Sometimes, Bucky spends all day riding the bus.
He can feel Steve watch him as he gets ready. He tugs a ball cap down low over his eyes, pulls on the gray canvas jacket that used to belong to Barton, laces up his tall boots. After months of reminding Bucky to take bus fare, Steve gave him a pass card. So now Steve just tells him to have a good day before he heads out.
Hands-off, that's what Steve tries to be. Bucky's not sure if he likes it or not.
On the bus, he tries to sit as solitary as possible. It's easiest in the mid-morning, when everyone's been dropped off at work or school. The bus isn't unpopulated ever, but it's quieter. He likes the bus, the smell of diesel exhaust, the hiss of hydraulic brakes, the rattling of all of those loose, metal parts. He lets his mind narrow its focus down to each sensory input.
Bucky leans against the window and tries not to fall asleep, but he doesn't try that hard.
Bucky has thought about it a lot and the best word he can come up with is tactile. Or grounding, maybe. Something about his presence that roots Bucky, anchors him down hard, and even though it should feel like restraints, it doesn't. The way Steve frowns at him when he's concerned, or sweeps Bucky's hair off his forehead--it feels like security. Touch feels safe.
Steve's hand always hesitates. So Bucky's pretty sure they're on different pages.
On the bus, he tries to sit directly between people on the benches. He feels like he takes up too much room, but that's half the point. He sits beside other commuters and compresses the space between them down to millimeters, body heat pooling between their shoulders. As the bus' suspension bobs their bodies back and forth, Bucky thinks about leaning. He thinks about leaning into strangers, closing the distance. He thinks about bodies brushing, only thin layers of fabric separating skin from skin. But he always stops short. Always holds his body rigid, the promise of touch looming large and dark.
Touch may feel like security, but the idea of touch sets off the dogs in his chest.
Beside him, Steve's hand is lead. It rests limp on the cushion between them, somehow so much more conspicuous than a hand should be, drawing attention to itself by virtue of its stillness. It ruins Bucky's concentration, breaks his focus.
So he takes it. Slips his own hand underneath, laces fingers together, feels Steve's pulse fill in the spaces between his own.
Steve doesn't say anything. Just leans back into the couch cushions. Watches the movie.
Once, two little girls sit beside him as he stands. Maybe eight and six, he doesn't know, bad with ages, but they have to be sisters, their identical heads covered in short, dark, identical braids. The younger one stares at him, at his arm, exposed and inhuman.
He fights down the ancient urge to cover it, frantic, to avoid detection, look normal, blend in. But will power wins. He stands, meets her eyes briefly then faces forward.
"It's like Daddy's leg," the younger one hisses to her sister.
"Violet, shut up," her sister responds.
When they got on, Violet, the younger one, saw Bucky and made a beeline for him. Her sister (Daisy, Bucky has learned) tried to stop her, but Violet is three-feet six-inches of unstoppable force.
She's been talking nonstop for the past twenty minutes. Everything from lunch ("Daddy made mac and cheese but then he had to go to work.") to her father's veteran status ("But then Daddy blew up and now he has a leg like your arm.").
Bucky looks down. "What's in the box?"
Violet looks down at the the shoe box in her lap. She frowns. "Don't tell, okay?"
"Violet, no!" Daisy looks scandalized. "It's gross."
"Don't listen to Daisy," Violet says with all the wisdom a six-year-old can muster, "she's dumb. But, seriously, don't tell."
Violet evaluates him with narrowed eyes. When she deems him worthy, she lifts the lid slowly and deliberately, just a couple of inches for Bucky to see inside.
It's a dead pigeon.
"Why," he asks.
Violet shrugs. "Things die."
"Why do you have it?"
She sighs. "I wanted to water the plants. But it was dead," she says. Her voice wavers.
Bucky knows what she means is, she wanted to water the plants, past tense, and now what she wants is for this bird to be not-dead. She wants to nurture two things into vitality, the plants and the bird, not just one but both. And it's not fair that she can't.
"She wants to bury it in the park," Daisy says, "Daddy doesn't know."
When Violet sniffles, Bucky doesn't look down, wants to give her the dignity of privacy. But she leans against his side, pushes her face against his ribs, and he slips and arm around her, lets her cry.
(Bucky calls it a goal. Steve doesn't call it anything.)
Holding hands is nice. They've established that.
Steve's hand on Bucky's knee: Fine. Good. Steadying.
Halfway up his thigh: Neutral. Warm.
Closer to his hip: Breathing elevated, and not in the way Bucky thinks should be good. Steve backs off and they start again, back to hand-holding.
Later, fingers curved warm around the back of his neck: Safe. Good. Do it again.
Considers, too, his own pounding heart, his panicked breath.
Reaches for an unoccupied strap instead.
Still, Steve's fingers on the back of his neck.
Steve's fingers on the back of his neck.
Bucky nods. Watches Steve's head nod along by contact.
Steve tips his chin; their noses touch. Bucky can feel Steve's breath on his mouth. Soft, steady.
"Buck," he says.
Bucky nods. And Steve brushes their lips together. It's brief, fleeting, barely any pressure, but Bucky lets his eyes slip closed. Steve lets out a breath he must have been holding.
"If you ever don't like something, you have to tell me to stop. But I'll always try to ask before it comes to that. Okay?"
Bucky nods, quick and jerky, and leans forward to kiss Steve again, more firmly this time, longer. He wants to kiss Steve. It's good. He's decided.
Bucky jerks awake. Scans his surroundings. Takes in the smudgy windows, the blue seats worn at the edges, the grimy straps swaying back and forth from the ceiling. Diesel exhaust. Safety.
The woman in front of him, the driver, is pretty. Big, dark eyes in a round face. There's no one else on the bus.
"Mister, this is my last stop before I head back to the transfer station."
Bucky blinks sleep from his eyes.
"You should probably get off." She looks down. "I'm supposed to make you get off."
Bucky nods once. He tries to make his shoulders look smaller inside his canvas jacket. He's found that helps, scares people less. He's working on how to talk, how to hold his eyes steady, and it's a work in progress. But he can make his body smaller, just fold his bones a certain way, tip in, and it seems to put people at ease.
"Hey," the driver says, her brow furrowing, and she rests her fingertips on his stubbly jawline, tips his face up so she can see his eyes. "You got somewhere to go, hon?"
The tips of her fingers are three precise points of heat on his skin. He likes touch. He didn't think he would, thought maybe that was another thing taken from him. But now he thinks maybe that's impossible. That a longing for touch is too hardwired, too human, too organismal. Primordial.
He nods as lightly as he can. He doesn't want to break the contact. "My friend," he says, and he takes note of the way his skin feels as it moves under her steady fingers. "I live with my friend."
He's still not good at reading emotions, but he's getting better, and he thinks he'd describe the driver's expression as "sad."
She sighs and pulls her hand away. "Whatever you say, Mister." But then she smiles and Bucky would describe that as "recalibrating," even if Steve says that's not an emotion. "I'm Lola. I'm on this route Monday through Thursday, seven to two. You hop on then and you don't have to pay, all right? Our secret."
Bucky frowns. "But I've got a pass card."
Lola snorts. "Sure. All right. Come see me anyway." She gives his shoulder a squeeze. "But I do have to kick you off here. Sorry."
He doesn't have to be afraid of hands. Not just Steve's. Anyone's. Hands are fine.
Steve is folded between his knees. They're kissing. Bucky thinks he loves kissing. He didn't know how warm mouths could be, how wet, and how that could be a good thing. He'd been skeptical the first time Steve swept a tongue over his bottom lip. But when he'd paused for permission, Bucky realized he wanted to feel it again. And more after that. So now he lets Steve kiss him like this, full of lips and tongue. Lets Steve lick into him.
He tries it himself. Steve makes a sound, deep and low, and something about that makes him feel uneasy, so he stops, tries not to think about why it's okay for Steve to give, why he likes that but doesn't like to give back. But Steve doesn't seem like he's longing for anything he's not getting. So he lets Steve take the lead again, and they're fine.
They're fine. They're more than fine.
A week ago, her head had been shiny from a fresh shaving. Today the bristles are starting to come in. It looks fuzzy. Bucky wants to press his palm to it.
Bucky shakes his head. "Getting lunch," he says.
He tries to decipher Lola's smile, but can't.
At the deli, he lets his hand brush up against the cashier's as he pays his bill.
The kid, probably a college student, smiles politely but detached before pushing back his floppy blond bangs. It reveals a curved silver stud in his eyebrow. Closer inspection discovers the organic black lines of a tattoo peeking up past the white collar of his work shirt.
"Three seventy-eight," the kid says as he passes back the change.
Bucky takes it. This time, he doesn't try to create an artificial touch. He doesn't need to.
He figures, he's traded on his sight for ninety-some years. Maybe it could use a rest.
Orange segments are acidic, explosive. They taste big.
Water is full of thick with minerals, a slight chemical tail when he swallows. Chlorine, probably.
He pinches salt from the bowl and places it on the tip of his tongue. It is all physicality, sharp, an electric jolt and he rushes to spit it out. Swallows water to clear the grainy, green memory of restraints, mouth guard.
The water, this time, is a fresh start.
Steve notices because Steve notices everything. He says, "Close them," and gently nudges a forkful of take-out fried rice against Bucky's mouth. Bucky lets him in.
The rice has a meaty texture, a savory flavor from the soy sauce. A crisp pea pops between his tongue and roof of his mouth. This heightened juxtaposition of textures--he's not sure if he likes it. But he does like the way Steve's thumb swipes against his bottom lip.
"Stray rice," Steve says, "hey, can I?"
Bucky nods but is still surprised by the pressure of Steve's lips on his cheek. With his eyes closed, Steve smells like cheap soap, clean cotton.
In the morning, she greets him with the usual, "Hey, stranger," and he nods once before heading straight to the back. He pulls his cap down over his eyes, puts his knees up against the back of the seat in front of him, and watches.
Some people he recognizes. An old woman gets on with a younger woman, not her daughter, probably a caretaker, and they ride to the grocery store. Two teenagers get on two blocks apart, and make out until the bus drops them off at the high school. A young man gets on with a heavy book bag. He rides to the university, gets off, and buys a cup of coffee from a street stall before going in.
By 11:00, Bucky moves up to the middle of the bus. He likes to hold onto the straps, likes to feel the weight of his body pull against his flesh shoulder while the bus sways him back and forth.
At 12:45, he moves to the seat directly behind Lola. He doesn't talk but she does, so he listens. He learns about her son, Marcus, her loser of an ex-husband, her new girlfriend who drives the B17 bus, how they've been going out to listen to music for the past few Saturdays, but she's not sure when she'll be ready to tell her son. Bucky could listen to her talk all day. She never asks him anything about his life. He appreciates it. He never knows what to say.
At 1:30, she says, "All right, end of the line," like it's nothing at all and Bucky thinks that, yeah, to normal people, it isn't.
"Oh! I almost forgot, listen to me gabbing," she says, handing him a dense brownie, wrapped up in red cellophane, "it's Marcus's birthday, so he took these to school. Here, for you. And your friend."
Bucky notes that there's only one--in case, he thinks, he'd been lying about having a friend. But it's also big enough to share, in case he wasn't lying. Lola's pretty smart.
"Thanks," he says, "Steve likes chocolate."
"Who doesn't," she asks, but it doesn't sound like a question, "Happy my-kid's birthday, sweet pea."
Bucky lets himself smile. He likes the way the sides of his face feel when his smile presses against them. He leans in for a one-armed hug, warm body to warm body. "Happy Marcus's birthday, Lo."
It's neutral territory, its function vague and undefined. Steve's tried to kiss Bucky in the kitchen and it's felt wrong. They shower together, but Steve seems to know that touch in there is too weighted, implies too much about what is to come, so they don't kiss there either. But the couch is safe.
(Bucky doesn't know if "safe" is the right word anymore. "Right," maybe, or "okay." There's no fear, never with Steve, and yet.)
But he likes this, the weight pressing him down. Slow, lazy kisses. The scratch of Steve's chin, and Bucky knows it means that Steve's been home for two days and hasn't bothered to do much else besides this, not even shave.
Test a theory: Bucky slides his hands from their usual station at Steve's shoulders, down his back, to his hips. Then, fingers brushing the hem of his T-shirt, under and upward. Palms to skin, ribs, heartbeat felt through the muscles of Steve's back.
Steve lets out an unsteady breath. It used to make Bucky skittish. Now it makes him bold.
He lets Steve's hands move. He lets Steve press fingers to temples, the peak of his throat, his sternum. Lets him move the heels of his hands rough over his sides, his hip bones.
"Buck," Steve says, just a breath, and he curls his fingers over the waistband of Bucky's jeans.
Bucky stills beneath him, his instincts telling him to push Steve back but he calms them. He swallows thickly and meets Steve's wide eyes.
"Not gonna happen, pal," Bucky says, his hands light over Steve's wrists, "maybe not ever."
"No, yeah, sure," Steve says, shaking his head, pressing his palms against Bucky's abdomen, sliding them upward over skin, over ribs, "anything you want, Buck. I mean it."
They stay like that, chest to chest, breath and awareness heightened with confrontation. Bucky drags the heel of his foot up the back of Steve's leg, moves his hands to Steve's shoulders and pulls him down for a kiss. Lets his teeth pull at Steve's bottom lip. If he does it gently enough, it's okay. He likes it. Steve seems to like it, too.
"This is good," he says, smoothing his hands down Steve's back, "we don't have to stop."
He can see Steve's small, sad smile before his face disappears into the crook of Bucky's neck. "I know. But maybe we should, just for right now."
Bucky nods, then sits up. He presses his lips to Steve's temple, his cheek, his chin. All places they both like. If they both like it, it's good.
Bucky wants it to be good. And he wants to explain. But he doesn't know how, doesn't have the words yet, or not words that would make sense, not words that Steve would understand, like when he thinks about Steve, and his chest feels both heavy and light, his pulse both frantic and lazy. He knows what he means when he thinks about Steve and thinks tactile, but he's not sure Steve would take it as the compliment it is.
But Steve doesn't ask him to explain, doesn't ask him for anything. He just wants to share space, whatever that looks like. Someday, Bucky will have concrete words for how that makes him feel.
"Hey, close 'em," Bucky says, his voice softer than he'd intended.
Steve obeys, slips his eyes shut, long lashes resting over his cheekbones.
Bucky closes his eyes, too, and picks up Lola's brownie from the coffee table. Slowly, he unwraps it. Each sharp crinkle, the way the plastic wrap sticks to itself--with his eyes closed, the sound takes over. The sound is his world. And he knows it's Steve's world right now, too.
Then: scent. The warm, chocolate scent. He wonders if it reminds Steve of his childhood, his mother. Later, it will remind Bucky of this.
Then: taste. Piece by piece, slipping past Steve's lips, past Bucky's.