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your blue-eyed boys (2: daylight could be so violent)

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Let me uncover the silver in your dark hair / The weight of your bones / I want to witness the beauty of your repair / The shape you’ve grown

--Vienna Teng

*****

Summer fades into autumn. Unfortunately.

The thing about summer, even - maybe especially - late summer, is it's not hard to stay warm, even if everyone else thinks it's too fucking hot. It hadn't really been a problem. The compromise Steve came up with was that the air-conditioner could be on in the living-room and in Steve's bedroom, and Bucky kept the door to his room half-closed or sat out on the balcony, and put up with Steve nagging about drinking enough water and occasionally fussing about heat-stroke. That, Bucky could do.

A few days got too hot even for him, but only a few. He doesn't really - that is, he remembers that things happened last winter, more or less, he just doesn't remember what last winter felt like, beyond fucking awful. But August gives way to September and night gets cooler again, and it's not hard to look ahead and miss summer already.

 

It's funny, in a completely fucking not-funny way, how the why comes digging back in. After every nightmare, every bad day, every fucking time something cracks the fragile skin over all the shit he can only barely control.

Every time he's afraid this is all something he's made up, every time the world slips completely out of focus and it's easier and easier to believe that's true, that he's neck fucking deep in the biggest lie he's ever told himself. Every time he crawls back from that and the real world's grey and sharp and he still feels like a fucking doll someone's used ragged and thrown away.

Every time he thinks that all things considered that is something he has absolutely no fucking right to think, no right to feel.

Last year he would've walked off a dock and let himself sink just to make the noise in his head and the endless screaming confusion stop and for a while, while it ebbed and drained, the relief was enough that he stopped asking why, felt like there might be a point.

Now the why seeps back in and he's tired and he feels like he's on the other side of a mirror again.

One answer to why, the easy answer to the why is Steve, but he tries not to lean on that. Doesn't like how much he's already cost Steve and doesn't know how to deal with the edges between real memories and ones he can't trust when it comes to remembering Steve. Doesn't like the idea of tethering Steve to someone half-dead because of Steve's stupid, infinite loyalty.

More than he already has. Can't help having done.

Steve does things that are really fucking bad for him because he thinks he has to. That's always been true, and it'll always be true, or he wouldn't be Steve. And it's something that's much, much too easy to take advantage of. Especially when Steve's already decided, already given himself over, already done and put up with so much miserable shit that he won't think much of adding more.

So Bucky sleeps (sometimes) and wakes up and eats (sometimes) and tries to find other things to shove in the places where why is bleeding in, but they're pretty thin and they don't last for long, between bad nights and bad mornings.

 

Mornings are relative: they start when he can't stand trying to sleep anymore. Sometimes his mornings start with Steve's around five-thirty in the morning; sometimes they start in the dark of two-AM; sometimes the whole fucking twenty-four hours is an endless, miserable morning.

He mostly doesn't stay inside; most mornings he meets the start of Steve's morning from the roof, either by a few minutes or because he's been there for hours. Or at least out for hours. Steve runs on street level; Bucky still doesn't feel comfortable down there, avoids it if he can. Too many buildings, too many places someone could be waiting above him, and too many fucking people to run into. Up here, there's almost no one.

Almost.

 

This is the third time the girl's followed him up here at oh-God-o'clock. He allowed for two, because any kid would be curious about the recluse on the top floor, especially since there's a good chance someone would recognize Steve and start to wonder. Especially kids. They don't have as much between them and believing. Adults'll convince themselves something can't be true; kids, not so much. So two, he ignored.

Three means the girl needs to learn a couple things, or at least get better at hiding.

Her name is Mercedes; she lives with her mother and her brother on the second floor. Her mother works in the hospital and her brother's sick most of the time, and Bucky's not going to pretend that doesn't have something to do with his being willing to put up with her following him at all. And in the different mix of music he can't stop overhearing in the quietest moments of the building, he doesn't mind hers.

How irritating other people's audio choices get: only one of the many things it doesn't matter whether they mentioned on the super-soldier enlistment form or not, because nobody fucking asked him anyway.

He'd picked up one of the smooth coloured-glass pseudo-rocks Steve uses as a base for a little stand of bamboo on his way out, because he figured she'd follow him again. He waits until the kid's crouched down behind one of the air-exhaust chimneys before he turns and whips it at the corner just above her head. It showers her with glass fragments and dust and she shrieks Fuck! in a choked off voice as she scrambles back -

- and she's really, really not expecting him to already be on the other side, leaning his right hand on this side of the chimney-box.

Her eyes turn into little round black-and-white balls with almost no iris at all, and she's a little bit pale.

"One," Bucky says, "don't stalk people. It's rude. Two," he continues, pushing off the side of the box and dropping into a crouch, "don't stalk scary-looking strangers, it's rude, dangerous and incredibly stupid. Three, especially don't stalk them up to isolated places where no one can hear you scream, because that's so stupid it's suicidal."

Then he frowns and adds, "Four, watch your mouth, you're eleven."

"Almost thirteen," she snaps immediately, proving without any reasonable doubt that she's got way more guts than brains. Then she looks down. "And sorry. But you live with Captain America so I figured you couldn't be that dangerous."

"Not the worst guess," Bucky allows after a minute; in his case probably not a safe bet, but there's . . . complicated circumstances. "Still stupid. Definitely still God-damn rude."

The girl sits up and runs her fingers through her hair, trying to get the bits of glass out and cutting up her finger, so that she yelps and sucks the blood off it. Bucky sighs.

"Shake the shards out, don't brush them," he says. "You're going to end up with slivers in your scalp."

"Sorry," she says sourly, "they don't run a class on how to get broken glass out of your hair at my school, we can't get the funding." She tilts her head to the side awkwardly and tries to follow the advice. "And I was gonna say hello eventually I was just trying to figure out how you did it. Sometimes grown-ups and the older kids won't tell me, because they're afraid I'll try it myself, so I watch a lot."

"Did what?"

She's skinny and short for thirteen, and dresses too old for her age, except for the worn-out Tinkerbell watch with a sparkly face on her left wrist. She pulls her knees up and hugs them, nods towards the next building. "Get from here to there. I'm gonna be a traceuse, I'm into parkour, and people can't do that. I've watched, like, every video on YouTube and everything, and some of the older kids practice around here so I watch. And that's, like - humans can't do that. I thought maybe there was a trick I could figure out that nobody else knew."

It's the longest conversation he's had with someone who wasn't Stark or Steve in probably decades; it's surreal and unexpected and if she weren't working so hard not to be intimidated he might just tell her to mind her own business and get lost and chase her off if she decided to be stupid about it. Again.

But she is working that hard, all skinny limbs and resentful kid-pride. And sometimes his sense of the fucking ridiculous is all he has between him and deliberately not making it to the next roof, and what the hell, this is definitely ridiculous.

"Yeah," he says, sitting down. "There's a trick."

"Yeah?" She perks up, glass-filled hair and bleeding finger forgotten. "What is it?"

"Nazis," he says, suppresses a short laugh at her blank, blinking expression.

"Really?"

"Evil science Nazis," he confirms, hearing Gabe's voice for just a second over his and trying to ignore the itch that comes with it. It's true, and it's even honest for a certain value of honest. And for a second it amuses him.

That evaporates when Mercedes bites her lip and says, "So you are the guy from DC," and then hunches her shoulders and hurriedly says, "My mom watches a lot of CNN and stuff, the TV's always on, and Jaime said - are you okay?"

The question, the sound of sudden concern, actually makes him laugh, which helps, even if it's a kind of a painful laugh. "Kid," he says, "you are gonna get yourself killed some day."

"You looked like Dad used to," she says, "just for a second. He, um." She shrugs. "He jumped off a bridge, so. Like, literally. So when people look like him I get worried." She shrugs again. "And like I said I don't think someone who lives with Captain America's gonna kill me. And I recognize faces, no matter what anyone else says," she adds, with more than a little bit of defiance.

"Kid, you are way too smart to be stupid enough to follow people around," Bucky tells her, his heart-rate starting its always too-God-damned-slow decline back to normal.

"My name's Mercedes," she says.

"I know."

"So, evil science Nazis?" she asks, after a minute. "That sucks. That why you have that arm, too?"

"More or less," Bucky replies.

"You got better, though?" she asks, hopeful in that way of kids who get way, way too attached to someone they just met. He wonders why they do that. "I mean, there's no evil science Nazis here." Then she frowns. "I hope. And you're not killing people. And you're living with Captain America. He's your friend?"

Bucky considers taping a note to her mom's mailbox: congratulations on raising a brave and confident kid. Now think about teaching her some fucking caution. "Yeah," he says. "He is."

"He seems like he'd be a good friend," Mercedes hazards.

"Get lost, kid," Bucky says, pretty much done talking. "It's five AM, go watch some fucking cartoons. Eat breakfast. And learn some manners."

She's not completely unable to take a hint and disappears pretty quick down the ladder between the attic and the roof. Bucky stays on the roof for another half an hour before coffee seems better than solitude and he drops down onto the balcony to let himself in and find some.

 

Memory's pliable. You don't have to know the neuroscience, don't even have to have a working theory, in order to know that. You just have to watch people and watch how they remember what they want to remember. What fits in their heads, with the way they want the world to work. Maybe for most people the truth is actually lurking in their brain somewhere, ready to take advantage of any opportunity to work its way out, but with his it's impossible to tell.

There's no tell-tales, no subtle differences, nothing to show him. The only thing he can do is try to find something that can either back him up or tell him he's braided something out of nothing again.

He knows his memories have retooled themselves, sometimes, and a lot of the time to make something awful . . . less, painting in familiar and comforting faces where they can't actually be. That he's remembering something he wanted instead of something that happened. And that's not counting the part where sometimes he's pretty sure he's remembering hallucinations, triggered by pain or coming out of cryo or who the fuck knows what - drugs, poison, concussion, hypoxia, exhaustion, starvation. Anything.

There are little islands of certainty, now. Some of them are pretty big, the biggest ones from when he and Steve were kids. Maybe because they were already written in, he'd been remembering them for years before HYDRA took him, or maybe because there wasn't anything in them bad enough for his subconscious to want to rewrite.

They'd been hungry, sure, but never starving; cold sometimes but never freezing; Steve'd scared the shit out of him on a regular basis but he always got better; people died, but they died of normal things in normal ways and you didn't get too choked about that because one day you were going to die and if you forgot that, there was always a priest or someone's aunt or grandma to remind you and probably throw some threatening Bible verses at you on top of it.

Hard things, but no Hell. No reason for his subconscious to try to protect him with lies.

The War's different. From beginning to end, it's just one long reason to try to make shit up, and the story's written down by people with so many secrets, so many biases, so many agendas: maybe sometimes you can trust the shape of what's there, and sometimes even the details, but the lies are all in the silences, all in the omissions. In what isn't there.

There are things he knows Jim and Dum-Dum conspired to leave out, he's talked about them with Steve or found some dissertation by some obsessed kid who decided to spend his life coughing his way through dusty archives and found the mission-reports for missions nobody'd heard about before. It means every God-damn silence is suspect, means that just because it's not there written down doesn't mean it didn't happen, and he spends a lot of time trying to dig between lines to find something that'll tell him which memories are real and which aren't.

He mostly doesn't find it. He mostly doesn't expect to or even know what he'd do if he did. But he looks anyway.

 

He remembers Carter better, now. He's wondered whether it's worth going back, explaining everything all over again to tell her it's not that he didn't like her, it's that he didn't trust Steve not to fall head over heels over heart over soul for someone he might not be able to keep, that Steve'd never been in love before unless you counted Marnie Hampstead when Steve was eight, and Bucky'd mostly taken that as a warning.

That he hadn't blamed her, but wasn't sure she understood she was getting handed Steve's whole everything and that if she didn't want that much she should back out now.

He hasn't done it. Mostly because Carter probably won't keep the memory anyway, and besides it's a moot point now.

Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if the past had played out like it'd looked like it would, Carter swapping that name for Rogers and a collection of miniature Rogerses, Stevelings and Pegglets, to go with it. What he'd've done and how long he'd've done it for.

One bit of memory he's pretty sure of is that he'd stopped being able to picture anything to do with after the War long before he fell off Zola's train.

Looking over the notes pinned up in their clusters and guesses, and how useless a lot of them are, frustration boils over and he puts his left fist through the wall. Again.

*****

Stability is a matter of averages, as Tony has an annoying habit of pointing out: really, any apparently stable position is actually a constant fluctuation above and below a point people call "average", however small they might be. Sometimes that's comforting. Other times Steve could do with the fluctuations being smaller.

But it still counts, comparatively, as stability.

That doesn't mean he's not kind of worried.

 

Recovery isn't linear. Steve reminds himself that a lot. He knows it - Hell, he even kind of knows it from himself, from the way he felt better in the months right after New York and then . . . didn't, so much.

"But something's still bothering you," Elizabeth observes.

They're eating lunch at her new favourite place, part of her agreement with Bruce that she will physically exit the Tower and be completely away from her lab at least once a day. Apparently they'd had a 'loud argument' about it (which is what everyone in the Tower calls it when the two fight, because nobody likes to think about Bruce being in a fight with anyone despite his assurances that it isn't a problem) after he'd found her fast asleep at her desk last week and found out from one of the students she'd been there since early morning without a break, after only leaving the lab when he came to get her around ten.

Bruce had outright enlisted other people's help; the email had read Invite us places. Hell, invite HER places if you don't like me - SHE needs to get out and REST or at least change scenery every now and then. Her habit of moving into her lab and overwork was apparently long-standing - and got worse every time her father tried to reinitiate contact, which he's apparently doing a lot more these days.

According to Bruce, Elizabeth disowned Thaddeus Ross during the entire Abomination mess, then recanted after he nearly got killed . . . and then disowned him again, permanently, about six months later. Even Bruce isn't sure exactly what the General did, or maybe said, except that it was enough that Elizabeth won't even answer phone-calls and dumps all his email straight into trash. She's said that if and when it's necessary she'll arrange and pay for his care and his funeral, but she won't be attending either.

Work's apparently her antidote for him trying to push that line back. Steve can sympathise with that, a lot, but every coping mechanism can go too far. So he joins them for lunch or coffee - lunch today - and Elizabeth remains unsettlingly good at seeing through him.

"Actually, I think something's bothering him," Steve sighs. "I just don't know what, and outright asking's not much help. I'm still figuring out when to push and when to shut up. And sometimes even if I push, I'm still not going to find out what it is. It just means he stops shutting down for a while after I do."

Bruce is sitting back, his food already done, his arm along the back of Elizabeth's chair, wearing a thoughtful frown. He's not big on jumping in where he doesn't think he's got something concrete to offer. Elizabeth's still eating, because she kept getting distracted talking and demonstrating things with her food, until Bruce interrupted her and reminded her the food was supposed to go in her mouth.

It's funny how people are, Steve reflects. If you met Elizabeth casually you'd think she was quiet and calm and reserved, and that's pretty much the front she keeps up until she knows you enough to be comfortable that she isn't going to bore you out of your tree - her words - talking about what she cares about - and then she gets just about as animated as Tony can.

It's kind of soothing to spend time around her and Bruce together. They're comfortable around each other, so much so that even fights seem to have familiar edges and dances, like they're almost a kind of ritual display to figure out who feels strongest about something. And when they aren't fighting, they're just . . . there, together, somehow subtly oriented towards each other even when they don't seem to be paying each other any attention.

"Did you talk to him about working on his arm?" Bruce asks. "You'd mentioned last week you thought you might be able to, now."

Steve suppresses a grimace. "Briefly," he says. And it had been very briefly, one of the times Bucky shut down the conversation with outright words - I'm not talking about this - instead of body-language or getting up and walking away like he did if he didn't want to talk about something but wasn't quite willing to tell Steve to shut up.

"Might be that," Bruce says, and then shrugs. "Probably a complicated thing even to think about - I mean," he goes on, glancing at Elizabeth's slightly puzzled look, maybe seeing it on Steve, too, "you look at it," he gestures to Elizabeth, "and you see a malfunctioning prosthetic and you look at it," and he gestures to Steve, "and see something new and maybe alien, and maybe even consciously so does he, but his body knows it's been part of him for, what, seventy years? Bodies remember things heads don't sometimes," he says, with the look that means he's talking around something he's not entirely comfortable with, which usually means about the Other Guy.

He looks at Steve and says, "Actually, you can probably figure part of it - I mean, you volunteered for your procedure, and you had plenty of reason to, but I don't think you can honestly tell me you didn't feel a little bit . . .queasy, about the idea of someone rewriting your whole body, changing everything you knew about it, even if it would be what you wanted."

Steve nods, slowly. "A little," he admits. "I mean, it's - "

"Right," Bruce says, when Steve can't find anything other than tautology to follow that with. "And with you, it's simple. Hell, with me, it's simple. Not necessarily great, but simple." His face twists into a wry smile for a second and then gets serious again. "But I don't think it's necessarily simple for him. Except he might not even know why it's not simple." Bruce shrugs, leaning back again, replacing his arm behind Elizabeth's chair and waving the other. "I don't know for sure. Just a thought. And even if it's not a really big deal, well. Little deals can knock you off-balance so you fall into the big deals you were ignoring."

When he says it, almost absently Elizabeth finishes her wrap and then covers Bruce's hand with hers; Steve wonders if she's even aware that she did it.

"I guess nothing's allowed to be easy," she sighs. "Sorry, Steve." Steve dredges up a smile.

"It is what it is," he says.

He gets a sandwich to take home for Bucky, because they make good sandwiches at that cafe. He feels like it shouldn't worry him that when he puts it down on the table beside the couch, Bucky glances at it once and then picks it up to eat like he's not paying attention.

Steve looks briefly over his shoulder: Bucky's back to the biographies and official unit histories, but this time he's got all of them somewhere around him on the couch or the floor and he seems to be flipping through to particular places, all of them somewhere in the middle.

His frown is the frown of someone looking for something and not finding it.

"You okay?" Steve asks.

"I'm fine," Bucky says, which is basically what Bucky says when he's not actually fine. He doesn't look up but motions vaguely at the plate. "Thanks."

Steve hesitates, but in the end even if he doesn't believe the claim of "fine", Bucky's not agitated or upset, not displacing whatever it is that's bothering him onto anything Steve can see as bad for him, and he is actually eating, so he decides to leave it. For now.

 

When Steve checks again a few hours later, Bucky's on a different book, and Steve catches a glimpse of Erskine's black and white picture on a facing page.

"I was always kind of pissed off he died before I could punch him in the face," Bucky says without looking around.

"Yeah?" Steve sits down in the arm-chair, leans forward with his elbows on his knees. "Why?"

Now Bucky gives him a sardonic look. "Why do you think?" he asks. "I left you safe at home, where the biggest thing I had to worry about was you picking a fight with somebody bigger than you. Again." He flicks the picture. "Then this bastard gets you to run yourself ragged and sign up for live human experiments of dubious fucking survivability, considering what happened to the last guy. Then not only did he land you in Europe, now it wasn't picking fights with guys bigger than you or I could handle I had to worry about, now you were nuts enough to think you could pick fights with whole fucking armies."

The thoughtless part of Steve, the part that everyone's got that tries to make you say things before you've actually thought them through - that part almost gets him to say, We did okay before memory hits him with cold air and snow and a river far down below him, drops the bottom out of his gut for a minute and reminds him that actually they didn't.

They got away with it for a while, was all.

"I think the plan was for there to be more than just one of me," Steve says instead.

"Yeah, well," Bucky says. "Someone picked up that plan and ran with it." And Steve tries not to wince.

After a couple minutes of silence he asks, "You want to tell me what's - "

"There's nothing to talk about," Bucky cuts him off. "Seriously. I'm fine."

Steve sincerely contemplates saying I'm supposed to be the terrible liar but decides to turn on NPR instead.

After a while Bucky says, "We're out of drywall mud." Which means there's a freshly patched hole in the wall somewhere.

"Copy," Steve says absently, and adds it to the to-buy list on the fridge when he's in the kitchen.

 

It's not that things get worse, that they're worse now than they were before. Steve makes himself confront that thought and show himself how it's wrong, because it is. It's just when every day was a sequence of dissociative episodes and problems and bad moments and, let's be honest, a lot of it is scraping against itself in Bucky's head and not making it to the outside, that's the whole landscape of life. It's that slippery shape of "normal" again.

Now they - he, Steve himself - have the luxury of "normal" being maybe a little bit more towards, well . . . normal. The kind of normal that involves people being okay for hours and even a day or two at a time, reading books and watching TV and going to Starbucks - which Bucky will now do, although it took a nasty heatwave for Steve to convince him that a coffee frap was worth it. And it's how everything else compares with that slightly-more-normal "normal" that makes everything else seem worse.

When the calm exists, storms seem a lot more violent.

 

No two episodes are exactly alike, in the same way that no two anything are exactly alike, but they fall pretty neatly into categories by now.

Some are barely noticeable even to Steve, let alone anyone else: those ones show up as nothing more than a momentary tension, focus snapping to the middle distance instead of the here and now, a verbal tic, falling back on Russian for no reason (as opposed to making a point, swearing at people, muttering under his breath, or any other actual thing that would make it a deliberate choice), a change in posture and position compared to everyone else in a room or on a street. They're there, and they're gone, and while they're not any kind of fun they only become a problem if there's a constant stream of them in too short a period.

Others - well.

It's not like Steve likes owing Tony for buying out any potential neighbours, but it keeps the calls to the police down, and that's a blessing.

(Not that Tony accepts that Steve owes him, and not that it doesn't still irritate the life out of Steve that Tony didn't bother asking before he did it, but when it came to these things you could either accept Tony Stark the way he was or have nothing to do with him, because he wasn't going to change.)

And Steve can't exactly argue that it helps. That it's honestly probably the most significant factor in letting them stay here, for values of "here" that are "a normal human residence."

He's pretty sure Bucky would follow him if he moved into, say, the Tower or even off on some acreage somewhere, but some acreage would make it way too easy for Steve to be the only human being Bucky so much as saw in months - his isolation's already bad enough - and the Tower might actually be the best suited in some ways (he knows that's why Bruce and Elizabeth live there) but -

Firstly, "laboratory" or anything that looks remotely like one - any kind, chemical, biological, mechanical - is one of the few things guaranteed to set Bucky off, even in film or in pictures, and the Tower is built on layers of them. Even if he never managed to accidentally end up in one, their purpose is built right into the walls, and Steve thinks that'd end up being a big problem, at least over time. And secondly, he's pretty sure that for Bucky it'd end up feeling like a prison.

An incredibly luxurious prison, no argument there, but Steve's actually pretty sure Bucky still doesn't believe him when he says nothing and nobody is monitoring them: definitely not with Steve's agreement or consent, almost definitely nobody he doesn't know about because by now he's pretty good at finding the damn bugs thank you so much Nick Fury. The assumption doesn't seem to bother Bucky, not yet, or at least not more than general consciousness does, but Steve's pretty sure it's still there.

And even though Steve has a surprising amount of faith in Tony's assurances that nothing in the private suites of the Tower gets recorded, those assurances would be so much white noise to Bucky, even now.

Well, almost all assurances are still so much white noise to Bucky, but those ones would be worse.

The Tower, run by an AI, full of people, R&D, labs and and built to Tony Stark's personal specs - Bucky'd probably accept living there if Steve asked but Steve is still frankly disturbed by the number of things he's pretty sure Bucky'd accept if he actually asked (especially in the right frame of mind) and it'd be acceptance of moving back into the comfortable certainty - not suspicion, but certainty - of being monitored every breath he took and everything that came with that.

No, thank you. And in one of those flickers of intuition that are honestly unsettling to Steve, given what they all seem to be about, Stark's never even suggested it. He'd just bought out three units of a commercial-built complex with good soundproofing so that Steve's top-floor suite didn't share a structural feature with anybody else's.

And sometimes Steve's more grateful for that than he's comfortable with, if a recent episode's been . . .noisy.

Some people might call the ones that wreck half the furniture, or put an arm (either one, actually, although he's defaulting to the left which means he hurts himself less) through a wall or things like that the worst, and those are definitely the ones the space makes easier, but they'd only worry Steve if other people were around - worry him in the sense of collateral damage, nothing else - and they seem to come out of Bucky being relaxed enough for the hyper-vigilance to ease down a little and him to start thinking about more internal things, and if even Steve can be around and still have that happen - well, it's a bit of a paradox, but that's actually a pretty good day, even if it does come with a broken coffee-table or needing to replace a fridge. That's really not a big deal, comparatively.

After all, it's New York: it's not like temporarily having a broken fridge makes it that hard to feed themselves at this point.

So those are mostly okay. It's other ones.

He's not about to ask Bucky what he thinks the worst ones are, but from the outside, the ones that seem the worst - and seem to linger the longest, and screw up the most - are the ones Steve mentally calls "world-slips". You could probably call them psychotic episodes. But Steve doesn't.

Steve gets the problem. Bucky's memories are a hacked out burned out mess: even when he remembers something the markers for time or even order of events are lost, maybe forever; Steve's dated some of the ones Bucky can't, put some in order, based solely on things like when it's most likely HYDRA would want someone of this or that or the other description dead, given the politics of the time, but that's . . . maybe a handful out of an ocean.

And Steve knows that on top of that, mixed in with useful memories are other kinds of mess, composite memories, misfires of neural connection, plus the things the human mind does to try and make sense of the slush of a mind wiped again and again and again, and even odds what parts of it are real, what parts of it are wish, or nightmare, or something he heard once, and which are two completely different things sewn together.

Those are the worst, the biggest problems, especially when some echo of being the Winter Soldier crosses over with things that should be comforting, comfortable, good to remember. Cross over either way - either a comforting memory turned sick, or sometimes worse, Bucky's mind trying to take something that would make him sick and transpose it, make it okay, by taking it back to their war and painting familiar faces in.

Those are pretty damn awful, and what's worse is that if Bucky's willing to ask Steve about these things he's probably mostly in a good place. Until Steve has to tell him. Sometimes Steve's grateful he is so bad at lying; already knowing it wouldn't work anyway saves him from even having to resist the temptation to lie, to just let this one wrong memory stand because he can't stand the way Bucky's face shuts down at the correction.

Steve wouldn't do it. He'd never do that. But knowing that he'd fail anyway means he doesn't even feel tempted.

Add a bad moment of flashback to all of that, and sometimes Bucky isn't sure where he is, or when he is, or who he is, or what's real, or what the world is.

It doesn't always look like much. You could almost mix it up with what Steve thinks of as bad moments, the flashes that are gone, the psychological equivalent of a twinge in a bad joint. But it goes on longer, and the stillness is worse, and if you know enough to be able to tell these things you can see that what's driving this moment isn't irritation or frustration or anger or anything else that surfaces during those passing instants of unfortunate but passing bad.

It's terror. Which is much worse.

It's the kind of terror you get when someone carves you into the Winter Soldier, which means it's one step away from abrupt and brutal violence and a watcher has to know how the mind works to believe it has anything to do with fear, but at this point, Steve can see it, believes it, and hates it. A lot. With a hate that projects back in time because it's the look Bucky wore almost all the time for months and now Steve knows what it means. What he didn't know enough to see at the time, which is just how bad those months were.

And the slips can come anywhere and from anything. That's probably the worst part of it. Before this, Steve had no real conception of how often the subconscious reaches for memories, consults them, compares them to what's in front of you, tries to help you parse the real world. And it's really often, and nothing he's found yet really helps those times except getting Bucky's attention and then waiting it out, until reality convinces Bucky it exists and the other stuff doesn't - not anymore - and he can sort everything out.

And until then what Steve sees in Bucky's eyes reminds him much, much too much of - well. Moments on Insight C he's still livid ever existed, and make him regret - and this doesn't happen much, he doesn't actually hate individual people much or that often but it happens with this all the time - how fast Alexander Pierce died and that gunshot wounds are relatively clean, as a way to shuffle off the mortal coil.

 

The only thing you can say for these things is that it's less awkward when they happen at home. Which is well into the realm of thank God for small favours, but honestly, Steve's up for that, so today there's a small feeling of relief when he comes home from the store and it's pretty clear Bucky's checked out - relief that when Steve'd asked if he wanted to come to the store, Bucky'd said no.

This was probably inevitable, because Bucky's been winding himself up over something Steve doesn't know and can't figure out all week. And it might not be as bad as it could be. It's hard to tell.

Bucky's standing in the cut-out arch of the doorway into the kitchen. His left arm's raised, touching the frameless wall, a little weight on his fingertips like he was reaching out to touch it as he passed and froze there; his eyes are wide like the more he can see the more he can kill before it gets close to him. His breath is shallow, like his ribs can only move so far to let it in.

But there's no knife in his right hand; his fingers move restlessly, the only part of him that does. And if he's still and frozen, he's not wound so tense it's like his muscles are trying to crack his bones and then rip them apart. So Steve drops the bags and pulls the door closed.

The sound doesn't make Bucky jump; it doesn't even make him move, not any part of him except his eyes, which snap to Steve's face and focus. Narrow a hair. Maybe less. Steve shrugs off his jacket and says, "You okay?" as casually as he can.

Breath changes first: after a split second it's like Bucky can finally manage a full inhale, and the exhale takes some of the wound up stillness with it. And it lets him say, "Compared to what?" in a voice more bitter than makes Steve happy, but not off-kilter, not letting off any of the warning sounds he knows.

Bucky pushes off the wall, points at the bags and beckons for Steve to pass some over, so Steve hands him the ones full of stuff that actually goes in the kitchen. Steve takes the ones for the bathroom and the little laundry room beside it, almost but not quite totally filled by the extremely quiet high-efficiency washer and dryer.

(Steve's still suspicious of those, but in a passive, familiar way that means he often doesn't even think about it. They supposedly came with the place, which had saved Steve the effort of taking the ones from his place in DC at a time he really hadn't wanted to think about moving, but Steve is pretty sure that the machines that had been here before hadn't quite looked this much like they were going to take flight any minute now.)

(Someday he's not going to be able to stop himself from suggesting that maybe Tony should try not being an asshole from the get-go instead of flinging money and gifts at people afterwards by way of apology, but so far he's been able to keep that one down. Besides. They're good appliances.)

He throws the load from the washer into the dryer while he's here anyway, and reminds himself that they both need new clothes, makes a note to ask Bucky what he wants. Steve's got a strong suspicion the answer's going to be the same indifference as before, but maybe not.

When he hits the start button and steps back out of the tiny space, Bucky's standing in the hallway, arms crossed, leaning on the wall, closer than Steve expects.

In one of those moments that happen sometimes, Steve can't help noticing that the neckline of the long-sleeved shirt Bucky's wearing has two holes in it, and that in addition to the hole in one knee, the hems of that pair of jeans are worn and frayed. These days as long as it's warm enough and soft enough - and Steve's only recently started to notice the latter preference, wonders if it's new or if Bucky just didn't feel secure enough to do anything about it before - and it covers him, Bucky's still completely indifferent to clothing.

Steve refuses to let it throw him, but he can't not care that Bucky seems not to care. He tries not to compare, knows it shouldn't matter, but Bucky not caring about clothes, about how he looks, won't stop feeling twisted up and wrong.

Steve also can't help but figure that was probably not enough time for Bucky to have actually put everything away, but he's not going to look at it or fix it right now. Sometimes little niceties like putting stuff into cupboards and drawers fail to catch in Bucky's head: if everything was to hand when needed and otherwise stacked so you knew what you had and it was out of the way, utility and order were satisfied and sometimes so was he.

It usually wasn't a good sign; at the far end of that was the bare room in Prague, and besides, it's not a choice; Bucky's not deciding that putting stuff away is more work than he wants to do, he's just . . . forgetting why he'd bother. Today, though - or at least right now - is not the time to point that out or even go look. It can wait. Cans, boxes, bags and tetra-packs stacked on a counter for a while never hurt anyone and Steve doesn't exactly need an extra sign that Bucky's strung slightly wrong right now.

Bucky watches him with the look Steve still can't read, beyond that it's wary but . . . not. Wariness without tension. Maybe wary about something he might need to brace for, not get away from or stop. But something else, too. He doesn't know. It tugs unpleasantly at Steve's mind, at his memory, like he's seen it before and it disturbed him then.

He says, "Something wrong?" which is definitely leaving himself open to a response even harsher than compared to what? but fills the silence.

And he remembers where he saw the look, just . . . worse, more, in Bucky's room with the broken chair and shattered glass from the pictures on the wall. And just about the time Steve clues into that, he realizes that where Bucky's standing, he's actually blocking the way back to the living-room and the rest of the condo. And Bucky looks away and says, "I remember Breitenau."

Steve feels like someone hit him with a - actually, no, he feels like a normal person would feel if someone hit them in the head with a board, because at this point he's been hit with a lot harder and heavier and walked away from it, up to and including the arm that Bucky mostly covers and doesn't seem to know what to think about.

So like a normal person, stunned and off-balance. And then like a normal person with a head injury trying to think fast, trying to think about consequences and results to avoid the ones that terrify him.

I remember Breitenau. Maybe, maybe for a minute Steve can smell burned out houses in the rain and explosives, gasoline and sweat and alcohol and everything that's war at the front edge, feels the edge just short of exhaustion and the exhilaration of everything he'd been, they'd been able to do -

And maybe for a second the weight of Bucky beside him, half on him, on a couch that has one broken leg replaced by burnt out books, the smell of alcohol on Bucky's breath and him laughing Christ, if this is how dense you are no wonder your lady agent hasn't managed to get you into bed yet -

Maybe for a minute that drowns him but it mostly turns into ache, maybe wish, maybe longing mixing with fear of fucking everything up, twisted together and crawling all the way up to his throat and choking him. Steve doesn't answer right away. Steve can't.

But enough of the right things must show on his face to tell Bucky his mind wasn't making this up. The breath Bucky lets out empties everything; the one he takes in is the kind drowning people take when they break the water.

Steve realizes he's raising his hand to rub at his forehead, or his temple, or even pinch the bridge of his nose, his mind still - well, he'd call it racing but it's mostly spinning its wheels in the mud, because this is not something he was ready for yet; something in fact he'd locked down damn tight, as much as he could, to be safe. But that doesn't matter now, what he's ready for or not doesn't matter now, so he forces himself to clear his throat and start to say, "Yeah, we should probably talk abou - " and doesn't get further.

It's not faster than he can react, because just about nothing is. It's just faster than he wants to, or has a reaction ready, so it might as well be faster than he can: he still ends up with Bucky shoving him back into the wall and stepping in close, left hand flat in the middle of Steve's chest. And there are so many reasons Steve being caught by the sheer beauty of the single movement that does it all is incredibly wrong and really not helpful but he is anyway.

Jesus.

"No." Bucky's close enough that Steve can feel the word as much as hear it, "We're not talking," and he says that like a curse, "and if you try right now I swear to God I will go back to trying to kill you."

Empty threat. The back of Steve's brain tries to slide a probably in there and he shoves it away: empty threat, just not one that didn't mean anything. He can't read what's in Bucky's eyes, not really, but he can't look away either. And Bucky takes a breath and says, "Two words and you pick one of them, Rogers - yes or no."

Christ.

And the right answer is no, with a lot of reasons the right answer is no - probably no - if there is such a thing as a right answer right now and Steve's not convinced. The responsible answer is no but maybe everyone gets one mistake.

Well. No they don't. Not really. That's not how it works. There are no free shots. Every mistake can kill you. Every mistake can be a disaster. Can be the end.

Steve ends up with his hands on either side of Bucky's head and his mouth against Bucky's mouth anyway. Because. Because he can. Because Bucky is here, because he’s alive, because Steve has missed him so goddamn, so fucking much it still hurts and because there is a limit. A limit to something. To everything. A limit he’s hit. Because Brooklyn because Breitenau because Bucky -

Because I’m sorry means even less when you can’t even explain why, explain what’s your fault, except that if you could go back the way you were thrown forward he would, he would and do everything, everything different.

Do everything better.

And because I missed you and because I don’t want to miss you anymore and because maybe everybody’s weak some way and this is his. Has always been his. It might be a test and he might be failing, but God, he can't not. He'd taken everything, all of this and stuck it behind a wall, and now the mortar's worn away and everything's flooding out again.

God, I missed you.

Bucky’s left hand closes on the front of his shirt, twisting in it, knuckles hard and cold through the fabric; his right hand slides behind Steve’s head and his mouth opens against Steve’s and now memory is Steve’s problem and the problem is too much, so many, all the times just like this except the wall was an abandoned house in Belgium, France or Germany and everything was -

Familiar. Details, every detail different. Except everything that matters, down to Bucky's weight against him, tension of God knows how long relaxing out of his body against Steve's. Down to I thought I lost you, down to the edge of desperation, down to -

It’s like a light.

It’s actually like a goddamn light going off in his head. It's a good thing he's against the wall already or the dizzying brightness might make him fall. Steve you idiot.

The light goes off, memory hits understanding and Steve realizes he’s an idiot. He’s an idiot. He was an idiot then and he’s an idiot now and he understands why, finally - why the night in Breitenau ever happened, why Bucky then threw himself on the battered sofa in the half-blown-out house beside Steve and half-fell on him and why that ended with Bucky half in his lap mouthing at his neck and making fun of him for being oblivious -

He hadn’t asked then, any time after, too stupidly happy and grateful for everything and too afraid of breaking something; he doesn’t ask now because he finally doesn’t need to. Because - how do you stop feeling half dead, cut off, lost, how do you stop feeling like a weapon instead of a person - well, Steve figures this would work.

This would work just fine.

Because he’s still an idiot Steve pulls away to take a breath and to start to say “I’m sorry - “ but Bucky yanks on his shirt and breathes, “Shut up,” bites Steve’s lower lip and shifts to grind his hips against Steve's with very clear and definite intent to keep Steve from thinking, let alone talking.

So Steve gives up and puts his apology in another kiss, harder and deeper; he moves his hands, sliding them up Bucky’s back under his shirt. He keeps his right hand down at Bucky's lower back, well clear of the left shoulder where metal and skin meet.

With the fraction of his brain still thinking he doesn’t think that’s a good idea, not yet. Doesn’t think they’re anywhere near working on being okay with that.

Steve’s fingers and palms slide over scars he doesn’t know, stories he doesn’t know; he tries not to think about how deep, how bad he knows injuries have to be to leave scars at all. One or two scarred places when he touches them Bucky shifts or flinches and Steve moves his hands away, not going there, either.

Bucky pulls away for a second, long enough for Steve to help him get rid of his shirt. Apparently that’s it for a while, though; before Steve can move to get rid of his Bucky’s back up against him thigh to shoulder, left hand on the wall beside Steve’s neck, right hand sliding from Steve's lower back down under the waistband of Steve’s jeans, mouth on the hinge of Steve’s jaw.

Through the haze of relief and elation and just plain lust something occurs to Steve, and he manages to say, “There is actually a bed in less than twenty feet on the left.” Then his head falls back against the wall as Bucky’s teeth scrape against the spot just below Steve's jaw, the side of his throat. Christ yes, that, he'd been deliberately not thinking about Bucky doing that for a long time.

Bucky’s breath is cool against skin where his mouth was when he mutters, “You and your fucking beds,” against Steve’s neck. Steve laughs, light-headed.

“Actually I was thinking fucking in bed," he says. And for the first time in either years or decades, depending on how you look at it, Steve hears Bucky laugh.

It’s different and darker, short and feral instead of loud and light like Steve remembers but it’s still a laugh and he’ll take it. He'll take everything and whatever he can get. And oh God please don't let it be a mistake.

Please.

Bucky gets one of his knees between Steve's legs and says, "Bed's over there, wall and floor are right here," and that is incredibly persuasive, especially with Bucky rocking against him and scraping fingernails over Steve's low back - either returning memory or a very lucky guess - and Bucky's breath in his ear.

What Bucky knows about sex is possibly - probably, oh Christ, hopefully and Steve shies away from that thought fast - dim memory and instinct and body-memory and whatever he's read since coming here, but at least one of those is working really well. Steve just has the advantage of remembering that walls and floors sound great before and end up being uncomfortable, cold and often sticky afterwards.

He turns his head to catch Bucky's mouth again, fingers of both hands tangling in Bucky's hair and that's new enough to keep him from losing track of what he meant to do and just getting completely lost in here-and-now and what he's been rigidly forbidding himself to even think about for months because it wasn't right and for so long before that because it hurt too much.

The kiss gives him enough leverage to slide away from the wall, a little, for the few stumbling steps down the hall so that when Bucky's protest turns into a push this time Steve's back's against the doorjamb. Since the door is open, the push means Steve half-turns and for a split second Bucky loses enough balance that his left hand falls on Steve's arm to steady himself.

Steve makes absolutely damn sure he doesn't react to the touch of the metal or that Bucky's fingers dig in slightly too much.

"Cheat," Bucky says, letting go and pulling Steve away from the door and now apparently as impatient to get Steve's shirt off as he'd been unwilling to give Steve the space to in the hall. Steve thinks he hears something rip on his right, but he has more shirts.

"Yeah, well," Steve says, as Bucky pulls him the last three steps to the bed and down onto it, and that's about as much coherence as that gets.

It's a mostly controlled fall. Mostly. Steve's part of it has some control, anyway, because he catches himself on one arm and manages not to land with his knee driving into Bucky's hip instead of beside it. But his forehead still bumps against Bucky's just hard enough to sting, enough to drag out an ow from Steve and another few breaths of laughter from Bucky and a sorry.

"No you're not," Steve says, because he only sort of managed not to fall on top of Bucky and the collision of skulls seems to be the price of of Bucky's thighs pressed against the outside of Steve's hips and Bucky arching his low back to press himself right up against Steve. If Bucky's still cautious of his left hand - and he is, even here, a little - he's using the rest of him and gravity to make up for it.

"Yeah, not even a little," Bucky admits, pulling Steve's head down again with his right hand and Steve swears, all his protestations (true ones!) to Natasha aside, he'd forgotten what kissing could be. Forgot it could be this, something to completely lose himself in, something to make him moan all by itself - and Hell, who knows, maybe it can't anywhere else, with anyone else.

At this point he's willing to believe that. He's willing to believe anything that means this won't stop.

He lets himself fall onto his side, roll onto his back to rest against pillows so he doesn't have to lose one hand to holding himself up, drags Bucky with him to only minor protest, ending with one of Bucky's knees between Steve's and Bucky braced on his left hand.

Steve catches the side of Bucky's face, tilts Bucky's head back with one hand so he can kiss and nip at his throat and says, "Shut up, you jerk, I'm trying to get hands free to touch you instead of the sheets."

Because Bucky is - was, and nothing says it's anything but the same now - like a cat, always, with Steve, with the girls he used to chase, with everyone, and there are times Steve would have sworn that if Bucky could get away with just crawling into someone's lap and rubbing all over them he would.

Not that he'd ever say that out loud. Ever.

For a while, anyway.

Bucky might have had something to say, but it gets lost in a noise mostly like nnng when Steve strokes down the side of Bucky's neck to his right shoulder, thumb brushing back and forth along his collar-bone, proving his guess right. Steve puts his other hand on Bucky's waist, just above the jeans that they are both seriously going to have to get rid of soon, and Bucky actually shivers - good shivers - when Steve slides that hand up his back. He's careful of the places Bucky flinched from before, but now apparently he either doesn't notice or doesn't care: the muscles in Bucky's shoulders flex and he shifts like he's trying to encourage Steve to touch every inch of skin possible.

Which Bucky then completely undermines, if it was his plan, by leaning forward and down to kiss Steve again, grinding his knee possibly maybe probably not accidentally into Steve's crotch and making him gasp up into the kiss that turns into several, until Steve pulls back enough to say, "Okay, we need to get rid - "

And Bucky says, "Uhhuh," and they nearly don't anyway, and Steve has never hated buttons and tiny zippers more. He might have worried about the lack of, well, anything you might have in, say, the bedside table drawer if you had any kind of inkling of having sex any time in the near future, except that by the time they do get rid of the last of their clothes neither of them is willing to let go long enough or move far enough or be anything other than skin to skin, legs tangled up and mouth on mouth.

Until it's over, until Steve is arching up against the crease of Bucky's thigh, until Bucky stops sucking at Steve's neck long enough to presumably curse in what Steve barely recognizes as Russian, and then tries considerately not to collapse on top of Steve, who deliberately ruins that by wrapping one arm around Bucky's ribcage and resting the other hand on the back of his neck and pulling him down to lie against Steve again, skin to skin again, Bucky's left arm across half of Steve's chest and Bucky's breath against his ear.

Bucky says something Steve doesn't recognize, and then, "Fuck," and the obvious pun is so bad Steve can't help laughing, weakly, still catching his breath. There's a thread of practical thought that tries to say they have a seriously limited time before discomfort sets in, but Steve metaphorically not only clubs it to death but sets it on fire.

He will stay here as long as he can, just like this, and pretend he's not completely God-damn terrified of what might happen in ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. Stick with now. Turn towards Bucky and rest his forehead against Bucky's and hope that whatever happens, it isn't - wrong.

After Steve's not sure how many quiet minutes, Bucky says, "I fucking hate history. No. I fucking hate people."

" . . .hn?" is all Steve manages to end up saying, because he really doesn't see where that's coming from, or what it means. Bucky shifts a bit down, so he can actually rest his head on Steve's shoulder.

"If people weren't so fucking stupid," Bucky says, "we wouldn't've had to keep any kind of fucking secret, and I wouldn't've had to spend two fucking weeks trying to decide if I could deal with finding out I fucking made everything up." And there's a thin skin of joke there, in the railing against the narrow-mindedness of "people" - but it's a thin skin over something Steve suspects is pretty raw. Well. Is pretty sure is.

"Jesus," he says, softly. "Two w - "

"Shut up," Bucky says. Steve shuts up and smooths his hand down and back up Bucky's back until the muscles he just felt tense up relax again. And then even the thin skin's gone, and Bucky breathes, "Fuck. I missed you." And his voice is raw enough to make Steve's chest hurt.

There's things to say, there's whole books, whole careers of poets and writers who sat around and polished things to say at moments like this, but what Steve manages is, "Yeah," and it's heartfelt and it's sincere and he still doesn't blame Bucky at all when he starts laughing.

Still new, still darker and sharper, but while Steve could probably care less he'd have to really try. He wouldn't've blamed Bucky for making fun of him, either, but he just pushes himself up to brace on his left arm and kisses Steve instead, a very clear invitation to do everything over again, maybe with more thought this time.

Maybe.

 

It's not surprising that eventually both doze off, comfortably sprawled, Bucky on his back, Steve on his front with his arm thrown across Bucky's body, Bucky's right arm relaxed towards Steve with his fingers by Steve's throat.

It is surprising that when Steve rouses out of the doze twenty, thirty minutes later, Bucky doesn't - that Bucky is, as far as Steve can tell, deeply asleep.

He'd shifted to turn towards Steve, a little. Or maybe just towards curling on his side, left arm shielding his stomach and throat, Steve thinks. But only a little, not all the way there, so that his left arm rests bent on his ribs and his head falls to one side, hair falling over his eyes, mouth just open, breath slow and regular and shallow as sleeping breath is.

Bucky doesn't rouse when Steve moves very, very carefully, and that's a bigger surprise. It's almost as if, Steve thinks, having for once gotten Bucky to relax and let go, his body's dragged him down as deep into sleep as he can get, for as long as he'll let it.

It's late afternoon. The sun's moved far enough that the room's cooling down and that's what woke Steve up, that growing sense of slight chill. He pushes himself up on his arm, looks around and then reaches for the full-sized blanket he keeps at the foot of the bed, an old habit for just-in-case. It's a kind of fleece; Steve got it over a year ago because he'd been fascinated by just how soft it was and it's lived at the foot of his bed, mostly ignored, ever since.

It's half kicked off the bed, rumpled up and and unfolded, but it's within arms' reach and one-handed, Steve awkwardly shakes it open to pull over both of them. If Bucky's managed to sleep - actually sleep - it'd be a Hell of a shame if he woke up because he got cold.

This time, he's moved enough that Bucky's right hand isn't touching his skin anymore and Bucky shifts, brows pulling together; when Steve moves back, catches Bucky's hand and brings it up to rest against his lower shoulder, Bucky's face smooths out again and he stops moving. Steve feels himself half-smile, shakes his head and pulls the blanket up to Bucky's shoulder.

Apparently he's not going anywhere for a while.

He knows that as a rule Bucky still sleeps on the floor, though by now his distaste for any kind of cold means there's a thick wool fire-blanket underneath him and another two blankets on top. He sleeps in whatever clothes he wore during the day, with a hooded sweatshirt on top, and Steve knows that if you were to go looking, there's at least four knives and two guns in easy reach.

And Steve knows that mostly, Bucky sleeps in broken chunks, one REM cycle at a time if not less. He knows he's never seen Bucky this deeply asleep, suspects that if it's happened at all in all the time Bucky's been with him here, it's only been a handful of times.

You wouldn't think you could forget how to fall asleep, how to stay asleep. Steve still thinks that's got to be one of the stupidest tricks the human body - enhanced, unenhanced, who cared - could pull. But you could, and Bucky did, and it's enough of a relief here to see him sleeping that Steve pulls a page from the cliche handbook and stays where he is and stays awake to watch him, at least for a few minutes.

There's a tension to Bucky, always, even when nothing's wrong, like wire strung under his skin pulling at parts of him and if it's not gone it's less: less in his neck, his jaw, his face, his shoulders. Now the fingers of his right hand are loosely curled around the lower forearm of the arm Steve's leaning on, less like Bucky's actually trying to hold onto anything and more because that's how they fit, where they fell. Steve runs the side of his thumb along Bucky's arm and there's less tension there, too.

Steve considers calling himself an idiot again, but figures he probably got the point last time. Everything's obvious in hindsight, and it's so easy to forget - not just the big, obvious things like sex and whether and how it happened, but little things, like how much Bucky used to touch people, whoever he could, parents and friends and comrades and Steve and any girl who'd let him. Steve wonders if that kind of thing is built in, some how, stamped into your body when you're born and if it is -

Steve reaches over and brushes Bucky's hair away from his eyes, rests his hand against the side of Bucky's neck and jaw and brushes his thumb along Bucky's cheekbone. And Bucky's still asleep but his head turns, moves into it anyway, just barely, and if Steve's done calling himself names he's not sure he'll ever be done apologizing, at least where Bucky can't hear and threaten to throw things.

Sorry for not coming back for your body that wouldn't've been there, sorry for not looking, sorry for crashing into the ocean and being no good to anybody, sorry for being an idiot (okay, maybe not completely done) and not just staying still to show you the way home, sorry for being an idiot until now and forgetting you were you, even with everything I say over and over - Bucky wouldn't want to hear a single word, but Steve thinks them anyway.

His hand brushes down the side of Bucky's neck to his shoulder; the scar between metal and skin isn't as livid as it can be, but Steve still notices and wonders if it's safe enough yet to talk about getting Bucky's left arm fixed, replaced, the hack job redone by people who if nothing else care about how pissed off Steve would be if they didn't do it well, and that's probably, almost certainly selling them criminally short.

He's not sure. It's complicated, deeply complicated, probably even more complicated than Bruce thought. Bucky's left arm is a weapon and a shield, inflicted and forced on him and a symbol of so many fucking horrible things and at the same time a kind of comfort, safety, something he's had longer than two generations have been alive.

Something almost certainly causing him constant pain, Steve thinks, except he probably doesn't even feel it as pain anymore, and where do you go from there, and how much strength is worth how much pain? And that, that is not Steve's decision and he damn well knows it, but the decision even try to talk about it again . . .

He doesn't know. Not right now, anyway.

It's late afternoon and Steve thinks the chances of either him or Bucky sleeping through the night from here are slim, but he figures any deep sleep Bucky can get is worth throwing off the cycle of the day, and it's easy enough to get food at midnight.

Bucky shifts again when Steve settles back down, but it's towards him and only for a second; Steve wraps his arm around Bucky's body again, and maybe prays, one more time - please, let this be okay.

Then he chases sleep.