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the silence in between

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Go far enough, pride doesn't fucking matter. There is no pride. He knows it.

Two in the fucking morning is not the time he wants to be inescapably remembering it.

He's here, he's . . .fine, at least for some fucking values of fine, the values that hold onto time and place and even who the fuck he is. But all of that floats on the top of a seething fucking mess of everything else and if he's keeping hold of where and when he is, he can't fucking be still, can't stop moving, picking at things, watching everything, every God-damn flickering shadow from late-night cars. The agitation bleeds over into the damn cat, and she follows him from living-room to kitchen to dining room and back, occasionally bleating an unhappy noise.

He tries to go back to bed twice and both times he manages to stay there, stay still, for less than ten minutes each time. He doesn't bother with a third.

He's at the window when Steve gets up, idiot cat sitting on the back of the couch staring pointlessly at the wall, head cocked towards every noise, tail-tip twitching.

"Hey," Steve says, rubbing at the back of his head and yawning. He needs a haircut, Bucky thinks absently, almost drowned out by the noise in his head. And there's a moment of strangeness, where Steve's too tall, and what he's wearing is wrong, isn't yesterday's shirt or full length pyjamas, and Bucky has to shake his head for a minute, sharp: that time and place might not be bad but if he slides out of the now even for that he's going to pay for it. Needs to stay here, where Steve's taller than he is and wearing a t-shirt and drawstring pants and isn't going to start coughing for just about anything short of food or drink going down the wrong way.

Sometimes Bucky thinks size - mass, weight, muscle, height - is almost like a mask, a disguise, so other people look and think they see and don't realize what they're missing. Because when he was short and scrawny Steve couldn't help the part where everything that burned in him showed, through too-little flesh and fragile bone, but now he can and he does, and it's easier. Other times, Bucky thinks that's a load of half-hypnotized bullshit that only someone with a brain as messed up as his could come up with in the first place. And then sometimes he thinks both.

He's got his arms folded, he realizes, and makes himself uncross them, drawing his right across his face.

"Sorry," he says, half habit and half not, and Steve shakes his head.

"S'fine," he says, frowning a bit, "what is it?"

Bucky shrugs. "Nothing," he says, then, "everything, I don't know. I can't stop, I can't settle. Feel like I'm a fucking tight-rope over - I don't even fucking know."

Steve glances down and says, "Watch your hand," quietly and Bucky realizes he's folded his arms again and the fingers and thumb of his left are digging into his right just below the elbow. He grimaces and drops his arms again. Steve acts like nothing happened and says, "Coffee?"

Bucky makes himself answer even though he's not sure what he's going to fucking say, ends up saying, "Why not," and follows Steve into the kitchen. And it's probably the right answer, because there's smell, strong smell and maybe he'll stop smelling anything else. Petrichor and bleach, nitrocellulose and blood, disinfectant and rot. Probably worth trying to make something real to drown it out. He couldn't think of it on his own, can't think beyond damn near anything, but it's probably a good idea.

The kitten follows them, and jumps up on the counter, whining; Bucky picks her up more as a way to keep his hands full than anything. She stops whining and starts purring instead, putting her front paws on his left shoulder and rubbing her face against his jaw. "Yeah, sure," he says, but he pets her head. "Suck up." She squints at him, which the cat guy on the show Bucky found once insists is a cat way of showing they feel safe, relaxed.

Steve puts the pot on the stove and scoops in coffee. Turns the stove on. Then he leans on the counter and reaches out to Bucky's right elbow. Leaves it there just long enough for Bucky to pull away if he's going to - and fuck Bucky wishes he didn't know that - and then tugs Bucky over to where he can get both arms around Bucky's waist and pull Bucky back against him.

Steve's trying some new detergent Natasha pushed on him, that Bucky can't decide if he likes or not: not sure if it's a relief in moments like this not to have the undertone of Tide or whatever the Hell else cutting through his brain, or if it's unsettling not to have it, not to have clothes smell of soap used to clean them. What smell the stuff has is faint and has an undertone of wood and he doesn't know how he feels about it, which makes it the same as half the other things in the God-damn world.

Right now it's just an itch, over the smell of coffee starting to rise, of the dishwashing detergent and the faint smell of cat-food from the kitten's bowl.

Bucky sighs and lets the kitten down onto the counter where she can poke at all the stuff she likes to sniff and likes to knock over. He lets himself lean against Steve, tries to make himself relax. Steve hooks one arm all the way around to rest on Bucky's opposite hip; he rests the other palm flat against Bucky's lower abdomen, rubbing slow circles. Which helps. God knows why and he doesn't want to think about it, but it does.

Bucky catches his left hand raising to his right arm and stops it, ends up with a fist by his side instead. Knows he's damn near grinding his teeth and he should probably stop, because it's not like he can go to the fucking dentist if he cracks one.

Steve moves to catch Bucky's left hand with the one of his resting on Bucky's hip and interlaces their fingers to hold it, right hand stilling but staying palm against Bucky's stomach, fingertips splayed out into five points of contact.

Then he says, "Bucky. It's okay. Relax." And Bucky realizes he's wound back up tense, and realizing it means he gets caught between trying to relax and trying to pull away, hissing self-disgust in his head. And right up against him, there's no way Steve can't notice. "Bucky," he repeats, letting go to bring his hands up, one to rest on Bucky's left shoulder and the other rubbing up and down his right arm. So he's not holding on. So there's no trap.

Bucky hates that he knows that. Hates he can't ignore how careful he knows Steve is, has to be, and fuck -

"Hey," Steve says, squeezing Bucky's shoulder a little. "Everything's fine."

And then the worst part is, Bucky can't keep the snap out of his voice when he says, "I know." He shakes his head, mouth twisting and gets his tone under control, kind of, so he can say, "I know, it's fine - just, it's the middle of the night, you're awake, you shouldn't have to be."

Steve wraps his arms around Bucky's shoulder this time, holding one wrist in the other hand. He rests his forehead against the back of Bucky's head. "I don't have to be," Steve tells him, calm, like it's . . .nothing. "I decide to be."

"Because of me," Bucky starts, raising his right hand to touch Steve's arm without really thinking about it.

"Because it helps," Steve counters, and when Bucky can't help making a disgusted noise adds, "You're allowed to have stuff that makes you feel better, you know. You're even allowed to want it."

And the edge comes back out of the mess and Bucky's halfway through saying, "You know actually, I'm not," before he knows he's doing it. And this time he can't not pull away, and turn, and the water's starting to simmer so he makes like he's just getting coffee mugs which is the most pointless bit of attempted lying he's ever done. Because he doesn't, he doesn't want to, fuck, it's just - he has to.

So it's a stupid fucking pointless silent lie. Even if it does mean by the time he's got the mugs, he's got ahold of things enough to say, "That's the problem." Say it because he's means to, words chosen instead of vomited up whether he wants them or not.

He doesn't look at Steve until he's put the sugar in the mugs, until Steve reaches over to touch his lower right arm but doesn't catch hold this time. And when Bucky does look, it's not the distress he's expecting in Steve's face, the distress Steve can't help showing even against his best efforts to hide it - it's stubborn instead. And fuck, Christ, Steve.

Steve says, "Yeah, you are. You get to want it, I get to give it to you, and you get to have it. Keep it. End of story."

And God he is stubborn. Like it's that simple, like it works that way, like Bucky's mind isn't so fucking damaged it makes everything impossible, and like that fucking damage doesn't turn around and just -

Bucky leans on the counter, tries to keep up on top of the noise, maybe put the hissing roar of liquid boiling inside metal against it instead. Takes a minute before he tries to answer.

"I know," he says slowly, "you don't see how I'm the black hole everything you give disappears into." The edge of the counter digs into his right hand and he finishes, "But I do."

Steve says, "I don't see it because that's not how it is for me." When Bucky looks at him he shrugs, his arms folded this time and says, "It just isn't. And you know I'm hopeless at lying to you."

The lights in the kitchen are faintly yellow, like all electric lights, and one of them's behind Steve's head a little so the light comes through the parts of his hair that are sticking up and all there is in Bucky's head is . . . something pressing, pressure, like he wants to say something but the words don't work and he doesn't even know what it is, what's going to help, what's going to make this stop.

When Bucky looks away at the wall Steve touches his arm again and says, "Bucky, swear to God, I am just grateful anything I can do, anything about me helps. Because I'd still - " He stops, like he got ahead of himself, like he hadn't composed the words yet so he starts again with, "You'd still matter this much, even if nothing did. Even if I couldn't do anything."

He waits until Bucky meets his eyes before he says, "And that'd be Hell. My hand to God, Buck, if me being here was bad for you, if I made everything worse, I'd go. And I'd be fucking miserable." He's watching Bucky's face like he's not sure how much Bucky actually hears, understands, but - "So believe me," he finishes, quieter, "when I say I'm really fucking grateful it's not."

The cat finishes knocking spices over and trying to get her whiskers singed off by sniffing the stove and bumps her head against Bucky's left arm. And he's staring at the coffee pot and the steam, he knows, knows he looked down because looking at Steve hurt, so he had to. And it's just -

Something stops the thought. He stops the thought. Fuck the thought, whatever it was going to be. When he manages to let go of the breath that jams up in his throat, when he manages to say, "No. It isn't," it's quiet because he can't make it any louder. "It isn't. You aren't. You're - " and then he can't again.

Steve touches his upper arm this time, skims his hand up to rest on Bucky's shoulder. "I know," he says. "That's a good thing. Promise."

In the end what Bucky can force past the knot in his chest is, "You're fucking insane, you know that," because everything else is . . .argument, or wrong, or just the screaming beaten into words and he's trying - mostly failing, but trying - not to do that.

Doesn't want to do that.

Steve leans his forehead against the side of Bucky's and says, "Yeah, I know. It's good insane."

 

The coffee helps. So does drinking it wedged into the corner of the couch so he can see out the front window, while Steve sits in the middle of it and plays with sketching an articulated doll in a bunch of different positions, some of them probably not possible if you actually have muscles and joints.

Bucky bites his tongue when Steve yawns. Makes himself look out the window instead, track movement until whatever tries to get out of his throat passes: trees moving from the wind, grass from a mouse or a rat, once a car driving slowly but not suspiciously slowly down the street. Makes himself watch the stupid cat eat and dip her paw in the water-bowl so she can lick the water off it - because God forbid she drink like a normal animal - and then scurry off to the bathroom and the litter-box, before trotting back against and jumping up on the couch.

Eventually his coffee's gone and Steve's is still half there but has to be long cold, and Steve tosses doll, pencil and sketchbook on the floor in the general direction of the coffee table. When he reaches his closest hand over to rest on Bucky's ankle, Bucky closes his eyes and it's only about half on purpose, while Steve gently digs his thumb from bridge to arch and back.

Sometimes it feels like the whole fucking universe revolves around night, around sleep and trying to sleep and losing sleep and broken sleep and you wouldn't fucking think it would be so fucking difficult.

Steve says, "If you can sit still for twenty minutes and keep your eyes closed for two, I think you can probably try coming back to bed."

Bucky rubs his eyes with finger and thumb and tries to gauge, tries to guess and then gives up. Because he doesn't fucking know. But if it's been that long then maybe Steve's right and if he goes back to bed, Steve will, so it's probably worth a shot. "Sure," he says, "maybe."

When they lie down Steve tugs him over to rest with his arm over Steve's waist and head by his shoulder. And Bucky thinks he mostly does it so he can run one hand down the side of Bucky's neck, rest it there with his fingers curled against the side of Bucky's throat. But it might also be the thing that makes the difference whether he can stay or not, and fuck, Bucky doesn't want to get up again, doesn't want to drag Steve out there with him, so he'll take what he can get.

Steve says, "I missed you," quiet and simple. "I never want to do that again." Then he adds, "You don't have to say anything to that," and maybe it tastes a little sour that that helps, that it works, that it means the knot that started to crawl into Bucky's throat untangles itself again and lets go, but fuck, he doesn't care.

The kitten curls up on the pillow by his head. He can hear Steve's heartbeat through tissue and bone and doesn't want to move, or get up, or be anywhere or do anything else but this, right now.

Maybe he won't have to.