The two of them waking at the same time is rare. She has her own life outside of him, her own job, her own missions, her own place of residence. So it’s not uncommon for him to wake and there to be a space in the bed beside him. Sometimes it’s even still slightly warm, the pillow smelling like her conditioner. But just as often he wakes before her, sweating and breathing hard like he’s just run a marathon. Those nights he looks at the red of her hair spread out across the pillow and wonders all sorts of things.
How his life got to where it is. Does he really deserve to be carrying the shield? To be sleeping in the same bed as her? Is she really awake and letting him have his moment of recovery before he goes and does whatever will dull the throbbing behind his eyes and the ache in his bones? Whether or not she is awake, he’s grateful to her for standing by him through everything that’s happening. Through all his restless nights.
Some nights he goes and stands in front of the window until the restlessness in his shoes can’t be ignored anymore and he loses himself to the streetlights and the feel of his bike eating up pavement beneath him. Some nights he walks to the gym Steve had set up in the building. There he pushes and pushes himself until his shirt is soaked with sweat, and his muscles finally burn with something that hasn’t anything to do with old memories leaving a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. Part of him wonders if he shouldn’t be used to this by now. Maybe he should have better coping mechanisms. After all, he hasn’t had a real good night’s sleep since he was sixteen.
Of course, everything changes once it’s more than just him living in Steve’s house. Natasha’s not around as much, and he runs into people while trying to clear his head three nights out of five. He notices Bobbi sneaking out a window one night, sees Clint pacing the next and tells him to go back to his wife. He spots Luke asleep on the couch with the baby on his chest on Tuesday and can’t help but smile at it. Another time, he makes it to the gym and finds Carol there beating the ever-living daylights out of a punching bag. He hesitates in the door just long enough for her to glance over at him, nod, and get back to what she’s doing. The unspoken understanding is something he’s grateful for, even if he does end up going somewhere else.
One early morning he finds Jessica in the kitchen, Dani squirming on her shoulder as she tries to sort things out with the bottle one-handed. Bucky watches just long enough for Jess to spot him and wave him over. “Here,” she says, and holds out the baby to him. He’s not sure, exactly, how he’s supposed to hold her. His memories of Becca at this age are vague, but there’s some sort of instinct in him that seems to get him holding the girl well enough for her mother’s approval. He looks down at her, this tiny, fragile thing cradled in his shining metal arm, and he feels unsure of himself in a way he doesn’t remember feeling before. Not even when he first put on the stars and stripes.
Dani grabs at his free hand, catches his first finger. Gently and very carefully, Bucky tugs his finger free before she can bring it to her mouth. He would rather not play teething ring tonight, or any other night for that matter. An amused noise catches his attention and he looks up at Jessica. She’s got one hip cocked and a smile on her face that lets him know she’s laughing at him on the inside. “You want to feed her?” she asks.
“No,” he returns. He shifts the baby in his arms until he can hold her out for her mother to take. Jessica laughs quietly and takes her daughter. Bucky watches her for just another moment, just long enough to see how she holds both the baby and bottle as she bounces and hums a nonsense tune. Then he turns and it takes all this self-control not to run back to his bedroom.
There’s an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach, accompanied by an itch on his back and in his heels. He needs to get out, he thinks as he hastily pulls on an undershirt and his leather jacket. The noise of him moving is maybe just a little louder than normal, but Natasha doesn’t stir. He takes one moment to pause and look back at her from the doorway. The way her hair fans out on the pillow somehow manages to remind him of roses in spring and of blood on sheets.
It’s too many steps to the garage, but once he gets there the hum and vibration of his bike is a comforting thing. He rides until the noise in his head yields and the only thing he’s thinking about is turn signals and streetlights that look like fireflies. Slowly, he coasts down streets and alleys, noting how unfamiliar everything is. Now that things aren’t so immediate, he takes his time figuring out where he is. There’s a church two streets over that takes some smart maneuvering to get to, but get to it he does.
Bucky parks in a space across from it and kills the engine. Leaning forward and resting his forearms on the handle bars, he lets out a small sigh as he stares at the architecture. The lights are turned out in the great stone building. At least, there aren’t any lights shining through the windows that aren’t boarded up. It looks like three of them have had something crash through them. Baseballs, he thinks, or maybe rocks. It’s a shame; the stained glass of the windows looks like it’s old, relatively speaking.
After a while, a gentle tap, tap, tap on the sidewalk grabs his attention. An old woman walks down the street, cane in one hand, plastic bags that are halfway full in another. The scarf tied on her head reminds him of the babushkas in Russia, heading to the cathedrals for mass. Which seems to be an apt association, as she turns and begins a slow climb up the concrete stairs to the church’s front door. It’s a bit odd for her to be going to an empty church at — Bucky checks his watch — four-thirty in the morning, but stranger things have happened.
Before he really knows what he’s doing, he’s across the street and holding out a hand to the struggling woman. “Here, let me help you.” It’s something Steve would have done, he thinks. Offering to help a little old lady up the stairs just because it’s the right thing to do.
The woman turns to him, smiles, and puts her hand in his. “Oh, thank you, young man,” she says. Bucky thinks he stutters out something in return, but he’s caught in the moment by how strange everything is. This woman with the odd hours is probably as old as he is. Her hand is small in his, wrinkled and spotted. He can feel each individual bone in her hand as he helps her up the stairs. They feel fragile between his fingers and his thumb. Like a bird’s bones, small and hollow. Easy to break.
He swallows that disturbing thought down as they reach the door. The woman — Anne, she says her name is — has a key. “Well, come on in,” she chirps, entirely too cheerful for four in the morning. “You look like you could use some cider and I’ve got to make some anyways for the five-thirty Bible study. Now… what’s your name, son?”
There’s a moment’s hesitation as he shoves down the instinctual answer. “James,” he says instead, ignores the odd feeling creeping back into the pit of his stomach. He hated that name as a kid. He hated being called son too, it always made him feel like more of a kid than he was.
Anne smiles at him. “That’s a good name. My son-in-law is named James,” and that’s all she needs to start talking. Bucky follows her into the church if only because it would be impolite to walk out when she’s in the middle of a sentence. When it becomes clear he’s not going to get a word in edgewise to be able to excuse himself, he shoves all thoughts of odd feelings aside. Anne brings him to the kitchen and has him fetch her things as she makes enough eggs to feed an entire company, and enough hot apple cider for double that.
She talks the entire time. It’s mostly mundane small talk; she tells him about her husband, about her children and grandchildren. She’s worried she’s going to end up with great-grandchildren too soon if her granddaughter isn’t careful with that boy of hers. She talks, and talks, and talks, and when Bucky thinks she’s just about done, she changes the subject and talks some more. Five-fifteen hits and she pauses for breath, finally sitting down with a mug of cider for herself and one for him as well.
“I’m sorry,” she says as she places a hand against her cheek. “You probably have things to be doing. It’s just ever since my Richard died, the kids have been all over the place. They try to come back for holidays, but between now and then there’s not many people to talk to. Or to talk at, as the case may be.” Anne gives him a wry smile, and Bucky finds himself giving her a small smile in return as he sips his cider.
“It’s alright.” A beat, and he glances up at the clock. “I should get going. Thank you for the drink, Anne.”
He stands, moving for the door, but Anne catches his hand as he passes by. “No, thank you, James. You stop back here anytime you like, you hear?”
A nod, and he jogs out the door. The uneasy feeling is back in full force, curling around his guts and twisting in them until he can’t think of anything else. He should be like that, he thinks. Old and wrinkled and talking of days gone by. There are times he feels out of place here, despite having moved more or less with the times. Those are the times he wonders briefly about what things would have been like if he hadn’t got caught on the bomb. Would he have died then, frozen in the ice? Would he have made it back to Gretchen and married her like he’d planned? Would his nightmares be of foxholes and forests instead of stasis tubes and flashes of red against his eyelids that leave him feeling like he wants to crawl out of his own skin?
Scowling, he pushes his bike faster as he drives back to his home. It doesn’t matter now. What happened, happened and the best he can do is try to atone for it. Try to live in the here and now, and do something worthwhile to make up for everything he did. “Remember who you are,” Steve had said. He’d been so desperate to get Bucky back, and he’d ended up with more than Bucky thought he’d bargained for. Oh, he had remembered what it was Steve had intended him to remember. He remembered fist-fights, cocky smirks, and smart remarks. But he remembered knives, blood, and countless lives lost as well.
He pulls into the garage and quietly makes his way back into the house. Dawn is hovering over the edge of the horizon, which means Carol’s likely up already, but avoiding her shouldn't be too difficult. He toes off his boots in the entryway and takes a moment to look around his home. Steve’s home. And it is so undeniably Steve’s.
Not for the first time, Bucky wishes he’d talked to Steve before the end, when he’d had a chance to. Maybe then he could have asked him why he’d gotten this second chance when he certainly doesn’t deserve it. But, then again, he already knows why. He’s not sure if it’s an answer he likes entirely, Steve’s inability to give up on someone, but he’s going to take advantage of it as much as he can.
His jacket and shirt are quickly discarded once he gets back to his room. Natasha is still curled up on one side of the bed. He pauses for a moment and just looks at her, the way the sheets are drawn across her body, the way her chest rises and falls with each breath. In the background, he can hear the faint sounds of Carol rustling around in the kitchen and he closes his eyes. He breathes in deep and lets it out slowly. This is his life now. He’s Captain America, he’s an Avenger. He is a man with more regrets than he can name who lives in a house with friends and allies, and who has a beautiful woman sleeping in his bed. He is one lucky son of a bitch.
The sheets are cool as he slips back into them, but they warm quickly as Natasha rolls over and throws an arm around him. Her head rests on his shoulder and he brings his own arms around her as he kisses the top of her head. “Mm, you smell like apples,” she murmurs into his skin. He exhales a laugh and looks over at the first rays of dawn that shine in through the window.
It’s selfish and he knows it, but he settles back down into bed and tries for a few more hours of sleep. Part of him says he should still be out there on the streets, wallowing in his guilt. But he’s got this undeserved second chance at life, and if he or the team ends up doing something today, he’s going to need to be better rested. He’s got a lot to atone for, and a lot to live up to, but he’s got something like an opportunity to do both in one go. Even if he is technically a fugitive from the law and his team is being hunted down.
His flesh and blood fingers run gently through Natasha’s hair as he thinks on that. Everything about his life right now is so very fragile. One wrong move and it could all shatter. And then he would be left with nothing but those regrets, that guilt, and his ghosts once again. So yes, it’s selfish. But he’s holding on to this fragile thing for as long as he possibly can.
“Stop thinking and sleep, James.”
The content look on his face as he drifts off is something he couldn’t help even if he tried.