“No, like this,” Bucky says, forcefully holding Sam’s fingers in place. To Steve, he signs, ‘He’s hopeless.’
‘Be patient, Bucky,’ Steve replies.
‘He’s more hopeless than Dugan.’
‘Stop that. He isn’t.’
Sam scowls, looking back and forth between them. “What the hell are you guys saying?”
“Nothing important,” Steve assures him. “So, that’s the sign for left. Now for right, you’re gonna do the same thing but with the other hand,” he explains patiently.
Sam holds up his hand position up for inspection. When Steve approves and repeats the motion for him, Sam copies it.
Steve nods, satisfied. “Good.”
‘Hopeless,’ Bucky says.
‘Shush,’ Steve returns, small and quick. “Now, try to repeat the numbers back.”
Slowly, Sam does, only hesitating for a split second when he gets to 6. It’s smooth and accurate. Even Bucky nods in approval.
“Okay, let me quiz you now,” Bucky suggests. Steve gives him a look, but Sam is immediately on board. He goes to sit on the ottoman in front of Bucky.
On the other side of the couch, Steve settles with his iPad. “Fine, but only if I don’t have to be involved.”
Undeterred, Sam and Bucky begin without him. Bucky starts off with crisp, slow motions, which Sam has no problem identifying. After he immediately gets the first three correct, Bucky speeds up. He gets progressively sloppier on purpose.
“What was that?” Sam cries. Bucky repeats the sign for “west,” a touch slower this time. “West,” Sam says confidently.
“Those were not the same,” Sam insists.
“They were. If we actually have to use these during a mission, it means something’s probably gone wrong,” Bucky explains. “I gotta be sure that you can get them in unideal situations.”
Sam can’t argue with that. “Alright, keep going.” Bucky does, and they get through a couple more until Sam is tripped up again. “C’mon, I bet even Steve couldn’t have gotten that one,” he complains.
“Steve,” Bucky says, and Steve looks up to see Bucky reaching for the iPad. “Gimme that for a second?” Steve hands it over, more curious to see where Bucky’s going with this than anything else. Bucky shifts so that he and Sam can both see the iPad screen, but Steve can only see the shiny Apple logo on the back.
As Sam watches, Bucky opens the News app and then flicks his finger up, making the screen blur as different articles fly past. He stops it, abrupt and random, and then clicks on the article his finger happened to land on. It’s something from the New York Times about female CEOs.
Bucky forces the iPad into Sam’s hands and looks over his shoulder at the screen. He glances at Steve, who is still watching. “Translate out loud, kay?”
While Sam skims the article and Bucky starts into a rapid mess of signing, Steve starts talking. “Recently, this woman named Indra Nooyi resigned as the CEO of Pepsi. She had the position for 12 years and a man is going to take her place. Ramon…Laguarta. Now, in America, only…-what? Bucky, is this true or are you making it up? Only 5% of CEOs in America are women!?”
“Alright, alright, you win,” Sam concedes when Bucky raises his eyebrows at him.
“Buck, was that a real article?” Steve asks, grabbing for the iPad. Sam lets him take it as he expresses his loud disbelief. “Five percent? Really?”
Bucky nudges Sam conspiratorially. “Probably should’ve picked a different article though,” he admits.
Steve wakes up that night when Bucky sits up sharply in bed.
“Buck?” Steve says, rough and tired. He puts a gentle hand on his back, grazing the skin. Bucky takes a deep shuddering breath but doesn’t turn around. He scrubs his face with both hands, pressing his fingers into his eyes. ‘Bucky, love,’ Steve signs against the bare skin of his back. “You wanna talk about it?”
Bucky turns around then, sharply. “Do you mind if I turn on the light?” He asks, but what he’s really saying is “Do I have to say it out loud?”
“No, no. Turn it on,” Steve assures him.
Light floods the room and Steve has to rub his eyes for a moment. Bucky settles one leg across Steve’s hips. The other gets curled up as if he’s sitting criss cross, his toes pressing gently into Steve’s side.
‘I was back in solitary,’ Bucky explains with his hands. ‘But the floor was covered in about a foot of solid ice, so my feet and legs were stuck. And the ice was red, like blood. I could hear you screaming from somewhere close, but I couldn’t get to you because of the ice.’
When Bucky lets his hands fall, Steve says, ‘I’m sorry, Bucky, that sounds terrible.’
‘It was. It was terrible,’ he confesses.
Bucky could never force himself to vocalize such things. He doesn’t think he could stand to hear the sound of his own voice saying them. If they didn’t come out this way, those awful things would stay inside him, eating away at his guts. The Winter Soldier spoke only when spoken to and even then, the best thing it ever got him was further silence. More often, it was a slap across the cheek or a kick to the back of his knee.
Steve taps his thigh, bringing his eyes up. ‘You want to get up? We don’t have to go back to sleep.’
‘No, it’s okay,’ Bucky says. He blinks a few times quickly to clear his eyes but doesn’t move to lie down again.
‘Can we turn off the light?’
Bucky hesitates. ‘Yes,’ he agrees. Then, he quickly adds, ‘but no talking?’
‘Okay. No talking.’
Steve never asks about Bucky’s occasional refusal to vocalize; he doesn’t even seem curious. Bucky quietly suspects that Steve somehow knows that the signs are a soothing constant in the mess of his life. It’s a fragment from their youth, lost to the Depression and the war and the 70 years that neither of them will ever experience. He loves it like he loved his mom’s blueberry pie and Steve’s bony, bruised up knees on the day they met. He loves it like he loves the way he doesn’t have to explain a single part of this to Steve.
‘Come here,’ Steve says, and Bucky climbs partially across Steve to turn off the light. He lies down like that, so his head ends up on Steve’s shoulder. When Steve puts his arms around him, he’s wrapped up tight, their torsos flush against each other. Steve’s fingers draw little messages onto Bucky’s back — ‘I’m here’ and ‘sweet dreams’— and Bucky could not imagine a better way to fall asleep.
They start teaching Sam and Natasha around the same time, but separately. It’s partly because Bucky is equally comfortable around both of them but nobody’s schedules ever line up. Admittedly, it’s partly for the entertainment of seeing them compete when they’re all together.
Natasha asks more questions than Sam does, but always carefully phrased in such a way that Steve and Bucky can still choose how much information to disclose.
“Is the grammar a lot different than English?” She asks after learning the basic directions. She’ll never be saying whole sentences, she knows. That doesn’t stop her basic curiosity.
“I don’t think it’s too different,” Steve says.
“There’s just a lot of degrees,” Bucky adds.
Natasha seems to follow, but Sam looks confused. “Degrees of what?”
Steve lets Bucky explain. “Mostly certainty or emotion. There’s a hard no and a softer one. Or, some are angry, so you know you fucked up.”
“And some don’t have translations, exactly,” Steve jumps in. “Some are more like…a word, but attached to a bigger story.” Bucky nods along, like it’s all crystal clear.
“Okay,” Sam says, slowly. “Okay. This is separate from English, then. This is, like…an actual, full blown language.”
Steve and Bucky blink at him. “What did you think it was?” Bucky asks.
“Can you show me an insult?” Natasha interrupts.
‘Idiot,’ Bucky signs, slowly. “This is ‘idiot.’”
Natasha immediately turns to Sam. ‘Idiot,’ she says, a little off.
‘Idiot,’ Sam signs back right away. ‘Natasha idiot.’
Natasha scowls at him. ‘No. Sam idiot.’
Steve taps Bucky’s metal elbow. ‘I don’t think they need to learn any more insults.’
There is an Avengers team dinner that night, so the four of them head over together in Sam’s car. Natasha calls shotgun the moment she’s stepped outside the apartment building — the agreed upon boundary for calling shotgun — which leaves Steve and Bucky in the backseat.
“God, I really hope he’s ordering take-out,” Sam says, too distracted with getting the heat going to notice Bucky tracking muddy slush into the backseat.
Steve clicks his seat belt on, as if being ejected from a car would give him anything more than maybe a broken wrist. “Has he ever not ordered take-out?” Then, he notices the little mess at Bucky's feet. 'You better clean that up before Sam sees,' he warns.
“Sure,” Bucky says. "He's actually not too bad of a cook." He’s halfheartedly kicking the few pieces of slush that are still somewhat solid under the passenger seat. 'Think that's good enough?'
“Bucky, that was Kraft mac and cheese,” Steve points out. He inconspicuously eyes Bucky's clean-up job. 'Yeah, I think so.'
Natasha twists around in the passenger seat, elbow on the center console. They’re moving now, and Sam has half a mind to tell her to turn around before he pulls this car over. “When was Stark making you Kraft mac and cheese?” Natasha asks.
“We were…talking,” Bucky says cryptically. Natasha nods in understanding and when Sam brakes passively aggressively hard, she turns back around.
Bucky is better than most at sensing when people are looking at him, so Steve does it on purpose sometimes. Bucky’s dark eyelashes catch the dying sunlight as he tracks different things they pass; a little white dog, then a kid with a Captain America hoodie. The sharp line of his cheekbone gleams sunset orange, almost like he’s got on the shiny makeup that girls love to wear nowadays. Though Bucky would kill Steve if he knew he was thinking things like that.
So, Steve tries to pretend he wasn’t thinking it at all when Bucky turns to him. “What?”
‘Do you want to tell them about Tony and the others?’ Steve asks. ‘Or should I?’
Bucky thinks for a moment. ‘You,’ he says.
‘Okay,’ Steve replies.
He waits until they’re pulling into the garage and Bucky’s metal hand starts flexing in his jacket pocket. “Hey, guys,” Steve says as Sam pulls into his assigned parking spot. “We want to keep it quiet that you guys are learning the signs. Just for right now.”
Natasha feigns zipping her lips shut.
Sam turns off the engine and looks at Steve and Bucky in the rear-view mirror. “Just to be clear. Is this an active secret or a ‘don’t bring it up if you can avoid it’ type deal?”
“It’s a ‘don’t bring it up if you can avoid it’ type deal,” Steve clarifies.
“Gotcha,” Sam says.
Bucky watches the interaction carefully, but he gets out of the car without saying anything. Sam and Natasha don’t ask anything else, so Steve opens his door and they follow his lead. Bucky is waiting next to the trunk of the car, hands still in the pockets of his jacket. The Tower’s garage is much warmer than outside, but Bucky has his shoulders up high and his chin dipped down, buried in his scarf like he’s freezing. He reaches for Steve’s hand with his flesh one. Steve takes it as they walk a few steps ahead of Natasha and Sam.
“How many new people are going to be there?” Bucky asks. He knows that there will only be one new person, because he asked Steve when they agreed to attend this dinner. He knows because he asked last night before they went to bed, and this morning after Steve got out of the shower.
“Just one,” Steve answers patiently. Bucky’s next question is always the same, but Steve lets him ask for the new person’s name anyways. “Scott Lang,” he reminds him.
They step into the elevator.
One-handed, Steve asks, ‘Nervous?’
‘No,’ Bucky lies. He doesn’t let go of Steve’s hand.
The elevator doors open to a loud, overwhelming scene. Various Avengers are scattered in the main living room. Rhodey is sitting on one end of the sofa, explaining something to Wanda with wide gestures. On the other end, Clint looks relaxed against the armrest. His feet are up on the ottoman and he’s talking to an unfamiliar man seated in the lounge chair beside the couch. Bruce is standing with Tony and Pepper, holding a glass of beer. When Tony hears the elevator ding, he turns around grandly.
“Look who’s fashionably late,” he exclaims, drink in one hand. Steve gives a half-hearted apology as Tony claps him on the back. “Whatever,” Tony replies. He turns to Bucky. “I don’t wanna know what you were up to, so don’t tell me.”
When Sam spots Clint on the couch, he says, “Oh c’mon. Even Clint beat us here?”
“Joke’s on you, Wilson. I’ve been here since last night,” Clint calls. Sam and Natasha head over to trade barbs with Clint and the new guy.
Telegraphing his movements, Tony lightly swats Bucky’s metal elbow. “What have you been up to? I see your More Boring Other Half over here all the time, but you? You don’t text, you don’t call.”
Bucky shrugs. “We just haven’t been called out in a while.”
It’s true; Avengers business has been quiet lately. Even when Bucky is called out, it seems Tony’s missions haven’t been lining up. But ever since Tony learned of Bucky’s JARVIS issues, he's been a little wary of his interactions — or lack thereof — with Bucky. JARVIS, who is essentially part of Tony himself, was easy enough to update. Still, it seems that Tony needs more frequent reminders that everyone is still on good terms. He narrows his eyes at Bucky. “Well, don’t be such a stranger, Barnes. Let's do something. Let me make you a new arm or something.”
“Or we could do something that doesn’t involve rigging my arm with grenade launchers,” Bucky points out.
Satisfied that his relationship with Bucky is unchanged, Tony pats his shoulder. “Fine. Well, go on, then. Both of you. Go make friends.”
Steve and Bucky make their way towards the couch to be introduced to Scott Lang. He’s been invited here through Sam and can shrink himself or something. They’re already engaged in some story, but Scott jumps to his feet when he sees Steve and Bucky. Bucky’s hand instinctively tenses around Steve’s.
Sam waves them over. “Steve, Bucky, this is Scott. Scott, this is Steve and Bucky,” Sam says, though Scott doesn’t look like he’s listening.
He looks between them, wide eyed. “Woah.” Then, he seems to realize that Steve is offering his hand. Scott takes Steve’s hand with both of his and shakes it vigorously, looking him up and down. “Wow. You know, I’ve read comics about you. You look a lot different in real life. I’m shaking your hand too long, aren’t I?”
Steve smiles sheepishly and Scott lets him go. Bucky doesn’t shake people’s hands with the metal one, so he has to untangle his fingers from Steve’s for a moment. If Scott notices that they’ve been holding hands, he doesn’t acknowledge it. His eyes fixate on Bucky’s metal arm. “You have a metal arm,” he babbles. “That’s…wow, that’s really cool. Like, a good cool. Don’t worry; I won’t ask. I’ve read comics about you, too.”
Bucky is officially Thrown Off. He just kind of stares back in stunned silence. As soon as Scott lets his hand drop, he grabs Steve’s again.
“Good to meet you. So, you know Sam?” Steve finally says. Then, Bucky just gets to nod along and doesn’t have to say anything.
“Oh! Yeah!” Scott says. He launches into the story of they met, occasionally being interrupted by Sam, who has quite a few qualms with Scott’s version of events. Around new people, Steve is lovely and social. He gains the admiration of newcomers without even trying. It’s a strange role reversal, where Steve is Bucky’s social credential, instead of the other way around.
By the time JARVIS announces that their take-out food has arrived, Bucky is talking with Pepper about Netflix shows and he hasn’t even realized that Steve is not next to him anymore. A team of stunned delivery boys manage to bring their food to the dining room, gaping as they go.
Tony and Steve are having some intense conversation, as they usually do when they speak to each other for more than a few minutes. When everyone starts moving towards the dining room, Bucky feels a little burst of panic. He wishes he'd never let go of Steve’s hand. What if Scott wants to sit next to him and then he can’t sit next to Steve and then he’ll have to sit with a very talkative, very new person all by himself? He feels silly and suddenly realizes that he has been talking to people almost non-stop since they arrived nearly 40 minutes ago. Before that, he was talking to Sam and Natasha all day. Bucky likes Sam and Natasha; they don’t drain him like new people do, but it’s still talking.
While his thoughts are spiraling, he’s carrying on some story. Maybe this story doesn’t make any sense anymore, but Pepper is visibly following along like it does. Bucky waits until Steve’s eyes are vaguely in his direction. He angles his body, so Steve can see and then he casually scratches his jawline with his thumb, his middle finger and ring finger twisted together. It’s only a little strange and everyone already knows he’s a little strange, anyways.
Bucky hears Steve tell Tony, “I’ll be there in a second.”
“Let’s go eat. I’m starving!” Pepper tells Bucky, smiling. Bucky meets her eyes and smiles back, and he knows that she has no clue at all.
So, Bucky gets to sit next to Steve and across from Pepper, who is next to Tony, who is still engaged in some debate with Steve. Today’s topic seems to be the new president’s health care bill. Their opinions are not that far apart, but Steve and Tony will always find something to disagree about. Tony can really debate when he wants to and he’s making a good argument now, though Bucky’s only half listening.
Steve taps Bucky’s leg twice. ‘You okay?’ Steve asks when Bucky glances down, like he’s getting a bite together on his fork.
‘Yeah,’ Bucky replies.
Steve nods to himself and Tony thinks it’s for him. “Alright, so we agree on one thing. Good place to stop, don’t ya think? Yeah, great, me too.”
“Great!” Pepper politely breaks in. “While you boys were arguing about politics, Bucky and I were talking about our Netflix shows. Steve, have you been watching Black Mirror too?”
Steve gives up the health care debate easily enough. “I have.”
Sam interrupts from Bucky’s other side. “Don’t ask Steve about Black Mirror. He refuses to watch the Pilot episode because I was brave enough to watch it first and then thoughtful enough to tell him what happens.”
Steve scoffs. “Some of us aren’t into that stuff, Sam.”
Bucky sits back and lets them bounce quickfire jabs around him, content to be brought into the conversation only at polite intervals.
After dinner, the group moves back towards the living room. The best thing about team dinners at the Tower is not having to do dishes. Bucky isn’t exactly sure where all the dirty dishes and empty containers go, but whenever Tony and Pepper host these organized gatherings, everything disappears before the next morning. He knows it’s not just an Avengers Tower thing, because when they’ve stayed here for extended periods, everybody does their own chores like normal people.
“So. What do you think of Scott?” Sam asks, leaning in close to Bucky. They’re sitting on the couch with Clint while Scott has been pulled away for a belated tour of the place.
“He’s nice,” Bucky says. Then, he adds, “He talks a lot.”
Clint sips down the last bit of his drink. “Yeah, but anybody talks a lot compared to you, Barnes.”
“Not true,” Sam argues. “Bruce is the silent type, too. Nothing wrong that.”
“Hey, I never said there was anything wrong with it. The last thing we need around here is more Tonys running their mouths,” Clint says. He stands with his empty glass and heads for the kitchen.
Steve gives Bucky a little wave from where he’s standing with Nat. It’s subtle, but Bucky has had a lifetime to become accustomed to Steve. He sometimes feels like there’s a section of his attention span that is tuned into Steve 24/7. ‘20 more minutes okay?’ He asks.
‘Sounds good,’ Bucky shoots back.
He can hear Natasha across the room. “Are you listening?” She scolds Steve, but her tone is amused. To prove that he was listening, Steve repeats verbatim the last thing Nat said.
Bucky turns his attention back to Sam. “You okay with leaving in 20?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Sam confirms. “Jesus,” he says, a smile trying to creep onto his face. “Do you guys ever stop talking to each other?”
“Not by choice,” Bucky tells him.
Sam has claimed their guest room for the weekend, so Natasha gets left at the Tower with the rest of the team. Sam, Bucky, and Steve walk Scott out of the building.
“Not brave enough to stay yet, huh?” Steve asks.
From behind Scott’s other shoulder, Bucky shoots him a look. ‘Shut up,’ he says, in Sam’s view but completely out of Scott’s. ‘What if he wasn’t invited?’
Steve freezes, eyes going wide almost imperceptibly. But Scott just shakes his head and says, “I got a red eye flight, actually. I should get back to my daughter, you know?” Steve relaxes and smiles politely, asking conversational questions about Scott’s daughter as they amble across the garage.
Sam and Bucky follow a few paces behind. “Hey, JB. What’d you say to freak him out just now?” Sam whispers.
“I told him to shut up because maybe Scott wasn’t invited to stay in the Tower yet,” Bucky whispers back.
Sam barks out a short laugh.
As soon as they get back to the apartment, Bucky flops back into the lounge chair in the darkened living room. He nudges off his shoes, his legs spread straight out in front of him. Steve flicks the lights on so he and Sam don't trip over the ever-present pile of shoes in the walkway.
Sam kicks at one of his socked feet. “You tired already, old man?”
“’m not tired. Just-…Can we do something that requires no talking?”
“Your social battery’s dead, huh?”
Bucky nods. “Steve, bring the iPad out here, will ya?”
Steve is messing about in the kitchen, hanging up the keys and putting away the leftovers Pepper had shoved into his hands. When he comes into the living room, he’s got the iPad in one hand. He tosses it to Bucky and then flings over the headphones as well.
Bucky plugs in the headphones and starts up a 4 hour edit of Intro by The XX. He flicks the screen sideways to where his games are, selecting Plague Inc on Brutal mode. It’s been a while since he’s played and his nano-virus is easily defeated. Then, his prion meets the same fate after he fails to spread to Greenland in time. When he loses a third time, he switches to 2048.
After some indeterminate amount of time in an iPad game time warp, Steve nudges Bucky’s foot. Bucky looks up at him, The XX still blasting in his ears. ‘Sam’s going to bed,’ he says.
‘Okay,’ Bucky returns quickly, eyes going back to the iPad.
Steve kicks Bucky again, harder. ‘Be nice.’
Bucky takes his headphones out just as Sam returns from the kitchen, glass of water in hand and heading for the guest bedroom. “Good night,” Bucky calls sweetly.
Sam looks only mildly caught off guard. “Night, JB,” he replies.
‘Happy?’ Bucky asks once they hear the bedroom door shut.
‘Yes,’ Steve motions back. “And you’re kind of grumpy tonight, Buck. ‘Is something going on?’ ”
Bucky locks the iPad and lies it down on his lap. It doesn’t matter how many times he tells Steve that no, he is not upset, he just doesn’t feel like talking. Steve still confuses the two and Bucky doesn’t want to get into it right now. “No. Except that I’ve lost my touch with Plague.”
Steve smiles. “You never had any touch with Plague,” he says.
‘Show off,’ Bucky dismisses him.
Steve grins, far too pleased with himself and his unnatural ability to beat strategy games. He scoots a little closer to Bucky and leans over the arm of the couch to press a little kiss into his cheek. Bucky turns his face slightly to allow it. When Steve leans back into a normal sitting position, Bucky follows him over and ends up mostly in Steve’s lap. He lays his head on Steve’s shoulder, arms loosely around his neck while Steve toys with a few loose strands of Bucky's hair.
‘Bucky,’ Steve signs against his back, other hand slipping up towards where Bucky’s hair is collected in a messy bun. “Can I take this out?”
Bucky’s voice comes out warm and muffled against the side of Steve’s neck. “Mm hm. It’s givin’ me a headache anyways.”
Steve gently tugs at the elastic ties until they come loose. He scratches at Bucky’s scalp and then runs his fingers all the way down to the roots. Bucky nestles himself in closer, mind going quiet for the first time all night. His nose is smushed against Steve’s neck and his limbs feel heavy.
Lazy fingers move across Bucky’s back, one letter at a time. ‘Tired?’
“Yeah,” Bucky mumbles. Steve kisses the side of his face. He plays with Bucky's hair until his breathing evens out and then waits another minute, just for good measure.
Fitting his hands under Bucky’s thighs, Steve grips him close and stands up. Bucky grazes the line between asleep and awake, but he doesn’t lift his head. He lets Steve carry him down the hall and into the bedroom, where he’s gently deposited onto their bed. There’s a firm hand behind his head the whole time; he curls into it so he’s on his side with Steve’s hand trapped under his cheek. Bucky brings his metal hand up to grasp Steve’s wrist and keep him in place.
After trying once to pull away, Steve rests his free hand on Bucky’s scapula. ‘Bucky,’ he says, “C’mon. I’ll just be a minute.”
Bucky makes an unhappy sound, but he reluctantly lets Steve go. Slipping his hand free, Steve retreats to the restroom to get ready for bed. He half expects Bucky to pop up behind him and do the same, though he must be truly exhausted because he doesn’t make an appearance. When Steve reemerges from the en suite bathroom, Bucky is still in the same position; eyes closed and lying on top of the covers. He leaves him there and quietly goes around the apartment, turning off all the lights but the one on the nightstand.
Standing at the edge of the bed, Steve pulls at the duvet until Bucky’s eyes blink open. He's disgruntled and sleepy and it's absolutely gorgeous. “Quit,” he groans, only half awake.
“Get off the blankets, Buck. Lemme in,” Steve replies. He yanks again, hard. It’s enough to roll Bucky off and Steve comes away with the duvet in his hands.
Bucky props himself up on one elbow, glaring at Steve and the duvet. “What the hell,” he complains.
Instead of responding, Steve flips the duvet into the air and lets it float down onto Bucky. Then, he joins Bucky under the covers and flicks the lights off. Almost immediately, Bucky recovers from his brief annoyance with Steve. He lets Steve gather him up in his arms, turns his face into the safety of Steve’s shoulder, and breathes deeply.
Steve knows that Bucky is dead to the world, but he grazes his fingers across Bucky’s spine anyways, like maybe he can speak it into existence; ‘Sweet dreams, love.’