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The Killers

Chapter Text

The recruits arrive early in the morning. There are twelve of them, driven in a rattling bus that picked them up at dawn from the 30th Street station in Philadelphia. Their names are checked alphabetically on a clipboard: Barnes down to Wells. Not one of them knows what he’s there for.

They’re all quiet, from manners or nerves or temperament. There’s one guy toward the back, a scrawny kid, who keeps coughing and saying sorry, but he's the only one who makes a peep. Not all of them are strangers; they’ve been shipped here from various training camps around the country, and some have trained together already at Fort Bragg or Fort Jackson—three came from Camp McCoy—but none of them lets on. It’s instinctual, maybe: better not to advertise your alliances.

They fidget in the tension, knees bouncing, anticipation rising the closer they get to the camp. The excitement is heightened by the fact that this is rural New Jersey at the best time of day, in the best time of the year. It’ll be hot later—the sky is blue, and not a cloud—but this early, the air is still crisp. The region is all farmland, orchards; Camp Lehigh was built over a big homestead, and a few peach trees remain among the rows of oaks that line the access roads leading in from the highway. The recruits’ first impression of the place is a pleasant, almost idyllic one. Each of them takes it as a good omen.

The size of the camp itself seems to confirm this. It’s bigger than any of them expected—imposing. Still, they’re soldiers. Most of them have spent plenty of time on other bases, and they’re not about to let themselves be fazed by this one. This is business as usual. No fresh-faced conscripts here, save one: the coughing kid. And even that one, bursting with excitement as they approach the barracks, knows as well as the rest of them that he can’t let it show too plainly on his face. They’re here to work, and to compete. They all feel it. Every moment is a test.

*

Chapter Text

“It’s sad, is what it is.”

The man who speaks is nursing a bruise to his eye socket. Everyone can see it, even in the low light of the barracks. 

“Je-sus Christ, it’s sad,” he says again, a little louder, when nobody answers.

“Aw, Hodge, you need some ice?” someone calls. A couple of the other guys laugh, on account of it being a woman who’d given Hodge the black eye.

“Fuck you, Sellman.”

Sellman just grins at him.

“Let him be, fellas,” says another guy—Nelis—in a Carolina drawl, but then he smirks. “That's the first time Hodge's had a woman touch him in years.”

Hodge glowers toward his boots while they snicker. So she hit him; so what? It was a dirty sucker-punch, that’s what it was. A cheap shot.

“Don’t know what the hell kinda place this is,” he mutters. “Thought we were in the fuckin’ Army. Turns out we all joined the Girl Scouts.”

That gets some tentative laughter. Hodge nods.

“You know what that bitch needs,” he says.

Sellman grins again. “You gonna give it to her?”

“She tries anything tomorrow, Selly, I might.” Hodge smiles. “I just might.”

There are general guffaws, which Hodge ignores. He’s pleased with himself, imagining it.

A voice from across the room pipes up. “She’ll just knock you down again.”

All eyes swivel to the guy on the bunk opposite Hodge. It’s Rogers, the skinny kid who’d been coughing on the bus, the one who could barely keep his face out of the dust to do a pushup.

Hodge raises his eyebrows. “What’s that?”

“She’s your superior officer,” Rogers says. “She’s doing her job. Show some respect.”

Hodge coughs an incredulous laugh. “Really,” he says. “You gonna make me, champ?”

Rogers shrugs and gestures at Hodge’s face. “Looks like she can pretty much handle herself.”

A couple of guys laugh quietly at that. Hodge doesn’t see who. His smile gets strained, but he keeps it on.

“And what about you, killer? Hm?”

Rogers frowns. “I can handle myself too.”

Hodge folds his arms. “You sure about that?”

Whatever reaction Hodge was expecting from Rogers, it wasn't a raised eyebrow and a level gaze. “I’m not the one with the black eye.”

Louder laughter from the peanut gallery, and Hodge’s expression wavers again, but then he smiles big and mean. He leans forward and makes a show of appraising Rogers for a long moment.

“Boy, they’re just letting anybody join up these days, huh,” he says.

Behind him, Sellman tsks agreement. “Women and fairies. What’s wrong with this place?”

“Jesus, look at him,” says Granito.

“"Where do you think they found him?" says someone else. “The hospital?”

“The ladies room,” says Hodge, and everyone laughs this time. He gestures at Rogers. “What the hell are you even doing here, huh?”

But Rogers looks back at him mildly. "Same as everyone else," he says. He nods at Hodge. "Same as you. Want to do my duty."

Somebody snorts. Hodge stands up from his bunk.

"Hear that, Sellman? This big man’s here to do his duty."

“Same as us,” Sellman says.

“That’s right. Same as us. He’s a good one, ain’t he?”

“This place seems full of good ones.”

“You’re right, Selly. That Agent Carter’s another good one. Just here doing her duty.”

“Makes you proud,” Sellman says. There’s no laughter now.

Rogers stands hastily as they approach him. His composed expression is gone, much to Hodge’s satisfaction, but it isn’t replaced by fear. The kid narrows his eyes and grits his teeth, and Hodge can’t wait to knock them clean out.

"Hold him," he mutters, and Sellman snags Rogers by the arm before he can squirm away—

One of the spectators slams his trunk shut and sighs.

"Hodge," he says, loud enough that everyone turns to him. He's a dark-haired guy, sitting on one of the beds at the other end of the room, holding a comb in one hand. "Will you shut the fuck up? Duffy'll come back and you'll get us all in shit."

Hodge stops. He doesn't know this guy, not first hand, but he's heard some things. A sharpshooter, this one is; a hotshot. A prizefighter too, someone said. Not to be fucked with, if you're smart.

"Aw, Barnes," Hodge says loudly, without looking over, "you ain't scared of Duffy, are ya?"

The sharpshooter stands. He puts on a lazy smile that anyone can see he doesn't mean and cocks his head to the side. He's bigger than Hodge, and he lets them all notice it.

"Scared of a hundred pushups on my knuckles at one in the goddamn morning because you can’t keep your voice down,” he says. He runs the comb carefully through his hair. “Leave the kid alone and go to bed.”

Hodge turns fully. “This conversation don’t concern you, pal.”

“That’s right,” Barnes says, “it don’t. That’s why I’m objecting to it taking place so loud, five feet from my head.”

“Maybe you’re sticking your nose where it don’t belong.”

Barnes takes a step toward him, still casual, still bigger and broader. “Maybe you wanna have a conversation with someone in your own weight class.”

Rogers tries and fails to wrench his arm away from Sellman. He looks back and forth between Hodge and Barnes like he can’t decide who he’s mad at.

The others hold their breath. They’ve all heard about Barnes too.

Barnes affords Hodge a moment to respond. Hodge sizes up to him with a challenge in his jaw, but Barnes makes a fist, and Hodge makes a decision: it’s late, and he does need his sleep for tomorrow. Tonight he guesses he’ll cut the kid a break.

He jerks his head at Sellman, who lets go of Rogers with a shove. Rogers sits down hard on his bunk.

"Never seen anything so pathetic," Hodge says. “Sweet dreams, killer.”

Barnes stands by until Hodge is back at his own bunk. His eyes dart briefly to Rogers. Then he strides to his own bed and sits to work open the laces of his boot. He doesn’t say another word.

The rest of the men drift back to their own beds. They’re inclined to be a little more subdued, suddenly. It’s late. They shouldn’t get themselves in trouble on the first night.

*

Chapter Text

There’s less tension in the morning. The mess hall is really too small for a base of this size, and being packed in on the long benches might not be comfortable, but it facilitates chit-chat. They compare names, notes, origins; Sellman and Ruddick discover they have family in the same county in upstate New York, and Nelis and Repinski played football on rival teams in Virginia.

Bucky sits himself down on the bench and starts to eat. The little guy is sitting across from him, squeezed between the gigantic shoulders of Privates Slaight and Granito, from Des Moines and Chicago respectively. Nobody’s talking to him. He nods an even greeting.

“Morning.”

“Morning.”

Rogers looks at him a moment. “I appreciate what you did last night,” he says.

Bucky raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You made them back off of me.”

“You were handling it.”

Rogers huffs a little and looks away.

Bucky keeps his eyes on him as he eats. He's so thin. He was a disaster at drills yesterday, a disaster at everything. Hodge is an asshole, but when he asked what the hell are you doing here last night, it had given voice to a question that all of them were thinking. The kid can’t even do a push-up. It seems cruel.

Phillips is no fool, though, and that Dr Erskine seems like he knows what he's doing. There's got to be some reason for Rogers to be here. Bucky thinks through the options, but the only thing that comes to him is control subject. Not exactly reassuring.

The chatter continues around them: who’s got a girl, whose girl is prettiest, whose brothers already shipped out. It’s not a new war. Everyone knows someone who’s gone over.

“Hey, where are you from, Killer?” someone calls down the table.

Rogers rolls his eyes at the nickname. They’ve been calling him that all morning. “Brooklyn,” he says.

Bucky looks up. “Me too.”

“I know,” Rogers says. He has big, big eyes. He smiles for the first time—a brief, sideways thing, not all the way there. Just a tease of a smile. “I've seen you fight.”

“Oh yeah?" Bucky sits back. "How'd I do?”

“You lost.”

“Ah,” he says. “Too bad.” He's long past the time when losing hurt his pride. But still, he thinks. The other answer would've been nice.

“You're a good fighter,” Rogers says.

Bucky doesn’t want to laugh at him, but he can’t stop his own mouth curling sideways. “That so?”

The kid gets why he’s smiling, and bristles. A little crease appears between his eyes. “I know how to box,” he says.

That makes Bucky smile even more. He feels terrible; he’s hurting the guy’s feelings but he can’t wipe it off his face. “Okay,” he says. “Got some pointers for me?”

That tease of a smile returns, just for a moment. “Don’t get hit.”

Bucky laughs softly. “Can’t argue with that.” He hesitates. He’s starting to like this guy, but he has to ask. “Say, what are you doing here, really?”

Right away he knows it’s the worst thing he could’ve said. Rogers’ face drops. He leans forward, and when he speaks he enunciates every word, like he’s talking to a child.

The same thing you are.”

And Bucky feels a little like a child under the weight of those big disappointed eyes, mad at him for asking, for making Rogers defend himself all over again. Bucky wonders if the kid just showed up to a recruiting office one day and gave them that look until they let him in. He thinks maybe it could have been exactly as simple as that.

*

Chapter Text

Nobody challenges Carter to her face again. Duffy, the drill sergeant, is an asshole in the way all drill sergeants are assholes, but the recruits expected that, and he doesn’t bother them like Carter’s presence does. It doesn’t make sense for a woman to be here, doing that job. But they have to admit she knows how to put them through their paces. They’re worn out by mid-morning.

It isn’t basic training. These men have already been through basic. Ordinary recruit training has a very specific function during wartime; it's how the nation takes its bankers and schoolteachers and greengrocers and asks them to forget everything they’ve ever learned about safety, and sportsmanship, and doing unto others. It’s about teaching men to fight as a unit, to rely on one another in battle and do their jobs under pressure toward a common goal. Basic is where you learn to dog-paddle before you get ordered to the other side of the world and thrown in the deep end.

They've done that; this is not that. It's not even specialist training. There are no lessons, no hand-holding through the fundamentals, no film reels to sit through. Just endless tests: drills, obstacle courses, marching. Hand-to-hand combat, foot races. A different written aptitude test every day. The best anyone can figure is that Phillips is trying to find the guy who does the best at all of it, and hasn’t had the bad luck of being shipped out yet.

All the men are well aware that they're being evaluated, but the purpose and criteria of the evaluation have been left carefully unclear. The candidates are free to assume what they like. Most of them have already decided they’re here to kill or be killed.

Rogers is the only complicating factor. Nobody knows what to make of him. Like Carter, Rogers' inclusion in the group gives the impression that there's something fishy going on. Like maybe the usual rules—the mechanisms that got them all this far—aren't going to apply. The kid can't have passed the entrance evaluation, for one thing. He has to go to medical three times in the first two days; the third time, they give him asthma cigarettes to keep in his locker. In the barracks, he keeps to himself, reading military strategy books in his bunk. The others give him a wide berth.

*

At night, most of them play cards.

“You in, Nelis?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, I’m sore.” Repinski rubs his shoulder.

“You need to get in shape, pal. Hey, what’s tomorrow?”

“I don’t care,” says Cooper, “as long as it’s not another aptitude test.”

"Beats another obstacle course," says Granito.

"Says the guy who came in last on the obstacle course."

“Fuck you, Sellman," Granito says. “Rogers came last."

"Rogers don't count, dumbass, Rogers can't breathe right," Sellman says. He reaches over to where Rogers is sitting on his bed and tousles his hair, grinning. “Rogers can't even carry his own dick, can you pal? How you gonna hold up a rifle?"

Rogers yanks his head away but doesn't say anything.

Barnes says, “Shut the fuck up, Sellman.”

*

Chapter Text

At the end of the fourth day, Bucky heads outside for a cigarette before lights out and finds Rogers leaning against the wall doing the same. His cigarette smells funny, and he blows out the smoke with an expression of distaste.

“Hey,” Bucky says. “How you doing?”

Rogers bobs his head. “Fine.”

“Those for your lungs?”

Rogers nods again. “I only need ‘em sometimes.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Yep.”

Bucky studies him: bruised, exhausted-looking. Tough little S.O.B.

"You ever think about sitting this out?" he says. He gestures at their surroundings. “This can be a lot, for anyone, you know.”

Rogers sighs, weary, and shakes his head. “I don’t need to sit it out.”

“No one would fault you for it.”

“I’m fine,” Rogers says. He shakes his head again. “I’m gonna keep going. Everyone’s dying to send me home. They're looking for any excuse. Why make it easy on 'em?”

“Guess you’re right,” Bucky says. He inhales slowly and blows the smoke toward his shoes. He doesn’t say, why make it hard on yourself.

“You threw the fight,” Rogers says suddenly, and Bucky snaps his head up. “In Brooklyn, when I saw you box. You were better than the other guy. You weren't really hurt, but you stayed down.”

Bucky doesn't answer right away. He pulls on his cigarette and nods carefully. “That's possible.”

Rogers squints at him, like Bucky is a math problem he's trying to work out. “Why'd you do that?”

Bucky doesn’t know which fight they’re talking about, exactly, but it doesn’t matter. “Only because I had to, pal.”

“But you could’ve won.” There's no judgment in his tone, just puzzlement.

Bucky doesn’t get this guy. He obviously knows everything there is to know about taking a hit; why’s he giving Bucky a hard time for doing the same? Bucky feels the need to explain himself—an impulse he isn't used to. Maybe it’s the night, the stars and the silence, and the war still thousands of miles away but getting closer all the time. Maybe it’s just that crease between Rogers’ eyes.

He sighs. “I read about a king once,” he says, “with an army. He was fighting the Romans. I don’t remember why they were fighting—it was just a war, I guess. But the king, he brought his whole army to fight the Romans, and after this long battle, he won. He drove the Romans out. But the Romans had so many troops, they just went and got more guys, and when they came back, the king had no more men to face them. He was so focused on winning the battle that he lost the war.” He gestures with his cigarette. “You see what I’m saying?”

Rogers shakes his head.

“Guess I’m trying to be smarter than that," Bucky says. "Lose a battle here and there, maybe you live to win the war.”

It doesn't land. Bucky thought maybe, with all those strategy books and everything, the kid would get a kick out of that kind of bullshit. But Rogers just blinks and studies him a moment longer.

“You did it for money,” he says.

Bucky laughs through his nose. “You're quick.” He takes a last drag of his smoke. “It’s just how things shake out, sometimes. I got family to take care of. Mom, sisters. A lot of people count on me.” He nods at Rogers. “You understand that, right?”

But Rogers shakes his head again. “I haven’t had anyone to take care of in a long time.”

“It’s just you?”

“Just me.”

Bucky's baffled all over again. Rogers doesn’t make any sense. Bucky has never met anyone so desperate to fight a war—he could have stayed home, no harm no foul. He seems to have made it here through sheer bull-headedness. And for what? For who, if not his family? It can’t just be that it's my duty shit. Nobody really believes any of that.

Then Rogers squints at him through the smoke. “Did it work?"

“What?”

“You win the war yet?”

Bucky grins and stubs out his cigarette. "Workin' on it.”

*

Chapter Text

Steve goes down with a real, full-blown asthma attack on the sixth day. It’s just marching, not even double time—he should be able to do this. He feels it coming, and even though he knows what it means, he’s not here to let his lungs get the better of him, so he pushes on. But it's no good; his vision tunnels. He’s already well behind, and nobody notices he’s gone down on his knee until the rest of the group is almost up around the bend. Duffy finally looks back and screams, “Rogers, get up here!” but Steve can’t, he clutches his chest like a bad actor in a play and sits down, gasping, right there in the dirt.

When the panic subsides and he can breathe again, he finds himself on his back. He opens his eyes: trees, bright sky, Duffy still howling at everyone to get back into formation. Hodge is laughing. Barnes’ face appears in his line of sight.

"—okay, Rogers?" he's saying. "You good, pal?"

Steve squints up at him. "Did we win the war yet?"

Barnes grins and holds out a hand to help Steve to his feet. "Not yet."

It becomes a running joke. Later that day, Carter sends them through the obstacle course again and Granito gets his boot so tangled in the rope that he has to sit down and take the whole boot off to get free. He repeats Steve’s line, shaking his head ruefully and looking up at them all: “Fuckin’ hell, we win the war yet?” The other guys snicker and start to pick it up themselves, cautiously at first, but louder as the days go on; whenever anyone fucks up or goes down hard, it’s his turn to say it. Hodge is the only, silent exception.

*

“Barnes, should I deal you in?”

“Yeah. Give me a sec.”

It’s hotter in the barracks tonight. It’s almost June. The air is close.

“Is Rogers coming back?” Cooper asks.

“Duffy said they’re keeping him in the med bay overnight. It’s too hot for him in here.”

“Shit. Is he okay?

Barnes shrugs. “Obviously not.”

“Geez,” says Cooper. “Poor guy.”

“What’s he still here for?” says Ruddick. “They’re not gonna let him go over.”

Nelis finishes dealing. "They choose him for this experiment, he'll go over."

A bunch of them snicker at that.

Slaight says, "They're not choosing Rogers."

"They might," says Nelis. "Think about it: if they can make that guy into some kind of, I don't know, magic soldier, it'll show they can do it to anyone."

There's a pause. Most of them hadn't thought of it like that before.

Ruddick says, "If I lose out to Rogers, I swear to God—"

"Why would they run us through drills every day if they're gonna choose the guy who can't do a fuckin' push up?"

Cooper says, “Ah, give him a break, he’s trying his best.”

“I'm just saying. The kid’s gonna kill himself over jumping jacks.”

Hodge laughs. “Might be better off.”

Barnes says sharply, “Shut the fuck up, Hodge.”

*

Chapter Text

They're going to be at the shooting range for the whole week, and it puts everyone in a better mood. It's a different thing from the calisthenics or hand-to-hand drills. It makes them all feel a little more civilized, never mind that they're lying in the dirt all day long. The weather's pretty nice. The targets are made of paper.

The machine guns require a two-man crew, and Repinski whines aw, Sarge, when they do the pairing alphabetically and he's stuck with Rogers.

"It’s nothin’ personal," he says. "I know he didn't go to Basic. But Jesus, Sarge, I can't hit a thing if my second doesn’t know what he's doing!"

Repinski bitches so much, and he and Rogers shoot so badly, that after chow time Duffy sends Rogers to the last firing lane to pair up with Barnes instead.

*

Steve feels like the worst kind of dead wood. He has to keep trying, but God, it's humiliating. Barnes doesn’t seem concerned, though. He gestures at Steve to come over and holds up an ammo belt.

“You know how to feed an M1919?”

Steve huffs. "No," he says curtly. He doesn’t know how to do any of it, and Barnes is well aware of that. Fuck him, anyway.

But Barnes smiles infuriatingly. “Well, don’t be mad about it,” he says. “Why would you know? Nobody taught you yet. Here, lie down."

Steve gets down on the ground alongside the gun. Barnes murmurs instructions at him: hold it this way, feed the rounds like this, don't let it drag. When Barnes shoots, the repeat of the gun judders through them, so loud Steve feels like his heart might stop every time. Barnes just smiles so crinkles appear by his eyes and tells him he'll get used to it.

After a while they switch so Steve can shoot the gun, and Barnes issues more instructions, leaning over and adjusting Steve’s grip, showing him how to move it on target, how to keep it steady once it’s there. After a while, Steve starts to get it. It’s not that difficult, once you know how.

When it’s time to head over to the long-range rifle course, Barnes holds out a hand to yank Steve to his feet. Steve says,“Thank you, Barnes,” but Barnes shakes his head.

“Bucky.”

“What?”

“That’s my name.”

“Bucky,” Steve says. “Not James?”

Barnes laughs—“No!"—and his eyes crinkle up again.

And he lives up to his reputation with a rifle. Steve watches as Bucky arranges himself into position and starts to shoot. It’s the longest course—500 yards—and he gets off 8 shots so fast that everyone else stops what they’re doing. Bucky rolls over and grins up at Steve, arms behind his head, and winks at him.

“Holy shit, Barnes,” says Sellman.

Nelis grabs the binoculars from Sellman and takes a look. He whistles. “Those are all dead shots.”

Slaight comes over with his own binoculars and gawks. “Shit, Barnes, I want you in my unit," he says. "Think of how many Nazi heads you're gonna blow away.”

And Bucky flinches at that—just a little, but enough for Steve to see. He scowls down at the rifle, futzing with the scope, and doesn’t reply. Steve’s seen this look on his face a couple of times now. He doesn’t know what it means.

He crouches down next to the rifle.

“I sure don’t know how you do that,” he says. “Seems like a miracle.”

Bucky presses his lips together and says nothing.

“Honestly,” Steve says. “You gotta tell me. A nose that size—how can you even see the target?”

Bucky is the handsomest guy Steve has ever met in real life. He has a perfect nose. Steve's aware of this. He gazes innocently out at the range.

Bucky huffs a surprised laugh, and after a second he snaps an arm out and knocks the back of Steve’s helmet so it lolls sideways off his head.

Steve pushes the helmet back up and smacks Bucky on the shoulder with his knuckles.

Bucky smacks him back. “Okay,” he says. “Your turn.”

*

Rogers turns out to be a quick study; by dinner he's doing okay on the slow fire course. They keep him paired with Barnes, and on the fourth day he surprises them all by completing every course and qualifying as a Marksman.

“You see that, Repinski, you fuckin’ jackass?” Bucky yells, grinning wide.

Repinski raises his eyebrows. "No shit?"

"Hey, look at that," says Cooper. "Way to go, Rogers."

Barnes shoots a 189, which Duffy grudgingly declares a camp record and which more than qualifies Barnes for Expert status. The guys start calling him Deadeye. Wells, who went through basic with Barnes, tells everyone that Barnes scored 192 at Camp McCoy a couple months back. Granito, who was not at McCoy but who always knows more than anyone about anything, shakes his head and says nah, it was 202, but Rogers says, The score only goes up to 200, and everybody laughs. Granito grumbles and crosses his arms, and even when they keep laughing he insists Barnes was the first guy who ever got higher than 200, that's what I heard, anyway.

*

Chapter Text

“What about Barnes?” Phillips says.

“Yes,” says Erskine. “What about Barnes.”

He’s a good soldier.”

“He is a very good soldier, yes," says Erskine. "A natural leader, yes, certainly. He excels at war. But he does not believe in it."

"I don’t care what he believes, as long as he can shoot like that."

Erskine regards Phillips mildy. "You must remember, Colonel,” he says, “that—whoever we select—once the procedure is over, there is no going back. Not for us, and not for him.” He writes another line in his notebook. “I am not sure it would be wise to subject such a man as Barnes to a lifetime of war.”

“Doctor,” Phillips says wearily, “look at that man.” He points out the window to where Barnes is expertly dismantling his rifle. “He’s a fighter. He’s a leader. He’s one of the best snipers we got. He's gonna make Sergeant, easy.” He folds his arms and looks back at Erskine. “Barnes is going to war whether you choose him or not.”

Erskine doesn't reply for a few moments. Then he says, "I would like to continue observing, Colonel."

Phillips shakes his head. "I don't know why you're acting like we have so much time, here."

"This is an important decision! There are many compelling candidates."

"You still want Rogers, don't you."

Erskine smiles minutely. "I do."

*

Chapter Text

It's been a new experience for Steve, living in close quarters with a bunch of other guys. He's stayed in boarding houses before, but not for long, and not like this: the total lack of privacy, the arguments, the stink and noise of a dozen bodies jammed in a room together. Everyone starts to hate MacAuley, who's a decent guy but who snores louder than a fucking tank for eight hours a night. The whole thing takes some getting used to.

And they have to shower together every night, all twelve of them, jostling and shoving to get at the water while it’s still vaguely warm. Hodge grumbles and pushes and drives everyone crazy. Repinski sings goofy songs with a face cloth on his head. Granito tries to get the whole thing done with a lit cigarette in his mouth, with varying degrees of success.

There’s absolutely no room. Steve puts his head down, shivering, and waits for someone to finish so he can rinse under the spray. Nobody pays any attention to him. He crosses his arms over his chest, surrounded by the height and muscle of all the men who deserve to be here, and he feels paler and skinnier and shorter than he ever has in his life.

Then he lifts his head, and Bucky meets his eyes, deliberately. He looks at Steve, and nods, and takes half a step out of the way so Steve can get in under the water beside him.

There’s no mockery or condescension in his face, and for that reason alone Bucky's eyes are shocking to Steve. He’s covered in soap. He has a bruise on his thigh. Steve moves next to him under the shower and knows he’s still looking, and he feels the shock from him all the way into his chest.

*

Chapter Text

Nobody’s supposed to get the flag. Duffy’s messing with them. You can’t climb a flagpole in Army boots, no matter how great you are at football or shooting, and Steve wouldn’t have bothered to try even if he were six feet tall. But Duffy didn’t say climb the pole, he said get the flag, and Steve has learned how to make a situation work for him.

The others can’t believe it.

“Rogers, you little shit!” yells Ruddick, but he’s laughing, and they all shake their heads and cuss at him as the motor starts up. Steve catches Bucky’s eye and gives a little salute as the truck pulls away. Bucky rolls his eyes and grins and flips him off with both hands.

They all give him more shit at dinner, and he smiles serenely and antagonizes them back. His whole body hurts, but at least he didn’t have to double-time it back to base. It was kind of a good day.

Then Hodge catches him behind the shower block, and everything goes to hell again.

"Think you can cheat your way into a ride back to base?" Hodge's voice is quiet, which Steve takes as a bad sign. Until now, Hodge never bothered him unless there was someone around to watch.

He shoves Steve hard in the chest, and Steve stumbles back and thumps into the wall.

"I didn't cheat."

"You couldn't have climbed that pole if there were stairs on it."

God, what an idiot. "Nobody could climb the pole. That's the point—"

But apparently a logical explanation of why he's wrong is not what Hodge is looking for. He slaps Steve's face.

"You're a mouthy son of a bitch." He gives him a split second to open his mouth, and then slaps the other cheek before he can answer. "Ain't the best way to make friends, you know that?"

Steve struggles, tries to push him away, but Hodge holds him on the wall and socks him in the gut. Steve doubles over and groans, but Hodge hauls him up again. He aims another shot, at his face this time, but doesn’t get a chance to swing.

"Hey!"

Hands land on Hodge's shoulders, and he's wrenched backward. Steve slumps to the ground.

"Jesus Christ, Hodge!" It's Repinski’s voice. "Can't you lay off him?"

"Get off me!" Hodge barks, but they pull him back, push him away from Steve.

"What the fuck is your problem?" Sellman hisses as he and Repinski help Steve stand. "Rogers never did a goddamn thing to you." He turns to Steve. "Y'okay, Killer?"

Steve nods, though he isn't. His nose might be bleeding, and it hurts to breathe. Sellman and Repinski have to practically carry him inside. The lights hurt Steve's head—Hodge slapped him hard—and he shades his eyes as they go in. They leave Hodge out in the dark.

Bucky's reading on his bunk, but he drops the book and sits up when they carry Steve in.

"What happ—was this Hodge?" he demands, and they nod and Bucky's face goes dark. He looks at Steve. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” It just hurts to breathe.

It's hard to breathe. He can't breathe. He can't—

He hears Bucky say "Shit" and then a bunch of voices at once and they sit him on the bed and everyone crowds around and Bucky tells them to back up and Cooper rubs his back slowly. Steve never told anyone that rubbing his back helps his attacks, but Cooper seems to know it by instinct.

Bucky crouches at Steve's feet. Steve watches his worried eyes, watches his chest rise and fall, tries to fight off the panic and match his gasps to Bucky's breathing and slowly, slowly, he gets there. He looks up at the guys’ faces all around him and realizes with a jolt that they're all watching because they hope he's gonna be okay.

He clears his throat a little. "Sorry."

"Better?" Bucky murmurs.

"Yeah. I'm okay."

Granito exhales hard. “Hodge needs a kick in the ass.”

Bucky stands. “Where is he?”

Sellman points to the door, and Bucky stalks outside. The others can’t see much through the window because it’s dark now, but they hear his feet on the gravel, just a few steps, and his voice snarling “Hey!” and then there’s the flat smack of knuckles hitting skin, and a grunt, and then quiet.

*

Chapter Text

“Rogers, you in?”

Rogers is lying in bed with a wet towel over his face. “I shouldn’t sit up yet. You guys play without me.”

“You okay there, Killer?”

“Yeah.”

The door creaks and Hodge comes in.

“Woah,” says Granito, “another nice shiner you got there.”

“Fuck off,” Hodge says. He ignores Barnes and strides to the middle of the room where they’re playing, stopping in front of Rogers’ bed. He doesn’t notice that Rogers is there under the towel. “Sellman, deal me in.”

Sellman scowls. “Get fucked.”

“What?”

“I said get fucked, Hodge, you just nearly killed Rogers.”

“Are you kidding?” Hodge says, but Sellman doesn't crack. Hodge laughs incredulously. “Shit, Rogers nearly kills himself eight times a day, I'd be doing him a favor, who gives a—”

From under his towel, Rogers yells, “Aw, shut the fuck up, Hodge!”

Hodge jumps about a foot in the air. Barnes falls off his bunk laughing.

*

There’s this prayer that Bucky learned by rote at school. It was Saint Augustine, he thinks. The first line goes Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. It popped into his head back in the first week, that hot afternoon on the dirt track as he leaned over Steve and watched him struggle for air. It was stupid, it had nothing to do with anything, but in that moment Bucky felt like praying and it’s the first thing he thought of, and he said it to himself, holding his own breath, Breath in me, breathe in me, over and over, until Steve’s chest expanded and he opened his eyes and looked full into Bucky’s.

It comes to him again that night, after Steve is okay and Bucky’s given Hodge the right hook he’s been asking for since day one. Bucky goes for a walk around the barracks a couple of times before he heads in again, just to calm down, and then he plays poker with the others, and all the time he keeps thinking of it. That prayer. It gets stuck in his head. He hasn’t thought about it once since he was ten years old, probably. But he must have said it so many times back then that once the first line starts in his mind, he just keeps on going through all the lines, right to the end. It’s strange, and it unsettles him, listing the things to ask from the Lord: breathe in me, act in me. Draw my heart.

Maybe it’s blasphemous. Those things—they shouldn’t belong here. But somehow they do, and later when he gets into bed and it’s dark and quiet in the room, he can’t help himself, and he turns his head to look down the row to where Steve is lying in his cot.

He’s watching him. Steve is on his side, sleepy-faced, messy-haired, awake and watching. Bucky freezes and his heart thuds heavy, and Steve blinks, and they hold each other’s gaze. The prayer turns round and round in Bucky’s mind—draw my heart, draw my heart—and even after Steve’s eyes slide closed again, Bucky lies awake and it keeps going, all the way to the end, draw my heart, that I love but what is holy.

*

Chapter Text

In the final week, the nights get hot enough that they play cards outside, in the dim yellow light of the bulb over the doorway. Tonight, Bucky plays halfheartedly.  Steve’s begged off; he sits against the wall, near enough to hear, and smokes his asthma cigarette.

“Call.”

“Call.”

Bucky’s cards are shit. “I fold, God damn it,” he says.

“Ah, too bad, Deadeye,” Cooper says with a grin.

Bucky doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel like playing anyway. He stands and lights his own cigarette and wanders to where Steve is sitting. His shirt has a couple of extra buttons undone. Bucky doesn’t look at his open collar.

Steve frowns at him. Bucky’s figured out that it means he’s thinking.

“I don't like them calling you that,” he says.

“What,” says Bucky, “Deadeye?”

“Yeah.” Steve frowns deeper. “Your eyes aren’t dead.”

“It means—”

“I know what it means.” He digs at the ground with the heel of his boot. “Makes me think of—where we’re going. Guess I don’t like thinking about that.”

“I thought you wanted to go.”

“I do,” Steve says. “I mean—you know. We have to.”

Bucky remembers the way he’d said my duty, so fiercely, that first day. Now he sounds almost regretful. Still that determined set to his shoulders, though, and yeah, okay. Bucky thinks he finally gets it: why Steve’s here, why he pushed so hard. So when someone said we, they could maybe mean him.

“I just don’t like thinking of you—I mean—jeez.” Steve huffs. “I just don’t want any of us to get hurt.”

“I know,” Bucky bites out irritably. He knows. But, shit, you don’t say it out loud. Then he feels bad and bumps Steve with his shoulder. “Hey. Nobody’s gettin’ hurt. We’re all looking out for each other, right? We’re gonna be fine.”

Steve stares at him for a moment, then smiles. It isn’t happiness, Bucky can tell, but it’s thanks; thanks for saying everyone will be fine, thanks for lying, because right now they all need to hear it even if they know it's a lie. They'll all see the truth soon enough, when the targets stop being made of paper and become chests and heads and faces. Bucky has no idea what lies they'll tell themselves then.

But he smiles back, and he’s happy to lie now, happy to lie for them all but especially him, he’ll lie forever for him. The prayer comes to him again, through to the last lines: Strengthen me O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy, and he will, if he can, he’ll defend all of them, Becca and Carrie and Ma and all of them, but yeah, he thinks. Yes. Especially him.

Pretty soon, it’s time for lights out. Steve climbs to his feet, ungainly and obviously sore, and Bucky stubs out his smoke and follows along behind.

*

Chapter Text

Agent Carter has been surprised by this group.

It's not a typical situation, to start with. Most recruit training has the express purpose of eroding individuality, turning each group into a smoothly-functioning unit. The U.S. Army is good at that kind of training, and Carter herself is exceptionally good at it. This group, though, was assembled for precisely the opposite reason: to press the men, each of them—to test them, to have them push each other as opponents, combatants, challengers. Its purpose was to find the individual who would stand out among them.

And yet, she thinks on the second-to-last morning, here they are despite all that: a formidable, tight-knit military unit. A group of men who would fight together as well as any she’s trained. Nobody tried to mould them into shape, this time; they’ve moulded themselves, and in half the time of a regular unit.

There’s been no outward indication who’ll be chosen for the experiment, though Carter has her suspicions. She knows who Erskine wants, at any rate, and she knows Phillips disagrees. Nobody asks her opinion. She’d be frank, if they did; her opinions are very strong, and usually correct. But they don’t ask.

Carter often finds herself at odds with Colonel Phillips’ methods, and occasionally with his motives as well. A person in her position knows better than to argue with her superiors, however, so she doesn’t often do more than raise a pointed eyebrow in his direction. And this is war—even if the ethics of their project occasionally leave something to be desired, Carter believes in the SSR’s potential as a force for Allied victory. In this, if anything, she’s willing to trust that the ends will justify the means.

But she thoroughly objects to Colonel Phillips tossing a grenade into her training drill first thing in the bloody morning, with no warning and no apology. The fact that it’s a dummy makes no difference—the act is an absurd departure from standard operating procedure, and entirely unethical on top of that. She would object, loudly—she’d give him an absolute earful—if he were to pull something like this in an ordinary situation.

She doesn’t object, though, in the end. The grenade bounces into view and Phillips shouts the word and they all scramble, and Carter is furious, afterward. But she doesn’t say a word to Phillips about it. Because in the end, it proves her right.

*

Chapter Text

“You win the war yet, you stupid fuck?”

Barnes spits it out the minute he gets inside the barracks.

Most of the rest of the guys hang back outside and listen through the open door. They don’t know how to handle this. Barnes has been seething visibly all morning, and the other guys have kept their distance. He's such a relaxed guy, usually. Seeing him in such a mood throws them all out of whack.

“What’s going on?” Granito whispers.

“Deadeye’s yellin’ at Rogers for trying to jump on the grenade.”

“Shhh, I can’t hear!”

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know, all I can hear is you, Granito.”

“He said what were you thinking. I can’t hear what Rogers said back.”

“Why’s he so mad?”

“Rogers broke protocol.”

Sellman laughs. “That’s not why he’s mad, dumbass.”

“Well, why?”

“Shh.”

“But—I don’t get it. Barnes ran at the grenade too.”

“Yeah, to get Rogers off it.”

“Shut up, he’s coming.”

They try to look casual, like they were just hanging around the door for no particular reason, but Barnes doesn’t even glance at them as he storms out.

*

Steve goes after him. 

“Aw Rogers, just leave him,” Nelis calls, “he’ll calm down.”

But Steve’s too mad to let it drop. By the time he catches up to him, Bucky is around the other side of the building where the vehicles are parked.

“Bucky. Bucky!”

Bucky stops and flops sullenly against the side of a jeep and doesn’t look at Steve. “What.”

Steve falters. He doesn’t have anything planned to say. He'd followed Bucky purely on his body’s animal impulse: stay with him, don’t let him leave.

He finally settles on belligerence. “What the hell’s your problem?” It comes out hesitantly, despite his anger. The high ground he’s used to seems to have been shaken somewhere along the line.

“Fuck, Steve,” Bucky says tiredly. “What do you think.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Protocol for grenades is you duck and cover.”

“I just wanna do my—”

“Yeah. Your part. I know.” Bucky shakes his head. “Can’t wait to do your part.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Steve says. Here, he feels a little more steady—this part is familiar territory. “You ran at the grenade too! Why is it okay for you to get hurt but not for me? Why—”

But Bucky stands up from the jeep in an impatient movement and cuts him off. “How about nobody gets hurt, you fuckin’—isn’t that what I said, huh? We’re all gonna be fine?”

“Jesus, Bucky, I’m not stupid—”

Bucky slams his fist against the side of the jeep.

“You had an out!” His voice grinds. “You dumb fucking—you could've stayed home!”

He says it like Steve was lucky. Lucky to be sick and pathetic and rejected five times. And Bucky’s serious. Steve has never met anybody so confusing. He shakes his head uncertainly.

“I can’t do that. Not when everyone else gets to—”

“Gets to?” Bucky shouts. “Gets to? Do you hear yourself?”

Steve exhales hard to stop himself from yelling back. “You know what I mean,” he says. “I can contribute, I can do something, even if it’s that—”

He stops when Bucky surges forward and pushes him between two of the trucks. Steve stumbles back, flinching, ready for a hit, but instead Bucky grasps his face and kisses him.

Steve throws his arms wide, his eyes wide too, and manages a brief, muffled noise of protest. Bucky lets go almost immediately with a gasp, and jerks himself away.

He wipes his mouth. “Sorry."

He takes a step back. His eyes dart around, and when he glances at Steve, panic is plain on his face, and it’s the same panic in Steve’s chest. But it’s done now, the thing they were both waiting for, and maybe Steve hadn’t known exactly what it was until this moment but he knows now. It’s this, and it’s done, and it’s right.

There’s about three feet of distance between them. Steve closes it and kisses him again. They’re both breathing fast like they’ve been running, and Steve yanks him in by the back of his neck and kisses him hard, hard. His body’s still mad; he wants to bruise him. He wants to dare Bucky to back down from this now. And then Bucky clutches at Steve’s shirt and opens his mouth against him, and relief floods through Steve, sweet and sudden.

It’s only another moment before Bucky pushes away again. Steve takes a deep breath and scrubs his hands through his hair. He’s shaking. He waits for Bucky to look at him, but Bucky keeps his eyes down, frowning.

“Quit trying to throw your life away,” he says. He squeezes his fist again, more controlled now, and pushes his knuckles slowly against the side of the truck. He still won’t look at Steve, but when he speaks again his voice is firm and steady. “You’re worth more than that.”

Steve has no comeback. Because—shit, isn't that what he's been trying to get everyone to see all along? Bucky keeps doing that to him: derailing him. All his life, Steve’s had to push up on people, use every ounce of his strength to shove and shove and shove just to get anywhere, for anyone to even look at him, but Bucky—Bucky notices, and sees him, and takes an easy step to the side. And after all this time, Steve’s so used to shoving that he falls right over on his face. He's speechless. Bucky's got him.

Footsteps approach, crunching on the gravel, and voices follow. Steve glances warily over his shoulder, but nobody's nearby. When he looks back, Bucky has turned and hurried away.

*

Chapter Text

After nearly four weeks of long, long days, the end comes out of nowhere, and he isn’t ready.

It's time to leave. There’s no fanfare, no ceremony. Just an order for them all to pack up their shit, and then, almost like an afterthought, Duffy sticks his head back around the door and points to him:

"Not you."

"What?"

"You're staying," Duffy says. "Leave your shit where it is."

It takes a moment for everyone to figure out what it means. They stare at him; he stares back helplessly. He thinks he should feel happy, but he can’t think why.

Everyone packs up silently. Only Hodge tries to run his mouth, like nothing's changed, but nobody bites. They file out with their gear to go get their next orders.

And then they’re leaving, already. It’s turned into a hot morning, and the dust in the yard kicks up as the jeeps arrive to pick them all up. He walks into the middle of the commotion. One of the jeeps pulls out, and he waves absently at Granito, Wells, and Slaight as they go by in the first one.

He whips around. Where's—where's—

“Congratulations.” Steve says, coming up behind him. “You did it.”

Bucky turns to him. Steve's eyes are wary; they haven't spoken since the day before. Since Bucky kissed him against a truck in broad daylight.

"Thanks," Bucky says dazedly. He doesn't feel real.

Steve gestures to his duffle bag. “Guess I’ll see you.”

Bucky’s heart thuds. “They’re shipping you out?”

“Nah." Steve smiles, but Bucky can tell it's just for show. "I’m on limited service. They’re sending me to Fort Lee. Transportation Corps.”

The relief makes his eyes water. “You’ll be a driver.” 

“It’s better than a discharge,” Steve says. He shoves his hands in his pockets, pulls himself up straight: convincing himself, Bucky thinks. “I’ll be contributing. And they might send us over. I might get over there, they said.”

God, listen to him. Bucky wants to scream. But there’s no time—shit, they're out of time—so he just smiles and knocks Steve’s shoulder. “Guess I’ll see you there.”

Steve nods.

Someone shouts, “Rogers!”

They glance over at the jeep, and Steve turns back and looks at Bucky and he’s scared. Bucky’s never seen him scared.

“I gotta go,” he says.

“Jesus. Jesus, Steve.”

“I know.” He shakes his head. “Bucky. Be careful.”

You be careful. You be—Jesus. Don't do anything stupid.” And then, that isn’t enough, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he does what he wants: cups Steve’s face in his hands, quick and hard. “I'll find you,” he says. “After, I'll find you, okay?”

Steve holds his wrist and searches his eyes. “Okay.”

"Okay." He lets go. He isn't ready. "Okay. "

Steve doesn’t look ready either; his eyes are big and he turns away slowly, like it hurts. But he does it, he walks away from Bucky and climbs into the jeep, and Bucky waves and his eyes burn and he watches it pull out of the yard.

Too fast. He’s not ready. He keeps his eyes on the truck as it rattles down the road. He stands and looks for a long time, even after it rounds the first corner and disappears, even after he can't hear the engine any more and all that’s left are him and the trees, standing tall and silent in the bright American sunshine.

*