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For the time being, Bucky's seems to have mostly traded unthinkingly mangling his right arm in for rubbing and digging at his neck. Steve decides not to make much of it: he's never digging or pushing hard enough to risk damage the way trying to break his arm does, and doesn't even leave bruising as often as he used to, digging at his scar. And unlike either of the other things (at least when they started), it's almost painfully unmysterious when it comes to wondering why he'd do it.

Every so often Steve catches him rubbing at the side of his mouth, too. Given what Steve knows about things like intubation for force-feeding, and also about how hard Bucky'd fight, he's pretty sure that's from restraints, too.

Steve doesn't make a big deal out of it, but he does try to interfere, as carefully as he can. Touch Bucky's arm or catch his hands, make sure he knows what he's doing at the least. Mostly, it works, and Bucky finds something else to do with his hands, even if that something is in fact "nothing". Mostly the second Bucky notices what he's doing, realizes he's doing it, he wants to stop anyway.

Sometimes, though, what he's trying to get rid of seems to stick more, be harder to get rid of. The thing that seems to work best for that is Steve's hands, touching the same places.

Steve's more than a little hesitant about that, to start with. There's something about it that makes him wary, something that he can't quite articulate; it feels like there's an edge there, waiting for him to put a foot wrong. As long as he stays back from that edge, it's good, but it'd be easy to slip, and slipping wouldn't be.

Steve's gone a bit sour on how people seem to think of that kind of thing, how it's always about pushing the edge, taking the risk: the idea that just because sometimes when there's an edge that seems threatening you still need to jump off it, that it's true every damn time. Sometimes that's true, sometimes the fear is a mistake and you need to throw yourself over it - but not always. Sometimes, you need to keep your metaphorical feet firmly on the God-damned metaphorical ground and stay away from the edge. Sometimes falling off ends in stuff you can't afford to break getting really damn broken. Important stuff. Like yourself. Or someone else important.

So there's ways it worries him.

And then there's the part where it works, and well enough that it's . . . that the end result is better than neutral. Better than if the leftover hangover of whatever Bucky's feeling on his skin just weren't there to begin with. That at least if the starting point is that much agitation, Steve replacing memory with touch makes things better, and enough that after a while Bucky can shake it off and go do something, or want something, or anything like that.

There's a joke in there about cats and chin-scratches, but Steve's not going to make it; right now the only kind of humour that really touches any of this is ugly, black and savage, and if it has to come out he'll leave that to Bucky, because Bucky's better at it and it's more likely to help him. Anything less than facing that head on is just . . . thin and pale and insolent.

Besides, it's hard to get more human. It's just hard to get any more stripped-raw vulnerable, either.

 

Steve knows the reason. Well, part of the reason. Part of the reason it works. Steve takes it apart, takes the whole psychological fucking tangle apart, because he has to, even if it means looking at things he hates looking directly at, and looking at it under a microscope. It's not that he'd ever deny they're there, that'd be stupid and he's not an idiot, it's just -

He'd rather acknowledge them, know they're there, and then put them aside where he doesn't have to look at them. Where they're not in his face.

And it's pretty much been that way since the day Bucky came home. The stuff he doesn't want to look at, it's been there since then. The stuff where he'd rather wade through sewage hip deep than -

But he wouldn't rather mess Bucky up, hurt him more, so he gets to suck it up and do it anyway.

It's been that way since that first night, and trying to figure out what bad things Bucky expected, so he could make it clear they weren't going to happen. Same thing. Pretty much the same. It all just got bigger, more intricate, more details, more comprehensible, better understood and in some ways a lot scarier. A lot. Flat out terrifying. Enough that when it comes to it his prayers (the real ones, the ones that mean something instead of being the verbal equivalent of their coffee), they can mostly be boiled down to, our Father, who art in Heaven, please do not let me fuck this up.

Enough so that he's sourly tried to translate that into Latin, once. Not that it needs to be in Latin, not that it isn't frankly one of the profound ironies of history that the Church is so attached to Latin in the first place, out of every damn language, but just . . . because. Because it was funny, for a minute.

It isn't as meaningful in Latin, though. Doesn't feel the same.

He takes the whole knot apart by himself, too. Not because he doesn't want to talk to someone about it. Christ, he would love to talk to someone about it - Sam, Natasha, Elizabeth, Clint, Hell, Tony could probably even be a useful sounding board - except that before Steve even finishes figuring out how he'd broach the subject to Sam, he realizes what he's actually looking for is someone to tell him it's okay and he's not screwing up. And nobody can do that.

He's looking for reassurance and validation and getting it would probably be a terrible damned idea. Possibly the worst idea, because he might actually relax more than he should about it, about everything, because he's looking for someone who knows more to tell him what to do, and right now, for this, there isn't anyone.

There's nothing any of them can tell him that he doesn't in some way already know. He knows how it works, he just doesn't like thinking about it, even the bits he's learned to accept as a kind of poetic victory. He knows, and he also knows stuff they can't know, because they haven't known Bucky all of their lives and they don't spend part of most days and every possible night beside him and so the only way they could know even some of it is if Steve told them, and some of it, he never will.

So he doesn't talk to anyone about this. This thing that seems really small and isn't. Because sometimes there's meaning built into stuff that people do, even if you never put it there, and even if you don't want anything to do with that meaning, you have to stay on guard for the way it leaks in.

But it's really Goddamn uncomfortable.

To start with, it's hard to think of yourself as being the most important person, thing, in someone's world, as being the honest-to-God centre of it. You instinctively want to shy away. Because it's arrogant, and actually past arrogant into your basic, core kind of prideful - hubristic even. And then on the other hand also because if you think that and get used to it and turn out to be wrong it hurts like fucking Hell. So right there at the beginning -

Steve's struggled with that one a lot, which is objectively so ridiculous there isn't even an adverb for it. It'd be hard to get more obvious, more obviously true, if God actually decided to write it in glowing fiery words on the wall, and back it up with an angelic chorus and maybe even some stone slabs. So he had to make himself face up to it, because there comes a point where not recognizing the obvious starts to get insulting and pretty much ungrateful, and also cruel. And stupid.

Dangerously stupid.

But even facing it, it still feels like the bruising around a limb put back in its socket: okay, yes, now everything's where it's supposed to be, but it's still tender, sore, and not something you want anyone poking at. Including yourself.

Come to think of it, in a strange way he could talk about it easier than he can actually sit and contemplate it - like if the thoughts can go all the way out into words they don't sit on his brain quite as heavily.

But that's not the point. The point is, that's how it is. He is that centre of the world, that person. And that shapes everything else.

And right there, Steve'd rather let things lie. Steve'd really rather not go on from there, not actually think about how when you start that kind of feeling, that kind of attachment, especially as a kid, it gets into every part of your brain, gets into your bones.

Or how that means that on the strength of lucky physical resemblance, all of that let Alexander fucking Pierce skate in, past every fucking lock, ducking every fucking bar.

When someone is important to you, you want them to be happy. Simplest damn thing. Except even simpler is that humans need at least one fixed point. One thing that's secure, that's reliable, that they can believe above all other things is real, even if it's just the evidence of your own eyes, because otherwise, the human brain just gives up. Literally, sometimes, switching off, dropping you into catatonia until something makes sense again.

And important just means important. It doesn't mean good, it doesn't mean . . .anything else. The guy with a gun to your head can be important. Your body wants to live, and your brain's part of your body, so . . .

So imagine that. No memory, no story of his life, no nothing, except Alexander Pierce sliding into a space that's already there, and being really fucking clear on what would make him happy.

Couldn't be much more straightforward. Turned out to save the world, too, which is the irony Steve's taught himself to appreciate, because -

Well. It's always easier to recognize a fake when the real thing's right there. Again, it's pretty straightforward. And this is another place Steve'd like to just stop. Say okay, fine, we've looked at it again, can we just -

But filth like Pierce always changes things. Wrecks things. He got in because Steve was, is, Bucky's best friend, all their God-damned lives. Because he was close enough to the right shape. He got thrown out again because close enough stopped being close enough. But the son of a bitch left a parting gift, so Steve has to deal with the fact that the space that's always been his, the space in Bucky's head, can always always, in a less than a fraction of a heartbeat, warp sideways into trying to turn him, Steve, into -

Honestly Steve doesn't even know what to fucking call it. Master isn't right, owner doesn't cover it. Pierce didn't just control what Bucky did, he rewrote reality, carved it down until literally nothing existed except what he wanted and what he ordered, because the rest of the time didn't matter, because the cryo meant he could put his asset (and Steve hates that word, now) neatly in a fucking closet when it wasn't needed. Master doesn't . . . slaves have masters, animals have masters, but both of those actually still fucking get to live, exist, in spaces beyond the tasks they're set. Still have the inside of their own heads. Still sleep and eat and think things about the world they're in. Even dogs get to fucking do that.

Pierce wanted something less than a dog, and did his level fucking best to get it. Managed to get further than should even be fucking possible, because mostly humans die before that much gets carved out of them, and mostly so do animals. But with Bucky, that's not how it worked. Because he didn't.

At that point you have to start digging into the language of things, objects, machines, because it's damned well what Pierce tried to turn Bucky into. It's not "master" anymore, it's "controller", or "operator", something like that.

Fuck, as far as Steve can piece together (and Jesus he hates dragging his mind down to where he can piece this shit together) Pierce himself wouldn't've liked the idea of master, because it would have meant way more fucking acknowledgement of Bucky as a living being than the bastard wanted to do.

And that's what's wrapped all around Steve's place in Bucky's head. Staining really fucking close to the core.

And it can get everywhere. Does get everywhere. Hell, it's what made Bucky saying he couldn't do a hospital (not even for you) sharp-edged and uncomfortable, instead of just something a little bitter to say: because that's can't, not won't. Bucky wasn't saying he wouldn't try, he wasn't saying he'd refuse. Because he wouldn't. If Steve told him to, he'd try. But he meant "can't", like even the two of them can't breathe water.

Because it'd do things to Bucky's head that'd take him way, way beyond the point where a human being can make choices about that kind of thing.

But if Steve told him to, actually told him to, he'd still try. And they both know it, and Steve can't afford to let himself forget it, even a little.

And that's where it all comes back to something as simple as Steve's hand on Bucky's throat.

Steve's damn well aware that there's a level where decades of conditioning mean Bucky knows - doesn't just "think", knows - that Steve has the right to do . . .whatever he wants. That Bucky's body belongs to him, owes him whatever access he requires. And Steve has a hard time thinking about this because it makes him sick. Physically ill. The rest of it, of everything else, the anger and the distress and the feelings there aren't adequate words for, at least ones that don't sound stupid . . .those are still there, but they're overwhelmed by the part of him that just wants to throw up.

And he knows, Christ he knows, that all things considered he is so fucking lucky, that by rights shit he's done should have made that blow up in his face, and he was lucky like a guy falling from the top of a building and getting to walk away that it didn't. He looks back and it can kind of make him light-headed.

That he has shared, sort of, talking to Clint the one (and only, thank you very much) time Steve got conned into playing chess with him. The conversation around the game'd veered this way and that and into a place where Steve realized he could bring it up, and it'd be natural, or he could skip it and go another way.

He brought it up, because he thought Clint might understand, and he'd been right.

Clint'd said, Yeah, sometimes - in and among all the shit, sometimes? We get lucky.

Then he'd put down his beer and said, Not right now, though, and moved his knight. Check.

Sometimes, you get lucky. And Steve's not really keen on pushing that luck. At all.

He knows Bucky knows all of this. Every last piece. And hates it even more than Steve does, more than Steve can even contemplate, spends so much God-damned time trying to scrape the pillars of "self" back into shape. So much effort. Just trying for normal human shape, where the fundamental safety-catches of animal self-interest mean you at least recognize when you're doing something you don't want to do, or when someone's doing something to you that you don't like, even if you can't stop it. Where you understand that idea. Where liking and not-liking things is an option.

And it's almost easier to erode those pillars, to wear them back down, by little things. Steve knows that, too. He and Bucky can fight, can and do outright shout at each other, but Steve's careful as Hell about, say, actually showing that he has opinions about Bucky's clothes. Makes a kind of a Fuss about getting Bucky to let him stitch up lacerations that Bucky's trying to ignore, just so Bucky knows that Steve's talking him into something, so that it's there and out in the open, a conscious thing. So that it's never habit, even while being familiar enough to be safe, known.

It can get complicated, when it runs into the part where Bucky's still not good with asking and offering. Steve's gotten into the habit of making sure there's at least two options to pick between - he doesn't ask what Bucky wants to do, he lists off whatever he can think of, so Bucky can pick something. Stuff like that. And he can make a habit out of a lot of it, which is - well, honestly, it's a fucking blessing. Sometimes Steve catches himself doing it with other people, too, but as far as he can see there's no harm in it.

And fuck, then there's food.

It gets tiring. He'd be a liar if he said it didn't. He doesn't care, but he can't say it's not tiring.

So is taking things apart, and looking at them, to make sure he knows what's going on. Especially when it's something like this, like his hands resting and moving around Bucky's throat, since it's hard to be human and not have that mean something. Outside meaning leaks in. Most people'd probably still think it's a big deal over not much, but then -

But most people get margin for error, like wide shoulders on a twisting road. Here, there's just the edge of the cliff.

There's also the part where that's . . . part of the point. Probably. Definitely.

Steve wishes there were a better way to think of it than "test", because if it is a test, it's like testing ice to see if it'll hold you, testing a door to figure out if there's an inferno on the other side, not throwing challenges at a person to see if they manage. It's like a kid turning the light on to check under the bed, just to make sure there's no monsters. Like double, triple-checking the gun's not loaded before you start cleaning it.

Pierce controlled reality. Every last facet of existence. Got inside Bucky's head, didn't just beat him down from the outside, moved right in and changed what was real and what wasn't, for a long time. For a very long time. Every single God-damned day is a test to see if this reality sticks, holds, stays real.

Doesn't turn out to be a dream, or the other kind of test, and one Bucky's failing.

So yeah. Part of Bucky, at least, does these things as a test. Shows something vulnerable and waits for Steve to screw up. Okay, no, that's not true, or fair, that's a bad way to frame it - waits for it to go wrong. Waits for the outcome to be . . .bad.

It's the same as the way Bucky's always waiting for any sign of revulsion or rejection, any time he so much as initiates touch, and why he mostly can't avoid flinching when Steve does. And it's another round of can't, and even counting years spent in cryo it's still decades and decades Steve's working against now. They're working against now.

So Steve takes it all apart, all the tangled shit inside his own head, and looks at it, and doesn't get any simple answers because he almost never does, but at least is pretty sure he's got a good idea where all the traps might be. He hopes.

Contemplates the Latin for merciful Jesu, Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, please, please don't let me fuck this up.

 

When it comes to food, there's fewer arguments; on the other hand, as far as Steve can tell, any desire to seek out food of his own accord basically drops out the bottom of Bucky's brain. It's probably better, physically - he tends not to ignore the alerts from his phone that tell him he should eat something, or at least make calories happen - but as far as Steve can tell all food might as well be the famine peanut butter.

No. And he catches himself thinking that, and it isn't true, and he knows it isn't true because Bucky by preference will actually leave the condo and buy something at the nearest convenience store, if he can, rather than turning to the case at the back of the cupboard. That matters. Even that little bit of preference, of want and not-want, matters.

He doesn't call Sam to talk about that, either, but only because Sam's due in New York that weekend, and Steve'd rather talk about this in person. Steve might not really want, in the final balance, to unburden about whether he's ultimately doing some things exactly right, but what amounts to an eating disorder - that, he can unload about.

Sam turns up at the cafe near the Tower, and looks like Hell. When Steve stands up to give him a brief hug, he pushes Sam back a little and frowns. "Are you sick?"

"Yes," Sam says, dropping into the chair. "And I'm here for a few extra days, by the way. My schedule was easy to shuffle around a bit, the last couple weeks've been brutal, and I figure if I'm gonna be sick, I might as well be sick in a Tower guest room instead of curled up and miserable at home alone."

Steve suppresses a smile and stirs some of the whipped cream into his mocha. "Plus somebody might bring you chicken soup," he says, mildly, and gets a quick double take before Sam makes a face.

"Natasha tattled on me, huh," he says. He's got a chai latte, and pulls a bubble-pack of cold meds out of his jacket pocket before taking a drink.

"She did," Steve admits, and adds, "I think she might actually be having a hard time figuring out how she feels about you and Maria dating. I think her impulse to protectiveness is basically eating its own tail."

Steve's also pretty sure that Natasha's indignant that neither of them told her. At first he thought she might also be unnerved or concerned that she hadn't known, hadn't found out by herself before then, or even disturbed that they'd managed to hide it. Then he realized that he'd missed something important.

Which is that Natasha'd only not known because she wasn't digging. Because she basically assumed Maria and Sam respectively could run their own lives, by themselves, without supervision and without crashing and burning.

Steve'd been indignant about the implications of that for about thirty seconds, considering how closely she keeps an eye on his life, and then his common sense had kicked in - using an internal voice that sounded suspiciously like his mother - pointing out that while Director of Operations at a major multinational and social worker with Veteran's Affairs might both be stressful jobs, and a lot of work, they didn't make for the kind of lives that would actually explode to anybody's lasting harm at a moment's notice.

Steve is, in retrospect, kind of proud of how little exploding his life's done since Insight. All things considered. Taking one thing with another. But it's not like that's because of anything less than a lot of people, him and Bucky included, working flat out to keep things as stable as they can be. Really, if their positions were reversed, he'd be just as worried, he just wouldn't be as good at being helpful. Probably.

"Yeah, well," Sam says, "I'm fine with admitting that a Tower guest room plus someone who might check on me to make sure I've been out of bed today just makes it more appealing. And I think you're right, and I think she's a little miffed at me for not mentioning," he adds, echoing Steve's thought. "Actually, I know she's miffed at me, because what she actually said was when exactly were you planning to tell me you were dating Maria? and the miffed came through loud and clear even in text." Sam takes another drink of chai and looks patient and tolerant, or maybe Patient and Tolerant, which isn't quite the same thing. Steve's technically still doing his best at suppressing the smile, but he knows it's not working well.

"She broke in and forcibly replaced our soap," he offers. "All of it. Every possible kind of soap, or soap-related substance. Including shaving cream."

Sam laughs, and then starts coughing in a way that Steve's far too familiar with. He waits while Sam takes a sip of the chai, clears his throat and says, "I told you the first time I came here, while I was gone she dragged Clint over and broke in and finished my downstairs reno, right?"

It's Steve's turn to cough as he chokes on his drink and shakes his head. "No. Seriously? No," he repeats, "you never said."

"Damn - sorry," Sam says. "I must've meant to and got side-tracked and then misremembered that I had - yeah, walls, flooring, paint, everything short of furniture. I was, admittedly, a little bit taken aback. On the other hand I came down on the side of - "

"You just got a finished basement without having to do it yourself," Steve supplies, and Sam gestures with his cup.

"Exactly. Now, I mean, upstairs bathroom could probably use a touch-up," Sam says, like he's admitting something, "but that can wait til I need to sell the place, or something stops working."

"Or Natasha decides it's a disgrace," Steve supplies, shaking his head. "I think it's her way of showing affection," he says, stirring the last of the whipped cream in. "She's only got so much warm-and-gentle before it really starts . . . " he trails off, groping for the right description.

"Before it starts getting obvious she's Being Somebody Else," Sam fills in and Steve thinks about it. He nods, slowly.

"Hadn't really put it that way, but yeah, you're right. And she doesn't like doing that around some people. So she sorts out the rest of our lives instead. Whatever part she thinks we're ignoring or can't do, but she can."

After a half a second he feels compelled to add, "And she's not usually wrong about that."

Sam chuckles. And then ends up coughing for a while again.

 

Steve almost considers talking Sam into going back to the Tower and going to bed. In the end he doesn't, partly because the cold medicine seems to kick in, partly because if whatever Sam's got gets any worse he'll spend enough time on a couch being sick as it is, and partly because Sam hasn't met the kitten yet, and still mostly-jokingly pretends he's not 100% sure she really exists.

They do talk about Bucky and food and the whole new layer of problem that at least now they know about (as Steve points out).

"You know," Sam says, when Steve's done summarizing, "it's probably a good thing I'm sick. I think this'd be punching buttons for whole new levels of outrage, except I'm too tired, so we're gonna go with disgusted resignation." At Steve's enquiring look he says, "Sometime when you feel like being depressed and outraged, ask me about the history of psychiatric care and some of the really awful shit that went on in the name of 'treatment'."

"That's really not today," Steve says, after a beat, and Sam snorts.

"Good, I don't feel like it either."

Steve's not surprised when the advice Sam can give amounts to, keep on the way you're going, don't make a big Thing about any of it if you don't have to, and especially since Bucky is more likely to follow through with the timers, just . . . wait, and let lived experience of non-horrifically-awful maybe start to replace memory.

"Get Mercy to go find more chocolates," Sam adds, shoe-horning some amusement in on the end of it.

"You joke," Steve says, pointing a finger at him, "but I'm actually expecting her at the door with an order form any week now." And Sam laughs, as they both get up to put their cups in the dirty-dish tray.

Sam's borrowed a car from the Tower, on the basis of being sick and not thinking it's a great idea to walk anywhere or be a plague-vector for everyone and their dog on the subway. It also means, as Steve points out, that now he can compare driving in New York and driving in DC first hand, and so have more authority in the inevitable arguments about comparisons.

There's street parking outside, for once, which is actually a lot more convenient than trying to get around to the visitor parking in the building's tiny, awkward-shaped, squished little lot.

"I should warn you that all new humans are considered kitten-eating monsters until proved otherwise," Steve says, as pulls out his keys to unlock the front door. "It doesn't take a lot to prove otherwise, feeding her some treats and dragging one of the bell toys for five minutes is usually enough, but if she doesn't recognize someone's smell right away she'll run and hide if she can, and hiss and scratch if she can't." He thinks about it a second and then adds, "Except for Clint."

"Yeah, but he made friends with my neighbour's psychotic little Boston terrier who hates everyone," Sam says, and then pauses to sneeze before going on, "so I kinda suspect him of hoarding some kind of secret SHIELD make-animals-like-me pheromone."

"According to Natasha, a horse followed him into a house once," Steve offers, hitting the elevator button. He adds, "I've never got the rest of that story, but I feel like there has to be a 'rest'."

"It does beg a lot of questions," Sam agrees, frowning thoughtfully. "Like, where did the horse come from?"

"And why was it near enough to a house to follow him?" Steve agrees. "And then what happened?"

"If I ever find out," Sam says, "I'll let you know."

The kitten decides to prove that whatever Clint's magic power is, Sam doesn't share it: when Steve opens the condo door she comes galloping out of the bedroom and then stops dead, sniffs the air a couple times, and then scampers away, feet skidding on the hardwood, towards the living-room and the refuge of her cat-tree's little house.

Steve shakes his head. "QED," he says. "Kitten-eating monster."

Sam hangs his coat up and kicks his shoes off; Steve gestures to the living-room. "There's a little wooden chest by the cat-tree," he says, "there should be treats in it. If you put one at the door of the little house on top of the cat-tree, she'll probably come out and get it after a minute or two, and then you can offer her another one."

"Obviously she doesn't expect kitten-eating monsters to have very clever strategy," Sam observes, veering towards the living-room and the couch. Steve goes to put some drip coffee on, and Sam adds, raising his voice, "She's got a pretty good turn of speed for not being able to see."

"She knows where everything is," Steve agrees. "She runs into the wall occasionally but Elizabeth says that's pretty normal for kittens anyway. Take her to a new place and if Bucky's there she'll explore all around and just act nervous; if he's not, she'll just stay wherever you put her down until you pick her back up again." He glances over the counter and catches Sam looking amused. "What?"

Sam fishes out the little bag of treats - freeze-dried sardines - and closes the lid of the box before he says, "You know, you two are the only people who call her Elizabeth," and Steve fights the urge to make a face.

"Yeah," he says, knows he sounds resigned. "I do. And I honestly don't think I can explain it to anyone born after 1940 without sounding crazy." He gets down mugs and pours milk into Sam's, spoons his sugar into his.

"Oh I figure it has something to do with 'polite people don't call women old enough to be their mother and more accomplished than anyone has any right to be by diminutives unless they can stick an "auntie" in front of it' kind of thing," Sam responds, startling Steve a bit, "but it's still funny. She gets a whole one of these?" he adds, holding up one of the dried sardines and gesturing towards where Abrikoska's hiding. "I mean I didn't see her for more than a second and the Instagram photos could always be misleading, but this's gotta be as long as one of her legs."

"Whole thing," Steve says, because it gives him an excuse to drop the other line of conversation. "Just put it there and watch."

By the time he's poured the coffee - which doesn't take that long, because the little machine's pretty quick - Abrikoska's started to stick her nose out of her hiding place to sniff carefully at the sardine; as Steve comes in and hands Sam his mug, she inches out enough to bat it around so the head faces her, and start gnawing on it.

And it is gnawing, and it's a bit messy: little flakes of dried fish always end up stuck to the fur beside her mouth and on whatever she's standing on when she eats them, but she's so obviously enjoying it - stopping every so often to pin it down with a paw and lick the whole thing before going back to gnawing - that it more or less seems worth it.

"She always starts with the head, too," he says, as he sits down.

"That's pretty cute," Sam admits, and puts another one on the arm of the couch. "What's the name again?"

"'Abrikoska'," Steve says. "Apricot. It's a pun, because koshka is the affectionate for a girl cat, and she's orange. 'Apricat', basically. I said it wasn't fair just to name her 'cat' or 'orange cat', and I guess Bucky figured that was the next best thing. Not," he adds, "that she gets called anything other than cat very often, I gotta admit."

"But it's the principle of the thing," Sam finishes for him, solemnly.

"Yeah, shut up," Steve retorts, tolerantly. "Even cats deserve names."

Sam doesn't remark on the part where Bucky's obviously not here, and Steve doesn't volunteer anything, mostly because there's nothing particularly meaningful to say: Bucky's still twitchy and tense, and that ends up meaning restlessness and him convincing himself nobody could possibly want him around, which makes for him not being around, and it's all the kind of thing where changing the pattern is long-term, slow work.

After she's finished the first sardine, Abrikoska sticks her head out of the house in the direction of the second one, sniffing, stretching her neck out like the smell is a string that's pulling her along by the nose. Eventually it's enough to drag her out of the little house and onto the arm of the couch, and once she's done the second sardine she's at least willing to sniff at Sam's fingers to see if he's got any more. After sniffing thoroughly and deciding he doesn't, she bumps her head against his hand and then jumps back up onto the cat-tree, this time up to the top, and cat-loafs.

"Cat-loaf?" Sam asks and Steve smiles slightly.

"Feet all tucked under like that," he says, gesturing with one finger from around his mug. "Makes them look like a loaf of bread with a face."

 

After an hour or so, Steve's pretty sure Sam's cold is gonna get worse. Assuming it is a cold. Sam's pretty stoic about it, but Steve can hear his voice move in and out of getting raspy, a couple of times he loses the thread of what he's talking about, there are a couple of coughing fits, and mostly he just increasingly looks like he might be happier in bed.

Except that from what he's saying about the past couple weeks, he's only seen clients and coworkers, hasn't had more than ten minutes to talk about anything that wasn't work, or do anything but go to work and go home and sleep.

When he gets up to get more coffee, Steve asks, thoughtfully, "You ever considered getting a dog? Not like a puppy," he clarifies, sitting back down, "but like one from a shelter, older dog, one who's already calmed down a bunch. You could probably even take it to work with you. Might be nice to have something around that likes you."

Sam pauses, like he was going to say something but now he has to stop and think about it, and says, "Hadn't considered that before, no. Never considered myself as having enough time to be fair to a dog."

"Yeah, I wouldn't've suggested it a year ago," Steve says, and nods at the watching kitten, "but there's something in having some kind of living thing around that you can make visibly happy just by giving it a treat and a scratch behind the ears." He sips his coffee and adds, "And I never really even liked cats."

"Yeah, I never saw you as a cat person," Sam admits, looking amused for a second in spite of the now-obvious sore throat.

Steve gives a kind of shrug. "Well, I mean, cats," he says. "I always figured, what's the point? If you don't need rodent control, what do they do? Wander around and eat stuff and throw up hairballs and get sick and die. And make more cats, if it's a girl." Now Sam's laughing at him, and he sighs. "It turns out what they do is sit on people, be warm, alive, and make a noise that says they're happy," he says. "And look ridiculous chasing silly bright coloured toys. And it turns out there's a value to that. Who knew?"

Then he adds, "For the record, there's like . . . dozens of women who've passed on, and a bunch who're in nursing homes, who just felt like they won a huge argument and don't know why. 'Why do we even have that stupid cat' was a pretty common married-people fight where I grew up."

Sam laughs again, and this time also turns into a coughing fit.

He's actually still coughing when Bucky drops down onto the balcony and comes in the balcony door. The kitten launches herself from her little house to the back of the futon, runs along it, jumps from it to the side-table to one of the dining-room chairs to the table, meowing until Bucky reaches over to pet her and mutters irritably and totally insincerely about pain in the neck whiny cats, while mostly frowning in Sam's direction until Sam stops coughing.

There are only a couple new abrasions on Bucky's right arm, and nothing looks ripped, which counts as a genuine good sign. Steve watches him duck into the kitchen and go for the cupboard over the microwave before coming around to the other kitchen door, so he can toss the bottle of ibuprofen across the living-room to Steve, and then jerk his chin towards Sam.

Sam actually gets up and excuses himself, not really noticing, and goes down the hall to the bathroom to cough, spit out whatever he's coughed up, and blow his nose. From the kitchen, Steve can hear Abrikoska knocking the pepper-mill over, and also the sound of the smaller pot getting filled up with water and put on the stove.

The trick here, he realizes, is going to be stopping himself from bursting out laughing.

 

It is, too.

Sam's come back out of the bathroom and settled on the couch again, and Steve asks him about the wing-suit, because apparently now Tony's happy that it's not going to break under casual and consistent-but-low-level use, he's moved onto the stage of okay now go try to break it and tell me what happens. Because at least when other people are using his things, Tony likes to know exactly where they're going to fail, and likes to make sure they fail as little as possible.

"I mean, past a certain point, you can't make the trade-off anymore," Sam says, shrugging. "I mean to keep it light enough to move in and not need an engine bigger than a human back can take, you don't have much choice but to trade a little durability. But it's still nice to know exactly what the parameters are. And I gotta admit, it's also nice to be working in an experimental design process where I get told 'take this away and figure out how it breaks so I can make it not do that anymore' instead of 'be really careful with this, if you break it R&D're gonna be mad at the waste'."

Then Sam stops, because now Bucky's come out of the kitchen and put one of the biggest mugs down beside him, full of the turmeric-ginger-honey stuff.

"You should drink that," Bucky says, in what - especially for this week - counts as a conversational voice. "You sound fucking awful. He has painkillers," and he jerks his head at Steve again, "because I threw them at him a couple of minutes ago, and you should take those, too. I can hear how sore your throat is from the kitchen."

Sam blinks. Several times. Steve has to hide a smile.

Bucky's never minded Sam here, and Steve actually feels comfortable saying that, but he's also always tended to be definitely Doing Something Else when Sam's around, and if he's once or twice been drawn into whatever Steve and Sam were doing or talking about, it's been because Steve did it on purpose. It definitely hasn't been Bucky walking in and deliberately hijacking attention. So this is a bit new.

Steve's trying, really hard, to keep his face neutral. Bucky's look tells Steve it's not neutral enough, and also (with a quick look back over his shoulder) that he's going to shower now, and also shut up Steve, and fuck you.

Which isn't exactly helpful when it comes to keeping his face straight, but now Bucky's pointedly ignoring him. He gives a sort of half-gesture of acknowledgement at Sam's belated, "Thanks," turning back down the hall, the kitten scampering just fast enough at his heels to dart in around him before the bathroom door gets closed.

Sam waits until the water's running to point at the mug and say, "What - ?" and now Steve gives up, laughing quietly and shaking his head.

"It's for coughs," he explains, keeping his voice down. "It doesn't taste bad and it always worked at least a bit for me, even if it might've been a placebo. And here." He hands Sam the bottle of painkillers.

Opening the bottle, Sam says, "Okay, I'm not gonna lie, my throat does hurt, but what you're telling me right now is that he just came in here, heard me coughing, and made this. Just kind of automatically. After the two-weeks you've been telling me about. Before he had his shower."

"More or less," Steve confirms.

"Steve," Sam tells him, and sounds almost halfway serious, "I think your best friend has a looking-after-people problem."

"Not sure I'd call it a problem," Steve says, thoughtfully. "But it's definitely a thing. It's why there's the cat." He thinks and adds, "It's why the kid showed up to try and get him to take the cat in the first place, for that matter, and also ultimately - probably why I'm still alive."

"Yeah, see, rescuing kittens and kids I get," Sam replies, still halfway between flippant and serious. "It's the automatically making cold remedies for people you'd probably rather not have to talk to after a crappy morning and before going to have a shower that's making me shake my head, Steve. Lots of people rescue kittens and skinny kids. But as far as this goes," and he points at the mug, "most people would at least go have their shower first, especially if they feel as shitty as he clearly does."

And Steve can't really argue with that.

Then Sam takes a sip and says, "You're right, it doesn't taste bad. What's in it?"

 

When Bucky gets out of the shower, he scoops up the kitten and takes her outside to clip her claws. It's something she mostly puts up with - doesn't squirm or flail or bite - but meows all the way through like they're being pulled out instead of just clipped very, very carefully. It makes for at least a reasonable excuse to be on the other side of a closed door, especially if he follows it up with brushing her, though she's more conflicted about whether the brushing is wonderful or torture.

Steve lets it pass, talks with Sam as Sam finishes drinking the cough-stuff.

Sam gets to the end of explaining how he almost got court-martialled the one time, and then sighs. It's one of those sighs that's sort of like the breaking of a dam, where you stop being able to pretend you're not feeling as horrible as you are. Steve knows that kind of sigh pretty well from the inside.

"Okay," Sam says, rubbing his forehead with the first knuckle of one hand. "I think this is where I give up and admit I need to go to bed."

"You've kinda been losing your voice for the last ten minutes, yeah," Steve agrees, and Sam grimaces.

"Yeah, well," he says. "Being sick is boring, I get tired of TV after about an hour."

"I know," Steve agrees. "Believe me, I know. At least there's TV now. Go," he says, standing up as Sam does to reach over and squeeze his shoulder. "Sleep. Say hi to Maria for me. Try not to infect her, she does not know what 'sick day' means."

"You know," Sam says, as he pulls his shoes on, his voice getting rougher even as he speaks, "the upside of you being a smug bastard who never has to get sick anymore is, I am guaranteed not to find out I gave you this shit and feel guilty about it later."

"It's nice to know there really is always a silver lining," Steve replies, mock-gravely, and then closes the door behind Sam with a wave.

He's put a pot of their coffee on to boil before Bucky comes back inside, kitten tucked in the crook of his right arm. He tosses the clippers back into the little chest, pulls out the treats, and puts kitten and a treat on the top of her little house before kicking the box closed and coming back to lean against the kitchen doorway.

It's not actually that warm outside, and there's a pretty stiff wind, and Bucky's in a short-sleeve shirt. When you add those things together with him sitting out there long enough to not only clip Abrikoska's claws but also thoroughly brush her, the total tends to point towards Bucky's subconscious finding not-so-subtle ways to punish himself for whatever his subconscious thinks he's doing wrong today.

Steve steps on the impulse to say anything that starts with Can I just point out how you just - anything that brings up Sam's pretty good point about looking after people, or anything else. Because while he can, he shouldn't, not right now. Moments like this, it doesn't come off as a reassuring reminder about stuff Bucky can do now that he didn't used to be able to, of demonstrable progress; it just ends up turning "being too negative" into another thing to be mad at himself for.

So instead Steve pulls down mugs as an excuse to go to that part of the kitchen, puts them on the counter, leans his hip against the edge of it and rests one hand on the back of Bucky's head, gently pulling him close enough to rest his forehead against Steve's.

Bucky's next breath is longer, and slower. His right hand goes to Steve's lower arm and stays there, and he swallows.

Steve thinks he wants to say something, but after a second or two it's obvious that it's not going to come out, that right now it can't get past the shit that keeps telling Bucky he shouldn't talk at all - and Steve has no idea what he wants to say, so he can't help. So after a minute or so of that silence, Steve moves enough to kiss Bucky's forehead, instead.

"Coffee?" he says, as he steps back a little. Hears Bucky take another, deeper breath and try to shake off whatever it is that's got him.

He says, "Yeah. Sure."

Steve considers suggesting he go sit down, discards the idea, says, "I can bring it out," instead, obliquely approaching the idea that going and sitting down is a thing that Bucky could potentially do.

At times like this, Steve thinks there's a part of Bucky that really wants to just stop, throw it all over, let his messed up brain put Steve in the place that orders everything in Creation, and at times like this Steve's kinda glad Bucky knows it'd end in an ugly mess no matter what, so he doesn't try. Because even if it didn't end in bodies and blood, it'd still be bad for him. Just be cutting out parts of himself and cauterizing the open wounds.

That's never been who he is. If it ever had been, he wouldn't be here. But that doesn't mean Steve doesn't at least grasp at how tired he is, how tired he can get, fighting to stay on level ground instead of just dropping to the bottom and waiting for it all to blow.

Bucky goes and sits almost cross-legged on the flattened futon, anyway, and after a second the kitten jumps up to crawl onto his leg, put her forepaws on his shoulder and butt her head against his chin. He strokes her head, kinda distantly, and stares into the middle distance, or into whatever ugliness is inside his head, right now.

When the coffee's ready, Steve pours both mugs, adds the sugar and takes them out. Hands Bucky his and puts his own on the opposite flat arm of the futon, sits down beside him. Bucky takes his coffee, drinks some, and then stares at it for a while.

Steve's been thinking, lately, about the edges people can get pushed to, the nature of extremes. No prizes for guessing why. And about necessity as the mother of invention, and the mother of a lot of other things, too, and what you can do when you have no other choice - or at least, if the other choice is something every part of you rejects. And about being pushed to the the edge of that, where you end up when it doesn't matter, because your choice doesn't matter, because the world and the universe is bigger than you and don't give a damn what you think shouldn't be real.

And wondering, only half-jokingly, just how many angels were riding their shoulders, all of them. How if you rolled that many sixes in a row with dice, no one would believe they weren't weighted. That that's how lucky they were.

Or at least, how lucky Steve was. Is. And also how he looks back at himself then and mostly wants to bury his face in his hands, drag that cocky little shit off by the ear to beat some really important things through his head, including how important it was that he damn well stop and think about all those things he was too scared to think about (that's right, I said scared, Rogers) and how stupid it is to rely on that luck. Which probably means that when it comes to it, everything and all of it's ended up making him at least better than he was, which means he's still lucky.

Thinking about how much of his luck comes wrapped around the man sitting there, staring blankly at his coffee. Boy first, then man.

It's possible all of that verges on the maudlin, and Steve knows if he said it out loud Bucky'd duck it completely, shove it off as 'sentimental', but it's still true, because reality doesn't care about anybody's aesthetic approval, either, and just is what it is.

After a minute or five, Steve says, "I think it works better if you drink it."

Bucky blinks, quick one-two-three, not like he's startled but like he's trying to drag himself out of something. The set of his shoulders changes, too, and he takes a breath.

"Yeah," he says. "Maybe." Drinks about half of it and then puts the mug down on the other futon arm.

His left hand goes to his right shoulder; he pushes his left wrist down against his skin like he's trying to roll something out of the muscle, and catches Steve's look. His face makes a sort of a gesture towards a grimace before he shakes his head and just says, "And yes, everything hurts," sounding tired and a little bitter, "and yes, I feel like shit, and no, I don't think there's anything you can do about it, or even if there's anything to do about it. And yes, I fucking ate lunch. That cover everything?"

Then he shakes his head again and says, "Sorry," in a quieter voice, one that just sounds tired.

Steve reaches over to catch the arm of Bucky's t-shirt, tugs carefully on it until Bucky's willing or able to take the hint and lie down; Steve lets go to reach back and grab two of the pillows, one for Bucky's head and the other for him to put under his left hip because right now, that tends to make for the least amount of shit pulling and aching up and down his back. Bucky keeps one leg bent, knee pointing towards the ceiling, and Steve stretches out beside him, settling to lean on one elbow, head against his hand.

"You still don't have anything to be sorry for," he says. Bucky closes his eyes, breathes the ghost of a pretence at a laugh, and shakes his head.

"Martyr," he says.

"Pot, this is Kettle, come in Pot," Steve retorts, reaching over to yank gently - well, more pretend to yank - on Bucky's ear, before pretty needlessly using the tips of his fingers to settle Bucky's hair back out of his face. Like it wasn't already. But Steve doesn't actually care.

Bucky catches Steve's hand with his left and pulls it down to rest on the side of his neck, thumb resting against his throat. Steve keeps it there, uncurling his fingers to lay fingertips against skin, moving his thumb in slow circles.

After a moment he asks, "Why does it help?" and then adds, "You know?" when he remembers to keep in mind that sometimes Bucky doesn't, still. Which he shouldn't have to remind himself of, seeing as it's at least a part of the current hurdle. But he's never pretended not to screw up sometimes. It's why he worries.

Bucky lets his eyes open, gets the sardonic look and shadow-smile he gets when he honestly does think something horrible is funny. He meets Steve's eyes for just a second, before he looks down and says, "I've had a lot of shit around my neck, Steve, and most of it leaves a fucking mark. If your hand's there now, at least I don't have to fucking feel any of the rest of it anymore."

Steve asks, "Is it better?" which is a little bit like prodding a bruise, but sometimes there's a reason for that, like making sure it's just a bruise and nothing more than that.

Bucky actually turns his head just a little to frown at him, maybe one step down from a scowl. "That's a stupid question, Steve," he says, which actually mostly just means the answer's hard to say out loud, for one reason or another. But it's also -

Steve wonders if anyone else out there who ends up relieved when the person they live with gets irritated with them. Actually he kind of hopes not, if only because if there is it unavoidably means someone else got dragged through Hell on Earth, face down.

"I ask stupid questions sometimes," he says, completely unperturbed. "It's a character flaw." Then he half-smiles when Bucky rolls his eyes and then closes them, like he's making a production about ignoring Steve now.

For a minute he watches Bucky breathe. His hand rests where Bucky put it, just the tips of his fingers moving a little. And Steve wonders if there's ever going to be a point, somewhere in the future, that looking at him doesn't come with the overtone of knowing the lines of Bucky's face are just that much too sharp, and that means he's still too thin. He wants there to be. But if there's stuff where he gets wound tight, adamant, that it is going to change and he is going to see it -

There's a lot of stuff, and food is complicated, and the Goddamn fact is that as long as Bucky's eating enough to go on, that might have to count as good enough. So maybe not.

Some things are more important. And sometimes you have to choose between things, and know what's important. And he kinda hates it - well, no, he hates it, no 'kinda' - but food might be one of them. At least for a long time.

He derails that train of thought, though, puts it aside because it's not actually important right now. And a little bit of the tightness that comes from pain is easing out of Bucky's face, his eyes still closed, and Steve's hand still resting on the side of his neck.

And coming back to that, Steve shifts his weight and rests his forearm on the futon.

He slides his hand around and down a bit, trailing fingers across Bucky's throat to trace the hollow and right collar-bone, and then back. Curling his fingers to rest them on the other side of Bucky's throat, Steve bends a little to touch his mouth to the skin under Bucky's ear, and then right beside that, and beside that again, down the curve to the point where skin gives out and metal starts.

He can smell the soap on Bucky's skin (and yes, fine, Natasha: they're better), the way his skin smells under it, the thread of ozone-and-metal and back to living skin over blood and nerve and heartbeat. Steve flicks his tongue over the hollow of Bucky's throat. Kisses it, lips parted. Words snake through his head, you're alive, you're here, you're safe, you're home; he spreads his fingers across the nape of Bucky's neck.

Bucky lets his head tilt back, his left hand going to the back of Steve's head. His breathing changes the same way it did in the kitchen.

Steve lightly drags his first two fingers down the very front of Bucky's throat; he presses an open-mouthed kiss over Bucky's pulse-point, then turns his head to brush his cheek against Bucky's neck, his breath still close enough to Bucky's skin for him to feel, his hand still cradling the curve of the other side, thumb stroking over Bucky's skin.

When he goes to move, there's just barely enough pressure from Bucky's hand, for a just a fraction of a second, to stop him. Then it's gone, like Bucky didn't even mean to hold on, but it's enough; Steve moves so he can settle more or less where he is, instead. Means he's lying half on top of Bucky, but he can feel Bucky relax at that, rather than anything else. And after a second, Bucky works his leg under Steve's, pulling Steve's leg over his. His right hand rests on Steve's arm.

One, maybe two of Bucky's careful breaths rasp their way in, but then Steve feels something in Bucky's upper body let go, release, at least for now. His fingers trace patterns on Steve's arm. Steve goes with not bothering to count, not bothering to figure out Bucky's heart-rate. He's pretty sure it's slowing; that's all that matters, right now.

When the kitten settles on the other side of Bucky's head, Steve thinks we're probably not going to be still that long, kid, but he doesn't say it, and for now they are.