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If there's one petty reason Steve's a bit ambivalent about the topical menthol, it's the smell. There isn't a lot of it, and he specifically picked the formulation he could find in the drugstore that had the least smell, but it's still there. Just a bit.

It's not a bad smell. As such. It's . . .well, menthol, the cool-smelling slightly-nose-stinging throat-opening smell that makes up the background of mint, of all kinds of things. And it's barely there, by now - it's been about fifteen minutes since Steve spread the stuff around where Bucky tweaked his neck, trying to get the immediate pain to fade enough that the muscles could relax. It just is there, mixing with the smell of Bucky's skin and hair, and Steve . . .doesn't like it.

The smell isn't explicitly medicinal. Just . . .

On the other hand, it's the only method of pain-relief they've found that works, reliably and more or less right away, so Steve's not going to say a damn thing, and he's not going to knock it where anyone could possibly hear him. Which means he's careful about being ambivalent, even in his own head.

Bucky doesn't exactly like the burning cold feel of it, as such. But (he says) it's better than the pain, so he'll put up with it. Steve's taking that one on trust unless and until he's got some reason not to, and today didn't give it to him.

He considers pointing out that they could move. Steve could actually hear the moment when something in Bucky unknotted, let go of trying to argue all kinds of shit that's still bullshit and always will be, resorted to easy, affectionate insults that aren't fooling anybody anymore (least of all them). Hear it and feel it, in the slight release of Bucky's body against his. It might be better to get up and move, given that, to somewhere more . . .call it ergonomic.

On the other hand, Steve himself isn't actually uncomfortable, leaning against the arm of the futon, and Bucky's managed to find a way of resting against him that isn't really messing up his neck - Steve can tell, because the flinching-wincing tension he honed in on all of five minutes ago isn't there right now - and the kitten's managed to settle herself into a happy loaf on Bucky's stomach. So maybe to Hell with it.

The other day, at the Tower, he and Tasha and Clint had been sitting in Tony's ridiculous suite of rooms he calls his "office". It's not an office, as far as Steve's concerned. It's basically an apartment without a bed, and with a few more gadgets and office-specific features, like a printer. But they'd been there with Tony and mostly with Janet, to talk about details on uniforms, because apparently Janet's as bad as Tony for endlessly trying to redesign and improve things. Her focus is a bit different, and Steve personally finds her more down to earth and easy to deal with (more than once she'd said shut up, Tony, we're talking about the real world not your super-optimized fantasy land and Steve'd been right with her there), but the drive's the same.

Steve can't really argue with it, though - especially not since, bluntly speaking, Tasha and Clint really are the most fragile out of the six of them and Steve's not going to argue with getting as much protection imbued in their gear as possible without interfering with what they actually do. If that means he, as the other person not in something like Tony's armour (which Tony still endlessly redesigns and Steve doesn't even want to know what Mark he's on now), not blessed with impervious skin (though Janet has at least managed to design a pair of shorts that are still in enough of one piece to act as basic modesty preservation and protection when Bruce comes back out of it, which Steve thinks is really impressive), or not in possession of gear that basically still falls under "so advanced the technology is indistinguishable from magic" (not that Tony's stopped threatening to demand that Thor go back to Asgard and bring a proper engineer down to explain it), gets to sit through the same meetings and endless refittings, this is a small price to pay.

He'd said as much to Bucky once. It'd gotten him the long, level stare that meant "how the fuck are you even alive, how did I get you this far". Although Steve's not sure Bucky realizes it means that last bit. And he's not sure it's safe to point out yet. But that bit is very much there.

Janet had brought Hope, and Steve wonders when she's just going to stop pretending that she's even looking for childcare, because frankly Hope's gonna be in school before Janet ever actually finds someone she'll trust with her baby. Steve doesn't blame her. Apparently about 95% of the ugliness of the divorce had been over Hope and over Janet's absolute rock-solid bone-deep insistence that she get sole custody, and her ex only get supervised visitation.

He used to dose her with Benadryl, she'd said tersely, one of those times when an innocuous question had sort of ended up with more of the story than Steve thinks she meant to tell spilling over full of old anger, and distress, and resentment. When it was his turn to be the stay-at-home parent. He'd do it regularly, just give her the stuff. A lot of it. So she'd sleep and he could keep working. Then he let her run around his lab unsupervised. She was barely toddling, and he works with explosives and poisons and he was just completely ignoring her - I have that on tape. And other stuff like that. He just . . .the whole goddamn world revolved around him, and what he wanted, and you know he still doesn't even understand what he did wrong? Or that he did anything wrong? Like I'm just this crazy bitch who suddenly decided to hate him and take his daughter away. Except since the judge came down in my favour he hasn't even tried to set up time to see her. Like not that I'm complaining the last thing I want to do is ever see him again, but -

Then she'd caught herself, said, Oh my god I'm sorry I am so going to stop being that crazy woman who can't do anything but complain about her ex now! and she'd seemed embarrassed enough that nobody, even Tony, did anything but murmur reassurance and let her go on to talking about new projects with her company until the too-bright too-cheerful relaxed back into her normal upbeat burble.

Steve kind of wishes he could figure out a way to get across to her that he, at least, absolutely gets it, gets the absolute discomfort with the idea of even letting her daughter out of her sight now. For that matter, he's pretty sure everyone does. That it's okay; they don't blame her. And Hope doesn't seem to mind, and doesn't seem to be really clingy with her mom either. When Janet's visiting the Tower sometimes Hope goes off to visit the daycare and play with the other kids, and sometimes she hangs around and plays with her doll or other toys, pulling them out of the bag Janet's always lugging around.

You know, I don't think I could do it, Steve had confided to Tasha, at one point, while they were walking around Chinatown and Steve was mostly making her laugh by being comfortably baffled by the changes, by the ways he could tell it was Chinatown, sure, but how it absolutely was not Chinatown (where, as a kid from his neighbourhood, you walked really carefully if at all), not anymore. Be a parent, I mean. I look at Janet and Hope and I just - he'd trailed off.

Tasha had laughed. It was a complicated laugh. Trust me I know, she'd said. She'd looked sideways at him, and when she went on her voice was that one she used when she was letting herself be too-casual, letting herself communicate all the complicated things that most people did by accident when they wanted to pretend something was off-hand but couldn't quite make it be. So that you end up knowing that it's a complicated, heavy, maybe-tender sore-spot, and act accordingly. Whatever "accordingly" happens to be.

When most people have that kind of tone of voice, they can't help it. That's why you learn that's what it means. Tasha can always help it. If she really wanted Steve to think the subject didn't matter to her at all, she could do it. Everything's a choice.

(He's noted to Clint how exhausting he figures that must be. Clint'd just said Jesus fuck yes, but it'd almost seemed to Steve like it was a relief to him to have someone else know that about her - and figure it out on their own. Then Steve spent some time boggling over how complicated people could be, and wishing - the way he does sometimes - that he could talk to his mom about it.)

Tasha'd said, I'm sterile. Sterilized. And Steve'd thought two things at the same time: one was how much the simple change of the verb conveyed, and the other was how much he once again wanted to go back in time and punch people really, really hard. Theoretically, I could reverse it, she'd gone on. Or get around it. I've thought about it.

From Tasha, it said a lot about how much she wasn't okay with what'd been done. Steve'd just nodded. She'd taken a breath and looked at him, with all the wry, dark, and still absolutely genuine amusement and then said, And then I think: how many people would I have to kill before I could even sleep, even in Stark's fairy-tale Tower, if a baby that was actually mine was . . . anywhere in the world? Would there be anybody left?

Steve'd had to cover his mouth to try to keep from actually laughing, and then had given it up as a bad job - since she was so obviously trying to make him laugh. And it was funny. And it was true.

Tasha'd winked and then said, a little more ruefully, Someday Maria's going to meet someone and realize she wants a kid. Or Betty and Bruce are going to stop going back and forth about it and adopt. Or Sam's going to meet someone. Thank God Barton decided unilaterally he'd be a terrible dad back before I even knew him. Honestly I am really okay with you deciding you couldn't do it.

Steve'd stopped, distracted by - How in God's name does Clint think he'd be a terrible - ? he'd started, but Natasha laughed and cut him off.

He's allowed to have self-protective delusions just like the rest of us, she'd told him. Which Steve understood to mean Clint told himself he'd be a terrible father so that he didn't have to engage directly with it really being that fatherhood was soul-destroying and terrifying even if he'd be really good at it. And Steve figures she's right, and that's fair enough. I haven't ever given him shit over that one, Tasha admitted. Yet. I will if I have to, but - she'd shrugged, one palm up.

I think he's allowed to keep that one, Steve agrees, I mean, considering.

He hadn't needed to go on, after that. Knew she got it. He just ends up thinking about it, again, here.

Thinking about how it's God-damned hard enough when - even granted all the shit, all the damage, all the vulnerabilities - it's Bucky, and here, and he is in fact an adult, a grown man, and at least supremely capable of (say) defending himself against any physical threat you could actually imagine. And even most other ones, from most people. All things considered. How even with all that, the kind of . . .well, love, this kind, is -

Overwhelming. Like the worst wave, the worst flood or tsunami or whatever the Hell you wanted to call it, the worst one you could think of.

Trying to imagine having anything like this, this much, attached to something small and helpless, helpless in every single way . . .

Steve has no idea how people do it. None. And knowing that makes him angrier and more disgusted with people like Janet Van Dyne's ex, and the worse ones. It's not that he doesn't know how they can be like they are. He knows. It just disgusts him more, infuriates him more. With a disgust and a fury that's way too familiar now. That version is less, way less, but it's still there.

He can still smell the edges of the menthol over Bucky's skin and hair and everything that comes together to make him alive and here, but Steve can put up with that. Feel body-heat against his chest and the inside of his thighs, the knee that's bent so that his leg threads under Bucky's bent knees, that calf. Feel the neutral temperature of Bucky's metal shoulder, not cold, not stealing heat, but not giving it away either.

He kisses the back of Bucky's head and asks, "You okay here or you wanna move - ?" because it's easier for Bucky to answer if there's two options, if it isn't yes-or-no. If it's not accepting vs refusing. When there's two it's more . . . it's more there's a scenario and options for dealing with it, and Bucky's brain can handle that better. That was something he did. That makes it parameters that are safe.

And this time before Steve's even quite finished the question Bucky's saying, "Fuck Steve I do not want to move," like the idea's almost so overwhelming and unwanted it's hard to think about.

Tightening his arms where they're wrapped around his best friend's waist isn't quite . . . voluntary? Or maybe better to say it's not deliberate. But as he does it the tiny bit of tension that'd started to work its way back into Bucky's body, that Steve could feel, runs right back out. Maybe takes more with it; maybe afterwards Bucky's a little more able to just let gravity work and settle him against Steve.

Abrikoska, whose head had perked up and ears had turned towards Steve when he said something, yawns and settles over onto her side, more curled up, resting her chin on Bucky's right wrist where he's holding onto Steve's arm.

"'kay, good," Steve says. "Good. Then I won't worry about it."

After a minute or two like that, some of the cloud outside breaks up and it turns out they're actually sitting in one of the patches where sun comes in through the balcony doors. It's honestly probably just as much magical-thinking crap to take that as a good sign as it is to take any of the other shit as bad signs, but it's positive magical-thinking crap, so Steve lets it stay in his head where it is. Heaven can go right ahead and approve of his plans for the afternoon.

Bucky sighs. "You really should fucking shoot me," he says, but there's that much more release with the sigh, so it's even less convincing than usual.

Steve rests his forehead against the back of Bucky's head, breathes in the smell of him again. "Yeah then I'd have to get somebody to shoot me," he says, which is a new one he's been saving up for the next time Bucky tried that line, and does in fact get him exactly what he figured.

Which is a suspended pause, a silence that's almost indignant, and then - because Bucky's tired, and Steve knows it - a, "God damn it, Steve," which isn't exactly anything but sincere, but is also the sincere of someone throwing up their hands at him as a lost cause. Which counts as a win, in this game.

"S'what I thought," Steve says, mock solemnly. And Bucky sighs again, and leaves it at that.