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scattered around on the floor are all my thoughts

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Steve's starting to get a handle on Clint Barton.

It's a surprisingly difficult thing to do, given how Clint likes to present himself as straightforward, even simple. Getting a handle on Clint means you have to start by realizing that you don’t have one yet. That the straightforward, calm, competent but fundamentally simple man you see if you just look - well, it isn't a lie, not exactly, or even a mask or a facade, because it is part of what's really there. It's just that it's only part of what's really there.

If you start paying attention, it starts being like you're in a house and you've walked through all the rooms and looked out all the windows and gone through all the doors, but every time you go out and look at the outside, you get stuck with the inescapable feeling that there's not enough house in those rooms you've seen, connected by those doors you've walked through, to account for all out of the outside walls you see. You realize there've got to be more doors, hidden in bookshelves, or behind mirrors, or something.

Bucky'd been working his way through the Batman and Justice League animated series (which are the only modern versions of Batman Steve'll grudgingly grant aren't awful) when Steve'd said this out loud. Which explains why he gave Steve a bland look and said, "So you're saying Barton has a Batcave in the Wayne Mansion of his soul?"

Steve'd thrown a pillow at him, and then spent the rest of the day with a warped version of They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse In Your Soul" stuck in his head. But at least Bucky'd eventually admitted Steve wasn't wrong.

These days Bucky's impressions of people are a strange, lopsided imbalance. With some stuff, he's at least as accurate and (honestly) creepy as Natasha is. Twenty minutes or less of watching someone, and he'll know what they're afraid of, what they'll do under threat, who's most important to them, whether they'll fight or run and when, and the complicated web that ties all of that together. Some of it he can tell you how he knows, draw out what’s telling him the story; other stuff he can’t, or he knows why something means something else, but he can't explain the connection in a way anyone else understands.

And then on the other hand, other stuff totally escapes him.

Stuff like "why does Elizabeth occasionally get people small tokens of affection for no reason whatsoever." He can follow the explanation because both the thing and the fact that she's thinking about them are likely to make people happy, and she likes making people she likes happy, more or less, but he doesn't get there on his own, and even then there's a kind of a blank on "how does she get ideas of what to get". It takes a lot longer now, and a lot more work, for him to figure out those kinds of things. Like something got lost along the way.

None of that's particularly shocking, and Steve can see exactly where it comes from; it just means most of what Bucky sees about Clint (that other people don't) can be summed up, more or less, as "just because the tiger's decided not to eat you right now, and rolls around on its back acting like an idiot housecat, doesn't mean it can't rip you open and eat you alive. It doesn't even mean it won't. It just means it's decided it isn't, right now."

Steve pretty much agrees with that, but then, he did meet the guy when, under compulsion, he was effectively and efficiently bringing SHIELD to its knees. Steve's done a lot of thought-exercises about the Battle of New York, and probably one of the scariest is the one where for one reason or another (and it almost doesn't matter what), Natasha doesn't manage to stop Barton from leaving the Helicarrier, still under Loki's control, and it's Barton masterminding the final Chitauri attack, not Loki.

It's kind of a nightmare. Among other things, Steve's pretty damn sure Barton wouldn't've left Selvig on the roof alone to start the portal-machine, and definitely would've had whoever was up there with the man under orders to shoot him in the head before they let him out of their custody. Loki might be a reasonable schemer, but he was a pretty awful tactician. Barton isn't.

On the other hand Bucky also agrees that Clint's safe (for anyone not attacking either him or an innocent bystander at least) because, much like Natasha (or, for that matter - though Steve doesn't say it - Bucky) he's decided he's going to be. And frankly you're a lot better off trusting that decision than you are trusting what the majority of people rely on in other people, which is force of habit, lack of opportunity, and fear. Clint really doesn't rely on habit for much; Clint makes decisions, every moment, about who and what he's going to be.

One of those things he happens to be is "startlingly, even shockingly, intelligent."

Clint didn't graduate high school. He does have what they call a "GED", which is basically a replacement for his diploma, but Steve's formed the general impression that Clint only got it because someone nagged him into it, probably for paperwork purposes. He's never been to a college that wasn't for a mission, and for the most part he doesn't feel the need to show off.

But Clint Barton is, Steve's slowly realized, almost obsessively autodidactic. In every discipline and every available field. He can keep up with Tony and Bruce on a jargony tear a lot better than Steve can, and even actually follow their math to a point, and that point is definitely beyond where Steve gets totally lost. He speaks and reads a half-dozen languages to the point he can sound like a native and enrol in a language-intensive college degree, and a bunch of others well enough to get by. Steve has yet to come across an area of history Clint's not at least confident talking about, and when it comes to fiction he's absurdly widely read.

Steve’s never had the opportunity to find out, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find out Clint can play some musical instrument or other, too.

As far as Steve can tell, Clint Barton wants to know everything. He's just not interested in doing it on anyone else's terms.

Actually there's almost nothing Clint's willing to do on other people's terms. There are times when his terms and other people's terms happen to line up, which as far as Steve can tell describes Clint's entire career at SHIELD, but when it comes to allegiances, that kind of thing, Clint goes for the two extreme ends of the spectrum: a very small number of specific people, and Exactly What He Thinks Is The Right Thing To Do Right Now.

And he's very, very good at people.

 

He's also a pretty good teacher, which for all her skill and brilliance Natasha sometimes isn't. Since Steve knows that if he ever does convince Bucky that formalized, semi-"normal" weapons- and physical-training is perfectly safe, not guaranteed to end up with him accidentally hurting someone, and a better idea than battering himself against things that leave him cut up and bruised, the first thing Bucky's going to do is have a minor shit-fit about Steve's knife-skills. Steve doesn’t even have to know why: he just knows. It’s an argument they literally had in the basement of someone’s house in Belgium, hiding from patrols. And since Steve basically hasn't touched that whole area since SHIELD went down, he gets Clint to help him brush up.

And he also makes a mental note to find non-electrified practice blades. The shocks work great for him, and he thinks for most other people, but - no.

Just no.

"You know what your problem is, right," Clint says, looking amused and grabbing his water-bottle as Steve picks himself up off the floor and rubs at the side of his neck where the electricity stung. He makes a face.

"I really want to just hit things," he says, and it's not a question. "Story of my life, trust me. It tends to work pretty well." At Clint's snort of laughter, Steve does acknowledge, "Right up until it doesn't."

Clint looks thoughtful for a second and then says, "I can't figure if grabbing Thor away from his Jane-watching hobby next time they're here would help or just reinforce bad habits."

"No idea," Steve admits. "Only reference I've got - "

" - all pretty much situations where 'hit things really hard' was the best strategy, yeah," Clint finishes. "You ever see the footage from Greenwich?"

"You mean with Mjolnir flying around like crazy while him and the whatever-that-was were popping in and out of the sky?" Steve says. "Yeah. First time I've felt sorry for an inanimate object, I gotta say."

"I am not convinced that hammer's inanimate," Clint replies. "Least not if by 'inanimate' you mean 'not alive'."

That makes Steve pause for a second, and then shake his head. "I am not thinking about that right now," he says, firmly, and Clint grins.

 

Later, after they've veered by the apparently very European (Clint says French) one of the coffee bars in the tower, Clint wanders over to one of the railings where one level of the Tower looks down on a couple others.

Sometimes Steve thinks the inside of this building has to have driven a couple architects out of their minds. He goes to lean against the railing beside Clint. There’s more or less no one around, but then, this part of the building’s mostly offices, and it’s the middle of the working day.

"Personal observation," Clint says, casually, swirling his coffee around in its takeout cup. Steve looks at him sideways and blinks.

"Shoot," he says, curious. Usually that kind of question, some kind of shape that amounts to asking if it’s okay to ask, means something that might somehow touch on Bucky - right now Steve doesn't spend much time with any stupid people, and there seems to be a general feeling that in that kind of area, he's way more likely to be touchy. And it's not like that's not true.

"Ever notice the way James looks at Natasha's necklace, when she's wearing something lets people see it?" Clint asks, and Steve blinks again.

Clint doesn't have to specify which necklace: Natasha only wears one, a tiny gold arrow on its delicate chain. It's more or less the only jewelry she ever wears, unless she's deliberately playing at being someone or something in particular. She mostly doesn't even wear earrings.

Granted, it's Natasha - every four or five days, on a more or less random kind of rotation, she decides she is going to play at being something or someone, at least a little. But still. It also tends to stay when she does that, even if other necklaces go on with it.

Steve figures that the time since Insight's been the first in Natasha's life she's got to have something that consistent, constant. To arrange whatever she's doing so that it makes statements about her, and not have to tailor it thoughtfully to ongoing missions or established covers. To him, the kind of sheer . . . instability of who you are, the uncertainty that she lived with before, is kind of appalling and approaches terrifying, so he's not really surprised she’d at least take some kind of advantage of it.

"No," he says, honestly. He shrugs with one shoulder, trying to ignore a slight sense of self-consciousness as he goes on, "I . . . try not to watch too close. They'd both notice. And she’d needle me about it, and he’d worry I was worrying. So."

When he glances sideways Clint's got the expression of fellow-feeling mixed with wry amusement. "Yeah, you're not wrong," Clint tells him. "S'what I figured. I'm not sure she's noticed, to tell the truth. You may not realize, but he's pretty good at knowing when someone's watching him."

Clint's tone is dry, dry irony meant to reassure the listener that he knows exactly what he just said, and Steve snorts. "You have no idea," he says, and he's being serious, half laughing or not.

"First time I noticed was absolutely sheer luck," Clint says, not arguing on that score, "that night Wilson was here and Maria made lamb. Didn't want to make a thing out of it, so for a while I was up in the air about whether or not I read it right, but then Tasha was telling Betty where she found it, at Stark's Real Birthday Party."

Steve doesn't remember that: he'd been playing pool with Tony, who's barely one step away from being a pool shark. Bucky'd been sitting on a dining chair turned backwards and watching and occasionally offering extremely helpful comments, and other than that Steve'd definitely been letting the distraction of “trying not to lose at pool” make it easier not to watch Bucky too closely.

Natasha'd been perched on the back of the Lounge's couch, if he remembers right.

Tony'd had a public birthday party, with all that "party" implied when you were Tony Stark, except possibly - these days - waking up incredibly hung-over and naked with a super-model under a couch somewhere, maybe still in the nightclub he hired for the thing. Other people'd done that, but Tony'd apparently woken up mildly hung-over at home - presumably with Pepper, although obviously Steve hadn't asked - and he’d even managed to be clothed in every single picture that ended up in a tabloid or online.

JARVIS had sounded so relieved that Steve had to work not to laugh.

Pepper'd very firmly organized the other one, for which the guest-list had basically boiled down to "everyone Tony either has or would have built a floor for in his Tower if they asked" and the only people Steve hadn't met before had been a doctor named Helen Cho (Steve isn't a hundred percent sure about what she was a doctor of, but she and Elizabeth seemed to have hit it off well), and Janet Van Dyne - the (apparently) Janet Van Dyne - whose mother had apparently been Tony's mother's best friend. The “the” part seemed to have to do with high fashion, about which Steve admittedly knows absolutely nothing.

That part had been a bit surreal, really. Steve remembers the name: remembers watching Van Dyne ships come in, and reading about them in papers and gossip columns - a lot in the gossip columns, actually, especially around the time one of the Mrs Van Dynes had taken off to Europe after her husband got caught having an affair. She'd been back pretty quick - that'd been around '33 - but still. Plus all kinds of younger ones in and out of parties and plans and scandals. He doesn’t remember details, because he really didn’t care that much what the rich were doing as long as it wasn’t messing things up close to home, but the part where he remembers the name at all means they were in the papers a lot.

Except that the Van Dynes he remembers as young men and women, about his age, and in the middle of making scandals of themselves . . . they were, are Janet's parents and grandparents and most of them are dead, and the ones that are still alive are extremely dignified Figures of Society, and Janet's the same damn age as Tony and has a four-year-old child. Steve's used to that kind of thing by now overall, but when it comes down to names he knows, when it comes down to specifics, it can still throw him a little.

It gets harder to treat the past like another country he’ll never see again.

The four-year-old, Hope, had come to the party in a little blue lacy dress with a bow, to variously curl up in a corner with her iPad, crawl into her mother's lap and pull on Janet's jewelry, crawl all over some of the other adults there, and eventually fall asleep in one of the arm-chairs in the corner, covered by one of the softer blankets.

"I'm a hover-mom," Janet had said, shrugging it off the way that you did when you specifically brought up what other people might call a flaw and then admit to it in order to dismiss it. "But it was a bad divorce and Hope's used to going everywhere with me, and I haven't been back in New York long enough to get a feel for childcare I'm comfortable with. Besides, she loves it when adults pay attention to her."

And that'd seemed true enough: grownups being Mommy's Friends clearly made the little girl comfortable enough that she was climbing into Elizabeth’s lap, using Tony as a jungle-gym and trapping a slightly terrified-looking Pepper in a conversation about shoes until Janet distracted Hope with cake.

Pepper’s reaction to small children always seemed to imply she thought they might explode.

Tony's version of of an introduction, thankfully, turned out to be hooking a person's arm when they arrive, demanding the attention of everyone in the room, saying, "This is Helen," or "This is Janet," and then rapidly skimming over everyone else in the room to give his victim their names, and then dragging the victim over to talk to him. Bucky'd decided to come, but he'd mostly kept to being more or less where Steve was, and with Steve between him and anyone he didn't know.

Steve kind of looks forward to the day that Bucky's guilt doesn't make him wait until he can't cope anymore to do something like leave a party early. Right now, it's always a guessing game to balance keeping track with making sure he doesn’t feel like Steve doesn't trust him, when all Steve doesn't trust is the ghost of a bastard inside Bucky's head that picks arbitrary and pointless measures of perfection and punishes him if he can't manage the impossible.

Or maybe Steve does trust it. He trusts it to be God-damn awful.

"And that time," Clint says, startling Steve out of half-reverie of remembering and seeing if he can find anything to notice in the memories, maybe if he approaches it sideways, "I was pretty sure, and I've caught it a few times since. So now I'm going to be annoying and veer into a second question, but bear with me."

Steve's mouth quirks. He appreciates in general that, pace whatever the reasons are that Clint feels the need to approach stuff this way sometimes, he does at least know it can be a bit frustrating. "Consider yourself borne with," he retorts, and takes a drink of his mocha.

Clint suddenly looks wickedly amused, just for a second, and says, "So the merchandise Tony got everyone - " and Steve groans.

"Oh God," he says, leaning a forearm against the railing so he can cover his face. "You know, if I didn't like all of you - "

Clint grins. "He only does it because your reaction is great," he tells Steve, like Steve doesn't know.

"Yeah?" Steve retorts. "So what's your excuse?" And Clint shrugs, looking innocent.

"They're nice pjs," he replies blandly, and Steve rolls his eyes. "Plus you do make a great face," Clint adds. "Besides, Tony'd just take it as a compliment if anyone did the same with his, and the rest of us just aren't as popular as the two of you when it comes to stuff with our . . . " he waves one hand, "whatever you want to call it, iconography, all over it. Though I gather Tasha's action figures and jewelry are selling pretty well."

Sometimes Steve wonders how he'd feel about this kind of thing if there hadn't been 70 years of accidental cryogenic suspension, plus everything else, between the birth of Captain America as a concept and living with it now, and how for an awful lot of people the concept and him are the same thing. Because he has to admit he'd liked it, to start with: he'd enjoyed getting admiring attention, for a change, even when it was for stupid movies and stage-tricks rather than anything really worthwhile.

But he's kind of come to realize that if Natasha's right, and Bucky really didn't see any kind of life even happening after the War, well: what Steve'd seen was . . . fairy-tale. It was a happily-ever-after medal ceremony (and wedding, he'll admit it) and then a half-hearted pastiche of things he'd wanted not even so much because he'd wanted them, but because they were part of what you were supposed to want: a wife who loved and admired you, kids who respected you, a house with more than three rooms, acclaim, that kind of thing. If it’d touched reality it was only by accident.

So who knows how he'd've felt if he really had to live through it, the fumbling, stumbling end to the war and slow fall into the Cold War.

(He wouldn't've been able to stop it, he's sure about that much. That mess had started even before Hitler'd tried to make his nightmare come true, before Schmidt took a flying leap into the deep end of his God complex. Nazi Germany got in its way for a while, but that other mess had momentum: it'd just keep coming. And it did. Steve's not sure he would have handled that well.)

As it is, though, he finds the whole thing about half gratifying and half-embarrassing, and which half comes out on top seems to depend entirely on how likely he is to see any given person involved, ever again.

So of course Tony'd made sure that the day that the now-officially-licensed-and-approved (and guaranteed at least as ethically produced as possible) Captain America merchandise got formally released . . . that just about everyone Steve knows and sees on a monthly if not more frequent basis got an official and in-some-way-personally-targeted piece or three.

Including one for Steve that read I'm not saying I'm Captain America, I'm just saying Captain America and I have never been photographed together. Which didn't even make sense, as Steve pointed out, but Tony'd still insisted he put it on.

"Anyway," Clint goes on. "James' stuff moved from wherever he folded it up and put it away after?"

The question takes Steve by surprise, a little, and he doesn't really see where Clint's going with this or how they got there, but he frowns, thinks for a couple minutes, and then shakes his head. The hooded zip-up sweatshirt and the kind of loose, down-to-the-heel sweatpants (both supposedly some new kind of fabric where the plush inside won't ever pill up or get rough) were still folded up in the drawers where each kind of thing went. At the back of them, come to think of it.

Clint taps his empty to-go cup against the railing and says, "Tasha found that necklace by coincidence at Tiffany's. She wears it all the time now because she can, because at least in daily life she doesn't have to worry about people seeing it and putting little clues together and turning it into something that points to me, or who she is, or anything else. That cat’s out of the bag. She doesn't have to care anymore. And when he doesn't think anyone's looking, James ends up looking at it like he wants something. Now, if it were anyone else," Clint says, absolutely blandly, "I'd go for Occam's Razor on what that might be - "

Steve snorts derisively, can't really help it, and Clint tips his empty cup with a half-smile of acknowledgement. It's another one of those things, the changes that Steve's worked hard enough to make himself see as a new kind of normal that the surprise never even registers, but Steve's honestly not even sure if Bucky notices people - of either gender, of any gender - that way anymore. Not the kind of way that has to do with whether or not you think someone's attractive. Assess attractiveness for others, by some kind of cultural standard, that kind of thing maybe - but as far as it applies to him, it's another thing that might as well be whale-song.

Frankly it’s probably for the best.

"Right," Clint says, "so given that, there's something about her wearing something that pretty damn plainly points at me that keeps holding onto his attention. And at the same time he's passing up a fantastic chance to needle you just by wearing clothes, which you have to admit is really not like him."

"That's a point," Steve has to admit. Clint turns so he's leaning his side against the railing and looking right at Steve.

"Now I don't know the answer," he says, "but I feel like it's worth figuring out why the guy who followed you around Europe with a badge of one of those stylized silly feathery things sewn on his coat's avoiding wearing any of your symbols now. Call me crazy," Clint adds, tipping the empty cup towards Steve as a way of kind of pulling back from the moment of weight, "but I don't think it's because he doesn't like you anymore."

"You're hilarious," Steve informs him, taking up the invitation. Because Clint's right, but Steve already knows he doesn't want to try figuring it out here and now because there's very, very little chance he's going to like it. "And they're ear-tufts," he adds, with a pretense at dignity.

"I don't know if anyone's told you this, Steve," Clint says, serious, "but bald eagles don't have ear-tufts. It's an owl thing. The only eagle that has ear-tufts doesn't even live in North America."

"I'll pass your feedback along to the designer," Steve retorts, dryly. "Who really, really wasn't me, by the way."

"I should hope not," Clint says. "I've actually watched your old movies, you know. And that outfit was pretty clearly designed to inspire the ten year olds."

"Trust me," Steve says, half-smiling and shaking his head. "I know."

 

Steve's pretty sure he's got the crux of it by the time he gets off the subway, but it ends up being one of those things that's either him honing in on something true that's going to make him want to throw things at walls if he settles down and accepts it as true, or like he's barking up the wrong tree. And he sort of hopes it's the second one.

Actually he really hopes it's the second one. If it's not the second one, it's going to end up being one of those endless moments where what he understands about how the human brain can get twisted up into horrible shapes, and what the absolute foundations of him - his soul, maybe - knows to be right just crash headlong into one another and leave a mess all over his brain.

The kind of mess where you start with how in the God-damned name of Hell does that even make sense? and then have to stop yourself and say, no, okay, I know how it makes sense, I get it, I understand the mechanism at work here, and then still want to shout it makes no fucking sense! it's nonsense! it's insane! even so.

Because even if you understand you wish you didn’t, because you don’t want to be in a world where that kind of thing is true.

Really, veering by Starbucks to get a coffee so then he can go for a walk and call Sam while he does it is pretty much a last-ditch delaying effort against that moment and that feeling, but Steve does it anyway. If he’s stuck being upset, at least he’ll have something that tastes good when it happens.

There's only one other customer, just in front of Steve in line; Steve’s kind of glad to see Sheena's working. She makes a little worried moue at him when he gets to the till, and says, "Oh no, you've got Unhappy Thoughts Face."

It startles Steve into a laugh, and he shakes his head. "Well," he says. "I've never claimed to be inscrutable."

"Hey," Sheena says, "from outside, as far as I'm concerned there's nothing more frustrating than when a friend, like, covers for everything perfectly and you find out like eight months later that oh shi - I mean, oh Hell, they had a huge crisis in January and I couldn't help because I didn't know, because somebody thinks they've gotta carry everything perfectly all by themselves." She rolls her eyes, which have really quite pretty blue sparkly eyeliner around them. "Not that my best friend does that, or anything," she adds.

"You have no idea how much sympathy I've got for you on that one," Steve says, sincerely, and she laughs. "I couldn’t even tell you how much sympathy if I tried, it’s just that much. It's nothing too dire right now, though," he clarifies. "Just . . . life stuff."

"So what kind of drink you think'll help you meditate on Life Stuff?" Sheena asks, with a note of apology and a half smile, because two more people just came in and lined up behind Steve. And now he looks up at the menu and it's suddenly like it's all Greek and he shakes his head a little.

"God, I don't even know," he says, absently. "Uh - " He tries to kick his brain into the right shape to figure out what to order.

Sheena says, "How about a venti I-surprise-you," and Steve only has to take a second to parse that out.

"You know what," he says, "sure. Sounds good."

He's not actually sure how much she charges, and he dumps the change from the ten in the tip bucket anyway.

The advantage to liking sweet things, Steve considers, is that it's hard to get too much syrup in a fancy coffee-drink, for him. This one has cherry, chocolate and caramel, and about as much whipped cream as the cup can handle. He waves thank you to Sheena as she has to dart back behind the till for the next bunch of people who come in, and heads out the door with a drink that, it occurs to him, would make Clint make that face he gets when he's making an effort not to say something negative about something someone else likes.

Given all the other incongruous things about Clint, "very picky coffee gourmand" fits in nicely.

 

Sam's cooking - setting up a slow-cooker for the week's work lunches, as it happens - but his home phone has a good speakerphone option and he turns that on. There's the sound of something sizzling and water running and frankly it's kind of soothing, like his brain was looking for signs that he still knew someone who has a normal-ish life.

When Steve follows up the hi-how's-it-going part with so Clint mentioned something today, Sam's immediate answer is, "Oh good, and how upset are you gonna be if he turns out to be right?"

Steve sighs. "You know," he says, "the fact that you can ask me that before I even tell you what he mentioned kinda says something."

"Yeah," Sam replies, dryly. "It says the man knows more about abnormal and pathological psychology and how it presents in people than should be good for anybody's peace of mind, especially his, and if it's up to him to mention something you haven't already noticed and thought of it's usually because it's tangled, fucked up and pernicious."

"Point," Steve has to acknowledge.

"Seriously," Sam says. "The guy could write a book, except he'd never do it in the right format so nobody'd pay attention to it even if he did. Anyway. Tell me what you got."

Steve does, and as he does he gets a lot more sure his suspicions are right and that no, he's not barking up the wrong tree. He finishes with, "And I just keep thinking about - "

" - the contact poison thing?" Sam finishes for him, and Steve sighs. "The pollutant idea that keeps coming back?"

"Y'know," Steve tells him, "I was really hoping you were gonna tell me I'm totally off."

There's the sound of a lid going on something, and then the double-click that means Sam's switched back to hand-set instead of speaker. "Sorry, man," he says, "I don't think you are. I mean, the basic idea is sound. Think about it - how would you feel if, I dunno, Donald Trump went on TV wearing one of the shirts with your shield big and right in the middle - "

"Thanks," Steve cuts him off, dryly, "now someday that image is gonna show up in a nightmare somewhere. But yeah, I get it, for that I might actually get a damn . . . I dunno, Facebook or Twitter or something just to make it clear I want nothing to do with him." He draws his free hand down his face. "I get it," he repeats, and then closes his mouth on the rest of it.

At least until Sam says, pretty God-damn knowingly, "Go ahead and say it, Steve, get it out."

"I don't even have to," he retorts, "you know what I'm gonna say. And you know why - it's stupid," he gives in and says, "it's insane, it is literally . . . it’s God-damn contrary to any kind of logic or reason and honestly the implications make me pretty God-damn uncomfortable."

He stops himself, because he's starting to raise his voice; fortunately when he looks around, there's still nobody near by enough for that to matter and for him to become That Guy Who Was Shouting At His Cellphone. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly between his teeth.

Then he says, "Thanks, by the way."

"For what?" Sam asks, and Steve smiles a little wryly.

"I can practically hear how hard you're working not to say the obvious therapist thing," he says. "I appreciate that."

Sam coughs. "Well as long as you appreciate the effort," he says, and Steve can hear the little bit of self-consciousness there. "But fuck, man," Sam goes on, tone of voice normal again, "you don't need it. You already know everything I could say, and I know you know it, and fuck - it is uncomfortable. It's messed up. Also grass is green and water's wet and the Pope shits in the woods. Any idea what you wanna do about it?"

"No," Steve says, and then amends to, "maybe. I dunno, I think I gotta start with playing it by ear. I mean I never even thought about it until this afternoon. What I want to do is just to go home and just lay out why . . . all of it's crazy, why if anyone's got any right to . . . symbols, whatever, tied to me, it's him - how there wouldn't even be any God-damn Captain America iconography for anyone to recognize if it weren't for him, but - " Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "I don't think that's the right plan."

"No," Sam agrees, "I think that's gonna send everything straight to 'I should do things a certain way because Steve's upset when I don't' territory; I think that would be a shit plan."

Steve pauses, and shakes his head, not quite laughing. "You know," he says, "sometimes it's kinda comforting to have someone agree with me about how I could fuck things up," and he hears Sam laugh a little, too.

"I'll keep it in mind. By the way," Sam adds, "before I forget, did you know you've got a waffle-iron now? People can officially eat your shield for breakfast."

 

As Steve walks home, he listens to Sam telling him about Corinne, and how she's doing better now since she started seeing the one counsellor and also getting medicine for her ADHD. Steve likes hearing about Corinne, especially when things are going better; Sam's voice gets warm, talking about Riley's kid, even when he's worried. And it's the kind of thing you'd never, ever say out loud, but well -

It's nice that Sam's got something, someone, some connection left with Riley, even if Riley's gone. And, Steve thinks, it’s good for Sam, too. Being there for Corinne and Corinne's mom gives Sam a kind of anchor, and something to do and be that always matters, even when everything else is hard. Sam's the kind of person who needs people to care about and look after - not who needs those people to need looking after, not like that. More that he needs to be allowed, for that to be his job, part of his role.

That in the best of all possible worlds he'd never actually have to look after anyone, but if they need looking after, he's there to do it. Sam, Steve thinks, would make a great dad.

When they hang up, there's a text from Tony on Steve's phone, reading whn u nxt hv tme com in & test a unifm 2 dstrctn.

Steve's not sure what exactly drives Tony to text like that: he doesn't have to. God knows he can type fast enough on the tiny touch-keyboards, even without going ahead and writing his own predictive text swipe-type thing. But mentioning it naturally only makes him worse, so Steve does his best to ignore it.

Mostly. He does text back copy, because that kind of thing annoys Tony and Steve can plausibly claim it's just habit.

Bucky's out when Steve gets in the door, but the kitten's not home either so Steve can safely assume he hasn't gone far: probably just around the corner and down the block to the little green-space beside the nearest play-ground, so she can pad around him in a really small circle with her harness on and sniff the grass. Or hide in the hood of whatever sweat-shirt he's got on under his coat. She's decided that's an excellent riding spot for small cats.

So far she's still pretty dubious about being taken out of the condo or the Tower suite, but they haven't been doing it very long.

Steve goes into the bedroom and pulls open the drawers in the side dresser, and yeah: they're where he thought they were, hooded sweatshirt and pants both, each at the back of their respective parts of the drawer, and at the bottom. After a second of frowning at both drawers, Steve reaches in and pulls the sweatshirt out, unfolds it.

The thing he'd privately hoped that Sam would say was that it's probably just about - Steve's not sure, thinking the whole thing is silly. Or even about not wanting to wear any kind of mark of affiliation or something like that. Steve'd be completely okay with that. And it's a tempting explanation. It's sure a Hell of a lot more comfortable, because then it means the right thing to do is absolutely nothing, which drops the chances of doing something wrong, or the wrong way, back down to near zero.

He just . . . doesn't think it's the right explanation, and with the stupid shirt in his hands, he gets a bit more sure of it.

Bucky prioritizes exactly two things, when it comes to clothing: how much of him it covers and how effectively, and how soft it feels. Everything else is secondary. Both of those things being equal he'll veer towards greys, blacks, and steel- and dark blues, but there's a red shirt in the stack that gets pretty regular wear, because it's got long sleeves but a slightly more open neck (so it doesn't ever hit the feeling of choking) and the material is really soft.

When it comes to sweatshirts he likes the ones that zip up better than the pullovers.

And the sweatshirt is definitely soft. And it's made in a way that actually means most of the seams are small, and flat, and even covered up, and that's another thing that tends to get stuff more wear. It's probably warm. It's dark navy blue, the kind you could mistake for black in bad light until you go out in good light and see it really isn't, and the only thing that makes it something other than any old sweatshirt, anywhere, is the embroidered circle in the patterns of Steve's shield, just a few inches across, on the left where a breast pocket would be on something formal.

Even if it were about not wanting a mark, Steve's pretty sure that the rest would outweigh that. At least a home, even if never outside.

Or, Steve thinks, he'd've got rid of it. Put it in the dresser in the other room, or packed it away in a box in storage, or left it at the Tower. He does that sometimes, with things he doesn't want. When it's clothing, it's usually because somehow a bad day or bad episode manages to get too closely tied to whatever he was wearing when it happened, and those clothes end up folded up in the smaller dresser in the guest room at the Tower.

Because sometimes getting rid of things is as hard as asking for them.

But this is still here, and so are the sweatpants: still in with Bucky's own clothes. In place. And totally unworn.

Damn it.

And it's a petty thing to be furious about. Hell, in a train of thought that touched on how the mess they left in Bucky’s head gets bad enough sometimes, still, that just having a bad episode can leave a mark of its own, so that the clothes he's wearing end up being a reminder of the misery of the episode - being able to think that kind of thing with a kind of resignation feels like it should make anything less trivial.

But Steve's still furious. Furious and all of the rest of it, all over again, the desire to snarl something about how fucking dare they stinging the back of his throat. And maybe -

Maybe it's because . . .

No. No, Steve thinks, interrupts the thought: there's no maybe about this. It is because, definitely because, he remembers the elation (kept under as much of a lid as he could, for the sake of what he liked to think of as his dignity) of watching Bucky very deliberately sew the patches, the little stylized insignia that was Steve's insignia, on each shoulder of his blue coat, after he got it. How that felt, what was sewn up with the stupid patches: the approval it showed and . . . Hell, Steve doesn't know what to call it. The clear formal willingness to say yeah, I'm with him.

Not that Bucky ever hadn't been willing to say just that, but that kind of thing being true doesn't make the tangible versions mean any less.

He remembers how that felt; the fucking, the disconnect between that and even the idea that Bucky could think - that someone made it so that he could think - he somehow wasn't allowed, or wasn't good enough -

That makes Steve want to throw things. Like substantial pieces of furniture. At people. The right people. That kind of thing.

Instead, he carefully folds the sweatshirt back up and puts it away, exactly the way it was. Gets up and goes to the kitchen. Puts the coffee on. Preemptively spoons sugar into a mug (the first one to hand is a recent arrival, with a little cartoon of a cat inside a mug on it with "Cat got your mug?" in black up above that) and sets it on the counter.

Leans back on the counter and stares at the other counter.

The pot's starting to make noise but isn't boiling quite yet when Steve finally pulls out his phone and hits Natasha's text window. By the time he's finished starting and erasing and starting over five or six times, and actually hits send, the coffee's been boiling long enough for him to turn the stove off and let it sit so the grinds settle back out.

His text reads, how do you make something Allowed WITHOUT bringing it up? And then just to make sure, he'd added, _ever_? And Steve almost adds a parenthetical don't ask to finish up, but skips it.

It's Natasha.

It could be because she's doing something, or maybe she had to think about it; Steve's not going to ask, and either way, it's fifteen minutes or so before she texts him back with, Facilitate it.

It's a minute or two more before she adds, *Personally.*

Steve slides his phone back into his back pocket and goes to lean against the big living-room window, staring out at the street. Watching people go by, here and there.

 

That night he’s the one who ends up lying awake, staring at the ceiling.

Bucky's twitchy and sharp when he gets back, kitten in hood, but that's pretty much expected. If Steve's honest, taking her out is at least as much about Bucky's anxiety as it is about the Abrikoska's. She's small and fragile and vulnerable, but Bucky kind of wanting to kill anyone who looks at her isn't a good idea for long-term stress management. And the little cat probably gets a disproportionate helping of that, since trying to get (for instance) Mercedes to stay securely tucked away somewhere is about the definition of "lost cause".

Or Steve himself, for that matter. Or, Steve thinks with a sort of smile, Elizabeth, although nowadays Elizabeth does actually know how to usefully fire and reload several different kinds of hand-gun and also how to take one off your average semi-attentive attacker and get far enough away to shoot.

It's just about the exact balance-point between Bucky going slightly crazy and her changing how she lives in ways that get intrusive and make her unhappy.

Bruce actually sent a thank-you card; inside he'd written, this is not a joke, this is absolutely serious. You think Jane Foster's bad? At least Jane Foster admits she loses all sense of danger when she's excited about something. So thank you. Seriously. Steve knows the card lives in the same box as the notebooks, note-pads and note-collections-of-scrap-paper-in-envelopes that used to be just thrown in and ignored, and now are in some vague kind of order. It's carefully down one side, where it won't get crumpled, in the envelope it came in.

(Steve'd asked Natasha if Bruce was maybe overstating things. Natasha'd laughed outright, and then dug through the Stark-hosted SHIELD files until she found the video of Elizabeth running out onto the field, from the incident General Ross provoked at that college campus. Running out in front of the Hulk you can kind of dismiss as Elizabeth's absolute rock-solid belief that the first episode was an accident and an outlier and Bruce would never hurt her, Hulk or not; running out onto an actual battlefield when she'd just heard her father call in a gunship, not so much. Steve'd decided not to show the footage to Bucky. If he found it by himself, that was one thing, but there's no point in deliberately feeding and watering the paranoia.)

But in the end, tonight, Bucky's the one who falls asleep relatively easily (for him), and it's almost midnight and Steve's still lying here, staring at the ceiling. Bucky's left arm is across his ribs and Bucky's head is half on the pillow, half on his shoulder; Steve has one hand behind his own head, and wishes his brain would shut up now and let him sleep. It's probably not going to. If nothing else, in the silence of almost-midnight it can circle around and dig right down to the back row of memory and experience, metaphorically speaking, and drag up stuff he mostly ignores, that doesn't even make sense anymore, and definitely doesn't matter.

When your brain tries to pull in things like but what if you're wrong, and you're wrong because it's really all about being embarrassed to be linked with you in the first place - up out of the box of juvenile insecurities, in this kind of situation, it probably counts as surreal. It definitely counts as ridiculous. That doesn't stop the thought from jumping all around like a badly behaved puppy and scratching at the door.

There's also the part, he eventually admits to himself, that even if he does . . . manage to figure out what to do to at least start to fix this, it's not going to be -

He stops himself: he was about to think not going to be satisfying and that's not true. It's just not going to be satisfying soon, and it's not going to be dramatic, or clear, or -

It's not, he realizes, going to be a nice tidy story. And he kind of wants it to be.

It's a pretty juvenile want, but Hell. The whole thing bugs him, it's a wrong note in the whole universe, the whole thing, and all things being equal he'd rather not wait over slow weeks or even months of making sure the message, the right message, gets across in ways that aren't going to hurt or carry the very much wrong message along with them - have to wait for all that before he knows it's fixed. As much as it can be fixed. He would, in point of fact, like it if the universe just made it easy and gave him a gold damn star, this time.

To which the only real answer is suck it up, Rogers, and he knows it.

And in admitting that, with a mostly internal sigh, he also pretty much knows what he should do, too. His subconscious's just been ignoring it while it tried, against all sense and all he knows, to dig around and find something more direct and and simple, and neat.

You'd think he'd know better by now, but apparently you'd think wrong.

 

Steve doesn't remember falling asleep, but Bucky's nightmare wakes them both up at around two am.

And it could be tempting to draw some kind of line between that and Steve's brooding, sketch some kind of idea of the universe going here, you can start earlier than you thought, but that’s magical thinking, and stupid, and self-centred bullshit to boot, so Steve kicks the thought away before it settles.

It's not the kind of nightmare that shows up on the outside before Bucky manages to wake up, but it is the kind that hangs on after and gets tangled up with the waking world. So that for at least a good fifteen seconds after waking up, Bucky's mind's still trying to interpret everything around him by whatever the dream told him is true, and fifteen seconds is enough time to push himself away from Steve and the bed violently enough to end up on the floor, and (this time, at least) crack his head on the bedside table.

Steve winces, pushing the covers off and moving to that side of the bed to get his foot on the floor.

Bucky's stopped; you might expect it to be hitting his head, but Steve's actually more inclined to think it's realizing he’s lying on the soft, dense texture of the rug over top of hardwood flooring that makes the difference, throws the door open on reality instead of whatever he was dreaming. The feeling of it and probably looking at it. Steve's pretty sure area rugs in patterns of blue-grey-white aren’t really a feature of this kind of nightmare.

Bucky pushes himself up slowly, getting his knees under him and looking over and over what's basically right in front of him, like he has to get that straight before he can even start looking at anything else. When he's most of the way to sitting Steve reaches one hand towards his shoulder, a familiar kind of gesture, but when Bucky flinches away enough almost to fall over again Steve pulls his hand back, palm forward.

Waits until Bucky's stared at his face long enough (a couple seconds, not much more) to start looking more confused than blank, and then shifts his weight over and sits down beside Bucky on the floor.

"It's okay," he says, as Bucky sits up slowly. "We're fine - well," he amends, "except you hit your head. But I don’t think it’s bleeding, we’d’ve noticed by now."

Bucky looks at him, and then down at the floor, through the floor; then he closes his eyes as he scrubs his right hand down his face. Whatever curse he breathes first is quiet enough Steve doesn't actually catch the word, but the second one is definitely Fuck. At the end of the word Bucky's jaw tightens and he swallows.

"Don't - " he starts, but then it's like he doesn't even know what to tell Steve not to do, so he ends up with, "just wait - "

"Okay," Steve says, "it's fine, Bucky. You're okay."

Bucky glances at him again, looking half-disbelieving for a second before it slides back into the twisted, confused frown. His legs are half-crossed and he touches his right hand to his left arm and runs the palm up to his shoulder. Touches his neck and then slides fingers under the collar of the t-shirt he was sleeping in towards the scar, and Steve suppresses a grimace.

Then Bucky's shoving himself to his feet, saying, "I can't - " and then, "I need to - "; this time Steve stands up to stop him, just for a second, with a hand on each shoulder. Just for a second. Enough to make him pause, which unfortunately happens to be enough to make him flinch, too, but nothing helps that, times like this.

"Bucky, it's okay," Steve says, again. Let’s his hands fall and asks, "You need to go sit?"

After a second Bucky nods, right thumb and forefinger going to pinch the bridge of his nose tight for a second, but letting go before Steve has to worry that bridge-of-nose-breaking is adding itself to the list of potential unconscious self-damage.

"Okay," Steve says, making sure he moves out of the way, "so you should go sit, I'll be there in a minute."

And it's chilly, the way the middle of the night is usually chilly when you've been asleep, and Bucky's in short sleeves and that's probably not a great idea for more than one reason. Steve's halfway through the automatic motion of pulling open the appropriate drawer before the thought strikes him. So he reaches for the back of the drawer instead of the front.

Bucky's not sitting, but Steve's not surprised. He's moving from window to balcony door to kitchen window, a second or two of stillness before abruptly stepping towards the next spot, until Steve catches his left hand to stop him.

"Hey," he says, quietly. "There's no one out there, you would've seen them already." And Bucky's already shivering, slightly - it's probably not cold, not yet, but by now Steve's figured out that basically all shivering acts like it's from cold, even when it isn't. "Here," he says, "you're freezing, put this on."

He doesn't think Bucky actually notices or cares - right now - which sweatshirt he's pulling on. After he pulls the zipper up Steve rests a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, and this time there's almost no flinch. "Hey," he says again, "it's okay. It's fine, you're okay." He pushes Bucky's hair back from his face.

Bucky looks down at his own left hand, closing it and opening it again.

"I know," he says, and, "sorry, I just - " and they're the stilted sounds of apology, not the ones that mean he's trying to actually tell Steve something, so Steve interrupts him, catching his face in both hands.

"Bucky, everything's okay," he says, still mostly quiet. "Even this."

Bucky's right hand goes to Steve's lower arm - to hold it where it is, not to pull it away. Bucky closes his eyes for a second as his hand tightens, and Steve can see him trying to control how he breathes. Counts six before Bucky tries talking again.

Voice low and flat, Bucky says, "I can't go back to bed right now," like he had to line all eight words up one in front of the other so he could shove them out, all at once. And Steve gets it. He had that kind of nightmare when he was a kid, even all the way up to when his mom died - where whatever it is about the dream that's wrong somehow sticks to where you were sleeping, just for a while, and going back feels like going back to the dream.

"Okay," Steve says. "But you're tired and you hit your head, so come lie down with me out here."

After a second or two, Bucky nods, and lets go of Steve's arm.

 

They wake up on the futon around seven, and after another fifteen minutes or so of denial Steve makes himself get up and make coffee. At some point the kitten decided the bad excitement was over and came out of her house and curled up behind Bucky’s head. He stays there a bit longer, while Steve makes coffee, boils eggs, makes toast.

He's not sure if Bucky notices which sweatshirt he's wearing, but Bucky doesn't get rid of it or put it away, even after they shower and get dressed.