Steve pads into the kitchen at seven-something, dressed in the jeans he slept in and with his hair tickling one ear where it's sleep-flattened. He deposits his shield in its spot by the door, in his line of sight along with his boots. He opens the cabinet above the oven to get a box of cereal, closes it, opens the one next to the fridge that actually contains cereal, and hits the button on the coffee pot to reheat what Sam already brewed. Then he goes to get the paper, which Sam never remembers because, “Look, Cap, you may be the only thing keeping print news alive and that is sad. Let it go, man. Doesn't do to hold on to the past.” Because Sam, Steve is figuring out, can be a real jerk when he wants to be.
Maybe it was just the ideal of the disciplined military man. Goodness knows, apart from the training program for Project Rebirth, Steve’s experience in the service never had much overlap with routine or order or neatly pressed dress uniforms. He likes to use it as an excuse, though, when Sam and Natasha both rib him about getting in a rut. Truth is, he just likes the consistency of getting up at the same time each morning, going for a run, eating peanut butter toast and eggs and fruit. He likes knowing what the shape of his day will look like when it isn't structured by missions that might go to hell at any moment.
He got out of the hospital, though, and can't seem to find that rhythm again. He moved into Sam’s place, because his apartment has been bugged and shot up and infiltrated a few more times than he can stand. Sam is also marginally less of a target than Steve is for the scattered remnants of Hydra/SHIELD. So in the mornings, he rattles around Sam’s space and forgets every day which cupboard has the cereal. He runs, or doesn't, and he goes to the support group meetings at the VA, or doesn't, and he leaves messages for Natasha in an online drop box she assures him is secure. (He never skips this one, because Natasha deserves better than Steve suddenly going radio silent for no good reason.)
It's been a couple months, by now, since it all went down. Months of Natasha answering reporters and generals and members of congress before she had enough. Months of Fury showing up in the apartment or a cafe or the library to make some dire announcement before he, too, says his graveside goodbyes and leaves. Months of Sam refusing to let Steve do anything more strenuous than research because, “You got gut shot, you mad bastard. I hurt just looking at you. And don't give me none of that super healing shit because you started that when you still had your liquid lunch getting pumped into you, I am not hearing it.”
It's been months and Steve isn't relaxed, he still sleeps with his shield by the bed and his clothes on, but he's maybe unwinding a little. He knows it's the calm before the storm, because eventually he and Sam are going to go looking for Bucky for real. For now, though, he's maybe willing to be lazy, just a little.
He's already bending to snatch up the paper as he opens the door, so the first thing he sees of the person standing on the stoop is his belt. It's such a silly thing, but he can see that it's much too large for the person wearing it. The tail hangs loose, even though it's been threaded through the first belt loop. There are old marks in the leather, where someone bigger habitually wore it. Steve looks up, stuck between picking up the paper he's reaching for and standing up politely. He cranes his head back and looks up into a face with a fifth-day beard surrounding a soft, slightly slack mouth.
Bucky nods, jerkily and just once. A lock of hair slips free from a loose ponytail. The mouth tightens into a twist, nothing like a smile and still so familiar. Bucky’s voice rasps when he finally adds, “Seems so.”
He drops the man from the bridge onto the shore. He's breathing and bleeding and one looks more likely to stop than the other. There's a chopper making low sweeps over the water, though, so someone will probably find him before he dies.
He goes to a safe house in the back room of a plumber’s near Arlington. Something about the name Arlington, when he sees it on signs, makes his face twist. He doesn't know why. It holds no particular meaning to him, beyond being part of his mental map of Places Targets Might Be. He does not go back to the bank vault, the room where they keep the machines and the medical equipment and the laser for his arm and-- He does not go back to the bank vault because it could be compromised. He goes to a safe house he knows about but has never been to.
The ground-in filth of the mission--sweat and concrete dust and blood--has combined with the river water to make a stinking mud. It works its way into the crevices between his toes and the backs of his knees and the bend of his neck. He kills the lone man working in the shop and hangs up the closed sign in the door and turns off the lights. Everywhere he touches, he leaves slick, brown finger smudges. Then he sits down in the back room, more office than apartment, and waits.
He wonders if the man he killed was the agent on duty. The mud dries on his skin. He wonders if there are no agents left alive to man the safe houses. Maybe they have all reverted to plumber’s offices and suburban homes and bank vaults, turned back to their original nature while no one was looking. The mud itches. He scratches at it, releasing a flurry of dirt crumbs. He waits. The sun sets and the sirens are still wailing their way into the city across the river. He waits.
Steve gets Bucky as far as the kitchen and stalls out. He wants to touch Bucky, check that he is whole and healthy and real. Nothing about Bucky invites touch right now, though, as he hunches on the far side of the kitchen island. The coffee continues to heat and fill the room with its aroma as they stand there at an impasse. “You hungry?” Steve asks at last.
Bucky’s jaw works like he's chewing on a possible answer. He looks like he hasn't seen a decent meal in the seventy years since Steve lost him. Did they feed him at all during that time? Steve read the files Natasha brought him on what Zola did. There isn't a lot on the cryo chamber; most of the notes focus on erasing memories and implanting orders. Bucky has muscles and strength that comes from more than just a mechanical arm, though, so maybe they gave him training? Exercise? Took him for walks on a leash?
Steve only realizes his hands have clenched into fists when Bucky takes a deep breath and turns his face away a little. He doesn't flinch, but he looks like he's getting ready for the blow to fall. Steve forces himself to relax, to let go of the thoughts of what was done to Bucky a decade ago, a year, yesterday. He's here today. “Because I gotta tell you, a fella could get used to modern markets. Not one thing rationed. Sam brought home a cherry pie last week, layer of sugar on the crust so thick it crunched.”
Bucky turns toward Steve again. His pupils are blown, eyes wide. “Could eat,” he blurts out, like Steve’s startled the answer out of him before it was ready.
“Okay,” Steve says, easy and slow. He turns his back reluctantly, not because he thinks Bucky will attack him, but because he thinks Bucky might disappear while he's not looking. He grabs a second bowl and gets Bucky started with cereal. He puts slices of bread on to toast and pulls juice and butter and jam from the fridge.
When he checks on Bucky again, he's stuck with the spoon gripped in his flesh hand tight enough to make the knuckles go white. He hasn't eaten a bite. “Not a fan of Choco Puffs?” He sits down on the other side of the kitchen island. “Me neither. Sam’s got awful taste.”
The toast goes over better, in a way. Steve sets down a plate stacked high with it and sets to buttering a slice. Bucky still has the spoon in a death grip, so Steve offers him the first slice, thin curls of butter still melting into it. Bucky’s metal hand shoots out and snatches it away before Steve knows what's happened. The metal scrapes against his hand hard enough to break the skin, for what little that matters to Steve right then. Bucky gets the whole slice into his mouth in one bite and swallows it after a couple perfunctory chews.
“Okay then,” Steve says. “Toast it is.” And he starts buttering the next slice, because the only thing that matters is that Bucky is here, now, and might stay as long as Steve has something he needs.
He waits for two days. During that time, he remembers someone saying, “He's been out of the ice too long,” and someone else saying, “Don't win the war before I get there.” He knows they don't go together but doesn't know why. There is no single fault line between “now” and “then,” between “before” and “after.” There are a hundred, a thousand, chopping up time and memories into isolated particles.
Three, maybe four days pass since his last set of orders. He comes out of the fugue state that left him frozen on a fold-out bed in a plumber’s office. He's filthy and it hurts to swallow and his eyes ache. He puts his head under the tap of a utility sink and alternates between gulping down water and scrubbing the muck from his hair and face.
He steals a set of coveralls from the supply closet and the shirt from the dead plumber/agent, who is beginning to stink. It's still an improvement. He knots the arms of the coveralls around his waist and pulls on the long-sleeved shirt. Some battered gloves from a tool box cover the last of the exposed metal. He decides that is enough to get by on and so he leaves the safe house behind at dawn.
His first trip into the city gives him:
- Another set of clothing, stolen from a backyard clothesline
- Bread from the dumpster behind a bakery, only slightly moldy
- The feeling of a thin, bony shoulder under his hand
- Thirty-five dollars and seventeen cents, liberated from four unattended bags and one clogged storm drain
- The numbers three-two-five-five-seven with absolutely no context
- The memory of Venezuela, 1983, with way more context than he wanted
- A bar of soap and safety razor from the bathroom of an unlocked house, because people keep shying away from him and he remembers slicked hair and a bottle of Bay Rum and flushes with shame he didn't know he still had
The second safe house is an actual house. There are MREs in the pantry and a drawer with a false bottom hiding extra clips for a gun he doesn't have. He eats five, suddenly, painfully hungry. Then he has to spend long minutes leaning against the kitchen counter as his stomach cramps and distends around too much food eaten too quickly.
He showers, letting cheap soap and scalding water strip grime that might be decades old. He remembers enough to know that is a possibility. The sunlight through the high-set privacy window catches on the falling water. For a moment, it looks like sparks and he is standing on a helicarrier and the man from the bridge is saying, “James Buchanan Barnes,” and bleeding from a bullet wound and a split lip and a black eye. The sunlight shifts, eventually, and he realizes the water is cold and the bar of soap is cracked in his palm.
He tries to shave. An agent always used to do it for him. For five missions in the early nineties, one particular agent had the job. The agent used to grab him by the hair, jerk his head back, and mime slitting his throat. His arms were fastened down and they had given him something that made all the lights too bright and his reflexes slow. Something black and magnetic froze his metal arm. So he just lay there, scalp aching and neck kinked, while the agent drew out every rasp of the blade against his skin.
The safety razor is just plastic. It doesn't really stand a chance.
Steve gets a text to Sam before he makes it back from his run. It's possible that, in his rush, Steve has made the situation sound more volatile than it is. (Seems to be? He's not inclined to take it for granted that Bucky isn't trying to strangle or knife or shoot him. Again.)
Sam comes into his own home with deliberately loud steps, and smooth, slow movements, and forced cheer. “If we’re having a slumber party, I'm gonna need to stock up on pizza and beer.” He shoots Steve a look that says he would prefer it to be tequila and more tequila.
“Buck, this is Sam.” He doesn't ask if Bucky remembers Sam. It might be better if he doesn't. “You mind if Bucky crashes here for a while?” Steve feels like he's in a play, in one of the USO shows again: saying lines by rote in a mockery of real life.
“Fine by me,” Sam says as he leans in the doorway of the guest bedroom. He's got his body pressed up against one side of it, leaving a clear path past him. “Try not to use up all the hot water in the morning, unlike Captain Sauna here.”
Bucky, seated on the edge of the bed, tips his head up to look at Steve without really taking his eyes off Sam. He’s visibly flagging, too exhausted to be as on-guard as he must want to be. His shoulder just barely brushes against Steve’s hip, a breath away from leaning full against him. It's very distracting.
“I've got a meeting at ten, then I'll do the shopping. You want anything special, better put it on the list.” Sam excuses himself to other parts of the house. He makes enough noise that Steve and Bucky can both track his movements and a bit of what he's doing.
Bucky’s eyes droop. His lashes cast shadows to deepen the dark circles under his eyes. When Steve fought him, Bucky felt huge and heavy and dangerous. Now, he looks small and frail and impossibly young. Steve has a brief moment of embarrassment as he wonders if this is how others saw him pre-serum. If so, he can't blame Bucky for never letting him go anywhere alone, for sometimes patching him up like he was china, liable to break again at the smallest touch.
“Think you can sleep?” Bucky startles at Steve's voice. “Easy, buddy. Just--just lie back and rest for a spell.” Bucky lets Steve manhandle him farther up the bed. His compliance worries Steve more than the murder attempts. Steve doesn't examine any of that too closely. He gets Bucky to put his head on a pillow, though his eyes are still trained on the doorway. He smiles on his way out and leaves the door open.
In the kitchen, Sam really is putting together a shopping list. He has the pen in his mouth, bouncing it up and down with twitches of his jaw. He shifts it to the side when Steve comes in. “So,” he says around it. “That was easier than I expected.”
Steve lowers himself down onto one of the bar stools at the island. His whole body aches with the pains of seventy missing years. “Easy isn't the word I would use.”
“Gonna get harder,” Sam replies as he writes down eggs and peanut butter and milk. “If he's staying.”
Steve scrubs his hands through his hair and then leaves them there, propping his head up. “He didn't exactly give me an itinerary. In fact, he's said four words so far. Is this--” He swallows down the word “normal,” because his nonagenarian best friend has a metal arm and a history of high-profile assassinations and probably at least as much of an aversion to ice as Steve has. Nothing here is normal.
“You've been to the meetings. Everybody's different. Steve, look.” Sam chews on the pen for a moment. “This isn't like somebody who goes to a weekly meeting and gets by okay and has trouble sleeping at night. This is--different. He’ll be a full-time job, if you take him on. He may kill us both in our sleep.”
“I can go, take Bucky with me, get a place--”
Sam spreads his hands out. “Did I ask you to do that? I'm not saying this so you'll clear out. I already told you, whatever the mission, I'm following you. You say you wanna rehabilitate the Winter Soldier, I'll back you up. But you need to understand.”
Steve traces a finger over the patterns in the countertop. “I did it once before. Sort of, anyway. After I got the 107th back from Hydra. Zola had done something to Bucky by then.” Sam hums, pen scratching across the paper. Steve’s told this story before, to Sam and, with some editing, to one of Sam’s support groups.
“Sometimes he was fine, his old self. We'd run missions and he'd have me covered no matter what. I trusted him with my life in the field.” Steve's hand itches with the urge to give a salute to someone watching over him from a cliff’s edge with a gun and a steady grip. “Sometimes, though, we'd be camped somewhere or at a base and he’d just. Fall apart. Those times, I couldn't even trust him with a fork.”
“What'd you do?” Sam idly doodles at the top of the shopping list. It’s easier to watch that, the nonsense swirl of ink, than to look right at him.
“I'd talk him down. Keep him from hurting himself or somebody else. We'd bunk together so I was there when--when sleeping didn't go so well. We were managing.” They were until they ran out of time. Steve told Sam about that, too, but it's the sort of story you tell once and never again.
“It's gonna be harder this time.” Sam, for all his jokes and easy grins, can be serious as a firing squad when he means to be. “Just realize that going in.”
When Steve returns to the guest room, Bucky isn't on the bed. He has a second to panic before he sees a boot on the other side of the bed. Bucky left the bed to curl up on the floor. He's tucked in a tight ball and his back is pressed against the nightstand. One eye stares up at Steve from the tangle of hair and arms.
“Oh, Buck.” Steve slides down the wall so he's not quite touching Bucky. Steve knuckles at his eyes and lets his head thump back. Bucky doesn't bridge the distance, but the damp heat of his breath warms Steve's leg where they're closest. It's the worst and best thing Steve's found in the modern world to date.
He shies away from a noisy pack of children. They stay just this side of running through the hallway between sections of the exhibit. Their teacher and chaperones make dismayed noises like anxious collies. He stays close to the wall where the lights of the displays don't quite reach. He lets the tour group move away from him, the docent talking over the recorded narrator.
He stands in front of the display that shows his face and a name he only knows from someone else. He can't stand to look at himself for long. It makes something squirm inside him. He can see his reflection in the glass and he looks nothing like that man and exactly like him. His eyes settle on the man from the bridge instead.
Steve Rogers looks the same and different too. The man on the bridge looked like he carried more weight, strapped to his back like the shield, than this smiling soldier. He focuses on the point where Barnes and Rogers touch, their arms slung around each other. The only memory he has of the man now is the feeling of his throat caught tight in the vise of his hand and of his cheek cracking under his knuckles. In the film, though, their bodies are a seamless whole, woven around and through each other.
He stays for a long time. Tour groups come and go, vying for space around him to see the exhibit. He leaves at closing time and comes back when it opens the next morning.
He moves on, eventually, to the rest of the exhibit. He stares at the faces of Peggy and Jim and Dum Dum and all the rest. He tries to force their faces to come alive in his head. His fragmented memories never come when he wants them to and the photographs sit still and lifeless in his mind.
He watches the films of Barnes and Rogers and tries to remember what happened before the first frame or after the last. What the cameraman looked like. Where they sat in the mess. Anything. He tries to find a place for himself in the spaces occupied by a man with his face. Barnes fills up the space, though, only ceding any to Rogers.
When he exhausts the exhibit’s potential, he goes to a library. Early morning on a weekday and there is a minimum of school children, at least. He gets a computer workstation where people probably won't walk behind him and where he can see the big sliding glass doors at the entrance.
He dismisses the comic books from the fifties and the propaganda films. He makes an involuntary grimace of disgust at the disparity between the man on the bridge and the primary-colored fool they try to pass off as the same man. He finds more pictures, though, photographs from the war years, passed from friends to family to archivists to fans. There are the USO days, before Rogers and Barnes were reunited, and there are the missions run after Barnes fell. Rogers before looks young and shy and embarrassed. Rogers after looks bereaved and hard and determined.
In between, Rogers looks in love. He studies the way Rogers leans against Barnes, the way his eyes linger on him, the way his slightly greater height lets him curl protectively around Barnes. None of the official documents say anything to support it. One of the interviews with Peggy implies she and Rogers had something going on, but she’s quite emphatic that Rogers brought her and her future husband together. The official stories seem to let that lie as well. Rogers, they imply, loved America and Truth and Justice and no one else.
Unofficially, he is not the only one to think the photographs tell another story. Rogers is not the only one with adoration in his eyes and hands that cling too hard and too long for propriety. He goes back to the exhibit, looks again. He thinks, maybe, he can see a little space, a lacuna where the official story doesn't quite meet the truth on the screen. He thinks, in that space, he can maybe see room for himself to be James Buchanan Barnes. Because Barnes loved Rogers and went to his death to prove it.
Now, Barnes will come back to life for him.
In the first light of the morning, Steve wakes with his chest tight, breath coming in ragged pants. Sam tells him this is anxiety, panic attacks, normal. Sam tells Steve a lot of terrible things are normal; Steve isn't sure he's grateful. Facing him on the bed, Bucky watches from under the hood of a sweatshirt. Neither of them seems to sleep for more than a couple hours at a time and never at the same time. They've been doing this for a week.
Steve's stomach turns over heavily at the sight of him. Bucky only sleeps in the bed with Steve when he's remembering more, when he mostly knows who Steve is. These aren't necessarily the good days. Remembering isn't always a success. The Winter Soldier days are almost restful by comparison. At worst, Bucky half-remembers the orders to kill Steve and makes a play for him. It hasn't gotten very far yet. Mostly, on those days, he's a puppet waiting to be played with. Steve picks him up off the floor in the closet, gets him to eat and sleep and piss--and sometimes he has to move Bucky’s body for him to get any of that done--and calls it a day.
Today, Bucky reaches out to touch his fingertips to Steve’s left eyebrow. “Raid. Fella in a blue dress.” Fragments and single word prompts are the best Steve ever gets verbally. He doesn't need more than that, in this case. When he grins, he feels Bucky’s fingers drag, warm and gentle, on his skin.
“Who'd believe us if we told ’em Captain America got arrested in a raid on a gay club?”
“Didn't,” Bucky corrects and if the anxiety crushed his chest before, the hope leaves it fit to explode.
“Didn't,” he agrees. “Just got a whack across the head with a billy club and had to have you drag me around the block. Blue dress was Sophia, remember? Nobody would have recognized shy little Charlie from the barber shop when he got dolled up.”
Bucky’s brow furrows. His thumb presses harder to Steve’s face, not hurting, just testing that the wound is really gone. “Told you, trouble.”
“Yeah, well, you could still get dames too. Where else was I gonna have a night on the town?”
Bucky could get anyone, back then. He kept up a good, visible reputation, just scamp enough to look like the real thing when he flirted with the girls. Everyone had looked at Steve, small and awkward and too respectful, and assumed anyway. So if he walked a few blocks toward the navy yard, toward the hotels and the clubs and the automats, he could have a night out, talk and watch and not be the odd man out for a while. If he filled sketchbooks with portraits of drag queens and boys in rouge, well, sometimes they bought them off him with some change and a kiss to the cheek. Sometimes he needed both those things.
“Did we ever?” Bucky looks so trusting, eyes wide and shining in the darkness of the hood, face tucked against the curve of his metal biceps. He will believe anything Steve tells him as the gospel truth. Sometimes, Steve wonders which one is more vulnerable, more ready to be given orders: the soldier or the little boy? “Were we?”
Steve has been waiting for the question. He's been trying to figure out the answer. Because they did and they didn't. They weren't exclusive before the war, but they came home to the same place and sometimes the same bed. During, well, they shared a bed for different reasons, but that didn't mean nothing else happened. They weren't sweethearts, but Steve doesn't know what they were. He wonders if they've invented a word yet, seventy years later.
What he knows is that he went to war for his country, but he fought for Bucky. “Yeah, Buck. We--yeah.”
Bucky shifts his hand so his index finger presses to Steve’s forehead, right between his eyes. “Had you in my sights.” This close, all Steve can see is the palm of his hand, little fingernail crescents pressed into the skin, and his muscle-corded wrist disappearing into a stretched-out sleeve cuff.
The pressure is firm enough to be uncomfortable. Steve resists the impulse to shift away. “You always had eyes on my six,” he says, deliberately misunderstanding. Most days, Bucky either remembers more of the war or more of being the Winter Soldier. Steve isn't going to assume he won't eventually shift between the two, though, so he braces himself for the possibility of an attack.
There's a couple long, terrible moments when Bucky’s breathing slows, nearly stops entirely. He goes still like he used to behind the sight of a rifle. Steve had told Sam he always trusted Bucky in the field, that the problems only came out during down time. Now he wonders if he had been naive all that time. He never felt like the sight was on him, even when it was, but he feels it now with no gun in the house.
Bucky takes a shuddering gasp of breath at last and launches himself off the far side of the bed. He gets his back pressed into the corner and one hand held defensively out in front of him. Steve doesn't follow, has learned by now that chasing does no good. The hood has slipped back from his face, so Bucky hides behind his long hair instead. Steve gives them both a moment to catch their breath before saying, “If we get started now, we can have breakfast ready when Sam leaves for his run. That should annoy him.”
There is only one thing that does not leave him disoriented as he tries to fit himself into the shape of Barnes: surveillance. That, at least, he knows in any lifetime. The familiarity of the routine helps. He remembers to eat before going out, so he does not get lightheaded as often. His body feels more like his own when he can put it through the paces of breaking into buildings and scaling walls and finding nests. He tries to think of the name Barnes as his, too, but is not as successful.
He misses when Rogers is discharged from the hospital. Barnes catches up to him at his apartment. Barnes chooses a different spot to watch from because the bullet holes and broken glass are all still there and Rogers looks at them, past them, too often. He looks like he expects to find someone there again. It's not time for that. Yet.
He watches Rogers pack up his belongings into boxes and bags. Barnes loses some time, then, trapped in another memory.
“You ain't got two thin dimes to rub together,” Bucky grumbled as he hefted another milk crate full of Steve’s belongings. “How'd you get so much junk saved up?”
Steve, plopped down in the middle of the floor of his single room, flapped a sheaf of drawings at Bucky. “Quit yer bellyaching, will ya? You're distracting me. ’Sides, this was your idea.” He closed the drawings into a folder and tied the cover shut.
“Not sure there'll be room for you any more,” Bucky said with his hip cocked to support the crate. This was the closest he'd gotten Steve to smiling since before the funeral. “Your stuff’s already claimed the spare room.”
“Guess we’ll have to bunk together,” Steve said absently. He didn't look up, so he didn't see the blush that crept over Bucky’s face. Grinning to himself, Bucky jogged down to the curb, where he’d left his folks’ car for moving day. It was overcast and the air smelled like smoke and brick and damp there and it was the best day Bucky’d had in a long while.
When he comes around again, filled with a sniper’s paranoia about the possibility of being snuck up on, Rogers has company. Another man has a duffle bag slung over his shoulder and uses his toe to poke at the broken glass on the floor. He's got a few small bandages on him, but his movements are loose and relaxed.
Barnes can't hear what is being said, but it makes Rogers laugh and then wince. He moves like everything hurts and puts a hand to his belly when he straightens up with a suitcase in one hand. The other man sweeps it out of his hand before he takes a step. They seem to be arguing, but it's halfhearted at best. Rogers looks like three miles of well-traveled road. The stitches in his cheek and temple look sloppy, too large, like someone did it in the field instead of a hospital.
Barnes wonders if Rogers can scar anyway. Barnes can’t. Not anymore.
He follows them to a small house that hasn't been on Barnes’ radar before this. Something in his brain latches onto the information--new safe house--and he spends four hours on a rooftop across the street trying to get the urge to go after Rogers under control. This is not your mission anymore, he tells himself. He doesn't believe it. Of course this is a mission. Do not engage, he tells himself instead and that finally gets through to him.
He carries that order around for weeks. Do not engage when Rogers goes for a run with the other man. Do not engage when Rogers slinks out of the VA building, hangdog and stooped like an old man. Do not engage when Rogers meets with Fury at a food truck.
(The sight of Fury makes Barnes lose the rest of the day. He eliminated that target. He did. He presses himself into a concealed corner where rooftop access meets a heating vent. He cowers there like a wounded animal and makes low, thin noises that he can't seem to control. He got his target. He got his target. He completed the mission. He was good.
He sleeps on the roof, shivering in the cold, because he hasn't got the strength to make it back to his own safe house anymore. Shame rushes through him in fever waves. He doesn't know if it's because he failed a mission or because he still cares about something like that.)
He tails Rogers whenever he goes outside, but he goes outside less and less frequently. His routine starts to take shape for a few days and then falls apart again. He's frustrating, as targets go. Most people can be counted on to follow routines with religious dedication and total obliviousness. In time, though, even his collapses start to have a rhythm to them. It's about then that Barnes decides it is time to engage.
“Hey, can I get a minute?” Sam asks from the living room doorway. He's got his arms crossed over his chest and no hint of a smile.
“Mind if I pause the movie?” Steve asks Bucky. They've been sacked out on the couch, watching films. Steve vets all of them before showing them to Bucky. It's disappointing to have to read spoilers ahead of time, but he can't just pop a DVD in and hope for the best. He's living on a minefield.
Bucky’s having a mixed day, so he seems to be comfortable around Steve but he doesn't talk. He looks at Steve, which is close enough to permission. Steve stands and grips Bucky’s shoulder. “Stay here until I get back, please. I won't be long.” Most days, Bucky does better if Steve gives him direct commands to follow. He's gotten better about taking care of himself, even on the bad days, as long as Steve tells him what's expected of him.
In the kitchen, Sam takes a swig of juice from the bottle. “Movie day?”
Steve scuffs his toe against the floorboards. He feels like a kid caught playing hooky. He's never had this much downtime at once in his life, unless he counted all the time he was sick. (That comparison just makes him feel worse.) “Figured Bucky’s got as much catching up to do as I do.”
Sam nods and caps the juice bottle. “’Cause it sort of seems like this has been movie week. And if that's working for you two, I'm okay with it. But I'm wondering what your battle plan is here.”
Steve glances over his shoulder so he can see the back of Bucky’s head. He sits stiffly when left alone, like he's waiting for orders to come in. Next to Steve, though, he starts to relax a little. Their shoulders press together and Steve can feel Bucky’s ribs expand with each breath. It's better than he ever hoped for and he's never going to be enough of a martyr to feel guilty for enjoying it. “We’re taking it slow.”
Sam looks like he swallows down the first five things he wants to say to that. Steve hopes they're all filthy jokes, but Sam’s expression doesn't really bear that out. “Yesterday, you ordered him to wait on the couch while you took the trash out.”
“You wanted me to, what, invite him along? I don't think he's ready to be out in the world again, Sam. I also had to order him to drink a glass of water with each meal yesterday.”
“You planning to keep him cooped up here forever?” He has this tone of voice that is, superficially, the same as what he uses on people at the support group. It's his “I ask only for information” voice. Only, when he uses it on Steve, it always sounds more like an “I am judging you so hard right now” voice.
“That's rich coming from you, mother hen.”
“Oh, really, we’re gonna get into the bird jokes now?” Steve shrugs philosophically. Sam rolls his eyes, but he's smiling now. “Yeah, okay, you get that there's a difference though, right? Between not letting him go with you to the corner store and not letting you raid any black ops bases while your internal organs were still getting unfucked?”
It's Steve's turn to swallow down all the quick, easy replies. Sam is trying to help. Sam knows a lot more about this than Steve does, in general at least. “You think it's time to make a push?”
“I think you won't know until you try. Don't get comfortable, Steve. If you're completely comfortable all the time, you might be doing something wrong.”
Steve tries to run with the metaphor of a battle plan, of making a push to claim territory from the enemy. When the enemy is Bucky’s brain, though, Steve has a hard time figuring out a plan of attack. He's barely left the house since Bucky arrived. Maybe it would do them both good to stretch their legs.
Barnes runs a hand over his face. There's just a little stubble coming in again. He managed to shave his beard off yesterday, because Steve ordered him to (asked, he said please, it's called asking) and because Steve showed him how the electric shaver worked differently than other kinds. That wiped him out for the day, but Steve said that was okay. He planned on it. Tonight, they're going for a walk.
The other man brought Barnes clothing that fits right. “You look like a new man,” Steve said while they both looked into the mirror. Steve ran a hand through Barnes’ hair, gently and slowly and with enough time for Barnes to dodge if he wanted to. “Gonna hafta do something about this eventually.”
Now Barnes stands in the entryway while Steve pats down his pockets for keys and phone for the third time. The other man hovers in the doorway. Barnes can feel the nervous energy rolling off both of them. “Be back by eleven,” the other man says.
Steve frowns. “It's...eleven-oh-five now?”
“Joke. I'll explain later. Wait, you mean you don't know what a curfew is?”
“See you later, Sam,” Steve says firmly. He puts a hand on Barnes’ elbow and leads him out the door.
Steve slides his hand down to twine with Barnes’ as they hit the sidewalk. This late, the streets still aren't deserted, but they definitely have a buffer zone around them. “Let me know if you need to stop or head back.” He uses the gentle grip to guide Barnes up the street. A little way in the distance, there's a playground (deep sand footing limits speed, poor cover options, high civilian presence enough) connected to a park (overhead cover, possibility of a nest, low light conditions stand down).
They pass others with a wide berth. Steve leads them up onto grass medians and down into gutters and puts himself between Barnes and other people. Barnes tells himself he used to do this. Not after. He was never meant to be a spy for them, built to be invisible but not subtle. Before, though, there were farmhouses in the French countryside. There were Hydra bases with too many defenses on the front gate to just brute force their way in. He used to do this, speak half a dozen languages and put on a suitable face and pick up the local customs without trying. He can do it again. He can infiltrate humanity.
They reach the playground and Barnes exhales the breath he's been holding. No one plays on the equipment just then, one swing moving enough to suggest it was abandoned recently. Steve stops them at the edge of the sand area, near the swings. “Would you like to sit?”
Barnes has a flash of nights out, sometimes with Steve and sometimes with one dame or another. He'd stop at a park bench and ask the same kind of question. He'd stop at the mouth of an alley and ask a different one that really meant the same thing. He blinks himself back to the present. Steve is still looking at him, waiting, so he shakes his head.
They keep going into the tree-lined paths of the park. The path winds a bit and it's easy to forget there's anything outside of them. He's been in true forests, old and tall and wild, and this clean, planned imitation shouldn't throw him off. In the dark, though, with Steve matching his sometimes halting pace, Barnes forgets and remembers.
They've been marching--as though a ragtag band of walking wounded and a commandeered tank could be described as “marching”--for days. Bucky knows he should be exhausted. He is. Except that his body keeps telling him, you can go farther still. Like his mind is the only one that remembers what rest is, what it's good for. He can't sleep, even when they camp, and no one trusts him to keep watch.
The fog rolls in before full dark. It's unfamiliar territory, so rather than blunder on, Steve calls for them to stop for the night. Forty-eight hours since meeting him and no real title to his name, all the soldiers follow his orders without a word of protest. No one’s tried to pull rank on him. Bucky tries to imagine it. Steve might even let them get away with it, if he thought they'd do a better job.
Falsworth and Dernier bicker over the cook fire until Morita starts throwing actual rocks at them and gets everyone else to join in. The light spirits flag fast--the damp, the isolation, the fear gets to all of them. Steve keeps to the edges of the action, not quite letting himself be part of the group. Bucky catches his eye and eases himself away as well, into the cover of nearby trees and drifting shreds of mist.
They can't go too far because there's a real danger of losing sight of the camp in the fog. Still, Bucky ducks around behind a tree, sets his back to it, and they might as well be in another country. (Between the endless forest and Hitler’s fondness for redrawing maps, Bucky doesn't actually know what country they have been in.)
Steve's face is drawn but he smiles when Bucky tangles a hand in the edge of his jacket and reels him in. The fabric is damp and cool, but Steve’s body radiates heat where he presses Bucky back into the tree trunk. “Hey, soldier,” Bucky drawls. “I tell you yet what a sight for sore eyes you are?”
“Don't know how you'd recognize me anymore,” Steve says. It is novel to have him leaning down over Bucky, one forearm braced against the tree over Bucky’s head.
Still holding onto the jacket, Bucky slides his other hand into Steve’s hair and pulls him down until his breath is heating Bucky’s lips. “I'll always know you, punk.” Bucky catches the plush curve of Steve's lower lip with his teeth. His mouth and throat still ache, screamed raw and bitten bloody during his time on that lab bench. Every sweep of Steve’s tongue leaves behind a stripe of not-pain, like a balm to a burn.
He opens his eyes when they pull apart and is surprised to see the fog has lifted. The trees look smaller, now that he can see them clearly. Steve still has him crowded against one, but Bucky’s got his hand around a fistful of gray sweatshirt, not tan jacket. Steve's hair is shorter than it should be and Bucky’s, the ends brushing against the hand Steve has cupped against his cheek, is too long. The Commandos aren't going to be camped out behind him. There is no abandoned farmhouse with a cellar full of preserves to look forward to tomorrow.
It all swamps him in one wave--the friends he lost, the time, the choices. He doesn't remember anything more than he already had, but suddenly that's too much. He thrashes against Steve and even he--Bucky, Barnes, the asset, a dead man--can't say if he's pulling Steve closer or pushing him away.
“Buck, no, it's okay. I remember, too, it's fine.” His hands clamp around Bucky’s arms, digging into the meat of one and clanging hollow against the other. “We were in Italy, in ’43, but now we’re in DC in 2014.” Steve's voice rumbles low and urgent in his ear and he's been here before, his captain, his friend, whispering plans to him in the dark.
“We’re three blocks from Sam’s home and we’re gonna go back there and put on a movie and eat popcorn. We’re gonna do whatever you want, Bucky, whatever you need, come on,” Steve pleads.
Bucky can't bear the street lights and the sound of a radio in a second story window and the smell of fresh tar from a road repair site. He pushes his face into the wide planes of Steve's chest. His arms curl around Steve under the sweatshirt. He gets himself burrowed deep until the only thing he can see or hear or smell or feel is Steve.
Steve's practically holding him up, sparing a hand for just a minute to flip the hoods on both their sweatshirts. In the dark, Bucky’s breath echoes and bounces back to warm his face. Steve's voice, muffled like they're separated by water, says, “We’re gonna be just fine. I promise. Gonna be fine.” He keeps up the litany until Bucky can stand to pull away.
When they get back to the house, the other man has a movie already going and a half-eaten bowl of popcorn in his lap on the couch. He looks them over from his seat. “Any casualties?”
Steve’s arm, curled around Bucky’s waist the whole walk home, clutches tighter. “Saw some action, but no, no casualties.”
The other man nods. “Well, okay then.”
Bucky improves more and faster after that. They venture out more often and farther from home. Steve tells stories about places unlike wherever they go so Bucky can't get lost in the overlap again. He has more talking days and offers stories without prompting sometimes. He hasn't tried to kill Steve in over a month. Even on the bad days, he can clean and dress and feed himself, so long as Steve stays close by.
The trade-off is that the nightmares get worse. Even Sam starts to look a little rough around the edges from waking up to screaming. The stories Bucky tells aren't always ones Steve wanted to hear. He knows more about political assassinations of the late twentieth century than he ever wanted to, both in terms of motivation and in terms of what dead world leaders look like when they're lying at Bucky’s feet. Bucky smashes the mirror in the bathroom. Twice. In one day.
Then there are the sudden opinions. They rise and fall like monuments and fast-growing weeds in the fields of Bucky’s previous indifference. He refuses to wear anything but jeans and sandals for a week (no, no shirt included in that), decides he actually does like Choco Puffs, and keeps switching the television to eighties cartoons when Steve isn't paying attention. He won't let Steve trim his hair and the look he gives makes Steve stop offering. The preferences don't seem to have anything to do with what he's remembering. (Bucky claims he wasn't awake for the eighties and Steve almost cries when he realizes that was a joke.)
He tells Natasha all of this when she meets him on the patio of a French restaurant after a two-month absence. Her hair is blonde now and shorter, like when they first met. “Where have you been, then?” Steve asks as he pulls out a chair for her.
“Taiwan.” Natasha snaps off an order to the waiter in something that is definitely not French.
“How'd that go?” Steve flicks a finger against a small, mean-looking fork, one of about five arranged around his plate. The restaurant was Natasha’s pick.
“I behaved very badly,” Natasha says as she spreads a napkin in her lap. “How's your boyfriend?”
It takes three courses to finish updating her. Over some kind of cheese with fig jam, Steve says, “I just want him to be himself again.”
Natasha cocks her head. “What does that mean?” The move on some other person might look puppyish. On Natasha, it looks like the regard of a bird of prey.
“If I could just--just get rid of all the stuff he remembers doing for Zola and Pierce.” He bends one of the tiny pieces of cutlery in a haze of thwarted rage. He can't make either man pay any more than they have for those decades. “It wasn't really him. There's no reason for him to remember all that. I just want him to remember being Bucky.”
Natasha takes a sip of wine. “Well, that should be easy,” she says lightly and with narrowed eyes. Steve stays silent because she does not look happy and this is probably a very painful trap he has walked into. “We might have to steal the machines back from the CIA--I think they cleared out that base--but we've got the field notes. We could probably reprogram him ourselves.” She says it as casually as if she were suggesting they could probably make new curtains for the guest bedroom instead of buying them.
Steve can't speak for a moment until the bile in his throat recedes. “Don't--how can you even suggest that?”
“I didn't. You did.” Natasha makes her eyes go just a little wider, a parody of innocence. She spreads Brie on a wedge of bread with a tiny, dull knife she could certainly kill him with.
“No, Steve.” She sets the knife down on the plate with a slight clatter, the only sign she might not be perfectly calm. “You think his memories are inconvenient? You think you know best who he should be going forward? Fine. Own it. There's plenty of precedent for treating him like that.” She rises in a fluid swirl of motion and pulls her jacket from the back of the chair.
“You're leaving?” Steve half stands, not sure if he's just being polite or planning to waylay her.
“Yes. I am very angry with you now and I have to go away until I no longer feel the urge to strangle you in public.”
She apparently pays the check on her way out, though, instead of sticking him with the outlandish bill. He takes that, if not as forgiveness, then at least as a promise that a second chance will come for him. He wonders how many more one man can get.
When the nightmare comes, Bucky is resting against the headboard with his eyes closed. He's not asleep; he hasn't quite learned how not to keep watch when Steve sleeps. He's relaxed, though, and maybe not paying as much attention as he could be. If he'd been focused, he would have seen the moment when Steve’s breath turned shallow and panicky, when his muscles locked up hard in a fight only Steve could see.
What he does notice is when Steve gives one fierce thrash, like he's been kicked in the ribs. Bucky leans forward, his metal hand hovering just shy of touching. He licks his lips and wills his voice to come. “Steve? Wake up.”
This only makes it worse. Steve whimpers. A sheen of sweat stands out on his face and arms. “Stevie, hey, wake up,” Bucky repeats. He doesn't think about what it means that the words come easier when he thinks Steve doesn't hear him.
Steve’s arm lashes out, reaching up to his shoulder like he's going for the shield. He connects with Bucky’s outstretched hand first and grips just above the wrist. With a yank that catches Bucky off balance, Steve sends him sprawling across Steve’s lap. Bucky lands heavily and his weight drives the air from Steve with something like a scream.
They're both still for a moment. Steve says his name, but Bucky can't answer. He has to concentrate on not panicking, on not countering something that wasn't really an attack. Steve’s chest rises and falls under Bucky and his hand is still holding Bucky’s arm.
Before Bucky is ready, Steve gets an arm under him and just about flings him off. “Sorry, jeez, I'm sorry,” Steve mutters. He twists away from where Bucky lies sprawled, frozen in confused fear. Steve sits on the edge of the bed, his back to Bucky, and just keeps apologizing. His breath gets more ragged with each one.
When Bucky has himself under control again, he inches forward on hands and knees. Steve flinches at the first touch of Bucky’s hand on his shoulder, but then he leans into it before Bucky can jerk away again. That's good. Bucky likes it when Steve holds him after a bad moment, likes how he can concentrate all his senses on one thing that’s safe. So Bucky slides his legs forward until they bracket Steve's hips and curls his arms around wide shoulders.
Steve’s skin feels clammy, even through his paper-thin shirt. Bucky noses at the damp spikes of hair at the base of Steve’s neck and shifts his arms until he's got a hand flat over Steve's heart. Movements jerky, Steve turns his head to plant a shuddering kiss on Bucky’s arm. “Did I hurt you?”
Bucky lets Steve feel him shake his head. “Bad dream?” Steve always asks Bucky what's wrong. Sometimes, it's just frustrating, because it's nothing and everything and can't be fixed. Most times, though, Bucky can tell or show him that it's a commercial on the television with an explosion. Or the way the light is reflecting off a glass like sunlight on a scope, revealing his position to enemy snipers. Or that Steve's pickled eggs smell like beets, which reminds him of borscht, which reminds him of Soviet Russian winters and the color red. And whatever it is, Steve fixes it. Bucky never has to ask twice or explain or beg.
“Nothing I haven't seen before,” Steve answers. Steve traces his fingers up and down Bucky’s arms, making no distinction between flesh and metal. Someday, Bucky will have to explain to him that it feels good, almost too much. The arm was made to give him enough sensitivity to modulate use of strength and to give fine motor control, but it doesn't work like a normal arm. It wasn't meant to be stroked and Bucky can't get enough of the not-quite-there feeling.
Steve huffs an ugly, unhappy laugh. “Come on. Since when you do wanna talk about feelings?” He shifts in Bucky’s grip, pulling away. “Not like you to go sappy on me.”
Bucky recoils, retreats to his side of the bed. The words were said casually, but they buzz around his head with stinging force. He knows he's getting details wrong. He can't remember everything and even what he does sometimes sits wrong in his skin. He's trying though. He's trying so hard to be the man Steve loved and lost and he can't deal with knowing he's getting it wrong. He can't deal with being an imitation Bucky Barnes.
He registers the shift of weight leaving the bed and the light in the bathroom going on just outside the door. He rolls over and balls himself up, suddenly cold. He goes to sleep because he's allowed to sleep when Steve is awake. He can do that right.
A couple days after the nightmare incident, Sam basically throws them out of the house for the morning. “If I see either of your sorry faces in here before noon, I'll whup you both. You think I'm a nice guy, but I ain't kidding.” Steve regrets refusing to go to the support group yesterday. Sam offered to keep an eye on Bucky and seems to have taken it as a personal slight that he wasn't allowed to babysit.
Bucky tugs him to a stop outside a diner. They had breakfast at the house, but Steve knows they can both always eat more. “Hungry?” Bucky doesn't answer, won't even look at Steve. He's been quieter lately. One hour, he’ll shy away from even incidental touches. The next, he’ll have Steve pinned to the couch with dead weight and his face buried against Steve's abs. Steve bites back a sigh and ushers him inside.
They convince the waitress to give them a table well away from the rest of her customers. They make just enough human noise to make this good practice for Bucky without being overwhelming. Steve orders a carafe of coffee because they have too many years of chicory to make up for.
Steve used to save up his nickels for a meal at Horn & Hardart. He and Bucky would pool their money, and if Bucky contributed a whole lot more than Steve, neither of them thought about it too hard. Steve would push his tray down the railing and pass by all the stuff he wanted most, the turkey dinners and meat loaves and green beans. Bucky would stop and feed coins into the slot, grab a bowl or plate from behind the glass door, and plunk it down on Steve’s tray.
Steve would finally leave the line to find a table before Bucky could waste any more money on more food than Steve could eat. Bucky would snag a newspaper from somebody on their way out and toss it and himself down across from Steve. Steve would kick Bucky in the shins under the table and threaten to stab him with a fork if he made a move for another bite from Steve’s slice of pie.
In the diner, Steve taps his foot against Bucky’s leg under the table. He gives a nervous start. Steve ducks his head and smiles, does it again. Bucky shifts his leg to tap back. Their waitress, when she comes back, gives them a knowing but indulgent look.
Steve orders for both of them. Bucky hasn't even deigned to talk to Sam yet and Sam is the person he sees most frequently after Steve himself. He doesn't seem willing to even speak in front of Sam, going quiet around him on otherwise talkative days. Steve gets them both breakfast platters, three plates apiece with every kind of meat and starch they could choke down, all of it slathered in butter.
“Scrambled for both,” Steve says when the waitress asks how they take their eggs. It used to be the only way they could afford to eat them, stretched thin with milk. Old habits die hard.
“Over easy,” Bucky corrects. He says it to Steve, but the waitress notes it down, unaware of the monumental thing that has just happened. Bucky catches Steve staring at him and gives a not-smile, that bitter twist of his mouth.
“Acquired a more discerning palate?” The Brooklyn seeps into Steve's voice more at times like this. He wants so badly for Bucky to remember the past, but sometimes it's Steve who turns into his old self. Seventy years fall away and he's a skinny punk with a smart mouth that gets bloodied more often than is probably good.
Bucky looks honest-to-god apologetic, like Steve might yell at or hit him because he gave the wrong answer. What Steve actually wants to do is cry, because this is his best friend and he doesn't even know how Bucky likes eggs any more. He thinks of Natasha, though, who would tell him he's being a selfish brat by making this about his own problems. Except she'd probably do it in Russian, so he wouldn't know what she said, just understand the weight of her disapproval.
“That's good,” Steve says, because he can be an adult about this. He has to be fine no matter what. He tries to come up with something, anything, that won't sound patronizing rather than encouraging. “Maybe I should try them that way sometime too. New can be good.”
When they get their food, Bucky waits for the waitress to leave before using a fork to separate one egg from the raft of them occupying half a plate. Wordlessly, he pushes his plate closer to Steve's. He waits until Steve clears a little space next to his hash browns then shovels over the wobbly egg.
“Hey, thanks.” Bucky ducks his head, but it looks bashful and a little pleased rather than scared. When Bucky manages to wolf down all his food even faster than Steve can, Steve forks a syrup-sodden flapjack onto Bucky’s empty plate. He probably shouldn't find it endearing when Bucky tears into it with his fingers--his manners are terrible--but he does.
Bucky lets out a gusty sigh against the side of Steve's neck. It was a good day. They went to the VA for one of the other man’s--Sam’s--meetings. They didn't stay. Sam said it might be too much. Steve talked to people before and after, though, and in between, he and Bucky sat out by the curb and ate a whole bag of candy. One of Steve’s friends, a gal Bucky works hard not to recognize from some other time, dropped it by. Vintage, she had called it.
Now they're in bed with just the table lamp on and Steve propped up by all the pillows so he can read. He's working through a series of books for kids, something about wizards. He keeps pausing to tell Bucky about another swell bit. Bucky uses Steve as a pillow and listens without really hearing.
He waits until Steve gets to the end of a chapter, then he presses a lingering kiss to the sharp point of Steve’s jaw. Steve marks his place in the book with a finger and turns to meet Bucky for another slow flurry of kisses. They get deeper but not hurried. There's time enough to appreciate the slick sweep of their lips against each other and the flex of Steve's muscles where Bucky’s hand strokes over his belly.
Steve smiles, sweet and sleepy, and Bucky’s not sure, but he think he manages to smile back. Steve slides his cheek against Bucky’s and the rasp of stubble against Steve’s smooth skin makes them both shiver. “Never thought you'd be willing to go this slow,” Steve murmurs.
Bucky freezes. His hand spasms and gets a fistful of shirt. He can do this, he tells himself. New information, change tactics. It's easy, like fighting, to swing a leg over Steve and plant a hand on either side of his face. Steve reaches up automatically to clutch at Bucky’s hips. The book falls to the floor with a thump. Bucky remembers this, from their cheap one-rooms and canvas tents, and if it isn't what he wants to do, at least he knows how.
He keeps himself braced with one hand and uses the other, the metal one, to push Steve’s shirt up and out of the way. He ignores how Steve winces away from the cold metal, focuses on tracing the swell and hollow of muscles. The next kiss leaves bruises.
Steve twists his face away to gasp, “Easy, Buck. Hell, I wasn't complaining.” His pupils are blown and his fingers dig into Bucky’s hips, but he still looks disappointed.
Bucky can't hold back the whine of frustration. He shoves Steve's shoulders hard enough to make him bounce on the bed as Bucky leaves. He gets everything wrong. He's trying to be that man, the one Steve loved, the one who had friends and work and a smile that came fast and easy. He’s trying to be the man who was happy and brave and alive. Every time he thinks he's getting it right, though, it turns out that's not who Barnes was, not what he did. Or worse, it is, but Steve now wants him to be someone else. Barnes, but better. He doesn't know who the hell that man is.
Steve scrambles off the bed after him. The touch of his hand on Bucky’s shoulder is infuriatingly gentle. “If you're not comfortable, we don't have to do this,” Steve says. It sounds like the start of a longer speech, like he's actually going to make Bucky sit through a lecture about how he doesn't have to put up with kissing Steve.
“Don't need ya to mollycoddle me!” He twists away and his hand comes up to slap Steve's away. The metal arm connects with bone-jarring force and Steve takes a step back.
“I'm not trying to, Jesus, I just don't want to make you do anything--”
“I wish you would,” Bucky screams. Quieter, more desperately, he adds, “Just tell me what you want me to do. Who am I supposed to be?”
Revulsion contorts Steve's face even as he puts a hand to his mouth to hide it. “Don't ask me to do that.” His shoulders tremble and Bucky wants to go to him, to cling and comfort. He also wants to shove and shout, because he doesn't know if he's supposed to comfort Steve, if he's allowed to want to, and he's sick of not knowing.
The sound of footsteps comes up behind Bucky. From the edge of the doorway, Sam says, “Do I need to call in reinforcements? And if so, should it be bomb squad, haz-mat, or EMTs?” When Bucky shoulders his way past, Sam doesn't try to stop him.
Steve can't get enough air in his lungs. It hasn't been this bad since before the serum cured him of asthma, but he hasn't forgotten the whine of air trying to get through his closed-off throat or the way dark blobs start to ooze across his vision.
The front door closes and Steve tries to lurch through the house to follow Bucky. He's never left before, not even on the worst days. Steve can't lose him again, he just can't.
Strong hands shove him down to the bed. “Stay. I'll handle Barnes.” Sam shouldn't be able to push him around like that, but Steve hasn't got the strength to resist.
When the door opens again and he hears footsteps inside, he thinks it's Sam or Bucky or both. The steps have the click of heels, though, and Steve isn't surprised when Natasha strolls into the bedroom. She stops in front of where he's been staring blindly for who knows how long. With a sigh, she says, “This is what happens when I leave you boys alone?”
Steve gives her a watery smile. She lowers herself to the bed next to him. She taps her fingers together for a second, the closest he's seen her come to fidgeting. “That might have been my mistake. I didn't think you needed my help.”
“I don't know what I need,” Steve says and can't stop it from becoming a gasp, a sob. Doubled over on himself, he chokes out, “I tried to be okay. I know he needs me to be okay. But I can't do it.” He doesn't even know if she can hear or understand what he's saying. He keeps going anyway.
“I give him orders and I feel like I'm no better than they were. I let him do what he wants and sometimes I don't recognize him anymore. I barely know who I'm supposed to be some days. How can I tell him that I thought finding him would mean finding myself too?”
The hand that curls around the back of his neck startles him. She tugs and he goes willingly to collapse into her lap. “You always want to save everyone,” she says as she cards her fingers through his hair. “Didn't anyone ever save you instead?”
That drags another sob out of Steve. The denim of her jeans burns against his damp cheek when he nods. “Bucky. It was always Bucky.”
She gives his hair a mean little tug. “So why won't you let him now?” She does it again when he tries to move away from her. “Don't test my patience, Steve. I won't baby you like Sam does.”
“Bucky doesn't need that kind of pressure right now.”
Natasha huffs and Steve swears he can hear her roll her eyes. Her fingers go back to stroking, at least. “I have been through terrible missions. When extraction is late or lost or dead. When I'm bleeding out and my partner’s gotten his legs broken again.”
“You should give a class on motivational speaking,” Steve mumbles.
“Do you know,” she continues as though he had not spoken, “what I do then? When we have to walk to the rendezvous point with blood loss and broken legs? Do you think we keep our distance and drag ourselves there on our own power?”
“No, ma’am,” Steve says when she doesn't go on right away.
“We use each other as crutches. We each drag the other one.” She grabs his hair like she's really going to hurt him this time. All she does is give him a little shake. He wonders who the hell taught her this kind of bedside manner and if they survived the experience. “For God’s sake, Steve, you're both wounded. Let him take a little weight for once.”
Bucky storms out of the house and down to the street. Then he stops. He doesn't know where to go. He hasn't been out on his own since he came to Steve. Since he started trying to be Bucky Barnes, whoever that is. Snarling under his breath, he turns at random and starts walking. He doesn't need Steve to lead him by the hand everywhere. He's fine on his own.
The fact that he ends up at the park they keep visiting puts the lie to that idea. If his memories haven't all come back, his programming has, at least, well and truly left him. Which means that, if he isn't with Steve, he doesn't know what to do or where to go. There is no mission to complete and there is no safe house to retreat to. His life is wherever Steve is.
Sam jogs up to him while Bucky’s sitting on a swing and idly pushing himself back and forth. He doesn't like to hold still; he likes to prove to himself that he isn't strapped down and can move whenever he wants to.
Sam sits down in the swing next to him, making the framework shake a bit. He's out of breath when he says, “Fucking super soldiers, man. A guy could get an inferiority complex.”
Bucky doesn't say anything. He's not sure he can. The VA meeting had been tiring, even though he didn't talk to anyone but Steve. Having to shout on top of that--he may have used up all his words for the week. It feels like there's a cap on how many he gets before he has to stop, before he's left with only looks and touches to make himself understood.
“I told Steve you couldn't be saved,” Sam says conversationally. Bucky glances over and gives him a raised eyebrow. Sam smirks. “Hey, I get paid to tell people uncomfortable truths. I'm damn good at this. He didn't listen to me, anyway.
“Before this shit went down, I asked him what makes him happy. Didn't have a clue. But you know, when it was over, when there was no mission and not one damn person to give him orders, you know what he did? He decided to go after you. Wouldn't do anything else.”
Bucky hadn't known that. He had thought--well, Steve seemed to be laying low before Bucky showed up. He wasn't doing anything in particular. If Fury or the woman brought him intel, possible targets, he didn't take them. Bucky had thought Steve had given up.
Sam watches Bucky until he returns the gaze. “Yeah. He decided on that when he knew damn well you didn't have a clue who you were, when you were somebody’s kill order on legs. So when you think he wants you to be someone else, when you think he isn't over the moon to have you back just as you are? Well, all I can say is, you two dumbasses deserve each other.”
Bucky wants to answer. He wants to protest or agree or beg for more of Sam’s insights into Steve. His jaw just clenches tighter the more he thinks of the words he wants to say. The chain of the swing creaks in his flesh hand. In his metal one, it squeals, the links collapsing in on themselves. He makes himself let go before he breaks it and dumps himself in the sand.
“Yeah, thought we might have this problem,” Sam says. “Here.” He thrusts a pad of paper and a chewed-on pen at Bucky. The tension rushes out of Bucky’s shoulders. It takes a couple tries and he has to scratch out and rewrite the words that come out in Cyrillic, but he gets out what he needs to.
Sam accepts the paper and squints at it in the dim lights around the playground. “’He gave me my name back. He made me a person again. I wanted to be the man he lost.’ Naw, man, don't do that. Don't make him your god.” Bucky grabs for the paper again and he's afraid Sam will withhold it, but he gives it up immediately. “Okay, okay, yell at me about it, knock yourself out.”
Bucky scratches out another message, faster and messier, and shoves it back at Sam. ’He used to love me. I used to be a person worth loving.’ Sam scrubs a hand over his face when he reads that. He hands the paper back to Bucky, but Bucky doesn't have anything more to say. That's it, right there.
It takes a while for Sam to respond. When he does, he twists the swing around to face Bucky. His scrutiny is more intimidating than Bucky would have guessed. After all, Bucky took him down pretty easily before, though he hasn't mentioned to anyone that he remembers that too. “He loved you back then,” Sam agrees. “He also loved you when you were shooting him in the back, which was, you know, pretty nasty. He doesn't really know you anymore, though.
“But if you think finding out is going to make him stop now? If you think knowing you don't take your coffee the way he thought you did is enough to make him run out?” Sam shrugs, his expression helpless and fond. “I don't know, man, have you actually met the guy? He's about as determined as a pitbull with puppies.”
Sam stands up, then, and offers his hand to Bucky to pull him up as well. “And buddy, you? You are still never gonna be scary enough to beat that. And you are a scary-ass motherfucker sometimes.”
“--can't decide and do it too.”
Steve wakes up groggy and cotton-mouthed. His body feels wrung out and he lets himself just drift for a moment. He's ended up face-down on the couch instead of the bed. He honestly doesn't remember if that was his doing or Natasha’s. He definitely doesn't remember Bucky getting home. Nonetheless, one of Steve's arms has been arranged to drape over Bucky’s shoulder while he sits on the floor next to the couch.
Bucky squirms a bit when he says, “Like hiding my face against you.” His voice is soft, not quite talking to Steve but more than talking to himself. “Don't want to cut my hair yet.”
Steve flexes his arm in warning before he shifts forward. He rubs his face against the back of Bucky’s neck and the soft fall of hair. “It's pretty cute when you tie it back,” he admits.
Bucky falls silent. Steve suspects this is not the first time Bucky has talked at Steve while he slept. He can't help smiling when he sees red creep up the back of Bucky’s neck. He presses a kiss there and murmurs, “Hey,” against his skin.
“Hey,” Bucky echoes. He scoots around until he's facing Steve enough to lean in close. He doesn't close the distance, though, just waits there until Steve meets him for a chaste kiss. When they part, he offers a sheet of paper to Steve.
Steve makes an inquiring noise even as he starts to read. Bucky must have been reading off the sheet, because it's a list of all he said and more. He doesn't want to cut his hair. He needs instructions sometimes because he can't always decide what to do and still have the energy to do it. He likes going to the park and to diners for pancakes, but hates the mall and doing laundry. He wants to be called Bucky but he can't stand being told how he used to be different.
It's a compendium of Bucky-as-he-is. His preferences and his needs and his triggers. It's raw, scribbled over in places and switching to other languages. Half the entries look unfinished, tapering off in the middle of phrases or words like Bucky just couldn't take the time to complete a thought before moving on to the next. Steve smoothes his thumb across the chicken scratch. “Sam make you do this?”
Bucky nods and pulls such an exaggerated expression of horror and disdain that Steve can't help laughing. “Yeah. He's pretty big on this sort of thing. You should see him at the meetings.”
“Okay,” Bucky says. He hides behind his hair for a second then looks up at Steve with a determined air. “Can try. Need help.”
Steve pulls Bucky into a hug. It's awkward and perfect, Steve curled around him sideways and trying not to fall off the couch entirely. “I'm not doing so good, Buck.” It's easier to admit with his face buried against Bucky’s neck. He can see why Bucky likes this sort of thing.
“I'm gonna need help too. I lost my best friend, you know? I lost a lot of stuff.” He can feel Bucky freeze up a little, stiff and unsure where he had been melted into the hug. “But I met this swell guy a few months ago and I think we might be going steady. Haven't asked yet though.”
Bucky laughs at that, a rough rattle of noise that makes his shoulders shake. He gives Steve a push and it's enough to finally have him sliding off the couch to crumple on the floor with Bucky. Steve laughs too, but it dies out when Bucky cups his hands around Steve’s face. “Ask.”
“Be my fella?” He touches his nose to Bucky’s. “I know all the best diners between here and the VA.” Bucky’s answer is a kiss that leaves Steve’s ears buzzing.
The sound of a throat being cleared very loudly startles them both. When Steve and Bucky both kneel up to see over the back of the couch, Sam grins like he personally cheated God out of his last dollar. “I've got breakfast, if you're both done being saps.”
Steve rolls to his feet and hauls Bucky up after him. “I thought you were all about feelings, Sam.”
“Naw, man, I'm all about psychiatric rehabilitation.” Sam waves a dish towel expansively. “I've got pamphlets and everything. You two are just gross.”
“I'm so glad I don't live here,” Natasha says as she comes out of Sam’s bedroom. She's dressed and her hair is perfect, but she's also barefoot and relaxed in a way Steve’s never seen her.
He feels his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Really?” Steve looks between her and Sam. “When did this happen?”
“While you were off being sad puppies at each other, the rest of us got on with our lives. We started our own support group,” Natasha informs him. “There had better be something other than pancakes to eat,” she grouses as she breezes past all three men on her way to the kitchen.
A moment later, the protest, “My god, do you eat anything else?” comes from the next room.