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A Day In The Life

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Sam shut his eyes and threw his head back in a prayer for patience. Going to a baseball game had seemed like a good idea at the time. Part of the whole help-Bucky-adjust-to-civilian-life-by-doing-stuff-he-used-to-like thing that he and Steve had been trying. Which, all things considered, had been working pretty well. And the baseball game…okay, the game itself had been good. They'd even, by some freakish stroke of luck, found a morning game, which, a) was how they did it back in the 40's, and b) meant they didn't have to be out dealing with weekend nightlife, which Bucky still found overwhelming.

What he hadn't counted on, though, was weekend traffic. Even on foot, the crowds were horrendous. It had taken forever to get from the stadium back to the subway. At which point they found out the station was closed for repairs, and it was a long walk to the next one. It was the middle of the afternoon. It was hot. There were way too many people around, and lunch felt like a long time ago. Sam's good mood from earlier had evaporated, and, to tell the truth, he was a little surprised Barnes hadn't punched anyone yet.

"Watch it!" Bucky snapped at some kid on his phone who'd walked right into his back.

The kid looked up, bored. "Quit blocking the sidewalk, would ya?" he replied.

"Okay," Sam said, pulling the kid to the side and giving him a push to keep going as Bucky snarled. "Eyes where you're walkin', kid. Go on."

The kid rolled his eyes, looked back at his phone, and moved on. "You good?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow at Bucky.

This time, it was Bucky rolling his eyes. "Fine," he snapped. "What? I wasn't gonna hit him."

"Didn't say you were," Sam replied. He looked around. "Where's Steve?"

Bucky nodded up ahead. Sam followed his gaze until he found a familiar blond head. Looked like he'd missed the thing with the kid and kept going, and with as fast as he walked, he was already half a block ahead. Sam shook his head—was it too much to ask that the old people he somehow ended up chaperoning stay in a group?

Bucky growled and stumbled as someone bumped him hard enough to knock him off balance.

"Okay," Sam said again, pulling off his backpack and kneeling to open it. "Take a few breaths, man. Don't need you getting cranky in a big crowd like this."

"Wh—" Bucky huffed. "I'm not cranky."

Sam paused in his rummaging through the backpack to shoot him a quick look. "Dude, you just growled at an old lady. You're cranky. Here." He tossed something at Bucky who instinctively raised his hands to catch it.

"What…" Bucky looked at the plastic package in his hands, then glared at Sam. "I'm not a child, Wilson," he snapped.

"No," Sam said calmly. "You're a ninety-nine-year-old former Russian assassin whose blood sugar's gettin' a little low. Eat the fruit snacks."

Bucky continued to glare, but moved to open the package. Steve chose that moment to reappear and popped up over his shoulder. "Whatcha got?" he asked, eyeing his friend's hands. "Ooh!" He looked up at Sam. "You got any more?" he asked hopefully.

Sam rolled his eyes, but pulled another pack of snacks from his bag and tossed it to Steve, who caught it with a grin and tore into it happily. Bucky was refusing to meet Sam's eyes but was smirking in spite of himself. Sam shook his head. "When did I become the mom of this dysfunctional circus?" he asked.

Steve was focused on his snack and wasn't listening, but Bucky snickered at the comment.

The next morning, Sam woke up at his usual time and opened his bedroom door to find a tray on the floor with fresh coffee, bacon and eggs. A pink square of paper propped against the coffee mug read Moms enjoy breakfast in bed, right? Underneath the message was a glittery unicorn sticker.

Apparently the mom thing wasn't going anywhere any time soon. And where in the hell had Barnes gotten a unicorn sticker from? Sam shrugged. At least it came with free food.

Chapter Text

 


Sam came in from his evening run, wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. "I beat the pizza guy?" he asked, walking into the kitchen.

"Nope," Bucky said from the counter, barely visible from Sam's vantage point behind a stack of pizza boxes. It took a lot of pizza to feed two super soldiers.

"It just got here," Steve said. "Grab a plate."

Pizza and movie night had quickly become a facet of modern life that Bucky and Steve had happily accepted. Sam pretended he didn't see the little notebook Steve used to take notes during the movies in his attempt to decipher pop culture references. Bucky seemed content just to get lost in the stories. As for Sam, everything they'd watched so far was something he'd already seen, but he was getting a surprising amount of joy just watching the two of them watch everything for the first time.

"Alright," Sam said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "We got pizza, we got garlic bread, we got soda, we got…Whatcha makin'?" Bucky was stirring something red in a pitcher.

"Kool-Aid," he replied, pulling out the spoon and tapping it on the edge.

Sam blinked. "Kool-Aid?" He hadn't been expecting that.

Bucky shrugged and poured himself a glass. "Yeah. Saw it in the store, thought it might be fun. We used to make it when we were kids." He took a sip, and for a moment, a little smile sparkled in his eyes—the one that meant he was in a good place, and Sam saw Steve noticing it and grinning. Bucky set down his glass and poured another that he handed to Steve.

"Just like Ma used to make," Steve said after taking a taste.

"Yeah, except your ma never let you have the red kind after that one time you spilled it on the sofa," Bucky smirked.

Steve grimaced. "Yeah, that wasn't pretty. We didn't manage to get it out, did we?"

"No. And me trying to help got me whipped for it too. You know his mother hit me with a spoon?" he said, turning innocent eyes to Sam.

Sam chuckled. "Oh, I would have paid to see that. So, wait, they had Kool-Aid back in your day?"

Bucky narrowed his eyes. "You know, I was gonna offer you a glass, Wilson, but now you're gonna have to come get your own," he said, moving away from the pitcher.

Sam chuckled and Steve shook his head. "Yes, we had Kool-Aid. Like six flavors, but still."

"You should have seen him trying to pick a flavor in the store," Bucky said, nodding at Steve.

"There are way too many now," Steve insisted.

"Yeah, you guys probably had just the boring flavors, right?" Sam asked, searching the cabinet for a cup. "Orange, grape, stuff like that?"

"Well, there was cherry, which is what we went with," Steve said, gesturing at the pitcher. "Uh, something green…"

"Lemon-lime," Bucky said with a shudder. "Blech."

"Yeah, I think people still don't like that one," Sam agreed, pouring himself a glass. "We've got some cool flavors now, though. All those exotic fruit mixes, berry blast, raspberry lemonade, Sharkleberry Finn…"

Bucky and Steve both looked at him suspiciously. "You're making that up," Steve said.

"No!" Sam insisted. "It's like a pink fruit punch kind of thing. Got a shark on a skateboard or something on the front." Neither of them looked convinced. Sam sighed. "It was a 90's thing. You really had to be there for the 90's. They still make the flavor, though. Stop looking at me like that, Barnes."

It had been a while since Sam had had Kool-Aid, and he brought the glass to his lips, ready for a wave of nostalgia. He took a sip, choked, and just managed to swallow. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.

"What?" Steve and Bucky both looked confused.

"What is wrong with this Kool-Aid?"

They both took an experimental sip. Bucky shrugged. "Tastes fine to me," Steve said.

"Wh—?" Sam spluttered. "No. This is like water, and…and sadness. How much sugar did you put in this?"

"Um," Bucky looked thoughtful. "About a quarter of a cup. Did I do it wrong?" This last was addressed to Steve, with that lost-puppy look he got when he had trouble remembering things.

"No," Steve assured him quickly. "No, that's how we always did it."

Bucky looked relieved, but Sam rolled his eyes. Yes, he was supposed to be the sensitive counselor one, but you had to draw your lines somewhere. "No. No. This is…" He shook his head and dumped his drink out in the sink. "I've tried to be nice with your weird 40's food things, with the, with the boiled vegetables and you." He pointed an accusing finger at Steve. "With all the stuff in the Jell-O."

"I like Jell-O," Bucky put in.

"Hush," Sam replied. "But this is too much. This is a disgrace to the name of Kool-Aid." He grabbed the sugar container and snatched up the measuring cup they kept inside, using it to dump most of a cup of sugar into the pitcher.

Steve's eyes widened. "That's…" he began as Sam picked up the spoon and started stirring vigorously. "That's a lot of sugar."

"You two are seriously worse than my grandma. You know the Depression's been over for, like, eighty years now, right? We can afford sugar. And they're not rationing it any more either. We've got enough to treat this Kool-Aid right," Sam informed them, pouring himself a glass of the re-sweetened liquid. "Ah," he said with a sigh of satisfaction. "This is what Kool-Aid should taste like."

The two super-soldiers eyed the pitcher warily. Bucky looked at Steve, shrugged, then got a second glass and poured himself a small amount. "That," he said with a grimace after taking a swallow. "Is like drinking syrup."

"Philistine," Sam replied, shaking his head.

Chapter Text

 


Steve woke up to the vibrating of his phone on his bedside table. It wasn't the annoying emergency-come-to-the-tower tone that Tony had programmed in and he couldn't figure out how to get rid of. He blinked blearily at the screen, wondering who was calling him at 3:30 in the morning. "H'lo?" he rasped.

"Steve?"

"Bucky?" Steve asked, sitting up, suddenly wide awake. Bucky sounded…worried. Steve jumped to his feet and crossed the hall. Bucky wasn't in his room. The window was open. "Where are you?"

"I don't…I don't know," Bucky said softly. Scratch worried. Bucky sounded scared.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked, rushing back to his room, grabbing for socks, shoes, a shirt. "What happened?"

"I don't know," Bucky said again. "I need…Steve, can you come get me?"

"Already on my way," Steve replied, grabbing his jacket on his way out the door, fishing in the pocket for the keys to Sam's car he hadn't returned yet. "Are you okay?" he asked again, taking the stairs three at a time. "Are you hurt?"

"I don't think so," Bucky said. He didn't sound sure.

"Okay," Steve said. "Okay. I'm on my way. You said you don't know where you are?"

"No."

"What's around you? Tell me what you see." He started the engine, shoving the driver's seat back.

"Um," Bucky started. "I'm at a pay phone." His voice sounded a little shaky. "There's, um, I think there's a hooker across the street." He huffed a nervous laugh. "She's looking at me like she wants to throw something at me."

"What about buildings?" Steve asked gently.

"Oh, yeah, um…" He could hear Bucky pause as he looked around. "There's a flower shop. And a pizza place. Cal's, I think is what it says. And one of those all-night newspaper places with cigarettes and those shrink-wrapped sandwiches called Omar's. It's yellow. The lady in there wouldn't let me use the phone, but she said she'd give me a quarter for the payphone if I'd go away."

"Okay," Steve said. He'd driven past there before. It wasn't too far away. "Okay, I know where that is. I'll be there in ten minutes, alright?"

"Okay," Bucky said quietly. "Hurry?" he whispered.

The line crackled to static before Steve could respond. Bucky's quarter must have run out. "On my way, man," he promised, gunning the engine.

He got there in seven minutes. Bucky was sitting on the damp sidewalk next to the payphone. He wasn't wearing shoes or a shirt, and his arms were folded up between his chest and his knees as he rocked back and forth in an attempt to stay warm, his bare feet stretched out into the street. The glare of the streetlight above him was glinting off his metal arm. Steve pulled to a stop beside him, but Bucky didn't look up. He threw the door open and rounded the front of the car.

"Bucky?"

His friend looked up at him with wild, red-rimmed eyes. His hair was damp and sticking out in every possible direction. Had he been out here when it was raining? "Steve?" He didn't sound sure at first, blinking up into the semi-darkness.

"Yeah, Buck, I'm here," Steve said, swallowing down the worried tightness in his throat and moving further into the light.

"Steve," he said shakily, managing a small smile as he pushed himself to his feet and flung his arms around his friend. Steve returned the embrace, as much to offer comfort as to keep him upright. His bare skin was like ice.

"Geez, Bucky, you're freezing," Steve said. Bucky didn't say anything, just hunched in a little closer to Steve. Being cold took his head to bad places, and understandably so. Steve was a little surprised he was talking at all and not completely shut down, but he'd take what he could get. "Here, hang on a second." He pushed Bucky carefully away and pulled his jacket off his shoulders. As he did, he scanned the area. No one around, nothing that appeared threatening…Bucky appeared to have gotten here on his own two feet, which was concerning in its own way, but at least he wasn't going to have to fight anyone.

"Better?" Steve asked, slipping his jacket around Bucky's shoulders. It hung a little loose on him, but Bucky just grabbed the extra material and tugged it tighter around him. He nodded.

"Thanks," he said softly.

Steve tugged him back into a hug. "Okay." He patted him on the back. He wasn't really sure where to go from here. Bucky was still shivering, so Steve decided the best course of action was to get him home and get him warmed up. He directed him to the car, steering him around the dirty puddles on the pavement. Once he was in, Steve rounded the car and slipped back into the driver's seat, starting up the engine and turning on the heat.

Steve started for home, glad there was no traffic at this time of night so he could keep most of his attention on Bucky. Bucky stared out the window the whole way. They got home without incident and Steve got him into the elevator and then the apartment with no argument. Once they got there, Bucky stood in the hallway staring blankly ahead.

"You wanna go change into something dry?" Steve asked, eyeing Bucky's pajama pants, damp with rain and muddy at the bottom. Bucky got like this sometimes—that far away, waiting-for-instructions look like he had now. It happened after his bad flashbacks, and it broke Steve's heart every single time. He was always careful never to sound like he was giving orders—Bucky would do whatever he told him to when he was this way, and it made Steve sick to his stomach. He was careful with his words and his tone because if Bucky was flashing back to being the Winter Soldier, he wanted him to hear something different, something that sounded like home and reminded him that he got to choose now and that he was free, that he was safe. And maybe it was just his imagination, but Steve thought it pulled him back faster.

Bucky kept staring straight ahead for a few seconds, then gave a little half-nod and walked to his room. Steve moved to the kitchen to make coffee—decaf—keeping an eye on the hallway. Bucky returned just as the coffee was finishing. He still wasn't wearing a shirt.

Steve held up a mug, offering it to Bucky, then set it down on the end table. He grabbed the first aid kit from the bathroom, swung by his room to grab a few things, then made his way back to the living room, grabbing his own cup on the way. Bucky was still standing in the doorway.

Steve sat on one end of the couch, quirking an inviting eyebrow at his friend. "You can sit down if you want," Steve said. A moment to consider, then Bucky sat down at the other end. Steve passed him the coffee cup and Bucky took it, though he didn't make eye contact with Steve. "Is it okay if I take a look at your feet?" he asked.

Bucky blinked and stared down at his feet for a long minute. Then he slowly pivoted on the couch so that he was facing Steve, pulling his feet up onto the cushion between them. He returned his attention to his coffee.

Steve moved over and pulled one of Bucky's feet up to rest on his thigh. Once he had cleaned the dirt off, he cleaned out all the cuts he'd gotten from walking who knows how far without his shoes. He put a band-aid over one of the larger cuts that he had to pick a piece of glass out of. Bucky's skin was still too cold, so he picked up one of the socks he'd brought from his room and slipped it over the treated foot. He repeated the process with the other one.

When he was done, he patted Bucky's leg, and Bucky pulled his feet off of Steve's lap, drawing his knees up to his chest. "Thanks," he whispered.

"You're welcome," Steve said warmly, glad that he was talking again. "You still cold?" Bucky nodded, and Steve pulled a sweatshirt from the pile of things he'd brought from his room.

Bucky set down his coffee cup and scooted over to take the hoodie. He was a little clumsy getting it on, but Steve didn't move to help. He wanted to, but Bucky would have gotten mad about being treated like a child.

"Better?" he asked when Bucky finally got his arms through the sleeves.

"A little," Bucky said. "Did I hurt anybody?" he asked quietly.

"No," Steve rushed to assure him. There had been no trail of destruction to follow on his way to his friend, no flashing lights or sirens or any indication that anything was wrong. Something twisted in his stomach as he wondered how deep the flashback had gone. Had he gone all the way back to the Winter Soldier, however briefly? That hadn't happened since he came home. Steve was hoping it never would.

Bucky looked over at Steve, squinting as he studied his face. "I…" What he saw with his eyes wasn't matching up with whatever he saw in his head. "I didn't hurt you." It was almost a question.

"No, Buck, you didn't."

"And Sam? Wait." Bucky pushed himself up on the couch to scan the living room and kitchen. "What about Sam? Where is he? I—"

"You didn't hurt Sam either," Steve said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "He's in his room. He's asleep."

"No, but I…I threw…I tore one of his wings off, Steve, he—"

"That was almost a year ago," Steve reminded him gently. "That fight on the helicarrier, Sam made it to the ground okay. And then you saved my life, you remember that?" he added, realizing those injuries were what Bucky was looking for on his face.

"You were in the river…"

"That's right, and you pulled me out."

Bucky nodded slowly, his eyes distant. "You're okay," he said slowly, like he was trying to convince himself. "And Sam…I didn't hurt Sam. And I didn't hurt anyone else?" he asked as if he was afraid to hear the answer.

"You didn't hurt anybody," Steve said firmly. "You just ran off, that's all. You remember that?"

"Maybe?" He sighed, face reddening. "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Steve said. He moved a little closer so that he was sitting next to Bucky. Bucky was still shivering, and super-soldier metabolism meant Steve had a lot of body heat to share. "It's okay."

Bucky leaned against him, accepting the offer of warmth, embarrassed about his memory lapse and whatever had sent him out into the night, but not enough to shut down and shut himself in his room, which was good. This was progress.

"You wanna talk about it?" Steve offered. He wanted to know—he always wanted to know—but half the time, Bucky didn't want to share. Sam had had a long conversation with Steve about not pushing him—"Let him know you're safe, but don't force him to open up, or he never will." Sometimes, it was really hard to listen to the counselor. But he did.

Bucky sighed. For a minute, he didn't say anything. "I had a nightmare. I don't…I don't remember what it was about. But I don't always remember everything I've gotten back when I wake up." He made a fist with his flesh hand and pressed it into his eye, scrunching up his face. "I just…I don't know where my head was, and I didn't know where I was, and I had to get out. I think I went down the fire escape."

"You did," Steve confirmed. "I didn't hear a thing."

"Master assassin, remember?" Bucky said, a small smile in his voice. "You don't hear me if I don't want you to."

Steve chuckled. This was starting to sound like one of Bucky's regular flashbacks (which were, thankfully, starting to come farther apart). Maybe a little more intense than normal, but not some scary new problem he'd been starting to worry about. This was just the first time—as far as he knew—that one had happened at night. He had nightmares, sure, but flashbacks were usually a waking occurrence, and usually either he or Sam were around and were able to keep an eye on him until he came back around.

Bucky shuddered and nestled closer in to Steve's side, and Steve reached up and grabbed the blanket from the back of the couch, tugging it over him. "I just," Bucky started, shifting a little more to get comfortable. "I just had to get out, but once I did, it was dark, and, and, different, and I didn't know where to go. Everything just felt wrong, and when things went wrong, I was supposed to scrub the mission and go in, but I didn't want to go in because when things went wrong, they would hurt me to make sure I got it right next time, but I couldn't find the base and I was getting scared because the longer I avoided going in when I messed up, the more they'd hurt me, and it was so cold and I didn't want to go back in the ice again, they always put me in the ice and I don't want to go in the ice, I don't like it there, I can't—Steve don't let them put me back, please, I don't want to go in the ice again, I can't—"

"Whoa, Bucky, whoa, easy," Steve soothed, wrapping his arms around the panicking soldier, blanket and all. "It's okay. It's okay, you're not going back in the ice. I will never let them hurt you again, and you're never going back in the ice, you hear me?"

Bucky was breathing like he was sprinting uphill. "I'm not?" he managed to whisper. Scared. Hopeful.

"Never," Steve assured him. "You're safe now, remember? Look around." Bucky lifted his head and Steve reached up a hand to brush his still-damp hair out of his eyes. "You got away from Hydra, remember? You're not with them. You're not in Siberia. You're in our apartment, on the couch, with me. Those are my shoes over there that you're always grumbling at me to stop leaving in the living room. That's Sam's favorite coffee cup on the table. That's your stack of books by the armchair that you're trying to read through to catch up on twentieth century literature, and that's your laundry basket next to it, which I'm pretty sure makes you a hypocrite for complaining about my shoes."

Bucky was still breathing quickly, but his eyes were following Steve's words around the room. So Steve kept going.

"That's my sketchpad on the table. Sam's laptop in the other chair. Clint showed you how to change the background, and you keep changing it to pictures of that little pony cartoon to mess with Sam. That's the bowl of popcorn from earlier tonight when we watched the ballgame. You kept throwing popcorn at the side of my head."

"You started it," Bucky grumbled softly.

Steve grinned. "That's the plant that Nat gave us as a housewarming present," he continued. "We put little lights on it last month for Christmas. And these are the socks you gave me," he added, reaching down to pat Bucky's feet. "Sam said socks were such an old lady present, but I've seen him wearing the ones you gave him with the birds on them at least twice a week. That's the fridge that Sam keeps pulling magnets off of to try to stick to your arm. That's the toaster that you set on fire. This is your life, Bucky. The one where you're safe and free and where Hydra will never touch you again. Remember?"

Bucky nodded against his shoulder. "Yeah," he whispered. "I'm sorry I forget sometimes."

Steve tugged him closer for a hug. "It's okay. I wish everything could be okay for you all at once. I really do—more than anything. But it's gonna take time, and that's totally okay. That's how it works. And nobody's upset with you for forgetting things, and nobody ever will be."

Bucky snorted. "You sound like Sam."

Steve laughed. "That so bad?"

"I guess not. Bird-boy usually knows what he's talking about. Even if he does keep trying to stick magnets on my arm."

"Did you just admit Sam was right?"

"Not where he could hear me."

Steve chuckled. "Well, I'm glad you agree. Because he is right. And if you forget, I'll be right here to remind you. Every time."

Bucky shifted on the cushion next to him. "That could be a long fight, man," he said softly.

"Well," Steve started. Bucky still struggled with the idea that he was worth fighting for. Steve refuted that every chance he got. "If I remember right, I'm too stupid to back down from a fight." He heard a soft laugh from somewhere behind Bucky's hair. "So, I guess I'm in it for the long haul."

A moment of silence. Then, softly, "thanks, punk."

"You're welcome, jerk." He picked up his coffee and leaned back against the cushion. Bucky leaned with him, not willing to let the warmth he was offering escape. "You good?"

A long sigh. "I guess."

"You don't have to be, you know," Steve reminded him.

"No, I know, I just…" He sighed again. "I remember everything now, or, at least, everything I remembered yesterday, which probably isn't actually everything. But I'm back. I feel really stupid, but I'm here, so…"

"Nothing you did tonight was stupid, Buck."

Bucky snorted. "I went outside—in the rain—in my pajamas and I didn't take any shoes. I got scared of the dark and I got lost ten blocks from our apartment and had to call you to come get me and now I'm wearing your giant hoodie and I feel like a kid in his dad's clothes."

Steve suppressed a chuckle at the mental image Bucky's last words conjured. He was still kind of skinny.

"I'd call that stupid," Bucky finished. Between the blanket and the hair, Steve couldn't see much of him at the moment, but what little he saw of his face was red.

"I wouldn't," Steve said simply. "I'd call it confused. Processing. Or…your brain sorting through decades of trauma without consulting you on appropriate timing. But not stupid."

Bucky huffed a soft laugh. "Now you sound like Sam."

Steve huffed a laugh and patted Bucky on the shoulder, shifting a little to get more comfortable. "No one thinks you're stupid," he said, willing his friend to believe it. "You work your way through this thing however you can. We're here for you. I'm here for you."

Bucky was quiet for a minute. "Of all the people to have in my corner," he said at last. "I couldn't've have picked anyone better." He yawned, and Steve smiled. Bucky usually crashed not long after a flashback, and it looked like this one was coming on fast. "Thanks, Stevie," he said, patting Steve's knee.

Steve smiled and squeezed his shoulder, stifling a yawn of his own. When Sam came in two hours later to get a drink before his morning run, he smiled at the sight that greeted him. America's greatest hero was snoring, leaning his head back and drooling just a little bit on the couch cushions, one arm looped protectively over the world's deadliest assassin who was curled up into a ball against his side and wearing a sweatshirt that was way too big for him. It was adorable.

Sam contemplated taking a picture, then decided he valued his life too much for that. Instead he grabbed the blanket that had slipped onto the floor and tucked it gently back up around the super-soldiers, turned the light back off, and headed outside with a smile.

Chapter Text

 


Steve came home from a run just as his cell phone started ringing. Tony was calling a briefing for their next mission, and a quick glance at the clock told him he'd have time to take a shower if he hurried. It had not gone over well last time he'd shown up straight from a workout.

"Bucky?" he called. Bucky would have gotten the same message, but he wasn't the greatest at keeping track of his phone. Steve found it in its usual place on the coffee table. "Buck?" he called. The apartment was oddly quiet.

The door to Bucky's room wasn't closed all the way, and after a knock received no response, Steve pushed it open carefully. Bucky was sitting on the carpet in the middle of the room. His back was to the door, and he was wearing the headphones Sam had gotten him after complaining that he was sick to death of hearing big band music. He looked like he was writing something in his notebook.

It didn't look like much, but Steve smiled. This was a huge step for Bucky—he wasn't watching the entrance and his music was obviously up loud enough that he wasn't listening to his surroundings. He felt safe here. And that was awesome.

Of course, it presented another problem. Specifically, the problem of how to get Bucky's attention without getting maimed. Ex-Hydra assassin he may be—emphasis on the 'ex'—but he still didn't take surprises well. He obviously hadn't heard Steve calling him, and Steve knew better than to sneak up on him. Last time he'd startled Bucky, he'd almost lost an eye.

"Bucky?" he called. "Bucky!" Louder this time, but no dice.

"Hey, you guys coming?" Sam asked, sticking his head out of his room.

"Yeah, I'm just…" He gestured at Bucky's room.

Sam walked over. "Huh," he said. "Look at that." Like Steve, he understood the significance of Bucky's back to the door. He grinned. "Told ya," he said, bumping Steve with his elbow. He'd been the one to remind Steve that Bucky may know in his head that he was safe, but knowing it with his instincts was going to take a while.

"Yeah, yeah," Steve replied, smiling. "Any ideas?"

"On how to keep both of your eyes?" Sam asked. "To be honest, I'm surprised he hasn't smelled you yet."

"Hey!"

"Dude, super-soldier, super-sweat. You're not going to the briefing like that, are you?"

"No. I just wanted to let Bucky know what was going on so he could get ready."

Sam nodded. "Hmm," he mused. He looked around, spotted one of Steve's shoes on the floor in the living room, grabbed the shoe and chucked it at Bucky's head.

The effect was instantaneous. Bucky whirled around, papers scattering from his notebook and headphones falling from his ears. Steve and Sam both jumped away from the door as Bucky lunged forward, brandishing a knife neither of them had known he'd had on him. (Stupid mistake, Steve thought. Bucky always had something on him.) "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" they exclaimed.

Just as quickly as he'd reacted, Bucky recognized them and stopped short, dropping his arms to his sides but keeping the glare. "What the hell?" he demanded.

"Really, Sam?" Steve asked at the same time.

Sam shrugged. "It worked, didn't it?"

"Sorry, Bucky," Steve said. "I was trying to get your attention and you couldn't hear me."

"And the next logical step was to throw a shoe at my head?"

"Sam threw the shoe," Steve explained. "I was trying to think of something less…provocative."

"Sorry," Sam said, and he sounded like he meant it. "But we're on the clock, and it seemed like the fastest way to get your attention without getting punched."

Bucky sighed and shook his head. "Yeah, fine. Maybe next time throw it past me, and not at me?"

"Fair enough."

"We've got a mission briefing in twenty," Steve said, trying to pull the conversation back on track.

"Oh. Okay." Bucky looked him up and down. "You're gonna shower, right?"

Sam snickered and Steve sighed. "Why does everyone keep asking me that?"

"Just lookin' out for you, Stevie," Bucky replied with a grin. "I don't think Nat was bluffing when she said she'd kill you."

"Oh, she'd do it," Sam agreed. "Here you go, man," he added, picking up Bucky's iPod from where it had landed by his feet.

"Thanks," Bucky said, reaching out a hand.

"Wait, is that…" Music was still coming from the headphones, and Sam leaned in to listen. The way his eyes widened was comical. "Avril Lavigne?"

"What?" Bucky shrugged. "I was fine with the big band, jazz and swing. You're the one who said I needed to update my playlist."

"Avril Lavigne?"

"You should be happy. I listened to you."

"Are you secretly a fourteen-year-old wannabe punk girl?"

"Wait," Steve cut in. "Is she the one who sings that skater boy song?" And if he thought Sam's eyes were wide before…

"He was a skater boy, she said, 'See ya later, boy'," Bucky sang.

Steve grinned. "He wasn't good enough for her," he sang.

Bucky beamed, one of his 'I'm in a good place' smiles that Steve was starting to see more often. "Now he's a super-star, slammin' on his guitar," they sang together, spinning together in unison towards Sam as they finished the chorus. "Does your pretty face see what he's worth?"

"Dear Lord, help me," Sam said quietly, pressing the iPod into Bucky's hand and walking quickly back to his room.

"Oh, come on, Wilson!" Bucky called. "Chill out," he and Steve started to sing together, grinning at one another as they realized they were on the same page. "Whatcha yellin' for?" Sam slammed his door, and the super-soldiers dissolved into laughter.

"Oh, that was beautiful," Bucky said, wiping away a tear as he laughed.

Steve took another moment to catch his breath. "I think we could have some fun with this," he smirked. "Seriously, though," he began, turning back to his friend. "This is a direction I never would have pegged you branching out in."

"I know, I know," Bucky shook his head. "I really have been trying to broaden my horizons musically. Rock music, I am loving. I'm on the fence with country, and I don't know about this whole Lady Gaga thing. I'm not sure what that is."

"I don't think anyone knows," Steve said.

"Yeah, I don't like it. Anyway, I may have also asked Tony what kind of music he thought would irritate Sam, and, well…Turns out this girl is really catchy."

"I know, right?" Steve agreed. "I'm gonna be singing this skater song for the rest of the day."

Bucky grinned. "You think we can cue it up to play on the Quinjet speakers?"

Steve returned the smile. "You know, Thor has a thing for Earth music. I'll bet he knows all the words by the end of the mission."

Chapter Text

 


"You have any plans this weekend?" Steve asked as Sam set his plate down on the counter and pulled up a stool. They'd gotten back that morning from a mission that had gone surprisingly smoothly, and Sam and Nat had been rejoicing in the availability of the weekend. Nat hadn't said why—she never did—but Sam had seemed to be looking forward to more than just the chance to sleep in.

"Oh, yeah," Sam said with a grin, taking a bite of his food. "Me and the girl from the front desk down at the V.A.—nice dinner, take a walk around the park, maybe hit up a club, do a little dancing."

"Is that Tiffany?" Bucky asked. "With all the earrings?"

"Mm-hmm," Sam nodded, and Bucky grinned.

"About time. It was getting embarrassing, watching you two make awkward small talk."

Steve laughed and Sam glared. "Hey now, don't hate. You think it's easy to schedule a date when Tony and Steve keep finding all these world-threatening crises? You," he added, pointing his fork at Steve. "Last time I had to cancel on her, it was you calling the mission."

"Hey, I—"

"We were in Brazil for a week and a half. That's not an easy hole to dig yourself out of."

Steve raised his hands in surrender. "Okay. Well, no missions this weekend. I hope you enjoy your date."

"What are you two old dudes up to?"

"Oh, you know," Bucky said. "Probably sit outside and yell at kids to get off the lawn."

Steve laughed again. Bucky had had a run of good days lately, with easy laughter and smooth conversation that was reminiscent of his old self. It was good to see. Sam shook his head. "You know, if we had a lawn, I could totally see you doing that."

"Yeah, well, after we yell at the kids, there's a thing at the Planetarium we were gonna go see with Bruce," Steve said.

"Oh, yeah, that galaxy journey thing," Sam said with a nod. "I saw something about that. Hey, you know, if you're feeling the whole space thing, there's this special on the Discovery Channel tonight about the history of space travel you should watch."

"Oh, yeah?" Steve asked. By now, he was caught up on key events he'd missed out on, but there was still a lot of history to catch up on. And yeah, he'd fought aliens and worked with genius scientists and super-spies who had technology he wouldn't have been able to dream of as a kid, but space was still this magical, fantastic thing. Bucky loved it too. Science fiction movies were his favorite, and he'd read more books about space than anything else since he'd gotten back.

"Yeah," Sam said with a smile, knowing the two super-soldiers' love of all things space-related. "It's starts right at the beginning with the start of NASA, and the space race with Russia and the whole Sputnik thing—"

Sam stopped talking abruptly as Bucky made a choking sound and dropped his glass, splashing water across the counter. "Whoa!" he exclaimed, grabbing his plate out of the way. He looked up at Bucky, concern immediately replacing the annoyance on his face. "Dude, are you okay?"

"Bucky?" Steve asked worriedly.

Bucky had gone rigid, his eyes worlds away. His mouth and throat were working like he was trying to talk or breathe and couldn't do either. An erratic twitch ran the length of his body and he slumped sideways off his seat, making no move to catch himself before he crashed onto the floor. Steve and Sam jumped up and rounded the counter to where Bucky was gasping on the floor, shaking and twitching like electricity was coursing through his body. He went still as they reached him, eyes rolling back into his head as Steve crashed to his knees next to him.

"Bucky? Bucky!" he called, laying a hand on his chest. He could feel his heart beating underneath his hand, and his chest rose and fell as he breathed, but he didn't respond.

"Is he okay?" Sam asked.

"He's breathing," Steve told him. "Heartbeat's kinda fast, but it's there." To all appearances, Bucky was just asleep on the kitchen floor.

"What the hell happened?" Sam asked, kneeling down.

Steve shook his head. Bucky sometimes had pretty intense reactions when something triggered him unexpectedly, but Steve had never seen this before, and he couldn't think of anything in the past few minutes that seemed like flashback material. "We should…" He swallowed. "We should call Tony." What visits Bucky had made to the medical wing of the Avengers Tower were usually related to his arm, but Tony and Bruce and J.A.R.V.I.S. were still better equipped to handle him than the hospital would be.

"On it," Sam replied, already dialing.

Getting an unconscious super-soldier down the stairs and into and out of Sam's car weren't the easiest things in the world, but they finally made it to Avengers' Tower. Steve's worry had increased as the awkward manhandling did nothing to wake Bucky up. Tony and Bruce were waiting for them in the medical wing, and Steve and Sam moved back as they started tossing theories back and forth and conversing with J.A.R.V.I.S. as he hummed along somewhere in the ceiling.

Finally, Tony stepped away, glaring at his tablet in frustration. "So, he just fell over?" he asked again. "That's it?"

"Yeah, why, what's wrong?" Steve asked.

"Nothing," Tony sighed.

"What are you talking about?"

"J scanned him—he's not bleeding internally or concussed or showing any sign of whatever kind of injury would do this. He's not sick, he's not hurt, he's just…not conscious."

"All signs say he's just very deeply asleep," Bruce added, frowning at his own tablet.

"What, like a coma?" Sam wondered.

"No," Bruce replied, shaking his head. "Just…asleep."

"That can't be all there is to it," Steve insisted.

"Obviously not," Tony snapped. "We just can't tell what it is." He hated not knowing things.

"Sergeant Barnes does show signs of recent activity in the areas of the brain we've previously identified as having been most affected by Hydra," J.A.R.V.I.S. said.

"He had a flashback?" Steve asked. Flashbacks had never done this to him before. This was not a good direction to be going.

"No," J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. "The pattern is different. It is not something I have encountered before. But since it is no longer occurring, I cannot determine anything else about it."

"Whatever his brain was doing, it stopped before you got here," Bruce said. "J.A.R.V.I.S. only picked up the tail end of it."

"We're moving this to the lab," Tony said, gesturing with his tablet. "J.A.R.V.I.S. will keep an eye on him, let us know if anything changes." He and Bruce left, leaning in to look at something on Tony's tablet.

Steve walked over to the side of the bed and looked down at Bucky. "You okay?" Sam asked, moving to his side.

Steve shook his head. "No. I mean, what…what the hell happened?"

Sam shrugged. "I don't know. He seemed fine. He seemed great, actually. Past few days, I thought he was doing really well."

"He was," Steve agreed. "In the back of my head, I was sort of starting to wonder if something might happen, since things had been good for a while, but I was thinking another flashback or him forgetting who you were again, or something like that. The kind of thing we've been able to handle. This is…"

"Yeah," Sam agreed. Steve knew that for all he and Bucky bickered back and forth and picked at each other like teenagers, the two of them had developed a strong friendship. "Whatever this is, we'll figure it out and we'll learn how to handle it too. No one ever said his road home would be easy."

"Yeah, but," Steve protested. "He was doing so good. I just, I don't understand what made this happen. He's been getting better—it doesn't make sense that things would suddenly get worse."

"Ssshhh," hissed a voice from below them, and they both looked down in surprise to see Bucky glaring and squinting up at them.

"Bucky!" Steve exclaimed.

"Nnh," Bucky growled. "My head is killing me; would you keep it down?"

"Sorry," Steve said. Bucky's glare intensified. "Sorry," he whispered, and Bucky nodded.

Bucky closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "Where the hell are we?"

"Avengers' Tower," Steve said softly.

"What happened to the kitchen?"

"Dude, you just passed out in the middle of dinner," Sam said quietly.

"I'm fine. You could've just put me on the couch," Bucky said.

"What?" Steve demanded. Bucky's eyes snapped open to glare at him again. Steve lowered the volume but shot a glare of his own back at Bucky. "You're not fine. You passed out and had some kind of seizure. You've been unconscious for over an hour, and you still look like you're about to be sick."

"Yeah, actually, now that you mention it…" Bucky said, going pale and swallowing convulsively. Steve grabbed a trashcan in the corner and made it back to the side of the bed just in time for Bucky to hurl spectacularly.

He coughed when he was finished, and Sam held out a glass of water. "Thanks," Bucky rasped.

"Not so much with convincing me you're fine," Steve said, setting the trashcan out of the way.

"No, that…" Bucky was rubbing his head again. The strain of throwing up could not have made his headache any better. "Look, it sucks, believe me, but it just happens this way."

"What does?" Sam asked.

"You know what's going on?" Steve asked at the same time.

"Seriously, guys, volume," Bucky moaned.

One look at Bucky's face had Steve swallowing his irritation. He looked miserable. "Bucky, what happened?" he asked softly. He sat down in the chair by the bed so Bucky wouldn't have to keep looking up. The ceiling light probably wasn't helping his head either. "Did you have a flashback?"

"No," Bucky said. "I mean, not exactly."

"So…?"

"I know I should have told you about this before," Bucky sighed. "I, honestly, I didn't remember it was a thing until it happened, and then I was, you know…"

"Freaking us out?" Steve supplied.

Bucky grimaced. "Please don't yell at me."

"I'm not gonna yell at you, Buck," Steve assured him. Whether it was because he didn't want the noise to add to his headache, or because he was afraid of making Steve mad—Bucky forgot sometimes that no one was going to hurt him if they got mad at him—Steve regretted lashing out at him. "I'm sorry I got so upset. I'm just worried about you."

That got a small smile out of Bucky. "I guess it's probably my turn to be on that side of things, huh?"

Steve smiled. "So what happened?" he asked again.

Bucky sighed and rubbed his head again. "It's a failsafe that Hydra built into my brain. So they could…turn me off."

"What?" Steve breathed, swallowing down a wave of nausea.

Bucky smiled humorlessly. "I was an unstable killing machine. Especially towards the beginning. Before they got the timing of the chair and the ice and everything down, I would…I would sometimes remember enough to know that something was wrong and freak out. They needed to be able to shut me down if I got out of hand."

"That is so many kinds of wrong," Sam said from where he had moved to sit on the other side of the bed. His face was twisted in disgust.

Steve shook his head, speechless.

"It was either that or shoot me, and after the first time they did that, Zola decided it was inefficient." Steve was about to ask how he could joke about something like this, but the look in Bucky's eyes told him if he didn't laugh he was going to scream. "I was still me when they did it," Bucky said softly. "Partly, anyway. Enough to know how…" He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. "It scared the hell out of me."

"Buck, I'm so sorry," Steve said softly, reaching over and to grab his shoulder. Bucky looked up at him, blinking away the tears of bad memories, and gave him a grateful smile. He'd told Steve before that knowing Steve had his back was what kept him sane, but that sometimes he needed reminding.

"Did we do this to you?" Sam asked hesitantly.

"Huh?" Bucky looked over at him.

"Setting off this failsafe thing," Sam said. "Because I never want to see that happen to you again, man. Was it like a sound in the apartment, or something one of us said, or…?"

"Oh, um," Bucky said, cheeks reddening a little.

"Bucky…" Steve said. Sam was right. They needed to know what made this happen so that it would never happen again.

Bucky swallowed and looked up at Sam with an embarrassed grimace.

Sam's eyes widened. "It was me?" Bucky gave a small nod. "Oh, my gosh, dude, I am so sorry! I'm sorry, I didn't—"

"It's okay," Bucky cut in quietly. He sounded like he meant it.

"Bucky, I—"

"It's really okay," Bucky assured him. "It's not like you did it on purpose."

Sam nodded with a small smile, accepting the absolution but still looking incredibly remorseful. "What was it, so I can make sure never to do it again? Wait," he stopped himself. "Can you tell me? Will you saying it set it off again?"

"Sputnik," Bucky told him.

"Sputnik?" Sam repeated, looking confused, then his eyes widened again and he clapped his hand over his mouth in horror as he realized he'd just said it again.

Bucky chuckled. It was good to see him laugh, even if it did look like it hurt his head. "It doesn't work now," he said. "Actually, you probably did me a favor," he went on.

"How's that?" Sam asked.

"Every time they used it, it had to be reset," he explained. "They didn't want people just tossing it around, so reactivating the failsafe was a whole process. A fairly unpleasant one, actually, but not one that's going to happen again. So, the word doesn't work anymore, and now I won't be somewhere more dangerous than the kitchen and have someone accidentally shut me off. Since apparently the word 'sputnik' comes up in conversation more than Zola thought it would," he added with a small smirk, getting a smile out of Sam.

"Well, I guess that's good news, but I'm still sorry," Sam said. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"Yeah. I can sleep it off."

"You're sure?" Steve pressed.

Bucky smiled. "Not my first rodeo."

"Alright," Steve agreed. He sat back in the chair. "Take as long as you need."

"What, here?" Bucky asked. "No, can we go home?" Steve hesitated. "Please?"

Everyone talked about Steve's puppy-dog eyes, but Bucky's sure packed a punch. Steve sighed.

"J.A.R.V.I.S., is it safe for him to leave?" Steve asked the ceiling.

"Sergeant Barnes' scans have returned to normal," J.A.R.V.I.S. replied, making Bucky jump. "My apologies for startling you, Sergeant. But there is no danger in allowing you to return home."

"Um, thank…thank you," Bucky said, looking around the room uncertainly. Bucky still tended to find the A.I. disconcerting if he wasn't expecting him.

"I'll go find Stark," Sam said, standing up.

"We can fill him in later," Steve said, catching the look on Bucky's face. He didn't look up for more people right now. "J.A.R.V.I.S. can you let him know?"

"Of course, Captain Rogers," he replied.

"Thanks," Bucky smiled. He pushed himself up on shaky arms and groaned. "I'm probably going to need to lean on you to get to the car."

Steve looped an arm under Bucky's shoulder and pulled him up.

"Slowly!" Bucky hissed, wincing. "Unless you want me to throw up on your feet."

"Sorry," Steve apologized. With as badly as he was shaking, Steve wasn't convinced they should be moving him yet, but if he wanted to recover at home, Steve would let him.

Sam moved in to support Bucky on his other side and Bucky grunted a little but didn't complain. Steve knew he must be feeling awful if he wasn't at least going to act like he thought they were babying him.

They got him down the elevator and to the car without incident, but when they got back to the apartment, Bucky groaned when they tried to help him out of the car. "Can I just sleep here?" he whined.

"No," Steve said.

"Dude, it's already dark. It's gonna get cold out here," Sam pointed out. Both he and Steve knew that was the best line to take—Bucky hated being cold.

"Unnnnh," Bucky groaned, but he extended his arm and allowed Steve to pull him out of the backseat and onto his feet.

They were only going to the third floor, but the elevator seemed to take twice as long as it did coming down from the thirty-second floor at Tony's. When the doors finally opened, Bucky stepped out of the elevator with Steve then lurched away from him to throw up in the planter in the hallway. "Sorry," Bucky whispered when he was done. He made no move to get up from where he was leaning.

"It's okay," Steve told him, rubbing his back. He'd give him a few minutes.

"Is all this part of the failsafe?" Sam asked. He didn't sound irritated at how slowly they were moving—just curious. Steve also detected an undercurrent of concern.

"Uh huh," Bucky groaned. "The existential terror of the whole thing never really phased the Winter Soldier. The pain was a pretty good reminder to stay in line, though."

"I'm thinking our next mission should be more Hydra hunting," Sam said conversationally. "I could do with punching some evil scientists."

"Couldn't agree more," Steve said, seething internally. He always thought he'd reached the limit of how much it was possible to hate something, then he would find out about something else Hydra had done to Bucky and that hatred would skyrocket again.

"Not until after Sam's date," Bucky mumbled into the planter. He looked up, his expression somewhere between guilt and unsure if he was going to throw up again. "I didn't make you miss it, did I?"

"No, hey, don't even worry about it, man," Sam assured him. "It's tomorrow anyway."

"Good," Bucky said with a tiny nod. "Help me up?"

Steve and Sam carefully got him to his feet. "Just thirty more feet, man," Steve told him, noting the controlled way he was breathing. "You've got this."

Very slowly, they made it back to the apartment. Inside, Steve started steering Bucky toward his room, but he pulled away from him in the living room and collapsed face-down on the couch.

"You don't want to go to your room?" Steve asked.

"Nnh-nnh," Bucky grunted into the cushions.

Steve wondered if he was too tired to make it all the way, or if he wanted to stay around him and Sam. Whenever Hydra came gnawing at the corners of his mind—usually after a flashback—he didn't like being alone. Too easy to get lost in that darkness. "Okay," Steve said softly. Sam cleared his throat, and Steve looked up to see him coming out of Bucky's room, carrying the heavy blanket from his bed. He took it and laid it over Bucky, who made a noise that was probably a 'thank you'.

Sam rounded the couch and sat down in one of the other chairs. "That Discovery Channel thing is about to come on, if you wanna watch it," he said to Steve, having picked up on Bucky's need to not be alone too. He nodded at Bucky. "Space stuff always has relaxing music. We can record it so he can watch it when he feels better."

Steve smiled. "Sounds good." He made sure the blanket was secure around Bucky, who sounded like he was asleep already, and settled down in the other chair.

When it was over, Sam headed to bed. Steve stayed in the living room with Bucky, who hadn't moved in the slightest in the three hours he'd been on the couch. He settled back into his chair with the book he'd been reading, eventually drifting off. He woke up around sunrise—a ray of sunlight was poking through the blinds and shining directly into his eye. Too lazy to get up and readjust the curtains, he just shifted and moved his head. Bucky was still sleeping on the couch, but he'd rolled so that his face was no longer pressed into the cushions. Recently too, if the thread pattern on his cheek was anything to go by. The lines of pain across his face had been smoothed away, and he looked peaceful. Steve smiled and closed his eyes again.


I hope you're enjoying these little stories. There's more to come! I'd love to hear what you're thinking in the meantime.

Chapter Text

 


"All I'm saying," Bucky protested, kicking shut the apartment door behind him. "Is that it wasn't a fair bet."

"You're just upset you lost to a girl," Nat teased, setting down the bag of groceries she was carrying.

"That's not true," Bucky argued. "I'm upset because you cheated." He put down the two large bags he was carrying.

Steve poked his head in from the living room curiously. "Oh, hey, Nat. What's going on?"

Natasha smiled. "Barnes lost a bet, and now he's whining about it," she informed him with a smirk.

"I didn't lose, she cheated," Bucky insisted, making a little more noise than was necessary as he started putting groceries away.

"Prove it," Nat said, and Bucky glared. Steve knew that whatever the bet had been, odds were decent that Natasha had cheated, but it was even more likely that there wasn't a shred of proof.

"I'd cut your losses, Buck. What was the bet?" Steve asked.

"He's got to buy my dinner tonight," Nat said. They were all going out to dinner for Pepper's birthday this evening.

"That's not so bad," Steve said.

"Yeah, if that was all I had to do," Bucky said. "She's making me go shopping, Steve."

"Shopping?"

"He owns, like, six outfits, and one of those is combat gear," Nat said.

"I don't need more than that," Bucky insisted.

"You have one pair of shoes."

"So?"

"You need more clothes, and now is the perfect opportunity. You need something a little dressier for tonight anyway," she said. "All you own are t-shirts and jeans with holes in them. And not in the fashionable way, but in the I-jumped-out-of-the-third-floor-window-and-landed-in-a-dumpster way."

Back when they were younger, Bucky had actually been a pretty snappy dresser. He'd dress up to take girls out, look good for work, and just all around make a good impression. These days, his goal was to make no impression—he hated feeling like people were looking at him, and non-descript clothes were a good way to help with that.

"I'll come with you," Steve offered. "I've been meaning to get a new dress shirt anyway." He'd been meaning to do no such thing, and he was pretty sure Bucky knew it, but he could be there to help keep him grounded in the crowd and keep Nat from going too far with whatever she had in mind. Bucky gave him a quick, grateful nod, and Nat grinned.

"Great! Let's get going," she said.

An hour and two stores later, Bucky was looking a little more relaxed. Well, as relaxed as he could be in a mall full of people, which was not actually a lot. He wasn't complaining about the shopping anymore, though. As the queen of the spies, Nat was pretty good at blending in herself, and though Bucky had never verbally expressed his desire not to draw attention to himself, she'd picked up on it and was very understanding of it. Everything she'd picked out for him so far had been in the same line of things he liked to wear, just nicer, though she did force him to buy another pair of shoes. She'd convinced him to pick up some nice sweaters too after pointing out how well they hid his arm, though the selling point for him seemed to be how soft they were. (Bucky had always had a thing for soft clothes—he was loving pajamas of the future.)

"See?" she said. "I'm not trying to torture you, here. And now you won't have to do laundry as often. So, really, I'm doing you a favor. Take this one too, the blue will look good with your eyes," she added, handing him a sweater with blue and gray stripes.

"Um, thanks," Bucky said awkwardly.

"Now," she said with a grin. "We need an outfit for you for dinner tonight."

"Why can't I wear this?" he pouted. "You just said this was a nice sweater."

"It is a nice sweater," she agreed. "But the place we're eating is just a little more upscale. You don't have to wear a tie," she told him as his eyes widened in trepidation. "But it's Tony—it's a trendy place. Wait here. I'll be back." Before Bucky could say anything, she disappeared into the crowd.

Bucky sighed. "You doing alright?" Steve asked. Thankfully, it was a Thursday afternoon, so the mall wasn't crowded, but it was still more people than Bucky liked.

"Yeah, I guess," he sighed. "Whatever this last thing is she wants me to wear, we can go after that, right?"

"Yep," Steve promised.

"I used to dress nice, didn't I?" he asked, looking down at the clothes in his hands and sounding a little wistful. "Suit and tie, shoeshine, that kind of thing…"

"You taught me how to tie a tie," Steve reminded him.

Bucky grinned. "You were pathetic. Didn't you actually pull it so tight you couldn't breathe?"

"That was one time!" Steve protested, glad to see the smile back on Bucky's face. "You could try it, if you wanted," he suggested. "Something with a tie."

Bucky looked at a display of ties a couple of tables over. "I don't know if I'm ready for that," he said softly.

"You don't need to be," Steve assured him. He clapped him on the shoulder. "People don't wear ties as much as they used to anyway," he added.

Bucky nodded, pulling himself back to the moment. "Yeah. And this," he lifted the clothes he was holding. "I think this is good. I mean, don't tell Nat I said that, she's smug enough as it is, but I think it's good. I've been…I could toss just about everything I own in a backpack and run if I needed to," he said thoughtfully. "But I don't need to able to run anymore. Having more stuff than I could carry if I went out the window in the middle of the night is like…like making myself be here and stake a claim in where I am. Like making it home," he finished quietly.

Steve smiled warmly. "That's great, Buck." He hadn't consciously put together that the reason Bucky had so little was because he wasn't sure when he would have to run again, but it made sense. Bucky may not have consciously put it together either until saying it out loud just now, but he was making the intentional decision to stay and let that fear go.

Bucky blushed a little. "Not that it's the stuff that makes it home, I mean, you…"

"I know what you meant," Steve assured him with a smile. "I did all this too, when I came out of the ice. You've got to have some pieces of a normal life to help you actually get one."

Bucky nodded, grateful that he understood. He smiled, looking a little proud of himself. He was aware that this was a big step he'd taken. Steve was proud of him too.

"Alright!" Nat said, making her way back toward them. She was holding up a large bag from another store. "Got it! Let's pay for your stuff and get out of here."

"What is it?" Bucky asked.

"I will show it to you half an hour before Pepper's dinner, right before you put it on."

"Why?" Bucky asked, suddenly looking suspicious.

"Because at that point you will be unable to argue with me," she said sweetly. She nodded toward the register. "Chop, chop!"

"I don't know about this, Steve," Bucky said.

"She wouldn't get you anything awful," Steve reasoned.

"Then why won't she let me see it?"

Steve didn't have a good answer for that.

They made it home with a couple of hours to go before dinner. Nat left, taking the mysterious bag and promising to be back before it was time for them to get ready. She returned just as Sam was getting back from the V.A. "Okay!" she announced, holding out the bag and grinning from ear to ear.

Bucky pulled himself up from where he was laying on the couch with a sigh. "You know, at no point in this bet did it say anywhere that you got to embarrass me."

"I won't embarrass you," she said. "You'll look great. I promise." She shifted her stance and put one hand on her hip when Bucky made no move to get off the couch, holding out the bag. "Put it on." Bucky grabbed it with a growl. "And make sure you brush your hair. I've got a brush in my bag in case you need one."

Bucky glared. "I'm not a complete Neanderthal, Natasha. I do, in fact, own a hairbrush that I was planning on using. I was even going to shave."

"Good for you," she said, making a shooing gesture toward the back of the apartment.

Bucky continued to glare. "You know I know where you sleep, right?"

"Hurry up or we'll be late," she said coolly.

"What's going on?" Sam asked, coming into the living room as Bucky stomped back to his room. Everyone but Bucky was ready to go—Steve was wearing the new shirt he'd bought and dark slacks—what Sam called 'grandpa chic'—while Sam had changed into something more stylish than his work clothes. Nat was in a sparkly top with fitted black pants and high heels and looked amazing.

"Nat took Bucky shopping today," Steve said. "She made him buy something for Pepper's party tonight."

"Oh, good," Sam said. "Man could use some variety in his wardrobe."

"She wouldn't let him see what she bought him until just now," Steve added.

"Ooh," Sam said, quirking an eyebrow at Nat.

She smiled and shrugged. "He would never have let me buy it if he'd seen it first. What?" she said when Steve gave her a warning eyebrow. "It's not bad. It's just not what he would have picked out for himself. He's gonna look good," she promised.

Whatever Steve was going to say was lost as Bucky shouted, "oh, HELL, no!" from his room.

"Put it on, Barnes, we're gonna be late!" Nat shouted back.

"I don't know what this is, but I love it already," Sam laughed.

"Nat, seriously," Steve started.

"Don't worry, Steve," she insisted. "I'm not trying to do anything awful here," she said sincerely. Given her background, she was probably better equipped to understand what Bucky had been through than any of them. She might tease him, but she would never be deliberately cruel.

Steve nodded, and they heard Bucky's door open. "I hate you," he declared from the hallway.

"Get on out here and show us, man," Sam said. "We don't wanna be late."

They heard Bucky sigh, and a moment later he stepped back into the room. Steve's eyes widened and Sam's jaw actually dropped. He looked…great.

He was wearing black skinny jeans—something Steve hadn't been bold enough to try yet, but Sam favored—tucked into short black boots with silver buckles on the sides. A light gray sweater with a single black stripe across the chest was tucked into the jeans and then covered with a fitted black leather jacket with silver zippers and studs on the lapels. It was nothing ostentatious—the sort of thing Steve saw a lot of guys wearing. But Nat was right—it was a couple of notches up from his usual dress and, she was right again, it looked really good on him.

"Dude, you look awesome," Sam said.

"Really?" Bucky asked skeptically. He looked down at himself uncertainly. "I don't know about this."

"It looks really good," Steve assured him.

"I look like Tony," Bucky complained, pulling at one of the legs of his jeans.

"Tony wears his pants a hell of a lot tighter than that, and he wishes he could rock them half as well as you do," Nat declared. She was looking at him the way girls used to look at him before he left for the war. Bucky blushed and ducked his head, and when Nat noticed Steve smirking as he noticed her noticing Bucky, she blushed too. "Let's go, fellas," she said, jumping off her perch on the arm of the couch. "Don't want to be late."

Bucky hung back as she and Sam moved toward the door. "Are you sure this is okay?" he asked quietly. "I feel ridiculous."

"Is it the pants?" Steve asked.

"Mostly, yeah," Bucky replied.

"A lot of guys wear pants like that now," Steve said.

"I have noticed that," Bucky admitted.

"You're not gonna stand out, if that's what you're worried about," Steve assured him. "But if you don't want to wear it, you don't have to."

Bucky considered. "You're sure it looks okay?"

"It looks great. Very stylish."

"Okay," Bucky sighed. "Okay." He nodded, like he was talking himself into it. "Already took a big step today, why not make it two, right?"

Steve smiled and clapped him on the back. "Okay." He was really proud of him. "And, hey, after the party, we can spend the entire weekend here at home. We'll order pizza, work on the Netflix queue and not talk to anybody. Wear whatever the hell you want."

Bucky grinned. "Deal."

Later that evening, Steve was sitting at the bar with Clint. "He's not bad," Clint said, nodding out to the dance floor where Bucky, after less cajoling than Steve would have expected, was dancing with Nat. He'd definitely turned some heads at their table—Pepper, Jane, Maria and Darcy had been looking at him the same way Nat had earlier, and Steve had seen Pepper kick Tony under the table to stop what was no doubt a snarky remark—but everyone had been casually complimentary, which seemed to put Bucky at ease. He'd relaxed considerably after he'd gotten a chance to look around and realized that he actually blended in very well, and, though he didn't talk much, had ended up enjoying himself.

Steve nodded. "Well, he was the local swing dance champion three years running."

Clint raised an eyebrow. "You're kidding."

Steve shook his head, smiling. "Nope. The girls were lining up to dance with him."

Clint grinned. "Well, I'd believe that. I think there's a few of them doing that now," he said, nodding at the edge of the dance floor. There were several girls whispering and casting discreet glances in his direction. "So, he seems to be doing alright these days?"

"Yeah," Steve nodded. Besides Sam and Nat, Clint had shown the most interest in helping Bucky put his life back together. Steve wondered if Bucky reminded him of Nat before she found her feet. "I think he's settling, you know? More good days than bad."

Clint nodded. "Glad to hear it. I hear Nat's the one who talked him into the outfit?" Steve nodded and Clint smiled. "She's got that way about her, doesn't she?"

"She sure does," Steve grinned. Nat's methods of helping Bucky were very different from Steve's but they seemed to be working. Steve honestly hadn't expected her to get him out on the dance floor, but he was smiling—the old Bucky still struggled to find his way out sometimes, but he was here tonight.

The song ended and they left the floor, moving in Steve and Clint's direction. "Alright, Rogers," Nat said, pulling him off the stool. "Your turn."

"What?" Steve sputtered as she pulled him out towards the floor.

"Don't step on her feet, Stevie!" Bucky called after him, grinning.

Chapter Text

 


It was a little easier to see now that Sam had opened all the windows in the living room and given the smoke somewhere to go. It was also easier to hear now that the smoke alarm had stopped going off—although the reason it had stopped was that it was in about seventeen pieces because Bucky had punched it. Landlord wasn't going to be too happy about that. What had not improved was the smell now permeating the apartment. It smelled like burned fish. Why the hell it smelled like burned fish was anybody's guess since Steve had been microwaving pasta.

"So," Sam said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the counter. Bucky was waving the remaining smoke toward a window with a dishtowel. Steve had the good sense to look ashamed of himself. "What did you even do?"

Steve shrugged. "I don't know. I was heating the pasta, it started making a weird noise, and when I opened the door to check on it…everything just caught on fire."

"That microwave should not have done that," Sam insisted. "It's less than a year old. There is no good reason for it to be catching on fire."

"Yes, there is," Bucky said from behind them. He'd returned to the kitchen and had opened up the sad shell of what had once been a microwave. They turned around to see him smirking and holding up a carbonized lump of something that had probably been the pasta. Sticking up out of the lump was something long and thin and charred, but still recognizable.

"Oh, hell, no," Sam groaned.

"What?" Steve asked.

"What?" Sam repeated incredulously. "What? How are you gonna put a fork in the microwave, Steve?!"

Steve shrugged again, looking like he was sure he'd done something wrong but couldn't figure out what. "I guess I left it in the bowl?"

"You left it in the bowl? Wh—" Sam sputtered, at a loss. All evidence was pointing to the fact that, despite Sam having seen him do it in the past, Steve had no idea how to actually use a microwave.

"You can't put metal in the microwave, Stevie," Bucky explained, still grinning a little. "Even I know that."

"Oh, don't you start," Sam said, rounding on Bucky. Where did he get off finding this so funny? "Not after what you did to the toaster."

Bucky smirked. "Can't put metal in the toaster either," he said, looking up at Steve. "Though, in my defense," he said, turning back to Sam. "That was the first time I'd ever used a toaster."

Sam threw his head back and groaned. "You old guys are killing me, seriously. Does everything in this apartment need an instruction manual?"

"To be fair, the toaster thing was an accident," Steve said.

Defending Bucky was like a reflex for Steve, and Sam had to roll his eyes and suppress the urge to tell him to stop it. "He put his hand in the toaster. His metal hand. Why would you even do that?"

"You've asked me this before," Bucky said, unperturbed. He was using the aforementioned metal hand to try to chip the fork out of the blackened lump of pasta. "The bread broke, I tried to get it out. Things exploded, I bought you a new toaster. Besides, you're supposed to be yelling at Steve right now, not me."

Sam shook his head. "I always thought that working with the Avengers and going up against some crazy, super-powered bad guy was gonna be what got me, but no. No, it's gonna be you two. I'm gonna die in my sleep because one of you is gonna send the whole place up in flames trying to use a hairdryer in the bathtub or something."

"You're not supposed to do that?" Steve asked innocently. Bucky snickered.

"Dude, look at this mess," Sam sighed, choosing to ignore the comment. The microwave was completely ruined, a charred, blackened shell that was still smoking a little bit. The counter below where it had sat and the cabinet above were scorched, and sooty streaks of black ran down the side of the fridge. The offending appliance was currently on the floor, where it had landed after shooting off the counter, chipping the tile and slamming into the dishwasher and knocking it open. On the one hand, the water from inside the dishwasher had put out the fire. Yay. On the other hand, there was now sooty, soapy water all over the kitchen and creeping toward the living room. Partially cleaned dishes floated forlornly across the floor.

"I'm sorry. Really, I am. I'll clean it up," Steve promised. "And I'll buy a new microwave."

"One that you will not put metal in," Sam reminded him, accepting the peace offering.

"Never," Steve said, crossing his heart.

"Got it!" Bucky said triumphantly, brandishing the newly freed fork.

They got some towels and got to work barricading the water in the kitchen and keeping it off the carpet. Steve got a mop and started on the floor after picking up the loose dishes and putting them in the sink. Bucky carried the dead microwave outside–a little grumpily, since Sam wouldn't let him just drop it out the window into the dumpster waiting three floors below.

"I gotta ask," Sam started, watching Steve work. "How do you not know not to put metal in the microwave?"

Steve sighed. "Look, I'm sorry, okay, I—"

"No, no, I'm not mad," Sam cut him off. Well, maybe just a little. But it had been an honest, if strange, mistake. "I'm just curious. Like, that's microwave safety 101. You've been out of the ice for, what, three years? Four? How did you never come across that information?"

"I never had a microwave," Steve replied with a shrug.

"Really?" Sam asked, surprised. "Not even when you had your own place?"

Steve shook his head. "I first learned how to cook without one. Never got around to buying one."

"Huh," Sam mused. Steve had learned so much about the modern world, Sam kind of took it for granted that he'd caught up on everything like that. He chuckled a little.

"Don't tell Tony about this," Steve warned, looking up from his mopping.

"Aw, come on, man, why not?" Sam asked, not having any actual intention of doing so. Tony still liked to call Steve 'Capsicle'. If he heard about the microwave thing, it would follow Steve to his grave. He chuckled again as Steve glared at him. "Don't worry, I won't. I just think it's funny, is all. Of the two of you, I would've pegged Barnes to be the one to do this kind of thing."

"Thanks, man," Bucky said, coming back into the room.

Sam shrugged. "Hey," he asked as something occurred to him. "How did you know not to put metal in a microwave?"

"What, I can't know things?" Bucky asked.

"It just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would be up your alley. Domestic stuff, you know?" Not that Bucky couldn't learn, he was just still very new at this returning-to-civilization thing. All sorts of household appliances that Sam took for granted—washing machine, TV, electric stove…almost anything with a plug, really—had been brand new to Bucky. Hell, they'd even had to remind him how the shower worked when he first got here.

Bucky tilted his head in agreement. Sam realized after he'd said it that his comment could have too easily reminded Bucky about Hydra and the reason he didn't know any of that stuff, so he was glad he hadn't taken it the wrong way. "It came up in a mission," Bucky admitted.

"Wh—" Sam looked at Steve, who looked just as puzzled as he did. "Microwave safety came up in a mission?"

"Cairo," Bucky said, referring to one of his earlier missions with the team from a few months ago. "We needed a distraction, I was out of grenades. It was Barton's idea."

Steve's eyes went wide. "That's how you caused that explosion?!"

Bucky grinned. "We put, like, seven of those dinky little tin coffee cups and all the spoons we could find in the microwave in the breakroom." His smile widened. "It was a hell of a firework show."


 

Chapter Text

 


It was really bright in here. The lights were those big white fluorescent ones that hummed and hung from chains between duct work that looked too industrial for his comfort. But…no, that was not a good train of thought to follow. It was loud too. Metal clanking and wheels moving and things beeping and lots of voices and just that feeling of people, too many people, and they couldn't be that loud, but it was building up in his head and he couldn't make the noise stop…

"Bucky?" Just like that, it was quiet again. Bucky blinked and realized he'd been holding his breath. Steve was looking at him, looking worried and trying to look like he wasn't. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Bucky nodded. He was fine. He was fine. He'd learned that when he had these moments, if he took the time to breathe, slow down, and think about why it was okay, then usually it was okay. Usually. And it was okay. It was. It was a nice, sunny day—it wasn't cold. They'd walked here from the apartment—he had a home, not a cryo-tank, and he was allowed to go wherever he wanted. It was an open space—no one was going to sneak up on him. There were people around, families and old people and students and kids—not soldiers and handlers and scientists and assassins. And Steve was here. Steve, who was standing a little bit too close, but that was kind of reassuring right now. Steve, who kept Bucky safe. And Steve, who, if he needed to, could keep everyone else safe from Bucky. Breathe it all in in…Let it all out. "Yeah," he said again, pulling up a smile. "I'm okay." And now he was.

"You sure?" Steve pressed. "We don't have to do this now."

Bucky nodded again. "I want to do this now. It was just, it was a lot at once, stepping in, but I'm good." He smiled. "Let's do it."

Steve studied him for a moment, then smiled back. "Okay." He pointed over to their left. "Let's get a basket."

"Were grocery stores always this big?" Bucky asked, looking around as Steve pulled out a cart. He remembered grocery shopping. But his mind was holding on to a picture of dark little stores that smelled like coffee and candy and soap. Meat came from the butcher, bread came from the baker, and fruit was in boxes on tables outside.

"No," Steve replied, shaking his head. "We used to have to go to a bunch of places to get everything. They sort of stick it all together now."

"Saves you a trip, I guess," Bucky mused. He watched as Steve pushed the cart into the first aisle. "You'd think in the future they'd have figured out how to fix that," he said, nodding at the wonky wheel at the front of the cart.

Steve chuckled. "Some things never change."

"So, where do we start?"

"Well, let's just start here with the produce. You wanna look around and see if there's anything you like?"

Steve said it so casually, but Bucky couldn't help a little shiver of excitement. Yeah, it was just a bunch of fruit and vegetables, but Steve was letting him choose. Not that Steve had forced him to do anything since he came back, but he was the first person to let Bucky make any kind of choice in almost seventy years. You'd think after a month it would have lost a little bit of shine, but it was still pretty exhilarating. "Okay," he said, smiling.

Thrill of having options aside, it did present another problem—namely, what did he like? He wasn't sure. He didn't think he was picky. He liked the food that Sam and Steve made. He liked the food they sometimes ordered in. He did not like that gray, mushy crap Hydra used to feed him when he was actually out of the ice long enough to need to eat. He remembered there being food before Hydra, and he must have liked some of it, but…yeah, that was about all he had.

Deciding not to get caught up on what he couldn't remember, Bucky moved forward to the first display. This wasn't a test. He would just see what jumped out at him. He was aware of Steve behind him, trying very hard not to hover, and he smiled internally. A lot of Bucky's memories were still spotty, but hovering over Tiny Steve, he remembered. In fact, he was pretty sure Steve often accused him of being a mother-hen. It was probably only fair that the tables were turned now. He didn't think he minded. Not much, anyway.

Taking pity on Steve, he gestured at the apples in front of them. He did know he liked apples. "So, we're supposed to weigh these?" He thought maybe you used to pay for apples individually, but he could have been wrong. The sign seemed to indicate they were sold by the pound.

"Yeah," Steve said, looking happy to be of use. He grabbed a little plastic bag hanging below the fruit. "You put however many you want in here, then put them on the scale." He showed Bucky how to put in the code from the sign, and a small sticker printed out of the side of the scale with the price on it. It seemed like a weirdly complicated way to simplify things, but Bucky got it.

There were several things he recognized—bananas, oranges, grapes, pears…Some of them he was surprised to see, like berries he suddenly remembered used to only be available in the summer. He had a flash of a warm day and sweet, fruity aromas and a woman who was probably his mother pulling a pie from the oven. It was sweet and juicy and hot and stained his fingers purple, little seeds sticking to his teeth. Blackberry.

There was also some stuff he wasn't sure about. He didn't know what a mango was, but it smelled nice. Maybe just one, to try it. He stared at the avocados for a long time, trying to figure out if he knew what they were. He felt like he should know that. But he didn't, so he moved on. Then there was… "Hey, Steve?"

He turned around when Steve didn't answer, holding the weird little whatever it was in his hand. "Steve?"

Before he had time to panic, Steve stood up from where he'd been bending over by one of the other tables, hefting a giant bag of potatoes onto his shoulder as he stood. "Yeah?"

Bucky eyed the potatoes as Steve slid them into the bottom of the cart. "That's a lot of potatoes," he commented.

Steve grinned. "Well, you know, you and me, we eat a lot these days. And we gotta feed Sam something too. What did you need?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah," he said, still contemplating the potatoes. He guessed two super-soldiers did eat a lot. He hadn't really thought about it yet. "What is this thing?" He held out the little brown probably-fruit.

"It's called a kiwi," Steve said.

"Yeah, the, the sign said that," Bucky said. Something in his gut told him to shut up now that he'd gotten an answer, but he swallowed it down. Steve wasn't going to hit him for not understanding. "But what is it?"

"It's fruit," Steve replied. "They're sweet, kind of tangy." Bucky eyed the little fruit suspiciously. It looked neither sweet, nor tangy, nor appealing in any way. In his experience, fruit only looked like that when it was very, very bad. Why the hell was it furry? "You're not supposed to eat the fuzzy part," Steve added, as if he knew where Bucky's thoughts were. "You cut it open and scoop the middle out." Bucky wasn't convinced and Steve grinned. "You don't have to try it if you don't want to."

Bucky considered a moment longer then set the kiwi back with the others. He'd come to the grocery store in the first place…and he was buying a mango. That was enough adventure for one day.

The vegetables, comfortingly, didn't seem to have changed much from what he remembered. That made things easier. Beyond the produce section was the butchery, and meat was meat. Beef, pork, chicken, fish…he knew what all of that was. He didn't remember buying this much of it all at once, but he knew what it was. Then there was the bakery and dairy section, and bread was bread, cheese was cheese and eggs were eggs. Yes, he'd technically been awake more than Steve had moving into this century, but for all intents and purposes, his memories stopped in 1945 too. There was a lot to get used to. The consistency of simple things was surprisingly soothing.

Although… "Hey, so, I know I've got a lot of holes up here," he said, tapping the side of his head as he watched Steve load a few jugs of milk into the cart. "But that seems really expensive for milk." Sure, he kept forgetting things like his sister's name or how to tie his shoes, but sixty-two cents for a gallon of milk, he could remember. Four dollars seemed like a lot, although, to be fair, he had zero concept of what money was worth these days.

Steve huffed a laugh and set the milk down. "You're taking this a lot better than I did."

"What do you mean?"

Steve was smiling, but there was a faint tinge of pink to his cheeks. "I was only out of the ice for a couple of weeks before the thing in New York, but after that I ended up with a place in D.C. Nat helped me set it up. She took me out grocery shopping for the first time this century, and I…kind of…yelled at her about the milk thing."

Bucky felt the corner of his mouth twitching up. "You yelled at Nat?"

Steve's face got redder. "Well not at her exactly, I mean, she didn't set the milk prices. But she was there in front of me, so kind of at her. A hell of a lot had changed in what seemed like a very short time, and, yeah, I snapped a little bit. I think I said something about how it would just be cheaper to buy a cow."

A surprised laugh burst out of Bucky's throat, making Steve look up at him and smile. "Steve Rogers, yelling at someone in a grocery store." He shook his head, chuckling. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Steve yell at someone, and not because his memory was crap.

"She took it really well," Steve said, still smiling. "Although she brings it up whenever she thinks I'm being annoying."

"I should get her to tell me this story," Bucky said. Aside from Sam, Bucky didn't know many of Steve's friends that well. As a group, they were kind of a lot to take. He liked Nat, though. She was calm and easy-going and didn't treat him like she was worried he would break. She also didn't hold the fact that he had shot her against him. (Twice, she said, although Bucky didn't remember the first time.)

The rest of the store was a mixture of old and new—familiar things in new packaging, or more variety of something he'd seen before. There were things that were completely new too—like Pop Tarts, which Steve was shocked when he realized that Bucky had never had any because they hadn't had any in the apartment in the past month. He bought several boxes. By the time the cart was full, Bucky was ready to go home. Steve had gotten his opinion on almost everything that went into the cart, and choices were great, but he'd made more today than he had all week. Between that and the background tension of just knowing lots of people were around, he was ready to be done.

"Oh, hey," Steve said, grabbing something off a shelf as they made their way back to the front. "I realized we haven't had any of this around either. I guess we just forgot to restock last time. You want some?"

Bucky looked at the jar in Steve's hand. "Peanut butter?"

"You used to love it," Steve said, smiling as he remembered something. Bucky wondered what it was.

"Yeah…" Bucky remembered that. He did love peanut butter. It had been a really long time since he'd had any.

"It's okay if you don't like it anymore," Steve said, lowering the jar. "I just thought…" He shrugged.

"No," Bucky said quickly, not wanting Steve to get the wrong idea. "It's, I just, you…" He got flustered easily when he tried to explain things, which frustrated and embarrassed him, which made him more flustered, and it just kept spiraling down from there. He took a deep breath and rubbed the side of his head.

"Okay," Steve said evenly. "Take your time."

It was a couple of minutes before Bucky was able to corral his thoughts. Steve seemed content to wait. Had he always been this patient?

"I think I still like peanut butter," he said at last. It seemed like a stupid thing to get hung up on, but he wasn't going to say that. Steve kept insisting that there were no stupid hang-ups. "I would like to get some." He also felt kind of stupid talking slowly in these clipped little sentences, but he didn't want to get tangled up again. "But, I just, I remember that we couldn't keep it around because it made you sick." Even if Steve didn't eat it, he couldn't touch something that had touched it, and sometimes just breathing too close to it made him sick. "And I don't want to…" After everything Steve had done, getting him sick with something so easily avoidable was the last thing he wanted to do.

Steve smiled warmly and nodded, clapping Bucky on the shoulder. "Thank you, Buck. I appreciate that." He held up the jar again. "But I'm not allergic to peanuts anymore. The serum fixed that. Remember?"

Bucky thought for a minute. That's right, the serum hadn't just made him bigger, it had fixed a lot of things, hadn't it? He shook his head. "Sorry. I forgot, I—"

"It's okay," Steve told him.

"It's like…It's like there's two different versions of you in my head," Bucky explained. "I know I had them straight before…well, before, but they get mixed up sometimes."

"I've got a couple of you up here too," Steve said, smiling when Bucky looked up at him.

"That doesn't bother you?" Bucky asked carefully. He knew there was an 'Old Bucky' that Steve remembered—and he remembered him a hell of a lot better than Bucky did. Bucky wanted to be that guy again, but he didn't think all of him was there anymore. 'Old Bucky' was only ever going to come part of the way back, and Bucky was desperately afraid that Steve was going to realize that one day.

Steve shook his head. "The way I see it, Old Bucky and New Bucky…" He trailed off and shrugged. "They're both Bucky, and that's the important part." Bucky ducked his head, his throat suddenly feeling tight. "I might get them mixed up every now and then," Steve continued. "Like you do with Little Steve and Big Steve. We're both something different than what we used to be, but we're still us. We can figure each other out again."

Bucky swallowed down a lump in his throat. It seemed too easy, that Steve was just okay with him the way he was now. But he was using that voice—and Bucky remembered that voice—the one that was soft and gentle and strong that he used when he really meant something. Something in the back of his head said it was still too easy, but that was the part of his brain that hadn't trusted anyone since 1945. He was tired of listening to it. He swallowed again, making sure his voice was steady, and nodded. "Okay," he said softly. That was all he could manage right now, but Steve smiled and got the message. He clapped Bucky on the shoulder, dropped the peanut butter into the cart and moved for the front, giving Bucky a minute to compose himself.

He had his good days and he had his bad days, and he had not been mentally prepared for an emotional moment in the condiment aisle. But it was…it was okay. There was a little knot of tension that he hadn't realized had been coiled up in his chest for the past month until just now, as it unwound. He knew Steve wanted to help him. That's why he came back. And he knew Steve wouldn't give up on him. That's why he stayed. He knew that with his…with his soul, he guessed, but he didn't always know it with his head. His head was all kinds of messed up, and it got in the way sometimes. A lot. It got in the way a lot. But right now, his soul and his head were on the same page. And that was good. That was…It took him a minute to identify that emotion. Was that what peace felt like? That was new. He liked it.

They caught something called an 'Uber' to take them home, because, even for two super-soldiers, there were a lot of groceries to carry. The driver kept glancing furtively back at them the whole way home, which set Bucky's nerves on edge, but when they got out of the car she got out too and blushed to the roots of her hair and sort of squeaked, "you're Captain America, aren't you? Oh, my gosh, I'm sorry I was staring, would it be totally inappropriate if I asked for a selfie?"

Steve smiled and ducked his head and agreed, and the girl squeaked again and Bucky learned that a selfie was a kind of photograph. He smiled as they gathered up the groceries and moved to the elevator. "I do remember," he started as another memory flashed through his head. "You were like a movie star for a while there. Girls and little kids always asking for your autograph. Guess that hasn't changed." Save the world a few times, get your own display in the Smithsonian…seemed only fair. Bucky grinned as the memory continued. "Wasn't there a couple of kids on some farm in the middle of nowhere in France that almost blew our cover because they saw you and started yelling about 'Capitaine Amérique'?"

Steve laughed. "You know what? I forgot about that. I never figured out how they knew who I was."

"Everybody loves the movies, Stevie. And you had comic books and everything," Bucky said, smiling wider. "The little one just about fainted when you let him touch your shield."

Something in Steve's smile changed, and Bucky realized he'd just referred to him by his old nickname. He knew he used to called Steve that a lot, but it always felt forced any time he tried to do it since coming back. This time it had just slipped out naturally. It felt right.

Choosing not to comment on it and make it awkward (which Bucky appreciated), Steve just smiled wider and bumped Bucky's shoulder as they got into the elevator.

Today really had been a good day.

(It got even better when he tasted peanut butter for the first time in seventy years, and stop the presses, Steve was right, Pop Tarts were freaking AMAZING. As was the look on Sam's face when he came home to find Bucky and Steve sitting on the living room floor, Bucky with a half-empty jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and both of them surrounded by foil wrappers and three empty Pop Tart boxes. Priceless.)


 

Chapter Text

 


Steve had, very reluctantly, gone off on a quick, overnight mission with Tony and Clint to Chicago. Bucky had repeatedly assured him that he would be fine without him, eventually threatening to punch him if he didn't stop asking if he would be okay and get on the freaking jet. Sam had assured him they would be fine. Bucky was getting a handle on this independence thing, and it wasn't like Sam didn't live in the apartment too. The two of them had gotten over the initial awkwardness born of the multiple attempted murders that had been their first meeting. They actually got along pretty well now. It was a short mission, Tony and Clint needed him, and the two of them would be fine here. Steve really should go.

Twenty-four hours later, Sam was regretting that decision.

The rest of that first day had been great. They'd ordered pizza, watched some Star Trek, and Sam had shown Bucky how the Xbox worked. Once Bucky had apologized profusely for gripping the controller too hard with his metal hand and cracking the casing, he'd started to get the hang of it. He'd even beaten Sam once or twice. They'd gone to bed, Sam hadn't woken up to any screaming in the middle of the night, and when Bucky came out of his room the next morning, he'd looked well-rested. They'd had breakfast, Bucky had read a book, Sam had worked on his taxes, it was going great. Then it all just went to hell.

Sam had been unloading the dishwasher when a very loud crash came from the direction of Bucky's room. This was followed in quick succession by two more crashes and a strangled yell. That was bad. One crash, maybe he'd knocked something over, but that was way too much noise to be anything good. "Hey, Barnes, you okay?" Sam called tentatively. He moved slowly toward the hall, getting no response. "Barnes?" he asked again, carefully peering through the open door into his room.

Bucky was standing in the middle of a room that looked like it had been hit by a tornado. He was staring at the wall to the left of the door, blinking slowly and listing a little to the side, his eyes light years away. Crap, he was having a flashback. Steve usually handled these. Still, Sam was a licensed trauma care specialist. He knew this was probably going to get more intense than what he was used to, but he could handle this. He could totally handle this.

"Barnes?" he asked again, a little louder. He knew better than to touch him. Bucky blinked, and his eyes drifted back over to Sam, and Sam just had time to start backing up as Bucky pulled a knife from God knows where and lunged at him.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Sam exclaimed, holding up his hands and backing away, very quickly, down the hall. "Easy, man, it's me!" His eyes cast around for something, anything, to defend himself with.

Bucky stopped short when they got to the living room. Sam kept going until the couch was between them. Confusion grew on Bucky's face as he looked around the room. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, then closed and he shook his head, pressing a hand to his eye.

"Hey, you okay?" Sam asked carefully. Bucky looked up at him, then down at the knife in his hand. His fingers twitched around it, but he seemed unable to let go.

"Chto proiskhodit?" he asked, looking up at Sam. He was breathing faster, and he sounded scared.

"What?" Sam asked.

"Ya ne…" Bucky shook his head. "Ya ne ponimayu. Eto ne…Gde Ya?"

"Bucky," Sam said slowly. It felt a little weird, using his name—they usually referred to each other as 'Barnes' and Wilson'—but that seemed like something he needed right now. "I'm here to help you, dude, I am. It's gonna be okay, but I don't speak Russian." Steve did most of the work when Bucky had his flashbacks, but Sam was pretty sure this was new. Steve had never mentioned the Russian before.

Bucky looked at him, confusion furrowing his eyebrows before comprehension dawned that he was speaking the wrong language. His eyes darted back and forth as he appeared to search his brain. "Ya ne mogu nayti yego!" he exclaimed, voice tinged with fear. "Ya ne mogu nayti nuzhnyye slova! Prosti! Prosti! Ya pytayus, pozhaluysta…" He raised one shaking hand as if to ward Sam off, backing away a few steps. "Prosti," he whispered. He looked terrified.

"Whoa, whoa, hey, okay," Sam said. "It's okay." He wondered how far back Bucky had gone. "I'm not going to hurt you." He moved around the couch slowly, raising his hands to show him there was nothing in them. "It's okay. English isn't coming, huh?" Bucky shook his head slowly, shrinking back against the wall. "Hey, no, it's okay, I'm not mad," Sam assured him. "It's okay. It'll come back when it's ready. But you can understand me?" A small nod. "Okay," Sam said, smiling in what he hoped was an encouraging way. "I can work with that."

He moved a little closer. Bucky eyed him warily. "Are you hurt?" Sam asked. Bucky shook his head. "Good," Sam said. "That's good. Nobody's getting hurt around here. Do you know where you are?"

Bucky's eyes darted behind Sam, scanning the room. He bit his lip and sort of half-nodded, half shook his head.

"Kind of?" Sam interpreted. "Okay. What about you? Do you know who you are?" Bucky's mouth worked like he wasn't sure what he was supposed to say. No sound came out. "It's okay, there's not a right answer," Sam said. "Well, okay, no, there is a right answer, but you won't get in trouble if you don't know it." Bucky looked at him for a long moment, then made the same little half-nod thing he'd done before.

"Okay," Sam said with a nod. Well, crap. Hell of a flashback for Steve to be gone for. "How about I tell you, huh? Would that be alright?" He waited for Bucky to nod slowly. He knew to try to give Bucky as many opportunities to make a choice as he could—after flashbacks his brain got stuck in some kind of halfway place that defaulted back to the whole slave/master dynamic. He would follow commands blindly when he got like this, and both Sam and Steve tried not to phrase anything like it was an order.

"Okay," Sam said again. "You want to come in here?" He nodded to the couch. "We can sit down if you want." Bucky considered, then gave a tiny shake of his head. "Alright," Sam said. He figured that had been a test to see if he would get in trouble for disagreeing. "We'll stay here." A little bit of the tension lifted from Bucky's shoulders. Sam didn't have near the connection with him that Steve did, but it still made him sick to his stomach to see what Hydra had done to the guy.

"I'm gonna sit down, though," Sam said, sinking to sit cross-legged on the floor. Not that he was taller than Bucky, but he figured he looked less threatening down here. Bucky seemed to be trusting him this far, so Sam would show some trust back. Bucky looked down at him curiously, then after a long minute, sank down to join him. His back was against the wall, and his knees were drawn up to his chest in a way that made him look smaller than someone his size should.

Sam smiled encouragingly. "Your name," he started. "Is James Buchanan Barnes. Most people call you Bucky. Sound familiar?"

Bucky nodded slowly. "Bucky," he said softly. "Eto zvuchit…" Whatever that meant, it sounded like a question. "Da. Da, Ya dumayu, chto eto pravil'no." Sam could see sparks of memory flashing across his eyes, and he sounded certain this time, although he flinched when he realized he was still speaking Russian.

"It's cool, man," Sam assured him. "So, you're Bucky. You remember that?" Bucky nodded and Sam grinned, getting a tiny smile from Bucky in return. "Awesome! See? We're gonna get through this. Gonna be fine." Yeah. Yeah, this was just great. He was sitting on the floor with an amnesiac master assassin who had the world's worst case of PTSD and had just forgotten an entire language. Fan-freaking-tastic. On the plus side, he probably remembered his name now, and he wasn't trying to stab Sam anymore, so Sam was gonna call it progress.

"Okay. Okay, so, you're Bucky," Sam repeated, just making sure they were on the same page. Bucky nodded again. "And you're in our apartment. You remember that?" Bucky didn't look sure. "You live here," Sam explained. "You and me and Steve. You remember Steve?" Bucky looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "Good. Okay, so, you got away from Hydra and went on the run." Bucky's breathing picked up pace at the mention of Hydra, and he looked nervous again, pulling back tighter against the wall. Okay, crap, shouldn't've brought up Hydra. "Hey, no, it's okay…" Sam started, but the freak-out was already starting.

"Soldat na l'du, i l'du i temnote," Bucky muttered. "Slishkom temno, slishkom kholodno, Ya ne khochu vosvrashchat'sya," he said quickly. His flesh hand was shaking, toying with the hair on the side of his head, and he was starting to rock back and forth a little. "Oni khotyat snova slomat' menya. Stul, on bolit, gotovy soblyudat'—net! Net! Ty ne mozhesh' menya snova! Ya ne tvoya mashina! Ya nikogda ne vernus'! Pozhaluysta, ne zastavlyay menya vernut'sya…" The frenzied stream of Russian ended with a pitiful whimper.

"Hey, no, I'm not Hydra," Sam assured him. "No Hydra here. Hydra's the bad guys, and you, me and Steve, we fight them. Together. I'm on your side, dude." Bucky was still rocking. "I promise. You're safe here." Tentatively, Sam put out a hand and rested it on Bucky's shoulder. Bucky immediately stilled and snapped wide, frightened eyes up to look at him and Sam smiled warmly, squeezing his shoulder. "You're safe," he said again. "You're home."

"Home?" Bucky repeated uncertainly, like he wasn't sure what the word meant.

"Home," Sam said again. "You got away from Hydra, and you found Steve here in New York. You live with us now, with people who care about you, and you're safe, and that old Bucky Barnes, you're finding him again. This is where you belong, Bucky. Home."

Bucky dropped the hand that had still been twitching in his hair. "Home," he whispered. His eyes drifted around the room, taking everything in. "I remember," he said softly.

Sam beamed. "Hey, you got the English back!" Bucky smiled and ducked his head, like a kid who'd gotten the answer to a hard question right. He wasn't shaking or rocking anymore, but he was starting to shiver. "You cold?" Sam asked.

Bucky nodded. "You wanna come in here now?" Sam asked, nodding at the living room. "I'll make you some coffee." He figured it was more coming down off the bad memories than the actual temperature of the room, but either way, he was starting to get him back and didn't want to lose him again to a cold-induced panic attack. Those weren't pretty either.

Bucky pushed himself up off the floor and made his way a little stiffly to the armchair he liked. Sam noted happily that he left the knife on the floor. He settled in the chair, pulling his knees up, and Sam handed him a blanket. "Thanks," he said softly.

Neither of them spoke while Sam made the coffee. Bucky was staring again—either out the window or at the wall, Sam couldn't tell. He looked like he was thinking hard, whatever he was looking at, and Sam wondered if he'd come all the way back yet or was still trying to figure things out.

Sam made sure to approach the living room noisily so that Bucky would know he was coming. "Here you go, man," he said, holding out a mug. Bucky took it gratefully, wrapping his hands around it. "So," Sam began, settling down into another chair. "You okay? Still got questions? It's okay if you do. I just want to help you get back on track."

Bucky looked thoughtful for a minute. "Where…Where's Steve? He's supposed to be here…isn't he?"

Sam nodded. "He's usually here, yeah. He went on a mission yesterday. He texted and said he should be back before dinner."

"Okay." Bucky nodded. He took a long drink of his coffee, then looked up at Sam sheepishly. "And who…I'm really sorry, but…who are you?"

Sam almost laughed, but managed to catch himself. "My name's Sam. Sam Wilson." That didn't look like it was ringing any bells. "I live here. Room at the end of the hall."

"No, you, you said that," Bucky said, nodding to himself. "And I…I think I know that. I just…" He rubbed his forehead. "There's just some holes I can't…"

"I know," Sam said.

"You do?"

"This has happened before," Sam told him. Not exactly like this, but still. "No biggie. May take a day or so, but it'll come back," he assured him. Post-flashback, Bucky's brain usually resembled swiss cheese for a while. Sometimes he remembered that the holes would fill back in, but sometimes he didn't. Sam hoped that by making this sound run-of-the-mill, it would keep Bucky from worrying about it.

"Oh. Okay."

Score one for Sam! Not-panicking Bucky was good. He liked not-panicking Bucky.

"You usually call me 'Wilson'," Sam told him. "If that helps. I usually call you 'Barnes'." He smiled. "We like to pick back and forth at each other, but last week, we teamed up and took all of Steve's socks and underwear and froze them into a block in the freezer."

To his surprise, Bucky laughed. "I remember that," he said happily. He shook his head. "Oh, the little punk was so mad. He put it in the bathtub and was using his shield to chip it open." He chuckled and looked up at Sam. "We're friends, aren't we?"

Sam was a little surprised at the bluntness of the statement. They'd never actually put it into so many words, but, "yeah."

Bucky nodded. "I thought so." He sighed. "I'm sorry for…" He trailed off, not really sure how to put the whole situation into words.

"It's cool, man," Sam assured him. "The human brain is a mysterious organ. It calls its own shots and doesn't always handle things the way we want when it's trying to straighten itself out. You heal how you gotta heal."

Bucky gave him a small, grateful smile. He set his coffee cup down and settled down into his chair with a yawn. He usually crashed not long after a flashback—it's like it wore his brain out, whatever the hell it did when he went wherever the hell he went. Actually, if he stayed awake too long afterwards, he wound up with a killer headache.

Sam stood and moved to pick up the empty cup, glad he was nodding off so easily. A bunch of the holes the flashback tore open tended to fill in while he slept it off. And while his memories were still coming back in bits and pieces on their own schedule, a flashback usually left him with a few more than he'd started with once everything settled.

"Hey, Sam?" Bucky said sleepily, before he moved away with the cup.

"Yeah, man? You need something?"

"No," Bucky said. "I just…" He smiled—a real smile. A smile that Sam knew came from the old Bucky Barnes who was starting to find his way back. "Thank you," he said sincerely.

Sam smiled back. "You're welcome."


If you speak Russian, I should probably apologize for this. I know no Russian, so I was forced to use the Google translator. Hopefully it's close?

Chto proiskhodit?—What's happening?

Ya ne…Ya ne ponimayu. Eto ne…Gde Ya?—I don't…I don't understand. It's not…Where am I?

Ya ne mogu nayti yego!—I can't find it!

Ya ne mogu nayti nuzhnyye slova! Prosti! Prosti! Ya pytayus, pozhaluysta…—I can't find the words you want! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm trying, please…

Prosti—I'm sorry

Eto zvuchit…Da. Da, Ya dumayu, chto eto pravil'no.—That sounds…Yes. Yes, I think that's right.

Soldat na l'du, i l'du i temnote—The soldier in the ice, and the ice and the dark.

Slishkom temno, slishkom kholodno, Ya ne khochu vosvrashchat'sya.—It's too dark, it's too cold, I don't want to go back.

Oni khotyat snova slomat' menya. Stul, on bolit, gotovy soblyudat'—net! Net! Ty ne mozhesh' menya snova! Ya ne tvoya mashina! Ya nikogda ne vernus'! Pozhaluysta, ne zastavlyay menya vernut'sya…—They want to break me again. The chair, it hurts, ready to comply—no! No! You can't have me again! I'm not your machine! I'm never going back! Please don't make me go back…

Chapter Text

 


No matter how much sleep Bucky got at night, it always took him a little while to get out of bed. The distance between the mattress and the floor wasn't that far, but he had to stare at it for a while and talk himself into it. Once he was vertical, he was good. Steve, on the other hand, would just get up and go. The funny part was, his brain might be awake, but his body took a minute or two to catch up. His eyes wouldn't open all the way and his equilibrium always wanted a few more minutes to sleep, the end result being that he was incapable of walking in a straight line first thing in the morning. (He'd been that way when he was tiny too, and Bucky swore that it just got worse after he got big. That serum really did enhance everything.) It was funny when he was in the apartment, and you could hear him thump into one wall and then the other—and sometimes back into the first wall again—as he veered down the hall on his way to the bathroom. It was hilarious back during the war—canvas in no way took his weight, and on missions the Howlies would get up early to watch and see if Steve would remember to sit down and ride it out or if he'd just wake up and knock his own tent over. The first time Peggy went with them on a mission, she nearly cracked a rib, she was laughing so hard.

Bucky had remembered that all on his own. Sure, it wasn't an identity-defining memory or anything, but he was still pretty pleased with himself for managing it.

So, at first, he thought nothing of it when he heard Steve, who had gotten up later than normal this morning, thump into the wall in the hallway a little louder than usual. Bucky kept eating his cereal, then it occurred to him that he hadn't heard another thump, and he hadn't heard the bathroom door close either. Curious, he pushed away from the kitchen counter. "Steve?" he called, moving into the hallway.

Curiosity gave way to concern as he rounded the corner and saw Steve on the floor. "Steve!" He rushed over, dropping to his knees beside his friend. "Steve, are you okay?"

Steve, for his part, looked just as surprised to find himself on the floor as Bucky was. "Bucky?" he replied, squinting glassy eyes up from where he was slouched against the wall. "Bucky! Hey! Hey, Bucky," he rambled, smiling and reaching up to pat Bucky's cheek a little too forcefully. "No, I'm, 'm fine," he insisted, attempting and failing to push himself back up. "M'okay. I just, I hit th' wall again, an' then I, I just los' my balance 's all. Help me up?"

The slurred words and the drunken rambling were doing nothing to convince Bucky that Steve was fine. He'd come in late last night from a mission and gone straight to bed—had he gotten hurt? Was this a really bad concussion or something? But, no, if he'd gotten hurt that badly, they wouldn't've sent him home. Stark's ceiling computer checked for that kind of thing. And Banner was a doctor, he would've made sure Steve was alright. Bucky's concern kicked up another few notches.

Steve was starting to slide closer to the floor, and Bucky reached out to keep him steady. He could feel the heat coming off of him before his flesh hand touched Steve's skin. Even his metal hand could feel it. "Steve, you're not okay, you're burning up." So, maybe not hurt, but sick, and it had to be a hell of a bug to take Steve down.

"'s hot in here," Steve agreed, nodding his head clumsily.

"Okay," Bucky said, trying not to panic and searching his brain for what to do. "Okay. Let's get you off the floor, alright?"

"'kay."

It was a good thing Bucky had that super-soldier strength too, because Steve was no help in getting himself to his feet. (Though he did try.) With Steve leaning heavily against him, Bucky moved back into the living room, lowering Steve to lay down on the couch. It looked like the twenty-foot journey had exhausted him. He turned on the ceiling fan, hoping it would do a little to cool him down, then went into Steve's room and got his phone. His first instinct was to call Sam—but, no, Sam hadn't gone on that mission. Sam had gone to bed before Steve had gotten back and left for work before Steve got up. He probably didn't know anything was wrong.

Okay. Okay. Bucky took a deep breath as his stomach twisted itself into a knot. Banner. He could call Banner. Banner was a doctor, he'd been on the mission, Bucky could call him. The knot in his stomach twisted a little tighter. He could talk to Sam—he knew Sam. Banner was…Banner was a nice guy, Bucky knew that, but he didn't know him, and it was too early in the day for this and he hadn't been prepared to talk to strangers and he felt like he was going to throw up, but, no. No. Something was wrong with Steve. Banner could help. Bucky could do this.

He breathed slowly and deliberately as he scrolled through Steve's phone, took a deep breath as his finger hovered over Banner's number, then he hit it before he could talk himself out of it.

It rang a few times before Banner picked up. "Hey, Steve," he answered with a yawn. "What's up?" Bucky froze for a moment. "Steve, you there?" Banner asked.

"No," Bucky said, hoping Banner didn't hear that little waver he felt as he spoke. "No, it—it's Bucky."

"Bucky?" Banner asked. "Oh, okay. Yeah, what's, ah, what's going on?"

"Steve's sick," Bucky said quickly, getting to the point of the call before he could chicken out. "He's got a fever and he…he's sick," he repeated, hating how pitiful he knew he must sound.

"Oh. Yeah, that's…" Banner started, not sounding nearly as worried as Bucky thought he should be, but then trailing off as though something was occurring to him. "He didn't tell you about the mission, did he?"

"No," Bucky replied shortly, anger with Banner for knowing something was wrong and sending him home and anger with Steve for not mentioning it surging up and then getting squashed back down by the need to figure out what was wrong and the reminder to breathe and not pass out while in the middle of an unplanned conversation with someone he didn't really know.

He could hear Banner sigh into the phone. "Okay. Okay, yeah, I can see why you'd be concerned. So, um, the guy we were after had some pretty nasty stuff cooked up in his lab. He, ah, he set some of it airborne before we got him, and Steve took a pretty good hit." Bucky felt that urge to throw up again rising in his throat, but he swallowed it down as he realized Banner was still talking. "—got back to the Tower, J.A.R.V.I.S. and I checked him out thoroughly, and he's gonna be okay. It's obviously some pretty heavy stuff to be able to take Steve down like this—would've killed anyone else—but the serum's doing its job and protecting him. It may take him a little while to get back on his feet, but his body just needs time to fight it off, and he's not contagious or anything, which is why we thought it would be okay to send him home. I'm sorry about this, man, he was supposed to fill you in when he got back."

Bucky nodded, then remembered Banner couldn't see it. "So, he's gonna be okay?"

"He is," Banner assured him. "There's some extra-strength stuff that should be in his bag to help with some of the symptoms, but he mostly just needs a lot of rest. If you want, we can bring him back over to the Tower," Banner offered.

Bucky considered. He appreciated Banner's wording—offering to take over if this was too much for Bucky to handle, but not implying that he thought it would be. "You're sure he'll be okay?" Bucky asked again. Not that he didn't trust Banner—he didn't know him well, but Steve trusted him—but he wanted to make the best decision.

"Absolutely," Banner replied, not sounding offended that Bucky would ask again.

"Okay," Bucky said. "It's—I can look out for him." And he could. He remembered sick Steve. "If you're sure…"

"I'm sure," Banner said. "And, hey, if you need anything, give me a call."

"Okay. Thank you. I'm sorry, I—" Knowing it would be alright, he felt bad now for bothering Banner and waking him up.

"Don't worry about it, man," Banner assured him. "I know he's not normally sick, so it was a good call."

Bucky nodded again. "Thanks."

Banner ended the call, which saved Bucky the trouble of needing to remember how (although he thought it was the red button). Okay. It was funny what he remembered and what he didn't and what he got mixed up sometimes. Because he did remember Steve explaining to him the effects of the serum, back in some tent in Italy what felt like a million years ago, and he knew it meant Steve wasn't supposed to get sick anymore. That was pretty solidly set in his brain, and so of course he was going to panic when Steve caught something bad enough to break past the super-serum's defenses. But also pretty solidly set in his brain was tiny little sick Steve—at times better than the big guy was. There'd been twenty-five years of the little fella and only two of the big one, after all. And so, in some ways, sick Steve felt…was it wrong to say familiar? Bucky's panic was replaced by something that it took him a moment to identify as confidence. Because, yeah, it sucked that Steve was sick, and Bucky hated it as much as he did back before, but sick Steve…Sick Steve, Bucky could do. He knew this.

He went to the kitchen and started filling little bags with ice and wrapping them in dish towels. First thing he needed to do was to get Steve cooled down. Steve was still sprawled across the couch, staring at the ceiling with half-open, glazed-over eyes and watching the rotation of the ceiling fan.

"Hey, Steve," he said, nudging Steve's leg aside with his hip so that he could sit down next to him. "How're you feeling?"

It looked like it took a little bit of effort for Steve to tear his eyes away from the fan. "Oh, hey, Buck," he said with a little smile. "M'alright." He sniffed. "Little dizzy."

"Uh huh. Still hot?"

"Yeah," Steve nodded sleepily.

"Okay. Let's see if this helps, huh?" Bucky said, moving to place the bags of ice under Steve's arms and along his side. He wasn't wearing a shirt, which was good for now, but he was probably going to get cold later. Bucky made a mental note to grab some blankets to keep nearby. Steve shivered a little as Bucky tucked a bag of ice against his neck then relaxed. "Better?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Good. Now, I want you to drink some water, okay?" Steve moved to sit up, but Bucky pushed him back down. "No, stay there, I've got a straw." He held the glass close to Steve and nudged his lips with the straw. "Hey, whoa, slow down, alright? Don't want you puking this back up." Steve complied and drank slower, and Bucky held the glass steady until he was done. "Why don't you get some more sleep, okay?" he asked, reaching over to brush Steve's damp hair off his forehead with his left hand. Steve leaned into the touch, and Bucky realized the cool metal probably felt good against his warm skin. He smiled and left his hand resting on his forehead. "When you get better, we're gonna have a talk about post-mission communication."

Steve blinked his eyes part of the way open again. "I was…There was somethn' I was s'posed to tell you."

"Yep."

Steve squinted. "You're mad, aren't you?"

Bucky smiled. "I'm gonna have to thump you a little bit, but I'll wait 'til you get better. Right now you just get some rest, okay?"

Steve hummed a little and closed his eyes, and Bucky smiled and left his hand on his forehead until he was sure he was asleep.

It took him a little while to find Steve's go-bag—he'd dropped it by the front door instead of taking it to his room—but the medicine Banner had mentioned was there, tucked into a little pocket on the side. He brought it back to the living room and read all the labels while he finished his cereal. Steve's super-soldier metabolism ran pretty warm normally, so it wasn't really a surprise that with the added fever, the ice didn't take long to melt. Bucky crushed up some of the pills Banner had sent in a glass of water and woke Steve up enough to drink it. He changed the ice out two more times before the fever swung the other way and Steve started to shiver.

Bucky started unfolding blankets from the stack he'd set by the couch—it took two to cover Steve's shoulders and his feet when he was stretched out like that—and tucked them around him, reaching up to turn off the fan before nudging Steve toward the back of the couch so he could sit down by his head, stretching his legs down alongside him. He didn't work quite the same way as Steve, but normally he ran a little warmer than your average guy too, and he smiled when Steve shifted in the cushions and rolled to lean against Bucky's leg.

They spent the rest of the morning like that until Bucky got up to make lunch. Steve was incredibly grumpy about being woken up to eat, but his brain was still fuzzy from the fever and he didn't really argue. Memory told Bucky to appreciate that while it lasted—when he was coherent, sick Steve was stubborn and argumentative, sometimes just for the hell of it and not for any actual reason. Bucky remembered Steve accusing him of having a terrible bedside manner, but there was only so far being nice would take you with sick Steve.

His skin felt a little cooler, but Bucky made him take more of Banner's medicine before letting him go back to sleep. He also took the opportunity to have him put on a hoodie—he hadn't wanted to try to wrestle the sleeping giant into one earlier. He faded out before he got his left arm all the way through the sleeve and flopped back down onto the couch, so Bucky had to unfold his arm and work it out of the sleeve for him. Steve mumbled something that could have been a 'thank you' before passing all the way out again.

Based on the medicine Banner had sent back, Bucky guessed that he should expect some puking in Steve's future, so he grabbed the kitchen trashcan before resuming his place on the couch next to Steve. He kept the TV on low volume, one ear on Star Trek and one on Steve, reaching over to pat his head whenever he shifted or let out a little moan. He turned the TV off when Steve started to whimper. Bucky recognized a nightmare when he saw one, although usually he was the one whimpering and shaking. He didn't remember Little Steve having trouble with nightmares before, even when he was sick, but Little Steve hadn't had much to fuel them, either. Big Steve, on the other hand, had plenty.

"Nnh," Steve groaned into Bucky's leg, shifting uncomfortably. "No. No," he whispered.

"Steve?" Bucky asked, placing a hand carefully on Steve's head. He felt warm again, whether from the fever or just agitation, it was hard to say.

"No," Steve moaned, mumbling something else Bucky didn't catch. "Bucky! Bucky, no!"

Bucky jerked his hand back as though he'd been burned, pulling away from the couch to sit on the coffee table. If Steve was reliving what he thought he was reliving, he didn't want to scare him. They hadn't talked about the helicarrier incident since Bucky came back—not really. He'd tried to apologize for it and Steve had shut him down, firmly saying that he didn't blame him for any of it and that it was okay. He'd sounded like he meant it, and Bucky had slowly started to believe him, trying to accept that forgiveness. It hurt knowing that somewhere in there, Steve was afraid of him, but Bucky supposed he deserved that.

"Bucky, no!" Steve muttered again, twisting a sickening knot in Bucky's stomach. "No! Hold on!" Wait, what? He hadn't been wiped since being on the helicarrier, so, unfortunately, he remembered it all clearly, and that didn't sound right. Hold on to what?

"I'm coming," Steve panted, twisting in his blanket. "Take—take my hand! Bucky!" he yelled, startling Bucky with the abrupt shift in volume. Bucky was still trying to figure out what Steve was seeing when tears started leaking from his still-closed eyes. "I'm sorry," Steve whispered. "I'm so sorry, Buck, please, don't be…I couldn't…I'm sorry."

A whole different kind of knot twisted around in Bucky's stomach this time, even as his hand reached out automatically to wipe away Steve's tears with his sleeve. Steve wasn't seeing the helicarrier. Steve was seeing the train. In dreams and flashbacks and nightmares, Bucky could remember his fall, the pain and the terror and the ice and the snow. He could remember going into cryo for the first time, waking confused and afraid after God only knew how long with a metal arm and the face of Arnim Zola—the face that terrified him more than anything else—hovering over him. He could remember Steve's horrified face, his outstretched hand, disappearing out of view as he fell. He remembered all of it when he was asleep and there was nowhere to run. But when he was awake, what should have been his own death was just a blur of painful white noise. He didn't think about it because he couldn't remember it. But Steve obviously did.

"I'm sorry," Steve whispered again.

"Shh," Bucky soothed, moving his hand up to stroke Steve's hair. "It's okay, Stevie. It's okay." Steve's whimpers died away and he blinked open watery, frightened eyes. "It's alright," Bucky said with an encouraging smile now that Steve could see him.

"B—Bucky?" Steve asked, eyes casting around the room and obviously surprised not to find himself clinging to the outside of a train.

"Yeah, Steve, I'm here," Bucky said gently. "It's okay."

"Wh—" Steve stuttered, a clumsy hand coming out from the folds of the blanket to paw at Bucky's hand still going through his hair. "You—you're not…"

"I'm okay, Steve," Bucky assured him. And though his heart clenched at the fear and confusion on Steve's face and the realization that Steve had been carrying this guilt for nearly seventy years, it felt warmed at the same time by this very tangible reminder of how much Steve cared about him, even after everything that had happened. He wrapped his hand around the back of Steve's head. "It's okay. You saved me." And he had. Not on the train, true, but Steve had found him and Steve had saved him—not just his body, but his soul. "You saved me," he said again, voice suddenly a little tight.

"You're okay?" Steve asked in a small voice, wrapping his hand around Bucky's wrist.

"I'm okay." Bucky smiled, moving off the table to kneel down next to the couch so Steve didn't have to keep looking up at him. "You know that wasn't your fault, right? What happened on the train?"

"I couldn't reach you," Steve whispered sadly.

"And that wasn't your fault," Bucky said gently. "It was never your fault. And not one time in seventy years have I ever blamed you for it." He never had.

Steve looked at him, eyes glassy and cheeks flushed, and tears started welling in his eyes again, but he was smiling a little bit. "I'm glad you're okay, Buck," he said in a small voice.

"I'm okay," Bucky repeated. "And you're gonna be okay too." Steve's eyes were drooping again, so Bucky's fingers resumed their brushing of his hair, and his eyelids fluttered and closed, the little smile lingering on his face. Bucky sighed, patted him gently on the cheek and stood. They were gonna talk about this train thing again when Steve was lucid. Just to make sure he got it.

He stretched out his back and walked to the kitchen, pondering the contents of their pantry. He found some chicken thawing in the fridge and decided to make soup. Steve seemed content to stay asleep while Bucky cut up chicken and carrots and set things boiling, but a retching sound from the living room had him rushing back before he could start washing the dishes. He slid around the couch and tugged Steve's head forward by the hood of his sweater just in time for him to not vomit on the couch. He kept one hand on Steve's forehead, holding his head up as he gagged into the trashcan, the other hand rubbing slow circles on his back.

"I gotcha, Stevie, it's alright," he murmured. "Get it all out, you'll feel better."

When there was nothing coming up but strings of bile, Bucky grabbed one of the abandoned dish towels from the bags of ice and wiped his mouth, then eased him back onto the couch. Steve's cheeks were flushed, from the exertion but also a little bit of embarrassment. "Sorry," he rasped, blinking exhausted eyes up at Bucky.

Bucky smiled and brushed his hair off his forehead. "Don't worry about it. You want some water?"

Steve nodded, and Bucky grabbed the glass from the end table, sliding one hand under Steve's head to prop him up enough to drink.

"Thanks."

"Any time, pal."

After Steve fell back asleep, Bucky finished up in the kitchen, set the soup to simmer and returned to his spot on the couch. Steve drifted in and out, grumbling that Bucky was crowding him on the couch while simultaneously complaining that he was cold, which is why Sam came home to all six feet two inches of America's greatest hero curled up into a ball on one end of the couch under five blankets and sort of on Bucky's lap.

"Hey, guys," Sam said slowly. "What'd I miss?"

"He's sick," Bucky said, nodding down at the top of Steve's head, which was the only thing visible from under the blankets.

"He is?" Sam asked, rounding the couch. "I didn't think he could get sick. How'd that even happen?"

Bucky sighed. "Some mad scientist on their last mission with crazy stuff in his lab."

"Must be a hell of a bug to take him down."

Bucky nodded. "Banner said it would have killed anybody else."

Sam let out a low whistle. "He gonna be okay?"

Bucky nodded again. "Yeah. Banner said he'd be down for a while, but he'll be fine."

"Good," Sam said. He looked back up at Bucky. "Everything going okay?"

Bucky knew he was trying to ask if he was handling this alright, and he nodded. "Sick Steve is nothing new," he told him. He smiled. "He's always easy at the beginning, anyway. Give him another day or two and he's still gonna be sick but he'll be grouchy as hell."

Sam chuckled. "That ought to be interesting."

The rest of the evening passed quietly. Steve was persuaded to sit up enough to eat some soup and take some more medicine before burrowing back down into his pile of blankets. His eyes were starting to look a little brighter, which was good. His breathing was starting to sound kind of wheezy, which was not so good. At least he didn't have the asthma to contend with on top of it all. When Little Steve had gotten sick, that had always been one of Bucky's biggest worries—the illness and the asthma tended to aggravate each other, making it harder and harder for Steve to breathe and ending him up in the hospital on more than one occasion. Now it was just what was starting to sound like an increasing amount of mucus—and not constricting airways on top of that—that he had to try to breathe around. So, that was something.

When Sam left the next morning, both Bucky and Steve were still asleep. Steve was still huddled under his blanket pile on one end of the couch and Bucky was stretched out on the other side. They'd both slept badly—Steve kept waking up to puke and Bucky had stopped counting somewhere around the thirteenth time. He'd pulled in the kitchen and the bathroom and the laundry room trash cans, and Bucky had meant to clean them all out once it seemed like Steve was finally done, he really had, but he'd sat down and closed his eyes for a minute and that had been it.

He woke up surprised that he'd fallen asleep, and it took him a second to remember why he was on the couch. He rolled his eyes when he looked down his metal arm and saw a piece of paper stuck to his bicep with a magnet shaped like a banana. "Real cute, Wilson," he muttered, pulling the note off, smiling a little to himself as he read it. Apparently, Sam had washed out all the trash cans when he had gotten up this morning and they were upside down drying out in the bathtub in case he still needed them. He'd also picked up a bottle of ginger ale while he was out on his run and set it on the counter.

Bucky smiled and put the note on the coffee table and slid carefully off the couch so as not to wake Steve. The all-night vomit-fest had worn him out and he was snoring—thanks to clogged sinuses, very, very loudly—and Bucky figured it was safe to leave him alone long enough to take a shower. He returned the newly-cleaned trashcans to their homes, leaving one by Steve just in case.

The warm water woke him up, and he returned to the living room to find Steve awake and trying and failing to untangle himself from his pile of blankets. "Morning, Steve," he said. When Steve looked up at him he was happy to notice that his eyes were clear. Tired and red and runny, true, but lucid. "How you feeling?" he asked, sitting down on the coffee table.

Steve sniffed. "Alright," he replied. Bucky narrowed his eyes. "What?" Steve protested.

Bucky didn't buy that for a minute, but decided not to antagonize him just yet. "I'm glad you're feeling better. What are you doing?"

Steve finally wrestled himself free of the blankets and sat up. "I was gonna go to the bathroom," he said, and Bucky managed not to laugh at the way the words came out—he was stuffy enough that the letter 'n' was coming out as a 'd', 'm' was 'b' and 't' was just some half little sad noise.

"Alright. Let me help you up," Bucky said, moving to grab his arm, but Steve waved him away.

"I got it," he said, pushing himself off the couch, swaying, and promptly falling over.

"Yeah, looks like it," Bucky said, walking over and reaching down for Steve's hand.

"Shut up," Steve grumbled, scowling as Bucky pulled him carefully to his feet.

Bucky sighed when Steve was upright again, one arm over his shoulder. "Really, Steve?" He'd hit the end table on his way down and blood was trickling out of a cut over his left eyebrow. Steve grunted and said nothing, and Bucky rolled his eyes.

They made it down the hall and Steve pulled away at the bathroom door, holding onto the door handle for support. "I've got this part on my own."

Bucky eyed him skeptically, but nodded. He went back to the kitchen and got the coffee going, arriving back outside the bathroom door just in time to hear the water in the shower come on. "Oh, hell, no," he growled. He rapped sharply on the door. "Steve!" he yelled. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Taking a shower!" Steve called back hoarsely.

"You can't stand up in the living room, you moron, what makes you think you can stand up on wet porcelain?" he yelled.

"I'll be fine, Bucky!"

Oh, this was just great. The last thing he needed was sick, grumpy Steve with a concussion. "Don't make me come in there!"

"You come in here and I'll punch you!"

Bucky growled and rubbed his forehead. He'd been hoping he might get another day out of the compliant version of sick Steve, but that was apparently too much to ask. "At least sit down in the tub!" he called. "'Cause if you fall over and break anything we're going back to the Tower and you're gonna be Tony's problem!" Not that he would actually do that to Steve, but if the punk was gonna start off this stubborn this fast, Bucky wasn't afraid to get threatening.

A long silence was followed a bitter, "Fine!"

Bucky stayed outside the door, keeping an ear out for any sounds of trouble, and was glad when the water finally shut off and nothing had happened. It was quiet for several long minutes, then he heard a tentative, "Bucky?"

He eased the door open to find Steve wrapped in a towel and sitting on the edge of the tub. "I didn't…" Steve sighed. "I left my clean stuff in my room," he muttered.

Bucky smirked. "Need a hand?" Steve's expression was one of severely wounded pride—falling down on the way back to his room would be bad enough—doing it wearing nothing but a towel would have been too much, and was probably what finally prompted him to ask for help in the first place.

Steve glared at him but extended a hand to allow Bucky to pull him up, keeping the other firmly on his towel. He shook as they walked down the hall. Bucky deposited him on his bed and left, wanting to let him keep at least a little bit of dignity by getting dressed himself.

He came back a few minutes later and knocked, pushing the door open when he heard a grunt. Steve had changed into sweatpants and socks that didn't match and was lying face-down on the mattress with one arm in a clean hoodie, having evidently given up on getting it on.

"You're bad at shirts when you're sick," Bucky chuckled, sitting down beside him and pulling him up enough to wrestle him the rest of the way into the sweater.

"Shut up," Steve complained.

"At least you smell better now," Bucky added. He hadn't been going to force him to shower in the wobbly state he was in, but since he'd made it out undamaged, Bucky was glad he'd done it. A night of puking did not make for a particularly fragrant super-soldier.

"Shut up," Steve said again.

Bucky smiled and pulled back the blankets before letting go of Steve, who promptly collapsed onto his pillow. "What're you doing?" he asked when Bucky pulled his feet back up onto the bed and tucked them under the blanket.

"Getting you all the way up here."

"No, I don't need to be in bed."

"Steve, your eyes are shut."

"No, they're not."

"Go back to sleep, punk," Bucky replied. The lack of response told him Steve already had.

He spent a few quiet hours in the living room with his coffee and a book. Well, relatively quiet, anyway. Steve's congested snoring was loud enough to be heard from his room, punctuated by rounds of coughing and brief silent interludes. The cycle was rhythmic enough, Bucky found himself subconsciously timing it.

When one of the silences stretched on longer than normal, Bucky started listening more attentively, and he closed his eyes and sighed when it was broken by a muffled thump. He walked around the couch and there was Steve halfway down the hall. On the floor. Again. "What are you doing?" Bucky asked, standing over him as he pushed himself up to lean against the wall.

"Getting up," Steve replied shortly.

"Why aren't you in bed?"

"I'm bored," Steve whined. "I don't want to be in bed."

"What are you, like, nine?" Bucky asked. He shook his head and leaned down to grab Steve's arm. "You could have at least asked for help," he told him, pulling him to his feet.

"I had it," Steve insisted, coughing loudly.

"Right," Bucky nodded, steering them back towards the living room. "You were bored, so you thought you'd lay on the floor in the hall for a change of scenery?"

"Shut up," Steve complained. "I got dizzy, alright?"

"No kidding." Bucky lowered him to sit on the couch and tossed a couple of clean blankets at him. He was already starting to shiver. "Here." He handed him some of the pills Banner had sent. "Take those and see if it helps your breathing any. What do you want to eat?" he asked, walking back over to the kitchen.

"Not hungry," Steve replied.

"Not what I asked," Bucky shot back. Steve said nothing. Bucky shook his head and decided to go with toast. After throwing up what had looked like everything he'd ever eaten, Steve needed to get some food in him. Toast was bland and shouldn't bother his stomach if it was still queasy. On his way back to the couch he grabbed the ginger ale Sam had brought.

"I said I wasn't hungry," Steve snapped, leaning forward and coughing into his elbow. He was leaning against the back of the couch, still mostly upright.

"And I said I didn't ask if you were hungry," Bucky repeated. "Drink that, it'll help your stomach," he said, pouring a glass of ginger ale. He pointed at the toast. "Eat that, you need food and you'll feel better." Steve continued to glare and Bucky glared back. "I'm not asking, Stevie. You eat it on your own or I'll make you."

Steve stared at him for a long moment before sullenly picking up a piece of toast. "You're mean when I'm sick," he complained.

"Well, you're a punk when you're sick," Bucky replied. Maybe he was a little short-tempered right now, but he hadn't slept well and Steve was trying his patience. "Were you this irritating when you were little and sick?"

Steve looked up at him and, to Bucky's surprise, huffed a short laugh. "Probably," he admitted. "I was never very good at being sick, was I?"

Bucky smiled. "For as often as you did it, you were surprisingly bad at it."

Steve smiled back. "Well, you know, you were always there to take care of me, so…Did I ever thank you for that?"

Bucky's smile softened. "You never needed to."

Steve blushed a little and ducked his head. "Well, thanks anyway."

"You're welcome," Bucky replied. He nudged Steve's shoulder. "Eat your toast."

Steve laughed, which made him cough, but he ate the toast.

Bucky smiled, warmed by Steve's appreciation. He'd never needed thanks for looking out for his friend, but it was still nice to hear. And it gave him a little more patience when Steve inevitably got grumpy again. (He really was a terrible patient.)

It took them the rest of the day to get through three episodes of Star Trek. Steve kept falling asleep then coughing himself awake and insisting Bucky back it up so he didn't miss anything. After having seen the middle of The City On The Edge Of Forever four times, Bucky just started hitting the pause button whenever Steve looked like he was fading.

"It wasn't that dingy during the Depression, was it?" Steve wondered, gesturing at the TV.

"Not that I remember. I mean, I don't know how much stock I'd put in my memory," Bucky added. "But I'm gonna say no."

"I know our clothes were kinda ratty," Steve recalled. "And we didn't always have heat in the apartment, but it wasn't all gloomy like this."

Bucky nodded. "The more I think about it, the more I'm getting this…" He wrinkled his nose thoughtfully. "Why does the Depression smell like lemons? What is that?"

Steve smiled. "It was the soap your ma used when she cleaned. You didn't have a lot of money either, but the Barnes house was never dingy."

They finally made it to the end of that episode. Steve drifted off for a while after that. He also kept kicking Bucky until he moved off of the couch and over to the arm chair.

"Do aliens really look like that?" Bucky asked during Arena.

"Maybe?" Steve yawned. "I've only ever come across the one kind…"

Bucky moved back over to the couch when he saw him shivering under the blanket. He tossed another blanket over him and a half-asleep Steve huddled closer to his leg, trying to get warm. Bucky shook his head, but just paused the episode and picked up his book.

Steve got really snippy again during The Devil In The Dark, back to complaining that Bucky was crowding him while, at the same time, not wanting him to move and take the heat with him, which led to a shoving match that somehow ended with Steve accidentally punching Bucky in the jaw. It was a pretty pathetic punch—for Steve, anyway—of the non-bone-breaking variety, but it still hurt. Steve apologized, but Bucky moved over to the chair anyway. A pitiful, "I'm sorry I hit you, Bucky. Please come back, I'm cold," brought him back to the couch before they got to the middle of the episode.

They were just starting a fourth one when Sam came home. "Hey, guys," he greeted. He quirked an eyebrow in puzzled amusement as he walked into the living room. "Do I want to know why you're sitting on Steve?" he asked.

"Sam, get him off me," Steve whined, turning his head and looking pitifully up at their friend.

"Don't fall for those sad eyes, Wilson," Bucky warned.

"I'm still not sure what's going on," Sam pointed out.

"Someone," Bucky said with a pointed look at Steve. "Keeps trying to get off the couch."

"And that's bad because…" Sam asked.

"What happened last time you tried to walk somewhere, Steve?" Bucky asked. Steve muttered something and Bucky poked him in the shoulder. "I don't think Wilson heard that."

"I fell over," Steve mumbled.

"And?" Bucky pressed.

"And hit my head on the end table. Again." Apologetic though he had been for hitting Bucky, Steve had kept getting grouchier since then. Bucky had gotten up to go to the bathroom and Steve had tried to go to the kitchen and get a drink, making it about two steps before going down and hitting the same end table he'd hit earlier. He had a large band-aid over his eyebrow now. He'd been undeterred, however, even after Bucky got back. After his third attempt, Bucky had had enough and pinned him to the couch and sat on him. And if Steve was too weak to push him off right now, well, too bad for him. He wasn't going anywhere.

Sam smiled. "Inner ear thing, huh?"

Bucky nodded. "He hasn't been able to stay vertical since he woke up yesterday."

"He is right here, you know," Steve said grumpily, coughing into the couch.

"And he is going to stay there," Bucky replied.

Sam's smile widened. "Long day, huh?" His eyes narrowed as he caught the bruise on Bucky's chin. "What happened to your face?"

Bucky looked down at Steve, clearing his throat expectantly when he said nothing.

"I punched him," Steve said quietly.

Sam's eyes went wide, then he bit his lip and looked down, trying very hard not to laugh.

"Told you he gets moody when he gets sick," Bucky said, smirking.

"History books leave that part out, huh?" Sam chuckled.

"I said I was sorry," Steve pouted, only making Sam laugh more.

"Will you let him up if I make you guys some dinner?" Sam asked, still chuckling.

"I will if he'll eat it," Bucky said.

"Do I have a choice?" grumbled Steve.

"Nope," Bucky told him cheerfully.

They watched some more of the episode quietly for a few minutes as Sam started on dinner.

"Hey, Buck?" Steve said.

"Mm?"

"I'm sorry," he said softly.

"I know you didn't mean to hit me, Steve," Bucky assured him.

"No, not for that," Steve corrected. "Well, yes, for that, but also for just…I'm a jerk when I'm sick. I know that. I don't try to be, I just, I don't know, I'm sorry," he said sincerely, pausing to cough. "And I'm not just saying that 'cause I want you to get off of me." He smiled apologetically. "You take a lot of crap from me, and I know you're just trying to help."

Bucky smiled. "Well, someone has to."

"Bucky, I'm being serious."

"I know. And if we're being serious, this has been…" He trailed off and shook his head, huffing a small laugh. "Man, you sure know how to twang my last nerve, but all of this…It's all stuff I remember. I remember you being sick and I remember taking care of you." This had been something unexpected, but unlike all the other unexpected things around here, this one hadn't freaked him out. Because he knew how to do this. He smiled down at Steve. "I remember this, and it's nice to feel like I know what I'm doing for once, even if you're just as much of a pain now as you were then. But I didn't it mind then and I still don't now." He smirked. "Although, you do hit harder than you used to."

Steve blushed a little bit, but he smiled. "Thanks for putting up with me."

"Any time, pal." He knew Steve meant it, and he knew that before Steve got better, he would get grumpy and mean again, and then he'd apologize again and mean that too. And Bucky would get frustrated and irritated with him again, but he'd meant it when he said he didn't mind. That's just how it worked, and Bucky was content to be able to remember that and to take care of his friend. "Any time."


 

Chapter Text

 


"I'm ninety-seven years old, Steve," Bucky said in a longsuffering voice. "You'll be gone for three days. I'll be fine."

Steve sighed. He'd gone on a few missions since Bucky had come back, and Bucky had handled it well. (Even that one time he'd had a major flashback, forgotten how to speak English and tried to stab Sam had turned out okay.) Sam had gone on missions too, but this was the first time they would both be gone. Bucky had never been left alone since he came back.

"I can do this, Steve," Bucky said. "I need to do this. I need to know that this is something I can handle on my own."

Steve nodded. Bucky was right. He'd come so far in finding himself again and regaining his independence. This was a big step, but it was a necessary step, and Bucky could do it. He didn't always move at the pace Steve wanted, but he was very good at knowing when he was ready for things and making himself do them. He had this. Steve didn't know why he suddenly felt like a dad sending his kid off to school for the first time. Bucky wasn't a child. Through all of this, Steve had never looked at him that way, and if Bucky knew that that thought was crossing Steve's mind right now, he would probably punch him.

"You're right," he said. "I know. Sorry, I just…"

"You worry," Bucky finished for him. "And you hover." He smirked. "You came by that honestly, though, so I'll let it slide." That got a smile out of Steve. It was probably as close as Bucky was ever going to get to admitting that he'd been a worse mother-hen than Steve ever had. "But stop it," he finished, and his tone was light, but he was serious. "I'll be fine. And I promise to call you if something goes wrong."

"Okay." Steve looked forward to the day that Bucky would join them on missions—and not just because he wouldn't have to worry about leaving him behind. He and Bucky had been back to back in fights since they were six. He'd missed that. And Bucky had spoken tentatively about the future and joining the Avengers some day, but he still wasn't ready to face combat. Not yet.

"And by 'things going wrong', you'd better not mean like what happened last time I left," Sam put in, exiting the hallway with a go-bag slung over his shoulder. "I don't want to come home to find out you've set any more of my appliances on fire." It might've sounded a little brusque, but Steve knew Sam was only ever sarcastic with Bucky when he thought things were fine—which was more and more often these days. That was probably a good thing.

Bucky grinned mischievously. "You know, since I bought the new one, I'm pretty sure it's my toaster."

"Fine. Set your toaster on fire all you like, but everything else better be in one piece when we get back," Sam said, smiling.

"See you in a few days, Buck," Steve said, picking up his own bag and moving to follow Sam.

"Be careful, punk," Bucky called from behind him.

"He'll be fine, Steve," Sam told him as they walked down the stairs.

"I know he will," Steve said. "But what if he…I don't know, what if he has a flashback or something and there's no one around?"

"That is a possibility," Sam admitted. "But he wanted to do this, and it'll be good for him. Besides, I know you've got Clint checking up on him."

"Yeah." He did feel better knowing that Clint was around, even if he was over at the Tower. Clint was still benched for a bad ankle. He was walking on it fine, but the pain medication made him sleepy, in a comically abrupt way. It was funny when they found him sleeping in random spots on the floor around the Tower, but passing out mid-combat would not have been nearly as entertaining. "Alright. Let's go take out a death-ray."

"It's so cliché," Sam said, grinning. "Why even build a death ray? I feel like I'm in a comic book or something."

"You didn't feel like that already?" Steve asked with a grin.


As outwardly confident as he'd been with Steve, internally, Bucky had been less sure he'd be alright on his own. But, like he'd told Steve, he needed to do this—just to know that he could—and he'd been pleasantly surprised that he'd been doing alright.

What he hadn't been expecting, though, was this feeling of loneliness. He'd been on his own for nearly seventy years—when he'd been conscious, anyway. He figured three days would be no big deal. But he'd really gotten used to that feeling of always having someone around. That constant companionship that had been so foreign at first was now something he relied on. Something he missed when he didn't have it. And he realized with a start that he'd always missed it. The Winter Soldier had been lonely too. He hadn't known the word for it, and wouldn't have been allowed to express it anyway, but he hadn't liked being alone.

So, when Barton called and invited him to come over to the Tower, it wasn't as irritating as he would have thought it would be.

"Steve told you to check up on me, didn't he?" he asked. It was still a little irritating, though.

"He did tell me to be available," Clint admitted. "But that's not what this is, man, I swear. I am so bored. Please come over and do something with me. Anything."

Bucky couldn't stop himself from smiling at that. "Yeah, okay. It's pretty quiet around here too." Which is how he found himself eating pizza and being cajoled into playing some sort of dancing video game with Clint Barton.

"Now, J.A.R.V.I.S. has promised not to record this," Clint said. "Right, J.A.R.V.I.S.?"

"You have my word, sir," the ceiling said. "Mr. Stark will never know."

"See?" Clint said. "It's just for fun. You wanna give it a try?"

Bucky eyed the remote in his hand. "I still don't understand how I'm supposed to dance with this."

"You just hold it," Clint said, demonstrating. He slipped the little strap around his wrist. "You don't even push the buttons or anything. You just hold it, and then, see the person on the screen? The hand that's the glowy one, that corresponds to the one you're holding the remote with. You just follow the moves. We'll start with an easy one."

Still a little confused, Bucky mimicked Clint's position, eyes on the screen as the colorful figure started to dance. He felt hopelessly lost at first, but about halfway through the song, it clicked that the little figures on the bottom of the screen showed the upcoming moves, and he was able to follow along a little better. The score at the end announced that Barton had absolutely crushed him, but he thought he got it now. And realizing there was a scoreboard appealed to a competitive streak that hadn't shown itself much since coming home.

"Alright," he said. "Let's try another one." He cocked a challenging eyebrow at Clint, who smirked back. The game was on.


Steve had texted Bucky once they were on the Quinjet heading home, and was managing not to worry that he hadn't responded. Bucky was pretty terrible at actually keeping up with his cell phone—he knew how to use it, but he had a tendency to leave it somewhere and forget it. They landed at the Tower, and decided to help carry down some of the more delicate pieces of the dismantled death ray that Tony didn't trust to the bots.

"Is that music?" Bruce asked as they passed through the living quarters.

"Clint likes to play his stereo loud when no one's around," Tony said.

Natasha smirked. "I don't think Clint listens to Nicki Minaj."

Curious, they set down their cargo and followed the music around to the entertainment area. What they found shocked all of them into silence. Their backs to the door, Clint and Bucky were playing some sort of video game—a colorful figure on the big screen was dancing wildly, and they were following her moves, small blinking remotes held high in the air.

"Get outta my space, Barnes!" Clint yelled, narrowly avoiding a collision with Bucky.

"Wouldn't be in your space if you'd stay on your side of the room!" Bucky retorted, not losing time with the music and executing a frankly impressive hip-shaking-flowing-into-a-high-kick-thing.

Sam made a choking noise next to Steve that dancers did not hear over the music.

The music faded into silence, and Nat slowly started clapping. Bucky and Clint spun around abruptly. "Wow," she said.

"Hey, guys," Clint said casually. "How was the mission?" Bucky was looking a little bit like a deer in the headlights.

"Uh uh," Sam said, shaking his head. "Don't think you can act all normal after that."

"Clint, I've got to say, I'm embarrassed for you," Tony said, shaking his head. "You know it's 2015, right? An original Wii? Really?"

Clint smirked, turning to Bucky. "He's just saying that cause he sucks at this game."

Bucky smiled and Tony huffed, affronted. "I do not suck!"

"Oh, yeah? Prove it, Iron Man," Clint said, holding out his remote.

Thor beamed. "Excellent! A challenge!"

"I don't need to—" Tony protested, but Thor was already shoving him forward.

"No, no! It is a matter of honor! You must!" he insisted.

Tony sighed. "Fine. You're going down, Barton."

Clint's grin turned practically evil. "Oh, no. Since you say you don't suck, you're going up against the reigning champ." He slapped his remote into Tony's palm. "And that's not me."

All eyes in the room shot to Bucky, who held out his arms and inclined his head in a little bow of invitation. An excited murmur ran through the rest of the group, and Steve heard Nat and Sam hastily placing bets with Rhodey and Bruce.

"That hardly seems fair," Tony said confidently, evidently not seeing Bucky as much of a threat.

"It's probably not," Bucky replied with a thoughtful sniff, pretending to study his fingernails. He looked up with a wicked grin. "Because I'm awesome. Bring it on, Stark."

Steve grinned and leaned over to Nat to place ten dollars on Bucky. Clint sidled over and leaned back against the counter. "It's hardly a fair bet, but give me twenty on Barnes," he said, leaning down to snag a water bottle out of the mini-fridge.

"You guys have fun?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, he came over this morning. We had pizza and then did this. I mean, I know you said he was the swing dance champ, like, seventy years ago, but holy crap, that man can dance!"

Steve chuckled.

"Seriously," Clint pressed. "I mean, Nat knows, I'm not half bad at this one myself, but once he figured out the mechanics of the thing, he cleaned the floor with me. I haven't won in, like, four hours."

Steve smiled. Bucky had been a great dancer back in the day. Girls were lining up to dance with him. Sure, it wasn't any kind of dancing like this, but it looked like he'd never lost the rhythm.

They all clapped and cheered, shouting encouragement and insults, and Tony cursed and Bucky smiled serenely and absolutely demolished him. Nat went next, and she gave Bucky a run for his money, but didn't quite pull off a victory. Bucky sat out for a while after that, drinking a bottle of water and laughing as Steve and Sam gave it a try and Steve lost spectacularly. Rhodey cleaned the floor with Bruce, and Thor was even worse than Steve, but was by far more enthusiastic than anyone else.

"Still haven't learned how to dance, huh?" Bucky teased when Steve sat down. Tony and Thor were gearing up for a round in front of them.

"Two left feet," Steve agreed. "I don't think the serum could undo that. Bet I could beat Tony, though."

"Well, sure," Bucky agreed. "But I don't know that's saying much."

"Hey!"

Bucky shrugged and grinned, taking another drink of water. "Just calling it like I see it, Steve. A spade's a spade."

"You're a jerk, you know that?" Steve said, smiling broadly. It was great seeing Bucky so happy, so confident again. And this was…This was fun. Loud, silly, pointless fun. Steve hadn't done anything like this in a long time.

Bucky tilted his head in agreement. "I'm a jerk that can dance, though, Stevie. I am a jerk that can dance."


You can fill in with any Nicki Minaj song you like, but I like to think they were dancing to Super Bass.

Chapter Text

 


Steve wasn't sure when he'd first noticed it, but once he did, he couldn't not notice it. He just wasn't sure how to ask. Bucky had been back for two weeks now, and while he remembered Steve—had actually sought him out—there was a whole hell of a lot that he didn't remember and a lot he wasn't sure about. His own emotions seemed to surprise him, and while he had his good days, unexpected things could set him off, triggering a chain reaction of anger and confusion and yelling and Bucky just shutting down and locking himself in his room. Steve was still trying to find the balance between being helpful and pushing too far—that line seemed to move around on a daily basis. He never knew what was a safe topic of conversation—some things, Bucky refused to talk about, while others he talked about freely, and still others he seemed willing to talk about but didn't know how. Touching on the first or the last ones tended to end in some kind of explosion, so Steve was trying to be careful with what he asked and how. But he had to know.

"Hey, Buck?" he asked. Bucky looked up at him. "Can I ask what's with the knife?" They were watching the news, and Bucky had come into the living room and sat down in the armchair he liked, slipping a knife out of a sheath on his hip and setting it on the coffee table. The first time he saw him do it, Steve had thought he was just moving it so it wouldn't jab him in the leg when he sat down—because he did it every time he sat down—but then Steve had realized that he always seemed to put it closer to Steve than to himself. What really got him wondering, though, was a couple of days ago, when Bucky had been sitting at the table eating breakfast and Steve had joined him. The knife had remained strapped to Bucky's leg until Steve sat down, but as soon as he did, Bucky had slid the knife out and set it on the table. He'd done it casually, like he always did. Like it was a perfectly natural thing to do. Hadn't even looked at it. But that was when the oddness of the whole thing really jumped out at Steve.

Bucky's eyebrows furrowed. "What knife?" he asked.

Huh. That wasn't what Steve had been expecting. "The one on the table."

Bucky's eyes went down to the knife, and he seemed mildly surprised to see it there. "Oh. That's mine."

"I know," Steve said. This was getting weirder. "Why'd you put it there?" Bucky frowned thoughtfully but didn't say anything, so Steve felt the need to elaborate. "It's just, I've noticed every time we sit down together, you put that on the table."

"I do?"

Steve nodded. "Usually over by me, like right now." Bucky looked down curiously at the knife. "Am I supposed to do something with it?" Steve wondered.

Bucky stared at the knife for a long minute with a look of puzzled concentration, then he made a choking sound as his breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened in horror, and before Steve could react, he jumped up and ran out of the room. The bathroom door slammed as Steve leapt to his feet and he hurried down the hall, hesitating at the door. His concern shot up several notches at the sound of violent retching coming from behind the door. "Bucky?" he asked tentatively. "Are you okay?"

There was no response, but after a minute he heard the sound of the toilet flushing and running water. He backed away as the door opened. "I'm sorry," he said quickly, not sure for what yet, although he'd obviously hit a nerve.

Bucky was breathing hard and looking alarmingly pale, and while it was a good sign that he didn't look angry, he was visibly shaken. "No," he said. "No, it, I'm not, you didn't, it's not…" he started, stumbling over the words. He shook his head like he was trying to shake something loose. "You didn't…I just, I can't," he said, gesturing helplessly with one hand. He looked apologetic and sad and a little scared, and he shook his head again. "I can't," he said again, sorrowfully, then ducked his head and pushed past Steve and into his own room, shutting the door.

Though his heart screamed to rush after him and find out what was wrong, Steve could tell this was one of those lines he needed to not push. Bucky was upset—though, apparently (and thankfully), not with Steve—and he needed some space to figure out whatever this was. Steve would give him that. He sighed and stared at the closed door a moment longer before returning to the living room.

He sat where he could see the hallway in case Bucky came back out. He hated sitting here doing nothing. A much younger Bucky used to call him a compulsive fixer, and he supposed that was true. He wanted to fix this. He wanted to help his friend get better. But he didn't know how. He didn't even know what this was. Steve cast his thoughts back over the conversation, trying to think of anything that might have triggered Bucky's reaction. He was coming up blank, other than the whole thing having something to do with Hydra, which was obvious enough it was stupid to even mention.

On the plus side, there had been no yelling. Instead of just locking himself away, Bucky had tried to explain and even apologize a little first. Granted, he hadn't done it well, but the intention was there, and that was a big step for him. Bucky used to have a way with words. He'd been articulate and witty, able to charm himself out of (or into) just about anything. Hydra had taken that from him—beyond mission reports and acknowledgement of orders, what need did they have for a weapon to talk? Words often failed him now, and it made him angry, because he knew he used to be different. Steve was confident that in time, Bucky would find the easy words he used to have. Bucky was not. So, even though he was worried, Steve appreciated Bucky's attempt to articulate his need for space. It was a step in the right direction.

Lost in his thoughts and his worry, Steve didn't realize it was getting late until the room was suddenly awash in light. Sam had come home and was standing in the kitchen, having just flipped the light switch. "Why are you sitting in the dark staring at the hallway?" he asked. He cast his eyes around the living room, noting the absence of Bucky. "Did something happen?" he asked.

Steve sighed and pushed off the couch. "Kind of," he said, walking to the kitchen. He could still see the hallway from where he leaned on the counter. "I'm not really sure what it was." Sam nodded for him to go on, and Steve sighed again. "Have you noticed the thing he does with the knife?"

Sam considered. "You mean that he always has one? Or do you mean how he's always putting one out on the table?"

"The table thing," Steve clarified. "I asked him about it today."

"Didn't take it well?"

Steve tilted his head. "He didn't get mad, if that's what you're wondering. He looked…surprised. I don't think he knew he was doing it."

Sam frowned. "That's weird."

"I know. Then he got this look of…of dawning horror, ran to the bathroom and threw up and then shut himself in his room. He did try to apologize first, so that's…"

"That's good," Sam finished. He was aware of Bucky's difficulty with words, and was remarkably patient with it for someone who didn't really know the guy.

Steve nodded. "Yeah, no, I know. He just…" He sighed. "He looked like he remembered something and it freaked him out. I've been sitting here wracking my brain trying to figure out what it could be."

"Well," Sam said thoughtfully, moving to the fridge to pull out some leftovers. "It sounds like he wants to think about it." He gave Steve a significant look. "And so you know what that means you need to do?"

Steve's eyes narrowed in frustration. "I'm giving him space, aren't I?" he snapped, gesturing at the hall and Bucky's room. Sam had had to gently remind him—a few times—that as much as Steve was trying to help, Bucky needed to set the pace for this healing, not him, and that meant that sometimes Steve was going to have to back off.

Sam didn't rise to match Steve's irritation. "I'm just saying you get ahead of things sometimes," he said calmly, throwing a few slices of pizza in the microwave. "It sounds like he's taking a step here, so let him do it."

"I know," Steve sighed. "I just…"

"I know," Sam nodded. He pulled his plate out of the microwave. "Rest of the pizza's all yours, man."

Steve busied himself with heating up his own dinner, and was a little surprised when Sam spoke up again. "It sounds like a conditioned response," Sam said thoughtfully.

"Huh?"

"The knife thing. You said he didn't realize he was doing it?"

"Yeah."

"So, it sounds to me like something Hydra conditioned him to do. I have no idea why," he added, anticipating Steve's question. "But it sounds like it's a reflex, and now he's trying to figure out why he does it."

"Yeah, well, the 'why' of it probably isn't anything good," Steve said bitterly, remembering Bucky's terrified expression.

"Probably not," Sam agreed. "It is Hydra we're talking about. But it's probably a good thing that you brought it up. You made him aware of it, so now he can think it over and figure it out."

"Yeah." Steve stared down at his pizza. "I just wish…" He didn't finish, not sure what he had wanted to say. He wished a lot of things.

Sam reached across the counter and clapped him on the shoulder. "I know. And I know you probably thought of a thousand different ways this could go while we were looking for him, and none of them looked like this. But he's back, and he wants to be here. Hang on to that, be patient, and we'll figure this out." Steve smiled, grateful for Sam's use of the word 'we' instead of 'you'. He wasn't under any sort of obligation to help the man who tried to kill him when he first met him (several times), but he was doing it anyway, and Steve was glad to have him on his side.

They finished their dinner quietly, and Sam turned the TV back on in the hopes that it would get Steve's mind off his worries. It worked a little—he could focus on it for a while before looking back down the hall and worrying about Bucky.

When it was time for bed, he hesitated outside Bucky's door, finally knocking softly. He didn't want to push him, but it had been awfully quiet for an awfully long time—he just wanted to make sure he was alright. "Bucky?" he asked carefully.

There wasn't a response for long enough that Steve started to worry. "Yeah?" Bucky finally replied in a soft voice.

"You, ah, I just wanted to see if you were okay," Steve said awkwardly, frowning at his wording. Obviously he wasn't okay.

"I'm okay," Bucky said, not really sounding okay at all. Then quietly, almost a whisper, "Please leave me alone."

Steve swallowed down his initial hurt at the rejection—he knew it had taken Bucky a lot of courage to ask that. He could never have made such a request of his Hydra handlers without serious repercussions, and in a halting, painful conversation earlier in the week, Bucky had admitted that even though he knew Steve wouldn't do that, he still expected punishment for dissent.

"Okay," Steve told him. If Bucky needed to see that it was safe to make his own choices, then Steve would show him—he wished he could just say it, but if Bucky needed to see it to really believe it, then Steve would show him again and again until he did. "Whatever you need, man."

He moved away from the door, then stepped back. "If you need anything, you can come get me. But you take whatever time, whatever space you need. No rush."

"Thank you," he heard Bucky whisper.

And it was one of the harder things he'd ever done, but he walked away from the door and went to his room. Eventually, he even managed to fall asleep.

Bucky's door was still shut when he woke up the next morning, but when he walked into the kitchen after his shower, Bucky was at the counter making coffee. "Morning, Buck," he said, and Bucky looked up and kind of smiled at him. Sort of.

"Hey, Steve," he replied. He looked more settled than he had last night, though Steve wouldn't go so far as to say he looked okay. He still looked like something was on his mind. "You want some coffee?" he asked.

"Sounds great. Thanks," Steve said. He grabbed a bowl and sat down at the table, pouring himself some of the cereal Bucky had set out. "You sleep okay?" he asked awkwardly. He felt like he sounded oddly falsely cheerful, and while it was obvious they were both still thinking about last night, he wasn't sure if he should bring it up or not.

Bucky shrugged, his back to Steve as he finished with the coffee. Steve hadn't heard any yelling last night, which either meant that Bucky's dreams had been relatively nightmare-free or that he just hadn't slept at all.

Bucky came to the table, a cup of coffee in each hand. Last week, Bucky had remembered how Steve liked his coffee, and though he grumbled about why he could remember that when he still occasionally forgot his own name, Steve could tell he was happy to have remembered something on his own and have it stick. He'd been offering to make Steve coffee every morning since. He set a cup down in front of Steve, and Steve smiled. "Thanks." The sort of smile got a little bigger.

He watched as Bucky set his own coffee down and lowered himself into his chair. His hand went instinctively to the knife on his hip but stopped halfway as he bit his lip and made a fist. He drew in a deep breath, clenching his fist so tightly Steve half-expected the metal to crack, then let it go, dropping his hand to rest on his thigh. The hand twitched like it wanted to go for the knife again, so Bucky pulled it up to the table to hold his cereal bowl. He kept his eyes firmly on his breakfast.

For several long minutes, neither of them said anything. Bucky was eating slowly and methodically, eyes hidden behind his hair. Steve wasn't sure where to go from here. Finally, he looked across the table and sighed. "You wanna talk about it?" he offered.

Bucky was quiet for a minute, and just enough of his face was visible for Steve to see him worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. "No," he said at last, looking up at Steve nervously.

Steve pulled up what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Okay." It wasn't okay, not really. It was obviously eating at Bucky, and Steve wanted to help, he wanted to fix it, and, hell, he just wanted to know. But Bucky wasn't ready. "We don't have to."

"We don't?" Bucky asked uncertainly, like he was wondering if this was some sort of test, and Steve swallowed down a lump of hatred for Hydra and whatever they'd done to make Bucky so afraid.

"We don't," Steve repeated. "We can talk about it later, whenever you're ready. Or, you know, we can talk about it never, if that's what you want. It's your call."

"You don't want to know?" Bucky asked suspiciously.

Steve smiled sadly. "Of course, I want to know. But if you don't want to tell me, I'm not going to make you," he promised. He saw something settle in Bucky's eyes as he said that, and realized Bucky had been worrying about that since Steve came into the kitchen. "I'm never going to make you do anything you don't want to," he told him, reaching across the table to pat his hand. "And I'm never gonna get mad at you for it." Bucky knew that Steve wasn't like his old handlers—he'd told him as much—but Steve knew that the inside of Bucky's head was a chaotic, confusing place these days, and that even though he knew things, he often forgot them. So he tried not to let it hurt when Bucky forgot, and instead took every chance he could to remind him that he was safe now.

Bucky looked down at their hands, and Steve squeezed Bucky's and let it go. After a moment, Bucky looked up, gratitude swimming in his steel-blue eyes and a small, but very real smile on his face. "Thank you," he said softly.

Steve smiled back and nodded, and they went back to eating their cereal, but the silence was no longer uncomfortable. Sometimes it was hard to listen to Sam's advice and not push for the answers he wanted, but moments like this one reminded him why he should. That wavering gratitude in Bucky's voice, that relieved smile in his eyes—that was Bucky remembering that he was safe, that Steve was safe. They were figuring each other out again, and they could do this.

Bucky was fairly quiet for the rest of the day—obviously still thinking, but not in the dark and brooding way that scared Sam (and Steve too, if he was being honest). He could be drawn into a conversation, and seemed to welcome the distraction from whatever he was thinking about when Steve asked him if he still wanted to learn how to use the washing machine and dryer, like they'd talked about yesterday. He ended up being fascinated by the dryer in particular, and Steve caught his delighted little smile at the fresh scent and fluffiness of the freshly dried towels.

Bucky insisted that Steve let him fold all the laundry—he said the memory of how to do it was right there on the edge of his brain and he wanted to see if he could get it on his own. Steve agreed, then left the room when Bucky kept glaring at him. Hovering. Right. He could back off a little.

When he came back to the living room later, he smiled at the stacks of neatly folded clothes on the coffee table and Bucky—who, it would seem, had not slept last night—slumped across the pile of folded towels on the couch, fast asleep. (Over the next few months, this was going to become a habit. Sam would often comment on how cat-like his ability to detect clean laundry was, and while Bucky would claim that he just liked the way it smelled, they always found him asleep, head nestled in a pile of clean towels or sheets.)

The next few days passed relatively uneventfully. Sometimes Bucky would get up early and go running with Sam and Steve, and there were hints of conspiratorial winks at Steve and an old, familiar smirk when the repetition of "On your left!" and "On your right!" pulled a frustrated growl out of Sam. They spent one afternoon going through a box of old photographs Steve had found, and Bucky didn't remember everything—or even most of it—but he remembered more than either of them thought he would. He smiled more that afternoon than Steve had seen since he came back, and he even laughed once or twice.

His hand would still twitch toward that knife, and there were a few times he slipped up and the knife made it all the way up to the table. He always looked a little sick when that happened, and he would grab it and put it away and sulk for a while. Steve was dying to know what it was all about, but he had accepted that he was probably never going to. Whatever it was, Bucky seemed to be working his way through it on his own, and that was good. And if his improvement was coming at the cost of Steve's curiosity, well, that was a price Steve was happy to pay.

It was about a week later when, to Steve's surprise, Bucky brought it up. They were in the living room—Bucky had been reading and Steve was looking over a mission briefing Tony had sent over. (He hadn't gone on any missions since Bucky had come back—he didn't think either of them were ready for him to be gone for that long—but he did look over reports to keep up with what the team was doing and to offer tactical advice.) A flash of motion had caught his eye, and he'd looked up to see Bucky had gotten the knife out again. He hadn't put it up on the coffee table, though—he was just playing with it, flipping it between his fingers.

Bucky caught Steve watching him and stopped. He looked down at the knife and back up at Steve. "You still want to know?" he asked quietly.

Steve arched an eyebrow in surprise, but set the folder aside. "I do if you want to tell me."

Bucky nodded and bit his lip. "I wanted to figure it out first," he said. "Before I said anything. And I knew that if I didn't…If I didn't think about it, and if I didn't know what to say, then I would try to tell you about it and I wouldn't know what to say, and I would…" He sighed and looked up at Steve apologetically. "I always end up yelling at you. I never mean to. I know I used to be better at talking to people, but I can't remember how, and it gets stuck and I get so angry, and I'm not angry at you, but you're right here, and so that's where it all…where it all goes." He sighed. "I'm sorry."

Steve smiled and reached over to clap him on the shoulder. "I know. I yelled at a fair few people when I came out of the ice. This whole 'man out of his own time' thing is a lot, and I know that's far and away the least of all the crap you've got to deal with. So, I'm not gonna take it personally."

Bucky nodded gratefully, looking back down at the knife. He placed the tip against his metal palm and started to spin it slowly. "So, um, the knife thing, I…I didn't know I was doing it until you asked about it. And I had to think about it for a while. I have trouble remembering a lot of what exactly Hydra did to me and when—it just all blurs together—either because I don't want to remember, or because my brain is just…broken and I can't."

He drew in a deep breath and Steve swallowed down the need to tell Bucky that he wasn't broken. Bucky was trying to get through this, and Steve didn't want to disrupt his process.

"Anyway, I, when you asked, I had this thought that I knew why, but I didn't know where it came from, and I didn't want it to be that, so I had to go and…" He was rambling, but Steve just nodded, knowing that if he waited long enough, it would all tie together.

"But it was," Bucky said sadly. He stopped spinning the knife and gripped the hilt tightly in his fist. "It was supposed to be a gun," he said, huffing a humorless laugh. He started tapping the blade restlessly against his metal fingers. "I don't know if this is worse or not, but it was supposed to be a gun. I still have my guns, but I don't like to, I mean, I don't want to…" He sighed again. "I know I don't need them here. But I'm just not ready to…" He shook his head, looking down at the knife. He wasn't ready to be unarmed yet, and Steve got that. They'd talked about it some, and he wondered if Bucky had forgotten they'd had that conversation, or if he just felt the need to reiterate it now.

"It's alright," Steve told him. "Me and Sam, we don't mind."

Bucky nodded. "I know." He kept tapping the knife against his fingers. "But Hydra…" He swallowed. "It was old programming," he said quietly. "That's why it took me so long to figure it out. Hydra, they had different ways of controlling me. But when I was…" He frowned, searching for a word. "Before I was finished, they hadn't figured it all out yet. I was dangerous, even to them. They could control me most of the time, but not all of the time, and I scared them. I think maybe I killed one of them. I don't remember." He shook his head and started tapping his knife on the edge of the coffee table, his eyes far away and lost in a memory. Steve tried to look encouraging, waiting for him to continue, but he was nervous. This was Hydra, so, obviously this story wasn't heading anywhere good, but he got the feeling it was going somewhere very, very bad.

"There were lots of these, these reflexes they gave me," Bucky said, gesturing at the side of his head with the hand not holding the knife. "I don't remember how they did it," he said quietly, grimacing at the memory of a distant pain. "But this one was…If I was ever alone with one of my handlers and they didn't…" He inhaled shakily. "They didn't look like they were armed," he said slowly, as if deliberately selecting each word. "I was supposed to…to…"

Steve realized his mouth was hanging open in horror, and he shook his head, mentally begging Bucky not to finish the sentence.

Bucky stopped tapping the knife and was silent for a long moment before growling and flinging the knife across the room where it embedded itself in the wall. He buried his face in his hands. "I was supposed to give them a weapon so they could kill me if they needed to," he finished in a tiny, broken voice.

For a long time, neither of them said anything. Most of Steve's mental energy was going to keeping himself from throwing up, so it took a while to process what Bucky had just told him. Served them right, living in fear of the monster they created, but the fact that they made Bucky willingly give his tormentors the means to put him down like a rabid dog…It almost didn't matter that they'd never needed to do it. There were no words for how disgusting that was.

Steve swallowed down another wave of nausea as he realized where Bucky had been putting the knife these past few weeks. Steve. He'd been putting the knife in front of Steve. The part of Bucky's mind that was still Bucky might know he was free, but the part that was still entangled in the programming and the conditioning and the Winter Soldier, that part was still following orders and had just transferred the chain of command from Alexander Pierce to Steve. Something inside Bucky's brain saw Steve as his new handler, and suddenly he couldn't swallow it down any more and this time it was Steve jumping up and running to the bathroom.

When he'd finished throwing up, he slumped down on the floor and leaned back against the door, shutting his eyes. When he'd found Bucky strapped to that table in Italy, that was the first time he'd truly understood what it meant to hate something, and he'd thought he could never hate anything more than he did Hydra in that moment. Two days later, he'd proven himself wrong when Bucky had woken up screaming in the medical tent, and Steve had held his shaking, weeping, terrified best friend in his arms. Then Bucky had fallen from the train, then Steve met him on the bridge, then they fought on the helicarrier. And then, and then, and then…There just wasn't a limit. How much he hated them would never, ever stop growing. They had taken everything. Everything. And now they were dead, defeated, falling apart, on the run, and they were still taking it. He slammed a fist into the floor by his feet, dimly registering the tile cracking but not really caring.

A pang of guilt cut through his anger. Bucky. Bucky was still out in the living room. Probably wondering what the hell was going on and if he hadn't finally pushed Steve too far. Steve drew in a deep breath, schooling his face into something calmer and pushing himself to his feet. None of this was Bucky's fault.

Back in the living room, Bucky was still sitting with his face in his hands but he looked up when Steve came in, worry etched plainly across his face. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, and Steve wondered if he was conscious of the way he pulled his knees up into his chair, making himself smaller.

Steve shook his head. "Don't be," he said, smiling sadly. "You're not the one I'm mad at." He sat back down with a sigh. Bucky was watching him warily. "Really," he assured him. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't've reacted that way."

"It's okay," Bucky told him with a tiny smile. "I did." He seemed to relax a little when that got a small smile out of Steve in response.

"It's just so…" Steve sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "It's just wrong." And that was understating it, but he didn't have any better words. He sighed again and looked up, his throat suddenly tight. "What they did to you, it's—" He shook his head, swallowing down the urge to be sick again. "I'm so sorry, Buck," he said. Sorry for what they'd done to him, sorry for how they'd hurt him, for all the years he'd suffered. Sorry that he hadn't saved him.

A sad smile quirked up the corner of Bucky's mouth. "It's not your fault," he said softly.

Maybe Bucky believed that, but Steve wasn't sure he did. If he'd just responded faster, not gone down, not lost his shield, not left himself and, subsequently, Bucky vulnerable. If he'd just reached farther. "I'm still sorry," he said quietly.

Bucky nodded and Steve sighed. "Thanks for telling me," he said. "I know that…that wasn't easy. Thank you for trusting me."

"I always trust you," Bucky said quietly. He gave Steve a soft smile. "I'm not very good at acting like it sometimes, but I do."

Something warm uncurled in Steve's chest and he smiled back.

"And I know," Bucky went on. "I know you would never, I mean, I know I was giving you the knife, but I know, I know you wouldn't…" He shook his head, getting caught up on his words.

"Never," Steve said firmly, and just like that, the hurt he'd felt that some part of Bucky's brain was thinking of him as his new handler vanished. Because maybe something in his brain thought that, but Bucky didn't, and that was all Steve needed. They could fix the rest of it.

Bucky smiled gratefully, then blushed, looking across the room at the knife in the wall. "Sorry about that," he said.

Steve waved the apology away. "We'll hang a picture in front of it or something," he said, smiling when that surprised a short, sharp laugh out of Bucky.

"Hey, are you okay?" Bucky asked, eyes following his hand. "Your hand's bleeding."

Steve looked down at his hand where blood was oozing from the knuckles. "Yeah," he said. "I, uh, I punched the floor in the bathroom."

Bucky smirked. "At least I'm not the only one with anger issues around here. Wash it off and let me take a look at it." He left the room and came back a minute later with the first aid kit. Steve was rinsing his hand off in the kitchen, and it really wasn't bad at all, but if Bucky wanted to fix it up, Steve would let him. "I pulled the hamper over the new hole in the floor," Bucky said conversationally, dabbing antiseptic into the cuts on Steve's hand. "That way Wilson won't have to yell at anybody."

Over the course of the next day or two, whenever Bucky's hand twitched reflexively in the direction of his knife, he would catch himself and Steve would give him an encouraging smile and carry on as if nothing had happened, and Bucky would nod back and follow his cue instead of allowing himself to brood over it. And one morning at breakfast, when Bucky had slept badly the night before and wasn't firing on all cylinders yet, he pulled the knife from its sheath and placed it in front of Steve without realizing it. Steve didn't say anything, and Bucky's eyes widened briefly in alarm as Steve reached out and picked up the knife, but Steve merely flipped it around and stuck it in the butter dish, grabbing a new piece of toast and using the knife to spread the butter liberally across the top.

Bucky looked surprised for a moment, then huffed a laugh and shook his head. "You better clean that when you're done," he said, the grateful smile in his eyes belying his gruff tone.

Steve arched a mischievous eyebrow at his friend, and, maintaining eye contact, grabbed a second piece of toast and stuck the knife into the strawberry jelly.

Bucky shook his head, clicking his tongue in mock annoyance. "Steve, Steve, Steve," he said. "Where are your table manners? You can't use a combat knife for jelly." He reached down to his ankle and pulled up a smaller knife. "You want to use a boot knife for jelly," he added, demonstrating by grabbing a piece of his own toast and using the boot knife to slather it in grape jelly.

"You guys are weird," Sam said, from where he'd been watching who knows how much of the exchange from the doorway. The look on his face made it clear that whatever reaction he'd been expecting to that comment, it was not Bucky laughing so hard that milk came out of his nose.