Bucky sprawls back on the bed, the hardcover copy of The Demon's Lexicon splayed open across his chest, metal hand holding it flat to him as if he could absorb the contents through his skin instead of his eyes. Perhaps that way it would not gather so much meaning, as if the book were speaking to him directly. He knows he is assigning it too much significance, drawing parallels out of coincidence.
But it is hard not to see himself in the brothers: Nick, the demon brought up by humans, prone to violence, unable to express any emotion easily but anger. Why would anyone bring such a dangerous thing into their home? Why would they love such a thing?
And then there's Alan, the brother who would do anything to protect Nick. Commit his own violence. Lie to anyone. Lie to Nick. He knows that kind of love very well. He has always known it. He is not Nick when he thinks about that kind of love.
His phone rings and he flips over, digging it out of the drawer in his nightstand. It's Steve, of course. No one else ever calls him. He swipes up and the video chat box opens.
Seeing Steve always calms him, even in a tiny video like this, even though--Bucky frowns--Steve is looking a little worse for wear. A bruise purples his cheekbone, and there's some kind of goo seeping into his hairline, although he's had time to get most of it off and change out of his uniform.
"Hey, Steve," Bucky says. "Rough day?"
Steve smiles, but it's tired. "Slime monsters in Guam, if you can believe it. I'd rant about mad scientists, but I'm tired and I'm pretty sure two of my teammates technically qualify. How about you?"
"Lot quieter." He picks up the book and waves it in front of the camera. "Getting ready for Book Club."
Steve's smile deepens. "I haven't had a chance to read it, but I'm about to have a stretch on the quinjet, so..."
"You don't have to read them with me. It's not your book club." But Steve's read them both so far, and talked about them with Bucky, so really, it's like he's in two book clubs. He'll have to remember to tell that to Dr. Goldstein at his next appointment.
"I want to," Steve says. "Gets me reading stuff I wouldn't have picked out. Besides, I like talking to you about them." Bucky's chest expands, making room for another entry in his ever-growing list of Steve-related emotion: happiness at being liked. At being good for things like quiet discussion, not calculating trajectories or exit strategies.
"I like talking books with you too. This one...there's parts of it I'm not going to talk about with the book club."
"What kind of parts?"
Bucky smiles at miniscule pixellated Steve. "Spoilers, pal. I'm not ruining this book for you. It's good."
"Buck, I read history books all the time. I know what's going to happen, but I read 'em anyway."
"There's a difference between nonfiction and a novel, Steven. Jesus, show some respect for narrative structure."
Steve snorts a laugh. It feels like a victory. "Can I come see you? I'll be back in New York tomorrow."
This is a question that Bucky is never going to answer with a no, but he likes that Steve asks anyway. "That'd be great."
Steve's head turns as someone says something to him in the background. Sounds like Romanov, probably. "I gotta go." Steve sounds apologetic, as if he doesn't have anything better to do than talk to his friend with brain damage and a kill list a mile long.
Dr. Goldstein would tell him that's negative thinking. "I'll see you tomorrow, though, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."
It's late at night before Steve mentions the book.
They have gone out to dinner at the taqueria down the road that Bucky really likes. Steve's bruise is already gone, and he says he didn't sustain any larger injuries. Bucky knows that the worst Steve's ever been hurt in this new century is after they fought each other in DC. He has gotten to the point where his throat doesn't close if he thinks about it, but he doesn't dwell on it long anyway; he wants Steve to enjoy coming to see him, not have to sit with him through yet another anxiety attack.
Now they're back at his apartment. It's bigger than anyplace they ever lived in Brooklyn. There's a guest room with a spare bed for when Steve comes to visit. They didn't have a spare bedroom when they lived together after Steve's ma died. He remembers two narrow beds in one room, and pushing them together in the winter but ending up curled around each other on one bed anyway, Steve burrowing into Bucky because he was always cold. Does he still get cold, Bucky wonders. There are three blankets piled on the guest bed. It is not the optimal solution.
Bucky bought some kombucha that Clara mentioned at the last book club, and he pours a glass for Steve and a glass for him, eyeing it a little dubiously.
Steve sniffs it. "What's this supposed to be?"
"Supposed to be good for you." Bucky doesn't mention it's made out of vinegar. You don't have to tell everything you know. He thinks his ma used to say that. It's not bad; mostly it tastes like apples.
"So I read the book." Steve takes a skeptical sip, and then his eyebrows lift. "That's all right."
"What did you think?"
"It was a real page turner. I hardly looked up while I was reading it." Steve kicks his feet up on the coffee table and leans back. "What parts do you not want to talk to the book ladies about?"
They're sitting on the couch, enough space between then that their bodies do not touch. This is consideration; Bucky has not always had an easy time with touching. He has had (many) conversations with Dr. Goldstein about this. Autonomy can mean sometimes not wanting to be touched and sometimes wanting it. Touch can be casual. That is an aspiration of his. He often wants to touch Steve. He has no idea how to make it casual, even though he tries. He reaches out with his flesh hand and pokes Steve in the shoulder. He does it gently. This should not be sufficient cause for Steve to produce a smile of such high wattage. That is not casual, Steven.
"Don't call them the book ladies. They have names."
Steve grins. "Well, what should I call them collectively?"
This is an easy one. "Book Club. That's what they call themselves."
Steve cocks his head. "What do they call you?"
"James." Another easy one. "It's my name. To everyone but you." And to himself; when he thinks of himself in the third person, it's as Bucky, these days.
Steve reaches back and pokes him in the shoulder, equally gently. One spot of warmth across the space between them. Perhaps that's how it's supposed to work; touching when he wishes to touch, how he wishes to touch, and having that touch returned. Perhaps eventually he will figure out a way to broach the subject to Steve.
"What about the book?" Steve says.
"Do you sometimes read something and see yourself in it," Bucky starts uncertainly.
"Buck." Steve turns to him, smile falling away. "Yeah. Of course. But you're not like Nick."
If only he could think of a way to say it. "But I am like him. Learning to be human. From the outside in." Steve makes a small noise, like he wants to protest. Perhaps how he said it isn't right. He tries again. "But also knowing that someone is on my side no matter what."
Now it is Steve's turn to have an emotion. Several of them at the same time, it looks like. A memory comes to him in sensations, arms slung around each other's necks. He reaches across the space between them on the couch, over Steve's shoulder, until his hand rests on the solid muscle of Steve's trapezius, and squeezes.
Steve makes another sound, but this one is happier. He reaches back and grabs Bucky's shoulder, in something that if you squinted could almost be a normal person hug.
There are worse things than having to relearn to be human. He could be doing it alone.