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patron saint of shiners and showgirls

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“Shit, Steve,” Bucky croaks, his voice ragged as he surveys the scene. The couple dozen men that Steve rescued from the cages are scattered around them, chattering nervously. The door Steve came in through is completely blocked by debris from what sounds like a terrible firefight outside, and the raging inferno behind them, fueled by the weapons Schmidt destroyed in his escape, is moving ever closer.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Steve says, snugging his arm up around Bucky’s ribcage. The adrenaline that had been keeping Bucky upright during the beginning of their escape, including his walk across the yawning expanse that Steve had jumped over has clearly worn off. Bucky’s in bad shape - as are many of the men - and Steve is walking unarmed into a firefight. Right now, he can’t even figure out how the hell they’re going to get out of the building.

Suddenly, the wall to their left practically disintegrates, the bricks transforming into dust before they explode, covering the huddle of men in a fine layer of soot that leaves them all coughing.

Outside, Margot Adelstein - the same girl that used to beg Steve to go out and get her cases of Spur cola and bobby pins from whatever Penny’s was closest - is standing in her full USO girl outfit holding a glowing gun that looks like it weighs half of what she does. Steve’s mouth drops so hard it feels like his jaw is coming unhinged.

“Did you take my helmet, Steve?” she says with a terse smile, hoisting the gun a little higher on her hip. She’s always been a knockout, but she’s really something else, standing on a pile of rubble, soot streaked across her left cheek. There’s a nasty cut visible just under her skirt, running over her knee, but she’s not favouring it as far as Steve can tell, and there’s what looks like the start of a shiner under her left eye.

He suddenly feels the deep throbbing anger that had subsided when he’d yanked the straps off Bucky and heard him mumble out a coherent sentence. It’s a distant cousin of the type of anger Steve used to feel when drunk men would come to his shows and yell unmentionable things at the ladies behind him - it’s a red hot, impotent anger.

Someone punched Margot. Steve wants to put that someone right through a goddamn wall.

Steve’s trying to pull himself out of his stewing anger when he hears another familiar voice call out.

“Margot, you find ‘em?” Kitty Flanagan - also wearing her USO uniform, though hers seems worse for wear, her skirt burnt up the left side - comes jogging up the pile of rubble, stopping next to Margot. “Ain’t these the best? Jeez, barely any recoil. Think they’ll let me keep it?”

Her eyes snap to the right, and she lifts the gun, letting off a few rounds. The tank moving toward them explodes, the metal letting out an earth-shattering scream as it blows outward.

“I’m keeping it,” Kitty says, bringing it up to hug against her chest.

“Holy shit,” Bucky moans, leaning a little heavier on Steve, watching the two girls smile at one another. “I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

 

---

 

Phillips’s tent is drafty as hell, and given the volume of both their voices, Steve’s pretty sure the entire camp is paying witness to this embarrassing fight. He just can’t bring himself to care.

“Listen, I don’t appreciate --”

Phillips holds up a hand. “First off, son, I don’t give a good god damn what you do or do not appreciate. If I had my way, you wouldn’t have been dragging your sorry dog and pony show around the US of A to begin with. Did you really think the SSR was going to unleash you on the country without some supervision?”

Supervision. Finding out half the USO girls are actually SSR agents is bad enough, but learning they weren’t there to protect Steve so much as they were there to protect others from him is currently setting his last goddamn nerve off like a machine gun. Not that the former was much better than the latter, but the idea that anyone would think Steve is a threat, that he would hurt people...

Steve grits his teeth and clenches his fists. “I’ve never been a threat and you know it.”

“All I know is that you’re the science experiment of a dead man and Howard Stark, Rogers. Last time Erskine played god, we got Schmidt.” A clerk slips into the tent beside Peggy with what looks like a letter clutched in his hand and Phillips growls so loudly at him to get out that Steve can see the shiver in the man’s shoulders as he falls back out of the flaps. “I appreciate what you did for those boys, I do, but you’re back on a transport in twenty-four hours, so don’t make yourself comfortable, and don’t hitch any more rides with Stark.”

Steve takes a step toward Phillips, who looks entirely unimpressed with him. “Respectfully, I don’t think that’s up to y--”

Phillips interrupts him. “You’re dismissed.”

There’s little in this world that sets Steve off more than being dismissed by others. It reminds him of before, when men in the neighbourhood would scoff at him when he’d stand his ground, back down because they didn’t want to pick on a little guy, because there was never a fight that was fair. When the doctors and officers stationed at the recruitment offices would take one look at him walking up with an enlistment form and turn to peer at one another with looks Steve could read a mile away. He’s spent his entire life being dismissed or rejected or pitied, and he sure as hell isn’t going to take it from a man who was going to let Bucky’s entire company die in that factory.

If he were any angrier, steam would be shooting straight out of his ears.

He starts moving closer to Phillips. “Don’t you--”

A hand wraps around his arm and Steve moves to wrench it away until Peggy’s smell (leather, the light hint of something flowery and sweet) hits him. When he turns to look at her, he sees a war between sympathy and strength in her eyes. She shakes her head and gives him a tense smile. “Let’s see how Sergeant Barnes is doing, shall we?”

The anger inside him doesn’t subside, but it does sit and obey for Peggy. Steve lets her lead him out of the tent and across the thick mud that’s nearly become quicksand with the rain they’ve had the past few days.

In the medical tent, what remains of the 107th is being tended to by medics and kind, but efficient nurses who scurry around stitching together skin and wiping away blood. The space is filled with the groans of men clearly in pain, and Steve feels a deep sense of regret that he wasn’t able to get to them quicker.

Steve doesn’t spot Bucky immediately, but when he sees a line of USO uniforms - skirts and bare legs - around a bed sectioned off in the back, he knows exactly where his friend is. He hears Irene let out the kind of sigh she normally pairs with a roll of her eyes, then laughs like she can’t help herself, which only confirms Steve’s suspicions.

Bucky is laid up on a cot, shirtless, a bandage wrapped around his ribs. Getting a good look at just how banged up his chest is makes Steve’s jaw tighten with anger. He knows from the bloody shirt draped over the chair that there’s a good-sized wound under the dressing, and the bruises are varied enough in shade that Steve knows Bucky’s taken more than one beating.

Like seeing the shiner on Margot, it makes Steve want to set the entire world on fire.

“Heya, Steve,” Bucky says with a smile that’s tired more than the self-assured it’d typically be, seeing as he’s got a gaggle of knock-out women huddled around him. Even the nasty case of bronchitis Bucky picked up in the winter of ‘39 wasn’t enough to keep him from trying to flirt up the skirt of every nurse in the hospital. He’s not used to seeing Bucky so spent.

But he’s alive. Breathing. Steve holds on to that, desperate clinging to it like a lantern in a darkened labyrinth.

“Heya, Buck.”

When Steve looks up at the line of girls, not one will meet his eyes.

Finally, Alice speaks. “Sorry, Steve.” The other girls hum their agreement, and Clara looks up at him with as much apology as he’s ever seen her wear (which is extremely little). The truth is he’s not really angry at them so much as he is with the SSR and Phillips, though he is upset. The girls never really lied to him - though lies of omission aren’t much better than bald faced ones - and he’s come to realize over the last few months just how much he has enjoyed their company. They’ve been kind and supportive, each a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen.

Amongst other things.

“We wanted to tell you,” Kitty says. “The boys at the SSR ain’t the brightest sometimes. Took us three seconds to realize you were gentle as a junebug.” She smiles at Steve kindly. “But orders are orders. Just figured we’d keep you outta trouble.”

Bucky stares up from the cot inquisitively. By the time Steve finishes the story - the tour, the USO girls - Bucky’s laughing so hard he’s clutching at his ribs in pain. “Steve’s a showgirl. Well if that ain’t the best thing I’ve heard all goddamn year.”

Then Steve explains the serum and Bucky’s face gets real angry in a flash. Bucky doesn’t say anything, but his mouth goes sharp the way it used to when Steve would come home with papers marked 4F and bruises from a fight he couldn’t walk away from.

Peggy’s hand lands on Steve’s shoulder. When Steve catches Bucky watching it curiously, Bucky averts his eyes.

“Phillips wants me back on a plane to the States in the morning,” Steve says, Peggy’s touch reminding him of the looming threat of tomorrow. “I’m not going.”

Steve has spent the better part of two years trying to enlist, desperate to join the boys on the front, but it’s not about that anymore. Not by a long shot. Steve would take a damn bullet before getting on a plane and leaving Bucky behind, and he knows without question that even if the Army would give Bucky up, Bucky’s never been one to walk away from a fight either, especially when he has skin in the game.

And his skin is a canvas of greens, yellows and purples.

Kitty scowls and turns to Margot, her voice full of indignation when she says, “Well, I’m not leaving Steve here. And I am sure as hell not going back on the road again. They won’t even let me keep a damn rifle!”

“We may not have a choice in the matter,” Betty-Ann says, flicking Bucky’s hand which is playing with the bandages around his ribs, scolding. Bucky smiles up adoringly, which makes Steve want to laugh through the stress. “But I’m not leaving Steve either.”

Irene turns to face Alice, who smiles cryptically at Irene and sighs. “Well,” Alice says, puckering her mouth, “I may know a way out of this pickle.”

A plane does end up going back to the states in the morning, but neither Steve nor Kitty, Margot, Clara, Irene, Alice, or Betty-Ann is on it.

Turns out Alice’s father is a four star General and a push-over for his only daughter.

 

--

 

Steve is incredibly grateful to find that their names are as real as the stories they told on the bus that crisscrossed the country, whispered over lukewarm bottles of Coca-Cola and stale pretzels. A few more lies of omission, but it’s comforting to know that the women he’s gotten to know for the better part of a year are real, that they trusted him enough to give him truth when it really mattered.

Margot Adelstein is thirty and grows up in a red brick, two-story house in Boston proper with three older brothers. She gets her looks from her Jewish father, her unrepentant temper from her lapsed Protestant mother, and her vicious left hook from brawling with her brothers. She works as a codebreaker before getting drafted into the SSR, and Steve’s never met anyone else with such a whipsmart mind. Some days, it scares him just how clever Margot is. She’s got a daughter back home that her eldest brother and his wife are raising. She doesn’t talk about her much, but she keeps a small photo of her tucked inside the breast pocket of her uniform every day.

Kitty Flanagan is twenty-three, a former debutante, and has a southern accent thick as molasses. She was Miss Louisiana 1939, and was rumoured to have laughed straight in the face of J. Paul Getty when he’d proposed marriage upon seeing her for the first time. She likes telling tall tales, which makes it difficult to figure out what is truth and what is lie considering she tells falsehoods with a face straighter than a priest’s. Steve’s never gotten a straight story out of her on where she learned to shoot, but what Steve does know is that he’s never seen a better shot. She can take down a target half a mile away through a hail storm in the black of night. Bucky’s basically in love.

Betty-Ann Brown is twenty-nine and from a particularly poor part of Harlem. Her father’s the preacher for the local black church, but Betty-Ann takes after her mother, who studied engineering before having her children, and spent her daughter’s formative years preaching her own gospel of science and discovery. Betty-Ann is such a whiz with radios that by the time she and the girls ship out with Bucky and Steve on their first mission, half the radio techs have asked Betty-Ann for help calibrating and upgrading their sets. Her skill with electronics has Howard sending a telegram to Peggy all the way from London inquiring about this new girl everyone’s been talking about. Care to swing her to London, pal?

Clara Reddington is twenty-five, born in a small town in Pennsylvania to a father who works the coal mines as she grows up. Clara’s the youngest of nine siblings - five girls and four boys - all of whom have thick red hair and freckles everywhere. Clara barely ever smiles, but has a wickedly sharp sense of humour, and keeps her hair in perfect pincurls. Her brothers go to work the mines with their father, busy even through the depression, but Clara’s the one that really picks up her father’s knack for demolition work. She’s a genius at building bombs and even better at laying them. The only time Clara ever really smiles is when she’s blowing something up. Or when she’s looking at Betty-Ann.

Irene Himura is thirty-two, second-generation Japanese-American from Oregon who can speak six languages and has a long scar running down the side of her neck that she touches when she gets angry. She’s a widow; her husband dies three years before she joins the SSR, though she still wears a simple band on her ring finger. Some of Irene’s family - an uncle and her husband’s elderly parents - are in an internment camp at Tule Lake. She is quiet but has loud eyes that see everything - nothing gets past Irene. She also has hand-to-hand combat skills that scare the crap out of Steve. He refuses to spar with her not because he’s nervous about hurting her, but rather because the first time he does, she flattens him so soundly that the broken tailbone takes more than two days to heal up, leaving him unable to sit, sleeping on his stomach. Irene feels genuinely terrible about it, and Bucky won’t stop making awful jokes about the pretty dame who literally broke Steve’s ass.

Alice Loughlin is twenty and is born in Stockholm to a military father and a mother who is a diplomatic secretary on paper and a spy off the books. She spends the better part of her teenage years skipping around the globe, living at far-flung military bases in exotic locations. She can speak French, Russian, German and Portuguese fluently, and has a knack for emotional manipulation that would normally make Steve deeply uncomfortable, except she wields it with a strange restraint. Alice can get anything out of anyone, secrets and weapons and lies handed over by dazed men and charmed women with happy smiles.

Margaret Carter is the sun around which Steve orbits.

 

--

 

“Marry me.”

Betty-Ann’s eyebrows shoot up her forehead, then scrunch together in disbelief. “Excuse me?”

The funniest part, Steve thinks, is that Howard looks completely serious. Steve has seen him try to charm his way under plenty of British skirts in the time he’s been in London, but this is the first time he’s ever seen Howard really covet something.

Howard’s still holding the… thing Betty-Ann was working on (she tried to explain it to Steve, but he was lost within five seconds), his eyes fluctuating between wide shock and narrow suspicion as he examines it. “Marry me. I can have us in front of a priest in an hour. Honeymoon in Bermuda, after you show me how you managed to double the power without melting the circuits, that is.”

“Uh,” Betty-Ann says, clearly a little horrified. “No thank you, Mr. Stark.”

“Please, call me Howard.”

The shocked look on Betty-Ann’s face is slowly morphing into one of casual annoyance, and Clara is glaring at Howard from across the room with barely contained violence. “No.”

Howard is completely incorrigible. He smiles at Betty-Ann and opens his mouth to presumably argue with her when one of the men running around the bunker in a lab coat comes bustling up to Howard, flapping a paper in his face while excitedly sputtering something about radio bands that Steve doesn’t quite understand. Before turning to follow the lab coat, Howard winks at Betty-Ann lewdly. Or at least as lewdly as one can wink; Howard Stark is a man that could turn a can of beets into a come-on.

Betty-Ann’s face goes from sour to annoyed to perplexed in the span of a few seconds. “Is he always that obnoxious?”

Peggy smiles sympathetically. Though Peggy doesn’t talk much about Howard - or any of the men she’s worked with - Steve suspects at one time or another, she’s been on the receiving end of Howard’s attention. “For Howard, that was practically charming.”

“Ugh,” Clara grunts from across the room, and Steve hears the sharp sound of a rifle being cocked.

 

--

 

The newsreels hit the US a few weeks later.

CAPTAIN AMERICA AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS CAPTURE ANOTHER NAZI STRONGHOLD NEAR TURIN! AMERICAN BEAUTY MEETS NAZI-KILLING BRAWN AS THE COMMANDOS TAKE DOWN NEARLY A HUNDRED MEN.

Every few weeks, they send a news crew out to film them when they come back to camp, muddied and bruised, but always victorious. Phillips seems to loathe it even more than the Howling Commandos do, surly as he stomps around their outpost, muttering under his breath that, the front ain’t Gone with the fucking Wind.

There’s a man working on the third crew in Abruzzo who keeps yelling at the girls to smile as they lean over the hood of the Jeep, a map of known Hydra locations in Italy held down in each corner by small rocks. Clara and Irene both turn to pin him with looks that could flay a man alive, which sends Alice into peals of laughter.

“That’s real nice,” the slimy director tells them later that afternoon, looking over the list of shots they’ve taken today. “But I’d like to see the old uniform. The boys need a little something to look at. You know, get excited over?”

Margot’s perfectly shaped eyebrows don’t raise a single inch as she says, “Well, I guess we can see if Kitty kept Steve’s old skintight red, white and blue number,” and Bucky laughs and laughs and laughs until he cries.

 

--

 

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM

WU 5994 TLF LONDON 070944

BETTS=

MARRY ME. IF BERMUDA ISN’T TO YOUR LIKING, HAVE VILLA IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE. NEED TO WAIT UNTIL LIBERATED, BUT FINE AFTER=

PRIEST STILL ON STANDBY=

CAN’T FIGURE OUT HOW YOU WIRED THE CAPACITOR IN THAT BROWN ZENITH=

YOURS, HOWARD STARK=

 

--

 

The front ain’t no place for women.

There were days back on the tour where Steve sincerely wondered what kind of country they were fighting to save. Men who’d catcall the girls on the stage, yell all sorts of unmentionable things at ‘em in front of women and children. When he’s being honest with himself, Steve knows he wasn’t expecting much better of the men in uniform. Back in New York, some of the boys shipping out to war or coming back in pieces weren’t kind or honourable, more scared and broken than anything else.

On the front, it ain’t much different. A lot of terror and anger masquerading itself as hate. Some of them are good men that show the Commandos the respect they deserve; the remnants of the 107th practically worship at their altar.

But there are many of them still hanging on to antiquated notions that drive Steve crazy.

Of those, most aren’t stupid enough to say anything in front of the girls, but Steve’s already gotten into a few scuffles with the thicker-headed men over the inexcusable comments they make about the Howling Commandos in private, the sort of shit that men think they can get away with in the company of men. From the state of Bucky’s knuckles, Steve’s pretty sure that Buck’s been having the same kind of scuffles as Steve.

In France, one of the boys reaches up as Clara is passing him in the mess and shoves his hand between her legs. In the time it takes Clara to drop her tray and spin around, her fists clenched, Bucky has the serviceman by the arm, the pressure he puts on it snapping it hard enough that Steve can hear the bone give way, a precursor to the crunch of his nose as Clara breaks it.

It doesn’t take long for the men to get their heads screwed on right once they actually get a chance to meet them. The Howling Commandos fight as hard as the rest of them and are twice as talented. But for every twenty men that treat them the way Steve demands soldiers under his charge should be treated, there’s another twenty treating them in a way that makes Steve’s fists clench and his pulse spike. Man or woman, no soldier under his command is to be disrespected. He won’t stand for it.

Tonight looks like another night testing Steve’s ever-dwindling patience. This is a fresh lot in from the nasty fighting near Andorra that has cost thousands of men, and the ones that aren’t licking their wounds are looking to make new ones.

From the far end of the mess, Steve can hear a little rowdiness from the new men. A few at the table across from them have been talking loudly to one another about Alice and Betty-Ann, who had to take a seat a bit farther down the table from the rest of the Commandos as they’d been later to dinner. The men are seated right behind the girls, and both Steve and Bucky have been watching them with eagle eyes. There’s a reason they eat as a unit, especially when fresh blood hits the camp.

It only takes another few minutes before Steve hears it.

“Hey sweetheart,” one of the men says. His shirt is messy, but Steve can still make out PVT GUTHRIE written on the small tag above his chest pocket. “Sweetheart, yeah, I’m talking to you.”

Alice rolls her eyes and doesn’t turn around. Betty-Ann follows her lead and takes another bite of her potatoes, but Steve can tells she’s a little nervous. It makes him livid.

“What’s wrong? Ooh, a cold little princess are you?” Private Guthrie stands, and whoa, that makes Steve’s hackles rise. “Don’t wanna talk? That’s okay, neither do I. Bet you’re sweet as hell and quiet as a mouse on your knees.”

“Hey!” Steve growls, slamming his hand down on the table. The entire table full of plates and cutlery rattles. Bucky’s cup upends, spilling water everywhere. Everyone freezes instantly, but the new men across from them don’t budge an inch. They haven’t learned the pecking order.

Private Guthrie sneers at Steve, then turns his attention back to Betty-Ann and Alice.

“Been a while since you’ve gotten some?” he asks, reaching for Alice, who slaps his hand hard and stands, looking furious. “Go on, bend over, doll. I’ll give you what you need.”

He and Bucky are already on their feet when Margot steps out of nowhere and lifts her eyebrows.

“Head or gut?” she says flatly.

Guthrie laughs. “What’s that, sweetheart?”

Three seconds later, it’s near dead silence from all the men in the tent as Private Guthrie hits the floor, whining and gasping in pain. Apparently no answer means both, and the shot to the head was definitely hard enough to stun. Bucky’s still tense as hell beside him, but watching the asshole writhe on the floor is helping lower Steve’s urge to break both his legs. A little.

“Nice left hook,” one of the men sitting next to Alice says, shoving a forkful of beans into his mouth. Margot smiles with a polite, “Thank you,” as Guthrie’s friends drag him off and Margot takes a seat next to Betty-Ann, bumping their shoulders together in greeting.

 

--

 

Near Gallizien, Irene gets too close to a knife that could pass for a machete and ends up with a pretty frightening looking wound. The knife cuts deep enough that she needs stitches, cleaves the flesh open in a way that makes Steve worry about infection.

By the time Steve manages to get out of the debriefing, it’s already dark. Making his way to the med tent, he finds Bucky sitting with Irene as the doctor finishes up with her. Irene’s half-gone on the morphine, her hand in Bucky’s as she falls asleep. If she were awake, she’d be horrified, but Steve’s secretly happy she’s drugged enough to let someone care for her.

Bucky’s jaw is set in a way that warns Steve not to press anything. He’d get the same look when Steve would try to climb out of bed during one of his spells and end up passed out on the floor. Fear mixed with worry. Anger too. A little guilt.

(The knife had been goin’ for Bucky before Irene threw herself in the way.)

“Thirty-six stitches,” Bucky tells him, and thanks the doctor as he pulls down her bloodied shirt with a huge gash up the side to cover her exposed torso. They watch Irene doze quietly before the nurse pops in and tells them to skedaddle, that she’s going to wash Irene down and set her up for the night, that they can come back in the morning.

“It’s not your fault, Buck,” Steve tries to tell him as they walk to the mess tent, but Bucky spends the the night fuming anyway.

When they head out the next day without Irene on a short recon mission, Bucky snipes sixteen Hydra soldiers.

Kitty picks up another twelve.

 

--

 

“God, did you see that shot Kitty pulled off today? Goddamn, Steve. I had to wait five minutes before comin’ down off the hill so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.” Bucky tips his head back and grins. “I’m not sure if I want to take her to bed or down to the range so I can learn how the hell she shoots like that.”

Steve had wondered why it took Bucky so long to make his way into the artillery factory the Commandos had seized that morning. Margot and Irene had already been leading the cuffed engineers from the rubble before Bucky had walked through the half-destroyed wall looking unkempt and a little cranky.

“Or both.” Bucky laughs after, launching into prattle that Steve ignores as he carefully rips the newspaper that Howard had sent along with a new backmount for his shield. The damp weather is making the paper hard to tear, and Steve’s worried he’s going to muck it up. Eventually he finishes the lopsided circle and breathes a sigh of relief.

“Plus, that mouth? Bet she’s a damn fine kisser.”

“She is,” Steve says absentmindedly, trying to shove the newsprint photo of Peggy into his compass without getting the edges soggy. When the tent goes quiet, a chill runs up Steve’s spine. Goddamit.

When he turns to look, Bucky’s face is a mixture of pure joy and mischief. “Oh my god, I knew it. I knew it. That body and those girls and months on the road.” Bucky’s practically cackling, his half-disassembled rifle lying forgotten on his lap. “Okay, be truthful with me. How many of ‘em did you make time for? Oh please tell me you made a little time for Alice. Bossy as hell and I know you’d like that in the sack.”

“Bucky.” This entire conversation is making Steve deeply uncomfortable.

“Don’t Bucky me. How many times did I share with you?”

“I wasn’t exactly askin’ for it, if you remember,” Steve says. It’s a bit of a lie though: Steve hadn’t minded hearing about Bucky’s exploits with all the girls from the neighbourhood who were aching to make time with him. Bucky was never crass or disrespectful about it, so it was mostly harmless fun, even if it did make Steve feel lonely at times.

“It’s all respectful talk here. And let’s not pretend they didn’t get together to talk about you, Steve. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that ladies talk about it even more than the fellas do. So hopefully you showed ‘em a good time.”

The thought makes all the blood in Steve’s body rush to his face. “Oh god.”

“Why you look so damn guilty?” Bucky chastises. “What, there ain’t nothing wrong with it! You weren’t with Carter, right?”

The truth of the matter is that at the time, he hadn’t thought he’d ever see Peggy again, let alone be her fella. The loss of Bucky, Peggy, and every familiar face he’d ever known had been harder on Steve than he expected. He’d wanted a bit of comfort and they were offering, and it hadn’t felt wrong or bad. None of them had been pushy, so it’d been easy for him to fall in step, especially when they’d been happy to take the lead.

Don’t worry - I’ll show you the ropes. Your girl will be thrilled, trust me, Alice had said, climbing into Steve’s bed that first night, shucking her underwear and dragging his hand between her legs. He hadn’t had the heart to tell her that he didn’t have a girl back home, especially when she’d seemed so keen to teach him. Alice was kind and patient and taught him how to get a girl off with his fingers when he’d lasted exactly a minute and a half inside her that first time. The second time? He’d lasted a hell of a lot longer, his body calmer, and she had come so hard he could feel her legs shaking slung around his hips.

By Nebraska, a few different girls had started sneaking into the room their chaperone (apparently an honest to god chaperone and not an SSR plant, go figure) had booked for Steve on a different floor than the girls. He and Irene had just kissed a lot; she’d always been real eager for it, but also a little quiet and solemn when they’d finish, her thumb rolling against her wedding ring. He wondered at times if she thought about her husband while she was in his arms, but he always tried to banish the thought as soon as it came. It was too sad.

Kitty had spent most of her time showing Steve exactly how to use his mouth, which was a goddamn epiphany. Bucky had always talked a lot about kissing a girl between her legs, but the noises that Kitty made, the way she whined and moaned, tugged at his hair, and liked the way he held her hips down? Was better than anything else in the world. (Until she slid down between his legs, swallowed him down, and he broke the headboard.)

There’d been no sex with Margot. She’d sat on his bed and nervously made a simple request that had his heart thundering in his chest. While he’d thoroughly enjoyed making time with the other girls, the hours he spent holding Margot’s sleeping body, his frame tucked around hers, had been his favourite. It reminded him of when he’d been smaller, when Bucky had spent nights curled around him, warm and comforting, each time the pneumonia came back to punish his body. It made Steve feel happy - special - to know that he could do that for Margot, who held everyone at a comfortable distance.

He’d told Peggy eventually, after she’d kissed him for the first time in Provence in the woods near their makeshift camp. Logically, he knew the girls could keep secrets and he hadn’t done anything wrong or that he was obliged to disclose, but it hadn’t felt right keeping it from her, either. Peggy had listened quietly with raised eyebrows as he skimmed over most of the details, explaining his time on the road with the girls. How he took a bit of comfort, but that they were just friends - colleagues - that he respected, nothing more. Nothing like what he felt for or wanted with Peggy.

Peggy had been a little shocked, but kind. What he thought was understanding with an air of reticence that made Steve a bit sad until she placed a hand over his and said, “I knew. I’m just surprised you told me, Steve.” And then she’d kissed him softly with a strange smile plastered on her face.

(Three nights later, tucked in the small tent far enough from the others to offer a bit of privacy, Steve proved Alice right: Peggy had been thrilled.)

“No, but it isn’t right. Spreading stories.”

“It’s just you and me, buddy. Who the hell am I gonna tell?”

Steve shakes his head and waves Bucky off, focusing back down on his compass like he can’t feel Bucky staring at the top of his head with disgust.

“Kitty likes it a little rough. With your mouth.”

Bucky’s eyes grow as big as saucers and he tips over dramatically, flopping against the cot. “Oh my god.

 

--

 

The abandoned farmhouse they’re squatting in has a surprising amount of liquor in it. A few stay sober to keep watch outside - Peggy and Margot amongst them - while the others partake.

Steve abstains; it’s wasted on him. He only takes a small thimbleful for the taste. They’d had truly terrible rations for lunch and Steve can almost still taste it over the strong bite of the whiskey.

Unfortunately, the liquor loosens tongues and before long, Steve’s cheeks are flaming red.

“Did you see the hickey Carter was sporting last week?” Clara says with a laugh. She’s got an arm wrapped around Betty-Ann’s shoulder, Betty-Ann’s face pressed into her neck. “We should have codenamed you Piranha.”

“Such an apt pupil,” Alice says with a proud smile on her face, and Steve’s head thunks as it hits the table.

When Steve finally looks back up again, Bucky’s grin is ear to ear.

“Wait, I had a codename?”

 

--

 

April sees them fly back to London for a short respite. They’ve been chasing Hydra around Europe for the better part of a year, so they finally get a few weeks leave to recuperate in London.

As expected, Howard is obnoxious about Betty-Ann, who spends the required first day in the bunker, then leaves for the countryside with the rest of the girls, save Peggy. Alice’s aunt lives on an estate outside Exeter and extends an invitation to the girls to stay with her while they’re in the country, which they happily accept. Alice and Kitty visit for a few nights before returning to the city without the others, who elect to stay behind for the remainder of their leave.

Right about now, Steve wishes he’d gone to Exeter and taken Peggy with him.

Howard’s babbling on about priests again as he holds some… box thing that Betty-Ann wired for him when Peggy finally snaps.

“Are you daft, Howard?” Peggy asks. Steve can see the war raging inside her; what’s well known within their ranks would be fuel for terrible gossip outside of it. Frankly, it’s no one’s business but theirs, but Howard’s a dog with a bone, and everyone’s growing a bit tired of it. “Leave the girl alone. It’s neither charming nor amusing and I’m right sick of it.”

Howard scoffs. “I’ve met harder women than Betty-Ann. I’ll win her over yet.”

“Betty-Ann’s not going to marry you, Howard,” Steve says, finally, stepping in when Peggy looks about ready to slap Howard. “She just ain’t.”

Peggy sighs loudly and rolls her eyes. “Howard, Betty-Ann’s taken.”

“She’s got a fella back home?” Howard asks at the same time Steve says, “By Clara.”

Howard goes quiet for a few blissful seconds, his face frozen in a blank stare.

“Oh,” Howard says.

 

--

 

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM

WU 8589 TLF LONDON 966632

BETTS=

NEED A NEW CHIEF ENGINEER AT THE LAB OUT IN SOUTHERN CALI. THE JOB IS YOURS AFTER THE WAR IF YOU WANT IT=

ALSO, NEED A DEMO EXPERT AT SAME FACILITY. FIGURE YOU MIGHT KNOW A GIRL=

PRIEST STILL ON STANDBY=

YOURS, HOWARD STARK=

 

--

 

The makeshift base in Northern Italy is oddly constructed, spread out in the way most mobile bases aren’t. There’s enough division between the housing tents that for the first time, Steve and the Howling Commandos have a bit of privacy from the scores of other units moving through. The odd part is that instead of making decent use of it, he and Peggy end up making out like sweethearts up against a tree in the dense forest that flanks the tents. It’s a little elevated and offers a gorgeous view, not that Steve’s spending much time looking at the Italian countryside.

It’s from this vantage point that Steve watches as Alice slips from Bucky’s tent. Her shirt is buttoned up a bit wrong, and thanks to his vastly improved eyesight, he can see some marks up the column of her neck. Steve likes to think he ain’t the type to jump to conclusions, so he doesn’t set his mind to the obvious until a hand reaches out between the flaps of the tent and grabs her arm. Then Bucky’s ducking out quickly - shirtless - to kiss Alice.

It’s a bit of a sweet kiss, Bucky’s hand reaching up to cup her cheek as he leans into it. It’s intimate, and Steve feels guilty for watching. (But mostly guilty for realizing how hard it turns his crank. He remembers kissing Alice like that, the way she’d melt into it. It’s both strange and exhilarating watching her and Buck do it now.) Alice laughs into the kiss eventually and shoves him back toward the tent as she turns on her heel and marches back to the one she’s sharing with Margot.

Now that Steve’s stopped the hand pressed up between Peggy’s legs, she’s grown curious and turns her head to the left, searching for what’s distracted him.

“I thought he was with Kitty!” Peggy snaps, annoyed. All the girls are protective over one another. It’s been quiet but common knowledge that Kitty and Bucky have been making time with one another since Sicily. But while Bucky’s been openly demonstrative in his affection for Kitty, she’s been a bit aloof, though anyone with half a brain can see how gone she is on Bucky.

Peggy’s outrage lasts ten seconds, the exact amount of time it takes before Kitty slips from the tent as well. This time, Bucky’s with her, his arms wrapped around her waist and his bare chest pressed against her clothed back, though her shirt is in the same state of disarray as Alice’s. It looks like several of the buttons are just outright missing, so Steve’s seeing a lot of bare breast in the deep vee of her shirt.

They’re shuffling away from his tent slowly, Bucky’s head ducked into the crook of her neck. It looks like he’s mumbling something into the skin there, because Kitty’s face breaks out into a grin that’s bright as the sun. Bucky’s hand drops down and slips right into her pants, which causes Kitty’s head to snap back, her mouth falling open to let out a harsh moan that Steve can hear.

“Oh,” Peggy says. Her voice is calm and neutral, but Steve feels the way her hips hitch almost unconsciously as the two of them watch Bucky’s hand work in Kitty’s pants. Steve’s fingers are still pressed right up against Peggy, rucked in her panties and more than a little wet. When they twitch against her, her fingers curl into the collar of his leather jacket and she lets out the most aching breath he’s ever heard leave a body.

“Pegs.”

The last thing Steve sees before Peggy kisses him blind is Bucky dragging Kitty back into the tent.

 

--

 

At first, Steve’s a bit worried about what it’ll mean for the unit. Bucky’s tomcatting had gotten him into plenty of trouble back in the neighbourhood, even though Bucky’d never been mean or misleading with any of the girls he made time with.

In Haldensee, Bucky makes the double-barrelled mistake of both stealing Kitty’s favourite rifle and then pulling some stupid heroics as they take out the small arms transport making it’s way through Austria toward Germany. Bucky’s efforts earn him a few bruised ribs and a bullet wound through the arm.

Pacing through the thick mud as the sky threatens more rain, Kitty yells, “You’re dumber than a load of sheep shit, Barnes!”

“Don’t insult sheep shit!” Alice adds.

Bucky gives the finger to both of them as Clara sutures up the small wound in his arm and tells him to stop fucking squirming.

Things are just fine.

 

--

 

Bucky’s hanging off the guardrail when Steve steps off the train and onto what used to be the siding, but now looks like mangled tinfoil. The shredded metal groans under his weight, but there isn’t even a momentary fear for his own safety. Just Bucky’s, whose legs are whipping wildly underneath him. Steve can list on one hand the number of times he’s seen Bucky truly scared. The summer Becca went missing for a day. The winter of ‘38 when he got a case of pneumonia so bad, the church had sent over a priest. The time Steve came back with enlistment papers in his hand, the 4F hidden under his palm.

And now.

Bucky’s staring up at him, fear bleeding over his features as the wind whips him violently against the side of the train.

“Bucky,” Steve screams, his throat burning with the sheer force of his words, “grab my hand!”

Bucky reaches out for him, but he’s too far. He’s too far...

The second he hears the metal give way, the rivets finally popping under Bucky’s weight is a second that drags on forever, his heart wrenching so painfully that it feels like it’s trying to break through his ribs and punch through his chest.

But instead of dropping like the bar that falls into the deep chasm below, Bucky seems to hover for a second, then starts banging violently against the side of the train in a way that looks enormously painful.

“I got him! I got him!” he hears a voice yell from the top of the train.

Irene’s on top of the car, a rope clenched between her hands that extends down to what looks like a grappling hooked jammed into the gun strap across Bucky’s back. “He weighs a goddamn ton,” Irene complains loudly enough that Steve can hear it over the angry hiss of the wind and his own voice.

It’s only after he pulls Bucky back into the car and Bucky quietly says, “Steve, Steve, Stevie, stop screaming,” that he realizes he’s still yelling Bucky’s name hysterically.

Later, Steve finds her at camp. He knows Irene isn’t one for being touched much; even when they’d kiss lazily on tour, she always preferred being on top, keeping her distance. So when Steve stretches his arms around her and hugs her tight to his chest, he feels the way her body resists at first, tense in a way that makes him feel guilty.

When the hug goes on for longer that is strictly proper, he feels Irene’s arms finally relax, circling his waist to hold him. “It’s okay, Steve,” she says in the softest, kindest voice he’s ever heard her use. She holds him with the perfect amount of pressure around his ribs to feel safe, protected. “He’s okay. You’re okay.”

It takes him another minute to realize that the reason they’re shaking is because he’s crying.

 

---

 

Steve climbs into Bucky tent.

They’re still a day’s march from the closest allied post where Phillips and members of the SSR are waiting for them. Peggy and Irene are taking first watch over Zola, and Peggy had told him to get a little sleep with a knowing, soft smile.

Steve’s never felt as bone-tired and weary as he does right now, his feet slogging inside Bucky’s tent. The smell of Bucky is almost overwhelming: ripe, but not unpleasant.

Even when Steve had heard about the 107th, there hadn’t been a moment he thought Bucky was dead. He knew that he’d find Bucky alive, that he’d be breathing and smiling as long as Steve could get there. Hell, back in Brooklyn, watching Bucky throw his pack over his shoulder and hop on the train for New Jersey, there wasn’t a bone in his body that thought that Bucky wouldn’t be coming home to him.

But on that train, watching that metal bar pry loose…

Bucky’s always been larger than life. Invincible. Losing him isn’t something Steve has ever entertained, even for a second. It frightens him to think about how vulnerable Bucky really is, how close he’s come to losing him.

The small slat on the side of the tent lets in just enough of the full moon that Steve can get a good look at Bucky. He’s spread out on his roll, not quite asleep, but nearly there. There’s a terrible bruise over the ridge of Bucky’s cheek where he hit the side of the train. Steve wants to touch it - wishes they had a bit of ice to put on it to keep it from hurting, but Alice had spent the better part of the evening holding a compress, cold from the creek water, to it while Bucky groused and insisted he was fine. Steve had caught Kitty’s eye after and saw the kind of fear he imagines was written all over his face too. All of the girls had been quiet that night, the only chatter mostly started by Bucky as they ate cans of beans warmed by the campfire.

Bucky grumbles as Steve shucks off his boots and less than delicately drops down beside him, curling his body toward Bucky’s.

Bucky cracks an eye open but doesn’t say anything, instead closing his eyes again without comment. The corner of his mouth tips up just an inch and he lets out a deep, tired sigh as he burrows into the balled up jacket serving as a makeshift pillow

Kitty reaches over from the other side of Bucky’s body and rubs Steve’s cheek gently, a soft comfort, before letting her hand scoop between them, curling around Bucky’s stomach.

Steve falls asleep to the measured sound of Bucky’s breathing.

 

--

 

The poorly-manned checkpoint is right at the Austrian-German border near Kiefersfelden. Most of Hydra’s troops have gone West, massing against the mounting allied forces in France, leaving spots like this almost completely unguarded. Zola’s information has been invaluable, and Hydra is on its last legs, a dying swansong in the heart of Europe

The girls are dressed in traditional local garb, Alice chattering loudly in German as they approach the checkpoint. Betty-Ann and Irene lie in wait behind the small hut being used as soldiers’ quarters.

“You ever think about it?” Steve asks, gripping his shield tightly, ready to charge the hill if they need him. He has no doubt that the Commandos are far better equipped to handle the men below them, but his nervousness is a reflex when Peggy is in harm’s way. There is no skill set strong enough, no weapon powerful enough to ease his worry.

“Think about what?” Bucky doesn’t look up from his scope, his finger balanced over the trigger.

“What we’ll do after the war?”

That gets a light huff out of Bucky. “You think this’ll ever end?”

The war’s been going on for what feels like forever. There’d been a time in Brooklyn, Steve sick and desperate to enlist while Bucky worked a job that was killing him just to make the rent, where it felt like they’d never see the other side of it. Each day was another headline making the light at the end of the tunnel grow dimmer. Steve’s future had never been particularly bright, and quietly, clandestinely, he’d always wanted a hero’s life - and a hero’s death. He’d wanted to make a difference, no matter the sacrifice.

Now? Now, Steve believes. Now Steve has hope for a future outside a fight. A future with a beautiful girl and a best pal and free of pneumonia and burdens on those he loves. A group of women he’d consider family, that would follow him into hell if he asked, and that he’d follow without question in return.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says, smiling as Alice chops one of the soldiers right in throat below them. Clara detonates the bombs she’d set the night before and watches as the men grow panicked. “Yeah, I do.”

“Mmm,” Bucky replies, taking a shot at one of the men who reaches for a gun. Margot launches herself at the other, her legs wrapping around his torso and her body making an intricate flip in the air, the soldier hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes.

“Sweet mother of god,” Bucky gasps, still peering through the scope as the girls round up the still-breathing men and make them kneel in the fresh mud. “Well, wherever we end up, it’s gotta be a place where I can marry all of ‘em.”

Steve laughs, light for the first time in ages as Peggy smiles up from down below, the girls whooping loud enough that it echos through the forest.