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It's one of those things, one of those times, where if Steve could be objective and detached he'd probably acknowledge right from the start that the progress (and sometimes he hates that word) is visible, is marked.

That it's a marked change, and for the better, that when whatever it is goes wrong, when whatever it is hits the trigger line inside his mind, Bucky goes still and expressionless and then says, very quietly, "I need not to be here." And then, before Steve can make his head shift languages enough to form the thought, Bucky says, "No. You stay."

And then he's gone; less than five minutes later Steve gets a text that just says tower, meaning that Bucky didn't try to go all the way home from here - which would have almost certainly been a fucking disaster. And that their floor at the Tower worked, works, as somewhere to retreat to, from here, from the cafe with too many people and whatever it is that turned everything sour.

All of it's progress and if Steve could turn off everything but cool judgement then maybe it'd feel like it. Instead, here and now in the real world and inside his real head, he forces his jaw to unclench and himself to smile at Amanda as he takes the tray of drinks and pastries, and turns back to the table.

Jane's face already has the half-scrunched up look of a wince, and as he puts the tray down she says, "That didn't look good."

"It wasn't," Steve says, as matter-of-fact as he can.

"Do you need to go?" she asks, and he shakes his head, sitting down.

"Not right now," he says. Decides not to share the part where in point of fact, he got told to stay. "Sorry," he says, and Thor waves it away.

"These things happen," he says, and then takes his whip-cream topped confection with a slightly dubious frown.

From anyone else, that might seem dismissive; from Thor, it's completely sincere. Steve's found that of everyone, sometimes including him, Thor's somehow the best at taking Bucky completely in stride, even in moments like this. And not for lack of comprehension, of understanding exactly how - and how bad - some things can be.

It's mostly as if there's a space there, Steve thinks, in how Asgardians look at the world. The universe. Creation. A sense of how many things can happen, and how many of them are horrific, and how that changes people, and so a space for what the change means. An acceptance of it.

Including moments in a cafe line, waiting for drinks and food to finish, when the world goes twisted on you for some reason and you can't be there anymore. For example.

Steve does ask, "Did you see anything?" Jane shakes her head, but Thor frowns.

"A man in attire I understand to be more expensive than tasteful walked past you," he says, "but that is all, and James did not seem to note anything amiss until after the man had passed you both."

Then he cautiously sips the peppermint-toffee mocha in front of him and his eyebrows rise. "That is surprisingly pleasant. I like it."

There's a beat, and then Jane's attention drags itself from concern at Steve to sudden, wicked amusement and Thor sighs. "And no, I will not throw the mug on the floor," he says, mock-wounded, and Steve tries hard to let himself get distracted by the byplay.

They're here because Tony wheedled: he (or probably Pepper) picked this long weekend for the launch of Stark Industries' foray into personal and assistive technologies, and there's some kind of All-Afternoon Thing tomorrow. Somehow he managed to bribe, emotionally blackmail or beg all of them to be here, even Natasha and Clint, who'd apparently been extremely reluctant to court publicity (again), and even talked Sam into flying in from DC, landing in the early-ish morning tomorrow.

Granted, with Thor and Jane, Steve doesn't think he had to try very hard. Among other things - like Jane being subtly allergic to staying in one place for too long - he gathers Jane's former graduate student is now on a (paid) internship at the Tower, and gets the feeling that Jane's surprised at how much she misses the kid.

And after enough wheedling to test Steve's patience, Tony got him and Bucky to agree to come, and to stay at the Tower. If Steve has to go back on that, he just hopes Tony has the sense God gave concussed baby sheep and doesn't argue about it. Steve's still only got metaphorical gold stars on his internal did not actually deck Tony Stark chart. He's been hoping to keep it that way.

"Throw the mug?" Steve asks, inviting the story, trying to pay attention to it instead of either obsessively checking a phone he knows hasn't rung or buzzed or chimed, or just hitting the end of his rope and having to leave.

He's trying, very hard, not to ignore the you stay. It's harder than he expected, and he expected it to be hard.

At Steve's question, Jane ends up giggling, while Thor looks halfway between amused and sheepish. He leans on folded arms and says, "In Asgard, at least among the nobility, the custom is that if you find a drink or morsel particularly pleasing, you show it by casting the vessel it was served in on the floor, in order to break it - "

" - so that it's never cheapened by holding something inferior," Steve finishes, and Thor looks surprised. "I'm guessing you passed it on," Steve explains. "There's an old Earth culture that used to do the same, Bucky used to read the sagas to me when we were kids and I was sick."

Thor acknowledges that with a gesture and then says, "Well. I had just been exiled from Asgard. What is the saying - " he looks at Jane and makes a come-on gesture in the air, "door hitting - ?"

"Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out," Jane supplies.

"Yes, that. In more or less that fashion. Normally when one is deposited from the Bifrost," Thor explains wryly, "one is standing more or less as one was when one stepped out of one's own world. This time I hit the ground rather harder. I was then," he adds, shooting Jane a sly look, "hit by a motor vehicle."

Jane wrinkles her nose. "I did, I hit him with our van. But that was an accident, and Darcy's the one who tased him."

"That was not an accident," Thor notes, and Steve latches onto the amusement as best he can. Which isn't too bad. It is funny. "I do not blame her," Thor adds. "I fear I was somewhat out of sorts and incoherent."

"You were shouting at Heimdall to open the Bifrost back up," Jane says. "And then you were very offended she would threaten a son of Odin with 'so puny a weapon'."

"I do not remember that," Thor says, "but I entirely believe it. At any rate, I then woke up in a very strange place with unfamiliar persons attempting to stick me with sharp implements and take my blood - "

"Hospital," Jane supplies, Thor acknowledging with a gesture again; Steve finds himself smiling, because he bets a hospital, even a modern one, really does seem like a Hell of a strange and threatening place when you don't know what it is.

" - whereupon I broke a great many things, was sedated, woke up restrained, broke the restraints and wandered out into an alien landscape in a hospital gown, to be hit by a vehicle," Thor finishes. "Again."

Jane covers her face. "I did," she says. "I backed into him. Do you have any idea how bad I felt?" she asks, half of Steve and half of Thor.

"Bad enough to take a previously threatening stranger home and give him clothes," Thor replies, looking amused. "And then buy him breakfast. Which brings us to the first time I had coffee."

"'This drink!'" Jane says, in as low and as haughty a voice as she can make. "'I like it! Another!'" and then she mimes chucking something at the floor. And Steve has to laugh. "Right in the middle of the diner," Jane adds. "I was kind of upset."

"Although I would point out that I did later bring the owner a replacement," Thor says, solemnly. "And apologized."

"You did," Jane acknowledges. "And she went out of her way to tell me I could do worse." And Thor throws his head back and laughs.

 

Steve holds out for twenty minutes; they're supposed to meet Elizabeth and Bruce for lunch in another forty, but when they've done their drinks Jane stops him and gives him a quick, tight hug. It's unexpected, and unexpectedly touching, especially since she has to stand on tiptoe to do it.

"You should go," she says, serious. "It's fine, we'll tell Betty and Bruce. You did a great job laughing at my stories," she adds, when he starts to try to form an answer, despite not even knowing what the answer is, "but even if you just go read a book somewhere, I think you're out of - " she waves her hand, "social energy, for now."

Steve glances down, but has to concede the point. "You're probably right," he admits and she smiles.

"Seriously, it's okay. I mean, Darcy works at the Tower now. If you see her, you can ask her about my post-Aether panic attacks - I really, I know this stuff happens, Steve. So does Thor. We don't think any less of you, and it's not even awkward. I mean," she adds, looking down and fiddling with her necklace, "obviously I'm making it awkward right now by telling you, but - I think you know what I mean." She looks up again. "It's just a thing that happens."

"Thank you," Steve says, meaning it.

 

He thinks about going somewhere to read a book. He does. There haven't been any more texts, which means -

He thinks about it, seriously considers finding the Tower library, or even taking a walk.

And then takes the elevator to their floor, without stopping.

The kitchen and one of the living-room lights are on, which is a better sign than he actually expects. There's a pot of coffee half-way to made on the counter beside the stove, and Steve finishes it, filling it with water and setting it on to boil, before he takes off his coat and goes the rest of the way in.

Bucky's sitting with his back against the wall in the living-room, in the space between the arm-chair and the other wall. Nothing's broken, including any part of him; he's staring through the floor in front of him, into the middle distance. His knees are bent and his left forearm rests on one, but his right hand is down by his side, moving over the fur of the small, ferociously purring animal glued to his hip.

They'd wavered, both of them, about bringing Abrikoska versus leaving her with Chloe for the weekend and only barely settled on it being better for her to have her along. Now, watching Bucky touch her, watching actual movement and release in his right arm and hand, even right now - well, Steve makes a mental note to get a harness and get her used to leaving the condo and finding new spaces. Because she's not getting left.

She lifts her nose, probably smelling for him, her eyes squeezed shut as she purrs like crazy.

"Almost half an hour," Bucky says, distantly, in Russian. "I'm impressed." They're the kind of words that are hard to imagine being anything but mocking, but they're not. Just blunt and - off. Not for language, not now: if it's not a conscious choice at least it's something Bucky's aware of and not bothering to fight with, and that's fine.

The off-ness is everything else.

The question's almost ritual, and he knows the answer, but Steve asks it anyway, in English: "You okay?"

Bucky's gaze flicks up to him for half a heartbeat and then back. "No," he says, and Steve watches the fingers of his left hand curl and then release.

"Anything I can do?" Steve asks, to finish the recital and Bucky shakes his head, the way Steve expects.

"No," he says. And then, with the slightest flicker of a grimace he adds, "Not . . .yet."

Which . . . is new.

"Okay," Steve says. And looks for a second at the small cat who's turning her head halfway upside-down to try and direct Bucky's fingers to her chin.

Steve turns the rest of the lights on and adjusts the temperature up, finds his sketchbook and a pencil and eventually pours them both coffee, spoons their sugar in. He takes sketchbook, pencil and both mugs with him to the living-room, puts one mug down by Bucky's left side and sits down with his back against the corner of the arm-chair.

Flips his sketchbook open.

It takes a minute or two, but eventually he gets what he expects, which is Bucky's short huff of a not-a-laugh and then Bucky saying, sounding less off, "For the love of God, Steve, sit in a chair."

Steve shrugs. "Don't need one."

They sit like that for a while, without talking, Steve trying out the strange curves of the cat on paper. Eventually Bucky says, "Alone I could get back here before something broke. I'm sorry."

Steve starts to say it's okay, reconsiders and says, "Don't worry about it," instead. He lets his pencil go still, watches Bucky's face for a minute and then asks, "What was it?"

"Smell," Bucky says. His jaw works for a second and he swallows, looks down, looks to the cat he's still touching before looking up to look through the floor again. "Not of anywhere," he says, "of - him." And there's a stuttered pause before the pronoun, and Zola doesn't get that, so he means Pierce. And that, Steve thinks with the abstracted part of him, probably means a cologne, doesn't it? A laundry detergent would have shown up before now, most likely the same with the smell of some soap or shampoo, but you could get pretty esoteric with specific colognes -

The corner of Bucky's mouth twists and he adds, "Rich idiot that walked by us must've been wearing whatever he wore, came with him." He rubs at his temple with the heel of his left hand. "Bastard's God-damned lucky he's not dead now."

"Wasn't luck," Steve says, and this time Bucky actually laughs. It's ragged and derisive, but it's a laugh.

Then he says, "Fuck," and pinches the bridge of his nose. Steve puts his sketchpad down and flips the cover back over.

"Do we need to go home?" he asks, and Bucky shakes his head, more denial of the question than an answer.

"I don't know," he says. He drops his hand and looks up; then he says, "Actually right now I . . .need you to come here."

Steve shifts so he can move over, starts before Bucky even finishes the request. It's still rare enough Bucky can actually say something like that, instead of having to wait for Steve to offer. Steve settles himself in the corner between wall and armchair and then picks up the kitten to put her on the other side, get her out of the way so Bucky can move and settle himself where he wants, which ends up being with his back to Steve's chest. He catches Steve's hands in each of his, interlacing their fingers and then bringing them together, resting his forehead against them. Steve rests his against Bucky's spine.

After a few minutes Steve says, "You know, if you can figure out which cologne it is, I'm pretty sure we could get Tony to buy out the company and get rid of the formula."

Bucky laughs, a little helplessly. "Fuck," he says. "He probably would, too."

There's a protesting meow and Steve feels the touch of pin-prick claws as Abrikoska climbs over his thigh and gets close enough to bump her head against Bucky's waist.

"I'll think about it," Bucky says, sourly. He lets go of Steve's left hand and rests his on the kitten, who doesn't seem to mind, but settles down on Steve's leg to purr. "Christ," he says, and some of the tension goes out of him. A little. "I feel like shit."

Steve rests his free hand against Bucky's back, applying gentle pressure to the twisted up muscles in and around the anchor for his arm. He considers pointing out what Bucky just managed to do, in leaving, in coming back here, because especially given the cause . . . but then figures if he was having trouble finding that comforting before, Bucky definitely won't care now. Instead, he says, "Missed a couple good stories," in a conversational kind of way.

Bucky's next breath is careful and slow and relaxes a little more again on the exhale. "Yeah?" he says, carefully. "So tell me."