“Bucky,” someone says sharply, and he comes awake to find hands pinning his arms to his sides. The joints of his left arm creak angrily against the pressure, and for a moment he almost breaks the hold so he can fight back. Then the room snaps into focus, and in the foreground is Steve, leaning over him and looking scared and only half-awake. “Bucky, are you awake?”
“Shit,” Bucky breathes, and even the soft syllable tears at his raw throat. He must’ve been loud again. “Get off,” he says the next minute, and Steve obediently releases him.
“You okay?” Steve asks, and christ, Bucky can’t. He can’t lie in bed next to Steve fucking Rogers and his worried expression, not right now. “I know I’m not supposed to wake you up, but--”
Bucky lurches over the side of the bed, narrowly avoiding the nightstand, and stumbles out of the room. Steve doesn’t follow, so Bucky lets himself collapse in the little hallway between the bedroom and bathroom.
He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him that allows every nightmare he has now to ingrain itself so well, to twist serpentine into his consciousness. All he has to do is close his eyes and the whole thing is there, waiting for him. The snap of a bone breaking is preserved in perfect detail, along with Steve’s sharp cry of pain. He can see it, Steve’s arm at an unnatural angle--it was so easy to break, bird-boned and tiny as he was. The false memory of it races over his skin, along his shoulders and down his spine, a seeping cold that dredges up its own uncomfortable associations. He takes a deep, ragged breath, waits to three, and blows it out again. The short hair at the back on his neck is sticking up with sweat when he folds his hands there.
The therapists, they always wanna know if he wants to talk about it. He never does. If he could avoid ever talking about it again, he’s sure he’d be a happier man, because talking about it only brings things he doesn’t wanna dwell on into higher relief. Like the fact that he’s more comfortable with the nightmares where he’s cleaning his equipment amidst half a dozen bodies than the ones where he suddenly and inexplicably turns on Steve, back before the war. One of those things actually happened and one of them didn’t, and he knows which one should shake him up more. But he knows the night he just dreamed about, the one where he’d finally admitted that his thing with Mary Katherine Connelly wasn’t ever going anywhere. He and Steve had just gotten home, stamping their feet like they could drive the winter cold from their bodies. They’d kissed for the first time that night, on impulse or on accident, he can never remember which. He hasn’t thought about that night in ages, but it seems to him that something good like that should’ve been sacred, should’ve been untouchable.
He doesn’t have anything sacred anymore. He’s not sure he ever did.
It’s been decades, but he still has phantom feelings in his left arm, ghosts in his synapses that the bionics can’t replicate. The whole dream had been like that, so close to real that it’s scrambled the memory, tinted it darker than before. It’s like double vision now, and the worse side is dominant by virtue of being more recent. He feels ill, and he counts out his breath to keep the disoriented nausea at bay.
The apartment is quiet, just the hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of the analogue clock in the living room; he can pick out the muffled sound of someone else’s television on another floor. Then there’s rustling from the bedroom, then Steve pads by him in bare feet. From where he’s got his head between his knees, that’s all Bucky can see--bare feet and grey sweatpants. His breaths are still measured, in and out, every three seconds. It’s a coping technique they’ve tried to force on him, and he hates it, he fucking hates it, but right now he’ll try anything to help him cope.
He’s not getting anywhere like this, steeping himself in the guilt, so some time later he lets the sound of their coffee maker finally coax him from the hallway. Steve has turned one of the lights beneath the cabinets in the kitchen--soft, indirect light; someone’s been paying attention to the SHIELD doctors again--and is busy pulling down a pair of mugs.
“Couldn’t have gone for anything stronger?” Bucky asks, and he’s only half joking. He pulls out a chair at the table and drops heavily into it. Steve smiles without looking directly at him and finishes pouring the coffee.
Steve sets down the mugs; the sound of ceramic on wood is solid and surprisingly reassuring. He sits himself, then rotates one so that the handle faces Bucky before pushing it over. Bucky wraps his palms around it, a brush of skin and a scrape of metal. The scent of the coffee warms him slowly, the cold giving way in pinpricks, like a limb waking up. It smells like 1937, when he used to sneak fresh-ground packets of Ariosa home from the Arbuckle factory where he worked for six months, before it was shut down and sublet out. The thought is comforting for a moment, then it gets tainted through association and he holds back a wince.
Steve’s hair is rumpled and his shirt is inside out, all of the seams showing against the bulk of his shoulders. Yesterday’s five-o’clock shadow is threatening to become actual stubble, golden-brown in the yellow of the under-cabinet light, always a few shades darker than blond. Sleep hangs around him like a halo; everything about him is muzzy and warm and forgiving, and he’s watching Bucky with the same air. It’s earnestness without expectation, understanding without solicitation--all of it adding up to a damn fine impression of not being screamed awake fifteen minutes before.
“Don’t,” Bucky says when it gets to be too much, tongue unsticking from the roof of his mouth with a click, “don’t look at me like that.”
Steve leans back in his chair and rubs at his face, heels of his palms scrubbing along his cheekbones. “Look at you like what, Buck?”
His mouth twists bitterly. “Like I’m some sort of miracle.”
Steve’s form folds in on itself at that, shoulders rolling forward as his hands drop to his lap, below the edge of the table. He looks down at them instead and shrugs a little. The shadows caused by the tilt of his head change his whole demeanor, makes him seem penitent instead, and Bucky thinks about thirty Our Fathers on the hard wooden kneelers of whatever cathedral was closest to where they were staying that month. He stopped going to confession as soon as he aged out of the orphanage, but you couldn’t beat the Catholic guilt out of Steve Rogers. After they’d kissed that first time, a brief and breathless thing flavored by gin, Bucky’d wondered just how many saints would be have to be called upon to intercede on behalf of their immortal souls. In the moment, he hadn’t cared--nothing’d seemed as important as Steve’s chapped lips against his. Hell could’ve taken them both and Mary Katherine Connelly too for all the damns he’d given.
“Christ,” Bucky says, and drops his head down between his elbows on the table. He’s a fucking wretch. He doesn’t know why he’s got to be like this. It’s three twenty-two on a Tuesday morning and they’re awake because of him. Steve was probably having a good night, too. There are marks on Bucky’s side, tender to the touch, relics of Steve’s last not-good night; four purpled fingertips spread from navel to hip, and a single bruise has risen on his back to complete the set. That’s another difference between them. Steve doesn’t thrash, doesn’t fight--he just holds on, holds on like his life depends on it, knuckled into whatever’s closest, and these days that’s usually Bucky. He’d give anything not to be so intimately acquainted with what Steve’s nightmares look like from the outside, but he’d give more to never have to see the closed-off look of guilt and shame when Steve notices the bruises the next morning.
“I wish you’d talk about ‘em,” Steve says suddenly. “Maybe that’s selfish, I dunno. Sometimes I just wish you felt like you could.”
They both look up at the same time and their eyes meet. He’s not sure what Steve sees, but it’s apparently enough to draw conclusions, because Steve’s features go sharp and hard. “That wasn’t you.”
“So you keep saying.” It’s not a bad guess, he supposes, even if tonight it’s not the right one. He realizes suddenly how tired he is; he never gets enough sleep these days. Steve’s jaw is set, and one glance tells him that Steve’s not going to stop saying it, not until the entire world believes that Bucky Barnes is an innocent. Which is fucking ridiculous, because he’s not, he’s never been. It’s not as though the Russians taught him how to kill. They just wound him up and pointed him in the direction they wanted him to go. He has one bright spot in his whole shoddy reputation, and it’s sitting across the table and looking self-righteous.
And isn’t that really the thing, too? Before the war, a big part of who he was revolved around Steve Rogers. Even before the night after Mary Katherine Connelly. He fought as many of Steve’s battles as Steve would let him--he threw punches he never would’ve thrown, got involved in scuffles he happily would’ve walked right by, and all of it was for Steve. Steve’s sense of justice, Steve’s sense of pride. He liked it, he’s not gonna lie. He liked being the muscle behind Steve’s mouth, he liked playing the two-bit hero. Made him feel better than he actually was--a scrappy kid with a patchy education, working blue-collar jobs from sunrise to sunset six days a week just to keep body and soul together. When he was protecting Steve, he was finally somebody worth something.
“I hurt you,” Bucky hears himself saying, and the words hang there, quiet and strange.
There’s a pause. “Hurt me?” Steve echoes. “I mean it, you weren’t in control--”
Bucky shakes his head, short jerky movements, and Steve pauses. “I mean, before. Before,” he trails off helplessly and flicks a hand up and down the length of Steve’s body, “...everything.”
There’s a moment where Steve seems to working that through, then he leans forward, elbows bracing against the table. “Bucky, no. The worst thing you ever did was give me a black eye, and that was on accident when you were trying to show me a boxing move you’d seen,” Steve says, his tone creeping towards wry. “I thought you were never gonna stop apologizing. More annoying than the shiner ever was.”
“No, I mean it. You never hurt me, and you never would’ve.”
He knows that; he thinks he knows that. He wants more than anything to believe it. But, he realizes, this wouldn’t be the first time he’s allowed Steve to believe something enough for the both of them. There’s practically a comforting familiarity to it. He studies the wood grain of the table for long moments, turning it over in his mind.
“You wanna stay up?” Steve says at last.
Bucky tilts his head back at that, blinking blearily up at the ceiling. “God no.”
Steve gathers the mugs of coffee--untouched, good job them--and pours the contents down the drain before rinsing them out. He turns back and pulls Bucky up by his good arm, hand warm and solid on his elbow.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry it’s like this. But we’re gonna make it, I swear.”
Bucky snorts wearily. “Says the guy never learned when to give up.”
Steve looks at him, just looks at him. The light’s at Bucky’s back, so Steve’s all lit up except for where Bucky’s shadow falls across him. “You thinking about giving up?” he says, tone carefully even, hand steady on Bucky’s arm.
Instead of answering, Bucky just shifts closer. The press of his lips to Steve’s isn’t the same as it once was--the angle is wrong, and there’s no gin this time to use as a scapegoat if he’s rebuffed. But the feel of it’s inexplicably the same, the same rush of fear and hurt and hope, the same terrifying moment before Steve presses back with a slight parting of his lips. Bucky’s hands roam over inside-out seams at Steve’s shoulders, fingers pulling at the fabric. He just wants to want to hold on. Then Steve’s other hand settles over the bruises, unconsciously mirroring them beneath the black cotton of Bucky’s tee, and it hurts just enough to tell him that this is real.
He shudders out a breath against Steve’s mouth, and he counts to three.