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When Bucky dissociates hard enough to black out, to forget, to get lost, there are different . . . ways.

Steve thinks of them as places. He should probably think of them as times, but half the time he thinks of times as places anyway. Likes the Lewis quote about the past being a different country. He's felt like that, a lot. So he thinks of them as places and they're mostly the same few over and over again.

The easiest one to deal with is probably the oldest, the one that comes with panic. It's the one that's basically where Bucky must've been, how he must've been, before they gave up and froze him. Before the chair. And if it's panicked and torn up between anger and terror (and it is) it's . . . it's breakable. It's fragile, it's easy to dispel. Because when Steve can get his attention Bucky knows who he's looking at.

He can put that together with other things, put together the part where Steve's not wound up with the world around him that he can actually start to see after he's seen that, and eventually that place breaks up, because reality makes more sense than maladaptive memory. And if Bucky comes out of it wrecked and humiliated he at least comes out of it pretty soon.

There's another where it's like Bucky was when he first came home, and it's mostly about confusion - like he can almost remember the present, the real world, except it doesn't make sense and he can't put it together, like the whole world's a fucking jigsaw that someone mixed up with a different one and then dumped on the floor. But there at least he still more or less remembers who Steve is, and if Steve can get him to sit down, to calm down, to trust him that nothing's going to happen and let the agitation settle, sometimes Bucky can ease back into reality, and even remember most of what happened in what would otherwise be blank.

Sometimes, anyway.

The first one's rare, but it happens; the second one's the most common. And then the others -

Those ones are hard. And always seem to come out of nowhere.

Like now.

And it . . . can almost be hard to tell, at first. Almost. Because even if Bucky's just having an off-day, he'll abandon couches and the futon for the floor, back to the wall and knees bent. And if he's having a twitchy one, or if something got broken, he'll have a hard time with eye-lines, with eye-contact. But -

But.

Steve kicks mud and slush off his boots and tries not to wonder how long Bucky's been sitting there, like this. Because he never leaves the condo when this happens and Steve hovering all the time, night and day, that isn't the answer. Would probably make it worse. Sometimes he thinks he probably hovers too much as it is, even if most of it's not even so much worry as not liking the idea that Bucky's probably lonely as Hell all by itself. But more would definitely not help.

So he tries not to wonder. Doesn't matter, except maybe if there's too many in a row, too many without a pause, and that's not going to happen.

So he takes off his boots and hangs up his coat and acknowledges the little orange streak of fur who comes skittering out from the bedroom along the hall floor, sliding a bit and complaining. Steve still can't think what she must be noticing, but Bucky like this makes her unhappy, and as far as he can tell she thinks Steve has exactly two purposes: putting food in her bowl, and sorting it out when her human feels, (or smells, or whatever it is) Not Right.

He picks her up, one hand under her belly, and puts her on the back of the chair; while she figures out where she is and what she wants to do about it, he crosses to where Bucky's sitting and crouches, then sits on the floor beside him.

Bucky doesn't move. His breathing gets faster, but only just barely. Because this isn't one of the postures, the ways of sitting or standing or anything that Steve thinks of as dormant or waiting - like some kind of fucking machine waiting for the next program - it's the one that means Bucky's already come to the conclusion something fucking horrific is going to happen and there's no point in doing anything but waiting until it's over.

And it's not that this doesn't make Steve angry anymore. Because Christ and Mother of God above it does and sometimes, sometimes he thinks the anger gets worse every time. But it's far away, it's something else: there's a lot of it but it's not his problem right now, it's not important. What he does now is important. And he doesn't need anger for that, anger isn't useful so he leaves it where it is, far away and seething and twisting around itself until he needs it. Or at least until he can find something to do with it. What's important is now, and at least now he knows what to do. Mostly.

What he does right now, first, is nothing. Just sits and waits, watching Bucky's face as Bucky stares blankly through the floor in front of him. For a while. Until he can see the faint change, the tiny, almost invisible turn Bucky's head makes towards him. Then, and only then, does Steve reach over and rest his hand on the bridge of Bucky's foot, thumb resting on the interior malleolus, and says Bucky quietly, once.

Then Steve waits until Bucky looks up, a little, so he can ask, "Do you know where you are?"

Bucky's pale and since Steve started talking his eyes have gone just a little bit too wide; his gaze flicks down, like he's trying to think. Like he'd always have to, like it's normal. Like confusion is normal. Because, Steve knows, it fucking was and that's part of what makes this place . . .harder. Because nothing had to make sense, because reality was what they - what Pierce - said it was and anything else didn't matter, and in the absence of a mission and orders who cared what kind of chaos consciousness descended into?

As long as he fucking sat still, and did as he was told. As long as he obeyed every single fucking order. He didn't need to understand. They didn't need him to.

After a few beats Bucky says, "No." One syllable, quiet. Steve's not surprised, but he asks because sometimes Bucky thinks he does, puts together just too much of the wrong kind of certainty, and if that happens it's better if Steve lets him know it's not right sooner, instead of later.

Steve asks, "Do you know me?" and it's just . . . practice, practice and experience that mean he knows to ask that question before the other one, and to wait until Bucky nods just, just barely and says, "Yes," quieter than the no before it.

Because the answer to the next question is almost always no, like this, and if Steve needs to ask it it's . . . better if he asks the other one first. Because they're actually different, even if not everyone would know it. If he asks do you know me first, it scares Bucky less when Steve asks, "Do you know who I am?" and he has to shake his head. Almost never manages to actually answer aloud.

Always drops his eye-line again, back to thousand yards, and then looks so fucking confused when Steve says, "S'okay. Just asking." Because Steve's not upset, doesn't berate or hit him or worse. There's nothing that makes him think of what Sam said more than the times like this, about layering neglected, abused childhoods one after the other. Condition, rinse, repeat, for so many years. Because right now Bucky mostly makes Steve think of a kid, a child.

Except he's not. And it's not even exactly the same, there's other stuff mixed up too - a tired, dull endurance that only mixes with the child-like stuff the way water mixes with oil and then separates back out like a covering layer. And Bucky as a kid was loud and brash and mouthy and Steve can't not think about that, times like now. Their world might have had rough edges and points sharp enough to cut, but it wasn't something that made . . .this. Made the passive acquiescence to whatever would come, just because someone asked you a question you didn't know the answer to.

And Steve asks the other questions because he has to, because of what could come before this, because that makes them things he needs to know - are you injured and when did you eat last and are you cold - and in the realm of thanking God for small fucking favours definitely lives the part where here, at least, the answers are honest.

Well. Truthful. Almost the same thing.

And then Steve says Bucky's name again, waits until Bucky looks at him and tells him, "You're safe. Everything's okay, nothing's wrong. You can stay here, or you can get up and sit somewhere else, get things you need. There's nothing you need to do. Okay?"

Steve knows Bucky heard him, is pretty sure the words made sense - no, okay, he's pretty sure the sentences conveyed meaning, even if the whole thing still makes no sense, because of how Bucky's looking at him. But that's . . . normal. For here. For this place.

In this place, he also has to say all of it, which he hates but does because it doesn't matter if he hates it - in this place, nothing's allowed until and unless someone (Steve) says it is, nothing's okay until he says it is, nothing's safe until he makes it that way. And if he doesn't he knows Bucky will just stay here, waiting, ignoring discomfort and even pain, and Steve can't . . . deal with that.

And really, he's not doing a thing. He's just telling Bucky something he's forgetting right now.

He means to go do something, make his hands busy, maybe make coffee, but just as Steve starts to get up he sees Bucky's right hand move, just barely. So he stops. When Bucky doesn't move again, Steve says, "It's okay. Go ahead," as, well, gently as he can.

He doesn't even know what he's giving permission for, and doesn't care. It's not actually his to give, anyway. Just another reminder.

It's okay.

It takes a second, or maybe a lot of them. If the way Bucky's looking at his face now is familiar, that's because it's one of the looks that has a lot more fucking overlap than Steve would like. Because it's the one that tends to come out when some or all of Bucky's head is having a hard time believing that whatever Steve just said - usually something good, or reassuring - is true. Like he's looking for the place in Steve's expression that'll tell him it's a test, or a lie, or something.

When Bucky moves his hand again it's hesitant and slow. The motion's almost aborted more than once before he actually reaches over to touch Steve's forearm. Then his hand jerks back, and he looks at Steve, wary.

"S'okay," Steve says. He lifts his arm up, rests a hand on the top of Bucky's knee to make it easier, moving slowly and not responding to the second's flinch that's Bucky waiting for the thing that's not going to happen. Not reacting to how for a split second Bucky jerks his hand away again.

Steve just waits until he stops. Until Bucky's fingers press a little bit into his skin, until he can feel the weight of Bucky's palm. Bucky's skin's cool to the touch, and Bucky looks at where his hand rests for a long time, before his eyes flick up to Steve's.

He says, "I know you," and it's a statement, not a question. But there's a question hiding in the words, or maybe a plea; maybe make that make sense.

Maybe tell me this is true.

Steve slides his arm back from under Bucky's hand so he can catch it in his. "I know," he says. "I know you do."

And he says, "It'll come back," because he did try, once, to explain everything, telling Bucky the story of what he can't remember right now, but when Bucky's like this the words are like water running off waxed canvas and there's not much point. So Steve sticks with what's important. Just says, "It's okay."

Then he says, "Come sit with me," and maybe it's less of a question than he should make it but this time Bucky only hesitates after he's halfway through letting Steve pull him to his feet. Like he responded how he wanted, before he thought. His fingers go loose so Steve pulls once at his sleeve instead, letting his hand go for now, and says, "C'mere."

They settle against the front of the futon and Steve carefully guides Bucky to sit in front of him. It's another one of those things where he's not sure why it seems to make Bucky calmer, but it works, so he's not about to ignore it. And if there are so many ways, so many kinds of retroactive fear and sick twisting in Steve's stomach at the way Bucky's willing to settle, only tension and apprehension's length away from docile and what that could have meant, once - well right nowit's safe, right now it's fine.

Right now it just means maybe he can relax sooner.

Steve shifts a bit to pull his phone out of his pocket and find a podcast - settling on one that's mostly just a husband and wife sampling pre-prepared foods and bantering at each other, that's almost more just a recorded way of feeling like someone else is around for Steve than anything, just human voices filling the space - and drop it behind him on the couch when it starts to play.

"S'okay," he repeats, resting his hand on Bucky's right shoulder. "We're home; it's fine. Just sit."

 

It's always a change in the way Bucky moves or holds himself that tells Steve when things let go long enough for him to get the upper hand inside his own head, but most often it's a change from the all-over electrified tension to something more normal and resentful - all resentment pointed at himself. This time Bucky relaxes instead, at least a little. He lets his weight settle back against Steve and it's his right hand that ends up resting against his collar-bone, rubbing like there's an itch.

Steve says, "Hey," and works one arm under Bucky's left, around his waist. "You okay?"

Bucky exhales slowly. "No," he says. He runs his thumb-knuckle over the ridge of bone, and Steve watches the pressure. "No I'm not." Then he adds, "I'll just have to wait until later to be hateful about it," and his voice is wry, but it's a thin layer over the sheer flat exhaustion.

"You could just skip it," Steve says, balancing the wry with mock-lightness and getting the huffed beginning of a laugh.

"Actually, Steve, I probably can't," Bucky replies. "Promise I don't do it for fun."

"I know you don't," Steve tells him, running a hand down his upper arm. He eventually comes down on the side of asking, "Gonna tell me what happened?"

Bucky shakes his head, and Steve figures that's it, and that's okay; asking if Bucky's going to tell him is the closest he can get to asking without putting more weight on it than he wants to, and it seems to work pretty well. But after a moment Bucky says, "I just got stuck in the dark." He lets his hand drop, rests his wrist on his knee instead, shakes his head. "There was a . . . cell. Could be sealed against all light. Just dark, and water."

He stops, and the last words sound like they're being pulled out with hooks, so Steve rests his forehead on Bucky's shoulder and his other hand on Bucky's hip and doesn't press. After another minute or two Bucky shakes his head again and says, "Got stuck there. Then I . . .lost it. That's all."

Then he adds, "If you say you're sorry for not being here I'll fucking scrape up what fucking energy I have left and kick your ass. For the record." He moves his right hand to interlace his fingers with Steve's and rest them both against his lower abdomen. "And then I'll fucking collapse so neither of us'll have any fucking fun."

Steve feels his mouth quirk and kisses the back of Bucky's head. "Okay," he says, and then, "Anything you want?"

Bucky sighs, tilts his head back a little like he's looking thoughtfully at the ceiling and says, in Russian, "You won't cut my throat, so not really. Not moving, maybe."

Then he seems to notice the podcast, still playing in the background, and still in Russian says, "What's that?"

"Background noise," Steve answers, and doesn't say anything about how long they've been here, and Bucky doesn't ask, and doesn't seem like he wants it to turn off.

He just asks, "Is she actually talking about giraffe sex?" and Steve smiles slightly.

"Probably," he says. "I wasn't listening, but it's the kind of thing she'll go on about for a while. Supposedly they're talking about pre-made food, stuff you'd keep in the freezer."

Bucky doesn't answer.

They listen for a while, or at least Steve sort of half-listens and Bucky doesn't object to the fact there's something playing, and then without saying anything Bucky catches Steve's left hand with his. Steve's not exactly sure why Bucky brings it up to rest near his throat, just above where he'd been rubbing at earlier; he's not sure he wants to know, and shoves away the thought that where Bucky puts his hand is just about where a collar would sit.

Instead he just draws his hand back so that it's easier to rest it with his thumb curving behind Bucky's neck and his fingers resting against skin in front, moving back and forth - light, no pressure, just . . . there. And Bucky lets his head rest on the front of Steve's shoulder and closes his eyes.

Says, in English, "Fuck, Steve, you should just shoot me."

Steve doesn't dignify that with an answer, just says, "It's not later yet." And whatever kicked off the flashbacks, it must've happened after Bucky bathed or showered, because his hair smells faintly of the shampoo.

Bucky says, "Technically, it is later."

"Okay," Steve says, "it's not later enough to count."

"Barracks-lawyer," Bucky accuses without any heat and Steve snorts.

"Yeah, whatever you say," he retorts. "I'm still not going to shoot you."

The lady on the tape is apologizing for the sideline on giraffe sex when the kitten notices Bucky's, if not okay, at least better, and comes and crawls over Steve's shoulder to get to him.