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There were many things about Bucky that made Steve want to scream, or rage and throw things, or cry. So many little, learned behaviours that he knew his friend had no awareness of. It broke his heart.

And it was so hard to keep from his face as he crouched beside Bucky on the floor beside his own bed. He was careful when he set a large hand on the curve of Bucky’s spine, feeling the jut of vertebrae under his palm, pushing against scarred skin, and saving his reaction to it for later. The huddled super soldier on the floor didn’t outwardly respond, didn’t move from his curled position, imitating a pill bug, and not looking what anyone would think to call relaxed.

If it had been the first time Steve had found him here he would have been stumped. And he had been, the first time. But he’d learned, since those early days, how to ask the right questions and read between the lines of the answers. He knew enough to help, and the rest could wait until Bucky was comfortable with telling him. So for now he simply smoothed his hand up and down Bucky’s back, the firm, consistent, eminently patient touch enough to slowly bring Bucky back from wherever it was he went when Steve couldn’t reach him. When Bucky blinked and tracked lazy eyes upwards to Steve’s hovering face, Steve was able to watch awareness trickle back in, could feel how soft his expression was. If it were anyone else he would have flushed at his own bare sentimentality, his heart so obviously on his sleeve. But he could hide nothing from Bucky, and he had no desire to.

“Hey bud,” He whispered, palm still smoothing up and down Bucky’s spine but fingers tapping just slightly with his words. “Back with me, are you? That’s good, I like you here with me...”

Steve was never sure how much Bucky heard of Steve’s rambling, wakefulness and proper responsiveness always seeming to return incrementally at times like this. Steve was never in any rush, happy for Bucky to take his time, murmuring him back to reality as slowly as he needed. When Bucky’s eyes had been steady on him for awhile without wandering or glazing over, Steve finally proposed moving.

“Time for bed, isn’t it Buck? Time to hop into bed?” Bucky blinked and Steve moved – slowly, slowly – to rise, taking Bucky with him as he went and trying not to loom. He was very aware of his ability to loom. After a lifetime of having others looming over him – whether intentionally or not, he had been very short after all – he didn’t think he would ever be used to having so much height over almost everyone he met. Over Bucky, his childhood protector. It would likely always feel strange and unfamiliar but if he could use it to do for Bucky what had always been done for him, to finally protect his best friend in return...

“Come on,” he murmured, keeping up a stream of low, sussurating sounds to fill the night-time stillness and give Bucky something to focus on, to keep him in the present as Steve led him to his bed.

Steve had learned not to take Bucky to his own room, even as close as it was, connected to Steve’s by the shared en suite. It didn’t cause any negative response as far as Steve could tell, however it was a wasted effort because Bucky, without fail, would be curled foetally beside Steve’s bed come morning, eyes staring at nothing, ready for a long, listless day ahead.

It had been accidental, Steve’s discovery of what worked to keep Bucky with him in the here and now. What made him feel safe. What let him sleep and stopped him from curling up on the floor, awake but unaware. He’d certainly never have attempted rolling on him in the night as a possible solution had he been awake for it, that first time.

Steve would be first to admit – to himself, in his head... and even then it had taken a long time and many a sleepless night to come to terms with it – that his feelings towards Bucky were anything but simple. There was a swirling mass of confusion anytime Steve considered his best friend. The thoughts that brought blood rushing to his cheeks and warmth to his chest had only increased in the time that Steve had had him back. But in this, at night, that wasn’t even a consideration. Bucky’s well-being, his state of mind and his vulnerability washed everything from Steve’s mind that wasn’t platonic and while later on, at random times of day he may think of these moments and flush and stutter – and be mercilessly embarrassed by the assho... friends they lived with – in these moments there was nothing, nothing but Bucky. At midnight, when everyone should be sleeping and Bucky was slipping and needed familiarity to ground him, everything else became irrelevant.

Steve’s hands guided Bucky to the side of the bed farthest from the door – familiarity, but this time a habit that had stemmed from Steve’s need rather than Bucky’s – and down to sit on the edge after pulling away the sheets. Swift, gentle fingers untangled laces and pulled heavy boots from pale feet – so proud of Bucky that he no longer insisted on sleeping in them, on always being ready for anything, though he still forgot if left to his own devices.

Steve squeezed his shoulder once he was standing, not pushing or hurrying, just reassuring, before moving around the room to change and complete his own nightly routine, occasionally humming bits and pieces of things he’d heard that day. Random, soft noises that Bucky could track. By the time he slid into the bed Bucky had shifted and wriggled his way into the position he always managed to squirm into. Stomach pressed into the mattress, hands pushing palms down into the bedding and tense fingers twitching and curling as if just waiting for a signal to push hard enough for his body to be in motion, like a sprinter waiting for a starting pistol. Steve knew that, if Bucky was left to his own thoughts in silence, he would wake to find Bucky in the exact same position.

It took him awhile to understand – be told – that Bucky only stayed to please Steve, because Steve put him there. It had been one of the first things to make him want to be sick, but not the last. Bucky’s face was pressed into the pillow, looking as if he could barely breathe, and Steve suspected it was to keep both ears uncovered. If he were a cat those ears would be twitching madly, hypervigilant, desperate to miss absolutely nothing.

Slowly, and with only smooth, unhesitating movements – because Bucky could misread uncertainty to be near him in even the smallest hesitation – Steve slid under the covers and, lying on his side facing him, pressed his hand over the closest of Bucky’s. It enveloped the one beneath it, broader, though Bucky’s fingers were longer. Graceful and elegant. Pianist’s fingers, Steve thought fondly, stroking his up and down the back of them once before pressing, just enough for that hand to flatten from the near fist Bucky had worked it into. He heard the muffled sigh Bucky released into the pillow and his shoulders dropped just slightly with the release of tension. Steve’s hand stayed over Bucky’s but his fingers slid in increments to the grooves where those fingers separated, almost-but-not-quite interlacing them with his own. His thumb rubbed a rhythm into the outer edge of Bucky’s hand.

Steve blinked. Slowly. All his waning concentration bent on minute movements and subtle cues; it had him in a trance and tiredness was swamping him, threatening to pull him under any second. He sleepily rolled over.

All his movements were lethargic, eyes closed, muscles lax as soon as he settled, shoulder to hip almost entirely atop Bucky. He swapped hands, holding the left against the bed with his left and the other with his right and hooked his chin over Bucky’s shoulder. Through all of this, for all that his body stayed resolutely loose and movements smooth and slow, he kept his legs to himself, both of them together and on the bed beside both of Bucky’s. Steve didn’t think Bucky would be ready for that kind of immobilisation for a long time; that wasn’t the point. Steve felt Bucky’s chest expand beneath his and heard the shaky exhale muffled by the pillow. He felt as, one by one, the tense, rigid muscles that had held Bucky stiff and shaking with readiness, that were ceaselessly exhausting his world-weary friend, finally relaxed.

This didn’t happen every night. This had been discovered purely by chance because Steve gravitated to warmth in his sleep. Bucky had tried putting into words how this felt to him, the morning after the accidental first time. Tried to explain how it hadn’t felt bad or forced, he hadn’t felt controlled or confined, he’d felt... cared for. Protected. Safe. Grounded. Held. The pressure had felt paradoxically freeing and he’d been separated from the world that had hurt him by the one person he knew never could.

And he hadn’t been quite able to say the word but Steve had heard enough to know what Bucky meant when he’d muttered to himself before clamming up. He’d felt precious. Like someone worth keeping safe. Like someone worth keeping.

Steve had been apologising and panicking and hating himself for making an unconscious, very inappropriate move on his friend and Bucky had gone and wrenched on his heart like no one else could. Because he was Bucky. And there had never been anything more precious to Steve than Bucky.

Beneath him, wrapped up in him, Steve felt as Bucky fell sweetly, safely into sleep.

He held him close through the night.

The End