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variations on an aggravating theme

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It's sunset - about seven-thirty - when Bucky comes home. He closes the door more or less without force, and there's no thud from kicking off boots, so in the handful of seconds where he still can't see Steve, Steve winces and then puts that away. It's never a good sign when he slides back towards deliberately avoiding noise, even harmless ones.

In the last four days Bucky's been home to sleep, or to pretend to sleep, and more or less not otherwise - a handful of hours sitting on the bed in his room reading something, or maybe watching something, on the tablet. And Steve's torn pretty badly between hating that weeks like this still happen - hating it so fucking much - and the part of him that knows it's pretty close to a miracle that now they just . . . are, they're something that happens, like his infinite bad colds used to happen: upsetting and unavoidable and completely survivable.

Knowing that is comforting. That they have to know it is . . . something else.

Bucky steps out of the front porch pulling his sweat-shirt over his head: it's got patches of dirt and wet, but nothing ripped, and no blood. He tosses it down the hall and turns enough towards Steve that he can see Bucky's face, and Steve goes for outright immediate honesty. Says, "You look awful."

And Bucky does, enough that Steve pretty firmly marks the only pretending to sleep side of the mental sheet for the last three nights.

"I fucking feel awful," Bucky says, matter-of-fact, which means he actually feels worse. If he's willing to admit it like that, without passing it off as nothing or a mostly-self-mocking, self-disgusted joke . . .

And count that triple, or maybe cubed, if he's willing to just come over to the couch and crawl onto it with Steve, stretching himself out on his stomach so that his head's resting on Steve's shoulder, eyes closed. Willing to do it without comment, without sitting at the other end of the couch or on the floor in front of it until Steve coaxes or drags him up where he wants to be - and can't, honest to God can't.

It takes a lot of awful to drown that can't, to bury it, and Steve reaches back to put the paperback he'd been reading on the table beside him.

Bucky tenses a little when Steve brushes fingers over the curve of the left side of his neck, but it's the kind of tension Steve can watch Bucky walk back, force back, and that Bucky's sworn he'd rather Steve ignore. It fades and eases out as Steve follows the line of Bucky's left shoulder to the edge of skin and then back and down along the edge of Bucky's shoulder-blade.

After a minute Bucky says, "I know it's not real. But I see - feel - then." His voice is flat and almost uninflected, except for the weight on the word then and the shift in syntax probably nobody else would notice. That Steve didn't used to. "I'm not fucking sitting here, with, around you, and living that. I'm not mixing that. And no," he adds, "you can't fucking help."

He tenses up again with those words; Steve shifts his hand to press fingertips up to just underneath Bucky's skull and waits until that gives a little before he says, "I get it." And feels more of that tension go.

He hesitates, trying to pick his words, when Bucky says, "No."

Steve blinks.

"You're trying to figure out how to ask me if I've eaten anything," Bucky says, eyes still closed. "No. I haven't. I'm not eating now, either."

"I wasn't actually gonna go for that," Steve says, mildly, ignoring Bucky's soft snort. "I was just figuring out where you're at."

"I feel like shit," Bucky replies, "I haven't eaten since yesterday morning. Or slept. At all. That figured enough?"

"Add 'really grouchy' and I think that covers everything," Steve replies and Bucky huffs a not-really laugh. But it's a sort of gesture in that direction.

Then he says, "Fuck, don't stay here if you need to move or I'll just feel like shit later - "

"Move your knee a bit," Steve says, "then I'm fine. I wasn't going anywhere anyway. I was supposedly reading Sartre, that's all."

" . . .why?" Bucky asks, with so much disgust that Steve has to laugh.

 

Steve dozes for a while, Bucky either dozing too or just completely happy to lie still with his eyes closed and his breath slow. About the time sun finishes giving way to lamp-light, though, a sense of obligation makes him reach back to the table to pick up La Nausée and flip through to his last page again.

He tries to find some kind of sympathy for Antoine. Again. It's kind of difficult, because every time he finds some, he just really wants to refer the guy to a psychiatrist, because as far as Steve can tell there's two possibilities here: one, Antoine is seriously depressed and needs some serious psychiatric treatment, or two, Antoine and Sartre both need someone to literally smack some sense into them. So Steve's not really optimistic, as he scans the page for where he left off and nudges his mind over to thinking in French again, that he'll do any better this time.

It turns out it doesn't matter, though, because after about five minutes Bucky shifts his weight a little to his right and reaches out with his left hand to yank the book away from Steve and dump it without ceremony and with disgust on the floor.

"Stop trying to read Sartre," Bucky says, irritably. "He's a self-absorbed idiot who writes about self-absorbed idiots too fucking stupid to figure out the reason they're alienated and alone is because nobody in their right mind wants anything to do with them and they'd probably be better off if they went out and got a fucking job. Believe me," he adds, "you heard that one hit the wall a lot."

"Why'd you keep picking it back up, then?" Steve asks, frowning - other than a couple of the psychology ones, books got two throws before Bucky gave up in disgust.

When Steve reaches over to pick up the book, it's honestly just to put it on the table before the cover bends, but Bucky still blocks him by catching Steve's hand in his left, shooting the paperback a disgusted look.

"Same reason you're trying to read it," he says, sourly. He shifts enough to raise his head and lean on his forearm across Steve's ribs. "Idiot's supposed to be a seminal fucking philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century, which, if that's true, a whole fucking lot is explained. Just read the Wikipedia article," Bucky says, "and save some hours out of your life."

Then his mouth quirks. "For that matter, save everyone else how annoyed you're gonna get with what's-his-fuck by the end of the book. Basically he just figures out that the universe doesn't give a fuck about him but he should do shit anyway, which is clearly a revelation nobody had before a bunch of over-educated French nitwits decided to reinvent the wheel."

"Fine," Steve says, slightly amused at the grouching now that it's safely aimed at dead novelists instead of anywhere else. "Can I put it away?" he adds, because Bucky hasn't let go of his hand yet.

Bucky's more comfortable with his left, now, maybe more willing to believe he isn't going to break anything without meaning to. Steve has no idea how much of that's actually due to Tony and Elizabeth's design and a real quantifiable difference, and how much of it's psychological, and it doesn't really matter. He has private milestones marked off in his head, uses Bucky's willing to put it to, and he figures that the day they've been outside in the cold and he gets freezing metal on his back under his shirt is pretty inevitable, and - whenever it happens - probably a good sign.

Right now the metal's different temperatures in different places, and changing - fingertips warm from resting against Steve's side, arch of the fingers cool from the air, except that now everywhere that touches Steve's skin's warming while everything else cools, so that when Bucky shifts his hand the contrast is distracting.

Bucky's fingers curve around the back of Steve's hand, and when his thumb rests on the pulse-point at Steve's wrist it's very, very deliberate. So Steve is really not surprised - completely distracted, forgetting what he'd asked a bit, but not surprised - when Bucky says, "No," his voice kind of abstracted and his gaze flicking up to Steve's face and back to his hand, speculative and maybe touching on wicked.

There's something about the inside of his wrists, something that makes it so it feels like the nerves are wired directly into the base of Steve's spine, hitting and sparking out everywhere else, every other inch of his skin lighting up. He doesn't get it, he's never got it, used to get as annoyed when people grabbed his wrists as he did when people leaned too close to talk in his ear, because if he's not expecting it the sparks aggravate - he doesn't get why his body does this, but it does, and Bucky knows it.

Bucky holds Steve's hand still, thumb still pressed lightly against Steve's wrist over the vein, as Bucky bends his head and almost brushes his mouth across the heel of Steve's hand - almost, so it's just his breath that touches Steve's skin but it feels like something else. Steve swallows, carefully; his middle and ring-fingers twitch, he can't stop them.

When Bucky moves his hand so that his little finger crosses in front of Steve's, holding them open away from his palm, his eyes are dark and for a minute Steve is totally, completely distracted because Bucky's eyes aren't fair, have never been fair and it's kind of worse when the look in them is the one that says I know exactly how to short your brain out firstly because Bucky does and secondly because he looks unholy pleased with himself about it.

There are things that get written into bone, maybe, and if Steve's eventually gotten used to not being the guy nobody looks at anymore he still can't actually take it for granted, can't get rid of that first split second of surprise. And it's still kind of something when the person who could have pretty much anyone they wanted (and God, yes, even now, if he wanted) wants you enough to smirk about being able to make you breathless.

Which Steve is, pretty quickly, when Bucky bends his head again. Presses open-mouthed kisses onto Steve's palm, lips parted and tongue flicking too-gently over skin, in the hollow of Steve's palm and then the edge, the base of every finger and his thumb one by one, Steve's fingers held back from closing when there Bucky brushes the side of Steve's hand with his teeth, bites and then kisses over the bite again at the heel, while Bucky's thumb stays absolutely still and his mouth never goes further than Steve's palm.

Steve manages to breathe the words, "You are such a tease," with his voice almost steady, and then ends up with the last word turning into an inarticulate hiss and noise as Bucky wraps his mouth around Steve's thumb.

It's not that Steve's barely aware of anything else, that's wrong because just about every nerve is alive and he can feel it all, from the zipper of the cushion cover in the small of his back to Bucky's hips against his pressing denim against the skin over his hip-bone to Bucky's right hand spread in the centre of his chest, each fingertip, palm and forearm taking Bucky's weight. It's that he is aware of it, all of it, and it's all so much . . .something, except for the heat of Bucky's mouth and how his tongue moves and way he scrapes his teeth up both sides, so that Steve ends up barely keeping himself from squirming.

It maybe should be embarrassing but the Hell he cares, except - "Bucky," he says and gets the moment or the tone right. Bucky lets go of his thumb, turning Steve's hand to bite the half-bent knuckle. He moves his hold on Steve's hand, holding either side of Steve's wrist with Steve's hand curled in his.

The first kiss he presses against the inside of Steve's wrist is almost chaste and it's still enough that Steve's breath catches hard and sharp; the second one isn't and Steve lets his head fall back against the arm of the couch with a groan.

Bucky moves more of his weight back, settling against Steve's hips that Steve can't keep still; for a split second he thinks he can feel the smirk on Bucky's mouth against his wrist and then it's gone into the sudden white sparks when Bucky bites him, stinging and sharp until he's soothing over the point of pain with lips and tongue. And then he does it again, just beside, and Steve shudders and steals breaths when he can.

His wrist isn't going to end up marked it's going to be a mark and if he's not careful of his other hand he's going to rip a hole in the couch whether he means to or not.

Then Bucky stops, slides up so he can take Steve's mouth instead. Pins Steve's hand to the arm of the couch, their fingers interlocked and one knee pressing against Steve's groin and making him moan into Bucky's mouth.

Part of him tries to point out that Bucky's tired, overtired - and that's as far as it gets before the rest of him replies that Bucky clearly doesn't care and it should shut up. The rest of him wins, and his free hand rests on the back of Bucky's neck, tangling in his hair.

When Bucky pulls away - just - he murmurs, "You're so fucking easy," and Steve tugs gently with his free hand.

"For you, yeah," he says, still breathless, and honestly thoughtless, because he knows damn well in general he's not - he says it so he says something, not for effect, and then he thinks he might be a little awed at the effect it has.

At the way Bucky looks down at him for a minute, completely still, his eyes wide and even darker, iris a thin ring of blue. The way Bucky touches the side of Steve's face with the curled fingers of his right hand while he still looks down, like he's looking for something and finding it and doesn't know what to do, or if he can believe it.

Then he's kissing Steve again, hard and deep and long until they're both gasping and Bucky says, "Jesus, Steve," and, "You've got one minute to get to the fucking bed before I just fuck you on the floor."