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the lessons taught are not for free

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1.

The room comes back like hitting a fucking wall and drags with it the nausea that comes when you've been spinning fast and stop all at once - disoriented, head ringing, stomach heaving, and the sense of momentum dragged back too fast, like your consciousness sloshes right out of your fucking skin and then slops back again, everything out of place. The room comes back all at once and way too fucking much.

Except really it's him who comes back to the room because the room never fucking moved, just the inside of his fucking head. So he comes back to the room all at once, and nothing like enough.

He comes back to Steve working fingers under his left hand, levering them up to break the grip before it breaks anything else and pulling his right arm away, out of the way out of reach. Steve does it carefully. Always fucking carefully.

Fuck.

He forces himself to let go, to make the fingers of his left hand uncurl enough that Steve can do that. Do all of that. Then he lets his hand curl up again, tight, where his hand and his fingers can't do anything he shouldn't be doing. Can just sit there in a fucking useless knot instead, resting on his left thigh under Steve's other hand.

And you have to wonder how Steve can stand touching that.

Bucky tries to haul pieces of his fucking thoughts back together, now he's back in this room. Tries to parse through it and make some sense. Understand what he can see and what the fuck he thinks he's doing and why he's even here to pull anything together anymore in the first place like he really shouldn't fucking be.

There's the redness of crushed veins and arteries on his right forearm: point of pressure on the inside just below his elbow, larger smudge and then four red smears ending in darker red points. Thumb, palm, fingertips. They'll deepen to violet and blue in a few minutes.

He's not supposed to do that anymore.

No.

He doesn't have to do that anymore.

(Fuck.)

He's on the floor. Steve's on the floor. Sitting in front of him. Right hand over Bucky's left, still; left hand resting on Bucky's right knee where it's bent. Bucky can't remember sitting down exactly but he remembers it might have been more like falling and letting himself stay where he fell. Sliding down the wall. Tired.

Was a while ago.

Steve doesn't say anything. He tries that now: not to ask questions he already knows the unfortunate fucking answers to, to just sit there like he can sit there all day and it's not a fucking problem, like he's got nothing fucking better to do than wait, be ready to listen. It's his shiny new trick and the most annoying thing is a lot of the time it fucking works.

And the even more annoying thing is that Bucky can't always remember why it's supposed to be fucking annoying.

Because he doesn't want to say anything.

He doesn't fucking want any of this.

He doesn't want to be here, where "here"'s on the floor in the fucking dining room in clothes he doesn't remember putting on, when he doesn't remember how he fucking got here (not . . . really - vague sense that the whole fucking day's been like this, been shitty, and he's gone through motions and somehow eventually the motions ended up here), with the taste of sour sweat and petrichor in the back of his fucking throat where there wasn't anything to make them and his chest hurting and his head who the fuck knows where.

He knows where.

He just wants this not to be like this. He just wants all of this not to be like this. He just wants this to not . . . be.

It just keeps fucking being and he just is here. Can't stop.

Stares at the red he dug into his own skin.

Steve might say something, now, might say something about getting up and sitting on the couch - or maybe something else, Bucky doesn't really . . .absorb the words. It's just Steve trying to make something better again. Steve trying to make something out of this. Steve refusing to just fucking accept what this is and do what anyone with half a God-damned brain would. Because it's Steve and he's fucking like that.

Bucky hears himself say, "Why are you so fucking stubborn?" and there's that sudden-stop feeling again and a pit opening under his stomach, born out of the white mind-eating void that comes with being so afraid you could throw up except you're too afraid for your body to remember how to make your muscles fucking work so you can't and you choke on the feeling inside your fucking head.

And it eats like half his fucking thoughts before it runs into the backwash going the other way and just mostly makes it feel like if someone were to take a fucking axe to the middle of his head and cut him in half longways they'd be doing him a fucking favour.

Steve says, "Natural selection," in a dry voice, and then he adds, almost sly, "bad influences from an early age."

Bucky's not sure why that's funny until after he's barked out half the agonizing laugh - like his body knew it was funny before his brain could think it through. Then his brain catches up and it's funny but then something knows it shouldn't be and jerks him back like hitting the end of a leash too fucking fast.

Nausea hits again and he leans his head back against the wall to close his eyes and swallow, waiting until it's gone.

That's another new trick of Steve's, that kind of answer. Maybe it even works.

And sooner or later Bucky might have to admit to himself what the trick is and why he wants it to work and he's not sure what that even means and here and now every single fucking part of him flinches away from every part of the thought he just had and pretends he didn't have it.

Paints it over.

(Works about as well as painting over things usually does.)

He forces his eyes to open and knows he doesn't want to remember why Steve's got his yeah well, you got an argument? face on. And if he keeps looking he's gonna remember and he doesn't want to so he should stop fucking looking.

But looking away is going to mean he has to move his head and his neck doesn't want that.

Also doesn't want him to stay still. Really no part of him wants anything. Ever again.

It's not on purpose, going to move his left hand to his arm again. Doesn't get far either, because Steve's hand's still there, and doesn't take much pressure for Bucky to remember he's not supposed to do that. Keep his hand where it fucking is.

There's too many things he doesn't want to think about, too many things he doesn't want to remember, and he's not good enough at this. Still metaphorically fumbles like some drunk fucking idiot who's poisoned himself till his body doesn't know how it works anymore and when there's this many he's gonna fucking drop something and he does. It's not even a fucking surprise.

He can't keep hold of all of this at once.

When he says, "First time I did this, was because otherwise it'd be worse," he doesn't want to. It's not a choice he's making, at least not up in the top of his mind where he's thinking on purpose. But it's like the part of him that's got ahold of his voice isn't asking fucking permission, or doesn't realize it has to, or just hates him.

This is his arm, or what'd happen if Steve didn't stop him. What did happen once or twice, not that he's ever had to admit it. Doesn't take that long to heal, or that much to ignore, as long as it's a stable fracture. Hasn't done that in a while, so maybe he'll never have to admit it.

Hopefully not. And for a minute he kind of hopes Steve doesn't follow what he means by this but that's asking for a bit much.

Manages to make himself look away because he doesn't want to know what Steve's face looks like, and that other fucking part of him keeps talking. Says, "Knew it'd fucking hurt, even fucking cared."

He remembers that. Couldn't say exactly when it was, can't put it into place, it's just a fragment out of context but it was . . . far enough back he still cared if something would hurt, with his head, with being able to think about it in a space that fucking had opinions about anything beyond blank obedience and the cringing animal shit that comes mostly from the body. That doesn't come with a choice.

The first time, he'd been able to think about it, to imagine, project a fucking thought into the future where he'd done as he was fucking told and the bones were broken and how much it was going to fucking hurt.

"Didn't want to," he says. Can hear his own voice, monotone and flat. "Didn't want it. Couldn't, first time."

In his mind's eye, and all the rest of the senses memory mocks up inside his head, he can see the concrete floor and the fucking cloud of his breath in the fucking cold. Memory isn't blurry but the story that goes with memory says his eyes kept fucking blurring while he cried. And he did cry. Screwed himself up to do the thing and then couldn't make himself, and cried.

I can't goes with that story, too. And please, because he'd already spat at them, already cursed and screamed and then screamed again - different kind, different reason. A few times. You run out of that, if it just goes on long enough. If they just keep doing the same thing again and nothing works. You curse them and they hurt you and you curse them and they hurt you and they can keep going for fucking ever and you can't.

So by then fuck you was gone and now there was only please.

Please and I can't and stop and please.

He can see the fucking concrete and his breath and the fucking boots in front of him and the crease of uniform fucking trousers kept nice and fucking neat. In his head. None of it's real, but he can see it.

"Or second time," he says, out loud, looking over Steve's shoulder at the room that doesn't feel real either. "But it got worse."

Steve doesn't ask him what. He doesn't want to say. Or think about it. Or the box or the dark or the water after, either. The dark and the water pouring in through the edges to fill up space there wasn't much of, not enough of to even beat against the sides until then there's not enough to breathe because between him and the water the box is all full.

And he should stop. It's not helping it doesn't help him, hurts Steve, he should shut up if he has to drop something it shouldn't be this.

When he says, "So I did," it's because it's the end and now he can keep his fucking mouth shut. Maybe.

I couldn't, but then it got worse, so I did.

They're the only kind of words he can wrap this shit in anyway. Too much of a fucking coward for anything else. Anything clearer.

There's a noise but it doesn't come from Steve. It comes from the kitchen table. Comes from a stupid little orange cat, leaning to stretch its neck at him. The world stops short in spin again, except it didn't have to start in the first place, and again he has to close his eyes to keep from throwing up.

When he says, "Didn't take long to learn to do it on command, though," he almost says it on purpose. Like it's only maybe the last tenth of him that would've kept those words inside his fucking mouth if he had the sense to let it be in fucking charge. The last tenth just happens to be the part that flinches and pulls his right hand up like he wants to cover his own face.

Says, "Sorry," and means it because he fucking does not want to be like this. Spends so much fucking time like this.

Maybe Steve says something, it kinda seems like he said something Bucky didn't hear when what he does hear is, "Hey. Bucky."

And it makes him look, find Steve's face like looking'll help him somehow actually hear what he fucking says. And Christ, you stupid selfless bastard, why do you keep coming back here for me.

"It's done, Buck," Steve says. His thumb moves against the side of Bucky's left hand. "It's over. You're here. You're home."

There's words that come up out of his throat for that but he's finally got the fucking self-control to keep them down. Not throw them up, either. Keep everything fucking down.

Make himself take a careful breath instead; his neck stabs pain up into his jaw and it's almost a welcome fucking distraction. He ends up rubbing at the side of his neck with the side of his right wrist.

Then there's three times he manages to stop the stupid, stupid fucking shit he starts to say, three times he manages to not fucking do this again, just after he takes a breath to start. Three times before what he's fucking left with is his head hurting and his chest hurting and being able to just say, "Fuck, Steve - what do you want?"

It's not . . . good. But it's not the other things. That's probably better.

"I could go with you taking for granted you're still not gonna be able to make me hate you," Steve says, and then adds, "for now," before Bucky can actually get the laugh to stop hurting his breast-bone and choke it's way out, let alone telling him it's a fucking tall order. "If you'd come sit on the couch instead of the floor I'd be set."

The stupid fucking kitten mewls again, too. Steve points at her - across his body and over his other shoulder, because his right hand's still covering Bucky's left - and says, "She thinks it's a good idea, too."

"That doesn't fucking strengthen your case, Steve," Bucky tells him, but he's too tired to argue now, too tired for much of anything to be able to get a grip that can compete with the fact that he fucking hurts, moving will make Steve happier, and maybe the fucking idiot kitten won't start wailing or pawing at him and just sleep and purr instead.

So he lets Steve pull him up. Lets Steve keep him from falling over again, even, when this time his head actually fucking spins.

They stand there for a minute, Bucky leaning half on the wall and half on Steve, eyes closed and waiting for everything to just fucking settle again.

Steve kisses his forehead and says, "You're tired, Buck, you should come sit down," and maybe if he does he won't have to move again for a while.

 

2.

Steve takes a detour through the kitchen for coffee and the last of the meat pasties Maria'd given him a couple days ago. Apparently she's in a sort of unofficial competition with one of the Stark Tower vendors, where he challenged her to figure out how he makes his Cornish pasties and duplicate them without him giving her the recipe, and so there are a lot of Maria-made pasties to be had at the moment.

He is not complaining. They're actually kind of perfect for a lot of what he and Bucky need food for - the readily-available, calorie-dense between-meals kind especially. He's considering just asking the vendor if the things freeze well, and if they do, if the guy would mind making Steve a couple dozen a month special order.

Bucky eats his mechanically, but he does eat it. That counts as a plus. Last month Pepper'd forwarded him an article on how calorie-deficits are now being linked to all kinds of unfortunate side-effects, both small and large scale, and Steve had for the first time had to resort to using the "GIF" option on his SMS app because he really couldn't figure out any other way to respond that wasn't just an image of bashing his head against a handy surface.

yeah I got handed this by my new Wellness Assistant, was Pepper's reply. that's how I feel, except I bet yours is more.

Her "Wellness Assistant", it turns out, is Darcy Lewis, who's now permanent full-time at SI. 65% of that time is apparently now nagging Pepper about whether or not she's slept well enough, eaten properly, done non-work physical activity, had downtime, and then hacking out scheduling and arrangements with Pepper's other assistants to make sure that all that stuff happens. The remaining 35% goes under the heading High-Level Situational Liaison which Steve gathers you could essentially translate as "since Jane and/or Thor is going to be telling her everything that's going on that they know about anyway, she makes a great resource for assistant-level Stuff that we'd rather not have anyone else outside the Need To Know know about, whether it's for SI or if it's for Avengers-related issues."

It also turns out that for all she still tries to project the same attitude as always, you can't get through the degrees she has without being really good at research. And that her response to people being stubborn about her suggestions is to throw so much supporting evidence at them that they drown.

According to Pepper, anyway.

But in some ways it's just another thing to make Steve sigh and add to the list of things that might be making everything harder that are probably gonna be impossible or incredibly difficult to solve, because everything is hard.

Open the box with the crowbar that's provided inside.

The kitten crawls up to spread herself along Bucky's shoulders and Steve supposes that it's not really fair to call her a kitten anymore - she's at least a year old, if he comes to think about it. And she's by no means the tiny, tiny handful of a thing she started out as, even if she's still not very big. Just barely long enough to make herself into a kind of scarf and then rub her face against Bucky's neck just behind his jaw.

Bucky ends up staring through the plate he's still holding until Steve half-holds out a hand in a wordless offer to take it. Then Bucky rubs his right hand across his eyes, digs his thumb into his temple.

"Headache?" Steve asks, question not so much about whether Bucky's got one as it is about what he might be able to do about it. Bucky drops his hand, makes a fraction of a shrug.

"Yeah," he admits, and then goes with Steve's gesture to come closer, rest his head against Steve's shoulder so Steve can press fingers to the side of his head, his temple, his jaw and down into his neck.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, at all, at least part of the headache is steel-cable tension from Bucky's jaw, and most of the rest is probably coming up from his shoulders and his neck. Steve decides against suggesting the topical menthol stuff because he doesn't think cold is gonna be any good right now - not even the kind that just comes from confused nerves.

Abrikoska shifts to account for Bucky leaning on something, and then licks Steve's hand when it gets close to her.

"Come lie down," Steve says. "Get gravity off it, anyway."

Bucky exhales, slowly. "Yeah," he says, in the tone of voice that says the hell with it, why not.

 

Steve sets up the cushions so he can lie back against the arm of the futon, and then pulls Bucky to lie down on his stomach, using Steve's upper right shoulder as a pillow. Plus, admittedly, a small flattened pillow. It's almost funny, but it's actually a position that seems to work: Bucky's left arm settles between the back of the sat-up futon - or the couch - and Steve and takes just enough of his weight that it's not pulling on any of the rest of his muscles, and it also can't fall asleep or get pins and needles so who cares if it stays there sort of bent and squished for three hours?

The rest of Bucky's spine ends up settling in what's more or less the curves it's theoretically supposed to have. Steve's got a solid enough handle on anatomy at this point to be pretty sure there's still scoliosis happening there, probably from just how badly the old prosthetic hauled his entire body around and off-kilter, but it's not a lot anymore. With the smaller pillow up by the top of his head, it works.

And lots of other stuff about it works, too. Mostly the kind of stuff Bucky gets touchy, guilty or embarrassed about, but if there's a slight upside to the kind of days today's apparently decided to be, it's that Bucky's usually burned through being able to give a damn about that particular kind of embarrassment already.

It's a really slight upside and Steve would way rather have a cranky ridiculous argument that comes down to nothing objectively important and everything to do with stupid, stupid standards and "rules" and things Steve wishes it were easier not to care about.

It's not easier. He knows it's not easier. He knows if it were reversed, when it was reversed, he'd be just as bad. That doesn't make it all less stupid. But he'd way rather have the argument about that than Bucky already have gone through what he has this morning.

But given that horse is already out of the barn, Steve'll take the upside that says as a result, they don't have to have that much of that argument too.

Sometimes he thinks about how this time last year, or the one before, it was still this bad and they probably still would have something that at least looks like the other argument, except worse, because Bucky'd actually think he could find an argument that would mean he "won", if by "winning" you mean "convince Steve he's worthless and undeserving" and everything besides that.

If it comes to it, Steve's not entirely sure Bucky doesn't still think there's arguments that'd do that, he's just . . . not as absolutely incapable of keeping them under wraps as he used to. And Steve ruminates on that, sometimes. Like now, while he doesn't pay a lot of attention to Friday the 13th that he'd turned on because it happened to be the one in the machine

Steve can never decide if it's better to say it or not. He falls on the side of not, because it feels like that's the option that at least doesn't make anything worse, but he's not sure that doesn't just count as picking the more familiar poison.

Because the thing is, Steve is actually pretty sure, pretty God damned sure, there is nothing that Bucky could tell him that would be worse than what Steve's managed to imagine on his own. And he has. Whether he likes it or not.

Actually he's pretty sure his imagination has gone out of its way to be as horrific as possible. It's kinda touching, to be honest, how many people are sure he can't think like an evil person, but they're wrong. It's just that the problem with proving to any of them wrong is that he'd have to actually let his thoughts go there. He'd have to think like that on purpose.

And it's not that he can't. He can. He's not always a nice person anyway and on top of that at this point he's both seen first hand and learned second hand about just about . . . everything, every horrific thing, humans have ever done to one another. It's not actually that hard to remix it all, get the full picture.

It's just the last thing he wants to do.

Ever.

It feels like it leaves smudged fingerprints on the inside of his head. Smudges of he-doesn't-even-want-to-think-what. It leaves him feeling dirty and sickened and really unhappy.

And while there's a certain amount of it he can't avoid, in fact because there's a certain amount he can't avoid, he's not exactly in a hurry to volunteer to add a bunch more muck to wade through just to prove to someone that he's got a better imagination for evil than they think he does.

Not correcting them feels a little bit dishonest, but he'll live with that.

You can add to that how he's just about aware, these days, that another little wrinkle to the whole damn thing is that once upon a time Bucky put a lot of work into -

Well he probably thought it was making sure Steve didn't have to learn or realize how horrible people could be, and even if that didn't exactly work as such, it still turned out to work pretty well at letting Steve not think about it when he didn't want to, let him keep the knowledge intellectual and at one arm's length at least, and effectively it amounts to the same thing. It let him keep it off his own daily plate.

And yeah there's exasperation knowing that, the same way there was exasperation every time Bucky did actually point out Steve was pushing too hard, too far, was gonna mess himself up really bad soon. When you want to see yourself as ready for anything, up to anything, when you hate every way you're not, you get exasperated when people do anything that points out you're not.

The thing is, from the vantage point of now, just the same as that exasperation, Steve also has to admit Bucky might've had a point. That there was a lot of really, really bad shit - worse than the shit he couldn't ignore, and there was a lot of that already - that Steve could've had shoved in his face. All things considered.

That it might not've been something that he could've handled, in that time and that place and how he was then. With the other things - admittedly - he had already been given to handle.

Steve doesn't like admitting that there would've been a point where the world was just so God-damned discouraging, so God-damned much to much that it'd've worn him down badly, maybe made him start giving up. It's an uncomfortable thought and it's not how he likes to think of himself.

But that's its own kind of hubris, isn't it? And stupid. So he doesn't have to like it. You don't have to like your short-comings, you don't even have to give into them, but pretending they don't exist is asking for trouble.

The point is, Bucky invested a lot in that. It was important to him, and it even worked out, even if it didn't actually work the way he meant it to.

So maybe that's another reason for Steve to keep his mouth shut on the whole thing, maybe saying anything would just be another way of piling on guilt. Steve's not sure it's not.

It's just the thing is, whether he likes it or not, his thoughts've already gone there. Where "there" is everywhere bad, where "there" is every fucking horrific, evil thing they could have done. He has thought about it.

All of it. All variations on it. More times than he ever wanted to.

And where thing they could have done absolutely includes every God-damned twisted thing they might have decided to make him do.

And the thing is he knows, he knows, he can see it when whatever Bucky's seeing, whatever he's remembering, makes him flinch. It's right there. Steve knows when it makes him cringe and shy away and Steve hates that he can also see when the reason is that, when at least part if not all of what Bucky's cringing and flinching away from . . . is what he thinks knowing would make Steve think of him. Not just that it happened, but what the fact that it happened would make Steve think.

When it's not just simple humiliation - which is fucking bad enough - or horror, but it's . . .that, too.

The fear that it's the one more thing, the last thing, the thing that would. . . make Steve hate him. Or be disgusted by him. Or something. Some word that goes here. The last argument. The one that would work.

And Steve knows he can't really make the memories any less awful, knows you can't just . . . make the humiliation go away, even if you can convince someone that it shouldn't matter it doesn't actually magically make it leave, but sometimes he still wonders if that much -

If that, if getting rid of that piece more, could be the right thing. Be worth something.

If saying that yeah: yeah okay, knowing is awful, sometimes knowing is even worse than wondering because if you're still wondering there's a chance the worst of what you're wondering didn't happen, fine, sometimes knowing hurts - but there's no shock left. There's no . . .innocence, naiveté, there's no clear mental landscape to darken, there's no possibility Steve hasn't thought of left to inflict.

Saying, I have thought of every single God-damned fucking thing they could have done, the worst way it could have turned out, the worst thing you had to survive and it changes nothing. Nothing. Not a single God-damned thing.

Yes, even you screaming, yes, even you begging and crying and breaking and appeasing and grovelling and every single fucking foul thing they might've made you do, yes, I have already thought of that and it doesn't change a single fucking Christ-damned thing. Nothing.

If that might be worth slogging through the mental muck to prove. Maybe if just . . . if pushing it out, dragging it out in the open, might help.

But he's not sure it would. Might make things worse, too.

And pretty much like all the rest - he might not be able to avoid it, sometimes. Spent a lot of time not being able to avoid it at all for a while, like his stupid thoughts couldn't even think about doing anything else? But that doesn't . . . mean he wants to bring it all into focus again.

Maybe he should ask someone, but that comes with some of the same problems. He just doesn't know.

Right now he ends up coming down on the side of not saying it, again. Bucky's eaten and he's resting and Abrikoska's settled and the idea of disrupting that, when none of that's a given - that puts enough weight on the shut up side of the scale.

Right now Steve'll settle for reminding himself that it's done, that it's over, that they're home and none of it's ever going to God-damn happen again. And that he lives in a world where at least Bucky can stretch out and use him as an ersatz pillow and maybe get some comfort out of that, and there are so many worse places to be.

 

(coda:

He's not watching whatever Steve's got on. He's not really listening, either. 

He's not really hearing Steve's heartbeat or Steve's breath under his ear, through Steve's bones and skin and muscle, because there's too much noise from the TV, but he might be listening to them. There might be a thread out from that. Stretching back. He's done that for a long time. 

Might because if he thinks about it, admits it, instead of just letting it happen, he won't be anymore. And maybe it's not fucking fun to remember, maybe the memories aren't good: listening to Steve breathing, to make sure Steve was breathing, still had a fucking heartbeat, and what this one meant, which one meant it was going to stop.

Those were all over the fucking place, Steve's heartbeats. And he remembers knowing it was bad but he's pretty fucking happy that looking back they didn't know how bad. 

How easily the wrong one could just fucking drop him, send Steve from standing to cooling corpse without warning, without hope of anything they could fucking do - they couldn't even fucking shock the heart without cutting you open until years after Steve was in the fucking ice. How fast everything could've fucking ended. 

Maybe that's not fun to remember but it's not bad, either. And it's over. Not a problem now. And no wheeze in the breath. Doesn't need to hear it to know that. 

Doesn't need to hear it to listen. 

Steve's right hand strokes over his head and the back of his neck, slides under the neck of his shirt to the skin and metal of his shoulders and back. Steve's got his left hand resting on Bucky's lower right arm, where it's resting on the futon along Steve's ribs.

The idiot kitten is a circle-point of warmth on his lower back. Steve's topmost ribs move just a little with each breath, against the side of Bucky's face. Lower ones move against the top of his. Covered in muscle and skin and the tracery web of veins and arteries that move warmth and life from lung to heart to everything else and back again. 

Bone, muscle, skin; skin, cloth, cloth, skin. If he thinks about that the noise might stay out, stay over there, stay the fuck away so he can stay here and listen to Steve's breathing and heart that he doesn't need to hear. Know that. Feel Steve touch him, like he says he wants to. Always says he wants to. 

And everything else can fuck off. Go away. He doesn't care. It doesn't matter. Doesn't care what it means, what it says, what it makes him, what he should, everything else can fuck off and he can stay here. 

Steve threads fingertips through his hair. Wants him here. He can just stay.)