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By Choice or By Habit

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The Avengers go out in the field and when they go, the asset goes with them, because that is what he is for.




He doesn't really think of himself as the asset anymore. Much. He is James Buchanan Barnes; he has to tell himself this often at first, and sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn't, but eventually the days it fits are more frequent than the days when the name slides off his mind like white noise. It takes him awhile to realize, and still longer to believe, that he can ask other people to call him a certain name and have that choice respected. After he does realize it, he goes back and forth between James and Bucky for a while. He mostly feels like a James, but sometimes there is a strange blood-warm comfort in being called Bucky, especially when Steve says it -- except the feeling can grow teeth at any moment, catching on the raw and broken edges of his subconscious, reminding him that Bucky Barnes is a dead man and he's someone new.

And Steve tries sincerely to call him James when he asks for it, even though it requires some hesitation and the occasional false start; this is honestly one of the things that makes him like Steve, over and above the ghost of an old and well-worn love.

But there are also times when he truly feels like a Bucky, when the name sinks through the torn edges and clicks into place like a puzzle piece -- nights mostly, sitting around with Steve watching movies and drinking beers that don't affect either of them, just for the familiarity of it. Those are nights when he smiles and it's easy, and Steve catches his smile and returns it, and in those moments they're Steve'n'Bucky again, two Brooklyn kids against the world.

He tries to hold onto those moments as hard as he can, using them to shore himself up against the bad times.




They don't really live at the Tower, per se. Everyone has their own place, even Stark, who holes himself up in his workshop for days at a time before vanishing off with Pepper to various properties around the world. Steve has an apartment down in DC, not that he's there much. Sam is in DC more often than not. And so it goes: each of them has their own places to be, their own friends, their own lives. But they come and go from the Tower, and it's obvious that there is a place for each of them here, even the more peripheral members of the group like Sam and Colonel Rhodes and Dr. Jane Foster.

Bucky knows the Tower won't ever be his place, but then, he doesn't have any place anymore. His place was a version of Brooklyn that probably would have been gone by the time he got out of the service anyway. His place was a cryochamber in a vault. Now he's a man seventy years out of his own time, his own skin, his own skull. Like the others, he doesn't live at the Tower; he just sleeps there. They gave him his own room and said he could decorate it however he wanted. He doesn't know how he wants to decorate it, so he doesn't bother, although slowly it acquires a few things: some bookshelves with a scattering of books and DVDs on them; an assortment of knives and guns and pieces of body armor. He's not a tidy housekeeper. For one thing, he doesn't really care, but there's also something breathtaking about being able to drop his own items anywhere he likes on his own floor and just leave them lying there. Because it's his space and he can do what he wants with it.

He's allowed to leave the Tower whenever he wants -- a strange and unaccustomed luxury at first, but one he quickly comes to treasure -- and the place where he usually goes, for days at a time, is Inwood Hill Park. It's strangely wilderness-like for being surrounded by city, full of big trees and rock faces and even some caves. It's the closest thing to a home he has in the city. Sometimes he takes food with him; sometimes he lives off the land (there are waterfowl, snakes, squirrels, feral cats, discarded food in trash cans). More often he doesn't bother, and comes out of the park when hunger becomes intense enough to override the need for clear, people-free space to think.

He knows, in an abstract kind of way, that he was a city kid once. He remembers the fear and frustration of having wilderness navigation skills drummed into his thick city-kid head; he remembers the wonder of seeing country stars spread above him for the first time ever. But now he has a predator's appreciation of lonely and high places. In the park, he sleeps in trees and crouches at the top of limestone rock faces, watching tourists and picnicking locals. He has no particular worries about being detected or caught; after so many years of hunting and being hunted, avoiding tourists and urban park rangers is child's play.

Sometimes he chooses to prowl the canyons of the city instead, preferring abandoned buildings and lonely dockside areas. Occasionally he spots a person in trouble and helps them -- it's not really his purpose for being there (which is avoiding people, more often than not) but if he sees someone being mugged, a lost kid, whatever, he does something about it. Sometimes he's so lost in his own head that he doesn't realize that he's seen a person in trouble until hours later, when it's much too late.

But then, he's not a hero. He's a gun.

He's not entirely sure if Steve and the others care where he goes when he's not at the Tower. He tries to give the impression that he has an apartment somewhere in town. He's not sure if he succeeds, not sure if he cares. Steve asks him questions about his life and seems genuinely interested. He doesn't really have answers to give. Not good answers. He is slowly relearning things like having preferences about movies and music and food, but mostly he just watches the people around him and copies what they do. In large groups of people ("large" being more than two or three) he often loses track and has to retreat into a quiet corner where he can buttress the thin shell of self that keeps him from being lost in the world now that he's just beginning to figure out who he actually is.

He remembers, dimly, what it felt like to be popular and well liked. But he's pretty sure he lost that even before he lost the rest of himself. Bucky Barnes of Brooklyn, with the wide smile that all the dames liked, wasn't the same person as Bucky Barnes of Europe, sniper and torture survivor. And he's sure as hell not the same guy as James Buchanan Barnes, a loaded gun on two legs who doesn't sleep much and doesn't remember how to laugh at jokes or hold a conversation for more than five minutes before he loses the thread of it, forgets how facial expressions work, and has to retreat into his own skull for a while.

But he is useful. He holds onto that. He is useful and a useful tool will not be thrown away.




One of the reasons why he has to get away from the Tower occasionally is because there's just no getting away from people while he's in it. Steve is obviously the worst. Bucky likes Steve, he really does. And he knows that Steve means well. Still, there are times when he actually ends up locking himself in the bathroom or hiding in a fucking closet to keep Steve from finding him, which he is aware is somewhat pathological but also god dammit, he's been hanging out for close to an hour now and he needs SPACE.

He gets to know the Tower pretty well. The lower floors are all publicly accessible office space, but there's a private elevator and the top floors are high-security and invitation only. One entire floor is an enormous gym, very well equipped even by HYDRA standards. The disadvantage is that everyone goes there (except Banner, who doesn't ever seem to come out of the labs), so he's unfortunately likely to encounter people here at any hour of the day or night. But on the bright side, people in the gym tend to do their own thing and not bother him much. There's a shooting range, a swimming pool (with how many floors under it? he tries not to think about that, because hey, Stark tech) and a big obstacle-course area for doing parkour, including one section that is on the actual side of the building. He likes it out there, with the wind whipping his hair around and a drop underneath him that not even his healing factor could bring him back from.

(It's not that he wants to die. It's just nice to know that he actually could.)

Hawkeye is out here a lot. Bucky finds that he likes thinking of him best by his code name. He makes sure to ask if Hawkeye likes Clint or Barton or Hawkeye best (names are important; he's only just beginning to understand that) and Hawkeye says it doesn't matter, so Bucky decides that it's all right to think of him in the way that feels best.

(He still can't quite convince himself that he won't be punished for it. Making choices hurts sometimes, and so he makes more choices -- angrily, defiantly, because it's his and they can't take it from him. Pistachio or vanilla ice cream. Stupid things. His. He sometimes remembers doing this even when he was the Winter Soldier -- he would take a very slightly less efficient route to his assignment; he would buckle the leather straps over his body armor in a different way than usual. Because he could, and in those tiny acts of defiance maybe, just maybe, he held onto some tiny scraps of a fragile, broken thing he now recognizes as himself. He was a smart-ass punk in Brooklyn and somewhere under the Winter Soldier, under James, under everything, there is still a smart-ass punk who probably deserves a fat lip as much as Steve used to.)

Hawkeye finds him in the park one time. Bucky is draped over a branch, watching things, and Hawkeye gets most of the way to his tree -- through the tops of other trees -- before Bucky sees him coming. That's pretty good and Bucky tells him so, before adding: "Now fuck off, I want to be alone." Sam has been telling him to use his words when he wants a thing. He is fairly sure that he's being rude, but Hawkeye obligingly fucks off, so perhaps not.

He typically runs into Stark and occasionally Banner in the kitchen. The way food works in the Avengers tower -- and it took him awhile to learn the rules -- is that there is a huge kitchen with lots of food in it, provided by Stark (well, Pepper technically, or probably one of her minions) and you take whatever you want and prepare it however you like. There's no cook and no limit on how much you can have.

(He hid food in his room for months before some of it spoiled and he had to admit there was no point in doing that. Still, it took him awhile to stop. It made him feel safe. He still keeps granola bars and other nonperishable stuff hidden around his person and tucked behind the books on the bookcase. Because it makes him just that little bit safer, and Sam said anything that makes him feel safer that doesn't hurt anyone else or himself is okay.)

(It's not like he does whatever Sam says, but Sam often says stuff that makes sense, so Bucky thinks about it and then, if it seems sensible, he does it.)

But anyway, the fact that the kitchen is a free-for-all and no one has any set schedule -- half of them are gone at any given time anyway -- means that it's a crapshoot whether he'll have the place to himself long enough to fry a steak or eat a bowl of cereal, or end up having to navigate a thirty-minute Howard Stark monologue about the finer points of his arm's servos. (Tony, Tony. Not Howard. Tony. He remembers that most of the time now.)

Bruce Banner is easier to deal with, because Banner is quiet and doesn't talk much; on the other hand, while Tony grabs his food and leaves when he's done rambling about whatever's caught his interest at the moment, Banner has an annoying tendency to just stick around and eat his bowl of cereal or whatever while Bucky is also there. Bucky is not sure why hunching over his food and glowering doesn't seem to chase him off.

(Or any of them. It's probably a side effect of the fact that all of these people are terribly dangerous in their own right. He really thinks they ought to be more openly terrified of him than they are. Maybe he should start wearing the body armor when he's not on missions. And carrying more guns.)

Natasha, meanwhile, is everywhere. He runs into her in the damnedest places. Stark has an actual, bona-fide library, which Bucky kind of likes as he relearns how to find the mental stillness to read. There is absolutely no earthly reason why Natasha should come into the library when he's in it, even if she doesn't do anything more intrusive than pick out a book and flop in her own chair.

"Natasha keeps being where I am," he tells Steve one night while they're watching a movie in Steve's room. Typically what happens when he can't sleep is that he wanders around the Tower, disappears off into the dark city, or -- if he feels like he can tolerate company in or around his head -- checks if Steve is up too. Which he often is; Steve has more demons than he'll admit to.

"And, so?" Steve prompts him.

"Do you think she's hitting on me?"

Steve chokes on his (completely pointless) beer. When he's done coughing, he says, "You're the expert, right?" and then looks like he wants to bite his tongue off.

"Bucky Barnes, God's gift to women," Bucky says sourly, and Steve actually laughs. Bucky smiles. It's a good night and smiling is good.

"Buck, I have no idea, but I think Natasha is not the kind of person who would mind being asked directly. In fact," Steve adds, half-hiding his grin behind his beer bottle, "it might save you an ass kicking down the road."

"Asshole," Bucky says, and Steve throws popcorn at him, and God, he's not sure how Steve makes it so easy, so damned easy to feel sometimes, just for a moment, like seventy years of war and blood and death never happened at all.




They're fighting HYDRA goons in a warehouse somewhere north of the city, upstate maybe. Bucky never used to care where his assignments were -- the important thing was eliminating the target, not figuring out what part of the world he was in, and asking unnecessary questions was discouraged with extreme prejudice -- and it's weirdly difficult to learn to concentrate on that again; he tends to zone out in the quinjet or helicopter and then, bam, they're wherever they're going. So now he's here, along with Natasha and Hawkeye and Stark somewhere above them in the Iron Man armor, easy enough to locate by the explosions.

It took him awhile to get comfortable going out with the others when Steve wasn't present. Not that he ever said no, though he understands that he could say no, technically. Sam sat him down at one point and explained that and made sure he acknowledged that he understood -- "You don't have to be a soldier if you don't want to. You don't have to fight. You could get a nice little house in the 'burbs and raise tulips and volunteer at the animal shelter if you want to, you get me, man?" And Bucky said yes, he got it, but what Sam doesn't get is that Bucky has exactly one skill set, and only one place he's found so far that has a use for him. It's better taking orders for the Avengers than hiring himself out as a merc.

And he wants to stay near where Steve is, and he wants --

-- he wants things, that's the problem. He's not entirely sure if he is still capable of making informed choices about his life anymore, but he thinks he might actually like most of this: the quiet nights in the Avengers Tower, watching movies or sparring with Steve; fighting beside people he really likes, not people who are interchangeable, faceless backup for the Soldier. Even though he has to get away from them sometimes. Even though there might be something better out there for him somewhere. This isn't a life he chose, exactly, but it's his life, and as it grows roots into him, he finds himself increasingly desperate to hold onto it.

So he makes sure to be as polite as he still knows how to be, and as useful a weapon as he possibly can. It's easy because he doesn't mind. He likes going out in the field with them. His world, which for so many years was strictly black-and-white, is now full of choices, most of which he's patently unprepared for (even something so simple as choosing a coffee drink can be overwhelming for him on a bad decision-making day). Combat effectively narrows the range of options to the simple and familiar. The worst he has to deal with is making small talk in between reacting to hostiles, but glaring at people who try to talk to him seems to be pretty effective at making it stop. (Well, except for Stark. Nothing makes Stark shut up.) And sometimes, on ops, they play games during down time on the jet or in hotel rooms, something he also used to try to avoid until realizing that he is actually very good at poker -- a combination of Bucky Barnes' skill set from the 1940s and the fact that he now has the world's best natural poker face. Even Natasha can't read him most of the time. (She currently owes him three weeks' worth of laundry services and a private krav maga lesson.)

So they're killing HYDRA operatives in a warehouse attached to a weapons manufacturing facility. This is the kind of thing Bucky appreciates: no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners fighting, against enemies who are trying as hard as they can to end you. If some of the others were there -- Steve; Colonel Rhodes; hell, maybe Stark if he were on the ground -- there'd probably be some effort to ameliorate the severity of the fighting, but Hawkeye and Natasha are on the same page with Bucky in this area. They've been where he's been. They know that when someone's trying to kill you, you don't always have the luxury of choking or kneecapping them.

Hawkeye took a pretty hard hit to the head earlier, and he's got blood all down the side of his face. Bucky's been trying to stay close to him so he can cover his blind side. That's how he sees the HYDRA agent closing in -- one arm trailing blood, so the guy can't use his AR-15 anymore, but he's got a really long, nasty-looking knife, and it's headed straight for Clint's stomach.

Bucky is out of ammo and the angle he's at, there's not much he can do except roll over Hawkeye and take the hit instead. He did some bodyguarding as the Winter Soldier -- how did he forget that until now? -- and the move is more or less automatic. The Winter Soldier is, after all, the perfect bodyguard; a bodyguard is expendable by definition, just an ambulatory unit of bone and blood and muscle to shield someone more valuable. He feels the knife go in under his ribs, between two plates of the body armor -- that's familiar too, the shock of cold and the rip of the serrated blade tearing through flesh. He goes ahead and rolls with the strike, trying to minimize the damage, and feels it rip out again as his legs stop working. He goes down. Hawkeye does something extremely violent over his head as he's falling -- blood splatters him that isn't his own -- and then Bucky's down and Hawkeye is down too. He thinks for a moment that he failed, that the knife went on through him and into Hawkeye (I shot Natasha once, straight through her and into my target) but no, Hawkeye is holding onto him for some reason.

"Jesus!" Hawkeye sounds strangled. "Don't move! Why the everloving fuck are you trying to move?"

"Had worse," he manages through clenched teeth. "Gimme a minute." If the knife missed any arteries, then his accelerated healing will be able to slow down the bleeding and knit the flesh together adequately enough that he can get up in a minute. There'll be hell to pay later, but he can make it through the rest of the fight, with his body armor to help hold him together. If it did hit an artery, well, he'll be dead in a minute and he won't care.

Then the burning hits, a wave of white fire washing down his nerve endings, and his back arches and he screams.

"James!" Hawkeye says, crouched over him now, firing arrows without actually looking where he's shooting. Bucky hopes he doesn't shoot Natasha by accident. She can probably dodge, though. His mind is wandering and that's not good.

"Something on the knife," he manages. Without his healing factor, he'd probably be dead already. With the accelerated healing, it looks like he gets to die in a world of pain instead. "Warn Nat --" and he screams again, losing whatever happens next.

He comes down to a ringing in his ears and the taste of blood thick and coppery on his tongue, and Natasha barking into the radio, "Tony, get down here now, I don't care what else you're doing."

She's the one who's got him now, one hand tight on the shoulder strap of his body armor, the other coolly snapping off shots over his head. His head and shoulders are half in her lap. It feels like his entire body is on fire.

"Shoot me, please," he begs her.

"Stop saying nonsense."

Iron Man slams into the ground in Bucky's blurring peripheral vision. "Right, because I'm not doing anything useful up there at all -- Thank you, Tony, by the way, for taking out the heavily armed Sikorsky that was about to kill all of -- Shit, what happened to him?"

"Knife. Poison," Hawkeye says somewhere out of his field of vision. "He needs transport right now and you're the fastest thing we've got."

"I don't know if it's a good idea for me to run off and leave the rest of you right now. JARVIS says HYDRA's got more backup inbound." But he's lifting Bucky out of Natasha's lap, with surprising gentleness in the metal hands.

"Good time to blow the place and make a tactical retreat, then," Hawkeye says. "We'll be fine on our own. Done it before."

"Right, I sometimes forget I'm surrounded by suicidal idiots. One of whom is going to be personally responsible for cleaning the sophisticated electronics he's currently bleeding on. Barnes, hold onto me, there's a good boy."

None of Bucky's flesh-and-blood parts are quite working right, but he manages to throw his metal arm over the neck of Stark's armor.

"They'll need to analyze this." Hawkeye presses the knife into Stark's hand. The blade is clotted with blood and Bucky finds himself staring at it in a sort of dazed hypnosis. There is blood everywhere. The entire world is red with it.

"Meet you at the rendezvous point," Stark tells them, and then they're airborne with a sudden jolt that would probably have left Bucky breathless if he'd had any air in his lungs to begin with. "I hope you appreciate this, Barnes; not everyone gets a personalized ride." When Bucky doesn't answer, he adds, "I'd like to point out that if you die, Rogers will probably kill all of us for failing to protect you adequately. Therefore death is not an option."

The words don't really make sense. "But I'm the one who --" he tries to say, but then he's gone, lost on a wave of pain.




He wakes cotton-mouthed and dizzy, and no, no, not again, no --

"Hey," Steve's voice says. "Stop. It's okay." He's fighting -- trying to fight -- there's no strength in him, but he opens his eyes to find that he seems to have destroyed something with his metal arm; it's just a tangle of wires and fizzling electronics now. Steve's hand is wrapped around the metal wrist.

"Steve," he says -- tries to say. There's something over his mouth, and he starts to hyperventilate.

"Look at me, Bucky. Bucky." Steve's voice draws him, and he clings to it like a lifeline. "You're safe, you're all right, you're just on a whole lot of drugs that are metabolizing out of your system as fast as they can pump them in, okay? And you're really messed up, but you're gonna be okay, Buck, you're gonna be okay. Hear me?"

"Yes," he whispers.

Steve lowers his metal hand very carefully to the bed. Bucky opens his fingers and lets the pieces of whatever he just broke drop away. As more awareness seeps in, he realizes that he feels like absolute shit, and Steve -- Steve looks awful, unshaven with blue shadows under his eyes.

"How long?" Bucky whispers. He remembers getting stabbed and it makes him feel a little better that he knows what happened to put him here -- or thinks he knows, anyway. When he first started getting his memories back, he was terrified to sleep for fear he'd wake up and find that years had elapsed and been erased. This is like that only magnified by a factor of a thousand.

"Three days," Steve tells him. He reaches for Bucky's shoulder and then pauses, waiting for the okay. There are times when Bucky really can't stand to be touched -- knives under his skin, voices in his head -- so they've worked out a pretty smooth system to allow Bucky to signal when he's in the middle of one of those times without needing to articulate it. Bucky doesn't pull away, so Steve rests his hand on Bucky's shoulder, and Bucky leans into it. Being touched is pretty good today.

He can guess how close he came to dying by the look on Steve's face. He doesn't really want to think about it.

Steve rubs his thumb in slow circles below Bucky's collarbone. It's nice to feel something that doesn't hurt for a change.

"Get some sleep, jerk, you look awful," Bucky whispers, and closes his eyes to the sound of Steve's soft, shaky laughter.




When he wakes up again, he's coherent enough to figure out where he is before destroying anything nearby, which is probably good because he expects that all these beeping machines wouldn't be here if they weren't doing anything for him. Steve is still present, but now asleep with his elbow propped on the edge of Bucky's bed. It's cute except this is kind of not what he meant when he told Steve to get some sleep. Steve is an idiot.

A shadow falls across him and he flinches.

"It's just me," Banner says, doing something mysterious to his IV. Bucky continues to regard him warily, because he's almost never seen Banner outside his natural habitat, the lab. "Don't worry, I'm a doctor."

"So's Stark, I think, but I don't want him anywhere near my insides," Bucky whispers, and Banner grins.

"I'm both kinds of doctor. Well, effectively." Banner carefully shifts Steve to one side for better access. Steve doesn't wake up.


"I can't legally practice medicine, but I do know what I'm doing."

"I'm going to stop asking questions now," Bucky says. "The answers just make things worse." He pauses for breath, then adds, "Hey, do you think you could get this guy off my bed and put him somewhere else? His snoring is keeping me awake." Steve isn't making any noise at all, but hey, details.

"I'll see what I can do," Banner promises, and although Bucky doesn't want to let go -- he spent most of seventy years asleep, after all -- he doesn't have much of a choice. Goddamn Banner slipped me something, he thinks as he slides under again.




Over the next day or two he manages to piece together the chronology of the last few days, namely that he started out at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, but was moved to the Avengers Tower (of course they have a fully equipped medical wing) for security purposes. Reading between the lines, Bucky suspects that the "security" in question is largely an issue of a) the patient attacking medical personnel while sedated, and b) the patient's body being a mystery to conventional medical science.

In any case, he's never been out of action this long with any injury that he remembers before, but his healing factor is fighting an uphill battle against the fact that he was nearly cut in half as well as being given a heavy dose of a poison that would have killed any normal human being. Besides, if this did happen to him before, he'd probably have been sedated for the whole recovery and therefore wouldn't remember it anyway. No point in tending to a weapon's needs when it can be safely tucked out of the way and fed intravenously, after all.

Steve is in and out, as well as most of the others, which is kind of a surprise; he figures there must not be anything more interesting going on right now. Bucky's usual minimal ability to make small talk is impaired even more than usual by the horse-tranquilizer caliber drugs that Banner's got him on, so mostly he stares at his visitors and they don't stay terribly long, but they do drop things off for him. Books, CDs. He's too out of it to concentrate on anything like that, but it's a rather nice thought.

Hawkeye shows up, with a bandage covering the side of his head, and sits with him for a long, incredibly awkward stretch of time, during which Bucky can just sense that Clint is working up to something that Bucky kind of hopes he doesn't say. In the end he doesn't say it, and Bucky falls asleep, but when he wakes up there is a card on his bedside table. It's a storebought blank card with a photograph of autumn trees on the front and, inside, "Thanks, owe you one" written in a simple blocky hand.

He hides it under the stack of books and CDs.

Sam is also around, which is kind of a surprise because Bucky thought he was in DC. "Yeah, I flew up when I heard," Sam says, like he flies up to New York all the time. (Well, okay, he kinda does.) "To make Rogers eat and sleep, if nothing else."

And there's also Natasha, who hangs out at his bedside from time to time for no particular reason. She brings a book with her, a paperback whose cover features a lady draped in bosom-baring purple satin and a guy whose version of Victorian clothing has somehow managed to leave him bare-chested. (It's almost certainly from Tony's library; there are shelves full of that kind of thing.) So she lounges around at his bedside and reads, and occasionally refreshes the ice cubes in his cup of ice water.

This kind of behavior makes him nervous because, if Clint working himself up to a mutually embarrassing thank-you was bad enough, whatever Natasha is holding out on can only be worse.

Steve did say he should ask ...

"Do you want to have sex with me?" he blurts out.

Natasha gazes at him, and if he'd been able to, he's fairly sure he would have thrown himself out the window at that point. After killing Steve first, of course.

"I'm not entirely sure that would be wise in your current condition," she says eventually, the corners of her mouth quirking very slightly.

"I don't mean right now," he says with as much dignity as possible. "Or ever. Wait!" Goddamn, he was good at this once, unless his memories are total lying liars who lie. Use your words, Sam always says, and he tries to put his exact thoughts into words. "You come to see me a lot," he says. "I wanted to find out if that's why. Exactly."

She sits back and looks at him. Her face is gentle and so is her voice when she finally speaks.

"James," she says, "whether or not I would be interested in climbing you like a tree -- which is an open question, and we can discuss that another day, when you aren't drugged out of your mind in a hospital bed -- it really has no bearing on whether I like spending time with you. Understand?"

"No," he admits.

"It's possible to enjoy your company without wanting anything from you."

"Enjoy my company." He doesn't quite follow. He's closed-off and angry and miserable and weird. Who the hell would enjoy being around that?

Well, Steve, probably, but only because Steve's hung up on the idea of the guy he used to be, back when he was actually fun to hang out with.

"Yes," she says, poking the edge of his hospital bed with her toe. "Shockingly, quite a few people actually do enjoy spending time around you, James. Even when you are being an enormous douchecanoe, such as now."

"Why?" he asks plaintively. All he wants is for the world to make sense every once in a while.

"Why?" She leans forward with a sphinx smile. "Because you're you, James. A man who took a knife in the side for a friend. Do you really think we can't see you?" And then she returns to her book.

"I don't even know who I am," he protests.

"Good thing you've got us, then," she mutters behind the open paperback. "Now be quiet, the Viscount just hijacked Lady Wemberley's carriage and I need to pay attention."

He closes his eyes to escape the conversation and ends up falling asleep. When he wakes up some time later, Natasha's gone and Sam is there, playing a game on his phone. He shows Bucky how to do it -- Angry Birds; it seems fun, but it's too hard to navigate with only one hand (his metal hand doesn't work on touch screens) and his present lack of coordination. So he just watches Sam play it a bit, and ponders his original assumption that Sam came up from DC to hang out with and/or provide moral support for Steve. Present evidence doesn't seem to support that hypothesis 100%.

Stark wanders in a little later and rambles at him about some upgrades that he has in mind for Bucky's arm, which Bucky has no intention of agreeing to -- and didn't they just have a conversation very similar to this a couple of weeks ago? After Stark leaves, Bucky reflects back on the conversation and figures that yes, they did talk about most of this last week, which means there was absolutely no logical reason for Stark to come all the way over to the hospital wing, except ...

By the time Steve shows up that evening, he's ready to explode. "Why didn't you tell me!" he snaps as soon as Steve comes in the door, bearing a tray with dinner for both of them (soup and toast for Bucky, it's all he's allowed to have yet).

"Tell you .... what?" Steve asks cautiously, setting the tray down on the bedside table.

"They like me!" Bucky snarls at him. "They all like me!"

Steve stares at him, and then he starts to laugh. After a minute he's laughing so hard he's doubled over, holding onto the side of the bed to keep from falling to the floor. Bucky hasn't seen him laugh like this since ... well, Brooklyn, probably.

"Some friend you are," Bucky mutters, throwing a piece of toast at Steve's head. Steve, being Steve, catches it without looking -- or sobering up.

"Sorry," Steve says eventually, wiping his eyes. "It's just -- yes, you dink, they like you. What do you think it means when people invite you to hang out with them and go out of their way to spend time with you?" And he takes a bite of Bucky's toast.

"I'm no longer speaking to you."

Steve, still grinning, flips open his laptop, puts a DVD in it, and sets it on the bed at Bucky's feet. "You wouldn't have believed me anyway," he points out. Then his smile falters slightly. "I know you had a lot of people in here today. You need, uh -- some alone time?" It's become abundantly obvious by now that Bucky wears down easily when he has to deal with people for too long.

Bucky checks out his own state of mind. He's surprisingly un-overstimulated for the amount of company he's had today; but he hasn't really been talking to people much, which is what mostly kills the social centers of his brain, just kind of being around them. Possibly because more people than Steve have caught on that conversations are hard for him, so they are willing to sit with him quietly -- and, uh. "Just start the movie already," he grumbles, reaching for the bowl of soup.

It's a Pixar movie, which they've both found they like -- colorful, sweet, sappy, generally lacking in high levels of violence and death. Clint comes in halfway through and watches some of it with them, perched on a chair: literally perched, sitting on the back of the chair with his feet on the seat. The thought occurs to Bucky that all he has to do is reach out and tip it over. He'd totally have done it if Steve had been unwise enough to try something like that. He can't quite work himself up to doing it to Clint -- yet -- but ... he might. One of these days. If they keep hanging around him, or he keeps hanging around them.

Which he thinks maybe he will.