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Not Without You

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Six months earlier, Bucky would have said the prospect of dying back home in Brooklyn sounded like a dream. Now, faced with his own imminent demise in a Brooklyn that is almost unrecognizable, streets littered with corpses, air heavy and stagnant with death and sickness, it’s decidedly less appealing.

Honestly, it’s just sort of bizarre. Survive Afghanistan and come home to die in the pseudo-zombie apocalypse. Can’t make this stuff up.

It’s not that they’re zombies, exactly. The Afflicted—and god, doesn’t that sound just like a fucking politician’s word for it, it’s about as clear as “insurgent,” in terms of saying what you mean—aren’t dead. They’re just beyond saving.

He drops into a crouch behind the hanging door of a wrecked car and shoulders his rifle. His only chance, as far as he can tell, is to take out as many of them as possible and make a break for it through the Dyker Beach golf course. It’s fenced, and they don’t seem nimble enough to handle eight feet of chain link. If he can just make it over the padlocked entry gate, he might stand a chance of living for another hour or so. But when the gory, staggering horde turns toward him and starts down the street in his direction, he counts forty, at least. He’s got twenty rounds.

Well, fuck it. He starts shooting.

He tells himself it’s more humane this way. The virus eats through the nerves first, rendering people numb to all external sensation, but inflicting constant pain from within. Within two days, it works its way into the brain, with much the same effect.

There is no cure, he thinks, kind of the same way he used to think, it’s them or me when he was plowing through Zabul Province, where the border was lousy with Taliban and Bucky would find himself hanging out the back of a Humvee, taking head shots and wondering how the fuck this amounted to sharpshooting. It was absolutely not the controlled, strategic environment he’d imagined after training. Now, as he takes three quick shots, all clean and to the head, death is instantaneous. He can’t quite decide which is worse—putting down braindead Americans or very-much-alive-but-trying-to-kill-him Afghans. He breathes in. Out. Three more shots. Three more kills.

And then he hears a sound behind him, a three-note whistle, and he freezes.

“Barnes,” says a voice. “Right behind you. Don’t shoot.” A hand on his elbow.

Bucky turns, and stares, and immediately questions his sanity. It’s just not possible.

Yeah, okay, the social order has gone straight to hell; up is down, dogs and cats are living together, the whole schmear, but still. It can’t be. It just can’t. Had he somehow wished him into existence?

“Cap?” he asks, uncertain. “Captain Rogers?”

“Course it’s me. Hasn’t been that long, has it?”

“Sorry, sir - the beard and the civvies threw me off,” Bucky says.

“I knew it was you, though,” his former CO whispers, clapping a hand to his shoulder. “Nobody else shoots that clean, that fast. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Got sent back here a month ago, I’m part of the crisis response team,” Bucky says. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I live here. Joined the fire department. We can catch up later, let’s focus on getting out of here first.”

*

Rogers had resigned when Bucky was still in Afghanistan—and Jesus, his replacement had been a sack of shit. They hadn’t known how good they had it with Rogers, not till Rumlow had shown up, started making shit decisions.

Rogers had been the kind of CO everyone bitched about, a little, even if they liked him. And they did like him. But he did things by the book, for the most part, a man with high expectations and little patience for fucking around.

He had also been the kind of CO everyone was grateful for, when shit hit the fan. He’d kept them alive, more than once, stuck behind some burned out building in Kandahar once, again when they were stranded beside some dusty stretch of camel trail a hundred miles from camp.

The thing about Afghanistan, though, is that most of the time it wasn’t firefights and life-or-death runs through the desert. Most of the time it was fucking boring.

Bucky had learned to play spades almost as soon as he’d got there, spending hour after hour huddled around a rickety little table in a tent that smelled like stale sweat and Ramen noodles. At first it had been alarming, trying to concentrate on a hand of cards with the sound of explosions in the distance, night after night. Like anything else, though, it had gotten to be old hand pretty quickly.

“Rogers’s got us on shit detail again tomorrow,” one of the boys he usually played with would say, rolling his eyes.

“Man’s got too much free time on his hands,” another would chime in, shaking his head. “You think he’s got a wife back home? Girlfriend, maybe? Someone to send him a few titty shots, maybe whisper something dirty next time he calls home? Help him ease up a little.”

Bucky could not imagine a world where someone who looked like Captain fucking Rogers didn’t have someone—maybe several someones—waiting for him back home.

“Never mentions no one,” Mikey would say. He was a scrawny little guy from Mississippi, dirty blond hair that was always in his eyes and a Southern accent about twice as tall as he was. Bucky liked him. “Maybe he ain’t got no one and that’s why he’s always so fuckin’ serious.”

“Maybe he’s gay.” The words were out of Bucky’s mouth before he considered them, and he’d swallow them if he could. DADT might have been repealed, but that didn’t mean you could, necessarily, go around screaming about how you just loved taking a dick.

The other guys just snorted, though. “Cap, gay? Yeah, he looks like a real pansy, Barnes.”

Mikey was the only one who didn’t laugh or cut up, and he just gave Bucky a speculative look and then merrily trumped his ace.

Fucking Mikey. He’d bled out beside his half-blown Humvee not six months later, after Rogers had resigned and Rumlow had rerouted them down a utility road on a routine run.

*

Bucky shakes his head, clearing it, trying to get his head in the fucking game. He keeps his eyes on his targets and clears his throat. “Right—you got any ideas for a quick escape?” Those had kind of been Rogers’ specialty, back in Afghanistan. Never was a tight spot he couldn’t see a way out of. It was a good quality to have in a leader.

“Nothing fancy,” Rogers says, and he hefts a huge axe in one hand, the blade stained black with blood. “But I think between the two of us, we’ve can maybe manage something. It’ll be messy, probably. You got a head count?”

Bucky instantly relaxes into their old chain of command, so happy to have someone to tell him what the hell to do, he could cry. “Forty. Minus six.”

“How many rounds you have left?”

“Fourteen.”

“Twenty apiece, then? Sounds fair.”

“Then what?”

Rogers points at a side street a half-block from the golf course gate. “Got a bike parked in the alley. If you split’em with me, we might just make it - this is the biggest group I’ve seen in the neighborhood. Mostly singles, a few pairs - don’t know why they’re herding up like this, but I think we’d better stop it. Sound good?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky replies automatically.

“It’s just Steve, now, resigned my commission, remember?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky says again, but with a little smile, this time. Steve shakes his head, laughing, and swings the axe up to his shoulder, looking for all the world like a lumberjack. And Bucky feels his heart grind to a halt in his chest.

There’s the beard, of course, which does wonderful things to his face - makes his eyes look even brighter blue, makes him look a little older, less innocent. He’s wearing a checked flannel shirt, which fits well enough across his broad shoulders, but pulls tight across his equally broad midsection. Which is where Bucky’s eyes catch, and linger.

Steve’s always been a big guy, and the flannel does nothing to conceal the curving muscles of his chest and upper arms - but neither does it conceal the contours of a substantial belly, a round, firm, ball gut that hovers over the sagging waistband if his jeans. Like the beard and the civilian clothes, this is new. It’s also the hottest thing Bucky has ever seen.

He’d been gone on Steve right from the get-go - hell, so had the rest of the unit, no matter how they might have bitched or joked. Steve’s just that kind of guy, the kind who asks a lot of his men and gets it, the kind people love. It had been a hopeless adoration; even if Steve had returned his feelings, there was never any question of either of them doing anything about it. Fraternizing between officers and enlisted was strictly against the rules, and Captain Rogers was famous for his respect for the rules. Naturally, the fact that it was forbidden had only made Bucky’s crush that much worse.

But this? Shit. This hits him right in his deepest, most powerful kink. He’d wanted to drop to his knees and praise the gods the first time someone told him about the whole lumbersexual trend going on back home. But this is even better, because it’s not just some skinny hipster from Park Slope, it’s his goddamn blazing hot former CO, the object of his most feverish crush. Steve couldn’t be less ironic. The belly, the beard, the clothes, all of it - if it weren’t for the imminent danger, Bucky would be doing whatever it took to get inside that cozy-looking flannel.

We’re in the middle of the fucking zombie apocalypse, he reminds himself. Keep it in your pants, Barnes.

He drops back into position, taking aim again, as Steve walks out into the middle of the street, casual as anything, axe resting easily on his shoulder. The meandering herd of Afflicted seems to sense him all at once, shifting like a flock of birds to close in on him.

Bucky takes out four in rapid succession, giving Steve space to work. He’s incredibly fast, sinking the axe deep into the neck of the first attacker, the chest of the second. It sinks through flesh and bones with a dull, sickening thunk, pulls out again with an equally ghastly sucking sound.

Bucky aims, shoots two more, dropping them in swift succession. They go on like this; Bucky taking shots whenever there’s an opening, Steve hacking his way through the rest, until Bucky’s out of ammunition and there are only two left.

“C’mon, Buck, I’ve got these two, let’s go!”

Bucky shoulders his rifle and runs down the street. There’s a sudden flurry of movement from the doorway of one of the ransacked townhomes, and then he’s on the ground, breathless, and something hot and wet is clamped onto his arm.

Steve is there, instantly, and the heavy, stinking weight is lifted off of Bucky’s chest. He rolls to one side as the axe swings down, and a splatter of burning hot blood hits the side of his face. He’s shaken, but he’s good. He’s fine. He’s alive.

Steve takes him by the hand, pulls him to his feet.

“You okay, Buck? Not hurt?”

“Think so,” Bucky says, wiping blood and sweat and dirt from his forehead with the back of his hand.

“What’s this?” Steve catches his hand, turns it gently, and Bucky winces, feeling a sharp throb from his left forearm. “You’re bleeding,” Steve says. “Look here.” He points to the faint trickle of blood, the ragged, bruised-looking tear in Bucky’s skin.

Bucky suddenly feels cold. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think – right at first - he might’ve bitten me.” Bucky stares into Steve’s face and sees his worst fear realized in the grim set of his mouth. A little pop of adrenaline goes off in his chest.

“Okay,” Steve says, levelly. “Okay. We’re not gonna panic here - we don’t know for sure he bit you.”

“Right,” Bucky says, although he’s thinking about that warm, wet pressure near his wrist. “But -”

“No,” Steve says, squeezing his shoulders. “We’re not assuming the worst. We’ll get you back to the infirmary at Fort Hamilton - they’ve been working on the vaccine, maybe there’s something they can do. I don’t know if they’ve ever caught a case this early.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. It’s hard to feel as frightened as he possibly should; he’s just so relieved not to be alone, and Steve’s steady blue gaze is deeply reassuring.

Steve swings one leg over the bike, and Bucky climbs on behind him. He accepts the helmet Steve hands him, even though he figures he’d rather die in a motorcycle accident than of the virus. “Might want to hold on to me,” Steve says. “It’s rough going and I don’t need you falling off.”

“Right,” Bucky says. And again, circumstances being different, this would be a goddamn wet dream. He leans forward, the insides of his thighs wrapped around Steve’s hips, and clasps his hands around Steve’s middle. It’s almost too much intimacy all at once, being pressed up against Steve’s wide, warm back, hands meeting over his belly. His body is thick and solid and just a little soft, and holding onto him makes Bucky feel safe, even though he knows he’s almost certainly fucked.

****

It’s not that far to Fort Hamilton—not even two miles, and the bike makes it easy to navigate the streets, fucked up as they are. They don’t make it, though. The Afflicted are crowding up again, shuffling and terrible in the fading light, and Steve isn’t willing to risk a fight when he’s carrying an axe and Bucky fucking Barnes, possibly—probably—bitten, just as beautiful as ever. The decision to hole up in an empty house is an easy one; they can make for Hamilton tomorrow, in the daylight.

Steve can’t believe he found him; can’t believe bits and pieces of his old unit are back, or that Rumlow had fucked up so badly that apparently he’s dead. Can’t believe that a soldier like Barnes, born to take orders and smart enough to do it well, is on his own, ducking behind a fucking car door and picking off zombies.

It’s all surreal, and all Steve can really think, above the baseline hum of survival, is that he can’t fuck this up. He can’t let Barnes down. Can’t let him die here, can’t let his service end like this. Bucky deserves better. Doesn’t deserve to die in some fucked up fake zombie apocalypse situation. There hasn’t been any news about the situation in the rest of the country for weeks. The hybrid virus had spread like wildfire, decimating whole communities overnight. There are people working on a solution, he knows that, but right here, right now? New York City is overrun with people infected with a virulent mutation of the rabies virus that makes people act like zombies, and his new priority number one is saving Bucky Barnes..

Shit. Bucky had gotten under his skin from the moment Steve had clapped eyes on him in Afghanistan. Steve had been protective of every boy who had served under him, had been painfully aware of their youth, their fear, their trust in him to keep them out of harm’s way.

Bucky had been different, in that sense. He wasn’t a kid, for one thing, had ended up being promoted to sergeant, for another. But for reasons that Steve can hardly bear to inspect too closely, he’d felt as protective of Bucky—more, even—than he had of any other man under his command.

Part of it had been the beautiful way he’d taken orders, like he was born to it. Some men took commands like stallions with their blood up, biting and snapping at the bit till their mouths bled with it, until you broke them because it was the only way they would have it. Bucky, though—Bucky had always looked at him, direct and steady with those big gray-blue eyes, and listened, like his “yes, sir,” meant something besides protocol.

Then there was how fucking beautiful he was. Too pretty for the desert, certainly, too pretty for rough fatigues and the ugliness of modern warfare. He had a cocksure smile, a quietly appealing confidence, and the kind of easy camaraderie with the men in his unit and the team he led that Steve had admired—an easy camaraderie with men that had led Steve to wonder, at night and alone, if Buck was queer.

It wasn’t any particular thing that had made Steve wonder; in fact, maybe most of it was wishful thinking. He’d just instantly wanted him, this man who was roughly Steve’s age, certainly his equal in terms of intelligence and capability, but who had submitted to him so gracefully, taken orders from him as if it were not just his duty but his pleasure, and done it all while looking so achingly gorgeous it had nearly driven Steve to distraction.

Steve had been so fucking happy to see him—and not just because he liked the man, but Jesus, because he’d needed the damn cover fire, because Brooklyn was a goddamn mess—and it had, if Steve were being honest with himself, given him a little thrill to feel Bucky climb onto the bike behind him.

Sitting bitch, you wanted him sitting bitch behind you.

And yeah, that’s what he’d wanted, although he’d sort of regretted his own enthusiasm for it when Bucky had wrapped his arms right around Steve’s waist and rested them, fingers loosely entwined, over the roundest part of Steve’s belly. When he’d told Buck to hold on, he’d figured Bucky would grab him by the shoulders. But nope, he’d just latched right around him, torso flush against Steve’s back, arms around his waist, hands resting right front and center on the new thirty or so pounds—more than thirty, it was forty if it was an ounce, but Steve can’t quite acknowledge that just yet—that have landed almost entirely on his belly. His belly that is, by pretty much any standards, a full fledged beer gut, these days.

If it had bothered Bucky, Steve hadn’t been able to tell. He’d just hung on and leaned forward, his chin tucked onto Steve’s shoulder. And now—well, now Bucky’s lying sprawled out on some stranger’s shitty sofa in this empty house, looking up at Steve with big somber gray eyes, right arm cradling the wounded left one, and waiting for Steve to tell him what to do.

*

“So are you glad to be back?” Bucky asks, looking over at Steve from his end of the couch. ‘I mean, when there’s not a zombie emergency, are you glad to be back?” He looks ethereal and pretty, in the candlelight. As soon as Steve had secured the doors and windows, he’d used the last of the fading daylight to dig around the empty house for candles. Brooklyn—and probably the whole damn city—had been without power for days now. He’d come up with a mishmash of decorative pillars and jar candles littered around the house, and now their little makeshift camp in the living room smells like a weird mix of vanilla and cedarwood. Very artisanal.

Steve considers the question. “Yeah, I am.” He shifts his weight a little bit, very aware of how Bucky has tucked his feet up onto the sofa and is facing Steve, taking up more than his half of the allotted space. His boots are a mere six inches from Steve’s thigh. “I like the fire department. Good work, good guys.”

Bucky whistles, long and low between his teeth. “Yeah, FDNY. Sounds about right, Cap.”

“It’s a good job.’ Steve eyes Bucky in the dim light. He can tell Bucky’s scared, can tell it by the way he’s angling his entire body toward Steve, like Steve is his only point of reference in the world. He’s grasping his left wrist, holding it against his chest like something fragile. There’s clearly a bite mark, and when they’d first gotten into the house and Steve had asked to see it, Bucky had held up his arm so trustingly, just offered it up to Steve without any hesitation, that it had nearly broken Steve’s heart.

There hadn’t been much he could do. He had first aid gear in his bag, but it wasn’t exactly a snake bite; he couldn’t suck the poison out, or inject him with an antidote. In the end, he’d carefully washed and disinfected it, and then left it open, hoping maybe the air would be better for it than a dressing.

“So other than being a hero, what else do you do since you got home?” Bucky asks the question casually, but Steve can read it for what it is: a desperate invitation for Steve to distract him, entertain him, give him something to think about other than the fact that he’s been exposed to a deadly virus with no cure, and he’s probably a few days away from shuffling around in the street with the rest of the Afflicted.

Steve shrugs, digging the last of the potato chips out of the crumpled bag he’d procured from the kitchen cupboard. “That isn’t enough?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Nah, it’s enough. Just thought maybe you had a—a wife, or something, I guess?” The look he gives Steve is hard to decipher, and the tilt of his chin keeps his face mostly in the shadows.

“No wife,” Steve says carefully, trying to decide how to proceed. “No one—not dating anyone right now.”

Bucky gives him a grin. It’s a little weak, the stress of the situation leeching out some of his usual cocky gaiety, but it’s still a charming smile. “Hard to believe you have trouble getting laid, Cap.”

Steve runs his hand surreptitiously over the side of his belly, the big rounded curve that angles over his jeans, the weight of it pushing down on his belt buckle until it digs into his stomach. He’d had a six pack the last time he’d seen Bucky, and although he doesn’t really miss it, as a rule, he’s hyper conscious of its absence now. “Didn’t say I had trouble getting laid,” he says. “Just not seeing anyone at the moment.”

“Well,” Bucky says, drawling out the word, “I’m sure you do fine when you set your mind to it.”

“What about you, Barnes?” Steve says, deciding that his best defense is a good offense. “I don’t remember you ever talking about any girls back home. You got one now?”

“No girls, sir,” Bucky says, holding his gaze a beat too long before sweeping his pretty long eyelashes down and looking at his wrist again.

*

The next morning, Steve wakes to find Bucky already up, peering out the window, right hand gripped tightly around his left wrist. “How’s it feel?” Steve asks.

‘It doesn’t hurt,” Bucky says. “At all.”

That is, of course, a bad sign.

*

When Steve was in Afghanistan, he’d always told anyone who inquired about his stellar reputation for keeping his men alive that a stunningly significant percent of military strategy was gut instinct and dumb luck. It was not, typically, the answer that anyone wanted to hear. The brass didn’t want to hear it because there was no way they could spin it for anyone. Journalists didn’t want to hear it because it didn’t do much to sell newspapers. His men didn’t want to hear it because it wasn’t particularly reassuring. No one, really, wanted to hear it.

It was true, though. The times when he’d been able to steer his men clear of danger, when he’d snatched them from the proverbial jaws of defeat—and what was Afghanistan, really, except one long and grinding tour within that gaping maw?—it had been mostly due to some combination of dumb luck and even dumber animal instinct. A feeling low in his belly that something wasn’t right, a tingle at the back of his neck that he didn’t ignore. War was, in a weird and real way, instinctual.

Steve still remembers, clearly, the time that they’d been on a recon run, headed back from the Pak border. It was a stupid mission; everyone in the whole damned Army knew that the border was a mess, Taliban skipping over and under it like kids playing double dutch. There wasn’t even a clear objective, really; in fact, that set of orders had been the beginning of the end, regarding Steve’s military career. He’d resigned a few months later.

But that day, it had gotten tight in one of the border villages, where the Afghani friendlies had turned out to be not-so-friendly. A conversation with the locals had escalated into a firefight, and suddenly the village had been thick with Taliban. The drive out had been a massive fuckup, not the least bit tactical or strategic, and if you ever needed a reminder that the might of the American military was by no means absolute, hightailing it off into the desert in a bullet-riddled Humvee did a good job driving that lesson home.

They’d been taking fire all the way out of the village, and Steve had ordered Bucky to the back of the vehicle, commanding him to take as many shots as he could, armed insurgents only. The village was full of women and children, none of whom seemed particularly inclined to stay the fuck inside during the firefight, so it was a dicey proposition. Bucky had looked at him with those big eyes, blinked once, and nodded. Then he’d hung out the back of the vehicle and systematically picked off every fighter they passed. It was a beautiful thing, watching Bucky work. Beautiful and terrible, to see him transform, in a matter of seconds, from the charming and affable man who played cards and ribbed his teammates, always quick to make a joke or sling his arm over the shoulders of a buddy, to a killer, cold and mechanical.

Steve had felt guilty for weeks about how much he’d wanted Bucky in that moment. He wanted both sides of him—the killer and the soldier, the sharpshooter and the subordinate. When they’d gotten back into camp that night, Bucky had smiled at Steve, the gray of his eyes still cloudy and remote. “Thanks for getting us out of there, Cap,” he’d said quietly, as if his own shooting hadn’t had anything to do with it. Steve had to fist his hands, stick them in his pockets, to keep from reaching out and touching him as he spoke.

The point, though, was that Steve had felt uneasy about that border run from the moment he’d received the orders to go, and he’d gone anyway—and they’d almost died for it. After that, he’d never ignored his instincts.

So this morning, when he can’t quite get over the sinking feeling he has over the very idea of taking Bucky to Fort Hamilton, he doesn’t ignore it.

“I think you should wait here while I run to the fort, check things out,” Steve says over their breakfast, which consists of handfuls of dry Cheerios, warm cans of Coke, and some granola bars, all scavenged from the kitchen pantry of their generous and absent host.

The look Bucky gives him is endearing in its simplicity: his entire being practically screams, “don’t leave me.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, his words at odds with his stricken expression. ‘I can wait here. Why, sir?”

Steve shrugs his shoulders carefully. “No reason, really,” he says, lying a little. ‘Just thought that I should check it out, make sure they know how to deal with a bite, before I bring you in.” He winces a little over the word--bite--but figures they have to address it, have to acknowledge the situation they’re in.

Bucky nods. “Gotta make sure they’re not shooting anyone’s been bit,” he says, his voice almost placidly calm. “That’s smart, Cap.”

Steve winces. “I—yeah. We gotta play it that way, Bucky.”

*

It’s the longest morning of Bucky’s life, standing at the window and waiting for Steve. It shouldn’t feel that long; God knows he’d spent a lot of time in Afghanistan waiting—waiting for drop offs, for pick ups, for deliveries, for attacks. This, though, this waiting in this stranger’s house, left arm slowly losing sensation, is the longest wait of his life.

God. He’s probably as good as dead. Probably dying already, the virus moving slowly through his body, destroying him from the inside out as it goes. But shit—even now, knowing he’s most likely fucked, most likely going to die in the worst possible way? Either shambling around with the Afflicted or at the hands of Captain Steve Rogers, hero and savior extraordinaire, who might be willing to put him out of his misery before it gets too bad? Even now, he can’t stop thinking about how he slept next to Cap last night.

They’d slept all night on the sofa together. There were bedrooms—presumably two of them, although Bucky hadn’t even bothered to check out the rest of the place—but by unspoken agreement, they hadn’t made any move to sleep in them. Instead, Steve had disappeared at some point and then came in with a pile of blankets and quilts in his arms. Bucky had curled up in a ball, taking up two of the three cushions, and Steve had propped his long legs up on the coffee table in front of them.

Cap could have just handed Bucky a blanket, but he didn’t. He unfolded a quilt and spread it over Bucky. He hadn’t been fussy about it, hadn’t made a scene; he’d just quickly, efficiently spread it over him.

For reasons Bucky can’t quite fully explain, it had made his heart skip a beat.

Now, staring out the window, all Bucky can think is that, if he weren’t probably dying of whatever-the-fuck this virus is, if he weren’t worried that he can’t feel a goddamn thing from the elbow down anymore on his left arm, he’d probably have made a move on Cap last night.

He’d have uncurled himself and stretched out, pressed himself up against Steve’s big, warm, solid body. Held his gaze a little too long, dropped his voice a little too low. Put one hand on Steve’s thick thigh and squeezed.

Steve wouldn’t have turned him down. Bucky knows it with the unerring instinct he’s always had for other people. Steve wouldn’t have said no when Bucky put a hand on him, and that tacit approval would have been enough. Bucky would have dropped to his knees in front of Steve, would have run his fingers up to the button on Steve’s jeans and tugged it open. And Jesus, just to get to the button he’d have had an excuse to put his hands on that perfect, round gut that Steve, miracle of miracles, has put on since he left Afghanistan. Bucky swallows hard, thinking about it, amazed and a little appalled that he can pop a boner under this kind of duress.

But for chrissakes, Steve is like a walking fucking wet dream now. Bucky can picture it, perfectly, the way it would have felt to slide his fingers over the curve of Steve’s gut, where it protrudes over his waistband. Jesus, he would have had to lift it up, a little, to get to the button. And god, he’d have savored every second of it, before he’d undone those jeans.

He’d have sucked Steve’s brains out through his cock, admiring that big belly the entire time.

Of course, none of that had happened, he reminds himself, reality crashing in like a wave of cold water. Instead, he’d curled up and fallen into a fitful sleep, holding his stupid, bitten arm against his chest, like he could somehow safeguard it from the sickness already coursing through it.

*

It’s noon before he gets back. Bucky can hear Steve’s bike from blocks away, and Jesus, he hadn’t known he was half afraid it wouldn’t return until he feels relief surging through him. It’s crazy—of course, Steve wouldn’t leave him. Cap had never left a man, never lost a man. He would come back for Bucky if he’d had to fight his way through a wall of the Afflicted with his bare hands.

“Hey,” Bucky says as he unbolts the door, trying not to sound stupidly grateful just for the sight of Steve in the doorway.

“Hey.” Steve’s eyes dart to his left wrist, then back up.

“I’m ready whenever,” Bucky says, reaching for his backpack.

“Ah—well. Change of plans.” Steve’s voice sounds carefully neutral.

Bucky stops for a second, looking Steve over. “They ain’t handing out the cure over at the fort, then?”

“The cure’s a bullet,” Steve says grimly. “We gotta get out of the city.”

Chapter Text

The weird thing is, Bucky isn’t dying.

He should be. Steve had expected to wake up this morning and find Bucky in the feverish sweat that signaled the downward spiral into shambling incoherence, but instead, Bucky had been up and alert, fully in control of himself. He can’t feel the lower part of his arm, sure, but he doesn’t actually seem sick sick, not yet. And he should be very, very sick by now.

Steve is no virologist, but he knows diseases can mutate and evolve. No two flus are ever exactly the same, maybe it’s like that with this thing, maybe Bucky just got version 2.0 of the Affliction. But in Steve’s experience, people exposed to the virus go downhill fast; he’s never heard of anyone lasting even twelve hours without seriously debilitating symptoms.

If Bucky were really sick, circling the drain, there’d be a clear path forward. It’s not a path Steve really wants to consider – he’d been up half the night trying to come to terms with it, the idea of giving Bucky the easy way out. He wants to think he’d do it if he had to, but even in his imagination, there’s a sticking point.

It feels like disloyalty, his uncertainty. He can imagine the way Bucky would accept whatever decision Steve made, exactly how his wide-eyed face would look as he resigned himself to his fate. He can imagine his hand holding the gun, finger on the trigger, Bucky closing his smoky blue eyes for the last time, dark lashes skimming his cheeks. Beyond that, his imagination fails him completely.

Likewise, if Bucky were in the clear, no symptoms at all, there’d be no problem. They could go to Fort Hamilton, take shelter behind the barricades, hunker down until the next evac ship came through.

But nothing’s that simple. Bucky’s not sick, but he’s not in the clear, either. When Steve had re-dressed his wound that morning, it had looked worse - not as bad as it should be, but still bad, and it’s not in a place it can be easily hidden. Steve doesn’t know what any of it means, but it’s making it harder for him to make any decisions about what to do next.

He watches as Bucky packs the last of the non-perishable food from the pantry into his backpack.

“Want something to eat before we go, Cap?” Bucky asks, holding up a PB&J on white. He’s prepared a whole stack of sandwiches, and he’s piling them into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.

“Sure,” Steve says absently. He’s starving; the Cheerios and Coke he’d eaten for breakfast hadn’t even made a dent, and a PB&J isn’t going to take up any space, either, but he’s going to need whatever energy he can get.

“Just one?” Bucky asks sweetly, and Steve catches Bucky’s eyes dipping down to his belly. He’s been getting a lot of those looks for the last few months, ever since the weight really started piling on; it seems, perversely, to make people want to feed him more. He feels blood rising to his cheeks, and resists the urge to touch a hand to his belly, as if he were consulting it to see how it felt about a second sandwich.

“Yeah, just one,” he says, although god, he could demolish that whole bag, he really could. He hasn’t had real food for days, would give almost anything for a couple of burgers from the Hot House, with bacon and cheese and a side of perfect, crispy onion rings, maybe a cooler full of iced beer. But what he’s got is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - which, he reminds himself, is better than nothing.

It’s probably for the best; it’s not like he’s missed many – or really, if he’s being honest, any - meals over the last year, as is all too obvious. It doesn’t bother him; he’s never been vain; he’d maintained a certain standard of fitness in the military because it was required of him, and because he wanted to set a good example. Hell, he’s still fit; he could still pass the FDNY Candidate’s Physical Abilities Test, even carrying an extra thirty-odd pounds, no problem. Still, that look causes a twinge of self-consciousness.

A recollection rises up, unbidden, of the moment when Bucky had settled in behind him on the back of the Harley, wrapped his arms around him, clasped his hands around Steve’s big belly and held on, his slim body hot against Steve’s back. The differences between the two of them had always tugged on Steve’s heart, or libido, or both. It’s like some essential quality of their relationship has manifested physically, now, and the thought sends all the wires in Steve’s blood trilling.

Jesus. He can’t believe he’s thinking about this, worrying about what Bucky thinks of his looks, when he’s supposed to be making life or death decisions. He tries to shake it off, focus on the real problems at hand, instead of his own insecurities. He bites into his sandwich.

Bucky makes a good PB&J, as it turns out. Steve smiles as he examines the exposed cross-section of the sandwich, noting with approval that his former Sergeant has applied peanut butter to both slices of bread, to keep the jelly from seeping through and rendering the whole thing a soggy mess. It’s a small detail, but so typical of Bucky. Even when the social order is in ruins, he doesn’t lose sight of the little things. Suddenly, watching him seal up the rest of the sandwiches, Steve isn’t sure, not at all, that he could ever pull the trigger on Bucky Barnes. The realization makes him feel hollow inside.

He’s depending on you, he reminds himself. And maybe it’d be different, if he were suffering. If he were really sick, and the only alternative was a slow and painful death. But the thing is, the more Steve thinks about it, the more he thinks there might be an alternative. It’s crazy, and dangerous, and wildly unlikely to succeed, but Steve desperately wants to try to save Bucky Barnes’ life.

*

Steve finishes the first sandwich, but makes no move to leave, so Bucky hands him a second sandwich, and watches as he eats it in slow, mechanical bites, standing in the kitchen doorway, head bowed, eyes focused on nothing. He’s seen Cap think his way through tricky situations before, trusts him absolutely to make the right call, but what he doesn’t get is why this situation is even tricky. Because the thing is, Bucky’s reasonably sure he’s dead, or as good as, and Steve should be on his way back to Fort Hamilton. The fact that he’s not is perplexing, to say the least.

“What’s on your mind, sir?” Bucky asks, when Steve looks up at him, a speculative look on his face.

“The goddamn mess out there,” Steve says, gesturing to the window, and to the ruined city beyond it.

There’d probably never been any hope of stopping the virus on the ground. The first responders who’d been sent in to identify and isolate the Afflicted had quickly become infected; they’d been unprepared for the virus’s furious stage, the encephalitic rage that drove the Afflicted to attack and bite and kill. There’d been no subduing them, no room for palliative treatment. Within days, the scope of the disaster was beyond the CDC, FEMA, and the National Guard. By the time Bucky and his squad had arrived, it had been beyond the capabilities of the Army as well. Evacuating both Long Island and Manhattan and then isolating them by closing down the bridges had been the plan of last resort, and it had taken far too long; there was just no way to safely evacuate nearly ten million people safely and efficiently.

“I think we can get over the bridges to Manhattan,” Steve says. “I think the defenses have moved to the outer perimeter. It’s getting onto the mainland – into Jersey - that could be an issue. There’ll be checkpoints.”

The checkpoints on Manhattan had gotten ugly fast. The men who’d been assigned to guard the bridges and tunnels from Long Island had quickly learned that there was no profit in taking chances, and had begun to open fire at the least provocation, and sometimes no provocation at all. Not all the dead had been killed by the virus, at least not directly.

“Right,” Bucky says, cutting off the memory of the bodies littering Brooklyn Bridge.

“They aren’t going to let you through.”

“They might not be letting anyone through. You see how bad it got on the bridges, before?”

Steve’s lips tighten and go pale, and he drops his head again, staring down at his hands. “Yeah,” he says. “Can’t even really blame them – it was a fucking horror movie, even for guys who’ve been in the business as long as we have.”

“No,” Bucky agrees, mildly, but in his mind, that phrase - the business - resonates. Blade Runner had been a favorite back at the USO canteen at FOB Sharana, he’d seen it three times. He remembers a scene, now; Rachael, realizing she’s a replicant, raising her beautiful, tearful face to gaze hopelessly up at Deckard. I’m not in the business, she’d said. I am the business.

“I’m getting both of us out of here,” Steve says. “Just gotta figure out how to do it.”

“Not much to figure,” Bucky says, after a short hesitation. He’s not contradicting Steve – not really. Just offering an alternate interpretation of the situation.

Steve swallows a bite of sandwich. “Yeah? What’s that?”

“I’m done for,” Bucky says, quickly, before he can change his mind. “You’ve gotta go, get out while you still can. You’ve gotta leave me here.”

“Not an option, Buck.”

“With respect, sir, it’s the only option. You try to help me, odds are you’ll end up dead, too.”

Steve’s looking at him like he’s just asked something completely ridiculous, like he’s a kid who’s just asked for an elephant for his birthday. “Let me ask you something. How come you ain’t sick already? How come you’re fine, except for your arm being a little numb?”

Bucky has been trying his best not to think about that. There’s one possibility, but believing in it is like trying to hold onto dry sand. And besides, if he’s wrong, it will only feel worse when he realizes he really is screwed. Better to assume that you’re screwed and enjoy the satisfaction of being right.

“I don’t know,” Bucky says, managing to keep his voice steady. “Figure maybe it’s slow like this sometimes. Just a fluke. It’s got a 100% fatality rate, Cap, you know that.”

Steve polishes off the last of his second sandwich and chews thoughtfully. “You don’t think it could have anything to do with that dog back in Mazar-e-Sharif? That whole thing with the French donkey?”

“I was kind of wondering about that, this morning,” Bucky says, smiling despite himself. “But I don’t see how it could.”

The incident with the so-called French donkey had occurred three years earlier. Their unit had been in the northern part of the country carrying out COIN objectives – the hearts-and-minds angle of the official counterinsurgency strategy. Their unit had been one of four deployed to a forward operating base near Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif. Their mission was to support the local government and provide protection to a refugee camp for people fleeing drought conditions in the countryside at the foot of the Hindu Kush.

There were always dogs on the military bases, regardless of the prohibition against them, and the rabies vaccine was nearly unheard of in Afghanistan. A year earlier, an officer at a combat outpost in Paktika Province had been bitten by a stray dog, hadn’t reported it, and had died of rabies at Fort Drum six months later. So when Bucky got bitten breaking up a dog fight near a frightened group of refugee children, Steve had taken it very seriously.

“That fucking dog bite you, Barnes?” he’d demanded, and everyone had gone quiet, turning to look at Bucky. He’d held up his bleeding hand in mute reply. It wasn’t even an especially bad bite, didn’t really hurt, but it had quickly become a dire logistical problem.

The field hospital at Marmal had been out of rabies vaccine for months; it was in short supply at the best of times, and it was never the best of times in Afghanistan. Steve had called over to Bagram, had sent men into town to ask the local doctors, but nothing had panned out. There was none to be had through the standard official and unofficial channels.

“Are you seriously telling me I need to have Barnes medivacced to goddamn Rammstein just to get a rabies shot?” Steve had demanded of the medical officer at the FOB.

“It’s either that or you go see that French donkey over at the MSF camp,” the medic had said.

“What fucking French donkey?” Steve had demanded.

The French donkey, as it turned out, was actually an Afghani donkey, owned by a French doctor who worked with Medecins Sans Frontieres. He was a sweet-faced animal, docile and even-tempered, and Bucky still remembered the sweet apples-and-hay scent of his breath as he’d whuffled his velvet nose against his hand in greeting. Beyond being an agreeable companion, the donkey was the sole supply of Equine Rabies Immunoglobulin for thousands of miles in any direction. Dr. Sauveterre had taken it upon himself to obtain a sample of the rabies virus from one of the local strays who’d died of the disease, and cultivated it in his laboratory. He’d purchased the donkey from one of the refugees at the camp, and had immediately begun inoculating him with weakened rabies viruses from his own petri dishes. The donkey’s blood could then be purified and administered as needed to victims of dog bites.

“You sure this is safe?” Bucky had asked the doctor, who’d seemed alarmingly laconic and disheveled, a cigarette perpetually dangling from the corner of his mouth, his drooping brown eyes world-weary and indifferent.

“Your situation can hardly be any worse if it isn’t,” the doctor had replied, as he’d injected the ERIG in multiple doses around the bite wound.

“But they tried that; the rabies vaccine doesn’t work against this,” Bucky says now. “So that doesn’t make any sense.”

“The regular vaccine isn’t effective, but maybe whatever that stuff Sauveterre gave you from that donkey was different. Maybe it was a different strain of the virus.”

“So what if it was? I’m obviously not immune, if it’s doing anything, it’s just slowing it down.”

“So the rabies virus travels through the nervous system, not your blood. If this thing works the same way, and you’re only numb in your forearm, maybe we can stop it before it gets any further.”

Bucky swallows hard, wondering whether or not he wants to ask the obvious question. He asks the next most obvious question instead. “Do I want to know how you’re planning to stop it from spreading?” he asks.

“Probably not,” Steve says grimly, but his eyes flick over to Bucky’s left arm, to the bandaged bite wound, and Bucky’s pretty sure he knows what Steve’s planning, anyway.

*

Steve arrives at the decision to try and amputate Bucky’s arm quickly, but not lightly.

He considers talking it over with Bucky, the way a doctor would. They’d present him with options, a variety of treatment plans, obtain his consent, run tests, offer psychological counseling. Would any of that make this easier? Steve isn’t sure; all he knows is that there’s no time to do anything but get Bucky to the nearest operating room and get the goddamn arm off before the virus working its way up from Bucky’s wrist gets an even firmer foothold.

As for consent? Steve isn’t about to ask Bucky to choose between his arm and his life. Sometimes free will is a burden, and this seems like one of those times.

They’ve slipped right back into their old wartime pattern, into the roles they’d adopted to get through too many back-to-back combat tours. Steve’s job is to makes the hard choices. He doesn’t put that burden on Bucky. He’s already made the call. Now he just has to follow it through.

He’s aware, too, of another, possibly even more reckless decision. He’s decided to make Bucky appear uninfected in order to get him out of immediate danger, and there’s a possibility that he’ll be placing others at risk. For the welfare of one man.

In the army, Steve had been keenly aware that he was taking charge of children who were barely grown, in most cases. The boys who’d rotated into his unit had seldom been older than twenty-one, most of them hadn’t been away from home for any length of time, and none of them had the slightest idea of how bad it was going to get, once they landed in the sandbox.

It had gotten bad early, and stayed bad. The Taliban had cut their teeth on the Soviets, they were on their home turf, they’d been fighting one army or another since the 1970s. There was no such thing as a safe neighborhood for Americans in Afghanistan. Boys grew into traumatized men very quickly in that environment, and it broke Steve’s heart to see it, every single time.

He’d loved all his charges, really loved them, in a way it would’ve been hard to explain, if any explanation had ever been necessary. He’d known he was taking over for some terrified parent back stateside, finishing the job of raising somebody’s son, hoping like hell that he’d leave him a little better off for his influence, hoping even harder that he wouldn’t get any of them killed. At the same time, his duty was to place them all in harm’s way for an elusive greater good, one that had become harder and harder for him to believe in as time wore on.

Now, Steve isn’t sure he cares about official ideas about the greater good. He just knows he can’t leave Bucky here to die.

By the time they’re cruising across the Queensboro Bridge, Bucky’s having trouble keeping his left arm wrapped around Steve’s waist. It keeps slipping down the slope of his belly, coming to rest lightly on his thigh. Steve briefly takes Bucky’s left hand in his, keeping his other hand firm on the Harley’s handlebars, and squeezes it gently. It's hot and damp, and Bucky doesn’t return his squeeze.

*

It’s not easy, getting off Long Island. There are the roving bands of Afflicted, some in the end stages of the disease, nearing a comatose state, but plenty of others still in the terrifying blind frenzy of the furious stage. Then there are the scavengers, the looters, the gangs who stop people at gunpoint to ransack their cars. And there's worse than them, too. Steve is pretty sure he and Bucky look like more trouble than the Harley is worth, but with law and order so far off the rails, someone might take their chances. He’d stopped that morning at the firehouse, then the abandoned police station, gathering up a couple of guns and all the ammunition he could carry in the Harley’s saddlebags.

When Steve stops the bike in a covered lot off FDR Drive, Bucky is startled to see that Steve is holding his hand. He can’t feel it at all, it’s like his arm ends somewhere in the vicinity of his bicep. He stares at Steve’s hand clasped around his, and although there’s no sensation when Steve releases it and dismounts the bike, he still feels oddly bereft.

“Come on, Buck,” Steve says, collecting the backpack, the axe, and Bucky’s rifle. “We gotta hurry.”

The building looks like a regular hospital, but when they get to the door, Bucky sees The Animal Medical Center printed across the glass. He’d known, of course, that they couldn’t just walk into Mt. Sinai - if anyone is still there, they wouldn’t help him. Still, even knowing that there isn’t much difference when it comes right down to it, it feels dangerously illicit, desperate even, to be pursuing any kind of treatment at a veterinary hospital.

And god, if Steve’s planning what Bucky thinks he’s planning, it’s even crazier.

I’m dead anyway, he reminds himself, as he helps Steve barricade the door. Better this way than as one of the Afflicted. But then a thought occurs to him, and he feels cold trickling down his spine.

“This way,” Steve says, beckoning him toward a pair of swinging doors. Bucky steps through, and into an operating theater.

Steve places the rifle and backpack on a crash cart and leans his axe against the wall, close to the stainless steel operating table, tries several power switches. They all seem to work; they’re either still on the grid or there’s a backup generator somewhere. Bucky stares at it the table, at the axe, his mind whirling.

“You can’t do this,” he says. “Steve, hold on, you…you really can’t.”

“It’s going to be okay, Buck, don’t worry. I’ve got you, okay? I’m not going to let you die.”

“No,” Bucky laughs, just a little, at the misunderstanding. “I’m not…it’s not that. But you could catch it, Steve. You open me up, you might get it, too.”

Steve stops to look at him, a long, strange look. He’s been rifling through the drawers and cabinets, assembling a variety of supplies. There are tiny glass vials filled with clear liquid, bandages, sponges, forceps, all kinds of stainless steel implements piling up on the tray on the counter. Steve stops all that, drops his hands to his sides, and just stares at Bucky for a slow count of ten. Then, he steps swiftly forward and pulls Bucky into his arms.

Even now, with things this bad, Bucky feels a thrill of attraction. Steve’s big, strong arms are wrapped around him, and Bucky’s cheek is pressed to the soft, warm flannel covering his chest. Best of all – and god it’s good – is the firm-soft-rightness of Steve’s round ball of a belly pressed into Bucky’s flat middle, and Bucky can’t quite help but lean in closer, wanting more of Steve, wanting more of everything. He wraps his right arm around Steve’s back, but his left arm just hangs by his side, cold and heavy.

He’s been compartmentalizing like a goddamn champion ever since they left the house in Brooklyn where they’d stayed the night, but now he can’t really avoid it anymore. The arm is going to have to go, and he thinks he wouldn’t mind a bit, if only he’d gotten to wrap it around Steve, like this, just once.

“So I guess I’m not going to be able to talk you out of trying this?” Bucky says into Steve’s flannel-clad shoulder, his voice unsteady.

“Not a chance.” Steve turns his head, Bucky can feel the slight scratch of his beard against the side of his neck and his ear. “You ready?” he asks.

“As I’ll ever be.”

Steve steps back, and the front of Bucky’s body feels cold with his abrupt absence. He supposes he ought to be asking questions, about whether Steve has the faintest idea what he’s doing, how he plans to do it, things like that, but he feels almost like he’s been switched off, the thought of what’s about to happen too big for him to wrap his brain around.

“You, uh, you’re gonna need to take your jacket and shirt off,” Steve says. He looks uncomfortable, turns away.

“You’re about to take my arm off, you’re probably going to have to look at me,” Bucky says. “It’s okay, I think privacy’s pretty much gone out the window at this point.” Steve doesn’t turn around right away, though, and Bucky wonders why. Is he nervous? Afraid of how he might react?

Bucky shrugs out of his jacket, folds it neatly and sets it on the counter, his shirt following a few seconds later. It’s cold in the operating room, and even colder when he lies down on the table, the steel like ice against his spine.

His eyes roll sideways, toward the axe leaning against the wall. He wonders if it’s going to hurt.

Steve turns back to him, and his face goes white when he sees Bucky’s left arm. “Jesus Christ, Buck,” he whispers.

Bucky turns, looking down at his arm. The bite wound is still covered by bandages, but angry red lines radiate out from beneath the snow-white edge of gauze, tracing his veins like long, spidery legs. His entire forearm looks bruised, black and green with stagnating blood. It looks dead, poisonous, and entirely alien, like it’s already stopped belonging to him. He tries to move his fingers, but they don’t budge.

“I can’t feel it at all,” Bucky says, and his voice sounds hoarse. It looks bad, really bad, and it’s finally sinking in that this is real, it’s really happening, he’s either going to have to live without this arm or die to keep it. Fuck. “Hurry, Steve. Please.” He barely manages to hide the panic in his voice. “If you’re really going to do this, I think we’ve gotta hurry.”

“Right. Give me your arm,” Steve says. Bucky heaves from his shoulder, pushing his limp arm away from his body, and watches as Steve takes it gently in his big hands. He takes a seat on a metal rolling stool, drapes Bucky’s arm lightly over one knee.

“Close your eyes,” Steve says. “And tell me if you can feel this.” Nothing happens. Seconds pass.

“Feel what?”

“Maybe just tell me if and when you feel anything, okay?”

More seconds tick by, and finally, Bucky feels a sharp prick in the flesh near his bicep. “There,” he says. “I felt that.” He opens his eyes, and sees that Steve has been pressing into his skin with a scalpel. Tiny red marks show where he’s broken the skin all along the inside of Bucky’s forearm. He hadn’t felt a thing. “Fuck,” he says aloud.

“It’s fine; it’s good. We can preserve a good part of your upper arm, I think. It’s fine, Buck, don’t worry.”

Steve sounds calm, completely unconcerned, like he does this every day, like having a terrifyingly zombified arm is no more serious than a splinter. Bucky knows it’s a front, but he relaxes a little anyway. He watches as Steve ties a length of rubber tubing around his upper arm, and the dark, rust-red veins immediately pop against his green and black flesh.

Steve stands up, heads back over to the counter, scrubs his hands and pulls on a pair of nitrile gloves. Bucky closes his eyes, trying to think about something else, anything else. His mind turns automatically to Steve, how hard he’d always worked to keep everyone safe. His reassuring presence, the soft strength of his body, how it had felt under Bucky’s two more or less intact hands, just yesterday afternoon. The way his belly had felt, the plushness of the firm, full shape under the flannel shirt. He relaxes even more, shoulders settling against the cool surface of the table. He’s going to be okay. Steve is here.

“Okay,” Steve says, and Bucky opens his eyes and scoots his arm away from his body again, holding it out for Steve to do with as he will.

Chapter Text

Steve sinks the needle into Bucky’s vein, depresses the plunger, and clicks the plastic stopwatch, starting the timer.

He reaches across and holds Bucky’s good hand, watches as his cloudy blue eyes swim and flutter shut, the tightness at the corners of his eyes smoothing out under the influence of the ketamine. He waits, making sure Bucky’s pulse is staying steady, clips a pulse meter to his right index finger, and waits until he hears the steady beep – beep – beep that indicates Bucky’s continuing heartbeat.

He lets out a slow, tense breath. Jesus. He’d swear Bucky had thought he was going to whack his arm off with the goddamn axe, and he’d still just held it out for him, like an earnest offering, just held it out, no questions asked. And he’d been shocked when Steve had held up the syringe. Steve had seen the confusion on his pale, tired face.

Steve had never even considered using the axe; it would be a disaster. The bone would splinter, it would only make things worse, but god, the fact that Bucky had thought that and hadn’t even questioned it, that makes Steve feel sick. He wishes what he has to do could be that quick and clean, that simple. He is going to do violence to Bucky’s body, he is going to cut into his perfect skin and saw through his strong bones, he is going to hurt him, deprive him of a part of himself. The fact that it’s necessary in order to heal him doesn’t much matter right now. Steve wishes there were some other way, any other way. There is nothing in the world he feels less prepared to do.

But there’s no other way; he’s the only chance Bucky’s got, and he only hopes he can manage to keep his shit together and not fuck this up too badly. He swabs down Bucky’s arm with alcohol and iodine, takes another deep, steadying breath, and gets to work.

*

The first time Bucky wakes up, all he can see is Steve.

Steve is leaning over him, wiping his face with a damp cloth, looking like the world’s most masculine Florence Nightingale. Bucky wants to say something—anything—but he can’t seem to get his mouth to cooperate.

He isn’t even sure Steve notices he’s awake before he’s asleep again.

*

The next time he wakes up, he gets a little more time above the high-tide line of his own consciousness, and he even manages to use some words.

“Sir.” The word creaks out like the hinge of a rusty gate, and he tries to clear his throat. “Sir,” he tries again.

Before he can do anything else, Steve is there, hovering over him, with a look of something that is half panic and half absolute, ridiculous gratitude, like Bucky is some sort of miracle.

“B-B-Barnes. Bucky. Bucky.”

“Hey,” Bucky tries to say. He’s not sure what sounds really come out.

Steve just stares at him for a second, and his blue eyes look watery. That doesn’t seem right; Bucky doesn’t remember ever seeing Cap anything less than entirely composed, ever.

“Hey,” Steve says, and whatever it is has passed. “Are you—shit, you’re awake, Bucky. Here, let me”— and before Bucky knows what’s happening, Steve has one big hand under the back of his neck and is raising him up, tilting a bottle of Dasani down his throat.

Bucky splutters a little, water running everywhere, but Christ, it feels good. His mouth and throat feel like sandpaper, his tongue two sizes too big for his mouth.

It’s not until Steve lays him back down, gentle like he’s made of spun glass, that Bucky remembers what’s happening. What has already happened, apparently. He cranes his head just a little, cuts his eyes down to the left, and—yeah. Where his arm used to be, there’s a neatly bandaged stump that stops a few inches down from his shoulder. It doesn’t hurt a bit. In fact, it feels like he could move his hand, like he could reach out and slap Steve across the face with it, if he wanted.

The cognitive dissonance is so overwhelming he almost vomits.

*

The third time he wakes up feels more like just waking up, not swimming to consciousness after getting hit on the head with a fucking crowbar.

This time, Steve is sitting right next to him from the moment he opens his eyes, and Bucky wonders how much of Steve’s time has been spent just staring down at Bucky, willing him to wake up.

He stares at his own arm—his missing arm, his arm that is not there, his arm that is fucking gone and his mind is screaming about it—until he can’t bear it anymore and then he looks back up at Steve, who is watching him cautiously, making a face of carefully concealed dismay.

“How long have I been out?” Bucky asks, because it feels like a good place to start.

“A week,” Steve says.

Bucky jerks, using his one remaining elbow to prop himself up a little. He’s spread out on a nest of blankets on the floor of the operating room—the floor of a fucking veterinarian’s operating room, no less—but everything looks clean and spit-polished, which is expected of Steve. “A week?”

Steve nods. “I—uh, I used the drugs they had here. Ketamine, mostly. A lot of antibiotics. I would have given you morphine for pain, but you didn’t seem to feel anything. Are you? In pain?” Steve looks pretty pained, himself, like he’s afraid he hasn’t done something right.

“No.” Bucky shakes his head, looking down at his arm again. “Weirdest fucking thing. Can’t feel it at all.”

“That’s lucky,” Steve says. “I mean, all things considered.”

“All things considered.”

They sit in silence for a minute. “Ketamine, huh?”

“Vet’s office, so it’s what we had.” Steve shrugs. “It’s a tranquilizer, they use it—”

“I know what it’s for, sir,” Bucky interrupts. “I did it a few times in college. Never woke up without an arm, though.”

“I don’t think that’s its intended purpose, Barnes.”

“What, snorting it at parties or having your fucking arm cut off while you’re on it?”

Steve laughs, sounding awkward and weirdly guilty. “Either one.”

Bucky isn’t sure what to do next. Steve usually tells him what to do; it’s surprising and a little disconcerting, seeing Steve look at him like he’s not sure what comes next. Usually Steve is absolutely, utterly in control.

“Are you hungry?” Steve finally asks.

Bucky considers. Is he? He’s not sure what he is. He’s happy to be alive. He’s not dealing well with the fact that his goddamned arm is missing.

“Okay.”

Steve starts to hand him a Powerbar, but at the last second he pulls it back, carefully removing the wrapper and then holding it out again.

*

When Bucky had crawled up onto the operating table and offered himself up to Steve, trusting that Steve would do what needed to be done, he hadn’t thought much beyond, “This is necessary. Steve will do what is necessary.” He hadn’t needed to think beyond that, when he’d served under Steve.

It’s not that he’s stupid. He’s not. But his job, before, had been to take orders and carry them out efficiently. When he’d trusted the person giving the orders—when it had been Steve giving the orders—that had never been a problem. Under Rumlow, things hadn’t been so simple, and he’d learned, and learned quickly, to think carefully before he did exactly as he was told. But back in Brooklyn, the moment he’d seen Steve, he’d relaxed right back into taking orders. Doing as he was told. Trusting implicitly that what he was being told was the right thing. The appropriate thing.

Now, though, looking down at the neatly bandaged stump of his arm, wrapped with military precision the way Steve does every fucking thing, he wonders if he thought this thing through well enough. He hadn’t, really, thought he’d live through the amputation, and now here he is, down an arm and very much alive.

The first thing he notices is that his center of gravity is off. He stands up and almost falls right the fuck over. Steve fusses over him like a mother hen, afraid that he’s dizzy or feels sick, but that’s not it. There are plenty of good reasons to feel dizzy, up to and including the fact that Captain Steve Rogers sponge-bathed him and drained his fucking stump and changed his fucking sheets for a full week while he laid helpless on the floor of a goddamn veterinary clinic, but that isn’t why he almost falls over. He almost falls because he’s suddenly down an arm and everything—every step, every move—is wrong. His whole body is uneven now, and it feels, with the unerring physicality of any illness or injury, like it will never be right again.

The thing is, though, that any other time Bucky has been hurt or ill, he’s always known in the back of his mind that he will get well. This time is different. His arm is never coming back.

The second thing he notices is that he uses two hands for pretty much everything he does. He uses two hands to button and unbutton his jeans, zip his fly, and take a piss. He uses two hands to pull his t-shirt over his head, unzip his backpack, and unwrap his food. He uses two hands to wash his face. Or, Christ on a fucking cracker, he uses two hands to wash his hands. The first time he steps up to the little sink in the vet’s office and tries to wash one hand, by itself, he realizes how ridiculously unprepared for any of this he is.

And Steve, bless his can-do heart, had figured out how to cut his arm off but has no idea how to rehab him into living life without one. Not that there’s a lot of time for tender loving aftercare, anyway. The Afflicted are goddamn everywhere. Steve had to take down a few that were roaming around the back of the clinic just a few hours after Bucky woke up. God knows how many he’d dispatched while Bucky was out.

The third thing he notices is that he’s really fucking pissed every time he reaches out with his phantom left arm.

*

Steve is a man of action.

In charge of a group of mostly boys, lost and alone and scared in the desert? He will give them orders, ask them about their mothers and sisters and wives, and make sure they get where they need to be and do what they need to do. Serving the FDNY during the zombie apocalypse? He will take down the Afflicted with his fire axe if need be. Bucky Barnes gets bitten and needs an amputation to save his life? Steve will turn an abandoned veterinary clinic into his operating room and do what needs to be done.

It’s what he’s always done since he was a kid, the only child of a lonely widowed mother. He has looked at the world, identified what good he could do, and done it. Now, looking across the cool white tile floor of the Animal Medical Center waiting room from his own little pile of blankets to Bucky’s, he has no idea what to fucking do.

Bucky’s wide awake, lying stiffly on top of his blankets, and Steve can sense the hurt, the confusion, the anger coming off of him.

He’d fallen. The sun had been going down, the last light fading from between the slats of the blinds, and they’d been sitting on opposite ends of a little bench, the kind that are always in waiting rooms, the ones that are ostensibly for families but always end up being taken by some asshole with a briefcase, or a big purse, or just the unmitigated gall to sit right in the middle of it and use up all that space. Now there are a dozen empty chairs in the room, but he and Bucky had chosen to share the bench, the same way they shared beef jerky and peanut butter crackers and apples, all washed down with bottles of Gatorade. Bucky had been tense to start with, and it had only gotten worse when he’d spilled some of his drink, when he’d had to grip it between his thighs in order to open the cap. It had hurt Steve’s heart, watching Bucky’s face as he went about the business of teaching himself to do everything with one hand. It was a terrible progression: shock, when he realized that he couldn’t do a simple task; frustration, as he tried to learn a new method to do it; hot, bitter anger, if he couldn’t quickly master it.

The bottle had only slipped a little, splashing sticky red Gatorade onto his hand, and Bucky had stood up, ostensibly to go rinse it off. He’d been unsteady as he rose, though, just a bit, and had slipped to the left. Steve had watched, frozen, as Bucky had listed to the floor, thumping down hard against his jaw, a slow motion slide that seemed almost comical. Steve realized almost immediately what had happened. Bucky had held out his left arm—the one that wasn’t there—to steady himself against the arm of the bench.

Fuck.” Bucky’s voice had been the kind of harsh, angry hiss that, Steve knew from experience, meant a man was about five seconds from tears. “Goddamn invalid.”

“No,” Steve had said, feeling the immediate need to convince Bucky that it wasn’t true.

“Don’t, sir. Just—don’t.”

Bucky’s voice had been even lower, even harder, when he’d spoken, and Steve had just nodded helplessly, no idea how to continue or what to do.

That had been two hours ago, and now they’re lying in the near total darkness, both still obviously wide awake.

“You up?” Steve finally asks.

“You know I am.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a beat of silence. “Well?” Bucky clears his throat. “What—what is it, Cap?” His voice softens a little, at the end of the question, like he wants to be furious, wants to be difficult and rant and rail at Steve, but he just can’t bring himself to do it. That little tic of subordination, the ingrained sense of order, is like a balm, and Steve relishes it. Bucky is still Bucky, anger or not.

“I was thinking about what we’re going to do,” Steve says. It’s true. He has been thinking about what to do. He doesn’t, particularly, need to talk to Bucky about it while they should both be sleeping, but it’s something to say. A way to give Bucky the opportunity to think about something besides his arm.

“When are we leaving?” Bucky asks. “The city’s getting worse. We can’t stay much longer.” He is, as usual, canny and intuitive, even with the added distraction of his amputation.

Steve doesn’t see any reason to sugarcoat things. “No, we can’t. Every day we stay is going to make it harder to get out. Just getting to the bridge, let alone getting through checkpoints, will be harder every day we wait.”

“So? Let’s go at sunrise,” Bucky says, and Steve can hear him shift in his little nest of blankets, his body moving from the tense, prone pose he’d been holding since they’d lain down.

“Your arm’s not healed yet. We shouldn’t, if we can wait at all.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Bucky says, stating the obvious.

“It’s an infection risk.”

Bucky huffs out a little bit of laughter. “I am, as far as we know, the only survivor of the fucking zombie plague. Surely I can handle a little surgery recovery on the road, especially with the way you’ve been throwing antibiotics at me.”

Steve turns on his side, facing Bucky even though it’s dark and he can’t really see him. “It’s not worth the risk, you dy—you getting sick after all of this.”

“It’s not worth the risk of getting bit again by staying. I’m running out of appendages to cut off,” Bucky says coolly. He’s never really spoken to Steve like this before. A direct, clear disagreement.

“If you die of gangrene on the side of the fucking highway in Jersey, I won’t ever forgive myself,” Steve says, too honest by half.

“Better that than hiding in here until we get overrun.” Bucky shifts again, and Steve can tell by the sound of his voice that he’s facing Steve now. “Make the tough call, Cap. Pull the trigger.”

It’s a strange moment, loaded and tense. They haven’t really discussed their old power structure—or their new dynamic—since they hooked back up. There hadn’t been time, not really. But now, hearing Bucky acknowledge that Steve is in charge, that he expects Steve to lead them, even now?

Fuck. It makes Steve’s heart beat too fast, makes him feel suddenly too warm, his blankets too heavy, the distance between him and Bucky too small.

*

There’s something in Bucky that’s making him want to push against Steve.

He’s never been insubordinate before, never even considered not following one of Steve’s orders. For chrissakes, the man had decided to cut off his fucking arm and Bucky had taken his shirt off and climbed right up on the operating table for him. There’s precious little he wouldn’t do, if Captain Steve Rogers ordered him to do it.

But fuck. There’s something in him now, something bitter and roiling, a squirming, restless thing inside him that makes him want to tell Steve no just for the sake of it, just to see what will happen.

God help him, he wants Steve to take him in hand and make him do it.

This thing in Bucky—this aching, psychosexual need to please, but also, maybe, to be overpowered—has never interfered with his professional life. He took orders in the military and did it well, and if some of his more colorful fantasies involved being told what to do, and perhaps even disciplined when he didn’t fall into line? Well, that had never affected his day-to-day performance. It was something he’d been able to keep completely separate from his regular existence. Just like he’d been able to compartmentalize the way he’d felt when he’d seen Steve for the first time in Brooklyn and realized he was carrying that new weight around his waist, the perfect, aching ball of his gut sitting prominently above his waistband, flannel stretched tight across it, the real-life version of a thousand secret fantasies.

Now, though, it’s like something has snapped inside Bucky and he wants to push, wants to see what Steve will do if he’s not the good little boy soldier he’s always been.

Bucky wants—shit. He’s not sure what he wants. But he wants Steve to give it to him, and the stress of their situation seems to be making it so that Bucky can’t neatly compartmentalize like he used to.

He tries to reach for the blanket with his left arm and realizes, of course, that he can’t. He tugs it up with his right instead, pulling it over his bandaged stump like he can keep it safe.

“Make the call, Steve,” he says, letting his voice drop half an octave or so on Steve’s name. He rarely uses his given name; the emphasis, he knows, will be clear.

“Don’t push it, Barnes.”

Steve’s voice is mild, and the “it” in question could be Bucky’s own health, or their luck, or something else entirely. “It” could be his relationship with Steve, the bounds of his authority, and Jesus, that’s what Steve wants it to be.

“Then do the right thing. Make the right call,” he says, pushing just as he’s been instructed not to do.

“The right call is making sure you’re fucking safe!” Steve’s voice is harsh, somewhere between a whisper and a yell, loud in the quiet clinic. It runs right through Bucky.

“You want to keep me safe?”

“Yes, goddamnit.”

“Then get me the fuck out of here. Sir.” Again the emphasis, and Bucky knows he really is pushing it, brazenly highlighting the power dynamic in their relationship that had, up until this point, been so seamless it was nearly invisible.

“We’ll wait another day. That’s an order.”

Bucky can feel his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. He hadn’t expected Steve to issue a command quite that directly, and goddamn, it makes his dick jump a little, traumatic situation or not.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. He squirms a little under his blanket, and it takes a lot of self control to keep from sliding his hand down his pants in the darkness. Steve wouldn’t know, and Jesus. That’s an order. That’s what he wants from Steve, a declaration of authority, of intent. He wants his protection, his supervision, his dominance. He wants Steve to take him in hand, overpower him with his big body, push his fat gut up flush against Bucky's flat belly.

He wants, maybe, to call him daddy, and where the fuck is this even coming from?

Well. He knows where it’s coming from. He’s thought it—jerked off about it—since they were in Afghanistan. But it never spilled over into actual interactions with Steve, not before.

“Yes, sir,” he says, and his voice sounds small again, even to his own ears.

*

Waiting around the extra day is hard. The clinic seems too small, the air stale and medicinal, a hospital ward deprived of any fresh air, and the hours tick by slowly, even though Steve leaves in the afternoon to go out and gather supplies.

That evening, Steve watches as Bucky fills his backpack, carefully tucking bags of trail mix and packages of jerky next to bottles of water and rolls of bandages. Flush against the back of the pack is a spiral notebook, ragged around the edges, a cheap Crystal Bic pen shoved down in the metal coil that binds the pages.

He wonders what Bucky has written there, what is important enough that, in a situation where everything he needs has been condensed into what he can carry on his back, a notebook is important enough to warrant precious cargo space. A small, sneaky part of him, a part he wishes didn’t exist, thinks that he should have looked at it, during the week Bucky was asleep.

He’s glad he didn’t. He wishes he had.

*

They leave at dawn, Bucky’s sleeve pinned up neatly to cover the fresh gauze over his stump, as if that is plenty of camouflage. It’s the best they can do, so it has to be enough.

The moment Bucky gets on the bike behind Steve, he feels thrown off, only having one arm. Even as a passenger, a bike requires some balance. You have to lean with it, relax into it.

“Hold on to me,” Steve says, but before he can even get the words out, Bucky’s snaking his right arm around Steve’s thick waist. This time, though, Bucky can’t clasp his hands, so he just settles the right one directly on Steve’s heavy belly, lightly gripping the solid curve of his gut.

It’s shameless, holding Steve like this. He could just as easily hold him by the shoulder. But that’s not what he wants. What he wants is an excuse to grip this solid, soft, achingly sexy part of him, this part of him that wasn’t there in Afghanistan, this new rounded expanse of fat belly that covers up his old six pack, curving out and over Steve’s belt, so achingly masculine that it makes Bucky want to fall to his fucking knees.

Bucky decides it’s a good sign for his psychological wellbeing that he’s able to get turned on despite A) zombies and B) a recently departed arm.

*

Steve feels his cheeks heat, feels his dick twitch, feels twenty things at once. Fucking Barnes, holding on to him in this embarrassing, intimate, weirdly sexy way.

Bucky fucking Barnes. Jesus, is he petting Steve’s belly? For fuck’s sake. Steve can’t decide if he wants to reach around and kiss him or throw him over his knee.

He decides to ignore him instead.

The ride to the bridge is slow, and Steve trolls along with the bike in low gear, flat out walking it at times. The streets are clogged, and any sense of traffic rules or order has broken down. Being able to drive on the sidewalk helps, but not much.

Neither of them say it, but it’s clear that they couldn’t have waited another day, no matter what the situation had been with Bucky’s arm.

The checkpoint queue at the bridge looks like something out of a dystopian novel, all soldiers with hazmat suits and heavily armored vehicles, a mass of evacuees in both cars and on foot. It’s not supposed to look like that here; this is New York. This is America’s city, its crown jewel. It isn’t supposed to look like this.

But it does.

The line to get out is crawling, a writhing mass of people, belongings strapped to their vehicles or their backs. These are refugees. They are refugees. The vehicle in front of them is crowded with people, eight at least. Two women, tired but pretty, somehow, the way mothers can be when they are at the edge of their patience, are sitting in the front, and a younger woman wrangles a herd of children in the backseat. There isn’t a man in sight, and Steve shoves down a little shiver of anger and hurt, the ever-present empathy he has for fatherless children.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time they make it to the checkpoint, and when they are asked a series of questions—“Have you been exposed? Have you had contact with an Afflicted person?”—Steve looks the soldier dead in the eye and lies to the United States of America.

It’s the first time he’s ever done it, and it feels fine.

Chapter Text

“What happened to his arm?” the guard asks, tilting his chin towards Bucky. Bucky feels Steve’s body stiffen; he’s still on the back of the bike, feeling weak as a wet cracker, but he makes himself sit up straight and tries not to look as unwell as he feels.

“The Taliban happened to his arm,” Steve says curtly. “What the hell happened to your sense?”

“Let him answer for himself,” the guard says, glancing down at Bucky’s military ID. “Sergeant Barnes, is it? What happened?”

“IED,” Bucky answers. It’s risky, passing the injury off as a war wound, but Bucky is as sure as he can be that the rest of his unit died in the encounter with the Afflicted more than a week earlier. He’d watched most of them die; he’d tried to fight his way through the crowd to save the rest, but it had clearly been futile; there’d just been too many Afflicted to handle.

If any of them had survived that encounter, they would have evacuated at Fort Hamilton; they wouldn’t be here. And even if they were, they’d never contradict him, they’d back his play. Well, everyone but Rumlow would.

The guard hands Bucky’s ID back, eyes roving over him, then Steve, expression tight with disapproval. “That his rifle?” the guard asks. “There on the front of your bike?”

“What if it is?”

“He’ll have to surrender it,” the guard says.

“He’s a designated marksman with the 107th Infantry,” Steve says, and Bucky can hear the dangerous edge in his voice, even if the guard can’t. “It’s his service piece.”

“Never met a one-armed sharpshooter before,” the guard says, skeptically. “What, did they send it with him to Landstuhl? After the Taliban blew his arm off?”

Shit, Bucky thinks. Shit, shit, shit. Questions like that are going to get them detained. And being detained could mean him getting shot.

“No,” Steve says levelly. He offers no further explanation.

The guard is clearly wrong-footed by the monosyllabic response, but he recovers quickly enough. “Can’t let him take it. He’ll have to leave it here.”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” Steve slaps the Harley’s kickstand down with one heel and dismounts, approaching the guard’s booth.

Bucky stays on the back of the bike, staring at his rifle, secured in the bike’s forward gun case. He’s been keeping a depressing mental tally of the things he won’t be able to do anymore, now that he’s down an arm, and he knows shooting is on the list, he knows that, but he hasn’t really let himself think about it. It’s sinking in now, though. If there’s still a government when this is over, he’ll be reclassified, given a desk job. He’ll probably be some general’s secretary. Maybe not even that – he’d never managed more than forty words a minute with two hands. With one? Typing’s on that list now, too. Not that it will matter, if he ends up getting shot by this guard.

“We’re holding up a lot of people here. There are women and children waiting to get someplace safe,” Steve says to the guard. “You’re wasting everyone’s time. What’s this man’s service weapon got to do with the damn virus?”

“Not just about the virus, buddy,” the guard says. “Gotta think about public safety. Can’t have civilians with weapons in there. In fact, I’m going to have to ask you to open up the saddlebags, too.”

“He ain’t a civilian, and I ain’t opening the saddlebags,” Steve says.

“He’s as good as, and if you don’t open’em, we’ll arrest you and open’em anyway.”

Steve steps forward, right into the guard’s space. It’s not fast or openly aggressive; it’s leisurely, like he’s about to tell the guard a secret. He towers over the younger man by several inches, and his gut brushes up against the front of his uniform. Bucky feels a sharp pang of jealousy which he’d ordinarily tamp down, but it’s a nice distraction from the existential crisis he’s been having, so he lets it ride.

“Mister,” Steve says, his voice low, “you’ve got a wounded army veteran here, a man who put his life on the line every damn day for the last four years for this country, and you want to hold him and all these other people up for some bullshit reason?” Steve shakes his head, disgusted.  “You’ve never been in a combat situation, I can tell, so you wouldn’t know that it’s moments like this when you have to decide what kind of man you’re going to be. You want to be very, very careful about the next decision you make here. You want to think, very hard, about the consequences of your actions. About what might get back to the brass if you stand around hassling people who’ve just fought their way through hell. You might want,” he adds, getting even closer, his voice getting even quieter, “to think very hard about that.”

The guard blinks, and stutters out, “B-but- ”

“But nothing. I told you, we haven’t been exposed. You’ve got no reason to think we’re lying. Sergeant Barnes is a fellow serviceman, for Chrissake.” Steve pokes the guard hard in the chest and adds, “Shape up, son. Shape the fuck up. We’re done here.” He turns, ignoring the guard’s spluttered protests, and mounts up again, shaking his head like he just can’t believe kids these days. Bucky leans into him, wrapping his arm around his waist again, hand to the gentle slope of his belly.

As they roll off toward the parking area for the check-in station, something flutters in the center of Bucky’s chest, and his knees feel weak. It has nothing to do with his injury, and everything to do with the way Steve had just flat-out intimidated his way through the first checkpoint. He’d like Steve to get in his face like that, lean over him, talk to him in that low, gruff, utterly commanding voice while his big belly nudged up against him. He’d like to stare up into Steve’s blue eyes and feel all that force and energy focused on him, making him give in to whatever Steve wanted. He’d like giving in, although he’d probably put up a little more resistance than the guard had, just to make it interesting.

He thinks back to the previous day. That’s an order, Steve had said, and he’d felt a chasm of yearning open wide in his chest. And now this; Steve, effortlessly dominating the army lieutenant at the gate. Bucky shivers a little.

Beyond the front lines, there’s a kind of no-man’s land set up, right there in Fort Lee. The town has been fenced off from Henry Hudson Drive all the way to Bergen Boulevard, and Bucky can see armed sentries in the towers set at regular intervals above the razor wire.

It looks nothing like the refugee camp back in Mazar-e-Sharif, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Fort Lee is now serving the same purpose. This is the quarantine area, where they, along with everyone else, will remain under surveillance for 24 hours. It has restaurants and motels and even a Starbucks, but they’re not in the clear, not yet.

They have to sign in, pick up the pass that tells them where they’ll be staying for the night, but as soon as Steve sees how shaky Bucky looks, he makes him sit back down. “You stay here, I’ll go wait in line,” he says.  “Not long now, Buck. Once we get through here, we’ll drop our stuff off wherever they send us, then we can go find something to eat. How you doing? You hungry?”

Bucky hasn’t really been hungry since he woke up; the lingering aftereffects of the drugs and the surgery have suppressed his appetite, but the long ride, the stress, and now the altercation with the guard seem to have perked up his metabolism. He could eat a goddamn horse, and he says so.

“Here,” Steve pulls a packet of peanuts out of one of the bike’s saddlebags, and hands it over. “Eat these.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says, taking the packet. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“Starved, but peanuts wouldn’t even put a dent in it. I think there’s a decent diner not far from here, I figured we’d head over once we’re done. Hang tight, I’ll be right back.” He heads toward the check-in stations and the lines of people milling around in front of them. Bucky watches him go. A diner. Steve eating diner food. Bucky lets his mind roll around in that delicious idea.

Back in Afghanistan, Steve had subsisted mainly on MREs, like everyone else, and occasionally – very occasionally – fresh rations, when they could be had. He had always been abstemious, never taking more than his share, but it had been clear, even then, that he truly appreciated good food. Bucky wonders how he put on so much weight since the last time he’d seen him. Was it just finally getting to eat normally, or maybe a little more than normally, after all the years of MREs and occasional roasted goat meat? Did he drink too much beer, have a sweet tooth, live on fried chicken, what? Something must’ve changed, for him to have put on that gorgeous gut, and thinking about how it might’ve happened is strangely exciting.

It’s not a lack of activity; he’s still strong as hell, Bucky’s been pressed up as close as he can get to Steve’s strapping back and shoulders, he’s had his legs wrapped around his hips and thighs, he’s felt the hard muscle beneath the new layer of pudge. But that soft, round belly came from somewhere, and Bucky knows it wasn’t nibbling on the odd PBJ or packet of vending machine crackers. Steve has the look of someone who can throw down at the dinner table, and Bucky can’t wait to see what that looks like.

It’s almost half an hour later when Steve makes his way back to Bucky, startling him out of a pleasant reverie.

“Buck?”

“Hm?”

“You gonna eat those?” Steve points down at the packet of peanuts, still unopened, held loosely in Bucky’s hand.

“Oh. Right.” He looks at the little packet, which, of course, he can’t open one-handed. Steve is watching him, but he isn’t offering to open it, although he clearly wants to. Bucky almost asks, but then it occurs to him that he could pull the pack open with his teeth, which he does. He tilts his head back and shakes a few peanuts into his mouth. Opening and consuming bags of peanuts: there’s something for the list of things he can still do.

Steve looks like he’s about to burst with pride.

*

The diner is packed, smells wonderful, and seems almost eerily ordinary, like it’s just another day, like there’s no deadly virus wiping out 100% of its victims in the massive city just across the river. Bucky had expected the quarantine area to be short on supplies, had expected ration lines, huddled masses, Red Cross workers everywhere, but other than the checkpoints, things seem almost normal.

“I guess it’s just like having a really huge convention in town or something,” Steve muses, when the host finally seats them. “Other than some new fences going up and being run by the U.S. Army, seems like business as usual.”

“I guess,” Bucky says, but as he scans his menu it becomes clear that it’s not really business as usual, not quite. It’s not the usual laminated, multi-page encyclopedia he’s used to getting at diners; it’s a single photocopied sheet. Numerous items are crossed off, and there’s a small-print disclaimer at the bottom, explaining that some of the restaurant’s suppliers have experienced a “disruption in service,” so some items may become unavailable.

There’s still plenty to choose from; more than Bucky can really stand to consider. He’s hungry, but he doesn’t feel up to anything fried, or something as heavy as a burger. Bland, sweet foods sound appealing, though. Oatmeal. Toast. Pancakes.

“Short stack,” he says to the waitress. “And a glass of apple juice, please.”

“You want bacon or sausage?”

The thought of anything that pungent and greasy isn’t really bearable, not quite yet. “Oh. Um, neither, actually.”

She looks disapproving as she makes a note on her ticket. “Comes with it, hon.”

“I’ll take his,” Steve says. “I’d like the special, with bacon and sausage, a side of biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, coffee, and a piece of blueberry pie.”

“A la mode?”

“Yes please.”

“That’s more like it,” the waitress says, clearly pleased as she scratches the order onto her pad. “I like a man who can eat.” She winks outrageously at Steve as she collects their menus.

Bucky looks around the room at the other patrons, nervous huddles of people having subdued, edgy conversations, most leaning over the tables, heads close together. “Wonder what’s going to happen to everybody,” he says. “Where will everyone go? We can’t all just stay in Fort Lee forever.” “They said there are temporary shelters being set up in the surrounding cities and towns,” Steve says. “But it’s a problem. And connectivity’s an issue, too. Cell service has gone a little wonky.” He holds up his phone. “No bars. Which seems a little odd, don’t you think?”

It does seem odd. “I was going to call Becca,” he says.

“Not from here, you’re not. Makes me wonder what we’ll find out there, once we’re done with the quarantine period.”

“They didn’t have any news at the check-in station?”

“None that they wanted to share. Just said the situation is under control, and that for now we’re just supposed to wait, rest, and report anyone showing signs of infection.”

“There must be some news,” Bucky says. “Otherwise they could be sending people out of here and right into another outbreak. They must know something.

“Believe me, I said pretty much the same thing,” Steve agrees. “And it wasn’t just me. But they wouldn’t give anything up. I don’t know what happens after we leave here.”

That should be unsettling, but in the tense but relatively normal environs of the diner, it’s hard to worry. Surely there’d be some indication if the end times were lurking just beyond the razor wire fence. It feels safe here; there are no Afflicted anywhere in sight, there’s food and a place to sleep, some semblance of the life they all know. And even if all of that falls apart, there’s Steve. Steve had gotten them out of New York. He’d somehow managed to amputate Bucky’s infected arm and not kill him. Bucky’d thought he was a goner, there in Brooklyn, with twenty rounds and forty Afflicted bearing down on him, and somehow, here he is, alive.

Ten minutes later, Steve leans back as the waitress slides several dishes in front of him. Pancakes, bacon, sausage, toast, a steaming bowl of cheese grits, biscuits, a plate of eggs, and coffee, which he immediately dollops liberally with cream and sugar.

“I figured you’d want the pie last,” the waitress says, setting down Bucky’s plate of pancakes.

“That’ll be fine,” Steve says. “I’m going to need a little time with all this.” He looks down at the steaming plates with satisfaction, and picks up his fork.

Bucky’s breath catches in his throat.

He’s been fantasizing about this, on some level, ever since he and Steve were reunited. He watches as Steve drizzles syrup over his pancakes, cuts into them and lifts the first bite to his mouth.

Steve closes his eyes as he chews. “God, that tastes good. Been awhile since I ate anything hot.”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, and his mouth goes dry. He can’t actually remember his last meal, unless the packet of peanuts counts. Can’t remember much of anything, now that Steve’s working his way through dinner like it’s his sole duty in life. He makes himself take a bite of his own dinner, but his eyes linger on Steve, because - god help him - he likes a man who can eat, too.

*

By the time his pie arrives, Steve knows ordering the dessert had been sheer bravado. He’s already uncomfortably full; he’s already eaten six pancakes the size of dinner plates, a generous side of bacon and sausage, and cheese grits, along with the biscuits and eggs. And the waitress either likes him or wants him dead, because the slice of pie she’s brought him nearly forms a right angle at its point, and it looks like she scooped half a carton of ice cream onto it. But he’s not one to back down from a challenge. He runs his thumb discreetly along the waistband of his jeans, pulling it down beneath his increasingly swollen belly, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he feels.

Bucky’s gaze on him is another source of discomfort, but damn it, he’s hungry and he hasn’t eaten properly for the better part of two weeks. He chops off the tip of the triangular wedge of pie and pops it in his mouth, humming in pleasure around the sweet-tart mouthful. Jesus. It tastes like heaven.

He glances up at Bucky and sees that he’s biting his lower lip so hard the flesh looks white.

“Something bothering you?” he asks, around a second mouthful of pie.

“Oh. Um, no,” Bucky says, obviously flustered. “Just…that’s a lot of food, Cap.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, the hand not holding his fork going to the side of his belly. It really is a lot of food. “Don’t know when we’ll get to eat like this again, though, so figured I might as well enjoy it.” He meets Bucky’s gaze in a frank challenge. “That okay with you?”

“Yes,” Bucky answers a little too quickly. “It’s not that I’ve got a problem with it, it’s just…” he trails off, eyes flicking from the pie, to the pile of plates at the edge of the table, then to Steve’s mouth. “Impressive.”

Steve chews another mouthful of pie while he thinks about that. Impressive. Does he want to impress Bucky? Is he pleased that Bucky is impressed?

The answer to both questions seems to be “yes.” He thinks about Bucky riding behind him, his hand on his belly. Imagines how good that would feel right about now, but also how embarrassing, given how full he is, how much bigger his belly looks and feels at the moment. He imagines Bucky’s hand where his is now, cupping the full lower swell of his gut, and feels something hot and sharp moving along his nerves, something he’d always felt around Bucky, but even fresher and more immediate than it had been during the war.

He pushes the pie plate away, even though more than half the slice is left. “Maybe we’d better just get the check,” he says. “You probably need some rest.”

To his surprise, Bucky’s face falls, and two spots of color burn high up on his cheeks. He looks away, like he can’t quite bring himself to meet Steve’s eyes, then he stares down at the remaining pie for several seconds, like he’s working up to something. Finally, he looks up, and points at the half-finished dessert. “You don’t want the rest of that?”

“You don’t think I’ve had enough?” Steve asks, leaning back in the booth, stretching one arm along the top of the bench. He’s uncomfortably aware of how this pushes his gut out a little, how it nudges up against the bottom buttons of his flannel shirt, how fucking fat he must look right now. It should be humiliating, would be if he were seeing disappointment or disgust on Bucky’s face, but that’s not it; that’s not it at all.

“I don’t know,” Bucky mumbles, suddenly abashed. “Like you said, we don’t know when you’ll get a chance to eat like this again.”

“That’s true,” Steve says, glancing over at Bucky’s plate, which still has most of his second pancake on it, uneaten. “Didn’t stop you from tapping out, though.”

“I barely ate anything for a week,” Bucky says. “And I had that bag of peanuts in the parking lot. I can’t eat another bite.” His fingers come to rest on the thick stoneware rim of his plate, and he shoots a quick glance at Steve, licks his lips. “Shame for it to go to waste, though,” he says, and – Steve can hardly believe it – shoves it, just a fraction of an inch, toward Steve.

The pancake sits there, like a thrown gauntlet. Bucky stares at him with huge, smoke-colored eyes, and Steve would swear he’s actually holding his breath.

“Can I get these out of the way for you?” The waitress bustles over, piling empty plates onto her tray, and she reaches for Bucky’s plate, but Steve stops her with a hand on her arm.

“We’re still working on that one,” he says. “The pie, too. Thanks.” He swears he hears Bucky catch his breath.

He takes Bucky’s plate and pulls it closer, then, very deliberately, forks up a huge bite of syrup-soaked pancake. He works through it steadily, mechanically, getting the job done, and sops up as much syrup as possible with the last bite before shoving the plate aside and polishing off the last of the pie, too. He finally looks up at Bucky, who isn’t holding his breath anymore – instead, he’s breathing fast and hard, lips slightly parted, eyes wide.

“You ready to go?” Steve asks, and he’s breathing hard, too, all that food encroaching on his lungs a little, making him feel bloated and huge and breathless. Bucky nods, shoving out of the booth so hard he nearly falls over, still getting used to the unfamiliar absence of one arm. Steve’s up and out of the booth fast enough to catch him by the elbow and steady him, despite the protest of his overfull stomach. “C’mon,” he says, tossing a stack of bills onto the table, more than enough to cover the bill and a generous tip. “Let’s get out of here.”

*

It’s not like Bucky doesn’t know he’s attracted to bigger guys – of course he does. He’s always been drawn to men who are bigger than he is, whether that means fatter or taller or more muscular or – usually - some combination of the three. This thing with Steve, though – this is entirely new, and so blisteringly hot Bucky isn’t sure he can stand it. He’s never had someone he’s been attracted to gain so much weight, never gotten to fantasize about how it happened, never gotten to watch them eat so much goddamn food.  Never faced the prospect of watching someone get even bigger, enjoying all the little changes along the way.

And Steve has to know the effect he’d just had on Bucky, how turned on Bucky had gotten just watching him eat that enormous meal. He can’t possibly be unaware of the current of desire crackling between them, has to have known what Bucky was asking when he’d pushed that plate in Steve’s direction. Bucky’s heart pounds as they make their way through the lobby of the shabby motel where they’d been assigned a room, trying not to notice the way Steve presses a hand to his belly from time to time, like it’s uncomfortable, carrying around the weight of all that food. Bucky wants to slide his hands - hand, he reminds himself – under the too-tight flannel shirt and touch every inch of Steve’s gloriously round belly, wants to know what it feels like pressed up against his own flat stomach, wants to pop each button of the shirt open and unwrap Steve’s body slowly, like a birthday present.

The elevator pings as soon as they reach the doors, and they step inside. Bucky presses the button for the third floor, and the doors whisk shut.

“Buck,” Steve says, and Bucky feels a hand on his elbow. He turns slowly, looks up into Steve’s face.

Neither of them speaks; the silence a heavy presence in the confined space. Steve slides his hand up Bucky’s arm, cradles his face, backs Bucky up against the steel handrail, and  - oh hallelujah, thank you baby Jesus - shoves his full belly into Bucky’s body as he leans down and kisses him, lips warm on Bucky’s, his beard soft against the sensitive skin of Bucky’s face.

Bucky pushes into his body eagerly, loves it, loves the heat of him, loves the way he can taste the cream and the coffee and the maple syrup on his mouth. Their noses brush together and then bump as the elevator jerks upward. Bucky starts to shake and Steve wraps his arm around Bucky’s waist, pulls him closer, and god his belly is soft and firm and warm. Bucky moans, letting his head fall back, opening his mouth to Steve’s probing tongue and groaning as he sucks on it, his hand dropping down to caress the side of Steve’s belly, now that he’s balanced between Steve’s body and the elevator wall.

He keeps trying to lift his left hand to touch Steve’s face, to run fingers through his hair, to touch him more. The absence has never felt more poignant, but at the same time, Bucky’s so turned on it feels like a minor inconvenience instead of a disaster, and it’s almost funny, really, having so much to touch and only one hand to do it with.

Steve bends lower, nuzzling into Bucky’s neck, and Bucky lets his head drop back further, rests it against the wall and whispers Steve’s name, over and over, moaning as Steve’s leg slips between his thighs and presses against his hopelessly obvious erection.

“That for me?” Steve whispers into his ear. “That get you hot, back at the diner? That what you wanted?”

“Y-yes,” Bucky gasps, “You know it did. You know it.”

“Damn right I know it,” Steve says, nibbling at Bucky’s neck, hands on his ass, “You looked like a goddamn kid at Christmas.”

“Can’t help it,” Bucky says, hand cupping Steve’s lower belly, the achingly perfect curve of it, where it hangs over his belt. “Sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Steve leans away from him, smiling crookedly. “Me eating a fucking pancake is the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen?” he asks.

“Not just a pancake,” Bucky says, short of breath, head reeling. He feels drunk. “Pancakes, like a whole fucking lumber camp worth of them, and half my dinner, and pie,” he rubs his hand over the swell of Steve’s hot-as-fuck beer belly and groans again, hoping Steve doesn’t need any further explanation, because he’s so turned on right now it’s painful, he feels like he’s on fire, and the friction of Steve’s thick, heavy thigh against his crotch is already almost more than he can take.

Steve kisses him again, just lightly, covers Bucky’s hand with his own, presses it more firmly against the side of his gut. “You like that, too, don’t you? Been feeling me up ever since Brooklyn.”

“Have not,” Bucky lies, just to see what will happen. What happens is Steve kisses him harder, clamping a hand around the back of his head and holding him there, crushing Bucky’s lips beneath his, hot and hard and demanding, their breaths coming hard and fast and loud in the muffled confines of the elevator.

The dial pings again, and the doors slide open. Steve steps back, panting a little, and takes Bucky’s hand, pulling him out into the hall. Bucky staggers after him, so delirious he almost bumps into Steve when he stops short. “What is it?” he asks, but he doesn’t really need an answer, because the reason for the abrupt halt is obvious.

A man is leaning against their door.

For a few seconds, Bucky hopes he’s waiting for someone else, but then the man looks up and smiles at Steve, and it’s clear that their little elevator interlude is all they’re getting for now. The disappointment is swift and crushing, and Bucky tries to will his erection away, inhaling a few steadying breaths.

“Wilson?” Steve asks, a huge smile lighting up the hall like high beam headlights. If he’s disappointed at all, Bucky can’t tell, which is pretty goddamn annoying. “No fucking way. You made it?”

“Course I made it. You think a little thing like the zombie apocalypse is going to get me down?” the man asks.

“Got a lot of other people down,” Steve says, hurrying over to shake the man’s hand, then pull him into a rough embrace. “What’re you doing here?”

“Bailing you out of trouble, as usual,” Wilson says, clapping a hand to Steve’s shoulder. “You know a guy called Rumlow, right?” Bucky’s heart sinks as soon as he hears the name, and a cold tide of dread laps at the edges of his brain.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Steve says. “He was my replacement in the 107th. What about him?”

“He’s looking for you. You and Sergeant Barnes. That you, buddy?” Wilson steps forward and stands in front of Bucky, extending a hand, barely glancing at the empty sleeve on Bucky’s left side. “Sam Wilson. Did the safety and rescue course with Rogers here. FDNY, 16th Battalion, Harlem.”

“Bucky,” Bucky says. “Cap’s NCO in the 107th. Served with Rumlow, too, but I thought he was dead. Thought the whole unit was dead.”

“Until today, they thought he was the only member of his unit to get out of the city,” Wilson says. “He’s a little banged up, been in my infirmary for three days, telling everyone how the whole unit got taken down by Afflicted, how he barely escaped with his life. Then you two rolled into camp. Guess he’s pretty keen to talk to you.”

“Both of us?” Bucky asks.

“Yeah, both of you,” Wilson says to Steve. “I got a bad feeling about him, figured better safe than sorry, decided to come pay you a visit. Plus, I wanted to see you, of course,” he adds, giving Steve an up-and-down look that pauses noticeably in the middle. “You, uh, look good,” he adds.

If Steve notices the look, he doesn’t give any indication. He puts a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, a protective gesture that Sam Wilson clearly notices, although it isn't clear what he makes of it. “If Rumlow’s coming here tonight, we’ve got to move, right now,” Steve says. “We can’t wait around here for him.”

“Wait, why?” Wilson asks, as Steve swipes the card key and shoves the door of the room open. “And how? You just got here today, there’s a 24-hour waiting period, and then you gotta get processed out. You can’t just leave.”

“It’s a long story,” Steve says, pulling Sam into the room. “I’ll explain while we pack.”

Chapter Text

Steve barely has to glance at Bucky to know that he’s a mess. His pupils are still blown, the arousal from the elevator still coursing through him, his blood up and cheeks pink. He looks overtired, exhausted from the day—the week, the month—they’ve had.

All Steve wants is to take him to bed. He wouldn’t even have fucked him, not tonight. Bucky’s still too fragile, and Steve’s gut feels so tightly packed he’s not sure he could even have gotten the job done, honestly. He’s swollen, round and bloated and achy, and as much as he wants to throw Bucky down and fuck him, hard and fast, he’s not sure he could have done it. All he had wanted was to take his boy—Barnes, Bucky--to bed, kiss up on him till his pretty fat bottom lip was even more swollen than usual. Let him run his fingers over Steve’s achingly full belly, pinch and prod at his gut a little, the way he knows Bucky inexplicably wants to do. Swap handjobs, maybe tell Bucky to suck his cock and see how quick he’d have gotten on his knees.

And he would have. Steve knows it with the easy certainty that he always had when he was commanding men. Bucky would do what he was told.

Then Steve would have wrapped him up and just held him. Let Bucky think it was for him, some comfort after the trauma of losing his arm, fleeing New York. It wouldn’t have been, though, not really. It would have been so Steve could fucking relax, close enough to Bucky to know he could keep him safe, that Steve was able to protect him.

Now, of course, that’s not going to happen. Now there’s just another fucking obstacle, another potential disaster. It reminds Steve viscerally of Afghanistan, that sinking feeling of more bad news, another looming shit storm. That’s how it had been, trying to lead men in that war. One crisis after another.

At least Wilson is here. There’s no better man to have in a tight situation. Bless him, Sam’s just standing there, watching Steve pack their shit and looking for all the world like he’s calmly rattling through a mental tally of their exit strategies and waiting to land on a winner.

Steve glances over at Bucky again, and he’s standing still, watching Steve with those wide eyes, like he’s waiting for an order.

Fuck, Steve has it bad.

Now is not the time for this shit. He clears his throat and turns his attention to Wilson, all business. “So Rumlow thought his whole unit died back in Brooklyn?”

Sam nods. “That’s what he’s saying. That they got overrun, no survivors. That he ended up pinned under a vehicle, waiting for a horde to move through. That it was dumb luck he didn’t die with his men.”

Steve looks over at Bucky, who is leaning against the wall, right hand resting lighting on the pinned sleeve of his left arm. It’s a nervous gesture, making him look like he’s hugging himself. “Reasonable that he would think that?”

“We did get overrun. But I guarantee Rumlow wasn’t pinned under a vehicle. If he was, he’d have seen that I got out. He’d know.” Bucky shrugs. “He saw an out and took it.”

Steve feels his stomach clench, already too full and now a little nauseated, too. He’s not surprised; Rumlow was a shit captain, and he was a shit person. It had been abundantly clear when Steve had met him back in Afghanistan. But still, he can’t quite come to terms with the idea of leaving your men behind. It grates at him, a nagging kind of low-grade horror that Steve just can’t suppress.

It’s not like he was always exactly gung-ho about all of the American military’s overseas adventures. He didn’t always believe in the mission, honestly. But he’d believed in the boys he’d been leading across that fucking sand pit. He’d believed in them, believed in his responsibility to them. Steve would have died—would have laid his life down over and over—for those boys. The idea that his replacement would have bailed out on those same soldiers, left them to live or die on their own in the Afflicted streets of Brooklyn, makes him want to puke.

He looks at Bucky for a moment, and he knows that Bucky knows the score, even if he’s not making a move to pack any of his shit. He’s just standing there, holding up the wall and letting Steve run point. So Steve does, grabbing up Bucky’s backpack and shoving in the few items he’d unpacked.

“Barnes lost that arm in Brooklyn,” he tells Sam. “Got bit, just about five minutes after I found him.” He grins. “We took out forty of ‘em together, you shouldda seen it. He got bit at the very end, right on the left wrist.”

Sam blinks, looking at Bucky with frank appraisal. “So you took off his arm?” He whistles low between his teeth. “How the fuck did that work? On a bunch of levels, how the fuck—“

“French donkey,” Bucky interrupts, speaking up for the first time since they stepped into the room. He sounds weary and defensive. “It’s a long story. Steve cut off my arm and I’m not Afflicted, so don’t worry.” He bares his teeth at Sam, just a little. “I won’t bite.”

Steve eyes Bucky. He’s been a little bitter since he woke up from the amputation, and Steve had figured he was entitled to that anger; God knows this wasn’t supposed to happen. But this—this aggression toward someone else—is new.

He’s jealous, Steve realizes, and if he had the time, he’d stop and appreciate how that feels, warm and heady and right. Bucky wants him, wants him badly enough to be jealous of Wilson: Wilson with his handsome smile and easy demeanor, his charisma and charm. Steve can, sort of, see why Bucky might feel threatened; it’s not necessary, though. Sam is, as far as Steve can tell, pretty firmly committed to women, and although he doesn’t plan on saying so, Steve is pretty firmly committed to Bucky.

Sam looks at Bucky steadily, neither backing down nor responding in kind. “Good to know.” He turns back to Steve. “So what you’re saying is that you have the only known case of cured Affliction standing right here with you?”

Steve nods. “Basically.”

“Rumlow’s gonna know that missing arm is a recent development. And hey, if the army shoots your pal here as an infection risk, then Rumlow’s back in the clear about bailing on his men.”

Steve nods again, surreptitiously sitting down on the edge of the bed. He has the feeling it’s going to be a long night, and he’s uncomfortably full. He’ll take a moment to rest wherever he can get it. “And if they shoot him, they won’t just be shooting Bucky; they’ll be shooting the potential cure.”

Bucky jerks his head up. “Say what?”

“I’ve been wondering—those antibodies from the donkey. You have them now. Your blood—shit, Bucky, I don’t know how any of that works, but it seems like maybe your blood would work for other people the way the donkey’s did for you.” He frowns. He hadn’t planned on dumping all of this on Bucky quite so soon; he’d had visions of them holing up somewhere safe for a week or so, until the circles under Bucky’s eyes weren’t quite so dark, until he didn’t look quite so fragile. Time, however, seems to be a luxury of which they are in short supply.

He clears his throat. “So I thought, maybe, we could take you to an Army doc. Someone I know personally, someone we can trust. Dr. Banner. He’s stationed at Fort Collins, and we could go out there, tell them what we did, see if they’d test your blood.” He shrugs. “Seems like the right thing to do.”

Bucky blinks twice, rapidly, and then slumps a little farther down the wall. “Seems like the sort of thing that would have come up in conversation,” he shoots back.

Steve doesn’t say a word, just looks at Bucky steadily until Bucky finally nods, lowering his eyes a fraction.

Steve isn’t surprised that Bucky is a little disgruntled, given the current situation, so he just nods back and turns to Sam, whose eyes are wide, like he doesn’t quite believe what he’s hearing. And, frankly, why should he, when all he’s catching is bits and pieces of a story about a fucking donkey and magic blood? Steve clears his throat. “Just trust me, Sam.”

“I’m with you,” Sam says, scrubbing a palm over his head. “So you guys need out tonight.”

Steve nods. God bless Sam Wilson. “Bucky can’t stay here.”

*

Sam Wilson—Cap’s friend, his buddy, his FDNY pal who is handsome and whole and doesn’t look like he’s about to topple over with exhaustion—raises his eyebrows, looking from Steve to Bucky and back again. “They ain’t just letting people out, Cap. You gotta wait the mandatory 24.”

Steve shakes his head, glancing over at Bucky and then back to Wilson. “Not acceptable. Can’t risk it. What are my options?”

“Besides punching your way out the gate?”

Steve shrugs one wide shoulder, and the barest hint of a grin curls up one corner of his mouth. “That should probably be our last resort.”

Wilson grins back, and Bucky grinds his teeth. If he decides to punch someone tonight, he might start with Sam “My Smile Lights the Sun” Wilson.

“Here’s the deal,” Wilson says, addressing Steve, and even though Bucky wants to ignore him, he has the grudging sense that Sam is probably good in a crisis. “You and I can probably get out, no problem. They’re looking for first responders, wanting them to head down the eastern seaboard. It ain’t exactly making the news, but word is that New York isn’t the only city with a—uh, with a bit of a containment problem. They need medics, firefighters and shit, in a bunch of cities. I heard as far down as Miami.”

Steve looks at Wilson, and Bucky looks at Steve. All the way to Miami? They’re so fucked.

“Cities all the way down to Miami?” Steve asks, verbalizing Bucky’s thoughts. “Christ.”

Wilson nods. “It ain’t good. Not a full-fledged national disaster yet, but the east coast got hit pretty hard.” He shrugs. “The good news is that you and I could flash ID and get out tonight, I think.”

Bucky clears his throat. “Too bad you two aren’t the ones who need to get the fuck out.”

Wilson gives him an inscrutable look. “I was getting to that.” He turns back to Steve, which irritates Bucky even though, if he’s honest, he knows it’s beyond clear that Steve is the one calling the shots here.

“The delivery trucks come and go at the south gate,” Wilson says, and his voice is absolutely businesslike. “I’ve been here a couple of days, helping out with the evacuees that come in and need a medic. A few trucks come in every night around 11:00. Last two nights I was over there, FEMA trucks came in, unloaded bandages and shit, and left a couple hours later. No reason to think they won’t be back tonight.” He inclines his head toward Bucky. “Maybe tonight we put your boy on one on the way out.”

Bucky does not like this plan. At all. He doesn’t want to stow away on a fucking FEMA truck—all other considerations aside, hiding from the government inside a government truck seems asinine—and he also doesn’t like Wilson’s implication that it will be Bucky alone on the truck. Bucky doesn’t want to go one single step without Steve.

Steve opens his mouth to speak, but Bucky is faster. “We’re gonna sneak out in a truck?” he asks, ignoring Wilson to look directly at Steve. The emphasis he puts on the word “we” is slight but present.

“Can’t be both of us, Buck,” Steve says, and his voice is even and steady, pitched just a bit lower than his usual speaking voice. Damn him, the sound of it makes Bucky unstiffen just the barest, slightest bit.

“If it’s both of us,” Steve continues, “what are we gonna do when we finally get off the truck? No bike, no gear? It won’t work.”

“And it doesn’t have to,” Wilson pipes up. “Cap and I can get out the front gate. We can follow the truck.”

Bucky is struck with the sudden, sickening image of this guy—Sam fucking Wilson—riding on the back of Steve’s bike.

“This is fucking crazy,” Bucky starts to say, just as Steve begins to nod. “Goddamn, I’m glad you’re here, man,” he says, and Bucky watches as Steve strides forward and clasps Wilson’s hand again.

Fuck this.

*

At 10:00, Wilson trots off to get some bottled water, since apparently Bucky’s going to be stowing away in a fucking delivery truck soon, and Sam Wilson is the kind of guy who makes conscientious decisions about the hydration needs of people he just met.

That bastard. Bucky hates him.

It’s the first time Steve and Bucky have been alone since the elevator, but so much has changed.

Bucky is curled up on one of the beds, and any adrenaline he’d had is gone. He’s tired, he’s shaky, and he is done.

“Do you have a problem, Barnes?”

Bucky blinks up at Steve, who’s standing over him, muscular arms folded over his gut, blue eyes icy. “Yes, I have a goddamn problem. I have several. Probably enough that I need to use both hands to count ‘em, but whoops, can’t fucking do that, now can I?”

Steve takes a deep breath, and the look he gives Bucky is not even angry. It’s a mixture of annoyance and disappointment, frustration and, worst of all, a pitying kind of empathy, and it makes Bucky’s insides churn. “When you speak to me again, you address me as sir. You understand that, boy?”

Fuck fuck fuck. Not Barnes. Not soldier. Boy.

Bucky wants to do it, wants to slide off the bed and onto the floor, shuffle forward on his knees and bury his face in Steve’s thick thigh and just cry, he’s so fucking tired and so scared and so goddamn, all-consuming, ridiculously jealous.

But another part of him, the part of him that doesn’t just want to let Steve take care of him but wants Steve to overpower him, can’t give in that easy.

“Ain’t Afghanistan anymore,” Bucky says, and it comes out petulant as a child. He can hear it in his own voice, that sulky note, and it makes him even angrier.

Steve huffs out a humorless laugh. “No, it sure as shit isn’t. Which means that I can throw you over my goddamn knee and spank the bejesus out of you. I’m not gonna do that today, because you’re tired and you’re not well yet, and I know you’re so jealous of Sam you can hardly see straight.”

Bucky opens his mouth—either to protest the accusation of jealousy or to say something, anything, regarding the prospect of a spanking—but Steve shakes his head and glares him into silence.

He cups Bucky’s chin in his hand and jerks it up until Bucky’s forced to look him in the eye. “Tonight, I’m not gonna do that. Not gonna pull off those jeans and make you lay bare across my lap so I can blister your tight little insubordinate ass, because we don’t have fucking time for it, you understand? We don’t have time for your shit, and we don’t have time for me to fucking fix it. You are going to pull it together and do what needs to be done, do you hear me? But after I get you off that fucking truck tomorrow morning? And after you’ve had some sleep and you don’t look like you’re dead on your feet? I will turn you over my goddamn knee like a three year old, Barnes.”

Bucky is frozen.

“Do you understand me, boy?”

That word again. “Yes—yes, sir.”

*

When the taillights of the FEMA truck disappear out of the gate, Steve feels sick to his stomach again.

He can’t really believe that he willingly allowed Barnes to go. It had felt almost like a dream, watching Sam chat up the driver, peppering him with questions about how things were looking outside the camp, what was being done back at Fort Detrick, which was apparently where the trucks were headed. Sam had been pitch perfect, gregariously charming and benignly casual, managing to work his way around until the driver had his back to the truck completely, and Steve had the chance to load Bucky into the back, tucking him in like a piece of cargo. Bucky had looked exhausted, weak and shaky, and every instinct in Steve’s body had been screaming to protect him, to keep him safe—and instead he’d had to send him away. He’d made promises, tried to make it sound like he knew what he was doing, and Bucky had just nodded along, like he was too tired to do anything but trust him.

Now, as the truck pulls out, all he can think is that Bucky is alone in there, headed all the way to Fort Detrick, and Steve has no concrete exit strategy.

Since that village on the Pak border, Steve has never, ever sent his men somewhere without an ironclad extraction plan. And now he’s sending Bucky into god knows what, with no clear idea of how to retrieve him.

*

When they drive out, it’s almost anticlimactic. The guards are happy to wave them through, their FDNY identifications giving them all the clearance they need.

Steve eases the bike out onto the street, frantic to catch up with the FEMA trucks. It’s all he can do to maintain a normal speed.

Sam’s behind him, and Steve is acutely aware that Sam’s version of “holding on” is nothing like Bucky’s; his hands are gripped on Steve’s shoulders, and there’s a few decorous inches between their bodies.

Fucking Bucky.

“So you and Barnes, huh?” Sam asks, leaning forward a little.

Steve stiffens. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that boy looked like he would have tried to kick my ass even if you’d tied his good arm behind his back.”

Despite himself, Steve chuckles a little. Bucky’s jealousy hadn’t been subtle. “Uh, it’s a little new,” Steve says, figuring what the hell.

“Like it started right about the time y’all got together stateside?”

“Something like that,” Steve says. “You know, amputation is a nice first date. Really sets the tone.”

Sam snorts, and Steve thinks for approximately the hundredth time tonight that he’s glad Sam is here—even if Bucky isn’t.

When they hit the interstate, Steve cruises up to about ten over the speed limit, his eyes already scanning for the FEMA trucks in the distance, even though he knows it’ll take longer than that to catch up.

It’s a strange feeling, driving on the interstate as if nothing’s wrong, as if New York isn’t a fucking disaster behind them, as if other cities aren’t similarly fucked. And, of course, if you look a little closer, you can tell something is off, even here. There are too many military personnel on the road, Humvees and transport trucks everywhere. Just enough of a military presence to give everything a low grade hum of disquiet.

“What’s your plan once you get him back? The bike all the way to Fort Collins?” Sam asks eventually. “That’s a long ride.”

“Getting him back is all I can think about,” Steve says. “But—but yeah, Fort Collins, after that. Bruce – the doc I know there – is a good guy.” He lapses into the French donkey story, shouting a little to be heard on the bike.

“Damn, Cap,” Sam says when he finishes. “You two headed off to save the world.”

“I just want to save Bucky,” Steve mutters.

As he drives, all Steve remembers is how Bucky’s chin felt in his palm when he had told him he’d spank him. The way he’d cupped it and felt that sweet, sweet hint of softness that accumulated under Bucky’s chin despite the fact that he was lean enough for a six pack. It makes him look younger than he is, that hint of boyish roundness at his cheeks and his jaw, and fuck, it makes Steve want to wreck him.

He can’t be thinking about this shit right now.

“What about you, man? What’s the big plan?” he asks, mostly to distract himself.

“I’ll help you spring your boyfriend,” Sam says, and Steve can hear the grin in his voice. “Then I’m headed back to Fort Lee, probably. I want to stay close to the city, be here when we take it back.“ *

Bucky can’t get comfortable. He uses his backpack as a pillow, pulls his hoodie over him like a blanket, but he’s still lying in the back of a mostly empty cargo truck, half-assed hidden behind a few empty crates.

He needs to sleep. He knows he needs it, from the way his eyes feel gritty and swollen and the way that his hand—the right one, the only one he has left—is shaking, trembling and weak. He feels like hammered shit, and there’s nothing he can do but wait for the truck to stop, anyway. He might as well rest. God knows how the hell this is all going to resolve itself, but lying awake for hours isn’t going to make it any better. Steve had murmured some comforting shit about being right behind him on the bike, about sneaking him off the back of the truck just as soon as it stopped—for gas, or at the gate at Fort Detrick, or whatever.

He made it sound easy, but Bucky knows better. Sure, maybe the truck will stop somewhere and it will all work out. But it’s just as likely that this ride will end safely ensconced inside Fort Detrick, and Bucky will have exchanged one military base for another, only this time he won’t have Steve with him.

Steve had assured him that wouldn’t happen. “We’ll get you out before then. I promise.”

Bucky had wanted to scoff, tell him he shouldn’t make promises he couldn’t keep, but somehow he couldn’t quite say it.

Steve. Steve who’d eaten plate after plate of food in that diner just a few hours ago, although it feels light years away, now. Steve who had crowded him up against the wall of the elevator and kissed him senseless, pinned Bucky between the wall and his fat gut, made Bucky’s knees weak and his heart race, made him almost forget that his arm was gone and that nothing would ever, ever be the same. Steve who had made him feel utterly safe, Steve who had recognized Bucky’s most secret, desperate fantasies and acted them out like a gift.

Steve who had been so goddamned happy to see his old friend that it had made Bucky’s chest ache, left his cock throbbing and unfulfilled, his whole body thrumming with frustrated arousal.

Steve who had jerked Bucky’s chin up and threatened to spank him.

How the fuck did Steve know? Did he know? Did he know that, even though Bucky’s cheeks had flamed up, pink and embarrassed, when Steve had told him he’d put Bucky over his knee, that he’d also wanted it? That back in Afghanistan, before Bucky would have ever dreamed of anything actually happening between them, he’d jerked himself to sleep at night, sometimes, to fantasies of Steve throwing him over his knee, spanking him hard, telling him it was for his own good and that he needed to learn to behave himself, to be good for Steve, to be good for his CO and his daddy and his Sir?

How could Steve know?

And Jesus fucking Christ, what would it feel like, Steve tugging Bucky across his lap, bare-assed and exposed? Steve’s big, swollen belly would press up against Bucky’s ribs, fighting for space in Steve’s lap, oh, fuck, and Bucky would be squirming with arousal and shame before Steve ever hit him.

Before he falls asleep, rocked out of consciousness by the rumble of the truck beneath him, he jerks off, hard and fast, almost brutal, splashing a gush of come against the wall of the truck. It’s oddly satisfying. A little fuck you to the American military, which Bucky is currently holding responsible for at least part of this whole fucked up situation.

*

When he wakes up, the truck is stopped, and a soldier in combat fatigues is staring down at him.

Chapter Text

“Jesus motherfucking god,” Sam groans as he dismounts the Harley at a gas station several miles south of the Pennsylvania border. “Buy a damn car next time, will you? I am never doing that shit again.”

Steve shakes his head as he swings off the bike, although he’s sore, too, and his ears are ringing from the engine noise. “No problem. Next time there’s a zombie apocalypse and civilization collapses, I’ll go pick up a nice, comfy mid-size sedan, first thing.” His tone is light, but he’s incredibly tense, his shoulders achingly tight. All he can think about is Bucky, stuck in the back of the truck, the uncertainty of this whole plan – of all the plans he’s had to come up with lately. He pushes a hand against his belly, which feels hollow and unsettled. It's fear, pure and simple, fear for Bucky - and with it there's a little undercurrent of anger.

“You okay, man?” Sam asks, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Just hungry. Always get hungry when I’m nervous.”

“Must’ve been nervous a lot since the last time I saw you,” Sam says, cracking a smile. It’s the first time he’s taken a jab at Steve’s weight, and it’s such a nice, ordinary kind of teasing, it actually makes Steve feel more relaxed.

“I get hungry when I’m bored, too,” he admits, a little ruefully.

“You need to find yourself a hobby,” Sam says. “Or else you’re going to end up waddling into burning buildings, you know what I’m saying?”

“That’s cold, Sam. That’s just plain mean. Do I look like I’m waddling anywhere?” Steve sucks in a little, but he knows it doesn't make that much difference.

“Not yet,” Sam says ominously. His expression sharpens and he points with his chin to the other end of the parking lot. “There’s our truck,” he says.

Across the parking lot, the FEMA truck pulls into an oversized space between two RVs. The passenger and the driver hop out and head into the convenience store, yawning and stretching.

Steve starts immediately toward the truck, but Sam stops him, one hand on his shoulder. “Look,” he says quietly, nodding at two men in combat fatigues hurrying across the parking lot in the direction of the FEMA vehicle. “Better wait a minute.”

“Shit,” Steve says. “Who are these guys?” He looks around the parking lot for a military vehicle, but doesn’t see anything. “Not army, those rifles aren’t standard issue.”

“I don’t know,” Sam says. “But it looks like they’re about to beat us to the punch.”

One of the men rests his gun against the truck’s rear fender and snaps the lock on the truck’s cargo door with a set of bolt cutters. The door rolls up slowly while the other man aims his rifle into the truck’s interior.

“I knew it!” one of the men shouts triumphantly. “A goddamn Trojan horse! We got us Afflicted in here!”

*

Bucky sits up slowly, holding his one arm up to the best of his ability. It’s hard to do that and keep his balance, but he manages, barely.

“Hands where I can see’ em!” The man says, jerking his gun at Bucky. Bucky can barely make out his face, the sudden flood of sunlight inside the dark truck is too much, and he squints helplessly into the bright light.

“I only have one hand,” Bucky says, and despite his fear and confusion, he manages a friendly smile. It’s practically a reflex; he knows he has a good smile, the kind that instantly sets people at ease. He’s used it at worse moments than this. That smile and his baby face have gotten him out of more scrapes than he can count, so he smiles into the glare and tries to look harmless. It should be easier than ever, he thinks, now that he’s down an arm.

“Bullshit,” says the man, and behind him, another voice says, “Shoot’im, Bill, he’s Afflicted for sure!”

“He don’t look Afflicted, is the thing,” the guy with the gun says. “Just kinda tired. Homeless, maybe.”

Bucky isn’t sure what’s going on, but fatigues or no fatigues, these guys aren’t military. “Thank goodness,” he says, keeping his arm elevated, with some difficulty. “I was starting to think I’d starve to death in here,” he says. “Plus I gotta pee like a racehorse. Is it okay with you guys if I get out?”

“Sure,” the guy with the gun says. “I’m letting him out, Hank, don’t shoot, I think he’s a friendly.”

“He’s probably some kind of new Afflicted cooked up by the damn Oh-bummer administration,” the man called Hank says. “Watch him, Bob.”

“Nah, look at him, Hank, he’s all right, he’s just a kid. You all right there, fella? What happened to your arm?”

Bucky makes a quick decision, looking back and forth between the two men, taking in the fatigues, the hunting rifles, the cracked, worn boots on their feet. “The Taliban happened to it,” he says, thinking of Steve’s angry reply to the guard at Fort Lee.

“Goddamn it, I knew it. He’s okay, Hank. Thank you for your service to our country,” Bob says, but Hank spits tobacco juice onto the pavement and squints at Bucky suspiciously.

“Ask him what he’s doing in the back of the truck, Bob,” he says. “How come his ass is riding around in the back of a goddamn FEMA truck?”

“Hey, all I knew was that they were getting out of New York,” Bucky says mildly. “I wanted to get out of New York, so I sneaked on. Look, I’m sorry if I freaked you guys out, but seriously, I’m just as pissed off about this whole thing as you are. What are you guys, Army? Some kind of elite unit?” he knows they’re not, but flattery usually goes over pretty well, in his experience.

“Nah, just local militia. FEMA’s been driving through here a lot, lately, and there’s been a lot of talk. A lot of speculation. So we figured we’d start checking cargo.”

“Good idea,” Bucky says, nodding sagely, although…local militia? What the fuck is going on out here in the boondocks? He glances up, and his heart rolls over in his ribcage, because Steve is there, standing next to Sam, less than thirty feet away. He wants nothing more than to run across this parking lot and fling himself into Steve’s strong arms, but he forces himself to relax and keep smiling, nodding some more. He’s almost there. If he can just talk his way out of getting shot by a couple of geriatric local militiamen, he’s home free. Well, as much as he’ll ever be, anyway. “Heck, I’d join you, but I’ve got to try and get home, make sure my mom’s okay, you know? Where are we, anyway?”

“Emmitsburg,” the one called Hank says. “Maryland.”

“’Bout how far are we from Fort Detrick?” Bucky asks.

“Twenty, twenty-five miles,” Bob says. “That where you’re headed?”

“Not far from there,” Bucky lies smoothly, reaching into the truck for his backpack. “Think there’s a phone inside this gas station? I’m gonna go call my mom.”

“There’s a phone,” Bob says. “You ain’t got a cell phone?”

“Got stolen on the subway,” Bucky lies. “Big city, you know.”

“Sodom and Gomorrah,” Hank says, shaking his head. “You were smart to get out of there, kid.”

“You got no idea,” Bucky says, smiling. “Well, thanks for letting me out, guys. And if you’re still curious, I’m pretty sure these trucks are just transporting medical supplies. Might save yourselves some trouble.”

“That’s just what the government wants you to believe,” Hank says, tapping the side of his nose as Bob pulls the door of the truck shut.

There’s a little more bickering between the two men, but as soon as they disappear around the corner, Bucky practically runs toward Steve. Steve’s leaning on the Harley, arms crossed over his big belly, looking like everything warm and right and good in the universe. The crisis is really over; Bucky’s safe.

“Jesus Christ on a bicycle, boy, you got one hell of a charm offensive,” Steve says, grinning as Bucky steps forward and slumps into his arms, shaking a little with exhaustion. “You sell them a bridge while you were at it?”

*

“I hate to break this to you,” Steve says, once they’ve settled in at the McDonald’s across the street from the gas station, “But I’ve only got room for two on the Harley.”

“Y’all can fucking have that thing, man. I’m calling a damn Uber.”

Uber? It seems impossible, up here in what looks like farm country, rolling green hills and only this one gas station in the last twenty miles of highway, but Bucky keeps his opinion to himself.

Steve doesn’t. “That still works?”

“Paying people for rides? Yeah, it still works,” Sam says drily.

“Even way the hell down here?” Steve asks, around a mouthful of burger.

“Hey, I know it seems like the back of beyond, but we’re only fifty miles or so from D.C. and Baltimore. I checked. Uber works.”

Bucky can see that Steve is still unsure, but he just nibbles his fries and stays out of it. He’s out of Fort Lee, miles from Rumlow, and wherever the hell in Maryland Emmitsburg is, if their worst problem is FEMA trucks, it’s safe. Better yet, he’s sitting next to Steve in the little booth, Steve’s long, thick thigh pressed against his, with a beautiful view of flannel-clad belly, crammed just underneath the lip of the table. His mind wanders, and it occurs to him that if Steve keeps eating the way he is now – he’s halfway through his second Quarter Pounder, with another one on the tray next to a large order of fries – he might not be able to fit in booths one day, at least not these little ones. It’s a delightful prospect. He feels a powerful flash of regret for his lost hand; if he had two, he could slip one underneath Steve’s belly and nobody would even know.

“It’s just…I don’t feel good about leaving you here. Shit’s getting weird, you know what I’m saying?”

“Bitch, please. I can handle myself. The only thing you’ve got to worry about now is how the hell you’re getting to Colorado. If you’re right about this whole immunity issue with Barnes, the sooner you two get to Fort Collins, the better off we’re all going to be.” He pushes out of his seat and pulls his phone out of his pocket. “I’ll be back, I’m just going to go call the Uber guy and make sure he can find this place.” He makes his way through the dining room into the vacant Playplace, phone pressed to his ear.

Steve turns to look at Bucky. “Think he’s probably right, Buck,” he says. “You ready to do this?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky answers. Then, smiling, he leans a little closer and murmurs, “Thank you, sir,” into Steve’s ear.

*

They wait with Sam until his ride shows up, a nervous twentysomething in a beat-to-shit Honda Accord. “New Jersey?” he asks. “You guys come from there? What’s it like?”

“Not as bad as New York,” Sam says. “Where you coming from?”

“D.C. It’s rough down there. Trying to steer clear of that whole mess, actually.”

“Sounds good to me, man,” Sam says. He turns to Steve, hand extended. “Guess this is it, Rogers. Good luck.”

“Thanks, sounds like we’ll need it.”

“You run into trouble, you call, okay?”

“Only if you promise to do the same,” Steve says.

Sam turns to Bucky, holds out his hand to him as well. Bucky gives it a single, terse shake, but whatever jealousy he’d felt before is gone, now that Sam’s on his way back to Fort Lee.

“I’d say take good care of him, but somehow I don’t think you need anyone to tell you that.”

“Nope,” Bucky agrees.

“Well then. Good luck.”

“Good luck to you, too,” Bucky says. “And thanks.”

He watches the car pull out of the parking lot and loop around onto the exit, then turns to Steve. “What now, Cap?” he asks.

“I don’t know about you,” Steve says, “But a decent meal and eight hours of sleep sounds pretty unbeatable right about now.”

Bucky’s exhausted, he feels disgusting, and although his arm doesn’t hurt, exactly, he can feel a dull throb starting to pound there, which suggests a fresh dressing is in order. Still, the fact that Steve had just eaten three Quarter Pounders and is still thinking about food is more than enough to distract him from such minor annoyances. “Maybe a shower, too,” he adds, hopefully.

Steve gives him a long, unreadable look, one that Bucky finds strangely exciting. "Right," he says finally. "Let's see if we can find a room for the night."

*

There are enough people on the move that hotels are hard to come by; all the places visible from the highway are booked, so they head off the main road and rent a room at the highly eccentric Cozy Country Inn in the tiny town of Thurmont, Maryland. The Inn is only a small part of an entire, almost unbearably kitschy Cozy complex. Next door, there’s a restaurant, and every available inch of space between the two buildings is packed with gazebos, garden gnomes, wind chimes, Astroturf and koi ponds.

“We should’ve asked for the Clinton Cottage,” Bucky says, flipping through the brochure. “It has a mirrored ceiling.”

“The Roosevelt Room was the only one left,” Steve says, “so we’ll just have to make do with authentic New Deal-era furnishings and décor.”

The room is large, and surprisingly comfortable. The bedspread and wallpaper are faded and worn, and the furniture isn’t the standard particleboard stuff found in chain motels, it appears to have been salvaged from someone’s home. The furnishings do indeed date to an earlier period in history – just not all to the same period, and none of it appears to have originated in the 1940s. Still, the bathroom is clean, the sheets are starched, and the towels are soft. It’s warm and quiet. It’s the first time Bucky’s been truly alone with Steve since the elevator back in Fort Lee, and he’s suddenly, excruciatingly aware of this fact.

“I…” he glances at Steve. “I’d like to take a shower,” he says. “With your permission, sir?”

Steve doesn’t answer, he just sets down the saddlebags, along with his axe and Bucky’s rifle, and folds his arms over his chest. “We’ve got a few things to talk about, first,” he says. “Like your fucking inopportune insubordination back at Fort Lee. What the hell was that, boy? What the hell were you thinking?”

Bucky’s face works a little as he fights to keep himself calm. Steve’s tone is stern, he should feel upset, but he doesn’t, not at all; in fact, he’s positively elated, he can barely tamp down his smile, and his heart is skipping around inside his chest. He stands up straight and lifts his chin, not quite standing at attention, but almost. “I was jealous. Sir.”

“Jealous. And that’s a good reason for compromising your safety – and mine – and giving me truckloads of shit?”

“No sir,” Bucky says, closing his eyes and trying to take deep, slow breaths, because Steve’s walking toward him now, getting right up in his face, and - oh god - his belly brushes up against Bucky’s abs. It’s the barest, lightest touch, but Bucky starts to get hard almost instantly.

“You’re a damn mess, Sergeant,” Steve whispers against his ear, his beard tickling the sensitive skin there. “You know that?”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky says, and he has to struggle to keep his knees from buckling.

“I think you need some straightening out, don’t you?”

“Yes sir,” Bucky says, his voice hoarse, barely more than a whisper.

“What’s that?”

“Yes, sir!” Bucky says, snapping automatically to attention, clicking his heels.

“That’s more like it. Now strip down, soldier.”

Bucky glances down at his pinned-up sleeve, but doesn’t ask for help. He manages to work his way out of his jacket. Next comes his henley and undershirt, then he kicks off his boots. He’s aware of Steve’s gaze, but he can’t judge his reaction, can’t tell what he’s thinking. He flips open the catch of his belt, and hesitates. “May I sit down, sir?” he asks.

“No, you may not,” Steve says. He shoves Bucky’s jeans down over his ass, sending a button pinging across the room, pushes him down onto the bed. Bucky lands on his face, not managing to catch himself with his right arm. “Stay there,” Steve says, and Bucky can hear things, the sound of the saddlebags being opened, Steve rummaging around inside, the clink of his belt unfastening and the thud of his boots hitting the floor. Then the mattress sinks under his weight, and Bucky feels the warm caress of a hand across his bare ass.

The click of a plastic cap, then a crisp slap on his ass. He reaches blindly forward, clutching a pillow in his hand as Steve pulls his hips back and shoves roughly into him, without any preparation whatsoever.

Bucky’s mouth opens, but only gasps come out, the shock is almost more than his nerves can process. Finally he manages a hot, stuttering moan, gasping, arching his back. Steve fists a hand in his hair, the other gripping his hip, hard, and holding him steady.

“That’s right,” Steve grunts, fucking Bucky harder. “That’s good, just like that, boy, just like that.”

“Sir,” Bucky moans, “Oh - oh - oh, sir,” his hand tightening in the pillowcase.

“Say that again,” Steve demands. “Call me sir again, boy, I like that. Get it through your thick skull, once and for all. If I tell you to do something, tell me what you damn well say.”

Yessir,” Bucky gasps, and Steve leans over him, belly filling the little swale of his back, and Bucky feels his cock jerk, sharp and hot and electric.

“If I tell you not to come,” Steve grits out, “What do you say, boy?”

“Yessir,” Bucky manages. “Y-yessir,” but god, he’s already so hard he thinks he might die, his skin feels too tight, his cock so sensitive it’s painful.

“Remember that,” Steve mutters at him, fingers digging into the dip of his hipbone, hard enough to bruise. His other hand slides down to the scruff of Bucky’s neck and pins him down. “Remember what you call me.”

Sir,” Bucky says, his mouth hanging open, but in his mind, it's Daddy, over and over, and he even dares to mouth the word into the bedspread, soundlessly, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, yes, god, fuck me Daddy fuck me -! “Oh — oh —“

“You gonna come without permission?”

“No sir!” Bucky bites out, twisting his hand harder into the pillow. Nothing exists to Bucky but this, the heat of Steve inside him, his firm hand holding Bucky down. Somehow, Steve knows him, knows how to do this, knows how to fuck him right — and he is fucking him right, rough, the way he likes. And he can’t help it, Steve didn’t tell him to, but he pushes back into the next thrust, taking him in, right to the hilt, gasping with the pleasure-pain of it.

“Jesus,” Steve gasps. “Oh, Bucky, baby, Christ. Christ.” They’re both panting. “Christ,” Steve says again.  He stops, buried in Bucky’s body, breathing hard, belly soft against Bucky’s spine, and Bucky grinds against him a little, urging him on.

“Anyone else -” he pants, smiling at his own insolence, “anyone else ever fuck you like this? Sir?

Steve’s answer is another brisk smack on his ass, harder this time, and Bucky grunts with the force of it, but doesn’t stem his sass. “Sam ever fuck you like this?”

He can hear Steve’s sharp intake of breath, feels his belly press against him more firmly as he leans over to bite Bucky’s shoulder, hard. “You want to slow your roll, boy,” he says, voice low.

“Make me,” Bucky says, and after another shockingly hard slap, he amends that to, “Make me, sir.” He wishes he could reach back and touch Steve’s round belly, but he can’t, he’s still pinned, face down, with only one arm, so he just imagines what it must look like, focuses on the feel of it, round and heavy and soft, shoved up against the small of his back, and he feels his control slipping. His dick gives another sharp twitch and he almost comes before he can rein himself back in.

He wriggles and moans, trying to get Steve to fuck him harder, faster, to give him more, but instead, Steve does the opposite. He slides in and out, barely, just the tip of his cock, and wraps his hand lightly around Bucky’s dick, rubbing his thumb over the damp head. “This for me, boy?” Steve purrs in his ear. “You wet for me?

Bucky’s heart thunders in his ears and his mind goes completely, utterly blank, his tongue incapable of forming words. Steve bobs in and out again, so gently, too gently, again and again, easy now, so, so soft and easy. “Is it for me?” he asks again, squeezing Bucky’s cock, and oh sweet Jesus Bucky can feel his nerves gathering to push him off the edge, he can’t hold back, can’t control it for another minute, can’t –

“So wet, baby boy, so, so wet, all for me. Just say it. Say it, and I’ll fuck you harder.”

Please fuck me,” Bucky sobs. “God, please, please.”

“You know what you have to do. So do it, boy.”

“All for you, Cap. All for you, sir.”

“Say it again.”

“I can’t,” Bucky can’t even think straight. “Yes, yes, all for you, I’m all for you, just - please, sir, please -”

“Jesus,” Steve gasps. “You’re damn right. Don’t you forget it.”

Bucky’s sweating now, sweating with the effort of holding back, while Steve fucks him – harder, yes, but only a little, and so slow and deep he feels like he might melt into the mattress. He’s groaning, making high, breathy sounds as his face is pushed into the mattress again and again.

Steve traces a finger through the dampness collecting along the back of his neck, then leans close, his breath cooling the Bucky’s skin. Bucky moans out loud. His body is so tight around Steve, pulling him in tight and hot. His ass presses flush to Steve’s pelvis, underneath the heavy weight of his belly.

Bucky bites his own lip, breath ripping in and out of his lungs. He could get off any second, he knows, but he’s held himself in check for so long that the only sensation he can feel is the hot, too-sensitive burn through his belly, his pelvis, his cock. He wants only what Steve wants, he exists for only one thing, and it’s to get Steve to make the sounds he’s making, over and over. “Oh, oh, oh,” Steve moans, guttural, deep in his throat, as he fucks Bucky into panting oblivion. “Oh, Bucky, baby, my boy, yes.

Steve’s about to come; Bucky can feel the building urgency, but he still doesn’t have permission, so he sinks his teeth into his lower lip, hard, and tries to weather the storm as Steve snaps his hips, thrusting deeper, but it feels so good, so damn good, and he can’t, can’t, can’t -

“Come now,” Steve gasps, into his ear. “Do it. Right now, baby.”

His whole body’s shaking now, his pulse a hard beat at his neck, his wrists, his belly, his dick. Steve puts his mouth on the side of his neck and bites. “Jesus!” Bucky cries, and, “Oh—“ and he starts to come, moaning, wrecked, trembling, his hand flexing in the pillowcase, useless and weak as a kitten. Steve keeps touching him, keeps fucking him, and Bucky’s dimly aware of Steve’s shout as he starts to come, too, his cock going liquid and hot inside Bucky’s body, jerking slick and fast and touching him in the perfect place, over and over and over again.

Bucky keeps coming, his orgasm hitting him in slow, thick, mindless pulses, forcing come out of him, forcing his muscles to spasm harder and harder until finally he jerks up from it gasping, chest heaving, every muscle in his body shaking, his belly slick from come and sweat – his dick too sensitive, twitching and wrung out, his throat tight, his eyes wet with tears.

Steve rolls off him, landing heavily on the mattress, one thick arm thrown over his face as his breathing slows. Bucky turns gingerly onto his side to look at him. He’s still dressed, mostly, although his jeans are shoved down around his thighs and his flannel shirt and the black t-shirt he wears under it are rucked up a little over his belly, exposing the full, fat undercurve, still heaving with each breath. Somehow, despite the soul-stirring orgasm he’d just endured, Bucky’s cock gives a halfhearted twitch of interest.

He’s too sated and exhausted to move or speak, his last bit of extra energy expended with his little rally of backtalk during sex. Now he feels limp, quiescent, content to wait for further instruction. Steve’s taken him in hand, finally, and god Bucky’s never been so thoroughly, expertly dominated in his whole entire life. He feels a warm glow settle over him, a deep, profound satisfaction.

“You were great today,” Steve says, reaching out to touch Bucky’s face, and Bucky pushes his cheek into Steve’s palm, like a cat following a stroking hand. “You did so good, Buck.” He strokes Bucky’s damp hair back from his face, kisses his mouth, his cheek, his mouth again. Bucky scoots closer, and Steve wraps his arms around him and holds him against his broad, burly chest. Bucky almost falls asleep there, to the steady pounding of his heart and the rhythmic caress of Steve's hand on his back.

“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,” Steve says, after a little while. He sits up, and Bucky watches happily as his round gut pushes forward into his lap.

“Yes sir,” he says.

Chapter Text

It’s nearly noon when Bucky wakes up, alone in the bed, and for a moment he can’t seem to get his bearings; he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know where Steve is. There have been too many different places, too much moving, lately.

But no—this is good. This is right. This is the hotel in Maryland, and Steve is here. The bathroom door is ajar, and beyond it Bucky can see Steve, a towel wrapped around his thick waist, standing at the mirror and brushing his teeth.

Fuck. He looks gorgeous, hair spiky and damp, shoulders impossibly broad, and his belly—his belly looks so good Bucky rolls over and surreptitiously humps the bed, just once or twice, a quick grind into the mattress to take the edge off.

Jesus, Steve’s belly. It’s perfectly round, a beach ball of warm, soft flesh attached to Steve’s strong body. It’s unerringly, utterly masculine, and all Bucky wants to do is get his hand on it.

“You awake?” Steve asks after he’s spat into the sink and rinsed his mouth. Bucky can tell from the way he asks that Steve knows good and well he’s awake, and probably knows that Bucky’s been eyefucking him from his post on the bed.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, rolling over and sitting up, letting the sheet fall to his hips. “Should get up and get moving.”

“Oh, should you?” Steve turns to face him, one eyebrow cocked up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Bucky blinks. “Well see, there’s this mysterious illness, and my hot CO is taking me to Colorado to cure it,” he says, drawling it out slow and sassy.

Steve looks torn between amusement and irritation. “Yes, boy, I’m aware. Your CO didn’t tell you to get up and get ready, though, did he?” The emphasis on CO is mild, but it’s there, as if the word is actually code for something else, something neither of them seem ready to name just yet.

Bucky smirks. He slept good last night, he got off spectacularly, his ass is still sore from the monumental fucking Steve had given him, and Steve is still calling him boy, a word that is just one little possessive away from my boy, and fuck, it’s all Bucky wants. Frankly, today is the best he’s felt in a long time, and he wants to play. “He’s not actually my CO anymore, so I don’t have to take orders,” he says, making a display of stretching. It feels weird, only having one arm to extend overhead, but it doesn’t matter; when he arches his back, Steve’s eyes trail down his chest, land on his nipples, and Bucky has to fight to hide his grin.

“Why?” Bucky continues, arching just a little more and letting the sheet slip another inch or two down his hips. “Was my hot former CO gonna tell me to stay in bed a little longer so he could fuck me again? You shouldda seen what he did to me last night. Didn't even prep me.”

“He might fuck you again,” Steve says mildly. “But you’re also not going anywhere for 24 hours, at least.”

Bucky frowns, playfulness fading fast. “What? Why the fuck not? We can’t just be sitting here, thumbs up our asses.”

“You just had major surgery, if you recall—”

“How could I forget?” Bucky interrupts, right hand cupping the gauze-wrapped stump where his left arm abruptly ends.

“Yeah, well—we’re sticking around for a day. 24 hours. You need the rest.”

“We don’t need to do that—“

Steve cuts him off. “We’re staying.”

*

Bucky is sulking.

Steve knows this for two reasons. One: Bucky is literally trailing along behind him, arm crossed over his chest, fat lower lip puffed out just enough to be both sexy and infuriating. Two: Bucky isn’t the first bratty sub Steve has had the dubious pleasure of fucking.

Steve understands that Bucky is ready to go. He also understands that Bucky’s urgency to get on the road has less to do with getting to Fort Collins and saving the world—although that is a situation where time is of the essence, and it’s weighing heavily on Steve’s mind, too—and more to do with the fact that Bucky is still reeling from the loss of his arm, bristling at any suggestion that he’s incapacitated.

The truth is, though, that Bucky needs to rest. If Steve could swing it, they’d hole up here for a week. Bucky could sleep, maybe log enough hours in bed to lose those circles under his eyes, get a couple days of solid meals down him.

That isn’t possible, of course. Even if Bucky would agree to it, a week is too long to wait, the Affliction being what it is. But Steve can make him wait at least one day—one day for Bucky to recover a little bit, for them both to get the chance to breathe before the next big thing comes their way.

Steve is, honestly, a little nervous about what they’ll end up driving into on their little adventure across middle America. The militia men hadn’t been particularly reassuring, even if they’d been the ones who had sprung Bucky from the back of the FEMA truck. He hasn’t mentioned it to Bucky, but he doesn’t need to. He could see in Bucky’s face the same sinking sort of disbelief. If Steve were a gambling man, he’d bet those won’t be the only armed citizenry they encounter. And the longer this mess goes on, the less restraint those types are going to show. Steve knows it in his bones, knows it from having spent years in places where order and infrastructure have gone to shit.

Today, though, they’re not on the road, not dealing with any of that. Today they’re safe, they’re comfortable, and they’re staying in a motel with an attached restaurant. Steve isn’t going to let the opportunity go to waste.

The restaurant—The Cozy, the sign proclaims out front—is almost shockingly kitsch, even more so than their motel room. When they step inside, they’re assaulted with red-and-white checked tablecloths, relentlessly quaint wooden décor, and a gum-chewing waitress at the hostess stand who snaps her Wrigley’s audibly, eyes them both up and down, and then drawls out a hello.

Steve cuts his eyes over to Bucky, who is peering into the restaurant and assessing what appears to be a mile-long buffet. The pout is rapidly disappearing from his handsome face.

“This okay with you?” Steve asks, resisting the urge to put his hand at Bucky’s lower back and steer him toward a booth. It’s not that he thinks Bucky will mind; in fact, the opposite is true. But if the expressions of the other diners are anything to go by—and they are clearly staring at the big-bellied lumberjack in flannel and the too-pretty man with the missing arm walking half a step too close to each other—then discretion might be the better part of valor.

“Looks good, sir.”

Steve raises his eyebrows again, and he swallows back a lecture about how Bucky isn’t going to pick and choose when to behave. Again, now isn’t the time. But soon. Soon, he’s going to have another talk with his boy, who apparently didn’t learn a sufficient lesson being thrown down on the bed and soundly fucked last night.

Of course, Steve isn’t exactly sure what he’s going to say when he does broach that topic with Bucky. He knows what he would do if they were official, if Bucky were his sub—and he’s had them before, this isn’t brand new—and he needed to get him in line. He’d tug him back to their room and throw him over his knee and spank him, just like he’d told him he was going to. And he wants to—Jesus, he wants to.

But the thing is, he’s not sure what this is between them. He knows Bucky likes him in charge, likes blurring the lines between their current sexual relationship and past military one. But there’s more than that going on, and he doesn’t want to fuck it up, whatever it is. There’s so much happening between them, around them: the food thing, the belly thing, the way Steve wants to scoop Bucky up and fucking cuddle him and claim him as his own, tell him how pretty he is, revel in the way Bucky’s big, strong soldier’s body seems small in comparison to his own, the way that Bucky’s sharpshooter eyes go soft for him, from smoke to liquid.

He doesn’t want to fuck this up.

“I bet it does,” he murmurs, sliding into the booth and glancing down ruefully at his own belly, which seems to take up more space in his lap than it should. They’ve been on the goddamn run. How is he managing to get fatter?

He looks up, and Bucky is staring blatantly across the table at him, and that pretty much answers the question; he’s getting fatter because, on the run or not, he’s eating every meal like it’s his last whenever he can, mostly because of the way Bucky reacts to it.

Well, that and every meal really might be his last.

And he’s just been really fucking hungry. He wasn’t bullshitting Sam about eating when he’s stressed.

The buffet is kind of magnificent. Fried chicken, pork chops, crab cakes, golden battered fish filets, mounds of mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, baked potatoes. Macaroni and cheese, hashbrown casserole, green beans swimming in bacon grease. A questionable salad bar comprised mostly of iceberg lettuce and various Jello-based dishes.

It’s fucking glorious and Steve is going to get his goddamn money’s worth.

He’s piling fried chicken onto his plate with merry abandon when he looks over and sees Bucky balancing his own plate on the edge of the buffet with his hip and wielding a pair of tongs with determination. The expression on his face is a little dismayed.

“Here,” Steve says, reaching out with his free hand and holding Bucky’s plate. “I’ll hold it. You fill it.”

Bucky frowns. “I can’t fucking do anything.”

“You’re doing just fine,” Steve says, keeping his voice pitched low and steady.

Bucky flicks one shoulder up, a Gallic little shrug of indifference that makes Steve want to bend him over the damn buffet and stripe his ass a few times, but he obediently fills his plate and then takes it from Steve. “Thanks, sir,” he says, raising his eyes up to meet Steve’s.

“You can thank me later,” Steve says, and goes back to loading up his plate.

*

By his third plate—this one all crab cakes and macaroni and cheese, the latter of which is sitting heavily in his distended belly but is too good to pass up—Steve’s rapidly approaching uncomfortably full, and Bucky’s given up any pretense of eating. His own plate has long ago been picked up by their waitress, and Bucky’s leaned forward, chin cupped in his hand, elbow on the table, and his long legs are tangled up with Steve’s under the booth.

Steve drops a hand to his belly and prods a little, trying to be discreet. His belly feels round, distended to the touch, but it doesn’t hurt, exactly. There’s pressure, but it feels good, really. It feels full and sated, and somehow like the fuller he gets, the more there’s a direct line between his gut and his dick.

He takes the last bite and chews thoughtfully, and Bucky gives him an angelic smile, as if he bears no relation to the pouting, sassy handful Steve has been dealing with the last forty-eight hours. “Since we’re staying another night, you should get more,” Bucky says. “Eat while you have the chance.”

“The farther west we go, the farther from the Affliction we are. I don’t think it’s gonna be a problem,” Steve points out.

“Good, you can eat like this every day, then,” Bucky says, grinning.

The cocky little shit.

He has a point, though, and Steve eats another plateful, this one all fried chicken and mashed potatoes, the whole thing drowning in gravy. Bucky’s pupils are clearly blown by the time he’s finished.

The waitress comes by as Steve shoves the last bite of mashed potatoes down his throat, and she scoops up his plate. “There’s dessert,” she says, pointing to the corner of the buffet, laden with what appear to be homemade pies and a few varieties of cake.

“Oh, god,” Steve mumbles, but Bucky’s already aiming a hundred watt smile up at her. “Thank you ma’am,” he says, oozing charm. “Maybe a couple cups of coffee, too?”

“Of course,” she says, smiling right back at him, apparently as susceptible to Bucky’s wiles as Steve is. She looks like she’d eat him with a spoon, if given the opportunity, and Bucky looks like he knows it.

Steve leans back in the booth, feeling fat. He can feel his tummy pushing gently against the buttons of his shirt; another ten pounds and he won’t be able to button it at all, not without his belly peeking through between the gaps. “Dessert?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Yes.” Bucky stares at him, front teeth worrying at his bottom lip. “Please?”

Jesus.

He ends up eating an enormous slice of German chocolate cake, moist and perfectly frosted, decadent and rich enough that he has to admit that he’s grateful for the coffee Bucky ordered. Then, for good measure, he takes down a nearly equally impressive piece of coconut cream pie, which had seemed like a lighter option when he selected it. It doesn’t felt that way by the time he’s shoving down the last couple of bites, though. His stomach’s throbbing, belt buckle digging painfully into the fat curve of his lower belly, and his cheeks feel flushed, like he’s just done something much more physically exerting than sitting on his ass and shoveling buffet food into his mouth while Bucky sips coffee and watches every bite.

*

If Bucky wasn’t so painfully aware of how bloated Steve is, he would sprint back to their room after Steve paid the check. His whole body is thrumming with arousal, like every single nerve ending is singing. Steve had stuffed himself, eaten more than Bucky’s ever seen him, and he’d looked almost proud of it. Like he was showing off, maybe, and like he knew exactly what it did to Bucky, for sure.

He can’t sprint, though, because Steve is walking slowly, his breath a little shallow, one hand braced against the side of his gut like he’s supporting some of its weight. By the time they get back to their room, Bucky’s fairly certain he’ll go off like a rocket the moment Steve touches his cock.

Fuck. Bucky’s not sure he’s ever been this turned on in his life, including when Steve had kissed him in the elevator and he’d finally gotten to put a hand on his perfectly distended belly.

And this time there’s no Sam, no looming disaster except the overarching zombie apocalypse one, which, frankly, has receded into background noise in Bucky’s mind with that alarming knack the human psyche tends to have for ignoring unpleasant realities. Bucky is pretty sure that unless an Afflicted walks in right now, there’s precious little that is more important than getting his hands—his hand—on Steve’s enormously bloated tummy and pressing on it, squeezing, feeling the contrast between the soft inches of fat and the hard, taut fullness of his packed gut beneath the pudge.

Steve undoes his belt the moment they get in the door, and Bucky can feel his dick lurch as Steve sits down heavily on the bed, leaning back against the headboard with a sigh.

Bucky opens his mouth, starts to say something, but it dies on his lips as he watches Steve lift his belly out of the way with one hand and slip the button of his jeans with the other. Jesus fucking Christ. Bucky’s never seen something so hot in his whole goddamned life.

“Buck,” Steve says, crooking a finger in a ‘come here’ gesture with the kind of casual confidence that absolutely wrecks Bucky, makes him want to crawl on his knees to him.

He doesn’t crawl, though. He doesn’t know, exactly, where things stand between them. He knows Steve wants him, knows Steve likes telling him what to do—maybe likes it as much as Bucky likes to be told what to do—but he doesn’t know where the line is. Doesn’t know if this is just a game to play, something to get them both off, or if—if it’s more than that, if Steve would want it to be more than that.

Bucky sits down on the bed next to Steve, staring shamelessly at his gut, where his flannel has slid up enough to expose a few inches of swollen belly sitting heavily on his unbuttoned jeans. Steve’s breath is short, shallow and quick, and fuck, Bucky wants to grind his dick into Steve’s fat belly so much he’s practically vibrating with desire.

“Sir,” he says, clearing his throat a little.

Steve shifts on the bed, arching his back like he’s too full to get comfortable, which is probably true. He reaches out and takes Bucky’s hand, lays it across the widest part of his belly and presses on it a little, until Bucky moves his hand carefully, gently, over the mound of Steve’s gut. “I’m not going to fuck you,” Steve says, and Bucky jerks his head up.

What?” He blinks. “Uh—what, sir?”

One corner of Steve’s mouth curls up slightly. “I’m too full to fuck you, for one thing.” Bucky relaxes a little, starting to grin, but then Steve plows ahead. “And for another, you’ve been an insubordinate little shit since Fort Lee, and fucking you last night didn’t seem to help.”

Bucky opens his mouth to protest, but Steve just shakes his head and keeps going. “So you’re gonna suck my cock, boy, and while you do it you’re going to fucking listen.”

Oh fuck. Fuck. Bucky can’t seem to find his voice to acquiesce, but his consent must be written all over his face, because Steve just lifts his hips with a groan and shoves his jeans down, letting his erection bob up obscenely. “Do it. Suck my cock.”

Bucky doesn’t hesitate. He pushes Steve’s flannel up out of the way first, kissing along the curve of his belly, down to his thick, muscular-chubby thighs, and Jesus, he needs both hands right now, more than ever. He’ll tie his boots with one hand and his teeth for the rest of his life, he doesn’t care, but he needs two hands to service Steve Rogers properly.

The moment he puts his mouth on Steve’s cock, Steve grabs the back of his neck, firmly, and shoves his head down. He chokes, spluttering, Steve’s cock jammed down his throat, and forgets about his missing hand.

“Shh, take it,” Steve says, voice a blown out rasp above Bucky’s head. It’s overwhelming, Steve’s big cock down his throat and his bigger belly mounding up in front of him, his voice low and gutted and making Bucky feel practically paralyzed with the desire to do whatever Steve tells him. “Be a good boy.”

Bucky hums, abandoning Steve’s belly in favor of wrapping his hand around the base of his cock and bringing his hand up to meet his lips on every down stroke. Without another hand to balance himself, he feels off-kilter – just another thing that losing his left arm has changed. Steve seems to realize it, though, and one strong arm braces Bucky’s shoulder. “That’s good. Good. Slow, nice and slow. That’s it. Now listen.”

Steve grunts, shifting his weight again, and Bucky looks up at him, his belly enormously big, face slightly flushed, jawline soft under the bristle of his beard. Christ. “You think I don’t notice that you call me sir when you want to? When you want me to eat so much I can’t catch my breath, or want me to bend you over and fuck you stupid? When you want me to call you my boy—fuck, my gorgeous baby boy, that’s so good—and dick you till you come when I tell you?”

Bucky can’t resist it, and he pulls off Steve’s cock with a pop and nods furiously. “Yes, yes sir, I want all of th—“

“Shut up,” Steve cuts him off, shoving his head right back down, and Bucky shudders, humping involuntarily against Steve’s leg.

“Now see, that’s what I’m talking about. You want what you want. Want to call me sir when you want something, want to pout when you don’t get your way. Want to give me eight kinds of shit whenever you don’t agree with whatever call I make. But see, boy, that’s not how it works. Not if this is what you want, really. Is it?” He keeps his hand on Bucky’s neck, a firm and steady pressure that lets Bucky know he’s not expected to answer. “If you want to do this—you want to call me sir and suck my cock and be my good boy—you don’t get to pick and choose when it’s convenient for you. You understand that?” This time Steve takes his hand off of Bucky’s neck and cups his chin, pulling him up and off of his cock. “You understand?”

Buck pants, trying to catch his breath. He can feel drool running down his chin, probably pooling in Steve’s hand. “Yes—fuck, yes sir. I understand.”

“You want to be good?”

“Oh god yes, yes, sir, yes.” Bucky can hear himself babbling, but the words won’t seem to stop.

“Good, then finish this,” Steve says, and pushes Bucky’s head back down, hard.

Bucky does as he’s told, applying equal pressure with his mouth and his hand. When he feels Steve’s dick get even harder, hears his breath shorten to a pant, he opens his throat, ready to swallow, but at the last second Steve pulls Bucky’s head back and holds him there, striping come onto his cheeks, his chin, his open mouth.

“Good. That’s so good for me, baby boy.”

Bucky’s hips jerk at the term, and Jesus, it’s so close to what he wants, so close to the thing he can’t seem to ask for. He crawls up, straddling Steve’s thick thigh and burying his face in Steve’s shoulder, hand already finding its way to Steve’s belly.

“You want to come now, don’t you?”

“God, yes,” Bucky breathes, mouthing Daddy, daddy, daddy against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve moves a little under him, still breathing short and shallow, like he’s too full to take a deep breath, like his gut is packed so heavy and tight he’s practically pinned to the mattress with it. “Then do it. Come for me.”

Bucky’s hand is down his pants so fast he’s almost embarrassed.

“You want to come on my gut?”

“Oh god—yes, yes sir—please.”

“Do it. Do it now, baby.”

*

They leave early the next morning, the sun still coming up as Steve eases the bike out of the lot. He’s comfortably full of waffles and strong coffee, Bucky pressed up against his back from crotch to chest, chin tucked on Steve’s shoulder, hand resting under the curve of Steve’s belly.

“This isn’t New York, you know,” he says, grinning a little even though Bucky can’t see it. “People might not like it, you hanging onto me like that, riding bitch and looking gay as the day is long.” He’s teasing—and then again, he’s not. He remembers all too well the way the eyes of the other diners had felt on them when they’d walked into The Cozy yesterday, standing a little too close together.

“Fuck ‘em,” Bucky says carelessly, pressing himself even closer.

Steve smiles. It’s rapidly becoming one of his favorite things about Bucky, the way he pulls that James Dean rebel-without-a-cause attitude one moment and submits to Steve so prettily the next.

It’s a beautiful morning, riding west with the sun on their backs, the bike thrumming beneath them. The landscape is pretty, even from the interstate, and it’s easy to pretend that they’re just out for a drive.

Sure, there’s a little more traffic than there should be on I-70, sure, and a lot of it is military. And yeah, when they pull off at a rest stop in eastern Pennsylvania there’s an entire family wearing surgical masks, as if the virus is airborne, as if a little cotton mask might protect them from the Affliction, should it move this far west. And yeah, a couple of guys at the same rest stop had been sporting obvious holsters, handguns big and ominous on their hips. But other than that, it’s a pristine American morning, practically a goddamn Norman Rockwell painting.

The idyll isn’t shattered until nearly noon, when they crest a hill and look down into the valley below, where traffic is stopped for nearly half a mile.

“Accident?” Bucky asks, peering over Steve’s shoulder.

“Nope. Roadblock.”

Chapter Text

Steve pulls the Harley onto the shoulder and waits for Bucky to disentangle himself and hop off the back of the bike. Bucky lingers there for just a second or two longer than Steve expects, even though it’s a warm day, and Steve can feel sweat gathering at the small of his back from having Bucky shoved up against him all this time, his body running almost as hot as the Harley’s twin pistons.

Eventually, Bucky grips Steve’s shoulder for balance and swings off the bike, and it’s immediately clear that he’s switched gears; he’s been pretty adorable all morning – snuggling up close behind Steve on the bike, hand resting suggestively under – not around anymore, but decidedly under - the full lower curve of Steve’s gut. It equal parts dirty and sweet, but the instant they’re off the bike and taking in the view of the roadblock, Bucky’s all business.

The blockade is set up just beyond the oversized road sign welcoming travelers to “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia. “Not Army,” Bucky says, eyes narrowed in the bright daylight. “Who are these guys? And what the hell do they think they’re doing?”

They’ve been riding for four hours, and while Bucky seems spry enough, Steve’s shoulders and lower back ache from holding up the bike, himself, and Bucky. He stretches, hands pressed into the small of his back, feeling currents of air on the bare underside of his belly. He’d noticed how tight his flannel button-ups were getting a few weeks back, and the way he’s been eating on the road isn’t exactly helping to reverse the trend. He catches Bucky’s sidelong look at his gut, but now isn’t the time to get distracted. He tugs his shirt down firmly over his belly and points at the road beyond the blockade. “They’re not letting anybody through,” he says. “No cars at all on the other side. Could they be National Guard?”

Bucky squints down the road, shaking his head slowly. “This is something else,” he says. “How you want to handle this, Cap?”

  Something else. Steve looks at the road, at the lines of cars piling up in front of the roadblock. People are getting out of their cars, talking in hushed tones, trying to figure out what to do. The people remind him of the masses piled up on the George Washington Bridge, before Fort Lee. Refugees.

“Any of you know what the story is?” he asks a group of motorists gathered around the cab of a tractor-trailer. “What’s going on?”

“These assholes,” one of the men yells back, in a twangy accent that’s probably local. He waves at the roadblock. “Say they ain’t letting anyone through.”

“Where the hell are the cops?” Bucky asks.

“Those are the cops, that’s the problem,” someone else chimes in. “State fuckin’ Troopers, man.”

“Pennsylvania?” Steve asks.

“West Virginia,” says the apparent owner of the tractor-trailer. He’s sitting sideways in the driver’s seat of his Peterbilt, sharing apple slices with a Yorkshire Terrier the size of a turnip. “They got all the major highways in the state shut down.”

“Heard anything about the secondary roads?” Steve asks.

“Nah, just the roads you can drive a rig on,” the man says. “And those are all blocked.” He picks up the dog and sits him in his lap, scratching his oversized ears. Steve asks a few more questions, but the answers aren’t any more helpful, so he thanks the man and he and Bucky head back to the Harley.

“What should we do?” Bucky asks. “We can’t just leave all these people stuck here.”

Steve looks at Bucky, looks at his pale skin, the dark smudges under his blue eyes. He looks exhausted, notwithstanding the 24-hour rest stop at the Cozy, and yet he still doesn’t even think of avoiding a confrontation. Which is, Steve knows, exactly what they have to do.

“We’ve got to find a way around this,” he says, quietly. “We can head back east, go north, pick up the Turnpike, head for Ohio some other way.”

Bucky looks stunned. “We’re just gonna let these assholes shut down the Interstate?” he asks.

Steve meets his eyes, trying to get him to settle down and listen, but Bucky’s not really registering it. “Look,” he says, letting a little steel slip into his voice. “As far as I know, whatever antibodies you’re carrying around in your bloodstream are the only hope we’ve got when it comes to stopping the Affliction,” he says. “You might be the single most important human being in the world right now. We can’t afford to take any chances. And helping these people now means picking a battle we’re not going to win. You want to fight the Staties all the way across West Virginia? It’s not worth it.”

“But - ”

“Bucky,” Steve says, evenly. “C’mon. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. We’ve got to pick our battles. There’s no immediate, life-threatening problem here, so get on the damn bike, and let’s go.”

“Cap,” Bucky says, and Steve grips his good shoulder, hard, forestalling any further argument.

“On the bike,” he says. “Non-negotiable. Now.”

Bucky stares at him for a long moment, then shrugs with a terse, “Whatever you say, sir,” and swings onto the Harley behind Steve. Steve brings the bike around and rumbles slowly back up the shoulder in the direction they’d come.

A car honks at him, the driver rolls down his window, and Steve can just make out a shout of, “Hey, 127 Hours, what gives, what’s the holdup?”

“Hey, fuck you, pal,” Bucky answers back, with a flash of his old swagger. “Figure it out yourself, you wanna know so bad.”

*

They stop for the night at a campground on the Beaver River, since all the motels they pass are filled to capacity. Bucky leaves as soon as Steve parks the Harley in front of the little cabin.

“I’m going down to the camp store,” is all he says, and Steve watches him go, worried, but too exhausted to deal with it. He hauls the saddlebags into the cabin, flips on the generator, starts heating some water for a shower.

The shower stall is narrow; his belly bumps up against the faucet handle when he tries to turn around, his elbows hit the sides when he rubs a little shampoo into his hair. Still, the hot water feels good, pounding into his shoulders and back. He just stands there for a while, thinking about Bucky, thinking about what they've got to do. It's something that should be so easy - go from one American city to another, a matter of a few days' travel. And three months ago, that's just what it would've been. But now...there's no telling what's waiting for them out there. There's no guarantee that they'll make it; hell, they'd barely made it out of Brooklyn, and now, here he is after his first full day of riding, and he feels like he could sleep for a week. It makes him feel old, and worn out.

Once he’s dried off, he slips back into his jeans and flannel, leaving the shirt unbuttoned, and lays flat on the camp bed, letting the muscles of his back release their tension. He thinks about Bucky, his arm tight around his middle, his chest pressed against his back, about the taste and feel of him, the way Bucky feels almost small in his arms. Before long, he drifts off into a doze. He doesn’t even hear Bucky come in, wakes up to the touch of a warm hand on his chest.

“Hey,” Bucky says. “I rented some sleeping bags, a few blankets. Got us some food. You hungry?”

Steve gives him a look, one eyebrow cocked, but smiles and nods, sitting up on one elbow with an effort. “Yeah,” he says. “I could eat. Sorry, I’m just…” he shakes his head, hauls himself up to a sitting position. “I’m just beat to hell, Buck, I’m sorry. That was a long day.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Bucky says, looking away.

“What’s the matter?” Steve asks. “You’ve been quiet since the roadblock. What’s the problem?”

Bucky hesitates, still not meeting Steve’s eyes. "Nothing," he says. "I'm fine."

"Buck," Steve says. "You're not fine. I know you're upset about the roadblock - I am too, and if things were different..." he shrugs. "But they're not. We've got to get you to Colorado, we can't lose sight of that, can't take risks that might get you killed."

"I know," Bucky says. "I know that."

Steve waits, not pushing it, and Bucky sighs and continues, “It’s just…I’m a burden. My blood’s important, I get that, but I'm not used to being so useless. I’m slowing you down, I’m in the way. I can’t fight if it comes to that, I can’t even cover you.” He reaches over to touch the butt of his rifle, laying pointlessly across the table, with Steve’s axe. “Not anymore.”

Steve looks at him, hoping the pang of sympathy and pity he’d just felt doesn’t show on his face. None of that would be welcome, he knows that; it’s not what Bucky needs, not right now. He’s been thinking about what Bucky needs for the last hundred miles, and he thinks he might have an idea. “Sure you can,” he says, and flips open one of the saddlebags, removes a slim wooden box.

Inside the box is a custom Wilson Combat model 1911, a parting gift from a few of the guys he’d served with in the Army. He lifts the elegant, deadly, compact thing out of its case and hands it to Bucky, butt first. It’s a big gun, but exhausted or not, traumatized or not, Bucky’s a firearms expert, and his remaining arm is strong. He can handle it.

Bucky takes it, turning it in his hand, eyes wide. “I can’t take this,” he says. “This is a fucking three thousand dollar pistol. Jesus, Cap.”

“The hell you can’t. You’re damn well taking it, Buck. I’ve still got my duty piece, and you know I don’t really like guns, anyway.” He nods toward the axe. “I got everything I need. You hold on to that, get used to it.”

“But - ”

“But nothing. Take it.” He places the box on the desk next to the bed and runs his hands through his hair. “And didn’t you say something about dinner?”

*

It’s not the gun that’s making Bucky feel better. Sure, he can probably fire the thing one-handed, can probably even figure out a way of reloading it one-handed, but he’ll never be as accurate as he had been, even with a custom-built workhorse like the 1911. And he’ll sure as hell never be as fast.

Steve hadn’t argued with him. Hadn’t said No, Buck, you’re being super-helpful, fondling my belly and falling asleep on me while I try to keep this fucking motorcycle from tipping over, fighting me on every little decision I make, and generally being a pain in the ass. He’d just handed him a gun with the full expectation that he’d figure out a way to make himself useful with it.

Which Bucky fully intends to do.

Steve builds a fire in the cabin’s huge stone chimney, and Bucky painstakingly dismantles the pistol, checks it, oils it, and reassembles it. It’s an awkward, clumsy process with one hand, but he does it once, again, then again, until he starts to feel a bit more at home with the handgun, like he’s getting to know it. The action on the gun is tight; it’s clearly never been fired, but the way things are going, that shouldn’t be a problem for long. He finally stows it back in its case.

“What’d you get?” Steve asks, rifling through the paper bag Bucky had brought back from the camp store. “Looks like you bought the whole place.” He smiles, rests a hand on top of his distractingly exposed gut.

That’s what’s lifting Bucky’s spirits, really. Well, that, and the fact that they’d had hot dogs, beer, and all the ingredients for s’mores at the camp store. He’d come back to find Steve passed out in a cot, his gorgeous round belly bare between the unbuttoned halves of his flannel, one burly arm thrown over his face. Bucky’d stared unabashedly at him for a full five minutes, admiring the way his tummy rose and fell with his breath, the way his broad, softening chest looked, memorizing every new curve.

“Hot dogs,” Bucky says, snapping back to the matter at hand. “It seemed like the easiest thing.” He tears the package open with his teeth and lines up all twelve dogs on a grate, which he slides over the fire.

Later, after they’ve finished off all the hot dogs – nine for Steve, three for Bucky – Steve sits back on the cot, a bottle of beer held on the slight shelf of his belly, while Bucky skewers some marshmallows and sticks them directly into the flames.

“You’ll burn them,” Steve warns him.

“They’re better burned,” Bucky replies. “You gotta catch them on fire, blacken the outside, let the inside turn to total goo. Haven’t you ever done this before?”

“Nah, I never went camping. Unless Afghanistan counts. And there weren’t any s’mores in those MREs.”

“Afghanistan doesn’t count,” Bucky says. “Jesus, that’s the saddest thing I ever heard. Never went camping? Until right now?”

“Until right now.” Steve agrees.

“Never had s’mores before?”

“Nope.”

“Oh man. You haven’t lived.”

“So get over here and fix me a s’more.”

A little thrill trips along Bucky’s spine. He’s never seen Steve like this, lazily sipping a beer, his shirt undone, big belly on full display, gaze half-lidded and suggestive. He plucks the skewered marshmallows off the grate, blows out the ones that are actually in flames, and piles them on top of the graham crackers and Hershey bars. Then he carries the paper plate over to Steve and straddles his lap, snuggling in close against his gut, until Steve lets out a little “Oof, Jesus, Buck.”

“You’re pretty full already, huh?”

“You are one seriously weird person. Yes, I’m fucking full.”

Bucky scoots in closer, squashes together marshmallows and chocolate between two squares of graham cracker, and holds the whole mess up to Steve’s lips. His hand shakes a little, so Steve takes hold of his wrist to steady him, takes a bite, crumbs spilling down between their bodies, and gives a little hum of pleasure that Bucky swears he can feel right between his legs.

“God I really wish I had two hands,” he groans, as Steve takes another bite. He wants to touch Steve, rub the full, swollen curve of his belly, but he can’t do that and feed him s’mores at the same time. He squirms in frustration, feels the hard, hot length of Steve’s rising erection under his ass, which only adds insult to his literal injury.

“Here,” Steve says, taking the s’more from Bucky and polishing it off in two big bites. “Go nuts.”

Bucky rests his hand on top of Steve’s round tummy and slides it down one side, underneath, squeezing a little, jiggling it softly. “God, so perfect,” he whispers, letting his hand slide down to brush against Steve’s cock. “You look so good like this, so big.” And he really does. Framed by the two halves of the open shirt, his belly looks round and heavy, shelving out from his chest and covering the waistband of his jeans.

Steve shakes his head, folding another s’more together and licking the side of his hand, where a bit of marshmallow goo trailed over his fingers. “If I’d known all I had to do was gain forty pounds to get into your pants, Barnes, I’d have done it years ago.”

Bucky smiles and kisses a drop of chocolate from the corner of his mouth. “No you wouldn’t,” he says. “You were such a stickler for that shit, back then. Fifty pull-ups, a hundred push-ups, a hundred sit-ups, five-mile run every day. Setting such a good example for the rest of us.”

“Don’t remind me,” Steve says, shifting a little under Bucky’s weight. “I couldn’t do a single fucking sit-up right now, probably.” Bucky thinks he’s probably right; his abs are gone, and his belly’s almost resting on the tops of his thighs, the skin firm, the flesh beneath it soft. “You really want me to eat all of these?”

“Yes,” Bucky says breathlessly.

“Okay then." Steve picks up the next s'more and bites into it. "You were right about the marshmallow,” he says, around a mouthful of chocolate and graham cracker and gooey, burned sugar. “It’s good like this.” He works his way through the remaining sticky sandwiches and lets his shoulders slump back against the wall, hand pressing into the side of his overstuffed tummy. “Happy?” he asks, as he swallows the last bite. “That what you wanted?”

“I’m a simple man,” Bucky says, squeezing an incipient love handle, and he must be, because he does feel happy, right now, which should be impossible. He’s also almost transcendentally turned on, by the feel of Steve’s body, by the softness and strength of him, by the sight of him eating all that fucking food, by the way he groans with the effort and pleasure of it, the way his belly is almost visibly distended, by the fact that he’s doing it for Bucky, just for him, because he’d wanted it.

Steve looks at him, lazy smile playing about his lips, and looks down at himself, shaking his head. “I don’t get you,” he says. “What is it about this that gets you so hot?”

“Everything,” Bucky says, grinding up against Steve’s lower belly in earnest now, unable to stop himself. “Oh, god, fucking everything.” And he’s way too turned on to explain it, knows that just saying it aloud could set him off in a matter of seconds. But he thinks all of it, as Steve flips open the fly of Bucky’s jeans and shoves down the zipper, holds onto the waistband so Bucky can struggle free of them. He thinks about the contrast between his own slim, strong body and Steve’s soft, heavy one, the full, round, beautifully masculine shape of him, how much fatter he’s going to get if he keeps eating this way, the slight changes in the way he has to sit, and walk, the way he’d pressed his hands to his back and leaned backward, the way his belly had stuck out in front of him, the fat, rounded curve of it, a thick, pudgy ball shoving out over the waistband of his jeans . God. Steve flips open the straining button of his own jeans and leans back with a grunt, tugging them down. Bucky drops to his knees in front of him and gets to work, unhinging his jaw and taking him deep, hand wrapping around his own cock almost desperately. He swallows Steve down, again and again, working his own dick at the same time, waiting and hoping that Steve will grab him by the hair, hold him there.

“Christ, Buck, you’re gonna make me come,” Steve says, and he does catch the back of Bucky’s head in his hands, but instead of holding him down on his cock, he eases him off. “Just climb up on me, baby boy. Wanna look at you. Wanna watch you enjoy yourself.”

Bucky clambers awkwardly back up, straddling him again, his achingly hard cock pressed intimately flush against the soft skin of Steve’s lower belly. He nearly comes on the spot, but Steve leans forward and bites at his neck, whispers in his ear, “Not yet. Don’t you dare.”

Bucky breathes, fast and shallow, feeling a little drunk, even though he’d only had two beers. “No sir,” he breathes, trying to keep his hips still, even though it almost makes him want to cry. He wants to rut up against Steve’s gut so bad it actually hurts.

“That’s good, sweetheart, that’s perfect. That’s my boy.” Steve grips Bucky’s ass hard in both hands, pulls him up against his belly, and Bucky moans shamelessly, screwing his eyes shut and biting his lower lip hard. “That feel good?”

“Yes - god - yes,” Bucky bites out, almost hyperventilating now with the effort of holding back. He tries to press himself down against Steve’s dick, but Steve shifts under him, won’t let him.

“Masochist,” he half-laughs. “Hell. You were just on that fucking bike for six hours, that ain’t enough? And god knows how long we’ll have to ride tomorrow.”

“Don’t care,” Bucky says, which is true. It’s kind of erotic, thinking about being so sore from riding – both the bike and Steve’s dick – that he’d have to think about it all day. With his hand resting under the weight of Steve’s belly, and his knees wrapped around his thick thighs, and the engine thrumming underneath him. Christ.

“Well, I do,” Steve says, and his eyes are wide and staring into Bucky’s, and Bucky stares right back, desperately grateful when Steve pulls him close, kisses his mouth, and whispers, “I care, baby boy,” into his ear.

But it’s still another ten minutes before he lets him come.

*

Steve zips the two sleeping bags together and lays on his side, Bucky snuggled into him, his cute little rear end snuggled up under Steve’s belly, which makes him feel a little self-conscious, although the pressure is nice. He leans forward and buries his nose right behind Bucky’s ear, his tousled hair tickling Steve’s nose, and inhales the scent of him.

He’s exhausted, but he still can’t quite fall asleep. He can’t stop thinking about what Bucky had said, about his once-famous discipline, his regular workouts, about setting a good example. That’s certainly not what he’s doing anymore. He feels almost obscenely self-indulgent, in fact, with his fat belly shoved up against the slim curve of Bucky’s spine. Because he is, undeniably, getting fat. He feels it right now, the uncomfortable fullness of his belly, the way his boxers are digging into his sides, the way his sides fold over the top of the boxers a little. It’s really not up for argument, anymore.

And the thing is, back then, his self-control had been pretty strong. He’d really believed in what he was doing. He’d thought it came down to obeying and enforcing the rules, before the rules had betrayed him and everyone he cared about. That disillusionment – if that’s even what it had been; it could just as easily be called a revelation – is what had prompted him to pack it all in.

He’d quit shaving every morning, because what in the hell good did that do? He’d quit his morning exercise regime because that hadn’t mattered, when it came right down to it. What mattered, what he’d bet his life on countless times, was caring. Caring about his men, caring about the outcome of a conflict, caring about the means as well as the ends. Caring about his enemies. Caring about their country. Caring about everything and anything, and then taking fucking responsibility for all of it.

And he’s still doing that, or trying to. Trying to be responsible for Bucky, trying to keep him safe, to do the right thing and help end the Affliction, but at the same time, he’s getting fucking fat and banging Bucky like a screen door in a hurricane, and he’s never felt so completely out of control in his life.

And part of that has to do with lust; the lust that had been there, instantly, from the very start. Bucky is beautiful, and there had been a spark from the very first time they’d met. But there’s another thing, too, the thing he’d always known and feared might happen if he gave into his desire for Bucky. He doesn’t dare to name it, but it’s there, waiting at the bottom of a slippery slope, and his heart, once safe and secure at the top, is starting to scramble for purchase.

“Dammit,” he mutters, tugging Bucky closer, shifting his pillow in an attempt to get more comfortable. “Damn, damn, damn.”

Chapter Text

The next morning when Steve asks what’s for breakfast, Bucky pulls a box of PopTarts out of his backpack.

“PopTarts? Are you serious, Barnes?”

“They’re the cinnamon and brown sugar ones,” Bucky says, shrugging. “That’s what we always had for breakfast when we went camping when I was a kid.”

Steve pulls a face, like maybe Bucky suggested they eat maggots. “Absolutely not.”

They end up at the Sunshine Café, only a few miles down the road from the campground, and Bucky has no complaints—of course—about the prospect of drinking strong coffee and watching Steve plow through another lumberjack’s breakfast. No complaints at all.

. It’s a typical greasy spoon, the kind of place that, even after just a few days on the road, Bucky is starting to mentally categorize as “Middle America.” The booths are faux wood, and the waitresses look tired, like they’ve probably got a couple of kids at home, maybe an ex-husband or two who is slow with the support checks. It smells like grease and coffee and maple syrup, simple and comfortingly stagnant.

It’s funny, how well Steve seems to fit in a place like this. Steve, who is whip smart and cool under fire, a born leader and a pretty certifiable badass. Steve, who is also bearded and fat, dressed in the same flannel and denim as the good old boys smoking outside the front door. The dissonance between those two truths—those two Steves—god, it drives Bucky to distraction.

There are TVs mounted on all four walls of the diner, and each of them, unsurprisingly, is tuned to Fox News. Bucky can’t help but watch, though, whenever he can drag his eyes away from Steve and his platter of biscuits and gravy, his fried eggs and bacon, and his stack of pancakes, which he is currently slathering with obscene amounts of butter.

A pundit—a new one, not one of the regular Fox assholes that Bucky would at least recognize—is sitting calmly at the news desk, speaking into the camera with a serious, stoic expression on his face. And it’s weird. Usually the guys on Fox are all gesticulating wildly, predicting some Doomsday nonsense. Surely now that some Doomsday nonsense is actually happening, Fox should be foaming at the mouth, accusing everyone from radical feminists to Syrian refugees for unleashing the Affliction on an undeserving and beleaguered America. But instead, they’ve got this guy?

Bucky squints, trying to read the closed captioning at the bottom of the screen: situation is under control….FEMA and the National Guard….panic is not necessary….

Panic is not necessary.

Well, fuck.

“Sir,” Bucky says, setting his coffee cup down.

Steve tucks a huge forkful of scrambled eggs in his mouth and cocks his head. “Yeah?”

Bucky jerks his head toward the television. “That ain’t Fox News.”

Steve looks at the TV and then back at Bucky, raising his eyebrows.

“I mean, it is Fox News. But—Cap. Look at that guy.” Bucky runs his hand through his hair, tugging at it a little nervously. “That’s not their usual MO. Talking about everything is under control and no one should panic? Christ, Steve. Fox News thinks everyone should panic all the goddamn time.”

Steve sets his fork down, which means he’s taking Bucky seriously, and watches the screen for a moment. “You think the government isn’t letting them tell the truth?”

Bucky inhales, glad Steve put it into words for him. “Well—do you?”

Steve picks up his fork again and takes a few contemplative bites, like food is just his go to solution for everything these days—and even now, under duress, Bucky takes the time to enjoy that fact—and then nods. “Yeah. Looks that way.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

Steve frowns. “If they’re not letting ‘em talk, shit must have gotten worse since we left.”

“Yeah.” Bucky’s left arm hurts, tingling from his elbow to his wrist even though it’s not there, and he grips his stump, trying to soothe it.

His arm is still aching by the time Steve finishes his food, shoving the last few bites of syrup-and-butter-soaked pancakes into his mouth like it’s a chore, leaned back and resting one hand on his belly. Bucky can’t help but lean forward a little to watch, and Steve gives him a look that is part fondness and part incredulousness, like he can’t quite believe just how much Bucky enjoys what they’re doing.

Bucky gets why Steve feels that way. The whole thing--his whole thing, the way Steve’s belly and his body and watching him eat drives Bucky fucking wild—is pretty inexplicable. Bucky can’t explain it, can’t explain why even now, when the world quite possibly might be falling down around their ears, the most important thing in Bucky’s orbit is Steve eating a stack of fucking pancakes.

Bucky trails along half a step behind Steve as they leave, the way he always does. A part of him feels a little ashamed of it, the way that he always lets Steve take the lead. Even in something like this, something as innocuous as walking across a damn room, Bucky prefers it if Steve leads. He’d feel badly about it, weird or guilty or wrong, but he knows, even if Steve never says it, that Steve likes it, too. He knows because Steve will put a hand on his lower back and steer him, sometimes. He knows because Steve will speak for him, for both of them, without even realizing he’s doing it.

He knows it’s okay to let Steve be in charge because Steve likes it as much as he does, and to be honest, Bucky has never felt so relieved in his fucking life.

On the way out the door, they have to pass by a group of four men, all locals, gathered under the awning of the restaurant, cigarettes tucked in the corners of their mouth or between their work-gnarled fingers. Bucky stiffens a little as they step out; he knows it’s shitty of him, but he always expects some small-minded shit from men like this, rural and rough.

Steve, apparently, has no such compunction, and Bucky watches in mild amazement as Steve sidles up to the group and says, easy as ever, “You gentlemen heard anything about traffic on 76?”

The man standing nearest Steve, a thickset guy in a Nascar t-shirt and oil-stained jeans, nods. “Roadblocks, is what they’re saying.” He shakes his head, exchanging eye contact with the other men. “It’s a mess, what I keep hearing. Lotta state boys. Lotta problems. Folks like you, might wanna avoid it.”

Before Bucky can open his New York mouth and ask what kind of “folks” they might be, Steve steps down on the toe of his boot, ever-so-slightly, and angles his body subtly in front of Bucky’s, just a quarter-step or so. “That right?” he asks.

An older guy in a ball cap nods. “You boys just passing through, wanting to make distance? You’d do better on secondary roads.” He takes a drag on his cigarette and flips it into the bushes, ignoring a conspicuously placed ashtray. “Lay low on the side roads, that’s what I’d do if I were you.”

Bucky expects Steve to thank them for the advice and head for the bike, but instead he nods and widens his stance, settling in, and when he opens his mouth again, any trace of a Brooklyn accent is long gone. “We ain’t seen the news much, ‘cept for this morning. That sound right, what they were saying this morning on TV?”

“Nope,” the old timer says. “They ain’t had real news since Monday. Megyn Kelly’s not been on once. That new boy was on there this morning? No soul. No honesty. Obama thug, probably.”

“Probably,” Steve says in sage agreement.

Nascar Shirt jerks his head back toward the restaurant, where a stack of newspapers sit on the counter. “You want news here lately? Gotta read the paper.”

While Steve is talking, Bucky angles back inside, dropping a dollar on the counter and grabbing a copy of The Tribune Star, which is, apparently, the local rag. WEST VIRGINIA TO CLOSE BORDER, PENNSYLVANIA TO FOLLOW? the headline screams.

By the time he gets back outside, Steve is wrapping up his conversation, and Bucky is shaking out the paper in one-handed frustration.

“You and your boy take care, now,” Nascar Shirt says as they walk away, and Bucky does a bit of a double take. “Did that redneck just call me your boy?” he stage whispers once they’re nearly back to the bike.

“Don’t be so judgmental, Brooklyn,” Steve whispers back, the ghost of a smile playing around the edge of his words. He holds his hand out for the paper, and Bucky passes it over.

“They’re talking about closing the borders,” he says.

Steve nods, silently skimming the front page. “We need to get a move on,” he finally says, not bothering to comment further. He doesn’t need to—they both know that if other states follow suit, things could get ugly fast.

*,

Whatever might be happening on the interstate, the two-lane highway they end up on is unremarkable and lightly traveled, curving past a few small towns, a few strip malls, a lot of nothing. Bucky’s hand is tucked under Steve’s belly again, cupping the fat lower curve of his gut. Every bump in the road, every vibration on the bike, jiggles his belly, and he knows Bucky can feel it. It’s a heady realization, and it should be embarrassing—and it is, a little, especially when Steve thinks about how out of shape he is—but it’s also just fucking hot, knowing how much Bucky gets off on it. Steve can barely button his jeans, has grown weirdly accustomed to being stuffed past the point of comfort after every goddamn meal, and Bucky acts like it’s the sexiest thing in the world.

It’s the weirdest shit Steve’s ever seen, and they’re living through the fucking zombie apocalypse.

*

The weather holds—overly warm and humid but dry, one of those muggy May days where the sun hangs fat in the sky and the air is sticky even when there’s a breeze—until nearly four o’clock that afternoon, when clouds begin to stack up in the west. They’ve been driving into them for the last hour when Steve finally calls it quits, unwilling to push it any farther and end up caught on the highway in a thunderstorm.

The little town they end up in—Eldora, Ohio, Population 10,943, the sign on the side of Route 30 informs them—has exactly one motel, a rundown Super Eight. The parking lot is nearly empty, just a few cars parked along the building, and grass is growing up between cracks in the concrete.

Steve doesn’t care; he’s just relieved to get off the bike. His whole body aches from riding, his shoulders sore, his back throbbing, and the soft flesh of his lower belly is chafed from his belt buckle, even with Bucky’s hand to protect it. He flops down on the bed and undoes his belt, thinking not for the first time that having let himself get this damn fat has some drawbacks.

He forgets about them pretty quickly when Bucky climbs onto the bed beside him, though. “You sore?” Buck asks, biting his lip and looking at Steve like he’s somehow personally responsible for Steve’s achy muscles.

“Back hurts a little,” Steve says. “Too fat to be on that damn bike all day.”

“Roll over and I’ll rub your back—one-handed,” Bucky says, sounding only a little self-deprecating.

Steve complies, flopping over onto his belly with a groan.

It takes all of about thirty seconds for him to realize two things: one, Bucky isn’t that great at massages and Steve actually doesn’t miss the second hand at all in this particular instance; and two, his gut is really too big for him to lie on his tummy comfortably.

“Oof,” he grunts, turning over onto his back again. “Can’t breathe when I lay on my belly.”

Bucky’s eyes darken, an almost Pavlovian response, and the massage is clearly, mercifully forgotten. “Really?”

Steve lowers his hands to his gut and jostles it a little, looking down and watching as the fabric pulls taut at the buttons. Christ, he’s getting fucking fat. “Really.”

*

By evening, the sky has opened up and it’s pouring rain, so they order pizza and sit side by side on the lumpy motel bed, flipping through basic cable while they eat.

Well, Bucky eats a couple of slices and a breadstick and then sits back; Steve, on the other hand, proceeds to work his way through the rest of the large pizza, the order of breadsticks, and the two liter of Coke that came with it.

It’s fucking stupid, eating like this. He’s already unbuttoned his jeans just so he can take a full breath, and his belly is pressed up uncomfortably close to the fabric of his shirt, reminding him just how much his gut has grown. He’s sore all over, and he can’t quit thinking about how out of shape he is, how out of hand all of this has gotten.

And yet. And yet here he is, stuffing pizza into his mouth and chasing it down with Coke, his dick at about half-mast just from the way Bucky’s watching him glut himself, like he’s a fucking god, like Steven Grant Rogers shoving pizza down his throat is the sexiest thing he’s ever fucking seen.

Fuck.

“You’re staring,” Steve says, grabbing the last breadstick and leaning back against the headboard, shifting and taking a shallow breath.

“Yes sir,” Bucky says, inflection a weird mix of matter-of-fact and obedient.

Steve shoves damn near half the breadstick in his mouth, partially because it tastes good and partially because Bucky’s watching him, his pupils blown wide. “Come here,” he says, talking around the mouthful of bread.

Just like last night, Bucky scrambles up onto his lap. He straddles Steve and rests his hand under Steve’s swollen gut, cupping its weight, his eyes wide and earnest, not a trace of sass in his expression.

Steve swallows the rest of the breadstick and washes it down with a few long drinks, directly from the Coke bottle. He feels huge, the soda bloating his stomach up even more than the food, and Jesus, Bucky is holding up his fat belly as he guzzles down the last of the Coke. It should be humiliating, but Bucky looks absolutely wrecked, jostling Steve’s bloated stomach and staring, as if maybe he can actually see Steve’s belly expand as he drinks.

Fuck. He clears his throat, pulling Bucky down and kissing him, lazy and slow.

“You feel good,” Bucky mumbles against Steve’s mouth, hand dragging over Steve’s belly, hard cock already evident through his jeans as he grinds his crotch up against Steve’s gut shamelessly.

“I feel fat,” Steve says, picking Bucky up at the hips and shifting him a little, enjoying the way Bucky sighs in pleasure at being manhandled.

“Fuck, it’s so hot, sir,” Bucky says, hand groping at Steve’s belly, his touch almost desperate.

“Weirdo,” Steve huffs, dropping kisses along Bucky’s neck, his lips pressed up against Bucky’s racing pulse.

Bucky doesn’t answer, just pants a little, grinding up on Steve. “You feel so big, sir, fuck, so good.”

“Tell me what you want, baby boy.”

“This,” Bucky breathes, lips moving against Steve’s. “You, I just want you—Jesus—you’re giving me everything I want.”

Call it instinct, or a hunch, or just knowing Bucky well enough to know when he’s lying, but Steve knows, with a sudden and urgent clarity, that Bucky isn’t telling the truth. Not really. Not completely. He wants Steve—that much is painfully clear—but there’s something else. Something that he’s not saying, some hint of longing that keeps crossing his handsome features whenever they’re together like this, when Bucky is desperate and clinging to him.

Before he really considers what he’s doing, Steve reaches up and taps Bucky across the face, open-palmed.

It’s not a slap. He’d never slap Bucky, not without them talking about it first. But it’s contact, his palm across Bucky’s pretty cheekbone, a slight little smack that won’t even sting, really, but will, Steve knows, get Bucky’s attention. It’s a warning; it’s a suggestion of what Steve could do, if he wanted; if Bucky wanted it, too.

“Tell the truth this time,” Steve says, cupping Bucky’s chin in his hand and holding his gaze.

Bucky squirms, looking younger than he is, blue-gray eyes wide and almost frantic, weirdly guilty, and Jesus, Steve wants to make him talk, wants to make his boy confess whatever it is that’s making him writhe like that.

“I—ugh, I just want you,” Bucky mumbles, and Steve tightens his grip on Bucky’s chin just a tiny, tiny bit, squeezing lightly.

“I should spank it out of you,” Steve says, operating again on pure instinct. They’ve talked about this, flirted with the idea. He’s even given him a few swats, but they’ve never really come close to a serious spanking. Steve knows, though, that Bucky will respond to it, knows it with the same unerring knowledge that he knows Bucky wants something he’s not telling Steve.

“Oh, Christ,” Bucky says, groaning low in his throat, pressing himself even more tightly against Steve’s packed belly.

“You want that, don’t you, baby?”

“Fuck, yes—god—sir, please.”

Steve nods, gripping Bucky’s hips and pushing him back a bit. “Take these off,” he says, tugging on the belt loop of Bucky’s jeans. He almost laughs, watching how quickly Bucky scrambles up off of his lap and tugs at his jeans. He’s off-kilter, practically falling against Steve as he tugs one-handed at his fly, jerking his jeans frantically down his slim hips.

“Shh, shh, I got you,” Steve says, pitching his voice low and soft, sensing that Bucky needs to hear him, needs some guidance. “Here, across my lap.”

Bucky flops down on him, his hard-on jammed against Steve’s thigh, his ribs pressing up against Steve’s big belly, his pert little ass bare and gorgeous, so painfully intimate that Steve has to stop and take a breath. He’s done this before, but somehow it’s all new with Bucky. Maybe it’s just because it’s Bucky. Or maybe it’s because this time his belly is competing for available lap space, making Steve feel bigger, more powerful, than he ever had when he’d done this with other partners. Maybe it’s both of those things.

“Count them,” he says, and brings his hand down on Bucky’s ass.

“Oh, fuck, sir, one,” Bucky responds, his voice reedy and high after just one blow.

Steve keeps it up, steady and firm, blows that aren’t really painful, just solid, leaving a pretty pink blush on the pale skin of Bucky’s pretty little ass. Even better than that rosy glow is the way Bucky’s thrashing around, voice wrecked and desperate as he counts. It’s all Steve can do not to bring his hand down harder, put his weight behind it, but he doesn’t. Not yet, not tonight. He doesn’t need to; he can tell. And god, it feels good, knowing exactly what his boy needs and giving it to him.

Bucky’s voice cracks on “twelve,” and Steve hits him again, three more times, harder and faster than before.

“What do you want?” he asks before Bucky can even start to try to count. “Tell me what you want, Buck."

The words tumble out in a rush, like Steve jerked them out with a string: “I want you—oh, shit, daddy, that’s what I want.”

Oh. Oh. It takes Steve’s breath away, and somehow, stupidly, he hadn’t been expecting that, even though it makes perfect sense. And Christ, it makes his dick fucking throb.

“You want your daddy?”

“Oh, Jesus, sir, I’m sorry, fuck—“ The panic in Bucky’s voice is palpable, and it breaks Steve’s heart.

“No, Buck—shit, don’t be sorry.” Steve swallows hard, pulling himself together, tugging Bucky up and dragging him forward till he’s straddling Steve again, on his lap. He pulls Bucky closer, until he just gives up and slumps against Steve’s chest and belly. “I’ll be your daddy, baby,” Steve says.

Bucky doesn’t even respond with words, just moans into Steve’s neck, humping against his stomach like it’s an involuntary reflex.

Steve doesn’t push at first, just hums comforting noises in Bucky’s ear for a minute. “You shoulda told me, baby boy,” he says softly, lifting Bucky off of his lap and raising his own hips, tugging off his too-tight jeans and trying not to look as out-of-breath as he feels. “Shoulda told me what you wanted. You thought I wouldn’t? Thought I wouldn’t want to be your daddy, wouldn’t want you to call me that and be so sweet for me, hmm?”

“Oh, god, daddy,” Bucky chokes out, looking softer and more docile than Steve has ever seen him. “Oh god.”

“Shh, it’s all right, you’re all right. Get the lube, sweetheart, get yourself ready, okay?”

Even now, in this moment, Steve is cognizant of how carefully Bucky flips the cap on the lube and then sticks it in his mouth, biting down on the tube so that it squirts into his hand before he spits the bottle aside. He’s doing so good, adjusting to his new, absent-left-arm life, and Steve is filled with a bizarre sense of pride, a warmth that he doesn’t dare consider too closely.

Steve slides down until he’s almost lying flat, dimly aware of the rise of his stomach, high and round even when he’s on his back like this. He supports Bucky with one arm, freeing Buck up to reach behind himself. Steve opens his mouth, planning to talk Bucky through it, tell him exactly how to touch himself, how to ride his own fingers, but Buck beats him to the punch.

“That’s—fuck, that’s all I need, sir, daddy, that’s enough, I just want you, please, god, please,” Bucky babbles, whiny and needy in the best possible way.

“You want my cock?” It’s a rhetorical question, and Steve doesn’t give Bucky time to answer before he lifts him up and onto him. “Ride me, honey. Show daddy how good you can be.”

Bucky opens his mouth and keens, and Steve isn’t sure if it’s at the stretch and burn of sliding down onto Steve’s dick with minimal prep, or just at the words coming out of Steve’s mouth.

He thinks it might be the words.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it baby? Watch me get stuffed so full I just lay flat and let you ride me? Ride daddy’s big cock and hold onto his big belly?”

Bucky jerks, nodding frantically, his voice hitching, like he’s a step away from tears, as he grinds down hard on Steve’s cock. “Fuck, yes, this is what I want, oh, god, yes.” He’s writhing, looking almost shattered, need and desire laid bare across his pretty features in a way that Steve has never seen before.

Jesus. Steve had started talking for Bucky’s sake, but it’s making him crazy, too, and he pulls Bucky down onto his cock, hard, over and over again. “You want your big, fat daddy to take care of you? Tell you what to do? Hmm?”

“Oh, god, yes, please,” Bucky wails, and Steve pulls him down even harder, fucking up into him with a brutal force, putting his weight into it.

Bucky comes first, hard and unexpected, looking caught off guard by his own orgasm, and Steve grabs his hips and holds him absolutely still when his own orgasm hits, pumping up into Bucky like he’s staking a claim.

*

A day later, when the rain finally stops, Steve fills up the bike at the station on the edge of town and Bucky goes inside, standing in line for a Gatorade and a pack of gum, when he hears the whisper behind him.

“New York plates on that bike his boyfriend’s drivin’—and you see his arm?”

Bucky turns, lip already curling up, on the defensive, but before he can open his mouth to speak, the man behind him says, “How’d you lose that arm, fella?”

“Taliban, you nosy fucking asshole,” Bucky snaps right back, extra aggressive to cover the shock of it. He’s a soldier, a goddamn sharpshooter, strong and young and powerful; he’s never been talked to this way, like he’s weak. Like he’s disabled. Like he’s a queer.

“You sure?” the guy’s friend asks, not the least bit intimidated. “Didn’t get a bite, didya? Back in New York?”

“Fuck you,” Bucky spits, but before he can say anything else, Steve is suddenly there, standing between him and these two strangers, larger than life and fairly vibrating with a righteous fury.

“There a problem?”

The younger of the two men must have a death wish. “Your boyfriend ain’t Afflicted, is he?” He jerks his chin toward the sleeve of Bucky’s shirt, which is short enough to reveal the fresh white gauze he wraps around his stump each morning. “Says he lost it in the war, but I don’t know—looks pretty fresh to me.”

Steve moves like he’s not carrying an extra ounce, let alone fifty extra pounds. He gets a handful of the man’s shirt and pulls him close, until they’re nose to nose, the man’s toes dangling just above the gas station’s scuffed floor. “You clearly haven’t seen anyone who’s Afflicted, if you’re stupid enough to ask that question. Now you need to apologize to Sergeant Barnes,” he says, his voice oddly gentle. “Right goddamn now.”

Chapter Text

“Ain’t apologizing to no queer,” the guy says, and he tries to spit in Steve’s face, but Steve shakes him by his shirt, causing the unpleasant projectile to go awry. It lands on the floor with a splat, and Steve looks down at it, then back at the man, his expression growing darker.

The man struggles in Steve’s grip, not meeting his eyes, but it’s hopeless; Steve’s arm, bent at the elbow, is rock steady, never mind that he’s got the man off his feet, suspended by the front of his shirt. Like he’s holding a toothpick instead of a man who’s got to weigh at least a buck seventy-five. “The only question here is how much it’s going to hurt before you figure that out.”

“Forget it, Mike,” his friend says, backing toward the door. “C’mon, just tell him you’re sorry and let’s get the hell out.”

Bucky watches in mingled awe and horror. Awe at Steve’s sudden appearance, at the undeniably impressive display of physical strength unfolding in the little convenience store, which feels even smaller now that Steve’s here taking up most of it. Horror at what had almost happened, at what would have happened, if Bucky had been here alone.  Horror at his helplessness. Horror at his fucking uselessness.

Nothing like this had ever happened to him before.

Back home in Brooklyn, being gay and out was a nonissue; nobody cared. Sure, in high school, there’d been some nervous moments, that had been back before same-sex marriage had even seemed possible, when coming out had still felt a little risky, but in the end he knows he’d had it easy. And in the military, there’s a camaraderie that transcends everything else – it hadn’t mattered what he was back home, just what he was there and then. He’d felt included, part of something bigger than himself, accepted and well-liked.

Nobody had ever looked at him and felt contempt. Contempt so strong they felt entitled to pick a fight with him, a fight one man could’ve easily won. Christ. He could’ve been killed. Which seems like a ridiculous thing to worry about, given the length of his service if Afghanistan and the recent developments at home, but – maybe what bothers him is that for the first time, he hadn’t been even remotely equal to it.

Steve is, though. Steve “Pick Your Battles” Rogers, who’d kept them out of a days-long confrontation with the West Virginia State Troopers, who’d sweet-talked rednecks, who’d neatly sidestepped confrontations over and over again, confrontations Bucky had started, stupidly, not thinking about how fucking vulnerable he was. How vulnerable he is.

Now he’s gone and gotten himself into another scrape, started another fight that Steve’s got to finish. Steve is up to it, and it's the hottest thing Bucky's ever seen, but the desire mingles with shame and loss and regret, and suddenly it's just too much. Bucky's throat hurts and his eyes sting and his nose tingles, but he is god damned if he’s going to let himself cry in front of the homophobic backcountry imbeciles who’d just called him queer. He digs his nails into his hand and bites his lip, trying to concentrate on breathing in and out, on overcoming whatever this emotion is, this riptide that had just knocked his feet out from under him.

“I seen Afflicted,” the man chokes out, hands scrabbling uselessly at Steve’s hand, where it's gripping a handful of his shirt. “Indianapolis is fucked. Started at the airport, spread out from there. That’s where we’re coming from.”

“I didn’t ask for your life story, pal,” Steve says. “I only remember asking for one thing.” “S-sorry,” the man gasps out at last, and Steve allows his feet to reacquaint themselves with the floor, then releases him with a little backward shove. The man catches himself on a display of beef jerky, glaring at Steve, but makes no effort to resist when his friend tugs on his shirt, urging him toward the exit.

“Buck? You okay?” Steve takes hold of Bucky's good arm, staring worriedly into his face, the confrontation all but forgotten.

No, no, no, I’m not okay, I’ll never be okay again, says Bucky’s brain. “M’fine,” he says. “Let’s just get out of here.”

Steve keeps staring at him, like he’s trying to penetrate beneath the surface, like he can see more than Bucky wants him to, but in the end he shrugs, throws a few dollars on the counter. “That true?” he asks the clerk. “What they said about Indianapolis?”

The clerk shrugs laconically and counts back change. “That’s what I heard,” he says. “Never can tell, though. I heard the same thing about Cleveland, but my folks are there and they say it’s fine so far.”

“Thanks – hey, one more thing,” Steve says, his hand trailing idly across his belly, where – Bucky hadn’t noticed it, what with all the excitement – two of the buttons have come undone. In spite of everything, he feels a little thrill at the sight. “There any place to buy clothes around here? Maybe some camping gear, too? ”

The clerk looks Steve up and down and gives another shrug. “There’s a Tractor Supply in Springfield,” he says. “If that ain’t open, there’s always the Wal-Mart.”

Steve thanks him and turns to go, holding the door for Bucky, but he stops short as soon as he gets outside.

“God dammit,” he mutters.

Bucky looks across to the gas pumps, and at first, he thinks the Harley must have been stolen; he can’t see it over the roof of the cars parked in front of the convenience store. But as he follows Steve across the asphalt, he sees that it’s still there, it’s just been knocked on its side.

Steve hurries over and hefts the bike back upright, checking the damage.

“Will it still run?” Bucky asks. It doesn’t look too bad – the mirrors and pegs on the side that had landed on the ground are bent, the gas tank and fenders are scratched and dinged. But then Steve steps back and gestures for him to look at the other side, and he sees that it’s actually worse.

“Those assholes ran into it on purpose,” Steve says bitterly, staring out at the road. “But it looks like most of the damage is cosmetic.” He swings on and cranks the ignition, and Bucky relaxes as the bike roars to life.

“Come on,” Steve says. “Let’s get moving.”

*

Steve can tell something’s wrong, of course, and he’s pretty sure he knows what’s causing the problem, but he’s not really sure what to do about it.

Bucky’s had no time, really, to get used to his situation. He’d always been incredibly physically capable, fit and athletic, and to have that change so abruptly, especially in the current circumstances, was never going to be easy. So he goes from struggling with it to ignoring it to coping with it in waves, and Steve’s been letting all that happen, not going out of his way to help, or even address the issue in any meaningful way.

That might have to change, now. He’d been watching Bucky in the convenience store – not out of any particular worry, just because he liked looking at him. He’d stared at Bucky that whole week he’d been under, back at the veterinary clinic, had memorized his face, every line and curve and plane. Even as unbalanced as he sometimes seems, still adjusting to the absence of his left arm, his beauty makes him stand out, get noticed. So yeah, he’d been looking. He’d seen the guy pointing to Bucky’s bandaged arm, had gotten the feeling that something bad was going to happen.

Now, Bucky’s resting against his back, his cheek against Steve’s shoulder, his right arm looped around his waist, his hand in what Steve’s starting to think of as its customary position underneath his gut, and Steve can feel the difference in him. He feels limp, tired, not quite as fidgety as he usually is. Something’s off, something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong with the Harley, too; it’s running rough, there’s a sucking, rattling sound coming from the big engine, and a slight sputter whenever he cranks the gas. There’s smoke pluming out behind them – not much, but enough that Steve notices. He can smell burning oil.

He’s encouraged when they pull off at the exit for Springfield; traffic seems a little sparse for the middle of the week, but stores are open, and Bucky stirs a little as he rolls up in the parking lot of Tractor Supply.

“How you doing?” Steve asks, cupping the side of his face. “You hungry? Thirsty? You look a little pale.”

“I’m good,” Bucky says. “What’re we doing here, exactly?”

Steve sighs and takes Bucky’s hand, slides it under his belly to the waistband of his jeans, which is digging into his waist uncomfortably. “Feel that?” he asks. “I can’t stand these things for one more damn day. And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that this shirt -” he flicks the open flaps of the flannel, “-won’t fucking button.”

“Oh,” Bucky breathes, and some color returns to his face. He smiles, and Steve is suddenly grateful he’s such a damned little pervert.

*

Half an hour later, Bucky almost seems cheerful, as he dumps another armload of shirts on the bench outside the dressing room.

“I only need two,” Steve tells him. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re on a motorcycle, not driving around in a minivan. Two shirts, two pairs of jeans.”

“I noticed,” Bucky says. “But look – western shirts. You should try this one on.” He holds up a dark blue plaid shirt and points at the front of it with his chin. “See? Pearl snaps.”

“Pearl snaps,” Steve repeats, looking at the shirt, then back at Bucky, who’s obviously thinking about more than decorative fasteners. He leans forward and whispers into Bucky’s ear. “You’re thinking about me popping those snaps, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Bucky answers, not even blushing. He steps forward, just inside the curtain, and slides his hand over Steve’s belly, which is bare, since he’s between shirts. He’s in a new pair of jeans, which feel mercifully roomy, although the way Bucky’s looking at him, they probably won’t be for long. “C’mon, just try this one on,” he says, pushing the shirt at Steve. “Please?”

Steve takes it and checks the tag, eyebrow lifting. “Medium? Buck, I’m already growing out of larges. There’s no way I’m getting into this, look at it.” He holds it up to his body, illustrating the point. His shoulders would barely fit; it wouldn’t even come close to closing over his belly.

Bucky shrugs and chews gum insolently. “I got a large, too,” he says, and hands it over.

Steve shakes his head as he struggles into the shirt. It’s tight across his shoulders, and he has to suck in, hard, to get the lower snaps to close. He can tell that the instant he relaxes his gut completely…well, the thing Bucky wants to happen is going to happen.

He exhales, letting his gut round forward a little. He can see how much the stiff new cotton is straining already, can see skin between the gaping halves of the placket.

“God,” Bucky says, slipping fingers between the buttons, pushing into the soft flesh there. “You look…just so hot.”

“I look fucking fat,” Steve says, feeling more than a little dismayed. He’d never seen himself literally busting out of a shirt before. He really does look big, his round belly soft and heavy against the starched, scratchy fabric.

“I know,” Bucky says. “I know, and it’s so good. You have no idea what it does to me. Jesus.”

Steve laughs a little, lets his breath out the rest of the way, and Bucky groans as the bottom three snaps pop free, letting Steve’s gut expand outward. He steps forward into Steve’s arms, kissing him open-mouthed, not an idle bit of affection, but hot and wet and driven, a needy plea for attention.

“Buck,” Steve says, when they break apart for a moment. “We’re in public.”

“So fuck me in public,” Bucky says, ripping the remaining snaps free and burying his face against Steve’s neck, licking and sucking, kissing down the front of his body, hand cradling his soft gut. He drops to his knees, nuzzling the front oh Steve’s new jeans. “Please, daddy?”

Oh, god. It’s hot, when Bucky gets going like this, his eyes heavy-lidded and dreamy, his cheeks flushed, his soft mouth so eager and sweet; it’s hotter still when he uses that word, that word that sends electric currents shooting through every nerve in Steve’s body. Still, Steve could say no. He’s turned on, of course he is; he wants Bucky, can still hardly believe any of this is actually happening between them, but he knows it’s not cautious, that this is risky, that they could get caught. But Bucky wants it, and Steve wants to distract him, after the incident at the convenience store, so he gives in. And when he caves, he caves fast, and completely.

He pulls Bucky back up onto his feet. “Tell me you have a condom,” he mutters into Bucky’s hair, as he pushes him up against the wall. “At least tell me that, baby.”

*

Bucky lets his head drop back and bites back a moan of pleasure, air hissing between his teeth. There’s only a curtain between them and the open hallway of the dressing room. Not even a locked door, a curtain. And Steve - god, Steve. He looks amazing, the too-small shirt open, exposing his broad, soft chest and that hot, perfect beer gut. He’s got Bucky’s pants off and the lubed condom rolled on in record time; Bucky’s still loose and a little slick from the night before. He wraps his bare legs around Steve’s thick waist, lets himself be picked up, his ass cupped in Steve’s hands, his arm around Steve’s neck, and sinks down onto Steve’s cock with a muffled groan, his own dick sliding wet and hot against the soft curve of Steve’s belly.

Jesus. He could come just thinking about the pearl snaps flying open, he really could. And this - he’s off the ground, his weight balanced between the wall and Steve’s strong arms, Steve lifting him up and down, snapping his hips, driving up into him so hard it hurts, but in the best possible way. And oh, his gut; he’s only up a little more than ten pounds, but it makes a difference, a difference Bucky can see and feel. He’s softer, bigger, the shape of his gut rounder. It’s heavy, and Bucky can’t wait for it to get even bigger, even if activities like this will become impossible. His cock gives a perverse little throb at the thought. Too fat to fuck in the dressing room, he thinks. Oh god, oh god.

“Oh god,” he moans, aloud, and Steve stops his mouth with a kiss, teeth sinking gently into his lower lip.

“Hush,” he whispers against Bucky’s mouth. “Not another word out of you.”

“Can’t help it,” Bucky gasps. “You’re so fucking hot, daddy, so fucking big – oh, oh,” and then he gets incoherent, because the thrusts get deeper, harder and faster. His mouth opens and his head drops back again, banging against the wall. His cock aches, his ass aches, his heart aches, and it’s the most wonderful thing he’s ever felt in his life. He tightens his arm and legs around Steve, pulling himself closer, trapping his cock firmly between their bodies and rolling his hips a little, shameless and desperate. This is what he wanted, what he needed, after the confrontation that morning; to know that this is still here, this whatever-it-is between the two of them.

Steve shifts Bucky’s weight and frees one hand, smacks him hard on the ass, and Bucky's legs tighten around Steve's hips, his head drops back and he gasps for breath. “Said to be quiet,” Steve grunts. He smacks him again, harder, then pinches him, hard enough to make Bucky’s eyes water. “So fucking be quiet.”

Bucky nods, and Steve kisses him softly on the mouth, a tender little apology for getting rough, and Bucky’s heart gives an answering skitter inside his chest, because it’s exactly what he needs, all of it, all of it. He needs to know that Steve wants him, that he’ll make him do what he needs to do, that he’ll make demands and push him and hurt him if he has to - but only if he has to. To know that it still works on Steve as much as it works on him, that he's wanted, needed as much as he wants and needs.

“Come on, baby, come for daddy,” Steve says, whispering low into Bucky’s ear. “I want you to. Come now. Come all over me like you want to. Do it. Quietly.”

“Y-yes, yessir,” Bucky whispers, and then he does as he’s told, coming and coming, sharp and hot, biting his lip hard, not making a sound.

*

Steve cleans himself off with his old t-shirt, wraps the condom in it, and hands the wadded-up garment to Bucky. “Toss this in the trash.” He hands over the old jeans, neatly folded. “There’s a Goodwill bin out front, maybe throw those in there?”

“Yes sir,” Bucky says, smiling as Steve pulls on a new black tee and one of the XXL western shirts Bucky had brought into the dressing room, tucking the tails in and belting the new jeans under his gut. Despite what they’d just done, Bucky feels a twinge of residual lust, and slides his eyes deliberately away.

When he catches up to Steve at the register, he sees that he’s added two ultralight packable sleeping bags, a package of plastic lighters, and a few other supplies to the pile of clothes. Steve pays for everything, handing over the tags from the clothes he’s wearing, and the clerk doesn’t even bat an eye.

“Any place to camp between here and Indiana?” Steve asks. “Someplace kinda remote, off the beaten path?”

The clerk pulls out a brochure and circles a few places, pointing out their locations on an enclosed map, for which Steve thanks him. He stuffs the brochure into the breast pocket of his new shirt.

“Heard anything about Indianapolis?” he asks.

“Nope,” the clerk says. “Why, something happen?” “Just curious.”

“I watched the news this morning, they said everything’s back east, nothing to worry about out here, no need to panic. Oh, man, I hope nothing happens. You should’ve seen this place when shit first started going down, it was a madhouse, like camping gear’s going to help if the Affliction gets here, you know?” He slides their purchases into a plastic bag and drops the receipt in after them.

“Pretty silly,” Steve agrees, taking the bag.

*

They find the park unattended and suitably isolated, and as they cruise by the last little shopping strip before the park entrance, Bucky points out that there’s a Culver’s Butterburger there, but Steve refuses to eat a bite until Bucky’s done some target practice. He puts the .45 and several magazines of ammunition on the dilapidated wooden picnic table next to the rusted metal grill, then lines up eight aluminum cans on a rock overlooking the wide, silent lake at the center of the park.

“Shoot all eight of’em in one go, and I’ll eat anything you want,” Steve says, pulling Bucky close and kissing his forehead. Then he busies himself tinkering with the Harley, but Bucky knows he’s watching.

He picks up the first magazine and sticks it into the waistband of his pants, open end up, then picks up the gun, positions the well over the magazine, and slams it home, using his hip for leverage. It works. He hears a surprised laugh from behind him, and smiles, but doesn’t turn around. He sets the gun down, slips another magazine into his waistband, and picks the gun up, pacing a good distance from the targets.

He knows he’s not going to hit all eight on the first go. He’s never fired the gun before, hasn’t used a pistol since his last firearms qualification course – and he’d had two hands, then, and two arms. His balance is different, and he’s going to have to try a few different positions before he gets it right.

He starts facing forward, arm extended straight out in front of him. He hits two of the eight cans on the first try, the big gun kicking in his hand, throwing off his aim. He adjusts his stance, standing side-on, right arm forward, but that’s not much better, although he does hit four cans.

He goes back to the table, picks up two more mags. “Everything okay?” he asks Steve, who’s disassembled part of the Harley’s engine and is examining a small rubber hose.

“Oil in the airbox,” Steve grunts, wiping his hand across his forehead and leaving a little streak of engine grease there. “It’s fixable.”

“Good,” Bucky says. He reloads the gun, more smoothly this time, and heads back to his position.

He assumes a traditional bladed stance, left side forward, right leg back, and aims across the front of his body with the gun. He pulls his arm close enough to his chest that he can just reach out and steady his right arm with the stump of his left. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t feel natural – yet – but it feels, somehow, right. He takes careful aim and picks off seven of the eight cans. He reloads, lines the cans back up, and tries again. This time, he hits all eight.

He turns around and finds Steve smiling at him, and he can hardly contain his own grin, he suddenly feels so happy. “I hope that thing’s up and running,” he says. “And I hope you’re hungry.”

*

They wake up slow the next morning, Bucky coming to slowly, shifting on the ground. There’d been a tent pad lined with wood chips, it had seemed soft enough when he’d fallen asleep the night before, but it feels cold and rock hard now.

There’s softness behind him, though, and he wiggles back against Steve’s body, soliciting a little “oof” from him as he does so. He rolls over, rearranging the zipped-together sleeping bags over their shoulders, and rubs up shamelessly against Steve’s big belly.

Steve’s hair smells like campfire smoke and pine needles and engine oil, and his lips taste faintly salty when Bucky kisses him, which he does for a long time, not wanting anything but this, the taste of him, the gentle reassurance of his solid presence. His body is soft and warm, his arms strong around Bucky’s shoulders, and he feels safe and cared for and content.

“You’re finally awake,” Steve says, eventually. “Thought you’d sleep all day.”

“I feel like I could sleep all day,” Bucky says. “Or at least stay in bed all day,” he amends, hand rubbing Steve’s belly, which still feels swollen from all the food he’d eaten at dinner last night.

“So could I, if we were actually in a bed,” Steve says, catching his hand and pushing it away. “Let’s add ‘sleeping on the ground’ to the list of things I’m getting too fat to do, okay? That was the worst night’s sleep I’ve had since I left New York, I might not even be able to move today, Jesus.”

“Too fat for tent camping, got it,” Bucky says, and then, because he’s thinking about it, he adds, “Can we go to that chicken and waffles place for breakfast?”

*

Steve agrees to the chicken and waffles place, partly to make Bucky happy, and partly because he’d seen an auto parts store in the same shopping center, and he’s hoping to buy a new vacuum hose for the Harley’s airbox. He’d fixed the one that had torn in the fall the night before with a bit of duct tape, but it needs to be replaced. He needs other parts, too, but the hose is both the most immediately necessary and the one most likely to be obtainable at any auto parts store.

He finds a suitable length of corrugated hose while Bucky orders breakfast, returning to the restaurant to find Bucky sitting at a table with three trays of chicken, waffles, biscuits and gravy, along with – hallelujah – two large cups of coffee.

“For Christ’s sake, Buck,” Steve says as he sits down in the booth. “How in the hell am I supposed to eat all this?” He rubs a hand over his bloated gut, which still feels full from last night’s outrageous dinner, but Bucky just pushes a tray in front of him and smiles as he nibbles on a piece of toast. “For me?” he asks, and Steve knows he’ll find a way to pack it all in before they leave.

He’s made some good headway through the first tray when he sees Bucky’s head swivel toward the restaurant’s big picture window, which faces the main road.

“Fuck,” Bucky says. “Oh, shit. What’s this?”

Steve follows his gaze, and sees the five military Humvees pull into the parking area, watches as soldiers spill out, gathering in a mass around one of the vehicles, attention focused on the man who’d stepped out of the passenger side of the first Hummer. That man takes his hat off and shoves a hand through dark hair, then repositions his hat, straightens his jacket.

“Oh, hell,” Steve says. “It can’t be. No, that’s just not possible.”

“It is,” Bucky says. “Oh, fuck me, it’s Brock Rumlow.”

Chapter Text

Bucky’s heart is pounding, and a series of realizations wash over him in a sickening tide. First and most pressing is the fact that, worst case scenario, he could be shot on sight as an Affliction risk. Weirdly, though, that isn’t actually the most troubling thought flitting through Bucky’s panicked mind. The most troubling thing is that seeing Rumlow standing out there, cock-of-the-walk stance and douchebag-in-power expression, makes Bucky think—really think—about what it is he’s been doing with Steve.

The thing about Steve Rogers is that he is so goddamned good, so genuinely, wholeheartedly committed to doing the right thing, that when Bucky is with him, it’s very, very easy to just take orders and not really consider what any of it means, whether Steve Rogers’ version of “good and right” aligns with what other people might perceive as appropriate, what the repercussions might be. Steve says cut your arm off? Okay, here you go, buddy. Steve says let’s sneak out of New York, bust out of Fort Lee, and hightail it to Colorado with your magical Affliction-curing donkey blood? Sure, let’s go save the world on the back of your motorcycle, big guy. It’s easy to believe in Steve, believe in his mission—and sometimes, that faith is a dangerous thing.

It all seems so simple, with Steve. It’s so easy to ignore certain pertinent realities, like, “Oh, we’re lying to the United States government. Oh, I’m a fugitive. Oh, I’m AWOL.” But that’s the reality. The reality is that, if they’re caught, Bucky is either going to get court martialed or shot down in the street.

The reality is that, once again, Bucky is so, so fucked.

“Bucky. Barnes, listen to me.” Bucky snaps his eyes up to Steve, who suddenly looks like Captain Rogers again. Steve leans back in the booth, shrugging off his brand new flannel, struggling just a bit to maneuver around his gut, his eyes moving slowly around the restaurant, his body already angled slightly toward the door that exits onto the parking lot where Rumlow and his men are gathered.

“Take this,” he says, handing the flannel over the table. “Put it on, it’ll be loose—try to make it look like you’re just holding your left arm close to your body.”

Bucky gives him an incredulous look, but he dutifully starts pulling the shirt on over his own t-shirt. “Uh—okay, I guess. No one’s gonna see through that.”

Steve ignores him, his eyes moving between Bucky and the window facing Rumlow. “Stand up. Walk, don’t run, to the side door. Cross that parking lot. See that strip mall? Head that way. Duck into a store, go behind it, I don’t care. Just get lost. I’ll find you later.”

*

With Bucky dispatched out the side door—and it aches, it makes Steve’s heart pound with something more than anxiety, something like near-paralyzing fear, to see Bucky walk away—Steve stands up, comically enormous breakfast abandoned in order to go deal with the latest crisis. He tugs his t-shirt down, thinking idly that he’s grateful for the new clothes, glad he’s not going to have to face Rumlow with his tummy pouring out of a pair of too-tight jeans like an overstuffed burrito. Then he strides quickly out the door, wanting to get Rumlow and his men stopped long enough for Bucky to make it across the parking lot, at least.

He squints as he steps out the door, the morning sun bright and clear. It’s a cloudless, perfect day, everything thrown into sharp relief; it reminds Steve, a little bit, of how strangely incongruous the Afghan mountains had been, their beauty juxtaposed with the potentially deadly threats hidden along every trail, behind every outcropping. This now, though, is even more surreal, the menace of danger hovering over this beautiful spring day in the parking lot of an entirely unremarkable Ohio diner.

“Captain Rumlow,” Steve says, his voice carefully neutral as he strides across the lot toward the group of men. They’re all armed far too heavily for civilian contact, some actually cradling rifles. Steve takes a moment to be grateful his own service pistol is on his hip, however much he might be outnumbered and outgunned—and Jesus Christ, is he actually considering taking up arms against the United States military?

“Steve Rogers,” Rumlow responds, eyebrow cocked up, Steve’s title very conspicuously absent from his address. Rumlow angles his body around to face Steve, every ounce of his stance aggressive, and the men flanking him turn, as well.

“Funny thing, running into you here, so far from Brooklyn, ain’t it? I thought you were a New Yorker, born and bred, Rogers.”

“New York got a little hot, didn’t it?” Steve says, rocking back on his heels and settling in to run his mouth. “I mean, shit, Rumlow, the way I heard it, you let most of your men die back there. Woulda thought maybe you’d die with ‘em, but I guess that didn’t happen. Funny thing, you making it out of there.” He shakes his head in slow, facetious amazement. “I guess you must have just got real lucky, huh?”

Rumlow sneers, like he knows exactly what Steve’s trying to do—which of course he does, it’s not as if Steve is being particularly coy. “Real lucky,” he echoes. “But I guess so did your boy, Barnes, huh?” He takes a few steps forward, and Steve does, too, until they’re separated by less than a foot.

“Funny thing, what I heard when I made it to Fort Lee, Rogers. Heard Barnes had come through the checkpoint on your bike, all wrapped up on you like a bitch in heat.” He huffs out a little clap of laughter and spits idly onto the asphalt. “And that ain’t really all that much of a surprise. Maybe about you, but Barnes was always a little bit of a pretty boy, wasn’t he?” He leans forward a little. “No, the surprise was that your boy was down an arm, Rogers. And the records at Fort Lee say that he lost it in Afghanistan.” Rumlow whistles slowly. “But see, I’d have remembered that, one of my men losing an arm.”

Steve takes another half step forward. “Would you? Maybe you were hiding under cars like a coward when you were fighting Taliban, too. Leaving your boys to die in the field.”

It’s the perfect thing to say, because Rumlow reacts beautifully, moving those last few inches forward, his heavily muscled torso flush against Steve’s still-bloated gut. “Fuck you, Rogers. Where is he?”

“Who?” Steve asks, both to buy Bucky more time and to jerk Rumlow’s chain a little.

“Who, he asks?” Rumlow says, cutting his gaze to the men standing at either side of him and taking a step back, hand on his holster. “Why, Sargent James Barnes, AWOL from the 107th since May 15, disappeared from Fort Lee without following proper 24-hour quarantine procedure. Suspected Affliction carrier, to be shot on sight.”

Steve shrugs his shoulders, as if his blood isn’t running cold at the words. “Haven’t seen him since Fort Lee. Go look at the paperwork. I signed out without him, left as a first responder.”

Rumlow smirks. “Yeah, headed down to Miami, according to the log. And yet here you are, Rogers, eating fucking chicken and waffles in Buttfuck, Ohio.” He gives Steve a slow up-and-down, his gaze lingering on his belly. “Looks like you been doing a lot of that lately.”

“Had a change of plans,” Steve says. “As a civilian, I’m entitled to ‘em.”

Rumlow nods. “Sure are. And as military personnel charged with retrieving an AWOL soldier and a potential Affliction threat, I’m entitled to detain you.” He jerks his chin toward the man on his right. “Cuff him.”

*

Bucky considers all of his options as he walks across the parking lot, careful to keep his stride neutral. Steve’s flannel is hanging over his left shoulder, just resting there, what’s left of his arm not tucked into the sleeve but just beneath it, like maybe that would fool anyone who knew they were looking for someone down an appendage.

The strip mall he’s heading toward is a banal collection of shops—a tanning parlor, a Check ‘N Go, a knockoff beauty supply outlet, a couple of empty storefronts. Bucky scans it up and down a few times before he ducks around to the back, which is even more depressing, all dumpsters and empty shipping pallets and trash. There’s also, on the corner of the building, a rickety metal ladder that leads to the roof.

As he pulls himself up, he adds climbing ladders to his mental tally of Things That He Can Still Do with One Arm. It’s a little awkward, especially with the added weight of his backpack, but he’s perfectly capable. As he shimmies over the top, his brain presents him with the image of Steve doing the same thing, the way his big belly would press up against each rung.

For chrissakes. Bucky’s starting to think there is no moment in which his Id wouldn’t be interested in Steve Rogers and his gut. Rumlow could drag him in front of a firing squad later today and Bucky’s fairly certain his last thoughts will be about putting his hand on Steve’s belly, maybe laying his head on his broad, padded chest, the way it feels to be pressed up against his soft-fat-strong body at night.

He might be in love with the man.

This is not the time.

The roof of the building is gritty with dirt and dust, completely flat, and Bucky crouches down, crawling to the edge of the roof and stretching out on his belly, propping himself up just a bit with his backpack. From this vantage point, he can see over the restaurant—he can see Steve. And Rumlow. And the dozen men with him, flanking him like a protective detail.

*

Steve doesn’t resist when the soldier on his left reaches out for him, but he does raise his hands, just slightly, in front of him, open palmed and patently non-aggressive. “You don’t have to do this,” he says, voice pitched low and steady. “You don’t have to scare all the people that are standing at the windows watching this.” He looks Rumlow in the eye, holds his gaze. “Let’s talk. We can go inside, sit down. What do you think I’m gonna do? Give you the slip and head for the door?”

The look Rumlow gives him in return suggests that yes, he thinks that’s quite possible.

“We can go inside. We’ll order a cup of coffee. I’ll answer whatever questions I can.”

Rumlow snorts. “Whatever questions you want, you mean.”

“I can’t give you information I don’t have,” Steve says smoothly.

“Uh huh.”

*

It’s hot on the roof, sun beating down on his back, and Bucky leans over, wiping the sweat from his forehead onto Steve’s stupid Flannel of Disguise, which he’s still wearing because Steve told him to, and apparently he’s still a good soldier when it counts.

He’s a good boy, too, but now isn’t the time to consider it.

From his vantage point, sprawled out on his belly, he watches in disbelief as Steve shakes a soldier’s hand off of his arm, raises his hands—and then, not thirty seconds later, he and Rumlow move slowly toward the restaurant.

Fucking Steve. And he said Bucky had a silver tongue.

If Brock fucking Rumlow is going to get to watch Steve finish the breakfast Bucky ordered, Bucky might just shoot the man himself.

When Rumlow and Steve disappear into the diner and the rest of Rumlow’s men post up outside their vehicles, Bucky slithers back across the roof and down the ladder, scanning the alley behind the strip mall for options.

Of the two unlocked vehicles he finds, one is an ancient VW and the other is a minivan, the floor littered with stale French fries and children’s toys. Bucky isn’t very religious, but before he slips inside to hotwire it, he says a quick, only slightly tongue-in-cheek prayer that God forgives him for stealing a family car.

*

Steve chooses a booth close to the door, with a clear view of Rumlow’s men. It’s not as if there’s going to be an opportunity to make a quick exit; in addition to the men outside, Rumlow’s armed, as well. Still, he keeps all of his sight lines open, constantly scanning.

He wonders where Bucky is. If he’s watching.

If he knows Bucky—and he does, he knows Bucky right down to the ground—then yes, he is.

Rumlow doesn’t actually order coffee, and neither does Steve.

“You sure you don’t want anything?” Rumlow asks, smirking at him over the table. “You don’t look like you miss very many meals these days, Jesus.”

Steve raises one shoulder, just an inch or two, thinking vaguely of the half-eaten breakfast he’d abandoned just a few minutes earlier. If they get out of this, Bucky is going to be disappointed he hadn’t been able to finish it. “One of the many perks of life outside of the military. The food’s better.”

Rumlow drops his gaze pointedly to Steve’s gut, sitting prominently in his lap. “Must be. Gotta say, I never thought I’d see the day you got fat, Rogers.”

“Lotta things have happened lately I never thought I’d see,” Steve says, leaning back a little, letting his gut mound forward even more, just to be perverse. He has no idea what he’s going to do, and he’s mostly stalling for time. “Zombies, American refugees, you alive and well instead of dead with your men.”

Rumlow doesn’t even bother to defend himself against the suggestion that he abandoned anyone, just narrows his eyes and leans forward. “Not all dead, are they? I know Barnes is with you; probably less than a mile away right now, and where’s he going to go? He won’t leave you—he can’t. From what I hear he was looking pretty weak, clinging to you like a vine at Fort Lee.”

Steve shrugs. “Haven’t seen him since.”

“That’s funny, since his sister—you know her? Her name’s Becca, lives upstate? Real nice, we paid her a little visit.” He shakes his head, like he’s concerned. “Affliction’s moving up that way, so sad. Anyway, she said Barnes called her just a couple of days ago. Said he was in Ohio with you, and she shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about him. And you know what else? Funniest thing. Clerk in a convenience store back in Eldora said they saw a guy with one arm—that’d be Barnes—and a big blond guy with a beer belly—that’s you, Rogers—damn near get in a fight with some good old boys just yesterday morning.” Rumlow shakes his head. “She said she thought you were gonna rip the guy’s head off for calling your boy, your Bucky, a fag.”

Steve clenches his jaw and takes a breath. “Why are you so worried about Barnes, anyway?” he says, deciding questions are the best way to go. “You know if he’s Afflicted he’s dead, right? No one lives through that shit. Zero percent. That’s the survival rate. So if he’s alive, he’s not a public safety risk. He ain’t Afflicted and you know it. You want to find him because he knows you left your men, huh? Afraid he’ll tell the brass you abandoned your unit, left them to die? All those men, those boys I kept alive in a goddamned war, that you couldn’t protect back in Brooklyn?”

To Steve’s surprise, Rumlow actually answers. “You saw it, Rogers. You were there, in New York, when it all went to shit. What the fuck was I supposed to do?”

“Die with your men,” Steve shoots back. “With a little goddamned dignity.”

*

There’s a crumpled Browns cap on the floor of the van and Bucky pulls it on, low over his eyes, before he eases into reverse and backs out, officially adding grand theft auto to his current list of crimes.

“Get lost,” was the last order Steve had given him. “I’ll find you later.” So, of course, Bucky drives the van right the fuck over to the diner parking lot, pulling into an angled space where he has a clear sight of the Humvees and the door Rumlow and Steve entered through.

It’s the most surreal experience he’s ever had, sitting in this crappy minivan that smells like Cheerios and baby formula, loaded gun on his lap, staking out a goddamn chicken and waffles joint where his former CO is being interrogated by his other former CO.

He fingers the gun in his hand, feeling its familiar weight against his thigh. The feel of it, a weapon in his hand, is comforting, even if this isn’t his gun, not really, no matter what Steve says.

Fucking Steve. One of the first missions Bucky had done in Afghanistan, one of his first real experiences in the field beyond some bullshit transport stuff, had been, weirdly, a little bit like this. Steve had been going to meet with some of the Afghan men in the village they’d been working in, men who were suspected of being Taliban operatives. Steve had set Bucky up in the back of the Humvee, rifle at the ready, and gone walking straight into the middle of the village to meet with them.

Before he’d walked into the meeting, he’d posted Bucky up at the back of the vehicle and told him, “Don’t shoot unless you have to—but if you have to, don’t miss.” That had been it, like that was all that was necessary.

Bucky had been speechless. He’d been trained as a marksman, sure, but for Steve to just trust him like that? Like there was no question that Bucky could keep him safe? There were other men in the unit who had been in country longer. There was no reason, really, for it to be Bucky who had Steve’s back.

But he’d chosen Bucky. Trusted him. Relied on him. And Bucky can still remember, with aching clarity, what Steve had looked like when he’d walked toward those men who might or might not have been the enemy. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, like an actual real life G.I. Joe.

Shit, Bucky might have fallen in love with him then.

Nothing had happened. Those men he’d met with had, apparently, told him everything he needed to know. Maybe they’d been Taliban, maybe not—that was the thing about Afghanistan, it was always sort of hard to tell—but nothing bad had happened that day.

When Steve had walked back to the Humvee, Bucky’s hands had started to shake with relief. Steve had just given him a smile, though, and climbed into the vehicle like it was nothing. Like he’d trusted Bucky absolutely.

Bucky slouches a little lower in his seat, watching. God, he can still remember how terrified he’d been then, thinking that he might let Steve down. And now, here he is, feeling the same way—except this time, he’s not a soldier with combat equipment. This time he’s a cripple with a stolen minivan, one arm, and a pistol he’s barely competent with.

From his parking spot, he can see, just barely, Steve and Rumlow in the diner. He can see Steve’s broad shoulders, the back of Rumlow’s head.

How the fuck is he going to get Steve out of this? Steve is a good talker, but Rumlow isn’t just going to let him walk away. This won’t be like the village in Afghanistan, where Steve just miraculously comes back, unscathed.

He lifts the pistol up, considering.

What Steve needs is a distraction. A chance.

*

It’s clear the conversation is nearing its conclusion. Rumlow isn’t getting the answers he wants, and there’s only so much Steve can do to stall him. All he can think about is Bucky, anyway; he’s got one foot in the conversation with Rumlow, but the rest of his energy is concentrated on one simple refrain: Where’s Bucky? Where’s Bucky? Where’s Bucky?

And that’s the thing. Rumlow can detain Steve. In fact, Rumlow could probably make Steve’s life really, really miserable for awhile. The way things are going right now—the news that isn’t being reported, the roadblocks that are not legal but are certainly happening—there probably isn’t a whole lot the military can’t do, if they want to. Who’s going to stop them? But it’s not himself that Steve’s worried about. It’s Bucky. Bucky’s the one who’s AWOL. Bucky’s the one who’s a wanted man.

And there’s nothing, not a goddamn thing, that Steve can do to protect him, except give him time to run. And he knows, down to his core, that Bucky isn’t running.

The shots, when they happen, are strangely quiet, just little crack-pops of violence. Steve and Rumlow both know, immediately, what they are, though. Steve turns his head to look with a weird kind of slowness, as if he already knows what he’s going to see—three of Rumlow’s men on the ground. Two are shot through the shoulder, the kind of wound that is non-fatal but pretty well incapacitating. The third is on the ground, clutching his lower leg and screaming.

Rumlow’s response is immediate, up and on his feet, gun drawn, dragging Steve for the door like a hostage. The other diners—who had already been curious about the unexpected military presence—are screaming, some clamoring under tables, others pressing up against the glass to watch the proceedings, reminding Steve exactly how stupid people usually are.

“You’re scaring the civilians, Captain,” Steve says calmly, allowing Rumlow to propel him toward the door.

Rumlow’s grip loosens incrementally, like he’s at least marginally aware that he’s still an agent of the United States government, and as they move through the door, Steve takes the opportunity to raise his elbow directly into Rumlow’s throat, cutting off his air for just a moment. There’s a sickening second or two where Steve can’t quite reach his holster, where Rumlow is armed but he isn’t, and then the gun tugs free, feeling so fucking good against his hand.

He scans the parking lot, sweeping his gaze over Rumlow’s men who are in various states of frenzy, some wielding their rifles and clearly trying to figure out where the shots came from, others tending to the wounded men.

In the midst of the melee, a minivan comes screeching through the parking lot, right through the middle of the whole mess, nearly running them both over, horn blaring.

Steve doesn’t get a chance to see the driver, but he doesn’t need to. When he sees the big, kid-friendly sliding door open on the side of the van, he jumps in. Rumlow fires twice as he does, missing him both times.

*

The minivan is surprisingly fast as Bucky plows it over the curb and into the mercifully clear street, tires screaming and engine roaring. He slides his eyes up to the rearview and watches as Steve slams the sliding door shut and climbs into the front seat.

“You stole a minivan,” Steve says, panting a little as he flops down and then pulls the seat belt across his lap and buckles it, because apparently there isn’t a moment when Steve Rogers doesn’t remember to follow the rules, if possible.

Bucky drags his eyes away from the seat belt under Steve’s gut and focuses on the road, gunning it through a yellow light. “You said you were getting too fat for the bike.”

“A fucking minivan, Barnes.”

“It’s nondescript. Perfect for fugitives. Besides the only other option was a VW Bug. And I didn’t think you’d fit.”

“God, thanks for that, I guess.” Steve sighs. “Should I ask how you hotwired it?”

“Probably better not to, sir.”

Bucky glances up at the rearview again, easing the van onto a side street. There are, as yet, no Humvees in pursuit.

“Do we have a plan, here?” He looks over at Steve, trying not to look as desperate as he feels.

“I figured you had one, when you started shooting U.S. soldiers,” Steve says drily.

“Those shots weren’t fatal. And yeah, the plan was get you away from Rumlow. So, uh, mission accomplished. Your turn, sir.”

Steve sighs again. “Pull over, I’ll drive.”

When Bucky pulls the van into an alley so they can switch, Steve kisses him, hard, for just a moment. “Fuck, baby boy. May never let you out of my sight again, you know that?”

Before Bucky can answer, Steve shoves him into the passenger’s seat and slips behind the wheel, easing the seat back to make room for his gut, all business again. “All right, let’s go.”

*

Chapter Text

It’s almost embarrassing, Steve thinks, how much he’s enjoying the minivan.

First of all, there’s the seat. Plush-covered, comfortable, floating atop the van’s soft, back-friendly suspension. He hadn’t been joking when he said he was getting too fat for the bike; it’s one thing to cruise around for an hour or so on a nice day, travel a leisurely few miles around the city on the old Harley; anyone could do that. But hauling his fat ass cross-country with Bucky clinging to him, one-armed and unbalanced, is considerably less than ideal.

  Then there’s the air conditioning, blowing cool and dry into Steve’s face. It feels like heaven. It’s not even really summer yet, but between the sun and the burning blacktop, it’s been sweltering on the bike. Plus, one of the less pleasant side effects of the additional weight he’s carrying these days is that his whole body runs a little hotter than usual; so yeah, he’ll take the canned air if it means he’ll sweat less.

Bucky had even found snacks stowed in the minivan’s various pockets and compartments. Half a bag of pretzel sticks, Ziplocs filled with trail mix and Goldfish crackers and Teddy Grahams, ten tiny packets of fruit snacks shaped like dinosaurs. Steve isn’t actually hungry, but he’s glad for the food; something about the small, steady supply of bite-sized pieces soothes his nerves.

  “Shouldn’t have called Becca,” Bucky says.

“Hey,” Steve says gently, reaching across to squeeze Bucky’s knee. “We didn’t know anyone was after us. I figured Rumlow’d drop it once it was clear you weren’t planning to say anything to anyone. You couldn’t have known – neither of us could – that he was trying to track us down.”

He pops a bright blue tyrannosaur into his mouth, wincing a little at the obnoxious artificial flavor, and twirls the radio dial back and forth.  The only station coming through is a local NPR affiliate from Ball State University. They’re playing pre-recorded shows, interspersed with local traffic and weather, but nothing significant, nothing useful, is actually being communicated.

  “Why the hell do they even bother?” Steve says, reaching out to switch it off after a few minutes.

 “Not like we can’t tell what’s going on with traffic,” Bucky says, nodding toward the eastbound lanes. “Guess those guys were right about Indianapolis.”

  Cars are stacked up in the oncoming lanes of I-70, bumper-to-bumper, for miles. The minivan, meanwhile, is the only westbound vehicle in sight.

  “I hope they were right,” Steve says. “Because that’s where we’re going.”

  Steve can see Bucky staring at him out of the corner of his eye, but he keeps his own gaze fixed on the road.

  “We’re going to Indianapolis,” Bucky says evenly. “The place that’s probably overrun with Afflicted.” It isn’t phrased like a question, but it is one.

  “We left a lot behind on the bike,” Steve says. “My axe, your rifle, all our clothes, some of the money, the rest of the meds for your arm. And it’s not like we can just stop and buy that stuff. But, if Indianapolis is as bad as everyone says, we might be able to take advantage of the situation. I don’t like the idea of scavenging supplies, but at this point, I don’t really see an alternative. We’re way too conspicuous, even without the bike. People tend to remember us, for some reason.”

  “Yeah, weird,” Bucky says, drily.

“Here’s the other thing,” Steve says, ignoring the sass. “I don’t think Rumlow will go there. He cut and ran in Brooklyn; I don’t think he’s going back into another ground zero for the Affliction.”

Bucky thinks about that for a solid minute. “You’re probably right,” he says. “And he’ll probably assume that we’d do the same, steer clear. He doesn’t really get people with no sense of self-preservation.”

  “Hey,” Steve says. “We’ve done all right so far.”

  “Not complaining, sir,” Bucky says. “But won’t there be National Guard in there? Maybe even Army?”

  “I don’t know,” Steve admits. “I’m kind of hoping that after New York, the protocol might be different. If they were going to send in troops, first responders, any of that, we’d be at a checkpoint right now. If they have a plan at all – and they might not, who knows – they probably learned from New York. They won’t send anyone in. They’ll focus their efforts on keeping anyone from getting out after the initial evacuation.”

   “Should we be worried about getting trapped in there, then?”

  “I don’t think so,” Steve says. “There’s nobody here yet. Look at this traffic. There would be checkpoints, military vehicles, helicopters, something. Nah, I’m betting we’ve got a couple of days, at least, to get out. And we know the Afflicted, we’ve done this before; we go into the city, we’ve actually got the advantage for a little while.”

  “Right,” Bucky says, and Steve keeps his eyes on the road, but he can hear the smile in Bucky’s voice. “We know the secrets of the Fire Swamp.”

  “You got it, Buttercup.”

  “Fuck you,” Bucky laughs. “Jesus.”

They’re both still buzzing from the confrontation at the diner; Steve can feel the stale adrenaline trilling around in his veins. It feels strange, driving around in the comfortable, slightly sticky minivan on this beautiful day, a weird interlude between two dangerous confrontations. Brock Rumlow is out there, somewhere, determined to find them. And Indianapolis is less than an hour away. Whatever is waiting for them there, they’ll be facing it soon.

  And god – he could’ve lost Bucky once already today. He very nearly had.

  “That was really good shooting,” he says. “Back there. All non-lethal shots, nobody could tell where to cover. You always had a way with that kind of thing.”

  “That’s just what they said at my third grade talent show.”

  “No kidding,” Steve says gruffly. “It was good thinking. Don’t know what would’ve happened, if you hadn’t pulled that off.”

  “Didn’t have time to think about it,” Bucky says. “That always helps.”

  Steve nods, because this is so often true, when it comes right down to it. But he hadn’t had time to think, either – and if Bucky had done as he’d said and run, Steve would be in custody, and Bucky would be out there alone right now. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

  He upends the bag of fruit snacks and eats the last few pieces, giving Bucky a look when he instantly replaces the empty packet with a baggie full of Goldfish.

  “What?” Bucky asks, all wide-eyed innocence.

  “You’re incorrigible. They could charge you with treason for shooting those guys, and you’re feeding me some kid’s stolen lunchbox snacks.”

  “They could charge you, too, for busting me out of Fort Lee, helping me escape back there.”

  “It’s the death penalty if we’re found guilty, you know,” he says. It’s the death penalty for Bucky no matter what they do, unless he can get Bucky to Fort Collins in one piece. Unless a fucking miracle happens.

“Might as well enjoy ourselves while we can, then,” Bucky says, tossing over another bag of crackers with a grin that just about breaks Steve’s heart.

*

The thing they hadn’t counted on is how different Indianapolis is from the cities they’re used to back east. They’d stopped briefly at a rest area to pick up a map, and Bucky has it open on his lap, trying to figure out where, exactly, the city starts. From the highway, they can’t see anything but trees, a vegetative barrier that screens the highway from the neighborhoods to either side. There are no other cars on the road - none moving, none abandoned; even the eastbound lanes are clear, the close to town. All the hallmarks of disaster that had been present in New York – the accidents, roads packed with abandoned cars, bodies in the streets, broken windows, the smell of fire, constant and acrid – are absent here.

Indianapolis is eerily silent. Abandoned.

“We’re right out in the open on the highway,” Steve says, and Bucky can see the tension in his hands, gripping the steering wheel tight.

“No one’s in pursuit,” Bucky says.

“I know. That’s why I’m so nervous,” Steve says. “Rumlow’s not doing the predictable thing. So we don’t know where he is, what he might be planning. All we know is, he’s probably not just going to give up, especially not now. We need cover, supplies, weapons, a place to sleep, something to eat.”

“Right,” Bucky says. He scans the map, looks around at the exit signs. “We’ll be in a suburban area if we get off up here. Plenty of cover – but that means plenty of cover for anyone. All those weird little streets, and who knows, people might be holed up in their houses, all nervy and armed to the teeth.”

“Might be holed up downtown, too,” Steve points out.

Downtown Indianapolis looks good to Bucky, for several reasons. The first is the river that runs between downtown and the airport, where the Affliction is supposed to have started. In New York, the East and Hudson Rivers had proven significant obstacles to the Afflicted, who seem fearful of water. But there’s also a fire station picked out on the road map, not far from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that seems to be the heart of the oldest part of the city. There could be medical supplies, and other useful items, there. There’s also a courthouse downtown, and where there are courts, there are bail bonds offices. Weapons. Ammo. Bulletproof vests. The owners probably would’ve taken everything they could and locked up tight, but they’d have had to leave a few things behind.

“This hotel has underground parking, a covered overhead walkway between the lobby and the mall, and a five-star restaurant and bar,” he says, waving the brochure for The Conrad Indianapolis at Steve. “I think we should go here.”

Steve glances down at the brochure and grins. “A five-star hotel? Looks expensive.”

“Yeah, well,” Bucky says. “You get what you pay for.”

*

By the time they get into downtown, Steve can see smoke coming from the southwest, out toward the airport, and there are increasing numbers of abandoned cars and scattered bodies, although the scene is nowhere near as dire as New York had been.

But then, Indianapolis has a smaller population, and a ridiculous number of roads lead out of the city in all directions. Evacuating here would be infinitely easier than it had been in New York, where all traffic to funnel down to the handful of bridges that led to the mainland.

He’d gotten used to it, back in Brooklyn; all the dead in the streets, the shambling Afflicted everywhere. But now, after the determined normalcy of the places they’ve been driving through, the shock really hits him for the first time. This little Midwestern city is a ghost town, almost literally; the only residents left are dead, whether they know it or not. And here they are, with a handful of tourist brochures, the Army hunting for them, Rumlow gunning for them, surrounded by the Afflicted, and they’re planning a stay in a luxury hotel.

The situation just never stops getting weirder.

“This is so weird,” Bucky says, unconsciously echoing his thoughts. He gestures at the relatively clear streets, the apparently undisturbed stores and restaurants. “I guess Midwesterners really are more polite. They didn’t even bother looting everything before they left.”

“They learned from our mistakes,” Steve says, nodding ahead, where three staggering Afflicted are shambling across an intersection. “Or maybe they all got sick or died before they got a chance.” He slows the minivan to a halt and switches off the engine, not wanting any sound or movement to attract the attention of the straggling little band.

“Look,” Bucky says, pointing. “Parking garage. And right there, that’s the hotel.”

Steve doesn’t like it; he doesn’t like the unsettling quiet, the stillness, the dark concrete entryway to the parking garage looming like a maw into hell. But it had been his idea, and he really can’t think of any alternatives at the moment. He’s exhausted, the night spent on the hard ground the night before catching up with him, and he doesn’t want to run mindlessly away, virtually unarmed and completely unprepared for any emergencies that may arise. There really just aren’t many choices.

And he has to admit, the thought of a decent bed, a good night’s sleep, someplace to stretch out and rest his aching back? It sounds fucking fabulous. Bucky could use it, too. And – yeah, okay – the thought of having an entire hotel to themselves? It sounds almost fun. Which shouldn’t seem as okay as it does, really. But he thinks of what Bucky had said earlier, might as well enjoy ourselves while we can. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” he mutters under his breath, as he turns the minivan back on and drives down into the parking garage.

*

Steve looks uneasy, his stance a little defensive, his body angled slightly in front of Bucky’s as they walk into the hotel lobby. Bucky gets it—they’ve just driven into the middle of a city that’s been abandoned to the dead, and they’ve decided to cozy up and stay awhile. It’s nervy. But personally, he’s pretty on board with it. The city isn’t nearly as infested as New York had been, and the Conrad has emergency generators running. The steady hum of them is an instant balm, the moment they step inside. It’s probably stupid, but they sound like civilization. Like normalcy.

Bucky grins at Steve, elbowing him in the side. “They left the lights on for us.”

“That’s Motel 6,” Steve says absently, his eyes darting around the enormous, echoing lobby.

“Think the power’s on in the rooms, too?” Bucky is hopeful. He’d kill for the soothing sound of an air conditioner, maybe the buzz of a television—if any stations are still broadcasting—and a hot shower.

“I doubt it,” Steve says, his shoulders relaxing infinitesimally as they move through the lobby, their steps loud on the marble floor.

*

The power is not on in the rooms. Still, Bucky can’t find it in himself to complain once they wander down to the hotel kitchen and find it electrified and reasonably stocked.

“So you gonna cook for me?” Steve asks, hoisting himself up onto a stainless steel countertop and fixing Bucky with a gaze that makes him want to fall on his knees and crawl over to him, filthy kitchen floor be damned.

“Of course, sir,” he says, swallowing. Sir still rolls off his tongue easily, but it’s not mindless, the way it was when he and Steve had first hooked back up in Brooklyn. It’s purposeful now, calling him that; it’s comforting. “What do you want?”

“Depends. What’s available?” Steve asks, making absolutely no move to get off his ass and look himself.

Bucky eyes him for a moment, drinking in how good he looks, big belly kissing his widespread thighs, shoulders impossibly broad and rounded with muscle and fat, beard disguising—but not completely hiding—what has become a pretty solid start on a double chin.

“Gee, let me check for you. Don’t get up or anything,” Bucky says, just to say it.

“Good boy,” Steve shoots back without a missing a beat, sending a thrill up Bucky’s spine even though it’s said in jest—because that’s the thing about this game they’re playing together. It’s a tease, but it’s real. It’s a put-on, but then again it’s not. God help him, he does want to be Steve’s good boy.

There’s a walk-in refrigerator and a freezer, the doors of which Bucky carefully props open before he steps inside. He’s not usually claustrophobic—you can’t be, really, and do what he had done in the Army, where stealth was a requirement—but the idea of those industrial ice chest doors closing behind him gives him pause.

The hotel’s restaurant—The Capital Grille, the sign in front of the dining area had proclaimed—boasts a menu that trends toward steak and seafood, but Bucky isn’t surprised to find that all the beef in the refrigerator has gone a rather unappetizing shade of gray, generators or no. Indianapolis might have only been evacuated a day or two, but it’s obvious that new shipments of meat hadn’t arrived for a while. There’s box upon box of bacon, though, which looks just fine, and frozen shrimp—which is what you get when you order seafood this far from a body of water, and why anyone would do it when it wasn’t a zombie apocalypse situation going on is beyond Bucky’s comprehension—and an entire pantry full of dry goods.

As he digs around further, he’s pleasantly surprised to discover row upon row of bottles of local microbrews. He scans the shelf and finds one called Zombie Dust, which promises to be an “intensely hoppy pale ale.” Whatever. Bucky’s pretty sure Steve isn’t picky, and it’s too good to pass up something this fitting.

He emerges from the walk-in and finds Steve exactly where he left him, leaned back and resting on his palms, gut rounding forward like a beach ball strapped to his thick waist.

Bucky’s balancing pasta, shrimp, a package of bacon and a bag of baby spinach—only beginning to look a little wilted—in his right hand, the beers tucked under the shattered remains of his left arm, and he waves it all vaguely in Steve’s direction. “You okay with shrimp? Pasta?”

Steve grins. “Go nuts, baby. Whatever’s good.”

Bucky sets down the food and tosses Steve a beer. Steve eyes the label and winces. “Classy, Barnes.”

“Appropriate,” Bucky says, handing over the second bottle. “Open this for me, huh?”

The beer’s not bad, and it’s a comforting thing to do, drinking and cooking. He can’t entirely decide how it feels, though, to be puttering around a kitchen, boiling water, sautéing shrimp and spinach, frying an entire package of bacon. On the one hand, it’s the most domestic thing he’s ever done with Steve, and it feels domestic, the way Steve’s watching him move around the stove, leaned back and casually drinking the beer Bucky had brought him, his eyes following Bucky around the room like they’re magnetized.

On the other hand, it’s an enormous, industrial kitchen in an abandoned hotel, and nothing feels quite right.

Bucky shrugs to himself and dumps an entire stick of butter into the pan. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Before Bucky even realizes he’s moved, Steve swats him on the ass as he walks past, headed to the walk-in, apparently to pilfer more beer. “Such a good little housewife,” he says, and Bucky can hear the grin in his voice.

“Fuck you,” Bucky says, without heat. “Nobody’s housewife.”

“Aw shucks, and I was gonna take such good care of you, too,” Steve calls back, his voice echoing from the refrigerator.

“Debatable. So far you’ve cut my arm off and committed treason with me.”

“Harsh,” Steve says, looking a little genuinely pained when he reappears. His expression clears when he sees that the food is ready, and he ambles over and grabs the plate that is obviously his, mounded so high with pasta it’s obscene.

*

Steve works his way through three overloaded plates, eating until his stomach feels stretched and tender, like even a gentle tap would be too much contact. He’s overdoing it again—which is, frankly, sort of his default lately—but he’s strangely charmed by the novelty of eating something Bucky made for him. It’s good, too—sautéed shrimp tossed in buttery pasta, topped gratuitously with bacon and parmesan cheese. He’s fairly impressed that Bucky pulled something like that together; he hadn’t quite known what to expect when he’d asked Bucky to cook for him. It’s nice, eating something Bucky had made, just like it’s nice, drinking beer and watching him putter around the stove. It’s even nicer, watching Bucky’s cheeks turn a gratifying shade of pink when Steve compliments him on the cooking. Bucky’s whole face stills and then he grins, like what Steve thinks about the meal matters immensely.

As good as the food is, the dining room is strange, empty and somehow sad. It feels too large for just the two of them, even when they choose a table tucked carefully in a corner. And maybe that’s why Steve is so willing to eat until he can barely breathe, until his breathing is shallow and his tummy feels like an overfilled balloon. Until he feels fat and slow, glutted and a little lazy.

“You want more?” Bucky asks the moment Steve shoves the last bite into his mouth. “I’ll get it for you.”

“You kidding? That was my third plate. I’m not gonna be able to move,” Steve says, swallowing hard and leaning back, resting one hand gingerly on his gut.

Bucky raises an eyebrow, looking as charming as he always manages to do when he’s trying to get Steve to do what he wants. “Oh, well if you really can’t move yet, I guess we can eat dessert here. I was gonna say we should take it upstairs, but…”

“Dessert? Jesus Christ, Bucky.”

“There’s a chocolate cake in the fridge. It still looks pretty fresh,” Bucky says shamelessly.

Steve snorts. “I’m gonna get even fatter,” he mutters, dutifully easing himself out of his chair, arching his back and feeling an odd pang of sympathy for pregnant women. “Go get your fucking cake then, baby. God, I’d weigh 300 pounds if you had your way.”

Bucky peers over his shoulder, eyes serene and serious. “That would be so okay, sir. So totally okay.”

*

Bucky has fed Steve a little bit before—a s’more here, a bite of something there. This, though, this expensive chocolate cake, covered in perfect, sticky candied cherries and dark chocolate shavings, is a completely different thing. It feels decadent, almost obscene, the way Bucky’s forking up huge scoops of something so rich and fancy and poking it in Steve’s mouth a little recklessly, just a half step faster than Steve would have chosen to eat it himself, if he were the one wielding the silverware.

It is, Steve realizes, the only time he’s ever seen Bucky truly push him on anything. Sure, he’s got a mouth on him; he’ll push Steve right the fuck up the wall, most days, running that thing. But this—this actual, physical exertion of force—is completely new.

“Demanding little shit,” Steve says around a particularly big mouthful of cake.

Bucky flashes him wide, wide eyes and has the audacity to actually bite his lip. “Is it okay?” he asks, voice breathy and ringing with innocence even as he directs another bite up to Steve’s mouth.

Steve rolls his eyes and pulls his lips across the fork, dragging every morsel into his mouth. “You’re gonna stuff me so full I can’t fuck you,” he warns.

Bucky sets the fork down momentarily and slides his hand over Steve’s big belly, ghosting it gently across the packed curve of it. “A little more, and then I’ll ride you,” he says, voice still breathy and low. “Please, daddy. Let me—let me.”

Steve can’t say no to that, and he doesn’t, letting Bucky feed him a little more, a little more, until he’s hiccupping helplessly, and Bucky shoves the cake away and climbs on top of him, shaping and reshaping his enormously swollen belly and grinding against him until Steve finally smacks him on the flank like a pony and tells him to get on with it.

And Bucky does, fingering himself open and then pushing himself down onto Steve’s cock in an agonizingly slow slide. Even when he’s fully seated, he just rolls his hips, wide granite eyes locked on Steve’s.

Steve opens his mouth a few times, prepared to say all the things that he always says to Bucky when they fuck, tell him what a good boy he is, how he belongs to Steve, how he belongs to daddy, but somehow he can’t do it this time. In the back of his mind, all he can think about is that he almost lost Bucky this morning. That he told Bucky to run and it was the wrong call.

When he comes, he thinks about the words he wants to say instead, but all that comes out is a whisper. “Baby, baby, my baby boy.”

*

Later, after they’ve washed off with cold water and Steve has digested enough to be able to catch his breath, they lie side-by-side on the big hotel bed, and Steve can’t quite keep his hands off Bucky, can’t quite bring himself to quit touching him, to quit making sure he’s real.

“Glad you’re here,” he finally says, voice a little hoarse. “Glad you did what you did, this morning.” He shifts over to his side to face Bucky, wincing a little at the way his stomach rolls right over with him, plopping onto the mattress in front of him like its own entity. Jesus, he’s getting so goddamned fat. If it weren’t for the whole treasonous outlaw on the lam situation he’s currently living, he’d probably be having a fucking meltdown over what he’s apparently happily doing to his body, one greedy bite at a time. As it is, though, it’s only a mildly disconcerting blip on his radar, somewhere far below both Survive Apocalypse and Keep Bucky Alive on his list of current concerns.

Bucky shrugs, nestling up to him and wrapping himself around Steve’s gut, patting the overfull curve of it gently. “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere and you know it. Not without you.”

“God, Buck, I’m glad, but you could have died,” Steve says, because he can’t not.

“But I didn’t,” Bucky singsongs, his mouthy self again. “We can be Thelma and Louise. I’m with you till the end.”

“They went off a cliff,” Steve points out.

“Be careful where you drive that van, then.”

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up the next morning, still snugged up against Steve’s warm, round belly, almost the exact position in which he’d fallen asleep. The fact that he hasn’t been tossing and turning all night, the fact that there’s actually daylight spilling through the narrow gap in the curtains, that he’s slept soundly the whole night through, seems like a miracle.

Steve’s body is warm and soft, giving against Bucky’s where their bodies touch, belly to belly, and Bucky wants more of it, more contact, so he inches closer, but then Steve’s breath hitches and he inhales with a slight, buzzing snore. Bucky freezes, and Steve settles again, doesn’t wake up. Bucky snuggles closer, resting his head against Steve’s padded chest, and he can hear the steady bassline of his heart.

It scares Bucky, how much he needs Steve. Whenever he thinks about it, he wants to make all kinds of demands, insist on empty reassurances. Swear you’ll stay with me, swear you won’t leave me behind, swear you’ll take me with you, that we’ll stick together no matter what, swear, swear, swear.

He doesn’t dare to ask any of that, though, doesn’t dare acknowledge just how frightened he is, how helpless he feels, how needy. Instead, he pushes against Steve’s control. He acts out, tests the limits of Steve’s authority over him. He’d invited a fucking spanking, for fuck’s sake, and god, it had been so good, Steve taking him over his knee like that, making him feel helpless in a different, more manageable way. A safe way.

And that’s what Steve is to him, really: safety, security, and authority, beyond anything they’d had when they were in the military. It’s so much more than that, now. And his belly – Jesus, his fucking perfect, big, round belly – is just icing on the cake. Looking at Steve, watching him eat, and especially feeding him, makes Bucky feel almost drunk, so dizzy with lust there’s no room in his head for fear.

He slides his hand gently over the softening curve of Steve’s gut now, fingertips brushing the fine, dark blonde hairs that gather in a little line beneath his navel. He’s put on more weight since they left New York. It’s no surprise, the way he’s been eating; still, it’s thrilling, watching the curve push steadily outward, getting wider and rounder by the day.

It looks so good on him; feels good, too, so soft and strong and solid. When Steve stood up from the table last night, one hand to his overfull stomach, he’d looked truly fat for the first time, and it’s just a matter of time, Bucky thinks – and hopes – before he looks that way all the time, belly heavy and round in front of him, making him lean forward a little when he walks, resting in his lap when he sits down.

Bucky moans softly and lets his hips move against the mattress. God. He’s hopeless.

“Mmmph,” Steve says, stirring. “What time is it?”

“Eight thirty,” Bucky says.

“Jesus,” Steve says, and then, “oof,” as he sits up a little. He struggles partially upright against the hotel’s plush pillows, blonde hair tousled, and scrubs his hands over his face, beard rasping against his hands. His gut forms a remarkably round hill under the comforter. “Should’ve stayed up, kept watch,” he says. “Guess I was just too tired.” He shoots a look at Bucky. “And too full.”

“We were both tired,” Bucky says, rubbing his hand over Steve’s belly. Instantly. Because he has no self-control. “We needed the rest.”

“I guess we did,” Steve says, covering Bucky’s hand with his. “Would you believe that I’m actually hungry?”

Bucky can, and it’s an exciting thought. “You want me to go get us something to eat?” he asks.

“Not just yet,” Steve says. He pulls Bucky close, kisses him, buries his face in his neck and moans softly. “God, you smell good,” he says.

“You too,” Bucky says, kissing Steve’s ear, his cheek. Right here, with his head buried in the nook between Steve’s shoulder and neck, his nose pressed to soft skin there, he feels safe. Completely safe. It’s illusory, but knowing that doesn’t make it less persuasive. They just stay there, holding each other and breathing for a while, enjoying the quiet and the closeness. Bucky closes his eyes and very nearly drifts off again.

“I don’t know what I want more, breakfast, or to stay right here in bed with you,” Steve says eventually. “I seriously can’t make up my mind.”

“Who says you have to choose?” Bucky asks.

*

Steve’s out of bed when Bucky gets back to the room with breakfast, which is disappointing, but he’s wearing a fluffy white bathrobe belted underneath his gut, and it doesn’t quite close across his belly and chest, which is so devastatingly sexy that Bucky almost stops breathing.

Steve tugs the two halves of the robe closer together and gives him an exasperated look. “We’ve got stuff to talk about,” he says. “You can ogle my gut to your heart’s content later, but we’ve got to get moving while there’s still daylight, and we have a lot to do.”

Bucky had gotten to the kitchen and realized he couldn’t put breakfast on a tray – hard to open doors and carry a tray at the same time with only one hand – and he couldn’t use a pushcart, since the elevators are out of order. So he’d piled everything into takeout boxes with a thermal carafe of coffee and carried them up in a laundry bag instead.

He removes the boxes one by one, announcing their contents – eggs, bacon, toast – and then emptying some individually-wrapped pats of butter and plastic tubs of jam onto the table with the utensils.

“No cream for the coffee?”

“No sir,” Bucky says. “There’s sugar, though.” He pushes a little container of sugar packets across the table.

Steve sighs, but fills one of the mugs and sips it as Bucky opens the boxes and piles a Chinet plate with scrambled eggs and bacon.

“It bothers me that Rumlow didn’t send even one team to follow us,” Steve says, after he’s worked his way through about half of his plate.

Bucky looks up from the piece of toast he’s slathering with a ridiculous quantity of butter and frowns. “You think this whole thing is some kind of trap?”

Steve shrugs and takes another bite of bacon. “I think we have to assume it is,” he says.

Bucky hands over the toast – now thoroughly coated in butter and a generous smear of boysenberry jam. “How would that work, exactly?” he asks. “There are so many roads out of town, trying to cover them all would be difficult, and from what we saw yesterday, there’s no effort to do that on the east side of town.”

“I know,” Steve says. “That’s what’s bothering me. ‘Indianapolis is fucked,’ that’s what that asshole back in Eldora said. But everything here seems…” he looks around the elegant hotel suite, out the window at the serenely beautiful late spring day. “It all seems fine, relatively speaking. We saw what, maybe twenty, thirty Afflicted yesterday? It’s true they’ve only got a fifth the population of New York, but you were in Brooklyn, you saw what it did to whole neighborhoods overnight. This place should be fucking overrun. But it’s not.”

Bucky sips his own coffee and thinks about that. “Maybe we’re just a little ahead of it,” he says. “That guy said it was at the airport.”

“He said it started at the airport.”

“So maybe we just missed the worst of it,” Bucky says. He knows Steve’s right; they have to assume Rumlow had a reason for letting them escape without so much as attempting a pursuit, but he senses that Steve needs him to offer a counterpoint, to help him think it through.

“Or maybe he figured we’d come here,” Steve says. “And maybe he knows something about whatever’s happening here that we don’t know.”

Bucky feels icy fingers trail down his spine. All of it – the low, white-noise hum of the generators, the pleasant hotel room, the sunny day outside, suddenly seems less comforting. “So what do we do?” he asks.

Steve eats the last bite of his toast and pushes up from the table. “I think we should start by going to the mall,” he says.

*

The Circle Center is surprisingly nice for a downtown mall, more like something you’d find in an upscale Jersey suburb. Bucky had emptied his backpack in the hotel room and by noon, it’s filled with all kinds of new gear. They find binoculars and a comprehensive first aid kit at the sporting goods store, and a few items of clothing – American Eagle for Bucky, Eddie Bauer for Steve, because American Eagle didn’t have sizes that fit him, to his obvious annoyance.

“You’re a menace,” Steve grumbles as they swipe through the racks at Eddie Bauer, looking for anything tagged XXL, because he figures he’ll need the extra room.

Weapons are the only outstanding items on their list. There had been small, handheld camping hatchets and a few basic hunting knives at the sporting goods store, but Steve had rejected them as useless. “If I’m a foot away from an Afflicted and trying to hack my way through their neck with one of these, I’m as good as dead,” he’d said. There hadn’t been any hunting or serious camping gear, and they’re about to give up when Bucky stops to look at the directory.

“What’s this?” he asks, pointing to a green rectangle sticking out from one side of Carter’s department store. “Gander Mountain?”

“I don’t know, never heard of it.”

“It’s listed under camping and outdoors, and it’s huge, maybe we can find something there,” Bucky says. Then, cheekily, he adds, “And it’s right next to the food court.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but they head in the direction of the food court and the new wing, and it turns out that Bucky is right: Gander Mountain sells not only saws and axes, but also guns and ammunition. Steve selects a steel flathead firefighter’s axe with a three-foot hickory handle, and Bucky’s backpack is heavy with .45-caliber ammo by the time they’re done combing through the store’s abandoned inventory.

“There was a Hagen Dazs in the food court,” Bucky says, as they leave the store. “And the generators are running down there; the lights were on.”

Steve turns to look at him, obviously amused. “Don’t tell me I’m getting too skinny for you,” he says, patting his belly. “I think I’m probably up fifteen pounds since we connected back in Brooklyn.”

“Just hedging my bets,” Bucky says, feeling a little breathless. “Do you really think it’s fifteen?”

“At least,” Steve says, smiling at Bucky’s obvious fixation on the number. “C’mon, let’s go see if there’s ice cream.”

*

There is ice cream, a little soft – the freezer doesn’t seem to run quite as cold under generator power as it did under regular power, but it’s still cold. His eyes drift over the store-sized five-gallon buckets that line the bottom shelf of the walk-in, but he doubts anyone could actually eat that much ice cream, and they have more to do today, so he sighs and plucks a retail pint of caramel cone off the shelf instead.

Steve’s heading toward a table with a tray when Bucky steps back out into the atrium dining area. “There’s a sandwich place,” he says. “There was some roast beef that looked okay, hope that’ll work for you.” Bucky shrugs and nods, and they eat in silence for a little while, looking around the eerily silent food court, lit from above by skylights, the neon signs of the restaurants flickering garishly all around them.

Then, Bucky’s eyes alight on the mall’s exit doors. They’re barricaded, the security grille pulled down on the inside. And there are bright orange flyers plastered all over the glass doors. He stands up and goes over to the doors, peering through the grille and reading backwards through the backlit glass. KNOW YOUR EVACUATION ZONES is printed in bold type across the top of each page. Beneath that is a rough sketch map of the city, broken into color-coded sections. Bucky squints and tilts his head, trying to make out the smaller type beneath the map.

“Steve,” he says. “Come look at this.”

Steve’s already there, right behind him, hand going to the small of his back. “What is it?”

“Some kind of flyer. Look, there’s a map, and a schedule? They were trying to manage the evacuation. And look there,” he adds, pointing to the bottom of one of the flyers. “It says if you don’t have transportation, you’re supposed to get to an evacuation center.”

“Looks like we’re in Zone 12, and we’re supposed to proceed to either the convention center or Lucas Oil Stadium if there’s an emergency and we can’t evacuate,” Steve says.

Bucky blinks, surprised. Back in Brooklyn, people had been instructed to stay in their homes if they couldn’t evacuate, under the assumption that the emergency responders would soon have the situation under control. And of course it hadn’t worked out that way at all, and everything had gone straight to hell.

Steve is quiet, eyes staring ahead, unfocused, for almost a minute. “Remember toward the end, back in Brooklyn,” he says, “how the Afflicted kind of started to gang up? That was down by Fort Hamilton, wasn’t it?”

Bucky’s brain puts everything together, all at once. Fort Hamilton had been the only easily accessible evacuation point that was also defensible, and large numbers of people had made their way there in the latter days of the disaster. “Once there were a bunch of people – hundreds of them – all together in one place, the Afflicted starting forming…” he trails off for a moment, thinking. “What’s the right word? Herds? Packs?”

“God,” Steve says. “Jesus Christ. So they gathered the people who couldn’t get out of the city into one place. Elderly people, poor people, people with limited mobility.” He doesn’t go on, Bucky can almost hear his teeth clack as he bites back the conclusion of this thought, which has to be something like and now they’re all probably dead, or else there are huge packs of Afflicted hanging around the convention center or the stadium and they’re as good as.

“Ice cream’s gonna have to wait, baby boy. We’re taking those binoculars up to the penthouse suite to see what we can see.”

*

At the tenth floor of the hotel, they stop and rest. Steve shamelessly slides down the wall of the stairwell and plops onto his ass, wiping the sheen of sweat from his brow. He’s still strong – he has no concerns whatsoever about his ability to wield an axe or throw his weight around – but ten flights of stairs, his belly bouncing the entire way, feeling heavy and awkward with every step, is a little rough. Just the thought of the next eight they have to go before they get to the top is exhausting.

“Fuck, baby. Too fat for this shit,” he says, grimacing a little at how breathless he is. It’s disconcerting; he’s never really been out of shape before.

Bucky makes a face, like he’s trying to think of something appropriately sympathetic to say, but his eyes are bright with unmistakable interest. “You fucking pervert,” Steve mutters, swiping the water bottle Bucky offers him and taking a long drink. “You’re shameless.”

“I just – I mean, you’re a civilian now. Normally you won’t need to do stuff like this,” Bucky says by way of explanation, grinning a little and reaching over to pat Steve’s belly, which looks bigger than ever. “We’d just take the elevator.”

“Yeah, unless things go to hell everywhere and they never get the lights back on,” Steve says, effectively ruining the mood.

“Christ, sir.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Steve says, draining the bottle and tossing it aside. “Come here, baby.”

Bucky scoots over next to him, and Steve gives him a couple of quick, affectionate kisses before he taps Bucky smartly on his flank and gestures for him to stand. “Help me up and let’s get this over with,” he says.

Bucky springs to his feet and holds out his arm; Steve’s a little embarrassed by how much he grips it as he pulls himself up off the floor.

*

When they get to the top floor, Steve’s completely out of his breath and his knees hurt – and Bucky, bless him, just stands there and waits for him to recover and tell him what to do, looking up at Steve with his wide gray-blue eyes, absolutely guileless.

They have a universal key card with them – Bucky had ferreted it out behind the registration desk when they’d arrived—but they don’t even have to open a room to see what they need to see. There’s a wide window at the end of the hallway, facing the southwest.

Steve holds his breath a little as they approach, praying to a god he is rarely on speaking terms with that this section of the city will be as deserted as the streets they came in on. He doesn’t know why he bothers; if anything has proven to be true since this thing started, it’s that shit has continued to deteriorate at a fairly terrifying pace. There’s no reason for that not to be the case here.

It’s not really surprising, when they look out over the city and see the writhing mass of people – Afflicted, it’s clear from their shambling gaits and herd-like unity – spilling out of Lucas Oil Stadium and the Convention Center, clogging all of Capitol Avenue between the two buildings. Even worse, the herd is spreading, oozing out in all directions.

“Oh my god,” Bucky breathes, reaching out and clasping onto Steve’s arm in a grip that is just a few shades short of painful.

“Fuck,” Steve says. He wants to vomit, imagining what the scene must look like inside the stadium. He remembers, nauseatingly, the footage from inside the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, the mass of huddled humanity, miserable and sick and hungry inside, waiting for a rescue that was slow to come. This is even worse. Like always, it’s the same groups of people, the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society, but this time they’re trapped inside with no hope of rescue, Afflicted and tearing one another to pieces.

“There’s – there’s thousands, gotta be,” Bucky says.

Steve nods.

“How – how the fuck did we drive in and see almost none?”

Steve shrugs. “Came off the interstate on the east side. And they flock.”

They stand there silently for another minute or two, and Steve is already calculating their best course of action. He’s about to open his mouth when Bucky speaks.

“Get me out, sir.” He looks up at Steve, his right hand still digging into Steve’s bicep, and his voice is a little shaky but his eyes are absolutely clear, the way they always had been in the desert. Clear and calculating. Ready to take orders and carry them out. “Tell me what to do and get us out.”

Steve nods again. “We’ve got maybe ten minutes before the edges of that crowd get over here. Maybe fifteen. Maybe. “ He glances out the window again and points. “McCarty Street is the closest on-ramp to I-70, but look – there’s no way. We’d be fucked.”

“How long do you think it would take ‘em to get inside a Honda Odyssey?” Bucky asks, one side of his mouth curling up in a little ghost of a smile.

“Longer than it would have taken on the bike, baby. C’mon.”

The trip down the stairs is faster, although Steve’s knees still hurt, and he wishes he had the luxury of a break halfway down. His tummy’s bouncing painfully with every step, and his thighs feel like they could probably start chafing if he has to keep this up much longer. He thinks, not for the first time, that the middle of an actual apocalyptic nightmare probably wasn’t the most opportune time to get fucking fat. Hindsight. Always 20/20.

“Go get your backpack and the maps,” Steve instructs when they hit the third floor, where they’d slept the night before. “Run. I’ll meet you in the parking garage.”

Bucky nods, but then, to Steve’s utter surprise, he leans over and drops the lightest of kisses on his cheek, like some bizarre pantomime of a housewife sending her husband off to work. “Don’t leave without me,” he says, and disappears down the hallway.

*

The minivan seems loud in the parking garage, now that they know there are thousands of Afflicted just a couple of blocks away, and they both wince at the sound when Steve fires the engine.

“Should have stole us a Prius,” Steve says, driving slowly down the entrance ramp and easing onto Washington Street.

“We couldn’t have crammed your fat ass into a Prius,” Bucky says, spreading a map of the city out on his lap. “You’d have bitched the whole time.”

Three Afflicted shuffle around the corner, and Steve glides the van past them, both of them holding their breath.

“I should blister your ass,” Steve says mildly, as soon as it’s clear there aren’t a hundred more Afflicted right behind that trio.

Bucky looks at him for a second, stunned into silence, and then flashes a feral, toothy smile. “Maybe you should. But rescue me first, daddy. You got a plan to get us out, or are we just driving recon here?”

Steve’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, both at the word daddy – which up until now has not been so much as alluded to, outside of sex – and at the question itself, in all its sassy glory. Fucking Bucky.

“The plan is avoiding I-70. You’ve got the map, boy. We need to hit US-40, west of the city. Get me there.” Steve glances down at the fuel gauge, which is hovering around an eighth of a tank. “And fast – fuel is low.”

He drives slow, letting the van idle along, cruising past little knots of Afflicted here and there, and tries to stay calm. They can do this. They can get out.

In the back of his mind, all he can think is that, once again, he’s made the wrong call. He’d told Bucky to leave, back in Ohio. He’d driven them into a trap, here. He’s nauseated with it, that sick you fucked up feeling washing over him in waves, and it’s even worse when Bucky looks at him, still completely trusting. Completely faithful.

“Washington Street – if you stay on it long enough, it just turns into 40,” Bucky says, looking up at him hopefully. “So we just – we just drive out, right?”

Steve swallows. “Let’s hope so.”

*

They don’t get two blocks before it happens. They’re trying to cross Capitol Avenue – which they both knew was going to be risky – and the horde simply swoops through the intersection, looking for all the world like a flock of deranged, flightless birds.

“Oh, shit, Steve.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, throwing the van in reverse and hitting the gas hard enough to squall the tires.

“Where did they all come from? Out of nowhere,” Bucky marvels, gun resting loosely in his hand, eyes focused on the mass of not-quite-humanity swarming in front of them.

“Gonna go around,” Steve says, detouring around a couple of blocks. “Tell me where to go. How far can I loop around and still get back on Washington? Remember – low on fuel,” he adds.

“Uh – well, you can’t go that far out of the way or you’re gonna hit the river,” Bucky says. “But oh hey, look, we can go by the State Capitol Building –“

“Oh my god, Barnes, we are not sightseeing,” Steve interrupts.

“I know, I know, I’m just saying. Go up another block, then turn left.”

“That gonna be clear?”

Bucky shrugs and rolls down his window, leaning forward a little. “Just mow ‘em down.”

*

It’s not clear, but it’s not as bad as it could be. The vast majority of the herd is still back on Capitol Avenue, spreading out in aimless ripples from the Convention Center, like ink in a glass of water. There are outliers, though, shuffling up the street toward the van in groups of a dozen or so.

“Hold your fire,” Steve says. “Roll up your window. It’ll be safer to drive through than shoot with that handgun.”

Bucky flinches a little, and Steve wishes he could take it back, but it’s true. It’s not like when Bucky had his rifle and his left hand, when he could have hung out the window and picked them off for sport. It’s different, and they have to accept it.

Steve swerves handily around the first bunch, but the van rocks hard around the second, when several stumble in front of them at the last moment. “Christ, this thing handles like shit,” Steve says.

“Bitch and moan, bitch and moan,” Bucky shoots back, holding onto his door handle and staring straight ahead. “Next time I’ll steal you a Cadillac.”

“Promises, promises—ah, fuck.” Two Afflicted are pulled under the front tires, and the sound they make as the Odyssey rolls over them – a soft popping sound – makes Steve cringe.

“Go, just go,” Bucky says, swallowing hard in the passenger’s seat. “There, Washington, you’re almost there—“

Steve guns it, jerking the wheel as they spin out onto Washington Street. Three Afflicted are standing there, aimlessly shuffling toward the center line, and the first one is pulled under the front of the van, mown down like grass. The other two, though, flip up onto the hood. One goes completely over the top, but the other smashes into the windshield with a sickening thump. The Saf-T-Glass shatters accordingly, a spider web of cracks that completely obscures Bucky’s vision but, mercifully, leaves Steve’s open.

“Oh, Christ--“ Steve swerves a little, trying to shake the body, but it sticks perversely. “Reach out and move her,” Steve says quietly, like it’s not the worst thing he’s ever asked Bucky to do. “I’ll hold you, just pull her off.”

Bucky looks at him once and then nods, rolling down the window and leaning out gamely, the wind in his face. Steve grabs on tight to his belt loop, and watches in horror as Bucky grabs the woman by the ankle and drags her of the hood until she drops off like so much excess baggage.

The road ahead, thankfully, looks more or less clear, just small shambling groups here and there.

“How much farther till we’re out of the city?” Steve asks, trying to pretend he’s not shaking all over.

“We’re going past the zoo,” Bucky informs him nonsensically, staring down at the map as if he can’t quite understand it.

“Then what?” Steve prompts.

“Uh—just through the city for a while, and then this turns into 40. We’re gonna go through, uh, Plainfield. That’s the first town outside the city.” He turns and looks at Steve. “Think they have gas?”

Steve shrugs. “If they don’t, you can steal me that Cadillac.”

*

There is an open gas station in Plainfield, as it turns out. Washington Street gradually turns into a divided highway, running through that weird sort of sprawl that the edges of urban areas in rural states seem to get, where strip malls and shopping centers are flush against cornfields, and the farther they get from the city, the fewer Afflicted they see.

By the time they enter Plainfield proper, it’s obvious that most people have evacuated along with Indianapolis, but the lights are shining at one lonely Citgo on the edge of town, and Steve breathes a sigh of relief. They’re running on fumes, and he didn’t really relish the idea of stealing another car.

He’s also unreasonably fond of the Odyssey, although he has no intention of telling Bucky about that.

“Look at this old timer, sticking it out,” Bucky says as they pull into the empty lot. There’s one lone man standing behind the counter, and he comes around the edge of it and out the door when he sees them.

“That old timer has a fucking shotgun,” Steve mumbles out of the side of his mouth as he eases out of the van. “Hey there,” he calls out, voice carefully neutral. “Your pumps on?”

“Sure are,” the man replies, the 12 gauge cradled loosely between his arms, not exactly pointed at them—yet. “Run you $10 a gallon, though.”

Bucky snorts, and Steve coughs over him and says, “I can understand that, sir. Only game in town, looks like.”

The man nods again. “Cash only.”

Steve reaches very slowly for his wallet and pulls out two hundreds. Jesus H., at this rate they’re going to have start robbing people blind just to pay for fuel to get to Colorado. He’d withdrawn $1000 – his daily limit – back at Fort Lee, and left some in the bike’s saddlebags in Ohio. He’d been using his credit card before that whenever he could, but he has the sneaking suspicion that Visa is going to be less than useful for the foreseeable future.

“Here,” he says, holding the cash out. “You got supplies?” he asks. “Food, water?”

“Case of water for another $20,” he says. “Throw in some beef jerky and some chips, too.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Bucky starts in from the passenger’s seat, and Steve slams the door on him.

“That’ll be just fine, thanks.”

*

As they pull out of the little gas station and back onto the highway, Steve’s hands start to shake, and they’re only a mile or so out of town before he has to pull over, teeth chattering with panic. All he can think, all he can even imagine, is how close they came to dying. Because of him. Because of his bad decision.

When Bucky leans over, quiet and small, and hands him a bottle of water, like it’s not a big deal, he almost cries.

Chapter Text

Bucky watches Steve guzzle down the entire bottle of water, then carefully screw the plastic cap back on and stow it in one of the minivan’s almost absurdly numerous cupholders.

He wants to ask what’s next, what plan Steve has to get them a little closer to Colorado, but he’s afraid of the answer – and even more afraid that there might not be an answer at all.  He looks at Steve again, at the bleak expression on his face, at his hands, now gripping the wheel of the Odyssey so hard his knuckles are white. It isn’t a time for questions.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, when the silence feels like it’s stretched to the breaking point. “That was close.”

Steve laughs, the sound harsh in the quiet confines of the minivan. “Close. Close. Jesus Christ, I almost got you killed, Buck. Again.”

Bucky opens his mouth to object to this assessment, but before he can say anything, Steve goes on, like a dam has broken, like he can’t stop himself. “I’m flying totally blind, here, I’ve got no information, no fucking intel, no idea what’s waiting for us out there.” He gestures through the windshield at the little access road where they’ve stopped. “The information channels here are worse than goddamn Afghanistan. This is hopeless.” He pounds both hands against the steering wheel. “Fucking hopeless.”

“It’s not,” Bucky says softly. “It’s not hopeless. You got me out alive – again.” He reaches out and touches Steve’s knee. “We got each other out alive. We’re both still here. And we’ve got to keep going,” he adds, shutting his mouth abruptly on the conclusion of that sentence, which would’ve been whether it’s hopeless or not.

“Going where?” Steve asks, turning to look at him. Bucky’s never seen him like this, his blue eyes burning in his face, his expression intense, a mix of anger and frustration, fear and hopelessness. “Where the fuck can we go from here, Bucky? Into another trap? Into another confrontation with the goddamn United States Army? Into another militia or nest of fucking Afflicted or god only knows what the fuck? Christ.”

Bucky flinches inwardly at the harsh words, but he isn’t –or wasn’t - a good NCO for nothing; he knows when to separate the personal from the situation at hand. Steve isn’t angry at him; he’s just had enough. He’s been the taking brunt of the responsibility since Brooklyn, and Bucky’s been letting him.

He wants to keep letting him, wants to fling himself into Steve’s arms, just hold onto him, feel safe and looked after; he wants to feel insulated from the terrifying place the world has become. He wants Steve, suddenly and terribly, the feel of him, his body against his own. He misses the motorcycle, and the contact it had necessitated between them; Steve seems far away in the minivan’s bucket seat. Bucky takes a deep breath, then, when that one goes in and out shakily, he tries another. Steadier. Better.

“Let me drive, sir,” he says.

Steve turns to look at him, and Bucky can tell he’s about to protest, but he holds up his hand, forestalling the argument. “No. Let me drive.” He consciously bites back the “sir” this time. He’s not taking charge permanently, but it’s obvious that he has to do so for now.

“Drive where?”

Bucky rifles through the center console and produces a brochure, one of the ones he’d grabbed at the rest stop before Indianapolis. “There’s a pretty big nature park about thirty miles from here,” he says. “It’s off the main roads, there’s tree cover so we can’t be spotted from the air. We can lie low, regroup, figure out what’s next.”

“Camping?” Steve asks. “In the open?”

“It’s not exactly the wilderness. It’s right by a little college town, but that works for us, it’s not too densely populated – in fact, it’s probably been evacuated,” Bucky says. “The Afflicted go after big groups, there won’t be any there. And being out in the open creates a more diffuse target. If anyone’s looking for us, they’ll be looking at motels, houses, like that. They’d have to search the whole park, if they even guessed we were there.”

Steve stares out the window, and doesn’t say anything. Bucky realizes he’s waiting for Steve to agree to his plan, and he gives himself a brisk mental shake. “C’mon, switch with me. I’m driving.”

*

The little college town of Greencastle has been evacuated; few cars on the street, even fewer signs of life. The electricity is still working, though; the streetlights flick to life right at 5pm, and several of the houses’ porch lights are burning, with no cicada-like hum of generators.

As they reach the outskirts of town, Bucky pulls into a large parking lot. Steve glances up at the low, half-brick, half-stone façade of the A’n J Bowl. “This is turning into a regular little vacation,” he says. “Bowling?”

“Nah, it’s just that they’ll have food with a lot of preservatives,” Bucky says, killing the Odyssey’s engine and twisting to open his door. “Stuff that’s easy to cook. Probably beer, too.”

Steve brightens a little at that, and ambles out of the van, stretching, both hands on the small of his back, belly sticking out in front of him. Bucky looks away, but not before he gets an eyeful. And god, Steve looks so good, his firm, round ball gut just starting to fill out a little on the sides, his underbelly dipping a bit more heavily over the waistband of his jeans. Bucky realizes his mouth is open, and closes it with a snap.

Then he thinks about what Steve had said, back at the hotel, about things going to hell everywhere, about the lights never coming back on, and wonders if it might be better for him to lose the weight, after all. He might need to be able to run, to bound up flights of stairs, to do all the things he’d done so effortlessly during the war. Their country might have become just as dangerous as Afghanistan.

Bucky’s Id leaps to its own defense, pointing out that Steve is strong, relatively young, and a lifetime of fitness has to have some lingering benefits; being a little fat certainly isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Still, there’s the constant back-of-the-brain consciousness that his is a fetish, or a kink, that has physical consequences for his lover. Steve is doing this, getting fat, in large part because Bucky wants him to. It makes him feel guilty, but the guilt is part of a perverse brew of illicit desire, and it only makes the whole thing even more intoxicating.

“Give me your shirt, sir,” he says, forcing his thoughts to the problem at hand. They need rest, food, time to think. He needs to get his mind out of the gutter, to the extent that such a thing is possible, and keep them moving until Steve pulls himself back together.

Steve shucks off the flannel and hands it over, and Bucky conscientiously looks away from the swell of his belly, tented under the black t-shirt. He picks up a brick from behind one of the wheels of a nearby dumpster and uses it to smash the top half of the glass entry door, his hand wrapped in Steve’s flannel for protection.

“I’ll be right back,” he says, shaking the glass off the shirt and handing it back, planting a brief kiss on Steve’s cheek. “Wait right here.”

*

They set up camp in the back of the Odyssey – the hatchback open, rear seats stowed, an ultralight foam mattress rolled out across the floor. Bucky’d stuffed one of the hotel laundry bags full of cold beer, hot dogs, frozen pizza, pretzel bites, and a bag of frozen French fries. They cook them all in aluminum foil, directly on the coals of the fire.

Out of habit, Bucky throws on a delirious quantity of food, but when he plucks the piping hot, foil-wrapped parcels from the fire with a stick, his conscience gives a little twinge.

Steve gives him a strange, sad smile and holds out his hand. “Give it here,” he says.

“It’s just…habit, I guess,” Bucky says, glad that it’s dusk, the trees throwing long shadows so Steve can’t see his blush. “You don’t have to eat it. I mean, you never have to, but…you know. I’m not trying to -” “Give it here,” Steve says again, and after a few seconds, Bucky hands over the larger of the two foil packages.

Bucky picks at his food in silence, watching Steve plow through his meal – four hot dogs, five pieces of somewhat burned, mushy pizza, some decent fries, an unevenly-heated wad of pretzel bites - and wash everything down with can after can of PBR. After a while, he hands the rest of his meal up to Steve, who takes it, very gently, from Bucky’s hand.

“This isn’t all on you, you know,” Steve says, laying a hand over his belly, giving it a pat. “I was well on my way in this direction before you showed up in Brooklyn. That first thirty is on me.”

“I know,” Bucky says, blushing even harder. God, did he know. “And it was more like forty,” he can’t resist adding.

“The thing is,” Steve goes on, ignoring him, “back in Afghanistan? Even before that, the whole time I was in the army, I thought it might help, being in good shape. Thought that made a difference. Thought I was helping to keep people safe, but it didn’t make a lick of difference, in the end. I knew the men, knew the country, knew the fucking enemy better than anyone in Washington. None of it mattered. It didn’t mean anything, didn’t help anyone.” He takes another bite of pizza. “So, after I walked away, I figured what the hell, you know? What’s the point?”

Bucky stares up at him, rapt. Steve never talks about himself like this, never. It’s fascinating, and a little frightening.

Steve pauses, heaves a deep breath, and rubs a hand along the slope of his gut. “It wasn’t just a big ‘fuck you’ to the military. I was lonely, too. Missed the job, missed the guys. Missed you, in particular. The food helped, I guess. Beer too – beer always helps, at least at first.” He shoves his hands through his hair, making it stick up in spikes briefly before it flops back into place. “The last few days…I don’t know. I feel like it’s the same thing all over again – I’m doing whatever I can, but it’s not enough.”

“I wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for you,” Bucky says. “I’d have been torn apart by Afflicted, or become Afflicted, or been picked off trying to get to Fort Hamilton.”

“But if you’d listened to me back in Ohio -” Steve begins, but Bucky shakes his head.

“That doesn’t matter. It was a fucking crazy situation, Cap – maybe I should’ve gone on, done what you told me. But then you talked Rumlow into knots and an opportunity presented itself. And hell, I probably made things worse for both of us, anyway. If I’d done what you said and run…” he shrugs. “It wasn’t a bad call,” he concludes.

Steve sighs and looks at him in exasperation, then, unexpectedly, he grins, and Bucky feels his heart lighten. “You’re making it really hard for me to blame myself for everything, you know that?”

“Good,” Bucky says, smiling up at him.

“We can’t keep blundering around like this, with no goddamn clue about what the hell’s going on.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Bucky says. “I know you will.” He pushes himself up from the ground and straddles Steve’s hips, nestling his face into Steve’s neck. “I know it.”

Steve puts his arms around Bucky and just holds him there for a while. “The thing is, I’ll never forgive myself if I get you killed,” he says, breath stirring Bucky’s too-long hair. He squeezes Bucky tight, pulling him up hard against the soft wall of his belly and chest.

“I don’t really see anyone else lining up to save the world,” Bucky says. He tilts his head and kisses Steve softly on the mouth. “You’re still the best chance I got, Cap. Please don’t quit on me.”

*

That night, Bucky falls asleep wrapped around Steve’s belly, which is quickly becoming their usual position, to Steve’s embarrassment. It had been easy enough not to think about how fat he’s getting back in Brooklyn, when nobody had said anything about it. Now, though, Bucky’s so shamelessly into it, constantly looking at him, touching him, asking him what it feels like. It feels fucking heavy, is how it feels. It feels like he’s bursting at the seams, taking up more space, and his back hurts. It feels like he’s goddamn fat, which he is.

But it makes Bucky happy, and yeah – if he’s being totally honest - the fact that Bucky actually has to curl his body around Steve’s belly in order to snuggle close to him is as weirdly erotic as it is annoying. Even if it weren’t, though, he knows he’d probably eat anything Bucky wanted him to. Which makes him think again about how close he’d come to losing Bucky, just that afternoon.

“Dammit,” he mutters, shifting on the too-thin foam pad, trying to get more comfortable. No matter what he’d said to Bucky, no matter how much confidence Bucky might have in him, he’s reluctant to make any further decisions, not with so little information, and so much potential for disaster at every turn. But he’ll have to. They can’t just stay here, they’ll have to wake up in the morning and choose a direction, and he’s thinking in circles, his options little more than flimsy possibilities, none offering much hope for a good outcome.

He dozes eventually, but then, in the small hours of the morning, he snaps back to alertness. He’d heard a sound, something other than the whine of crickets and rustle of leaves in the woods. He opens his eyes and doesn’t move, his hold on Bucky tightening instinctively.

The noise comes again, a three-note chime, accompanied by a flicker from the vicinity of the minivan’s charging console. It’s his phone. The screen’s lit up, and the phone is actually ringing.

He struggles up onto one elbow and reaches for the phone, grabbing it, flicking the screen to answer it. “Hello?”

A crisp, British-inflected voice sounds through the phone’s earpiece. “Steven Grant Rogers, you’ve got a great deal of explaining to do.”

“Peggy?” Steve says, rubbing at his eyes.

Bucky moans and stirs against him, drags his eyes open. “Who is it?” he asks.

“It’s my ex,” Steve says, and he feels every bit as surprised as Bucky looks.

“Sam?” Bucky mumbles sleepily.

Steve rolls his eyes. “Not Sam – Jesus, I never dated Sam. Her name is Peggy. Shh, baby. This is important.”

Bucky frowns, and Steve can tell just by the expression on his face that he’s torn between launching into a full-fledged pout and trying to behave because he thinks Steve needs him to. Steve knows he scared Bucky today, knows that Bucky is treading lightly with him, waiting for him to regain his footing, waiting for him to take charge.

“Is that Sergeant Barnes with you?” Peggy’s voice says on the other end of the line, pulling Steve’s attention back. “So it’s true, then, that you’ve taken up arms against the United States government protecting your new boyfriend?”

Steve winces, scrubbing his eyes again. “Um,” he says stupidly, because that is not, entirely, incorrect.

Steve.” The frustration in Peggy’s disembodied voice is perfectly clear, and Steve can picture her exactly, the scowl on her pretty face, the look of utter disdain across her features. She’s probably still at her desk right now, in the middle of the night. She’d been rising through the ranks even years ago, when they’d been together – he isn’t sure what her title is these days, but it warrants an office at the Pentagon.

Peggy clears her throat and gets right to the point. “Why are you on the run with your AWOL, possibly Afflicted boyfriend? And did you cut off his arm?” She pauses, and Steve starts to reply, but then she barrels right on. “Because I want to help you, Steve, I do, but you’re going to need to convince me that aiding and abetting a man wanted for treason is a good idea.”

Steve takes a breath and then explains everything as simply as he can. “Bucky isn’t Afflicted. I cut off his arm and it stopped the infection. His blood is different than other people, and I can explain that, but – they would have shot him on sight, Peg, if they knew he’d been exposed.”

“So instead of making a phone call, getting some help, you decided to break him out of quarantine at Fort Lee and go on the lam halfway across the United States?”

“It’s complicated,” he says lamely, and launches into further explanations.

“Captain Rumlow says Sergeant Barnes shot three of his men during your escape in Ohio,” Peggy interjects, her tone almost conversational, when there’s a lull in Steve’s story and she can get a word in.

“Those were non-fatal shots, all of them,” Steve promptly responds, and Bucky commences vigorous nodding from his side of the mattress.

“Oh for god’s sake.” Peggy clears her throat. “All right, then. You’re not committing treason. You’re on a mission to cure the Affliction. Is that about right?”

“Yes,” Steve says.

“Well, I can’t help you, not officially.” Her tone is matter-of-fact, all business. “But I’ll tell you what I know, and I’ll call Dr. Banner for you, let him know you’re coming. Honestly, Steven, were you planning on driving right up to the gates at Fort Collins? It’s a wonder either of you made it this far.”

In his mind’s eye, Steven can see her squaring her narrow shoulders and shaking her head, fond and stubborn and resolutely on his side. For the first time in weeks, he feels almost hopeful.

*

By the next evening, they’re in a tiny, rundown motel in western Illinois, and Bucky feels almost happy.

He probably shouldn’t; nothing much has happened that should be all that reassuring. After all, the Affliction is still raging, they’re still wanted for treason, and they’re still a hell of a long way from Colorado, making a cross-country trip through an America that is rapidly going to hell.

Still, something has shifted, and it feels like a fresh start. They’d rolled out of Greencastle in the early afternoon, restocked with supplies. Steve had been behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer that Bucky had selected based on three important selling points: it was available; it had four-wheel-drive; and it was big and plush enough that Steve wouldn’t bitch too much about being uncomfortable. And, bless him, he hadn’t – he’d climbed in, tilted his seat back until there was plenty of room for his belly between himself and the steering wheel, and then flipped the air conditioning into high gear.

It’s not just the car that had changed, though. It’s Steve. He wasn’t gripping the wheel quite so tightly, and the hunted, harried expression on his face had relaxed. His unspoken, easy self-possession had returned, and he’d called the shots all day, from the route they’d taken to when and where they had stopped. He’d even been in a good enough mood to reach over a few times and rest a possessive hand on Bucky’s knee while he drove, like they were kids on a date instead of adults on the lam.

Bucky figures that if having Steve’s ex-girlfriend call him up in the middle of the night is the price he has to pay for Steve looking a little bit more like his old self, a little bit less like he’s ready to give up, then he’ll thank Ms. Peggy Carter personally, and take her out for a few drinks to boot, if they ever get out of this mess.

*

There’s a little diner across the street from their motel, but they don’t go get a table, even though Bucky would have welcomed the chance to see other people, bask in the noise of other human voices. Instead, Steve offers to go get them carryout while Bucky stays in the room.

Just like he’d gone into the motel office and rented this room while Bucky had stayed behind in the Explorer. Just like he’d run into the tiny liquor store on the edge of town and picked up a six pack while Bucky stayed in the car. They don’t talk about it, but Bucky knows exactly what’s happening: Steve’s keeping him – and his very conspicuously missing left arm – out of the public eye as much as possible. A fat blond lumberjack is memorable; a fat blond lumberjack with a pretty one-armed guy trailing along behind him is unforgettable.

So yeah, Bucky knows why they’re getting carryout, but he doesn’t say anything. Just nods and smiles. “Bring back something good, sir.”

And, of course, Steve does, returning with a stack of Styrofoam packages, laden down with French fries, onion rings, a regular cheeseburger for Bucky, two enormous half pound monstrosities topped with bacon for himself, and a pile of chicken strips.

Bucky’s breath catches a little, watching as Steve roots through the containers. He feels a little twinge of the guilt he’d had the night before return to the pit of his stomach, and he can’t quite tamp it down. Steve looks good, so achingly good, plopped down on the sagging motel bed, belly brushing his thighs even though he’s leaned back against the headboard, his gut a ball of thick, heavy fat that dominates his frame. He looks like an athlete long since gone to seed, still muscular but overfed, sated and lazy, and Jesus, it’s everything Bucky has ever wanted, larger than life.

It’s everything he’s ever wanted, but now, in this uncertain world, it’s also a liability. A danger. A risk. It’s the worst possible time for Steve to be doing this, stuffing himself every night and piling on weight like it’s his mission in life – and fuck, Bucky hates the way that thrills him, too.

“Stop it, baby boy,” Steve says, his voice pitched low and authoritative, making Bucky’s shoulders stiffen just a little with an ingrained urge to submit. “Stop looking so goddamned guilty.” He shoves a few French fries in his mouth. “I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do.” He raises an eyebrow and fixes Bucky with a look. “Who’s in charge here?”

Bucky inhales sharply. “You are, sir.”

Steve quirks his lip, just barely, and nods. “That’s right, baby. I am. Do you trust me?”

“Of course—yes, yes, sir,” Bucky says, tripping over the words a little in his haste to comply. Because yes, he does. He trusts Steve with his life, a thousand times over.

“Good boy. Then trust me in this, too.” He eyes Bucky. “If I ever did something you didn’t like, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If I pushed you too hard? Touched you or talked to you some way you weren’t okay with?”

Bucky nods, because yes, he would. He has safe words – he’d use them if he ever needed to, of course he would.

“That’s right, you would, because you’re my good boy,” Steve says, and Bucky twitches helplessly at the praise, soaking it all in.

“And if I decide I don’t want to get any fatter someday?” Steve continues, grabbing his gut and giving it a shake for emphasis, which nearly has Bucky’s eyes glazing over. “If I decide it’s too much work, carrying this thing around? Or, Christ, if the Affliction doesn’t ever get better and I feel like I’m too fat to keep you safe anymore? Then I’ll change things. I’ll tell you.” He shrugs, and the look he gives Bucky is almost painfully direct. “But right now, I want to eat and you want me to eat. Is that about right?”

“God yes, please,” Bucky says, not even bothering to play it cool.

“All right, then,” Steve says, and leans back, popping open his belt buckle and resting the carryout container on the ridge of his belly.

*

Steve works his way through the burgers, the chicken strips, all of the fries and most of the onion rings, minus a couple that Bucky snags for himself, and five of the six beers he’d picked up, eating steadily, chatting with Bucky while he does.

He’s casual about it, dunking fries in ketchup, licking a stray stream of grease from the side of his hand, telling Bucky little scraps of news he’d heard in the diner while he was waiting on their order. It’s not much, in terms of useful information – St. Louis is a wreck, which Peggy had already told them the night before, and a FEMA camp near Chicago was apparently overrun, which Peggy had not mentioned but which doesn’t seem all that surprising, given the shit show they’d seen in Indianapolis. Steve even caught a few moments of a CNN broadcast while he was waiting, but it hadn’t been particularly enlightening. Pledges of financial support are pouring in from other countries, European and otherwise, but no one seems interested in sending in any of those proverbial boots on the ground to help out with disaster relief. It’s not terribly surprising; if the rest of the world has even an inkling of the truth about what’s happening here, they can hardly be blamed for wanting to keep their distance.

The news is horrible – cities across the country are falling, a swath of disaster skipping mercilessly west across the map – and Bucky can’t quite decide which he should be more concerned about: his status as a public enemy of the United States, or that there might not be much of a United States left if this thing doesn’t get stopped.

It’s also fairly disconcerting that, in the middle of this nightmare, a significant portion of his brain is still focused solely on watching Steve work his way through dinner. He’s leaned back against the headboard, box of fries resting on his gut, double chin fully visible, jawline blurred above a pillow of soft, gorgeous chub. He looks overfed and overindulged, powerful but slow, like a predator glutted after a successful kill. He finishes off the last of the fries, shoving four or five into his mouth at once and tossing the container aside. As he’s absently brushing crumbs off of his stomach, where his black t-shirt clings distractingly to his fat belly, it sends a tingle down Bucky’s spine to realize that this isn’t that much food for Steve – he’s not even struggling with it. He’s stuffed, sure, but no more than usual. This is just a regular meal for him now.

Fuck, it’s hot.

As if he’s drawn there by a magnet, Bucky slithers up the bed and nestles in at Steve’s side, resting his hand on the crest of Steve’s enormous tummy. It’s almost overwhelming, how many things he wants in this moment. He wants to touch Steve’s belly, the way he always does after Steve’s eaten too much, stuffed himself on grease and carbs and beer. He wants to get on his knees in front of him, worship his cock and his belly and his entire being. He wants to crawl into his lap, feel small and protected and safe.

Most of all, he wants Steve to tell him what to do.

Steve shifts, grunting a little with the effort of moving after a meal, and cups Bucky’s chin in his hand. “What do you want, baby?” he asks, gazing down at Bucky, blue eyes searching.

“You,” Bucky says simply, and he means it. That’s all he wants.

Steve raises his hips just slightly, nodding down to his waist, where his belt is already unfastened. “Help me out, honey.”

Bucky does, relishing the way he has to lift Steve’s gut out of the way before he can unbutton his jeans. He tugs them down, over Steve’s chunky hips and thighs, which are filling out just like the rest of him, muscle overlaid with fat, and he can’t resist dropping a few little love bites on Steve’s inner thighs as he works his jeans off. When Steve huffs and pulls himself forward enough to tug his t-shirt over his head, his fat belly bare and round, it’s almost more than Bucky can take.

He’s not surprised when Steve leans back and directs him firmly to his cock, hand on the back of his neck, holding him like you might pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck. He’s not surprised when Steve shoves him down, a little roughly, onto his cock and lets him gag a little, drooling over it and making a mess before he can get a rhythm going. He’s not surprised when Steve tangles his hands in Bucky’s hair and tugs, sending waves of sharp, agonizingly pleasant pain through his scalp with each stroke.

He is surprised, though, when he pulls Bucky up and off of him and tells him to get undressed. He’s even more surprised when Steve gets up on his knees and pushes Bucky down flat on his back, leaning over him until his belly lands on Bucky’s abs with a thump, kissing him softer, more gently, than he usually does.

His mouth is warm over Bucky’s, his lips soft, his belly softer, arms strong and bracketing Bucky on either side, so he’s completely enveloped by Steve. It feels different, somehow, the way Steve is touching him tonight, kissing him senseless, fingering him open so, so slowly that Bucky can barely stand it. Every touch is gentle, but in its own way, Bucky feels just as dominated as he does when Steve shoves him up against the wall or bends him over a table and fucks him till he screams; he feels pliant, boneless under Steve’s warm body, his insistent hands and mouth.

Finally, when Bucky thinks he might fall apart under him, Steve arranges him carefully, pushing his legs up until they’re resting on Steve’s broad shoulders and fucking into him in one long, firm stroke that makes Bucky keen.

“Shh, shh, shh, that’s so good, my sweet boy, my good baby,” Steve whispers, his eyes bright and locked with Bucky’s, his voice softer than Bucky has ever heard it.

“Your good boy, daddy,” Bucky agrees helplessly, overwhelmed by the feel and sight and experience of being under Steve like this, bent almost double.

“Only mine,” Steve says, voice dropping even lower, words ghosting out on little more than a breath. “Only my boy, only mine. Say it, sweetheart, tell me.”

“Only yours,” Bucky says, gasping a little, struggling to snap his hips against Steve, trying to thrust his cock up a little into Steve’s heavy belly, feeling like he might come apart right then, taken over the edge by this version of Steve, gentle and demanding and sweetly, carefully in charge. “Only yours, oh, god, yours, yours—“

“Daddy’s sweet, beautiful boy, you belong to me, that’s right, that’s so good, baby, fuck, Bucky, that’s so good for me, you’re so good.”

Steve keeps up a steady stream of nonsense praise, filthy and sweet, telling Bucky how good he is, how good he feels, who he belongs to, and it makes Bucky moan, makes tears form in the corners of his eyes until he’s begging. “Please, daddy, please, I need to come,” he finally whines, clinging to Steve’s shoulder, probably leaving bruises from grabbing him so hard.

“Then come, baby, come right now,” Steve says, fucking into him steadily, eyes wide and intense and still locked on Bucky so hard that Bucky has to bite his lip to keep from screaming out everything he wants to say. Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever give up on me, I love you. I love you, daddy, please, god, please love me back. He doesn’t say any of it, though, just wails a little as he comes, thrashing under Steve until Steve pins him to the mattress and shoves his cock forward one last time before his own orgasm, burying himself so deeply that Bucky screams.

*

“So why did you and Peggy break up?” Bucky asks later, when he’s still in Steve’s arms, curled around his big gut. After such intense sex, he’s drowsy and warm, but not quite ready for sleep. “She cares about you enough to be calling you when you’re wanted for treason, you guys must have been close.”

“It was a long time ago,” Steve says. “I loved her, but – we were young.” He shrugs. “We ended up fighting like cats and dogs. Both of us wanted to be in charge, I think.”

“Shocking,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes.

“Well, I was too young to realize that what I needed was a pretty, well-behaved baby boy who would do exactly what he was told,” Steve says sweetly, before he smirks and adds, “Tell me if you know anyone who might fit the bill, since right now all I’ve got is a mouthy little shit who wants me so fat I can’t tie my own boots.”

Bucky inhales, squirming pleasantly at the thought. The image of Steve, his big belly grown even bigger, even rounder, pings through his brain, and all he can imagine is Steve, belly so big it weighs him down, obscenely round, like a nine months pregnant woman, ordering Bucky to take off his boots because he can’t lean over his gut far enough to do it himself.

Steve snorts, reading Bucky like a billboard. “Oh, for chrissakes, baby. That gets you going? You want me so fat I can’t bend over my own gut?”

“I’d tie your boots for you,” Bucky says, grinning shamelessly and patting Steve’s bloated belly. “You’d never have to do it.”

“Pervert,” Steve mutters, dropping an affectionate kiss on the top of Bucky’s head.

“So anyway, you guys stayed friends, after?” Bucky asks, redirecting the conversation back to its original course.

Steve nods. “Sure did.”

“You trust her to help us however she can, don’t you?” Bucky asks. It’s the closest he can come to saying, You look like yourself again because you think we have a chance now, you think she’ll help you get us there.

Steve nods again. “Sure do. I’ll call her again tomorrow, see if she got ahold of Banner.” He looks down at Bucky. “And she can tell us what to expect on the road between here and there. Which places are Afflicted, which aren’t. So I won’t drive you into a fucking disaster again.”

Bucky starts to protest that last part, but Steve shakes his head and tugs Bucky over to his side, scoots down until they’re lying side by side, facing each other, Steve’s belly taking up all the space between them. “I know, I know. Shh. Just go to sleep, baby.”

So Bucky does, clinging even more to Steve than usual, like he can say everything he wants to say just by holding on. *

The next morning, they eat takeout orders of biscuits and gravy from the diner across the street, and Steve laments the absence of scrambled eggs. “They don’t have any,” he says, shaking his head. “No delivery trucks came this week, so they’re running out of shit.”

Jesus. Bucky isn’t sure what to think of that. It’s not surprising, not with the way the roads have been. They know; they’ve seen what a mess the interstates are. But…he looks up at Steve, not sure how to phrase what he wants to ask.

Steve shrugs, like Bucky had actually spoken. “I don’t know, it’s crazy,” he says, answering all the unspoken questions Bucky can’t quite bring himself to ask. “I don’t know.”

Bucky pushes his breakfast around in its little Styrofoam tray and frowns, trying not to think about it. Trying not to think about what could happen today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. Trying not to think that this – takeout breakfast from a greasy spoon in some shit town in Missouri – might be the closest he and Steve ever come to domesticity. That he might never get to see what Steve looks like waking up in his own bed, in his own space. That he might never get anything but diner food and campfire fare, motel beds and sleeping bags.

He thinks that if this is all they’ll get to have, they have to make it enough.

Chapter Text

Eggs, as it turns out, aren’t the only things getting held up on the highways.

All the roads leading to bridges over the Mississippi are blocked with stopped cars and frustrated travelers; even the smaller connecting roads are jammed. Steve tunes the radio to the local St. Louis NPR affiliate, which is, by some miracle, transmitting, although the programming isn’t the standard fare.

“This is St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 KWMU, I’m Kelly Moffitt. If you’re outside the city, please be aware that officials from the United States Army have closed down all points of ingress and egress from the east due to the crisis in Indianapolis, and that only limited traffic is being admitted from the west.” She places a slight emphasis on the word “officials,” as if she doesn’t quite believe that’s what they are. “I’m hearing reports from travelers that the crossings at Alton and between Atlas and Louisiana are also closed. At present, our best information is that traffic may cross at Hannibal, although I haven’t had an update on the status of that bridge so far today.”

She clears her throat, and communicates in low tones with someone else in the studio for a moment. “I’ve just received today’s announcements from our military liaison. Rations will be distributed to city residents on the following schedule…”

Steve flicks off the radio and thumps his hands on the steering wheel. “Dammit,” he says. They’d been on their way toward Alton after spending most of the day in traffic in East St. Louis.

“Should we keep going north?” Bucky asks. “Try Hannibal next?”

“Don’t see that we have much choice,” Steve says. “Wish Peggy would call me back.”

Steve had called Peggy that morning, but he’d gotten an “out of service” message, hadn’t even been prompted to leave a voicemail. Several repeated attempts had ended the same way. The faintly positive feeling of the night before had drained away as they inched through stagnant traffic to blocked bridge after blocked bridge.

“Should we try calling her again?” Bucky asks.

Steve shakes his head slowly. “Thing is,” he says, “If she ain’t calling, there’s a reason.”

“You think something happened to her?”

“Nah, Peggy’s a survivor, I’m not worried about her,” Steve says, then, with a wry smile, he adds, “okay, maybe I am a little worried. But I don’t really think she’s in trouble; she’s just too smart, too capable. She’ll reach out when she can.”

But by seven o’clock that evening, Steve and Bucky are in East Hannibal, Illinois, still stuck on the wrong side of the Mississippi River, and there’s still been no word from Peggy Carter.

They’re sitting in a booth in a grim little truck stop, the only restaurant for miles in any direction. It’s packed with truckers, which is the only reason Steve had agreed to let Bucky come inside with him. When they’d pulled up, Steve had initially told him to stay in the car.

“Look at all those rigs,” Bucky says, nodding toward the dusty makeshift pull-off where dozens of tractor-trailers are parked. “They’ll be busy, probably haven’t had so many customers in years. Nobody’s going to notice us, we look just like everyone else.”

Steve had smiled at him, shaking his head. “Me, maybe,” he’d said, patting his flannel-clad belly. “You’re still a little conspicuous.”

“I’ll be more conspicuous sitting out here in the car,” Bucky had argued, and in the end, Steve had relented.

Bucky wears a baseball hat pulled down low over his face, and one of Steve’s shirts covers his missing arm. He’d been right; the place is so busy, the waitress barely has time to glance at them when she refills their coffees, and all the other patrons are fixated on the overhead televisions, tuned to CNN.

On the screen, a harried looking anchor is speaking earnestly to a military official Steve doesn’t recognize, a handsome, brown-skinned man in a neatly pressed military uniform.

“How is this virus spreading so quickly, and why hasn’t anyone – not in the military, and certainly not within the medical establishment - been able to create any protocols for stopping the spread of the disease?” the anchor asks.

“There’s no single answer to that question,” the uniformed man replies. “For one thing, we didn’t understand all the potential vectors – that is, the way the disease is transmitted – for this illness. We still don’t. The speed of transmission and lack of cooperation at the local level have made it very difficult for us to get important, accurate information about this illness out there for the public.”

“But don’t we already know that the Affliction is spread by bites, like ordinary rabies?”

“That is one vector,” the uniformed man says. “But there may be others. We expect to make an announcement later this evening that should be extremely helpful in preventing the continued spread of the illness in the Midwest, and I encourage your viewers to stay tuned to hear this critical information.”

Bucky looks away from the television. There’s a steady, throbbing ache pounding in his left shoulder, something he’s been trying not to worry about for several days now. Steve’s stressed out enough as it is, and it’s not like they can stop at a hospital. Besides, he reminds himself, they’re on their way to see a doctor. He rubs his shoulder absently as the waitress slides their dinner plates in front of them.

The only dinner items they still have in stock are meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but apparently they have a lot of both, because the plates are piled high with hot food. Bucky takes a few bites of his, but finds that he doesn’t have much of an appetite.

“If this works,” he says, pushing his food around the plate with his fork, “what do you think it’ll mean? Will whatever’s in my blood have to go through the FDA process, like all those AIDS drugs back in the 80s? I mean, that seems ridiculous, right? They’d get it out as fast as possible, wouldn’t they?”

“I’d like to think so,” Steve says. “Otherwise they won’t have anyone to give it to, at the rate this thing is moving. And Bruce wouldn’t hold it back, if he knew it would work. He’d do the right thing.”

“You really trust him?”

“Completely.”

Bucky considers that while he eats a few more bites of his meal. Steve works his way mechanically through his own dinner and leans back, one arm stretched out across the back of the booth, one hand resting atop his belly. “That wasn’t half bad,” he says.

“Want mine?” Bucky asks, pushing his plate over. “I can’t finish it.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Bucky says, making a conscious effort not to rub his shoulder. “Just not as hungry as I thought.”

Steve meets his eyes for a long moment, one eyebrow lifted in silent enquiry.

“My shoulder hurts a little,” Bucky admits, but he smiles as he says it, not wanting to ruin this moment, the two of them together, doing something as normal as having dinner. “But I’m okay. Really.”

“First plate didn’t even make a dent,” Steve says, pulling Bucky’s dish closer.

Bucky watches him eat, emotion welling in his chest. There’s desire, of course, and the seemingly inescapable undercurrent of fear. There’s a gnawing worry about everything Steve’s risking for him, and the self-doubt that always accompanies it, because Steve’s not really doing this just for him, he’s thinking of everyone, thinking about the big picture, just like always. And then there’s the big thing, the tidal wave, the absolutely overwhelming love he has for this man. It feels too big for Bucky’s body, makes his chest feel heavy and his heart ache.

“Steve,” Bucky says, putting his hand on the table. Steve looks up, smiles and covers Bucky’s hand with his, discreetly, and just for a moment.

“Something the matter, baby?”

“No,” Bucky says, “no, nothing’s wrong.”

“Then what is it?”

“I just- ”

“Anything else over here, hon?” the waitress asks, clattering their empty plates onto her tray. “More coffee? Dessert?”

“You still have dessert?” Steve asks.

“As long as you mean ‘pie,’ then yep, we still got dessert.”

“We’ll take a pie,” Bucky says immediately, and he can practically feel Steve’s eyes rolling, but he doesn’t look at him. “What kind do you have?”

“Just pecan.”

“We’ll take one. One whole pie,” he says. “I guess you’re out of ice cream?”

“Sorry, hon,” she says, shrugging. “You want that pie to go, then?”

“Yes,” Steve says, shooting Bucky a look. “To go.”

As soon as the waitress leaves, Bucky smiles and nudges his knee against Steve’s under the table. “Can’t really enjoy pie in the car, you know. Pie’s a sit-down food.”

“We’re trying to save the world from the damn zombie apocalypse and you’re over there perving out about me eating pie, is what this is about,” Steve grumbles, and of course he’s absolutely right. “And we’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, remember? Me sitting here and eating a whole damn pie while you stare at me like you’re having a religious experience isn’t exactly the definition of a stealth operation.”

But he’s smiling again, which makes Bucky feel a little better. So much better, in fact, that he tries one of his many questions. “So we’re just going to keep heading north?”

“Figured I’d try talking to a few of these guys, see if anyone came from up north and has any news,” Steve says, nodding toward the dining room full of truckers. He pulls out his wallet and counts out a few bills, hands them to Bucky. “Why don’t you go settle our tab and wait for me in the car? I’ll see what I can find out and meet you out there.”

*

Steve watches Bucky go, watching to make sure no one in the busy restaurant is paying too much attention to him, and is just turning to talk to the two men seated next to them when his phone jumps and buzzes in his hand. He nearly drops it in his haste to answer.

“Peggy?”

“Thank god,” says Peggy, her voice hushed and urgent. “You’re all right then? Barnes still with you?”

“Yeah, we’re still together, why?”

“I think they know where you are,” she hisses into the phone. “You’ve got to keep moving, avoid being seen. Where are you now?

“Who knows where we are?” Steve asks. “And we’re in- ”

“Never mind, don’t tell me,” she interjects hastily. “Better if I don’t know.”

“Peggy, what the hell is going on?” Steve’s heart is pounding and he’s practically vibrating with the need to act, but with no direction, he’s frustratingly paralyzed.

“I got called into General Ross’s office first thing this morning,” Peggy explains. “I called you yesterday from my personal cell phone, from home, but somehow he knew I’d spoken to you, and demanded to know where you were going. I didn’t tell him,” she adds.

“How are we even on the damn Pentagon’s radar right now?” Steve demands, annoyed. “The whole damn country is in crisis and they’re worried about me and Bucky?”

“They’re taking the line that Bucky is responsible for the virus spreading to the Midwest,” Peggy says. “They’re painting him as a sort of Typhoid Mary, they’ll be releasing a statement to that effect any minute now.”

What?” he manages to ask. “What? That doesn’t even make any sense, Peg, that’s fucking impossible!”

“I know it’s bullshit, and so do they, Rogers, but think about it for a second. The response to this crisis has been inadequate on every front. Nobody trusts the military right now, or the government. That distrust is a huge hindrance. If they can pin this on the two of you, they’ll win back some public cooperation. At least, that’s the idea.”

“It’s insane. And he’s the only chance we’ve got of curing this fucking thing, if they kill him -” he breaks off, glancing up at Bucky. He can’t even talk about it; it makes him feel sick.

“That doesn’t seem to be the plan,” Peggy says. “He’s to be brought in alive. But – Steve – they haven’t rescinded the shoot to kill order on you. So please, please be careful.”

“Thank god,” Steve says, and his heart pounds hard. “How the hell do they know where we are? What happened?”

“They must have been monitoring my calls somehow, I don’t know, it’s not important right now. I’m sorry about that, Steve. I thought I was helping.”

“Are you calling from your own phone now?”

“Oh, please,” Peggy says. “No, I just borrowed this one from a woman at the Starbucks. I’ll drop it back in her purse as soon as we hang up.”

“Good thinking,” Steve says. He takes a deep breath, and says, “Peg – I need you to promise me something.”

“All right,” she says, warily.

“If something happens to me – if they catch up to us, if they take me out– you’ve got to do whatever you can for Bucky.” He wants to say more, but there’s not time. “Just – make sure he’s okay. That’s all.”

“Of course,” she says, her voice just a little gentler than before. “But I’d much prefer it if the two of you would just elude capture and cure this virus, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Easier said than done. All the damn bridges are blocked off in St. Louis, everything’s all jammed up at the Mississippi River.”

“As it happens,” Peggy says, “I’ve got a solution for you. But you aren’t going to like it.”

“Peg, I don’t like any of this,” Steve says with a dry, humorless laugh. “If you’ve really got something that’ll get us out of this, I’m on board.”

“I talked to Tony Stark.”

“Oh, god,” Steve says. “I take it all back.”

“Very funny,” Peggy snaps. “Now listen. Can you get to Abraham Lincoln airport in Springfield, Illinois by tomorrow morning?”

Steve sighs and stares out the window at the dark parking lot. “I guess we’d better,” he says. “I guess we will.”

*

As soon as he ends the call with Peggy, Steve pushes himself up and makes for the door, but stops halfway across the diner when he hears a loud beeping sound coming from the wall-mounted televisions at the bar.

Most of the heads in the dining room swivel toward the screens, and Steve freezes when he sees an image of his own face side-by-side with Bucky’s on the television screen. It’s the announcement Peggy had warned him about.

“U.S. Army officials are asking for the public’s help in locating two men suspected of carrying atypical rabies, known as the Affliction, to several Midwestern cities. Captain Steve Rogers, U.S. Army-retired, and Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th Infantry were last seen near Springfield, Ohio, where they shot and wounded three U.S. Army troops before escaping in a stolen car and fleeing toward Indianapolis. The precise whereabouts of Barnes and Rogers are unknown, but senior Army officials say they believe the men are near St. Louis, Missouri, and they’ve shut down all Mississippi River crossings in the hope of capturing the fugitives, who seem to be heading west. Anyone with information is asked to call the number at the bottom of the screen. There is a reward of $50,000 for information that leads to the capture of the two men.”

“Jesus,” Steve mutters, glancing around the room, gauging the crowd’s reaction to the news. A busy murmur stirs around the room, but nobody looks twice at him. Bearded, and at least fifty pounds heavier, he probably doesn’t much resemble his leaner, clean-shaven military identification photo. Thank god.

He walks slowly toward the exit, pulse hammering, but nobody looks twice at him. He pushes through the doors, walks out toward the spot where he’d parked the Explorer.

The car is still there, the passenger-side door still open, the dome light on, lighting the interior of the vehicle. The boxed pie sits on the front passenger seat. But Bucky is nowhere to be found.

*

You fucked up, you fucked up, you fucked up. Bucky hears it on an endless loop, like the hook to a bad song that he can’t get out of his head.

He’d been so fucking stupid.

“Sargent Barnes!” Her voice had been small and sweet, almost childlike, when it rang across the parking lot, and he’d turned on instinct. Never mind that they were supposed to be incognito, never mind that he was, quite literally, wanted for treason. He’d just turned.

The voice had belonged to a tiny girl, petite and pretty, all big eyes and a curtain of brown hair. She’d smiled when he’d turned. “James Barnes,” she’d said, and, like a fucking moron, he’d nodded.

“Oh my god, it’s him,” she’d breathed, and before Bucky could even register what had happened, a man had materialized from behind one of the semis, the nine millimeter Sig in his hand already trained on Bucky.

“Don’t fuckin’ move,” the man had said, and Bucky had promptly raised his hand, feeling a nauseating sense of déjà vu.

And now here he sits, shoved into the front seat of their rusted-out Jeep, the girl at the wheel and the man—maybe her boyfriend or possibly her father—behind him, gun pointed at the back of his skull.

“Move and I’ll blow your fucking brains out,” Boyfriend-Father had informed him helpfully after guiding him into the Jeep.

“Copy that,” Bucky had muttered, earning a swat upside the head.

“So,” Bucky says now, shifting his weight a little and flexing his fingers. He needs to buy himself some time, make a plan. He’s not restrained at all; if he can get the gun away from his pal in the backseat, he can get out of this. “You guys mind telling me why you kidnapped me?” He blinks, considering. “Or how you knew my name?”

*

Steve’s chest feels tight. There’s a pressure around his ribs, throbbing in the center of his sternum, a dull, grinding ache, and he braces himself against the side of the Explorer, wondering for a second if it’s a heart attack. Is this what it feels like? Like you can’t breathe, like your vision is graying out to a little pinprick? It would, maybe, be exactly what he deserves – the wages of sin, et cetera, et cetera.

But it’s not a heart attack. He’s pretty sure your arm is supposed to go numb when you have a heart attack, for one thing – and for another, other than being pretty fucking out of shape here recently, he’s healthy as a horse.

Maybe it’s true what they say, when they talk about heartache. Maybe it’s more than an overwrought expression, to say that your heart hurts. Looking at that empty seat, at that stupid fucking pecan pie sitting where Bucky is supposed to be, makes Steve’s heart hurt so badly he’s nearly choking with it.

Steve forces himself to take a deep breath, and another, and another. Get it together, Rogers. Get it the fuck together. After everything that’s happened since Brooklyn, every goddamned crazy thing, he can’t lose his shit now, when rescue is maybe just twenty-four hours and a plane ride away. He’s gotten them this far, mostly intact. He can’t fuck it up now.

But Jesus, he’s at the end of his fucking rope. He’d thought it was bad, seeing their faces splashed across CNN, the two most wanted men in America. Turns out that was nothing compared to finding an abandoned pecan pie in his passenger’s seat where his boy is supposed to be.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe Bucky went in to the bathroom, to grab a pack of gum or a bottle of water, maybe even to buy a pack of cigarettes. Steve had caught him smoking one after Indianapolis and bitched at him, gone on a little diatribe about cancer, and Bucky had just grinned, that stupid boyish smile that made him look like he could still be in college. “Sorry, daddy-o,” he’d said, mouthy and beautiful, like he knew exactly what kind of James Dean shit he was channeling. “The constant risk of immediate and violent death makes eventual lung cancer a long shot.”

“You’re not going to die. I won’t let you,” Steve had said, unable to return Bucky’s grin. He couldn’t joke about it, not the way Bucky could.

“Yeah I know, sir,” Bucky had murmured, voice gone gentle, smirk fading. He’d flipped the butt onto the ground and crushed it under the heel of his boot before tucking himself against Steve’s shoulder, leaning up to kiss him.

“You taste like smoke,” Steve had groused against his lips, and Bucky had laughed, kissing him harder, pushing himself closer to Steve’s gut, grasping a generous handful of the pudge that had accumulated at Steve’s lower back.

“You taste like Doritos, big guy, but you don’t see me complaining.”

Fuck. The memory, silly as it is, makes Steve dizzy with grief, with wanting, with worry. He has to find his boy.

*

Bucky’s not in the bathroom. He’s not in line to buy smokes or gum or Gatorade, or back inside the restaurant, or flipping through the discreet rack of porno mags in the back corner of the store.

He’s just gone.

*

Even just a few short months ago, Bucky would have disarmed Boyfriend-Dad behind him, taken the microsecond long risk of having his brains blown out from behind to spin in the seat, knock the Sig from the man’s hand, and take control of the weapon. Bucky’s not restrained at all; the girl driving looks like she could still be in high school and probably weighs about 100 pounds, soaking wet. And the guy in the backseat calling all the shots? A rheumy-eyed redneck, nose striated with the telltale red veins of an alcoholic, smoker’s cough occasionally rattling loose from his narrow chest. There’s no real threat here, aside from the barrel of the handgun that is currently resting gently against the back of his skull.

But things are different now. With only one hand, Bucky’s afraid to take the risk. He doesn’t really think this asshole will shoot him – most people don’t really want to kill people, even when they’re waving a gun around like a fucking moron – but he’s not sure. If he knew what these people wanted, he’d be able to gauge it a little better. He suspects it must have something to do with the soldiers he shot back in Ohio, which he’s starting to think was an even worse idea than it had seemed like at the time.

At any rate, in his current, quasi-disabled state, he decides to let things play out for a bit.

“Where we goin’?” he asks, keeping his voice gentle. He flicks his eyes over at the girl, her bony hands clutching the wheel tightly. “There something I can do for you?”

The girl inhales softly and doesn’t say a word, eyes dead ahead on the road.

“Sure is,” Backseat Asshole replies. “$50,000 worth of something, you murdering cocksucker.”

Bucky blinks, processing that statement. Murder? He flashes back to Ohio, the three soldiers on the pavement, screaming.

Murder? Couldn’t be. Injury, sure. Assault with a deadly weapon, absolutely. Taking up arms against the United States military? Yes sir, sure enough. But murder? Unless Rumlow had left them to bleed out in that parking lot, then no, definitely not.

“I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but I haven’t killed anyone,” he says, figuring there’s no harm in talking with them as the Jeep bounces along, turning off the highway onto a county road with fields on either side.

“Way they’re telling it on the TV, you brought the Affliction down on half the fuckin’ country,” the man behind him says.

The Affliction. The news. Bucky’s mind spins, feeling slow and heavy. He’s on the news?

“Uh,” he says stupidly. “I don’t—I’m not Afflicted,” he finally says. “You’d know if I was. I’ve seen it – believe me, we wouldn’t be holding a conversation right now, I promise you.”

The girl cuts her eyes over to him, wide and remarkably green, and Bucky notices for the first time that her thighs are bruised, big purple marks and fading yellow ones, traipsing up her skinny leg and disappearing under her cutoffs. There’s a few similar discolorations on her upper arms.

He gives her the smallest of smiles, just a tiny quirk of his lips, barely looking at her. Boyfriend-Daddy won’t be able to see it from his perch in the backseat. “I’m not sure what they’re saying on the news, but you’ve got some misinformation.”

The man behind him snorts. “What I’ve got is worth $50,000. I don’t give a good goddamn what you did or didn’t do.”

Well. Not much to say to that. Bucky eyes the girl again, as she slows down and then turns into a weedy driveway leading up to a ramshackle house with a sagging porch and several boarded-up windows.

*

Steve’s beside himself. He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to go. Bucky’s gone, they’re wanted men, and he isn’t protecting his boy. Once again, Bucky’s out of his arms, out of his sight, out of his protection.

Bucky had lost his cell phone back in Ohio, left it behind on the bike. They hadn’t bothered to replace it, a decision that Steve deeply regrets now. Every gas station they’d been in between there and here, they could have picked up a burner and an airtime card. But they hadn’t. Steve had even thought of it, but he’d just never gotten around to it. It had been easy to let it slip his mind; other things had seemed much more pressing. Things like fucking Bucky six ways to Sunday at every available opportunity. Things like shoveling ridiculous amounts of food down his throat every time Bucky made eyes at him. Things like pretending none of this was actually happening, that they weren’t running for their fucking lives.

Goddamnit.

*

The inside of the house is even more depressing than the outside. It’s dark and gloomy, dusty curtains pulled tight at the windows, and the aroma of stale cigarettes permeates everything. A lamp with a crooked shade provides the only real light besides the television, which is tuned to CNN. Bucky winces when he’s treated to a closeup of his own face.

“Don’t fucking move,” Boyfriend-Daddy had told Bucky after he’d tied him up to a radiator against the wall. As if Bucky had a choice in the matter. Then he’d whirled on his heel and stepped outside to call the hotline to let a beleaguered US government know that he’d caught the man responsible for spreading Affliction across the country and he was ready to collect his fifty thou. And possibly a medal. Definitely a few paid interview opportunities.

The girl is sitting on the couch, eyeing Bucky with an expression that he can’t quite read. She doesn’t look aggressive at all, but her face is curiously blank, like she’s used to concealing her emotions.

Bucky lets his gaze fall down to her bruised thighs again. “Honey, you don’t have to do this,” he says, letting his voice slip into the slightly lower register that he knows tends to work well on women of all ages. He’s not interested in girls, particularly – he’s slept with a few, and always found it to be a pretty perfunctory kind of experience – but he likes them, and more importantly right now, he tends to know what they like. “You don’t have to do what he says.”

She looks up at him, eyes strangely hooded, and then she snorts. “You got no idea.”

Bucky glances at her bruises again, and figures that he actually has more than just an idea. “I think I do.” He jerks his chin toward the front porch, where Asshole-with-Gun is repeatedly dialing the tip line, which is apparently jammed and giving him a busy signal over and over. “He leave those bruises on you?”

She doesn’t respond immediately, just looks at him with those wideset eyes. “If he did, you think helping you would be a good idea?”

Bucky winces a little, but plows ahead anyway. “Look at me. I swear to you, I didn’t hurt anyone.” It’s a little bit of a lie, but not really. He didn’t hurt anyone so badly that they won’t recover. Probably. “And I didn’t give anyone Affliction. I look sick to you?” He cocks his head and curls his mouth up at one corner, just enough to pop his dimples.

She shrugs. “How’d you lose that arm?”

“Long story. Listen, do two things for me. Nothing your dad—is he your dad?—will see, nothing that will get you in trouble.”

“He’s my dad.” She glances out the window, where her father is smoking a cigarette and still punching numbers on his phone.

Bucky nods. “Okay, yeah. Nothing you dad will see. Just lean over, pull the top end of the knot where my arm’s tied. Just pull it a little. Six inches. Just loosen it. He won’t notice. And – you got a phone, sweetheart?”

She shifts on the sofa. “Yeah.”

“Send a text for me. That’s all.”

“Why should I?”

Bucky takes a deep breath. “Because if I can’t get loose, you haven’t lost anything, and if I can, I’ll take you with me so he can’t hit you anymore.”

*

Steve’s still in the parking lot at the truck stop, trying to stop his hands from shaking, trying to decide what to do, when his phone dings. Peggy again, he thinks, especially when he sees it’s a text from an unfamiliar number.

He thumbs the touchscreen and reads the message.

8437 W Co Rd 950 N

It pings again immediately:

don’t call back

Steve’s heart lurches. Bucky. It has to be Bucky.

The feeling that washes over him is perhaps ten percent relief. The rest of it is the cold, implacable resolve of an impending military operation, and it feels so fucking good. The tremor leaves his hands, the fuzzy panic recedes to the edges of his mind.

He has an address. He has a chance.

He pulls out onto the two-lane highway slowly, like he’s got nowhere particular to be. His service pistol is out of its holster, resting on one thick thigh.

*

It only takes about ten minutes to find the house. By lucky coincidence, Steve had turned north when he pulled out of the truckstop, and he’d hit County Road 950 within maybe three miles. From there it was just another five before he’d seen 8437 in peeling plastic numbers on a rusty mailbox.

It’s a real shithole of a house, a battered Jeep in the driveway. There are, probably, more nuanced ways to handle things, but Steve doesn’t even consider them. Nothing about this place makes Steve think he’s going to encounter anything he can’t handle, and he guns the Explorer a little as he skids into the driveway, kicking up loose gravel under his tires. The element of surprise doesn’t seem necessary to deal with whatever he’s going to find inside.

He’s charging up the sagging porch steps, gun drawn, finger on the trigger, when the ratty front door opens and Bucky’s voice floats out to him. “Steve? Keep your gun out but don’t shoot Wanda, okay? I’m coming out.”

Steve freezes, stunned into silence, and a few seconds later a scruffy guy in a dirty t-shirt steps out onto the porch. Bucky’s right behind him, pushing a newly acquired nine millimeter against the man’s lower back.

“Did you know we’re wanted for treason, sir?” Bucky asks, his voice oddly conversational. “This asshole thought he’d collect a reward. Apparently I’m worth $50,000. You believe that shit?”

There are so many things that Steve wants to say to Bucky. Thank god you’re okay. I thought I lost you. I love you. I love you. I love you. He swallows hard and shrugs, keeping his gun trained loosely on the girl, who is inching her narrow body behind Bucky. “He only had you. He might have only got $25,000.”

Bucky scoffs, flashing Steve a grin that he recognizes from their time serving together. Bucky’s not violent, particularly, but he’s good at getting the drop on people. Gets him all fired up. He’d grinned like that, toothy and dangerous, any time they’d had a mission that was more than a point and shoot.

“You kidding? I’m fuckin’ Typhoid Mary over here. You’re just my chauffeur.”

“Uh huh.” Steve eyeballs the man in front of Bucky. He’s staring petulantly at Steve, his face shifty and stupidly sly. “What are we doing with these two, then?”

“This is Wanda, behind me. She’s coming with us,” Bucky says.

Steve feels his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, and he looks over Bucky’s shoulder to the girl.

Jesus fucking Christ. “Bucky, how old is she?”

Bucky cocks his head back a fraction, gun still shoved into the small of her father’s back. “How old are you, sweetheart?”

“Seventeen,” she says, tucking strands of hair behind her ear.

“Oh for fuck’s sake. We’re kidnapping minors now?” Steve swivels his eyes back to Bucky. “Seriously? She doesn’t look like she’s seventeen. She looks younger.”

Before Bucky can answer, Wanda peers up at Steve from where she’s still planted firmly behind Bucky. “You don’t look like your picture on the news,” she says, gaze dropping to his stomach for just a moment. “You look bigger.”

Bucky makes a choking sound that Steve suspects is laughter. “Look, sir – we’re fucked if we get caught, anyway. You don’t really want to leave her with this ratfuck bastard, do you?” He gives Steve a look. “Look at her, Steve.”

She’s bruised. Steve can see that. He just – he just can’t quite resign himself to being responsible for anyone but Bucky. He doesn’t want to complicate the mission any more than it already is. But…

“Fine. What are we doing with him?”

Bucky smiles like a shark, all teeth. “He’s staying here. Take your phone out, buddy. Go ahead and pass that over to Steve, there, okay?”

“Fuck you, terrorist motherfuckers,” comes the reply.

“Oh, for god’s sake.” Bucky shoves the barrel of the gun farther into his spine. “Get on with it, pal.”

Steve holds out his hand for the phone, which is duly delivered.

“What do you say, sir? Leave him here, maybe shoot out his tires?”

Steve nods. “Should do it.”

He ends up taking a couple shots at the engine and one at the gas tank, as well. Just to cover their bases.

*

When Bucky gets in the Explorer and the pecan pie is still on the seat, his stomach twists a little – just an hour ago, his primary concern had been checking into a hotel so he could watch Steve shove the whole thing down his throat, one rich bite at a time. Now Bucky’s not sure they’ll ever have the chance for something like that—frivolous, excessive, hedonistic—again. The ache in Bucky’s chest feels like grief, like mourning.

Is it possible to grieve for yourself? Is that a feeling people have, facing their own impending doom? If Bucky lives through this, he’s going to Google it. Assuming Google is still a thing, post-zombie apocalypse.

Right now, he just keeps the Sig trained on Wanda’s dad, who’s standing on his front porch, screaming obscenities.

“You okay, Wanda?” Steve asks, and Bucky wonders if he wants to tell her to put on her seatbelt.

He can’t hear her response from the backseat, but she must nod, because Steve puts it in reverse and pulls out quick, spitting up rocks again.

When they get to the stop sign at the highway, Bucky leans over the center console and buries his face in Steve’s strong shoulder, just for a second.

“Shh, you’re okay,” Steve mumbles in his ear, holding him tight. “You’re okay, baby boy. We’re okay. Gonna get us out of here.”

Bucky looks up at him. “Yeah?” He doesn’t believe it, much as he wants to. Doesn’t see a way out, not really.

“I talked to Peggy. We have to get to Springfield. There’s a private plane there – it’s, uh – it belongs to Tony Stark.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “Tony Stark, like the billionaire tech dude Tony Stark?”

Steve sighs. “Tony Stark, like the asshole with the military contracts Tony Stark. Yes.”

Bucky grins. “Shit, Steve. That’s a hell of an ex-girlfriend you’ve got.”

*

That night, a few miles outside of Springfield, Steve eases the Explorer down a mostly dirt road until he finds a pull-off. It’s a lane that leads back to a clearly abandoned barn, the roof caving in on one side, and they park beside it for the night. There’s a mostly full moon, and it doesn’t seem as dark as it should, really.

While it’s Bucky’s turn to keep watch, he rolls his sleeve up and peers at his reflection in the side mirror, looking at what remains of his left arm.

Even in the moonlight, Bucky can see that the red infection lines have appeared again. Angry rivers of red run up what’s left of his mangled bicep, and he tries to tell himself that it's not that bad, but he knows what it means. Wonders how long it will be until he starts to feel sick with it, until he’s shivering and sweating, burned out with a fever trying to stave off decay.

Before he swaps places with Steve a few hours later, climbing back into the Explorer for his turn to sleep, he carefully re-pins his sleeve.

Chapter Text

Bucky wakes up with a small, warm body pressed up close to his own, and fresh-smelling light brown hair tickling his nose. “Oh,” he says, trying to scoot away, but he’s already backed up against the rear door of the Explorer. “Um.”

Wanda snuggles closer. Protectiveness wells in Bucky’s chest, and after a brief moment of indecision, he relaxes, leaves his arm draped loosely over her slender shoulders. She’s so small, seems even smaller now that she’s asleep, and Bucky wonders if this is how Steve feels, when he holds Bucky. Big, protective, and alarmingly responsible for someone else’s wellbeing.

When she wakes up, she startles like a rabbit, every muscle in her light, lithe body twitching at once. She leaps halfway up, green eyes wide and wary and flicking around the interior of the SUV, then down to Bucky. She scrambles away from him and he sits up slowly, hand where she can see it.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s okay, you’re okay, sweetheart. It’s me, Bucky, remember? You’re safe, it’s okay.”

“I know,” she says, and her chest is heaving, her voice is tight and small. “I know who you are.”

“So you know you’re okay.”

“Yeah. I’m okay,” she says, and he can see that she is; the jackhammer pulse in her throat has slowed, her eyes are less wild.

“How about some breakfast?” he says, dragging himself forward and leaning into the front seat. “We have pie, and um…well, we have pie and some Tic-Tacs, looks like. How does pie and Tic-Tacs sound?”

“For breakfast?” she asks, giggling and scandalized. Then, her face grows stern and she reaches out to touch the ruin of his left arm. He glances down, and sees why. His sleeve has come unpinned, and blood is seeping through the fabric in a spreading Rorschach stain. “Fuck,” he says, turning away from her, but she stops him, one slim hand on his chest, and carefully rolls up his sleeve.

“This is bad,” she says, wrinkling her pretty nose at the sight of his inflamed skin. “You need a doctor.”

He knows it’s bad; he can almost feel the poison in his blood. He has a headache, he’s hot all over, shaky. But there’s no time to think about that, not now. “That’s what we’re trying to do, get to a doctor. Any luck, we might actually get there.”

“You need to see one soon.”

“Not like I can just waltz into a hospital, especially now.”

“We should at least clean it, raid some medicine cabinets for Neosporin or antibiotics or something,” she says.

“No time,” he says. “C’mon, help me pin this up, I don’t want Steve to see.”

Wanda gives him a look that encompasses surprise, disapproval, and a dark understanding. “Why?” she asks, glancing out the windshield at Steve, who is leaning against the peeling red wall of the barn. “What’ll he do?”

“You don’t know what he’s like,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “He’s such a goddamn mother hen. He - ” he breaks off at the expression of profound relief on her face. “Wait – were you afraid that – did you think that Steve…” he can’t even say it, the thing that she’d been thinking.

“I wasn’t sure,” she says quietly. “But it’s good to know it’s not like that.”

“Yeah. It is so not like that.”

“I’m glad.” She pushes the safety pin back into place in his sleeve and pats his shoulder gently. “There.”

“Thanks,” he says, pushing himself up, hoping she can’t see how unsteady he is. “Now how about that pie?”

*

Steve cuts the pie into rough eighths with his pocketknife, and they each pluck sticky slices from the box. Bucky bites into the burnt sugar sweetness of his breakfast and sits on a musty-smelling bale of hay, shoulder throbbing, head pounding for want of coffee. He watches a little flock of guinea fowl as they traipse through the neglected barn, pecking at the ground, burbling and cooing.

“You sure you still want to come with us?” Steve asks Wanda, who is eating her own breakfast in dainty bites, trying to keep the crust from flaking to pieces all over her lap.

“Yes.” She sounds as laconic as ever, but also resolute.

“Because it might be dangerous,” Steve continues. “Hell, it definitely will be, it is. I gotta tell you, I don’t feel great about bringing you into this.” He leans forward, elbows resting on his thighs, belly sinking down between his legs. His shirt is open at the throat and the sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. Bucky can see the light dusting of golden hairs on his chest and forearms, and he wants him so much it hurts.

Steve sees Bucky looking at him, and looks back, a long, heavy, unreadable look that makes Bucky feel light and wobbly inside. He knows he did the right thing, getting Wanda out of there, but he also wonders if he and Steve will ever have another chance to be alone. They could be literally rolling in the hay right now. He watches Wanda take a second slice of pie and sighs.

“You didn’t make me do this,” Wanda says. “It was my choice.”

“You chose to help Bucky, and I can’t thank you enough for that,” Steve says. “But we’re wanted men. There are people who would kill us on sight. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into, here.”

“Okay, so now I know,” she says simply, taking another tiny bite of pie and smiling as she chews. The smile transforms her sad, waifish face, makes her beautiful. “And I’m coming with you to save the world.”

Steve doesn’t answer right away, just polishes off the last of his pie and stands up, brushing crumbs off the front of his shirt. “We don’t have much choice, for now,” he says. “So I guess -”

He stops talking abruptly and stares at Wanda. Bucky follows his gaze and leaps to his feet, hurrying to Wanda’s side. Her smile has vanished, her face has gone pale, and she looks up at Bucky with huge, terrified green eyes.

“We have to go,” she says. “Right now.”

*

“What is it?” Steve asks. “What’s the matter?”

“They’re coming,” Wanda says. “They’re coming, we have to go.” She tugs on Steve’s sleeve, impelling him to move. “Please,” she says, urgently. “Please, we’ve got to -” she stops talking and gasps, the sound of it harsh and shocking in the idyllically peaceful barnyard. “Got to get out now,” she whispers between chattering teeth.

“I don’t understand,” Steve says, “Did you hear something? See something?” He and Bucky had both snapped to attention the instant she’d spoken, and he can see Bucky scanning the scrubby woods, the fields beyond the barn, the dirt track they’d driven down the night before. There’s no sign of anyone, anywhere.

“I just know,” Wanda says. “Come on, if we go n-now…” she pulls harder on Steve’s arm. “Please, please,” she says again, slumping against him, and he catches her around her waist before she can fall over.

“What spooked her?” Steve asks Bucky, as he half-carries Wanda back toward the Explorer.

“I don’t know,” Bucky says, nodding at the guinea fowl, still placidly pecking at unseen insects in the grass. “No sign anything’s wrong, the birds would take off if there was a car or a noise, right?”

“I’d think so,” Steve says, and he sits Wanda down in the back seat, takes hold of her chin gently and tips her face up toward his. Her eyes are rolled up in their sockets, irises practically flickering, like she’s in R.E.M. sleep. But she’s not asleep, this is something else.

“Is she having a seizure?”

“That’s what it looks like, but look,” he lifts her arm, and it flops immediately down to her side. “If it’s a seizure, it’s atypical. No convulsions, no rigidity.”

“So what do we do?” Bucky asks. But before Steve can reply, there’s a commotion, and they turn to see the ragtag flock of guinea fowl chattering noisily as they flutter up into the branches of a nearby tree. A few feathers shake loose as they rise, drifting toward the ground on disturbed currents of air. In the distance, Steve can just make out the rumble of an engine.

“Shit,” Bucky says. “Someone is coming.”

Steve hurries around to the driver’s side of the Explorer. “Get in back and keep an eye on her,” he tells Bucky. “And buckle up.”

“I can’t, the seats are down in back.”

“Then try to hold onto something.”

*

Exiting the farm via the driveway is out of the question, so Steve heads straight through the hanging doors of the barn, blowing through several bales of hay and blasting out the rotting planks on the opposite side, then continuing down the little farm lane, plumes of dust flying in their wake.

“You see anyone back there yet?” Steve calls to Bucky. Bucky wedges himself across the folded-down rear seats of the Explorer, bracing Wanda’s body against the door and turning to squint out the back window. The scene behind them judders and shakes with the movement of the car, but Bucky can see through the swirling hay and dust to the other side of the barn.

“Not yet,” he says. “Maybe - ” but just then, a truck rounds the curve in the farm road. It’s a big Ford truck, and Bucky can just make out the shapes of two people in the cab. “Scratch that,” he says. “We’ve got at least two people in an F-150.”

“Gonna need you to handle it, babe,” Steve says, and Bucky barely manages to keep from skidding into Wanda as Steve takes the Explorer around a sharp curve in the road. “I gotta figure out how the hell to get us back on pavement. Try to keep it non-lethal if you can.”

“Yessir,” Bucky says, and except for the fact that Steve had called him “babe” instead of “sergeant,” they might as well be back in Afghanistan. He fumbles in the door pocket for the .45, stows the spare magazines in the waistband of his jeans, and glances at Wanda. He can’t do what he needs to do with her unsecured in the back of the car. “Sir,” he says. “Gimme your belt.”

Steve doesn’t waste time asking questions, just jams a knee alongside the steering wheel and fumbles for his buckle. Bucky can see that he has to heft his gut out of the way to get at it, and part of his brain goes on the fritz for a few seconds, before he gets himself under control. Steve grunts with the effort of pulling the belt free and passes it back; Bucky almost whimpers as the motion lifts his belly up and then lets it settle heavily back in Steve’s lap. The whole situation really is too unfair, and Bucky wonders what the hell would have to happen to get his mind all the way out of the gutter.

With an effort, he focuses on the task at hand, looping the belt through the smaller one Wanda’s wearing and then buckling it around the door handle. Since the rear seats are folded down, the seat belts aren’t accessible, and he doesn’t want her shifting around or getting flung out of the car. Then he inches back toward the rear door, braces himself as best he can, pops the hatch open, and levels the big .45 at the oncoming truck.

There’s a light touch at his waist, and he nearly jumps out of his skin.

“It’s okay, it’s me,” Wanda says. She sounds breathless, but alert.

“Get back,” Bucky says. “I don’t know who these guys are, but past experience tells me they ain’t here to invite us to a cookout.”

“It’s my father,” Wanda says. “And his friends. They’re still after the bounty. And you’ll fall out of the car if you’re not careful.” She hugs him around his waist, and he has to admit, he feels a lot steadier that way. His hand is shaking on the grip of the gun, his skin sweating.

“Are you okay? What happened to you back there?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“I’m psychic.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. The information just glides across the surface of his brain, not really connecting with anything. “So you’re psychic. So what?”

“So sometimes, when something is about to happen, I just know. Like how I knew you’d be at the diner, and how I knew these guys were coming.”

“Do you always pass out like that?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Hardly seems worth it, then.”

Wanda hugs him tighter.

*

Steve hears the first few shots booming from the back of the Explorer, but doesn’t dare glance in the rearview mirror to see how close the other truck is getting. The road in front of him is narrow and twisting, and shots are ringing off the Explorer seemingly from everywhere. A shot cracks the side mirror, another follows right behind it, knocking the mirror halfway off its arm. He keeps his hands steady on the wheel, and the dirt track narrows, overgrown, as it runs between two cornfields.

He chances a look down at the road map, spread out on the passenger seat. He could keep going straight, connect to a county road that would take him more or less directly to the airport, but if the men are armed, there’s no way they’ll make it out of the car and into an airplane without getting hurt, maybe killed. The thought of anything jeopardizing what appears to be the one chance he and Bucky have to get anywhere near Fort Collins is more than he can take. He makes a split-second decision and turns the wheel hard, sending the SUV down a rutted track, barely even a footpath, thunking into stalks of corn and sending the Explorer bouncing violently over the uneven ground.

He can hear Bucky swearing, which is a good thing, because it means he hasn’t been thrown out the open hatchback.

“They still following?” he calls back over the noise.

“No, they decided it was too hard and they went home,” Bucky says.

Steve smiles at the sass. “We’ve gotta shake ’em. Anything you can do to slow them down, buy us a few seconds to get lost?”

“I’m trying,” Bucky says. “But they’re keeping a safe distance, and you keep bouncing the damn car all over the place.”

“Can you see them right now?” Steve can hardly see anything, in front, beside, or behind; the path is narrowing, the corn encroaching, a green sea surrounding them. The Explorer’s engine is making unhappy growling noises as it revs and bucks over the rough terrain.

“Yeah, I can see them all right,” Bucky says. “And in a second, they’re going to see us.”

“Perfect.” Steve stops the car, grabs the stolen Sig-Sauer and a tool kit from the glove box, and opens the driver’s side door. “Just keep’em busy for me, baby,” he says, slamming the door and vanishing into the corn.

*

Bucky’s pretty sure he knows what Steve’s planning, and it’s so brilliantly idiotic it just might work.

“He’s leaving?” Wanda asks.

“Not really,” Bucky says. “We pretend we stalled the truck, lure them in close, he disables their vehicle, we make our escape.”

“Will that work?”

“Sure it will. It has before,” although, as he says it, he can’t actually remember a time when it went off without a hitch. “It’ll totally work,” he adds, for good measure.

Wanda sits back on her heels, unfastens the belt that’s holding her to the door and climbs into the front seat.

Bucky keeps the .45 aimed low and waits for the F-150 to make its cautious way down the lane. As it draws closer, he can see that it’s not just two men inside, it’s four; two in the cab, two in the flatbed. All armed. All looking fucking pissed.

“Hey fellas,” Bucky yells. “I’m really flattered, but I already have a boyfriend.”

“Pretty cocky for a guy stuck in the middle of a cornfield,” someone calls back. “And who just kidnapped my friend’s stepdaughter.” “He’s only your stepdad?” Bucky hisses. “Why didn’t you say? I’d have shot him last night.”

“I figured you were in enough trouble,” Wanda whispers back. “Watch out, those are his hunting buddies. They’ll have a rifle.”

“Dammit,” Bucky mutters. He’s well within range. “They shoot me, you just fucking gun it, okay? Get to the airport, don’t worry about us.”

“Yeah, right,” Wanda says. “Like I’d stand a chance. Besides, they can’t kill you, the bounty only applies if you’re brought in alive.”

“For both of us?”

A hesitation. “Just you.”

Another voice calls over, “Where’s your fat traitor friend?”

Bucky’s prepared for this, he glances over his shoulder, trying to make it look natural and automatic, then calls mockingly, “Sneaking up behind you.”

“Right,” one of the men says. “Sure he is. He injured?”

“Healthy as a horse,” Bucky says. “And a crack shot.”

“That him that shot up them army guys back in Ohio?”

“Why don’t you guys come on over here and I’ll tell you all about it,” Bucky says. The men make no move to get out of the car, and he can see one of them leveling a rifle in his direction. He’s probably just using the scope to check out the scene, but, just to be safe, he murmurs “Get down,” to Wanda, who instantly slouches lower in the front seat.

“Far as I can tell, son, you got one arm and one gun, and we got eight arms and four guns. So why don’t you just put yours down and come on over here with the girl? This don’t gotta be hard.”

They’ve stopped the truck in a small clearing, which is a smart move on their part, but damned inconvenient for Steve, who isn’t going to be able to get near the truck without being seen, unless Bucky can create a diversion. But the men are frosty and focused, and he can’t think of any way of distracting them without opening fire, which doesn’t seem like the right move.

“We need a diversion,” he says to Wanda. “Got any ideas?”

Wanda doesn’t reply right away. “I might – I might be able to do something,” she says. “I’ve never done it before, not like this, but I could try.”

“What are you thinking?” Bucky asks.

“Just get ready,” Wanda says. “It might not work, but if it does…well, just get ready.”

And the cornfield bursts into flames.

*

Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport’s runway is a giant concrete X, and the Airbus A380 glides elegantly to a halt right at the center of it. There’s only one other plane there, near the dark, silent terminal, and it appears to be abandoned. Steve can still see the column of smoke rising from the cornfield less than a mile away.

Steve stares up at the hatch in the side of the jet, feeling restless and exposed. He trusts Peggy absolutely, but his imagination is busily churning up ways everything could go wrong. The Stark Enterprises logo is blazoned onto the side of the jet, but anyone could be inside. Bucky and Wanda are inside the Explorer, Wanda behind the wheel, ready to run if he gives the order – although after their flight from the surprisingly fast-spreading flames, he’s not sure the Explorer has much life left in it.

The jet’s hatch slides open and a staircase descends, powered by seamless, silent technology, and a man appears in the doorway, hand held up to block the early morning sun.

“I usually fly over the flyover states,” he says, starting down the stairs. “I never wondered what I was missing, and now my incuriosity is completely satisfied.”

It’s Tony, being typically sardonic, and Steve lets out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Hey Tony,” he says. “Nice of you to pull over.” He turns, gesturing to Bucky and Wanda to join him.

“Oh, make no mistake, I’m under duress. You would not believe how many threats were made to my manhood in the course of a single phone conversation.”

“I bet I would, actually.”

“She’s serious, too, you know that.”

“I do know that.”

“It’s good to see you,” Tony says, as he reaches the bottom step. “Is it just me, or is there more of you?”

“It’s, uh,” Steve pats his belly reflexively, shooting a sidelong look at Bucky. “It’s not just you.”

“Tony Stark,” Tony says, turning toward Bucky, hand extended. Bucky shakes it.

“Bucky Barnes,” he says. “And this is Wanda.”

“I was told there would be two passengers, and this is…” he makes a show of counting each of them, like he’s playing duck-duck-goose. “Yeah, there are definitely three. Three. Nobody mentioned a Wanda. Hi Wanda,” he adds, shaking her hand as well.

“She sets stuff on fire with the power of her mind,” Steve says wearily. “You’ll like her. Now can we please get going before some other bunch of yahoos comes out of the woodwork and tries to kill us? I’m fucking exhausted.”

*

Wanda hasn’t ever been on an airplane before, so she doesn’t have anything to compare it to, but she’s pretty sure that Tony Stark’s private jet is nothing like a regular airplane. She’s seen them in the movies and on TV. From what she can tell, they usually come equipped with cramped rows of small seats jammed into the equivalent of a flying tin can.

This airplane does not resemble those TV airplanes in the least.

First of all, it’s enormous. There are three floors, and Tony leads them around with a sort of careless pride, like he’s happy to show off his wealth but also, paradoxically, bored of it. He shows them “staterooms,” which Wanda realizes, when he takes them into one, are bedrooms. There’s even a steam room with a pretty masseuse at the ready; her bland smile doesn’t waver, even when she takes in the sight of Tony’s three scruffy, rough-around-the-edges passengers.

“Once we’re in the air, you all can have the run of the place,” Tony says, waving a hand around vaguely to encompass the entire plane.

Wanda still feels a little dizzy; she just wants to sit down.

*

“Are you hungry?” Tony asks, pouring himself a tumbler of what looks like whiskey, although Wanda suspects it’s about a hundred times more expensive than the cheap rotgut her stepdad stocked their own cabinets with. “There’s a chef – do you want breakfast?”

Wanda shrugs, not sure what to say. “I—it’s okay. I’m fine.”

Tony takes a long drink and eyes her over the rim of his glass. “Jarvis,” he says suddenly, and Wanda blinks.

“Yes, sir?” The voice seems to come from the ceiling.

“Have breakfast for four delivered to the main lounge, please,” Tony says, as if it’s totally normal to talk to your luxury airliner.

Wanda must be gaping, because Tony gives her a charming smile. He’s handsome, in a sort of smarmy, old-enough-to-be-her-dad way, but mostly he just makes Wanda feel nervous.

“The plane has an AI system installed. Artificial intelligence. Very convenient,” Tony says by way of explanation, leaning back in his seat and running a hand through his $1000 haircut.

Wanda nods blankly and wishes Bucky were here. He and Steve had disappeared to a stateroom shortly after they’d reached cruising altitude and had been allowed to get up and move around. They’d both made a big to-do about needing showers, but Wanda isn’t stupid. Bucky had been practically vibrating, and she doesn’t need to be psychic to know that he’d wanted to touch Steve.

It’s a funny thing, the two of them. Bucky seems younger than Steve, and he’s handsome and charming even with the dark circles under his eyes and the shattered, bloody remains of his left arm. He’s lean and strong-looking, dimpled and boyish despite being probably thirty or so.

Wanda thinks, secretly, that he looks like the hero on the cover of one of those cheap romance novels that her grandmother had sometimes read before she died. They always had a handsome man on the front, usually shirtless, always strong and powerful. Sometimes there was a woman, too, full-breasted and long-haired, ethereally beautiful and dressed in flowing old-fashioned dresses. Wanda – skinny and bruised and big-eyed, features all too sharp to quite add up to something pretty – looks nothing like the models on the cover, and Bucky doesn’t really either, with his missing arm and his stubble and the dirt under his fingernails.

But he feels like a hero to Wanda.

The thought makes her blush, and she thinks about Steve to distract herself.

Steve is handsome, too, in a dad kind of way. His eyes are bright, bright blue, sharp and piercing, the opposite of Bucky’s smoky liquid gaze. He’s very blond and very big. If Bucky looks like he belongs on the cover of a romance novel, Steve looks more like a walking, talking illustration of Paul Bunyan, big-bellied and broad-shouldered.

It’s obvious that Bucky’s in love with him. Wanda had sensed it the moment Steve had come charging up the porch steps to get them last night. Bucky’s voice had gone soft and gentle, even as he was holding her dad at gunpoint.

It was even more obvious this morning, when Bucky had gone to sit next to Steve and hand him the last piece of pecan pie. Bucky had leaned into Steve, just slightly, his right shoulder pressing against Steve, and Wanda had suddenly felt like she was intruding on something private, something personal.

“So you set things on fire with your mind?” Tony gives her an appraising stare. “Let’s talk about that.”

*

“Look at this place,” Bucky says, staring around the guest room. The hum of the plane beneath them is the only reminder that they’re in the air rather than a hotel room.

“Tony’s got more money than sense,” Steve mutters, disinclined to be particularly charitable toward Tony, even if he’s damned relieved to be aboard the world’s most obnoxious aircraft.

Bucky snorts. “You wouldn’t buy shit like this if you had billions and billions of dollars?”

“Nope.” Steve shakes his head, plopping down heavily on the edge of the king-sized bed. His hand goes to his lower back, arching a little, pushing his gut forward, and Bucky can’t help but stare.

“So what would you spend it on, then?” Bucky asks, sitting down next to him and laying a hand on the swell of his tummy, sliding his fingers between the buttons of his flannel to find the soft, bare skin below.

“Well, there’s this mouthy little brat I know, I might spend a little of it on him,” Steve says, grinning and pushing his gut into Bucky’s hand.

Bucky smiles, sliding his hand down and grasping the heavy bottom curve of Steve’s belly, where it rolls forward and brushes his thighs. “Oh yeah? What kind of things does he like?”

“Hmm.” Steve hums in contemplation. “He liked my motorcycle real well. He likes camping more than anyone has a right to. He’s real handy with a gun, too.”

“Oh yeah?” Bucky leans forward, rests his head on Steve’s shoulder, buries his face in it and inhales the scent of him, woodsy and masculine, sweat and adrenaline and the lingering aroma of Speed Stick deodorant. “What else does he like?”

“Well, I never got to spend any time with him that wasn’t in a fuckin’ war zone, really,” Steve says, voice a little wry. “So I don’t know, shit, maybe when he’s not running for his life or shooting enemy combatants or something he’s a real classy guy. Maybe he reads Camus and goes to the opera.”

Bucky huffs laughter. “I failed Philosophy 101 twice in college,” he mumbles into Steve’s shoulder. “Couldn’t stand that shit. Finally took it online and Becca did it for me.”

“Who says you’re the brat in question?” Steve says, voice warm and soft. Bucky feels Steve’s lips drift over the top of his head and his heart pounds a little.

“Oh, don’t know what I was thinking, assuming that,” Bucky says, face still buried in Steve’s shoulder, hand still shaping and reshaping the lower curve of Steve’s tummy fat.

Steve chuckles. “Okay, so maybe my boy doesn’t read philosophers in his spare time.” He pulls Bucky closer, and Bucky surreptitiously shifts, angling his throbbing left arm out of Steve’s reach. This is the happiest and safest he’s felt since before Ohio. He doesn’t want to ruin it with his infected stump of a limb.

“You know what my boy really likes?” Steve asks, pulling Bucky even tighter against him, pressing Bucky’s ribs into his own soft side, against the ring of thick chub around his heavy waist.

“Mmm, your dick?” Bucky mumbles, sliding his hand under Steve’s gut and feeling around for his belt buckle.

“Ah, yeah – he’s a real cock slut, to tell you the truth,” Steve says, leaning back and hefting his tummy up to give Bucky easier access. “But I was thinking food. I’d take him out to fancy restaurants, dress him up in designer suits and show him off, let him order whatever he wanted.”

Bucky sighs, slipping his hand into Steve’s jeans and sliding his fingers over the lowest, softest part of his belly, working his way down. “Could he order for you? Whatever he wanted you to eat?” He shifts his hand again, ghosting it underneath the stretched elastic of Steve’s boxer briefs. “Maybe give you most of whatever was on his plate, too.”

“Of course. Whatever my boy wanted.” Steve’s voice is harsher, blown out and rough as Bucky curls his hand around Steve’s dick.

“What if all he wants is you?” Bucky whispers, face now buried against Steve’s softened chest.

“Then he could have me.”

Before Bucky can do anything else, Steve pulls him up and kisses him gently. “Shower first, baby boy? Then whatever you want, okay?”

Bucky smiles softly. “Yeah, daddy.” He doesn’t usually call Steve that unless they’re fucking or he’s being facetious, but it slips out now, unaffected and honest.

“Good boy.”

*

The shower stall is, surprisingly, fairly narrow. Steve had almost been expecting a garden tub, given the extravagance of the rest of the plane. He stops short, eyeing the narrow space.

“Go ahead, sir,” Bucky says, his hand rubbing unconsciously against his stump. “You shower. I don’t think I could fit in there with you, anyway.” He drops his eyes to Steve’s belly, his dimples appearing suddenly. “I’ll go order food.”

Steve frowns. He’d been looking forward to an armful of wet, soapy Bucky, maybe the chance to push him down onto his knees and fuck his throat, quick and rough, under a warm spray. “We could make it work. We can -”

Bucky cuts him off with a laugh, reaching out and poking him in the tummy. “Your belly takes up a lot of room, sir. Go on – I’ll get in after you.” He gives Steve a sunny smile, all dimples and teeth, and Steve feels himself moving toward the shower automatically. Fucking Bucky. Could charm birds out of trees.

“Fine,” he says, feigning frustration.

“Go,” Bucky repeats. “What do you want, breakfast or lunch?”

“Surprise me.”

*

There’s a menu and instructions for ordering on the bedside table, and Bucky is treated to the surreal experience of ordering an obscene amount of food – four cheeseburgers and fries, among other things – from the talking computer program that lives in the walls of Stark’s ridiculous airplane.

It is, perhaps, the strangest experience Bucky’s ever had, flying on what might be the fanciest jet in the world just a few hours after sleeping in a stolen Explorer. The swift reversal of fortune feels almost vertiginous.

And, because everything else is available, he asks, “Any antibiotics, painkillers, anything like that?”

“We have an assortment of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs available for our guests,” says the cultured voice of the AI. “Tylenol, Advil, Alleve, and Excedrin.”

“Send some Tylenol,” Bucky says, but he doubts it’ll help much. His arm is in agony, and he still feels on the verge of a fever, a deep promise of profound un-wellness building in his body.

When Steve appears a few minutes later, fresh from the shower, beard trimmed up, shirt still unbuttoned and revealing the dome of his tummy over his jeans, Bucky forgets all about it and just grins. “Hey,” he says softly.

“Hey, yourself.” Steve looks tired—sounds tired, too—but his smile reaches his eyes for the first time in a while.

“Let me go shower,” Bucky says quickly, wanting to get cleaned up and get his stump rewrapped before Steve sees it. “I ordered food—it should be here soon, I think.”

*

When Bucky unwraps his arm, the red lines have crept up to the top of his shoulder, and white pus is beginning to gather along with the blood on his bandages.

The warm shower spray feels like needles on the wound, and Bucky swallows hard, trying not to think about anything but Steve, about the meal that’s about to be delivered, about the king-sized bed that’s all there’s for the next couple of hours.

*

The food Bucky ordered is, of course, egregiously excessive. Four cheeseburgers and fries, a couple slices of cheesecake, a basket of boneless chicken wings and hot sauce. A bucket of Cokes in glass bottles, artfully arranged on ice. It’s greasy, fattening comfort food, heavy and simple.

It feels a little solemn, somehow, when Steve sits down and starts to eat. Bucky’s watching him, not even really trying to feign interest in his own plate, and his wide blue-gray eyes are focused and a little serious.

It’s funny. They should feel relieved right now. After all, they’re almost there. Almost to Fort Collins.

Except, of course, that’s no longer a guarantee of much of anything. Even if Stark’s people manage to get them through the gates without being arrested on sight by MPs, even if they get to see Banner and explain everything, what happens next? Do their good intentions—and Rumlow’s bad ones—nullify the fact that Bucky shot three soldiers? That they’ve been on the run from the government? That they’ve stolen and lied and cheated their way across the country?

What if Bucky’s blood doesn’t provide anything helpful? What if it’s some fluke that can’t be replicated? What if this whole thing was for nothing?

Steve’s on his third burger, and he still can’t quite seem to relax.

“Hey,” Bucky finally says, abandoning his own plate and coming around the table to climb into Steve’s lap.

“Hey yourself,” Steve says, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s slender waist.

“Quit worrying so much,” Bucky says, leaning down and dropping a couple of kisses on the side of Steve’s mouth.

“Yeah?”

Bucky nods, smiling and picking up Steve’s abandoned cheeseburger and holding it out for Steve to take a bite. “Yeah.”

“Relax and let you feed me?” Steve asks around a mouthful of burger, grinning a little.

“Yes,” Bucky says emphatically. “Who knows when we’ll have the chance to do it again?”

Steve shakes his head. “Pervert.”

“Shh,” Bucky says, pushing the burger against Steve’s lips again.

So Steve shushes, lets Bucky feed him, takes French fries from his hand, licks hot sauce off of Bucky’s long fingers, leans back in his chair and lets Bucky grind on his thigh a little.

By the time he’s worked through his three burgers and the remains of Bucky’s, plus all the fries and wings, plus three bottles of Coke, Steve’s uncomfortably full, belly bloated up huge and round, a visual reminder of just how much he’s let himself go.

Bucky’s pupils are blown wide, and he’s staring at Steve like he hung the moon.

“Full, baby,” Steve grunts, shifting in his chair and trying to get comfortable. His belt buckle’s digging into his guts, and he can’t quite catch a full breath.

“Come lay down,” Bucky says, jumping up and grabbing his hand, tugging Steve to his feet and over to the bed.

Steve allows himself to be led, laying back and letting Bucky tug open his belt, his jeans. It’s slow going, Bucky working with only one hand, but he’s getting better at it, and Steve’s in no hurry.

When Bucky gets everything unfastened, Steve can’t help but look down at his own swollen stomach and wince a little. He’d been teetering on the edge of fat back in Brooklyn, carrying a broad beer gut that was just starting to slope over his belt a little. Now he’s well and truly fat, by anyone’s standards. He’s not sure how much he’s put on since he’s been with Bucky—but he knows he’s up a solid fifteen pounds. Probably more, but he can’t bring himself to admit it.

It would be disconcerting, but everything since Brooklyn has sort of felt like a dream – and most of it has been a nightmare, except for these soft, absurdly sweet moments with Bucky, when Buck’s eyes go smoky and desperate and his one hand shapes and reshapes Steve’s bloated belly like it’s something special, something precious.

“You’re so fucking sexy,” Bucky says now, quiet and earnest, leaning over and planting a trail of kisses around Steve’s navel and down to the most sensitive part of his tummy, where the skin feels thin and stretched and tingly.

“I’m so fucking fat,” Steve mutters, feeling the way his chin doubles when he looks down at his boy.

“Uh huh,” Bucky agrees, giving him a sleepy smile. “You want that cheesecake now, or…?”

Steve shakes his head. “Just you, baby. Ride me.”

Bucky grins, beginning the awkward process of shucking his jeans one-handed.

“Oh, shit – do we have lube?”

Bucky’s grin widens, and he produces a tube from his shirt pocket. “Sure do, big guy.”

It’s a funny mix of sweet and urgent, when Bucky climbs onto his lap and pushes himself down onto Steve’s cock. He doesn’t bother to take Steve’s jeans all the way off, and he leaves his own shirt on, left sleeve still neatly pinned up. His skin feels hot against Steve’s, desperately hot, and his cheeks are flushed.

His movements, though, are careful and slow, and his eyes are sleepy-sweet and heavy-lidded. He’s hot inside, too, and Steve loses himself in that heat.

“Daddy, daddy, daddy,” Bucky mumbles, eyes locked on Steve.

“My sweet boy. So good for me.”

Bucky gasps a little, grinding down hard on Steve’s cock, right hand gripping Steve’s belly. “I’ll always be good for you. Always, daddy, I’ll be so good, so good.”

“I know you will, sweetheart. I know.”

There are more things Steve wants to say, more that he wants Bucky to know, but he’s too full, too lazy, too inundated with the sweet immediacy of being buried to the hilt inside his boy to find the words.

*

When Steve and Bucky finally emerge from their room, Wanda and Tony are still right where they left them, sitting at the table in the lounge area of the plane. The remains of what appears to have been quite a brunch spread are strewn across the table, and Wanda is still picking at a pile of strawberries on her plate.

“Well hello, gentlemen, so glad you could join us,” Tony says, smirking. “I take it the, ah, shower, was up to par?”

“Adequate,” Bucky says, rolling his shoulder in a dismissive shrug.

Steve bites his lip to keep from laughing and clears his throat. “Are we going to land soon?” he asks, steering the conversation.

“We are,” Tony says, his expression unreadable.

Before the conversation can go any further, the pilot’s voice comes over the intercom, announcing that they will soon begin their descent to the Fort Collins-Loveland Airport.

Bucky sidles over to the seat next to Wanda, dropping his hand to her shoulder and squeezing gently. Steve watches the way Bucky moves his hand slowly, making sure she can see it before it makes contact, and his heart squeezes a little at that small kindness.

“There will be a car waiting to take you two to the base,” Stark says, nonchalantly sipping his coffee.

“You mean us three?” Bucky says, his hand still on Wanda’s shoulder.

“Actually, Wanda is going to stay with me.”

Steve’s rage is instant and absolute despite his weariness. “What the fuck does that mean, Stark?”

“Easy, big guy. After I get you and”—he jerks his thumb toward Bucky—“the Outbreak monkey here delivered to my driver, Wanda’s going to go with me. We’re headed to the Stark Industries R&D facility in Houston.” His mouth perks up into a smile. “Did you know we had one there? New-ish, opened its doors in 2009.”

Before Steve can open his mouth, Bucky is on his feet, his stance aggressive in a way that Steve hasn’t ever really witnessed before. “She’s a minor, what the fuck do you mean she’s going with you?”

Tony steeples his fingers and gives Bucky a small smile. “She’s a minor here, she’s a minor there, she’s a minor everywhere, Bucky. It was Bucky, right?” He shrugs. “As it stands, my lawyers are going to help her get emancipated, and in return, she’s going to collaborate on some innovations regarding her particular abilities. It should be a mutually agreeable situation for all of us.”

Chapter Text

Steve had been a scrawny kid, coming up in Brooklyn.

He could remember the doctors talking to his mom. 4th percentile in height for kids his age, they’d said, and Failure to thrive. Heart murmur due to anemia. They’d talked gravely about asthma and supplementary nutrition and avoiding strenuous activity. Each visit to the doctor’s office was a punctuation mark separating long stretches of childhood misery, a catalog of all his shortcoming proclaimed in whispers while he sat on the paper-covered exam table and stared at a plastic model of an artery on the windowsill next to a forlorn-looking spider plant. Maybe he’ll outgrow it had been a frequent refrain, but he’d never actually believed that he would.

Now he has, indisputably, and then some, and he feels far away from the too-short, too-skinny kid he’d once been. In fact, he’s old enough to feel protective of that child, to see how much he’d needed to be looked after and loved. At the time, it had never occurred to him to feel sorry for himself. Why would it? Things had always been that way, he’d never known any other life but the one in which he’d been too small, too weak, too short of breath, forever separated from the childhood everyone else was enjoying by his own deficient body. Now, though, he can see things through his mother’s eyes, and understands why her smiles had always been a little sad, and why she’d never crushed him in her arms the way some of the other mothers hugged their children, but always taken hold of him gently, holding him lightly against her body.

So when he looks at Wanda, who seems to be calmly accepting Tony’s decision to whisk her away to some top-secret research facility, he doesn’t delude himself into believing that she is capable of giving consent. Not truly, not yet, no matter how bright and powerful she might be. She’s too close to whatever she’s endured to have any perspective.

He also doesn’t believe that there will be a car waiting to take himself and Bucky to see Bruce. His mind races as he watches Bucky and Tony arguing in the plane’s absurdly posh lounge.

“-can’t take her off to live in some lab like a goddamn guinea pig,” Bucky is saying.

“So – what? You’re going to adopt her? Right after your trial for treason? Get real, Barnes. You think you can keep her safe out there? I just got back from a visit to Atlanta, did you know that? CDC headquarters. They’re fucking overrun.”

Steve scoots closer to Wanda on the sleek leather sofa and whispers, “Can’t let you do it, honey.”

She’s been staring at Bucky, and is visibly startled; Steve lifts a finger to his lips and makes a “keep it down” gesture with one hand.

“I thought he was your friend.”

“Yeah, I thought so too,” Steve says. “Looks like I was wrong.”

“He says he can make it so I never have to go back there,” she says quietly. “He says I’ll be safe.”

“No such thing as safe,” Steve says brutally.

She flinches and bites her lip. “He says I can help people.”

“You can. You will. But not like this.”

She glances back at Bucky, his ragged sleeve pinned up, his overlong hair tugged back into a messy knot at the nape of his neck. Then her gaze shifts to Tony, satanically handsome in his 10,000-dollar suit and handmade shoes. Her eyes finally shift back to Steve, and he’s suddenly, ludicrously self-conscious. He knows how he looks; in spite of the shower, he feels grimy and rough in comparison to Tony, with his beard and his big belly and his sturdy but inexpensive clothes. She meets his gaze for a long moment, then nods soberly.

“What can we do?” she asks, and for the first time, she sounds like the teenager she is, a little quaver in her voice betraying her fear. “How do we get away?”

“I’ve got an idea,” he says. “How’re you feeling? Think you could do a little…” he waves a hand near his head, an efficient gesture clearly intended to emulate mental powers, and it makes Wanda smile.

“Anything,” she says instantly, sitting up straighter, a living exemplar of the bravery of the very small. Steve realizes, with a pang, that she reminds him a little of his younger self; undernourished and a little battered around the edges, but determined.

“Okay,” he says, leaning closer. “Here’s what I’ve got in mind.”

*

From the air, the land below looks like a crazy quilt. Wanda can see the green irrigated circles in the centers of brown square patches of farmland, the odd shapes of woodlots and pastureland, and the seams of rivers and creeks. It’s nothing at all like it is on the ground. Up here, you can’t smell the rotten-sweet scent of the soil, can’t feel the grit of blown dust on your skin, can’t hear the buzzing of insects or the drone of machinery. Up here, everything looks beautiful, and silent, and far, far away.

But if Steve’s plan works – if she can do what she’d agreed to try -she’s about to get reacquainted with ground level, fast. Her fear is there, as vast and real as the ground below, but she pushes it out of her consciousness, focusing on the task at hand. She’s never done anything like this before, had never dared to try. At home, her dad had blamed her for every frayed wire, every defective piece of electronic equipment, every scam gone wrong, and the consequences had inevitably been brutal and demeaning.

Steve is different, she can tell. Steve is nothing like her dad, and neither is Bucky; even if she didn’t have concrete evidence of that from their actions, she can sense it. And as much as she wants Tony’s offer to be true - and she does, she really wants it to be that easy – his feelings are a seething tangle that she cannot make sense of, even with her gift.

When Steve looks at her, like he’d done just now, she wants to be better, to be her very best self. It’s not so much that she wants to please him – pleasing men isn’t a big priority for her, it had never gotten her anywhere – but that she wants to be the person he sees when he looks at her. As cheesy as it sounds, he believes in her, and it works on her like magic, for the simple reason that nobody else ever has.

She closes her eyes, and slowly detaches from the noises around her. Steve has joined in the argument with Tony, keeping everyone’s attention off of Wanda, and she lets her mind tune out their voices. Next are the noise of the plane, the faint tinkling of glassware in one of the lounge’s cabinets, and finally, the sounds of her own body. Then, in silence, she lets her mind go free.

She doesn’t really understand how planes work, but she doesn’t need to. She tunes in to the pilot’s mind, at the systems she’s tracking, the things she needs to know in order to land them at the airport. Then, methodically, Wanda attacks each and every one of those things.

She disrupts the radio waves carrying communications between the plane and the air traffic control tower. She sends the plane’s navigation system offline. She sends all the gauges and compasses whizzing nonsensically, mentally brushes up against every control system and its backup. Finally, for good measure, she ignites a very small fire in each of the plane’s six bathrooms.

A siren blares inside the cabin, and she’s instantly back in her body, fully alert, eyes snapping open and heart pounding as the plane gives a sickening lurch. She sees Bucky stumble sideways, but Steve simultaneously grabs hold of the back of the sofa and Bucky’s left shoulder, keeping him upright. Tony is thrown backwards, comes up hard against the base of a coffee table, but as soon as he stops moving his eyes flash up and lock on Steve’s face.

“What did you do?” he asks, his voice dripping ice. “What in the fuck did you fucking do, Rogers?”

“You didn’t give us any choice,” Steve says, still holding Bucky close. “Who the hell was going to be waiting for us down there, Tony? What was going to happen to Wanda?”

“You don’t get it,” Tony seethes, struggling back to his feet. “You never do. Jesus, we could all be killed, what the hell is the matter with you?”

“Sir,” says the automated voice of Jarvis. “Multiple system failures necessitate an emergency landing. Please prepare for a somewhat rougher arrival than anticipated.” As if on cue, the plane lurches downward in a stomach-churning plunge.

Steve helps Bucky to a seat and fastens his belt, checks on Wanda – still firmly buckled into her seat – and sinks down heavily into his own spot. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he says. “I really wish it hadn’t come to this.”

“You have no idea what you’ve done,” Tony says, and he sounds resigned, now, almost despondent. “You should’ve trusted me.” And he turns and staggers out of the lounge toward the cockpit.

*

Bruce Banner isn’t the kind of person that other people are afraid of. He’s not particularly tall, not particularly muscular, and his large brown eyes, round face, and curly hair all speak of softness. His clothes tend to be soft, too, in color and texture, and he hardly ever raises his voice. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t even eat spicy food, doesn’t do anything anyone would consider exciting or dangerous. He’s a scientist who looks like a scientist, his eyes made large and doelike by his powerful prescription lenses. He’s nondescript, his movements deliberate and gentle.

Nobody expects him to have a temper like a nuclear bomb.

“You can’t make me do this,” he says to the two men in the front seat of the nondescript Crown Victoria. “I’m a citizen of the United States and I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Can it, four eyes,” says the man in the passenger seat. He’s a good-looking guy in an army uniform, but Bruce can’t remember his name. Tunlaw? Rumsfield? Something like that. Bruce’s people skills aren’t exactly great; he’s always too distracted by the much more interesting problems spiraling around in his head. The guy has a prizefighter’s face with a strong jaw, and dark hair sweeping up from his forehead like Elvis. His looks are spoiled somewhat by his sneering expression.

“Did you seriously just say that?” Bruce asks, incredulous. “Four eyes, really? Jesus.” A reckless little laugh escapes him. “Feel like I’m back in third grade recess.”

“Guess what, buddy, whatever happened to you back then is gonna look like a cake walk if you don’t zip it and do what you’re told.”

Bruce can tell that he’s supposed to be cowed, but he’s not. He stretches an arm across the seat back and leans back, relaxed. Guys like this are so terribly predictable. It’s almost too easy. “Cake walk,” he says. “Huh.”

Just then, there’s an insistent buzzing from the front seat and the guy – was it Rumbaugh? Denbow? – picks up his cell. “Rumlow,” he says. Rumlow, that was it, Bruce thinks. What an asshole.

“You’re where?”

Bruce can hear the voice on the other end of the line, high and insistent, but can’t quite make out the words. The air conditioner is on high; it’s not that hot out, but the sun beats down on the tarmac at the airport, and the interior of the car is getting uncomfortably warm.

Rumlow disconnects and turns to the driver. “There’s been a change of plans. They’re about to land in an agricultural field outside of Greeley. Something must have gone wrong – they’re sending coordinates.”

A second later, the phone pings, and Bruce can see a little block of text glowing blue on the phone’s screen. “That’s it,” Rumlow says, plugging the coordinates into the Crown Vic’s navigation system. “Let’s get moving.”

*

It’s just like a roller coaster, Wanda tells herself, shutting her eyes and trying not to imagine all the ways she could die in this metal tube hurtling towards earth. Just like a roller coaster. A hand takes hold of hers and she opens her eyes, sees Bucky’s hand clasping hers.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s really hard to crash one of these things. I’ve had rougher landings than this just because of a little rain. We’re gonna be fine.”

“I disrupted the navigation systems,” she blurts, like a confession. “What if - ”

“Doesn’t matter,” Bucky interrupts her before she can put her fears into words. “The pilots can see where the ground is; all they’ve got to do is put the plane on it.”

“As soon as we stop moving we’ve got to get out of this plane and move,” Steve says, and Wanda’s almost insanely grateful to him for focusing her attention on what will happen after they’re on the ground. Because there will be an after, she assures herself.

Steve points at the emergency exit. “We’ll go out right there. Wanda goes first, then Bucky, then me. If we can’t all make it together, our priority is getting Wanda safely away.”

“Agreed,” Bucky says instantly, and he turns to her. “Don’t worry about us. If something happens, run like crazy and don’t look back.”

She stares into his eyes, then looks at Steve. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she says. “If I can help, I’m going to help.”

Steve and Bucky share a look at that, some unspoken understanding passing between them, and Steve smiles, shaking his head. “Right,” he says. “If you can help - safely - we’ll take all the help we can get.”

*

When Peggy moved from field agent to a desk job, one of the hardest parts of that transition had been the incredible frustration of having to sit back and wait for information – to go from being the person doing things to the person orchestrating things. Never before has that frustration been so incredibly real as it is right this moment, as Peggy sits in her office, cheap Tracfone sitting on her big mahogany desk in front of her, steadfastly refusing to ring.

Stark had promised to call her when they’d landed safely, had promised to let her know that Steve and Barnes had been delivered to Fort Collins. So far, nothing.

She tries to imagine what the mood must be like on Stark’s ridiculous airplane. If she knows Tony and Steve—and she does, all too well—she suspects Tony is showing off, serving something ridiculously extravagant that his chef had prepared, and Steve is glaring at him across the table, as if he’s offended by the very idea of a champagne brunch with a billionaire on his jet.

When someone knocks at her door, she doesn’t bother hoping that it’s good news – there hasn’t been much of that lately – but she does think that maybe whoever it is will be a sufficient distraction.

Before she has a chance to respond to the knock, the door opens and the Director of Homeland Security steps inside her office, looking remarkably aggressive for a man in his seventies. “Agent Carter?”

Peggy squares her shoulders. “Yes, Mr. Pierce?”

“You need to come with me.”

Peggy doesn’t look down at her desk, doesn’t look at the cell phone sitting there refusing to ring. Pierce does, though. “Rumlow is already in Colorado, waiting to intercept Rogers and Barnes,” he says, his voice almost kind.

Peggy doesn’t respond, but she can’t help looking up at Pierce. He’s still handsome, but too cold by far.

“We knew about the arrangement you made with Stark.”

She blinks. Doesn’t speak.

“Stark didn’t sell you out, for what it’s worth,” he says conversationally. “We’ve had people on you since your first call to Rogers. Rumlow is already with Banner; they were going to meet Stark’s plane at Loveland.” He shakes his head, his expression a weird facsimile of remorse. “Then, to our surprise, Stark’s pilot sent out a distress signal. Apparently your ex-boyfriend forced a crash landing.”

Good, she thinks, but does not say. She doesn’t say anything.

“And now,” Pierce says, withdrawing a slim, elegant automatic pistol from the interior of his impeccably tailored blazer. “You’re coming with me.”

*

Wanda isn’t sure it counts as a plane crash if the pilot guides the plane, however roughly, down to the ground.

Whatever kind of landing it was, it hadn’t been smooth. The plane hadn’t even jerked to a stop before Steve and Bucky were up, unbuckling her seat belt and shoving her toward the emergency exit.

“Go, sweetheart, we gotta go,” Bucky had murmured, bringing up the rear as Steve flung the door open.

Now, standing on the ground in the middle of a field, the Rocky Mountains rising up terrifying and huge to the west, Stark’s jumbo luxury jet listing a little to the left behind them, Wanda can’t quite figure out what to focus on.

She can read Steve and Bucky’s emotions, at the forefront of her mind. Steve is angry, pulsing with adrenaline, terrified, protective; it wouldn’t take any psychic abilities to read that last one, given the way Steve is trying to angle his body in front of both Wanda and Bucky, like he can shield them somehow.

Bucky, though. Bucky’s emotions are easy to read because they’re a void. Like a blank spot in the atmosphere. Not even like nothing – they’re like the absence of something. He steps out from beyond Steve, in front of Wanda, and all she can do for a moment is stare.

He looks nothing like the handsome, dimpled stranger she’d helped her father kidnap, or the charming, kind man who’d shared his breakfast with her and wrapped an arm around her while she’d slept, the first man who’d ever touched her with neither violence nor sexual intent.

That man, her new friend, the dashing hero with the missing arm and the easy grin, is gone, and in his place is someone Wanda can barely recognize. His eyes are cold, all steel and shadow. Killer’s eyes. And the big pistol he’d had tucked in his waistband is in his right hand, aimed straight at Tony Stark, who is stumbling out of his airplane and onto the ground.

Wanda doesn’t think. There isn’t time for that, not really. If she’d had time, she might have thought about how, if they ever got out of this alive, nothing would excuse Bucky murdering a rich white man. If she’d had time, she might have thought about how, maybe, Stark might not exactly be at fault for what has happened to them. If she’d had time, she might have thought about how she doesn’t want Bucky to be a murderer, although she’s seen his eyes and fears that he has already been one before.

She might have thought about all of those things, if she’d had time. She doesn’t, though. She just thinks that she has to make sure Bucky doesn’t pull the trigger.

She closes her eyes and Tony Stark flies backward, pushed back a hundred feet in a second, moved by an invisible force. His body lands like a rag doll.

*

Wanda staggers back, and Steve grabs her. “Good job, Wanda, that was real good,” he says, letting her lean on him. He’s talking to Wanda, but his eyes are on Bucky.

“Baby, let him go,” Steve says, taking a step forward, reaching out.

Bucky turns, gun barrel automatically dropping down so that it’s pointed at the ground. His eyes are still ice cold, a river of gray. Steve realizes that the last time he saw Bucky look like this, it was when he was behind a sniper rifle in the desert, shooting people in the name of the United States military.

Steve takes a couple of deep breaths, hoping Bucky and Wanda will both follow suit. “Buck, we gotta go.”

Bucky nods, and Steve notices him take his finger off the trigger, even though he doesn’t put his gun away yet.

“We gotta go, baby,” Steve says again. “Gotta find a car, gotta go, now.”

Bucky nods again, and Steve notices, in the second that he’s looking at him, how tired Bucky looks, how dark the circles are underneath his eyes. Here, standing in the brittle Colorado sunlight, beads of sweat on his forehead, he looks more than tired. He looks sick.

Steve swallows hard and opens his mouth to speak again, but before he can, he hears an engine in the distance. He glances down at Wanda, who’s still leaning heavily against him, panting a little.

“Wanda, honey, I’m sorry, but I need you to do your thing one more time,” he says. “Is someone coming?”

She doesn’t open her eyes, but she nods. “Yes. They’re coming. They’re coming right now.”

When the non-descript government sedan appears over the rise a couple of seconds later, turning off the access road and bouncing across the field toward them, Steve thinks that maybe it’s over. That this is the first mission that he’s ever completely, abysmally failed to carry out.

He wonders if he’s going to die here, in some field in Colorado next to the most expensive airplane in the world.

As he’s pushing Wanda behind him, he sees Bucky move to his side, shoulders square, watching the car jerk across the field.

“I think this is it, baby boy,” Steve says, because he can’t say nothing, not when this might be their last moment together. Now, suddenly, he regrets everything he didn’t say, every night he let Bucky fall asleep without telling him exactly how important he was. He regrets every time he kept quiet and just let Bucky wrap himself around Steve’s big gut and cling to him, like Steve’s fat belly was the best thing Bucky had ever seen in the entire damned world. He regrets every time they substituted touch and sex and food for words, as if letting Bucky feed him a fucking cheeseburger was an acceptable stand-in for I love you, or I need you, or you are everything to me. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I’m so fucking sorry—“

“Shut up,” Bucky interrupts, and Steve jerks at the words. “Don’t you dare quit, Captain. Don’t you fucking dare.”

Steve cuts his eyes over to Bucky, then swings them back up to the sedan, which is perilously close now. One hundred yards. Eighty. Sixy. If they run they’ll be shot in the back.

The sedan rolls to a stop, and Rumlow steps out, gun drawn. Someone else—a lackey, Steve can tell immediately—opens the passenger door and joins him.

“This is it, Rogers,” Rumlow calls, same cocksure expression on his face as usual, like it’s a permanent sneer. “End of the line.”

Bucky’s gun is up again, pointed right at Rumlow, but it feels almost like a moot point. Even if Steve could get to his holster—and he can’t, not without letting go of Wanda, who’s slumped behind him, letting him take most of her slight weight—it wouldn’t make a difference. It’s a standoff, and Rumlow has the car, the ammo, the law on his side.

It’s just a waiting game.

It’s just a matter of deciding if they’re going to have the chance to be taken alive.

To his surprise, a third man appears behind Rumlow – a mop of messy brown waves, glasses, unassuming posture. He’s not military, Steve doesn’t think.

When he looks up and meets Steve’s eyes, Steve realizes it’s Bruce Banner, and his stomach jolts a little. He doesn’t want to think that Bruce knew this was coming, that he knew Steve and Bucky were walking into Rumlow’s hands.

Behind him, Wanda suddenly stiffens, and Steve almost turns to her.

“Don’t move,” she suddenly whispers, her voice tiny and fierce.

Steve, who is a little in awe of how quickly he’s been able to get on board with having a magical girl-child firing her brain-weapon at his enemies, obediently holds still.

Wanda moans softly behind them, and suddenly there’s a shimmer in the air between them and Rumlow, just the barest hint of a ripple, and Rumlow and his accomplice freeze, both eerily still.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Bucky says, and Wanda coughs, stepping forward until she’s by Steve’s side.

“I can’t,” she says, and points to Banner. “Or, I mean – I couldn’t until he got here.”

“Steve,” Banner calls, his voice mild. “We should go while we can.”

Chapter Text

Several things happen in the next minute. Steve puts his arm around Wanda and takes a step forward. From behind them, a voice calls, “Wait!” And Bucky collapses onto the ground, a graceful but terrible slumping of his body, as if the strings that had been holding him upright had suddenly been cut, all at once.

Wanda had turned to see Tony, back on his feet, calling to them as he ran after them. She also saw Bucky go down, drop to his knees and slump limply sideways onto the ground. She’d stopped moving, planted herself in the ground like an anchor, which had made Steve turn around, too.

Steve’s on the ground with Bucky before Wanda can even react, so she just stands there, feeling more exhausted and drained than she can ever remember feeling. She sees Tony running toward her and can’t even summon the energy to make a sound to warn anyone. But when he reaches them, he just slides one arm under her shoulder and holds her upright.

“Is he okay?” he asks Steve, but Steve’s not paying attention; he’s gone, saying Bucky’s name over and over and over, hands on Bucky’s too-still face.

“What just happened?” Tony asks Wanda, but she doesn’t answer, either, just moans, low and soft, from the back of her throat. Bizarrely, she notices that Tony smells nice, like the woods and the spice cabinet in her grandmother's kitchen, all at the same time.

He lifts her and carries her to the car, hands her off to the man with the soft brown eyes and the kind, troubled face. Bruce. That was his name. The one who’d brought the whatever-it-was that had allowed her to use more power than she’d ever tapped into before. He lowers her into the back seat of the car.

“Get her belted in,” Tony practically barks. “Can you still do what you need to do if Barnes doesn’t make it?”

“If we hurry,” Bruce answers softly. “But I really hope it doesn’t come to that,” he adds, looking across at Steve, who’s got Bucky’s head cradled in his lap. Bucky looks like he might be dead already, pale and unresponsive. Wanda’s heart tightens at the sight of him, but there’s nothing she can do. She lets Bruce awkwardly buckle her seat belt, and then she lets her eyes close, and then she lets herself fall asleep.

*

Pierce ushers Peggy into the back of a black SUV in the sweeping parking lot of the Pentagon, the gun held discreetly by his side. He confers briefly with the driver, then settles into the back seat, regarding her with an unreadable expression.

“JFK said once that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” he says, once they're moving.

“What he actually said was that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan,” she corrects him. She knows it’s ridiculous, pointlessly didactic, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to sit quietly and let him lecture her about John F. Kennedy while he’s kidnapping her at gunpoint. “The sentiment originally comes to us from from Tacitus,” she adds, meeting his glare coolly. “Inquissima haec bellorum condicio est: prospera omnes sibi indicant, aduersa uni imputantur. ” Pierce almost manages to conceal the little flare of anger in his blue eyes, but not quite.

“I was told that you’re a clever woman. I’m glad. Hopefully, that means you can understand why it’s so important that whatever you’ve been trying to do has to be stopped. This has to go our way.”

“Your way, you mean. And perhaps I’m not so clever,” she says. “I don’t see it that way at all. Why not just admit that the problem overwhelmed us? Why not pull together, find new ways to move forward and be useful? Why not actually get out there and help the citizens of this country, like we’re supposed to do? If Barnes really is the cure, you could help get it out there. Everyone could get their share of the credit. You’re wasting valuable time trying to sweep our entirely understandable mistakes under the carpet.”

“A typically female way of thinking,” Pierce says. “Work together, share the credit, help everyone. As if that would actually work. That’s not the world we live in. In our world – the real world – someone gets the credit, and someone gets the blame. The public, or what’s left of it, won’t have it any other way. And where there’s credit to be had, there’s money to be made. A great deal of money.”

Somehow, she’d known it would all come down to money in the end. It’s almost depressingly predictable. Even Tony hadn’t said anything about making money off the cure to the disease that was threatening to kill off the majority of the human population of the world.

“So then where are you taking me?” she asks wearily.

“We’re going on a little trip. To Colorado.”

“What on earth for? I thought you had boots on the ground, the situation completely under your thumb.”

Pierce smiles, and he’s so handsome, slim and neat in his suit, with his tan skin and his white teeth, that it still manages to look charming, despite the fact that he’s a monster. “I’ve learned that it’s never a good idea to make that assumption as long as Steve Rogers is alive,” he says. “So I’m going to take care of that, once and for all.”

*

Steve doesn’t know what he’ll do if Bucky dies. He can’t even envision a world without him, and he wonders when it was, exactly, that Bucky went from being his friend, his lover, his comrade-in-arms, to being his everything.

He’s wedged uncomfortably sideways in the backseat of the Crown Vic, Bucky’s head pillowed on his lap. He’d regained consciousness briefly, his pale eyes bleary, and had whispered one word. Steve’s name. And then he’d slipped away again. Now he’s lying there, hot and damp, that heat the only reassurance in Steve’s universe. Heat is life. Heat is blood rushing to the service of Bucky’s immune system. Heat is hope.

It’s all Steve’s fault, really; he’s an EMT, he’d known something was off; he’d felt how hot Bucky’s skin was, had seen him steadily waning over the course of the last few days. But he hadn’t put it together; he’d let Bucky make him believe that everything was fine, because he’d so badly wanted that to be true. Now, they’re not even going to the fully-equipped lab at Fort Collins, but to Bruce’s house, and who knows if he’ll even have the necessary supplies to save Bucky’s life.

On the other end of the bench seat, Wanda stirs, sits up. They’d had to prop Bucky’s feet on her lap, and she stares down confusedly at them for a few seconds, then shakes herself and looks up at Steve.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

“I don’t know.” he says. He can hear how flat and affectless he sounds, but he can’t help it, as much as he wants to be kind to the girl, to reassure her. The girl who had saved his life multiple times, who had saved Bucky. She’s looking at Bucky with deep concern, and Steve feels a little jolt of gratitude for her, for this fragile, strong girl who had carried them through the hardest part of their journey.

“His arm,” she says, pointing to the pinned-up left sleeve. “It’s infected.”

Steve numbly unfastens the safety pin and rolls the sleeve up gently. He waits a while before he says anything else; he feels a distant anger that she had known and hadn’t told him, but he’s sure Bucky had asked her not to, and he doesn’t really blame her. “It’s bad,” he says. “It’s really bad.”

“I know,” she says simply.

“How’d you do that, back there?” he asks. He doesn’t want to talk about Bucky’s arm right now; that way lies madness.

Tony turns around and leans over the back seat. “That was incredible,” he says. “You blew me right off my feet. Ruined my suit, by the way. You’ll be hearing from my dry cleaner.”

“I don’t know,” Wanda says, nodding at Bruce, who’s in the driver’s seat, eyes on the road. “He had something with him, and I could feel it; like a…” she shakes her head, searching for the right word. “Like a megaphone, I guess, for my mind. I threw everything I had left at it and it just…” she runs out of words again and holds her hands tightly together, then pulls them apart dramatically, mimicking an explosion. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”

Bruce glances in the rearview mirror at Wanda. “I’ve got a small gamma ray device with me – sort of a pocket-sized EMP amplifier and generator. It knocks everything out for several minutes at a time. Cars, phones, anything electronic stops working. When those two goons showed up at my place, I clipped it onto my keychain. I thought maybe if I had a chance, I could use it to help us escape.”

“You have an EMP generator clipped onto your keychain?” Tony asks. “You’re telling me you’ve got a pocket-sized nuclear weapon in this car right now?”

“Well, yeah,” Bruce says. “I dabble a little in nuclear physics, gamma radiation. And I don’t appreciate being kidnapped.”

“You dabble. In nuclear physics.” Then, even more incredulous, Tony turns to Wanda, waving his hands around his head, indicating unseen mental energy. “And you – you can run your – your brain waves or whatever through it and it makes you more powerful? Holy shit this is crazy. This is why I need you in Houston. You too,” he adds to Bruce, punching him in the arm. “Fuck me, just imagine what we could do with this.”

“You’re not doing anything with ‘this,’ because ‘this’ is a teenage girl. A human being, Tony, she’s not going to go live in your goddamn lab.” Steve says, all his frustrated anger boiling over at last. “You experiment on her over my dead goddamn body.”

“But -”

“Maybe we should table this, for now,” Bruce says mildly, turning the car into a driveway and rolling to a stop. “We’re here.”

*

Wanda watches Steve lift Bucky out of the back seat of the car, cradling him against his chest. He makes it look easy, but she can see the way the thick, round muscles of his arms bunch under the straining fabric of his flannel shirt. Tony steps forward and offers to help, but Steve just tells him to fuck off and starts toward the front door of Bruce’s tidy little ranch house.

Wanda follows close behind him, resisting the temptation to take hold of the tail of his shirt, like a toddler clinging to a beloved parent. Something about his presence makes her feel safe, and she doesn’t want to get separated from him, even though there appears to be no immediate threat.

“You can put him in here,” Bruce says, leading the way through the house’s bright, pleasant foyer and into a room a little way down a wide hall. Wanda’s expecting a guest room, but what she finds is almost like a doctor’s office, with an exam table, an IV stand, and several metal medical carts bearing steel trays of medical implements.

Steve lowers Bucky down to the table carefully and rolls his sleeve back again, revealing the red horror beneath. “You have any antibiotics, something we can get working fast?” he asks Bruce.

“I can get him started on an IV drip if you can get a jack into him,” he says, handing a little plastic-wrapped needle and tube assembly to Steve. Then, turning to Wanda and Tony, he waves them to the door with an apologetic look on his face. “You two might want to stay out of the way,” he says. “The kitchen’s right through there. How about getting some coffee started? This is probably gonna take a while.”

*

Wanda can’t seem to stop herself from pacing around outside of Bucky’s room, hovering around the doorframe and peering in at Steve, who is hunched over the table like he can keep Bucky alive by sheer force of will.

She feels like a child, hanging on the edges of an exchange she doesn’t fully understand, watching an adult world playing out in front of her. It’s a strange feeling – Wanda doesn’t, as a rule, get to feel young. She hasn’t for years. But now, with Bucky lying so terribly still in that sterile bed and Steve sitting vigil beside him, she feels terribly underprepared, terribly frightened.

Dr. Banner brings her water and a sandwich once, potato chips another time, and squeezes her shoulder, tells her that it will be fine, before he disappears back into what he calls his office and what Wanda has mentally labeled The Lab.

Banner has kind eyes, and Wanda wants to believe his assurances. But she isn’t stupid, and she can see Bucky every time she peers through the door.

He looks awful, gray and colorless, his hair lank, the skin stretched tight across his pretty cheekbones. An IV is jammed into the top of his hand. The veins in his arm hadn’t held up, and God, how Steve had choked when he couldn’t place the IV, when he’d had to stick Bucky over and over.

Wanda isn’t a mind reader. She doesn’t always have access to the future, and she certainly can’t read the thoughts of everyone around her. She can, sometimes, access feelings and motivations, particularly if they’re strong, but she’s not a perfect telepath. She doesn’t have to be one, though, to know how much Steve loves Bucky, and to know how terrified he is. Steve hasn’t said it, he’s never even once suggested it, but Wanda knows that Steve thinks Bucky is going to die. Worse, she knows that Steve thinks it will be his fault. He hovers over Bucky ceaselessly, talking himself hoarse and grasping Bucky’s one hand with both of his, and the fear comes off of him in great, choking waves.

In the midst of her terror for Bucky, Wanda wonders what will happen to her if he dies. Steve is a good man, but she doesn’t think he’ll be able to function without Bucky, let alone watch over a teenage girl who’s not much more than a stranger.

*

Pierce is a strange man. He’s not a kind man, certainly not a good man, but there is an eerie sort of gentleness about him that Peggy can never quite wrap her mind around. She’s aware of it, though, and so she’s not terribly surprised when Pierce doesn’t restrain her at all on the aircraft. She’s seated at a table across from him, instead. Pierce’s gun is in his holster, and there are several armed guards nearby, but that’s as far as the display of force goes. If she didn’t know better, she’d think this was just a routine flight. That she wasn’t being taken against her will in something that is far more frightening, and probably less legal, than being officially arrested or detained. She’s just been taken.

Pierce taps away on his laptop for a bit, pecking out words with his index fingers with surprising dexterity, and Peggy watches, waits. Tries to gather herself, to make some sort of a plan. It’s hard, though, when she has no idea what’s coming, what Pierce plans to do when they land in Fort Collins. She hasn’t given up on the idea that they can negotiate their way out of this—although the back of her mind is screaming out things like “shot three American soldiers,” and “crashed a plane” and “treason, treason, treason.”

Goddamn Steve. This is so fucking typical of him, to think he has to fix a problem all on his own, that he’ll just strike out on some fool’s mission and expect to win the day through sheer force of will.

She had loved him, painfully and completely, a decade ago, but even then she had often been furious with him, mostly for shit exactly like this. His bullheaded, ridiculous tenacity, his willingness to throw himself into a fight with no regard for his own safety. God, it had been exhausting.

Gradually, she realizes that Pierce’s sharp staccato typing has stopped. When she looks up, he’s watching her, his expression unreadable.

“So you and Rogers,” he says, closing his laptop and fold his hands over it. “You were together, once?”

Peggy arches a brow and considers. “Yes,” she says after a moment, because she can’t see any reason not to entertain this line of questioning. “A long time ago.”

“You still love him?”

She snorts. “He’s an infuriating man with no sense of self-preservation. I can’t stand him.”

“But you would risk your career, commit crimes against the United States, to protect him.”

“I would do what is right, what is necessary, whether or not an embarrassed and fumbling US military sanctioned it.” She meets Pierce’s gaze and holds it, the way she knows that men in positions of power tend to despise. “I would protect Steve if I could, if it was within my power to do so. I would protect this country from men like you, men who would choose what is expedient over what is right, no matter what it cost.”

Pierce steeples his fingers. “You may find it costs quite a lot.”

An hour later, as the aircraft touches down, Pierce’s phone rings, and Peggy can tell immediately that something has changed.

“You what?”

Peggy leans forward, straining to hear the voice on the other end of the line, but she can’t.

“What do you mean, incapacitated?” Pierce’s blue eyes are snapping now, and that gentle demeanor he puts on most of the time is finally starting to crack. “What the fuck does a little girl have to do with anything?”

“Stark and Banner both?” There’s a pause. “Is Barnes dead?”

Peggy’s breath catches.

“Have Banner’s files pulled. Ground all flights in and out of Colorado. Close the interstates.” Pierce looks up and meets Peggy’s eyes. “They can’t have gone far, especially if Barnes is dying. We’ll find them.”

*

The first thing Bucky is aware of is the sound of Steve’s voice. It’s hard to hear, hollow and distant, like it’s echoing through a canyon. But it is, unmistakably, Steve.

“—such a fucking idiot, I should have told you—“

“—sweetheart, I’m right here—“

“—that time in Afghanistan, when we went to—“

Bucky can’t grasp the thread of the conversation, just strings of words here and there, and he doesn’t really try to follow it. Just rises to the surface occasionally and drinks in Steve’s voice. Slides back down. Under.

He’s in the veterinary clinic again.

He’s lost his arm again.

If he could open his mouth, he would scream.

*

Gradually, the snippets of words get longer, start to make sense.

Bucky listens to Steve talking about Mikey, a guy from their unit. Listens to Steve telling a story about the first time he went into a burning building with the fire department, how the smoke had been disorienting, frightening. Listens to Steve recounting stories about his childhood dog, a golden retriever named, inexplicably, Donuts.

Steve’s voice is hoarse, Bucky realizes, and he wonders how long Steve has been talking.

It’s hard to open his eyes; they feel like they’re full of sand and grit, and he can barely pry his eyelids up. Steve doesn’t even notice, just keeps going.

“Hey.” His voice doesn’t sound right, it barely makes any sound at all, but Steve gasps, a million expressions flitting across his face at once. Joy and concern and sheer terror, all at once.

“Hey, baby, oh -” Steve’s voice cracks and cuts off for a moment, and Bucky blinks a few times. Steve looks like shit, pallid complexion and dark circles under his eyes, and Bucky wonders how long he’s been sitting here, keeping up a steady stream of one-sided conversation.

Steve clears his throat and starts over. “Hey,” he says weakly. “What do you need? Water? You hurt anywhere? I’ll get Banner—“

“No,” Bucky says, and it’s a whisper, but Steve freezes, like Bucky’s every word is his command.

“What do you need, sweetheart?”

“Water? And – shit, Steve. What happened? Fuck, where’s Wanda?”

“She’s in the other room, baby boy, she’s fine. I can get her for you, just -”

“No. Just you. Just…for a minute. Just you.”

*

“—so while I can’t guarantee its success until it’s been tested in humans, the antibodies in Barnes’ blood cause the virus to mutate at the cellular level and eventually die,” Banner says softly. He’s standing in the doorway of Bucky’s room, looking tired and cautiously optimistic. Steve thinks vaguely that he should feel happier than he does, hearing this news.

“I think we can replicate those antibodies for a vaccine – and probably use the immunoglobins to create a cure for those who are already Afflicted, if it’s administered within the first eight or so hours of the infection. In that case, it would work more like it did for James,” Banner says, gesturing at Bucky’s neatly wrapped stump. “It wouldn’t render the effects of the bite null, but if it were given right away, I believe it could stop the spread of infection and, depending on the location of the bite, save the victim’s life.”

“So let’s go,” Tony jumps in, frenetic as always. “I’ll get a helicopter here from Houston – we’ll fly out today, hell, we can start the initial production run within forty-eight hours, I’ve got the staff to do it, and—”

“We’re not leaving,” Steve interrupts, cutting Tony off in the middle of a sentence.

“What the fuck do you mean, we aren’t leaving?” Tony looks genuinely baffled, staring at Steve like he’s grown a second head. “You heard the good doctor—your boyfriend’s veins are singing with the blood of life. You were right, Rogers. Let’s go. What the fuck are you waiting for?”

“I’m not waiting for anything. I’m not moving Bucky again.”

Bucky makes a noise of protest, and Steve glances down at him. He’s propped up on pillows, IV still snaking down into the top of his hand. Although some of the color has returned to his face, his eyes are heavy-lidded and sleepy. In addition to the antibiotics, he has a pretty steady supply of morphine going.

“We should go,” Bucky says, his voice muzzy and soft, and Jesus, Steve wants to push everyone else out of the room, smooth back Bucky’s dirty hair and climb up on that exam table with him and just hold him. There probably wouldn’t really be room for both of them – Steve takes up more than his fair share of space these days – but Bucky would, no doubt, delight in watching Steve haul his fat ass up next to Bucky on that narrow table.

Fuck.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Steve says, ignoring everyone else and looking at Bucky. “I’m not moving you.”

“Da—Steve.” Bucky pauses, blinking, and Steve realizes how close Bucky came to calling him daddy in front of Banner, Stark, and Wanda. He wouldn’t have cared. “Steve. We came this far. We have to go.” Bucky waves his hand at Tony, IV tube flopping and pulling. “Let him take us to Houston. We need his money.”

“Why thank you, Barnes, I appreciate that kind of practicality,” Tony says immediately. “See, Rogers? Listen to your boyfriend and let’s go. He’ll have the best medical care in the world. We’ll start the first run of the vaccine. I’ll call Ross, the President, all of fucking Washington.” He grins, cocky and smug. “We have a cure and billions of dollars. We can figure this thing out.”

Steve takes a breath, resisting the low-level urge he always has to punch Tony Stark right in the face. “Listen to me. I am not moving him again. I won’t. I moved him too soon before, after—after Brooklyn. I risked his life. Over and over.” He swallows, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and looks up, from Banner to Stark and back again. “I’ll die here before I take him on the run again.”

“Well, Cap, you might get your chance, pal. You know they’re on their way here. How long do you think it’ll be before they figure out where Banner lives, figure out that we came here? They’re coming. Now.”

Bucky makes a noise from the bed, but Steve ignores it. “Then let them come.”

Chapter Text

Bruce closes the door to Bucky’s room and gestures with his head toward the kitchen. Wanda follows him and Tony down the hall and plops down on a stool at the breakfast bar.

“He’s probably right, you know,” Bruce says. “It’d be risky, moving Barnes at this point.”

“It’s just an infection,” Tony objects. “You’ve got him on antibiotics, he was fine a day ago, and he was well enough to join the mile-high club on the plane this morning.”

Bruce blushes, glances at Wanda, and blushes even harder. “Uh, well,” he says. “Yeah. Okay, but you have to understand that these kinds of infections tend to snowball pretty quickly.”

“And he wasn’t fine yesterday,” Wanda adds. “He was already sick. I could tell.”

“So we medevac him,” Tony says, pacing the kitchen. “He’ll have state-of-the-art, round-the-clock care.”

“You want to draw the whole U.S. Military down on your lab in Houston?”

“You want to invite them into your house?”

Bruce just shakes his head, then looks at Wanda. “What do you think?” he asks.

Wanda is so startled she just blinks for a few seconds, swiveling the barstool to and fro. She hadn’t expected them to consult her, but she knows where her loyalties lie. Bucky would do what Steve said. “I think we should stay.”

“Jesus Christ,” Tony says, slapping a hand on the counter, but Wanda ignores him and goes on.

“You’d never get Steve to let you take him, anyway.”

Bruce nods, smiling a little, and adds, “Not to mention that if whoever’s after them was willing to kill them on sight, there’s a good chance they’d shoot you down before you ever got to Houston. We can’t take the chance, Tony.”

Tony looks like he’s going to argue, but then he lets out a deep breath and slumps against the counter, arms crossed over his chest. “Fine,” he says. “So what’s the big plan? Go out in a blaze of glory, Alamo-style? Because I don’t know if you noticed, but there are only five of us here, including Patient Zero and Carrie, here.”

The two men go on arguing, Tony muttering something about hitting Steve with horse tranquilizers and making a run for it, Bruce’s calm voice reiterating the need to keep Bucky on the road to recovery. They’re not accomplishing much, so Wanda lets her mind wander, gathering the facts, thinking about the problem from several angles. Finally, she sits up a little straighter. “I think I have an idea,” she says.

*

It’s starting to get dark the next time Bucky wakes up. His eyes open and focus too slowly, and even the dim blue light filtering through the curtains is a little too much. He closes them again, and feels a cool hand on his forehead, gently smoothing his hair away from his face.

“Hey, baby,” Steve says softly, as Bucky’s eyes flutter open again. “How you feeling? Okay?”

“Think so,” Bucky murmurs, then, trying and failing to sit up, he adds, “maybe not.”

“Here.” Steve slides an extra pillow behind his head, helping him lift his shoulders up off the table. “Better?”

“Yeah.” He manages a weak smile.

“Think you can eat something? Bruce says you need to keep your blood sugar up if you can.”

Bucky nods, although he’s not really hungry. Steve tears off a bite-sized piece of peanut butter & jelly sandwich and holds it up to Bucky’s lips. Bucky takes it, barely tasting it, chewing mechanically. Steve holds up another bite, and another. It suddenly seems a little funny, Steve feeding him like this.

“This is different.”

“Yes, I finally get to see how the other half lives,” Steve agrees, holding up a can of Coke with a straw in it. Bucky takes a careful sip, then rests his head back on the pillows. “I think I like it better the other way around, if you really want to know.”

“Me too,” Bucky says, with feeling.

“Guess you can’t be that sick, if you’re still thinking about that.”

“Guess not.” He looks at Steve, drinking in the sight of him, for a long moment. “M’sorry,” he murmurs. “Sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“Ssh, it’s okay,” Steve says, holding up another little bite of sandwich. “Forget it. We’ll stay here until you’re feeling better, and then we’re heading down to Tony’s lab in Houston. Bruce says the antibodies in your blood will work, they’re going to make the vaccine.”

“Good,” Bucky says. “That’s good.” He can hear how dreamy and vague his voice sounds, and his eyes are opening and closing in long, slow blinks, reducing everything to blurry snapshots.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Steve says. “Buck, I thought you were – well. With the virus and all, I didn’t know what to fucking think.” He scrubs his hands over his face, and Bucky notices for the first time how red his eyes are, how tired he seems, his usual overabundant energy utterly depleted. “I can’t take that chance again, I just can’t. I won’t. So fuck Tony, fuck whoever’s coming here. I can’t do it again. I thought you were gone.” His hand finds Bucky’s, squeezes it.

The morphine floats through Bucky’s veins, fogging his brain, weighing his body down, but he can also see what it costs Steve to say this, even to feel this. He wants to tell him how much it matters to him that Steve is still here, to know that he won’t leave his side, wants to tell him so many things. But he’s exhausted, and his head is a mess, and he can’t. “M’not going anywhere,” he manages. “Not without you, daddy. M’gonna stay right here, with you.” And then he’s adrift again, on a black tide of sleep.

*

Peggy stares furiously out the window at the passing houses, interspersed with a few scraps of intact prairie. If she looked out the other window, she’d have a more pleasing view of the Rockies, rising high and jagged out of the foothills, but that would mean looking at Pierce, and she doesn’t want to look at him.

“We’ll be there in five,” he’s saying to someone on the phone. “It’s Rogers, Barnes, Banner, and possibly Stark as well. Nobody seems to know where he is. And a girl, but I doubt she’ll pose much of a problem.”

He’s been on the phone with several different people since they’d landed, and he clearly thinks things are going his way. That’s fine with Peggy; she wants him smug; she wants him optimistic. She wants him a little overconfident.

“We’re nearly there,” Pierce says, reaching out to touch her on the shoulder. Even the brush of his hand is loathsome, and Peggy has to repress a shudder. “I hope you’re not planning on doing anything stupid.”

“Go to hell,” Peggy says.

“I just want to ensure that this all ends well. For everyone involved.”

“Yes, well. We seem to have very different ideas about what constitutes a satisfactory ending.”

“We all want to see this virus cured,” Pierce says. “Try to focus on that.”

Peggy bites back her retort, which involved telling Pierce to focus on her fist in his face, and looks back out the window. They’re drawing to a halt in front of a modest house surrounded by golden-leaved aspen trees. It looks peaceful, a pleasant, quiet home in a pleasant quiet neighborhood, until she spots the black-clad special ops team working their way around to the back of the house.

“Once we’re in position, you and I are going to go in. We don’t want to go in there with guns blazing and risk injury to Barnes. We need him alive.”

“So you can get your money,” she says. “And kill Steve.”

“It doesn’t have to go that way,” Pierce says, meeting her eyes, his blue gaze a parody of reassurance. “Agent Carter – Peggy – if you work with me, we might be able to get Barnes out of there without killing anyone.”

Right, she thinks. “So, what, you’ll just let them all go?”

“Not everyone has to die,” he says. “That’s up to you. Talk to Rogers. Reason with him. Tell him that if he and the others who are with him will come outside peacefully, unarmed, we’ll have Barnes taken to a medical facility and start working on the vaccine right away.”

“And Steve?”

“If he’s willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement, perhaps we could work with him.”

“Work with him,” she repeats, evenly. “You said you needed him dead.”

“I said he was inconvenient alive.”

“So, what, you’re seriously offering to just let him go?”

“I’m not in a position to promise anything. There’s still the question of treason, there will likely be a court martial. I only have so much control.” So self-deprecating, so smooth, so handsome. Peggy almost wants to believe him, he’s that good. She has to be better.

“Very well,” she says. “Let’s go.”

*

Steve comes into the kitchen and stops, staring at the mess spread all over the counter. Coils of copper wire, microchips, all manner of electronic debris is spread everywhere. Wanda, twisting a strand of hair around and around one finger, surveys from a barstool as Bruce and Tony solder something onto what looks like a computer motherboard.

“Urgent project for the science fair?” he asks.

“Every kid needs to have the opportunity to make a baking soda volcano at least once in their lives, Rogers,” Tony says, winking at Wanda. “And they say today’s youth aren’t taking an interest in STEM.”

“There,” Bruce says, stepping back from whatever he’s just been doing and looking up at Wanda. “Better?”

Wanda closes her eyes, and some ineffable something about the room changes, Steve can feel it, even if he can’t quite identify what’s different. Then Wanda opens her eyes again and smiles. “Much better.” Little strands of hair fly up around her head, charged with static. “How’s Bucky?”

“He’s all right,” Steve says. “He’s sleeping. What’s going on?”

“We’re amplifying the amplifier,” Bruce says. “It was Wanda’s idea. It’s not like we’ve got an arsenal in here. If they’re coming after you -”

He’s interrupted by a sharp rap on the front door. Everyone turns to look at it.

“They’re here,” Wanda says.

*

“Open the door,” Peggy hisses, when the door opens a crack and she sees the man standing behind it. “Quickly.”

“Peg?” It’s Steve’s voice.

“Yes, for god’s sake, open the damn door, Rogers, I can’t hold him up much longer and if they see - ” And then the door is open, and Pierce’s weight is lifted off her shoulder, where she’d been struggling to keep him more or less upright.

“What happened to him?” Steve asks, as she hurries inside and locks the door behind them.

“I happened to him. God, what an insufferable asshole. You would not believe – good heavens.” She stops short, staring at Steve. “What on earth have you been eating?”

“Peggy, who is this?” Steve asks, lowering Pierce’s inert form onto the sofa. “What the hell is going on?”

“The house is surrounded. That’s the director of Homeland Security, Alexander Pierce. I think he meant to threaten me as a means of forcing your hand. He wants you dead, blah blah blah nefarious plot. Now, who’s here, and what sort of weapons do you have?”

“Blah blah…? Peggy. C’mon.”

Peggy’s moving around the room, flipping the blinds firmly shut. “He forced me here at gunpoint. I tripped him during the walk from the car to the door. He hit his head on the concrete step out front – I don’t think anyone noticed. We have perhaps five minutes, maybe less, before a gang of black ops goons burns this place down in a hail of bullets. Now, do you have a plan?”

“You tripped him?”

“No one ever sees it coming,” she says. “It’s a highly underrated move. Be a love and tie his hands and feet, will you?”

*

Wanda watches, wide-eyed, as the woman—Peggy, her name is Peggy, and she’s beautiful and and smart and Wanda can feel power radiating off of her in waves—moves around the room, casually taking charge. Wanda hasn’t known a lot of women, and certainly none like this. Her own mother died when she was very young, and the parade of women who’d had the dubious honor of being her stepfather’s girlfriend had not been commanding types.

Wanda thinks she might like this new woman as much as she likes Bucky.

“This is the weapon,” Tony says, pointing at Wanda, and Wanda snaps to attention.

Peggy is not amused. “Your weapon is a little girl.”

“I’m seventeen,” Wanda begins, because she doesn’t want this woman to think she’s a child, but Peggy ignores her, turning to Steve.

“Steven?”

Steve grimaces. “This is Wanda. She’s telekinetic—is that the word, honey?” He looks at Wanda and raises his eyebrows, but she just shrugs. She’s never had an official diagnosis. “She can do things. With her mind.”

Peggy doesn’t look convinced, so Wanda casually levitates a lamp on the end-table. It’s not hard; something that small doesn’t even take much concentration, especially with the amplifier in the room.

“See?” Tony says, looking gleeful, as if he’s completely unfazed by the fact that they all might die in a matter of minutes.

“Well, my goodness.” Peggy gives Wanda an appreciative, slightly appraising look. “That’s a handy skill.”

“She can set stuff on fire, too,” Tony adds. “And she crashed my plane.” He scowls at this, as if he’s just now remembering that his plane is currently in ruins in a field, and Wanda winces.

Peggy rolls her eyes. “I’d love to hear all about it – honestly, nothing would please me more – but there are more pressing matters at hand than your ridiculous Titanic of an airplane, Tony.” She settles her gaze on Wanda again. “How much control do you have over your, ah, abilities?”

Wanda considers the question. She’s tested her strength considerably in the last forty-eight hours, done more than she’d ever thought possible, and she is suddenly, achingly desperate not to let these people down. This room full of adults, all of them powerful and capable and inexplicably kind to her, even when there had been no reason for them to be, even before they knew what she could do. She wants to be what they need her to be right now.

“I can do whatever you need me to do,” she says, squaring her shoulders in a subconscious mimicry of the stance she’d seen Bucky and Steve assume when they’d stood together in that field, watching Rumlow drive toward them. “With Dr. Banner and his, um, equipment, I can do whatever you need me to do.” She smiles a little at Dr. Banner, and he smiles back.

She can feel Steve’s eyes on her and she glances over at him. He nods at her, just once, and the feeling that washes over her is warm as May sunshine. He looks proud of her.

“Excellent,” Peggy says. “They’ll come from the back and the sides – only a couple to the front door – will you know when they’re coming?”

“Yes.”

Around her, everyone begins to move. Banner sits down, his eyes glued to the amplifier, like he’s willing it to work. Steve produces her father’s nine millimeter from his hip, materializing it as if from nowhere, and to Wanda’s complete surprise, Tony Stark does the same thing, pulling a shiny handgun from his muddied-but-still-luxurious suit jacket.

Peggy has Pierce’s slim little gentleman’s pistol, and Wanda watches her slide the safety off.

Then she takes a breath, sits down on the edge of Banner’s nice, overstuffed sofa, and closes her eyes.

They’re coming.

*

Like a lot of really big deals, when it actually happens, it seems almost anticlimactic. Wanda takes a few deep breaths, and then sends her mind out. Out of her head. Out of the house. Out of everything except the people she’s looking for.

Wanda is a smart girl, but when she does this thing, uses her mind this way, she can’t deal in complexities. The people in the house are good. The people outside are not. That’s all she needs to know. Anything else is just a distraction.

She finds them quickly, a dozen men streaming around the house, mostly from the back, just like Peggy said.

That part was easy.

When she summons all of her strength and begins to work, the amplifier picks her up almost immediately, and the force of it is overwhelming. She convulses twice, and suddenly the room seems electrified. Everyone except Wanda stumbles as energy radiates from her, and she can feel the hair on her arms and the back of her neck standing on end.

She knows, without opening her eyes, that she’s done it.

Tony is the first one to gather himself, probably because he has the advantage of having already been thrown across a field by the power of Wanda’s mind once before. This little ripple now barely fazes him, and he’s across the room, peering out between the Venetian blinds and into the side yard before anyone else reacts.

Sonuvabitch.” Tony’s whistles low between his teeth. “You did it. There’s a SWAT team frozen in the goddamned yard. Jesus H. Christ, you did it!” Wanda smiles, lets herself sag back against the sofa cushions. She did it. She protected her friends. The people who had also protected her.

She’s so happy, so relieved, that she doesn’t even notice when one final presence appears in the vicinity, arriving too late to have been caught in the net of stillness that Wanda had cast around the house.

The gunshot, when it comes, is alarmingly loud, and a huge hole appears in Banner’s nice front door, blowing the handle away completely.

And there, larger than life, is the man who’d been driving the sedan earlier, the one who’d told Steve and Bucky it was the end of the line.

The one Wanda had left frozen in the field.

*

At the sound of the shotgun blast crashing through the front door, Steve had sprung forward, throwing himself in front of Wanda. It’s funny – in a situation like that, you don’t have time to plan anything. You just react, and a part of Steve is a little surprised that his instinct wasn’t to protect Peggy, a woman he had once been in love with, a woman he still loves.

But it’s not Peggy whom he tries to shield. It’s this little girl with the curtain of dark hair and the terrible, beautiful mind.

Wanda’s barely conscious, and Steve finds himself standing between her and Rumlow for a second time.

Rumlow, who had the element of surprise. Rumlow, who shoved his way inside, knocked that elegant little pistol out of Peggy’s hands and who now has his thick arm wrapped around her neck, pulling her roughly against him.

Jesus fucking Christ, Bucky should have shot him in Ohio when they’d had the chance.

The twelve gauge he used on the door is strapped across his shoulder, but the .50 caliber in Rumlow’s hand is enormous, and it’s aimed straight at Peggy’s temple. Her brown eyes are wide, but there’s no sign of panic in them. They’re still cool, still calculating.

Jesus, she’s braver than any man Steve ever served with.

“Should have shot you when I had the chance,” Rumlow says, and Steve almost laughs, it’s such a mirror image of his own sentiments.

His own gun is still in his hand, and Tony has his, too, but that doesn’t mean anything, not with the weapon Rumlow’s holding against Peggy’s head. Steve knows that gun – it’s a Desert Eagle, a particular favorite among assholes and criminals, the kind of guys who seem comically unaware of the Freudian overtones of their attachment to such a big weapon – and he knows what it would do, fired at such close range.

It’s his fault, his fault if she dies, and he can’t live with that guilt. If anyone has to die, it should be him. It’s his fault they’re all here, now.

He opens his mouth to speak, but before he can say anything, a deafening gunshot explodes from somewhere behind him, an ear-splitting crash of unexpected sound.

Rumlow falls to the floor, crumpling down like a rag doll behind Peggy, who is still standing but is, at least, gratifyingly pale. It’s a head shot, clean and brutal, and a mixture of blood and gray matter – the oozing, terrible slime of brains, of someone’s entire being – splatters across Bruce’s living room wall.

Steve swivels to Tony, to Bruce, but it’s neither of them. Hell, Banner didn’t even have a fucking gun.

A head shot.

Perfectly clean, almost surgical in its precision.

The last time he saw head shots like that had been in Brooklyn.

He whirls, and Bucky’s standing in the doorway, the 1911 Steve had given him hanging loosely in his hand.

“What the fuck?” Irrationally, Steve’s first impulse is a grinding, protective anger. “You shouldn’t be up!” He scans Bucky head to toe, compulsively checking for damage. Dark circles still under his eyes, left arm still missing, and—this is new—the top of his right hand dripping blood onto Banner’s carpet, from the place where he’d apparently ripped out his IV.

“You looked like you needed someone at your six,” Bucky says casually, offering up one of those million dollar smiles that he seems to keep in his back pocket, dragging one out whenever he feels that the application of dimples and teeth will be helpful. And it does help, no matter how much it doesn’t quite reach his eyes, no matter how pale and gaunt he looks under that grin.

Steve swallows, tries to find words to form an appropriate response, but Peggy steps forward, disentangling one sensible high heel from where Rumlow has fallen on it, and speaks before Steve has a chance. “You must be Sergeant Barnes,” she says, holding out her hand and smiling. “I see why Steven was so willing to commit treason for you now. I’ve always appreciated a man who was handy with a firearm.”

Bucky’s smile widens impossibly as he steps forward to take her hand.

*

“You weren’t supposed to get up,” Steve says for what is at least the third time, taping the IV back into place in Bucky’s bruised right hand.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Some people would say thank you, someone steps in like that.”

“You could have died.”

“We all could die, every fucking day. That’s the world, sir—especially lately. Have you noticed?”

Steve looks up from Bucky’s hand, where he’s been fussing endlessly, and Bucky sees his throat convulse as he swallows hard. God, he looks beautiful – big and handsome and solemn and whole. “Yeah, baby boy, I noticed.”

“But we didn’t. I didn’t. We’re okay.” Bucky shrugs. “It’s okay.” That isn’t, exactly, what he wants to tell Steve, but he’s not sure where to begin. He still feels like shit, to be honest – his head is pounding, and his mouth is dry. His shoulder has stopped hurting, thanks to whatever opiates Banner’s been mercifully pumping through his system, but he still feels shaky, clammy all over. It’s like a bad case of the flu, except instead of coughing or a sore throat, his arm fell off.

That isn’t quite the right metaphor.

The drugs may have something do with that.

“Baby,” Steve is saying, and Bucky blinks, focusing carefully on Steve’s somber eyes.

“Yeah?”

“I’m so sorry, baby boy,” Steve says, and Bucky starts to protest, but Steve cuts him off. “I’m sorry all of this happened, and I – I have to go help them clean up this fucking mess, and you have to stay in bed, but...Bucky, there are things I want to tell you. I just have to go out there for a minute, okay?”

Bucky grins, knowing it probably looks dopey – he feels high as a kite, now that the adrenaline of shooting Rumlow is starting to wear off and Steve’s got that damned IV back in. “’Kay. Go do whatever, daddy. Love you.”

Steve freezes, looking so poleaxed that Bucky snickers. “What? Oh, shit, was that the thing? That you wanted to tell me?”

There’s a beat of silence, and then Steve’s smiling, too. “Yeah, but I don’t think you’ll remember this later, so it doesn’t matter.”

“I do, though,” Bucky says, and now he feels very serious about it, and he hopes Steve is listening. Is he listening? He needs to listen. “I love you. I’d follow you anywhere.”

“I know, baby, and I lo—“

“It’s not just because you got so fat,” Bucky interrupts, because this is important. Steve is funny about that, sometimes, looking so sad, drinking too much and eating whatever fucking junk Bucky hands him, and he needs to know that it’s only good for Bucky when it’s good for Steve, too. “I mean – it’s real hot, god, you look fucking amazing, and you know the worst part about not having an arm is not being able to feed you and touch your belly at the same time? It’s the fuckin’ worst. But I – I wanted you before. Been in love with you since Afghanistan, when you looked like GI fuckin’ Joe, you know that?”

“Yeah, baby?”

Yes.” Bucky nods emphatically.

Steve looks down at him, and Bucky’s eyes swim, his vision narrowing down until all he can see is Steve, his handsome face hovering above him. He looks so big, blond and bearded, blue eyes so serious, and Bucky thinks he looks sort of like he used to imagine Jesus looked, when his ma used to take him to mass. If Jesus was fat. Which he usually wasn’t. Which was a shame.

Bucky blinks, trying to focus, and then Steve is touching him, kissing him on the forehead like he’s a kid. “I love you too, Buck. Christ, I love you, too.”

*

The situation doesn’t sort itself out as quickly as Steve would like, after he gets Bucky settled. There’s the matter of the eerily still SWAT team dotting Banner’s suburban lawn like a set of dystopian garden gnomes, first of all, which have to be dealt with.

Tony eyes Wanda and asks if she can “mojo” them into the house, but Steve snuffs that idea before Wanda can even consider it. She’s pale and wan, slumped on the sofa, and she has done enough.

In the end, they haul them inside one at a time, Bruce at their feet and Steve at their head, moving them like particularly warm statues and stacking them in the basement. It’s the strangest thing Steve has ever seen, and his life has taken a distinct turn for the bizarre this summer.

The day is only more surreal when he and Banner return to the main floor of the house and find Peggy and Tony tying a beginning-to-stir Alexander Pierce to a kitchen chair. Neither of them seem even remotely fazed to be restraining the Director of Homeland Security; then again, he’d kidnapped Peggy first.

Steve sits down on the couch next to Wanda. He knows he should probably be doing something. God knows this whole thing isn’t over yet, and there’s a dead body in Banner’s foyer next to his blown-out front door, which is a problem that probably requires immediate attention, but he can’t quite seem to pull it together. Thankfully, Tony looks like he’s absolutely in his element, like this is all the most entertaining lark he’s ever had the pleasure of experiencing. He’s jabbering into his cell phone and tapping away on a tablet at the same time, pacing around Banner’s living room looking like the mad scientist he sort of is.

“Isn’t it nice to have powerful friends?” Tony demands an indeterminate amount of time later, his cell phone finally returned to the pocket of his suit.

“Nice isn’t the word I would have used.”

“You say that, but you wouldn’t have made it across the Mississippi River without me,” Tony says matter-of-factly, looking not upset in the least that Steve isn’t singing his praises.

Steve cringes, because it’s probably true—and even if they had, Bucky would have likely died somewhere in that miserable stretch of nothing that is the entire state of Kansas.

“You’re extremely helpful, Tony, none of us could possibly function without you, you’re a gift to mankind and a credit to your country,” Peggy cuts in, rolling her eyes. “Truly, where would we be without you?”

“You wouldn’t be getting ready to get picked up and air-lifted to Houston, that’s what,” Tony says, grinning. “Chopper’s on its way. A medi-vac unit for Barnes, too,” he adds, looking at Steve.

Steve closes his eyes for a moment. “Thanks, Tony. I – thanks.”

“No problem, Cap. Only the finest for America’s newest heroes.”

“I thought we were America’s Most Wanted,” Steve says, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

“Nonsense. You just had a PR problem. Which I have solved for you.”

“I hate you, Stark.”

“You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

Steve had lost a few pounds while Bucky had been in physical therapy, getting used to the new prosthesis. He’d been so worried, he’d barely eaten anything for days during Bucky’s recovery, and once Bucky had pulled through, he’d barely left his side, sitting through every agonizing part of the procedure to re-equip him with a functional left appendage. There wasn’t much time allotted for meals, and in those nervy, early days, with the first batches of the vaccine rolling out the door of Stark’s lab, neither of them had had much of an appetite.

One night, in their little apartment on the Stark Enterprises research campus outside Houston, Bucky had glared at Steve’s abstemious plate so despondently that Steve had worried he might be having a relapse.

“I’m fine,” Bucky had sighed, poking glumly at the healthy, vegetable-laden dinner Tony’s staff had delivered. “I guess I just miss road food.”

“You miss feeding me road food, you mean,” Steve had said, and Bucky hadn’t bothered to deny it.

“You look so…svelte.”

Steve had leaned back in his chair, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. “Bucky, I weigh two-hundred and seventy pounds,” he’d said, patting his belly in illustration of this fact. “I’m hardly svelte.

“I guess,” Bucky had said.

“Tell you what,” Steve said, chucking Bucky under his chin across the table. “You finish this physical therapy thing? You can feed me anything you want.”

And of course, Bucky had perked right up, and finished out his treatment in three weeks.

Thanks to Tony and Peggy and their behind-the-scenes machinations, there had been no court martial for either of them, so as soon as the three weeks was up, they’d said their farewells to Tony and headed back to Brooklyn.

Their days are spent helping with the cleanup effort – Bucky working with a group of Peace Corps volunteers to tack plywood over broken windows, clear garbage and debris from the streets, and to gather bodies, a grim task he doesn’t speak about at all with Steve or anyone else. Steve, meanwhile, had joined a Red Cross volunteer corps setting up vaccine clinics and administering shots and first aid at the firehouse down the street from home. At the end of each shift, Bucky hunts down one of the few restaurants that had dared to reopen during the city’s slow recovery, returning home each night with a huge bag full of takeout boxes.

Two months in, the city is starting to look like home again, and Steve had regained all the weight he’d lost, plus a few extra pounds for good measure.

On an evening in late November, after a ridiculously lavish dinner of baked ziti and cheesecake, Steve sits down gingerly on the sofa, rubbing his achingly full belly and watching Bucky clean up the dishes.

“We need to talk,” he says. He wants to pop the button of his jeans, but he’s reasonably certain that if he does, Bucky will be too distracted – and distracting – for them to have much of a conversation.

“Uh-oh,” Bucky says, shutting off the water and turning to look at him. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Steve says, patting the sofa cushion next to him. “C’mere.”

Bucky does, but instead of sitting down next to Steve, he straddles his lap, hands going automatically to his belly, rubbing little circles against the soft flannel of his shirt. “What is it?”

“I’m thinking about Wanda,” Steve says. “She’ll be finished with school soon.”

Bucky smiles, and Steve’s heart skips a beat. Too many times in the last few months, he’d thought he’d never see that smile again. He rests a hand on Bucky’s cheek, just briefly, then covers Bucky’s hands with his. “I know Tony got her a place and all, but I was thinking – what if she came to stay with us for a while? We have the space, and she’s all by herself. We could fix up a room for her, if she wants.” Bucky doesn’t say anything, so Steve goes on. “I mean – maybe that’s weird. Maybe she wants to go straight on to college, or something. I don’t know. But I thought, now that everything’s settled down…” he shrugs. “What do you think?”

Bucky tilts his head, still smiling down at Steve. “You think it’s safe? I thought we were supposed to avoid contact until after Pierce’s trial, to keep her out of everything.”

“Yeah, I got a call from her this afternoon. It’s all over – Pierce got twenty-five years. Leavenworth, the federal pen. Looks like we’re finally in the clear.”

“In that case,” Bucky says, leaning down to kiss Steve gently on the lips, “Yes. Let’s go bust her out of that stupid school.”

“I thought we should probably wait until she finishes,” Steve says. “Tony says she’s graduating next week, maybe we could go up there, catch the ceremony. What do you say?”

“I say yes,” Bucky says. “Of course I do. God, I miss that kid.”

“Me too. I miss her like crazy.”

Bucky kisses him again, slower this time. When he pulls away, Bucky’s eyes are dark, his cheeks a little flushed, and Steve loves him so goddamn much it takes his breath away. “What else do you want, baby boy?”

“Want you to eat the rest of the cheesecake,” Bucky says, pinching a little roll of fat at Steve’s waist, nibbling along his softening jawline.

“Course you do. Then what? Tell me.”

“Then I want you to take me to bed, daddy,” Bucky whispers in his ear. “Please.”

*

The midyear graduation ceremony is a small affair, held in the dean’s office. There are a few parents present, sitting in fancy office chairs in the spacious room, looking on proudly as their kids accept rolled sheets of blank parchment. The real diplomas will be mailed. Wanda plucks at a stray thread in the sleeve of the polyester gown she’s wearing over her uniform, wondering why she’d even bothered with this.

“Phillips Exeter Academy,” Tony had said, handing her a thick, embossed envelope with her enrollment information. “You’re fast-tracked for graduation in December. It’s intensive,” he’d added, meeting her eyes. “But you seem smart. I’m usually a good judge of that kind of thing.”

“Smart enough to graduate from high school,” she’d said, defiantly.

“Good. Prove it. Your two dads in there will probably kill me in my sleep if this doesn’t work out.” He’d thumbed over his shoulder at the room where Bucky had been taken, where Steve was sitting beside him, hassling the doctors and worrying, probably needlessly. “They’re going to have to lie low for a little bit, and it’s probably a good idea for you to do the same. So…y’know. Keep your head down. Don’t make any waves, get me?”

She had gotten it, and she had kept her head down. Now the Affliction crisis is all but over, at least according to the news reports. The vaccine is working, cases of the virus are steadily diminishing, and Tony Stark is on every channel pretending to be humble about his stunning philanthropy in bringing the cure to the masses.

It’s harder than Wanda had ever expected, being cut off from Bucky and Steve. She feels left out, like a little kid sent to her room while the grownups took care of all the important business. And she’s never missed them more than she does right now.

“Excuse me,” she says, standing up and making for the door. “I – excuse me, I’m just going to go.”

The parents and administrators look concerned and a little irritated by her interruption, but don’t try to stop her; they roll their chairs out of the way, letting her pass. She heads across the quad to her dorm, not feeling as free as she’d hoped she would, now that this chapter of her life is done.

Thinking about them hurts. Your two dads, Tony had called them, and maybe it was stupid – she knows now that it must have been – but that’s what she had hoped for, ever since Bucky had looked her in the eye in her dad’s trailer, ever since he’d said I’ll take you with me so he can’t hit you anymore.

She sighs, checking the drawers of the dresser for anything she might have left behind, but there’s nothing. She gets her toothbrush and other toiletries out of the bathroom and stuffs them into her duffel bag, slips out of her cap and gown and folds them neatly on the twin bed.

I’ll take you with me. That’s what she’d hoped, in her stupid, babyish heart. And now she doesn’t know what to do. Go to her stupid new apartment and get on with her stupid new life, she guesses – but it seems so big, too much to handle after all she’s been through.

“Miss Maximoff? Wanda, dear? Are you here?”

It’s the faculty advisor and de facto house mother, Mrs. Warner. “Yeah, I’m here,” Wanda says. “I’m just getting my things.”

“I thought I saw you come in. But you’re always so…quiet.” Mrs. Warner laughs, nervously. Wanda makes Mrs. Warner uneasy. She isn’t like the other students. “There are, um, two gentlemen here to see you?” She makes it sound like a question, like she can’t believe Wanda actually knows anybody. “They said they didn’t see you at the graduation ceremony – someone told them you’d left halfway through?”

Wanda tries to tamp down the ridiculous surge of hope. It might not be Steve and Bucky. It could be police, coming to cart her off somewhere. She has to be careful. “Two guys?” she asks. “Who are they?”

“I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t get their names, but they’re waiting for you downstairs in the common room. I assumed that they must be relatives? Dark-haired young man, good-looking, prosthetic arm? And the other one’s…well. Quite a specimen. Big blonde fellow with a beard?”

Wanda’s flying down the stairs so fast she nearly stumbles, and has to grab the handrail to keep from tumbling headlong into the lobby. She flings open the heavy hardwood door to the common room and practically squeals with delight.

“Bucky!”

Bucky looks about a thousand times better than when she’d last seen him, pale and clammy-looking in the hospital bed at the research facility in Houston. His hair is still too long, but it looks clean now, pulled back in a messy, indifferent knot behind his head. He’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She nearly slams into him, but he catches her effortlessly and sweeps her off her feet in a huge hug.

“You’re supposed to be graduating,” Bucky says, smiling his light-the-world smile at her. “Why’d you skip out?”

“It’s not the real diploma,” she says breathlessly, and she knows she’s grinning like an idiot, but she can’t help it; she’s suddenly so full of happiness she can hardly stand it. “They mail the real one in a couple of weeks.”

“We were going to surprise you,” Steve says. “But we got held up in traffic, got here late.”

She turns around, and there he is, as big and burly as ever, and Wanda is dismayed to feel tears spring to her eyes. Her affection for Bucky is easy - she loves him like the older brother she’d never had - but Steve is different. It isn’t that she loves him more than Bucky, but he occupies a place in her heart that’s been empty for so long, the filling of it is almost painful.

She flings herself into him; he wraps his arms around her and holds her tight. He feels even bigger than she remembers, and better, and it’s everything, having both of them back again.

“Hey, honey,” he says, and she knows she should let go, try to act like a normal person, but she stays there just a little longer, face pressed into his chest, letting her tears dry against the soft flannel of his shirt, and he goes on holding her, like he’ll never let go.

*

When Bucky had crawled up onto that table in the veterinary clinic last spring, he’d thought it was the last decision he’d ever make. And he’d been reasonably fine with it – dying comfortably, laid down under the watchful eye of the man who had kept him safe in Afghanistan, who had done his best by him since the day they had met. It had seemed like a good death.

Now, living with that same man, sharing his apartment in a Brooklyn that is starting to look a lot like home again, feels almost unreal sometimes. If someone had asked Bucky a year ago where he thought he’d be now? Living with his former CO and their pseudo-adopted daughter, wielding a shiny silver prosthesis instead of a left arm, an honorably discharged veteran – none of those things would have made the list of things that seemed even reasonably possible.

Life is funny like that.

It feels surreal, living this pretty little life, safe and warm and surrounded not just by Steve, but by friends, family. Tonight, for instance, he’s picking up Thai food not just for himself and Steve, but for Sam Wilson, who’s also back in New York and is as frustratingly unflappable as ever, and for Wanda and a friend of hers, a grad student with long red sex-kitten hair and a sharp Russian accent. Wanda thinks she can walk on water. Bucky thinks she looks like trouble.

He figures the way he feels about her is sort of the way that sitcom fathers always feel about their daughters’ boyfriends. He doesn’t trust her a bit, and it’s all he can do to keep from gratuitously polishing his service weapon when she’s around.

Still, it’s awfully nice that, at the moment, Bucky’s biggest problem is his pseudo-adopted-daughter’s maybe-girlfriend.

It’s all so shockingly domestic, and it feels remarkably good, sitting around Steve’s crowded little dining room table, watching Steve eat his weight in pad thai and listening to Sam crack good-natured jokes about Steve’s still-growing gut. And Bucky is pretty sure Sam has their number, the way he’s knowingly eyeballing Bucky every time he silently passes over this or that container to Steve, every time he dumps extra spring rolls onto his plate or brings him another beer.

It even feels good, sort of, to watch Wanda across the table, peering at the woman who is probably her girlfriend, although Wanda isn’t using the word and Bucky isn’t sure he wants her to. The not-girlfriend, Natasha, is a stunner. She’s a good six or seven years older than Wanda, at least, with a filthy-slow smile that she aims at Wanda when she thinks no one is looking. But Bucky is looking.

Wanda still looks younger than she is, skinny and delicate, but there’s a confidence about her that she hadn’t had when Bucky had met her in Missouri all those months ago. Even when she’d been setting fields on fire and crashing planes, she’d always looked tentative, like an animal just a hair’s breadth away from bolting at any moment. Now she looks like she’s home.

It’s a good life, and it’s something Bucky had never been able to envision for himself.

*

When everyone leaves – Sam turning down the offer of taking his leftovers with him in favor of shoving them toward Steve with a good-natured grin, Wanda heading off to “go get coffee” with Natasha, whatever that means – Steve sprawls out across their couch, slow and lazy. His sweater is hitched up a little at the bottom, and an inch or two of his lower belly shows, just enough to drive Bucky crazy.

He wonders if it will ever go away, if he’ll ever not react to Steve like this, like he’s the sexiest thing Bucky’s ever seen.

He had even wondered, in the back of his mind, if things wouldn’t be so intense between them, once they weren’t in constant grinding peril. He’s read about that, the thing where people form intense emotional attachments in times of upheaval, only to fade away, their purpose served, when the life-or-death emergency had passed. A little, tiny part of him had been scared that might happen to him and Steve. That once they weren’t on the road, once it wasn’t them against the world, it wouldn’t be the same.

The truth is, it’s not the same. It’s better.

The frenentic, terrifying pace of those days on the road is gone, and in its place is a kind of relaxed, easy tenor Bucky has never known. He’s always been a little high strung, a little too tightly wound for his own good, and the military had been a good way to channel all of that energy. Someone to tell him what to do, a task to complete, even if it was just filling time – and that was often the case.

Now Steve fills that role, and it feels good. It’s a different kind of feeling to be with Steve this way, slow and easy. He remembers those nights on the road, cooking for him in an abandoned hotel in Indianapolis or eating greasy diner food in Illinois, wondering if that was all they would have. Now they have all the time in the world, and it spins out in front of them like a seemingly endless thread.

Sometimes, though, Bucky still feels as desperate and undone as he ever did when they were on the run, and tonight is one of those nights.

He gets a carton of ice cream on his way to the living room, and he straddles Steve’s hips, letting one leg dangle on the floor and smashing the other between Steve’s wide body and the couch. It’s an increasingly tight fit, and Steve huffs a little at his weight, shifting under him. Bucky shoves his hips forward, shamelessly pressing his cock, already half hard, against Steve’s gut.

Steve grins up at him, his expression that mix of fondness and amusement that he always has when Bucky’s like this, desperate and practically begging for it. “Hey, baby boy.”

Bucky shoves his hips forward again. “Hey, daddy.” He starts to lean forward and falters for a second; sometimes when he catches sight of the prosthetic arm – shiny and silver, alarmingly mechanical to Bucky’s eyes – it takes him by surprise, maybe even more than the original absence ever did.

Steve knows immediately what Bucky’s thinking, and he gently lays a hand on Bucky’s metal arm, managing to make it seem perfectly casual, like it’s nothing. Bucky may have reservations about the arm, but if Steve does, too, he’s never once let them show.

Bucky takes a breath and throws himself back into things, scooping up a melty bite of ice cream and holding it out. Steve takes it good-naturedly, lazily licking the spoon clean, and he shifts his weight again, like he’s getting comfortable, settling in to let Bucky take care of him.

And so Bucky does, not bothering to speak, just spooning ice cream into Steve’s mouth and grinding on him a little, sometimes leaning forward and catching Steve’s lips against his own. When they’re kissing, Bucky’s lean body spread over Steve’s thick frame, Bucky revels in the feeling of Steve’s round, bloated tummy against his own abs, the way Steve’s belly feels soft and firm at the same time, full and fat and safe in ways that Bucky could never put into words.

By the time the ice cream’s gone, the last liquid spoonful delivered stickily to Steve’s mouth, Bucky’s needy, pressing desperately against Steve’s gut and riding his thigh.

“Shh, easy, baby,” Steve murmurs against his lips, his voice casually confident even though he’s so full he’s short of breath. “Easy. I’ve got you.”

And he does.

*

Later, Bucky lies in bed, watching through the bathroom door as Steve brushes his teeth. He’s still damp from the shower, an extra-large towel wrapped around his stocky hips, his swollen belly pressed over the lip of the sink as he leans forward to spit mouthwash. Christ, he’s the hottest thing Bucky’s ever seen, and he thinks he could probably go another round when Steve comes to bed, get him dirty all over again.

He doesn’t, though. Steve looks sleepy, happy and full, eyes heavy, and Bucky curls himself around Steve’s tummy instead, the way they used to sleep on the road, when Bucky had clung to him with a desperation that makes him almost embarrassed, now.

“Do you think Wanda’s gay?” Steve asks once the light’s off.

Bucky grins, pressing his lips against the plush chub of Steve’s ribs and sucking up a little kiss before he answers. “I think she wants to fuck the Russian girl,” he answers, his words muffled against Steve’s side.

Steve heaves a sigh, his tummy expanding impossibly farther. “I thought so.” He’s quiet for a minute. “She’s too old for her.”

“It could be worse,” Bucky says, still biting occasionally at the little roll of pudge under Steve’s armpit.

“How?”

Bucky shrugs. “Wanda could be a regular kid.”

“She is a regular kid,” Steve begins defensively, and Bucky cuts him off.

“I mean if anyone tries to hurt her, Wanda can just give ‘em the old one-two mind-punch knockout. Don’t worry so much.”

“Think we can talk Stark into paying for Berkley instead of NYU?” Steve asks speculatively, sounding about half serious.

“Nope.”

“Maybe a year abroad, at least.”

“Maybe,” Bucky says, just to placate him, and Steve starts listing off possible places of study, each more remote than the next, all of them very far away from beautiful, dangerous-looking redheads with exotic accents and the audacity to give Wanda bedroom-eyes.

The sound of Steve’s voice lulls Bucky to sleep, and he drifts off while Steve’s still talking.

They don’t say good night, don’t exchange I love yous.

They haven’t made any big confessions or commitments, not since Bucky was lying on the table in Banner’s spare bedroom.

They don’t have to. This is the end of the line, and they’re here. Together.