Poor Bucky. If only my favorite aspect of him to explore wasn't his not-so-stellar half.


18

"I don't hate you," James says when he reappears Sunday morning. Bucky, in the middle of making a strawberry-banana smoothie as the first flakes of slow drift down outside, nearly crushes the top of the blender within his metal hand in surprise.

"A little warning, please," Bucky says. He can't quite get his voice to match the lighthearted words but it's easier than turning around.

"But I think we both can understand why I'm angry."

Bucky presses the button to start the blender and for ten heart-pounding seconds the only sound is the blender's blades tearing the fruit inside to shreds. Bucky stops pressing the button and reaches for a cup.

"You were reckless," James continues. "You wanted answers, I get that, answers I couldn't provide, but going to him—that was dangerous. We could've gotten hurt. We could've hurt someone else."

"I didn't," Bucky says. He pours the smoothie into a glass and stares at it while the little flakes of strawberry settle in the pink sludge. Suddenly, he isn't as eager to take a drink. He turns, glass still in hand, and makes eye contact with the war-torn man sitting on his kitchen table. "I didn't, okay? I had to know, I had to face it."

James's eyes are pinched at the corners, his lips weighed into a heavy frown. "You had to, huh?"

Bucky swallows and struggles to maintain eye contact. "I couldn't ignore it anymore. The robot attack—I may not remember much of it, but that was him. He protected us. And everyone else was fine."

"Only because there was no handler around to give him a mission. He's not you. He doesn't operate with morals, just parameters."

"I know that," Bucky said, exasperated. "Fuck, James, of course I know that. But we didn't fucking save Steve on the Helicarrier under orders. We didn't jump into the water because taking a swim was the fucking mission. We dragged Steve's soaking ass to the shore with a dislocated shoulder because it was the right thing to do. He understood that the same way you and I did. We were in fucking agreement."

James flickers and Bucky's head pounds, but after a second James is normal again.

"Are you saying you want to go back to that man?" he asks quietly. "The man only just realizing he isn't a machine?"

"No, God no, I—no. I just can't ignore part of myself anymore. It didn't get me anywhere after Azzano and it won't get me anywhere now."

James braces his palms on the table on either side of his thighs. "So that's why you invited Steve over? To tell him about all of this? All of us?"

Bucky stares down at his smoothie. If only his brain could be fixed as easily as throwing the three parts of himself into a blender. "I don't think so. Not today, anyway. I need to talk to him about somethin' else."

"Azzano."

"Yeah." Bucky finally takes a drink. "I shoulda done it when I first had the memory of that night, Dugan's snoring. All I've got is bits and pieces, but Steve…he probably has more."

James takes a deep breath. "You know you never told him, don't you? The real effects. He knew about the nightmares—not much you can do to hide those. But the healing, the strength, the senses. He didn't know."

One fact drifts unspoken between them: if Steve had known, he would've followed.

"I didn't tell him because I was scared," Bucky says, closing his eyes. The cold smoothie in his hand becomes snow biting into his skin, wind tearing at his eyes, frost nipping at his toes. Shadows around him in the blizzard, Steve shouting that there's cover a few yards ahead. Falsworth falling, Bucky picking him up with strength he shouldn't have after two days of no food and several hours of severe weather. The knowledge that he should be dying, should be freezing, but isn't.

Bucky opens his eyes, adjusts to seeing his kitchen. "I didn't want him to worry. He had enough going on."

Stating it out loud makes it real and James is silent as Bucky absorbs his own words. "I was scared," Bucky repeats, leaning his weight against the counter. "Terrified he'd notice, ask me about it. What was I even supposed to tell him?"

"He would've worried about you even more," James says. "It would've distracted him."

"And we were in a warzone," Bucky whispers. "He couldn't afford to be distracted."

He meets James's gaze now but they're both silent, contemplative, numb.

"It was a warzone," Bucky repeats, knowing that none of them will ever find comfort in those four words.

The doorbell interrupts their discussion and, after a confused glance at James—it's only nine o'clock, Steve isn't due for two hours yet—Bucky goes and checks it out.

"Mr. Buchanan, are you home?" It's Lacy, calling through the door. "I made cookies!"

"Can't really say no to that," James says as Bucky pulls open the door. True to her word, Lacy stands on the other side with a small container of chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven. She looks up at him and there's something not quite happy in her eyes that her bright smile can't hide.

"Any special reason?" Bucky asks.

Lacy shakes her head. "Nope. Just made too many and Keno said you'd probably like some. Here!" She shoves the container at him and Bucky has no choice but to take it.

"Thank you," he says, a little bewildered.

"She's lying," James comments from the side.

"I don't have anything for you, though," Bucky continues, trying to ignore James.

"That's okay! It's a gift."

"Lacy, honey, it's time for school!"

Keno rounds the corner and sees Lacy and Bucky talking.

"School?" Bucky asks when he gets closer.

"Half day," Keno explains. "I would stay to talk more, James, but…"

"No worries," Bucky says. "I know what it means to be under a deadline." He looks back at Lacy with a smile. "Thank you for the cookies, Lacy." Back to Keno. "I'll return the container as soon as I can."

"Of course. See you around, James."

"See you."

Bucky closes the door but, under James's watchful eye, keeps one ear pressed to the wood. Advanced hearing nets him the words of Keno and Lacy's quiet conversation as they walk back to their apartment.

"D'you think they'll really help?"

"I'm sure they will, honey. Mr. Buchanan is going through a lot right now, so the best thing we can do is be supportive. But we don't want to be oppressive or nosy, right?"

"They must've heard you yelling yesterday," James says.

Bucky closes his eyes and turns so that he ends up with his back against the door. "I wasn't exactly being quiet." The opposite, really.

"Thin walls."

Bucky examines the cookies. They're still warm from being pulled out of the oven. "She made them this morning. There're a lot of them."

"Not just extras."

Bucky sighs and rests the back of his head on the door. "If they didn't believe my story before, I'm sure they'll believe it now."

"Your smoothie is melting."

The smoothie is on the kitchen counter where Bucky left it and Bucky finishes it before it gets too warm. In between sips he munches on cookies.

"The breakfast of champions," James declares. "They are good, though."

Bucky, mouth full of cookie, only nods. When the smoothie is gone and the cookies are stored, he supplements his breakfast with waffles and sausage, the latter of which Banner had recommended from a local store. How Banner has any idea of the stores in Bucky's area is beyond Bucky's knowledge, but he does appreciate the advice.

Ten o'clock passes and then ten-thirty, and soon it's ten forty-five and Bucky is channeling the anxiety making his head buzz into organizing a cheese-and-cracker platter that would fit at any of Stark's banquets.

"You're avoiding it," James says.

"Shut up."

"Steve's gonna be here soon."

"I'm trying to focus."

"Does Steve even like cheese and crackers?"

"I would almost prefer having tall, dark, and brooding out instead of you right now," Bucky mutters.

"Don't say that," James growls. Bucky arranges the last set of crackers and faces James.

"Don't say what? Don't say that you can't take a joke? Don't say that the Soldier exists? Don't say that I'm fucking sick of having a civil war in my own head?"

That, at least, is enough to shut James up. Bucky, unsure what to do with the frustration making his right hand shake, is almost grateful when the doorbell rings. Steve's on the other side and Bucky manages a smile.

"Hey."

"Hey." Steve holds up a paper bag. "I brought sandwiches."

Bucky takes the bag and leads Steve into the kitchen. Steve takes a spot on the couch while Bucky grabs the cheese and crackers. After a second's hesitation, Bucky pulls out another plate and adds the sandwiches. He returns to Steve with the two plates and two bottles of beer.

"You're prepared," Steve comments.

"Blame it on the nerves," James says dryly.

"Habit," Bucky says. "You had something with your blood sugar, didn't you?"

Steve stares at Bucky. "Constantly walking the line of near-starving, so, yes, I suppose."

James rolls his eyes. "Oh, he supposes, does he?"

"What did you want to talk about, Buck?" Steve asks. Bucky sits down with a long sigh. He still doesn't know exactly what he wants to talk about; he'll have to ease into it.

"First, what were you doing for Stark yesterday?"

Steve is willing enough to go with the topic and he scratches at his neck. "He's making some machine to help him lift heavy equipment, and he couldn't lift the main support for the thing."

"So the local super soldier got drafted?"

"Yeah."

"How long did you have to hold it for?"

Steve takes a cracker. "Three hours, roughly. Good thing the serum deals with sore muscles."

"There's irony in there somewhere," Bucky says, taking a cracker and cheese for himself. "Local strong man helps out not-so-strong man so the not-so-strong-man can build a machine to do the strong man's work."

Steve grins. "Well, when you put it like that…"

Bucky nods, too busy chewing to say anything. Steve takes a drink and stares at the cheese platter.

"I'm glad you're doing okay," Steve says after a moment.

"I guess you weren't the only person who needed to say something," James says from the side.

"And, actually, I've been meaning to ask—you know, if you wanted to—if you still want to come to the Tower and train. You know, once a week, twice a week. Whatever works for you. I cleared it with Tony, I'd just drive over here and pick you up."

Bucky buys himself a second by taking one of the six half-sandwiches Steve brought.

"It's not a bad offer," James says. "A chance to keep in shape, exercise, but—"

"It's risky," Bucky says quietly. He doesn't meet Steve eyes; his mind flashes back to the Soldier, the cage, the notebook. It's all so tenuous. "The last time didn't go so well."

"Low-stress drills," Steve suggests. "Just you 'n me, if you want. Just the two of us, like old times."

"What if I still freak?" Bucky asks. His eyes drift over to his metal hand, the plates reflecting what sunlight finds its way through the window. "What if I lose myself and hurt you?"

Steve's not-quite-sigh is as familiar to Bucky as his I'm-hiding-something face. "You won't. Remember, even in the training drill, you didn't."

"But I almost did." Bucky swallows, sneaks a glance at James. James has a pained look on his face, one hand wrapped around the other wrist in a gesture Bucky recognizes. As pointless as it is, the pressure helps to calm him down and he has to resist the urge to do it now. Back then, it was a reminder that he had no restraints; now, it will only remind him that he has no left arm.

"But you didn't."

"Steve."

"Bucky."

"He's not going to give up," James says. Bucky sighs.

"Okay, fine. I'll do it."

"Because you want to or because I'm pressuring you?"

"Oh, someone's been talking to him."

Bucky shoots James a look to shut him up before he looks at Steve. "I want to do it. I could use the exercise."

"Okay. How does this Thursday sound? I can pick you up around nine-thirty."

"Works for me."

They talk about nothing for a few minutes that slip in and out of Bucky's mind as they happen. They've eaten the last of the sandwiches when Steve sits up and rests his elbows on his knees.

"So, what did you want to talk about? I know it wasn't just Tony's invention."

"Moment of truth," James says. "What are you gonna tell him? Azzano? The hallucinations? The minor fact that the Soldier is still kickin' around inside your skull?"

"Buck?"

Bucky waves one hand. The other is clamped very tightly into a fist. "I'm fine."

Steve, clearly unconvinced, eats a cheese cracker sandwich.

Bucky focuses on his breathing. He can't bring himself to say anything about James or the Soldier. The words just won't come.

"I…remembered something," Bucky says instead. "About Azzano—or, after it."

Steve goes very still. "What was it?"

"Some night, don't know exactly when. We were camped in the woods near the front lines. I could hear the artillery cannons, but it was Dum-Dum's snoring that was keeping me awake."

"He did have a set of lungs on him."

Bucky very deliberately laces his fingers together, the chill of the metal against his flesh helping to ground him. "I knew something was wrong with me, Steve," Bucky says. "I knew it, and I didn't tell you. Kept thinking about it, but couldn't. I didn't want you to worry."

Steve is unsettlingly quiet for an unsettlingly long period of time. James is no help and Bucky fights the urge to fidget until Steve finally takes a drink and exhales for one, two, three seconds.

"I think I worried regardless." Steve shakes his head before any words can pass Bucky's or James's lips. "Hear me out, Buck. I pull you out of Azzano and what do I do immediately afterwards? I ask you to go right back in. I knew something wasn't right with you, I knew you had the fatigue—or, PTSD, is what they call it now—but I pulled you in anyway."

James is scowling. He and Bucky speak in unison. "It was my decision."

Steve snorts. "Yeah, sure. Your super-powered pal who was supposed to be safe at home pulls you out of a prison camp and then tells you he's not going anywhere. I put you in a corner, Buck, and I don't think I ever properly apologized for that." Steve takes a deep breath, upset rolling off his tensed shoulders in waves. "I should've known. I should've noticed."

"I should've said something."

Steve eyes Bucky with something dark and old and pained in his eyes. "You'd never had to before."

That something tugs at Bucky's brain and he—

Stumbles through the apartment door, trying to see through his one good eye despite the blood dripping into it.

"Buck!" Steve shouts upon seeing him, dropping his battered book in his haste to get to Bucky.

"'m fine, pal," Bucky says, pushing him away and hiding a reflexive wince at the twinge in his ribs. "Nothin' to worry about, promise. Just some assholes at the docks."

Steve isn't buying the story and he picks up the keys from where Bucky has dropped them. "I told you not t' worry about the Jones brothers."

Bucky pauses halfway to the couch, guilt holding him fast. Steve sighs and tosses the keys onto the counter before slipping under one of Bucky's arms and supporting him to the couch. Bucky lies down with a groan that isn't at all exaggerated.

"I ain't mad, Buck, but you gotta tell me when you're gonna do stuff like this."

Bucky has to take a few breaths before he can muster the energy to tilt his head and look Steve in his lying blue eyes.

"Just like you gotta tell me when you're gettin' shaken down every time you leave this place?"

Being right doesn't bring nearly enough of the vindication Bucky needs. He closes his eyes to the sight of Steve wilting, unable to bear seeing that on top of his physical pains.

"Buck?"

Bucky opens his eyes. Steve has one hand outstretched, not quite touching Bucky's right shoulder but close.

"Just 'cause we never had to before doesn't mean I shoulda waited for you to notice," Bucky says when the room stops trying to tilt around him. He looks Steve right in the eye. "Don't even try to argue with me."

Steve struggles with that for a good forty seconds that Bucky spends getting acquainted with a better variety of cracker and cheese combinations.

"Fine," Steve eventually grits out, "but the fault isn't all yours." He has that set to his jaw that makes something in Bucky sink. "Don't even try to argue with me."

In the background, James scoffs and makes all of the gestures Bucky wants to make but can't muster the willpower for.

"You're a punk," is what Bucky settles for. Steve takes another drink of his beer, finishing the bottle.

"I know."

He gets up—probably to put the bottle in the recycling, but Bucky stands too and holds out his hand. Steve, after only a second's hesitation, hands it over. Bucky finishes his own bottle on the way to the kitchen and is halfway through grabbing a second round when he hears Steve's voice.

"For the record, if you'd wanted out, I would've been fine with that."

Bucky walks back in and hands Steve his bottle. This time, he stays standing.

"I know," Bucky says. "But I wasn't."

That makes both James and Steve go quiet and Bucky sits, wrapping his mind around all the things his mouth has spat out without first running them through the filters in his brain.

"Why don't you try some safer topics?" James suggests, shifting from old soldier to new. "Might ease things up a little. Make it easier to process."

It's not bad advice.

"Of course it's not. It's from me."

"How's the rest of the team?" Bucky asks. Steve rolls the question around in his brain for a second before he shoots Bucky a sardonic eyebrow-lift.

"Well, two of them seem to have discovered a new hot chocolate recipe from sources unknown."

"Weird," Bucky says.

"Is Steven Grant Rogers jealous?" James asks.

"I'll share it if you want it," Bucky then offers. Steve smiles and waves a hand.

"I'm playing. Natasha has become a mean hot chocolate cook."

"Does that even count as cooking?"

"You can try questioning her talents. I'll be a few rooms away."

Bucky lifts his eyebrows. "Guess I won't, then. How's Stark? I heard he's been trying to do some team bonding."

Steve grabs a few crackers. "He's been trying, yeah."

"That's not encouraging."

"Don't get me wrong, he's honestly trying." Steve eats one of the three and speaks carefully to avoid spitting out crumbs. "He just takes some getting used to. Somehow, he seems to have discovered my preference for pancakes for breakfast and lasagna for dinner."

Bucky avoids eye contact while he drinks his beer. "Weird."

"Thor's off doing something in Asgard," Steve continues. "Either that or visiting Jane Foster. He's expected to stop in sometime within the next couple of weeks, though."

"And Banner?"

"Well, he misses you and your enthusiasm for his smoothies."

Bucky knows his face does something funny from the laugh he gets from Steve.

"He's doing well," Steve says, eating his other two crackers. "He was talking to some astronomers the other day, something about neutron stars and gamma ray bursts."

"That does seem to be his area," Bucky says carefully. Steve smiles tactfully into his beer. "What about Sam?"

Steve perks up immediately. Bucky wonders whether Sam knows just how big of an effect he's had on Steve. "He's doing great! Said the VA got an anonymous donation the other week that's really helped them with supplies and finding vets the support they need."

Bucky eyes the saint sitting next to him. James has the exact same suspicious look on his face. "Anonymous, huh?"

Steve flushes. "It wasn't me this time."

"This time?"

"Oh, stop it, Buck, I can't do nothing."

Bucky rolls his eyes. "Not what I was saying, Rogers."

Steve examines the label of his bottle with stubborn determination. "It was only a few grand. He wouldn't take any more."

"So you switched tactics?"

"God, Buck, have you seen the place? They barely get enough money to function, there's nothing left to keep the building from falling in on itself!"

"There's the Steve we all know and love," James says dryly, but Bucky isn't listening. Bucky sets down his beer, his jovial mood falling apart in the face of Steve's sudden passion and loud words. For a few seconds, Bucky focuses on his breathing to calm the static buzzing in his head.

He can hear Steve's apologies even before he signals that he's fine but he lets them wash over him. "Anything else in Sam's life that you're definitely not involved in?"

Steve is hesitant to keep the conversation going but folds under Bucky's unflinching expression.

"He says he's been looking at getting recertified as an EMT," Steve says. "But with helping us out occasionally, the VA, and all that, he's had it hard picking and choosing."

"Good to know he's looking, though," Bucky offers. Steve, reluctantly placated, nods.

"Yeah, it is."

Bucky gets up and grabs Lacy's cookies.

"You're spoiling me," Steve comments as he grabs two.

"My neighbors are spoiling me," Bucky replies while he grabs two as well.

"Here's your chance to mention the episode," James says, leaning his weight onto the back of the couch. "He'd listen. You know he would."

Bucky opens his mouth but Steve's phone beats him to the punch.

"The hell?" Steve mutters. He pulls it out. "Tony?" He glances at Bucky, who nods for him to go ahead while ignoring James throwing up his hands in the background. "Tony, what's going on? I told you—there's what?" Steve tenses and Bucky doesn't even have to eavesdrop to know that there's a mission. Steve's expression confirms that much when he hands up and faces Bucky, cookie crumbs still dotted around his mouth.

"Go ahead," Bucky says. "I'll still be here when you get back." He stands and leads the way to the door. "I can at least walk you down, though."

Bucky doesn't run, but he keeps a brisk pace with Steve a step behind until they reach the front door.

"I am sorry, Buck," Steve says.

"I know."

Steve holds his gaze. "Not just for this. For Azzano."

Bucky doesn't have to look to James to know what to say. "I know." Inhale, exhale. "I forgive you."

Steve gets a little ragged at the edges but he manages a nod. Bucky leans his left shoulder against the doorframe and, heedless of the snow-laden breeze making his eyes water, watches as Steve climbs into a sleek black car. The car speeds away, leaving Bucky alone. After seven seconds, Bucky pushes himself off the frame, shuts the door, and begins the trek back to his apartment.

He may forgive Steve, but he sure as hell doesn't forgive himself.


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