The first time it happens -- or, Steve realizes later, the first time he knows it's happened -- is after one of Sam's VA meetings. Steve is usually out late on those nights, sticking around after the meeting to get a cup of coffee or a drink with Sam, and it's after ten when he unlocks the door of his DC apartment.
He flicks on the lights and pours himself a glass of water, and that's when it hits him that something is ... off.
He can't put his finger on it. He prowls through the entire apartment, which doesn't take too long. It's a new place, somewhere without bad memories and bloodstains on the floor, a new address that isn't liberally sprinkled throughout the declassified SHIELD database like the old one. Not that he's truly gone to ground -- he has no illusions that anyone looking for him won't be able to find him easily -- but at least it feels a little less like he's still under SHIELD's long shadow. The new place is an open loft with a bedroom area and kitchenette, just one big room with few places to hide, and there's no evidence of intrusion that he can find. No trip wires. No HYDRA operatives hiding in the bathroom. His coffee cup from this morning is rinsed and neat in the drain rack, just like he left it.
There's not a lot of clutter to hide signs of tampering. Steve isn't a person who collects clutter. He's not a person who collects things. Once upon a time he couldn't afford it, and then he moved around too much, and now that he could, theoretically, settle down, it's just too much of a habit. He'd acquired a pretty nice collection of vintage furniture at his other apartment, but he left it all there when he moved. His new apartment is a place to sleep, not a place he lives.
A place to sleep ...
He keeps coming back to the bed. Steve always fixes his bed neatly in the morning, tucking in the corners. Now it's rumpled. Not much. It's possible that he was in a hurry. Careless. But he's not sure how that corner got rucked up, how the blanket rumpled in that particular way, like someone's been lying on it.
He checks the bed all over for booby traps; Natasha's taught him well. There's nothing he can find, so he sits on the bed for awhile. He doesn't tuck in the corner.
During the first few weeks after .... everything, Steve had managed to sleep in his own bed maybe one day out of five. He doesn't actually remember sleeping at all during that time, though he knows he must have. There were political fires to put out, compromised SHIELD agents to rescue, hotspots of HYDRA violence to subdue, and through it all, a constant thread of searching for someone who probably didn't want to be found and might not even be alive.
Natasha helped him when she could, but she had her own wildfires to deal with, and he could tell that privately, though she wouldn't say so, she thought he was on a fool's errand. So he'd pored over files and security footage and old newspaper stories; he'd talked Stark and Pepper into the loan of a private jet to fly halfway around the world a dozen times in search of the most tenuous clues. But there was always something else: another message on his cell phone, another disaster somewhere else in the world. As much as he'd like Bucky to be his first priority, his only priority, it isn't fair to let the world go hang for the sake of one man. No matter how badly SHIELD failed him. How badly Steve failed him.
But he's read every file that SHIELD has on Bucky -- the public ones (helped out by all the websites that had sprung up to dissect and collate the contents of the SHIELD data dump) and the other ones that Natasha keeps turning up for him. He is more aware than he wants to be of how heavily Natasha and Nick Fury redacted the data that was released to the public; he wishes he wasn't quite so suspicious that Nat's still not showing him everything. But if there are things she's still keeping from him, he wonders if he's better off not pushing too hard.
What he already knows is bad enough. He's seen the cryotank that was Bucky's entire world for months and years at a time; he's seen the terrible room with its equipment and needles and the chair --
He'd stayed in that room for a long while, touching the fabric of the restraints as if he could touch the wrists -- one flesh, one metal -- once bound in them. Natasha helped him destroy it all. Any benefit to humanity that could have come from the information contained in this equipment was more than offset by the horror of what it was meant for, and what it had done.
I would have come for you, if I had known.
But time goes on, and leads go cold. The world is starting to settle into its new order. Steve knows there are splinter groups of ex-SHIELD agents out there in the world -- knows, too, that Natasha is in touch with them, and that Fury is almost certainly running his own underground network in Europe. Natasha promises to bring him anything she turns up on Bucky -- the Winter Soldier, she still says, but that's not what Steve will ever call him, not out loud and not in the privacy of his own head. There are construction cranes all around the Potomac River, as another broken city buries its dead and heals its wounds.
The world goes on, and Steve jogs with Sam and goes to VA meetings; he waits for midnight pickups from Nat or Clint or Stark to fly off to some remote location to do what Captain America does. He has Stark help him set up filters on his laptop to catch references to the Winter Soldier or James Buchanan Barnes or a couple dozen other keywords: old codenames, specific locations, anything that might indicate Bucky is active in the field again. (Steve tries not to think about what Bucky being reactivated means, for Bucky or for them. HYDRA is still out there too, he knows, just like SHIELD is.) He tries not to begrudge himself the nights when he actually gets enough sleep (all those hours when you could be looking, helping, doing something), tries not to hate himself as he chases eggs and sausage around his plate in a diner when Bucky is God knows where and Natasha is halfway around the world chasing HYDRA agents.
"You deserve to have a life," Sam tells him over coffee at their favorite all-night diner. He nods at Steve's arm, still in a sling from where it got busted two days ago fighting HYDRA agents in Romania. The burns have already healed. Bones take longer. "You can't pour out your veins into the world, man, because the world will take it all, every drop that's in you, 'til there's nothing left of you but a dried-up husk. Believe me, I know."
It's hard for him to understand how Sam can talk about it so easily, even as much as he knows (and Sam is pretty open about it) that this was a hard-fought battle and every bit of soul you bare comes at a price. Steve is mostly quiet at the VA meetings, pulling a cap down over his eyes and trying to just be Steve, not Captain America. He watches the way other people around him react to things -- the ones who are closed off, curled in on themselves; the ones who are slowly unfurling like a flower opening to the sun.
He draws a lot. Sitting in the window of the loft, he sketches the view; it was the main reason he wanted the place, after all. When his pencil starts adding broken windows and smoke rising from the buildings, he tears out the page and starts fresh.
Some days he tears out a lot of pages.
By the third or fourth time that he comes home to the feeling of not-quite-right, the unsettling sense that things in the apartment have been moved around, he's gone from suspicion to a dead certainty. The thing that tips him over the edge is the realization that at least one of the crumpled sketches is missing from the wastebasket under the window. Steve's not entirely sure how he knows; he even dumps out the wastebasket and counts crumpled balls of paper before realizing that he has no idea how many pages were left in the sketchbook before his last drawing session. But he knows. The same part of him that got used to scanning hillsides for mines and snipers is pinging him now -- not a danger signal, but just a little twitch that something is not quite the same.
Sam and Nat are the only people he can talk to about it; they're still the only ones who know the truth about Bucky, at least the whole truth, though all of the Avengers know by now that Steve is chasing a ghost from his past. He tries Natasha first, on the hope that at least if she thinks he's being an idiot, she won't have the opportunity to mock him every morning while jogging.
But she doesn't laugh, and she doesn't say anything for awhile. "How sure are you?" she says at last.
"Very sure," he says, and feels it settling in, the bone-deep certainty that he's been trying to deny.
They're sitting on a bench on the Mall, eating lunch from plastic takeout containers. Tourists are very light for a weekday afternoon, and four times so far, by Steve's count, they've been stared at by suspiciously well-muscled joggers. Security in DC has been ironclad ever since Steve helped crash three helicarriers into the Potomac. He doesn't blame them, but it still bothers him, that his country responds to terrorism by becoming smaller and meaner.
"He just ... comes into the apartment while you're gone and goes through your things."
"I don't think he goes through my things." But then he thinks about the wastebasket. And all the files on Bucky in a locked drawer of his desk. There's never been any sign of tampering on the desk locks, but then, the door never shows signs of tampering either. He feels suddenly guilty about it. He'd hate Bucky to think that Steve's been spying on him, though he supposes it's technically true.
And apparently mutual.
Natasha regards him for a long while before she says, "Steve, you need to consider the possibility that he still intends to kill you."
He wishes he could say that it hasn't crossed his mind at all. Still ... "If he wanted to kill me, he's had a hundred opportunities. Unless he's slowly poisoning me --" Natasha looks worried. "Stop that; he's not poisoning me. He doesn't want me dead, Natasha."
"He could change his mind," she says, and hesitates fractionally before saying, "Or have it changed for him."
Her words hang in the air between them. HYDRA is still out there. It's not unreasonable that someone with the equipment and know-how to reprogram the Winter Soldier is out there too.
Not the Winter Soldier. Bucky.
"No," Steve says quietly.
"You have to admit it's a possibility." Natasha's voice is flat.
"I'm not denying it's a possibility. I'm not even denying that he actually would try to kill me if --" He can't say it. The idea of Bucky being subjected to that chair again is more than he can think about, in his waking moments at least. His nightmares are a different story. "What I'm saying is that I'm not going to let it change what I do. I know he's dangerous. I know he's been told to kill me once before." And didn't go through with it ... and he wants to trust in that, wants it so much, but he's seen enough of HYDRA already to know that if he does believe it, then he really is a fool. "But I won't give up on him because of that."
"It's not giving up to protect yourself."
"I'd think you of all people should believe in second chances." The words are out before he can stop himself.
She looks at him for a long moment, then rises from the bench.
He gets up too. "Natasha, don't. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"You don't owe me an apology," she says as she collects her trash. "I just want you to remember that I, of all people, know how often second chances don't take."
Steve doesn't see Nat again before he goes out of town with Clint and Banner to deal with a situation involving something with a lot of tentacles attacking the residents of a small Aleutian island. Before he leaves, he makes two large sandwiches and puts them on a plate on the countertop, along with an apple. He thinks for a long time about what to write on a note, but then his ride shows up, so he just goes.
When he stumbles back in two days later, exhausted and still stinking of seawater and mud, the first thing he notices is that the counter is clean. The plate has been washed and put in the dish drain rack.
Nothing else is visibly different, at least to Steve's weary eyes. Maybe the pillow is a little dented where it wasn't before, like it was plumped up after being used by someone who doesn't know exactly how Steve plumps up his pillows. When Steve drags himself into the bathroom to wash off the mud, the towel is arranged neatly on its bar -- but it's slightly damp. The shower is perfectly tidy; in fact, he isn't quite sure that he left it that tidy, with everything scrubbed down as clean as possible and a faint odor of bleach hanging in the air.
He isn't sure whether it's politeness or an attempt to remove all traces of DNA. Maybe both. In any case, he decides not to worry about it.
When he sacks out for the first sleep he's gotten in two days, he knows it's his imagination, but it seems that a slight warmth lingers in the pillow, enough to take some of the chill off his dreams.
At this point Steve figures he'd better talk to Sam, since Sam is the closest thing he has to an expert on post-traumatic (really, really post-traumatic) war veterans.
Sam, to his credit, listens to the whole story without interrupting. When Steve is done, he takes a long, thoughtful drag on his cup of coffee before speaking. "So let me get this straight. There's a brainwashed, homicidal amnesiac sneaking into your house and ... eating your food?"
"And using my shower," Steve says. He decides not to add Also sleeping in my bed.
"Brother, your life."
"Tell me about it," Steve says, gesturing to the waitress to top off his coffee. It's late and they're in their usual café; outside, the sidewalk glistens after a light evening rain. "And I don't know what to do now. I'm afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, scaring him off. You know how to talk to --"
Sam is already shaking his head. "No, no, no. What I know how to do -- the first thing you learn when you do the kind of counseling I do -- is how to tell when someone's out of my league, and kick it upstairs to people who are trained to deal with that kind of thing. And this is so far out of my league you can't even see it from here."
Steve doesn't want to press it, thinks Sam's probably right. But he can't imagine trying to explain Bucky to someone who isn't used to dealing with SHIELD-level weirdness, and anyone associated with SHIELD is entirely out of the question. "You're good," he says. "People open up to you. You know what to say." He's seen a 300-lb bruiser with a shaved head break down in Sam's arms just the other night.
"Me? I'm just a guy with a gift of gab and a couple of peer counseling training seminars under my belt. Guys like this -- the closest I can compare to is some ex-Special Forces dudes I've seen who were this close to cracking. And buddy, I referred them on, for their own sake and the safety of everyone around them. What I do is basic mental first aid. Some people need the whole surgical suite, you know?"
"What if you're the only one they'll talk to? Or ..." It isn't like Bucky is actually talking to him, although sometimes, in a weird way, it feels like it. "Or want to be near. Look, I can guarantee he's not going into therapy. Not right now. Even if I could figure out how to ask, I don't think it'd work."
"Give it to me straight," Sam says. "You think he's dangerous? Because if you do, and you don't try to get him help before he hurts someone --"
"I know!" It comes out sharper than he wants it to. There's a dull ache throbbing at his temples. It's hasn't really been gone in months. Maybe not since he came out of the ice; sometimes it feels like he left a part of himself, the most vital part, frozen there. Or maybe even before that, on a mountainside when he failed to protect someone who had once protected him ... "I know, Sam. Every time I turn on the news, I'm terrified what I'll see is a bombing at the Pentagon or a terror attack in the subway and I'll know that he's the person who did it, and I could have stopped him."
"Hell of a burden to put on yourself," Sam murmurs.
The outburst leaves him exhausted, or maybe it's just this whole miserable situation. "I just want to help him, Sam. I just want to avoid breaking him any worse than he already is."
Sam sits back and toys with his napkin. "You want some armchair psychology? Free analysis, limited time only."
"Of me or him?" Steve asks warily.
"A little of both, maybe. If I had to guess, I'd say he keeps coming back because he feels -- well, I was gonna say safe, but that's probably not quite it. I can't help thinking it means a lot that he stuck around, or came back, or whatever he's doing. Guy's looking for something that he can't find anywhere else. I don't know what, exactly, but ..." Sam's gaze turns inward. "I know a lot of us spend a lot of time looking for it, after we get out."
"Home," Steve murmurs.
"Maybe," Sam says. "Or maybe just .... a place where it hurts less? I dunno, man. Like I said, I'm just an armchair psychologist, not a real one."
"You're better at it than you think." Steve smiles, but it drops away when he thinks of Bucky out there in the world somewhere, lost and scarred and lacerated by fragments of shattered memory. "I don't know what to do to help."
"If you don't think you can get him to actual, professional help," Sam says, "then all you can do is be a friend, I guess. Whatever that means in a situation like this."
"I'm glad your advice was free, because right now I feel like I sure got what I paid for." But he picks up the tab, because Sam is always honest with him and right now Steve needs that more than anything.
Natasha insists on sweeping Steve's apartment thoroughly for bugs and booby traps.
"I already did this," Steve protests as she hangs out the window and does something cryptic under the sill.
"I've seen what you call a bug sweep," her voice issues from somewhere below the windowsill. "I need to train you better, Rogers."
Steve starts to offer her a hand up, but she contorts her body and hops onto the windowsill, then leans out at a gravity-defying angle to examine the bricks above the window.
"I really think this might be overkill," Steve says. She's been at it most of the morning.
"I know you don't think the Winter Soldier will hurt you --"
"His name is Bucky, and I'm not that naive. I know he's dangerous and he's been programmed to kill me, but -- Do you really have to lean out like that?"
"Yes." She stretches a little farther. Steve has absolutely no idea what is holding her onto the building at this point. She doesn't appear to be listening, either, but he forges onward.
"But underneath all that, he's still -- he's still Bucky. I really believe that."
He's never said it out loud; never articulated to himself quite like that before. And he's startled when Natasha draws herself in the window in a single graceful ripple, vaults onto the floor in front of him, and then stretches to get in his face.
"Bullshit," she says succinctly. "No he's not."
Steve can feel the steel drawing up in his spine. He knows his friends don't believe in Bucky the way he does. They have no reason to -- they've never seen Bucky be gentle or playful or protective, only fierce and terrible. Still, this flood of rage might be how Bucky once felt about him when he was bullied as a kid.
"I know none of you have ever known him as anything other than -- what they made him." He keeps his voice level. Nat is a friend, and she isn't the one who deserves his rage. "I can't explain why I believe in him --"
"That's not believing in him," Natasha spits. "You don't get to decide that for him."
He begins to realize she's really angry, and surprise saps the heat of his own anger. Now he's just baffled. "What?"
And Natasha pulls herself together too, a calm mask slamming down over the open anger that he'd glimpsed. When she speaks again, it's level and measured. "After all these years of HYDRA conditioning, all the things he's done that you can hardly imagine, he's not the man you knew. He might be your friend again one day, I don't know. He might be a good man. But he's not the same man. Sam said you wanted to help him --"
"Wait, you're talking to Sam now?"
"-- and if you force him to be the person who was your friend in 1943, because you don't want to know the person he is now, that's not helping."
"I --" He starts to protest, then makes himself stop and think about what she's saying, turning it around in his head. "That's not what I meant."
"Well," Natasha says, "it's what came out of your mouth."
Her hair is twisted into a ponytail band to keep it out of her face. She strips it out as she turns away from him, and there's a long moment of stillness while she carefully smooths it back and twists the band into place again.
"For what it's worth," Steve says, "I like the person you are now."
She gets her hair put away, all smoothed down, and when she turns back to him, the rest of her is smoothed back into place as well. A hint of mischief sparkles in her eyes. He wonders if it's real, and then puts the thought away; it's the face she wants to show him, and that makes it real enough.
"How would you like to learn to rewire a microwave to electrocute someone when they push the start button?"
"Do I have to?" Steve complains. He's pretty sure they're okay now. She's smiling a little, in the way that promises this lesson is going to involve some pain.
But he thinks about it later, after she's gone, while soaking his electrical burns and waiting for his fast healing to start making a difference. Sam and Natasha both gave him the same advice in different ways. Be his friend.
The problem is that he doesn't know how to be the friend Bucky needs.
He borrows some books from Sam on PTSD and self-care, and gets a list of recommendations for others to seek at the library. He intends them for himself, to understand Bucky a little better, and the thought even occurs to him that leaving them lying around is probably inviting a more pointed interpretation than he really intends. He puts the books in the closet under his dress shoes. That's a stupid place and Bucky will probably find them there -- Steve has no illusions that Bucky isn't going through his stuff; he finds just enough slightly moved or misplaced papers to be sure of it -- but he figures he's hidden them well enough that it's obvious he didn't pick them up just to make a point.
He keeps leaving food out. Sometimes it's untouched, but usually it vanishes while he's gone. Once, Steve manages to finish a particularly nice drawing of the DC skyline, and he leaves the sketchbook lying open with that page detached. When he comes back a day later from helping Natasha and Stark stop someone who wants to blow up the moon (blow up the moon, seriously, how is this his life) the sketchbook is still there, but the page is gone.
It really does feel like he and Bucky are having conversations. Very strange conversations, often one-sided. But there is communication happening here, even if Steve isn't sure what they're saying.
Still, he's as surprised as anyone on the day when he comes back from Sam's to find Bucky still in the apartment.
Bucky's on the bed when Steve first starts to open the door, lying down and apparently asleep. By the time he gets the door all the way open, Bucky's managed to get halfway across the room, drop into a crouch, and draw a knife. Steve's not sure if he's ever seen anyone move that fast, even Natasha.
"Hi," Steve says cautiously.
Bucky doesn't say anything and he doesn't drop the knife, just lowers it with the butt near his stomach and the blade pointing outward. The knife sends a very clear message: Don't touch me, don't come near me, or I will hurt you.
He looks .... well, not at all good, but not the half-dead wreck that Steve had seen in some of his darker nightmares. Bucky's hair doesn't look like it's been cut since they fought on the helicarrier; it's past his shoulders now. His eyes are sunk in dark circles and he's lost weight, dwindling down to bone and wiry muscle. He's wearing a denim jacket and jeans, both relatively clean.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Steve tries. This has no effect except to make Bucky maneuver around carefully so that the kitchen island is between them, never taking his eyes off Steve.
Steve tries to tell himself that the mistrust, the fear doesn't hurt. Be his friend. "You can leave if you want to," he says, and he steps away from the door, into the center of the room. He keeps his hands out so Bucky can see he's unarmed. "You're free to go, but if you want to stay, you'd be welcome to --"
Bucky doesn't even let him finish the invitation; as soon as the door is clear, he's out and gone.
Steve lets out a long slow breath. The bedcovers are slightly rumpled, the pillow dented, but the bed's not turned down; it's evident that Bucky was sleeping (or meditating, planning Steve's demise, whatever he's been doing) on top of the covers, not under them. Possibly because blankets and sheets would tangle him up when he makes this sort of sudden explosive exit.
But he was asleep, or at least resting, and Steve doesn't think his own comings and goings are any more stealthy than they've ever been. It's possible that Bucky is less intensely paranoid than he once was, at least where Steve is concerned.
Or possibly he's building up to some kind of fatal coup de grace, who knows.
Steve leaves the door open all afternoon just in case Bucky comes back -- a ridiculous gesture, he knows, since Bucky is clearly more than capable of getting past a locked door, but they seem to speak in gestures now: careful ones and careless ones, a subtle language of fear and trust and hope.
He waits, but Bucky doesn't come.
However, three or four days later, Steve actually catches Bucky sleeping without waking him up.
He's been out on another ... well, he's not sure whether to call them missions, because there is no longer a SHIELD, he's not technically a member of the military anymore, and he certainly isn't taking orders from Stark. So he's back from an ... operation, this one with HYDRA robots and a number of dead civilians. He's exhausted and heartsore and just wants to hole up in his apartment for a few days and not come out.
But he opens the door and Bucky's on the bed, fully clothed and not moving.
Steve's first, horrified thought is that Bucky is actually dead, but no, after watching him for a minute, Steve can tell that he's breathing. He just slept through the door being opened, which is a first, and from what Steve now knows about his past, quite possibly a first for him in seventy years.
And all Steve can do is stand there, afraid to move, hardly daring to breathe. He doesn't dare shut the door for fear of making too much noise. He knows he shouldn't step forward -- Bucky's on such a hair trigger that the tiniest sound, the most imperceptible movement of the air in the apartment might wake him. And Steve manages to be still for one moment, two ...
But he can't help himself. He creeps forward, one step at a time, afraid to take his eyes off Bucky -- it's like watching a ghost, a mirage, waiting for the moment when it melts into reality. Bucky is wearing the same dark jacket he had on the other day, now a bit more stained and rumpled. He's curled on his side, facing the door, with his flesh-and-blood arm tucked under his cheek. His metal hand rests against his thigh, where a leather sheath holds the same knife he used to threaten Steve the other day.
Steve takes one stealthy step after another, using every fiber of his enhanced muscle tissue to plant his feet as quietly as possible, and the thought slowly dawns on him that this is terribly creepy. If Bucky wakes up to find Steve hanging over him, Bucky probably will stab him and Steve will deserve it.
But Bucky looks so ... flattened. Not tranquil, not really. Even in sleep there is a waiting tenseness to him. It's obvious, though, that he's exhausted -- he must be, to sleep through Steve's approach, however stealthy. Waking him seems cruel.
Steve decides to take a compromise approach. He moves like a slow-motion gymnast, retrieving the book he's currently reading from the windowsill where he left it in front of the open window -- no secret how Bucky got into the apartment this time. Then he glides behind the kitchen island, a position that puts him as far away from Bucky as he can comfortably get in the not-so-large apartment. He figures that Bucky will feel less threatened if he's as isolated as possible. Steve tilts the book toward the window to catch enough light to read without turning on a lamp ... and proceeds to stare at the same paragraph without comprehension, sneaking quick looks at Bucky over the top of the book. Not often. Just every, oh, ten seconds or so.
Bucky stays still as the dead for nearly twenty minutes, until he jerks in his sleep and lets out a soft little cry, the first sound Steve's heard out of him since these visits began. Then he wakes as before, going from utter stillness to vertical, awake and armed in a second or two. He's crouching halfway between the bed and the window, with the knife in his metal hand and a small gun in the other, produced from somewhere around his person. He glares at Steve through a curtain of tangled hair.
"Hey," Steve says, as casually as he can under the circumstances. "I was gonna make something to eat. Want some?"
Bucky blinks at him.
Steve lays down his book and gets out the one skillet he owns. While cracking eggs into it, he keeps as much of his attention as possible on Bucky. He fully expects Bucky to go out the window at any moment. But instead, Bucky stays in his combat crouch for a bit, and then unbends enough to perch on the edge of the bed. In between two of Steve's covert glances, he puts the gun back wherever he got it from, though he keeps the knife handy.
It's all Steve can do to bite his tongue and not say anything. Where are you staying? Are you eating? Do you plan to kill anyone in the near future? Instead, he tries to force himself back into the casual comfort that he and Bucky used to enjoy when they were rooming together. They didn't have to talk all the time. It wasn't unusual for the two of them to be in the same room together, quietly engaged in whatever they were doing -- Steve might be sketching, while Bucky read a pulp detective magazine. If Steve concentrates hard, he can imagine that this is just a Saturday morning back in 1941. He's making an omelet. Bucky is ... Bucky is reading, or taking a shower, or writing a letter to whatever girl he's courting this time.
It's not, of course. Steve knows it's not, can't help getting reminders everywhere he turns: a glimpse of the digital clock on the microwave, a snatch of metal-music lyrics from the apartment below ... and every furtive glimpse of Bucky, dark-clad and hunched on the edge of the bed. It's seventy years from home, seventy years from the future they thought they'd have. They're both broken in ways that can never be healed.
He thinks maybe he understands a little better what Natasha was talking about earlier -- about the way people change, the impossibility of going back to the way things used to be.
If you force him to be the person who was your friend in 1943, because you don't want to know the person he is now ...
Steve scrapes eggs out onto two plates. They're not gourmet omelets -- all he has on hand for fillings is some cheese and a bit of onion -- but they're all right. He's a pretty good cook when he pays attention, and he makes a lot of omelets because it's a fast way to get protein and calories, both of which his enhanced metabolism needs. Bucky, being enhanced too, might be the same way.
Steve lays a fork on the edge of the plate and shoves it to the very farthest end of the countertop. Then he gets a fork of his own and, with deliberate casualness, takes a bite.
Bucky has been so still and silent the whole time that Steve wonders if he's totally zoned out, if maybe taking the plate to him would be the thing to do. But then he gets up. It's actually the first time so far that Steve's seen him be anything other than graceful and fast. This time he moves stiffly, like he hurts.
Eyes on Steve, knife in one hand, he approaches just close enough to take the plate. He wets his lips with the tip of his tongue -- they're dry and cracked. "Thanks," he says, in a voice rough from disuse.
Steve wasn't expecting him to say anything. He pauses with a bite halfway to his mouth, and Bucky takes the opportunity to go out the window, fast and efficient and somehow managing not to drop the plate or its contents.
By the time Steve gets to the window, there's no one on the fire escape. No one anywhere.
The next evening, the plate and fork are back in his dish drain, clean and washed.
Steve, before heading out to the VA meeting, made sure to leave a covered dish of meatloaf on the countertop. He got it from a diner down the street. Bucky always liked meatloaf. And it's gone, as he'd expected. But this time, there is something in its place.
Steve approaches it cautiously. He resists the urge to poke it with something, as Natasha would no doubt want to. It's a box of drawing pencils. He picks it up, turns it over. No messages. No traps, at least none that he can find. Just the pencils.
During the war, he used to draw with stubs of pencils that he got from the office girls. He would have traded a year's worth of meat ration coupons for something like this, a basic set of 21st-century style drawing pencils, 4H to 4B. He already has a couple of sets just like this -- he can't bring himself to buy anything fancier -- but that doesn't matter. It's the first present he's gotten in seventy years.
Steve sincerely hopes they aren't stolen.
He spends the rest of the evening drawing, working up a good architectural sketch of the by now quite familiar view outside his window, using the new pencils. The perspective is off and he's not terribly happy with it, but he signs it and scribbles THANK YOU. -STEVE at the bottom. Then he leaves it out on the counter.
As strange as this whole thing is, it seems that they are both figuring out the rules.
Two nights later, he wakes to darkness.
Something woke him, something more than the usual nightmares. He stays very still, his eyes adjusting slowly to the glow of streetlamps and headlights through the window. Steve is a city kid; he likes having the city for a nightlight.
And tonight, someone is in the apartment with him. It's a very subtle thing, a ghost of movement in the dark.
Steve's back is to the door. He thinks he knows who it is, but he can't be sure. Just to be on the safe side, he very carefully snakes a hand down and rests it on his shield, which is leaning against the bedframe as usual.
The bed dips under the weight of another person.
Steve's breath catches. He remembers after a moment that breathing is good, breathing is necessary, and tries to resume as close to normal a breathing pattern as he can manage under the circumstances.
There are small rustles on the other side of the bed, little creaks of leather -- the sounds of another body settling into a comfortable sleeping position. Face to the door, Steve can guess.
And back turned to him.
He never would have thought such a simple gesture of trust would have brought tears prickling against the backs of his eyelids.
He wants so badly to turn. To see. To reach out and touch. To confirm, in some way, the presence that can only be inferred.
It's hard not to look. Growing up, Steve read all those old stories about people who were told not to look and did it anyway, from Lot's wife to Orpheus and Eurydice. He knows how every one of those stories ends.
So he doesn't. Instead he closes his eyes. He expects it will be hard to sleep, with a killer at his back who may or may not be gunning for him.
But Bucky's watching the door. Bucky, whoever he is now, still has Steve's back, just like always.
Sleeping, in the end, is not difficult at all.
And for the first time since the helicarrier, maybe for the first time since the mountain, he doesn't dream.