DISCLAIMER: Captain America: The First Avenger is the property of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.

RATING: T (for language, violence, dramatized scenes of war)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story explores the friendship between Steve and Bucky. In doing research for this story, I was reminded of all the brave men and women, past and present, who lay down their lives for the sake of our freedom. How much they sacrifice for all of us is truly awe-inspiring.

THE BLEEDING DROPS OF RED

Bucky was the only one of the Howling Commandos who'd known Steve Rogers before he'd become Captain America. The others revered Steve like a god, or a hero at the very least, and it was, of course, warranted. Their captain had rescued them single-handedly from hell, storming a HYDRA base deep behind enemy lines and freeing them from cruel treatment, suffering, and eventual death. Steve was all parts valor, courage under fire and calm leadership, power and stamina and strength. But he hadn't always been that way. Bucky remembered a time (not too long ago, in fact) when Steve had been small, sickly, and wheezing, continually plagued by ill health. It seemed that frail kid for whom Bucky had cared was long gone, replaced with something a lot taller and utterly invincible. Truth be told, ever since he'd seen how Steve had changed, he'd dreaded that the day would come when they would all learn that their captain wasn't infallible.

He just hadn't imagined that day would be today.

They had chased HYDRA through southern France. It seemed Schmidt's forces were on the move, for what purpose SSR hadn't yet been able to determine, but it was something big. Something bad. They were retracting their troops (what remained of them, at any rate) from all over Europe, fleeing southward toward the Alps. Whatever was going on, they were sure making a hell of a mess as they mobilized, killing and burning anything that posed even the slightest threat or deterrent. The trail of carnage was unmistakable, and it set the collective tempers of the Howling Commandos to a boil. They'd picked up their pace in their pursuit until they'd finally caught up in the hills and small villages that filled southeastern France where it rose up into the Alps. They were storming one such town, trying to stop HYDRA's tanks and trucks while protecting the innocent citizens as much as possible. Bucky couldn't remember the name of this place – probably couldn't even pronounce it – but Steve could. Steve always seemed to remember everything so much better nowadays.

Except to duck.

"Get down!" Bucky hollered, yanking on the trigger of his Springfield and taking out a HYDRA guard who'd popped from behind the corner of the building in front of Steve. The man fell, shot in the head. Steve glanced over his shoulder and gave a curt, thankful nod.

"Captain! This way!" It was Falsworth, stepping through the curtains of drifting smoke. He held his gun tightly and nodded down the village's main road. "Hurry!" He led them through the debris, winding around the varyingly sized piles of bricks and mortar where there had once been buildings. Bucky followed, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to ensure their rear was protected. It didn't seem likely that enemy forces would follow them; army scouts and reconnaissance had indicated the vast majority of HYDRA lay down the roads ahead, plowing forward toward the Alps. But old habits died hard. He was the sharp eye that protected the Commandos, and he wasn't about to let an assumption lead to an ambush.

"Are the others in position?" Steve asked Falsworth, leaping nimbly over a fallen wall that lay across the cobblestone road. Bucky followed quickly, struggling to keep up while maintaining his watch behind them.

"Ready and waiting," Falsworth responded. Their plan was ridiculously simple. The fact that they had one at all given the few minutes' worth of notice they'd had from the scouts was remarkable. The HYDRA caravan was composed of one of their massive tanks, in addition to a few trucks carrying (undoubtedly) more of their weapons. This one wasn't particularly well-guarded. Thanks to the efforts of SSR and the Commandos, HYDRA had fewer and fewer soldiers at their disposal, which meant an operation of such a widespread and massive effort had drawn them rather thin. The small platoon of men with the caravan had been shooting at them since they'd first made contact outside this French village, and that had been the point: to draw their fire, both away from the civilians and the other half of the team. While Rogers, Barnes, and Falsworth had provided a significant distraction, Jones, Morita, Dernier, and Dugan had gone ahead. They had what remained of an army company at their disposal, divided between their double-pronged offensive. The town was empty, hastily evacuated just before the HYDRA caravan had reached it. There was a section along the main thoroughfare where the road narrowed, bottle-necked, in effect, between closely huddled buildings. Once the caravan reached this point, the others would attack from the front. With Steve and his group pushing from the rear, the caravan would become trapped.

That was the plan, at any rate. Hasty, ramshackle, and lacking in much thought beyond the basics. It was hard to deal with every possible outcome in war, with every contingency, but Bucky couldn't shake the feeling that this time they shouldn't have rushed into this. He didn't usually subscribe to doubt or fear or worry (or anything like that). So he tried to ignore the tight feeling in his chest, the way his heart was pounding with just a little bit more than the normal kind of adrenaline. He was battle-hardened, having faced torture and captivity and more than his fair share of encounters with the most violent and deranged the Nazis had to offer. He was one of the best sharp-shooters in the army, blessed with a steady hand and patience when it really counted. He was normally way beyond fear and apprehension.

But as he raced after Steve and Falsworth through the smoke and the remains of the town, he couldn't shake his worry.

Blue bolts of energy (or whatever the hell it was – Stark still wasn't sure) hit the remains of the buildings around them, shot from the back of a flatbed truck ahead. Bricks exploded, and those that weren't vaporized rained down on them in a choking haze of red and black. Steve raised his shield, the larger chunks deflecting harmlessly off of its shining surface. Bucky quickly took aim, raising his rifle and catching one of the HYDRA shooters in the head. The man tumbled from the flatbed. "Come on!" Steve called to him, and Bucky sprinted afterward.

It never got any more normal. Running behind Steve. Hiding behind Steve's strength as he raised that dumb shield of his and blocked enemy fire that would have knocked a normal man to his ass. Letting Steve lead him into battle. He and Steve were more than friends, brothers brought together through loss and hardship, and nobody deserved what Steve had been given more than he did. But it still was mind-boggling.

"They're nearing the bottleneck!" Falsworth shouted. The Brit was pressed up to an abandoned building, his back flush to the wall. His voice was barely audible over the cacophony of gunfire and trucks rumbling down the road.

Steve and Bucky took cover behind the building across the street. Bullets peppered the brick, tearing pieces away. Steve turned to Bucky, waiting without even a wince, as the gunfire rained. He traded his shield to his other arm, standing perfectly still. "Ready?" he asked when the racket ceased.

"Always am," Bucky answered without a doubt, and then together they rounded the corner of the building. Steve came out first with his shield held protectively before them, and Bucky followed, sighting the closest soldier down his rifle and squeezing the trigger. The man fell to the side, struck in the neck, and the one next to him went down a breath later. Falsworth charged on the other side, shooting a third enemy who was wielding the HYDRA weapon. The blue pulse flew high and wide, careening into the top of a two-story house, and the old stone blocks shattered and rained like needles. But the Commandos ran down the road unabated, thundering toward the rear truck, stones and debris crunching beneath their boots. Steve propelled himself up onto a smoldering pile of rubble and then leapt a good ten feet into the back of the truck.

Then he proceeded to do what he did best. Steve grabbed a soldier floundering for his gun and flung him off the back. Bucky killed him before he hit the ground. Steve went after the next man, ramming him with the shield. The blow was much faster than the other could defend, and he was slammed into the side of flatbed and pitched over the side. By now the driver realized his comrades were gone, and he twisted, firing a pistol behind him. The bullet ricocheted uselessly off of Steve's shield, and Steve grabbed the man, who was screaming and struggling in panic, and hauled him onto the flatbed. One mighty punch knocked him unconscious. Without its driver, the truck slowly rolled to a stop.

Ahead the sounds of battle grew louder. It was difficult to see through the smoke; at this point, a large proportion of the poor town was ablaze. Obviously the head of the caravan had reached the bottleneck. Explosions rattled the compromised buildings around them, the ground vibrating beneath their boots. "Come on!" Steve called. "Falsworth!"

"On it," Falsworth answered, devouring the distance to the truck with a few long strides before wrenching open the dented driver's door. He slid inside the idling vehicle. Bucky finally reached the rear of the truck, and Steve hauled him up like he weighed nothing.

The truck's engine roared to life again, and then they were continuing down the debris-strewn street, plowing over broken wood and brick, crushing suitcases and belongings left behind by the frantic citizens as they had fled. They turned a corner along the main thoroughfare, passing by what had been shops and quaint eateries that were now being unceremoniously devoured by fire. Bucky wiped at his teary eyes as the wind blew a putrid plume of smoke over them, the heat blasting him through his winter coat. He climbed up the rails surrounding the flatbed to look over the top of the cabin. "I see it!" he called, spotting the black tank ahead and a few other vehicles. They were trapped, just as the Commandos had planned, stuck in a single line where the street narrowed between the buildings. There was no way to turn around, and in such close quarters, it was difficult to properly aim the huge cannon with which the tank was equipped. Bucky glanced to Steve as the truck bounced roughly over the uneven street and wreckage. "Hold me steady!"

Steve complied, grabbing Bucky's feet to brace him against the roof of the cabin. Bucky squirmed forward on his belly, using his elbows to drag himself further across the metal surface. He aimed quickly, spotting a few HYDRA soldiers shouting at each other in the trucks ahead. They were easy targets. He shot one, quickly reloaded his rifle, and then took down two more. By now their approach had been noticed, the HYDRA soldiers laying down a heavy barrage of fire that battered the truck. Falsworth swerved to miss the blue burst of a HYDRA weapon against the ground directly in front of them, and Bucky slid across the roof. He nearly dropped his gun as he scrambled to steady himself. Steve thankfully had his feet, so when the truck straightened its erratic path it wasn't too hard to get his bearings and shoot down another soldier, this one atop the tank and firing back at them wildly with a HYDRA weapon that was doing more damage to the surrounding buildings than to them.

Bucky's next shot sliced the rear tire of the truck in front of them, and the vehicle spun out of control, crashing into the side of a partially collapsed building. Falsworth slammed on the brakes before they collided. They lurched forward with the abrupt stop, Steve holding tight to Bucky. When they were finally still, Bucky released a short breath and leaned up again, firing at the soldiers running from the truck that now obstructed the road. They never had a chance to fire back.

The head of the caravan was obviously engaged with Dugan and the others. Smoke was billowing from the buildings that tightly embraced the bottleneck in the road, and the deafening roar of gunfire and flames was all they could hear. The tank was trapped now, the last of the trucks blocking it from going forward or backward. All they had to do was destroy it.

"Let's go!" Steve shouted after he pulled Bucky down. He turned and thundered across the flatbed before hopping down. Falsworth was reloading his gun as he kicked open the driver's door and followed his captain down the street. And Bucky sprinted afterward as the turret on the tank rotated. By now HYDRA was well aware that they were fighting the Howling Commandos, and that led to the inevitable, futile effort to kill Captain America. Bucky smirked as they aimed sluggishly at Steve, fired that massive gun, and missed. They always missed. But that little twinge of doubt hit him again, shooting from the pit of his stomach up his chest, making his heart pound and causing his lungs to constrict so that his breath hitched.

He saw it first. He always did. Frightened shadows shifting in a burning building beside them, swathed in smoke as they moved frantically around. The tank's turret turning, turning, turning. This was what HYDRA did best. They used innocents as shields, as subjects in experiments, as leverage against those who opposed them. HYDRA relished evil in a way that sickened and infuriated decent people. They engaged in acts that were unthinkable. The first shot might have been unintentional; it was, after all, difficult to maneuver that damn gigantic gun in these close quarters. But the timing was horrifically coincidental otherwise. The shot arched from the cannon and struck the church beside the building, knocking the massive stone steeple loose from the top. The pyramidal structure remained fairly intact as the HYDRA weapon sliced it at its base, and it tumbled to the side. The next fraction of a second seemed to last an eternity as that steeple fell, plummeting violently down toward the street below.

Right where these last citizens were about to run from their burning home.

And Steve tossed his shield aside and went to stop it.

"No! Steve, don't!" Bucky heard himself scream, heard his hoarse voice cry out over the din, but he hadn't thought to. He couldn't think or move or do anything at all. And it didn't matter. His desperate shout was hardly audible over the roar of the battle and the fire and his own heart booming. And he knew the sad truth like he knew himself, like the hundred fights he'd broken up in the alleys of Brooklyn, like the hundred scrapes and bloody noses and bruised ribs that he'd tended. That sad truth was this: nothing he could say or do would stop Steve.

But he always tried, even when he knew it was pointless. "No, damn it! No!"

The family rushing from the house ran right into the path of the falling steeple. A child screamed, cowering behind parents who were white-faced and wide-eyed with abject terror as they realized what was about to befall them. The steeple seemed to drop so slowly at first, but it gained speed as it tipped and tumbled. And it would have crushed the poor people if Captain America hadn't run beneath it and caught it.

"God," Bucky whispered, watching in utter amazement. Steve cried out, his face twisted in a pained grimace, his muscles bulging as he fought to hold up the pulverizing weight of the stones and mortar. The broad base smacked into the ground with a resonating thud, but Steve pushed closer, fighting to hold the top up and away from the small family shivering and hiding beneath him. Bucky sprinted toward them. There were the black forms of HYDRA soldiers approaching from behind Steve, eager to take down Captain America. Bucky shot one and then two and then three, moving without thinking, shifting his aim flawlessly and with poise that belied the panic twisting his belly. "Steve!"

"Go!" ground out Steve as he struggled to hold the end of the steeple up. The very tip of the structure broke free and crashed to the ground. The cobblestones of the road seemed to shatter just as much if not more from the impact. Steve's face was covered in dirt and glistening sweat, his lips pulled back from his teeth in a taut frown as he groaned and his knees nearly buckled. "Go on! Hurry!"

More enemies were coming. The turret of the tank was rotating again, firing now at the rest of the Howling Commandos as they assaulted from the other end of the street. Bucky could hardly keep up with the flood of HYDRA soldiers jumping from the rear of the only truck still operational. "Falsworth!" he cried as his magazine emptied.

Falsworth responded with a quick spray from his Sten submachine gun, bringing down the rest of the soldiers that were threatening but not before they assaulted the area with a barrage of bullets. Bucky dove to take cover, fumbling to reload his Springfield while keeping an eye on Steve who was weakening more and more by the second. He was buckling, his knees shaking, his form staggering beneath the incredible weight of the steeple. "Steve!" Bucky roared, helplessness infuriating him as he was forced to duck again behind the pile of bricks. Bullets tore at his cover, and his patience was shredded away with every strike. "Steve! Get out of there!"

The sound of heavy machinery churning drew his attention, and he saw the tank's turret moving again. It was rotating toward them, despite the hell the Commandos were giving it. It had obviously sustained heavy damage, if the black, oily smoke was billowing from its front was any indication. But the HYDRA soldiers deep inside the metallic shell had realized their cause was lost and had instead adopted a secondary goal. Bucky watched in horror as the gun turned back to Captain America. "Steve!"

But Steve didn't move – wouldn't move – with the family too frightened to run, still hiding behind him as the firefight raged. He remained steadfast, even with as his body threatened to collapse under the burden he bore, even as that HYDRA gun swung around again and he damn well knew it but he was too stubborn and goddamn selfless to surrender. Bucky did move, throwing caution to the wind and stumbling from behind safety to run the short distance to Steve. But it was too far, and what could he do?

Nothing. The gun took its aim and then fired, and Bucky couldn't stop it.

The blast shot through the air, wicked and brightly blue, and struck the steeple. There was a thud that at this close range shook hearts nauseatingly, that vibrated bones and blood, a clap of thunder that was felt more than heard. Then the violent boom came, and Bucky was weightlessly flung back. He hit the ground roughly and slid. The breath was forced from his chest, and for a torturous eternity, he was dazed and listless and fighting to overcome his vertigo. Then he coughed, smoke and dust coating him and choking him, and struggled to lean up. He blinked tears and sweat from his eyes and looked around frantically.

The steeple, the church, the burning building behind it… It was all a pile of burning rubble.

Oh, no. Oh, God, no!

Bucky was on his feet in a breath despite the pain radiating through his body from the explosion. Falsworth was ahead of him, stumbling across the narrow street. "Captain!" he cried, jumping over a mess of shattered masonry. "Rogers!"

The wide girth of the tank was pushing onward now, not caring what it crushed as it rolled over its own trucks (and soldiers) to try and get free. The fire inside was getting worse and worse. There was the crackle of gunfire, the distinct blam blam of Dugan's Winchester and the faster pace of a machine gun, and then another series of explosions. Grenades, likely tossed from the other Commandos at the tank. The damn HYDRA bastards inside were firing that massive gun wildly at this point, whirling the turret as fast as they could manage to shoot at anything and everything. One of the grenades hit a lucky spot inside the barrel, and that was it. The entirety of the turret exploded. Bucky was shoved from behind and knocked to his knees again by the shock wave, but that was a minor blow compared to the massive boom of the next detonation as the burning tank was destroyed.

A wave of fire washed over them, scorching the street, and flaming wreckage was tossed about. Bucky covered his head as he lay in the mess of brick and stone and wood and glass, cringing and praying more that it ended quickly than for his own life. The short second the tank exploded lasted far too long. And when it was over, he was standing and running again.

"Steve!" he screamed as he climbed into the pile of shattered stone and pulverized brick. There was tons of destroyed rock, most of the church and a significant portion of the home those poor stupid people had been trapped in. Bucky looked around the small hill of debris in dismay. Nobody could have survived this. "Steve!"

"Rogers!" Falsworth shouted, joining Bucky as they began to pawn through the wreckage. "Help! We need some help here!"

It didn't seem likely the others would hear the Brit's cry over the loud crackling of the fires hell-bent on destroying what little remained of this town. And maybe they weren't in a position to render any aid. Maybe they were as bad off. Bucky didn't want to think about it as he pulled every chuck of brick and stone away that he could manage to move. He didn't think at all, in fact, concentrating on forcing his aching body to fight, to lift, to throw aside even as his hands bled and his heart pounded and it was so goddamn hard to breathe in all this smoke and dust. Steve had to be under all this. Steve needed him.

"Barnes!" Falsworth called.

Whatever the other man wanted to say didn't matter, so Bucky didn't even give him a chance to say it. "Keep looking!" he snapped, barely looking up as he spotted a particularly large section of what had probably been a wall that was somehow mostly intact. There was no way he could move this himself. "Help me!"

The sound of loud crunching alerted him to Falsworth's approach, because he didn't look up or move away for even a second, digging his boots into the ground and trying with all his might to lift that section himself. Falsworth stood beside him, shouldering his gun, and bent to help Bucky bear the weight. Even the two of them couldn't budge it.

Then more hands joined them. Dugan's. Morita's. Jones'. "What the hell happened?" Dugan gasped as they struggled and panted and finally it was starting to shift.

"Cap's under here," Bucky answered through gritted teeth.

"God damn it," Jones whispered, shaking his head. There was fear in his eyes.

"Try again. On the count of three," Dugan ordered, shifting his worried glance to his teammates. "Ready? One. Two. Three!"

This time they succeeded. A chorus of grunts and shouts and yelps fled them as they finally lifted the wall section. It crumbled as they did so; a chunk came loose and landed squarely on Morita's foot, producing a particularly foul expletive, but the smaller man didn't let go as they carried the section away and dropped it. Dernier was already pushing to the newly exposed area, digging frantically. He pulled back, terror on his filthy face. Bucky quickly saw why.

There was a broken hand sticking up through the wreckage.

A woman's hand. Not Steve's.

"Aw, hell," Dugan whispered. He turned, wiping at his mouth. There were the other soldiers, the army company that had accompanied them, now fanning into the little town to secure what remained of it. "Look for survivors!" he commanded, his voice cracking with guilt. "We didn't get everyone out!" The soldiers watched, pale and shaken and quite frightened that the Commandos looked so rattled and panicked. That the Commandos were without their captain. Dugan lost his patience; he never had much to begin with, and having Steve trapped beneath who knew how many pounds of brick and rubble had ripped away anything he had left. "Don't just stand there gawking! Go and look for survivors!"

Dernier pulled away more of the rubble, muttering in French, and Morita joined him. They uncovered a bloody, broken mess, and Bucky felt his stomach twist as he averted his eyes in fear and rage. This had all been for nothing. "Keep searching!" he hissed to the others, his voice rough. They nodded and continued rapidly pulling broken bricks and shattered stones from the pile. Bucky gritted his teeth and refused to entertain the thought that it was too late, that Steve could be laying beneath all this destruction as dead as the family he'd tried to save. He refused to think at all besides the driving chant that stampeded through his head. Find him, save him, he can't be dead go faster you have to find him–

The sound of shifting bricks drew his attention. It shouldn't have because it was the same noise they were all making. But he instinctively knew this was different, just as he always knew when Steve had gotten in over his head, when Steve needed rescuing from a fight too big for him to handle (and, when Bucky thought about it, every fight back in Brooklyn had been too big for him to handle). He felt it in his bones, this driving need to protect Steve, and when a hand covered in a brown leather glove punched through the pile of wreckage to his left he was too relieved to be surprised.

"Over here!" he yelled, scrambling up the little hill of rubble to where Steve was struggling to free himself. Bucky grabbed the dusty glove, squeezing tight just as much to comfort Steve as to reassure himself. "Help! He's over here!" Bucky refused to let go of Steve's flailing hand as he frantically pulled debris away. The others were with him in a breath, shouting and digging in a frenzy.

Steve pushed his other arm through and grabbed Dugan and Jones. "We got you, Cap," Dugan assured. His relief made his voice even gruffer. "Easy!"

Steve's head was uncovered a moment later, and he broke free from the stony prison with a ragged cry. He gasped, blood covering the side of his mouth as he labored for clean air. It was difficult to get purchase to pull him free as stuck as he was, buried waist-deep in masonry, against ground that stubbornly slid away under their feet. Eventually they just let him go, and Steve planted both his hands against slabs of brick and pushed himself up. He couldn't lift himself far (which immediately worried Bucky) but those extra few inches were enough. The Commandos grabbed his arms and as carefully but quickly as they could they extricated him from the rubble.

With Jones' and Bucky's help, Steve got to his feet. They helped him down to the road. "Are you okay?" Bucky asked, watching Steve intently as he hunched over, his arms wrapped around his chest. Steve looked dazed, lost, as he shifted his clouded eyes over the burning remains of the village. Frustration and horror chewed away the last vestiges of Bucky's patience. "Steve! Are you okay?"

Steve wiped the blood from his lip, looked at the slick red on his fingers like he didn't understand. "Yeah. Yeah. What…"

Falsworth shook his head irately. "Rogers, that was incredibly stupid, even for a damn Yank. What the hell were you thinking?" Even he couldn't hide his concern. "You look like you're about to faint."

"I wasn't – I just… I…" And then Steve did faint.

Dugan lurched forward to help Bucky as Steve's leaden form nearly brought them both down. He caught Steve under his arms and helped hold him upright while Bucky steadied him from the front. "Buck…" came Dugan's hoarse whisper.

Something warm and wet spread across Bucky's midriff, and then he looked down where Steve's stomach was pressed against him. Confusion left him uncertain for a horrible second longer before that uncomfortable wet sensation trickled down his body. He looked to his feet and saw a puddle of red spreading across the broken ground. "Get him down! Hurry!"

Morita and Jones aided them in setting Steve's large frame to the filthy road. Bucky pulled Steve's arms from his chest and revealed a bloody mess of glass and broken rock embedded in his chest. It had cut through the protective material of his uniform in a wide swath that started under his right arm and wrapped across his lower torso and abdomen. And the worst of it, a section of a pane of glass that was protruding from his belly, was letting loose blood in a torrent.

Bucky leaned back, shocked and horrified. Then he ripped around, panicked to the point where he could hardly think, and screamed as loud he as could, "Medic!"


Bucky had taken care of Steve for years, ever since he'd met Steve when he'd first come to their Catholic school at the age of nine. Bucky had been ten, and ten had been eons older than nine. And his parents hadn't been quite so poor, quite so bad off, as everyone else, and that was like a badge of honor to a scrawny kid who had nothing and knew no one. They hadn't been friends at first, hadn't even known each other in fact. Steve was very little and skinny and coughing and sniffling all the time, and Bucky was big for his age, a bruiser really. Steve was kind of strange and quiet, doodling by himself every time Bucky had seen him, and Bucky was smart and confident and funny and popular with the others. Bucky felt bad for the new kid right away, and a couple weeks later Steve still didn't have any friends. He'd been picked on mercilessly by the other kids, which made it all that much sadder and more pathetic, but the funny thing was that Steve never backed down. He took a beating from bigger kids, meaner kids, who often came at him in groups, and never let on that it hurt or even that he was afraid. And when the bullies went after other targets, Steve went out of his way to stand up to them.

One day Bucky had seen some of the rougher kids teasing a little girl who stuttered. Steve had been the only one to go right over there. He obstinately planted himself right in between them and their victim like he was twice his size and twice as healthy. The first punch had split Steve's lip and knocked him right on his ass. The second had never hit, because Bucky at stepped in there and caught the bully's fist in his own and sent the lot of them running.

Ever since then, they'd been inseparable. Big, strong, smart Bucky Barnes and his little, awkward sidekick, Steve Rogers.

The tables had certainly turned. Bucky still didn't know how he felt about that. Not that he wasn't happy for Steve to finally know strength and stamina and vitality. But he was only human, so he could be a little jealous, nurse an ego that was just a bit bruised (okay, a lot bruised when that Agent Carter woman had sauntered into that bar with that stunning red dress on with eyes only for his previously unwanted wing man). And he still worried, because being Steve's friend back when Steve had been only Steve had come at a cost. Since Steve's mouth and brains and heart had been much bigger than his little frail body, those fights were only the first of way too many. Then there was the simple matter of Steve's ill health with which they'd both constantly contended. In a crowded neighborhood their parents had done their best to tend to their needs, but it had been the Great Depression and medicine and money were scarce. So when Steve had a particularly nasty asthma attack or was struck by a respiratory infection (which for him turned serious too easily and without much warning), it meant days of Bucky sacrificing his meals for Steve, of listening to his friend cough violently all night while he slept on the couch cushions in their apartment, of offering up his warmer clothes, of promising things would get easier. They were two boys alone in the world without much, without money or hope or anything besides each other, but somehow things would get easier.

When Bucky had left for Europe as part of the 107th, he'd thought that time had finally come. That Steve would finally give up his crazy dream of serving his country as his father had, that he would just go to art school and settle into an existence he never seemed to be willing to accept. But Steve being Steve hadn't. And now they were here, in the middle of the bloodiest and largest war the world had ever seen, fighting evil on a scale they had never fathomed, and Steve was goddamn Captain America.

And goddamn Captain America wasn't invincible. Goddamn Captain America was bleeding all over him.

The cost of being Steve's friend. Bucky blinked away tears. He hadn't cried since his parents had died.

The truck screeched to a stop, and Dugan and Jones wasted no time in throwing open the rear doors. The field surgeons were waiting; there hadn't been too many casualties from the day's skirmishes as the Howling Commandos and the SSR had chased HYDRA south, but the worst were flooding in from the aid stations around the front lines. Dugan hopped down to help the nurses, medics, and doctors receive the litter as Bucky and Jones pushed it from the back of the jeep. The surgeons obviously hadn't been informed of who they would be treating. Their faces were slack and their eyes were as wide as saucers. "What's the situation?" the older of the two men finally managed.

The combat medic who'd treated Steve on the field immediately started explaining the patient's status to the others, mentioning things like poor pulse and refractory shock and blood loss. Bucky couldn't follow it. He hadn't followed much over the last frantic minutes as they'd tried to contend with Steve's injuries. The medic's hands had shaken incessantly as he'd tried to dress the wounds with sulfa and bandages that couldn't do much to stop the bleeding given the mess of shrapnel in Steve's midsection. Steve had spent the drive bleeding and moaning miserably and deliriously and rasping and bleeding and bleeding… Bucky had held his hand the entire ride and made stupid, trite, useless promises as the others had tried to save his life.

"We need to operate." That declaration cut through the exhausted haze in Bucky's head. The doctors were looking Steve over, and then they were all running to the tents marked with the huge red crosses behind them, rushing to get him into surgery. They were swarming the stretcher, desperate to help Captain America, and Steve's blood-slicked hand slid from Bucky's.

Bucky scrambled to get closer, pushing his way through the Commandos and the medical personnel and the other soldiers who'd gathered to see the action. "I gotta stay with him!" he shouted, fighting his way back to the litter as it was carried quickly to the tents. Nobody heard him or nobody cared. "I gotta stay with him! Wait! Wait, goddamn it!"

"Barnes, stand down. Easy," Morita said, gently grabbing Bucky's arm and pulling him back.

"Back the hell off," Bucky snarled, whirling on his comrade. His anger boiled over, his frustration and terror pushing him to the breaking point. His eyes flashed, threatening violence at anyone who dared to stand in his path. He meant it. This felt like some solemn duty he was shirking. "I need to be with him!"

"He needs help right now," Dum Dum insisted softly. "Help you can't give him. So just calm down and let them do their jobs."

Bucky stopped fighting Morita's restraining holds and turned a fiery glare on Dugan. But the bigger man was calm, which for him said quite a bit. He was normally loud and judgmental and impulsive. The fact that he stood there, boasting a measure of tranquility of which nobody else seemed capable, was striking in a way that cut through Bucky's panic. Dugan set a large hand on Bucky's shoulder, patting strongly. "Come on, guys. Let's go find ourselves a bench."

Bucky was in a haze for a while after that. He knew the Commandos had found that bench, a few wooden chairs outside the main surgery tent. Bucky sat on the ground. Colonel Davis, the head of the brigade that had been assigned by SSR to assist them in France, debriefed them on the situation. He seemed more flustered about potentially losing Captain America than they were. It could happen on his watch, the death of America's hero, and his fear was blatant and potent. Word would be sent back to SSR Headquarters in London with a request for advisement. New orders. It didn't seem to matter now.

An hour crept by. Somebody found some rations, but Bucky couldn't eat. He sat stiffly, his rifle braced against his shoulder, watching worriedly at every soldier and medic and doctor that went in and out of that tent. He realized their small group was being given some special treatment. Other uninjured men were readily sent back to combat. The Howling Commandos weren't exactly in the normal chain of command because of their placement in SSR and because of who their captain was, but if Davis or any other officer so desired, they would have to leave. But nobody bothered them. And none of them talked. Falsworth paced. Jones sharpened his knife. Dugan leaned back in his chair, his bowler tipped over his eyes like he was sleeping, but every muscle in his body was tense. Morita sat, slack-jawed and dazed, and Dernier just looked lost. Lost without his captain. Watching them only made Bucky feel even more unsettled. It took every ounce of his strength for him to sit there, to keep still, to wait. He felt like he was going insane.

That sort of energy, to stay continually calm and quiet and contained, had drained him so much that he hardly noticed when the army surgeon, a captain, emerged from the tent. The man looked exhausted and frazzled. Bucky swallowed through a dry, aching throat and pushed himself wearily to his feet. "Which one of you is Sergeant Barnes?" the doctor asked. His arms looked freshly scrubbed but were still stained red.

"I am, sir," Bucky managed.

The man sighed. "Son, come with me."

The Howling Commandos shared brief looks of confusion and worry and anger and encouragement. Bucky took it all, including their frustration that they still knew nothing and that he alone would be the one to learn what had become of their captain, and followed the other man into the tent.

The smell of sickness and death and blood couldn't be masked by the scent of sterility. They'd been told there hadn't been a large number of casualties recently, but Bucky doubted that very much as he passed beds filled with wounded men. Nurses and medics dutifully tended to their patients. Bucky tried not to look, not to stare. He'd seen more than his fair share of injury and disease and death, but in light of the day's events, it all seemed so much more real, more horrific. The doctor was talking to him, so he tried to pay attention. "Captain Rogers survived surgery, but he's not in great shape. He's asking for you."

Steve was alive. That singular fact rid him of any reasonable thought for a moment. Then he stammered, "What? He's awake, sir?"

"We had to operate without anesthesia."

Horror didn't even begin to describe what he felt. "You didn't have any?" he lamely asked.

"It didn't work," the doctor said, not at all bothered by his stupid question but greatly bothered by the answer. "Thankfully he was in and out of consciousness for the worst of the operation, but he's come around now and he could use some company."

Bucky could tell from the man's tone of voice that it was much worse than he was letting on. They squeezed through some closely packed beds as the doctor led him to the rear of the tent. There was a slightly more private area (made so by a few drapes), and Bucky drew a deep breath to calm himself but didn't hesitate at all when the doctor pulled the barrier aside and revealed the scene beyond.

Steve lay on the table, a few nurses and another doctor working on him. Bucky only saw a mess of blood and torn flesh and shrapnel at their hands so he looked away and kept his gaze from that moment onward securely fixed to Steve's filthy and sweat-covered face. Steve was breathing quickly through his teeth, gripping the sides of the bed viciously, bending metal under squeezing fingers as he writhed in agony. Bucky wasn't afraid of the wounds. He wasn't even afraid of Steve dying. Not anymore.

But he was afraid of pain like this.

And he was afraid of seeing Steve weak again. Suffering again.

Damn it, this wasn't supposed to happen now. He'd forgotten even in this short and crazy time how much it hurt.

"Talk to him, kid," ordered a voice from the other side of the bed. "Get him through this."

Bucky licked lips that tasted like dust. He swore to himself over and over again that he wouldn't leave and he wouldn't give in and he wouldn't look at whatever was happening as they tried to fix Steve's body. He finally got the useless lump that was his tongue to move. "Hey, Steve," he said.

Steve's reaction was immediate. His flushed face momentarily broke from a taut grimace, and he turned his head and flung one muscular arm from the bed to grab for Bucky. Bucky took his hand and came closer. "Bucky?" His voice was nothing more than a strained whimper.

"Yeah. I'm here."

Steve gasped for a moment, shaking, fighting to hold himself still as the doctors worked on extracting the debris from his abdomen with forceps and suturing the wounds. Neither of them watched. Neither of them could. "This hurts pretty bad," Steve finally ground out through clenched teeth. His eyes were filling with tears.

"I know," Bucky said with a sympathetic wince. The grip on his hand was painful as Steve involuntarily squeezed. He'd seen what Steve could do, how strong he was. It was a miracle that his fingers weren't being pulverized. "But you'll come through. Always have. Always will."

Steve gave a grunt of a dismissive chuckle. "Only 'cause… 'cause you're there to pick me up." Bucky wasn't so sure of that. At least not now.

"You always picked yourself up," Bucky said softly. "You're too stupid to do anything else."

Steve tried to smile at that, but it was too distorted to be anything other than a grimace. "Have to be to keep up with you."

Bucky shook his head. "Can't blame it all on me."

"You were always getting us both into trouble," Steve said. His grip on Bucky's hand was becoming less and less controlled and more and more painful.

"Sure I was," Bucky answered, watching helplessly as Steve's face contorted in anguish. He tried to keep his tone light and the conversation meaningless. He tried. "But I was always getting us out of it, too. Funny how you forget that. Mom and Dad woulda kicked our sorry rears on the street if they knew half the things we did that were kept under wraps by my quick-thinking."

Steve was panting for each breath, his lips white and his eyes squeezed shut. Bucky could hardly stand the barrage of unwanted memories, memories he'd gladly tucked away thinking they would never happen again. "I seem to recall… taking the fall for you when your mother found all those pin-ups under your bed."

Bucky had the decency to blush. He'd forgotten about that. His old lady had been livid that such "degrading filth" had been snuck into her clean, proper apartment. His mother had been strict, not exactly loving but not cruel, either. After all, she'd let Steve into their home and lives even though he was another mouth to feed because his own mother was too sick and worn and poor to take care of him. Steve had been unlucky enough to be there when Bucky's mother had found their stash and unleashed her wrath. Steve hadn't denied the charges, even though Bucky had snuck the pictures in. Well, they'd both looked at them, anyway. "I ever tell you I met Ginger Rogers?" Steve hoarsely asked.

Steve had told him that, about the whole USO show in fact. Months ago. Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth. Not to mention the dancers. Long-legged beauties, curves in all the right places. "Yeah. Lucky you." That last part sounded strained and sarcastic, even to his own ears.

"Woulda been back there doing the war bond tour if you hadn't needed me to save your butt," Steve murmured.

"No, you wouldn't have." Steve was really hurting him at this point, but Bucky didn't say a word about it and kept the wince from his face. "You were bound and determined to get over here. So you did. That had nothing to do with me." Had to prove yourself. Had to get into the war. Serve like your father did. You're a goddamn idiot. "And you said I took all the stupid with me."

Steve didn't answer and spent the new few torturous minutes wordlessly suffering. Wordlessly, but not silently. He was groaning and panting and whimpering and damn near shaking the operating table apart with the force of the tremors wracking his large frame. His eyes were glazed, greatly dilated despite the lights hanging from the tent's ceiling. "I wonder what she'd think," he whispered.

"Who?"

"Your mother."

Bucky thought on that. She'd always been distant, tender enough he supposed, but not completely caring like she was afraid of her own pain should she become attached and one of her boys ended up in a rough way. She'd always looked on Steve with such blatant pity. Most everyone back home had. They'd be damn shocked to see that little Steve Rogers had become the symbol of their nation's strength and determination. But they'd be even more surprised to know that all of that had been there before he'd become Captain America.

His mother had been an old crow, but Steve had respected her. He was too good of a person to ever begrudge authority. "I think she'd be proud," Bucky said, trying to say what Steve wanted to hear. He didn't usually do that, but these weren't usual circumstances and he'd say whatever he could to ease Steve's pain.

That wasn't it.

Something filled Steve's eyes, something dark and angry and swollen with grief. Hurt that had nothing to do with his bruised body and torn abdomen. Bucky knew it and wouldn't tolerate it. Not now. "'nough talk," Bucky ordered quietly. "Just breathe through it."

But Steve didn't. Tears slipped down his temples. "Want to go home, Bucky?"

Underneath it all, nobody knew they were still scared little boys. Even Captain America. "It'll be alright," Bucky said, closing his grime covered hand over Steve's. "Just hold on. You'll be okay. It'll get easier. I promise." Steve closed his eyes and held on, just like Bucky said.


Hours slowly slipped away. Steve slept through them. Not long after the worst of the operation had ended and the surgeons had bandaged his lacerated chest and midsection he'd lost consciousness, finally freed from his misery by his own exhaustion. Pain medication was about as useless as the anesthesia had been, but he seemed fairly comfortable despite all that. There was little to be had in terms of peace and quiet in a field hospital, but the staff had gone out its way to try and create a little haven for the Howling Commandos. Steve had been transferred to another tent that was significantly smaller, but he was its sole patient. The moans and wails and weeping seemed very distant in this small sanctuary. They couldn't spare a bed for Bucky, so he got his blanket and settled down on the hard, cold ground beside Steve. He'd spent the night in worse.

He worried he wouldn't be able to sleep, given the horror and panic still clenching his gut and the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions pummeling his head. But he was so completely exhausted that his aching body eagerly embraced slumber, and when he woke up, it was the next day.

Steve was still sleeping.

The nurses and doctors came and went. They all seemed downright amazed at the rate at which Steve was recovering from injuries that would have outright killed another man. Yesterday he'd nearly been crushed. Some of the pieces of glass and stone they'd pulled from his severely wounded gut had been huge to Bucky's frightened eyes. Major arteries had been severed and organs had been damaged. But today the bleeding had all but stopped. His vital signs had stabilized. His skin and muscles were mending themselves at an impossible rate.

Bucky had to admit that he was pretty amazed, too. This was the first time Steve had been injured on a mission. He supposed if nothing else good came of it (and nothing else could, really) at least they'd learned some things about Captain America and how strong and resilient he truly was. And they'd destroyed another HYDRA tank and shut down another HYDRA operation. That counted for something.

The other Commandos stayed close. Dugan claimed they were cooling their heels, waiting for orders from Phillips. That was probably true, but Bucky knew they were mostly waiting for their captain to recover. It was fairly shocking they were left alone, left to their own devices. The R&R was appreciated; they hadn't had a break in so long that Bucky couldn't really remember their last. And this hardly sufficed, as the empty hours were filled with anxiety and anticipation. The Commandos were all too rough and too stoic and too hardened for the foolishness of tears or weakness or openly admitting anything. But their silent presence at the entrance to the tent, on the ground outside, wordlessly giving Bucky canteens and rations and offering to keep up the vigil so he could take a much-needed breather, was still heartening.

And the long hours dragged away. Steve's sleep was deep and healing.

He finally came around nearly thirty-six hours after the skirmish in the French village. Bucky was dozing when he heard the long, hoarse groan. As though electrified, he lurched to his feet and quickly appraised Steve. His friend's face, lax for so long, was now twisted in a grimace as he shifted with a dawning awareness of discomfort. "Steve?" Bucky asked. "You awake?"

The groan that answered was rough and ugly. "No."

Bucky couldn't help the smile that spread on his perpetually dirty face. Steve moaned again and tentatively lifted a shaking arm to drape it across his face. There was hardly any light in the tent, despite the blaring midday sun, but apparently the dim illumination was too much. "How are you feeling?" Bucky asked despite the obvious answer.

"Shut up," Steve hoarsely said.

"Your own fault, you know," Bucky said, working hard to keep his sympathy from his voice but failing. He pulled his canteen free and handed it to Steve. His friend took it, his hand trembling. "Think you can sit up?"

Steve grabbed Bucky's arm. He struggled a moment, his other arm wrapped around his bandaged midsection. But he got himself upright, panting and wincing and sagging against Bucky. When it seemed Steve was steady enough, Bucky sat beside him, but he didn't break contact, keeping his arm securely around Steve's broad shoulders. He still couldn't get used to his friend's new physique; he hadn't seen it too much until now, and it was remarkable. Steve took a long drink from the canteen, shivering and hunched over. "You alright?" Bucky asked after a long moment, all the weak mirth gone from his voice.

"Yeah," Steve answered. His voice sounded more normal, but it was still raw and alien to Bucky's ears. "Yeah. I'll be alright."

The two friends sat silently then. Bucky dropped his arm from Steve's bare shoulders but didn't move away. Truth be told, he was too relieved. Steve was alive. Steve was awake. Steve'll be alright. Bucky felt his throat tighten, and his eyes burned. Things that he hadn't allowed himself to think or feel pushed their way forcefully to the surface, prodding at his tired and worn composure. "Don't ever do that again," he said softly.

Steve didn't say anything, breathing heavily. The quiet that followed was loaded with unspoken fears, with the enormity of what had nearly happened. They were the Howling Commandos. They took the missions that normal soldiers couldn't dream of accomplishing, fought battles against demons and nightmares. They didn't fail, and they most certainly didn't get hurt. They were untouchable.

And Steve was Captain America.

No. Steve was that sick little kid from Brooklyn that never backed down.

"Those people…" Bucky closed his eyes at the question he knew Steve would ask and looked away and hoped that the anger and pain filling his heart never crossed his face. "Did they…"

It was stupid to even wonder, and Bucky knew Steve knew the answer. But he said something anyway, because Steve was a master at deluding himself. At hoping for things that couldn't be. "No," Bucky said.

Now Steve looked away, giving a short breath and wrapping his arm tighter around his torn belly. His body was tense, trembling still and covered in a light sheen of sweat. Even though the nurses had sponged him clean of most of the blood, he was still dirty and bruised and beaten. And Bucky recognized the pain in his eyes had nothing to do with his wound. "You couldn't have saved them," Bucky said without a scrap of doubt infecting his tone.

"Yes, I could have," Steve insisted.

"No, you couldn't," Bucky returned. He felt his patience, already worn by the last days' difficult events, fraying even further.

"I should have." Steve's own anger was mounting.

"No."

"I should have!"

"For God's sake, you can't save everyone, Steve! You should know that," Bucky declared adamantly.

Steve grunted, fire in his eyes, and shook his head. "If not me, then who? If I can't do it, then what the hell was the point?"

"Of what? Of Captain America?" Steve closed his eyes and swallowed roughly, his Adam's apple bobbing as he tipped his head back. "Or of you? God damn it. This is war. There are going to be casualties."

"Not on my watch," Steve resolutely declared. He clenched his jaw, curling his hands into the rough blanket over his legs. Like they were filled with restless energy over their failure. Over what they couldn't stop. "Not if I can help it."

"Well, you can't," Bucky snapped angrily. "You can't. You aren't God. You aren't perfect. It's not your job to save everyone, even if it could be done, which it can't be. You had no business doing what you did. You nearly got yourself killed, and those people died anyway. What would have happened if that tank had blasted through that town and lit up the countryside? What would have happened if we lost you?" It was only his anger that strengthened and emboldened him enough to get these fast words through his lips. Even still, his voice cracked. "You gotta be smarter than this. You have to be. Letting HYDRA get away is failing, not letting a few people die because there was nothing you could do to stop it." Never mind that Steve was technically his commanding officer and he was giving him a hell of a dressing down. Never goddamn mind that.

"Every life is worth saving," Steve retorted hotly. His pale face was crumpled in pain and denial and anguish. "Every life. Who am I to judge?"

Bucky answered, "It's not judging. It's winning a war, which we're fighting to protect millions of innocents from Schmidt and HYDRA and the Nazis." This wasn't the first time they'd seen civilian casualties. They'd witnessed the horror of HYDRA's total disregard for those who happened to be in their way. They'd been part of some bloody battles that had torn apart villages and farms and cities. And they knew – had witnessed firsthand – what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, to the unfortunates deemed unacceptable by sadistic leaders, to those Hitler had marked for eradication. But this was the first time Steve had directly had a chance to save people, to intercede and maybe change sad and violent fates. Usually they'd come too late; HYDRA had already killed and maimed and removed civilians to make room for their installations by the time the Howling Commandos had gotten there. This had been the first time Steve had tried to save someone and failed.

Bucky struggled to keep his frustration hidden. It was hard for him, because he wasn't the most patient with people or the most understanding. But he tried for Steve's sake. He always did. He tried to say it calmly and clearly and slowly without seeming condescending. "Steve, you've proved whatever you wanted to prove. You need to be smart and realize you're worth more."

"Captain America is worth more," Steve said bitterly.

"Yes! You are Captain America with your stupid shield and your stupid costume and your goddamn stupid, stupid sense of responsibility. Think about what you mean to this army! To our country and this whole damn war effort. You can't sacrifice yourself. Not for anyone!"

Bucky's voice was hard with anger and sorrow, scolding almost. Disappointed. That more than anything made Steve stop. His ire faded in shame, his tense expression softening, his form bending. Bucky sighed softly. "Look, just… don't ever do that again." He was repeating himself. That sort of behavior was necessary with someone who just never listened. Never took "no" for an answer. Never lived by anyone else's limitations. Gaining so much physical strength and endurance had been exactly what Steve had needed to finally be the man he'd always wanted to be. To be a hero. But becoming a super soldier only escalated behavior that Bucky had been trying to prevent for years. Now he realized the very lengths Steve would go to stand up to the bullies. That really frightened him, like there were hundreds of pounds pushing down in his stomach, like a vise was squeezing his heart until it could barely keep beating. And Steve would never truly apologize or agree to not do it again. Not really. And they both knew it. After all, they'd had this conversation hundreds of times before at home in Brooklyn. The circumstances had been less dire, and the scars on their hearts less tender, but the outcome was always the same. Different time, different place. They looked different, felt different, but some things never changed.

So he kept trying to teach a lesson that would never be learned. "I mean it."

Steve didn't answer, but Bucky's very open display of emotion had more than reached him. He nodded and that noncommittal, grief-stricken gesture would have to settle for the promise Bucky wanted. He set his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "Punk," he quipped quietly.

Bucky's mouth curled in half a smile. "Jerk."

They sat silently then for a while, neither satisfied but both unwilling to go any further. Bucky could almost feel Steve's strength returning, as if his healing was a tangible thing. He was tensing his muscles, testing himself, and then he slid down from the bed. Bucky stood with him, prepared to catch him if this all proved too much too soon, but Steve didn't need him. By all rights, he should have been dead. But here he was, breathing and standing and now taking steps that were at first slow and shuffling but then long and strong. "You're crazy," Bucky said in both disapproval and disbelief.

"So you keep telling me," Steve said. He sucked in a short breath as he gently pulled the bloody bandages away from the assortment of wounds covering his midsection. Then he palpated the area tenderly, like he was trying to judge the damage himself. And then he tried to make light of it. "Definitely not one of my smarter moments."

"Hey, Cap!" The booming voice from the entrance of the tent drew their attention. Dugan stood there, his eyes alight with a huge smile splayed on his face. He pivoted and shouted over his shoulder, "Guys! The captain's up!"

A second later they were swarmed by the rest of the Howling Commandos. They were exhilarated to see Steve recovered. Dugan clapped him too hard on the shoulder, nearly sending Steve reeling, but he could take the hit so it was fine. Dernier was chatting excitedly to Jones, who was grinning with relief twinkling in his eyes. Morita berated Steve quite firmly for being such a goddamned jackass. And then Falsworth smiled, but it was a serious smile. With him, it always was. "Good to see you well, Captain," the Brit said.

"In one piece, at least," Steve said, smiling himself. Suddenly the pain and fear seemed very far away, and things were almost normal. "Thanks to all of you."

"Ah, don't mention it, Cap," Morita said. "Consider it long overdue payment for Azzano."

"I don't mean to cut this touching scene short, but Colonel Davis received word from Agent Carter that SSR intercepted a transmission from a HYDRA dispatcher to Doctor Zola," Falsworth said. "They got him on some high-speed train heading down through the Alps into Switzerland. Wherever he's going, they're in a rush to get him there."

The Commandos shared doubtful looks, and then all eyes fell to Steve. In a blink all signs of fatigue, of pain or weakness, were gone, and his impassive, commanding visage was back in full force. Just like that it was starting to seem like this had never happened. "When?"

"They're not certain, but very soon. It's up to you whether you feel ready," Falsworth said.

Steve didn't hesitate. "I'm ready," he said. "Where are my uniform and shield?"

"You're joking," Morita said, glancing between Bucky and Steve. "He's joking, right?"

Bucky gave a sad smile. "Doubt it."

"This is our best chance to get at Zola and figure out what the hell HYDRA is up to," Steve said, and he was unfortunately correct. Zola had intimate knowledge of all of HYDRA's plans, both major and minor. If they were on the verge of a large offensive, he'd surely know about it. The little bastard had been one of the Commandos' biggest targets for months, but he'd so far eluded them. This might be their only shot to strike hard and fast and get the information they so desperately needed.

Jones sighed, not too pleased. "And we're the only ones who can stop them, right." It wasn't a question. And his tone was long suffering.

"Always are," Morita said. He shrugged, trying to act like it didn't matter. That he wasn't worn or tired or fed up with this war and the cat and mouse game they had played with HYDRA for so long. "We're the best."

"Damn straight," Dugan said resolutely. "So we in?"

They all were. Of course. It wasn't until after they dispersed, Falsworth to send back word that Captain America and Howling Commandos would respond and the others to gather their supplies and make their preparations, that Bucky wondered if he should say something to Steve. That bad feeling, the ugly foreboding that had incessantly plagued him, hadn't gone away. But he didn't. He couldn't, because he wasn't stupid and he knew that stubborn streak when he saw it. The doctors came and went and didn't know what to make of their patient hastily getting dressed. Steve was already planning, sending out orders to his men, embracing a new mission like the last one hadn't nearly killed him. He was in his element.

"You coming?" Steve said as he stood at the door to the tent.

Bucky snapped from his thoughts and gave a lopsided grin. "Wouldn't miss it."

Steve nodded, and there was so much in his eyes that it was impossible to appreciate it. Understanding. Regret. Shame. Fear and anger. Warm gratitude. Brotherly affection. But in a blink, it, too, had all vanished. Like the wounds that never were.

Bucky snatched up his rifle and dutifully followed. There would be another time like this, when the choice to save lives at the expense of their own would be before them. He couldn't help but grimly wonder how much his captain would gladly sacrifice for this world gone to hell.

Knowing Steve like he did, he was damn sure it would be everything.

THE END