Chapter 1: Oh You Men
"You know that was a ghost wearing a dead guy? That might be the nastiest thing I've ever seen."
—Adventure Time, "Finn the Human"
Bucky reached out and turned over the grilled ham and cheese sandwich on the stove. “You were saying,” he said.
“I’m not just using you for your arm that can touch hot things! I sincerely want to have a cooking club with you and Steve,” Sam said.
“So this is completely about us all being friends. This doesn’t thrill you at all,” Bucky said, chopping the grilled cheese in half with his finger. He picked it up out of the pan and cautiously poked it with his right hand. It must have been too hot, because he kept holding it in his left hand. He blew on it.
“I think you’re not understanding what Sam means by a cooking club,” Steve said.
“What, does he want to cook meth or something?” Bucky said.
“I want to make birthday cake from a box and then decorate it to look like a graveyard with gummy worms and sugar tombstones,” Sam said. “That’s my plan for the first week. The second week, I want to make a zoo with animal crackers. The third week, ocean cake—you know, with Swedish fish? This really isn’t about how cool you think your weird hand is. I just want your totally regular hand to pick up a fork and bring pieces of cake to your mouth. Are you with me?”
“No,” Bucky said. “Can’t you think of something with rock candy?”
“No, I already bought supplies for the first three weeks and you are not fucking it up,” Sam said. “I have it written in my calendar. August 28—graveyard cake with Steve and Bucky at the first meeting of my cooking club.”
“You can’t write us into your calendar before you ask us,” Bucky said. “It’s not my fault we’re in there. Okay, get this—the graveyard is next to a cave made out of rock candy.”
“Steve, what language do I have to say the word ‘No’ in so he can understand?” Sam asked.
“Can I have some of that?” Steve asked Bucky.
Bucky handed him half the sandwich. It wasn’t like Bucky was an especially good cook in general, but there was something special about things that he made with his hand. He could adjust things a little more subtly than someone who had to use a spatula. “See, Steve appreciates my cooking,” he told Sam.
“I’m not saying it’s not cool when you do that,” Sam said. “It’s cool, okay? You can take the cake tin out of the oven without wearing mittens. Ooh. I’ll even write that into the calendar as your special assigned job.”
That had been almost a week ago, when everything was different.
“So, what do you want to tell Sam about the mix CD?” Steve asked.
“Nothing to tell,” Bucky said. They were sitting at the kitchen table—or, rather, Steve was sitting at the table and Bucky was half laying on it. A few minutes earlier he’d come in, pulled up a chair, and pushed Steve’s plate and glass over so he could slump with his arms and head and shoulders where they had been. It was the way a kid might fall asleep on his desk at school.
Steve put his sandwich down. Bucky cracked an eye open and looked at Steve until Steve put his hand in Bucky’s hair. The eye closed and Bucky smiled into his own elbow. He’d been getting braver about asking Steve to touch him, but this was the pushiest he’d been yet. Steve was thrilled.
It had been only two days since Bucky had gotten paralyzed, but things had changed unrecognizably between them. Steve couldn’t believe how short a time it had been—he kept going over it in his head. The last two days had a fantastical drunken blurriness and it felt like they could have lasted weeks, or months, or Steve’s whole life. The time before didn’t seem real—not even just the bad things, but even the last month of Bucky being uneasy with him, testing him—all the time before they’d started touching each other.
Steve wanted to go back in time and tell himself it wasn’t going to be bad forever, that Bucky was going to trust him, that he’d fall asleep reading on the couch with Bucky lying across him, his face on Steve’s neck; that he’d wake up, in a shocking cascade of delight and pleasure, when Bucky started kissing his throat.
He was still a virgin—well—was he? Yeah, no matter what a virgin was when you were both men, Steve was that by any definition. He kept coming before Bucky could even jerk him off—from kissing, from having his neck sucked, from Bucky’s hand on his thigh spreading his knees so he could—well, whatever Bucky was thinking of doing, Steve never lasted long enough to find out.
He’d been horribly embarrassed the first time, with Bucky laughing and teasing him and trying to tug Steve’s jeans down over his hips. Bucky didn’t even get them down before it happened. Steve had apologized profusely, hoping that if he put in enough effort he could somehow blink out of existence and not have to be embarrassed anymore. But Bucky coaxed him, running his fingers through Steve’s hair and talking gently while Steve was still squeezing his eyes shut with horror.
“Steve. Hey. Look at me, sweetheart—“ and Steve’s eyes snapped open just from the strangeness of Bucky calling him that. Bucky was looking at him intently. “This is for fun, stupid. You can’t do it wrong. Why would I care if it’s easy or hard to make you come?”
A while later, when Steve was showing him some science videos on the computer, Bucky’d said, “So were you—did you think I wanted you to fuck me? Uh, because—well, do you want to do that?” His voice had a tone of detached curiosity, like he was asking about something in the videos. His flesh arm, looped around Steve’s shoulder, was as relaxed as it could be.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Steve said, hoping this was the right answer. His arm was around Bucky’s ribs, and he gave him a little squeeze. “I don’t really care what we do. I mean, I never did anything with anyone before, and I never wanted to with anyone but you and Peggy, so—I don’t know what I want.” Bucky bit his lip and Steve said, “I just…we can do whatever you want. I can’t believe you want to do it with me.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” Bucky said. He kissed Steve on the cheek, and looked at him consideringly. “That bad? You don’t want me to do that?”
“I like it,” Steve said. “It just was really loud next to my ear.”
A little bit later Bucky pushed the door open when Steve was brushing his teeth. Steve looked at him, startled. Bucky said, quickly and quietly, “I don’t want you to fuck me or do anything around there—too close to the other stuff. Just stay away from that whole neighborhood. Hope you don’t mind,” and closed the door again.
Steve spit his toothpaste out, opened the door, and stuck his head out into the hallway. Bucky was nowhere to be seen. “I don’t mind!” he called.
Bucky’s head poked out of his room. “I know you don’t,” he said. His head disappeared again.
Steve thought it was going to be weird to see Sam, now that all this had happened. Did they have to tell him? It had only been going on for two days. Steve felt like he wouldn’t mind if Sam was just told the fact that they were—involved?—but he really didn’t want Bucky to call him “sweetheart” in front of Sam. He barely liked it when they were alone, in a fidgety kind of way. He busied himself with worrying about the mix CD.
“What if he asks if we liked it? What if he wants to dance to it with us?”
“Steve, no sane person would want to dance with you, baby,” Bucky said. That was another one.
“Don’t call me baby in front of Sam,” he managed. Bucky looked up at him like he was a maniac.
“Of course I wouldn’t do that. You’re the one who has no sense of personal privacy. Just because Sam’s our friend doesn’t mean he has to know about every detail. It was my fault that happened with the song, anyway.”
Steve started to sputter.
“No, hear me out,” Bucky said. He closed his eyes and leaned back into Steve’s hand. “They knew what they were doing putting the trigger in the middle of the song. It’s so it wouldn’t happen by accident, if I happened to hear the song on a mission or someone happened to turn it on. I had plenty of warning, I just didn’t recognize what I was remembering. I just have to be more clearheaded about that stuff. What’s the word? Proactive.”
“I mean, I should have realized something was happening—you had your bullshit face on,” Steve said. It was the wrong thing to say; Bucky looked a little put out. “Sorry, do you not want me to know when you’re bullshitting me?”
Bucky opened his eyes. He looked at Steve blankly. Then he jumped up, almost knocking his chair over. He was standing against the kitchen counter like someone had backed him there, as far from Steve as he could possibly get.
Steve ducked his head, knowing Bucky was about to get embarrassed and angry about what he’d just done. When he looked up again, Bucky had dropped his raised hands loosely to his sides in a very fake looking expression of nonchalance. He leaned against the counter like he just happened to be standing there because it was comfortable. Steve met Bucky’s eyes. He waited.
“Sooooooo,” Bucky said. He made a face.
“That happened,” Steve said.
“Can you really tell when I’m lying?” Bucky said. “Don’t answer that. Fuck.” He put his hand over his face. “Ugh.” He put his hand down again. “Well, there he is, the wrong soldier! Fuck that guy!” He grinned tightly. “You’re my best friend and I’m so—“
“Don’t be sorry—“
“I was going to say I’m so scared of you, Steve.”
“Oh,” Steve said. He pulled his sandwich back over and took a bite of it. “Well, you know I’m not offended or anything. Like we said, it’s natural for you to react that way.”
“You don’t have to be offended for me not to like it,” Bucky said. “I’m mad about it all on my own. The thing is—“ He stopped leaning on the counter and proceeded to pace back and forth while he delivered his opinions to Steve. “On the one hand—“ He pointed at Steve with his metal hand. “Of course I didn’t want you to know that I remembered something about the song and I didn’t know what. Because if it was some kind of joke we had together, that’s just embarrassing. I don’t want to be this different person who can’t talk about things with you anymore. And I don’t want you to know I’m trying to not be different, either. That’s the most pathetic of all. I want you to think my bullshit face is real.”
Bucky cut Steve off by pointing at him with his right hand. “But on the other hand, how would they feel if I was trying to keep something from them?”
“Not too good, I’m guessing,” Steve said.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. The thing is,” Bucky said again, and paused, then, “the thing is, sometimes I got almost…precognitive. No, they didn’t do anything like that for real. But I had a way of stepping around whoever was in charge of me, knowing what they wanted before they even wanted it, so me disappointing them never even happened. Because doing that would just be the worst thing, you know? It made sense for me to be like that—but at the same time, they didn’t want me to be that way. It was more smarts than they wanted me to have, for me to be a way where they couldn’t see what I was thinking, where I might not be loyal. But I was loyal! I just didn’t want to get in trouble—so I tried—I wasn’t trying to be manipulative.” He winced. “Probably sounds fucked up I’m still worried about them being mad at me. Well, I never claimed to be a good person. Anyway,” he smiled at Steve, “this time around you’re supposed to be my friend, so it’s not just that I manipulate you, it’s the fact that I shouldn’t be scared of making you angry, so if you find out I’m scared, you might get really angry.” He smiled bigger. “I don’t think that. I feel like it’s true sometimes, but I don’t think it’s true, and that’s why I’m telling you.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Steve said.
“Come back. I finished my sandwich.”
“Oh, really,” Bucky said. “That’s all.”
“What else is there?”
Bucky came back and laid back down on the table. Steve put his hand back in his hair, but Bucky didn’t close his eyes again. He didn’t look too uncomfortable, though. “I guess I trust you more than I used to,” he said, “or I wouldn’t tell you when I don’t. So you must be doing something right in the whole handling the wrong soldier department.”
“Good to know,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He closed his eyes, but then he opened them again. “Look, I guess you have to know about all this—you can’t not. That’s not so bad. But I like Sam, and he doesn’t have to know. Let me keep having a friend who thinks I’m normal.”
“Well, that’s fair,” Steve said. He had to admit that he’d have felt the same.
Sam had a holier than thou expression as he produced a piece of rock candy on a stick out of his jacket pocket. It was electric blue and wrapped in plastic. “Even though it’s unacceptable that you wanted to put this on the cake, I brought it for you,” he told Bucky.
Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Is it poisoned?”
“I see where you’re coming from since I hate you so much,” Sam said, “but no. It’s legit unpoisoned rock candy.”
Bucky unwrapped the candy and handed it to Steve, who took a bite and said, “Raspberry.” He gave it back to Bucky who started eating it. “Why is it blue if it’s raspberry?” Steve asked Sam.
“It’s a thing. Blue raspberry.”
“I know that’s a flavor now, but why? How did it get to be a flavor? Does it taste different from regular raspberry? I can’t tell.”
“It just tastes different because of the color—the power of suggestion,” Bucky said.
“I have to tell you guys that no one sat me down and explained this to me in kindergarten,” Sam said. “It’s a mystery to me too. Stop pussyfooting and help me organize our materials.”
“Oh, how will you ever organize a box of cake mix,” said Steve.
“I also have icing, don’t be shitty.”
“What kind of icing,” Steve said.
“Well let me tell you,” bulldozed Sam and he began to remove his purchases from a Safeway bag and slam them down on the kitchen table. “Chocolate for the dirt, mint for the grass, strawberry for blood on the dead people coming out of the earth.”
“What the fuck? You didn’t say any dead people coming out of the earth,” Bucky said.
“Ooh, scared Barnes,” Sam said.
“Not scared Wilson, but you made it sound like it was a regular, peaceful graveyard just with giant worms.”
“I got model people,” Sam said. “I’m being thrifty. We can use them again for another cake.”
“Dear Lord,” Bucky said and put his head down on the table.
“Sam, are you saying we’re going to lick strawberry icing off the stomachs of a bunch of little toy people who’ve been who knows where?”
“Yeah, that’s more action than Steve’s ever had,” Bucky said.
“They obviously came wrapped in plastic, Steve, what the fuck. And licking icing off a plastic model of a human is not sex, even if that’s what they told you guys when you were growing up.”
“No, that is what sex is, don’t burst my bubble,” Bucky said.
“You know, whenever Bucky talks about ‘dolls’ he dated in the forties, he’s talking about actual dolls that he pretended were girls.”
“Shh. Here’s my gravestones,” Sam said.
“Now who decided to mass produce these?” Bucky said.
“Really makes you think, doesn’t it,” Sam said. “Anyway, here’s the cake mix. Deep chocolate. We good with that? Never mind, I don’t care what you think. But are we?” He raised his eyebrows at Bucky.
“Why wouldn’t we be?” Bucky said.
“Well, you know, is that one of your foods?”
“No,” Bucky said huffily. “Of course I can eat chocolate.”
“Of course, of course,” Sam said, rolling his eyes at Steve, who politely looked away.
Sam wouldn’t let Steve and Bucky stir the cake mix. “You’ll break the bowl,” he said.
“Sam, this is our house,” Steve said. “Look at how we never break anything.”
“Steve broke the toaster,” Bucky said. “He threw it on the floor because his bagel caught on fire because his favorite cartoon for babies was on and he wasn’t paying attention.”
“The animation is really good,” Steve said. “You know how few shows are hand drawn these days? And I didn’t mean to throw it. I knocked it. I was just surprised.”
“He breaks forks when he gets mad,” Bucky said.
“And you broke my phone just by standing next to it, so shut it.”
“I told you, my arm doesn’t affect technology, you’re making that up,” Bucky said. “How come my phone and computer are fine? Come on, Sam, gimme that.” He took the bowl of cake mix and stirred it so quickly it must have looked like a blur to Sam.
“You’re no fun,” Sam said.
Steve said, “I feel like your idea of cooking club is more like cooking theater. Buck and I aren’t actually allowed to do anything.”
“Right, it’s a club where the club activity is watching me cook,” Sam said. “Actually, you can preheat the oven.”
“Way ahead of you, I already preheated it,” Bucky said. Sam high-fived him.
“Steve, you can put the cake tin in the oven,” Sam said. “I’ll pour it in though, I don’t want you to spill it.”
“Smart move,” Bucky said.
Steve pretended to accidentally drop the tin of cake mix on the way to the oven. Of course he caught it. There were thirty-five minutes until it could come out, but that didn’t mean the struggle was over. Sam needed to plan out how everything would be organized on the cake. The gravestones needed to be evenly spaced. “A real graveyard isn’t this nice,” Steve complained.
“Yeah so that’s no reason not to do better,” Sam said.
Once the gravestones were judged up to snuff, he broke out the chocolate icing.
“Do you realize you can actually shoot this stuff like a gun?” he asked. He sprayed it into Bucky and Steve’s mouths, and then at length into his own.
“I mean, it’s not exactly like a gun,” Steve said.
“Wow, thanks for explaining,” said Sam. “Shit, I know you get what you pay for but this is so fucking awful it’s burning my mouth.”
“It’s not that bad,” Steve said.
“It just doesn’t taste like chocolate is all.”
It didn’t taste like chocolate. Steve glanced at Bucky, although he kind of guessed what he’d see before he did. Well, not exactly—Bucky was leaning against the counter, standing, breathing, not throwing up. But Steve had just had a feeling there was something, and Bucky met his eyes with a tired, bored look, like, yeah, what else is new?
“Hit me with that again,” Steve said, and when Sam did he tasted the icing more carefully. “This isn’t chocolate, this is maple.”
“Oh, sorry,” Sam said. “You guys okay with maple? Bucky?”
Bucky looked at Sam with a perfectly normal expression, smiled, opened his mouth, twisted it up, looked down, and sighed. It might have passed for a very vague and complicated response on the subject of maple icing, except that he turned away from the counter, grabbed Steve, and marched him out of the kitchen and down the hall. “We’ll see you in a minute,” Steve called back to Sam.
Bucky pulled them into his room, shut the door, and looked at Steve intently, still holding onto his shoulders. “What is it?” Steve asked. Bucky raised his eyebrows at him. “You gotta tell me, Buck, I can’t read your mind.”
Bucky sighed, let go of him, and kicked his trash can across the room so hard it left a dent in the wall. He walked over and kicked it again. He was such an asshole acting like Steve was the only one who ever broke things when he was angry.
“Hey, quit it. We’ll figure it out, whatever it is.” Bucky stopped kicking the trash can and turned to face him expectantly. “Maybe you can’t talk,” Steve said, and Bucky rolled his eyes. “You know, it would be easier if you’d nod or shake your head.” Bucky gave him a death glare and then bent down and started punching the trash can. He was using his human hand and it was a metal trash can so Steve dropped to a crouch and started trying to get it away from him. “Hey, stop, you don’t need to do that. It’s okay, I’m with you. We’ll figure it out.” Bucky stopped punching the trash can and they both sat on the floor of his room, with Bucky leaning against the wall. He had his knees up and didn’t look too pleased.
“So, looks like you can’t talk,” Steve said. Bucky met his eyes. “And I’m guessing there’s a reason you aren’t nodding or anything either.” Bucky opened his eyes really wide with about the same impression as his typical eyeroll. “So I’m guessing you can’t do those things.” A thin smile. “You can’t use signs.” The smile continued. “Can you write?” The smile dropped off Bucky’s face and he made an annoyed noise. “I can’t understand that too well. Here.” Steve grabbed a pen and a stack of Post-it notes from Bucky’s desk and held them out to him. Bucky reached for the pen and his hand stopped. It hovered about half an inch from the pen and though he was shaking with the effort, it didn’t move any closer.
“Wow, those assholes thought things through,” Steve said. Bucky suddenly grabbed the pen and used it to stab a hole in his desk. Then he shifted his grip as if he was going to write on the desk, and the pen fell out of his hand. He looked at Steve and smiled in agreement.
“So, pretty much no nothing. I’m not gonna bother asking if you’re still pretty normal in your head—it seems too hard to answer—but you didn’t look mad when I said that, so I guess it’s okay I didn’t ask.” The tight smile again. It wasn’t so much that it was an angry smile or something—just deliberate. It was a smile of acknowledgement, not an expression of emotion.
“So we pretty much got this,” Steve said. “You want me to tell Sam you went to bed early?”
Bucky gave him a really intense pained look, the kind you would make if you couldn’t move anything but your eyes. Well, Steve guessed it would be like that. At some point maybe Bucky would get paralyzed in that exact way, and Steve would find out for sure. He took the look as a hard no. “So we ask him to leave? I’ll come up with something. I can make myself look dumb if you want, say I have to stay up and organize my video game cartridges or my socks.”
Bucky snorted, but looked away for a minute, thinking. Then his expression settled and he looked back at Steve and made eye contact. He was ready to communicate.
“So you want Sam to leave?” The pained look. “No, you want him to stay.” The deliberate smile. “Um…is there some kind of way to get you talking again?” Bucky huffed and leaned forward and took Steve’s wrist in his hand. He looked at him steadily with the hint of a not so deliberate smile.
“We’ll figure it out,” Steve realized. “That’s it? You just want to try and get through it? You’re not doing this for me, are you? I’d hate that.” Bucky smiled and rolled his eyes. “Okay. I don’t know what that means, but, okay. You know we got this.”
It was weird to be strategizing so intensely about something as minor about whether they’d tell Sam to go home. But Steve thought—well, when there’s something wrong with you everything turns into a matter of strategy. It’s easy for strong and healthy people to save their worries for bigger things, and sometimes Bucky wasn’t so strong and healthy anymore.
Steve and Bucky’s conversation had taken about ten minutes and Sam was sitting at the table looking worried and pretending to text. If he was really texting, he wouldn’t have put his phone down in midsentence. “Everything all right?” he asked.
“Bucky got triggered and he can’t talk. We still want to watch you cook.”
“Well, come on and sit down,” Sam said, “and don’t worry, I got a list of triggers a mile wide. I should keep them in my wallet.”
“You do?” Steve said.
“Um, yeah, and you do too, Steve. I’ve only told you about four hundred times.”
“Oh, come on,” Steve said. All that headshrinker stuff was coming up again. “This is one of his food things, Sam. He doesn’t have PSD.”
“You know a PSD is a Photoshop document, right? There’s a T in there somewhere.”
“Okay, fine, but it’s—“
“Yeah, I get it,” Sam said. “It’s one of the food things, like throwing up. I remember, Steve, I’m not an idiot. I’m just saying, it’s kind of the same thing. Having to arrange your life around a bunch of trivial crap. And of course he probably has PTSD too, so it’s like double trigger action.”
Bucky smiled politely, shot a look at Steve, and banged on the table with his right hand. “I’m still not really sure if I have PTSD,” Steve said, trying to hedge. “I mean, I don’t mean that it’s not a useful concept for some people, but other people have it so much worse, and how are you going to get through the day if—” Bucky banged on the table again and glared at him. “Bucky doesn’t have PTSD,” Steve capitulated. “Or whatever it’s called. He wants to make sure you know that.”
Sam gave Bucky a look. Bucky looked innocently back at him. Steve was pretty sure that Sam found the whole thing hilarious—he thought everyone and their cat had PTSD--but he didn’t argue about Bucky. “Well, that’s lucky for you, then,” he said.
Sam was a real sweetheart sometimes. It was something Bucky had said, but Steve agreed.
Bucky started moving the sugar tombstones around a little bit. At first Steve thought he was just fiddling, but it actually looked better. “I guess it’s okay,” Sam said. Bucky gave one of his asshole smiles. “But don’t touch them any more,” Sam said.
When the cake was ready, Sam gestured at the oven like a game show hostess indicating door number two. It was Bucky’s official designated task. “I guess you can open the oven door, Steve, if you don’t break it.” Steve opened the door and Bucky reached into the hot oven and put the tip of his finger in the cake. It came out clean, so he took the cake tin out and put it on the stove. “Now that wasn’t so exciting,” said Sam. “But wait a minute until we get to the good part.”
The good part was that when the cake got cool, Steve and Bucky got to watch Sam put things on it. He leaned over with his face about an inch away from the cake. Bucky tapped Steve on the arm a few times. “You making fun of Sam?” Steve asked when he noticed. Bucky smiled.
A minute later he started banging on the table and picked the Safeway bag up off the floor. There was nothing in it. “Sam, you forgot the gummy worms,” Steve said.
“Damn it!” Sam yelled. But he got over it quickly. “Bucky was right, they wouldn’t be to scale. People wouldn’t be scared of the zombies if the worms are almost as big.”
“People?” Steve said. “You got a bunch of friends coming over to look at our cake?”
“Well, I might Instagram it,” Sam said. “I want people to know about cooking club.”
“I don’t want people to know about cooking club,” Steve said. “It’s private.”
“Why? This isn’t a sex dungeon,” Sam said. He moved one of his gravestones a quarter inch to the right on the cake. “Why are you embarrassed about something as wholesome as cooking club?”
“I’m not embarrassed about cooking club, I just don’t see the need for telling everyone you know about everything you do in your spare time. If you want all of your Instagram followers to know about cooking club, why don’t you invite them?”
“If you can’t see the difference between who I want to tell about cooking club and who I actually want with me at cooking club, then it’s probably because you’re like eighty-five gazillion years old.”
“Bucky, do you think it makes sense for Sam to show our private sanctified cooking club activities to every single person he’s ever talked to?”
Bucky just smiled.
“I haven’t talked to most of my Instagram followers,” Sam said.
“See, that’s not normal,” Steve said. “They’re strangers. You put a picture of yourself with no shirt on.”
“Oh, because no one’s ever seen a shirtless picture of you.” Bucky laughed and Sam jumped on it. “See, Bucky agrees with me.”
“He does not! Bucky, knock on the table if you agree with me.” Bucky rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, I know you agree with me. It’s creepy.”
“He agrees with me,” Sam said. “Bucky and I have a close relationship the likes of which you can only dream of. He’s sending me brainwaves. ‘Dear Sam, I agree with you—Steve is a loser. He doesn’t have so many Instagram followers like you do and he’s really jealous about it—”
“I don’t have an Instagram, Bucky knows that—”
“‘Steve is so jealous because he doesn’t even have an Instagram—’”
“—but if I did, I would have a lot more followers. A lot.”
“‘Sam, can you please get Steve to stop acting like a really pumped dinosaur,’ Bucky is saying,” Sam said. “‘Also, could anything be greater than cooking club? You’re a genius.’”
Bucky went over and put his hand over Sam’s mouth. “He’s going to lick your hand,” Steve warned him. Bucky sighed. “I told you,” Steve said. Bucky wiped his hand on his pants and opened the silverware drawer. He rummaged around in there and pulled out a big knife. “Oh, now you’ve done it,” Steve said.
“He’s not going to kill me, he’s just wanting to cut the cake,” Sam said. Bucky smiled yes. “Which he knows is worse than killing me, because it’s my cake. Okay, douchebag—just let me take a picture first.”
It turned out Bucky wanted to cut the cake for two reasons. First of all, he could put his piece sideways on his plate so he could eat the cake without touching any of the toppings. Second, he thought it was hilarious to give Steve a tiny slice of cake that was barely thicker than a sheet of paper. Bucky looked at Steve holding his plate with the tiny piece of cake and laughed uncontrollably.
Sam started laughing too. “This isn’t cooking club, this is bullying club,” Steve said. Bucky laughed so hard he shrieked. “You sound like a stupid bird,” Steve said. “You both do. Like a bunch of dumb seagulls who get their jollies from pestering people.” Sam and Bucky leaned against the counter and giggled in tandem. Steve advanced on the cake.
“Oh no you don’t,” Sam said.
“You let Bucky cut it!”
“Steve, be sensitive. Poor Bucky can’t even talk.” Bucky gave Steve a stern look. “Don’t take away his opportunity to be useful.” Bucky stuffed a huge bite of cake in his mouth. “I’ll cut a bigger piece for you, okay?” Bucky grabbed the cake tin and held it against his body with his elbow while still holding the fork and plate in his hands.
“You’re going to drop it!” Steve said. Bucky rolled his eyes at him as usual.
“Come on, don’t torture the man. Even if we are mean, bullying seagulls.” Bucky sighed and let Sam take the cake tin from him. Of course he’d been careful how he held it; he didn’t get any icing on his clothes.
Pretty soon Steve was eating an appropriate sized piece of cake. It was pretty good. “This is just like your dates with girls back in the old days,” he told Bucky, licking some icing off one of the human figures. “Sam, don’t take a fucking picture of this! What’s wrong with you? People will think I’m a cannibal.”
“No, this is just for my personal use, okay.”
Bucky and Steve ate a lot of cake. Sam actually didn’t have too much; it seemed like he had lost most of his interest in the cake once he had finished decorating it. Bucky left the top layers of all his pieces of cake, with the icing, gravestones, and zombies listing down toward the plate; so Steve took them and ate them too.
Sam made fun of Steve for washing the cake tin to reuse it instead of throwing it away. Bucky just reached out and held up the Ziploc bag where Sam had put all the licked and washed figures of tiny people. “Yeah, you have to admit that’s past stingy and all the way to unsavory,” Steve said.
“Steve, these cost fifteen dollars!”
“A pretty successful get-together, I think!” Sam said cheerily when they’d put everything away. The best thing was he actually meant it. Steve wanted to thank him or tell him how great he was or something, but there was no point in making things awkward when they were amazingly not awkward.
Bucky thanked Sam, anyway. He was standing there looking at him while Sam was putting on his jacket and Sam said, “What’s with that creepy face, Bucky? I don’t got any wings on for you to tear off.”
Bucky put his hand up to cover his smile. “He wants you to go over to him,” Steve explained. “He can’t beckon.”
Bucky shook Sam’s hand and then hugged him, a classically Bucky hug which was squeezy and made you feel like the most important person in the world. It sure worked on Sam; he laughed, almost shyly, and said, “Aw.” But he kept it cool and told both of them, “Thanks for having me over. Thanks for keeping me over.”
“It’s always a pleasure,” said Steve.
Chapter 2: The Sensations from Sex and Surgery
An hour later, Steve was brushing his teeth when he heard Bucky bouncing around the apartment and singing one of the songs from the dance CD. Of course it was about how he was dangerous and girls should stay away from him. Steve had just started his mouthwash when the door banged open and Bucky burst in shouting, “I’M ONLY GONNA BREAK, BREAK YOUR, BREAK, BREAK YOUR HEART!”
Steve gave him what he hoped was a singularly unimpressed look and continued gargling. He looked at his watch to make sure he made it the requisite minute.
“I don’t know what you do that for,” Bucky said. “Your teeth probably can’t even rot. I don’t do anything with mine and they look like diamonds.” He smiled. His teeth weren’t even real. Steve kept gargling.
Bucky made an irritated noise. Steve just stared at him and gargled slower and slower. He billowed his cheeks out, then sucked them back in. He also started gargling as loud as possible and stepping closer and closer to Bucky. He checked his watch, stepped back to the sink, and spit out the mouthwash.
“That was a complete waste of time,” Bucky said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Steve said. “I didn’t want my mouth to taste like maple.”
“What? Oh. You think you’re pretty cute, don’t you,” Bucky said.
“Yes,” Steve said.
A moment passed and then Bucky advanced on Steve wonderfully. “That was smooth, God help me,” he said, crowding Steve up against the bathroom closet and dragging his mouth along Steve’s neck.
“Well, it’s kind of a waste if you’re not gonna kiss me on the mouth,” Steve said.
“That’s what you want to do? Kiss? So you’re saying if I just—” Bucky kept his eyes on Steve, carefully, and reached down and brushed his right hand against Steve’s crotch. Steve choked. Bucky looked satisfied and leaned into him, putting his head on Steve’s shoulder and talking into his ear. “You’re saying if I just did this—“ Now he was being a real asshole, stroking the back of his hand against Steve in a way that was much more solid, but pretty much just making contact at random like he didn’t even know it was there—
“If ‘this’ is the whole bumping into my dick with your hand and pretending it’s an accident—“
“I’m not pretending it’s an accident. Just because I didn’t pull out the whole thing and just grab it right away like I have no sense of timing or buildup—”
Steve practically growled at him. Bucky pulled back to look at him, unfairly amused.
“What, you don’t want me to be sweet to you?”
“How the fuck is this sweet? Just touch me if you’re going to, or it’ll be too late.”
Bucky laughed. “Okay. Sorry. Let me lick my fingers, okay?”
“I can lick your fingers,” Steve said.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I can do it, though. If you’d like me to. I mean, you probably won’t put enough spit on them.”
“They’re going on your dick, not in your ass,” Bucky pointed out. “We don’t have to make a production out of it.”
“I really like your hands, though,” Steve grumbled, and Bucky’s face went soft in that particular way that Steve still wasn’t used to.
Bucky said, “Knock yourself out,” and put his fingers up for Steve to take in his mouth. It was true Bucky probably would have been quicker; Steve brought his head forward slowly and nipped them, like he was kissing. Bucky looked like he was thinking of laughing at him but he didn’t, just waited with that soft look while Steve sucked his fingers into his mouth and licked them. “Aw,” he said. Steve narrowed his eyes at him, and then Bucky did laugh and said, “Oh, okay, quit it, these are for you, remember? They’re for you.”
He reached down and pulled Steve’s dick out of his boxers and even though Steve had yelled at him to hurry up he couldn’t believe it was really happening. He was close to coming as soon as Bucky’s warm wet fingers wrapped around him—every time he kept telling himself he would focus and last longer, hold himself back, but he couldn’t help pushing up into them. He tried to say something snarky but instead he was spinning with how nice it was and stupidly it was all going to be over in about a second. Instead the only thing he could bring himself to say was “I’m sorry-“
“Oh, come on,” Bucky said and leaned forward, putting his face against Steve’s ear again. “It’s fine. Come on, sweetheart, it’s not a problem—“ and Steve lost it all over Bucky’s shirt.
“Oh shit,” he said when they separated. “You were so careful not to get icing on it.”
Bucky clapped his hand over his mouth and shook with laughter. “I’m sorry!” he said. “But Jesus, Steve, go a little easy on yourself. You think your jizz is going to get sucked up into a flying saucer and flown away ‘cause you’re such a great person?”
“Yes,” Steve said. He felt himself smiling. He didn’t really like the feeling of the type of smile it was, like his face was moving around without his volition. But he didn’t mind that much.
“What, baby?” Bucky said. He held his shirt out and examined it. “Yeah, I like this. It’s like an abstract design.”
“It’s nice. I like it.” Steve honestly couldn’t tell how much Bucky was joking. He took Steve’s face in both hands and kissed him, firmly, then leaned their foreheads together and said, “You know, this is a first for us. I’ve never actually gotten to jerk you off before.”
“I know,” Steve said.
Bucky pulled back and looked at him, consideringly. “We okay?” he said. “God, sorry I snuffed out your virtue in the bathroom instead of in the bed or an apple orchard or something.”
Steve snorted. “An orchard? That’s where it was supposed to happen?”
“Well, you know. Somewhere nicer than the bathroom. The knob of the closet must have been digging into your ass.”
“No, it wasn’t, and besides I was too busy—“
“Thinking of your knob? Well, that’s good, anyway; means I did my part right.”
“Of course you did, stupid,” Steve said, “except if you were so bothered about doing it in an orchard or wherever, you could’ve just asked. ‘Hey, Steve, let’s go to an apple orchard and I’ll jerk you off.’”
“Well, I wanted to do it tonight,” Bucky said. “Teleportation hasn’t been invented yet—yeah, maybe next time I wake up we’ll be able to do stuff like that, just disappear and appear on a cruise ship so everything can be extra romantic—but you know, who knows when that’s gonna happen.”
“I mean, that wasn’t actually all my virtue. You could take me to an orchard for the next part,” Steve said.
“You’re getting stuck on this orchard thing, it was just an example.”
“I want my apple orchard,” Steve said. Bucky laughed.
“You know, it doesn’t really matter,” he said warmly. He stroked a hand down Steve’s side; then he held onto his hip, proprietary. He was smiling but also somehow solemn. His eyes were fixed on Steve’s face. “We don’t—the first time isn’t that important, because the first time’s not the best time for anything. The longer we do this for—I mean, assuming you—“
“Oh, come on,” Steve interrupted. “Of course I want to.”
“Well, then,” Bucky said, “the longer we do this, the better it’s gonna feel. It’s like learning an instrument.”
“What did you call me?” Steve said, but he heard himself say it in a voice like he was being hypnotized. He really could imagine that future in front of him—a future where being a little nervous or coming too fast was okay but where, still, he’d feel less and less nervous and take longer and longer to come and Bucky would find and shock and soothe every part of him that could feel those things. Which, based on the way his hip was sort of buzzing from Bucky’s hand on it, was every part he had.
It was probably the first time he’d actually believed a piece of good news.
His mind was moving ahead of him, but not in a racing, specific way, like if he was nervous and thinking up possible dangers and plotting escapes. It was looping and leisurely. They could do a lot of things. It would feel really good. Bucky laughed at him and, embarrassed, Steve snapped to the present. Bucky was grinning at him. “Okay, instrument,” he said. “You sure are offended.”
“Sorry,” Steve said. “Is there anything I—I mean, is there anything I can do for you?” Bucky’s eyebrows went up and Steve said, scrambling, “No, I mean—just touch you, Buck. Don’t worry. It’s just, fair’s fair—how about I touch your hair some?”
Bucky rolled his eyes, which was probably a yes. He swallowed and sighed theatrically and said, “I guess I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to hold me in your bed. We’ve never done that.”
So the two of them went into Steve’s room and Steve just stood there like he needed to be told how to lie down in bed with someone. Well, he guessed he did.
Bucky said, “Is it—Do you mind if—“
“Probably not, what is it?” Steve said.
“Nothing,” Bucky said. “It’s stupid. Don’t ask me again. Come on.”
The two of them lay down together, on top of the covers. Bucky bumped his back into Steve’s front, then moved away slightly; Steve scooted closer to him again so they were flush against each other, and tentatively put an arm over Bucky’s shoulders.
“Oh,” Bucky said in a funny voice. He grabbed Steve’s arm and pulled it tighter around him.
Chapter 3: Hysteria
All things considered, Steve felt he should be grateful that most of Bucky’s triggers were tastes. He knew Bucky was grateful; he never shut up about it. Or at least he produced a spiel about how grateful he was exactly at the moment when you’d expect a normal person to be angry or sad.
“Wow, Buck, you should try this great apple,” Steve said once. “Uh, no fucking way,” Bucky said jumping back from it like it was a rattlesnake, “and I wouldn’t try me with cider either.” Just a few hours later, a downtrodden looking woman at the mall tried to offer Bucky a free sample of maple syrup, and he had to say no. She looked like she was about to cry, and Bucky glared at Steve until he accepted a sample.
“We-e-ll,” Bucky said as they walked away, and Steve knew he was gearing up, but there seemed to be a little stutter as the engine got going; “We-e-ll,” Bucky said, straightening his collar and running his fingers through his hair, “when you think about it, it’s just so much better than if most of the triggers were music or words. They hardly ever were, and when they were, they were really obscure ones so no one could set me off by accident—words said in a certain order, you know, or the middle of a song, never the beginning—like the paralysis. It’s so lucky. I can’t eat something by accident. Not usually, anyway. And at least I don’t have to be afraid of going outside because someone might say the wrong thing to me.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “It’s great.”
Bucky gave him a stern look.
“What? I said it’s great!”
“You could try to say it with a little more enthusiasm,” Bucky said.
“It’s. Great,” Steve said in a droning, lifeless voice. Bucky cuffed him.
But it was true, things could be a lot worse; and it felt like the more time went by, the more easily Bucky could avoid tastes that might trigger him, and the better they both got at dealing with it when something did happen.
Then Sam baked them a pie and it wasn’t very good and he was coming over in less than twenty-four hours. “It’s just that he didn’t bake the crust all the way and it’s sort of soppy and yeasty,” Steve explained. He had resolved to eat two pieces that night and two in the morning.
“You should be a pie salesman,” Bucky said. “Soppy and yeasty—how could I resist?”
“The filling is good,” Steve said. “It’s fruits of the forest. Raspberries, blackberries, rhubarb—“
Bucky stuck his finger in the pie and put it in his mouth. He very slowly sucked his finger clean, then pulled it out and said, “This contains apples.”
“Well, I guess they’re a fruit of the forest,” Steve said. “Oh. Oh shit.”
“Nothing to be concerned about,” said Bucky. “Set your mind at ease, Captain Rogers.”
“Bucky, you want to—“
“I can answer your questions about the state I’m in, but I’m not Bucky. Actually, I’m nobody,” nobody explained, helpfully.
“Well...I’m still confused because you look like the same person,” Steve said, “so you’ll have to help me out with some additional info.”
“I’m not the same person because I’m not a person,” said the man. He had a soft, pleasant voice and relaxed posture.
“Bucky always says he’s not a person. What’s the difference between that and you?” Steve said. He was trying to be gentle but was unable to maintain a relaxed voice or posture.
“Oh, that’s just a defense mechanism,” nobody said. “I’m actually not a person. The Winter Soldier may have had less contact with his emotions and physical sensations than most people—although I wouldn’t bet on it. I, on the other hand, have no emotional reactions and I do not feel pain or any other internal sensations, like hunger or boredom. This can lead to malnutrition and bowel and bladder accidents, but in special circumstances it’s worth the trouble.”
Nobody reached down and started feeling the crotch of his pants. “Uh, yeah—why don’t you go and try to use the bathroom?” Steve said.
“But if I wear a diaper it’s not necessary,” nobody said.
“We don’t have any. It’s better if you just go at regular intervals, okay?” Steve was worried that if Bucky pissed himself he wouldn’t be able to come up with a comedy routine about it. That outcome had to be avoided at all costs.
When nobody came back from the bathroom he resumed standing by the table until Steve suggested that he sit down. “You’re right,” he agreed; “his legs will hurt when I turn back into him.”
“You know when that’s going to be?”
“Six hours. Five hours and fifty minutes now.”
“That’s a long one,” Steve said.
He guessed there was no reason to hide that nobody really scared him. During the paralysis Bucky hadn’t been able to communicate anything, but when he was mute he was clearly still himself. Even during the paralysis, Steve could have faith that Bucky was still there and listening to him. This person—or not-person, as he preferred to be called—didn’t allow for that. Steve hadn’t realized how much he relied on Bucky’s company to get through these types of situations. He felt himself closer to panic than he’d been in a long time.
Still, he concluded he might as well be polite and make conversation with the stranger. Even if he couldn’t be offended—and who knew if that was true?—it was a good habit to be in. “So what do you do for fun?” he asked.
“I can’t answer that,” the man said. “It’s not a secret, but that concept doesn’t apply to me because of my lack of emotion.”
It was about the response Steve had expected, but the more answerable questions seemed rude. “So, uh...what’s the point of you being like this? Or them, I don’t know, making Bucky into you? They didn’t do this to him every time he was on a mission.”
“That’s true,” the man said. “I’m not energetic enough to be much of an assassin, but I have three uses. First, I can withstand torture because, like fun, it’s just not possible for me to perceive it. Second, I don’t mind being operated on without anesthesia, which saves resources and cuts down on noise complaints. And third, I’m an excellent sniper.” Steve was about to bluster, but nobody said, “Bucky is a very good sniper for a person, but a person can’t have the patience to be a really excellent sniper.” It was interesting to think that nobody might be proud of himself—Steve couldn’t tell if he was or not. “No matter how strong his willpower is, a person will be physically affected by stiffness and lack of sleep. He might be able to camp out for days waiting for a target, but sooner or later his abilities will be compromised. That doesn’t happen to me.”
“So they’d send you out somewhere and you’d sit there forever?”
“Exactly. I’d take a bite of apple every six hours to perpetuate myself. By the way, do you want me to eat more of this pie?”
“No!” Steve yelled, yanking the plate away from nobody. “I mean, no thank you.”
“Are you sure? Your friend’s going to be very difficult to handle when the trigger wears off. I’m more complicated than most of the other triggers, and there’ll be side effects when I go away.”
Oh, great. “Why don’t you tell me about those, then?”
“Hm.” The man thought for a minute. “I know you can’t use antidepressants because of your powers.”
“Do you know anyone who does take them?”
“Then you know that people often have withdrawal when they stop taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. During that period, they can be more depressed or anxious than they were before the drugs. I won’t bore you with the details, but for me to be here, a lot of chemical reactions have to be suppressed. When they stop being suppressed, your friend’s going to feel a sense of extreme hopelessness and despair. Since the emotions will appear to come from nowhere, he’ll also be confused and start panicking, and all the emotions will work together and feed into each other in a cycle.” Nobody waved his hands around in a circle trying to illustrate.
“Well, that’s fucking awful,” Steve said.
“Yes, that’s probably what Bucky would say about it. He’s certainly not very useful at those times. He’s not an effective assassin, he can’t be debriefed, and they can’t freeze him until he finishes cycling through the withdrawal. It wouldn’t be convenient if he was still crying when he woke up. Especially if it was several years later. It would be very confusing for the techs.”
Steve noticed that the man was switching between past and present tense, and realized a second later that this was something Bucky did too. He’d never thought about it before. “You said this whole reaction thing happens because he’s confused about what’s going on. So if I explain it to him, is he going to understand what I’m saying? And will understanding help him calm down?”
The man concentrated. Finally, he said, “I obviously don’t remember every detail, but I don’t think anyone’s ever tried that.”
“But it’s an obvious solution.”
“Maybe, but it’s also a little wasteful, don’t you think? Someone has to sit there trying to explain neurochemistry to a guy who’s crying and having a panic attack? So they can put him in cryo a few hours sooner? It’s easier to just restrain him and wait.”
Steve stood up, grabbed the chair he’d been sitting on, and threw it against the wall. Nobody sighed.
“Now your chair won’t be useful anymore, Captain. If you’re upset, why don’t you just do that to me? I won’t feel anything and, if we’re careful, I can heal up by the time your friend gets back.”
“Jesus Christ, do you ever stop talking?” Steve yelled. Nobody obligingly went quiet. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. Thanks for trying to be helpful. I just don’t want to hurt you—I mean, injure you. It’s a person thing.”
Nobody opened his mouth and then closed it.
“You can talk,” Steve told him. “Christ, I’m sorry.”
“I’m not offended,” nobody said. “Nothing to apologize for. Being around me seems to be bothering you. Is there something useful I can do until Bucky gets back?”
Steve put his head down on the table. It was actually very helpful of nobody to offer to get out of Steve’s hair, but Steve felt like an asshole. Nobody really was very well intentioned for someone who had no intentions. Finally he said, “You should make a sandwich and eat it. Don’t use food that will trigger anything, including this. You should try and use the bathroom about once an hour.”
“That won’t keep me busy for the duration of the trigger,” nobody said.
“Bucky is trying to learn computer programming. Why don’t you go in his room and try to teach yourself something? I don’t know what he’s working on, but I guess you know everything he knows.”
“That’s right,” nobody said. “Thank you, Captain. I apologize for making you upset.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Steve said. “I’m sorry for throwing the chair.”
“Do you want me to clean it up?”
“Not your responsibility. I’ll do it tomorrow,” Steve said. The man got up to leave and Steve reached out and ineffectually patted him on the shoulder a few times. The man smiled politely.
Steve wished he could be genuinely friendly and treat nobody like any other person. But genuineness was undeniably out of his reach. Anything nice he managed to say was just because he was already thinking about Bucky coming back to himself and remembering that Steve had thrown a chair at the wall because of something he’d said.
Steve composted his servings of pie and went into his room, where he had what he considered a nervous breakdown. He didn’t try to stop crying. It didn’t matter. Well, it mattered because nobody might hear him, and then Bucky would remember Steve had cried; when he thought of that he tried to be quiet. He wasn’t very successful.
When he did get ahold of himself, he got up and went to Bucky’s room. “Hey, Soldier?” The man looked up from his computer. “Can you come and get me right before it wears off, so I can try and talk him through it?”
The man tilted his head like he was trying to understand what Steve meant.
“I mean, do you think he’d like that?”
“I know he’d like it. I’ll do that, Captain. Thank you.”
Steve decided to go for a run so he could be upset without making anyone feel bad in the future. It was raining, of course. Well, that was convenient—no one was around, and his face was already wet.
He had wondered a little—but no point looking a gift horse in the mouth—how he was able to manage as well as he did. He didn’t get angry or upset that people had done these things to his best friend—maybe a little, but not consumingly. He just swallowed the things Bucky told him and got on with the business of life, because that was what Bucky wanted.
The truth was it probably was Bucky who was keeping Steve going that way. He had set a rattling machine into action, a kind of dance where Steve had to keep in time by staying clever and calm and doing what was needed to keep things more or less funny, to make things feel regular and relaxed even if Bucky couldn’t talk or couldn’t move or Steve was learning some unimaginably horrible thing.
It worked because of the way Bucky was, and when it came to that it didn’t matter if it was just muscle memory, if he was a shell with the insides rotten—he was gifted with a way of keeping things going when they should have cracked. Specifically he could make Steve keep going because they’d grown up around each other and one of them couldn’t move without hitting a series of levers in the other. Bucky might sometimes say it was an illusion, that he wasn’t that person anymore, but it was undeniable that he could still function as him.
Steve didn’t always push himself as hard as he should, he thought; he was too used to going easy on himself, the way he had back when he was sick. Back then just a little shortage of food or sleep—even letting himself get really unhappy—seemed to make more room for his illnesses to rush in and screw with him. It was stupid to think that way now, when he could run for twenty miles and not be sore, to think he really needed to be home on the couch drinking a hot cup of soup and winding down. He didn’t need rest to keep from falling apart physically. He could run forever.
He just didn’t want to, though, and the lazy part of him which was a big part said that it didn’t matter, he was anyway strong; exercising helped but his body wasn’t capable of getting out of shape, just like it hadn’t been capable of getting into shape before. So driven by the laziness and the general whininess he felt after talking with nobody, he banged back up into his building and ran up the stairs and into his apartment.
He wasn’t expecting to see nobody sitting at the table drinking orange juice—he had let himself think he wouldn’t see him for a while—but he didn’t really mind and when nobody said, “I was thinking,” Steve stood there and waiting. (Nobody had cleaned up the fucking chair.)
“I’m going to go to sleep,” said nobody—“I know it’s earlier than Bucky usually goes, but the quality of my sleep is much better than his, and the body could use it.”
“That’s a good idea,” Steve said. “Thanks, pal.”
“Do you want me to sleep on your bed? You said you were wanting to see him when the trigger wears off, and you’d usually have gone to bed by then.”
“Yeah, that’s—that’s good,” Steve said. “You can sleep in a bed?”
“Yes, of course,” nobody said. “I don’t have preferences like that.”
After nobody went off to bed, Steve started to worry that he’d made the wrong decision. If Bucky was already going to be upset when the trigger wore off, maybe it would have been better for him to wake up in the closet, where he was comfortable. But there was nothing to do about it now; by the time Steve looked in on him, nobody had fallen asleep on one side of Steve’s big bed, fully clothed and on top of the covers. Steve got under the covers on the other side, and to his surprise, it wasn’t too hard to fall asleep.
He woke up with Bucky sobbing into his shoulder. “Hey, pal,” he said, and Bucky started trying to apologize.
“Sor—” he said, but he couldn’t finish the sentence before a sob grabbed and shook his body. “Sorry,” he tried, harder, and he choked and he pushed his face into Steve’s neck like he was trying to burrow inside his skin. Steve put an arm around him and pulled him closer.
“Thank you for waking me up,” he said. “I wanted to see you, pal. Let me get on top of the covers so it’s not so tangled.” He didn’t feel like Bucky understood him—he seemed to panic when Steve pulled away for a second, but soon enough they were both on top of the covers and Steve could wrap himself around Bucky again. Bucky pressed his face in again, hard; he kept his hands by his sides and let Steve hold him. “Buck, do you remember what you told me earlier? How this is some kind of chemical reaction from having no feelings for a while?”
He felt Bucky struggling to get control of himself enough to speak; then he said, “I remember.”
“It’s awful, I know—but I got you, and it’ll pass.”
They just laid there for a minute; Bucky was quiet now, shivering when Steve picked his hand up to put it in Bucky’s hair and smooth it back. “Hey. Steve?”
Steve stopped moving his hand.
“Light on? Turn the light on.”
Before Bucky could finish talking, Steve sat up and pulled on the cord for the big light next to the bed. He was still blinking as Bucky sat up too and sat there facing him. He took hold of Steve’s face with both hands. He didn’t pull him over, but just held him there and stared at him.
Bucky looked like he’d gotten in a fight with a pair of gardening shears. He had a tendency to press and rub at his face with his hands, and sometimes it was like he forgot that he had to be gentle. Or he wanted to forget. There were fingerprints around his nose and his right eye and cheekbone.
“You gotta be more careful with yourself, Buck,” Steve told him.
Bucky didn’t answer; Steve saw that Bucky wasn’t looking him in the eye but was scanning his face, checking for something. He turned Steve’s head to the side and ran his fingers up behind his ear and into his hair. He tugged Steve a little closer to him and put his face behind Steve’s ear and breathed in.
Steve didn’t say anything about it.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky said into his neck.
“You didn’t do anything to be sorry for,” Steve said. Bucky pressed against him, then pulled back, shaking his head.
“I gotta tell you something. I lied to you.”
“That’s okay,” Steve said automatically.
“No,” Bucky said, “no, it isn’t. You don’t understand, Steve—” he choked suddenly and leaned forward, catching his face in his hand.
He propped his arm up on his elbow and sat like that for a minute, shaking. Steve tried to reach out and hug him but Bucky waved him off, then lifted his face up again and swallowed.
“No,” he said. “You don’t—you don’t understand. I tricked you. I gotta tell you, I gotta tell you the truth finally.” He blinked a few times, keeping his gaze fixed on his knees, then lifted his eyes again. “I’m not your friend,” he said, and waited.
“Why don’t you tell me what you mean by that,” Steve said.
Bucky said, “You’re not listening, Steve! I can’t help that I look and talk like him.” He began to speak very levelly; he kept his eyes down while he was talking, but in between sentences they would flick up to Steve’s like he was expecting to find something different in his eyes every time. “I can’t help that I look and talk like him, but I can help how I’ve been using it. I’ve been using you to get all this friend stuff from you, and when you find out you’re not even going to do anything. You’re just going to be sad.”
He bored his eyes into Steve but Steve had no idea what kind of response he was expecting. Bucky sighed and started talking again.
“I’m just your soldier. I’m not your friend. Even if I seem like I am, it’s just me trying to stay out of trouble by doing what you want. That’s the only thing that’s left in here”—he tapped his chest—“and that’s why it’s not really fair for me to let you do things like this for me.”
“Things like...?” Bucky gestured, exasperated. Steve guessed, “Like be here with you when you’re upset? Well, what if I want to, Buck? Is that not allowed?”
“You shouldn’t want to,” Bucky said.
“I don’t agree with that, but if we both want me to what’s the problem? Are the police going to bust in here and arrest me for cuddling on someone who isn’t really my friend?”
“Don’t be an asshole,” Bucky said. He sighed. “Look, it’s—I want to tell you this all the time, but usually I’m too selfish, because I like the way you treat me too much. And pretty soon I’m going to go back to being like that, and thinking I can just fake being your friend and it’s all gonna be fine. But right now I know it’s not fine, and I’m trying to tell you, so the least you can do is listen.”
“I am listening,” Steve said, “but I’m not obligated to agree with you about everything.”
“Oh, well, that’s news to me,” Bucky said.
“I understand what you’re saying, but you have to understand I don’t see it that way.”
“You can’t ‘not see it that way’—it’s true,” Bucky said. “You think I’m lying? Why would I lie about this? Or I’m crazy and don’t know what’s really inside me? Is—” he went still and quiet for a minute, staring at nothing, then snapped back into movement and speech. He was almost snarling. “I know what this is. I know what you think. You think there’s a real person inside here, that there’s a normal guy who’s just going to pop out if you give him enough time and patience. But there isn’t. This leftover bullshit on the outside—and the memories—that’s the closest to Bucky that you’re gonna get. The inside’s just gone. Scooped out.”
“I know that,” Steve said. “I never thought you were lying.”
“Yet you still choose to spend your time with a creepy ghost wearing the face of your dead best friend? I’ve got your number, pal—you’re in deeper denial than you think I am.”
“Not in denial,” Steve said. “And I believe what you say—it just doesn’t mean to me what it means to you. I mean, you’re a pretty entertaining ghost, you know.”
“Jesus,” Bucky said.
“Listen to what I think for a minute, and tell me if I get anything wrong.” Bucky rubbed at his temples and squeezed them (using his right hand, thank God), then glared at Steve. “You don’t feel like a person. You don’t feel like people around you can be your friends because someone like you doesn’t have friends. You feel like they’re something else. Meanwhile, acting like a person and being around people comes really easy—but it feels like it’s someone else doing it. That stuff doesn’t match the inside, so you feel like you’re this great actor who’s putting one over on me.”
“And you know all this how,” Bucky said.
“Well, you’re not telling me this for the first time, Buck, is the thing. You talk about this stuff all the time. The only reason you think I don’t get it is because I don’t react to it the way you think I’m supposed to.”
“Look, I know it’s awful for you. But I look at you and I see my friend. I believe you that there’s nothing in there, but I also believe you can build that stuff up inside yourself again. I mean, they didn’t do anything magic to make you not feel like a person, right?”
“No, they didn’t.”
“It hasn’t even been a year, Buck. Who knows how many years that was for you. I’m not trying to be stupid—I know you think I am—but maybe it just takes longer before it’s gonna stop feeling fake.”
“No,” Bucky said. For a second Steve thought Bucky was trying to say Steve wasn’t stupid, but that wouldn’t happen if Hydra had had him for a thousand years. “No, it’s not going to change. You don’t understand—there’s nothing to build it on. And anyway, that doesn’t do anything for the fact that I’m fucking with you and you should be really angry about it.”
“Because why?” Steve said. “You’re not gonna listen, but guess what—I have a question for you, Bucky. If you’re just the Winter Soldier trying to give me what you think I want, then why are you being so straightforward about it? If you’re not trying to actually be friends with me, it would’ve been easy to never breathe a word to me about how hard it is to do that. If you’re just trying to give me a fake version of Bucky, then you’d never tell me it’s fake. So why aren’t you doing that if you’re just playing me?”
“Well,” Bucky said. Steve waited. “Well I don’t have an answer for that!” Bucky snapped. Steve pressed the side of his hand up against his closed mouth. “And I don’t see what’s so fucking funny about either,” Bucky continued. “About me being confused. Because the thing is you’re still missing something—but it’s something I can’t tell you.”
“Okay,” Steve said. “Would charades work?”
“It’s not something they trained into me, stupid. I just can’t explain it. If I could put it into words, then you’d see the problem, and you wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”
“So that’s really unlikely,” Steve said. “Also—I mean—you want to consider that you’re supposed to be feeling chemically sad and hopeless right now? And here you are completely sure that there’s something so bad about you that I’d drop you in a second if I knew? And your evidence is a piece of logic so blinding that you can’t even start to put it into words at all?”
“Really stupid,” Bucky said.
“I’m just saying—look me in the eye and tell me that’s not a probable explanation for how you feel.”
Bucky glared at him. “Yes, okay, that’s a possible explanation.” He was doing a lot of glaring.
“Just come over here,” Steve said. “Please.”
“I’m already on the bed with you,” said Bucky.
“Well, you’re about three whole feet away,” Steve said. He tried to look huggable without being pushy about it. Bucky stared at him for a second and then launched himself into Steve’s personal space.
Again, he pressed really hard against Steve and Steve curled around him and squeezed him as hard as he possibly could. Bucky said weakly, with his face turned away, “Get on top of me? Sorry, I know it’s—a little bizarre, but I just—and I can—”
“I’ll do it,” Steve said. “Show me what you need.” They fumbled around for a minute and Steve kind of flipped them over and let Bucky organize him how he wanted. What Bucky wanted was to lie on his stomach with his left arm down—no, both arms down, and his head propped sideways on a pillow so he could still talk, with Steve pressing down on top of him all over. “So this?”
“Yeah. It’s perfect. Okay, I’m gonna put my face down—can you put your hand in my hair and kind of hold onto my neck?”
Steve did and Bucky put his face in the pillow; it felt like he melted under Steve and Steve just occupied himself rubbing up and down the back of Bucky’s neck. He always expected Bucky’s hair to be hard and crackling, still.
Steve couldn’t help wondering if this too was some kind of—well, not training exactly, but some kind of way Bucky’d been changed. Who or what was he filling in for? If it made Bucky comfortable, it didn’t really matter, but he was curious.
All in all, he felt lucky to be able to help, although he always worried he wasn’t really helping—but with the level of paranoia and mind games Bucky was always reading into his own behavior, it was probably only natural. Anything could be a trick. And that wasn’t exactly not true—it was just a completely unworkable way to deal with life.
Steve felt Bucky shake a little under him and tried to super-tenderize his neck rubbing, but Bucky turned his head up and he was laughing. “Well, hey there, Mr. Slug,” he said. His voice was soft and blurry, drunk sounding. “Jesus, Steve, is there any situation where you don’t get an awkward boner?”
“Shit, sorry,” Steve said, rolling off him. Bucky half-turned onto his side to face Steve, and he reached out and held on to Steve’s shoulder with his left hand. His eyes were half closed.
“I don’t care,” Bucky said. “It’s just kind of funny he can’t behave himself when I’m all messed up like this. Not a very polite mollusk.”
“What can I say?” Steve said. “He’s a man for all seasons.” Bucky started giggling like a crazy person. His grip loosened on Steve as he lay flopping around on the bed, and then the metal clamped down on him and Bucky pulled him over and kissed him on the ear. It was very loud. “Ow,” Steve said.
“I”m sorry,” Bucky said. “Your shoulder okay?”
“Your hand didn’t hurt me, that was just really loud on my ear,” Steve said.
That made Bucky laugh too. “You know, whatever you are to me, I really like you,” he said.
“Well of course you do,” Steve said. “I’m Captain America.”
That set Bucky off terribly. He rolled around on the bed laughing, looking for all the world like a fish with three human limbs and one metal arm attached to it. This time, the laughing started to dwindle down until Bucky apparently re-experienced the joke and was overtaken by gales of laughter again.
“Am I really that funny,” Steve asked.
“Not hardly. It’s probably the mood swings, but it’s better than the alternative, right? Plus you are pretty funny,” Bucky said. “As if anyone likes Captain America.”
Bucky never fell back asleep, of course, but he never stopped wanting to lie close to Steve and be touched by him, even after he’d pretty much calmed down. So Steve didn’t even suggest that Bucky might want to go sleep in the closet, and eventually Steve fell back to sleep himself. At that point neither of them was holding the other, but they were holding hands; Bucky was stroking the back of Steve’s hand, softly, while Steve was falling asleep.
The next day Bucky seemed back to normal and they talked about it a little, but not very much. First, Bucky saw the pieces of the chair in the compost bin and he said, “I’m sorry I upset you so bad.”
“No, you’re not sorry,” Steve said, then realized how shitty that sounded and said, “Fuck, I’m sorry. I mean, I shouldn’t have thrown the chair.”
“I know I’m creepy when I’m like that,” Bucky said. “You kept it together the best of anyone, to be straight with you. A little property destruction—and it’s your own property, too—”
“Threw the chair because they fucked with your head and then ignored you,” Steve said, “not because of anything about how you were acting.”
“Well it’s true that I wasn’t too convenient when I was crying and carrying on and just trying to cling to everybody within reach,” Bucky said. “Kind of a subpar way to kill people, with a bunch of hugging.”
“You mind coming over here?” Steve asked all embarrassingly strangled. Bucky rolled his eyes and Steve knew he was being too emotional about it, but Bucky still came over and let Steve do some clinging and hugging and carrying on of his own.
“Great, you just broke my entire rib cage, I hope you’re proud of yourself,” Bucky said. “Anyway, it was Hydra—they weren’t running a day care. You pick kind of strange things to be upset about.”
But later he said, “Hydra was really stupid.”
“Oh yeah, what was your first clue?”
“Don’t mock me,” Bucky said. “I’m just thinking—they passed up a golden opportunity to make me super loyal to them. I would have done anything for you last night.” Steve winced. “Quit that, anybody would react like that if they were crying and some giant mammoth of a person shows up to take care of them. I’d have blown up the planet if you asked me to.”
“—not too interested in blowing up the planet, I take it?”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Steve said gravely, “but I want it to be your choice.”
Bucky laughed and started doodling something on a piece of paper he’d found by the side of the refrigerator. “I’m saying, I got to be pretty convincable in that state, so why would they ignore me? Dumb fucks. They could have got me in way deeper if they just acted like they cared about me a little. They’d probably still have me.”
“Well,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “So pretty good they’re evil, and all of that.”
It was true—for all his chair throwing, Steve had to be pretty glad that Hydra was so evil. Things could be a lot worse, he was thinking, when Sam came over and Bucky fell quickly into laughing and talking with him the way he always did. Sam seemed good on the surface and was good almost all the way through, and so Bucky didn’t find it hard to trust him.
In a way Steve felt like he was crazier than Bucky. Bucky could let moods and sensations wash over him, obliterating everything; he could just decide to have fun. Steve was finding it hard to shake off his conversation with nobody, finding it hard to shake off Bucky’s stupid, endless confessions of why Steve shouldn’t actually want him around.
So he wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, and he wasn’t prepared when Sam examined the list of items Bucky had scribbled and then stuck to the fridge with an ugly magnet. “Ginger,” Sam read, “caramel, mint, maple, disco, and whiskey. Weird kind of shopping list, I have to say. Disco is an important part of a balanced diet, but caramel? That’s just nasty.”
“It’s my triggers,” Bucky said and then, with a surprisingly shy look, he carried on. “Like, when—well, you know how it is.”
“I figured,” Sam said. “Smart to keep them handy like this.” He looked more carefully at the list, and his expression changed. “Oh, shit! Apples? Don’t tell me you ate the pie, Bucky—I shouldn’t have put so much in—“
“It’s okay,” Bucky said weakly. “It isn’t—it wasn’t really a big deal. I should have been—more careful.“ Sam was wilting further and further with every word. Bucky shot a pleading glance at Steve, who got himself together for the time being.
“The pie was great,” Steve said. “It was educational. Now we know what the fruits of the forest are.”