The sea was angry that day. Waves lashed at the sides of their battleship, sending frothy whiteness up onto the deck and spraying them all. They didn’t mind, because that day was hot and sticky, like death. Suffocating. Steve remembered breathing in salt. He also remembered vomiting salt. Just salt and stomach acid, nothing else. There was nothing else.
A Navy commander stood on the deck, hunched against the wind, a wave cracking into the belly of the boat behind him. Steve remembered the white mist raining down, squinting into the grayness. Everything was gray. Dark gray paint on the deck, white gray in the clouds above, green gray on the uniforms of all the men. All gray, everything gray.
The Navy commander stared at them with a decent amount of hatred—he was a sailor and they were soldiers, Steve didn’t fault him for that—then nodded once.
“Get in your ships.”
A simple order. They were all waiting for it, the instruction had been given about a hundred times for a hundred false alarms. The group shifted, churning within itself like a sand pit, men falling back and coming forward, no one wanting to be first.
Steve stood unmoving, a marble statue in the center of the growing dread.
Another wave slammed against the stern, knocking into the ship and sending a few privates to the deck, young cheekbones slamming against wet rubber.
He stepped forward.
The Navy commander’s face turned stone, and he pointed toward a soaked sailor gripping the guardrail for dear life.
Beyond the sailor, other landers had already started moving out from their ships, dotting the ocean in perfect lanes, white V’s following each one.
“Great day, huh?” someone said.
“Perfect day,” another replied.
The sea was black as Steve started down the chain ladder into his boat. He remembered gripping so tight to the chains that his knuckles started to bleed from when the wind and waves caused the ladder to smack against the hull. There were loud, hollow booms when the boat hit the side of the battleship. Like a low, mourning bell.
He should have known then.
He should have climbed back up that ladder and hid.
But instead, he dropped down in the boat, noting how small it was.Fifty men couldn’t fit in this boat. It was hard to stand with the waves rocking it so fiercely. There were smooth steel walls on all the sides, and a platform for the sailors to navigate them in. The boat was square too, not designed for travelling choppy seas.
The black water sloshed above the side, slicking the floor of the boat. The sides were too high for Steve to see anything but the monotone grey of the sky above. Two sailors already on the boat looked on, trading a cigarette and muttering to each other. One had a face marred with pockmarks, and the other had a crooked nose. And funny eyebrows. Steve still remembered those bushy eyebrows, the way they furrowed and lifted. He saw the guy for maybe five minutes that day. Never saw him after.
It wasn’t raining. That was about the only positive that Steve could find as he took a seat on one of the benches, watching as men filed into the boat from the ladder. The boys were anxious, the kind of nervous chatter that came with green troops. The new soldiers were easy to spot—they had bright eyes and smiles only half nervous. The weathered men stared at nothing, talking to each other without really talking.
The air didn’t seem so sticky anymore. It turned cold, the kind that clawed into your bones and filled the marrow.
Steve looked around the crowd of men. The new ones stared at him, dumbfounded, the older ones looked at him with every emotion from nonchalance to simmering disdain.
A sailor handed a stack of pamphlets to the COs near the bow, and soon they were spread out among the men. Little explanations of French words, road signs, and maps. Everyone knew the mission. Everyone had been drilled on the mission until their brains hurt.
Steve took a deep breath. The chatter trickled to nothing. They lurched right and left, up and down, waves slapping the sides as their boat broke off from the battleship to begin filing into a lane of their own.
His throat tightened, then his chest. Almost the same way it did when a gal threw him a wink, or when he was caught staring at a dame’s lips.
Not the same. Not the same at all, actually.
The boat smelled like dead fish and saltwater, mixed with faint odors of rifle grease and old sweat. It didn’t matter if he breathed through his mouth or his nose; the smells of war permeated everything.
There was a hollow clinking sound beside him as a Lieutenant flicked his Zippo and lit up. Steve found himself wishing cigarettes worked on him. He sometimes ached for that calming of nerves that the other guys got. Bucky smoked a pack or two a week now, and he was on the lighter side.
Bucky, who was back in England, fucking around with the Howlers in the city.
Just Cap, the Commander said. Quick and easy mission. They just needed Cap for the newsreels. The papers.
The only Major on the boat shook the ash off the end of his cigarette and cleared his throat.
Clouds of smoke were exhaled, but no one said a word.
“Today’s the day, boys,” the Major said. He had flaxen hair and white blonde lashes. He couldn’t be older than Steve. “Today’s the day we show the Jerrys what happens when they fuck with us. By nightfall we’ll be holed up in Caen, hanging Jerry corpses and havin’ campfires by hollowed Panzers, roastin’ marshmallows, and thinkin’ about our gals at home.”
Seawater hissed over the side of the boat, soaking the men across the deck from where Steve stood. The Major continued.
“Today is a day that’s gonna go down in every history book of every country on this earth. Many of you will die, many of you will make it through today and die tomorrow, but some of you will live. And all of you will fight.”
The boat was silent aside from the shuffling of boost as another wave rocked them hard. The Major scanned his men, never lingering too long on one or another. He was a good officer, a good leader.
The boat looked like a giant stall, Steve realized. Or one of those gates that racehorses were penned up in before they burst out onto the track. Steve imagined what they were feeling now was similar to what those big horses felt. The loud sounds of breathing, the seething of waves, the slick metal deck beneath them. The cramped quarters that were as comforting as they were suffocating.
Maybe Eisenhower had wanted them this packed. To make them itch to be free, to rush out and fight with blind and wild energy.
Steve felt no itch. Steve felt growing fear in his heart. It was too late to leave, too early to panic. They had miles to go before they hit land.
“Omaha Beach,” a private sighed. “Sounds like somethin’ you’d put on a postcard, huh?”
Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, Omaha. Steve recited the names in his head, pictured the maps, the red pushpins that marked where the Germans were holed up in bunkers, the invisible path they would have to travel to make it to Caen. They had to take Caen by nightfall. They would be safe by nightfall.
Seventy years later, he still wondered how he could have possibly been that naïve.
“I’ll haff it done by tonight, proffebly,” Tony said around a mouthful of fries, most of which were still sticking out from between his lips. They were too greasy, but that was what you got when you showed up at a cheap-ass diner joint in New Jersey. He’d forgotten these places existed, just like he had forgotten what it felt like to accidently touch hardened gum on the bottom of his table. Some things were better left forgotten.
“I would really appreciate that,” Steve said, politely, his mouth free of food. How he ever managed to finish a meal was a mystery to Tony, but Steve’s plate was always picked clean by the end of the meal.
Real Depression shit right there. After eighty years you’d think a guy would give it a rest, especially when he was surrounded by opulence.
Tony swallowed his fries and jumped in with a question just after Steve took a hunk out of his cheeseburger.
“Want any fancy chrome or anything?”
Steve let out a cute little half snort that had Tony grinning wide. Steve Rogers was such a dork. Terrifying, but also a dork. Tony liked to get him someplace quiet, to see the side of him that didn’t throw the stinkeye at anyone that talked too un-patriotically.
Steve shook his head, his cheeks full of burger.
“Sorry, what was that?” Tony prompted, plucking another fry from the pile and popping it in his mouth. The place smelled like frying oil and cheap perfume. Like something out of Mad Men, which was probably why Steve liked it. Though technically Mad Men was twenty years after his glory days. Or fifteen. Or whatever.
Steve gave him a look, then made a point of swallowing.
“No chrome.” He licked a sesame seed from his lips. “Please.”
Tony’s smile quirked at the corner when he winked, then a sigh escaped his lips.
“Look at this place. Jersey’s a hellhole.” He gestured toward a balding man lumbering from his minivan and toward the door, three little girls flanking him, one with a firm grip on her sister’s hair.
“If you expect me to say I think Jersey’s great, you’re nuts,” Steve chuckled.
Nuts. Nobody said ‘nuts’ anymore. Goddammit, Steve. Tony rolled his head to give Steve a look that said ‘nice one, old man.’
Steve smiled a little before wadding up his straw wrapper.
Tony looked out the window again then glanced at his watch. Technically he was supposed to be meeting with some editor about one of his charity functions that Pepper had set up, but like hell was he going to break up this impromptu lunch date.
Well, one-sided lunch date.
With what was definitely a high schooler’s maturity level, Tony found himself daydreaming away his time with Steve when they did things together, like stop off at a shitty diner in New Jersey on the way back from a training session. Steve had decided to step away from training the new Avengers for a few months, which at first had everyone worried until they remembered that this was the first time Bucky had admitted to feeling “back to normal.” Tony used normal loosely with that guy, but Bucky was at least in a place where nobody had to worry about him killing anyone.
Natasha had things covered on base, and Vision pretty much covered anything she didn’t know.
So Tony got Steve all to himself for the next few months, which was basically what was going to happen.
And yeah, he had a dweeby little crush on the guy. It was impossible not to. And since Steve had come out in a hilariously formal (though Tony didn’t laugh) briefing that he was bisexual, technically he was actually fair game now.
Sometimes Tony wondered if Steve was actually bisexual, since Steve still acted like a teenager in front of women he didn’t know and perfectly normal around men he knew. Tony hadn’t once seen him give a man a once-over. Then again, he hadn’t seen him do that with women either.
Steve was a dreamboat myster—
Something wet hit him on the cheek and Tony jumped in the booth, touching his cheek. Something slimy was there, and he made a face of disgust until he saw Steve smirking at him, his straw bobbing in his mouth like a cigar.
“Did you just spitball me?” Tony asked, utterly dumbfounded.
Steve gave a little shrug. “Maybe.”
“You asshole!” Tony grimaced as he peeled the spitball from his cheek and hurled it at Steve’s face.
Of course, Steve dodged it and it splatted against the vinyl of the seat. Steve Rogers had just shot a spitball at him. What a fucking world.
Their waitress approached and gave a disapproving look to the spitball on the seat but didn’t say anything about it. “You boys ready t’cwal it a day?” she asked with an overly dramatic Jersey drawl.
“Yes ma’am,” Steve said politely, as if he hadn’t just hurled a spitball.
“That’s his spitball,” Tony said, pointing at Steve. It was only right that she knew.
The waitress looked at the spitball, and trailed her eyes back to him. Tony could see her imagining a trajectory.
“No, I threw it back at him, but he spit it first!”
Steve gave her a smile in the same way fathers smiled when their kid was acting like a complete dumbass. That all-knowing smile that said ‘sorry about him.’
“You don’t believe me,” Tony said in mock disgust.
“We’ll take our checks, please,” Steve said with a nod.
The waitress headed off without giving Tony another glance.
Steve pulled out his wallet and Tony found himself transfixed with the methodical way Steve pulled the cash from the worn leather and sifted through the bills until he pulled out a twenty. Before he took it out though—yup, there it was—Steve opened his lips and swiped the pad of his thumb over his tongue before grabbing the bill.
Tony wondered if Steve ever did that on accident before swiping open his phone.
Steve looked up and met his eye, cocking a brow. “Is there something on my face?”
Tony smiled, letting his gaze drop. “You know, “ he said after a moment, “we should hang out while you’re here. Not too often that both us are in the city.”
Steve nodded while he folded up his wallet and repocketed it. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
God, he was grinning like an idiot. Steve didn’t even seem excited and he was acting like an idiot.
“You seem thrilled.”
Tony didn’t just let people get away with not being enthusiastic about spending time with him.
Steve chuckled. “Sorry, Tony, I meant to say I’d love to spend more time with you.”
Well didn’t Steve know how to make him feel all warm and fuzzy.
“You’d love to, huh?” Tony’s lips curled to a smirk. “That’s a strong word there, Spangles.”
Steve didn’t blush, so Tony wasn’t entirely sure if Steve was fucking with him when he replied, “And I said I’d love to spend more time with you.”
The guy had just shot a spitball at him, after all.
Taking a nap was so much easier with Steve in the apartment. Bucky still wasn’t used to wanting protection. He didn’t want protection. He could protect himself. But something about…something about sharing the burden made him able to relax so much more. His apartment was a tiny Brooklyn fortress. The government had “gifted” it to him in exchange for staying in New York. Bucky wasn’t happy with having a permanent address, but he had made enough preparations for an attack that he could at least sleep in the place.
His doctors and psychologists said he would never be fully recovered—whatever that was supposed to look like—but Bucky had argued enough that he didn’t have to go to therapy anymore. He hated therapy anyway; it always seemed meaningless and cheap. No doc knew what was going on upstairs, what he had dealt with. The only two people on the planet who had any idea were Steve and Natasha, and they had only fragments.
Still, better than nothing.
Bucky’s eyes flicked open when he heard the sound of cupboards closing in the kitchen. He rubbed his eyes, wincing a little as one hand pressed cold to his face, then sat up with a yawn. Even something as stupid as a yawn took a ridiculous amount of mental wrestling to achieve. Weapons did not yawn.
“You fell asleep,” Steve said, walking into the living room with a bowl of soup. He offered the bowl to Bucky. “Want soup?”
Bucky shook his head before patting the couch for Steve to sit. Steve did so, flicking on the TV and spooning up some broth.
Their relationship was a lot of this now. Steve never asked him hard questions—the ones the therapists asked. Steve just asked how he was feeling, if he needed anything, if he wanted to go anywhere. Kind of like Bucky was sick. In a way, he was, he supposed.
Their time together was spent in the evenings after he got off work at his new job: training incoming SHIELD agents. Or maybe they weren’t SHIELD now, he didn’t really care. Bucky was beginning to associate Steve with sleeping, which was becoming an issue because he really did want to talk to him. Steve hadn’t been around for three months, and now he was able to come over every day so long as he wasn’t called in for a mission.
“Sorry about nappin’,” Bucky said, another yawn escaping him. “Jesus, can’t stop.”
Steve reached over and ruffled his hair. “You can sleep if you want. I know you don’t get enough at night.”
“Who says I don’t?” Bucky challenged, grabbing Steve’s spoon and leaning in. Chicken noodle. Typical Steve.
“You did, dumbass.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah? When’d I say that?”
Steve cleared his throat, putting on a raspy voice and closing his eyes halfway. “Fuck, Stevie, stop wakin’ me up so early, I can barely get four hours a night goddammit.”
“Yeah, yeah, lay off,” Bucky muttered, but he was smiling.
He spooned up some soup at the same time that he caught scent of Steve’s aftershave. Bucky pretended to close his eyes because the soup was good. It wasn’t that good.
This was one of the moments where he was glad Steve had been gone so long. It wasn’t right, the way he felt sometimes, even if Steve had come out and said he liked dames just as much as he liked fellas. Bucky remembered how he used to be with women and how damn good it felt to have a girl’s legs wrapped around his hips, but he hadn’t just been with women. He gathered that Steve knew that, more or less, though he never talked about it. A few times, it had come up. A few times, Steve had let something slip.
But in a moment like this, Bucky wanted to taste that aftershave and drink in the warmth that Steve’s body always exuded. A comfortable warmth, like curling up in bed with a big stuffed animal.
He told himself that Steve Rogers was no coward. If Steve had any interest at all, Bucky was going to pick up on it, but he hadn’t. The only thing different about Steve when it came to him was that Steve was more physical with him. Touching was almost constant, which was great, but not so great when Bucky realized it was probably because Steve thought he was gonna bolt or die or something.
“What’d you to today, hotshot?” Bucky asked, handing the spoon back over.
Steve chuckled. “Well, after training, Tony and I went to this diner in Jersey.”
“In Jersey?! You sure your food wasn’t poisoned? You ain’t carryin’ any diseases?”
Steve laughed, shaking his head. “I know, I know. I managed to make it out unscathed, though.” He sipped some more broth, then got this little goofy smile that Bucky hadn’t seen in a long time.
“What else happened?” Bucky probed with a nudge of his elbow.
“Tony’s gonna be around for the next few months too,” Steve said, trying to be nonchalant.
“Oooh.” Bucky grinned slyly, but his chest felt strangely tight. “What’s that mean?”
“Nothin’,” Steve said, scooping up some noodles and slurping them down.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Nothin’ my ass.”
Steve smiled and set the soup bowl on his lap. He turned his head and Bucky found himself without breath, because fuck were his eyes big and blue. “I’m just really happy I’ll have my friends around for the next few months.” He licked his lips and let out a chuckle. “Happy to have them around and not have a mission, I mean. I think it’ll be great.”
Bucky tried his hardest not to look at Steve’s lips. “Mhmm. It’s gonna be a barrel ’a fun.”
Steve cocked his head a little. “You’re the most important, though. You’re the reason I’m here.”
Fuck. Steve wasn’t allowed to just say things like that. Bucky dipped his head with a little laugh, definitely not blushing. Oh fuck. “Aw, Stevie, you’re a doll.”
It was Steve’s turn to laugh. “Thanks, Buck. I’m really tryin’ here.”
Bucky looked back up at him, and for a moment the whole world froze.
Here was a man who had fought for good when he could barely fight at all. Steve had planned on the horrors of war, or at least thought he had, but he had never anticipated this. Almost eighty years after the fighting, still alive and not slowing down. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right that Steve was still suffering either—holing up by himself all the time, trying not to burden anyone.
If Bucky were stronger, he would have asked Steve to stay here. To live with him like the old days.
Instead, he stayed quiet and kept staring, and Steve stared right back.
“You okay?” Steve asked quietly, just as Bucky’s lips parted for a reason different than speaking.
“Yeah,” he replied in a little breath. “I’m okay, Stevie.”
He settled back into the couch, resting shoulder to shoulder with Steve to watch the news. Bucky knew he had the best friend anyone could ask for, but he wanted more than that now. At least, he was pretty sure that was what this was. Friendship was fine and dandy, but not…complete. Somehow, it wasn’t complete.
Within ten minutes, he was watching Steve’s face again. The way the light danced off his lips, reflecting in the dull luster of his skin.
“I’m real happy you’re here,” Bucky murmured, giving Steve a nudge.
“You’re just happy ‘cause you know I’m about to get up and make you some soup.”
Bucky gave an innocent shrug. “Maybe. But maybe you’re just my best pal.”
Steve let out a snort, and settled into the couch a little more. “Well you’re gonna have to wait a few minutes, ‘cause I just got comfortable.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He let out a sigh. “See, I remember workin’ the docks all day, comin’ home absolutely beat only to find that you’d gotten sick while I was away. ‘Course, I thought, can’t leave Stevie to die here, so I go all the way back down eight flights, two blocks over to the corner store to get ya some cough syrup. Then I go all the back up those stairs—my feet are just achin’, Stevie—“
“Shuddup, shuddup,” Steve groaned, moving to stand.
Bucky grabbed his arm, pulling him back. Steve stumbled a bit, and for a moment it looked like their lips might just—
“But I make it up those stairs, my whole day’s wages gone in one swoop, balancin’ three different kinds ‘a tonic,” Bucky continued, but the teasing tone was gone. “And get back in that dump of a flat, cover ya with two more blankets ‘cause you’re a punk who thinks he doesn’t get cold, and I stuff ya up with medicine ‘til you can’t hardly open your eyes.” His grip started to loosen on Steve’s forearm, but Steve didn’t pull away.
“Then and only then, I find one cruddy soup can in the cupboard, and that’s when I make your soup. That’s when I make it for ya, ‘cause I know you haven’t eaten all day.”
Steve’s brow furrowed, scanning over Bucky’s face like a new person was sitting there. “Buck, I—“
Bucky shook his head with a little smile. “Stop it, Rogers.” He leaned back, folding his arms behind his head. “Got a little carried away ‘s all. But I do want that soup.”
Steve looked at him for a few more moments, worrying his bottom lip. He looked like he was about to say something—he had that panicked little look in his eyes—but then he just nodded once. “Yeah, soup.”
Bucky’s eyes followed Steve as he left the room and headed behind him to the kitchen. As soon as Steve was out of sight, Bucky let out a quiet breath, lifting his hands to rub his temples. Steve going away had made all of this worse. Now that he was back, Bucky was going on about goddamn cough syrup.
He was going to do something stupid before Steve left again, he knew that much. He just hoped it happened before Stark decided to make a move, or things could get really ugly.
Tony stared at his phone screen, wishing he hadn’t turned off Steve’s read receipts. He had sent a text three hours ago—a lead up text, not even a “let’s hang out” text—and Steve still hadn’t responded. And Steve wasn’t a busy man, not really. It was kind of sad in a way. Steve’s idea of a fantastic adventure was taking the subway to MoMa on a Tuesday evening. Tony actually did things, and taking Steve to new places was fun. No matter what they did, Tony ended the night with a sore stomach from laughing so hard. He didn’t even drink when they went out, aside from a few fruity things and some Everclear to try to get Steve tipsy.
“You keep staring at that thing. Don’t tell me you put some crazy robo killing machine in there,” Rhodey said, giving him a pointed look.
Tony shot him a glare and pocketed his phone.
Rhodey’s place was immaculate and boring. For a guy that made so much money, Tony had to wonder where all of it went. His crappy oak dining table certainly wasn’t worth anything, the car in his garage was a Porsche Boxster GTS, about the girliest convertible he could have possibly picked for himself. And it wasn’t even an American car. Downright insulting to the land of the free. Natasha was more patriotic.
Tony traced a vein in the wood with a finger. “So when do you go back to Washington?”
“Whenever they decide they need some positive PR, I guess,” Rhodey said with a shrug, pouring himself a glass of pineapple juice. He raised the carton and lifted a brow.
Tony shook his head.
“So, what, you’re just a pretty face? You aren’t that good looking, Rhodes.”
“You know, a lot of women would disagree with that statement.”
Tony gave a disbelieving look. “I’m discounting the Wannabe Gold Digger Women of America. They don’t count.”
“You’re an ass.” Rhodey pulled out his seat and sat down. “But you never show up out of the blue. Something wrong?”
“Hey, I show up out of the blue.”
Rhodey cocked a brow. “Yeah? Name one time.”
Tony thought for a moment and frowned. “Okay, to be fair, I tell you to come visit me.”
Rhodey rolled his eyes and took a sip of juice.
“But really, they don’t put you out in the field anymore?” Tony asked. “I thought you were doing all kinds of, y’know, missions and stuff.”
He was stalling. Rhodey just didn’t know it yet.
He just wasn’t sure how to bring up his little problem. Or if it was even that big of a problem at all. Tony honestly felt like his feelings for Steve were shallow, and could evaporate at any time, yet another part of him felt like that wasn’t going to happen, that they might end up getting worse. After all, Steve probably didn’t like him to begin with. Actually, that was pretty much guaranteed.
The pineapple juice sloshed in Rhodey’s glass as he shrugged. “I do missions every so often, but most of my travel is for training work. I just always bring the suit in case something happens.”
“Is that what you want to do?” Rhodey didn’t deserve to be stuck on training duty. He loved being War Machine, and Tony wasn’t about to let one of his suits get old from misuse.
“I dunno. I’m happy, though. For now. All of the crazy monster alien stuff is more for you guys anyway. I’m still a military man, always will be.”
Tony nodded, quirking his lips a little. “If that’s what you want. Crazy monster alien stuff could be a nice upgrade to those War Machine stories.”
Rhodey smiled nodding once. “Yeah, yeah. But really, it is what I want.”
Tony nodded in return, but his eyes drifted to the window behind Rhodey. The view wasn’t great, but Rhodey had always been more about looking at books on military history than staring out the window.
“This city sure is ugly,” Tony muttered.
Rhodey turned to look over his shoulder at the apartment complex across the street. “Eh, I dunno about that. Definitely different, but I wouldn’t say it’s ugly.”
“I used to be so focused on my lab and traveling and saving the world and all of that, but now that nothing’s happening, I’ve realized how shitty it is here,” Tony continued, mostly ignoring Rhodey’s comment.
“Yeah. There’s no trees. No grass.”
“Central Park,” Rhodey offered.
Tony shook his head. “Gets old. You can only walk through it so many times.”
“Okay, what’s up with you?” Rhodey asked. “You get pessimistic when something’s bothering you.”
Normally, this was where Tony would blow off the question and make some remark about how a gardener might be able to spruce up the neighbor’s lawn a little bit, add some color (“Every house could use flowers, Rhodey, even brownstones.”). But Rhodey had been the guy Tony came to when things fizzled out with Pepper. Though their breakup had been amicable, he still hadn’t dealt with it well. And he was maybe just a tiny little bit afraid that this thing with Steve was an attempt at a rebound.
“I’m being stupid,” Tony said matter-of-factly.
Rhodey let out a snort. “That’s it? Hell, I coulda told you that years ago. I knew that MIT education was just a joke. I knew it all along.”
Tony smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Can I have some juice?”
“Really? I just asked you if you wanted some. Manners, Stark.” But Rhodey stood and headed over to get some juice. Tony just shrugged. “So, tell me what’s up.”
Tony let out a sigh. “Is pursuing somebody seven months after a breakup still considered a rebound?”
“First we need to establish what ‘pursue’ means,” Rhodey said, pouring a glass of juice for Tony.
“Okay, well this isn’t the Playboy calendar run, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Really, he wasn’t even sure he should be bringing this up. Talking about it with someone else made it a “thing.”
“Well, that’s encouraging.” Rhodey handed over the glass and took his seat again, looking at Tony expectantly.
Tony shot him a look and sniffed the juice once before taking a sip. “It’s Rogers.”
Rhodey looked at him for a moment, blinked, and stood up.
“I need something to drink that’s a little stronger than pineapple juice,” Rhodey muttered. He opened his cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Grey Goose.
“Where’d you get that, a frat party?” Tony scowled, and scowled harder when Rhodey poured more than a shot’s worth in his glass.
“Wait,” Rhodey headed back to the table, taking the bottle with him. “Did you skip the UN meeting last week and go to that diner with Steve on a date? I already saw on Twitter that you two were--”
Tony shook his head. “You know what, forget it.”
“Forget it.” He waved a hand dismissively. “It’s nothing. I’m just making it out to be more than what it is.”
“Let me judge that,” Rhodey said, taking a sip of his drink. His face soured for a moment, but he took another sip anyway.
Tony pouted for a minute, embarrassed that he’d said anything. This thing with Steve was a stupid crush thing. The only reason it wasn’t gone was because Steve wasn’t the kind of guy you could just make out with and be done with it (to put it tamely). They worked together. They were friends.
“It’s just stupid little crush thing,” Tony confessed, staring at his pineapple juice.
“Mm, well if it’s a stupid little crush thing, I can’t help,” Rhodey said, leaning back in his chair. “If it’s just a little crush thing, then maybe we could go from there, but—“
“I like the guy,” Tony snapped without malice. “Yes, like-like, crushy-wushy, he can be my valentine shit.”
Rhodey chuckled and took another sip of his drink. “Okay, so you like him. What’s the big deal? You gonna do anything about it?”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Tony muttered, grabbing up his own glass and taking a long drink.
“If he asked you out, would you go?”
Tony almost laughed. Almost. “Right. He does go on the internet, you know. Not that he needs internet to see that me and him don’t exactly match up on the morality scale. ”
Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Well, yeah. Steve is not gonna be like it was with Pepper. He’s like…Right out of Bye Bye Birdie or something. Going steady, no messing around on the sidelines, real relationship stuff.”
Tony didn’t like the implication that he wasn’t prepared for “real relationship stuff,” but he knew Rhodey didn’t mean anything by it. Rhodey knew his track record better than Pepper did, probably.
Even so, had Rhodey ever had “real relationship stuff?” No, no he hadn’t. So he wasn’t allowed to talk any shit.
“I know,” he finally replied, not looking Rhodey in the eye. “I’m not gonna go after him or anything. It’s not really worth it. Last thing I need is an ex running my company and an ex on my team.”
Rhodey didn’t look convinced. “If you say so, Tony.”
“I mean, he’s handsome and he’s nice. And he’s pretty much the most badass guy on the team, not to mention he’s just downright generous and all that, but yeah, not worth it. He’s actually a good friend of mine.”
“Are you trying to convince me or convince yourself right now?” Rhodey said, cocking a brow. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell.”
“Shut up.” Tony took another sip of juice and swished it around in his mouth for a moment.
“I mean, I think he likes you,” Rhodey said, looking off out the window.
“What is this, high school?” Tony shook his head. Then: “Are you just saying that to mess with me or what?”
Rhodey smiled. “Okay, so in the beginning when you guys were your new fancy team or whatever, I thought Banner was your guy. Steve was kinda out there, kinda clingy, but I figured that was the whole time travel thing.”
“He was not clingy,” Tony argued. “Just needed someone to talk to.”
Rhodey pretended not to hear him. “But look, man. Every time you guys hang out, he always says yes. The only times he says no are when there’s no possible way he can be there. I love you man, but even I’m not that free.”
“Uh huh. Always making sacrifices, aren’t you? Like spring break in the Bahama--Oh, wait, you bailed.”
“Right, wasn’t like I was invited to dinner with the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force or anything!”
“Was that what it was?” Tony pretended to think it over. “Hm. Fine. That might’ve been excusable.” A little grin came to his lips. Okay, even if Rhodey was just trying to cheer him up with the Steve liking him thing, he had a point.
After a moment, Rhodey leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. “Look, I say just see what happens with Steve. Let it flow, you know? Like, I was just at an embassy dinner in Finland of all places a few months ago. Just got finished dealing with some black market radar scrambler operation in Cairo and, well, I guess they wanted War Machine to make an impression. They do that sometimes, mostly for the foreign guys…”
Tony listened on about Rhodey’s night out with a Finnish model, but in the back of his mind he was unsure about what he was going to do. Realistically, he knew trying to get with Steve was a bad idea. And his crush thing wasn’t that big anyway, and very easy to stomp down when he had to. Up until now, things had been fine.
Though it did kind of bother him that Steve still hadn’t responded to his text. But even that had about a million explanations. It was the middle of the afternoon, lunchtime, and training time for Steve. They had a briefing that they both needed to be at by seven anyway, so Tony knew he would see him then.
Tony decided he wasn’t going to take Rhodey’s advice and even entertain the idea of going after Steve. They had a friendship and professional whatever relationship that was perfectly good enough. Steve’s company was all he really wanted anyway, and he could get that without a relationship or dating/
Talking to Rhodey had been a good idea after all. Crush done. Over. Back to the real world.
Steve always acted different when they were around anything related to the military, Bucky had noticed. His spine straightened out as he walked, his steps became more deliberate, and god forbid he flash a smile. Steve had never been in Special Forces. He had only ever been an infantryman. Steve didn’t know the way things worked for the best of the best, though he was one. Black ops hadn’t really existed in their war, not on the physical battlefield. The Howlers had been the closest thing to it, but they still had a list of rules to follow, an affiliation with three militaries, and someone they had to listen to.
Handlers were different. Handlers had told him the mission objective, a few loose parameters, and sent him on his way. He had been allowed to hand select and modify each weapon to his liking, wear what he wanted, grow his hair out and only shave if he felt like it. Even the muzzle had been his choice, though he knew Steve didn’t like to know that. It hadn’t been a muzzle anyway. Just a mask.
Bucky climbed up a ladder onto a wooden platform that served as a lookout post. A radio was clipped to his belt on one side, a pistol and two knives on the other. His right wrist sported a titanium cuff with an identification number, bar code, and SHIELD logo engraved in the metal. On his back was a large rucksack, but he certainly didn’t notice the weight.
“Come on up, slowpoke,” he said as he crouched down and offered Steve a hand to help him up the ladder.
Steve brushed some grass clippings from his pants before standing and looking out into the sea of yellow grasses. To the west was a thin treeline with thick brush, and to the northeast were thickets and a few pockets of pine. The rest was prairie grass and wild wheat varieties, smattered with the occasional thornbush.
“Pretty up here,” Steve said, leaning against the wooden guardrail.
Bucky followed, their shoulders brushing as he fell into place on the rail beside Steve. “Yeah. I come up here a lot. Nice and quiet.”
His radio crackled to life. “Winter, candidates ready to begin testing, over.”
Steve cocked a brow. “Winter?”
Bucky rolled his eyes as he fished the radio from his belt. “I didn’t pick the damn name.” He pressed the radio button. “Copy that. Cap and I are going blind. Ten minutes, over.”
Bucky clipped the radio back into place and motioned for Steve to turn. A rusty metal table and two folding chairs sat in the only spot on the platform covered with roofing, though the wood was rotten and full of holes.
“Take a seat, Rogers.” He gestured toward the table.
Steve glanced behind them once and then took a chair, wincing slightly at the grating noise of metal against wood.
Bucky slipped off his rucksack and sat on the chair opposite Steve. “This ain’t gonna go the way it did back in the old days,” Bucky said, opening the main pocket of his rucksack. He pulled out a long, metal briefcase and set it on the table. With two clicks of the latches it popped open, revealing folded pieces and attachments of a sniper rifle.
“She’s custom,” Bucky explained, snapping open the main body piece and setting it up on the barrel stilts. “HYDRA had her built for me originally, then I had Stark make some modifications.” He lifted the barrel, eyeing through it to make sure there was no blockage or denting.
“Tony messed with this?” Steve asked, reaching forward.
Before he realized what happened, Bucky’s metal hand was clasped around Steve’s wrist. Pure reflexes, residual from a life of survival and carnage and blood. Bucky knew that, but it didn’t make him feel any better that his body still had control of him.
He released Steve’s hand.
Steve’s hand lingered in the air for a minute, his eyes probing, but then he nodded once and drew his hand away.
Even when he was inspecting his weapon as he was now, it never took Bucky more than two minutes to put it together. When she was complete, she was massive. Shorter than an Intervention, but no less intimidating.
“What’s that mean?” Steve asked, nodding toward a series of scratches in the stock of the rifle.
Bucky finished screwing on the muzzle break before replying.
“колыбельная,” he murmured. “That’s her name.” Engraved there with a knife when he had been promised that this was his weapon. The only item he had been able to own beyond a few knives.
Steve frowned. “I figured that much. But what’s it mean?”
Steve nodded as though he had to process that information. “Any reason for that name?”
Bucky hoisted up the rifle and set her down facing the field beyond. “Yeah, there’s a reason.”
His nose filled with the smell of damp summer grass, his ears with chittering cicadas and the low groans of bullfrogs. His whole body was wet and hidden in the earth, spread and sinking into the mud. The mask was tight at his cheeks, but comforting as he rested his face against his weapon and peered down the sight.
It had been a beautiful home. All glass windows, perched on a private lake that was dotted with lily pads, some large enough that a dog could curl up on one if it wanted.
The glass windows were the first mistake.
On the second floor, he eyed his target. She was brushing her teeth, blonde hair falling out of a haphazard ponytail. She was talking to someone—no, singing a song. A rock song, judging from the way her face wrinkled and contorted. His rifle made a series of clicks as he adjusted his scope, eyeing the trees around the house to gauge the wind.
A man entered the bathroom and said something with a smile.
His target spit into the sink and scurried from the bathroom, but he wasn’t worried.
Sure enough, she appeared in the next room, crawling into bed and slipping beneath the covers. The man followed, still smiling as he sat on the bed and kicked off a pair of slippers. The target emerged from the blankets when the man leaned back against the headboard, resting her head against his chest, giving Bucky the perfect angle to shoot her in the heart.
The man’s hand moved to her hair, pulling out the hair tie and combing his fingers through the target’s shiny locks.
He readied his rifle, checking the wind another time, calculating the distance and making the adjustments to his scope. His heartbeat became louder and his finger slipped close to the trigger.
The man’s palm alone could cover the target’s face. She snuggled into his chest more and then laughed. She had a missing front tooth.
He took a slow breath and his heartbeat started to spread out, slower beats. Easier to shoot between them.
The man leaned back and closed his eyes. Bucky guessed he was singing, because the target’s lips began to move in time with his and her mouth stayed open too long to be talking.
He pulled the trigger.
A loud plink! came from his rifle as the silencer muzzled the noise. Then the glass burst apart and the target jerked, a ragged hole where her sternum had been just moments before.
Bucky blinked and he was back on the platform, Steve hunched over the table, his face buried in the crook of an arm.
“Sleepy?” Bucky asked, but his voice was rough.
Steve nodded minutely. “So much quieter upstate. Forgot how loud it is in the city.”
“You still runnin’ every morning?”
Steve nodded again, his eyes still closed. “Leave my place at 5:30. Beat rush hour.”
“Don’t see why,” Bucky muttered. “Pretty sure you couldn’t gain anything but muscle, Stevie.”
His radio crackled to life. “Candidates ready to begin testing, sir.”
Bucky pulled the radio up to his lips again and clicked it on to speak. “Okay, let ‘em run.” He stood, hoisting his rifle up with his left hand. “This is where it gets fun.”
Aside from training new recruits, he was also in charge of testing them. HYDRA had given him numerous skills (thinking about how bad a soldier he had been back in World War II made him cringe), and he had taken it upon himself to train his students to a similar caliber. Enhanced enemies were becoming a greater threat, and, having been one himself, Bucky knew what lengths they would go to complete the mission. No corners could be cut.
The majority of his classes failed.
“I still don’t understand this,” Steve said as they headed over to the guardrail.
Bucky set his rifle on the floor and lay down behind it, checking his scope and ensuring everything was in order. He had a good view of the fields and forests. Given that the team started to the north, they probably wouldn’t be flanked.
“They have an hour to make it 400 meters in full ghillie. Once they’re within a hundred meters, they take a shot. A blank,” he added when Steve looked momentarily panicked. “We’re the lookouts. We see if we can identify the shooter. When we think we can see ‘em, we send a Sergeant out with a stick to where we think they are. If he can put the stick out and the candidate is within that circumference, they go packin’.”
“Just like that?” Steve asked. “Haven’t they been here for a month?”
Bucky dusted his knees off as he stood. “Lookouts ain’t just gonna be lookin’ out. If we can see ‘em, they can see ‘em. And they ain’t gonna be goin’ home to mama if the enemy sees ‘em.”
Steve frowned, but shrugged. “I guess that’s true.” He glanced down at the rifle. “Then what’s Lullaby for?”
Bucky just grinned. “You’ll see, Stevie,” he said. “Just wait.”
The boat in front of them hit a mine before they could even see land. A giant burst of white water shot up from the sea as though Poseidon had decided to try his hand at lightning. The boat went vertical, a direct hit, tossed like a child’s toy. Men were flung into the sea. Body parts landed in Steve’s boat. A man’s hand landed on the helmet of a boy in front of him, still leaking blood.
Steve grabbed the hand, keeping his mouth shut as the aftershock of blood rain sprayed over the boat.
He threw the hand over the side. Part of a leg was tossed over too.
One of the sailors said that the boat had strayed off course a few feet because the wind was so bad. The Germans had been preparing for this invasion for a while. They had the whole place rigged up with mines. Steve had seen the rough sketches that their intel had given them, but none of these men had that authority. Even the Major, whose face was now freckled with blood, probably had no idea what ominous devices lurked all around them beneath the waves.
One Private started praying, clutching his rosary with shaking hands until the soldier behind him thumped him on the head and stuck out an egg sandwich.
Steve never understood why they were only given good food before going off to die. Trays of sandwiches sat on a few crates. Nobody really knew who put them there, but some things just weren’t questioned.
The Private took the sandwich and the boat went quiet again.
It was almost comical, war. Steve had just grabbed a dead man’s hand without even thinking about it. Like it was a piece of gum. Just something to be tossed back into the ocean. Dismembered bodies didn’t even have much of an effect anymore, though Steve had a feeling he would see plenty more of those by the end of today.
They all knew that most of them weren’t going to make it. The officials hadn’t said anything about it, but they knew. Machine guns and heavy weaponry lined the beaches, and mines were presumably littered all over the sand. Mortars would be shot and they would be shelled relentlessly. So many men were being sent on this mission that Steve was sure they expected high casualties.
To think that somewhere in Washington, nice and comfortable in their offices, old men were making the decision to send 200,000 men to fight with the full knowledge that so many of them would die.
No man thought he was going to be one of them. Steve certainly didn’t.
He had survived countless operations far more risky. He had a vibranium shield on his back that could deflect bullets and a body that could recover as much as it needed to, so long as a mortar shell didn’t blow him completely apart.
But none of that made it any less terrifying.
Two more boats hit mines that they could hear.
The wind had picked up, and rain spit from the sky. Not enough to get them wet, but enough to be downright annoying. The men shifted and rocked, the sea of them churning and boiling and bubbling as they neared land.
“Get ready!” a sailor called.
The sounds of gunshots made Steve’s stomach drop. Terror filled his bloodstream, but so did excitement. They were going out there to fight. To kill. His fingers twitched as he pulled his shield from his back and the rifle that had been mounted underneath it.
A mortar shell burst in the water nearby, showering them with saltwater. The silence began to fall away, as though they were approaching a large crowd in a theatre. Each second made the sounds louder and the sense that they were missing something grew stronger and stronger.
A wave rocked the boat upward, and a few rounds of a heavy machine gun cut through the thin walls. Two men fell, one screaming. One soldier turned to help, a medic, but the rest stared straight on.
The boom of another mortar shell was close this time and they could feel the earth tremble beneath the explosion. It was so, so loud, yet muffled and dull as though it were happening somewhere else.
The cracks of gunshots grew louder and louder until they were constant and in every direction, penning them in.
The sounds called them. Each rolling wave beneath them sent energy surging to triumph over their fear. They were scared to death and itching to fight all at once. Some men howled, like dogs. They were all like dogs, Steve supposed. Dogs penned up for too long, trained but never put to the test. Now they were furious with excitement, ready to sink their teeth into flesh and tear away.
The boat stopped and the men bunched at the door, pressed tight to each other. Staying in the boat was suicide, but so was leaving first. They all knew that, yet they all tried to be the first one out.
The newsreels depicted him as stoic and reserved, waiting with patience to wreak destruction on Omaha Beach.
In reality, he had been shoving, breathing hard, and swearing every time someone knocked into his rifle. His eyes were narrowed, his lips curled to a snarl, and at one point he was jammed in so tight that his feet weren’t touching the ground. He had to get to the front of the pack so they wouldn’t slow him down.
There was no thought for others, not then.
The door fell open, landing in the shallows with a massive splash that engulfed men running to shore on either side. A mine burst fifty feet away, and a man blew clean in half, his gun flying with a hand still attached.
They all started running and shoving, a stampede of men and guns. Steve cut out first, and leapt into the water. He expected to hit sand, but his boots went straight down, water swallowing him up to his waist. Too early. They had opened the door too early.
Steve scrambled to swim, to climb up and out of the depths, but boots landed on his shoulders, his head, his neck, forcing him back beneath the waves before he could so much as gasp in surprise.
A mouthful of saltwater triggered him to cough, but doing so sent more water burning down his throat, choking him more fiercely than any enemy ever had. And above, boots pummeled him, crushing his head into the sand and stomping the remaining air from his lungs.
No, bullets would not kill him. A mortar shell would not blow him to bits.
He wouldn’t even make it to that beach.
His lungs began to burst and his throat began to open and all he saw was print black lettering from the pamphlet page he never finished reading:
The following phrases will be useful:
I am an American – juh SWEE-Z_ah-may-ree KANG (Je suis Américain)
I am your friend – juh SWEE vatr ah-MEE (Je suis votre ami)
Please help me - ay-dayMWA seel voo PLAY (Aizez-moi s’il vous plait)
He sputtered, his mouth filling with wet, coppery sand and more ocean water. And all he could think about was a goddamn pamphlet page.
Instructions for American Servicemen in France During World War II by the United States Army, pg. 70