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outlive the bastards

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Somehow the dream shakes the memory loose.

He dreams about killing Steve, again. It's just a dream, not a memory or even a memory mixed up in a new kind of dream - just a dream, with dream logic and dream strangeness and things that you don't notice don't make sense. He doesn't know why he, why the dream version of him has to kill the dream version of Steve, but it's the kind of compulsion you get sometimes in dreams and can't argue with. So he finds Steve, and steps behind him, and cuts his throat.

He manages to force himself awake, then, clutch and scratch and desperately crawl his way to awake and out of the fucking dream, but only just; it feels like opening his fucking eyes is the hardest thing he's ever done.

When he can understand what he's seeing, he's looking at Steve's shoulder. Steve's still asleep, mostly on his back, head turned to one side and arm bent up to lie where Bucky has hold of his wrist, because he still does that sometimes. When he's too restless to stay still. Ends up like this, almost like he's sleeping alone except he'll have hold of Steve somewhere.

Otherwise he can't sleep. Otherwise it's not real.

The dream isn't new. The dream's fucking miserable but the pattern's familiar enough by now. It's clinging and insidious and even lying in the damn bed looking at Steve it's hard to get rid of the feeling, thick arterial blood welling up between his fingers, the feeling of tightening his grip (so the body doesn't fall, doesn't make noise, doesn't draw attention) while his sleeping subconscious' imitation of Steve clutches involuntarily - weakly - at his gaped-open throat. Bucky knows what that feels like. His body does. It remembers and right now it's fucking confused and it won't let go of the sickening investment in the dream.

But it's not new. Except maybe that in this dream he knew who he was killing. Actually knew, the dream-self knew, instead of a tiny scrabbling voice trying to even be heard get across the sense of unease and the false "knowledge" of the dream. It's not the first time that's happened, but it hasn't happened often.

Yet. Fuck, that's probably a "yet", isn't it. He's not sure that's a fucking improvement.

He gets up because lying there's not working. The idiot kitten's head pops up and she stretches, jumping down to follow him. He prowls through the condo, and it is prowling, he knows it - but the fact is there's not that much space to prowl through and it doesn't take long before even his fucking paranoia knows there's nothing and no one here except him, and Steve, and the damn cat.

Not that it'll let him go the fuck to sleep again, even so.

He doesn't know why the other memory shakes loose, after he gives up and sits down, starts by trying to grab the tablet and find something to distract him. Or maybe it was starting to shake loose anyway. Maybe the reason this dream sticks is because in the dream he knew what he was doing, not just a trapped distant voice that makes no sense, but him. Knew he was killing Steve, and knew Steve was dead.

Maybe. He doesn't remember, but maybe that, knowing that the body dying in his hand was Steve's and that meant Steve was dead, maybe that's the thing that's shared. That knocks the other box off the mental shelf and spills it all over the metaphorical damn floor.

And this isn't new either. Not a new thing to know. It's not a discovery. Fuck, it came back before he'd even decided if anything he remembered was true or not, it's been there, he just . . .tries really hard not to have anything to do with it. It goes in a box and the box goes away.

But most of the time he knows it's there but he can just . . . not look at it.

It's one of the fucking perfect ones. It'd be funny, that. Funny-odd and funny-bitter, but it's not, because . . . of course it is. It's his fucking life, after all, by now he's got a fucking handle on how it works, and also because he can't actually fucking laugh at this. But it's one of the perfect, clear pieces of his fucking past. Everything about it is like fucking crystal.

Except for the moment. Except for the crux, the point, the reason.

He remembers everything, it floats to the top of his thoughts like lights fucking condensing out of a fog into the truck that fucking mows you down - except for one moment, except for the moment and that he can't remember. Not there. Never was there. A skip like a, like a what - a skip on a record, a corrupted file, a cut in a movie reel, fuck he's got too many options for that kind of shit now, for ways of thinking about it, but it's gone, cut out, and then on the other side of it everything back to flawless and clear like he doesn't fucking want.

Bucky can remember how the concrete smelled, how it felt, what hurt, how his stomach turned, the smell of his own blood, the quality of light - he can remember almost every fucking thing about the point he found out Steve was dead. Except for one piece. One fraction.

He can't remember what Zola said.

Or did.

Or - something.

The shape of knowing is there, it was . . . recording? Something played, something that was proof, because fuck knows he wouldn't've believed a single fucking one of them if they fucking said that water was wet, he'd . . . he'd said that? He'd fucking told them that. Him that.

And then there'd been something, something recorded and played. Voices. The right voices, the right shapes of what he was hearing, realizing the fuckers couldn't fake that. Couldn't've known how to.

Monty. Monty's voice, a eulogy. Maybe. Other voices, ones Zola couldn't've fucking faked. Stories only seven people in the whole fucking world could know. Except he can't remember it. He knows it. It's like unfolding a fucking . . . like unfolding a newspaper in his head: unfold across, and then open, and then pull apart and suddenly you've got everything you could fucking want to know spread out from a thing you could roll up in your hand, it's like that, but he just . . . knows. He doesn't remember.

Suddenly it's fucking important, because the fucking memory won't let go. Suddenly he can't put it back in the fucking box, suddenly it's everywhere except for that piece and he -

Has to fucking find it. Goes scrabbling at the internet and its fucking collection of everything and nothing, YouTube and history sites and museums and fucking - everything. Looks. Because maybe it's there.

He doesn't find it. Or maybe he does, he finds a lot of shit that could be it. Half dozen fucking radio broadcasts, interviews, two different fucking funerals, but it's - he doesn't recognize any of them. Knows what's in them, the information they convey, but not the words or how they're gonna fucking say them. He doesn't remember. Not that.

Doesn't take very long to exhaust that fucking line of inquiry.

Bucky drops the tablet on the couch and wraps both arms around his knees. Rests his forehead against them. He's not trying to fucking remember now, but he can't stop anyway and whatever it is he's looking it's either not there or he's just not going to ever fucking remember, maybe it was even pieced together from half the shit he's just found and that's why nothing sounds quite fucking right, he doesn't know, but -

Remembers hurting. Pain. Always pain, but more, more than always. The kind that drove him out of his fucking head until he didn't know . . .anything. That pain, and fear. A lot of it. So fucking much.

Not human fear, not thinking fear - animal fear, the kind that's just another kind of pain and it's the kind nothing stops and you can mix them so you can't fucking get away, can't find distance can't find anything, just stay trapped in now in the body that thinks it's going to fucking die and that if it fights hard enough it can stop it and is wrong, wrong, so fucking wrong. It's not thinking, you can't fucking think anymore you can't think anything.

There's a place past that when everything shuts down, everything goes quiet, body floods itself with so much chemical shit that it reads like a fucking overdose: place where you still fucking know you're hurting and probably gonna die but it's all far away and you don't fucking care and now the animal thinks, maybe if I lie absolutely fucking still, I'll live.

It's still fucking wrong. And if you know what you're doing, if you've fucking practiced enough, you can make sure whoever you're hurting stays in the panic. Doesn't get the surrender.

They knew what they were doing. Always did.

Screaming. Struggling, gasping for air, crying because fuck, yes, you cry, and begging and begging and begging - and then it didn't matter and he couldn't because he didn't have any breath to beg with. The edge of the black welling up and then pause, then the fucking pause just fucking long enough to lose the edge and then it starts again.

Screaming and then having no voice to scream with anymore.

And the moment something snapped. He remembers that. The way something always does, when you stop crying, stop screaming, because your body can't fucking hear your brain anymore and there is nothing you wouldn't fucking do to make the pain and fear stop. Not then. Not in that moment. There's fucking nothing, no promise no submission no surrender you wouldn't give and fucking kiss their feet for letting you. Nothing.

Anything to make it stop.

That he remembers.

Doesn't know what happened next, for a while. Just . . .nothing, not even like he's lost the memory, like it was never there. Not knowledge like the piece he's missing that comes soon, but like there's nothing to know. Like he wasn't there; like he was asleep. Happens sometimes. Not a lot. Sometimes. But he doesn't remember what happened after he broke that time. What he did, what he said, if he killed or . . .anything else.

Sometimes it was that.

There would be other people, any kind of people - men, children, tiny frail old women, everything else. Fuck knows where they got them from. People they'd make him hurt and make him kill, different ways. They were . . .tests, maybe. Something. Like if he cracked there, gave in and obeyed, it'd mean anything later. Like it proved they fucking won. Like there was a fucking line they could cross, like when he could fucking think again he wouldn't -

They wouldn't have to fucking do it all over again. That he couldn't hate them enough to go back to fighting once he could think again just for that hate. Oh they could make him do anything in that moment, any fucking thing, but it didn't stick; when he had time to think again, eventually spite felt better than relief.

Sometimes it took a while. Sometimes they got what they wanted for a while. But only a while. Until there could be something that felt better than just absence of that much pain. He hadn't known he could hate someone, something so much that any single fucking thing he did to hurt them felt like the best kind of fucking drug but he could and he had.

The point is, though, when it comes to that time he doesn't know what happened next, not for a while.

When he knows again he's on the concrete floor in a cell, mostly naked, a shivering half-foetal ball. There's blood in his mouth and one eye, taste of vomit under the blood. Breathing hurts. The concrete's cold, the air's cold. There's light, a light, hanging from the ceiling - one of the cells they watched him in, like a fucking zoo animal, not one where they left him in the dark.

There's the legs of a table, and a chair and neat little fucking leather shoes in front of him, where he can see.

If he could have moved Zola would have died. Died then.

He couldn't: thick, heavy cuffs around his wrists, one around his ankle, collar around his neck, both tethered to the fucking ground and nowhere near the give to reach. Zola wasn't fucking stupid, and the other son of a bitch didn't exist yet, was a boy, sitting in fucking school, maybe still waiting to see if his fucking father so happily fucking saved from HYDRA's own fucking factory would ever actually come home, and that fucking child didn't matter yet, and nobody else was going to take any fucking chance they didn't have to.

Something in the cuffs makes his left arm dead, unresponsive, useless. Cuffs fit close against his wrists. Chains could pull a tank, could use the cuffs to lock its tread to something and it'd tear itself apart before either fucking broke. He knows that. He's tried them. Only ever got him blood drying on the metal where he tore his own skin open, pulling. No point in fucking moving and he remembers he didn't. Didn't do anything.

And he remembers . . . something. A remark, Zola talking, he remembers that. Remembers that fucking voice and a sentence. Two.

Remembers, I really don't know why you persist in being so uncooperative.

And remembers, There is certainly no point. Especially not now.

That's all he remembers. It's where the cut is, the skip. Memory stops, turns into knowing until it vomits him out on the other side of knowing back into memory. That the bastard told him, and the radio, the recording, something fucking proved it - knowing it was true knowing it happened. Knowing Steve was dead.

That Steve'd won, he'd beat them, and now he was dead. Exactly like he'd always fucking wanted, dead like he'd always fucking wanted, a hero saving the world, and now he had it.

All of it. Knowing it was over. Everything was. Hearing Zola's fucking voice, talking, gloating - knowing it happened, not remembering what he said. Just the shape, understanding, and then everything coming back again like a full sensory fucking movie in his head.

Then, Bucky remembers, he'd still been able to cry. Been able to fall apart, sob and choke and gag and curl into himself. Been able to. Did. Couldn't not. Remembers that he fucking lay there on the floor and cried.

Zola sat there, watching, loving every fucking second; didn't matter, didn't mean anything, he had no fucking pride and even if he had he was too weak to make it matter in the face of this. New kind of pain, different, but does the same thing. Did the same thing. Hit his chest and clawed up his throat, choked him and choked its way out and worse than every other fucking moment because it wouldn't stop. Wouldn't ever fucking stop.

Wasn't anyone to fucking appease or obey or any-fucking-thing, wasn't anything he could trade, to make that pain stop.

He curled on the floor like he could fold himself into his own pain and it'd stop, it'd go away - but it didn't. Wouldn't. His throat hurt. He remembers that. Didn't fucking have a voice left. Sometimes the sobbing gagged him, choked him, but it still didn't stop. And for a long time Zola sat and watched.

Left before sheer fucking exhaustion meant memory ends, though. Got bored, got up, left. Light stayed on, but it didn't matter, this time. Didn't help.

Then memory ends the way Bucky knows means eventually even his body fucking gave out. Ran out, ran down, shut off.

But no matter what he does, he can't remember what Zola said, how he proved it. Did somehow.

Didn't get the son of a bitch anything else wanted, though. All it did was prove there was no point to staying alive. Wasn't anything there anymore. It was over; everything was over and done with, and Steve got what he wanted, Steve won and Steve was gone and nothing would ever touch him or change that, and everything else was gone, everything else had been gone for - fuck, he didn't know how long, didn't know how long he'd been in that fucking pit by then, but for almost fucking two years before he fell off the train, at least. If he fucking walked away out of there tomorrow all there was waiting for him was a bullet and if he was lucky a bottle first. It was over. Done.

That's what he knew.

It'd felt like someone digging fingers into his bones and spreading his ribs open wide, opening his lungs with a thousand fucking cuts and crushing his heart into his spine, remembering it fucking hurts, but it meant it was over, he'd hit the bottom of the pit and there was nothing fucking left.

Or so he thought.

(There is no bottom to that kind of fucking pit. There's always somewhere lower to fall.)

Somewhere in the decades between then and now he forgot how to fucking cry, probably sometime around when he forgot how to fucking sleep. He's kind of remembered that second one, but the first one still doesn't work. Not stoicism, no virtue, not about fucking control, it just . . . doesn't work. Crying just doesn't fucking happen. Things get broken instead. Walls, furniture, dishes. His hold on fucking reality.

Not this time, though. Wrong . . . kind. Wouldn't help.

He's not sure why he turns on the TV, finds YouTube on there instead of the tablet. Turns it down just above what the TV calls mute and he can still hear fine, if there's no other noise. So can Steve. In the quiet, at night, one up from mute might as well be fucking screaming. He knows that. Knows he's been out here for almost twenty fucking minutes, too. A sane person would've gone back to bed, but a sane person wouldn't be here in the first place.

Okay so really, he knows exactly why he fucking turns on the fucking TV.

He stays where it is, and waits for Steve to come out.



Usually when Steve wakes up because Bucky's left the bed and not come back, the condo is almost dead silent. Or, well, the kind of silent where there're no sounds near, so that a car driving by stands out like a gunshot, and with a bit of effort Steve can hear a conversation a block away. Beyond that it's never quite silent, not in a city. Beyond that you get the hum that isn't even sound anymore, isn't something you can derive meaning from, but is just the background slurry of a thousand sounds mixed together until they're just . . . well, noise.

That's louder than it used to be: more cars, more electricity, more motors running ventilation, lights, a thousand other things. But even when he was a kid and couldn't hear half of it, especially if he slept with his good ear facing down into the pillow, he knew that a city never really gets quiet.

At the Front, it did get silent, if nobody was shooting and you were far enough away from anyone else. Dernier used to get sad about that, actually: said it shouldn't be like that, said the nighttime forest should be almost as noisy as the nighttime city, with little animals and birds and the other night creatures going about their business. Steve always figures Frenchie was exaggerating, because there's no way the nocturnal animals could make as much noise as cars and trains and oceans and bars and thousands and thousands of people still awake.

But he got what Frenchie meant: the forest wasn't supposed to be dead and silent. People did that. The War did that.

The condo's never that quiet, but on this kind of night it's usually the next thing to. Tonight, though, when Steve rolls over to the empty bed, he realizes he can just barely hear the faint sounds of a voice.

It sounds like a radio or television news announcer, and it's coming from the living-room.

He frowns in the direction of the doorway for a minute, mind sleepy and slow, and then pushes the covers back. The kitten's not here and Bucky's side of the bed is room-temperature, which means Steve's waking up towards the end of the period where he'll notice Bucky's not there and get disturbed by it. That means that while whatever's up isn't great - because it never is - it's not . . . it could be worse.

Steve used to have the same superstition about saying that as a lot of people, but over time that's faded. The cheerful "could be worse" of the superstition comes off as a challenge to the world to show you that yes, yes it could, because what "it could be worse" means when you say it like that is "it's not so bad" or "I'm completely fine still".

At this point Steve doesn't spend a lot of time around people who say it like that. Mostly everyone he knows says it like what it is, which is a reminder to adjust their expectations to deal with the world they actually live in, instead of . . . that other one. The one where a nightmare bad enough to drive even the most stubborn stiff-necked idiot out of bed from the fear that won't go away is something that happens once in a blue moon, or hasn't ever happened at all, and isn't something that you're lucky not to have happen three weeks in a row.

When he gets out into the hallway Steve can see that the TV's on, and that the light it's casting is the monochrome flicker of black and white footage.

Bucky's sitting on the couch, one leg folded in front of him and the other bent knee up in what Steve's come to think of as his resting defensive pose: comfortable (for a certain value of comfortable) to sit in for a long time, not exactly tense, but ready to launch from if he has to, and putting a limb between vitals and an enemy. Well, two limbs: muscle and bone of the leg, and then behind it the metal of his left arm resting across his stomach.

Using the couch instead of the futon's defensive, too - Bucky sits in the corner of the couch between the back and the arm, the closest you can get to the corner of the room with the cat-tree in the way, and the best view of every entrance or exit except the front hall and you can't get near that one without having gone somewhere else he can see first, or without making a lot of noise cutting through the locks.

He's frowning at the TV screen in a distracted way, while his right hand pulls his tags from side to side on their chain. Steve'd actually forgotten he used to do that, and then rapidly added it to the list of small things that apparently make a disproportionate difference: there was Everything Else, sure, but having the things to fiddle with, just like that, seemed to help a lot of the time.

Especially with it being normal, a thing lots of people who wear something around their necks do, and not likely to draw attention. And, as Clint had pointed out, it's way less annoying than clicking a pen.

The cat's curled up on the back of the couch, tail over her nose. She's asleep, which is a reasonably good sign.

Steve glances at the screen, squinting against the brightness and trying to tune into the words, until it comes together. Then he has the disorienting feeling of watching the announcement of his own death, and his on-screen obituary and eulogy, read out in the cadences of another time and place.

It's kind of weird. He'd skimmed it all, once, but hadn't really . . . got much into it, because it's weird. And because to almost everyone else around him these days, everything from how the radio announcer talks on up is . . . kind of unreal, something they only ever hear in stories that only distantly connect to their lives, where for Steve it's . . . well. It was four years ago.

Jesus. Four years now.

So he recognizes what it is, but when it comes to why it's on right now . . . there, he looks at Bucky and frowns a little.

"What are you doing?" he asks, squinting at the cat with now-destroyed (for him) night vision. She does actually still look calm, not huddled. Steve tries not to rely on her completely as a barometer, because she's a cat and just barely not a baby, but still, as an indicator, that's pretty consistent.

Bucky reaches for the remote and turns off the speakers. Before it'd just been on mute. Steve's not sure why "mute" makes for the just-understandable (to them) faint sound, instead of just actually being, well, silent, but turn the speakers off and there's nothing.

Bucky keeps watching the screen, brows knit, when he replies, "Seeking negative stimuli."

It's in Russian, but Steve's pretty sure Bucky's aware of it, so he just matches language and says, "Nice of you to admit it."

The corner of Bucky's mouth twitches and he looks up, briefly, eyes lightening just enough to say well it'd be pretty stupid to argue about it with this, wouldn't it.

(Not that that's stopped him before, but Steve'll let that go for now.)

Then Bucky's gaze shifts back to the screen and he says, still in Russian, "Had a dream I killed you and I couldn't shake it off."

Well that makes sense, anyway. Steve's willing to grant - well, more or less willing - that it's probably better than endless replays of hideous real memories (or memory composites, or whatever) but he's not a big fan of this kind of nightmare either.

"To watch this?" Steve says, nodding just barely towards the TV. "A bit morbid."

It's stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious should be stated. Also he can kind of see how it might follow - maybe comparing the reality with the dream - but it still feels a bit . . . odd.

Bucky's mouth quirks again, but he doesn't answer, just goes back to toying with his tags and frowning at the screen.

Steve crosses to sit beside him, settling against the arm of the couch and petting the cat a couple times, waking her up and making her stretch out and then settle herself again with her head upside-down this time. He's considering how to break the silence when Bucky says, "Zola told me you were dead. I remember it."

The words are flat. There's no affect to them, not in his voice and not in his face and not even in his body. Nothing.

Steve exhales carefully, as the TV screen plays muted footage of D-Day. It was about as real as any of the rest of the footage of him they used to use for one thing or another, because to get it you had to have a cameraman on the beach already and that only happened after the battle was already won - or at least, had moved a few miles inland. So twelve hours after a battle they'd mock-play the battle again, the bloodless version, for a thirty second bit of video that could go on a newsreel.

He'd had more patience for it than most, they'd had more patience for it than most, because Steve actually knew every step between that stupid thirty second bit of film and how much resupply anyone got, and how frankly if they could get rid of HYDRA (an ironic damn thought looking back from now) how all of those steps were part of the reason eventually the Germans would damn well run out of bullets.

It's still weird to watch, though. And a little weird to know, too, that a lot of people don't realize it's all fake. That it almost always was. Don't realize how odd it is to live in a time when any idiot off the street can take video with a thing he can keep in his pocket, or how lucky they are, for all the things that lets them see.

And Steve is damn well aware that he's trying to distract himself from what Bucky just said. There's anger - of course there's anger, there's always anger - but other than that he almost doesn't even know what to call what hits him, what the feeling really is. Almost like it doesn't have a name. Just a feeling, impulses, not even fully formed impulses, just - wanting to make something not be.

When Bucky doesn't go on, after a minute, Steve says, "Oh?" because he has to say something. He even manages to keep his voice normal.

"Gloated for a while," Bucky says, distantly. "Just him. He didn't tell very many people who I was. More or less killed off all the ones who knew."

This time the silence doesn't go on quite long enough for Steve to say anything before Bucky says, "I think he expected it to break me."

He watches the screen for a few minutes while Steve takes that in as carefully as he can, handling anger like he'd handle a live explosive, lest he put a fist through the wall. He can't pretend that's not what's happening. What he's doing. Not even well enough to fool a stranger. Forget Bucky.

Then Bucky looks down, picks up the remote again and turns the TV off completely this time. "Broke something," he says, "just - not the way he wanted it to. He didn't fucking get it."

Steve manages to think, no, he wouldn't: Zola was a selfish, sadistic little troll with delusions of grandeur, so him trying to understand Bucky would be like a fucking toad trying to understand Mozart. Steve doesn't manage to avoid thinking, Pierce would've, and that's what leaves the awful God-damned taste in his mouth. And damned if he's going to say that, but everything else's all blocked up, so for the moment he doesn't say anything.

Bucky drags his right hand over his face before he goes on, "Nobody was coming, nobody even fucking knew I was alive. Had any reason to." He shrugs, barely. "I knew that. You don't," and he stops and takes a breath in the middle of that, "fucking go looking for someone," and again, "when you know they're dead and he was the only fucking person in the fucking world who could've known I might not be."

The impulse to apology is stupid and childish, so Steve steps on it. Keeps his mouth shut and lets Bucky talk.

"I knew I was never getting out," Bucky says, staring through the coffee table in front of him. "You weren't any more fucking lost to me dead than you already had been - not like I would've ever fucking seen you again anyway. And if you were dead," he goes on, picking at a snag in the couch's leather with his right index finger, "I knew where you'd end up, so it just meant you were safe. Out of their fucking reach."

Abrikoska makes a quiet mrrt? sound, raising her head from her paws and then rubbing her face against Bucky's fingers, when he absently reaches up to her.

It probably shouldn't surprise -

Actually, it honestly doesn't surprise Steve that even there, even at the bottom of . . . that, all the shit Steve doesn't even know what to call, part of Bucky's brain was still worrying about Bucky looking after Steve. It's not even a little bit God-damned surprising, and Steve doesn't actually want to shake Bucky - not really. He wants to shake everything, or nothing, he doesn't even know, it's just -

It's fucking unfair. Is what it is. And fucking unfair that whole damned fear still wraps around Bucky's dreams, more often than not, even though it's just as God-damned impossible as it had been then, because while Steve's not dead, they are. God-damned Zola is. And Pierce. And anyone else that mattered, is worth thinking about. Is worth wanting dead.

They're all fucking gone.

"I'd never see you coming through their fucking doors," Bucky goes on, and he's staring hard enough through the table that he might not even be noticing Steve being the world's most obvious knot of conflicting . . . everything. "You were safe. Forever. So there was nothing . . . else," and Bucky shrugs, probably one of the most painful lies his body's ever tried to tell, everything tight and unhappy. "And hey," he adds, and the bitter is palpable, "if I made the fuckers fucking kill me, they couldn't use me, either. So the whole fucking thing backfired on that miserable piece of shit anyway."

His jaw's tight. Steve can see that, see the tension in the muscle that works its way out and down the side of Bucky's neck. "Just couldn't get them to fucking kill me," he says, quietly. "No matter what I fucking did."

It takes some effort for Steve to make his hands stop trying to clench, to make them flatten out on his leg and on the back of the couch where his other arm's resting. He does it anyway, but it's hard. This is one of those things that's just really damn complicated. Because considering all the reasons Bucky had for trying to get them to kill him, it gets . . . well. Complicated, when Steve's still pretty damn grateful he always failed.

You can deal with the present by saying, it doesn't matter, it's over, it is what it is now, but that doesn't help much with feelings in moments like this, when the past is what comes up.

Bucky taps his right fingers on the couch and looks at them and says, quietly and in English, "I'm not sure I wanted to remember that."

He almost never says that. It takes a Hell of a lot before Bucky will actually say that. And he's not agitated, not worked up, not upset: he just looks tired, resigned. Worn. Looks that way that somehow mixes up too-young and too-old at the same time, just leaves everything as . . .off.

It isn't guilt Steve's trying to handle - actually isn't, and that's what gets difficult about it. About the feeling. It's like a cousin to guilt, the same way frustration and anger are related, so it can turn into guilt really easily, but it's not just regret, either. Maybe it's also hard to imagine, to handle the thought of losing you did that much to someone, but that's the kind of hard Steve's gotten pretty used to. Makes him think of The Screwtape Letters again, about the point of humility not being to put yourself down, but the end point - the best outcome - being the idea that everyone could just . . . be happy about good things, beautiful things, useful things, all that kind of stuff, without it being about proving they were better or someone else was worse.

So it isn't guilt, and the other part he's used to, so in some ways maybe it just comes down to not having a name for the feeling that you can sum up I'm really God-damned sad and upset this happened and I really want to rip through fucking time and space and go back and make it stop. And make it not happen, too, Christ yes but also -

Steve's tired and it's the middle of the night, which is exactly when he is not in the best shape to try and figure out complicated stuff like this, but it's also like even if he could go back and keep it from happening somehow there'd still be some echo of Bucky there, too, in that fucking pit, and as much as anything else Steve wants to go back there and make it better.

Something like that.

Of course he can't, because that's not how any part of the universe works. He's just got here and now. Which, admittedly is -

A lot.

Because here and now he doesn't even have to think too hard about what to do, which is kind of a miracle; so here and now, Steve slides over on the couch.

"Hey," he says, and when Bucky doesn't look at him right away, he reaches over to touch the side of Bucky's jaw so he does.

"I'm not dead," Steve tells him, when Bucky meets his eyes. "Neither are you. We're both here, and we're both alive. He's the one who's dead. They are. Both - all of them. We won," he says, resting his hand along the side of Bucky's neck. "They lost."

Bucky looks down, and Steve adds, "And they can rot in Hell."

"Oh, so we believe in Hell now," Bucky drawls, dry. It's a dodge, but Steve mostly lets him dodge, gets what's behind the tone and the change. Bucky closes his eyes as Steve strokes the line of his jaw with his thumb.

"For some special cases," Steve replies, wryly. "Maybe. Probably. God still probably doesn't, but considering the whole convoluted point here I think He'll probably forgive me."

The kitten protests when Bucky laughs and puts his face in his hands, because he ends up leaning forward, knee dropping outwards. "Fuck," he says, pulling both hands down his face and then letting them drop into his lap. "You're so fucking full of bullshit, you know that?"

"Hey," Steve protests mildly, "who's the one who keeps throwing how I'm not God at the back of my head like some kind of metaphorical rock?"

Bucky snorts and dodges with, "Your mother," and Steve rolls his eyes.

"Yeah, I think there was some, you know - " he gestures with his opposite hand, "overlap going on there, and then you definitely took over," and Bucky gives a half-choked laugh, shaking his head.

By way of reply to that one, Steve half-turns on the couch and reaches over with his other hand to catch the side of Bucky' face and get him to look over. Steve leans in and kisses Bucky's mouth, once, almost chaste. (Almost.)

"They're dead," he repeats, as Bucky looks at him. "We're not. We're here, they're not. We won, they lost. That's what's important. And I'm never fucking going anywhere without you again and I mean you can go wherever you want," he adds, and Bucky shakes his head trying not to smile, "but I'm gonna follow you. I might be bad at it," and now Bucky laughs, a little, softly, "but I'll do it."

Bucky rests his right hand on the back of Steve's wrist, glancing down and eyes closing. "Yeah," he says. "I know."

And that's probably enough talking. Steve leans forward again and kisses the corner of Bucky's jaw and the side of his mouth. He pulls Bucky with him - not that that's difficult - so he can slide back towards the other arm of the couch, lean his back against it and draw Bucky over him. He slides his hand around the back of Bucky's neck, fingers threading through Bucky's hair, and pulls him into a kiss, slow and easy.

There's the faint thump of the kitten jumping down off the back of the couch and her complaint that starts at ground-level and ends up higher, saying she's gone to the top of her tree. And there's the even fainter impact of the tags around Bucky's neck hanging forward and down and tapping against Steve's collar.

Steve can feel the tension in Bucky's body release, slowly. Can feel his shoulders let go a little, core relax and let him breathe again, breathe more than shallow sips of air. Let his body settle against Steve's, his leg between Steve's and vice versa, hips settling against Steve's and Steve letting gravity take both their weight.

Steve runs his free hand up under Bucky's shirt, up the side of his ribs and then back down to rest on his hip. Thinks, you are everything I need and you're the best God-damn thing that ever happened to me and keeps them to say some other time, still.

Bucky exhales, slowly. He rests his forehead against Steve's.

Then he says, "Don't you fucking ever just fucking sit there and fucking crash a fucking plane ever, ever a-fucking-gain," and he's serious, both the words and the undertones and the curse for every verb and noun -

- and Steve ends up laughing anyway, helplessly, laughing and kissing him until kissing wins.