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Broken But Mending

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Bucky’s therapist is always running late.

He doesn’t blame the guy. It must be hard dealing with head cases like Bucky every day, and he’s sure some of the guy’s patients must actually talk, for all that Bucky hasn’t found he’s got too much to say. It must be hard to cut a PTSD-ridden, suicidal, depressed vet or whoever else off when they’re finally had some sort of emotional breakthrough or whatever.

As for Bucky, well. Emotional breakthroughs aren’t his style, but he’s not gonna begrudge someone else for having them.

Even if it means spending at least twenty minutes in the waiting room, camped out on the decently comfortable leather sofa, under the watchful eye of the receptionist, who seems worried that he’s gonna steal something.

Bucky’s not sure, because he’s not much of a thief, but he thinks you kinda need two hands to do it well.

Anyway. He brings a book with him. Usually.

On this particular day, however -- a balmy, humid spring day that stinks of smog and despair -- Bucky forgot his goddamn book.

And Sam’s taking longer than usual to wrap up the histrionic patient he’s got in there before Bucky.

If he listens hard enough, he can hear the bare edge of hysterics.

And for the life of him, Bucky can’t help but listen. To everything.

That hyper vigilance is one of the many things Sam is helping him with.

It was Sam who suggested the reading. Not only did it distract him, relax him, give him something to do with his hand -- it helped retrain his brain into accepting that situations like this -- where he’s safe enough to settle in with a book -- do not warrant hyper vigilance.
If it’s safe enough to pull out a book, he’s probably not gonna be shot or blown up.

Again.

But without a book now, Bucky starts to fidget, and every time he fidgets, the receptionist looks up at him with narrowed eyes and suspicion.

So in desperation, Bucky grabs the free newspaper someone left on the table -- one of the small, cheap neighbourhood ones filled with articles on local artists and personal adds -- and opens it.

Anything is better than nothing.

He skims an article on a new exhibit featuring photos of people breastfeeding in public that opened at a gallery down the block, he reads up on the ten year anniversary of the opening of his favourite coffee shop, Deja Brew. He reads a review on a Samurai Hamster gig, and wonders if that’s the sort of band Steve would like.

Steve’s always trying to coax Bucky into going out to catch a local show, like getting Bucky into an enclosed space with loads of drunk people and a band that sounds more like artillery fire than music on the stage is a good idea when Bucky has troubles with flashbacks in the goddamned coffee shop.

Sometimes, when the baristas steam the milk wrong, it sounds like the screams of a civilian caught up in military crossfire, and the next thing Bucky knows, he’s on the floor.

That coffee shop has seen a decade worth of horrors but Bucky thinks it deserves better than having to clean up the spills after his brain starts to stutter.

Bucky gets to the personal ads and he glances up at Sam’s door and frowns because it still isn’t open.

So he reads about the SWF’s in search of someone to spend their golden years with, the young males looking for a FWB, and a bunch of acronyms he doesn’t understand.

On the last page, he reads his horoscope.

Pisces: Be careful when considering the unmarked path. You never know where you’ll end up, and there are monsters lurking in every shadow.

Bucky snorts and wonders if he ought to tell Sam that the horoscope in the free newspaper at his therapeutic establishment is triggering his hyper vigilance.

And below the horoscopes, he comes to an advice column.

Must Love Dogs. Byline: Max Quiver.

Dear Quiver,

I’ve heard so many horror stories and seen so many xrays online -- any tips for making sure I don’t lose any objects in my ass?

Signed, Spelunking

Bucky frowns.

“What the fuck?” he says, quiet. The receptionist looks up, but goddamn it, Sam says sometimes talking out loud is fine if the quiet is beginning to seem threatening and Bucky will not be made to feel ashamed of his coping mechanism. “What sorts of things are people sticking in their asses?”

The receptionist chokes on her coffee.

Serves the meddling old bat right.

Before he can read Mr. Quiver’s response, Sam’s door opens and a stoic-looking gentleman whose eyes are suspiciously bright walks out.

Bucky’s not judging. Sometimes he thinks if he can just fuckin’ cry about all the bullshit in his head, it’ll get some of it out and relieve some of the pressure.

Bucky doesn’t cry, though. Not since he woke up in a hospital in the middle of fucking nowhere less of a person than he’d been when he woke up that morning.

Tears don’t do shit for that sort of wound.

Bucky follows Sam into his office, waves off the traditional apologies for running behind, and takes his seat.

It’s warm from the last guy’s ass.

Speaking of asses.

Seriously. What the fuck are people putting up their asses?

“You seem agitated,” Sam says, lifting an eyebrow, and it’s fair. Usually Bucky comes in here all cool as a cucumber, ready and willing to engage in whatever battle is necessary to protect his secrets from Sam’s attempts to figure him out.

Sure. The therapy is necessary.

That doesn’t mean Bucky’s gotta make it any easier.

“I’m fine,” he says, but he’s scowling. Scowling and thinking about strangers’ asses. Fuck.

“How have things been going?”

“Oh, you know, doc. Same as last week.”

“So, still not sleeping, refusing to leave Steve’s apartment unless it’s absolutely necessary, having panic attacks?”

“I leave the apartment,” Bucky tells him. “I go for coffee. Everyday. 10 AM. Did you know that coffee shop’s been around for ten years? I had no idea. Maybe I’ll send them a fruit basket or some shit.”

Sam looks vaguely amused. That’s the only reason Bucky puts up with him -- he doesn’t get irritated at Bucky’s shit. He just looks amused and tries to work around it.

“I’m sure they’d love that,” he says. “Have you been taking your medication?”

“Steve would lose his shit if I didn’t.”

“That doesn’t answer the question, Bucky.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, slumps lower in the chair, and shrugs, just the one shoulder. The other’s not good for anything anymore. “Yeah, doc,” he says. “I’m taking my meds.”

“Good. How are the nightmares?”

“Can’t have ‘em if you don’t sleep.”

Sam’s eyes narrow and he taps the pencil he’s been taking notes with on the edge of his desk. “Who’ve you talked to since we saw each other last?”

“Steve,” Bucky answers promptly, because Sam’s always asking this question. “Mindy at the coffee shop. She knows exactly what I want, calls me a regular. Barely have to say a word. But I always say ‘thanks’ anyway. Pretty sure Steve’s ma would roll over in her grave if I was rude.” He thinks for a moment. “And I’m pretty sure I just gave your receptionist a heart attack.”

Sam smiles. “I’m pretty sure Jane’s heard worse than whatever you had to say,” he says.

“Maybe.” Bucky settles in. That’s the end of Sam’s routine questions. Usually the rest of his hour is spent refusing to answer whichever questions Sam’s come up with this time, or laughing at his stupid fucking suggestions -- like meditation is going to be enough to help Bucky get over the fact that he went to war and not all of him came home. Or fuckin’ hypnotherapy.

“Check out those links I gave you last week?” Sam asks.

“No.”

“Gonna?”

“No.”

Sam slides over some sheets of paper. “I took the liberty of finding a bunch of information for you on support groups in the area for people who’ve gone through similar situations. I thought--”

Bucky slides the papers back. “Nope.”

Sam sighs. “Are you gonna give me anything here, Bucky?”

“We’ve been seein’ each other for going on three months now,” Bucky says. “What do you think?”

“I’m beginning to think maybe I’m not the right counsellor for you,” Sam confesses, slumping in his chair. “But Steve’ll be so disappointed if I give up, so I’m willing to give it a few more tries.”

Bucky considers that. It’s more honest than he was expecting, and Sam looks tired, tense, the way he hasn’t in a while. Maybe the last patient took a lot out of him -- he definitely took a lot out of Bucky, who has to sit in the warm spot his ass left on the sofa.

Speaking of asses. “Hey,” Bucky says, and Sam looks unbearably hopeful, like he’s expecting some emotional breakthrough. “You ever lose something in your ass?

 

Bucky can see it happening right before his eyes -- all of Sam’s hope dies a slow death, replaced by a vague sort of horror and confusion.

“Something like what?” he asks, hesitating like a condemned man who isn’t sure he wants to know the answer.

“That’s what I’d like to know.” The hour’s over, so Bucky stands up, flashes a lazy salute, and says, “See you next time, doc.”

He grabs the free paper on his way out of the office.

Reading material for the subway.

*

Dear Spelunking,

You know who never has to worry about losing things up their asses?

People who don’t shove shit up their asses.

But since I’m guessing that ship has sailed for you (and fuck knows, it sailed a long time ago for me), I’m going to give you some words of wisdom that have never failed me.

The best thing to stick up your ass, other than someone else’s dick, is something that’s made to go up your ass. Seriously. Toys made for butt play. They get actual goddamn engineers to figure this shit out.

If you’ve gotta be creative, go for something with a flared base -- hair brushes, fancy toothbrush handles, traffic cones, fucking light bulbs if you’re desperate.

And Spelunking? The nurse isn’t gonna believe you if you tell her you fell on it and it slipped inside. So don’t bother. And if you use a goddamn toothbrush on your ass, don’t stick it in your mouth.

-Quiver

“What the fuck,” Bucky whispers.

*

Steve’s waiting at the apartment when Bucky gets back, just like he always is, drinking coffee at the table with his sketchbook, trying to look casual.

Bucky instantly feels guilty, like the free newspaper he’s holding is some sort of pornographic document.

Who the fuck runs columns about things getting lost in butts?

He opens his mouth to ask Steve but then snaps it shut again.

“Have a good time with Sam?” Steve asks, all casual.

“Yeah,” Bucky grunts, edging his way towards the hallway. He’s gotta stash this newspaper somewhere before Steve sees it. “He wants me to try adult colouring books.”

Steve fucking beams. “Does he? We can pick some up tomorrow! We can do art together, it’ll be amazing!”

Sam knows better than to suggest adult fucking colouring books. But Steve has missed the sarcasm, and now Bucky finds himself in the shitty position of choosing between telling Steve that he was just being an asshole, or going with Steve tomorrow to buy a goddamned colouring book. And then probably colouring on the steps of the Met while Steve people watches and sketches actual goddamn art.

“That sounds great,” he says between gritted teeth. He’s almost at the hallway, nearly at his room, nearly free.

“Oh, hey, Tony’s taking me to the opera tonight and he’s got his box, so we were thinking if you wanted to come --”

“Nah, Stevie,” Bucky says, forcing a grin. “Not gonna third wheel your date with Stark. I’m already working on my suicidal impulses, don’t wanna give me more ammunition, what would Sam say?”

Ever since Bucky came back from Afghanistan, he’s been an asshole. It’s something he’s reminded of often, particularly when he makes a dickish comment like that one and sees Steve’s entire face lose some of its colour.

Fuck. He shoulda just confessed that the colouring book was sarcasm.

Steve rallies though, and says, “Hey, what’s that?”

He’s spotted the newspaper. Fuck.

Bucky pulls it out from behind his back. He can feel his cheeks flushing -- what the actual fuck. “What,” he says. “This? It’s, uh. Free paper. Saw it at Sam’s office. There’s, uhm. An article about an art exhibit down the street, thought I might check it out.”

What was that art exhibit about again?

Breastfeeding.

Fuck.

Steve’s lighting up again, like it’s so fucking easy for Bucky to make his day, even though he’d just broken his heart a minute ago. “An art exhibit?” he breathes.

Bucky tries not to wince. “Photography.”

“I’ll go with you,” Steve says. “I mean. If you want.”

“Sure, Stevie. Tomorrow?”

Steve looks like he wants to bounce forward and give Bucky a hug, but there have been too many times where he’s tried, only to have Bucky panic at being touched. Bucky can see the effort it takes Steve to stay three feet away, curling his hands into his pockets, all casual, rocking back on his heels.

“Tomorrow,” he says. “Sure.”

“Sure.”

There’s an awkward pause. “I just gotta --” Bucky jerks his thumb at his door and Steve nods wildly and then Bucky is in his room, closing the door and letting out a relieved sigh, slumping against it.

Therapy days are exhausting, he thinks, as he balls up the paper and tosses it in the trash.

If he googles ‘household items getting lost in butts’ later, it’s when Steve’s gone on his date, and no one has to know.

Fuck. Bucky would prefer not to know.

*

“It’s not that I’m against breastfeeding,” Bucky says to Sam a week later, sprawled on the sofa in his office. “It’s just. An entire exhibit of photos of people breastfeeding in public. It took two hours to see them all. And I had to pretend to care, because Steve was so into the idea of us going to an art exhibit.”

Sam hums thoughtfully and says, “New York has a whole bunch of art exhibits, Bucky. Why did you choose that one?”

“Because I’m an idiot,” Bucky says, and it’s true. Steve had gotten so flustered at all the goddamn boobs. But Sam just waits for the real answer, so Bucky sighs and says, “Because I was covering up the fact that I brought home a newspaper about losing things in butts.”

There’s a beat of silence. Then Sam rallies and says, “Excuse me?”

“It’s your own goddamn fault,” Bucky tells him, scowling out the window and hugging his arm across his chest. Crossing them was so much easier when he had two. “It was in that arts newspaper you keep in the lobby. An advice column on sticking things in butts.”

Bucky shoots a quick glance at Sam and, son of a bitch, he’s trying not to laugh, Bucky can fucking tell. He scowls harder and Sam clears his throat and says, “And how did this lead to a breastfeeding art exhibit?”

“I brought the paper home -- because I couldn’t find a fucking garbage can -- and he asked what it was. What was I supposed to say, that it was an advice column on sticking lightbulbs up your ass? He already thinks he’s got to hide all the sharp objects. I don’t want him locking up the lightbulbs too.”

Sam rubs at his jaw for a moment, looking pained and also on the verge of laughing -- if he laughs, Bucky is so fucking done. He is out of here. This is what he gets for finally telling Sam about his emotional state. Fucking laughed at.

“Bucky,” Sam says finally, and his voice is oddly gentle, for all that it trembles a little and he has to clear is throat to keep from laughing. “Do you think maybe you were feeling that way because you were uncomfortable at the idea that you were curious about something sexual after so many months of having no interest in anything of the sort?”

Bucky cocks his head and wonders how the fuck he found himself such an idiot for a therapist. “It was about lightbulbs. In your ass. Nothing about that is sexy to me,” he says, slowly, just in case all the laughter he’s holding back is affecting Sam’s ability to understand simple syllables.

Sam puts his hands up like he’s surrendering and then says, “Morbid curiosity, I get it, man. For the record, though, if you need safe sex resources, I can--”

“I do not,” Bucky says coldly. “That’s what the internet is for.”

Sam looks skeptical. “The internet can be full of some questionable advice, Bucky. Maybe you should--”

“It’s not relevant, okay?” Bucky snarls, throwing up his hand in a mirror of the way Sam had thrown up his -- but Bucky’s only got one. “It ain’t like people are lining up to fuck me, not like this!”

Something shifts in Sam’s expression, and if it was pity, Bucky would be long gone, but it’s not. It’s something more understanding than that. “Bucky,” he says, gentle. “I really think you ought to check out one of those support groups I gave you the URLs for the other week. They could really help you. You’re not broken.”

Bucky snorts. He feels fuckin’ broken.

“You’re not. A little damaged, maybe, but who isn’t?”

Bucky glares down at his shoes, gritting his teeth.

He’s done. Therapy was a mistake.

Sam keeps asking questions, but Bucky’s done listening, and soon enough, his time runs up.

He takes a cab home; he doesn’t think he can handle the subway.

*

On Thursdays, Bucky volunteers at the tiny rooftop greenhouse four blocks away.

He likes it because it’s high up, so he can barely hear the traffic, the shouting, the noise of the street. It also gives him great sight lines of a huge radius around him.

Best of all, he barely has to talk to people, but it still gives him points with Sam for ‘getting out of the house’.

His boss generally lets him fuck around in the back greenhouse, the one off limits to customers, where he spends his time transplanting sprouts and mixing soil.

At first, he’d spend his time frustrated as fuck about how hard it was to get anything done one-handed. Now, though, he focuses on what he can do with his remaining hand. It helps the constant vigilance and the anxiety when he’s forced to focus every bit of his energy on coaxing a tiny, fragile sprout out of it’s safe soil and into a bigger pot.

Sometimes his fingers start to shake when he thinks about how careful he has to be not to kill the baby plant, and other times he shakes because he thinks about how many people he killed with that hand.

And now here he is, nurturing gladiolas and sugar snap peas with that same hand.

It makes something in his chest hurt.

Maybe he should tell Sam about that next week. If he goes to therapy. He’s still undecided.

“Nice job, Barnes,” Coulson, his boss, says, coming in and checking out the perfect row of transplanted gladiolas. “That’s about all we have for you today.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, turning to go.

He hesitates at the doorway, because there’s a worktable there the staff uses, and one of them has left behind a bit of a mess -- a broken terracotta flower pot, a little mound of soil, and a twisted, flattened plant. It looks like a little rose vine, all wicked thorns and not a flower in sight.

“Someone drop that?” he asks.

“Yes,” Coulson says, coming closer, watching Bucky.

Coulson and Sam know each other, Bucky knows. Sam’s how Bucky got this volunteer position, and Bucky spent the first few weeks worried that Coulson was reporting back to Sam every time Bucky needed to pause to catch his breath or wait for his hand to stop shaking.

“It’s a little ragged,” Coulson says, casual. He grabs another pot, scooping the soil into it. “Figured we wouldn’t be able to sell it.”

He picks up the twisted rose vine, gently puts it in the new pot, and smooths the soil over the roots. It stands, though it looks a little worse-for-wear.

“Why don’t you take it home,” Coulson says with an easy shrug. “See if all it needs is a little care.”

Bucky hesitates. The rose is ugly, it’s all thorns, and what if he kills it? “If I fix it, do I bring it back?”

Coulson smiles, just a bare twist of his lips. “If you fix it, you can keep it.”

It’s a lot of fucking commitment. Sam says Bucky’s not ready for a cat, let alone a relationship.

Bucky’s not sure where a dying rose vine counts on the spectrum of commitment and responsibility.

He takes it anyway.

If it dies, he’ll just throw it out. Nothing lasts forever anyway.

He walks home, glaring at anybody who dares get close enough to jostle it, holding it protectively against his chest.

*

Steve takes one look at the sad little plant on the window sill and pulls out his paints. Twenty minutes later, he’s painted what looks like Van Gogh’s starry night all around the pot.

Bucky figures that’s just about right. He heard somewhere that Van Gogh painted that in an asylum, and half the time, Bucky’s convinced he’s already lost his goddamn mind, so it fits.

*

That night, Bucky finds the free newspaper that he’d snatched from Sam’s lobby as he’d stormed out the day before, tossed on his desk where he’d left it.

He unfolds it, flips through the pages slowly, reading every article on local art, music, culture. He reads every personal ad and peruses each ad for escort services and tarot card readings. Then he reads his horoscope.

Pisces: There are rough waters ahead, but as long as you stock your ship with personal flotation devices, you should be able to stay afloat.

He decides to stay away from the harbour, and then gets to Must Love Dogs, the advice column.

Hey, Mister Quiver,

Long-time fan. Need some advice. Decided to surprise my girl with anal for her birthday -- used lube and everything. And now she says she’s moving back in with her mom and needs to think about things. Apparently she doesn’t trust me anymore. How can I convince her to relax? She never used to be this stuck up.

Yours, UpTheButt

Hey, UTB,

Bad news, bro. You’re an asshole.

It’s called consent. Long-time fans might remember that I mention it. Like. Every fucking week.

Need a refresher? Check out my website www.assholeslovedogs.com. There’s an entire section dedicated to dicks like you.

And while you figure your shit out, I suggest you lay off the dating for a while. And the fucking. Maybe get a cat. Cats are good for assholes like you. Nah. Try a plant. You’re not worth a cat.

And I fuckin’ hate cats.

-Quiver

Bucky tosses the newspaper back on his bed and frowns.

He has a plant.

Does that mean he’s an asshole?

It unsettles him, so he distracts himself by googling the proper care and feeding of an injured tea rose. And then he googles any and all pests which might affect the health of his new plant. And then he googles adoptable cats in his area.

And then, with grave misgivings, he types in www.assholeslovedogs.com.

He’s not sure what he’s expecting. Porn, maybe. Images of dudes with light bulbs sticking out of their asses. Instead, it’s a tasteful site with articles called, “The Care and Feeding of a Vagina,” “It’s Your Dick -- Fucking Wash It,” “Asshole of the week,” “Sex Positions For the Week/Weak,” “Public Sex -- A Guide To Getting It On (politely) In Public,” “Indecent Exposure And You -- A Beginner’s Guide,” and “You got WHAT stuck WHERE? Horror Stories (not for the faint of heart.)”

At the very end, there’s an article called “It’s Called Motherfucking Consent, Asshole.”

Bucky taps his fingers on his touchpad for a moment and then, with some trepidation, clicks the link to the advice column archive.

It’s a list of articles, all showing the first line or so of whatever letter Max Quiver was replying to, and Bucky skims the list, growing more horrified.

He hits back quickly once he gets to the question about just how much is too much when it comes to farm animals.

Somehow, he ends up clicking on the ‘contact’ section, and a bunch of links to various social media pages pop up, as well as an email form to submit a letter.

Bucky hesitates and then, morbidly curious, clicks on Max Quiver’s Instagram.

He’s expecting Max Quiver to be a creep -- a pale dude with nothing better to do than answer disturbing sex advice questions in his free time, and write articles about the proper way to wash a dick.

Instead, he gets an Instagram filled with bright, sunny pictures, most of which feature a one-eyed mutt in various places around the city. There are a few pictures of a girl with long dark hair, holding a bow of all things, a red headed woman who never looks pleased to be in the shot, and blurry pictures of the New York traffic at night. There are so, so many artsy pictures of pizza.

And no pictures of anyone resembling a Max Quiver.

Bucky hesitates for a long time, staring at this evidence that the guy he thought was a creep is actually out there, having an ordinary life, with a dog and a girlfriend and a fuck ton of pizza.

He looks around his bedroom, which looks like it would pass a military inspection if one should happen to pop up -- except he can’t quite manage the proper tight corners on his sheets with only one fucking hand.

This is his life -- no colour, no mess, no personality.

Except for the dying rose on the windowsill, in the pot painted with swirling stars.

Bucky takes a deep breath and starts up his own Instagram, doing it quickly before he can talk himself out of it, and before his courage fails him entirely, he hits ‘follow’ on Max Quiver’s account.

Then he slams his laptop shut and needs to go stand in a boiling hot shower to remember how his body is supposed to feel when it’s not numb with panic and insecurity.

He breathes like Sam told him to and thinks maybe he ought to go back to therapy after all.

It feels like he’s taken an important step towards rejoining the world, and weirdly, he wants to tell Sam about it.

*

Sam stares at Bucky’s phone for a long moment, and when he looks up, he looks deliberately calm, like he doesn’t want to scare Bucky off with a reaction.

“What?” Bucky asks, defensive. “You wanted me to interact with people other than Coulson at work and the coffee shop and Steve.”

“So you decided to start an Instagram,” Sam says. There’s a bit of warm amusement around his mouth, and Bucky feels himself relaxing, just a little.

“Yes. So what?”

Sam studies the picture again -- it’s the only one Bucky’s posted. It’s an artsy, heavily filtered picture of his latte from the coffee shop. He hadn’t bothered with a caption. It was fuckin’ coffee. If you couldn’t figure that out, what the fuck were you doing on Instagram.

“Well, ideally, I’d love it if you went out and interacted with people face-to-face,” Sam says, and then he slides Bucky’s phone back over. “But I’m really proud of you, Buck. This is awesome. An amazing step. Now you just need to start taking dramatic shots of the skyline and selfies at the gym, and you’ll be a fully-functioning member of society again.”

Bucky smiles -- it’s faint, but it’s still there. Sam once told him that just because things are hard doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, and that includes smiles.

“You’re an asshole,” he says, and Sam grins.

“I’m pretty sure that’s why you keep coming back. If I wasn’t, you’d have quit by now.”

“Fair,” Bucky says. He shoves his phone in his pocket. “So, are we talking about my feelings now, or what.”

Sam’s eyebrows shoot up. “Do you want to?”

Bucky shrugs. “Seems like something I could try. Don’t get used to it, though.”

“So, how are you feeling?”

“About Instagram? People post a lot of shit.” He considers for a moment. “But it’s kinda nice, thinking there are people out there and all they’ve got to care about is what the fuckin’ foam on their coffee looks like. Or the way the sun falls on their fat cats napping by the window.” He cocks his head. “What d’you think of cats?”

“Cats?” Sam frowns. “Haven’t got one, but they’re alright. Why?”

“Coulson gave me a plant,” Bucky says, abrupt. “A rose. Someone dropped it. It doesn’t have any flowers -- all thorns. But it hasn’t died yet.”

Sam hums, not looking at all thrown by the subject change. “How do you feel about that?”

“Worried I’m not gonna be able to keep it alive,” he confesses, flexing his fingers. “My hand’s done a lot of killin’. Not too much saving.”

“It’s done a fair amount of saving too, don’t forget,” Sam tells him, quiet.

Bucky doesn’t want to think about who he saved and at what cost and who he wasn’t able to get to.

He makes a big show of looking at the clock and then says, faking surprise, “Aw, shit, doc. That’s the hour. See you next week?”

Sam rolls his eyes but stands up, guiding Bucky to the door like he’s worried Bucky’ll forget how to get the fuck outta here. “Same time, same place,” Sam confirms.

Bucky waves vaguely and snatches up the free newspaper on his way out the door.

*

Horoscope, Pisces: With Mercury in retrograde, it’s time to let your hair down. Enjoy yourself. You only live once, and you’ve earned some downtime.

Bucky snorts. He feels like he’s lived a dozen times at least -- or maybe just nine. Like a cat.

Maybe he should get a cat.

He glances at his plant and it’s started to list a little to the side, so he forgets the newspaper for the moment and busies himself constructing a toothpick trellis to hold it up.

“C’mon, Posy,” he says, because Posy seemed just as likely a name for a flower as Rose. A rose by any other name and shit. “Pull your shit together.”

He doesn’t say ‘don’t you dare die on me,’ though he wants to. It echoes too closely to what Steve said when he was holding Bucky’s broken body together.

But plants are just plants and he’s not getting attached to this one.

It’s mostly thorns anyway.

He goes back to the newspaper.

Must Love Dogs. Byline: Max Quiver

Hey Max,

I know you must be super busy sorting out the assholes from the people who need legit advice on lube or butt stuff or sex positions or whatever else, but I have no one else to talk to and I’m hoping you can help me sort this out.

Here’s the thing: I think I’m asexual. I mean, I’m pretty sure. It’s confusing because I didn’t even know it existed as a thing until I started reading your column, and when you answered Don’tcha Stick It In Yer Butt last month, who wrote in asking about asexuality and whether you thought it was really a thing -- well, it was like the entire world shifted. Like all of a sudden I knew there was a place for me and a place where I fit.

It changed everything. I cried like a baby. For a straight week. (Heh, straight).

The question I have is: what now?

I’ve tried talking to my girlfriend about it but she doesn’t understand. And I don’t know how to make her.

Any advice?

Thanks for everything,
Ace.

Hey, Ace,

So here’s the thing. I don’t know what’s next for you or your girlfriend or what this means for your relationship. I don’t know if you can work this out or how you can help her understand something you barely understand yourself. I do know that there are people out there who are asexual who are happy without romantic or sexual relationships, just like there are those who are happy in them.

I don’t like to use the word “compromise” in relationships, because to me, that means someone is giving something up. It would mean, for you, that your choices are either that your girlfriend give up the sexual side of her romantic relationship with you in order to stay with you, or that you give up this key part of yourself and continue to have a sexual relationship even knowing that it’s not actually something you want. Unless it is something you want. That’s up to you to decide.

What I can tell you is that, instead of compromise, maybe approach this from a place of collaboration. Work together. Figure out what this means for both of you, what you can give, what you want to give, and what won’t work for you.

I can’t tell you what your relationship will look like. I can tell you that it’ll be hard work. And that, in the end, as long as you come at it from a place of collaboration and general respect and care for each other, you should be alright.

And also, a fuckin’ professional could help you sort this out much better than I can so stop reading my column and find a goddamn therapist. There’s a reference list on my website -- as well as some message boards filled with people navigating issues just like this. Check out AVEN.

And welcome to the queer club.

-Quiver

The words sink into his chest and itch a bit, an idea he wants to examine, but one he’s not sure he’s got the energy for just now, so he finishes the paper -- Samurai Hamster have another show and he carefully writes it into his calendar because maybe he’ll muster up the courage to fucking go to it.

He wonders how Instagrammable the show would be and resolves to google the band members to see how weird they look and then he tosses the paper and leaves his room.

He needs something -- he’s vibrating a little, anxious energy in his bones, and Steve’s not home.

Bucky’s never gonna talk about it again, but he ends up curling up in Steve’s spot on the balcony with the marine life adult colouring book he picked out a few weeks ago, and hours slip by without a panic attack or a flashback while he colours.

He fucks up a bunch of times and colours outside the lines, but no one’s watching.

*

There’s a school coming in for a fundraiser at the greenhouse, a bunch of kids who are potting sunflowers to sell to raise money for a band trip or something, so Coulson tells Bucky he can spend the afternoon in the tool shed, sorting out trowels and spades.

It’s dark and quiet and Bucky doesn’t mind the boring work -- he sorts the tools out by size and by colour, which wasn’t part of the instructions Coulson gave him, but it engages his brain just enough to keep the distant shouts and screams of children worried about worms in the soil from triggering anything.

Eventually, he stops hearing the screams and hears the laughter instead, and it’s a nice change.

After the children are gone, Bucky gets to do his best to sweep up the mess they left.

Sweeping with one hand is frustrating as fuck but he tries.

Coulson doesn’t comment on how much dirt he leaves behind, which is for the best. Bucky is twitchy and aggravated by the time he’s done. He manages a thank you, however, when Coulson hands him some bone meal and fertilizer for his rose.

Bucky doesn’t want to think about the fact that ground up bones are going to help his rose to thrive.

He wonders if there are roses growing wherever his own blood and bone ended up, and has to breathe through a panic attack on the subway.

*

There’s a comment on his Instagram, on the one picture he’s posted, of his latte.

It’s from MaximumQuiv and it says, “Deja Brew. Nice.”

Bucky stares at the comment for a long time because he doesn’t know what the fuck to do with that, and then he fumbles around the app until he finds just what he worried he’d find -- somehow Max Quiver noticed that Bucky followed him, and has, for some god forsaken reason, followed him back.

Bucky calls Steve up and says, “How do I undo Instagram?”

Steve’s at work. Bucky knows Steve’s only answering because it’s an emergency -- generally fire fighters aren’t supposed to answer their phones while on duty in case there’s an actual emergency.

This counts as a motherfucking emergency.

“What?” Steve asks, after a long moment passes.

“Instagram. I need to undo it. I need to --”

“Did something happen, Buck?”

Did something happen? Bucky closes his eyes and braces his phone between his ear and his one functioning shoulder and tries to think it through. He made an Instagram. He followed two people -- Max Quiver and the the Sussexes -- and now Max Quiver is following him back. The Sussexes aren’t, thank fuck. He doesn’t know what he’d do with that level of surveillance in his life.

“No,” he says finally, but his brain is already racing a million miles a minute. He’s going to have to -- he needs to post more pictures. Pictures that show he’s leading some sort of life that consists of more than his 10 AM latte and Mindy the barista who knows his order and calls him a regular and volunteering at the greenhouse and therapy. More than a broken, one armed army vet who never leaves Steve’s apartment.

People are watching -- strangers are watching -- strangers with beautiful one-eyed dogs and probable-girlfriends and artsy pizza parties.

“Bucky,” Steve says, soothing. “Maybe you should call Sam -- maybe Instagram is too much for right now -- maybe --”

“There’s a band on Saturday night,” Bucky blurts. “Samurai Hamster. They’re supposed to be good. Do you want to go with me.” He grimaces. “You can bring Tony.”

Steve takes another moment to think it through and then says, obviously hopeful, “Is that something you want --”

“Wouldn’t have asked if I don’t want it,” Bucky lies. “I gotta go, bye.”

He hangs up, fast, and then spends the rest of the day stressing out about the angle Posy photographs best at, and which filter makes her look less dead.

*

“I have four followers,” Bucky tells Sam, tugging at his hair and trying to breathe.

Sam bites back a grin. “Soon you’ll be a regular Instagram Influencer, Buck,” he says.

Bucky points at him and takes a ragged breath and said, “I don’t know what that is but I don’t like it, Wilson.”

Sam raises both hands in surrender and says, “Sorry, my bad.”

“I got a comment.” Bucky scowls. “On one of my posts.” Sam lifts an eyebrow and waits patiently until Bucky adds begrudgingly, “It said, ‘Deja Brew. Nice.’”

“And you panicked because an anonymous fan of yours frequents the same coffee shop you go to at 10AM everyday?” Sam asks.

No.

No that is not why Bucky had panicked.

In fact, Bucky hadn’t even thought of that before.

But now he’s thinking about it.

He hadn’t even realized that Max Quiver was in New York, nevermind in Brooklyn. At his coffee shop. Sipping his lattes while writing columns about -- about losing things in his butt and consent and asexuality and --

Bucky looks at Sam and opens his mouth and he’s not sure what’s gonna come out but it’s probably gonna be shrill and incomprehensible.

“Did you know there are people who just don’t feel sexual attraction?” he asks breathlessly instead. It’s an Instagram reprieve and he’ll take it.

“As in asexuality?” Sam asks, watching him closely, clearly a little concerned.

Bucky nods; it’s a little frantic. “Do you think that could be what’s wrong with me?”

“Well,” Sam says, choosing his words carefully. “That’s something only you would be able to decide. And if you were asexual, that wouldn’t mean there was something wrong with you. There are many different ways that people identify sexually and that’s just one of them. It’s no better or worse than the others, and even within asexuality, there’s a spectrum and each experience is different.”

“But I don’t -- I’m not -- I’m broken,” Bucky tells him. He sucks in a harsh breath and bites down hard on his lip until the pain helps him focus his scattered thoughts. “I just don’t -- there’s so much going on in my head that it feels like if I add one more thing, I’ll just. Fall apart. And sexual attraction or dating or whatever else, that’s one more thing. I don’t think I can feel it anymore.”

Sam leans forward, bracing his elbows on his desk and says quietly, “There’s a difference between suffering from post-traumatic stress and dealing with the aftermath of a huge, life changing physical and psychological injury, Bucky, and being asexual. It’s possible that that part of your life will come back in time. But you gotta give your brain time, man. It takes a lot of energy to heal from what you’ve been through. And if, as you heal, that part of you never comes back, then that’s cool. You’ll live just as fulfilling and happy a life as you would if you were out hooking up every weekend. I promise you that.”

Bucky is nervously tapping his feet, 70 per cent of his brain still panicking about Instagram. The 30 per cent that’s listening, though, is reassured that maybe, however he heals, however many scars he’s got, even if all of him doesn’t grow back, he’ll still come out of this as a functional human being.

It’s the first hopeful thought he can ever remember feeling.

It burns uncomfortably in his throat like stomach bile.

*

Horoscope, Pisces: You’d think your mama would have warned you about days like this. If she didn’t, hold onto your hat, Pisces. You’re in for a rough one -- but don’t worry. The sun comes out after every storm.

Bucky carefully clips the horoscope out and tapes it to his bathroom mirror, right where Sam had once told him he ought to stick some Words of Affirmation.

Words of Affirmation are bullshit.

Suns coming out after storms, though. He could use some sunlight.

Dear Mr. Quiver,

I am a mother of three, recently divorced, and trying to start dating again. Before our divorce, my ex and I had been in a slump for several years -- we had sex maybe once or twice a year - and it was probably both of our faults. But when it comes down to it -- with him, or when thinking about sex with anyone else, I’m afraid. I’ve never really liked my body, and after a few kids and a stressful job and no time -- or energy -- to really take care of myself, I know I’m not a prize.
Everyone tells me to just be confident, but whenever I look in the mirror, there’s not much I can feel confident about. I’m not even sure what I’m asking for -- dating tips? Confidence tips? Stretch mark cures? Diets?

-Lonely Mom Dana

Hey LMD,

First of all, if we were tallying up which if us were prizes and which if us were not, I can guarantee you that none of us would be winning blue ribbons. We’ve all got our shit. We’re all petty and selfish and stupid and I promise you, the majority of us see a whole bunch of things about ourselves when we look in the mirror that we would like to change.

So maybe we aren’t prizes.

Maybe we’re not meant to be fucking prizes.

A prize is something you win -- some bullshit trophy you get to display that says, “Hey, fuck you guys, I’m better than you at something, and this is my proof.”

A relationship -- a marriage -- a sexual partner. None of that is an accomplishment you wanna put on a shelf, LMD.

You know what looks good on a shelf? Pictures of your kids. Your pets. Your loved ones. Your family, your friends, the fucking amazing pizza you had for dinner that time you took found yourself in Italy drinking wine with people you’re never gonna forget.

Those are accomplishments. And holy shit, I bet you’ve accomplished a lot if you look at it that way.

So you have stretch marks. So you think you could stand to lose a little weight. So you’re worried about letting someone see you naked.

Here’s a spoiler alert: Any man or woman you let see you naked -- in all your stretch-marked, wrinkled, scarred, squishy glory -- is goddamned lucky to see it. Or touch it. Or lick it. Or whatever freaky stuff you wanna get up to.

Because here’s the one universal truth about our stupid lives here. We’re all living them as best we can. We’re all scared. We’re all scarred. And letting someone see that vulnerable side of you, that imperfect side of you -- that just makes all the rest worth it.

So do I have dating tips for you? Sure I do. Online dating, babe. It’s a thing. Do I have confidence tips? Fake it til you make it. The best things worth doing are the ones that scare you a little. Diet tips? Fuck ‘em, you don’t need ‘em.

Our bodies were built for physical intimacy and our hearts were built for love and affection. Don’t be scared of it. And if anybody sees what you have to offer and doesn’t think it’s enough for them, they were never worth you anyway.

-Max

It’s a bullshit letter.

They’re all bullshit letters.

Bucky tears this one out carefully anyway, folds it, and tucks it between his mattress and his box spring

Just in case he needs to read it again to remember how stupid it is.

*

Samurai Hamster is playing at a tiny dive bar in the basement of a pawn shop which is cramped, dark, and hard to navigate.

They’re also, apparently, a mixture of electronica and screamo music, and Bucky hates it.

Hates.

It’s so bad.

He has so many regrets.

But Steve trying to maintain his optimistic grin over his drink as he nods encouragingly at the stage, like he thinks this is actually something Bucky is into -- that almost makes it worth it.

There’s something about the screaming though, and the baseline, and the smoke and the lights -- it catches in the back of his throat and makes it hard to breathe and Bucky knows within minutes of walking in the door that this is a bad idea.

The only redeemable part is that apparently Samurai Hamster have zero fanbase and the place is practically empty.

He tries to distract himself -- sipping his water and taking pictures of the way the lights hit and filter through the glass for Instagram, and then it’s too much and he slips away to the bathroom, leaving Tony and Steve to no doubt have a quick, frantic discussion about what this particular music says about his mental health.

In the bathroom, the music is much quieter, just the pounding bass drum, and Bucky splashes water on his face, smooths his hair back, wishes he had another hand to tie it out of his goddamn face, and tries to breathe.

He’s okay. He’s fine. He’s scrolling Instagram, taking pictures of the bathroom graffiti that says, “For a good time, call your goddamn therapist.” He thinks Sam would appreciate it.

But the pounding drum starts to echo in his chest and it sounds so similar to the rhythm of his heart when his adrenaline spiked, when things went wrong, when the sky lit up with artillery fire.

He needs to grab Steve and get out of here. This was a mistake.

He opens the bathroom and the rest of the music crashes over him and it’s a frantic bassline, it’s crashing laser lights and smoke and someone screaming into a microphone, except his mind does one of those stuttery things it does sometimes, and the dive bar is gone and the terrible band is gone. Instead, he’s lost in the desert in the middle of the night and the enemy is blasting his camp to pieces with shells and machine guns and the flashes are lighting up the sky and this is it, this is how he dies, lost and alone in the goddamn desert.

He screams and hits his knees and tries to cover his ears to block out the sound.

But he’s only got one motherfucking hand.

*

“So.”

Bucky licks his lips and breathes in nice and slow through his nose and then tries to flash an unconcerned smile. It doesn’t work. “So,” he says instead.

Sam’s smile is small and rueful. “I want you to know that even though it didn’t go spectacularly well, I’m really proud of you for trying. For getting out of your comfort zone. It was pretty brave.”

“Doc,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “I ended up in the fetal position, screaming for my ma, and Steve had to peel me off the floor. That’s pretty much the opposite of brave.”

Sam considers that for a moment and then says, “But you still went and got your latte the next day.”

Bucky grimaces. It had been brutal. But yeah, he’d done it.

“Still showed up at the greenhouse the other day.”

“Coulson said he’d teach me to put container gardens together,” Bucky mumbles, staring down at his hand. He wants to pick at his fingernails and he can’t. “Didn’t want to let him down.”

“Still got on the subway and came here.”

Bucky looks at him, something finally loosening in his chest -- some of the hurt and humiliation he’d been carrying around all week. “Well, yeah,” he says, pulling out his phone, hitting the Instagram icon. “Needed to show you this.”

He pulls up his last post -- the sharpie scrawl of “For a good time, call your goddamned therapist” -- and slides it over to Sam, who looks at it and laughs.

“Print that out for me,” Sam tells him, rolling his eyes and sliding the phone back. “I will put it in a frame and hang it up.”

Bucky can’t help a small, pleased grin as he shoves the phone back in his pocket.

He grabs the free paper on his way out the door.

*

This week, there’s an article about a new city bylaw affecting the disposal of mattresses in dumpsters, a new fashion pop-up, an adoption event at the local animal rescue, an outdoor showing of My Fair Lady in the park, and a horoscope which tells him that now is the time for making financial investments.

He doesn’t have any fuckin’ money so he doesn’t do it.

And then there’s Max Quiver’s column.

Dear Quiver,

I keep getting friendzoned by every hot girl I meet. I'm nice, solicitous, have good manners and hygiene, and a well-paying job. Why won't these girls give me the time of day?

-Shafted.

Hey Shafted,

Here’s the thing about girls. They’re not vending machines. You don’t get to put a bunch of kindness coins into them and expect sex to come out.

Friendship is not a consolation prize.

Actual nice guys would know that.

-Quiver.

Bucky has gotten into a habit that he doesn’t feel like telling Sam about. Every day, he opens up Instagram and goes to Max Quiver’s account and studies any new pictures he’s posted, trying to identify where they were taken.

It’s not that he’s being a creep or a stalker. He’s just so deeply uncomfortable at the idea that this anonymous sex columnist goes to the same coffee shop that he frequents every day at 10am, that he wants to make sure he’s not going to run into him anywhere else.

As if he goes anywhere else.

It doesn’t matter. He thinks he recognizes the park that Max seems to enjoy walking his dog in but judging by the view outside Max’s window, he doesn’t think they’re neighbours -- it looks more like Manhattan. And Bucky’s pretty sure he’s never seen either the redhead or the dark haired girls hanging out anywhere between Steve’s place and the greenhouse, so he must be good.

Right?

Chances are very slim that he’s run into Max Quiver in his daily travels.

The thing is, though, it would be a whole lot easier to make sure he wasn’t frequenting the same places if he knew what Max Quiver even looked like, but Bucky has checked out all of his social media channels and there are no selfies.

Today, Max has posted a picture of his dog sprawled across his legs, sleeping in a sunspot. There’s a hand holding a bottle of beer in the frame as well. It looks cozy and nice and Bucky looks at his rose and feels a crushing sense of loneliness.

The rose is doing okay. It’s not dead.

But it’s also not sleeping across his legs in a sunspot.

He does think about it for a moment or two.

But he also thinks about how Sam wants him to connect more, how Sam wants him to get out of the house more, how Sam wants him to relax his constant vigilance enough to actually act impulsively every now and again.

So.

Fuck it.

*

Cats are strange creatures and Bucky doesn’t know what to do with this one.

He’s sleek and white with wide blue eyes, and pretty. He’s kind of the opposite of Posy, who is still ragged and off centre and not filled with half as much personality.

Bucky has made a safe spot for himself on the floor, propped up against the wall, cat treats beside him, and he and the cat are having some sort of showdown.

The cat’s eyes narrow and he stretches, slow, before hopping half onto Steve’s sofa, digging his claws in, and dragging them down.

“No,” Bucky says, but his voice is soft and unsure and the cat doesn’t seem to give a fuck about his opinions. Bucky doesn’t want to get too forceful, though, because it would be just his luck to get a cat that hates him.

He holds out a treat and tries to make the kissy noises the woman at the pound tried to teach him, and the cat just cocks his head, flicks his tail, and walks away.

He shoulda got a dog.

Bucky can’t help feeling a little stupid, so he swears to himself and puts the treats away and sets up the litter box, puts out some food, piles up the 37 cat toys he purchased just in case.

He waits hopefully, but the cat doesn’t appear from wherever it’s gone.

Fuck cats.

No wonder Max Quiver hates fuckin’ cats.

Bucky goes into his bedroom, hesitates, leaves the door open just in case, and flops face down on his bed.

He’s exhausted. Between therapy, riding the subway home, going to the pound, picking out a cat, and then being soundly rejected by it, it’s feeling achy and sore straight down to his core.

He falls asleep.

When he wakes up three hours later, it’s slow and sleepy and it takes a long moment to realize that the heavy weight on his chest isn’t anxiety or panic making it hard to breathe.

It’s Alpine, curled up and purring.

Bucky blinks back startled tears and no one’s ever gonna fuckin’ know about that.

It takes a long time for him to get up the courage to stroke the cat’s soft fur, and when he finally smooths his fingers over his head, between his ears, Alpine’s purring kicks into high gear and he blinks sleepily, nuzzling into Bucky’s palm.

“Hi,” Bucky says, soft.

Alpine just keeps purring.

*

Steve gets home at his normal time -- Bucky hears the key in the lock, hears the door swing open, hears Steve stop and stand still for a long moment.

“Hey, Buck?” Steve says finally, cautiously.

“Emotional support cat,” Bucky lies blandly. “Don’t worry about it.”

“... Okay.”

Bucky hides a smile and keeps flicking through the channels, Alpine draped around his shoulders.

*

Hey Mr. Quiver

Long time fan, hi.

So here’s my problem. My BF and I have always had a great time in bed. We like to play around and have fun. Because sex should be fun, right?

Well, about six months ago, he FINALLY let me try out a fantasy of mine -- putting mustard on his dick and licking it off. And I maybe got carried away and bit down -- just a little! I barely broke the skin!

But ever since then, he barely lets me go down on him at ALL. How do I convince him I’m not gonna bite his dick off?

-Tooth Fairy

Dear Tooth Fairy,

This is a judgement-free zone.

That being said, what the fuck.

I had to go to the experts on this one, and in the words of the nurse who did not give me permission to use her name because, and I quote, “I don’t want to be associated with this, are you kidding me?”:

“First of all, mustard blowjobs are filthy, but for the love of god, the human mouth is filthier. Please, please tell me he sought medical attention and antibiotics to combat whatever nasty bacteria your mouth left on the broken skin of his poor, unfortunate dick.

Second of all, if he’s uncircumcised, there’s a possibility that mustard would lead to a yeast infection. Please get that checked out.

But not at my clinic.”

But that doesn’t answer your most important question, so I’ll try to handle that myself.

The best way to convince a dude that you’re not going to bite his dick off is to not bite his dick. Since you’ve already done that, start small. Show him you can control yourself by sucking cucumbers. Ice cream cones. Fingers. If that fails? I guess it comes down to patience and rebuilding trust. Communication. Apologize for biting him the first time. Stop minimizing the wound -- that shit had to burn! Have some compassion!

Just. Maybe don’t offer to kiss it better. It’s too soon.

And if it’s the mustard that made the urge uncontrollable, maybe try ketchup next time.

It’s definitely my condiment of choice.

-Quiver.

Bucky carefully sets his hotdog down, licks the mustard off his lips, and takes a long swallow of his iced tea.

He’s outside, in a park, surrounded by families flying kites and swinging on swings and shit, and he’s reading the free local paper, and this is what he gets for his troubles. For getting out of the house. For getting some goddamn sun on his vampire pale face.

This is what he gets for following his therapist’s advice.

More emotional and mental scarring to be dissected at his next appointment.

Mustard on dicks.

What the fuck.

Bucky hasn’t really felt much in the way of sexual attraction since coming home in pieces, but he can definitely think of better things to have on his dick, if he had to make a choice. Simpler things. Hands. Mouths. Maybe, if he’s feeling a little risque, a mouth with an ice cube in it. Some lipstick?

But no mustard. And no biting.

And no having to think of these things while in a park surrounded by children.

Jesus.

He shoves the paper aside and eyes his hotdog for a long moment before rolling his eyes and shoving it in his mouth. No use wasting it.

He gets up, about to make his way home, when his phone chimes with an Instagram notification.

Seeing how he’s got a grand total of one follower -- Max Quiver -- and all his photos are filtered ones of his cat in various stages of sleep or causing mischief, Bucky doesn’t get many notifications, so he’s almost afraid to look this time.

It’s probably a porn bot.

He desperately wants to know why his brain seems to default to porn bots when, until very recently, he hasn’t thought about sexual things at all.

He opens Instagram and Max Quiver has commented on one of his cat photos -- the one where Alpine is stretched across Bucky’s shoulder, and edge of his jaw is visible.

“Cute,” the comment says. “Cat’s not bad either.”

What the fuck.

What the fuck.

Bucky closes the app and walks out of the park, fast, as if he’s running from something.

Hell, it feels like he is.

*

“So, you got a cat.”

“Yeah.” Bucky glares. “Don’t tell me I’m not ready for a cat, because I’ve had him for a week and he’s doing fine.”

Sam lifts both hands in surrender -- why does he look like that so often, Bucky would be worried Sam was scared of him if he didn’t always have that stupid smirk when he did it.

“Wasn’t gonna say that,” he says. “Remember, this is your recovery. If you feel ready for that level of responsibility, then you’re ready for it. So. How’s the cat?”

“An asshole,” Bucky says, still grumbling, feeling like Sam’s gonna judge his choices. “He hates Steve. Likes to chase him down the hall and swat at his ankles. I think Steve hates him and doesn’t wanna admit it. He’s also allergic.” Bucky considers whether that’s something he ought to feel bad about, but all it means is Steve sneezes every now and again, and really, bodies wouldn’t sneeze if sneezes didn’t serve a purpose. Right?

He brightens up, dismisses his guilt, and says, “I have a picture, do you want to see?”

Sam’s smirk turns to something softer, and he says, “Yeah, Barnes. I wanna see.”

Bucky spends the last twenty minutes of his session showing Sam pictures of Alpine -- when did he take so many goddamn pictures?

*

“Hey, Buck.”

Bucky looks up from his colouring book -- it’s much more fun to colour when his cat keeps trying to catch the pencil crayon as he does, and Bucky likes having the excuse for why he can’t keep colouring in the fucking lines.

Steve looks nervous, hovering for a minute before sitting across from him at the little table, and Alpine instantly chirps a him but doesn’t leave Bucky’s side of the table. Bucky can appreciate a loyalty like that, and he scratches Alpine’s chin in silent thanks.

“Yeah?”

“Remember how last week, you and I went to that movie in the park?”

“My Fair Lady,” Bucky says, nodding absently and going back to his colouring. He’d liked the movie, for all that it was cliched and he didn’t think the poor flower seller should have to change everything about herself to be worthy of some old dude’s affection.

“Yeah. That one. Well.” Steve takes a deep breath. “You’ve been inviting me to things like that every week, and I love it, I think it’s amazing, you know I love hanging out with you, and Tony does too, and we were thinking. Maybe, if you were up for it, we thought…” He grimaces a little bit, looks at a loss for words, and Bucky would be amused if he wasn’t so entirely sure that he was going to hate whatever words Steve eventually came up with.

“Just spit it out,” he sighs, setting the pencil crayon aside.

“We know this guy and we think you guys would be so good together and maybe you wanted to.” Steve wrinkles his nose. “Meet him.”

“No.”

Steve winces but says, “Seriously, Buck, you know I wouldn’t make you do anything I didn’t think you’d be ready for, but I think you would get along with him so well, and --”

“It’s not happening, Stevie. I’m not -- there isn’t a person in the entire world who deserves to be stuck with someone like me on a fuckin’ date. Let it go.”

“But Bucky,” Steve says, desperate now. “You deserve better than -- than just hanging out in my apartment all alone and volunteering at a greenhouse and going for coffee alone -- you’ve got so much to offer, and --”

“I’m not alone,” Bucky tells him, cocking his head and honestly confused. “I got you, don’t I? And I got Alpine, and my plant.” He pauses and then a sudden realization strikes him and it hurts, deep in his chest. “Unless -- is this your way of sayin’ you’re tired of having me around? If you want me gone, you just gotta --”

“No,” Steve says, instant and horrified. “No, Bucky, that’s not it, you know you are welcome to stay here for as long as you need to. Wherever I am, I want you with me. But I also want you to be happy.”

Bucky picks up his pencil crayon, rolling it between his fingers, trying to breathe through the sudden spike of hurt and panic the idea of Steve wanting him gone left lodged in his ribs. “I think happy is a little out of my reach,” he says honestly. “But I’m aiming for content. Is that -- that’s gotta be enough, I think. And I’m workin’ on it.”

“I -- I know,” Steve says, and he fucking sounds like he’s going to cry. “And you’re doing so good, Buck. I just think you deserve more than that.”

Bucky shrugs, going back to colouring, though the lines are dark and jagged now and he can’t seem to soften his grip on the pencil. “Maybe the guy you knew before deserved more,” he says, and Alpine meows and headbutts his chin. “But he didn’t come back from the war, Stevie. I did.”

“Okay,” Steve said shakily. He hesitates, like he wants to say more, and then he just gets up and walks away.

*

Bucky goes to get the mail while Steve’s at work one day, and the newspaper -- the free arts paper -- is in the goddamn mailbox with a label with his name on it.

He texts Steve a picture with a bunch of question marks and it takes a minute or two for Steve to reply.

“Saw you were always bringing them home, thought you’d like a subscription.” There are six -- fucking six -- emoticons of smiling yellow faces. The last one is winking. It’s incredibly suspicious.

Bucky’s feeling a little violated as he takes the paper back up to the apartment, like somehow Max Quiver is seeping his way into every aspect of his life -- his therapist office, his home, his mailbox, his Instagram.

He doesn’t like it and he doesn’t know what to do about it, so he curls up and plays fetch with Alpine until the cat gets bored of chasing fake mice around, and then Bucky gives into the inevitable and grabs the paper.

There’s a review of the breastfeeding art show, an open mic at Deja Brew, a book signing at the bookshop on the corner, a write up about the adoption event at the pound and -- Bucky holds the paper closer to his nose and squints at it and, yep. That’s him. A blurry, one-armed shape in the background of a photo of the executive director of the pound, who is beaming at the camera and clutching an ugly puppy.

Damn it.

He reads his horoscope, which informs him that good things come in threes, and then Bucky sits back and tries to count his good things.

He’s got Steve and he’s got Alpine and he’s got Posy, and that’s three.

Huh.

And then he turns to Must Love Dogs, where, apparently, Max Quiver is answering a letter from someone named RedWhite&Blue.

Hey Max!

So, I’ve got this friend. 5”9, longish hair that needs a goddamn cut, amazing face -- jawline to die for, seriously. We’ve been friends forever and we’ve never been anything more than friends, but that’s the jawline that first made me realize I was gay, back when I was 11 and confused all to heck about it.

He’s hot, is what I’m trying to say. And he’s sweet, though he’ll never confess it’s true. Sure, he’s a little grumpy sometimes, and he’s got his share of scars, but he’s getting better everyday, and I’m so freaking proud of him.

He’s also a huge fan of yours.

He’s basically the best guy I know. The thing is, he thinks the issues he’s dealing with -- PTSD, and a pretty substantial physical wound from the incident leading to the PTSD -- make him undateable, unloveable, and unattractive.

How can I support my friend in overcoming these issues and convincing him that you don’t need two hands to be a good guy?

Thanks!
RedWhite&Blue

PS I included a photo of him and his new cat.

Bucky… Bucky doesn’t read the response. No. He does not. Because the newspaper is shaking so badly by the time he’s done reading the letter, he can’t focus on the next lines of text, and then the entire paper is crumbled into a ball and thrown across the room, so. He can’t read it anyway.

Alpine happily pounces on it and starts chewing it all to shit and the cat is welcome to whatever nutrients he can get from Steve’s backstabbing betrayal.

Because Bucky knows it musta been him.

And if he has to look at him, ever again, he’s gonna kill him.

So Bucky grabs his wallet, his phone, and a baseball cap, and storms out of the apartment, intending to never come back.

*

Bucky circles the block a few times but it doesn’t work of the rage, so he makes his way to Deja Brew, picks up a coffee, and then keeps up his furious pacing. He ends up stalking through a park, kicking at pine cones as he does, and finding a bench to sit on and fume.

Steve keeps fucking texting him, each message more alarmed and panicky by the minute, and Bucky isn’t going to read them, let alone reply to them, and he’s definitely not going to answer any of his phone calls.

Fuck Steve. Fuck Steve and his meddling bullshit. What was he hoping to prove?

Bucky needs a new place to live. He needs a fucking job first. He wonders if Coulson would hire him and then worries that actually having a job at the greenhouse would mean he has to talk to customers.

He grimaces and wonders if living on the streets is as bad as he’d always thought it would be. Loads of vets end up on the streets.

And then he wonders how he’d feed Alpine and take care of Posy and he curses viciously.

A little girl walking past with her mother shoots him a scandalized look, and there he goes, disappointing everyone in this goddamn city.

“Fuck,” he says, rubbing at his face and ignoring the girl’s hissing mother. “Son of a fucking bitch, Steve.”

His hand is still shaking and he tries to stop it by tightening his grip on his paper coffee cup, which makes the lid pop off and the coffee spill all over him. It’s not hot anymore, but it still pisses him off, and he throws it in the garbage and wipes his hand on his pants and closes his eyes, trying to remember all the mindfulness meditation things Sam liked to try to force on him to help him control his emotions.

Fuck mindfulness.

He’s gonna kill Steve. Murder him. Straight up murder. Tony’ll be pissed, but Bucky never much cared for Tony anyway.

His rage is gone suddenly -- fucking three cheers for mindfulness -- and Bucky is left with a deep, endless sort of sadness that feels a thousand times worse.

His hand is still shaking. He’s covered in cold coffee. He can’t breathe. And his horoscope said he got three nice things and Steve was one of those things and now he’s only got two.

He calls Sam.

*

Bucky anxiously scrolls through his phone while sitting in Sam’s lobby. He’s trying to avoid Max Quiver’s feed but it’s impossible when Bucky only follows two people, so he starts following others almost at random.

It doesn’t work. He finds himself staring at what can only be a selfie on Max Quiver’s page, with the caption, “Fair’s fair, I guess.”

Bucky feels like he can’t breathe.

It’s stupid -- he’s stupid. He’s being so stupid. But the thing is, Max Quiver, or whatever his real name is, has never posted a picture of himself before, not that Bucky’s ever seen. Not on his website, not on his Twitter, not on his Instagram. Instead, he’d filled it up with pictures of his friends, his girl?friends, his dog, his pizza, his coffee, views of the Manhattan skyline, interesting graffiti and strangely shaped vegetables. He’s posted pictures of his shoes with holes in the toes, of parks and street lights and traffic.

But never himself.

And he’s fucking gorgeous.

He looks rueful in the picture, his mouth twisted like he’s not all that into taking the picture. His eyes are bright and blue and crinkled at the edges and his hair is a mess of blonde bedhead. His nose is a little crooked, his cheek is bruised, with a butterfly bandage. He’s got one shoulder hitched up like he’s shrugging, and it’s… it’s a really pretty shoulder. The neckline of his shirt is all stretched out and messy and there’s a hint of collarbone there.

Bucky is at a loss.

He hasn’t felt attraction since he came back from the desert in pieces, and this isn’t quite attraction -- it’s an objective sort of realization that he’s looking at perhaps the most beautiful guy he’s ever seen.

It’s not attraction, but Bucky feels, sort of distant and dizzily, that it could be, if he wanted to be.

It terrifies him that it’s the same guy whose life Bucky has been half in love with for weeks, whose life he’s been using as some stupid example to model his own after, because it’s so full of colour and imagination and mischief. It’s this guy’s sense of humour and weird pictures and weird life that made Bucky realize that his own life didn’t have any colour in it at all.

He thought he’d wanted to know what Max Quiver looked like before, but now he’s not so sure, because it makes everything so stupidly really and stupidly unattainable.

Before Bucky can pass out from all the breathing he’s not doing, Sam’s office door flies open and a flustered-looking woman comes out, her eyes a bit red and her cheeks flushed and her hair a mess. The receptionist is already gone, so she says goodbye to Sam, promises to follow up on whatever resources he gave her, and then leaves with a lingering, curious look at Bucky.

And then Sam says, grabbing his keys, “Let’s get outta here.”

Bucky blinks at him, because when he’d called earlier, panicking and on the edge of hyperventilating in the park, Sam had told him to come down, said he’d make some time, told him it would be alright.

“But,” Bucky says, because he’s never reached out to anyone for help before and this feels suspiciously like rejection.

Sam locks his office door and says, “I read the paper today, man. You don’t need a therapist, you need a friend, and one who’s not gonna sell you out to the media. Let’s go for a beer.”

Bucky feels a little lost, and Sam must see that on his face when he gets Bucky into his car, because he makes a quick stop at the grocery store and then brings Bucky to his townhouse, promising beer and barbecue and Bucky just lets it happen.

The only reason he ever started seeing Sam in the first place was because Sam and Steve were friends, and Steve referred him. Bucky had even met Sam a handful of times before they started their client-therapist relationship, so he’s been to Sam’s place a time or two.

He’s still a little uncomfortable though, as Sam leads him to the backyard, fires up the grill, and ushers him into a cushy chair, handing him a cold beer.

“Just relax, I got this, burgers coming up,” he says. “You good?”

“Sam,” Bucky says, helpless. “I just. What the fuck, Sam.”

“I know, dude. Steve is a great guy. But sometimes he does incredibly stupid things. It’s like he cares about people so much sometimes, that he can’t think things through, you know?”

“He’s supposed to be a master tactician,” Bucky says faintly, sipping his beer. “Why would he -- I just.”

“I know.”

Sam sprawls in the chair across from him and says, “The best part about this whole, ‘let’s just hang out and have a beer’ schtick is that I’m not gonna have to put all you justifiable homicidal rage in your case notes, dude, so just. Let it all out, man.”

Bucky feels like if he tries to let it out, he’s going to cry, and he hasn’t cried since he got out of the hospital, and he’s not going to start now.

Sam’s phone chimes once, twice, three times, and he grimaces. “Listen. I’m gonna have to tell Steve where you are and that you’re safe, okay?”

Bucky wants to say no. He wants Steve to suffer.

But at the same time, Steve suffered enough.

“Okay,” he says. “But tell him -- tell him to feed Alpine at 8 and not to give him any treats because then he’ll like Steve better and… and… just tell him that.”

“Sure thing.”

*

Bucky gets tipsy on beer and ends up sleeping on Sam’s sofa. It’s not the most comfortable evening, and breakfast is worse, as he awkwardly sips his coffee across the table from his friend/therapist and wonders how his life has come to this, and also how much worse a hangover is when mixed with medication.

“Going home?” Sam asks, all non-committal and judgement free. “You’re welcome to stay here if you want.”

But Bucky’s feeling a whole lot less homicidal today. He’s still angry -- he doesn’t think he’s ever not going to be angry that Steve would do such a thoughtlessly, recklessly stupid thing -- but he’s also not willing to cut the guy out of his entire life over this.

Steve’s intentions were good.

His delivery was fucking shitty.

“Yeah,” Bucky says. “I’m going home. Gotta make sure Steve’s not stealing my cat’s affections.”

Sam nods and lifts his cup in a toast.

“Hey,” Sam asks, as they finish their coffee. “You read Max’s response to Steve’s letter? You never said.”

“No,” Bucky says, and he doesn’t intend to. He’s done with Max Quiver’s weird life advice, and his colourful, happy Instagram.

“You might wanna. I’m gonna shower, and then we can head out. Okay?”

Bucky grunts, non-committal, and then Sam goes to shower. He has no intention of reading the reply to Steve’s letter, but Bucky lasts about three and a half minutes and then he goes to Max Quiver’s website and pulls it up.

Chalk it up to morbid curiosity.

Hey, RW&B,

Thanks for the letter. I know it can be super tough, giving someone you care about the space to heal on their own, but there’s nothing better for healing than time. I know, it’s a stupid cliche.

So I’m gonna have to insist, dude, that you give your poor friend some goddamn space and not write letters about him to strangers. I’m pretty sure he’s not gonna appreciate the invasion of his privacy. I’m also assuming he’s got therapists helping him out, and he’s also got a pretty good friend in you. So he’ll be alright.

Maybe give him some time before you start trying to fix him, though. Okay?

-Max.

PS. Tell him to give Alpine a kiss for me. He’s such a good boy.

Bucky face plants on the table to breathe through his anxiety.

Oh god, oh fuck, oh shit, it’s the worst possible scenario -- Max has somehow figured out that the pathetic friend from the letter was the same pathetic guy following him on Instagram while posting too many pictures of his goddamn cat, and Bucky doesn’t know what with this, but it feels similar to being in the desert, with enemies closing in on all sides, waiting for the shit that’s gonna end him.

He can’t -- he can’t do this.

He leaves while Sam’s in the shower, catching the subway for home.

*

He’s feeling like shit, compartmentalizing his panic attack as best he can until he’s in the privacy of his own apartment. Please, for fuck’s sake, let Steve have gone to work today.

Bucky stops at Deja Brew for a coffee because he thinks he might not survive the day otherwise. He’s looking a little rough -- he’s scruffy, his hair needs a wash, he’s wearing yesterday’s clothes except for the shirt that had been covered in coffee, and Sam’s shirt is ridiculously tight on him. He smells like beer and despair.

Still, Mindy flashes a bright smile and says, “The usual, comin’ right up!”

Bucky musters a small, grateful smile and she looks a little taken aback, which means Bucky’s got a lot to think about while he leans against the counter waiting for his drink -- namely, how much of an asshole is he if a tired, hungover smile seems out of character to the barista who makes an effort to remember his drink?

He’s gotta -- he needs to make some changes. Maybe Sam’s right. Maybe Steve is right. Maybe he needs to get out more. To be more personable. To hit up those goddamn support groups.

Maybe the world deserves more than to deal with his shitty attitude all the time.

Bucky’s not sure he’s ready to commit to that.

Mindy hands him his latte and he tries out another smile and this time her eyes look a little starry and she flushes and -- what the fuck.

He turns to go, taking a cautious sip, and then he freezes, because there’s a dude sitting by the window staring and Bucky doesn’t know where the fuck his ‘constant vigilance’ went but there was a time, not long ago, where being stared at so blatantly would kick all his ‘flight or fight’ instincts into overdrive.

Now, though, he just stared back with his mouth on the rim of his to-go cup and has a frightening moment in which nothing seems real, like the ground is shifting beneath his feet.

Because he knows the guy who’s staring at him.

Or at least, he recognizes him.

From a selfie. On Instagram.

Bucky’s gonna puke. Yes. That’s what’s happening.

He turns around, frantic, looking for the bathroom, and the guy says, “Bucky?”

Bucky freezes. There’s no ‘flight or fight,’ there’s just nothing -- just an endless emptiness and a soft, panicked voice in his mind hissing, “This cannot, cannot be happening.”

The guy he’s been secretly stalking online cannot be at Deja Vu, calling his name, and expecting him to be capable of social interaction like an ordinary, unbroken person.

But it is.

“Hey. Bucky. Uh. Hi.”

Bucky closes his eyes and inhales and then turns, slowly.

“My name wasn’t in the letter,” he says, voice hoarse and from the beer and the hangover and the, well. Despair.

“No,” Max Quiver -- or whatever his name was, says, looking a little uncertain. He’s not smiling, but he’s got the sort of face that makes it look like he could break out into a smile at any moment and Bucky’s not sure he’s gonna be ready for that. “I took it out of the letter. I’m not… I’m not actually that much of an asshole.”

Bucky looks around at his safe space, his coffee shop, which the guy has so callously invaded, as if it’s evidence of just how much of an asshole he actually is.

“Then what are you doing here?” he asks, when the guy doesn’t seem to get the message.

He runs a hand through his blonde hair and shifts awkwardly on his feet and says, “Well. The column got published yesterday and then you deleted Instagram, and I got… Well. Worried.”

Bucky frowns, thinking back to his hazy, drunk evening. Deleted Instagram? Oh, right. He remembers now, panicking at 3AM, finally figuring out how to undo Instagram.

“Oh,” he says, slow. “I’m fine.”

He tries to inch around the guy to get to the door and freedom, but the guy doesn’t seem inclined to let him go. “Have coffee with me,” he says, sounding a little desperate.

“Got mine to go,” Bucky says.

“Dinner.”

Bucky stares. “No, what the fuck,” he says.

The guy winces. “That’s fair. Okay. Listen. Just. Hear me out for a minute and then you can go and I’ll leave you alone and you can just. Pretend this never happened. And I’ll get a different coffee shop. And I’ll even unfollow your Instagram if you wanna reactivate it, though I’m really gonna miss your goddamn cat.”

Someone comes into the shop, the little bell over the door ringing, and they’re standing in the way, and the guy grimaces and steps aside and Bucky has a clear shot to the door now -- he could get away.

But he doesn’t.

The guy sucks in a breath and says, trying for a smile, “Hi, I’m Clint. Barton. I write stupid advice for people about getting stuff lost in butts, and trying to date again after however long. Your friend made a stupid decision and wrote me a letter about you and maybe I shouldn’t’ve responded, but he sent a picture and I knew that cat, and I knew --” he gestures to Bucky’s face and looks helpless and says, “Fuck, you’re hot, okay, it’s a problem. I’m sorry, sorry, I’m off topic, I just -- I’ve been flirting with you on Instagram for weeks because you’re hilarious and I sort of assumed you were good looking, but shit. Even your friend’s picture didn’t do you justice -- and your cat is amazing, and that flower? Dude, you are taking such good fucking care of that plant, I kill every plant matter sort of life that I come into contact with. And then I answered that letter and you deleted your Instagram and that was sort of the opposite of what I was hoping would happen, I just. Wanted to get to know you more? But I get it, okay, and I’m sorry, and I’ll go, and I’ll never come for coffee here again, I promise -- I just wanted to make sure you were okay. And you are, obviously. So. So, I’ll go. Unless you want to maybe go out with me or something, but, like. No pressure.”

He pauses, like he’s waiting for Bucky to say something and Bucky’s at a loss because nobody wants to go out with someone broken -- nobody. Especially not this guy who is the most beautiful guy he’s ever seen, who also just said more words to Bucky than anybody’s ever said in his entire life.

Bucky flounders for a moment and then says, careful, “It’s not stupid.” He sucks in a shaky breath. “The advice. It’s not stupid. It changed my whole life.”

And then, before Clint has time to say anything, he slips around him and makes it through the door and out into the sunshine.

He expects it to feel like freedom, but every step he takes away from Deja Vu feels more difficult than the one before.

*

He goes home.

Steve isn’t there and Alpine chirps and meows at him, clearly put out at Bucky disappearing and leaving him with Steve.

There’s a note on the fridge that says,

 

Bucky,

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was trying to help. I’m so stupid. I’m sorry.

-Steve

It pretty much echoes what all of Steve’s texts had said, and his voicemails too, Bucky assumes.

He hadn’t listened to them.

He balls up the note and tosses it in the trash and then takes his cold coffee and his cat and goes into his bedroom, giving Posy a bit of water before crashing face first into the bed.

His body feels bruised and raw and it’s hard to breathe, but the quiet helps, and so does Alpine, who curls up in a cat loaf on his back, kneading at his shoulders.

Bucky breathes for a long time, trying to sort out the fractured pieces of his life, to figure out what to do now.

On the spectrum of life fuckery, being exposed to the online celebrity he was secretly stalking isn’t the worst thing that could have happened.

The worst thing was probably that night in the desert, when he’d been blown to pieces.

And he was healing from that okay.

He blinks at the thought, studying it like a piece of glass in the sunlight -- poking at its sharp edges, at the refraction of light over its jagged pieces.

Is he healing okay?

Bucky rolls over, scooping Alpine onto his stomach and takes a deep breath, something loosening in his chest.

It still hurts -- the healing scars, and deeper places inside, but he supposes healing is supposed to hurt. He thinks about the boy who signed up for war and the broken man who came back, about waking up in the hospital, not knowing anything at all except pain and fear. He thinks about coming home, about his ma’s hovering, his sister’s tears, about Steve hugging him tightly enough to leave bruises, as if he didn’t even care that not all of Bucky came back. He thinks about Steve that night in the desert, holding his broken body together and telling Bucky not to leave him.

He thinks about moving into Steve’s place, at how determined to help him heal Steve was. He thinks about Sam, about the support groups he keeps dismissing, and wonders if maybe going might help him heal a little more.

He wonders if he’s ready for that and thinks that maybe… maybe he is.

He rolls over and slips a hand between his mattress and the box spring and pulls out that Max Quiver column he’d kept, the one from the woman afraid to start dating again, because she wasn’t a prize.

He takes a deep breath and he reads it again. He reads about how no one’s a prize, how everyone’s got their shit and their scars. He wonders where Steve hides his scars, where Sam hides his. He wonders what sort of scars Clint might have, and how much healing he must’ve done to be able to offer so much wisdom for others trying to sort through theirs.

“Maybe we’re not meant to be fucking prizes,” he says to Alpine, who purrs more loudly and kneads at his ribs.

It hurts, but Bucky doesn’t mind.

He reads about the real prizes -- the pictures of family and friends and adventures that mark a life well lived, and he looks at his own shelves, empty except for a struggling plant and a tuft of white cat fur.

He reads, Because here’s the one universal truth about our stupid lives here. We’re all living them as best we can. We’re all scared. We’re all scarred. And letting someone see that vulnerable side of you, that imperfect side of you -- that just makes all the rest worth it.

Our bodies were built for physical intimacy and our hearts were built for love and affection. Don’t be scared of it. And if anybody sees what you have to offer and doesn’t think it’s enough for them, they were never worth you anyway.

And he gets up, carefully schooching Alpine aside, and goes to the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror. He studies his face -- the planes of his cheekbones, his jawline, the hollows of his cheeks. He pushes his tangled hair out of his eyes and yeah, okay, Steve was right. Maybe he needs a cut.

He takes a deep breath and tugs his shirt off over his head with his one remaining hand, struggling as he always does, and then, for the first time, staring at the network of scars that lace up and down his side, culminating in the place where his arm used to be.

He licks his lips -- they’re cracked and dry and stinging the way his throat is -- the way his eyes are.

“I’m okay,” he says, raspy. It doesn’t sound like it’s true just yet, but it feels truer than it would have yesterday.

For the first time since he left the hospital, he cries.

And it hurts, but sometimes the most important things do. Like healing.

*

“You look amazing.”

“You wanna take pictures to send to my ma, Steve?” Bucky asks, a little sarcastic, a little nervous.

Hell, his ma would probably appreciate the damned photo.

“Don’t be a dick,” Steve tells him, and he’s fuckin’ blinking back tears, Jesus. “You just -- the hair cut, and the shirt, and the -- I’m just. I’m real proud of you.”

Steve had helped Bucky button his shirt -- it’s the first button-up shirt he’d worn since before the war, because he’d never let anyone close enough to help him with anything as stupid as buttons before.

But he trusted Steve with everything and was working on asking for help and Steve was right -- this shirt brought out the blue of his eyes and he wanted to look his best.

Because he has a date.

He kinda wants to puke when he thinks about it, so he doesn’t.

“I gotta go or I’m gonna be --”

Steve hugs him, tight, pounding him on the back, and says, “Good luck. Go get him.”

“Jesus, Stevie.”

He hugs him just as tight.

He’s got this. He can do this. He…

Panics outside the restaurant and ducks around the corner to call Steve.

Steve talks him through it, calms him down, and Bucky closes his eyes and takes a few of those fucking mindfulness breaths of Sam’s.

And then he walks into the restaurant, a cozy, quiet pizzeria that’s featured in Clint’s Instagram more than once.

Clint’s already there, looking nervous. His entire body brightens when he sees Bucky, beaming at him with a crooked grin as he hops up out of his chair.

“Bucky! Hey! Hi! I was getting worried you weren’t gonna show up! I mean, you’re not late or anything, but I always am, so I got here an hour ago to make sure I was on time and I’m starving, how are you, holy shit, you look so good, hi!”

Instantly, the knot of tension in his chest eases and Bucky smiles, like it’s easy. “Hi,” he says, a little breathless, his cheeks a little pink.

Sam always tells him that all the things worth doing are hard, but this… This feels easy.

The end.