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It's morning.

Then it isn't.

 

It fucking terrifies him when he loses time. Scares him like nothing else. When hours pass and leave nothing, absolutely fucking nothing, no hint of record, no mark inside his head at all - not even the sense that the time fucking happened. It scares him like nothing else and fucking throws him like nothing else.

Some of it scrapes along the top, sure, throws questions at him like what did I do or what the fuck happened and he hates that, but it's the shit that seeps in deeper that he can't handle. It's the way it drags up every old fear, asks questions he's got no fucking answer for but to fucking take words on faith. It undermines everything.

Every time weeks stretch in between the losses he hopes they're over, which is probably fucking stupid of him; every time hours get excised like temporal surgery, he kind of fucking goes back to wanting to drown himself. Kind of ends up metaphorically drowning inside his head anyway, in why, why, why are you fucking bothering, why do you fucking bother, it's never going to stop, it's never going to fucking be over you will never get away from this you will never know what's fucking real you will always, always have to wait for someone to feed you back pieces of your own life and just fucking trust that it's true -

The litany makes the inside of his head rancid, poisonous, and it always starts more or less fucking now, just like now, like this time, as he stares at the pattern of scratches in the hardwood floor and realizes he's sitting on it, and the last he remembers is standing in the bathroom, carefully picking the last of the stitches out.

Steve's sitting behind him, legs on either side of his. His right hand's resting on Bucky's hip, his left's in between Bucky's shoulders and he feels when Bucky tenses, because only a fucking statue could miss it. He sits up a little. Says, "Hey."

They're on the floor, in the living room, in front of the couch. There's sun coming in through the balcony doors, for a fucking miracle. Bucky glances at his arm: the stitches are out and he's dressed, there's a Beretta on the coffee table and two knives on the floor by his right hand, and if that's not enough to tell him something about this one was bad, there's the nausea trying to claw its way up his throat and spreading out like fucking tar underneath. Steve's hand on his back moves, circling slowly, and Bucky tries to concentrate on that.

Not on the weird disconnect that feels like it's under his skin and makes him want to carve it off.

"How long?" he asks. Knows he's abrupt and his voice is harsh. Can't do fuck-all about it.

"About two hours," Steve says, calm, too fucking calm. "You were pretty confused. Didn't know where you were, thought you were supposed to be somewhere else but didn't know where. Knew me, didn't know who I was, except . . ." and Steve's voice gets the special cadence that screams he's trying to be matter of fact about something and it's fucking hard work, "you were pretty sure I was gonna be unhappy with you for not being that somewhere else, or for not knowing what you were supposed to be doing."

Translation out of Steve's so-careful phrasing being you were acting like you thought I was going to beat you, have you beaten. And Bucky figures he probably fucking did, but he doesn't say it, and even thinking about it makes Steve miserable. For the moment, his arms wrap around Bucky's waist; Bucky rests his right hand against them and tries to ignore the nausea, the headache and the overwhelming fucking desire to fucking go, somewhere, anywhere, hide and then just fucking wait until he starves to death.

Doesn't say I thought you were him aloud because it'll just make Steve feel worse and besides, that isn't true anyway. Isn't right. Doesn't matter how fucked up he is, he never fucking mixes them up. Not really. And he's fucking grateful, because if he did he'd try to kill Steve a lot more and everything would go really fucking wrong.

It's not that.

It's just like there's a fucking hole, a space in his head and if he's out of it and half the fucking time when he's not his stupid fucking brain shoves Steve into it and then gets confused when, surprise! turns out Steve's not a fucking evil son of a bitch.

Out loud he just says, "Fuck," and rubs his left wrist across his forehead, digs at the muscles at the back of his neck.

When Steve moves, pulls one arm out from around him, he can't help flinching; sitting this close he'd be an idiot to even hope Steve doesn't notice. He just doesn't say anything. Slides his hand in under Bucky's and digs thumb and fingers into the tension so that Bucky drops his hand, closes his eyes.

"S'okay," Steve says, and the laugh that tries to make its way out of Bucky's throat isn't actually about any kind of humour. He kind of hates this laughter, too, because it hurts literally and metaphorically but he doesn't seem to have any other reaction half the time. Maybe the laughter stands in for fucking sobbing because he can't fucking do that anymore, doesn't remember how.

"Yeah," he says, maybe a little bitter, "and how many times've you fucking said that in the last two fucking hours?"

"Maybe a lot," Steve admits, pulling his other arm up to where he can dig both thumbs into the base of Bucky's skull. "Still is. You didn't do anything and you didn't break anything, Buck. You were confused and messed up and skittish and that's it."

And it probably is 'it'. The reassurance just does fuck-all for the deep, gnawing pit Bucky's trying to ignore, the endless crazed-animal mistrust that oozes back and forth like half congealed blood, spilling over into the rest of his mind. That doesn't mean it isn't true.

Doesn't do much for how sick he feels, either, but he doesn't want to move, not now. Lets Steve pull him back, instead, to let his head rest on the front of Steve's shoulder, lets that and one of Steve's hands take the weight off his neck and then tries not to wince when Steve's fingers probe into a muscle on the left side, one he probably knows the name of and can't be bothered remembering.

The inside of his head already feels like it's been scraped raw. Fuck remembering things that aren't important.

"You know," Steve says, with a reasonable attempt at a conversational tone, "you were probably confused by how your arm felt wrong, too. You're seized up all along here - " and he pulls three fingers down the muscles of Bucky's neck and left shoulder, up until they cut out and the fucking lash-up of metal and reattachment starts, "the way you were when you were getting used to how your arm doesn't weigh a useless ton anymore."

"Steve," Bucky says, and the words slide out with nasty fucking edges on them before he can really look at them, "if I didn't know where I fucking was then trust me I was already using up all my fucking confusion on how I was wearing fucking clothes and you weren't fucking hitting me."

And then he wishes he could take them back, erase those minutes of time instead. "Sorry," he says, quieter. Steve doesn't deserve that and Bucky hates when it happens anyway. When he can't stop himself from being sullen and resentful and petty, lashing out.

For a second Steve doesn't reply; when he does, his hands stop digging at muscle knots and his right rests at the stop of Bucky's spine instead as he says, "Yeah, I wasn't gonna mention how you got tense every time you saw my hand move," in that same trying-to-be-conversational voice. And Bucky doesn't answer, doesn't have an answer, can't think of an answer because this wave of nausea hits him harder.

After a minute Steve's hands move again and Bucky tries to follow them, instead, follow sensation, because he doesn't fucking want to move. Wants to just fucking stay here, maybe get this bullshit to wear off, and doesn't want it to last.

Doesn't want to do what he ends up having to do, reaching up to put his hand on Steve's so he's not just pulling away and managing, "Stop, need to get up," before he pushes himself to his feet.

And he doesn't fucking have anything in his stomach, it isn't like he fucking ate, and he throws up anyway, throws up water, coffee and whatever the fuck else might possibly be left, and then just waits on the floor in front of the fucking toilet, his forehead resting on his left hand because it's colder than his right, until his stomach stops heaving. At least for now. Maybe. Fuck, hopefully.

Steve's leaning on the wall, waiting without saying anything, until Bucky sits back on his heels and then back against the right-angled wall. It's cool against his back, through his faintly sweat-damp shirt, and for once he's grateful. Well. "For once" like every other fucking time his body does this, until every fucking muscle stops spasming and he ends up fucking chilled.

Steve hands him a glass of water and then sits down beside him, because he's Steve and pointing out he doesn't have to do that is a waste of fucking time. Eventually says, "No, I'm not going to shoot you."

"See," Bucky replies, glass hanging between his fingertips, "the very fact that you can fucking preempt that is an argument in my favour."

"That logic doesn't even make sense," Steve says. "I don't even think there is any logic there. I don't think you could even come up with a set of givens that would give you that logical progression, let alone ones that have anything to do with reality."

Everything's torn, everything's so fucking finely balanced, between wanting to shake Steve for acting like this is no big deal, like this anything like a fucking normal life he, Steve, ends up living - and relief that he does. Tension never really goes away.

"I think if you actually want to do this the rest of your fucking life," Bucky limits himself to saying, leaning the back of his head on the wall, "you're fucking nuts."

"Can you think of a time in our lives you haven't thought I was fucking nuts?" Steve counters and Bucky kicks his ankle, lightly.

"Could you stop having a fucking answer for every God-damn thing I say?" he demands, and he's mostly joking. Trying to, anyway.

"No," Steve replies, solemnly. And Bucky shakes his head, feels the corner of his mouth quirk upwards.

 

The world jerks forward again between just-before-sunset and just-after. He doesn't look at the clock, he doesn't know what the real time is, and he doesn't fucking care; it's light and he's sitting in the living-room and then it's dull twilight dark and he's standing in the bedroom doorway.

It takes . . . a lot, it takes more or less everything not to turn, to tear at the wall, the door, anything that's there until - until he doesn't know. Until it's wrecked and torn apart and so is his hand, his arm, maybe all of him. It takes enough that he ends up sliding down the doorframe to the floor, knees bent and fingers of his right hand digging into his left arm, nails scraping, just to keep it from being the other way around. And it's -

This morning, this morning he could dig out, claw out some sense of amusement, of ridiculous, could try, did, but now he can't and he just sits there, quiet, one leg falling aside and his arms in front of him, the inside of his head like wading through some old sewer, or worse. This morning he could pretend and now he can't. That reservoir's fucking empty.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see Steve sit down on the other side of the door; after a minute the stupid cat comes and bumps her head against his left hand and, when he ignores her, climbs up on his leg that's lying against the ground and settles herself into a catloaf.

And there's still no memory where the missing time is, but there's . . .his head guessing, maybe, what he expected to be there or maybe it's just something completely fucking different but there's a voice, His voice, echo with no words, just cadence and content somehow dripping into Bucky's brain and he doesn't want it and he hates it and after a second he has to pick up the kitten and drop her on the other side of him, towards Steve, and say, "You need to take her."

The admission makes him want to throw up again. She's tiny and she's helpless and he's probably scaring the shit out of her, probably smells all wrong and she just wants it to stop, and he needs Steve to take her away and do something else with her right now.

Maybe Steve does, for a few minutes. There's the jingle of a ball and the skitter of claws (claws that need to be cut - ) and then Steve's back, sitting down one more time.

There are times when they don't have to talk, not out loud; Bucky's never sure how he feels about that in moments like this, how he feels about Steve being able to get that close to the poison that sloshes around in his head, how he feels about Steve needing to. But right now looking at Steve is enough to know he did the same thing as before, and Bucky knows Steve can see him reading that in his face.

Bucky sighs, stops himself digging fingernails into the grooves of his left arm and pushes himself back against the door-frame, sitting up more, both knees bent up and his arms resting around them, holding onto his left wrist instead. Steve crosses his legs, leans his elbows on them.

"You didn't seem confused there was just me," Steve says, after a minute or two. "Everything else, yeah. But not that."

It shouldn't be funny. Maybe it even isn't, maybe his fucked up brain's just mixing up amused and vicious but Bucky ends up giving a short, harsh laugh and saying, "Steve, I know I told you Pierce wasn't afraid of me," and then wanting to take it back, again, looking away and staring at the foot of the dresser.

And he wants to shut up and he wants to fucking disappear and the words come out anyway, because that's how it works and when he wants to talk he's mute and when he doesn't fucking want to say anything the words dig their way out and he says, "If he told me to do something I would. When he told me to break my own arm I did."

And the words sting and they burn and he shakes his head, tries to shake them off, while the world feels brittle and thin and like he could lose it again any fucking second. "He didn't have God-damn reason to be afraid of me," he says.

He catches the shift of his hands, sliding from his right hand holding his left wrist to the other way 'round, until he stops it. Stares at his hands and feels like he's daring them to fucking move, his body to fucking ignore him again. Brittle and brittle and sharp. And fucking Christ, Steve, just shoot me.

That could be funny, given the moments, the words all those hours before. He wants it to be. It isn't.

He's too close to meaning it.

Steve touches his right elbow, just. Leans forward to do it, waits until Bucky looks up before he drops his hand to Bucky's foot instead, his ankle. "I dunno for sure what you're looking for, Buck," Steve says, softly, with his worried frown etched on his face. "Are. Were. Either. But if it's something bad pointed at you, you're not going to find it. You didn't . . . " and Bucky watches him claw for words, for a second, " . . .do anything wrong, you don't deserve it, you never could."

And he looks at Bucky's face, when Bucky doesn't answer, like he's searching it, trying to figure something out. When he speaks again, it's like he's picking his words, looking at them before he says them.

"D'you think I'll hear you say things that and . . . " he looks down at Bucky's hands and then back and feels like he's grasping when he says, "think less of you, somehow? Because that's not gonna happen. Ever. Bucky - " he says, when Bucky has to look away from him again, because the noise in his head is choking him and it's -

He doesn't know. He doesn't. He just wants it to stop.

"Bucky," Steve repeats, softer. He reaches up to touch Bucky's arm again and when Bucky looks back his eyes have all their fucking earnestness and the noise flares, burns and turns back on him and look what you fucking do except Steve's talking again and he says, "nothing has ever made me think less of you. And I meant it when I said there's nothing that could. Nothing that happened, nothing you can tell me. Okay?"

There isn't an answer.

No.

There isn't a good answer. There isn't the answer Steve wants, the one where what he says makes . . . this stop, makes the noise stop, makes the disgust go away, makes the slivers of memory make Bucky want to throw up less, cut the pieces out less -

And the words that come out are, "And what the fuck would you think of yourself, Steve, if you could remember every fucking time someone hit you and you didn't even fucking get off the floor until they told you to?" and the tone behind them is contempt and he can hear it and it's bitter and it's twisted up and he doesn't fucking say this shit out loud because he has no fucking ri -

He doesn't say them. He doesn't. And he just did, and the words taste fucking awful in his mouth and he just wants this to . . . stop. All of it.

"I know," Steve says, "what you wouldn't think about me. So do you." And when Bucky doesn't answer he says, "Go ahead and tell me I'm wrong."

And Bucky shakes his head, stares at his hands, and tries not to be sick, again, here.

Minutes hit the noise, and shudder stagnant, and he keeps his right hand tight around the other wrist, and then flinches when Steve puts one hand on his right arm.

Steve just waits, and after a second he says, "C'mere?" and so carefully makes it a question, option, and part of Bucky wants to start laughing, laughter that isn't laughter, and not stop until he fucking chokes. Wants to ask and what if you are fucking doing this for the rest of your fucking life, Steve? and doesn't, because Steve's answered it and is too fucking stubborn to ever take it back. Even if he should.

Instead, Bucky lets Steve pull him over, rests the side of his head on the front of Steve's shoulder, because there's a point where nothing can fucking make anything worse and you might as well give the stupid mewling part of you what it wants because at least it'll fucking shut up. At least one fucking part of the noise will stop.

And maybe there's something stupid and fucking poisoned about that thought and maybe some other time he wouldn't even fucking think it and maybe he doesn't care. And maybe Steve's warm and he can just fucking cling and maybe it doesn't matter how fucking pathetic, how fucking useless and needy that makes him and maybe it doesn't fucking matter how stupid or misguided or insane it is Steve believes this shit he says, maybe it just matters that he does.

Maybe none of it matters.

The kitten bounds back down the hall, pounces on Bucky's bare foot and then rolls over on her back, flailing at the air.

"I threw up on you at Mass once," Steve says, conversational and quiet. "One of the times I coughed until I got sick. Right after Communion, too, so it stained the Hell out of your shirt."

"I remember," Bucky says. It feels like an admission; he's not sure why. The noise in his head is starting to feel muffled and he doesn't want to move; he taps his left fingers on the floor, until the idiot baby cat twists herself around back onto her legs and darts over to bump her head against his knuckles. And the door-frame is probably digging into Steve's back and he should probably get up so Steve can move, and he doesn't want to.

He makes himself say, "You should get up if - "

That's as far as he gets before Steve says, "I'm fine," and if he's lying, he's also got one arm across the front of Bucky's shoulders and the other around his waist and doesn't seem to want to let go. And Steve adds, "I don't have anywhere else I want to be," and mostly here, like this, Bucky feels a little bit less like shit than he does anywhere else, so he gives up. Hopes maybe today's shit is fucking over.

 

It isn't.

Of course it isn't.

 

If you go far enough, there's no pride. Go far enough and in the end there's nothing outside needs you don't understand and can't control. Go far enough and the world ends up very, very small. Stops being the world. One body one face one -

Missions. Orders. Targets. Consequences. Need for the first and fear of the last and something that isn't love isn't worship because those need a soul and you don't have that can't have that are beneath that.

He's lying on the floor. (In his head. Something tries to say that tries to tell him tries -) Concrete cold under right hand under bare side under him, but on left side of face . . .heat, impact. Strike. Thoughts slow, wrong: concussion and why, why he fell, balance wrong, and -

(- your head. This is in your head we're half asleep stop it, isn't real, you can stop, move, get up -)

Don't get up.

Don't get up.

Stay, he knows, stay still stay down stay until told. Concussion: pain, confusion, nausea; ignore. Compensate and ignore. (No. You're not there we're not there wake up finish waking up don't - ) Fractured rib: in place, no risk of lung puncture; ignore. Lacerations: various; ignore. Strike, backhanded, His: cut cheek, unbalance, blood in mouth, split lip.

Do not ignore.

Words. Listen.

(This isn't real - )

There are words, all His: the sentences are lost, syntax mangled by confusion but words . . .there is inadequate and unacceptable and correction and consequence and each one makes him sick, sicker than concussion or swallowed mouthfuls of blood and each one slots into place to make shape of what will come. Medical: assessment, treatment; repair. Report, full: assessment, correction, consequence.

Then standby - prepare: void and extract, then standby. Standby until next objective.

When He says sit up he slides to his knees; when He asks do you understand? he nods, once: no clarification required. So He says then wait and leaves, and doesn't touch him. And he waits -

(Wake up.)

- until they come -

(Wake up.)

- except that -

Except that.

Except that smell, air, wrong not wrong different, too humid too many human smells, the sound of automotive traffic in the street and he is pushing himself up in a bed, a bed - noise, small thing moves, too warm too soft too light and he is going to be sick.

He is going to be sick.

And blankets, when he moves there are blankets to tangle his feet; he knows where he's going not why he knows; someone else, someone else in the room, in the bed, someone else awake and a voice, different voice - wrong voice - wrong voice? - no not wrong better, no, better, something tells him better, safe, good, shut up, get up, move -

Bathroom. There is a bathroom. Not small, colours copper and sand and warm, tile floor warm tub at one end shower at other, window . . .and familiar, and not, familiar and strange and there is something, there is nothing in him to throw up, nothing, just water and that is wrong, wrong can't be how can be doesn't make sense, he is never empty, emptied when -

- and there are hands on his shoulders but no pressure, voice talking, wrong-right-better voice talking, speaking and pulling him back but careful and -

"Bucky," the voice says, a name, "Bucky you have to stop. Stop, breathe, Bucky, please - look at me, and breathe."

Words. Words and voice, wall against his back and now only one hand on his shoulder other by his face to make him look, to see another face. Familiar. Wrong? Familiar - mouth, eyes, worry-line above them he knows, he knows it changed but it's the same voice, face and voice that match, match, voice that says, "Bucky, you're okay, you barely ate today, there's nothing in you to get rid of and you have to breathe or you're going to pass out."

Voice that says, "You're okay, you're home, you're with me - this is real, this is now, whatever you saw or felt wasn't real. You're okay."

Face and voice that match, that go with hand resting on his shoulder hand that moves to close on his, careful, doesn't hurt; go with hand by his face, leg against his, voice and face and hands touching him and someone on the floor with him, careful, Steve, fuck, fuck -

"No," voice says, Steve says, and he's reaching over to pull Bucky's hand away from his face, left hand with fingers curved, closed, knuckles digging into his cheekbones until feeling flares like fire so he'll wake up, stop, fuck, but Steve's pulling his hand away, says, "no, don't do that, Bucky it's okay. Don't push, don't do that to yourself, please."

And he can't think, can't make himself think; wall behind him floor underneath him Steve beside, Steve, home and it can't, it, no he imagines that he wishes that has to make himself stop before it goes wrong it's not real and he doesn't want to bring that here, bring it to Hell, get it stained Steve stained, polluted, sick -

No. No that's . . .wrong? That's -

"Hey," and Steve touches his face again, says, "I know you're confused, I know it doesn't make sense, and it doesn't have to - I promise, you're safe, you're home with me, and it's okay, and everything can wait." Hand brushes along cheekbone, over ear, brushes hair out of his face to behind his ear. Steve says, "Just breathe - just trust me. Please. You're okay, we're safe and nothing is going to happen that you don't want."

He can't. Can't can't can't remember, can't think, can't breathe, can't - Steve pulls his arm, not hard, says, "Come here. It's okay. Just breathe - don't try to figure it out, just come here, just think about breathing."

Home. Condo, home, he's - dream, dream, flashback, what the fuck is even the difference but he lost it, he lost . . . mind, memories, fell apart again, but he's just here on the bathroom floor, he woke up and fell apart and came here, and Steve's sitting beside him upset and careful and unhappy again because of him and sometimes - so often - he fucking disgusts himself so much he can't think -

Something shows, or Steve's starting to read minds; he reaches over for Bucky's hand again, says, "No, Buck - "

Bucky manages to swallow, get a choke-hold on his brain. For a minute, maybe. He touches Steve's hand on his arm, shakes his head and says, "It's okay. Sorry. I'm fine."

"Yeah, it's okay," Steve says, shakes his own head, "but no, you're not fine - just, stop, you don't have to do that, okay?" Worried eyes, worried face, fuck, miserable; he says, "I don't know what's making you think you have to, again, but it's wrong, you don't."

And something makes him want to say, almost say yes I do, and his head gets stuck on the dream or memory or whatever the fuck it even is, and for a minute his fucking brain tries to cut Pierce out, put Steve in and his stomach heaves one more time, hurts.

Steve touches his right hand, the side of his neck, and part of Bucky twists up with self-contempt and spits it at his own face but the rest of him turns, slides over until he can put his forehead on Steve's shoulder and Steve's hands move to stroke the back of his neck and the skin on his low back. The rest of him holds on like a fucking drowned rat.

Breathing hurts, like he can't get the muscles to release enough to let the air in, and it feels like something's choking him; he can feel cold sweat dry on his skin, feel the edge of shivering start. Steve cradles the back of his head and says, "What do you need?"

He can't answer that. Can't. Can't can't can't can't the crazed fucking animal that lives under his skin cringes away except, except that need is assumed, question isn't do you question is what -

"Don't say nothing," Steve adds, "and you can take it as read I disagree about the 9mm to the skull and I'm not gonna give it to you."

And fuck that should be funny but he can't get there, can still smell the complex underground, can still hear -

Hear. Sound voice sound, his head gibbers at him, but sound, sound is different. Sound belongs here, sound can't mix up with then.

"Talk," he says, makes himself say, word coming out in its own heave. "Don't care what about just - talk. Talk to me about something."

Steve moves a bit, settles them both with some care, and says, "Okay."

 

And he talks.

Bucky doesn't listen, not really, not to the words. They're not important, Steve could recite seven hundred Our Fathers for all he fucking cares, it's just . . .sound, the stupid fucking crazy part keeps messing with sight but sound is different, sound doesn't work, the sound of Steve's voice means Bucky's brain can't cut him out and try to paste him into the space in the memories because it doesn't sound like that, because it doesn't belong.

Steve talks about art and TV and the Battle of New York, about finding an apartment in DC and Romanova trying to find him a girlfriend. Bucky feels gutted and carved out, rotting, like something foul's smeared on his skin and like he's eight fucking years old and more fucked up than he ever was, and what he's so fucking terrified of is in his own head.

Doesn't want to let go, doesn't want Steve to let go, clinging like some kind of fucking infant. Could say he doesn't care but he does, just not enough to stop.

But it helps. Hearing. Sight, face keeps getting mixed up but voice, Steve's voice was never there. It's strange to think, weird, wrong, Steve was never there, but he thinks it anyway and listens.

When Steve pauses, probably to try to find something else to talk about, Bucky hears himself say, "I didn't know you, in Austria. Not until you kept talking." He hears himself, he sounds like he's drugged and tries to get a hold of it. Mostly fails. "You didn't look like you, you were too tall, but your voice stayed the same." Doesn't really mean to say it, but that's the story of the whole fucking day.

Steve runs his hand down over Bucky's right shoulder and back to the side of his neck. They're both quiet for a bit; Bucky tries to claw enough pieces together to sort himself out, and who knows what Steve thinks. And then Steve asks, "Are you gonna tell me?"

And first Bucky says, "Not much to tell," because he can't not, can't not try not to show, to be . . . this, this whining useless thing that he can't get away from. Steve moves to wrap his arms around Bucky's back.

"Bullshit," he says, quietly, voice buzzing a little through the bones of his shoulder because Bucky turns his head. "But I'm not asking you to tell me, Bucky, I'm just asking if you're going to."

And there aren't enough words for how people smell, for the scents that aren't perfume, aren't added. Are just skin and hair and a human being, alive. Smell is different, too: close enough to touch, close enough to breathe a person in. No static smell of concrete and metal and oil. Humans smells.

And Steve asks these things. The safe answer is no I'm not the safe answer is lie lie lie the safe answer is there's nothing to tell and the safe answer is out of reach. He wants to say I can't but there are other things crawling in his throat and he's so fucking exhausted he wants to laugh and laugh and never stop, let it choke him and make it so that everything's over, all of it's done.

Things crawl their way up his throat and what he says is, "I don't even know if I fucking know how. I don't, it isn't - " he stops before he starts fucking babbling again, claws words back down, into sense. If he can't fucking swallow the words at least they're going to make sense. At least he can try.

Tries breathing, first. So he can say, "I don't fucking know how to talk about crawling to that son of a bitch with broken bone sticking out of my leg so he'd tell me I did good enough, Steve. I don't," and why is breathing so fucking hard, "I don't know how to fucking tell you that all he had to do was say and I'd lay there like a good fucking boy while they strapped me down so they could fucking stick needles and tubes in me to fucking fill me up and clean me out like they wanted, can't tell you what I did, how much fucking blood I bathed in and whose, so he'd fucking pat me on the head and tell me I was a good dog."

There's too much, so much venom, acid, poison and it rips through the bitter laugh that won't come out but still gets wrapped around all the words when he says, "Except he wouldn't, because he wouldn't fucking touch me except to fucking hit me for things done . . . wrong, inadequate, unacceptable," and the words taste so fucking foul. "And I'd let him and fucking lie where I fell until he told me I could move, how the fuck do I -"

He feels like a kid, a fucking child, feels like it and sounds like it and it makes everything burn, acid burn chemical burn phosphorus on skin. And he stops, makes himself stop, because he can't do this. Can't pour any more of this on Steve, can't make him, can't -

He makes himself stop. And for a minute there's quiet, except for the small sounds of the cat outside the bathroom door that make Bucky close his eyes, make him think please, fuck, kitten, I can't, I'm sorry, I can't. There's more in his head, more to spit out, but he swallows it and makes it stop, because he can't, it's not -

Then Steve's pushing him to sit up, gently, waiting till Bucky looks at him. Then Steve's wearing the look he can't take, because half of it's unhappiness he shouldn't fucking cause and half of it's, just, he can't. Shouldn't. Doesn't deserve -

"You walked away," Steve says, and says it quiet, and like he's fucking speaking holy writ. "Bucky, you saved my life and then you walked away. From him. From them. You did."

Bucky shakes his head, starts, "He was already d - "

"Don't even try to tell me you believed that then," Steve says, same kind of voice.

And Bucky doesn't say anything, because he can't.

Steve goes on, "You saved my life, you did the last God damned thing he'd've ever wanted you to do, and then you left, and you came back to me. And if you think I don't know how hard that was," and Steve looks down, shakes his head a little, finds Bucky's eyes with his again, "then actually you're God-damn right because I can't even start to imagine, I can only," and he takes a small breath, "be fucking grateful you did. And I'm sorry you have to remember any of that, that it fucking happened, but Christ, Bucky - "

He stops, one hand alongside Bucky's jaw and then leans forward. Kisses Bucky's mouth and his temple, leans their foreheads together. "He's dead," Steve says, "he failed, he died, you're here and you fucking amaze me. You need to know that."

And the humiliating thing is the relief.

Bucky reaches up, takes Steve's hand down and holds it instead. He feels empty and stupid and almost half-dead, and the fucking sad thing is that's still better than before. "I can't say what you want to hear, Steve - " he starts, because he can't, because he . . . because he can't.

"I just want you to let me help when I can," Steve says, turning their hands over, tracing on the back of Bucky's with his fingers. "And I want you to know that you can't . . . I don't know, Bucky, you can't . . . fail me, or disgust me, or let me down. It's not going to happen. It's never going to happen."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Bucky says. Because this isn't over. He can't hope it's over. There's always further down to go.

"I don't," Steve replies. And then says, "We should go back to bed, you're shivering already," like that's the end.

 

The cat has the sense not to try to rejoin them until they're settled. Steve pulls an extra blanket out, pulls it over them and Bucky would argue but even with that and Steve curled close behind him it takes a while for the shivering to stop. The silly fuzz-ball curls up against Bucky's chest and turns her head over in her blatant plea for chin-scritches.

She only gets a few, though. There's only so much room in Bucky's head left and after a minute or two all of it gets wound up around Steve's hand on the skin of his back, his side, ribs, stomach. Like he's a fucking cat, he thinks, just barely on the edge of bitter and wry. But he can't get there, he can't fucking reach.

Go far enough, there's no fucking pride.

Steve strokes the line of his jaw and his neck and it's like he can feel every fingerprint-ridge, every one.

Steve says, "You know I mean it, what I said. I get angry . . . that any of this happened, ever but it doesn't - "

"I know," Bucky says, and he does, because if you go far enough there's no strength for disgust either. Steve kisses the back of his head, rests his face there for a minute.

"And I don't make promises I'm not going to keep," he says. He works his arm back around Bucky's waist. "You're stuck with me." He traces the line of Bucky's right wrist. "And you don't have to answer that."

Bucky catches his hand, interlaces their fingers and squeezes once, because he can't answer. Doesn't want to say anything else, doesn't want to let anything else fucking come out of his mouth, so he can stop. So today can fucking be over and maybe tomorrow won't be so fucking miserable. So he can feel Steve where they touch, body-heat and fingerprints and breath on the back of his neck.

After a while, voice starting to get sleepy, Steve says, "Have I mentioned how glad I am you like sleeping like this?"

Different answers fight to get out and then there's not answering at all, and in the end Bucky just says, "You have now."

Steve rests his cheek at the top of Bucky's spine, works his other arm underneath Bucky to wrap around him, too. He's going to end up with his arm asleep, again, but Bucky can't actually make himself say a damn thing.

Goes back to letting his mind rest on the feeling of Steve's hands over his stomach and now against his chest, while the kitten's tail twitches as she dreams.

 

(Grey beginning of daylight brings one more stumble, one more slip, memory-dream - arms locked in legs locked in hands, someone's hands His hands? someone's hands around his throat, to understand, to learn to teach he lives he breathes only for a purpose except on the borderland of sleep his hands can move and he tries to get away, tries to lash out and get but he's clumsy slow, why is -

Steve, holding his hand - not his arm not his wrist his hand, stopping, talking: "It's a dream. Bucky, stop, it's okay, it was a dream."

Feel, touch, he can touch Steve's arm, see . . .sheets, bed, himself, small cat with her ears back and wide dark eyes with no point because she can't see -

"It's just a dream, Bucky," Steve says, "it's okay, you're safe - there's nobody here but me. Come on, lie down, you're tired - just a dream."

The sheets and the comforter, the bed smells like two people sleeping, like Steve and like him and the night; Steve's arm around his waist, hand curved to hold his opposite hip but not tight, not stiff, not - dream. Only dream, half awake, stupid and he says, "Sun's up - "

"Bucky, you're so tired you just had a panic attack without waking all the way up, to Hell with the sun, come here and lie down and go back to sleep." Arm around him pulls back and down along the bed, Steve's other hand pulls gently on his left elbow, encourage it to bend so he lets go, so, except, except -

His right hand goes to the collar of the shirt, too tight around his neck and he can feel hands, other hands and he's starting to wake up; then Steve says, "Here, just get rid of that, it's warm enough," and lets go long enough to sit up and help Bucky pull the shirt off, or maybe Bucky helps him pull the shirt off because he still can't really think, lies back down when Steve pulls him to, pulls comforter and blanket up to their necks.

And it's warm - skin, Steve's skin on his, chest and stomach against his back, arm under his around his ribs to rest on the other side and trace between them. It's warm and he can breathe and he can feel Steve's breath against the back of his neck, hear drowsy murmur of, "Don't worry about it, go back to sleep."

Then the tickle of fur, as the little cat burrows under the covers and curls up between his stomach and his hip, vibrating purr against bone.

"Everything's okay, Bucky," Steve says, kisses the top of his shoulder.

It's too light, it's day, but he closes his eyes anyway.)