When Steve was a kid, there’d been a street cat that split its time between the gap under their front steps and their building’s basement. It was black with white paws, and it was excellent at keeping the local rodent population down, which was why their landlord had let it stay.
It definitely wasn’t a pet, but Steve had kind of liked it, despite its open hostility toward everyone and their mother. When Steve had a little extra money – which wasn’t often – he’d buy some sardines as a friendship offering. He’d crouch down, holding the fish out, and the cat would swipe the food out of his hand and retreat to crouch under the stairs, growling and eating at the same time. Steve would retreat back to the top step to nurse the scratches it’d given him.
After Steve found Bucky and brought him back to the tower, he reminded Steve a lot of that cat. Suspicious and wary, wanting what Steve had to offer but not trusting him enough to take it without drawing blood along the way.
For two, sometimes three days at a time, Bucky would disappear. The only proof Steve had that he hadn’t left was that JARVIS assured him he was still within the building. Well, that, and the disappearance of food from the fridge overnight. He’d show up again eventually. After the first time, Steve understood that it was best just not to ask where he’d been or why he’d felt like he had to disappear.
The cat had disappeared sometimes, too.
After six weeks, things were no better – though they were also no worse, which Steve supposed counted as something. Bucky hadn’t tried to leave, and he hadn’t tried to harm himself or anyone else. The worst of what Steve had feared hadn’t come to pass.
And yet, Steve hadn’t seen him in three days.
Steve tried not to take it personally. He tried not to wonder if it was something he’d done, or hadn’t done, or if he was doing more harm than good by keeping Bucky in the tower. He’d wanted to create a safe place for him to heal, but maybe he was just imprisoning him. Maybe in Bucky’s eyes, he was no better than Zola and Pierce. Steve hoped that wasn’t true, but it was hard to know for sure when he had so little to go on from Bucky himself.
Steve had learned soon after bringing Bucky home that isolating himself from the rest of the team resulted in drastic interventions, the likes of which he would not enjoy, so he’d gone to movie night on the communal floor. He had dutifully watched the third and last Lord of the Rings movie, and he hoped he’d done a decent job of pretending to pay attention, though he suspected that neither Nat nor Tony had been fooled.
He left as soon as the movie was over, even though Thor was talking about making ice cream sundaes, and usually Steve would’ve stayed to see that chaos in person. It was early, but he was tired – existentially tired, in a way he hadn’t been since his first few weeks in the twenty-first century. He had Bucky back, but it didn’t feel like it. And he didn’t know when or if it ever would.
He changed into his pajamas and crawled into bed. He had a stack of books about PTSD and trauma on his bedside table, but he wasn’t sure he could face them tonight. He turned off the light and tried to sleep.
He’d nearly managed to doze off when he felt the mattress dip. He was instantly awake, though he tried to keep his breathing as deep and even as it would be if he weren’t. There was a moment of stillness, as though whoever was on the other side of the bed could sense he’d woken. But then the weight on the mattress increased, whoever it was easing themselves onto the bed, and Steve caught the faint sound of gears in motion.
Bucky’s weight settled on the bed. Steve felt gentle pressure, slowly increasing, against his back.
Bucky was not only on the bed, he was on the bed with his back – Steve thought it was his back, anyway – touching Steve’s. Deliberately.
Steve didn’t dare move or acknowledge it in any way. He knew that if he did, Bucky would vanish, instantly, and it’d be days before he saw him again. So he held very still and tried to just keep breathing.
He didn’t think he’d be able to sleep like that. He was holding himself so still, trying not to scare Bucky away, and all he could think about was the place on his back where he and Bucky were touching. But he was so relieved that Bucky was safe, and so, so tired from months of being worried sick for him, worry that hadn’t abated when he’d brought Bucky home. And Bucky’s back was warm where it touched Steve’s, and familiar from years spent sharing a bed – first at Bucky’s parents’ house, after Steve had moved in with Bucky’s family after his mother had died, and later in their own apartment. They’d kept the couch in the living made up, but it was just for show; Bucky had never once slept on it.
Against all odds, Steve fell asleep. In the morning, Bucky was gone, but there was a faint depression in the bed where he had been. It was still warm when Steve touched it, and he spent a minute or two with his hand pressed against the blankets, feeling Bucky’s body heat slowly seeping out of it.
He got up and went out to find Bucky in the kitchen, eating cereal out of a bowl with a serving spoon.
“Good morning,” Steve said, trying not to show his surprise.
“Morning,” Bucky said, shoveling Cheerios in his mouth.
“Sleep okay?” Steve asked, pulling a package of bacon out of the fridge. He looked at it, then put it back. He wanted to run this morning. He’d reward himself with bacon and eggs afterward, but for now he decided to follow Bucky’s lead with the Cheerios.
“Yes,” Bucky said, after such a long silence that Steve had almost forgotten what he’d asked.
Steve glanced over at him. “Good,” he said mildly, and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
It happened again the next night. Steve was wide awake this time, wondering if Bucky was going to crawl into bed with him again. He tried to keep his breathing slow and even, but he couldn’t control his heart, and he knew Bucky could hear it beating much too fast.
It might have been his imagination, but Steve thought Bucky settled a little closer this time. They were touching from shoulder to hip, through just two thin layers of cotton. Steve was suddenly overwhelmed – by what, he couldn’t even have said – and had to swallow against his aching throat. His eyes were burning, too, and he was so grateful and so sad and so lonely, feeling like Bucky was right there, pressed up against him, and still a million miles away, and Steve wished – he wished –
He was trying to be quiet, but he must’ve made a noise, because he felt Bucky stop breathing, just for a second.
Steve managed to swallow the next sound, and the one after that, too. Eventually he managed to get himself under control, and he felt Bucky relax again against his back. He was lucky he hadn’t scared him off entirely.
If this was all he got with Bucky, he told himself, if this was all he could have of how they used to be, then it was enough. It was.
It would have to be.
It happened again and again after that, almost every night. Whether Steve had seen Bucky that day or not, he’d creep in after Steve was in bed – sometimes right after he’d gotten in bed, sometimes hours later. Steve stopped trying to predict it.
They never talked about it. Steve hoped it helped Bucky. He seemed to sleep at least some of the night, not that Steve ever rolled over to check. He had to go by both breathing and heartrate, and even then he wasn’t sure that Bucky couldn’t have fooled him.
It helped a little, when Bucky disappeared during the day, to know that Steve would get at least a little bit of him that night. It wasn’t enough; he wanted all of Bucky, always had, and it made him ache to know that even with Bucky living in the tower, there was a yawning chasm between them that might never close. But it was more than nothing, and Steve had learned to live on less than what he actually needed a long time ago. Food in the Great Depression; touch and affection in the twenty-first century. It wasn’t really that different.
They might’ve gone on that way forever, if it wasn’t for Loki’s “daddy issues” – Tony’s words – which resulted in chaos in the financial district on the most beautiful Saturday imaginable in early June.
There were about eight million things Steve would’ve rather been doing than cleaning up Loki’s mess, which mostly involved semi-sentient creatures crawling out of the East River and into Battery Park. It was disgusting, slimy work, but since they’d evacuated the area around the park, it wasn’t actually dangerous.
At least, not until they realized that the sea creatures had been a distraction from Loki’s actual intentions, which were (apparently) to blow up the Empire State Building with a whole load of tourists inside of it. It was not his most elegant plan, but Steve had long suspected that Loki wanted Thor’s attention more than he wanted anything else, and it definitely succeeded in that.
It also succeeded in putting Steve in medical with a dislocated shoulder, a concussion, a cracked sternum and three cracked ribs, two bruised kidneys, and a ruptured spleen.
The tourists were fine. The less invincible members of his team were fine. Steve would be fine in two or three days. The doctors at the tower poked at him and declared that there wasn’t much they could do for him that his body wasn’t doing already, and since painkillers were useless on him, he should probably just go sleep it off. Steve bit back his first five responses and thanked them with excruciating politeness.
He didn’t argue when Tony and Natasha insisting on escorting him up to his rooms. He was moving slowly, feeling like he actually was ninety years old, and neither his balance nor his coordination was especially good at the moment. The nurse in the medical unit had cut his uniform off of him, but he was going to need their help if he wanted to get out of his sweat-and-blood stained undersuit and into fresh pajamas.
Maybe they wouldn’t mind supervising him while he took a bath. He was past worrying about modesty at this point, at least not with Nat and Tony. He didn't want to be a burden, but he could recognize genuine worry when he saw it, and he knew the best thing for all of them would be to let them help.
Natasha put Tony in charge of making sure Steve didn’t fall and crack his head – again – while she went and made food for all three of them. Steve lay in his supersoldier-sized tub while Tony sat on the floor next to it, back against the wall and knees pulled up to prop up his phone, and ran through all the upgrades he was going to give Steve, since he had to make him a new uniform anyway. Steve let the technobabble roll over him in a soothing wave, buffering his mind the same way the water was buffering his body.
When Steve had soaked long enough to get pruney, Tony helped him out of the tub and let Steve use his shoulder for balance as he stepped into clean pajamas. He was still in pain – a lot of pain, if he was honest – but he was much more comfortable.
Natasha had made pancakes and eggs and bacon. She wouldn’t let him have coffee, but she did pour him a large glass of orange juice. Steve fell on his first plate and didn’t speak until it was cleared. Natasha slid four more pancakes, three more eggs, and two more pieces of bacon onto it, without him having to say a word.
“So,” Tony said. He’d cleaned his plate and moved on to his second cup of coffee. “I can’t help but notice who isn’t here.”
If Steve hadn’t had his mouth full of pancakes, he would’ve sighed. “Mmm?” he said.
“Where’s the Terminator?”
Steve swallowed. “I’m sure he’s around somewhere.”
“I’d think he’d be lurking protectively. Or brooding. Or both, no reason he can’t multitask. Hey, Barnes,” Tony said, turning around, “your boyfriend got thrown into a building today. Might want to come out and make sure he’s okay.”
“Tony,” Natasha sighed.
“Stop, Tony,” Steve said tiredly. “He’ll come out when he’s ready.”
Tony didn’t look impressed. “You shouldn’t be on your own right now. If he’s not going to step up, one of us needs to stay with you.”
“You don’t need to –”
“Yes, Steve,” Natasha said firmly. “Tony’s right.”
Steve knew they were right. He was sore and tired, and while he wanted to say that he was one hundred percent sure that Bucky was going to come out when they were gone and make sure Steve stayed hydrated and didn’t fall over trying to get to the bathroom, he couldn’t be sure. But he was also pretty sure that if one of them stayed, Bucky wouldn’t come out at all. As much as he appreciated what Natasha and Tony were doing for him, the truth was that he wanted Bucky asleep at his back, wanted his warm presence in Steve’s bed.
“Can we...give it an hour or two?” Steve asked. “If he’s not here by eight, I’ll let you know through JARVIS and one of you can come up.”
Tony frowned, but he also looked at Natasha, as though it was her decision. She nodded. “Okay. But you have to eat about two thousand more calories first.”
Steve ducked his head. “Got it. Thanks.”
By the time he’d eaten enough to satisfy Natasha, Steve could feel himself crashing. Now that it was well-fueled, his body – and the serum – desperately wanted him to rest so it could focus on fixing everything that was wrong. He let Natasha and Tony get him settled in bed, on his back, propped up on some pillows to alleviate the pressure on his sternum and ribs.
“Eight o’clock,” Tony reminded him, frowning.
“I’m refraining from pointing out the irony in you lecturing anyone about self-care,” Steve told him.
Tony flicked his ear. “Don’t sass me. Just –”
“Yes, eight o’clock,” Steve promised. “Thank you. Both of you.”
“Anything you need –” Nat began.
“I’ll ask JARVIS and he’ll pass it along. I’m okay.”
She nodded, apparently satisfied; Tony just kept looking around the room, glaring at corners and the various air vents overhead. But when Natasha took his arm and pulled him out of the room, he went willingly enough.
Alone at last, Steve closed his eyes. Sleep was dragging at him, but he wanted to stay awake, just a few more minutes, just in case.
“Buck?” he mumbled. “You there?”
No response. Steve stopped fighting his body and fell asleep as though he’d stepped off a cliff.
He was deeply asleep when the bed dipped – so deeply asleep that he couldn’t quite wake up, caught in a twilight state. He felt two strong arms, one flesh and one metal, encircle him, but he thought his mind might be making things up, things he wanted but didn’t think he could have. He couldn’t pry his eyes open, but he let his head fall to the side, resting against a warm shoulder.
“Shh, Stevie,” Bucky murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
Steve had no choice but to obey.
His sense of déjà vu was strong the next morning when he woke to find the other half of the bed empty but rumpled, still warm from Bucky’s body heat. He didn’t think he was imagining having been held all night. His entire left half felt less stiff than his right, as though he’d been tucked up against a heating pad on that side.
On both sides, everything ached. From his head to his toes, he just hurt. He wasn’t used to waking up still injured. And he really, really needed to pee.
“Bucky?” he called, trying to quash any kind of expectation. If Bucky wasn’t there, he’d have JARVIS call Tony. It wasn’t the end of the world.
But to his shock, Bucky appeared in the doorway, a mug in each hand. “Hey, Stevie,” he said. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah, but, um. I have to use the bathroom. Could you...” Steve took a deep breath and swallowed his pride. “Help me?”
Bucky nodded. He set the mugs down on the nightstand. “Just like old times, eh?” he said, helping Steve sit up and swing his legs off the bed.
Steve raised his head and looked at him sharply. “You remember?”
Bucky ducked his head. “Starting to. I’ve been – at night, more of it seems to come back. Last night, I remembered – you used to have to sleep sitting up like that because you couldn’t breathe, right?”
Steve nodded. “I had asthma, and I’d catch colds in the winter.”
Bucky slid his shoulder under Steve’s arm and helped him to his feet. “Remembered holding you like that when you were sick. ‘Course a few things are different now.”
“Just a few,” Steve agreed.
It was a little humiliating, having to be helped to the bathroom. But it felt so good to be touching Bucky in the daytime, to have his arm solidly around his waist, that Steve almost didn’t care. And if someone had to stand there and hover while Steve sat down to pee, he was glad it was Bucky. Bucky had seen him in much worse shape before, and he’d never judged him or thought less of him for it.
Steve was exhausted by the time Bucky helped him back to bed, but Bucky insisted on him drinking the tea with honey that he’d made him.
“I remember this, too,” Bucky said, sitting on the end of the bed with his own mug. Their legs were touching, pressed up against each other through the bed covers.
The door to the apartment opened and closed. “Cap?” Tony called. “JARVIS said you’re up.”
Bucky froze. Steve put his hand on his leg – not holding him, just reassuring him. Bucky didn’t relax, but he also didn’t bolt. “I’m in here, Tony,” Steve called back.
Tony appeared in the doorway and froze, staring at Bucky. Come to think of it, it’d probably been weeks since anyone who wasn’t Steve had seen him.
“You know it’s rude to ask JARVIS to spy on people,” Steve observed mildly, ignoring the tension altogether.
One more beat of wary silence, and Tony shrugged. “If it means being able to sleep because I know you’re not going to bleed out in the middle of the night without anyone knowing, then frankly, I’ll be rude. Hashtag, sorry not sorry.”
“Damn right,” Bucky said.
Tony’s eyes flicked toward him. “Barnes,” he acknowledged.
Tony inclined his head toward Steve. “How’s he doing?”
“Sore. Trying to pretend he’s in less pain than he actually is. Didn’t piss blood this morning, though.”
“Excuse me,” Steve said, indignant.
Tony just nodded as though Steve hadn’t spoken. “Progress. You guys need anything?”
Bucky shook his head. “Think we’re okay for now. I’ll let you know if that changes.”
Tony hesitated. “And if, um. If you need someone to spell you –”
“I’ll let JARVIS know,” Bucky said. “And, uh, if you and Romanoff want to come to dinner tonight...that’d be okay.”
“Sure,” Tony said. “What kind of takeout do you want, Steve?”
“Oh, do I get to be part of this conversation now?” Steve asked, with more irritation than he actually felt. It was hard to be annoyed when Bucky was talking to someone who wasn’t Steve, and especially hard to be annoyed when that person was Tony. Steve had more or less given up on Bucky and Tony ever having any kind of relationship with each other. He almost didn’t care that their relationship seemed to be based on mutual despair over Steve’s inability to take care of himself.
Tony raised his eyebrows at Steve’s petulant tone. Bucky rolled his eyes.
“Thai,” Steve muttered, chagrined. “That soup with the coconut milk and the lemon grass. And green curry with chicken. And that tofu eggplant thing Clint always gets.”
“Got that, J?”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS said. “Sergeant Barnes, what’s your order?”
Bucky’s mouth opened, closed, then opened again. “I...don’t know.”
“Spring rolls and pineapple fried rice,” Steve said, before it could become a thing. “And red curry with snapper. You’ll like it, I promise. ” Bucky had always had a sweet tooth, and he’d liked fried fish, once upon a time, though Steve didn’t think they’d ever had it any other way. And if he didn’t like it, then Steve liked all of those things well enough to swap with him.
“Good,” Tony said. “Shout if you need us, then.” He pushed off the doorjamb with his hip and stalked out.
Bucky looked after him, the corner of his mouth twitching like he wasn’t sure whether to smile or scowl. After a moment, his face smoothed out, and he did neither.
Steve started to suggest they pull out a deck of cards, but he didn’t even get the first word out before he was interrupted by a jaw-cracking yawn. “Think I need a nap,” he admitted.
Bucky nodded, looking down. “Want me to –”
“Stay. Please. Just like last night, that was.” Steve stopped and took as deep a breath as his ribs would allow. “That was perfect.”
Bucky nodded again. His mouth still wasn’t smiling, but his eyes were.
It took them awhile to get comfortable, even though they’d managed it effortlessly the night before. It took Steve forever to get the pillows into the configuration that had worked so well overnight, and then Bucky couldn’t settle. It took a few frustrating minutes for Steve to realize he was overly conscious of his metal arm and kept trying to keep it from touching Steve directly on the skin.
“I don’t care, Buck,” Steve finally said tiredly. “It’s part of you. I don’t mind it touching me.”
“I mind,” Bucky muttered, but he did seem to relax after that, though Steve noticed it was his flesh-and-blood arm that ended up draped across Steve’s chest. Steve rested his head at the juncture of metal and skin, tucking his nose into the curve of Bucky’s neck.
“This okay?” Steve mumbled.
Bucky didn’t answer for awhile, not until Steve started to shift up to look at him. “It’s...a lot,” he finally said. “I don’t know – how long –”
“It’s okay,” Steve said gently. “However long you can handle it is...is good. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. I’m just glad we can have this at all.” Glad for Bucky, because it meant he was getting better, day by day, and glad for himself, because now that he had more of it, he could admit to himself that those nights spent back-to-back were not enough. Not to live on. He would’ve made do forever if he’d had to, but he was glad he didn’t.
Bucky went quiet. Steve drifted, tired and sore but content.
They ate in the living room that night, so Steve could stretch out. Tony sat on the floor; Natasha claimed the single armchair as her throne. Steve reclined on the sofa, bolstered by some pillows, even though his ribs were almost done healing; the same could not be said of his sternum.
Bucky ate sitting beside him, with his thigh touching Steve’s own through two layers of cloth. He picked at his food at first, gaze flicking between Tony on the floor and Natasha in the chair, wary and suspicious and silent. Finally Steve laid a hand on the back of Bucky’s neck, pressing his thumb gently into the corded muscle there.
Bucky relaxed so fast, he went briefly boneless beneath Steve’s hand.
Tony raised his eyebrows. Natasha made no expression at all.
Steve took his hand away after a few seconds, but Bucky stayed relaxed, eating more steadily and with fewer wary glances toward Tony and Natasha.
Steve thought of the cat again. The last time he’d seen it had been right before he’d shipped out. He’d offered it sardines and this time, as though sensing something was different, it’d actually taken them without bloodshed. It’d even sniffed his hand afterward. He hadn’t dare pet it, but it’d looked at him like it almost trusted him.
It’d been one more thing in a long list of things Steve was leaving behind and might not see again, but it had ached more than he had thought it would, seeing it vanish under the steps for what was probably the last time. It’d felt like a small betrayal, to make the cat trust him and then abandon it. Which was stupid, because the cat hadn’t needed him; it’d done just fine in the weeks between sardines. But he’d still felt bad and hoped against hope that it might still be there when the war was over and they made it home.
Except he hadn’t made it home. Neither of them had.
He and Bucky started the washing up together after Tony and Natasha had left, rinsing the plates and loading them into the dishwasher. There wasn’t much, just the plates and cutlery, and after a couple of minutes Bucky shooed him away to get ready for bed.
Steve felt better enough to change into pajamas on his own, and he was brushing his teeth when Bucky came in. He spat and rinsed. “Hey, Buck, do you remember that stray cat that lived under the stairs in our old place? Black and white and mad as hell?”
Bucky blinked at him in the mirror. “No. Why?”
Steve felt a brief pang of disappointment. “No reason.” He patted his face dry with a towel and turned. Bucky was still looking at him, puzzled. “Just wondering. Been thinking about it a lot lately for some reason.”
“Yeah, well, don’t hurt yourself,” Bucky muttered.
It was so Bucky that Steve let out a startled bark of laughter. “Jerk.”
“Punk,” Bucky returned, smiling. “Get out so I can brush my teeth.”
Steve went to leave, but at the last moment he turned, cupping Bucky’s face in his hand, sinking his fingers into the long hair at the nape of his neck. He half-expected Bucky to pull away, but he didn’t. Instead, he brought his flesh-and-blood hand up to grip Steve’s wrist. The levity vanished, leaving something else in its wake, something much heavier.
This, he would not abandon. Not for anything. No matter how hard it was.
“Come to bed after?” Steve asked quietly.