It’s the dead of night but it’s not as though either of them has slept to a schedule like that in a long time. The habit of resting in watch shifts never really goes away — whenever it does start to drift away, whenever they find themselves sleeping in counts of seven or eight instead of four, the nightmares shake them awake and remind them of their place.
Weariness keeps words from coming willingly so instead Steve extends a hand until he meets the taught bow of Bucky’s back and rubs gently with the flat of his palm, knowing full well he’s unable to coax out the tension, trying anyway.
He’s curled in on himself, facing away. Small movements make the muscles of his shoulder twitch; his fingers scratching across his chest, his ribs.
“Bad dream?” Steve asks, when after minutes have ticked by Bucky has neither spoken nor stirred. He knows it must be more than that. If he was half woken by a nightmare the touch of Steve’s hand, the reassurance that he was there would be enough, most times, to lull him back under. But he’s conscious now, completely, Steve can feel it.
His hand travels the well familiar path up and over the bumps of Bucky’s spine, gives a gentle squeeze to his shoulder, tucks his hair back from his nape to slot his palm there instead. Resting lightly, he strokes with his thumb. Bucky’s skin is warm. His pulse is quick.
He speaks to the other side of the room, to the window where the light pollution glows gold through the half-open blinds and limns the landscape of his body from shoulder to hip. A deep breath makes him shudder.
“But I’m afraid, Steve.”
Steve has let his eyes stay closed but his brows pull together.
“What are you afraid of, a stór?” Like his ma used to ask when he went to her crying in the night. Ná bíodh eagla ort, a stórin. Téigh a chodladh arís. If only he could chase the monsters out from under Bucky’s bed with lullabies lilting in his mother’s tongue as easily as she had. His eyes open now.
“I’m getting better,” Bucky tells the empty space on his side of the bed. He makes it sound like an argument being contended.
“You are.” Steve’s mouth pulls down at the corners against his will, like a tic. He slots the heel of his hand in against the hard ridge of Bucky’s shoulder-blade and kneads at the knots there gently. “You’re doing so well, Buck. So—”
Praise like that must have become trite through overuse; Bucky cuts through them with a sharp bracing breath. “My head still ain’t right. I don’t think it’s ever gonna be. I— forget things. I look up and the sun’s going down when I could swear I only just saw it rising.”
“It’ll get better.”
Bucky stills Steve’s hand with his own. A little stiffly he turns over,
“It is better. Steve, that’s what scares me,” he says, in a voice hushed for confession. “Half my life is still a blank. And what’s there — I can’t be sure if I remember it for real or just ’cause you’ve told me.”
There’s fear in his eyes in the dark. He’s never been good at keeping his feelings from his face, or from Steve’s gaze, at least. It bled through even the mask of the Winter Soldier, like a wound that wouldn’t close. Still it takes Steve back to that bridge, where the fear in the Soldier’s eyes had been all Bucky, had told him there was still something left to save.
“I’m afraid of losing this. Forgetting it, in case—” He traces a circle on the sheets with his fingertips. “Something happens to me.”
And like a wound, Steve wants to contain his fear, pack it with gauze and bandage it up, keep it covered and safe until it heals. He reminds himself that sometimes wounds must be allowed to bleed, for a while, in order to push the dirt out.
“Something like what?”
“I don’t…” Bucky’s face contorts in frustration. “I don’t know, alright? Something. A trigger, maybe— something setting me off, I don’t know, I— but all this time, all these moments I have with you now, Steve, I don’t want to lose them. I’ve lost so much of us already.”
Steve’s throat constricts.
“Memories are so damn fragile. I’m scared my head ain’t a safe place to keep them.”
“They’re in mine too, though.” Steve places his hand on Bucky’s face, feels the tension in his jaw against his palm, tries to smooth the lines at the corner of his eye with his thumb.
Bucky cracks half a smile but doesn’t look at him. “Yeah, I know. But I can’t exactly read your mind, Stevie. And think how much you’d hate it if I could.”
A morning later Steve comes into the kitchen with the mail and deposits a package next to Bucky’s mug. He looks up with an eyebrow raised. “Is it Christmas?”
Steve takes the seat opposite and a sip of Bucky’s coffee. “Open it.”
It’s a Polaroid camera. The first picture they take is of Bucky frowning in perplexity, out of focus and overexposed. He watches the image emerge from the black and gives Steve a look.
“Thought you were supposed to be an artist.”
Steve folds his arms. “This look like a pencil and paper to you?” He holds out the camera. “Go on. You try.”
It takes a while to develop the knack but he does, and Bucky takes to it quickly after that. They burn through film like fuel, box after box of it. Photograph after photograph piles up on every surface of the apartment, so Steve buys a stack of albums and sits crosslegged on the living room floor to sort them.
“Some of these ain’t half bad.” He turns over in his hands a picture he hadn’t noticed Bucky taking, of him as a streetlamp silhouette by the bedroom window, the cherry of his cigarette bright in the dark.
Softly Bucky laughs. “You’re just sayin’ that ’cause you’re in ’em.”
“That ain’t the point.”
It’s true, though, that barely a single photograph doesn’t have him in it. There are plenty from early on with no real subject at all, just the two of them trying to figure the camera out: pictures of the ceiling, or the bedside lamp in various states of focus, or nothing at all except one or other of them’s thumb halfway over the lens. A few of the view from the kitchen or the bedroom or the balcony. Some of Bucky, usually a little blurry, usually laughing or rolling his eyes — Steve still hasn’t got the hang of picture-taking as well as he has.
But mostly, they’re of Steve. He doesn’t need to ask why.
Steve’s mother was born on a tiny scrap of a tidal island that barely clings to the edge of Connemara. Bucky snaps a shot of him fighting to get a cigarette lit just outside the doors of Dublin Airport, hunched against the battering wind and frowning, dishevelled from hours on a plane.
“You smoke too much,” he tells him. He squints at the picture for a moment, tucks it inside his jacket, and takes the cigarette from Steve’s mouth to put into his own.
“Yeah?” Steve steals it back, tucks his hands into his pockets, rolls his shoulders. “So? Ain’t like it’s gonna kill me.”
They cross the sand at low tide to Omey early in the morning. Bucky takes a picture of Steve almost blinding himself with being unable to look away from the water when the sunrise sets it ablaze. Another of him facing away, standing among the ancient remains of the church.
“Iomaidh,” he pronounces softly, touching with his fingertips the old sacred stones.
They sit for a while on a knoll and look out across the water. The camera rests on Bucky’s lap. He speaks pensively.
“I remember,” he says, fiddling with the cuff of his jacket. “Sarah, how she’d always chew you out in Irish, when I was there —” He looks to Steve with a grin dawning slowly. “Then switch to English at the end just to make sure I knew what you were in trouble for, too.”
Steve laughs, almost in disbelief. “You remember that?”
“Sure I do. Little amadán, thinking you’re so clever—” Bucky’s impression of Steve’s mother is appalling. “And don’t be looking at him either—” They laugh until they’re holding onto each other not to fall over; until they’ve scared away all the seagulls from the sand. The camera shutter clicks on Steve doubled over, wiping tears from his eyes.
Next they go to Scotland. Bucky has some tenuous connection there, grandparents he never knew. Buchanan engraved on a war memorial. England then, just because it’s close, and from there they find themselves on the foredeck of a ferry with Dover at their backs and Calais ahead.
“I’m gonna have a picture of you in every damn country Europe’s got,” Bucky says. Steve looks up from flicking through a Spanish phrasebook to the flash of the camera. He smiles as the spots fade from his eyes.
“I bet the Smithsonian would pay you a fortune.”
They drift across the continent as if there have all the time in the world. Some days they’re so close they barely go a minute not touching. Some days Bucky is so distant he might as well still be in Brooklyn. He still takes photographs, though, even on the days he doesn’t speak a word. Pushing two in the morning in a hotel in Cologne, Bucky sits on the floor with his back against Steve’s chest and puts them into envelopes to mail back to New York. There are far too many to carry with them.
“We could buy a digital camera,” Steve muses, chin resting on Bucky’s shoulder. “Print them all when we get home.”
“Nah. I like them like this.”
Steve picks up a picture of the two of them in a Claddaghduff pub, Bucky’s smile only mildly reluctant, taken by the friendliest bartender he thinks he’s ever met.
Because they’re tangible straight away, he supposes. Easier to hold onto. After all, that battered red book is still in the bottom of his suitcase.
He still sleeps badly. Wakes sometimes thinking it’s 1939, wakes and can’t account for how much more space Steve fills in their bed now. Wakes sometimes calling Steve’s name and refusing to believe that it’s him clasping his hand, talking him down, for a few heart stopping moments just after opening his eyes. He’ll pull out of Steve’s grip when he realises, as though guilt makes him unable to stand being held.
On a Monday night that’s almost Tuesday morning they’re among the last handful of patrons left in a tiny jazz bar down a tiny back street somewhere in Florence — or somewhere like that. They won’t join the couples swaying slowly to the crackling record player because the world still isn’t quite that kind. Bucky’s cheek finds Steve’s shoulder, though, at the back, in the dark, behind the smoke.
“I could close my eyes and think it was eighty years ago again,” he murmurs, almost too soft to hear under Ella and Louis’ gentle duet. Eighty years ago they never would have made it to Italy — but it doesn’t need saying. Closing his eyes Steve almost could too, except that now he can take Bucky’s hand and the worst thing he has to fear is a disapproving look. Idly he traces the life line that tapers off in the centre of Bucky’s palm.
“Let’s go home soon.”
Both of them are restless on the flight back to New York and both of them for the other’s sake try to act as though they aren’t.
A mountain of meticulously sealed envelopes is waiting for them in Brooklyn, addressed to James Barnes by the very same. The first thing he does is install himself on the living room floor and begin to open them one by one.
“You don’t wanna shower first?” Steve asks, pausing to touch Bucky’s hair as he manoeuvres carefully past him.
“They ain’t goin’ anywhere, y’know.”
He feels a shiver travel down Bucky’s spine as his fingers snag a tangle by his crown. He combs it smooth.
Evening draws in and the mug by Bucky’s knee gets cold untouched. He stays there still as Steve moves around the room, closing the blinds and turning on the lamps. For a while he sits on the sofa and kids himself that he’s reading the book in his hands and not just watching Bucky scratch notes onto the backs of photos with a ballpoint pen.
“Think you’re gonna come to bed tonight?” he asks eventually, gently. It’s been hours now; Bucky’s shoulders must be aching from curving in on himself like that, he thinks.
“Wanna finish this first.” Two envelopes of pictures are left.
“Can I help?”
He hasn’t looked up since he started
and still doesn’t.
Steve kneels before him and takes Bucky’s wrist. The weary determination at last leaves his eyes and into its place floods such depths of anxiety that Steve too almost finds himself swept away by it, for a moment.
“I never meant for you to get obsessed like this,” he confesses. He takes the Polaroid carefully from Bucky’s hand and replaces it with his own.
“I’m not— I’m not obsessed.” Bucky’s voice is small. “I’m afraid.”
“I could wake up tomorrow and not know you.”
“I could, Steve. And these would be all I had—”
“Bucky. That ain’t gonna happen.”
“It could, Steve—”
He takes Bucky’s face in both hands. Bucky’s fingers curl into the front of his shirt.
Sod’s law is infallible, though, and it does. The apartment is still and silent; it must be the cold empty space where Bucky’s supposed to be that wakes Steve. He checks each room, calling softly. In the end he finds Bucky hunkered down on the fire escape and spends an hour talking the kitchen knife out of his white knuckle grip. It’s guarded, but there’s recognition in his eyes. He calls Steve the man on the bridge, looks at him with desperation.
“Bucky. You know me. Come inside.”
Somewhere between a question and a statement: “I know you.”
“I’ll prove it to you. Come inside.”
The last of the photograph albums lies open on the coffee table. The sight of it alone is enough: Bucky’s face clears. Confusion superseded by grief. He steps back from Steve, opens his mouth, apology already formed —
“Don’t.” Steve touches his shoulder, the seam between metal and scar. “It’s alright.”
When he at last lets himself be pulled close he wets Steve’s chest with tears. “I told you,” he whispers, “I told you.”
“It’ll get better,” Steve murmurs against his brow, and but it’s less of a promise than a wish.
“I don’t want to lose…”
“Where did we go first?”
Bucky looks up, eyes red and haunted. “What?”
Patiently, Steve strokes away the hair caught by the corner of his mouth. “Where did we go first?”
He twists slightly, trying to turn towards the coffee table and his photographs, the books of his memories. With a gentle hand Steve stills him. The wound won't heal if they keep on breaking the scab. “Bucky. Look at me.”
He does. He draws a slow breath and then another. Steve holds him as seconds tick by, enough that he starts to think maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s making it worse. But when he speaks, though soft, Bucky’s voice is sure.