets hard.
It makes him think, too, because it’s not like all they talk about is cooking disasters and care packages. A few weeks later they’re on the road, summer in Italy making them all sweat right through the cotton of their uniforms, and they’re just setting up camp when Dugan and a few of the other guys in their platoon start reminiscing about some of the other things they miss about the girls back home.
It’s nice, thinking about the cool press of skin against skin. Especially when the air is so thick and stifling around them that Bucky can barely breathe, when the day’s march feels longer and harder and heavier in the oppressive heat.
He has to do some creative thinking in order to join in, which gets easier as they pass the third bottle of wine around the circle. They’re not supposed to have booze on the war front, not technically, but the little Italian village they marched into today had already been hit pretty hard by the Germans by the time they got there. One of the guys found a few bottles of wine in the cellar of an abandoned house when they were searching for supplies, and what’s the harm of letting off steam as long as they don’t get caught?
“I had her first, you know,” Bucky brags with a lopsided grin, slurring a little and with alcohol heavy on his breath. For the past five minutes he’s been talking a good game, jumbling together some of the real nights he’s had with pretty girls with things about Steve that he should probably be ashamed to even think about. Actual memories of getting Steve off, things he’s imagined, things he’s thought about idly for years. It’s all a little bit less make-believe than it probably should be, but right now Bucky can’t really bring himself to care. “I did. B’fore anyone else did.”
They’re all sitting there with their sleeves rolled up and the smell of sweat heavy on the air, and a few of the guys are nodding and smiling at him in a way that says he’s probably had too much to drink, but Bucky doesn’t really give a shit right now. He doesn’t even try to quash down the giddy pleasure welling up in his chest, because honestly? Being the first person to touch Steve Rogers has always been something he’s been secretly pleased about, secretly proud of.
For all that it’s made him mad as hell over the years that dames never seem to realize what a catch Steve is, ever since he was sixteen years old there’s been a part of Bucky that’s always felt a little bit like the cat that got the cream. Smug and self-satisfied because he was the first person who ever touched Steve there, who made him feel good like that.
Hell, as far as Bucky knows he’s the only person who’s ever touched Steve that way, and the thought is enough to make something flip over in his chest.
“Yeah?” one of the other guys asks – McLeod? McLaurin? Bucky can’t remember – and he nods enthusiastically in response.
“Yeah,” says Bucky, and he doesn’t feel bad for smirking even though he knows exactly what kind of look Steve would be giving him if he were here right now. Even if he didn’t know Bucky was talking about him and not some random girl. He snorts out an unsteady laugh. “Yeah, people were always fuckin’ idiots about Ste—Stella,” he continues, hurriedly correctly himself when he starts to go off base. “Never realized how great she is, y’know? How fuckin’ pretty she is.”
“But not you, right Bucky?” asks Dugan, slapping him hard on the back, and Bucky sways a little as he laughs.
“Nah, me too,” says Bucky, rubbing at his face and taking another swig out of the wine bottle when the guy next to him passes it back. He can’t tell for shit if it’s good or not, but it’s starting to burn a little less on the way down now. Starting to settle, warm and sloshing, in his stomach. “Took me way too long. She was right under my nose, y’know? Wasn’t thinking straight. My fuckin’ fault.”
“So what’s she like in the sack?” Georgie Richmond prompts a little too eagerly, clearly wanting to get to the good stuff, and Bucky snickers a little as he passes the bottle of wine to the fella on his left.
And Bucky closes his eyes for a moment, thinks about the way Steve would get all flushed and dark-eyed once they started fooling around. (It wasn’t as though they were supposed to be looking at each other or anything, not with what are friends for, right? hovering between them as a buffer, but Bucky’s night vision is way better than Steve’s and how the fuck was he supposed to hold off looking at that?) He thinks about the way Steve would go slack in his arms as soon as Bucky wrapped a hand around his dick, about how fervently Steve would try to return the favour afterwards. To make Bucky feel good in the same way.
He thinks about what it would be like to kiss Steve. To press him down into the mattress and cover Steve’s mouth with his own; to run his fingers through Steve’s hair, along the side of his face, to trail them down along his bony sternum and shoulders. To cover him up and keep him safe and warm and his, all his, and it’s so good he has to shift a little bit to conceal the way his body’s reacting to the idea.
“She’s sweet,” Bucky says eventually, distractedly, staring off into the distance at the purple-red sky as the sun sets behind the hills. He smiles softly, tries to stop imagining Steve saying things like c’mon, Buck, I’m not gonna break and can’t believe we’re doing this, wanted it for so long and a hundred other perfect things it would just be too good to hear coming out of those lips.
“She’s real sweet,” he says again, nodding his head hard to show that he means it. Swipes a hand across his mouth to mop up some of the wine that’s spilled there. “Eager as hell, always wants to prove she’s up for anything I’m up for, but…” He shrugs a little, trying to wipe the sappy smile off his face. Doesn’t think about the way Steve’s eyelashes look when his eyes are closed in sleep, the way he’ll make a jibe at Bucky one moment before making sure everything’s all right with him the next. “Yeah. She’s sweet.”
It’s not the answer they want, but it’s all they’re gonna get. Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and tries to focus on listening when another guy starts talking about his best girl back home, ignores the way the world is lilting a little bit around the edges. Ignores the want that settles in his chest like a lead weight.
Because Bucky still doesn’t know what all of this is. If lying about Steve is just his way of dealing with being bitter and lonely and scared out of his mind out here or if it’s actually something serious, something he needs to really think about. Maybe one day he’ll wake up and the war will be over and it’ll just… be gone. Maybe he’ll go back home to Steve and start thinking about girls again and all of it’ll be a funny story to tell Steve one day when all of it isn’t quite so raw and fresh in his head.
Maybe it’ll go away and maybe it won’t, and Bucky could die out here without ever figuring it out, and the uncertainty of it all is finally starting to get to him.
On a crisp September morning, squeezed into a dugout foxhole with another soldier from his squad, Bucky wakes up with the skin of his face cold from the night air and a persistent hard-on tenting his pants.
It takes him a few moments to blink awake, and another beat after that to remember where he is and who he’s with and what’s going on. They’re on the move again, heading north because the 107th is needed to help push back enemy lines.
It’s mountainous terrain, difficult for the trucks to pass through even on the main roads, and Bucky’s squad is one of the smaller groups that’s been selected to travel off-road and scout for any potential traps or ambushes. It’s been slow going so far and they haven’t encountered any surprises yet, but Bucky knows that should change as they get closer to the mess of German fortifications that span the breadth of the country.
Less than a foot away, Private Tommy Robinson – a good kid, if a little bit prone to shooting first and then doubting himself later – is still dead to the world, bundled up in his bedroll and with his face pressed into his arms.
The sun is just thinking about coming up, just the barest hint of grey light peeking through the trees, and Bucky leans out of the foxhole just enough to make sure that Gabe is still keeping watch. They exchange a hand signal before Bucky leans back into his concealed position, settling back into his bedroll.
And Bucky knows he should close his eyes, should try to get some shut-eye while he can before everyone else wakes up in half an hour. But his cock is aching hard and impossible to ignore, persistent and throbbing even through the thick wool of his pants. The last remnants of some kind of heated dream are still clinging to the edges of his memory, and Bucky stifles a frustrated groan at the realization that he’s going to have to take care of this before he can focus on anything else today.
Turning so that he’s facing away from his dugout-buddy – there’s never much privacy in the army for this kind of thing, but he may as well make an effort – Bucky eases an arm down into his bedroll, unbuttons his slacks, and reaches under the waistband of his shorts to take himself in hand.
Bucky never used to be able to do this when he first arrived on-continent – to take care of his own needs while he’s actively in the field. It had seemed so dangerous, so stupid. A way to get distracted and get shot and get dead, out in the open and vulnerable and exposed where anything could happen. At one point, when they were marching up past Rome, he went a solid three weeks without getting off simply due to lack of opportunity.
By now, though, he’s able to realize that ‘being asleep’ and ‘jacking off’ are about the same in terms of dangerous distractions on the front, and if he has to do the former then why the fuck shouldn’t he do the latter? Gabe’s on watch, after all, and he’ll alert them if he sees or hears anything. For now, Bucky deserves a few minutes to take care of his own needs.
Tuning out the sound of Tommy snoring lightly a foot and a half away, Bucky closes his eyes and gives his cock a squeeze. He starts off lazy, slow, enjoying the first little electric jolts of pleasure that run up his spine. His face is prickling with the cold but the rest of him is surprisingly warm inside his bedroll, and he just keeps getting warmer as he strokes himself with confident familiarity, letting his mind wander once he gets into the rhythm of things.
But instead of wandering to red-painted lips and gorgeous curves, to the USO girls he saw in London or Hannah Benowitz on their block back home with her sultry eyes and sinful mouth, Bucky finds himself thinking about Steve.
And that’s – dangerous, God, it’s so fucking dangerous. It’s seedy and cheap and probably some kind of violation of their friendship, but Bucky’s still half-asleep and he’s supposed to march into a fucking battle in a few days and right now all his dick is interested in is Steve Rogers, damn it. Can’t sway it with anything else because his brain just keeps looping around, just keeps bringing him right back, and eventually Bucky gives in because fuck it, he just wants to get off, and it’s not like it’s any worse than lying about being in a fake relationship with Steve-as-a-girl for months.
And at the same time, part of his brain – the strategic part, the part that’s always looking for advantages and loopholes and trying to figure out who has the upper hand – is telling him that maybe this will finally be enough. That maybe if he sticks his hand down his pants and does this just the once, it’ll be enough to shake Steve off, to finally get him out of Bucky’s system.
He sets his jaw and squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his face into his free arm. Then he tightens his grip, takes a deep breath, and gives it a go.
The actual memories he has of getting off with Steve are all a little awkward and fraught with anxiety, both of them wanting to feel good but afraid of enjoying it enough to make things strange between them. That had mostly been about stilted reach-arounds on nights where they shared the bed instead of one of them sleeping on the couch cushions on the floor, Steve’s slender back pressed up against Bucky’s chest and Bucky’s arm slung over his waist as he got him off. Either that or Bucky on his back and Steve awkwardly on his side next to him, slender fingers wrapped around Bucky’s dick as he tried to get him off in return.
(Steve never made the first move, not once, and Bucky was always, always the one to initiate things.)
Now, though, Bucky thinks about what it might be like with Steve if they ever did it right. If he could gather Steve up in his arms and pull him into a kiss, guide Steve down onto the mattress and have that small body all splayed out underneath him. He imagines Steve breathing sharply, shakily as Bucky sucks bruises into the pale skin of his neck; his long fingers scrabbling at Bucky’s back, trying to pull him in closer.
Steve’s tougher than anyone ever gives him credit for; can take half a dozen punches and still come up swinging, has put up with people telling him to give it a rest and just drop it and hell no you can’t do that his whole life only to keep trying to prove them wrong. He knows Steve would give as good as he gets if the two of them ever really got a chance to do this, but it still makes a pleasant shiver run up his spine to think about how small Steve would be beneath him. About what it would be like to wrap his hands around Steve’s narrow hips and pull him in close, to trail kisses down his concave stomach.
Bucky’s never sucked a dick in his life, but he thinks he wouldn’t mind doing it if it was Steve. He’s not an idiot, knows what happens down at the dockyards and in some of the alleys close to the drag clubs in their neighbourhood back in Brooklyn. Knows it’s something that two guys can do together, and he thinks he would like it if it meant making Steve pant and moan. If it meant getting him all overwhelmed and oversensitive, clawing at the sheets and writhing and choking on his own gasps. Steve’s bony fingers tangling in his hair as Bucky sucks him off.
The thought of it is enough to make Bucky bite down hard on his lip, to tighten his grip and really get a good rhythm going, because he would make it so good for Steve. Would wring sensations out of his body that Steve probably doesn’t even realize are possible, would make him feel so much that after a while the only word he’d know would be Bucky’s name –
And then oh, fuck because another idea occurs to him, and it’s so fucking good it makes him grind into his own hand for a second and shudder. He presses his lips together as the idea rolls over him, twists his wrist a little, drags his thumb over the head of his cock and sighs.
He would never hurt Steve – would never ever hurt Steve, has pretty much made it his lifelong mission to destroy anyone who even tries to hurt Steve – but for a moment, the idea of burying himself in Steve’s tiny body is so perfect he could almost cry. Bucky knows how to do it like that; has fucked a girl that way once, when she was worried about getting knocked up and he was only too willing to follow her lead. Knows you need something slick, knows you need to stretch ‘em open with your fingers if you don’t want it to hurt. He’d spend hours getting Steve ready if he had to, as long as he could settle his hands on bony hips and push inside, fill Steve up to the brim, feel what it’s like to be inside Steve. Buried right up to the hilt and rocking Steve’s body with every thrust.
Close now, so close, just out of reach and he can almost taste it it’s so near, and all he has to do is let his mind linger on the idea of fucking Steve. Making Steve shudder and clench around him the way that girl had done when he fucked her like that. Thinks about making Steve moan low and long as though he just can’t stop, almost keening, a helpless and unending noise as he grinds back onto Bucky’s cock, thinks about hard and deep and so fucking tight and Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve –
Bucky comes back to himself a half a minute later, his breathing hard and his hand slick with his own come. The morning air feels suddenly cold against his face where he’d stopped noticing it before. The inside of his bedroll feels stifling hot and sweaty.
He glances over at the soldier sharing his dugout and is relieved to see that he’s either still asleep or doing a good job at pretending, and both options are good enough that he relaxes infinitesimally. He eases his hand carefully out of his bedroll, lets his arm flop down on the earth beside him for now. Bucky will deal with that later, will get himself cleaned up and presentable and ready to go in just a moment. But for now…
For now he tilts his head back against the earthen wall, breath still coming a little hard, and ignores the instinctive rush and guilt and shame in the aftershock of his orgasm. It’s part hangover from his Catholic upbringing and part discomfort at the realization that he just jacked off thinking about Steve, for Christ’s sake, but he shakes it all off easily enough. Shoves it away and tries to think for a minute, tries to see if that’s it, if it’s over. If he got Steve out of his system.
The thought of his best friend brings the same rush of possessive warmth and want as it has for the past few months now, and Bucky feels all the tension leave his body in a moment of sinking realization.
“Fuck,” Bucky mutters, helpless and resigned and more than a little pissed off with himself, not even caring when the soldier next to him snuffles and shifts in his sleep at the noise. He squeezes his eyes shut, thumps his head against the earthen wall – just once, just enough for it to feel like a reprimand. “Fuck.”
He curses again, takes a deep breath – before giving himself a hard shake and forcing himself to get to his feet. He wipes his hand off on a pile of leaves and gets to work, goes to start waking the rest of the boys up.
If this is something he needs to be awake and thinking about, then everyone else better be awake and suffering too, damn it.
They arrive as reinforcements and they fight, and Bucky loses three men he’s almost considered friends for months now. Johnny Kerr with his leg blown off and bleeding out too fast, Francis Elbert taken down by two in the chest. Tommy Robinson with his brains blown out all over the rocks.
(When Bucky first hears the news about that one he has a slightly hysterical moment where all he can think is guess it didn’t matter all that much whether he heard me after all, did it and he has to turn around and walk away so that he doesn’t do anything cracked like start laughing in front of the kid’s friends, has to calm down until he can come back and give them a gruff “real sorry to hear that” without a hint of a waver in his voice.)
It’s bloody and brutal and it all happens so quickly and the war keeps marching on, pushing back the Germans and reclaiming one chunk of Italy at a time, and Bucky stops caring quite so much about what he should and shouldn’t be feeling about Steve after that.
The fact that he loves Steve is nothing new to him; of course he fucking loves Steve, has loved him since they were a pair of shitty kids without a hope in hell of making it in the world. When Steve was his golden beacon without the poor guy ever knowing it, always making Bucky want to be better than he actually was.
Loving Steve isn’t new: it’s already burned into his blood, carved into his brain, seared onto his skin like a tattoo.
Loving Steve like this… well. It probably isn’t new either, if he’s totally honest with himself. Never was the sharpest tool in the shed, and it’s probably a bit pathetic that it’s taken him this long and a fucking world war to figure himself out.
But the past doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the future: getting out of this war alive, getting back home, getting back to Steve.
What matters is how the hell Bucky’s going to handle all this when he next sees Steve again.
“They’re from my girl Stella,” Bucky explains when some guy asks about the woolly socks that Steve sent over, because it’s finally getting cold enough to start wearing them.
“Get any letters from Stella?” Gabe asks after mail call, and Bucky shakes his head and says “nah, not today” without having to think about what he’s going to say back. Without even registering it as a lie anymore.
“Figure you and Stella’ll finally tie the knot after all this is over?” asks Dugan while they’re marching near Verona, and Bucky finds himself saying “yeah, I think I’m finally gonna ask her” without thinking before he realizes just how true the sentiment actually is.
Because Steve’s never dated any girls, not ever. Only ever took them out for drinks or dancing after Bucky practically dragged him along, has never actually been with a girl as far as Bucky knows. Plus, even though Bucky figures a hell of a lot of dames to be first-class morons for ignoring what a catch Steve is, the whole thing really hasn’t been helped by Steve himself. Steve never threw himself into wooing girls like Bucky did, has seemed kinda strained and uninterested even with the girls who were willing to give him a chance.
He’d get all flushed and shaky and determined and gorgeous whenever Bucky touched him but never seemed to try to have that with anyone else, and Bucky’s more than a little steamed at himself for not putting the pieces together before now.
And it would be nice, Bucky thinks, keeping Steve in the way you might keep a dame. It’s not as though it would be a big change, really. He’s always brought in more money than Steve, has always enjoyed keeping them stable and buying the food, and watching Steve eat has always been a secret little pleasure of his. It’s meant buying medicine when Steve needed it and taking extra hours at the garage when he had to, making Steve move in with him on the cheap after his mama died and he was still paying off art school.
Even when he was too young to realize that was what he was doing, Bucky’s always needed to keep Steve safe – whether it was from bullies or from sickness or from his own bull-headed stubbornness. Putting what Steve needs first has always come natural to Bucky, even when Steve hadn’t realized what he was doing. Hell, especially when Steve hadn’t realized what he was doing.
It’s not that much of a stretch to think about himself providing for them in a way a man’s supposed to provide for a woman, especially since he already sends most of his pay home to Steve anyways. Bucky makes $78 a month in the army, rain or shine, and he’s been sending $50 of that home with every payout since he got here. It’s not as though there’s anything to spend it on here, anyways – and without Bucky’s income from the garage there’s no way Steve would be able to afford the rent on their place on his own.
Sometimes – when it’s pissing rain and his slacks are soaked in mud up to the thigh, or on days when he’s been hauling supplies or clearing roads for so long his whole body aches – Bucky thinks about what it might be like, having Steve like that. Lets his mind linger on all the little things about living with Steve; the half-finished sketches Steve leaves everywhere, Bucky reading pulp magazines with his feet kicked up on the couch arm while Steve buries his nose in a paperback, both of them half-assing the cooking because neither of them ever really learned how to cook for real.
And after he’s replayed the memories over and over, mind tracing over them like dragging fingertips until he’s holding them in the palm of his hand, he intersperses them with a few fantasies of his own. Bucky thinks about coming up behind Steve while he’s slicing bread and wrapping his arms around Steve's waist, pressing a kiss to Steve’s slender neck and sidling up close to breathe in the smell of him. He thinks about him and Steve fighting about something or other and then shutting Steve up with a kiss, smothering his I swear to god, Buck, why do you always have to be such a jerk about this with the hot press of his mouth on Steve’s. He thinks about guiding Steve down onto their ratty old couch, real gentle and sweet-like. Thinks about kissing Steve so hard he gasps, grinding their hips together as his hands trail lower and –
— and yeah, Bucky wants that. He wants that something fierce. Wants it enough not to care about the bad parts: about having to lie to everyone in their lives, about pretending in public, about never being able to seal the deal he always thought he would when he found the right girl.
And maybe Bucky wants it so badly he’s making it all up, imagining thoughts in Steve’s head that were never there in the first place. There’s a real possibility that he could make a move and shock Steve half out of his senses, make Steve flinch away from him in confusion and discomfort (not horror, never horror, because that’s not Steve, that’s not what Steve does, and Steve would never hate anyone for something they couldn’t help).
For all Bucky knows, Steve could react by telling him to lay right off and mind his own business – but hell, at least then he would know.
When the war’s over, I’m gonna find a way to tell him, Bucky thinks when they get their marching orders to head north closer to Austria , slinging his pack over his shoulder and grabbing his gun for the road. There’s a clear sense of purpose in his head, a determination in the set of his shoulders that doesn’t have anything to do with the mission. As soon as I’m back home again, we’ll talk.
They get ambushed near Azzano.
Two hundred men against weapons with more destructive power than Bucky has ever seen outside of comic books, outside of pulp science fiction magazines. He can only watch as the men around him – his fellow soldiers, some of them his friends – get obliterated right in front of him. Vaporized in the blink of an eye as though they’re made of dust and air instead of skin and guts and bones, and Bucky doesn’t think about going home for a long time after that.
The ones that survive are marched away with their hands above their heads – as though they could have any chance against those kinds of weapons. As though they have any kind of hope.
Bucky’s locked in a cage like an animal along with the rest of them, filthy and sweaty and barely fed enough to survive. They haul munitions and man the machines during the day with guards in every corner and sit cross-legged in the too-cramped cages during the night. The work is hard and gruelling and brutal but not unbearable. It’s not something that makes him shudder right down to his core the way he does whenever the guards shoulder their way into the crowd and pick out one of the prisoners at random. Some of them march away with their heads held high; others struggle and swear, and others still cry out for their mommas as they’re dragged away.
All of them scream. The sound is barely audible over the constant droning and crashing of the factory noises, but every single one of them screams.
Bucky keeps his head down, focuses on the burning in his arms from the constant hauling and the stiffness in his legs from the cramped sleeping arrangement. Ignores the wretched shrieking that sometimes creeps into the edges of his consciousness despite all of his attempts to block it out.
He tries not to think about the fact that none of them ever come back.
For days, Bucky hauls munitions and glares at the guards and doesn’t sleep. More than anything, he thinks about Steve. About how much Steve’ll miss him and how Steve will get by without him and how fucking relieved he is that Steve isn’t here with him, that Steve’s safe and sound and doesn’t have to go through this, doesn’t have to see what this is like.
Bucky isn’t even surprised when it’s him the guards come for one day.
He tells himself he won’t give them the fucking satisfaction of screaming, that he’ll break his damn teeth clenching his jaw shut if he has to. That he’ll go down fighting and snarling and resisting even if it’s not on the battlefield, even if he isn’t going down in a blaze of bullets and glory.
He screams anyways.
Later, he will remember it in flashes so vivid they sometimes strike him as more real than reality: the prick of a needle in the exposed vein of his forearm, the searing agony of electricity pounding through his brain, his blood feeling as though it’s going to boil right through his skin. He remembers a pair of spectacles and a round face hovering over him, a pair of chubby-fingered hands with a delicate touch before another tidal wave of pain pain pain pain pain would send him spiralling out of his own head again.
It doesn’t take long before he’s whittled down into a creature of fear and agony. Before there’s nothing left but the pain and the glorious, shattering moments where the pain just stops. Where Bucky is left gasping and shaking and crying like a little kid, face screwed up and his cheeks slick with tears and the knowledge that there is more pain coming so all-consuming he can’t think about anything else.
It’s not long before all that is gone, too. Until the terror and agony gets stripped away too, torn away from him like flayed skin, a knife cutting right to the bone and leaving nothing but name, rank, and serial number in its wake. It leaves him hollow and empty, wrung dry. Nothing left to him but an involuntary scream whenever the machines start up again.
When he blinks and sees the face of Steve Rogers (but not quite, not really, wrong in hundreds of different ways but still Steve but still not) leaning over him, it takes Bucky a long time to realize that that what he’s seeing isn’t a hallucination. Isn’t the last desperate thoughts of a dying man who wants nothing more than to see his best friend one last time before he goes.
After Steve rescues him from the factory, Bucky is thrown for such a fucking loop that he actually can’t think about much other than Steve and safe and how in the hell is this even goddamn possible for at least a few hours after they’re clear of the facility. He manages the first few miles on adrenaline and gritty determination alone, stays at the front of the pack next to Steve even when his legs shake and white spots dance in front of his eyes.
It’s easier to focus on the physical; to grip his gun tight in both hands, easier to push through the discomfort and the weakness and do his job than it is to look at Steve right now, anyways. Steve, who is somehow towering and broad and built like a fucking tank now. Who still radiates conviction but has the hard evidence to back it all up now; who wears the satisfaction of a man who has been listened to, who has been believed.
The man standing next to Bucky is someone he recognizes and doesn’t recognize all at once, and the mental disconnect is so overwhelming that it’s hard to even look Steve in the eye.
There’s something festering in Bucky’s chest that he can’t explain, a squirming emptiness he tries and fails to put words to. It feels as though the bottom has already fallen out of his stomach and stayed hollow; an aching sense of loss he can’t account for and doesn’t understand.
Because Steve’s here – against all the odds, Steve is here. And it’s ridiculous, stupid beyond belief, because for so long the only thing Bucky wanted in the entire world was to be with Steve again. He’d lied about Steve to the guys, for Christ’s sake, made Steve sound like some little woman Bucky had waiting for him back at home instead of the dedicated friend that he is. Steve’s been practically all Bucky’s been able to think about for fucking months, and now that he’s here…
It had been a harmless lie, comforting and sweet when he was at the end of his rope.
Now the thought of it makes something inside of him want to curl up and hide, makes desperate unhappiness cloy at the edges of his mind. Makes something mortified and badly shaken twist up inside his chest, and the really stupid thing is that he still misses Steve. Misses Steve as though his best friend isn’t marching next to him right this second, as though the real Steve is still tucked away safe at home halfway across the world.
Because the Steve he’s been thinking about for the past few months – fantasizing about, for Christ’s sake – doesn’t exist anymore. Hasn’t existed for months now, and the thought makes his heart hurt just thinking about it.
Steve calls a halt to their procession after an hour or two, when the sun is just beginning to rise over the treetops. The sky is a dusky pink against the still-deep blue of the lingering night; crisp and cool and with far better visibility than full nightfall, and Bucky only stops marching when Steve comes to a halt first.
“We should stop here,” Steve announces unnecessarily to the small cluster of soldiers who have been keeping pace with them at the front of the procession. Bucky knows some of them by name – Gabe and Dugan, thank god both of them are still alive, and he’d talked to that Falsworth guy a few times during their stint in the factory – but the others are practically strangers despite having been imprisoned in the same factory as him for a few weeks now. “Some of these men are injured. If we let them rest for spell we should make better time than if we push them through it and make them hurt themselves worse.”
“Bonne idée, Capitaine,” says one of them, and Bucky blinks. Mr. French Guy seems to think for a moment, his face screwing up in concentration before speaking again. “Should we scout the perimeter?” he asks after a moment, the words a little slow and heavily accented but understandable all the same.
Out of habit, Bucky opens his mouth to respond – but to his surprise, Steve cuts in first.
“Go in pairs, but don’t venture too far out,” Steve says with a nod, back straight and eyes clear and it’s like something out of a goddamn dream. “We need to be able to move quick if they’re right on our tail.” Bucky stares at him; tries not to but can’t help it. Can’t help dragging his eyes over Steve as though, if he looks hard enough, he’ll be able to find the faultlines in this stranger’s body. Will be able to dig in his fingernails and pull all of it away until there’s nothing left but the real Steve left behind.
“I’ll check on the ones trailing behind,” says one of them – Asian of some kind, Bucky can’t tell which.
Steve nods again and then all of them are dispersing at once, heading out with guns in hand to complete the tasks that Steve’s laid out for them.
And Bucky’s left standing there alone with Steve, watching all of them fall out with a sinking shell-shocked feeling in his gut, because Steve doesn’t even look surprised that they’re following his orders. That they’re taking him seriously, star-spangled outfit and all.
“Bucky,” says Steve, sounding concerned, and Bucky blinks. Steve is looking down at him – Christ, looking down, and ain’t that the damndest thing – with his brow furrowed and his blue eyes full of worry, and Bucky feels a twist of guilt in his stomach. “D’you wanna sit down?”
He tries to make it sound friendly, casual, but Bucky knows that Steve’s just asking because he figures Bucky’s likely to keel over at any second. It’s not that he feels like he physically needs to: he’s tired, yeah, but not nearly as wrecked as he should be only a few hours out of the kind of treatment he was getting. Nowhere near as dazed and physically devastated as he’d been a few hours ago when they began their march.
He nods anyways.
“Yeah,” says Bucky, mentally giving himself a shake. “Yeah, sounds good.”
They find a seat at the base of a thick tree trunk, Steve awkwardly hovering over him as Bucky lowers himself to the ground. Ready to catch him if he falls, Bucky realizes, suppressing a bark of inappropriate laughter at the thought. Steve settles down next to him after a moment, still half-surveying the procession coming to a halt around them.
“So,” says Bucky dryly, raising an eyebrow as Steve turns to look at him again. He levels his best deadpan look right at him. “You joined the army.”
There’s a beat – before Steve lets out a half-laugh, a touch of heat rising in his cheeks as he reaches up and plucks the corny helmet off his head. Steve isn’t sweaty but his face is smeared with dirt, and he’s wearing a slightly sheepish expression that Bucky recognizes on such a visceral level it almost aches. Some of the wordless pressure lifts from Bucky’s chest at the sight of it.
“Yeah, well,” says Steve with a shrug, a half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He seems to think about it for a beat before cocking his head to one side. “You know how you told me not to do anything stupid?”
They have a few minutes to spare before they have to start marching again, and Steve is clearly determined to make sure Bucky spends every second of that time resting. He seems to be convinced that Bucky won’t stay sitting down if he leaves to go help the other men – which, fair enough, is probably true.
Instead, Steve uses the down time to tell Bucky an extremely abbreviated account of his past few months: Dr. Erskine, his struggle through basic training, someone called Agent Carter, the formula. The tour and how much he hated parading himself around instead of making a difference on the front lines; how difficult it’s been to adjust to his new size and strength, how uncomfortable it makes him when people treat him different now than they would’ve before.
“I can’t even wrap my head around you,” Bucky denounces with a snort when Steve gets to that part, trying not to let on just how much his mind is reeling at all the information. At the unbelievable truth of it. He leans back against the tree trunk, looking over at Steve with what he hopes is an exasperated expression. “You can lift a car over your head now, Steve, and the thing you’re most upset about is the fact that people are treating you nicer for it?”
Steve shrugs a little. “Don’t feel as good as you might think,” he answers simply, a slightly melancholy look in his eyes.
And Bucky could just about kill Steve, because seriously, he leaves the guy alone for five minutes and he gets himself experimented on for fuck’s sake. But the vehemence of his angry response is tamped down by the lingering exhaustion as well as by the knowledge that Steve is, in fact, safe. Is healthier and stronger and happier than Bucky can remember seeing him for a long time, and that’s… good. It is. Those are all good things, of course they are.
He’d be off his fucking rocker if he were upset about Steve being healthy for the first time in his life. That would be awful; that would be sick.
Bucky gives his head a shake and forces out a low whistle, doesn’t let Steve see the panic and the purposelessness that’s clawing at the inside of his chest.
“Bucky!” a voice cries out, and Bucky spins around – and it’s Gabe, looking slightly exhausted and more than a little worse for wear but fine, he’s fine, and Bucky grins up at him with a smile he doesn’t have to fake. Gabe walks over so that he’s standing over them.
“I can’t believe you made it out of there, man,” says Gabe with a haggard smile, adjusting his massive Hydra gun so that it sits a bit more comfortably in his arms. Steve is smiling up at Gabe politely, restrained and composed but still warm underneath it all, and something in Bucky flickers and heats. “We all thought you were dead for sure. Thank God and all your lucky stars, right?”
“Yeah, if my lucky stars dress up in red, white, and blue on a regular basis,” Bucky replies without missing a beat, and he thinks he hears Steve snort next to him as Gabe laughs out loud.
“Yeah, well,” says Gabe, nudging Bucky’s leg gently with the toe of his boot. “It’s not like any of us were keen to write Stella and tell her we let her man get killed on our watch, so I think it’s all for the best it worked out the way it did.”
And all at once, Bucky feels his whole body snap into rigid attention. A burst of cold goes up his spine as Steve’s eyes flicker between him and Gabe, shooting Bucky a furtively baffled look that’s clearly asking for an explanation. Bucky determinedly keeps his eyes on Gabe, not daring to so much as glance at Steve even though he can feel his friend’s eyes burning a hole in his skin.
Shit, Bucky thinks, a whole new kind of white-hot panic creeping through his body now. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. He nods stiffly, hopes Gabe just thinks he’s shaken up from the factory and hopes Steve isn’t listening well enough that he can’t bluff his way out of this later, and for a second Bucky genuinely doesn’t know which deception is more important to pull off.
Above him, Gabe furrows his brow as though something just occurred to him. “Shit, Bucky – d’you think they already sent out our condolence letters? I’d hate to think of Annie seeing something like that and not knowing –”
Stiffly, Bucky shakes his head. “You know the army,” he says weakly, trying to shrug his shoulders in what he hopes is a casual way. “Always taking forever and a day to do anything. Don’t figure they’ve had time yet, y’know?”
“Yeah,” says Gabe, more than a little relief in his eyes as he nods in agreement. And then – without Bucky having to introduce them proper – he turns to Steve expectantly. “Should we be getting everyone on the move again, Cap?” he asks, as though there’s nothing strange about him looking to Steve for instruction instead one of the higher-ranking prisoners who should have logically taken up command by now.
Bucky hesitates at the question, but Steve doesn’t even seem fazed.
“Good idea – Jones, right?” asks Steve. Gabe nods, clearly a little pleased despite himself at Steve remembering his name. “If you give me a minute I’ll come with and help you get ‘em on their feet.”
The because if I don’t, some of them will kick up a fuss and won’t listen to you goes unspoken, and Gabe gives Steve a quick nod before he turns to give the two of them their minute in peace.
When Steve turns to look at him, he does so without giving any indication that it’s strange to have people listening to him for one in his life; to have people asking him for orders and following them without question. He tilts his head a little to one side like a curious puppy, his eyebrows twisting into some combination of expectant and curious and something else Bucky can’t quite put his finger on.
“Stella?” Steve asks wryly, quirking an eyebrow at him, and damned if Steve hasn’t got one hell of a jaw on him now. The look Steve gives him makes Bucky feel caught in the act, makes him wonder if Steve can somehow know just by looking at him. It makes him want to squirm but he doesn’t, just keeps looking right back at Steve with his shoulders relaxed and his eyebrows high on his forehead.
The strangest thing of all, Bucky decides, is that Steve’s still the same. He’s exactly the same as he used to be, telling people what to do and fully expecting them to listen even if he has to make them. Steve – tiny Steve, fucking Stevie, his best friend who always came home with cracked knuckles and split lips and a too-determined glint in his eye – is standing in front of him with shoulders that go on for miles and enough muscles to make Popeye the goddamn sailor man jealous, and he’s exactly the same as he was the last time Bucky saw him.
The biggest change about Steve is how other people react to him, not in Steve himself, and the realization makes something come loose from where it’s been wedged tight in Bucky’s chest.
Because maybe he can’t be the friend who protects anymore; can’t earn Steve’s loyalty just by chasing him into a few alleys and warning off a few bullies.
But Steve is still Steve, and that means there might still be a chance for them to… work something out. Maybe not like he was imagining it before – keeping Steve like a man keeps a woman – because Bucky doesn’t know how this sort of thing works, and the whole idea just doesn’t seem to fit like it used to. But… he thinks maybe they can still make something work.
Bucky doesn’t know what it says about him, that he still wants Steve when he’s like this. When he’s big and broad instead of small and skinny like a dame; if it makes him queer, makes him a fairy, makes him something different than he’s always thought of himself as before.
All he knows is that he is alive, and Steve is alive. Hell, Steve is here. And even if things are different between them now, Bucky still wants Steve something fierce. Can’t seem to stop no matter how hard he tries.
Bucky has wrapped his hand around Steve’s cock before, has brought him off a dozen times; he knows what he sounds like when he comes, how he arches into being touched like a cat getting stroked. He knows all these things, every second seared onto the back of his eyelids, but despite all that he still doesn’t know what it’s like to kiss Steve. To lean down – or up, God, it’d be up now, wouldn’t it – and claim Steve’s mouth with his own, to wrap his arms around Steve’s neck and pull him in close. To feel the soft touch of his mouth against Bucky’s grow into something hungrier, more urgent. More desperate.
No matter what else has changed, Bucky still wants very badly to find out what kissing Steve is like. And even if Steve doesn’t have any other use for him now – doesn’t need him to bring in the money or punch bullies in the face like he used to – Bucky thinks that maybe, if he plays his cards right, it might still be enough.
Steve is still looking over at him expectantly.
“C’mon, Buck,” says Steve, a tight smile on his face. “I leave you alone for a few months and you go and get yourself a steady girl?”
He says it jokingly, as though it’s supposed to be funny – another in a long line of jabs about Bucky’s lackadaisical approach to trying to see any girl for more than a second or third date – but there’s something stiff in Steve’s expression as he says it. Something tense about the set of his shoulders.
Bucky shifts a little uncomfortably, snorting in derision.
“I left you alone for a few months and you slapped on a pair of tights and went parading across the country, so I don’t figure you to be in a good place for judgin’ me right about now,” says Bucky easily, trying to force a grin onto his face.
From the look Steve gives him, it doesn’t work very well. He nudges Bucky a little with his elbow, catching him a little off-guard when it catches him on the shoulder instead of his side.
“Gonna tell me about it?” Steve asks, all private and quiet-like. His eyes are earnest, plaintive.
Bucky huffs out a sigh, runs a hand through his hair.
“We’ll talk about it later, all right?” Bucky asks, because this is not a conversation to have on the run from Hydra goons with over a hundred soldiers waiting on them to get moving. This is a conversation that needs a whole evening and hell of a lot of booze to soften the blow. He’ll bring it up with Steve when there isn’t a chance either of them could have their heads blown off at any moment, Bucky thinks, giving Steve a half-hearted smile to make the big lug stop asking. “I’ll explain it all, cross my heart. But right now –”
“—we need to get moving, yeah,” Steve agrees, backing down right away because he knows it’s the right thing to do. He gets to his feet in a rush, springing up quick as hell even though he’s the size of a house now, and God, Bucky has a lot to get used to in the next little while.
When he turns and offers him a hand up, Bucky takes hold of it without question and lets Steve pull him to his feet.
“You’re late,” says the woman with the curled brown hair and the deep red lips, sounding officious and relieved and brimming with restrained happiness all at once. She’s looking up at Steve with conviction and pride clear on her face, back ramrod straight and carrying herself with authority.
Something heated comes into her eyes when Steve replies with a wise-guy comment about calling his ride – and what the hell, since when has Steve been able to say two words to a woman without tripping all over himself, anyway?
And then they’re just staring at each other, something tangible and electric and full of mutual respect hanging between them, and it feels as though the ground has been yanked right out from under Bucky’s feet.
He turns away.
“Hey!” Bucky shouts at the assembled crowd of soldiers milling around them. He does it to get the soldiers’ attention – doesn’t do it to break up the moment between Steve and this dame of his because that would be awful. That would be insane. “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” he calls out once he’s got everyone’s attention, and they all start clapping and cheering in a way that Steve deserves, he does, in a way he’s always deserved.
Steve shoots him an even look over his shoulder and Bucky just slaps a grin on his face, raises his eyebrows in an easy hell, what are you gonna do? gesture as he joins in the applause.
He doesn’t let his expression fall until Steve looks away. Doesn’t let the fucked-up devastation show on his face until Steve can’t see him anymore.
And then Steve’s looking back at that dame, his whole body radiating confidence and certainty and Bucky berates himself, crawls inside his own head. Feels a bit like an amputated limb, sawed off and useless. He tries to ignore the ugly feeling clutching at his chest, the sickening twist in his gut.
The blind resentment burning behind his eyes that isn’t the least bit fair or kind.
That night, once Steve’s been issued a semi-private tent and has dragged Bucky into it so that they can both clock out there, Steve brings up the whole Stella thing.
“So you were saying something earlier,” says Steve innocently as they’re getting ready for bed, stripping off the last vestiges of his spangly costume and military gear mashup. He strips off his shirt in order to put on a more comfortable one for sleeping and Bucky looks away quickly, tries to stamp out the vivid snapshot of his newly muscled chest, the pale of his skin, the sharp cut of his hipbones. “Something about a girl?” Steve prompts again, careful and rehearsed, and Bucky just glares at his lap.
It seems so stupid, now. So stupid and childish and humiliating, all the ways he’s lied about Steve for all these months.
And he’s the dumbest bastard that ever did live, he really is. Because he’s imagined this conversation a hundred times over the past few weeks, ever since he realized that the mess of want and need bubbling up in his chest couldn’t be shrugged off anymore. He’s let his mind wander over it while he was on the road and while he was at basecamp and while he was crammed into dugouts in the middle of nowhere. Has thought about all the different ways he might broach the idea of being together with Steve, how best to ask if it was something Steve might be interested in too. Bucky has considered a dozen ways Steve might react and how to respond to each of them, how best to bring Steve around if he was uncertain or conflicted.
And with all the times he’s thought about it, with all the scenarios he’s run through his head, Bucky never – not once – considered the possibility that Steve might’ve found someone else while he was gone.
He doesn’t know what that says about himself, but he doesn’t think it can be anything good.
“It’s nothing,” Bucky says with a too-casual shrug – before yanking his shirt over his head so that he doesn’t have to look Steve in the eye for a few seconds. He throws it on the ground, shoots Steve a forced little grin as he climbs into the cot they’ll be sharing. Makes sure he’s lying as far away from Steve’s side as possible. “Seriously, forget about it. It’s nothing worth talking about, anyway.”
He rolls over, squeezing his eyes shut in order to ignore the slightly hurt expression on Steve’s face, in order to stamp down the queasy feeling rising in his stomach.
It’s a few minutes before Steve blows out the candle and crawls into the cot next to them, two of them squished into a bed like this barely feasible anymore with how big he is now, and Bucky pretends to be asleep until Steve’s breathing evens out next to him.
Over the next few days, Bucky tries very hard to hate Agent Peggy Carter.
He figures he ought to be able to do it based on principle alone, based on the fact that suddenly his best friend only has eyes for some girl Bucky’s never laid eyes on a day in his life. She’s unknown and she’s shown up from bang out of nowhere, and for all Bucky knows she’s only got eyes for Steve because of that souped-up body of his. Even if Steve can speak to her for five minutes without getting himself all twisted up in knots, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the right dame for him.
And so Bucky hangs back, observes. Tries to get the measure of Agent Carter as best he can without actually having to exchange words with the woman.
It’s not like it’s hard to get the time to himself. Most people seem to be steering clear of him after his experience in Zola’s lab, though Bucky doesn’t know if it’s because they think he’s breaking or because they think he’s already broken. He’s also on medical leave, technically, if only because the camp doctors are so thrown for a loop at the speed of his physical recovery. Apparently they’ve decided that he must be downplaying his side-effects, because he’s been forbidden to do anything more intensive than light walking around basecamp for at least a few days.
Not-so-privately, Steve agrees with their decision. Also not-so-privately, Bucky threatened to punch Steve in the teeth if he kept treating him like an invalid for no goddamn reason.
And so Bucky watches, lingers in the shadows and keeps half an eye on Agent Carter as she goes about her business in the camp, as she helps get things organized for those taken prisoner to get some shore leave in England. He catalogues things about her with a sniper’s eye; the curt but confident way she deals out orders, the way she always bothers with a full face of makeup even on quiet days when nothing much is happening around the camp. Wears it like war paint, like a challenge. Like a reminder to everyone that she’s a dame doing a man’s job, and if she can get it done so well then why can’t you?
He has some success, in the beginning. He determinedly hates the fact that she has a tent all to herself (even though she’s the only woman on basecamp, and it’s not like Steve hasn’t been given his own tent too after he led the rescue to the weapons factory). He hates the fact that she’ll be accompanying them back to England (even though she’s an agent with the British Secret Service, and London is home base for her). It’s easy to hate the way Steve talks about her; not much, not all the time, but with so much respect in his voice when he does that it almost makes Bucky wish she were a guy so he could just start a fucking fight with her and settle the whole thing once and for all.
Overall, Bucky’s plan to blindly hate Agent Carter works fairly well until the third day after Steve rescued him from the Hydra factory.
On this day, Bucky returns to the tent he shares with some of the boys only to find some private waiting for him with instructions to report to Agent Carter in the command tent at his earliest convenience. Bucky leaves with his hands shoved in his pockets and a defensive hunch to his shoulders, skulking over to the command tent immediately so he can get whatever this is over as soon as possible.
The sides of the great green tent are all pulled up to let in the crisp air, so Agent Carter is clearly visible as he approaches. He knocks on the metal tent pole anyway just to be cheeky, raises his hand up to his head in a salute as soon as she looks up from her paperwork.
“Sergeant James Barnes, reporting for duty,” says Bucky dryly, and the look she gives him is some strange hybrid of severity and hospitality.
“Ah, yes,” says Agent Carter with a nod, closing her pen and placing it down on the stack of papers in front of her. There’s no one else in the command tent right now, just her. He wonders if he should feel self-conscious about how sloppy his uniform is, about his hair being a mess all over his forehead instead of slicked back into something professional. He can’t really make himself care, though. Hasn’t had it in him to worry about appearances all that much recently. “Sergeant Barnes. Come along inside, then.”
He saunters inside, plunking himself down on the chair across from her desk when she gestures at him to do so.
They stare at each other for a moment, her gaze scrutinizing and his as casual as he can make it. He drags his eyes over her lazily; takes in the pinned-back curly brown hair, the sharp angles of her face, the way her freshly-painted lips make her brown eyes stand out more than they might’ve otherwise.
Objectively, he understands why Steve might be crazy about her. She’s a bombshell, pure and simple, even with the unflattering boxy green uniform covering up the best of her assets.
Not-so-objectively, every word coming out of her mouth makes him want to punch something.
“You were recently rescued from a Hydra weapons manufacturing plant in Krasberg,” Agent Carter begins, apparently not one to beat about the bush. She folds her hands on the table, tilts her head a little as she looks right at him and doesn’t break eye contact. It almost makes him want to fidget under her gaze. He doesn’t, though. Just keeps looking back at her, trying to make himself look at ease here. “While there, you were selected to be taken into a scientific facility run by Dr. Armin Zola, one of Johann Schmidt’s most powerful underlings.”
Bucky shrugs a little. “That’s right, ma’am,” he says, the words coming out a little tighter than he’d intended them to. Agent Carter nods.
“A number of men were taken into that facility and experimented on throughout the duration of your imprisonment. None survived except you.”
“Thanks to Steve,” Bucky interjects a little roughly, but Agent Carter doesn’t even blink at his unsolicited comment.
“Thanks to Captain Rogers, yes,” she acknowledges easily, and for the first time Bucky realizes how peculiar it is for the command tent to be empty except for her. Usually it’s bustling with people, Colonel Phillips barking orders and half a dozen subordinates and civilian military personnel scrambling around to follow them. Unease pricks at the back of Bucky’s neck for the first time since he came in here. He straightens a little in his seat, narrows his eyes at her just the slightest amount.
“The reason you are here today, Sergeant Barnes, is so that you can tell me everything you remember about your time in Zola’s laboratory,” Agent Carter elaborates, and Bucky feels a cold rush of discomfort run up his spine. “The methods that were used on you, whatever you can remember about the equipment. It is vital that this information be passed on to the relevant authorities.”
“I bet it is,” says Bucky a little harshly, too much vulnerability in his voice. He glares to cover it up, shifting in his chair and folding his arms. Every mean-spirited instinct he has is screaming at him to dig his heels into the sand, to make this as hard for her as possible. Out of some kind of misplaced jealousy because of Steve, yeah, but also because he doesn’t want to talk about this. Would rather forget that his time in that lab ever happened, would prefer to remember it as one long bad dream. “I already made a report to my superior officer.”
“Your initial report was very incomplete,” Agent Carter returns in a clipped voice, and Bucky just shrugs.
“Not much to tell,” says Bucky carefully, eyeing Agent Carter uncertainly when she begins to leaf through the papers on her desk until she finds what she’s looking for.
“Here we are,” she says as she pulls a piece of paper from the stack, clearing her throat a little before she begins to read from it in an impersonal, monotone voice. “One day two guards dragged me off from where I was working on the main floor. They brought me to a small room full of equipment and strapped me down to a table. When Zola showed up he started using the machines on me. I must’ve blacked out because I don’t remember much until my rescue.”
As soon as she’s finished reading out his statement, Agent Carter turns to give him a very pointed look.
“The men in your battalion later confirmed you had been held in Zola’s laboratory for at least three days.”
“Sounds about right, I guess,” says Bucky noncommittally, licking his lips and shifting uneasily in his seat. Agent Carter just looks at him.
“You’re telling me that you don’t remember anything from the three days you spent under Zola’s care. That you possess no information that could be relevant to this campaign or to the war effort in general.”
In the pit of his stomach, Bucky feels a stab of upset irritation at the implication that he’s holding back, that he’s not doing all he can to make sure the information gets out to the right people. What’s even worse is that she’s right; he doesn’t want to talk, hasn’t talked to anyone about it, not even Steve. Just wants to pretend those three days never happened, to forget about them and move on with his life.
The realization that she’s right doesn’t make him want to be cooperative, though. Just makes him defensive, gets his hackles up. Makes him want to claw out like he’s some kind of wild animal that’s been pushed into a corner.
“You ever been tortured, Agent Carter?” Bucky spits out angrily instead of responding properly, narrowing his eyes and sneering at her as much as he can get away with. He’s going to get in shit for this later, he knows, but right now he doesn’t care. Just wants her to stop asking, to let him get out of here. Just wants everyone in the world to back the hell off. “Ever been plucked away from the herd and shoved into a little room, been broken down and put back together wrong just to be torn back apart again? Because let me tell you, it ain’t pretty, and if it’d been you in there you wouldn’t be too keen to chat about it either.”
Bucky slumps back in his seat, resentment and anger and irrational vindictiveness buzzing under his skin. Neither of them say anything for a long moment, the only noise the everyday sounds of basecamp life going on outside the tent. He stares down at his feet, refuses to look her in the eye until she fucking makes him.
“Yes, actually,” comes Agent Carter’s voice after a long pause, and it’s so far away from the reprimand he’d been expecting – hell, the reprimand he deserves – that he blinks and looks up at her despite himself.
“Pardon?” Bucky asks, because he genuinely doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She captures his gaze with those steady brown eyes, tilts her head to one side a little. There’s a little hint of sadness at the corners of her eyses; a softness in the line of her mouth that he doesn’t remember being there before. He frowns.
“Yes, I have been tortured,” she clarifies, enunciating the words very clearly and precisely. Refusing to break eye contact with him.
The shock of that statement is like a punch to the gut. Bucky feels his eyes widen, straightens up a little in his seat without meaning to. Something profoundly uncomfortable settles in his chest at the idea of it; of this woman, so composed and competent and in control of herself, being broken down into base components.
“Sergeant Barnes, let us be frank about this,” says Agent Carter – Peggy, Steve said her name was Peggy – as she looks at him coolly, placing the piece of paper back on the top of the pile. “You would very much like to not tell me anything about your time in Zola’s lab, and right now you’re attempting to make this process as difficult as possible for both of us.”
Her eyes soften a little at that, and when she speaks again it isn’t in the same crisp, clear voice that she’s been using up until now in their conversation. Instead there is an understanding under her words, a camaraderie that she is allowing him to glimpse.
“I know it wasn’t easy to have those things done to you. To know that there was no way out and no one coming for you; that you were going to die on that table and there was nothing you could do to stop it from happening.” Peggy tilts her head forward a little, gives him a flat look. “But regardless of your personal feelings on the subject, I will require that information. The intel you possess could assist us in determining Hydra's scientific capacity, something that could very well make the difference between losing this war and winning it.” She raises her eyebrows, stares at him pointedly. “And I don’t believe you to be the kind of man who would let his personal struggles get in the way of winning this war.”
For a moment, all Bucky can do is stare at her. Peggy sits, unwavering and unruffled as she waits for his response. There is nothing pitying about her, he realizes for the first time. Just respect and understanding and a hardened determination to do her job and do it well.
And all at once, it hits him that he can’t hate her. He can’t do it, can’t manage it no matter how badly he wants to. Because Peggy Carter is calm and competent and knows what she’s doing, is more than willing to tell people they’re wrong when she believes them to be and to support them with the same amount of ferocity when she thinks they’re in the right.
She’s all he could’ve hoped for in a girl for Steve, before he came out here and started having ideas of his own.
He swallows hard, lets out a huff of breath before he starts to speak. Feels the baseless anger towards her slough off him like dead skin, leaving something clean and new in its wake.
“They gave me some kinda drug first,” Bucky begins, watches Peggy pluck her pen off the table and begin jotting notes on a fresh sheet of paper. There’s no hesitation in her, no surprise that he’s suddenly started to talk. As though it was completely expected; something she planned for all along. He swallows. “A couple of things, I think, all administered by needle. The first one made my whole body numb, but I don’t think it was what they wanted. The second one…” he trails off, screwing up his face as he tries to remember. “The second one burned on the way in and inside my veins after. It hurt something awful. Not sure if it made the world all fuzzy, too, or if it just hurt that bad.”
Across the desk, Peggy nods at him encouragingly as she scribbles notes down on the page.
“And after the drugs?” she asks, and he answers. Tells her everything he can remember from start to finish: what the machines looked like, what they seemed to do, how many times he thinks he passed out, the burn of electricity in his brain and the way they only cut into his flesh a few times during the whole thing. Just little cuts with a scalpel on his arm or his chest, Zola staring at the little incisions as though attempting to find the fucking secrets of the universe there.
The only things he leaves out are the details that are too personal (the fact that he cried after the third round of electrification, an onslaught of tears he couldn’t hold back that made his face slick and made one of the orderlies snort in derision) or the things he’s positive he hallucinated (his mother standing over him singing a lullaby, Steve charging in all skinny and small only to be shot in the head by an enemy soldier, a glowing blue cube so bright it made his eyes hurt).
When Bucky finally leaves the command tent almost an hour later, it’s with a slightly shell-shocked air about him that he doesn’t expect to go away any time soon. He steps out into the light, blinking a little at the brightness, only to startle at the sight of Steve waiting for him outside.
Steve is sitting on a wooden crate across the way, clearly having chosen the spot in hopes of catching Bucky when he leaves without being close enough to hear what he’s been saying inside. The sight of him makes something warm and fond swell up in Bucky’s chest, makes a dumb smile creep over his face even as his stomach hollows out a little.
“Hey,” says Bucky quietly, and Steve’s head shoots up to look at him.
“Hey,” Steve blurts in a rush, getting to his feet a little too quickly. His eyes dart to the command tent, then back over to Bucky. “It go okay?”
It occurs to Bucky that in order for Steve to know to meet him here, Peggy Carter must have told him about her intentions to have a talk with him. The realization doesn’t make him feel patronized, though, or like she’s broken any kind of confidence. It just makes him glad that she seems to trust Steve as much as he trusts her, even if it makes a low ache rise up in his chest at the same time.
“Yeah,” says Bucky, walking up so that he’s close enough to clap Steve on the shoulder. He has to reach up to do it, which is… strange, but that doesn’t matter right now. “Yeah, it went fine.” He raises his eyebrows, twists his mouth into an impressed smile he only has to force slightly. “That’s a hell of a girl you got there, Steve.”
As soon as the words are out, Bucky remembers that Dugan once said the same thing about Bucky’s own ‘girl’. He winces a little, plays it off as a smile.
Steve laughs at that, shaking his head as a relieved expression crosses his face.
“Yeah,” Steve admits, grinning warmly at Bucky, something relaxing in his great big shoulders as he does so. “Yeah, she really is.”
A few weeks later, in a pub in South London, Bucky Barnes asks Peggy Carter for a dance.
It’s not his best pickup line, but it’s not exactly out of character for him either. He figures he’ll give her one last chance to fuck up, to prove she isn’t the painfully perfect fit for Steve he thinks she is.
If she takes me up on it I’ll know she ain’t serious about him, he thinks, genuinely not sure what he wants the outcome of this little experiment to be. She says yes right now then I’m not backing down. Not letting her have Steve just to jerk him around.
Peggy doesn’t dance with him, doesn’t even seem to consider it.
Doesn’t even take her eyes off Steve once.
He buys another whiskey from the barman, wishes the alcohol still hit him as hard as it used to. Throws it back and slaps a smile on his face when Steve looks at him, isn’t nearly as talkative as he would’ve been before when they head back over to the table and order another round.
A few hours later, Steve and the guys are all still going strong. Steve doesn’t look affected by the booze at all, really, but the rest of them are starting to sway on their feet, to slur their words more and more as the night goes on. Most of the pub’s casual patrons started to trickle out hours ago, leaving only the more serious clientele behind.
Bucky sips his seventh whiskey of the night, wonders if they water the stuff down in England because by all rights he should be passed out on the floor by now.
On the other side of the room, Steve is talking with Dernier, Falsworth, and Morita about something or other – some book they’ve all read, one that obviously comes with a French translation – when Dugan plunks down into the chair next to him, sidles right up to Bucky’s side.
“Meant to ask,” says Dugan with a slight slur in his voice, giving Bucky a nudge with his elbow. His voice is thick and his cheeks are heated, but he’s steady enough next to him. “How’s Stella doing?”
With a rough shake of his head, Bucky knocks back the rest of the glass in one go.
“Rather not talk about it,” he grunts, finally feeling the pleasant rush of numbness through his fingertips as the liquid burns a hot trail down his throat. It takes a bit of the edge off. Makes him less conscious of the hollowed-out cavern of his chest, the way his eyes keep lingering on Steve even when he doesn’t want them to.
Next to him, Dugan is looking at him with a mix of mild surprise and gruff sympathy on his face.
“All right,” says Dugan easily enough, because these things happen during war and they’ve all learned to keep their mouths shut when they have to. He raises his beer to his mouth, takes a deep swig. He swipes a hand across his lips afterwards, doesn’t look Bucky in the eye. “All right, fair enough.”
He settles down properly in the chair next to Bucky, the two of them surveying the rest of the room without speaking.
They sit like that for a long time, watching the rest of the men – their friends, really, if Bucky’s honest with himself, and they’re all gonna get a hell of a lot closer before all this is over – get progressively drunker and more ridiculous. Steve’s in the middle of it all, controlling the chaos while still revelling with the best of them, glancing over at Bucky every so often to catch his eyes and grin at him from across the room.
He hasn’t told Steve that the army offered him the chance to be honourably discharged, to get the hell out of here and go back to the home that he misses like breathing. Steve would tell him to go, after all, and he can’t do that. Isn’t capable of leaving Steve alone so that he can throw himself into danger without Bucky there to watch his back.
Besides, it’s not as though the home he misses really even exists anymore.
Home is his little apartment in Brooklyn with Steve, the smell of charcoal on paper and cheap canned food warming up in the kitchen and the sound of Steve humming absent-mindedly to himself as he sketches. Home is a Steve with bony hands and narrow shoulders and ribs Bucky can count one by one, who gives Bucky exasperated looks and dry smiles and whose dreams have always been far too big for him.
Home is a Steve who feels stick-thin and fragile when Bucky slings an arm over his shoulders even though Bucky knows he’s anything but, that anyone else in Steve’s position would’ve been stamped out long ago instead of still diligently pushing forward, still trying.
There’s no home for Bucky to go back to. Not anymore.
So instead he’ll be following Steve for the foreseeable future. Will chase him around Europe with a gun strapped to his back, keeping the dumb lug safe if he has to kill every fucking Nazi that gets in their way in order to do it.
It’s enough, he thinks, even if it’s not perfect. Even if it’s not home; even if it’s not everything he ever wanted.
It’s enough for now.
It gets easier after that, once SSR Strike Unit One – the Howling Commandos, people start calling them after a while – begins getting sent out on missions.
He has Steve back, for one thing. Is more than capable of throwing himself into protecting Steve again, even if it’s a little different now than it used to be back home. Even if he’s traded in bruised fists for bullet wounds, back-alley scuffles for storming Hydra facilities with guns blazing and everything being blown to hell all around them. For picking off enemies with his sniper from the sidelines, watching Steve’s back as his friend charges into danger with a great big target painted on his chest.
And Bucky follows him, blowing Nazi brains out from afar and re-learning what a man sounds like when he’s shot in the chest at point blank range and making the hard calls when Steve can’t do it himself, and he’d do it all a hundred times over if it means keeping his friend safe. If it means keeping Steve in his life, somehow, in any capacity.
They go to Latvia, to Poland, over to France and back down to Italy again. Slogging through mud and spending most of their time deep behind enemy lines where there’s no one for all of them to lean on but each other. In addition to their actual mission parameters, they wind up getting into more than a few scuffles and scrapes on the side. They release a group of Russian POWs on their way through Romania, get tangled up in a fight between Nazi occupiers and Tito’s resistance in Yugoslavia, have to go undercover for information-gathering missions in the Amsterdam, Paris – even once in a suburb outside Berlin. They check in at the moving basecamp every few months or so, re-supply and rest their heads and remember what it’s like to interact with human beings who aren’t each other.
By the end of 1944, Bucky can genuinely say that the rest of the guys feel as close to him as brothers. Jim with his caustic sarcasm and Dernier with his raunchy stories and Falsworth with his stiff propriety that falls away once you get a few drinks in him, Gabe and Dum Dum Dugan who’ve been by his side since he first waded into this mess.
And Steve, with his steady conviction and his razor-sharp mind and his knack for strategy that’s never really had a chance to shine before now. Steve, who Bucky watches with focused intent, tracking his movements with his eyes. Careful to never let him get too far out of Bucky’s sight.
Steve, who keeps a compass with Peggy Carter’s picture in it close to his heart like a talisman, running his fingers over the rounded metal frame when he thinks no one’s looking.
And that’s good, that’s great. That’s exactly what Bucky used to want, back in Brooklyn. Back when his most secret fantasy featured him and Steve both finding nice girls and settling down on the same street, the two of them buying a pair of houses that neither of them would ever have been able to afford in real life.
Besides, when it comes right down to it, what would Bucky have to offer this new Steve anyways? Not protection, not now that he finally has a body to match all of the grand ideas that’ve been running through his head since they were kids. Not money, considering the US government pretty much owes both of them the world’s largest veterans’ pensions for all the undercover work they’ve done.
It’s not like he ever could’ve married Steve, after all. Could never have made things official between them. Could never have offered Steve anything more than a life full of lies and his heart on a platter, and what the hell did he think Steve would want with that anyways?
Protecting Steve, though – that’s still something he’s good for, something he can do. Something he can live and breathe until Steve doesn’t need that anymore either, until he actually tells Bucky to get the fuck out of his life.
Until that day comes, Bucky will just keep trailing along in Steve’s shadow. Will stand by his side and laugh at his dumb jokes and watch his back when no one else can.
It’s good enough for Bucky to get by on.
One night, in late February of 1945, Steve can’t sleep.
They’re in Western Germany, right close to the Belgian border, and it’s one of those strange instances where the actual Allied troops are moving fast enough to catch up to them. By their latest reckoning, Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter are only a day away by foot, and the plan had been to fall back and join up with them for the continued push into Germany.
It’ll give the Howling Commandos a chance to re-supply and check in for new orders, for one thing. The Nazis might be on the run but Hydra is still going strong, and for all Bucky knows the US Army will want them to stick around and keep doing their job even after Hitler gives up the game and surrenders. Things are moving so fast now that their official orders could very well be changing every day, so it’ll be good to touch base and make sure they’re still on the right track.
For another thing, it’ll give Steve a chance to meet up with Peggy Carter again. Which… Bucky knows isn’t a motivating factor, not really, because Steve is too honest and good to think about it so selfishly.
It’ll be nice for him, though. He’ll be happy to see her.
For tonight, all seven of them are camped out in a clearing that’s well outside of Bonn. It’s a rural area, farms and fields edged by thick green woods, and they’ve made camp amidst the trees for better cover. The rest of the Commandos are passed out in their bedrolls, exhausted from long travel in heavy snowfall the day before. This part of the trees actually provides fairly good cover, so they aren’t actually as cold as they might’ve been otherwise.
It’s a familiar scene: Dum Dum snoring huskily on the ground a few feet away, Gabe and Dernier with their backs against each other for warmth. Falsworth with his fingers wrapped around the tiny gold cross he wears under his shirt during the day, Jim curled up into a little ball in sleep in a way that’s so different from the tall confidence and brusque swagger he tries to project during the day.
Bucky’s the only one of them who’s actually supposed to be awake, perched on top of a fallen log and keeping an eye on their surroundings for another hour or so until it’s time to wake Dernier up for his shift. Despite that, though, it doesn’t surprise Bucky in the slightest when he sees Steve’s body stir across the camp. When Steve pulls himself out of his bedroll, picks himself up off the ground, and walks over to sit himself down next to Bucky on the log.
“Can’t sleep?” Bucky asks softly, not even glancing over as Steve settles down next to him. The moonlight coming from between the treetops is just bright enough that Bucky can see the way his breath fogs on the air as he speaks. It’s probably going to start snowing again soon.
He doesn’t really feel the cold in the same way he used to, before. Doesn’t really need the heavy jacket they’ve all been issued for winter wear, but has it slung over his shoulders nonetheless.
Next to him, Steve shakes his head.
“Nah,” Steve replies, speaking quietly as well so as not to wake the rest of them. They’re all pretty good at sleeping through each other’s voices at this point, but it’s good to be considerate about it anyways. “My head’s going a mile a minute. Can’t get it to settle on anything.”
“Mm,” Bucky hums in agreement, looking over at Steve properly for the first time since he sat down next to him. Steve hasn’t even bothered with the winter wear, isn’t wearing much more than a pair of slacks and a long-sleeved shirt to bed.
Bucky smiles at him, just a little tug at the corner of his mouth. He’s conscious of the fact that it might not be as natural as it used to be before the war, not quite as easy or as simple. But it doesn’t take the same amount of effort it used to in the months right after Hydra got their hands on him, and that ain’t nothing.
“You lookin’ forward to being back at basecamp again?” Bucky asks, and Steve lets out a soft huff of laughter next to him.
“Hot food, company, something resembling a shower?” says Steve, a smile obvious in his voice. “Count me right in.”
“Says the guy who’s biggest dream was to go camping when he was a kid,” says Bucky with a smirk, and is rewarded when Steve smacks him lightly on the shoulder.
“Shut up, they always made it sound so fun in books,” says Steve, and Bucky frowns a little. Steve’s tone is obviously supposed to be joking, light-hearted – but there’s something underlying his words that makes an instinctive part of Bucky sit up straight and take notice. A gut feeling honed from years spent with Steve, from a lifetime of learning how he works.
There’s enough light that he can see certain angles of Steve’s face, all lit up by patches of moonlight, but the rest of him is obscured by shadows. It makes the lines of his face and jaw stand out even sharper, and Bucky ignores the familiar spike of melancholy heat in the pit of his stomach at the sight of him. He cocks his head to one side.
“You doing all right, pal?” he asks, his brow furrowed just a little in concentration, and at his words something in Steve’s shoulders deflates.
“Yeah,” Steve answers quietly, not trying to hide the restless note in his voice, the way he shifts his shoulders uncomfortably. “Yeah, it’s fine, just…”
And Steve doesn’t try to hide when he’s feeling worried or uncertain anymore, not when it’s just the two of them. It’s a big relief to Bucky, who’s used to Steve’s attempts to cover up any discomfort or ailment with a litany of it’s fine, Buck, really and lay off, there ain’t nothing wrong and just go back to whatever you were doing, it’s fine.
Steve doesn’t have anything to prove, anymore. Not to him.
Besides, it’s strategically safer to have at least one of them know when Steve isn’t doing so hot, and strategy and procedure and caution are nothing to sneer at these days. He gives Steve an expectant look, eyebrows raised and mouth tight.
He isn’t expecting the heavy sigh Steve lets out in response. The way Steve runs his fingers through his fringe so that it flops messily over his forehead.
“It’s just…” Steve begins, letting out a frustrated huff of air when the words don’t come to him at once. He’s silent for a little while, staring into the darkened woods around them.
“We’re getting close, Buck,” says Steve eventually, his voice low and tentative. He looks straight ahead, and Bucky doesn’t know how to describe the expression on his face. “So close to all of it being over. And I’m glad I’m here, I am. You know there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be, but…” He shrugs his great shoulders a little, shoots Bucky a quiet look over his shoulder. “I think I’m ready for it to be over soon. To go back home, set up shop there for a while. Do what I can to help rebuild from the other side, you know?”
Steve looks so earnest, so hopeful, and Bucky just doesn’t have the heart to tell him that there’s no way it’ll be as simple as all that. There’s no guarantee that Hydra will go down with the Fuhrer, for one thing, and Bucky can’t see the manhunt for every last operative taking any less than another year or two after the war itself is over. Aside from that, there’s no way in hell the government’s going to let Captain America slide into obscurity. They’re either going to want Steve to spend the rest of his life in service for his country or else tucked away in a lab somewhere so they can try to recreate the serum. Perfecting it during peacetime, trying to get a jump on the next war.
But it’s late, and they’re both tired, and all of them have been on the road without any real extended leave for a year and half. There’s no harm in humouring Steve for now, if it gets him through the next few months, and they can deal with the next hurdle when they get to it.
“What do you think you’ll do?” Bucky asks instead of poking holes in Steve’s small dreams, quirking an eyebrow at him. He elbows Steve gently in the side. “After the war’s over, after you head home. Got any big plans?”
He’s expecting something simple, straightforward; I wanna go with Peggy back to London or head back to Brooklyn or settle down and start a family or even finally get a chance to work on my art, Bucky, what’d you think?
Instead, Steve lets out a hefty breath of air. He rubs at his forehead in the way he always does when he’s uncomfortable, when he doesn’t know what to say.
“I don’t know,” Steve says eventually, and when he glances over at Bucky his face is screwed up with some emotion that Bucky can’t identify.
He almost looks shifty, and Bucky straightens himself out a little at the unexpected turn in the conversation. At the look on Steve’s face; uncertain and torn and almost lost, and it hurts Bucky right down to the core to see Steve that way.
“I guess I just like having a clear goal in mind,” Steve says after a minute, hands in his lap and his shoulders a little hunched. He looks as though he’s trying to make himself smaller than he is, and even though he’s a big guy now, Bucky recognizes that stance from when he used to drag Steve out to dance halls. From when Steve would stick to the walls and curl in on himself instead of asking his date to dance, as though he was trying to make himself disappear. “For a long time that goal was joining up, winning the war. But now it’s almost over and I just…” Steve shrugs helplessly, looking profoundly uncomfortable. “Guess I just don’t know what’s next.”
Steve glances over at him, and God, it’s so fucking stupid – because for a moment, Bucky imagines he can see something melancholy in Steve’s eyes. Something sad and distant, as though he’s looking at Bucky and seeing something out of the past. Something he’s already said goodbye to.
And it’s dumb as hell to ask questions he doesn’t want the answer to, but Bucky’s never been the sharpest knife in the drawer.
“Think you might ever want to settle down with someone?” Bucky asks after a beat, keeping his voice as carefully neutral as possible. Trying to look casual instead of expectant.
Next to him, Steve stiffens a little at the question. He seems to think about it for a long moment, brow furrowed up as though it’s something that deserves his whole attention instead of a flippant half-answer. And then –
“For a long time, I don’t think I had any idea what I wanted,” says Steve slowly, carefully, staring out into the darkness of the woods around them as though he’s seeing something else entirely. “I was… broken up for a long time, I think. Spent a long time pining after things I couldn’t have, feeling as though no one I cared about was ever going to look at me the way that I wanted them to.”
And Bucky knows what he’s talking about; remembers all the dames that gave Steve the cold shoulder back home. Remembers how he used to talk about not wanting a different girl every night, just wanting to find the right one.
But if Bucky doesn’t think about it too hard, if he lets himself get caught up in the words, he can almost pretend…
And then Steve pauses, gives his head a shake – and something changes in the way he’s holding himself. Makes him look more confident, more sure of himself. He huffs out a laugh, and some of the tension caught in his chest seems to go with it.
“And then I met Peggy,” says Steve, a quiet little smile in his voice, and it isn’t fair to say that Bucky’s heart shatters, because it’s not like he didn’t know where this conversation was going. It’s not as though the cracks weren’t already there, the break already a foregone conclusion. Bucky swallows hard, nods encouragingly for Steve to continue. “And I’ve never felt so certain about anyone before, you know? It’s… clear, in my head. Real easy for the first time – now that she doesn’t hate me anymore,” he finishes with a laugh, and Bucky nods a little roughly.
“You love her?” he asks, not because he wants to make himself hurt, but because he needs to hear the answer.
Steve doesn’t even hesitate before the smile creeps over his face. Confident and sure and maybe a little bit shy, but… certain.
It’s starting to snow, now. Most of it blocked out by the branches above but some still making its way down to them. Just tiny white flakes, barely substantial enough to feel like anything on their skin. Next to him, Steve tilts his head to look up at the night sky, the smile blooming into something broader and brighter on his face.
“Yeah,” Steve answers, the smile growing into a genuine grin. He turns to look at Bucky properly, to make him a part of the moment. “Yeah, I really do.”
And Bucky waits. He waits for the immediate rush of quiet devastation, the cloying jealousy, the resentment that still sometimes rattles around inside his chest without his permission.
To his surprise, there is no rush of emotion that fills him up to bursting. No hurt like a physical wound, no pang in his chest. There’s nothing but a brief echo in the back of his head, a reverberation of emotion that doesn’t feel anywhere near as urgent and devastating as it used to. He feels little melancholy, a little hardened, but… okay.
He feels genuinely happy for Steve – and for Peggy, really, because he likes her and respects her and knows that she’s exactly the kind of girl Steve needs – in a way he hasn’t been able to feel in a long, long time.
“I’m happy for you, pal,” Bucky hears himself announce with a widening grin, and part of him is genuinely shocked to realize that it’s the truth.
For a moment, he could swear that a look of relief crosses over Steve’s face – as though he needed Bucky’s approval for some reason. It only lasts a second before he’s back to normal, though, a trick of the moonlight in the dark. Bucky reaches over and claps a hand over Steve’s shoulder, his mind doing the little waver of confusion it always does when he feels strong muscle beneath his hand there.
And this is good, this is fine. Steve’s happy, Steve’s in love. It’s the best Bucky could’ve hoped for, under the circumstances.
“I really am,” Bucky continues, giving his shoulder a squeeze and raising his eyebrows a little in question. “Think you’re gonna marry her when all this is over?”
Steve huffs out a smile, only hesitates long enough to shoot Bucky a self-deprecating grin.
“If she’ll have me, yeah,” says Steve, looking sheepish as he reaches up and scratches the back of his neck. “I’d… yeah. I think I’d like that a lot.”
“Oh, she’ll have you, all right,” snorts Bucky, remembering to keep quiet when the sound of his slightly too-loud voice makes Jim snuffle in his sleep. Because there’s no chance that Peggy Carter’s going to miss an opportunity like that; to eat that boy alive, to make him hers. To bring someone like Steve Rogers home. The thought of it only makes a tiny pang of melancholy catch in his chest.
“You sound so sure,” says Steve, his voice full of good humour, and Bucky punches him in the arm before shooting him an exasperated look.
“Honestly, Rogers, you’re dumber than I thought if you think for a second that she’ll say no. She’s crazy about you, everyone knows that. All you gotta do is live long enough to pop the question.”
It’s enough to make Steve let out a quiet laugh. “Ain’t that the trick,” says Steve, but he’s smiling as he says it. He settles back a little into his seat on the log, a more relaxed slope to his shoulders. He crosses his arms over his head and stretches, leaning back a little as he does so.
“So that’s what I want to do,” says Steve with sudden finality, and it takes Bucky a second to realize that he’s answering the question he was asked right at the beginning of the conversation. “See if Peggy’ll have me. If she wants to keep fighting the good fight, that’s fine. If she wants to settle down, that’s fine too.” He turns to Bucky and shoots him a smile. “Wherever you two wanna go is the place I wanna be.”
And Bucky… falters a little, at that. Feels something hitch inside his chest. “Come again?” he asks, trying to sound flippant, and Steve just gives him a look.
“Well, yeah,” says Steve easily, giving Bucky a sidelong look that clearly says he’s the world’s biggest dunce. “I’m sure we can find something that works for all three of us,” he adds helpfully, as though it’s just that simple. As though it’s always been that straightforward in his head.
He turns to look up at the night sky again, his smile turning quiet and private.
“My best girl and my best friend,” says Steve, a warm and contented hum in his voice.
It’s a sound that Bucky isn’t all that familiar with despite the fact that they’ve grown up together, the fact that he knows Steve Rogers better than anyone else in the world. Because Steve’s spent his whole life reaching for the stars; straining against the odds to build something better for himself, for the both of them. It’s a bit of a sad realization, but Bucky’s not actually used to Steve being content with things, let alone being happy about them.
Next to him, Steve lets out a pleased little sigh. “Can’t think of anything better than that.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. Just swallows hard, fights down the lump in his throat when Steve turns to look at him.
“What about you?” Steve asks, a genuinely curious note coming into his voice now. He quirks his head to one side, narrowing in on Bucky now. “Any big plans Peggy and I’ll need to work around?”
It’s not something Bucky’s thought much about, if he’s honest. Not since Steve rescued him from that Hydra facility and he had his half-baked daydreams yanked out from under him. He purses his lips, gives himself a moment to really think about the question.
He knows he wants to be useful. That’s the most important thing; useful to Steve, useful to the causes Steve fights for. Other than that…
“Nah,” says Bucky easily, stretching his arms over his head and yawning an exaggerated yawn. “Figure I’ll go where you go. Let you sort out the hard stuff.”
“Freeloader,” Steve deadpans, and Bucky punches him in the arm again.
“Asshole,” Bucky quips back, and he doesn’t have to fake the yawn that comes over him this time. He blinks a little afterwards, wraps his coat a little tighter around his shoulders.
When Steve claps him on the back, it’s with enough force that Bucky really should go flying forward onto the ground. He doesn’t, though; holds his place and just glances over at Steve with a raised eyebrow.
“Go get some rest,” says Steve, the moon bright in his eyes, and there’s a fond note in his voice that warms Bucky all the way down to his bones. Steve smiles at him, easy and content and still wide awake, and Bucky feels a sudden rush of gratitude at the powers that be – God, his angels, whatever else might be watching over them – for bringing Steve back to him even when, by all rights, it shouldn’t’ve been possible to do so. Steve’s palm is broad and warm against his back. “I got this.”
“Fair enough,” says Bucky sleepily, standing up with a stretch and giving Steve a cheeky look. “That super soldier stamina’s gotta be good for something, right?”
“Sleep tight, Buck,” says Steve in response, something almost tender in his voice. Bucky grins tiredly back at him.
“G’night, you big lug,” Bucky responds – before obediently heading back over to his empty bedroll to finally get some rest.
And as he falls asleep that night, the gentlest fall of snow drifting down onto the exposed skin of his face, Bucky can’t help but feel as though some kind of weight has been lifted from his chest. As though, at some point during their conversation, he was finally able to let Steve go.
In the end it doesn’t matter what’s going on inside his own head, if there’s a part of him that’s still wistful, that still aches. What matters is being useful to Steve; finding a way to stay by his side no matter what the world throws at them. Being whatever Steve needs him to be.
Because the most important thing is – and always has been – doing what needs to be done to keep Steve safe, and it makes no difference if he’s shielding Steve from schoolyard bullies or from gunfire or from the thoughts running around Bucky’s own brain. He’ll follow Steve halfway around the world, will throw himself into danger again and again if that’s what it takes. He’ll get his hands dirty so that Steve doesn’t have to, will stand by Steve’s side and be the best man at his wedding if that’s how this all turns out. To the end of the line, no matter where that takes them, and Bucky has never been one to go back on his word.
There’s a hole in his chest, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as Bucky thought it was going to. It’s nothing he can’t live with.
When Bucky finally drifts off to sleep, it’s with the barest quirk of a smile on his lips.
The next day, once they manage to meet up with the moving base camp on their way to liberate Bonn, Gabe and Jim can’t stop fiddling with the radio they have tuned in to HYDRA’s dispatch frequency. They stay huddled around it when Steve goes to greet Agent Carter, when the rest of them go to get their first hot meal in three weeks. They’re still listening and adjusting the frequencies when Bucky, Steve, and the rest of the Commandos come to join them after lunch.
“They’re saying the same thing every hour,” Gabe explains tiredly, straightening his cap and giving all of them a frustrated look. It’s more information than Bucky would’ve been able to provide: it all sounds like a mess of random German to him, a tinny female voice spouting out an endless stream of nonsense. “It’s all in code, though, so it’s difficult to pick out much.”
“I’ve been going over Gabe’s translation in the meantime,” Jim adds, tapping his pencil against the pad of paper he’s holding with a serious expression on his face. The circles under his eyes are starting to look a little purple, and Bucky makes a mental note to get him a cup of joe at the first available opportunity. “I’ve been analyzing patterns, trying to square it up with the stuff that Friedman’s magicians and them over at Bletchley have already figured out. So far we have a date and coordinates, which is good, and I think they might be saying something about a train, although I can’t be sure.”
“Other than that, all I can make out is urgency,” Gabe continues, scrunching up his face in annoyance. “Schnell, schnell, dringlich, dringlich. They haven’t even bothered to code that part.”
And Bucky’s still nodding along when he feels Steve grow tense next to him. Feels his friend straighten up, sees the solemn expression that falls over his face. He glances over at Bucky briefly, then turns his attention back to Gabe and Jim.
“Zola’s going to be on that train,” says Steve gravely, conviction and certainty evident in his voice. Bucky tenses, the memory of a high voice and precise hands and no please no make it stop please god make it stop ripping violently through his brain. For a moment, it feels as though a pitcher of ice-cold water has been poured over his head. “I’d bet my life on it. We already know Schmidt’s gone on ahead, and that they’re working on something big. And I can almost guarantee that whatever Zola’s transporting, we’re going to want to take a look at it.”
The rest of the Commandos turn to look at Bucky at that, because even though he doesn’t like to talk about his time as Zola’s personal lab rat that doesn’t mean they don’t remember that it happened. There’s a mix of warring emotions on their faces: uncertainty, anger, apprehension – even a few hints of excitement at the possibility of revenge.
The expression on Steve’s face is what makes Bucky straighten up, stand tall. Makes him set his jaw and narrow his eyes and swallow the lump in his throat. Because there’s respect in Steve’s eyes, of course, and pain at the memories. There’s the tight determination he’s worn throughout the entirety of the war.
More striking than that, though, is the deference Bucky sees there. The willingness to stand back and let Bucky decide the next move, as though Steve is prepared to abide by Bucky’s decision even if it’s cowardly or irrational.
It’s terrible strategy and risky as hell and so fucking Steve it makes Bucky want to laugh out loud.
“Then what the hell are we waiting for?” Bucky asks after a beat of charged silence, flashing them a smile that’s full of teeth. He plucks his gun up from where he rested it on a crate, slings it over his shoulder in an easy, practiced movement.
He looks over at Steve, catches his friend’s eyes and holds his gaze – and eventually, after a long moment, Steve nods minutely in acquiescence.
Bucky cocks his head to one side, everything from the set of his shoulders to the adrenaline pounding in his veins promising violence.
“Sounds like we’ve got a train to catch,” Bucky declares, quirking his mouth at Steve as the rest of the guys fall out to prepare for the new mission.
Steve just smiles right back.