He was fourteen when the war was born, his fingertips nearly on fifteen. He could already shoot better than anyone at camp, but nobody came to camp, really, and it felt like he grew an inch every day and had to learn to readjust his stance, his grip, how much shorter he was than the target. He started filching weapons from the armory and stretching out on hills, where it didn't matter how tall he was. Took potshots at the new recruits for a day to rattle them, but then the Major found out and stopped that real quick. Didn't stop him from running up the hills and lying in the sharp, itchy New Jersey grass. It just meant he couldn't stand back up without wincing.
The Major kept busy with the war. He left his files in the office that had been Becky's room, before their mother died and she went away to school. The Major didn't pay enough attention to notice that his son could get in any door without a key, could break into the office without hardly trying. Picking locks wouldn't please the Major, but he'd had to learn after they'd moved and left Winifred Barnes' gravestone behind. No one thought about a boy locked out of an empty home, at Camp Lehigh.
Bucky knew about the war in the Major's files, but the war stayed in Europe and Bucky couldn't even make it to Jersey City.
* * *
He was seventeen – almost – when the war joined him at Camp Lehigh, swooping in on Japanese fighter planes and German U-Boats, the President's radio address turning their base into a carnival. The Major had left the year before, headed for the war on a ship filled with Lend-Lease supplies. The war, ebullient as Colonel Maxson's Golden Retriever, raced out to greet the ship halfway across the ocean, and left it sinking to the bottom.
No one knew what to do with him after that. He was years too young for the draft, carrying all of his father's height and none of his gravitas. He ran courses with the new recruits, slipping under barbed wire left over from the Major's war, sunk his boots in frozen mud and drifted through the regiments, teaching boys the rifle tricks he'd learned.
At night, it changed a little, but Bucky always found a space to bunk in. Knew which boys to watch from under his cap. He could pick them out in a crowd of fresh blood, straight from the farms of Pennsylvania and the streets of New York, when they tilted their faces down and stared a little too long. Sometimes the bunk was empty by the time Bucky got there. Sometimes it wasn't, and that was okay, too. He'd learned all sorts of tricks by then.
He would turn eighteen in a month (sixteen of 'em) when Steve Rogers showed up on base, sticking out like a muscular sore thumb from the hundreds of other new recruits. Rogers gazed at the camp with his chin tucked and his eyes sharp, standing at attention with his body too straight, like he didn't know quite what to do with it. That was all right. Bucky knew what to do with miles of muscle and his own nimble hands.
He sauntered toward the officers' quarters – still not sure why Private Steve Rogers merited his own room, but Bucky wouldn't complain about a little privacy – finishing a cigarette, rifle slung over his shoulder and out of the way because the rifle was his, and so it slept where Bucky did. Or where he intended to. He came over the rise, boots quiet and regulation clean, and spotted two guys skulking toward the cabin where Bucky had planned to make himself at home. They were carrying some pretty spectacular weapons, almost invisible but for the gleam of their guns.
Bucky could recognize and shoot every piece of weaponry the U.S. Army had, and he had raked eyes over every man on base from under the brim of his cap. Neither the men nor their guns belonged, and they were steps away from Rogers' window.
He dropped to his stomach, pressed the rifle to his cheek, and lined up shots he'd been making from this hilltop since fourteen. The first man didn't have time to scream. The second did, only because Bucky had shot him in the chest and not the head. Rogers tore out of his cabin in nothing but his shorts, holding something Bucky couldn't see from where he lay. The private glanced down at the men, must have been pretty good at calculating angles, because he lifted his head and stared right at where Bucky was hidden in the grass, staring regretfully at the wide, sweat-sheened chest he probably wouldn't get any closer to tonight.
Then Rogers shouted, and there were apparently more than two men, because the third had just brought something down pretty hard on Bucky's skull, which explained why he suddenly saw the American colors go spiraling over his head before everything went dark.
Rogers found him the next day, after he'd crept out of medical with a couple of stolen cigarettes and had headed as far away as he could get. The private crested the hill at a jog, the starch in his olive slacks and white shirt wilting in the summer heat. Bucky tugged his cap a little lower, pretended he couldn't feel blue eyes taking in the bandage wrapped around his head, the way his shoulders disappeared into the undershirt that he'd borrowed from the commissary. Rogers lowered himself down, a giant shadow on Bucky's left that stayed quiet until he'd finished cleaning the rifle, snapping all the pieces back into place.
“I heard you're the best shot on base,” Rogers said, staring out over the camp and toward the horizon. “Maybe the best shot in the Army.”
His head swung around in surprise when Bucky's response came out in a bitter laugh and a puff of smoke. “You been asking around, private, I can guarantee that ain't all you heard.” He arched an eyebrow, letting his gaze drift down the broad contours of a chest visible below the cotton of the private's shirt. “You interested?”
Rogers flushed, hands curling into fists that he quickly flattened on his thighs when he realized Bucky had squared his shoulders to wait for the first punch. “I'm interested in the fact that you shot two enemy agents who were about to break into my quarters.” Bucky relaxed, took another long drag on his cigarette. “From over two hundred yards away, with no forewarning. How could you even see them, in the dark?”
“I looked,” Bucky retorted, trying to blow a smoke ring and smirking when Rogers glowered in disapproval. “What were 'enemy agents' doing outside your place anyhow?”
“I didn't get a chance to ask them,” Rogers riposted, and Bucky felt an unfamiliar smile tug at his cheeks. He'd practiced his faces in the shaving mirror, and smiling made him look like a kid. The private grinned back, and it made him look younger, too, blue eyes sparkling and lips stretched wide. “Where'd you learn to shoot like that?”
“The Army. Where'd you get those gorilla arms?”
“Found 'em at the zoo.”
“Oh, is that where you're from?” Rogers laughed, and Bucky felt his chest expand, buoying him up. This was how the guys on base talked to each other, elbowing and chortling and close while Bucky watched through his riflescope, yards and years away. They wrapped conversations around cigarettes and pin-up photos and dirty jokes, wove themselves into a regiment that would go off to war and leave the queer Army brat in Jersey.
“Near enough. I'm from Brooklyn.” He stuck out a hand, squeezed a little too hard; not testing Bucky like the Major had always done, just like he didn't have a good handle on his own strength. “I'm Steve, by the way. Steve Rogers.”
“Bucky Barnes.” And he couldn't help leaning in, using Steve's grip to lever himself close to the other man's chest. “You want to know what else I'm best at, in the Army?” He pitched his voice lower than it would normally go, sucked his cheeks in to hollow out the remnants of baby fat.
Horrified indignation washed over Steve's face, dousing the sunny look from a moment before. Bucky discovered that it crumpled something under his ribs to see it go. “Bucky, jeez, you're only a kid.”
He tried to pull away, tug his hat down far enough to hide the disgust in the other man's eyes. Steve grabbed his shoulders, fingers bruising Bucky's arms. “You should be playing baseball, not . . . Who's letting you spend time in the barracks?”
“'s where I sleep,” Bucky shrugged, stared at Steve's knees. “Besides, I don't know how to play baseball.” He wriggled his shoulders, hoping to get away from Rogers' disapproving gaze and the afterimage of a smile Bucky had lost.
Rogers gasped, and looked almost as horrified as he had a moment ago, though his lips were twitching, and he leaped eagerly to his feet. “Bucky, this is a crime! It's un-American, not being able to play baseball. You might as well enlist in the German army now.” Grinning, he hauled Bucky off the grass, wrapped a massive arm around skinny shoulders. “C'mon, I brought my glove. We can go over the basics, and if the Dodgers are playing this afternoon, I can teach you how to score a game.” Bucky went willingly, propelled along by Steve's muscles and the force of his smile.
A few days later, Bucky caught Steve talking to Colonel Taylor while he was supposed to be finding them hot dogs to eat during the radio game.
“I don't live on base,” the colonel said, arms folded. “There's housing here.”
Despite his rank, Taylor was far less intimidating than Steve when he crossed his arms and scowled. “He doesn't need housing here, Colonel. He needs a yard. Some friends. You have kids his age, don't you?”
PFC Rogers could sell war bonds, Bucky thought, could wander the country inspiring people to be better than they were. The colonel pursed his lips – debated keeping his trap shut for a second, not because the man cared about Major Barnes' queer orphan, but because no one wanted Rogers' fists near their face – but indignation won out over honor. “You think I'd let Lehigh's mascot near my boys, Rogers?” he hissed, spittle hopping off his lips. “Only reason he's still here is that he couldn't convince anyone he was eighteen yet. Soon as he can, ship him off to the front and good riddance.”
Both hands went behind Steve's back, parade rest, gripping tightly onto one fist and straightening his spine. “Sir,” he ground out, and spun away, marching off in perfect form, leaving only the insult of his absent salute.
Bucky had sprawled over the chair and completely mangled the fourth inning scores by the time Steve came back, hot dogs in one hand and the metal frame of a cot in the other, mattress folded under his arm. “Who's winning?” he asked, handing Bucky the food and wedging the bed into the only spare floor space. Bucky held up the sheet in response, where he'd started shading in squares to look like a baseball diamond, drawn a target across the bottom of the page. Steve laughed, and ruffled his hair. “Ah, the modern art approach to baseball scoring,” he said, polishing off half a hot dog in one bite. “I like it.”
“The Army running short on rooms?” Bucky redirected, gesturing at the new bed.
Steve raised an eyebrow, watching him like he knew Bucky had heard everything Taylor had said. Finally, he gave an exaggerated sigh and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Would you believe,” he groaned, conspiratorial, “that they've started rationing officers' quarters? I take a roommate, or they'll make me go stay with Colonel Phillips.” His grin broadened, and Bucky snorted. Everyone at camp could hear Phillips snore, and no one knew what Steve Rogers was doing in the officers' quarters in the first place. “So what do you say, Buck? Either you stay here with me, or I never sleep again.”
He ended up training with Steve, for the next few weeks, maybe because nobody else would. The other guys took one look at PFC Rogers' body and his spinning kicks and suddenly had important things to do on the other side of camp. None of them stuck around long enough to see Steve's face fall, but the camp mascot knew how it felt to sleep in the barracks without belonging to them. He knew how it felt to be left behind.
Bucky spent a lot of time being flipped onto his back, and chasing a green blur on morning runs. Steve made him learn Jujitsu when they weren't studying baseball, made Bucky teach him what each weapon in the armory was and how it worked.
Some days, though, Rogers disappeared into the General's office and didn't come out for hours, going over plans he wouldn't share. Those days grew more frequent, started spilling over into the evenings, leaving Bucky with nothing to do and a whole new crop of recruits he hadn't inspected. Longer meetings meant that Steve would ship out any day now; sail away to meet the war on its doorstep and leave Bucky alone at Camp Lehigh.
Martial arts and baseball statistics had ruined his ability to find the willing boy in a haystack of uncultured rubes. At least, that was the only reason Bucky could figure for going after a guy who wanted to hammer into him with fists and nothing else.
Steve's meetings lasted until midnight, sometimes later. It gave Bucky enough time to limp back to their quarters and hide his swollen face in the pillow, to be grateful that Rogers didn't turn the lights on when he came home late, that he took his boots off outside and tiptoed in, fell into bed still wearing his uniform.
The next morning he woke up to fingers prodding along the edges of his black eye, scraping at the dried blood under the lip he'd bitten into. They poked at the swollen bridge of his nose, and Bucky couldn't hold back a yelp. “Bucky.” He blinked open his good eye, caught Steve's face in blurred shades of unhappiness and a simmering regret. “What did you do?”
He shrugged, tried to sit up for a second before slumping back onto the bed. “Listened to the game on the camp radio, like you wanted. Turns out lotsa people out here ain't Dodgers fans. Had to stand up for your team.” Steve exhaled, harsh and angry, devoid of his usual wry amusement at Bucky's fronts.
“Who did this?” he growled, changing tacks, running feather-light touches over Bucky's throbbing face. His weight settled on the cot next to Bucky's hip, radiating warmth through Steve's constantly over-heated skin.
A boy who'll be dead in a few months, Bucky didn't say, fighting his own desires whenever he's not too busy with the war. “The Yankees,” he replied, licking at his cut lip. Steve's brow furrowed, and Bucky reached down to trace invisible patterns over a muscled thigh. Doodled stars, circles, the wings he'd dreamed of having as a boy, trapped in an endless winter on the plains.
“'m the camp mascot, Rogers. 's how it goes.” How it would go, when Steve left for the war, his foolish, inspirational hope packed away in his rucksack and out of Bucky's reach.
It was summer, and Bucky was – well, he wasn't old enough to enlist, not yet. But he was plenty old enough to watch sweat trickle off Steve's neck, between his shoulder blades and down the dips of his spine, into the waist of his dress slacks where Bucky's gaze couldn't follow. The heat bore down on them, stultifying in the concrete walls of the bunker, the window open but the black-out curtain hanging listless to the side.
“You are no one's damn mascot.” Steve kept his voice low, each word measured out, packed and fired with all the force of black powder and lead balls. Private Rogers never cursed, rarely spoke without a wide smile and an air of clumsy innocence firmly in place. When his dry humor leaked through the mask, Bucky was the only one who laughed. “Get up. We're talking to Colonel Phillips in an hour, and I need some breakfast.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Bucky drawled. He made it halfway to his feet; then the world took a nosedive and he ended up cradled to Steve's sweaty chest, both of them a few inches off the dusty floor. “Why would Phillips want to talk to me?” he asked, burying his swollen nose against the dip above Steve's collarbone, pretended he couldn't hear the sharp inhale under his ear.
Steve levered them effortlessly to their feet, though he kept one arm hooked around Bucky's waist. “Your scintillating conversation, obviously,” he retorted, shooting for a smirk and mostly succeeding in looking worried in a way that made Bucky's face ache a little less.
“True.” Bucky nodded sagely, struggled into the nearest dress shirt he could find. It happened to be one about three times his size, the collar gaping around his neck, still smelling of Steve. “He's been putting up with your ugly mug for weeks. Probably desperate for a pretty face and someone who doesn't think that maybe Hitler just needs a hug.”
It was easy to make PFC Rogers laugh, so that his head tilted back and he giggled at the sky, open and happy and younger than Bucky by years, by centuries. Bucky never understood, when it was so easy to set Steve Rogers off and brighten the world, why no one else ever seemed to try.
“Think you've got a few weeks before that pretty face comes back,” Steve warned, kneeling to lace Bucky's boots when bending forward made him groan and clutch at his bruised ribs. “But I think we ought to send old Adolf one of those teddy bears – maybe he just needs to sleep better at night.”
Colonel Phillips did not think they should air mail Adolf Hitler a stuffed animal of any variety, even when Bucky suggested sewing a little American flag onto it and Steve muffled an undignified snort. He did, however, think they should send over Bucky Barnes as part of an elite strike team.
“And I would be what?” he wondered, trying to wrap his head around Phillips' taciturn expression and Rogers' brilliant grin. “The team mas-”
“My partner,” Steve interrupted, clamping both hands onto his chair and looking like he wanted to shove them over Bucky's mouth. The idiotic smile had pitched off his face, probably cracking on the fancy parquet floor, and Bucky found himself wishing he could scoop it off the ground and glue it back together. “If that's okay with you, Sergeant Barnes?”
“They rationing chevrons, too? 'Cause I think Lieutenant Barnes has a nicer ring.” Steve punched him lightly, jarring his shoulder, and Bucky couldn't help but smile just as stupidly as Steve ever did.
* * *
He was seventeen – well, he could've been – when they went to meet the war. Trained with Steve when he was there, strategies and martial arts and weapons, trained with the other experts when Rogers mysteriously disappeared every few days. He learned how to blend in and gather information from faces and corpses and empty rooms. During their first meeting, back in Jersey, Phillips had waited until Steve left the room to tell Bucky the rest of his job, the missions that freshly minted Lieutenant Rogers didn't believe needed doing, the dirty underbelly of the war.
Seventeen, when he and Steve and a bunch of other guys stupid enough to tag along leaped from Dover into France, to free Allied prisoners of war and shake up the Vichy government.
Bucky had his own orders, an office to find and a low-level official to interrogate, but he was Steve's partner before he was anything else. He stayed long enough to take down all the snipers, to wait for Rogers' nod. Then he ran for the stairs, deaf from gunfire and blind from the smoke, to find Monsieur Febvre and his important files.
Bucky tucked the files under his coat, skinned the blood-soaked gloves from his hands. Left them in the puddle of vomit next to the corpse, wiping the bile off his lips as he darted back into the hall and away from the scene. Bucky had met the war, now, pressed close to its skin. They were two boys on a barrack mattress, hanging on the edge of ecstasy and the terror of discovery, awkward and furtive in the dark. He dropped over the stair railing, desperate to find his partner, to see Steve's hair glow golden in the sun.
For all his starry-eyed dreaming, Steve Rogers wasn't blind. He raked eyes over Bucky's bloody uniform, his missing gloves and the hands he'd shoved under his arms to hide the shakes, and stuck close to his side the entire way to the boat. When Bucky moved to leave Steve with the highest-ranking POW, a firm hand caught him by the elbow.
“Still in enemy territory,” Steve said, voice hushed. “Need you to watch my back, partner, while I debrief.” So Bucky stayed, and held onto his rifle. Didn't let go until Steve pried it from his fingers, after they'd crossed the Channel and spoken to Phillips and ended up in their own musty tent.
“Hey. Hey, Buck, shh, give me that.” The rifle came away in Steve's hands, and Bucky stood silently while Steve undid buttons and unlaced boots until they were both in their skivvies and shorts and sitting on Steve's cot, rain leaking in through the tent seams. Steve pulled him back against a broad, warm chest, rubbed fingers firmly over Bucky's cramped palms.
“Don't send me away,” Bucky begged, sliding down until his head fit under Steve's chin, feeling cold and tired and too young, chest aching as if someone had wrenched something loose, rebuilt the rifle and left the chambers empty.
Steve's chin settled on Bucky's scalp, and his fingers massaged trembling palms. “You're the best in the Army,” he said, sounding regretful in a way Bucky didn't understand. “Everyone knows that, now. I couldn't send you away even if I tried.”
* * *
Europe was also where Bucky met Captain America, a week after another raid with Steve that left him looking for blood on his hands and vibrating with the rush. When Steve had finally made it back into the tent, still in his torn fatigues and carrying new orders, Bucky had gone to his knees in the mud and pressed unsteady hands to the buttons on Steve's fly.
Steve gasped out the most beautiful noise, pained and yearning and filled with everything that Bucky hadn't thought he could find that first night in Lehigh, his warm hands threading through Bucky's hair. No one would hear them over the ceaseless dripping of the rain, the clanking in the mess. They could -
“Bucky. Bucky, stop.” Steve groaned his name, tugged Bucky's head away with no more force than a light breeze, like he didn't have the limitless strength that had sent German soldiers flying back thirty feet, flipping over a tank with little more than a grunt and a hard shove. Steve fell backward onto his cot, and Bucky let the mud soak through his pants, squelch under his knees.
“You want it,” he said, harsh, still buzzing with the feel of a rifle under his hands, Steve Rogers under his lips. “I know you want it.” He gestured flippantly at Steve's crotch, the bulge in his trousers obvious to anyone who'd care to look. Bucky Barnes had been looking for months.
“We can't.” Steve's head dropped forward into his hands, pulling hard at blond hair, his massive shoulders slumped. “You're only -”
“You signed me up for this war,” Bucky shot back, blood pounding too fast through his fists, hammering at his temples. “What, I'm old enough to stab Germans and die in a goddamn minefield, but still too young to suck your dick? Is that how this works?”
“No.” Steve lifted his head, turned those wide blue eyes on Bucky's flushed face. Bucky was too angry to wonder about the regret darkening them to cobalt, crystalline and easily shattered. “But I'm still your commanding officer. And there are things I still need to tell -”
“Partner,” Bucky corrected, maneuvering to his feet and streaking English mud down his pants. “You said we were partners. I'm nobody's damn mascot, any more.” He didn't realize until he'd marched out of the tent that he'd echoed the promise Steve had made a bruised teenage boy in Camp Lehigh.
Stalking out of their tent brought him to Toro, who traded Bucky three cigarettes for a dessert his churning stomach couldn't handle, and started in on the legend of Captain America. “Who?” Bucky asked, bemused, struggling to light the cigarette with wet matches and tremors in his hands. The flame caught, and he thought of blond hair glinting in the sun, Dodgers games and quick commands and warm hands over his.
“You haven't heard of Captain America?” Toro replied, eyes widening in shock. “Three days ago he took out an entire Axis base, filled with some top-secret experiments. Comic book villains and everything – I have a buddy who was there.”
Three days ago Steve had been out on patrol. Bucky had been busy with his own mission, parachuting in outside Berlin and shining shoes in an important hotel. Gathering tips and tidbits, slipping up to the right room and taking out a double agent whose price had gone too high. When he'd made it back over the Channel, Steve had been waiting in the tent, folding Bucky into the hug he always did when they both made it home safe.
Thanks to Toro's endless supply of stories – and the fact that Bucky had been bunking in his tent, venturing into his own only when he knew Steve would be gone – Bucky wasn't as shocked as he might have been when a man wearing a red and blue combat suit and carrying a shield showed up as his next extraction started to go seriously awry.
Though, really, Captain America was nowhere as intimidating as Toro caricatured him. He couldn't have been any bigger than Steve, and Steve was about as scary as an enthusiastic pup. The Captain moved like Steve did, too, probably a side effect of trying to carry all those muscles. Or a symptom of Bucky's aching chest, that he saw Steve Rogers every time he closed his eyes.
“Guess you're Captain America,” Bucky greeted him, ducking a hail of bullets and scooting under the abandoned train car to return fire. They were pinned in the old rail yard; Bucky's mission had been to scout the depots, but his German wasn't perfect, yet, and someone had caught his trail before he'd boarded the train West. It was impressive that Captain America had shown up just as things were getting hairy.
“Guess you're Sergeant Barnes,” Captain America returned, ducking off to the right to throw the shield and put an abrupt end to the machine-gun fire. “Though I think I have a better costume,” he added, staring down at the Hitler Youth gear Bucky had thrown on to blend in. It was hard to hear the Captain over the sound of his own revolver, not to mention the bullets ricocheting off steel trains, but Bucky could have sworn the superhero was smiling behind his helmet.
“Bet I have better aim!” Bucky declared, rolling to his feet, and they took off across the yard toward the landing strip a mile away, keeping score.
“He knew my name!” Bucky gloated to Toro after they'd touched down in camp, and Captain America had been spirited away for his debrief. He'd found the other young private in the mess, trying to wheedle a picture of Betty Grable off Private Hemings. “Captain America knew my name!”
Out of the corner of his eye, through the relentless, cold winter rain, he thought he saw the superhero walk by the open flaps of the mess. But it was only Steve, who had paused in mid-stride, peering through the drizzle toward the sound of Bucky's voice. His blond hair was plastered to his skull, white cotton shirt translucent over his pale skin.
Steve, whose voice Bucky hadn't heard all week, except in meetings. Who Bucky pretended to find with every pair of muscular shoulders sighted across the camp, or in Captain America's blue eyes. Bucky lit a cigarette, and looked away.
Toro rolled his eyes and made a grab for Betty Grable. “No way, chum. Guy's busy winning us the war. He's got better things to do than read up on your lazy-ass service record, Barnes.”
“I'm the best in the Army,” Bucky countered, and drew a lieutenant's chevrons in the rain puddling on the wooden table.
That night, he waved Toro off and headed for his own tent, sloshing through mud that felt like it might swallow the camp whole. The air had gotten colder, and the rain had faded to white, frosty mist that clung in droplets to his sleeves and the canvas of their tent. There was nowhere to knock, and the tent was half his, anyhow. Bucky rapped on the tent pole and cleared his throat, his chest unexpectedly too tight to breathe.
“Just a second,” Rogers called, voice neutral, the polite tone he used with everyone from the cannon fodder fresh off the boat to the General when they radioed command. Bucky balled his hands into numb fists and started to go light-headed from the lack of air.
The tent flaps pulled inward, Steve ducking his head to peer out into the night, freezing when he lifted his gaze. “Bucky.” The word was no more than a huff of air, too soft to shatter the stillness between them. Steve didn't step backward to let Bucky in, or forward to fold him up in enormous arms the way he always did when they came home safe. Bucky didn't even know where Steve had been all week, if he'd been in the field with no one at his back, fighting the war without Bucky at his side. Steve didn't move, and Bucky felt his hopes start to fracture.
“I'm sorry,” he managed, trying to inhale air into recalcitrant lungs. “I mean, you're sorry, I guess, because I'm a real catch, any guy would be lucky to have me, but please, Steve, I just -”
“Bucky,” Steve whispered again, then dragged Bucky into a hug that squeezed all the newly regained air right out of him. Bucky buried his cold nose in the heat of Steve's chest and hung on, letting Steve bundle them both inside. “I am sorry.” Steve's arms practically encased Bucky's torso, warmth and strength running down the length of his spine, seeping through his clothes and into his skin. “You are my partner. You're my best friend.”
“You have terrible taste,” Bucky sniffed, and felt Steve's chest shake when he chuckled, the grin catching the top of Bucky's ear. Their tent smelled like mold and damp, the gun oil Bucky favored and the boot polish Steve insisted they use even though it all came off in the mud.
Steve was blindly, foolishly hopeful. Even an eighteen-year-old kid could tell (there were plenty of 'em around to notice). He gave all these speeches about honesty and bravery and the American Dream, like he hadn't scrounged for pennies at City Hall and watched his mother die of tuberculosis because they couldn't afford the care. He didn't believe in throwing the first punch, wouldn't hold with half the things Phillips sent Bucky out to do. He made men want to stand up straighter, to build their dreams out of real wooden fences instead of white picket clouds, to march into battle for virtues the Major had preached even while he'd smacked them all out of Bucky before he'd known what allegiance was. And yeah, maybe everyone was in love with Steve Rogers – except for Toro, who was clearly carrying a torch for Captain America – but Bucky was the one who shared his tent, flipped through his sketches and listened to Steve mimic the Colonel's drawl after a tiresome day of briefings. Bucky was his partner.
He let Steve strip the wet fatigues off him, the routine they had after missions that left Bucky's hands shaking too badly to do more than breathe deeply and move when told. Once he was down to one of Rogers' dry undershirts and his boxers, he watched Steve's eyes flicker between Bucky and his cot.
Normally, after a battle, they'd both end up on Steve's bed. The Army's sad excuse for a mattress was so narrow that Bucky wound up sprawled on top of the furnace Steve called a body, never quite certain who was clinging to who. Bucky blamed it on the fatigue that followed the fighting, the exhaustion that rolled in like a wave and left him clutching for an anchor to hold on to. He didn't know how Steve justified it. He didn't even know if Steve had been in a battle today – some partner he was – but Bucky was tired, and he had spent the last week shivering alone in a bed that was too cold. He climbed into Steve's bunk, nearly crushed an open sketchbook, and almost missed the smile that overtook his friend's face.
“They're rationing bunks,” he muttered sleepily, letting Steve jostle him half off the cot and wrapping his arm tight across an expanse of muscle and warm skin. “You're my best friend, too,” he meant to say, but couldn't remember if he'd gotten the words out before tumbling into sleep.
When he woke up the next morning, the tent flaps were open. Bleached winter sunlight streamed weakly through the clouds, which appeared to be regrouping for a counter-attack. Steve was already awake and dressed for calisthenics, but that wasn't unusual; Steve never seemed to sleep for more than a few hours, and that was only after they'd worn themselves out on a grueling mission. He was still sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the cot, though, waiting for Bucky to wake up, concentrating on a drawing that left charcoal smears over his fingers and the bridge of his nose.
“If Hitler slept as much as you, the war would've been over yesterday,” Steve announced quietly, focused on his sketch. His bare feet peeked out from beneath his shins, the play of muscles in his arms highlighted by the fine golden hairs soaking up the traces of sun. When he drew, his eyebrows pulled together, blond hair falling forward into his intent frown.
“I clearly have the better teddy bear,” Bucky croaked back, rubbing away the sleep crusted in the corners of his eyes. Steve blushed, and Bucky felt his chest unfold like it did every time he heard Rogers laugh. “You polish off the Army's food yet, or is there something left for breakfast?”
Steve's left hand darted out, scratching over the soles of Bucky's feet and making him scramble to the head of the cot. Not giggling. Grown men didn't giggle, and Bucky was near enough.
“Well,” Steve drawled, uncurling long, athletic legs and tossing his sketchbook onto Bucky's cot, smirking when Bucky tucked the blanket around his feet as a precaution. “There were pancakes and syrup, with some sausage, but I ate all that.” He gave an elaborate shrug, bent forward in a graceful arc to pull his boots out from under the cot. “There might be some of that paste left – I mean porridge. Maybe a fried tomato or two, if you hurry.”
They were shoving each other good-naturedly as they headed for the mess, which meant that Bucky pushed Steve and nothing happened, then he nearly went flying into the Colonel's tent when Steve bumped him lightly with a hip. Then Steve stopped abruptly, and Bucky looked up from trying to regain his balance to see him staring stonily at the tables in the mess.
Phillips and the others had put months into training Bucky to read faces, to understand the nuances of things people wouldn't – or couldn't – say aloud. But before all that he'd been a kid at Camp Lehigh with the brim of his cap pulled down to cover his eyes, learning things about boys that they didn't even know about themselves. Steve, for all his openness, gave away less than any of them ever had.
“I don't mind, you know,” Steve said, still gazing at the tables. Bucky frowned, then noticed Toro sitting at the far end, in an animated discussion with Namor. Lt. Rogers transferred his focus to Bucky, who thought that maybe Steve was hard to read because he honestly meant everything he said. “If you want to.”
“If I want to?” Bucky echoed, bemused. The clouds finally overtook the sun, and Steve's face was pale in the gray morning light, making his eyes a brighter, deeper blue. “If I want breakfast?” he guessed, glancing between Steve's strangely quiet face and Toro and Namor.
Steve gestured at the table with his head, then looked at the ground, facing Bucky. “I know you like. . . I don't want you to think that – I mean, it doesn't bother me.” Steve was apparently unable to complete a sentence, and Bucky hadn't gotten any coffee to clear the cobwebs from his mind. He ran a hand through his hair, rubbed it briefly against the back of his neck. “Toro seems like a nice guy.”
Comprehension dawned like the December sun in damp England – hazy and faded, a sad imitation of real sunlight – but it finally dawned. Bucky shook his head. He couldn't decide whether to be angry or to start laughing. “Yeah,” he agreed, poking Steve just under his ribs where he was most ticklish. “He's great. Head over heels for Captain America.”
Steve went pink, which was confusing, but adorable. Maybe it was because he was shy. Everyone at camp knew Lieutenant Rogers, wanted to shake his hand and join his team, but nobody seemed all that interested in talking to Steve. Bucky would have to fix that. “I'll introduce you over porridge and blood pudding,” he decided. When Steve nodded, polite and a little concerned, like he might need to sit Toro down and have a talk, Bucky prodded him again and rolled his eyes. “Rogers,” he snapped, and Steve straightened immediately to form, looking Bucky in the eye. “I'm not – with Toro. We're not.”
“But -” Steve started to protest, the same expression he wore when Bucky turned down the jeep ride off base because Steve was trapped in their tent with maps of the front, when he thought Bucky had surrendered a promotion in espionage to stay on the team. (He had, but what fool would give up a spot at Steve Rogers' side?)
“I've got terrible taste,” Bucky confessed, thinking of mud on his knees and hands buried in his hair. Hands pushing him away. And Steve smiled, the brightest thing the base had seen in months of rain.
“Well, yeah,” he agreed, slinging an arm over Bucky's shoulders, herding them toward the food. “I've known that all along.”
* * *
He was eighteen – not that it mattered, nothing mattered beyond the syllables of his name, the hiss of the 's' in sergeant, the howled numbers stamped onto dog tags he'd left back at camp – when everything went horribly wrong.
He'd worked with Captain America two more times, before ending up cuffed and bleeding under the enemies' hands. Once it was a routine mission, liberating men and gathering manufacturing plans from a factory. Though Toro was right: they weren't fighting Nazis, that time. The weapons gleamed the way the enemy's guns had that first night, outside Steve's quarters.
The time it took him to make that mental comparison nearly earned him a laser blast to the chest. Would have, except that a gleaming hunk of metal spun in front of him and the shot ricocheted back toward the Hydra robot, the shield bouncing off the far wall and rebounding onto Captain America's arm.
“Thanks,” Bucky called, readying his rifle and dropping into position, giving a quick salute in response to Captain America's warm smile. Toro could have written sonnets about that smile. Agent Carter probably could, too; Bucky had seen the way she stared at Captain America during debrief. Bucky, with his terrible taste, saw all those perfect white teeth and thought of Steve sitting across from him at breakfast that morning, their knees knocking under the table, laughing at Bucky's off-color jokes.
The other time, Peggy Carter found Bucky on the range, practicing with a few of Stark's new prototypes. Steve had disappeared before reveille, leaving Bucky draped in all the scratchy wool blankets and his enormous pea coat to try to trap the heat that disappeared when he left. The sketch on the pillow – the pillow they shared, because winter was cold, no matter the season – depicted Toro with Betty Grable's gams, admiring his own stockinged legs. When he'd shown it to the private over porridge, Toro had been thrilled.
The regiment invited him out, a day off in town, but Bucky eyed the empty spot at the table and couldn't convince his stomach to settle. It was probably just meetings. Steve had to attend an awful lot more meetings than Bucky did, and he wouldn't drag his partner along for something so dull. Still, he stayed as close to the command center as he could, restless and on edge, dressing down the privates already on the range.
“Gear up,” Carter said when she found him, brusque. She'd never had the time of day for Bucky, called him 'kid' when she called him anything at all. “Captain America's in a tight spot outside Dresden, and you're going in.”
“Why me?” Bucky wondered, rifle already on his shoulder, cap pushed up on his forehead as he jogged to keep up with her pace.
She looked up at him, shorter than he was at long last, the disdainful moue written bold through her red lips. “Because he asked for you, kid,” she finally answered, none too happy about the whole thing. “So you had best not fuck this up.”
He hadn't fucked it up, though it had been less of a tight spot and more of a suicide run to save a train filled with children that were on their way to become lab rats for the Red Skull's creepy experiments. “I should've told Carter no,” he grumbled, somersaulting off one Hydra soldier and jabbing another in the neck with his boot.
Captain America chuckled, breathless, took a laser to the ribs and swung his shield into a tank aiming at twenty kids still in the train. “And here I thought you'd be pleased,” he wheezed, gesturing at the terrified children behind them. “You know, spending time with people your own age.”
And if there had been time for wishful thinking, Bucky would have contrasted Captain America's jibes to Steve's, enjoyed the familiar feeling of fighting with someone who could guess his next move the way Steve always seemed to do. But wishful thinking about Steve had almost gotten him shot, the time before. “Did you ask me out here for my funeral?” he retorted instead, shooting a soldier aiming at Captain America from around the stalled train.
“I asked you out here,” the Captain grunted, hammering each word into the main gun protruding from the Hydra tank, “because you're my – because I trust you to have my back.” He paused, glanced over his shoulder to where Bucky might have been beaming, just a little. It wasn't everyday a superhero told you something like that. “So, uh. Buck? Could you shoot the guy pointing a gun at my head?”
That night, Steve had gotten home late, scrubbed clean and favoring his ribs when Bucky dragged him into a hug. “What's that for?” Rogers asked, arms already up and squeezing Bucky until he could barely breathe. “You're the one who had the mission, today,” he added, because Steve simply knew things like that, even though the whole SSR tried not to tell him half the places that Sergeant Barnes went. Because Bucky had come to terms with the fact that Steve knew most everything about him before Bucky knew it himself.
Shrugging, he hung on a little tighter, not wanting to say that fighting alongside Captain America just made him miss standing at Lt. Rogers' back. Steve winced, and Bucky pulled away, noticing the gauze visible under the fresh white shirt. “Meetings?” he said skeptically, raising his eyebrows.
Steve widened his eyes and nodded, face comically innocent the way it went when he was lying. “Horrible meetings,” he agreed. “Phillips is a mad man with that wooden pointer.” Then he'd shoved Bucky back towards their cot (the other bed was barely visible anymore, under layers of Army greens and sketchbooks and three rifles Bucky had forgotten to return to the armory) and made him recount his daring rescue of Captain America and a horde of children, even though Steve was so tired that he fell asleep before Bucky was halfway through.
He tried to hold onto the feeling of Steve's breath ghosting across his face, drowsy blue eyes a few inches away from him on the same lumpy pillow. The way that, when Bucky rolled over to try to fit them both on a thin bed, Steve's unnatural body heat soaked into his spine, long arms curling over his ribs and chin pressed into his hair, making Bucky feel safer than even a superhero could. If he pretended that he was in bed with Steve, he could ignore the icy metal biting into his skin, the torture that the Red Skull's doctor called an experiment.
At least he was older than those children Zola had wanted. At least it had been a reconnaissance mission, strictly a one-man drop, which meant Steve was somewhere safe and far away. The war was under Bucky's skin, now, seared into the raw flesh of his wrists and running through his veins.
Bucky had been desperate to meet the war, in Lehigh. He had sought it in the arms of every new recruit he took to bed, reaching past their sweaty skin for the war's cold embrace. Then he had met Steve, who was warmth and hope and everything that war was not, but who offered Bucky the war because he wanted to keep him safe. Who had boiled into Bucky's bones, deeper than the war ever could.
They told him later that three days passed before Captain America appeared at his side. Bucky, drugged and injured, remembered little more than a set of wings and a man drenched in blood, a shield clattering to the concrete floor. The hands that ripped his manacles open were gentle on his abraded skin, gloved fingers trembling where they touched his wrists. “Bucky. Oh God, Bucky. I'm so sorry,” someone said from what felt like far away.
Captain America carried him out of the building despite his protests, holding too tight. At first he worried that the Captain's shield was stowed on his back and not ready to defend them from Hydra. But it didn't matter, Bucky realized, because there was no one left to fight.
He lifted his head off Captain America's chest and caught sight of the carnage that the superhero had left in his wake, entire Hydra squadrons decimated and abandoned in his path through the building and up to the isolation wards. Bucky had never seen Captain America operate with the kind of cool fury that Bucky himself often preferred, had not realized until that moment that the soldier was capable of a logical, terrible ruthlessness that brought down armies with a single man.
He held onto Bucky until the doctors finally separated them on the plane home. Agent Carter dragged him away from where he'd hovered over Bucky, acting like a human version of the pea coat Steve always left so his partner could be warm. She seemed furious, though Bucky could see how her face whitened when she glimpsed the tears in the Captain's uniform, the thick, congealing red too dark to be the American flag. He wasn't the only one who hadn't known that Captain America's sharp mind hid a serrated edge.
“We had an extraction team ready,” she castigated him. “You were not included. In fact, you should be under arrest for stealing intelligence from the Army and disobeying direct orders! Hydra was waiting to see if you came. You know there are spies in camp, and now they'll know -”
“You sent Bucky out alone.” Captain America did not interrupt her. He simply started speaking, as if Carter had not said anything at all. “He has been tortured. Drugged. God knows what Zola did to him. Because you wanted information on those labs.” He paused. Inhaled. Wiped some of the blood from his face, pulled a knife from his utility belt and cleaned it on his thigh. Agent Carter, who had never been an idiot, took a step back. “Be grateful I only needed to take down one army to reach him, Peggy. And stay the hell away from Sergeant Barnes.”
They let Bucky go back to his tent instead of the base hospital, probably because the drugs had worn off and he wasn't bleeding too badly, and not because he had pitched an unholy fit at the sight of starched white sheets on a flat cot. He'd had enough of the war, cold and sterile even when it was hemorrhaging blood. He wanted to curl up on his own bed, their bed, Steve draped around him like a blanket, hugging him too tightly because he couldn't understand his own strength.
He made it back to the tent in double time, tilting his face up to the rain. If it was raining, damp and miserable, he was really back in England, and not dreaming it again. He ducked through the flaps without knocking, because it had been three days and it turned out Bucky had never wanted the war half as much as he wanted Steve Rogers' sturdy arms around his chest, Steve's nose buried in his damp hair.
Steve Rogers, who was standing in front of him, face splattered with the rust stains of dried blood. Steve Rogers, who was wearing Captain America's clothes, cradling a sketchbook in one hand.
“What?” Bucky croaked, terrified suddenly that he would wake back up in Zola's lab, because he'd dreamed this before, Captain America fading into Steven Grant Rogers; both of them turning their backs and walking away.
Steve dropped the sketchbook and spun around, toppling to his knees and burying his face into Bucky's thigh. Bucky wanted to tell him to get up, that English mud felt horrible when it soaked through slacks and even worse when it dried. At least it meant he wasn't dreaming. He might have pretended that Captain America was Lt. Rogers, but he'd never once thought of Steve on his knees in the Dover rain.
He nearly fell backward under the weight. But it wasn't the weight – Steve was all muscle, but Bucky wasn't doing too badly himself, these days. It was, Bucky realized, that Steve was shaking hard enough to unbalance them both.
“Are you all right?” the Captain asked the skin on Bucky's thigh, flinching when Bucky used his fingernails to pry the dried blood out of blond hair. How had Steve even managed that, if he was wearing the cowl? “Shouldn't you be with the doctors? God, Bucky, you looked -”
“Like Captain America?” Bucky interrupted, unable to wait any longer. “Because you do.”
Steve dropped onto his heels, offered Bucky a grimace that shared space with an apologetic smile. “I couldn't get the uniform off,” he admitted, holding up his trembling hands and indicating the clasps along the shoulder.
Sighing, Bucky waited for the anger to swell, only to feel it ebb away when he stared at Steve's blue eyes, the bruises under them where the man evidently hadn't gotten any sleep. Three days, they'd had Bucky. Three days before Captain America had broken into the SSR and gone on a harebrained mission to save one forgotten, queer boy.
Steve Rogers had never let his partner down, and Bucky Barnes wasn't about to start. Even if his partner happened to be Captain America. He worked quietly on the shoulder fastenings, undid the shield harness and tugged Steve's arms clear of the sleeves before he spoke again.
“Any reason you didn't tell your partner about this, Captain?” he wondered, letting Steve gather his bandaged wrists in one large hand and press his lips to them like a benediction. Bucky couldn't muster up any of the fury he wanted to feel at being kept in the dark. The world might have spun off its axis - Bucky might have been used as a lab rat by the Germans while Steve came straight off the pages of a comic book – but here in this moldy, leaky tent, they were still Bucky and Steve. Blood-stained, mud-splattered. Men home from a battle, shaken and cold.
Blushing, Steve confessed, “Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips forbid it. They thought if you were captured, you might compromise the whole secret identity.”
Bucky thought of the chastisement Carter had tried to give Captain America, and couldn't help laughing. “Huh,” he chuckled, looking down to catch the flash of Steve's brilliant smile. “Guess she didn't figure that if I got captured you'd compromise the whole secret identity.” Steve had the good grace to appear mortified by the entire situation.
Then he rested his face back onto Bucky's thigh – and he was going to have to stop doing that real soon, because Bucky might have been drugged and tortured, but he wasn't dead – and used his unsteady fingers to doodle patterns on his sergeant's waist, circles and stars and the wings Bucky had longed for as a little boy. “I should have told you,” he said, drawing his apology into Bucky's skin. “You're my partner, and I should have told you no matter what they said.”
“Hey.” Bucky tried to haul Captain America to his feet, too tired to get mud on his clean hospital clothes and then have to change them. “It's not like I tell you about all my missions.”
He peeled the costume's chest panel down, the dismay wrenched out of his throat when he discovered that not all the blood on the Captain's uniform had belonged to Hydra's men. There was a hole between the bottom of Steve's ribcage and his hips, ragged around the edges where someone had fished the slug out again. It had stopped bleeding, for the most part, but at night in a poorly lit tent Steve's skin could have been alabaster, lifeless under the black hole fired from a gun.
Then warm hands curled over his own, and Bucky could feel Steve's pulse around his fingers and let himself breathe. “And maybe that's why I don't tell you about my missions, you dumb gorilla. You'd go and get yourself shot chasing me down!”
Steve's hands clamped down on Bucky's, hard enough to bruise. “Not any more,” he demanded. “No more solo missions, Bucky. Promise me that.”
And Bucky wanted to. Wanted to trade reassurances that he wouldn't crawl into a lab where monsters lurked, and Steve would never take off on a suicide mission without his partner and come home in a box. But -
“We're in the Army, Rogers. I can't even promise you they'll start offering real coffee at breakfast.” Steve scowled and looked away, his standard response when he knew something was true, but refused to accept it nonetheless. Rogers' determination to change the world was half the reason the brass sent Bucky out alone. They wanted to win the war, sure, but only Rogers wanted to ring in a whole new age of man.
He took his anger out on his suit and not Bucky's hands, hunching forward and ripping the costume from the waist down, collapsing backward onto his cot in blood and bruises and little else. Any other day, Bucky would have had something to say about costumes, or show girls, or taking willing young men to bed – but he was so cold, from Zola's table and the war's embrace, and the air around them was fraught with tensions Bucky did not dare to shatter.
“Pick up your feet,” Bucky told him instead, and tugged the muddy boots off when Steve obliged.
Then he shed his own shoes and climbed onto the cot, tender of his body and Steve's ribs. He nearly tumbled back onto the ground before over-heated hands caught him and shifted him unceremoniously onto a furnace of a chest. “You're hurt,” Bucky protested, burrowing into the heat pouring off Steve's body and into his frozen veins.
“Don't you dare leave me,” Steve commanded, tightening his arms across Bucky's back, making it impossible to get out of bed. Though something in Steve's tone, in the crystalline, gravid silence around them, made Bucky think Steve hadn't been talking about bed at all.
* * *
Bucky was still eighteen the next morning – or he was ninety, because what eighteen-year-old woke up with every bone aching, joints clamoring to press deeper into the giant hot water bottle plastered to his side. Steve, shockingly, stayed asleep when Bucky sat up, something that hadn't happened in over a year.
Steve slept like a child, his lips parted and face soft, trusting that he would be safe. Though the dried blood he'd forgotten to clean off yesterday tarnished that image a little. Bucky would have to go find a bucket and a rag, make sure Rogers was presentable lest he terrify the entire mess.
Steve had enough trouble making friends when he looked like a Greek god come to life. There was no point in scaring away the few acquaintances Bucky had managed to scrounge up by looking like death warmed over instead.
When Toro caught sight of him hauling the bucket back, his friend vaulted over the breakfast table – through Hemings' porridge, but that probably wasn't much of a loss – and nearly knocked Bucky off his feet with a back-slapping hug.
Bucky flinched. It had been a long time since he'd invited anyone's touch but Steve's.
“Christ on a firecracker, we thought you'd gotten chopped for sure!” his friend announced, dragging Bucky toward his squadron by one gauze-covered wrist. Bucky grit his teeth and tried to keep pace, so Toro's grip didn't tug at his wounds. “Look, you assholes! It's Lazarus Barnes!”
The other men grinned, looking genuinely pleased to see Bucky back from the dead, standing to sock him on the shoulder or shake his hand. Hemings drew “Kilroy was here” in the mush Toro had sent flying across the table, added an arrow pointing to Bucky.
Bucky sat down, stole Morita's coffee and yanked Dugan's derby down over his eyes, making the other man shout and lunge at him. He shoved down the remaining nausea when he looked at food, feeling less like he'd been drugged and more like he'd been out too late drinking with the boys. It had taken him a lifetime to reach these ranks, to wrap insults and inside jokes, pack them around cigarettes and shell boxes. To push his cap back so that it didn't cover his eyes.
“You seen Rogers yet, soldier boy?” Namor asked when the conversation lulled. The whole table quieted. It felt like the whole mess quieted, staring at Bucky Barnes.
He frowned, tensing at the sudden silence. “Sure, I've seen Steve. Hard to miss him snoring right next to me, ain't it?”
At Bucky's answer, the air around them vibrated with the weight of his squadron's dismay. Hemings used the congealing porridge to sketch a very unhappy Kilroy face. When Toro spoke, it was to his fidgeting hands. “Uh, Bucky? Steve ain't been back in your tent since you got . . .” He trailed off, found someone's spoon and started trying to carve into the table.
“Let's just say nobody's heard Rogers snore since we got back to camp the day before yesterday,” Dugan offered, spinning his hat around his left hand. “But we all heard him whaling on Phillips' door when the rest of us might've liked some goddamn sleep.”
Jim shrugged. “You know Steve,” he told Bucky, who thought of a young private marching away from Colonel Taylor without a salute. Thought of fingers pressed gently to his black eye, demanding to know who had hurt Bucky Barnes. Don't you dare leave me.
Whatever expression had dawned on Bucky's face, it made Hemings draw little hearts on the table. “Go see your bunkmate, kid,” Namor told him, clapping a bruised shoulder. “And keep him the hell away from the Colonel, unless you want to see him busted down to private for being a pain in the ass.”
“Yeah.” Bucky swallowed, coughed when it stuck in his throat. “Yeah, I'm just gonna -” He jerked his thumb back at their tent, found himself standing in front of it before he realized he hadn't told the guys goodbye.
Steve was, impossibly, still asleep. If he hadn't been flushed with health, golden hair and pink cheeks, bare chest expanding with every breath, Bucky would have thought his friend must have been deathly ill to sleep so long. He had kicked the blankets to the foot of the bed, stretched naked on his back and taken up the whole cot with his sculpted limbs.
Bucky took a moment to admire the view - relieved to see that the various bullet wounds were already knitting closed - before dropping the bucket and sloshing tepid water onto the already sodden ground.
He started at the top, dunking his hands in the water and working his fingers through Steve's hair, massaging over the blood crusted on his scalp and the dirt at his temples, until the pillow was damp and the hair on top of it was dark blond once more. Steve shifted slightly and hummed, but didn't stir. Bucky used a fingernail to clean off Steve's face, thinking of blue eyes and a bright smile under Captain America's mask. Really, he should have known all along. He'd never been comfortable with anyone else at his back, even from the first night when he'd shot those men outside Steve's quarters.
No insignia - Hydra. Shiny, non-standard weapons – laser cannons. The starry blur whirling over Bucky's head. Good god. Maybe the Major had beaten all the smarts out of Bucky years ago, if it had taken Steve shaking in Captain America's boots for him to put it all together.
He switched to the rag when he started on Steve's chest, twisting it clean after every swipe. The water turned a dirty, darkened rose, sediment sinking to the bottom of the bucket. Bucky never had much time to sit and admire the muscles of Rogers' chest, the corded strength in his forearms, the bulk of his biceps and the definition at his waist. And he'd certainly never gotten to enjoy the view while Steve wasn't wearing anything at all.
Not that they were never naked together. They shared a tent, and the Army was hardly the place for modesty. But normally when Steve was naked, they were both in the showers and Bucky was hopping from foot to foot demanding the soap and bitching about how damn cold the water was, as if the goddamn rain every day weren't hell enough. Or they'd been shouted out of their bunk sometime after midnight, and they were too busy trying to throw on their uniforms without tripping over a pant leg and ending up swallowed by the mud.
The blood running down Steve's stomach, toward the thatch of hair around his flaccid penis and onto the creases at the top of his thighs – all that blood came from the bullet he'd taken to the stomach, shot point blank just to make it to Bucky's side.
It was harder to appreciate finally getting his hands near Steve Rogers' dick when his eyes wouldn't focus through the tears. “Goddamn fucking idiot,” Bucky whispered, furious at the amount of red flaking off under his hands, fingers gentle despite his anger. “Stupid fucker, trying to get Captain America killed. You think this was worth your life, pal? Huh?” He didn't bother to gesture back at himself, back through the years – the centuries, the months, the never-ending rain – to the team mascot Steve had first met, the boy looking for a warm body and a bed from under his cap.
“Yeah, I do,” a voice said, off to Bucky's left, quiet and hoarse with sleep. When he jerked his head up, he found cornflower blue eyes boring through him. Steve didn't shift at all under Bucky's hands, even though they were threaded through pubic hair that was still caked with red. “I think you're the best in the Army.” Oh. Bucky pulled his hands away, shook off the hurt welling up in his lungs. He was a crack shot, and a good spy. That was -
“I think you're worth more than anything in the world, Bucky Barnes,” Steve huffed, pulling Bucky's stiff arms and tense muscles against his chest. They both winced when Bucky's elbow caught Steve's bruised ribs and Steve accidentally knocked one of Bucky's manacle-chafed wrists into the metal frame of the cot. Bucky's face ended up close enough to feel Steve's stale breath on his lips, inches from unblinking blue eyes gone almost violet in the tent's olive haze. “Whether that's Captain America's secret identity or a promotion to tactical -”
“You got offered a promotion?” Bucky shrieked, balling his hands into fists. “I'm gonna kill Phillips!”
“Get in line,” Steve returned darkly, squeezing tighter around Bucky's chest, gaze going haunted and distant to Hydra labs and steel tables layered with chains. “The point is, Buck, that I can't think of anything more important -”
“Maybe not getting shot? That's important, Rogers.”
“I am going to dump you in the mud,” Steve threatened, rolling a little to the side as if to drop Bucky off the cot. And Bucky wasn't certain that wouldn't be a better idea. Wasn't certain that he could stand hearing the things Steve Rogers said, because his best friend was too earnest and far too stupidly brave. “I am trying to tell you that I love you, you miscreant, if you would shut your trap for five seconds and listen!”
Bucky's mouth went dry. Possibly because it had swung open, like a screen door in the New Jersey wind. Steve flushed a deep red, uneven splotches obscuring the freckles scattered over his face. “What?” Bucky croaked, trying to speak over the roaring in his ears. “Why?”
Steve had the indecency to roll his eyes and laugh at Bucky's paralysis, though his smile was soft, and seemed to shine from the blue of his eyes. “Because you never shut your mouth,” he answered, chuckling, warm hands sliding up Bucky's back and carding through his hair. “Because you were the only one on base who treated me like a human being. Because you can't score a baseball game to save your life, and you steal the popcorn when you think I'm not looking. Because you're beautiful with a rifle in your hands, and we've been sleeping on this narrow bunk for how long now, Buck, so don't tell me you haven't cottoned on.”
“I'm beginning to think,” Bucky replied, the words sounding miles away from his ringing ears, “that I might be a little slow.” He coughed, looking away from Steve's tongue flicking over perfect, pink lips. “So, best friends, right?” Because there was no use in getting his hopes up. He was young, but he had never been as naïve as Rogers.
“You're making the hooligans at Army intelligence look intelligent,” Steve groused, sliding to the side and sitting up, leaving Bucky cold. He kept his bare feet off the ground, digging through the covers at the end of the bed and surfacing with the slightly battered sketchbook they'd forgotten to move the night before. “Here.” He passed it over, blushing all the way down his chest. If Bucky had been capable of stringing together thoughts he might have done more than take the book and stare at it, but he felt as if he had jumped out of a plane without a parachute, the wind chafing his face, words spinning by too fast to grasp.
The first sketch was Bucky at what might have been sixteen, leaning back against the sun-drenched wall of a barracks in New Jersey: skinny arms folded and one knee bent, boot flat against the wall, face hidden under the edge of his cap. The way he had stood for years, waiting for the newest batch of recruits. Waiting for PFC Rogers – Captain America – to walk onto the base, to pull him out of the shadows of Lehigh and into the war. He hadn't known Steve had noticed him then, loitering on base before they'd met. The next sketch was in pen, not charcoal: Bucky stretched out on a hilltop, his old rifle in his hands.
There were other drawings – Phillips offering Hitler a teddy bear, Carter's arms akimbo, face pulled into a gorgeous scowl, their friends prodding mournfully at lumps of congealed cereal meant to be served hot – but they were scattered around pages filled with Bucky's face. Bucky getting broader in the shoulders. Bucky sleeping, hand stretched across the cot for a human furnace who wasn't there. Bucky in his sergeant's uniform, listing the supplies they were going to need for Lt. Rogers' next run. Bucky looking fierce and distant, more terrifying than he could imagine himself, a knife in his hand. Bucky grinning behind a fan of playing cards, each line of his face mapped out with care, from the curl that never flattened out of his hair to the cleft in his chin. Drawn as though someone wanted to capture every moment on his face, to keep each memory safe. Drawn as though he were loved.
“Steve,” he said, voice cracking on the name, running his hands unsteadily over the page.
“I told you,” Steve replied, his eyes impossibly fond.
“But,” Bucky stuttered, his eyes going unwillingly to the patch of mud where he'd been turned away. He could still feel the cold, squelching soil under his knees, his heart cracking like the bridge of his nose under a boy's angry fist.
“You didn't know I was Captain America then,” Steve answered his silence, tugging the drawings out from under Bucky's fingers and tossing the book onto the other bed. “And, besides, I didn't want you to do it just because you were grateful, or you felt obligated.” His spine straightened, gaze a little wild under golden hair drying in dandelion tufts. “I still don't want – I mean, if you were just doing it because -”
“Army intelligence,” Bucky interrupted, shaking his head, unable to stop the smile taking over his face, his cheeks still too round. And then his brain finally caught up to the fact that Steve Rogers was naked and sitting less than a foot away. That Steve Rogers loved James Buchanan Barnes. He thought his lip might split, he was grinning so wide. “You want to know what else I'm best at, in the Army?” he asked, leaning in and raking his eyes up from Steve's chest to where he was biting down on his lip, eyes dark.
“Fuck, yes,” Steve breathed, hands shaking and skin radiating heat.
“Playing poker,” he declared, fighting to keep his voice steady and his face straight, to keep his gaze from dropping to bitten, gorgeous lips. “No one around who plays a better hand of cards in the whole Army.” His hands betrayed him, curving around Steve Rogers' waist, keeping the touch light so close to healing wounds.
Steve's laugh came in puffs of air against Bucky's face. “You,” the blond man said, leaning in to kiss Bucky's chin, his cheekbones, his right eyebrow, “are a terrible poker player. Not to mention an awful cheat, and a tease.”
“You love it,” Bucky shot back, shivering with each press of Steve's lips, giving in and laughing when Steve kissed the edge of his smile.
“Yeah,” Steve admitted, laying on his side and tugging Bucky down next to him, both of them grinning like fools. “I do.” And on a narrow bed in an Army base, Bucky found the boy he'd been looking for all along.
* * *
He was twenty. He would never have a chance to be twenty. One moment they'd been racing up the coast – in the rain, of course, because everything in England happened in the rain, keeping all their clothes damp and on one memorable occasion, collecting in a puddle that burst through the tent roof and slammed into Bucky's back just as he gasped his orgasm against Steve's lips, completely enveloped by Steve's incandescent heat.
They were racing up the coast, Bucky clinging to Steve's waist while Captain America took turns too fast in the rain, nearly skidding off the road because Baron Zemo had gotten control of the drone plane. Because Zemo would aim for the triumphant Allied troops, men like Toro and Hemings who were weeks away from surviving almost half a decade of war.
Bucky still ached from Zemo's torture hours before, ligature marks scored into his wrists. Steve's blond hair looked muddy in the rain, flattened against his skull without the cowl to keep it dry. He had thrown his pea coat over Bucky's shoulders as they ran for the bike, bit his lip when he gazed at his sergeant's bruised jaw and black eye.
“Partners,” Bucky reminded him, spitting blood and saliva into the endless, misty rain and climbing onto the bike before Steve could try to tell him no. Steve's black eyes were already fading, his nose only slightly swollen where Zemo had broken it that morning.
“We are going to use every towel on base, when we get home,” he mumbled into Steve's back, molding himself to the familiar planes of muscle under shoulder blades, pressing his thighs over the steel of Steve's own so that they moved like one person around the treacherous curves. Steve couldn't hear him over the engine and the wind and the rain firing at them like so many watery needles into their skin, but Bucky kept talking anyway. “Because I haven't been dry in weeks. Damn Zemo. And the Red Skull. And England. I'm not hugging you with wet clothes ever again, Rogers.”
“You're hugging me now, Buck,” Steve shouted, then swung right and made the motorcycle tilt dangerously low to the ground. “Get ready. Plane's almost in the air.” Bucky looked up, and there it was. Lumbering off the runway with the bomb, dark gray and foreboding and every ending they didn't want for this war. “Can you make the jump?” Captain America asked, military authority settling into his broad shoulders and tensing through his spine, aiming their bike down the runway, swerving to avoid Zemo's goons.
“Best in the Army!” Bucky retorted, pulling himself up and shedding the coat, balancing one foot on the seat and one on Steve's shoulder, his left hand buried in wet blond hair. And they were the best in the Army. Captain America and his sergeant, their names a curse through the Axis ranks. So good that it seemed like the war Bucky had waited for years ago in Jersey might finally end.
“Go!” the Captain commanded, and Bucky leaped. He caught the edge of the starboard wing as Steve gunned the bike and stood for his own jump. Bucky didn't have time to watch him, scrambling forward on the slick, metal surface to where the bomb was wired to the center of the plane.
When Steve landed on port side, the shift in weight nearly threw Bucky off the plane. He groped for a handhold, sliding half off the wing and catching too long a glimpse of the receding English coast below.
“Shit!” Steve exclaimed, already up and examining the wiring as Bucky struggled to pull himself back onto the plane, cold metal against his chest and wind tearing over his skin, pushing him closer to the fall. “We have to get off this plane.” He was barely audible, even upwind of Bucky and shouting as loud as his expansive lungs allowed. “I don't know what Zemo did, but this detonator isn't stable at all. It'll never make it to Europe – but it might kill us now.”
A week before, when Roosevelt died and the Red Skull put Bucky in the hospital, Steve had asked what they should do when the war ended. What Bucky wanted to do, as if a boy who had spent his life on Army bases had any idea what to do with the end of a war. “Spend the whole day in bed,” he'd decided, frustrated that he couldn't cajole Steve into the uncomfortable hospital cot with him. “And have real coffee, with sugar. And pancakes.”
“Big plans,” Steve had teased him, the worry almost vanishing from his crinkled eyes, until he remembered the bullet through Bucky's left shoulder. “Got any other ideas – since we still need to fill about sixty years after that day in bed?”
Live, Bucky thought now, as he tried to wriggle backwards against the wind, stopped by the searing pain through his left side. His left arm was twisted awkwardly from where it had snagged when Steve leaped on, wrist caught fast somewhere under the edge of the wing. He gave a fruitless tug, and bit through his lip to stifle the scream as the pain shot through his left shoulder. Not everyone healed as quickly as Captain America did.
“Bucky?” Steve had gotten closer, worked his way over onto Bucky's wing, bruised face nearly level with Bucky's right side. “Did you hear me?” He followed Bucky's gaze to the black, white-capped waters of the English Channel, and set his jaw. “Okay, that's not ideal, but we'll just hang onto each other. I should be able to keep us afloat for a little while.” He tried to smile, lips stretched obscenely wide by the wind. “You always say I give off more heat than a bomb, anyhow.”
Bucky could feel the blood soaking through his left shoulder, his whole arm seizing with pain, his wrist and sleeve still hopelessly trapped out of sight under the wing. Steve might be able to see what was wrong, to unfasten Bucky's arm from Zemo's plane. But Steve had said the bomb could go off any second. Maybe Captain America could survive the English Channel, but he couldn't survive an explosion less than three feet away. He had to get Steve off the plane. He had to keep his partner safe.
“Bucky? Is something wrong?”
He shook his head, tried to swallow the pain. “Nah. Let's go. Here, we'll hold hands and jump.” He stuck out his right hand, twined his numb fingers through Steve's warm ones. It was the weakest hold anyone could suggest, fingers and palms nowhere near enough to sustain Captain America's strong grip. It was how Bucky laced their hands when Steve took him on their tiny cot, arms pinned above his head while Steve pushed into Bucky with a soft groan, his face yearning and open, impossibly fond.
Steve smiled, kissed Bucky's cold fingers. “Good idea, partner. All right, on three. Ready? One, two -”
“I love you,” Bucky whispered, the wind forcing tears from his eyes, his words lost under the roar of the engines, the rising storm and Steve's count to “three!”
He let Steve's momentum carry them both into the air, his unnatural warmth rising through Bucky's right palm and the back of his hand. He waited until his left wrist caught, snagged on cold metal and hot, fresh pain tore him between the drone above him and the man below. Then he let go.
The explosion ricocheted through his body like a rifle shot. Like the war. Nothing at all like steady fingers hooked around his own, like a hopeful young soldier wrapped in his own coltish arms, murmuring his name.
* * *
He is timeless. Ageless. He has no need of a past – born out of the ice into a new present, given instructions to shape the future. He exists only in this moment, in the exhale before he makes his kill.
He exists to end this moment, to bring it a quick death and a cold embrace. This is enough. This is all he knows, all he needs to know. The tendons in a wrist to flip a knife from its sheath, to sever when an opponent comes too close. The clench of his thighs around a gasping throat, the penetration of a bullet through a man's spine.
Then Captain America came. Three bullets ricocheting off the lurid shield, an affectation from the past, an outdated memento in a changing world. One bullet perfectly placed through the Captain's spine, the sight of a gaping wound below protected ribs familiar in a way it should not have been.
Blood, soaking through torn, star-spangled fabric – the Soldier dropped his weapon. Stared at his right hand, wondering why it shook. Wondering why he knew the Captain's skin would be over-heated, a raging fire against his own, his muscles and arteries barely thawed.
“Bucky,” the Captain gasped, staggering to his feet with the Cosmic Cube he should not have had. The Captain had come for him once, in a past the Soldier should not have known. The Captain had made the world bleed so that he could reach the Soldier's side.
“Bucky, please, oh God, please. Remember who you are.”
It was easy, to overpower Steve Rogers. Easy, for a trained assassin, for a boy who had been knocked on his ass every day at Camp Lehigh. It took no effort at all to wrest the Cube from his hands, the Captain's grip already weakening as the blood pumped from his wounds.
And it was easy to wish himself away, because he wanted more than anything to be gone. To be out of Captain America's sight, to remove the Winter Soldier's ugly stain from the world.
But it still burned like wrenching pain down his left arm – like an explosion, like the ice – to leave Steve Rogers behind.
* * *
He might have been ninety when Iron Man began to look for him. He might have been fifteen outside the officers' quarters at Lehigh, seventeen and too young for the war he was fighting, blood on his hands, twenty and hanging from the wing of a plane – he might have been any of those boys, all of them equally incapable of watching Steve Rogers die.
Iron Man, with his electronic eyes everywhere, found him in London. He hadn't made it particularly difficult for the man, sitting next to a bank security camera with four bottles of vodka and a carton of cigarettes.
The cigarettes were to pass the time until Tony Stark came. The vodka was for everything else.
He shattered the bottles on Tony's head after ripping off the Iron Man mask with his left hand. Then he wrapped chilled, unyielding fingers around Stark's throat, because Sharon Carter might have fired the gun, but it was Stark's damn Registration Act that had killed stupid, naïve, hopeful Captain America.
“Wait!” the engineer gasped, gagging as Bucky crushed his windpipe. Steve had once massacred a Hydra base to save his partner, brought down an army for Bucky Barnes. He should have left Bucky there, the way Bucky had taken the Cube and fled, leaving Steve to be shot to death at City Hall.
Bucky couldn't save Steve now, but he could leave the corpses of Steve's enemies cooling in his wake.
Iron Man waved a piece of paper in his robotic grip, too weak to shout. Bucky plucked the sheet out of the man's grasp with his right hand, fingers tightening on Stark's racing pulse when he looked down and saw that it wasn't paper, but a photograph.
An old, black and white photograph, tattered around the edges and worn thin where fingertips had held the corners for too long. A picture of Steven Grant Rogers in his dress uniform, face bright with laughter, looking to his left. Beside him, a dark-haired teen sat in an unstarched white shirt that swam on his scrawny shoulders and flopped over his wrists. The boy gestured wildly with his hands, elbowed Steve when he started giggling and ruined the whole thing.
“Bubble gum!” the boy had been saying, to an unamused Colonel and Agent who weren't in the frame. “Don't you understand, we should be dropping bubble gum, not bombs! What with rationing, I'll bet they'd sell their country for a bag of sweets. I'll bet St- Lt. Rogers would even fly the plane.”
“Of course I would,” Rogers had agreed, once he'd stopped laughing at the expression on Phillips' face. “And then when we land, Jones can bring his trumpet and our troops can get together with the Axis forces for a few hands of cards and a dance.”
They had just arrived in England, then. Bucky had not yet known that Steve was Captain America; had yet to learn how it felt to have blood stained through the skin of his hands or Steve pounding into his body and through his veins.
“What the hell is this?” Bucky asked Stark, loosening the choking grip to allow the other man to speak. He could kill the superhero after he got answers. Before he had killed men for the Red Room, he had killed them for Steve – had killed them because Steve wouldn't, good man that he was.
“Captain America's last wishes,” Tony wheezed, resting his head against the bank's concrete wall.
“He wanted you to give me an old photograph?” Bucky replied, forcing his attention from the thought that Steve had made his last wish. Blown out all the candles on the cakes they'd never had, and left Bucky alone in the cold.
Let's spend the whole day in bed, Bucky had wished in 1945. Steve had told him to fill the next sixty years, and Bucky had filled them with death, blood, and pain while Steve's unnaturally warm skin had frozen in the sea.
“He wanted me to 'save Bucky Barnes,'” Stark corrected, rubbing at his neck when Bucky let go. Tony could have been lying, but saving Bucky Barnes was something Steve had done a thousand times. From the outskirts of the barracks at Camp Lehigh, Bucky's foot pressed to the wall and cap pulled low. From a Hydra plant, decked out in stars and rage. From Bucky himself, with a tesseract that was supposed to shred mortal men's souls, wishing fervently to bring his partner home. Steve had thought saving Bucky was worth any sacrifice he could make.
“Why would you bother?” Bucky stepped away from Stark, twisting closer to the nearest street lamp, metal finger tracing Steve's grin. “You don't owe me anything.”
“I really, really don't,” Howard Stark's son agreed hoarsely, glowering at the hand Bucky had put around his throat. “But I owe Steve a debt. And I know you do, too.”
Bucky snorted at the gravitas in the man's voice. Stark thought he could make men sign away their freedom with speeches, that his slick, cynical drawl could bring men and women to their feet sounding their applause. He had nothing on Steve Rogers, who had faith in the American flag and the American dream and a whole host of values that even a fifteen-year-old boy knew better than to believe. Faith that Stark and the government had shattered when they tried to tag Captain America like a dog, and then shot him down.
“You don't know anything,” he said, because it was true. Stark didn't know that Steve woke up before dawn, that he sat cross-legged with his sketchpad and Bucky's feet in his lap to keep them warm, that he made terrible puns and even worse coffee. He didn't know how it felt to have Steve muffle the shout of Bucky's name in the crook of his arm, his release pulsing over Bucky's fingers to the same rhythm that his muscles followed around Bucky's cock, tight and hot and perfect. Stark didn't know what it was to be Steve Rogers' partner in a war, to guard his back and have his trust.
Apparently clever enough to notice that his speeches wouldn't sway Bucky, Tony switched tactics. “I know Rogers' other last wish was that 'Captain America' live on.” He actually lifted Iron Man's metal fingers to make air quotes. Bucky considered strangling him, eyeing him from beneath tangled hair that sometimes felt like the safety of an old Army cap, brim tugged over his pale, searching eyes. “And are you really going to let someone else put on Steve's suit? Hold his shield?”
Bucky growled. Steve's suit belonged under his fingers, undoing finicky clasps and rows of buttons and layers of armor when Captain America's hands shook too badly to do it on his own. Armor that had done nothing at all when the Winter Soldier had made a flawless shot through his spine.
“That's what I thought,” Tony said, sounding smug. “So I figure we solve all these problems at once. You don't commit suicide by vodka – or murder by vodka bottle, that fucking hurt – come on back to the States, and dress up like a giant American flag to fight evil and injustice in the world.”
Steve had been proud of Bucky, once. You're the best in the Army. Proud, and worried, and in love. The Bucky that might have deserved Steve's pride, if not his love, had died over the English Channel, dangling from the wing of a plane. But the Bucky Barnes that wanted to deserve Steve lived every day, trying to control his thoughts and organize his jumbled, blood-stained memories. Trying to exist. Stepping in front of a train would be easy, but Steve had asked him to remember, and so it didn't matter that remembering was hard, that it left him in brittle pieces scattered over continents and under seas.
“I won't support your Registration Act,” he warned Tony, tucking the photograph into the inside pocket of his leather jacket. “I won't ask people to document their weaknesses so that the government can gun them down.”
“No, I didn't think you would.” Stark didn't seem surprised, bending to fetch the Iron Man head from a sidewalk littered with broken glass and old chewing gum. “I'm not sure you should, Barnes, if you really want to know. Come on, it's a long flight home.” He slid the helmet on, and Bucky hooked his arms over Iron Man's shoulders as they shot up into the night.
* * *
He was still however old he had become, perhaps a year older, seventy years from the day that he and Steve had never gotten to waste in bed, when Natalia came through the fire escape of the apartment in Chicago. He was there for the moment, fighting the city's demons before heading on, the shield strapped to his back and Steve's motorcycle between his thighs, taking curves too fast in the Midwest's frozen rain. Stark had apartments all over the country, and Captain America had been designed to fight injustice by an optimistic man with a blinding smile and an unhealthy fondness for hot dogs and Dodgers games and Bucky Barnes.
Bucky had never had Steve's hope, had never been that young, but he had decades of suffering to pay back. He had eons of vengeance, because evil had stolen Steve Rogers' laughter from the world and there could be no recompense for that.
“I know you've heard the rumors,” Natalia said, tousling the snow from her fiery hair and settling on his couch like a sphinx, the tantalizing hint of a riddle and the threat of plummeting from a cliff into the sea.
“I am the rumors,” he told her, handing over the bottle of vodka he had been steadily working his way through, staying by the window to finish his cigarette. “Captain America being alive doesn't make Steve any less dead.” Thor had cut the power in every grid, on the anniversary of Steve's death. A minute of silence in an electronic world that neither Bucky nor Steve had been meant to see. Sixty seconds of darkness – the feeling of fingers twined through his own, slipping from his grasp and into the black, frothing ocean below.
“You know it's more than that,” Natalia said, tilting the bottle up, her delicate throat working as she swallowed more than her fair share. “It's not just bloggers talking, James. Sam swears up and down that there's something to it, and you know how close he and Rogers were.”
“I know how it feels, to wish Captain America were not dead,” he cut her down in Russian, letting the language emphasize his words.
He also knew what sort of boy Sam Wilson was, could have culled him from a row of new recruits when he was only fifteen, slouching under the eaves of an Army bunker in a scorching Jersey heat. Wilson wished Steve Rogers alive because the bed was too empty with him gone.
Bucky wanted to hate Wilson for that, but he could only produce a handful of envy that slipped like sand through his fingers at the thought of Steve being alone. PFC Rogers had known every man on base, but only the queer Army mascot had been keen on meeting Steve.
“Pym is here,” he told her, because she was dressed in black, her gauntlets on and her eyes like glass. Because she was spoiling for a fight, and he'd rather have her at his side than wielding Steve's death like a blade against his unprotected chest. He lit a fresh cigarette, hefted the shield off the floor with a metal thumb through one strap. “If you'd like to tag along.”
She finished the bottle, depositing it with a clink on the pile he'd accumulated by the door. Twisted her neck to work the kinks out, and accepted the balaclava he handed her. They had both seen too much winter – and if they hadn't grown to hate the killing, they'd at least learned to hate the snow.
“What if they're not just rumors?” she asked, a shadow as they crept across the city and through the night. “What if Sam's right, and he's not gone?”
Stark had thrown together Bucky's costume, muted the colors into funereal tones, the white dim, the red darker than rust, the blue almost black even under the sparkling snowy lights on the streets. Captain America might not be dead, but Steve Rogers had gone and leeched the color from the world, taken the hope out of the fight and left only vengeance behind. “And if they are true?” he answered, vanishing into an alley and leaving Pym's scout unconscious by the hidden door. “What does that change?”
Natalia's expression was obscured by her mask and the dark, but Bucky had worked with her long enough to know when she had called him an idiot without using any words. He held up one finger, then slammed the shield down on the door handle, both of them spinning into the room with their guns raised.
But what did it change? Steve Rogers was Captain America, head of the Avengers and role model to the youth, trusted by the President and the X-Men and gods of all varieties. Bucky hadn't seen him in years, hadn't been his partner in almost a century. Dead or alive, Steve was too far away for Bucky to reach.
* * *
The Falcon found him in Dallas, though he used the front door and not the fire escape. Given that it was two hundred degrees in the shade, Bucky didn't blame him for staying away from the red-hot iron grating.
Wilson was sweating through his t-shirt and jeans, wearing flip-flops and holding an equally sweaty case of beer, as though he'd known that the door would be unlocked. The Dodgers were playing the Nationals on Stark's majestic TV, an empty scorecard pinned to the coffee table with a knife.
Bucky was sprawled across the leather couch under the air conditioning vent, stripped down to his briefs, hair tied up to keep it off of his neck. He'd called up a Stark screen in the space beside him, and was scrolling through news feeds that might demand Captain America's help, the game playing in the background like the sound of a radio in New Jersey, two soldiers laying on the cement floor of a bunker to try and escape the summer heat.
“Clearly I'm overdressed,” Wilson announced, stripping off his shirt and mopping his forehead with it before tossing it over one shoulder. He walked into the kitchen without waiting for Barnes to respond.
He came back with four beers, already halfway through his first. Set two on the coffee table, handed Bucky one through the electronic images of a tornado in Oklahoma, a school shooting in Vermont. Brown eyes didn't linger when they glanced over the scarring that started above Bucky's left nipple and ridged in swirls and striations until smooth metal cut off the patch of anguished flesh. Bucky had never been sure if the scars came from the admantium arm or from the Red Skull's bullet and the wrenching fall from a plane.
“Running away to Oklahoma next?” Sam inquired, collapsing into a chair and pointing his drink at the opaque pictures between them. Bucky pinched his fingers and dismissed the images, rearranging himself onto a freshly chilled section of the couch, keeping the Falcon in his sights.
“Doing my job,” he countered, pressing the cold bottle to his face. “I'm America's mascot, hadn't you heard?”
“And that's why we haven't seen you in America's capital since you first put on that damn suit? I know Nat's been keeping you up to date, so you must know we've made contact with him.” Sam looked pained, staring too hard at the top of his beer. “If we can just figure out a way to get him back into his body -” He broke off and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You should be helping us, not hiding out here trying to stop turf wars that even Captain America can't end.”
Bucky was excellent with gangs. He knew how it felt, to be fourteen and own nothing but a gun, looking for a fight or a fuck to pass the time until you found yourself on the front lines of the war.
“You're his partner.” Captain America and the Falcon, teaming up to fight crime. And he could hate Sam for that, because it had been Wilson's job to watch Steve Rogers' back, and Steve had died. Bucky hated everyone who had ever let Steve down. But Sam's name didn't even make the top five, and the autograph at the top of that list was in an Army brat's messy scrawl.
“Oh, hell no.” Wilson's empty arced gracefully into the recycling bin by the door, crashing into the stack of bottles already inside. “I'm his partner? What, was that memory regeneration you got a temporary thing?”
The Dodgers scored a home run, and for a moment the apartment was filled with cheering from Los Angeles and the hum of the air conditioner.
“Look, Barnes. I understand that you had a bad time of it.” Bucky raised one eyebrow, and didn't smile when Sam chuckled at his own ridiculous understatement. “All right, yeah, I understand that you had possibly the world's shittiest POW experience ever. That you've changed.
“But, man, Steve watched you blow up. It's the last thing he remembers, he says, diving into the Channel after your body without bothering to hold his breath. He's spent years learning about how the government's gotten bigger and meaner, gone on the run from guys he thought were his friends. You think he hasn't changed?”
Captain America, with his blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, standing in handcuffs on the steps of City Hall. Standing up for what was right and refusing to do the jobs that Bucky had done, because he hadn't believed that a war should be won at any cost. Steve Rogers hadn't changed at all.
The Dodgers were ahead by three runs. Bucky drew a three on the scorecard, probably in the wrong box, and doodled a pair of wings.
Sam sighed, as though Bucky was being purposefully obtuse, and settled into his second beer. “I am,” the pilot declared, “an excellent best friend. Hell, I'm a damn fine lover. Not that I'm offering!” he inserted hastily, when Bucky raised both eyebrows and arched off the couch, serpentine and slow. “But it hasn't been like that between me and Steve for awhile now.” And Sam didn't say how long, didn't say anything about the Winter Soldier or tesseracts or a bullet in Captain America's spine, but Bucky had been trained to read faces by the cruelest, cleverest men on both sides of a long war.
“Even if it was still like that,” Sam continued, as though they were talking baseball scores and not how it felt to have Steve Rogers come apart under their hands, “do you think it would matter? My name wasn't the only one he shouted in bed – just the one he shouted when he was awake.” He shrugged, as though it really didn't matter. In four years of gruesome war that left them both shaking, Steve's nightmares had only ever made him hold Bucky too tight and plead his name until Bucky gathered him in and pulled him out of his dreams. Bucky. Remember who you are.
“Besides, I'm dating Sharon now.” The knife thudded into the chair next to Sam's ear, more an expression of disbelief than a threat. Wilson studied Barnes' boxer-briefs, trying to figure out where the assassin had managed to hide a throwing knife.
“Sharon?” he demanded, on his feet. “She killed him.” Because the super-soldier serum could apparently heal one gunshot through the spine, to the stomach, but not even a man at the peak of his abilities could survive three shots to the heart. Bucky Barnes had been making those kills for decades. Then he had looked through the scope at Captain America, and missed.
“She wasn't the one calling the shots, right then. She'd been hypnotized – brainwashed, whatever you want to call it. I know that.” Sam paused, spun the half-empty bottle between his palms, leaning forward in his chair. “Steve knows that, too,” he added, and Bucky rolled his eyes. Sam had never seen Bucky peel blood-soaked gloves from his shaking hands, had never sketched his face in battle fury and the reflection of a knife. Steve knew every inch of Bucky's face, when he tugged the brim of his cap over his eyes or forced a blade between another man's ribs.
“Steve called shots,” he pointed out, polishing off his second drink in a few swallows and heading to the refrigerator for more.
“You modeling those underwear,” Sam called after him, “or can you put on some pants before I come in mine?” Bucky smiled, turning his face so Sam couldn't see, though the Falcon probably knew. This intrusive, irreverent man would have been a good best friend to Steve. Bucky detoured to the bedroom, threw on the baggiest pair of sweatpants he could find and a black cotton t-shirt.
When he came back out and offered Sam his beer, the Falcon studied him from the feet up, exhaling in theatrical relief. “Thank god. Not that you're not all that, but I think sleeping with one of Steve's exes is enough.”
“You superheroes are more incestuous than the Army,” Bucky told him, drawing stars in all the boxes for errors. Wishing for Steve's odd sketches of Dugan as Babe Ruth, Namor tossing second base into the Atlantic and stealing third.
“Man, you should've joined the Air Force instead. Plenty of incest there, let me tell you.” The Nationals finally pulled a double play, and Sam whooped, throwing both arms into the air and spilling his beer.
“Sorry,” he said, when he noticed Bucky in a crouch across the room, a gun in his right hand, knife in his left. “Loud noises set me off, too. Readjustment's a bitch.” He kept talking, about the VA and therapy and nothing at all, as though an assassin tensed and shaking on the floor wasn't cause for alarm, or disgrace.
“What I don't understand,” he said, once Bucky was back on the couch and sipping slowly from his drink, “is that if you know Steve doesn't have a problem with killing when it needs to be done, and you know that he can tell the difference between people who choose to follow orders and people who aren't given the choice – if you know all of this shit, why you didn't let him find you years ago?”
Sam was too kind to add, “Why you didn't have his back when he died,” but Bucky figured they could hate each other for letting Steve down. It made for a good distraction from hating themselves.
Apparently, Sam didn't know that Steve had found Bucky accidentally, in the Carpathians where Bucky was tracking Lukin and Steve was fighting the Red Skull (because there were millions of new people on the planet, but Fate had nothing better to do than throw the same villains and heroes and sidekicks onto the wheel and spin).
Steve's back was broad, rippling with muscles even under the star-spangled suit, a target no one could miss. So the Winter Soldier had slipped into the vulnerable space between Captain America's shoulder blades that Bucky Barnes had once filled perfectly, able to predict Rogers' every move and still have time to sneak to the roof and take down the cowards running away from Captain America's fight.
It had been a disaster.
The Winter Soldier went high when Bucky Barnes would have gone low, too used to being an undersized boy on his stomach with a gun. He went left and nearly got his arm severed again, this time by a shield. Steve went on defense after the Skull scored a lucky hit to Barnes' thigh, when it was Captain America's job to take offense and kill the crazy demon stealing the Cosmic Cube, and how was Bucky supposed to protect someone who was busy trying to protect him? Eventually, the Red Skull must have taken pity on them and escaped.
They had stood there, for a moment, in the desolation of a bunker from their last war. Awkward and distant, the foot of space between them frozen with miscommunications and regrets. There had never been any space, between Bucky and Steve.
“Can I?” Steve had asked, leaving the shield embedded in a far wall and gesturing at the Soldier's skin. Bucky thought he wanted to check the sluggishly bleeding thigh wound that had thrown the fight, pulled his hand away only to find himself wrapped in solid, over-heated arms.
He had tensed. Kept his own arms at his sides, clinging to the weapons sheathed at his hips. He didn't rest his head on Steve's shoulder, or press his shaking hands to Steve's skin.
“God, Bucky, I've missed you so much. I've missed you so much.” Steve's voice cracked, soft and broken by Bucky's ear, and the metal arm creaked under the strain of a super-soldier's warm embrace.
Tentatively, he had raised his hands to Steve's back, to the vulnerable places along his spine. “Come home,” Captain America begged, gloved fingers bruising through black kevlar and into flesh.
The Winter Soldier had no home. He had slept in a cryo chamber, had eaten the food left unfinished under corpses' hands. He had slept on a narrow bunk in a tent that reeked of damp gear and rotting canvas, while he listened to the steady drip of the rain and the beat of a man's heart.
Captain America's lungs were under his fingers, the scars where he had been shot rescuing Bucky Barnes. Where the Winter Soldier had shot him, with orders to kill.
“I can't,” Bucky cried brokenly, wrenching away from the post-battle hug and trying to drill into his temples with fingers made of admantium and flesh. “I can't.”
Steve – foolishly hopeful – had reached for the Soldier's trembling hands, as though he could save a deadly killer the way he had used a baseball glove and an empty cot and a trusting smile to save an angry boy at Camp Lehigh. Hadn't given up until the Soldier had left him unconscious on the concrete floor, and fled the memories of blood and bullets under the American flag.
There was a difference between knowing Steve forgave him, and being able to forgive himself.
“Who said it has anything to do with Steve?” he asked Wilson, letting the beer form a ring of condensation on the scorecard as the Nationals tied the score at the top of the ninth.
“Man,” the Falcon replied, utterly unconvinced by the Winter Soldier's insouciance. “When does it not?”
Bucky watched the Dodgers play, watched Captain America's new teammate go for more beer, pass by the shield propped against the wall – a print of young Lt. Rogers and Sgt. Barnes etched inside – and admitted Sam Wilson might have a point.
* * *
He had just turned a hundred when Steve Rogers came back from the dead. (Well, he might've, it wasn't like the Army wanted to know how old he'd been when they'd sacrificed him to the war, and one hundred was a nice, round number.) It happened in DC, at some secure SHIELD location with superheroes traveling in from the four corners of the earth as though it were a christening. Steve Rogers reborn.
Bucky took down Omega Red in San Diego and destroyed a bank of televisions playing the SHIELD confirmation of Steve's existence just because he could. Then Doctor Doom was sighted in Oregon, and Captain America ended up in Canada for a stretch while Steve Rogers recovered from the years he'd spent dead, surrounded by the Falcon and Iron Man and Wolverine. The President came by to pay her respects. If Bucky replayed the news stories, if he tilted his head down and watched Steve's face from under the fall of his hair – well, his Captain America didn't have any partners there to see.
He wound up in one of Stark's safe houses in New York, the promised land for a fifteen-year-old boy who couldn't make it out of New Jersey. The city was as close as he was willing to get to DC, and he'd wanted to leave the shield somewhere it would be easy to find. The real Captain America had returned from the grave, and it was time for the Winter Soldier to hang up the costume and head back into the night.
When Natalia dropped out of the fireplace he was already packed, clothes in a ratty knapsack, uniform folded neatly in the shield's sloping concavity where it rested on the coffee table. The motorcycle keys stayed in his pocket, because Bucky Barnes could leave Steve to the people who deserved him, but he was too weak to do it without keeping something of his own. The bike felt like Steve's unburdened laughter as they raced through occupied France, like sharp rain and blond hair under his palm as he leaped onto the wing of a plane.
“That's it, then?” the Widow questioned, attempting to brush the soot off of her clothes. “Captain America wets his pants and hides at the first sight of Steve Rogers?”
“Captain America is in DC,” Bucky reminded her, flicking his left hand at the television where day-old footage of Steve in a suit accepting the Presidential pardon played on repeat.
“Is he?” she wondered, inscrutable as an Oracle, running one manicured finger around the shield's rim.
“Natalia.” He kept his tone brusque. The Winter Soldier did not beg. Bucky Barnes had gasped please into Steve Rogers' mouth, trying to stay quiet under the thin cover of a tent and the haze of rain. Had gone to his knees in cold, viscous mud, hoping to be the kind of boy Lieutenant Rogers would want to keep.
“You're acting like a coward,” she told him, her arms akimbo, her jaw lifted. Major Barnes' son had stood just like that when he crawled into the wrong bunk, waiting for the other guy to throw the first punch. The Winter Soldier had taught the Widow how to fight. He must have left remnants of an Army brat in both their stances, their swaggering mistrust of the world.
“You're acting like an asshole,” he replied tactfully, then dodged the perfunctory roundhouse kick to his head. “It's not cowardice, Natashenka. An understudy steps off the stage when the lead returns. And Lukin had contacts in Mexico, farther south. Cartels. I will keep you informed.” His Spanish was flawless, and silent reconnaissance and destruction was exactly the sort of mission littered through his service record, under the orders of the Allied forces or for the Soviet cause.
“Hyde is in town,” Natalia responded, changing the subject as she moved toward the window, testing the temperature of the frosty glass. “Rumor has it he's rigging explosives in the Lower East Side tonight, brought along all his merry men for the fun.”
She tapped the shield, let it wobble across the table. They both watched it roll from side to side, the metallic reverberation the only sound in the room. Her hair was pulled back in a severe knot, uniform already on, thin eyebrows raised in a challenge. “What do you say, James? Willing to take the stage one last time?”
He shrugged, tossed the folded costume over his shoulder and headed to change, ignoring Natalia's offer to watch. Dr. Calvin Zabo – Hyde – was an enormous, raging chemical menace, all Banner's intelligence and none of his humanity. Captain America existed to battle the villains of the world, but Captain America was in DC. Alive and breathing, too far away for Bucky to doodle stars and circles and wings down the scars on his spine, to settle into the warmth of his embrace. He and Natalia could finish off Zabo, and she could return the shield while Bucky raced west against the dawn.
When he was Hyde, Zabo was an idiot – though a large, disturbingly strong one – and no one among his henchman could do more than follow basic commands. Unfortunately, he hadn't shifted when Natalia and Bucky arrived. The henchmen were much more effective under orders from a brilliant scientist, and by the time they took out the acolytes the doctor had become Hyde and taken off down an alley, leaving a swath of angry destruction in his wake.
Bucky took to the roofs, stomping through a dusting of early snow as he jumped from one building to the next, shooting with his left hand. Natalia was a silhouette skimming the pools of light on city streets, the limp from her twisted ankle barely visible in her predator's grace.
She was beautiful, his protégé. The legacy of the Winter Soldier's skill, the living proof of his crimes.
Hyde spun, caught her on a patch of ice and slammed her into a brick wall, advancing when she crumpled to the ground. Bucky shouted to get the villain's attention, hurling the shield down into the gargantuan monster's neck, knocking Hyde to the stones of the street.
He was swinging from the fire escape when a man stepped out of the shadows and lifted the shield. Picked it up with one hand, as if the vibranium weighed nothing at all, as if he knew what to do with a weapon that only two people had ever held.
The man was wearing boots that left ridged footprints in the snow, blue jeans and a pea coat that couldn't disguise the breadth of his shoulders, even if it hid the scars on his spine. His hair shone golden under the streetlights, glittering with drops of melted snow.
Hyde had fought Captain America before, and gotten away. But the Captain had been fighting alone, then. He had no idea what he was facing when Bucky Barnes dropped off a building and slipped into his old place behind an American hero, his arm around the Captain's waist, his gun resting against the dark fabric of a wool coat, waiting for Steve Rogers' nod.
Five minutes later, Hyde had shrunk into a spitting, bleeding scientist, and Natalia was on her feet and manhandling Zabo none too gently toward an idling, unmarked car.
“Stop it,” she said softly, might have been addressing a struggling Zabo except that she spoke in Russian, not bothering to glance up to where Bucky was headed back toward the roof. The gutter pipe creaked a warning under the grip of his metal hand. “Look at him, James, before you run away.”
“I don't know what she said,” the Falcon added, standing beside the open driver's side door, resting his forearms calmly on the car roof. The gutter leaked, and ice water soaked into Bucky's knees where he had pressed them to the wall. “But if it wasn't, 'Damn, I'd tap that star-spangled ass,' then someone should be saying it.” Bucky smiled, turned his face away so that Sam couldn't see. On the ground, someone huffed a noise that could have been indignation, or an unwilling laugh. “Come on, Barnes. Let him find you.”
The car doors slammed, and they were gone.
By the time Bucky let go of the pipe, the front of the costume was drenched in half-frozen water and blood from the earlier fight. He leaned back against the cold wall, one foot up, tucking his head down and gazing out from under his snow-sprinkled hair. Bucky Barnes had kept his cap pulled low; had chosen Steve Rogers from a horde of green recruits, a hundred years before.
Steve was standing with his feet wide, holding the shield flat between his ungloved hands. Breathing, deep and even under his coat, as though he'd been alive and waiting for Bucky all along. “Here,” he said, extending his arms so the edge of the shield nearly hit Bucky in the ribs. “This belongs to you.”
The eyebrow Bucky raised was invisible behind his hair, but the accompanying snort made his position clear. “I think you've confused me with someone who -”
“Looks like Captain America?” Steve interrupted, raking his gaze over the muted, dark colors of Bucky's costume. His mourning suit. “Because you do. You are. I saw you and Nat take down Hyde's followers. You could have taken Hyde without me here. This is your fight now, if you'll have it.”
Bucky shook his head. “Captain America is supposed to be a hero,” he reminded Steve, who had been a hero all along, no matter his rank or his uniform. “You've seen my service record. I'm no hero.” He never had been, not as Sergeant Barnes or the Winter Soldier. He had been a boy desperate to meet the war, a man with few scruples and a talent for death.
The shield clattered when Steve shoved it away from them, leaving it to rest upturned on the snowy paving stones while he reached forward to push Bucky's hair off his face. Warm hands cupped Bucky's cheeks, fingers pressing a little too hard into his skin, as though Steve needed to assure himself that the other man was real. They were both of them men out of time, flesh and blood ghosts.
“You wake up every morning and refuse to act like the victim they made you, or the monster they hoped to create.” Steve didn't specify which 'they' he meant, and Bucky thought of a young lieutenant's regret after their first mission, when a trembling boy had begged not to be sent away. “Buck, you - you're the most heroic person I know.” He'd stepped closer to Bucky, his heartbeat fluttering through the skin of his palms, a promise that this wasn't another one of Bucky's dreams.
It had been years since Steve had found Bucky, tried to enfold him in strong arms and carry him home. It had been even longer since Bucky had invited anyone's touch but Steve's.
He twisted away from the touch, shaking his hair back into his eyes. The heat from a super-soldier's fingers lingered on his cheeks. Funny, until he'd wrenched out of Steve's hands, Bucky hadn't felt the cold at all.
Steve, who might have learned his lesson in a bunker several years before, let him go and moved to pick up the shield instead. Stopped when he squatted down and saw the old picture that Stark had obediently etched inside.
“This is us,” Steve whispered, running his thumb over an Army brat's dimpled chin and looking up at Bucky with cornflower eyes. When he spoke, it was to the boys in the picture, trying to convince Col. Phillips to change the course of the war. “This was the only picture I had left, after Zemo and his gang destroyed everything else.”
“It's what I was fighting for.” Bucky shrugged, shivered as the ice water and the winter seeped through the costume and into his bones.
Steve gave him a watery smile. “You were fighting for bubblegum?” he croaked, his gaze like the charcoal lines of Sgt. Barnes' face, shaded with adoration Bucky had never deserved. Bucky shrugged again, tucked his chin down and looked away.
“Nothing wrong with bubblegum.”
Steve cleared his throat. “I'd like it if you kept fighting for bubblegum. If you – will you stay? Please?” They both pretended that it was a simple question, and not the flash of a boy on his knees in the mud, a bloody rescue mission, their fingers intertwined on the wing of a plane, the glow of a Cube and the soul-deep plea of a man.
“In New York?” Bucky responded, clenching his teeth to end their chattering. His hands were shaking, but that had begun as soon as they'd snapped handcuffs around Zabo's frail wrists. “Stark's apartment doesn't have any food.” If he left now, Bucky could still beat the dawn. Sgt. Barnes had operated in the shadows, and the Winter Soldier was kin to the night.
“Have you been gnawing on Tony's furniture, then?” the real Captain America wondered, keeping his voice light as he rose to his feet and slipped off his coat. Slid the navy wool tentatively over costumed, shivering shoulders, as though he feared that touching Bucky would scare him away.
The pea coat smelled of the season's first snow, of Army soap and the musty damp of a tent, of a boy's reluctance as he shrugged off its comfort and leaped into his grave. Steve's radiant heat lingered in the lining, the protection of a superhero against the cold.
“It's easier to chew than Army gruel.”
Steve huffed a white cloud of air, smiling behind the frost. He kept his hands on the shoulders of the coat, staring at Bucky's trembling hands and squeezing too hard to stop himself from reaching for the embrace that had once left him unconscious on a concrete floor.
“If there were something to eat besides overpriced mahogany, would you stick around and fight crime for a little while longer?” Don't you dare leave me. They had both broken that vow, had died and fought and lost only to end up on a deserted street in New York, snow dusting the rubble left in their wake.
Bucky lifted his shoulders, stretched a hand up to cover Steve's. It had been years since they were alive, hearts racing and bodies close enough to touch. Eons since Bucky dared to hope that this was something he might keep. “I guess that would depend on the food,” he retorted, refusing to look at the horizon and gauge the time left until the dawn. Refusing to push his cold nose into Steve's neck and just hang on. “But my ass does look good in this suit.”
It had been easy to make Steve Rogers tilt his head back and giggle at the world. Governments should have dedicated themselves to the task, and instead they had shot him and frozen him and thawed him out only to ask him to compromise his American dream and shoot him again. And yet, Steve still lifted his chin and laughed like they were young, his over-heated fingers wrapped around wool-clad shoulders while Bucky tried not to smile stupidly at the sound.
“Oh, for – come on, Buck. And that coat goes down past your hips,” he added, sounding miffed, “so no one will be looking at your ass.” Steve scooped up the shield with his right hand, gathered Bucky's chilled palm in his left, weaving their fingers together in the fragile grip that had once dropped him into the sea.
When Bucky didn't protest, when he didn't launch himself up the side of a building or panic and flee – Steve held on a little tighter, watching their linked hands with a smile brighter than the sun after months of winter rain.
Steve dragged them down several streets, dark footprints against pure, untouched snow. He finally ducked through a squeaky automatic door and into a display of pumpkin pies and flickering neon lights. “Grab one of those, would you?” Steve asked, gesturing their joined hands at a stack of baskets next to very small carts, unconcerned that the only hand Bucky had free to use was made of metal: a weapon, not a limb.
Bucky was glad that it was after midnight, and the only person to see them – one man in a cashmere sweater and a red, white and blue shield, leading another in a starry costume under a wool coat, holding a shopping basket with a metal hand – was the cashier, who seemed too invested in his phone to care.
Steve brought the same focus he offered the battlefield to the dingy grocery store, tugging Bucky over to a row of wilting fruit before tossing strawberries and blueberries into the cart, then dragging them down the coffee aisle halfway across the store.
Bucky forced Steve to put the Folger's back and choose something decent, because he might not know what Rogers' plan was, but a good sergeant did not send troops into the field with sub-par supplies. He swapped the plastic bottle of pancake syrup for maple syrup when Rogers' back was turned. Every time Steve reached for something he set down the shield, more willing to crash vibranium into dirty linoleum than to let go of Bucky's hand.
He kept counting items as they appeared: berries, milk, coffee, maple syrup, eggs. If this was all Steve thought Stark's apartment needed to make it habitable, he had clearly misunderstood that “no food” meant nothing but two bottles of vodka in the freezer and half a carton of cigarettes on the windowsill. There was little use in settling when he never stayed.
Then they made it to the baking aisle. First it was sugar. Then Bisquick. Then Steve stopped, and watched Bucky tally up the groceries again.
“You can make pancakes with Bisquick,” Steve said, squeezing Bucky's hand too tight without realizing. “Sam taught me how to do that.” Bucky fought down the urge to ask when exactly Wilson had taught him that, and whether either of them had been wearing clothes.
So, pancakes. And coffee. Real coffee, with sugar.
Bucky squeezed back just as hard, and the bones of their hands shifted under the strain as Steve led them past the indolent cashier and into the snow flurries settling under the first light of dawn. It was impossible to tell whose hand was shaking on the walk home, palms pressed together and fingers interwoven, shoulders brushing as they raced the dawn.
He refused to let Rogers anywhere near the coffeemaker, so Steve started on the pancake batter while Bucky changed into dry, less patriotic clothes. He stood in the bedroom for a moment, face pressed into the scratchy fabric of the coat, thinking of mornings where olive wool was tucked under his chin, a light-hearted sketch on his pillow. Reminders that Steve had been there beside him, and that he would be there again as soon as the war allowed.
When Steve saw the Air Force sweatshirt Bucky had donned, the egg in his broad hand crunched to useless pieces of shell under clenched fingers. “You, uh. I mean. With Sam?” he finished, voice a strangled squeak, yellow yolk dripping from his fist and onto the counter.
“He's a nice boy,” Bucky responded, smirking. He'd practiced that look in the mirror, years ago, the only smile that didn't make him look younger than he was. The only smile he'd used for years, until he met Steve.
He canted his hip, leaning against the fridge as he opened the coffee. Steve's face went through several rapid contortions, a silent accounting of the things he wanted to say and thought he shouldn't. Bucky laughed, couldn't help himself when Steve's nose wrinkled like it had when he'd gotten too close to the privy holes. Once Bucky chuckled, all the other expressions suddenly washed off Steve's face under the brilliance of his smile.
“No,” Bucky told him, giving in. “I'm not with Sam, despite his fetish for Captain America.”
“Oh, God,” Steve groaned, but didn't say anything in his friend's defense.
They worked quietly together, Bucky washing and chopping strawberries with an expert's grasp on the knife, Steve flipping pancakes and occasionally sending them to the counter or the kitchen floor. The one that hit Bucky in the side of the head seemed less like an accident than the others, if Steve's grin was any indication.
“Tell me,” Steve asked, once they'd sat down at the table wedged under the window, so small their knees knocked together under its flimsy frame. The sun was a pale, blurry light in the grey sky, snow sparkling under the dawn. “Tell me everything I missed.” His strong, tapered fingers – artist and soldier, soothing Bucky's nightmares and tickling him awake – ran gently over Bucky's admantium hand, tracing the knuckles as though the metal arm belonged to the boy Steve had loved and not the monster who had tried to destroy everything Steve had fought to change.
So Bucky told him, between bites of pancake and berry and so much maple syrup that Steve winced. He talked about Hyde and Omega Red and Doctor Doom, about the gangs in Dallas and LA, tattoos like scars over young boys' skin. Watched Steve smile at him, face soft with pride that Bucky didn't deserve.
“Don't look at me like that,” he said, unable to take the kindness in blue eyes. Steve frowned, fork halfway to his mouth, syrup dripping onto his plate. “Don't look at me like I'm some kind of hero. I didn't – I wasn't fighting the good fight, you know. I wasn't fighting for the reasons you were.”
He didn't expect Steve's laughter to be as bitter as it was, darker and more acidic than the coffee in their mugs. “Weren't you?” Steve replied, eyes stormy, clutching Bucky's hand so hard the metal grated on the gears inside. “Were you fighting because it was the only way to stop thinking about what you had lost? Were you fighting because it was your fault that the person you loved most in the world went to war? Because it was your fault that he died?” Steve's voice was strained, and he swallowed every word before forcing it through his throat. “Were you fighting because you hated the world, hated everyone in it for daring to exist when he was dead?”
Bucky had a lot of experience on his knees. He slid to the floor, pushing between Steve's legs and pressing his face into cashmere, reaching both arms around to feel for the scars on Steve's spine. “I was just in it for the free guns,” he told Steve's sweater, his voice thick, his fingers trembling over warm skin. “I missed you,” he whispered, hoping that Steve didn't notice that the words were drenched with tears the Winter Soldier hadn't known to cry, the grief they'd stolen from him and transmuted to cold, ruthless rage. Bucky Barnes had always wanted Steve Rogers more than he'd ever wanted a war.
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, soft, his blue eyes blurred with tears. He shifted forward off his chair, sweater rucked up under Bucky's fingers, both of them on their knees on the hardwood floor. Bucky had finally grown up, but Steve could still fold him in his arms, the encompassing hug that he always gave when they came home safe. “Bucky.” The word breathed into the strands of his hair, Steve's arms banding his chest, banishing the war's chill from Bucky's skin.
They stayed like that for minutes, for centuries, until Steve's knee cracked and Bucky told him he was getting old. Steve chuckled, reached up to snag their mugs from the table, shifted so that he was propped against the wall, knees bent in a loose vee. Opened his arms, inviting Bucky to stay.
“Steve,” Bucky said, not sure whether it was a protest or a plea. He had been so many men, since they had died, and almost none of them were men worth saving.
Steve had eyes like cornflowers blossoming, unwanted, at the edges of an Army base in a New Jersey spring. His hopeful expression had dimmed over the years. His half-smile was more hesitant, shoulders tensed for loss. Steve's face had always been a mystery to Bucky, inscrutable in its utter honesty. “More than anything in the world,” he told the indecision in Bucky's eyes, the echo of a promise Captain America had once made, arms outstretched to bring his partner home. “What you mean to me has never changed, Buck. It never will.”
He was too tall, now, to wedge himself under Steve's chin. Sgt. Bucky Barnes had known his partner's every move, had slipped into Steve Roger's arms like a missing puzzle piece, filling the spaces over Steve's vulnerable heart, his chest just narrow enough for Steve to wrap his arms all the way around.
The Winter Soldier hadn't fit at all, too cold and hard and broken for anything but a war. Bucky leaned tentatively back against Steve's chest, waiting for the other man to flinch at his sharp edges, the admantium running through his shoulder and hammered into the vertebrae of his spine.
Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky's ribs without hesitation, pulled him backwards until his head rested on Steve's shoulder. Steve's body was like a furnace, radiating warmth enough to thaw the deepest cold.
“Pancakes. Coffee. Sugar.” Steve took a sip from the mug Bucky had tilted to his lips and grimaced, the expression brushing over Bucky's cheek. “So much sugar. Remind me not to steal your coffee.”
“They say crime doesn't pay,” Bucky retorted, and drained the cup to the sounds of Steve's laughter blowing through his hair. He reached his metal hand up to snag the cigarettes from the windowsill, his right hand caught between Steve's, nimble fingers working out the decades of tremors in Bucky's hand, loosening the joints frozen over the trigger of a thousand guns.
“Diabetes and lung cancer,” Steve warned, but his voice was fond. “Anyway. Breakfast, made to order. That was what you wanted, wasn't it? Did I forget anything?”
He asked the question lightly, teasing words brushed over Bucky's ear while his hands pressed steadily into the lines of Bucky's palm. If he had been anyone else, Steve's query would seem the prelude to a joke, the easy humor in ending a war just to get a cup of joe. PFC Rogers had hidden his muscles and his brains behind a wide-eyed smile and a self-effacing shrug, and sometimes it felt like only Bucky had known Steve.
“No,” he answered, because it was true, obvious in Steve's hesitation and the tension that sang through his limbs and into the smoky air, Bucky's other request trapped in Captain America's throat. Steve hadn't forgotten anything, even the things he would not say.
“Oh.” Steve's massive body sagged, shoulder drooping under the base of Bucky's skull, legs falling open to give Bucky space. He coughed, dragged the cheer back into his lungs. “Well, that's good. Glad memory loss hasn't set in.”
Bucky stubbed out his cigarette in the dregs of his mug, twisting around so that his crossed legs fit under Steve's thighs, blue eyes and golden hair lit by the sun's pale reflection off the snow. “You never said,” he whispered, because having Steve so close still felt like a dream, liable to vanish under the harsh light of day, “what you wanted, after the war.”
“Yeah, I did.” Steve's voice was soft, but insistent. Lt. Rogers – Captain America – had always been overly earnest, determined to make the world a better place. He cupped one hand over the metal palm Bucky had pressed to his chest, measuring his heartbeat, and ran the other over Bucky's jaw, across the dimple in his chin and feather-light over his lips. “Don't you remember? I said 'we'.”
What should we do when the war ends, Buck? And no, for the last time, we're not having sex in the hospital, so stop pouting.
“And what about what I said?” Bucky wondered, solemn and grave where he had once brimmed with dirty jokes and smirking misdirection. Scarred by his own murder, maimed by his partner's loss, Steve's death an ache more painful than a missing limb.
“You said that a long time ago, Buck.” Steve had drawn his affection into the charcoal of Bucky's face, had mapped it over his skin with lips and teeth and tongue. Bucky had never deserved it, not as a queer Army mascot or a teenage soldier, a Soviet assassin or a superhero seeking revenge. He had never deserved it, but it had been his all the same. “I won't make your choices for you. I don't expect you to be -”
He broke off, swallowed hard, and shook his head. Met Bucky's gaze, because Steve Rogers had always been terrifyingly brave. “I never chose to love you, but I would choose to keep you. I woke up here, in this world, and chose not to bury you.” Steve had begged Bucky to remember, to come home when it would have been easier for them both to let him go. Steve had chosen to hold onto Bucky, to keep the wound fresh and bleeding instead of leaving it to scar.
“What do you want to do, when the war's over?” Bucky asked, because he had never had even a quarter of Steve's courage. Because it was Bucky's job to smooth the lines from Steve's face, the suffering from his eyes. Everything changed, but some things never would.
Steve rubbed his cheek against Bucky's palm, let him card his fingers through blond hair. “I want to stay with you,” he admitted, as though if he spoke quietly it wouldn't influence Bucky's choice, wouldn't eddy through the air around them or sink into the planks of the floor. “I want to see if you still cross your eyes after too much whiskey, and if your feet are still ticklish. I want to take you to a baseball game and watch you mangle the score. I want to hear you come apart under my hands, loud like we could never be, before. I want to make you breakfast and hide all your cigarettes. I want you to be there when I wake up screaming, because it feels like I'm losing you all over again every time.” Bucky caught the tears before they shook free from Steve's eyelashes, leaned in and caught the breath from his mouth in a kiss, syrup and coffee and Steve against his tongue.
“Please don't leave me,” Steve begged, because Captain America had never been too proud to go to his knees, costume torn and muddied under English rain.
Bucky shook his head, because leaving Steve had always hurt worse than anything, and maybe he didn't deserve this, but it was his choice and he wasn't letting go. “C'mon,” he said, pulling Steve to his feet, sinking into the unnaturally warm embrace he had longed for through years encased in ice, without knowing what it was he missed. “Let's spend the day in bed. You can show me what else Wilson taught you, besides pancakes.” Steve tackled him for that, but – since it landed them on a bed bigger than they could have dreamed, so long ago – Bucky didn't really mind.
“I love you,” he said later, biting the words into the knee hooked over his admantium shoulder as he buried himself in Steve, because maybe this was home to them both.
“Of course you do,” Steve replied, breathless and trembling, lips parted and eyes dark. Fuck me, he had begged Bucky, moments and ages before. Make me believe you're real, he didn't have to add, because Bucky knew what it was to wish that his partner had not died. Make me believe I'm alive. “I'm the best in the Army.”
“Big talk,” he chuckled, bending Steve in half to kiss him, feeling Steve's moan vibrate against his teeth. “Lucky I've got the whole day to prove you wrong.”
Bucky was a century old, when the war ended. He was young enough to prove Steve wrong, old enough to know not to let him go. He was ageless, timeless, when Steve Rogers came back from the dead, and Bucky Barnes finally came home.