This is a re-post of a story originally posted 02-October-2016.


"Take him."

That was all the warning Steve got before Bucky was shoved at him and a gun fired three times. There was time enough for half of an inhale before they all heard a body slump to the ground.

"Jesus." Bucky's breath fogged up Steve's skin. Steve shifted the way he was supporting his friend. It was too hot to have someone breathing on him.

Peggy turned around and slid her sidearm back into its holster. She sidled up to them and stepped under Bucky's left arm. Cajoling him into letting her support some of his weight again, she said, "What was that, Sergeant?"

"I said Jesus. You're the scariest person in the war, you know that, Agent?"

"Flattery is unbecoming," she replied. "But I'll take the compliment all the same." The two of them moved a few shaky steps forward. Peggy chanced a gaze over her shoulder and said, "Come on, Steve. Up front with the shield, please."

So Steve shook himself out of it and jogged until he and his shield were between Peggy and Bucky and the rest of the world. But once he was there, he said, "I'm starting to think that maybe you should be the one with the shield, Peggy."

There was a snort from each Peggy and Bucky, but it was the former that said, "Yes, maybe it should be."

This mission was by far the strangest one to date, Steve mused as he crept through the veins of the woods, ears on high alert for anything that wasn't generated by the three of them. It had been a simple mission: Get in, gather intel, get out. But they all should have known that sending Captain America anywhere meant something was going to wind up on fire. And something had. How were any of them supposed to know that there were explosive plants in the lab? The plants were alive. And not in the way all plants are alive; they were alive like animals are alive — they were spitting balls of something and they slapped vines around like they knew where the people were.

Oh, and they exploded when touched hard enough.

What the hell, HYDRA? What could they have possibly been trying to do with explosive plants? Was that another Norse mythology thing? Steve didn't think he wanted to know anymore.

The plants had been spewing these spores while the Commandos had all been trying to make their escape. Steve had been shielding them from the HYDRA soldiers firing at them from above and those goddamn plants. It was impossible to do both of those things effectively at once, and Jim paid the price with lead in his rear. Which made Bucky stop and go back to help and take out the HYDRA soldier who did it. Like an idiot, Bucky had ducked behind one of the plants for cover, laying down fire so Dum Dum Dugan could get Jim to safety. So of course the plant got hit and exploded. It sent Bucky halfway across the room in a cloud of those goddamn spores.

There was no question about it: Steve went back for his sergeant. And Peggy had gone back for Steve. So that was how Steve wound up with his best friend stinking like mushrooms and the Peggy Carter looking rather cross; all of them separated from the rest of the team, in a forest crawling with HYDRA.

Just another day at the office.

But those plants.

"Steve?" Peggy cut through his thoughts. The smallest tendency toward distress in her voice put Steve on high alert.

Turning to face her, Steve saw Peggy shrug so that Bucky was jostled a bit. She jerked her head in the direction of her cargo.

"Got it," Steve said. He lowered the shield and went to her — he would always go to her.

She gave him his friend, and he handed her the shield.

Peggy took point, pistol drawn and shield held aloft. After giving her a few steps, Steve tightened his arm around Bucky's waist. It forced Bucky to fall into Steve's side. Once there, Steve made damn sure Bucky couldn't get out. Really, it was a lot like dealing with Bucky when he was drunk. Only there was less singing.

Then the two of them moved as a single creature in Peggy's wake.

Bucky said, "I can walk."

"I know you can," Steve said. "I've seen you do it."

"Jackass."

"Wanna know what I haven't seen you do before today?"

Bucky grunted in the way that meant he knew what Steve was up to.

But Steve continued on undeterred. "I've never seen you get blown up by a plant, so excuse me for being a little bit worried."

Rolling his head until he was staring at the bits of sky between the (broken glass) tree branches, Bucky smiled. He said, "You're forgiven. Now let me go."

Rain started to fall. A drop fell right into Bucky's eye, and knotted grass tried to trip him at the same time. Steve refrained from laughing but he did hum and arch his brows.

"That doesn't mean anything," Bucky said.

"I know it doesn't."

The grass tried to trip Bucky two more times. Steve couldn't hold back laughter the third time it happened.

"You'd've cracked your head open ten times over if I wasn't here," Steve said.

"Would not," Bucky said. He scratched at his arm with irritation.

"Peggy," Steve said, "how far out are we?"

Unlike explosive plants, the team being separated was something that Steve had prepared for. There was a rendezvous spot they were headed to just now.

"A bit," she said.

"A bit like a lot, or a bit like a bit?" Bucky said.

"A bit."

To Steve, Bucky said, "She's just like Monty. Amazing, but useless."

"Think we ought to stop at nightfall?" Steve said.

Peggy looked around the immediate area. "Yes, I think we might have to."

The raid on the plant had knocked Peggy's hair loose from the style she'd left base with. Now the rain was plastering the strands to her cheeks and forehead. Redness was rising on her nose. She looked fierce and strong, something that would prowl these woods benevolently.

"OK," Steve said when his voice returned to him. "Let's cut south for a while and then find shelter. Hopefully this rain'll stop by then."

There was a little smirk on Peggy's face. "Yes, Captain." And she started off again.

Ten minutes later, the arm Steve had around Bucky was starting to go numb, but it wasn't bad enough to prevent Steve from lifting his friend clear off his feet when Bucky tripped on a tree root.

"Wasn't gonna fall," Bucky said while scratching at his neck.

"Uh-huh," Steve said from the back of his throat.

"Agent Carter, don't you mention this to anyone," Bucky said.

Steve knew that Bucky would rather be helped along by Peggy than carried by Captain America.

"Mention what to anyone, Sergeant Barnes?" Peggy said with a glance over her shoulder. There was a deceptively sweet look on her face. It was the look of woman who knew when she had you by the short and curlies.

Steve was acutely in love with Peggy right then.

"As far as I know," Peggy said in that same deceptive voice, "there's nothing out of the usual going on here."

Bucky looked at Steve and said, "I can't tell if she's serious or if that was innuendo."

Steve didn't care. He said, "Don't worry about it so much."

An odd look spread across Bucky's face. It was like the sun rising or the proverbial lightbulb going off. And Bucky nearly shouted, "For the first time in the history of our friendship, Steve, I am the third wheel!"

Not thirty seconds later, mortar rounds started falling around them. Leaves had holes punched through them. Why hadn't Steve insisted that Peggy wear a helmet?

"Get down!" Steve shouted. In a single motion, Steve twisted in place, lowered Bucky to the ground, caught the shield that Peggy had thrown to him, and took off in the direction from which the gunfire was coming. He took out a sniper up in a tree with the shield just before the sniper got a shot off. Reaching for his sidearm, Steve found the holster empty — probably Bucky's doing.

Steve knew what his sidearm sounded like. He knew what Peggy's sounded like. He could pick out the sound of Bucky's sniper rifle going off even during tank battles. So it wasn't hard for him to discern the sound of his own sidearm going off even over the falling of artillery. Even if it wasn't obvious that Bucky had taken it as Steve threw him to the ground, Steve had tossed the damned thing to the sergeant countless times. Hell, Bucky had probably fired it more than Steve had.

Doesn't matter, Steve thought as he adjusted his hold on the shield. The best offense was a good defense, wasn't it?

Fifteen minutes later and Steve found Peggy and Bucky behind a fallen tree trunk. There weren't any more gunshots or mortar shells falling on their heads. Steve had passed a few craters on his way back to where he'd left the two of them, and he had been relieved to see that there were no blood or leftover bits of flesh in those holes.

"OK?" Steve said when caught his first glimpse of the back of Peggy's head. He jogged up to them and held a hand out to Peggy. She accepted it, allowed Steve to pull her to her feet. He looked up her up and down — for injuries.

"I'm fine, Captain," she said. There was that look in her eye again. Hair disheveled and forest debris all over her uniform.

God, Peggy Carter sure was somethin'.

Steve could feel the heat flooding his cheeks. Maybe the rain would camouflage it somehow. Thunder rumbled like laughter overhead.

"She called me an assie," Bucky said.

Steve jumped and let go of Peggy's hand — he still hadn't released it, and she hadn't tried to pull it away.

"A what?" Steve said.

"An assie."

"What's that?"

Bucky shrugged and threw his hand out, waiting for Steve to help him up, too. Steve obliged and pulled Bucky back to his feet.

He said, "I think it's like a jackass, but the feminine Limey type." Holding out the handgun, Bucky added, "And this is yours."

Steve returned the gun to its holster and looked Bucky over for injuries, too. A red patch on Bucky's neck caught Steve's eye. He reached out and pulled the collar of Bucky's jacket out of the way to get a better look. (Steve couldn't remember the last time he and Bucky had respected each other's personal space. Maybe twenty years ago.) There was a raw, oozing rash winding down toward his collarbones.

"The hell is that?" Steve said.

Bucky slapped his hand away and pulled his collar up again. He pulled it down a second later to scratch at it, and then pushed the fabric back in place. His hand went to his opposite wrist and scratched there, too. "It's itchy is what it is," Bucky said.

Peggy came up beside Steve and said, "Let me see."

Of course Bucky did as she said, pulling his collar down for a third time. Peggy tilted her head, analyzing and curious.

"On my arms, too," Bucky said while helpfully pulling back the sleeve of his jacket. The rash was bigger there, reclining and relaxing over the length of his forearm. It oozed with ambiguous intent.

"It's from that plant?" Peggy said to herself. She turned to Steve. "You don't think HYDRA were making plants that spat poison, do you?"

Steve's stomach turned. "Poison?"

He wouldn't put it past them.

Peggy's head turned toward Bucky. "Or are you allergic to anything?"

Bucky shrugged. He rolled down his sleeves and rubbed the fabric. "Orange cats make me sneeze," he said uncertainly.

"When did it start? When did you notice the rash?"

"It's been itching the whole time, but I didn't notice any rash until it started raining."

Peggy went back to Steve and said, "They'll be interested in this back at camp."

Steve shook his head and said, "I'm still stuck on 'poison'."

She rolled her eyes. "Not a lethal poison." A tough-it-out smile on her face. "You're fine, aren't you, Barnes?"

"Right as rain, Carter."

The sky was in agreement, and the thunder laughed with them again.

"Let's get to a defensible position," Steve said. "Or a place with good cover."

"Right," Peggy said, "Shall I lead again?"

Steve nodded and held out the shield to her.

But she declined and said, "I think it rather slows me down, actually."

She led on with her pistol ready. Steve held out his arm and made a face at his friend.

"I might be contagious," Bucky said. He rubbed his wrists together.

"How many times did I say that to you over the years?" Steve said, and Bucky was already rolling his eyes. "And how many times did you ignore me and hang around anyway?"

"M'fine," he insisted.

"Humor me," Steve suggested.

Bucky sighed at the inevitable and folded himself under Steve's arm, leaning into his side. It was more weight than he'd anticipated Bucky giving willingly. Concerned Face was drawn out — and the number of times Steve had done that since he pulled Bucky off that table in Austria.

Evasively, Bucky said, "You asked for it."

"I did, didn't I?" A few more steps and then: "And stop scratching."

Silence fell over them then. Lesson re-learned not to talk while they were in the enemy's woods. The rain plinked down and the sky chuckled distantly. Steve kept his ears opened but let his mind wonder about the others. Part of him was wondering about the wound Jim took, hoping that they'd been able to treat it. Another part of Steve lamented the fact that he wouldn't be there to hear the others rib Jim about the fact that he'd been shot in the ass for the second time in as many months. Never mind that the first one was "just a graze."

Then again, none of the others got to make fun of Bucky for being blown up by a plant. Steve wouldn't ever let him forget about it, but he was still concerned. Being blown up by anything wasn't good, and Steve had heard Bucky's head hit the edge of that lab station. Which was why he wasn't letting Bucky walk around on his own.

Steve really, really loved being on a team. He'd been alone all his life (save Bucky, of course), and all those days spent bedridden had left him with a lot of time to mope about his lot in life. Strange that Steve was grateful for the war. It made him sticky inside when he thought about it, but he really was grateful he was on this battlefield.

"Steve," Bucky said in a low voice that wasn't a whisper.

Steve tightened his grip in reply.

"Tired," Bucky said.

"We're all tired, Buck," Steve whispered back.

Shaking his head against Steve's shoulder, he said, "It's the kinda tired that you can't do anything about."

Shit.

"Peggy." His voice sounded like a feather out in the chilled air. The rain eased into stopping, but the thunder laughed one last time.

She turned but not in Steve's direction. To her left, she fired off four rounds. Another body slumped to the ground. She looked in his direction. "Right. Just off here should be good." Her steps were silent as she went to collect the dead soldier's gear.

Bucky sagged forward. "Uh oh," he said.

"Don't do this right now," Steve said.

"Can't help it. I'm goin' down, Stevie."

True to his word, Bucky's knees gave out. Steve caught him with a huff of frustration. You got the best timing, Buck, you really do. By the time Peggy came back, Bucky was out like a light, hanging from his armpits in Steve's arms.

"Your hands look full," Peggy said. "Is he alright?"

Steve frowned. "He's fine. I knew he was lying about the explosion." It was hard work to maneuver Bucky's dead weight around without swinging him up and carrying him — Steve knew Bucky wouldn't appreciate it if he did. So, in the end, Steve half-dragged his friend.

"You think that's it?" Peggy said. She was leading him to the chosen shelter.

Not really, he thought. Steve said instead, "You think it has to do with the . . . spores?"

"The poison," Peggy said, "yes, maybe."

Under dripping branches, they made a sad camp. Dark and damp and steam was starting to rise from the ground (ghosts from the dirt, breath fogging the skin). Out of the dead HYDRA soldier's belongings, they laid down a barrier between themselves and the exhaling ground. The tents HYDRA gave their soldiers were nice. Big. Made of something synthetic but strong.

Steve laid Bucky down on the tent, relieved. Then Steve sat himself down. Rolling up Bucky's sleeve, Steve shined the HYDRA soldier's flashlight on Bucky's arm. The rash hadn't changed much. A few places were raw and blooming pinpricks of blood. A result of the scratching, Steve was sure. He could feel Peggy's eyes watching him.

"What?" he said.

Peggy shook her head with a smile. "Nothing. You're just so attentive."

Well, it's Bucky, isn't it?

"You'll make an excellent father."

Steve's face got hot and Peggy's did, too. They looked away from each other, both of them to Bucky.

"Thanks," Steve said.

Peggy cleared her throat and sat on the tent, deliberately easing her weight down. Her sidearm was laid down beside her, within easy reach. She dug around in their pilfered supplies and found a canteen. After unscrewing the top, she sniffed and drank. Then she held it out to Steve with her head inclined toward him. He drank without thinking about it, and nearly spit out the mouthful of alcohol that burned on contact.

"Jesus," he said after forcing it down. Water collected above his bottom eyelids.

Peggy was smiling. "I'm surprised you couldn't smell it."

"You didn't even wince."

"I've learned a thing or two since this all started."

Steve shook his head. "I'm never leaving Dum Dum unsupervised with you again."

"For such a big man, he doesn't hold his drink very well."

Leaning back on his hands, Steve said, "Wish it hadn't rained. Everything's too wet to start a fire."

"You want to draw every eye in this wood to us?" She looked at him with pitched eyebrows and a crooked smile.

Shrugging, he said, "Why not? I've got you here to defend me."

The air became awkward, and Peggy looked away but her smile broadened. The serum had really done wonders for Steve's eyesight. Even in the dim glow of this forest, he could see Peggy clear as crystal.

Bucky grunted and shifted between Steve and Peggy. It was hard to tell if Steve was grateful for the interruption or annoyed by it.

"Waz gon on?" Bucky slurred, propping himself up on an elbow.

"We're settled for the night," said Steve. "We'll move out to meet the others at daybreak."

There was another grunt. Scratching filled the quiet along with the sounds of shifting.

"You can go back to sleep, Buck. Peggy and I will split watch."

"I always do third watch," Bucky said more clearly. "Even before you — I've always done third watch."

"Well, tonight you're not." Steve reached over to and stopped Bucky's hand from scratching all the skin off his wrist. "Get some sleep. No one's going to help you walk tomorrow," Steve bluffed.

"Good," Bucky said. He lay back down. "Wake me up for third."

"Sure."

"I mean it."

"So do I."

Bucky exhaled an annoyed sigh. "You're full of shit, Rogers. Excuse my language, Carter."

"Consider yourself pardoned."

Steve looked up just in time to see the look on Peggy's face before she hid it away.

"Maybe I'll die in my sleep. That way you and Steve can have all the privacy you want," Bucky said.

Heat rose in Steve's cheeks. Of course he'd been teased about girls before. It was the first thing people made fun of him for, right after his size and his perceived stupidity. Bucky was one of the first in line to deal jokes about Steve's lack of ability with women; Bucky's jokes were always harmless and meant to point out that Steve's nervousness was unfounded. His jokes were about how stupid it was to be afraid to speak to somebody — anybody.

But when Bucky made jokes about Steve and Peggy — not just girls in the collective sense, not just conceptually — well, jokes about Peggy got to Steve. They got a rise out of him. Which was why Bucky made them, of course.

Steve suspected that these jokes were intended to be messages for Peggy, too. It was Bucky's way of communicating that he accepted her as one of them. One of the soldiers and Commandos, as opposed to one of the others. She wasn't just some member of the brass that sent the soldiers after a goal without considering the potential loss of human life. She wasn't someone who told them to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

It was the difference between blue and white collar. Peggy was white who spent her time among the blue.

Privately, Steve feared becoming white. As captain, he was dangerously high up on the chain of command. Commissioned officers weren't often among their men; they led from the back. Enlisted men looked to their NCOs — they looked to their Buckys — to be their advocates. Out of fear or something worse, Steve made sure that he never placed himself too far from the men that served under him. Not the Commandos — who would have laughed at him if he tried to "brass" them — and not the men in all the local armies and civilian resistances they met during their missions. Steve strived to never be "too important" for anyone.

"You soldiers," Peggy said then. "You're all the same."

She may have meant it, but it wasn't intended as a slight toward Bucky. At least, Steve hoped it wasn't. Perhaps he was looking too far ahead — and maybe this would only happen in his wildest fantasy where this war ended with all of them alive — but Steve couldn't imagine living the rest of his life with his best friend and his g—Peggy at odds.

Steve looked at Bucky. He was just on the edge of sleep, a smirk on his face from Peggy's remark. His nails were still scraping his arm. Steve put his hand over Bucky's to stop it. He kept it there, holding Bucky still.

"Not all of us," Steve said. He smiled a little but stopped when he looked at her. "Maybe under the right circumstances."

Peggy made that unreadable face. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, she said, "When I was young, my parents had this dog. Her name was Rocket." Peggy smiled with half of her face, asking for Steve's patience. "I don't remember my life before we had her. I might have been four or five years old. Rocket went with me everywhere. The neighbors hated her — every little noise would set her off barking. She jumped on company. All my friends from school hated to come for visits. She always had ear infections, so she was a little smelly. My parents loved Rocket, but I think they would have gotten rid of her if I hadn't liked her so much."

Steve smiled at Peggy's memories. They were just out of his reach. But he smiled anyway. There was only one place that stories about dogs could go, but Steve asked the question anyway. "What happened to Rocket?"

"She lived a long time. I was eighteen when she died; she was about thirteen. I loved that dog. She slept in my father's chair at the end." Peggy made a gesture. "When she was old and couldn't move as well. My parents were sweet on her by then. They hadn't the heart to tell her no anymore; they didn't even try to keep her out of the house. She had those ear infections all her life — it smelled awful. She still jumped even when her hind legs were giving out. Barked all her life, even when it started to sound hoarse. She started to go blind a bit. It was comical, when she'd bump into things at first." Peggy smiled. "Barked more when she couldn't see. Rocket went deaf, but we all started to called her stubborn."

The leaves around them shifted. They both fell silent and serious, staring out into the woods. Peggy had a hand on her sidearm, but she was still and didn't pick it up. Nothing happened for two minutes. They let themselves relax, but they kept themselves on alert.

Steve looked down at Bucky. His free hand was scratching absently at his neck. The hand was rounded up and held immobile just like the first one.

Jerk, he thought fondly.

Bucky squirmed in his sleep, unable to relieve the irritation on his skin. He calmed down in bits and pieces. Around them, the forest sighed and burrowed into itself.

"Do you miss her?" Steve said.

"Hmm," Peggy hummed. "No. I don't think so."

It wasn't the answer Steve had expected.

She added, "I'm grateful for her, but I don't miss her."

"I've never had a dog," Steve said lamely.

"I didn't tell you about her because I thought you'd had a dog as well." Peggy shifted so she was facing Steve at an angle. "A lot of things have gotten better after she died. Not because she died, mind." She shrugged. "Rocket's just what I think of when . . ."

The rustle in the trees again.

"I've got it," Steve said so lowly it might as well have just been a breath. His hands released Bucky's; they took up the shield. He got silently to his feet and headed off in a direction eighty degrees off from where the sound originated. Before slipping between the trees, Steve looked back at Peggy. She had her sidearm in hand and her eyes on alert. His eyes dropped to Bucky, still asleep. He went into the woods pursuing a sound.

It turned out to be three HYDRA soldiers. Steve disposed of them as quietly as he could. Stealth wasn't exactly an advantage of using the shield, though. It was something Bucky routinely pointed out, to which Steve replied, "That's why I've got you." Dum Dum and Jim were taking to repeating their words in high-pitched voices and pretending to faint in each other's arms; it was funny.

Peggy's gun went off twice in quick succession while Steve was searching the bodies for intelligence. Upon hearing the shots, he stuffed all three of the bodies' documents into a single bag and headed back toward the spot where they'd made their pitiful camp. Steve's mind was telling him to run, but he had to ignore it. Peggy was more than capable of defending a position. Intellectually, Steve knew that. It didn't stop him from putting some zing in his step. He circled around the clearing, looking for anyone hiding in the trees. He found nothing but a dead body. Steve took any bit of conceivable intelligence off of it as well.

"Flash," came Peggy's voice through the trembling leaves and swaying branches.

"Thunder," Steve said. He couldn't keep the smile out of his voice.

"Welcome," she said when Steve was extruded from the darkness.

He resumed his seat on the tent beside Peggy. She was reloading her sidearm. Bucky was awake, but it didn't look like it would be that way for long.

"Nice shot," Steve said.

"Thank you," was Peggy's reply.

"I don't think Bucky could have made a shot like that with a revolver at night."

"Keep it up, pal," Bucky mumbled in a voice meant to be threatening but just sounded sleepy. "See what happens to ya. No offense, Carter."

Peggy glanced between the two of them. "You're looking for trouble, Captain."

The three of them were quiet again. Bucky fell back to sleep, but Steve and Peggy sat still as statues, listening for any other movement. The discharge of Peggy's sidearm could have alerted anyone to their location.

After a half hour, Steve said, "Gonna be a long night."

"Yes," Peggy said.

The trees exhaled while Steve and Peggy looked at each other.

At daybreak, they collected their things and set off for the rendezvous point. The air was damp, and fog clogged up the veins of the woods. No one woke Bucky up for third watch, and he griped about it the minute his eyes opened and he realized what time it was.

"I'm all confused now," he said grumpily. "I always do third watch. It's like I'm livin' a whole new life now, sleepin' straight through the night like some civvy. We still on Earth? Is the war even still going on?"

"Shut up." Steve tossed the tent away and obscured the evidence of their camp. He pushed Bucky between the shoulder blades and said, "Just walk."

They moved on. Steve took point for the first leg, and Peggy had the rear. Bucky stumbled between the two of them, unaided and weaponless but for the field knife in his boot; Steve hoped that Monty or Gabe had grabbed Bucky's gear as they fled the lab. Howard always threw a fit when Steve asked him to make a new telescopic sight because Bucky had broken or lost the last one on a mission. A new rifle was never any trouble. Asking for the sight, though . . . well, Steve always brought his shield when he went to ask these days. Last time Howard had suggested that Steve have Bucky come down to the lab so Howard could try performing eye surgery that would give the sniper telescopic eyesight; he couldn't misplace his eyes. It was said with the same amount of menace that Steve imagined all the mad people in the books had in their voices — those creepy books Bucky was always reading. All that Dr. Frankenstein and Lovecraft stuff.

After a short rest and a change of direction, Peggy took point and Steve was at the back. Bucky went on boldly, stuck safely in the middle. No more tree roots succeeded in tripping him. He didn't stagger much at all. Steve swatted at his friend's back occasionally, but that was mostly to make him stop scratching.

The three of them made it to the rendezvous spot. The rest of the Commandos turned up after an hour and a half. There was perhaps more noise than what was safe, considering their locations. But it was hard to care. There were hugs and there was teasing. Peggy was lifted clear off the ground when Dum Dum got a hold of her.

Dum Dum held Bucky at arm's length after embracing him and said, "Phew! You smell like a compost pile!"

"I'm OK, thanks for asking," Bucky said while stepping back out of Dum Dum's reach.

"Geez, what happened to your skin? You get burned?" Dum Dum caught one of Bucky's arms and yanked his sleeves up.

"It's from that damn plant," he said. "Speaking of, how's your ass, Morita?"

"Don't you worry about my ass, Barnes," Jim grumbled.

Bucky looked over his shoulder at Peggy. Steve watched him mouth the word "assie" and saw the amusement bloom on Peggy's face. She was one of them.

Steve made sure the check Jim over without being obvious about it. Monty noticed and gave Steve a discreet nod — everything was fine even though Jim was staying upright mostly by virtue of Frenchie's arm around him.

"Shoulda been there when I fished the bullet fragments outta there," Gabe said to Bucky. He passed Bucky his gear and rifle.

Dum Dum laughed. "I ain't never seen anything like it. If only we'd had one of those reporters. You know, the ones that buzz around us like flies and take pictures? Now that would have been a story."

"How would Uncle Sam like my bare ass in the headlines?" Jim said.

When they all moved out toward the extraction point, Steve and Peggy fell toward the rear of the column. The guys were still talking about Jim's wound, recounting Gabe dressing it and the things that were shouted during treatment. They were making all kinds of crude jokes.

Peggy shook her head and said, "Soldiers." Her lips were pursed, but they were bent into a smile she couldn't help.

That night, back at base, Steve slept better than he had in months. In his dreams, dogs called Rocket ran through forests that breathed, and the clouds laughed while they cried. He was grateful, but he didn't miss it.