A crashing sound woke Steve the next morning. He shot off the floor of his living room, heart thudding as he scrambled for his shield. “Bucky!” he yelled, but then his brain caught up with his mouth. Bucky was swearing in English. It couldn’t be too serious.
Sure enough, Bucky called, “Go back to sleep.”
Like Steve would be able to sleep with that much adrenaline coursing through his veins. “What the hell are you doing, Buck?” Steve called, following Bucky’s voice through the apartment.
What Bucky was doing was sitting on the bathroom floor, his crutches on the linoleum beside him. “I’m trying to clean up,” Bucky said.
Well, that was unusual. Usually Bucky needed to be all but browbeaten into washing. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be on your feet yet,” Steve said.
Bucky scowled. “Get me some clean clothes.”
“Could you at least say please?”
Bucky stared up at him. He seemed to have slept off last night’s breakdown, which was a good thing, probably, but God, Bucky was so much easier to deal with when he was too exhausted to be awful –
Steve hoped his astonishment didn’t show in his face. “Okay,” he said, trying to sound like Bucky said please every day, and he left the bathroom so his face couldn’t give him away. “Is it okay if I go in your room?” He always asked.
Bucky always thought it was stupid. “How else are you going to get my clothes, dumbass?”
Bucky had been living in this room for nearly two years (well, give or take their near-constant missions), but it looked like he’d dropped by for a weekend. Bed neatly made, duffel bag slumped on the chair. No posters or knickknacks or signs of human habitation except an empty mug sitting on the bedside table.
In Brooklyn, Bucky hadn’t even had a bedroom, just a bed hung around with sheets to give him some privacy. But he’d tacked magazine photos of Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn on the walls, and ticket stubs from old shows he’d seen, and under the bed he shoved boxes holding clothes and battered comic books and drawing supplies and, way in the back, his old teddy bear. Steve teased Bucky about it when he found it, and Bucky laughed and covered the bear’s ears with his hands. “Don’t listen to him, Teddy. I’m never gonna throw you out.”
Most of Bucky’s clothes were still in his duffel bag from their recent mission, so the closet was almost bare. A few pairs of plaid boxer shorts. One pair of black cargo pants. The only clean sweatshirt was on the one Steve gave Bucky right after he came in from the cold. Steve bought it before Bucky actually showed up, on the superstitious principle that Sam called “if you buy it, he will come.” If Steve had things for Bucky, if he created a physical space for Bucky to fit into his life, somehow that would bring Bucky back to him.
The sweatshirt was too big for Bucky – Steve just couldn’t get used to the fact that Bucky was shorter than he was – and the cuffs were badly frayed, but at least it was clean.
By the time Steve got back to the bathroom, Bucky had stripped off his blood-stained sweatshirt and t-shirt and was making an absolute mess of the linoleum by giving himself a sponge bath right on the floor. It exasperated Steve that even under these circumstances, even after everything, he couldn’t look at Bucky’s bare chest without thinking God, he’s beautiful.
He’d hoped that maybe the train-wreck of having sex (such as it was) with Bucky would have finally destroyed his crush, but apparently not.
“Here,” he said, and put Bucky’s clothes on the closed toilet, where Bucky could reach them when he was done.
“And I want pancakes,” said Bucky. The briefest pause, and then he glanced up at Steve and said, “Please.”
It was hard to resist, but Steve did. “I probably shouldn’t operate the stove,” Steve pointed out. “I do have a concussion.”
Bucky lowered his head so sharply that Steve couldn’t see his face anymore. “Cereal’s okay too,” Bucky muttered.
He really did feel bad about hitting Steve. It made Steve want to sit down next to him on the wet linoleum floor and give him a hug, but he didn’t think Bucky would let him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Bucky said suddenly, and his usual aplomb was back in his voice. “I could learn Chinese.”
Steve was still a little slow from sleepiness. “What?”
“Or Arabic,” said Bucky. “Or Farsi. Or Spanish, but we should really pick something harder when we’ve got three whole months to work with.”
“Bucky – ”
“Or computers,” Bucky said. “I think our lack of computer knowledge has been compromising our field effectiveness.”
“Bucky,” said Steve. He sat down on the closed toilet. “What are you even talking about?”
“What to do for the next three months,” Bucky said. “Now that you’ve gone and gotten me suspended. Of course we’ll have PT in the mornings, like usual, but we can’t do that all day, and we won’t be able to get started till my leg is healed anyway, but that doesn’t mean we should just waste the whole week.”
Steve tried not to gape. He’d barely even thought how to get through the next day, and Bucky already had a plan worked out for the whole three months.
“You know you’re suspended for three months because you attacked Agent Tompkins and me, right?” Steve said. “No one at SHIELD doubts your qualifications as an agent.”
“I know, stupid,” said Bucky. “But they won’t want me to just sit around twiddling my thumbs for three months, would they? Idle hands and all that.”
Idle hands are the devil’s plaything. Bucky’s mom used to say that.
And of course Bucky had a point. Steve could hardly expect Bucky to lie around the apartment quietly watching movies for the next three months. Bucky had never dealt well with boredom, not even when he was a kid raising hell in Sunday school. Why hadn’t Steve thought this through?
Steve stood up. “I’m going to call Sam,” Steve said. “I’m going to ask him to swing round with some doughnuts for – ” He checked the time on his phone. “Lunch. A late lunch.” And hopefully some advice.
“Tell him to bring his wings!” Bucky called after Steve. “Learning to fly would be a good way to spend the next three months, too!”
Steve went to get his phone.
Bucky’s entire relationship with Sam revolved around those wings, ever since the very first time Sam and Bucky met after SHIELD released Bucky into Steve’s custody.
Sam brought them all frappuccinos, that first meeting. He didn’t wait for Steve to introduce them, just gave Bucky a chocolate frappuccino and said, “What should I call you?”
Bucky drank his frappuccino and didn’t speak – he wasn’t much for talking, the first week or so. Sam waited. Steve almost said something, but Sam glanced at him and Steve settled back down. “What do you want me to call you?” Sam asked again.
“Bucky,” said Bucky. He sucked up the last inch of his frappuccino with an obnoxious noise and tossed the empty cup onto the carpet. “It’ll make Steve happy.”
The only reason Bucky wanted to go by his own damn name was to make Steve happy? It made Steve want to cry.
But Bucky went right on talking. “I know you. The papers call you the Falcon. Like Stalin’s Falcons.” He referenced the Soviet Union a lot more in those early days. “Because of the wings.”
Steve and Sam glanced at each other, trying to figure out if that meant Bucky knew he’d nearly killed Sam or not. “You can just call me Sam, though,” Sam said. “Sam Wilson.”
“Your wings were fucking great,” Bucky said. “I hated having to rip them up. Have you repaired them? Can you show me how to use them?”
Since then, all Bucky’s conversations with Sam revolved around some variation on this theme. How did the wings work? How did Sam take care of them in the field? What were good tactics for aerial combat? Did the army ever consider attaching the wings to Sam’s back? Well, maybe it would be uncomfortable, but then they wouldn’t be able to take them away. (“Jesus Christ,” Sam said to Steve privately, afterward.)
Sam. Yes, he would call Sam. Sam would have good advice.
Steve dialed Sam’s number. The phone only rang once, and then Sam answered, almost yelling. “Steve! Are you okay?”
“Uh…yeah,” Steve said.
“Natasha says Bucky hit you hard enough to give you a concussion, and a few hours later they sent him home with you.”
“Yes – ”
“What the fuck were they thinking?”
Steve left the apartment and went to sit over by the elevator. Bucky was an inveterate eavesdropper, and there was no way he needed to hear this conversation. “I guess they figured I wouldn’t be stupid enough to set him off again,” Steve said.
“Steve. This is not your fault. Jesus Christ, man. Does he do this kind of thing often?”
“No!” Steve said. “No. This is only the second time – ”
“He’s been here nearly two years, Sam! And the first time he barely even hit me, it was just a slap, and this time it really was my fault.”
“Steve.” Sam’s voice was serious. “It’s not your fault if he hits you. Not ever.”
“No, it was,” Steve insisted. “I, um.” God, it was hard to tell this part. “I inadvertently threatened to hold him down while he was tortured, so…”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. Then Sam said, “Start over at the beginning. Maybe then this will make sense.”
So Steve told him the story. Bucky tossing Tompkins across the plane when Tompkins tried to set his leg and hitting Steve when Steve said he’d hold Bucky down rather than let him attack other medical personnel. The three-month suspension. Steve’s realization that the orphanage stories were a way of talking about SHIELD and Hydra and the Soviets.
“I didn’t do him any favors ending the therapy sessions with Dr. Charles, did I?” Steve said. “If Bucky trusted him enough to tell him the orphanage stories…”
“Steve, you still don’t even know if your theory is true. You thought – hell, Bucky told you that he was taking the guy for a ride.”
“Yes, but – ”
“Steve. You can’t blame yourself for not being able to read Bucky’s goddamn mind.”
There was a little silence then, mostly because Steve was biting back the words I can blame myself for whatever the hell I want. Sam was right, of course Sam was right. But still. If Steve had been smarter since the beginning, then maybe none of this needed to happen.
Sam said, “Steve.”
“He shouldn’t be in the field.”
“That’s why he’s suspended,” Steve said.
“He needs to be out of the field permanently,” Sam said.
“But – ” Steve started, reflexively argumentative: they had argued about this when Bucky first started going missions. But he stopped himself, took a deep breath. “Yes. You’re right. But – ”
“Steve – ” Sam sounded exasperated.
“I know fieldwork isn’t good for him. But Hydra winning would be worse,” Steve said. “For all of us, but especially Bucky.”
Sam didn’t reply for a while. Then he said, “I fucking hate this.”
“You think I’m wrong?”
“No. I fucking hate that you’re right.”
Steve sat down on the staircase and ran a hand through his hair. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say to that.
“I was hoping,” Steve said. “That you’d bring some doughnuts around this…I guess it’s afternoon now.”
There was a painful silence.
“But you’re probably busy…”
“I’ll ask Natasha if she’ll do it,” Sam said. “We’re having coffee right now. And I don’t think I’m the best person to be around Bucky today.”
A brief pause, and then Natasha’s voice in Steve’s ear: “I’ll be right over. You want anything in particular?”
“Bring a few cake doughnuts.” They were Bucky’s favorite. “And some coffee?”
She must have handed the phone back to Sam, because the silence stretched again. Finally Steve said, “I was going to ask if you and Natasha would look after Bucky if SHIELD sends me on missions while he’s suspended. But I guess that’s a no for you?”
Sam sighed. “Give me a few days to calm down,” he said.
“You don’t have to be mad at him,” Steve said. “I’m not.”
“I know,” said Sam. “But I am. Someone has to put your welfare first, and we both know that sure as hell isn’t going to be you.”
Steve didn’t go back in the apartment, just slid down the wall and leaned his head back against the wallpaper. He still felt exhausted. Super-healing was great, but it took a lot out of him, and he didn’t want to go inside and face Bucky’s plans for the next three months (probably he had come up with a couple more while Steve was calling Sam) while Steve still didn’t have a good counter-plan.
Natasha showed up maybe half an hour later, balancing a to-go tray of coffees on a massive doughnut box. She looked beautiful, as always, and Steve was suddenly aware that he had slept in his clothes and hadn’t so much as splashed water on his face that morning.
“Steve,” she said, and grinned at him, and suddenly it didn’t seem like a problem anymore. Natasha had seen him in way worse shape.
“You sure that’s gonna be enough doughnuts?” he teased, staggering to his feet.
Natasha hefted the box. “I would’ve gotten three dozen, but the lady behind me was getting doughnuts for her kindergarten class,” Natasha said. She took in his bruised forehead and his stagger. “Some agents at SHIELD have revived the betting pool on how long it will be before Bucky kills you.”
Steve wanted to slide back down the wall and lie down on the floor again, he felt so tired. “What did you bet?”
“I didn’t. No time wait around long enough to collect on never.” She gave her little half-smirk. “They used to bet how long it would take me to kill Clint,” she told him.
“And he’s still alive.”
She smiled. “Yeah.”
It was kind of sad, how much better that made Steve feel.
Bucky had made it back to the couch while Steve was out of the apartment. He was clean and dressed, but he looked exhausted, and the sight of Natasha seemed to render him dumb. It hadn’t occurred to Steve that Bucky would care about looking like a wreck in front of a pretty girl, but then, they didn’t spend much time with pretty girls – or anyone, really – in a social context.
But Natasha was equal to the situation: she was equal to most things. She set the box down on the coffee table, flipped back the lid to display a stunningly decadent array of doughnuts, and said to Bucky, “So tell me how bad the other guys look.”
A little grin flipped up at the side of Bucky’s mouth. “Can’t,” he said. “Steve doesn’t like it when I go into details.” He glanced at Steve, and his eyes caught on Steve’s bruised temple, and he fell silent and awkward again.
Bucky usually grabbed two or three doughnuts before anyone else even touched the box, but today he waited till Natasha and Steve each took a doughnut before he snagged a cake doughnut dusted with cinnamon sugar. Trying to be un-difficult, Steve thought, and his heart hurt a little. He took a bite of his glazed yeast doughnut, but it was hard to swallow, so he didn’t eat anymore.
Bucky still dunked his doughnuts just the way he used to, tearing them in half and dunking each semicircle bit by bit, and only drinking the coffee once the doughnut was gone and the coffee was full of cinnamon sugar.
“Steve,” said Natasha, and Steve looked up. “You look exhausted. Go to sleep.”
“But…” He glanced at Bucky. Bucky stared back at him over the rim of his coffee cup. Steve wasn’t up to a stare-off today. He dropped his gaze back to his doughnut.
“Go to bed. We’ve got this,” Natasha said, gesturing between Bucky and herself.
“Yeah. We never settled our argument about Pushkin last time we met,” Natasha said. “Get some sleep.”
By the time Steve woke up, it was nearly eight, and the late summer sun hung low over the buildings. His mouth felt cottony, his eyes dry, and he still felt tired; but at least his tiredness no longer seemed to have a physical weight.
He padded out of his room. The bathroom floor was still sopping from Bucky’s sponge bath. Steve sighed and tossed down a towel.
Bucky’s door was closed, which probably meant he was asleep, thank God. But the kitchen and the living room were both empty, too. Had Natasha left without telling him?
“I’m out here, Steve.”
Natasha was sitting on Steve’s half-balcony, her legs hanging through the bars, holding a beer in one hand. She offered him a bottle when Steve came out. “Bucky’s asleep,” she said.
“Good.” Steve took the beer bottle. It wouldn’t do much for him, but it would be companionable to sit next to her, at least. “How was he this afternoon? Did he…” behave, he wanted to say, but that wasn’t quite right. “I was wondering if you – if you and Sam – would be willing to stay with him if SHIELD sends me on a mission while he’s still suspended.”
“He’ll hate that,” Natasha said. “He wants one of us to go along to look after you.”
“Yeah, well. He can’t have everything just the way he likes all the time,” Steve said.
Natasha grinned at him. “You know he’s so picky about the little things because he thinks he doesn’t have any control over the big things. He’s going to have to go out and kill whoever they tell him, but he can damn well get the kind of ice cream he wants in the meantime.”
Steve was ashamed. “Of course,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean you need to always get him the ice cream, Steve,” said Natasha. She knocked her shoulder against his again, but this time she rested it there, warm and comforting. Steve relaxed against the balcony rail, and realized how long it had been since he really relaxed anywhere. It was impossible to relax with Bucky around.
“So he was okay this afternoon?”
“All his opinions about Evgeny Onegin are still completely wrong,” Natasha said. “But yes. He was okay.”
Steve squinted. “I don’t know who that is,” he admitted finally.
“It’s a poem by Pushkin. Very famous,” Natasha said, and knocked her shoulder against his. “You’re not allowed to spy for Russia without at least a cursory knowledge of Pushkin.”
Steve couldn’t tell if she were joking. “Yeah?”
She dropped her bantering manner, and he was grateful, because he was too tired to figure it out. “When I was a little girl, Andrei Nikolaevich – my handler – used to read to me until I fell asleep. I thought he just wanted me to know about Pushkin, but no. Mostly he just didn’t want me thinking about anything else. It would undermine the brainwashing to give me too much time to think.”
“Oh.” Steve wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. “Well. Shit.”
Natasha began to peel the label off her beer bottle. When she was down to just the white paper, she said, “I’ve been thinking. Obviously the situations aren’t exactly the same, but… Maybe you should talk to Clint. About what it was like, dealing with me after I came in from the cold. About what he did to help.”
“What helped?” Steve asked.
Natasha picked at the last shreds of paper on the bottle. “We went for walks,” she said.
“Yeah. I suggested this before, didn’t I?”
“Yes. But it’s hard to get Bucky out the apartment for anything that’s not SHIELD-related, and…” Steve got so exhausted dealing with Bucky on a day-to-day basis that he had all but given up on doing anything extra. Clint was clearly made of sterner stuff. “And he told me he was supposed to shoot anyone – any civilians – who saw his metal arm. He promised me he wouldn’t, but…”
“Does he keep his promises?”
“Usually.” Steve’s hand went to his bruised temple. The bruise was barely even tender any more. Miracles of super-healing.
“Steve,” said Natasha. Usually there was an edge of laughter somewhere in her voice (a defense mechanism, Steve realized suddenly; if she pretends the whole world’s a joke, it can’t hurt her), but now she sounded serious. “I know the way he talks is rough. But if he really enjoyed hurting people, just to see them in pain, he’s had plenty of opportunity these past couple of years. He had months to go on a civilian killing spree before SHIELD even found him, and I’m sure he’s had opportunities on missions too. If he wanted to kill civilians, there would be bodies already.”
Steve thought about it. “I know,” he said. “But the risk…”
“Tell him SHIELD can’t afford the bad press,” Natasha said.
Steve leaned his chin on the balcony rail. “You really think I should do this,” he said. “Despite the risk.”
“Yes,” said Natasha. Another glance at him. “I was used to being monitored all the time. Everything I did, it was for training or for a mission. Andrei Nikolaevich used to go on about how all the training the state gave me was a great gift, and messing around was just wasting it. So when I was on probation for SHIELD, I figured I should double down on that. Show them how serious I was.”
Like learning Chinese or Farsi or how to fly.
“But Clint kept showing up and dragging me out to take walks – just waste the whole day wandering around a farmers market or whatever. It drove me nuts. At some point someone was going to demand an account of how I spent my time, and what was I going to say? ‘We went to the market and chatted with the summer squash ladies, who have no useful intelligence or contacts or anything?’” Her mouth twisted up in a wry grin. “Clint said it would help me learn how to blend in when I was on missions. That’s how I justified letting him talk me into going out. But Andrei Nikolaevich sure wouldn’t have given me ice cream for any of it.”
“And it helped? You don’t feel like you’re being monitored all the time anymore?”
Natasha picked at the last shreds of label still attached to the bottle. “I still think someone’s going to ask for an account someday.” She swigged the last beer from the bottle. “But I don’t think I owe it to them anymore. So, yeah. It helped.”
Steve thought about it. “I’ll give it a try,” he said; and he was touched that she would make herself vulnerable like this, to help. “Thanks.”
“It was nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing, and Steve wasn’t surprised when she swung herself to her feet to go not long after: she must have used up all her vulnerability for the month, telling him all that. Steve got up too (old training: stand when the lady stands), but she waved a hand. “I can let myself out.”
Steve sat on the balcony a little longer, then went inside to the kitchen. The doughnut box, nearly empty, sat on the table. Had Bucky and Natasha eaten anything else all day?
But there were still a few glazed doughnuts left. Steve put a pot of coffee on the coffee maker and turned on his MP3 player. Usually he tried to listen to more modern music, but he had a playlist of oldies for days like today.
He hadn’t exactly meant to wake Bucky up, but he wasn’t surprised when Bucky clumped into the kitchen on his crutches. He maneuvered himself into a seat at the table, took a doughnut, and waited for Steve to pour him a cup of coffee.
When Bucky first returned, Steve waited on him hand and foot. At the time he had been happy – no, overjoyed – to do it: so happy that Bucky was there to take care of, so pleased that Bucky would let Steve take care of him. It was much more about what Steve wanted, which was to look after Bucky forever and ever, than about what Bucky needed.
Or about what kind of behavior Steve would be able to sustain long term.
He really can’t get one himself right now, Steve reminded himself, and fetched Bucky a cup. Bucky stared into the rising steam. Steve ate a cruller, then a Danish. He’d just started on a glazed twist when Bucky asked, his voice rough with tiredness, “Do you still speak the world’s shittiest French?”
Steve swallowed a lump of doughnut. “My French probably doesn’t even qualify as shitty any longer,” Steve said. “Bucky – ”
“We can work on your languages,” said Bucky, still staring at the steam. “If you don’t want to work on mine.”
“Bucky,” Steve said.
Bucky lifted his head. “Unless Sam said yes about the flying lessons – ”
“Bucky,” Steve said. “You’re not going to spend the next three months sharpening your agent skills. Your skills are fine.”
“Then what do you want me to spend the next three months doing?” Bucky asked. “We’re still gonna do PT, right?”
Steve almost said no, but Coulson would expect Bucky to be ready to go back in the field at the end of three months, and – more important – if the Chitauri or something like them dropped out of the sky, Bucky needed to be in good shape to help fight.
“Once your leg is healed,” Steve said. “For an hour a day.”
“The whole morning.”
“For Christ’s sake, Bucky! This isn’t a negotiation. Why are you so determined to turn this into a training exercise?”
“What the hell else am I going to do for the next three months?” Bucky demanded. He drained his coffee and grabbed a doughnut. “What do you figure will make me feel bad about Tompkins, huh? I’m sorry I threw him across the plane, is that good enough for you? I already promised I wouldn’t attack SHIELD medical again. I dunno what you want me to do that you think is going to take three fucking months to get out of me.”
Bucky wanted this to be a training exercise because he figured otherwise it was going to be – “Bucky,” Steve asked. “What are you envisioning?”
“I’m not envisioning anything,” Bucky snapped. “I have no fucking idea what you and SHIELD want or how the fuck you think you’re going to get it.”
“No one is going to hurt you – ”
“I’m sick of hearing about how no one is going to hurt me! I know no one is going to hurt me! SHIELD isn’t fucking stupid enough to damage one of their fucking prize weapons!” Bucky yelled. He took a deep breath, and let it out, and said, “And if they were, they would’ve gotten started already. You must think I’m an absolute moron. I’ve been here going on two years now. I know SHIELD doesn’t torture its own agents just for kicks, or whatever the fuck you think I’m envisioning.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, and he was surprised to realize he actually meant it. “I just – I find it hard to understand what you’re thinking sometimes.”
“That’s because you never fucking listen,” Bucky said. “I told you. I don’t understand what SHIELD wants from all this.” He grabbed another doughnut.
“SHIELD wants to be sure you won’t attack the medical staff again,” Steve said. “Or any of the other staff. Or anyone that we’re not on a mission against, really.”
“And I promised all that already. So what’s the three-month suspension supposed to do?” He held the doughnut in his hand, but he wasn’t eating it, just frowning at the cracked glaze. “Am I supposed to sit around brooding about Tompkins till I feel sorry enough?”
Steve sighed. “No. It doesn’t matter so much about whether or not you’re sorry about Tompkins – not that we wouldn’t be happy if you were. But the important thing is that you don’t hurt anyone again.”
“So what? We’re gonna spend three months practicing not hurting anyone?” Bucky said it with a sneer.
“Yes,” Steve said, and expected a storm of scorn, but instead Bucky just looked at him, a line on his forehead. Steve took a deep breath. “We’re going to get out of the apartment and just...spend some time wandering around.”
Bucky ate his doughnut. He didn’t take his eyes off Steve.
“We’ll drive around DC and Virginia and Maryland,” Steve said. “Take along a picnic. Stop at a farmer’s stand and buy some peaches.” Bucky’s suspicious stare hasn’t altered in the slightest. “It’ll be fun,” Steve said.
Or it would have been with anyone but Bucky along, anyway.
Bucky leaned his arm on the table. He rested his chin on it and stared out the kitchen window. “SHIELD’s never gonna let you,” he said. “We’re supposed to be staying under the radar.”
“We will be staying under the radar,” Steve said. “The point of wandering is to do it quietly.”
The kitchen grew dark as the sun dropped behind the buildings. Steve got up to grab the coffee pot and turn on a light. Bucky watched Steve refill both their coffee cups. Then he reached for another doughnut, only to find that the box was empty. “I’m hungry,” Bucky said.
“That’s another thing you can do during your suspension,” Steve said. “You can learn how to cook.”
“You don’t know how to cook,” said Bucky. “All you can make is pancakes and canned soup.”
“We can both learn how to cook, then,” Steve said.
“I know how to cook,” Bucky said. “I used to make you scrambled eggs when you were sick. It was just about the only thing I could cook on that shitty little Primus stove in your apartment.”
“That’s one dish,” Steve said. “And that was seventy years ago.”
Bucky dropped his head forward so his hair fell in his eyes. He seemed to droop, and he ended with his head on the kitchen table. He looked dog-tired. The exhaustion smudged under his eyes was almost as dark as the kohl he wore for missions.
He looked up at Steve. “And you? What do you want out of all this?”
“I’d be happy if you never threw a SHIELD agent across a plane again,” said Steve.
It was a small attempt at humor, and it fell flat. Bucky glared.
Steve sighed. “I want you to be happy,” he said, like he’d said the night before. “I want you to feel safe.”
“What’ll convince you that I do?”
Steve was incredulous. “Do you think this is what happy and safe feels like?”
Bucky’s gaze fell away from Steve’s, his eyebrows bunching up. Steve had thought he was asking just to get Steve off his back, but Jesus. Maybe he did.
“Like you know anything about happiness,” Bucky muttered. “The other SHIELD agents call you the world’s saddest golden retriever.”
Steve didn’t have anything to say to that. Bucky lifted his hand to cover his eyes. He knocked over his coffee cup in the process. “Damn,” he muttered, and made no move to stop the coffee sloshing over the edge of the table to the floor.
And maybe Bucky needed Steve to want something less big and nebulous. Something concrete that he could actually do. Steve grabbed a kitchen towel and wadded it up over the spill. “I’d like it if you’d say please when you ask me for things,” he said. “And if you’d actually ask, rather than just demand.”
Bucky stared at the dripping coffee as if hypnotized. He gave a tiny nod.
“Do you want something to eat?”
Bucky made a little movement with his head that was probably a shake.
Another shake. The dripping coffee must be riveting. Maybe Steve should have included something about saying No thank you on his wish list.
“I could read to you,” Steve said, and wanted to stuff a sock in his own mouth, because the thing that put it into his head was Natasha talking about her handler reading her bedtime stories. Just like someone must have read Pushkin to Bucky. Even the nice things were methods of control.
But Bucky was looking at him, almost hopeful. “Yeah?” he said, and Steve thought about how often reading aloud appeared in the orphanage stories. It was one of Bucky’s favorite motifs. The director tossed you out the window and you broke your leg and I carried you around for three weeks and read to you.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “You want me to carry you somewhere more comfortable? Over to the couch?”
Bucky reached for his crutches. “I can walk – ”
“I know you can,” said Steve. “But it’s not really good for your leg.”
They stared at each other for a moment, Bucky’s hand still half-extended toward his crutches. Then Bucky turned, and lifted his right arm to Steve. Steve bent down, bracing one arm across Bucky’s back and sliding another under his knees, and swung him up.
Steve hadn’t counted on the weight of Bucky’s metal arm. He staggered. Bucky flung his flesh arm around Steve’s neck, pressing himself in against Steve’s chest, and Steve steadied himself against the table. “I got you,” Steve said. Bucky’s breath was warm on Steve’s neck. Steve swallowed, adjusting his grip. “I got you,” he said again, and he carried Bucky to the couch.
Sitting down was a little awkward, and he almost dropped Bucky at the end, so Bucky had to grab Steve’s knee so he wouldn’t fall off the couch. Steve’s chest constricted. But Bucky let go, and Steve took a deep breath and let it out and focused on relaxing against couch cushions. It was okay. Bucky wasn’t going to come onto him in this state. Or any other state. He did keep his promises.
And Steve’s chest did relax. He swung his legs up onto the couch and leaned back against the cushioned couch arm, inviting Bucky to lean against him. There was the briefest pause, and then Bucky snuggled up, his right hand bunching up Steve’s shirt at the shoulder.
Steve snagged his tablet off the coffee table. “What do you want me to read?” he asked. “I can get whatever on here.”
Bucky shrugged. He leaned his head gingerly against Steve’s chest.
“Pushkin?” Steve suggested.
“Or Sam’s been after me to read Harry Potter,” Steve said.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” Bucky yawned.
Harry Potter it would be, then.
Steve expected Bucky to fall asleep before the end of the first chapter. But the book rolled by, and every time Steve stopped reading to check, Bucky murmured, “Keep going.” A beat. “Please?”
Finally Steve just turned the tablet off. “I’m awake,” Bucky mumbled, protesting. “They just went to an island to escape the creepy owls.”
Steve draped an arm over Bucky’s back. “I’m losing my voice,” he said. “And you need to go to sleep.”
Bucky didn’t protest again. He lay still for a while, and Steve wouldn’t have called him tense. But maybe Steve hadn’t seen Bucky really relaxed before, or at least for the past couple of years, because eventually Bucky did relax, his body loose and heavy and warm. Even his metal arm was warm from the heat of their two bodies.
Steve let his face drop into Bucky’s hair. He let out a long, slow breath, and he relaxed as well. He wasn’t tired – or at least, he didn’t need to sleep – but it was nice just to lie there, and rest.