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Bucky's Reasons for Staying Alive

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Bucky’s just walking one day, aimlessly, the thoughts coming too fast as usual, the concrete hard under his feet, people and buildings a blur around him. He stops when something catches his attention: a bright storefront, warm and inviting. The thoughts slow as he looks at the plants behind the plate glass. He steps in off the cold gray street. The store is overly warm, slightly humid, quiet. The air smells like real flowers.

After looking at every single plant in the store, Bucky purchases an African Violet. The clerk carefully wraps the violet inside tissue paper and a plastic bag. He takes it back to his crash space and reads the instructions on the little paper card and puts the violet on his single window sill. He’d have to leave it, if he had to run. But for now the petals shine intensely in the thin sun, and the fuzzy leaves are soft on his fingertips.

When he does decide to leave the squat, he isn’t running, just moving on, so he packs the violet carefully into the top of his backpack. He surrounds the base with paper, the way the clerk had at the store, and double bags it.

The violet continues to bloom, and bloom. He decides to call it Doris, though he’d never admit anyone that he’s become the kind of person who names his plants.

He eventually does leave Doris behind, when he has to leave his place in a hurry, but he puts her out in the hallway next to a neighbor’s door. For a while, he forgets all about it.

***

Much later, when he’s living with Sam and Steve in the apartment in Brooklyn, Sam asks Bucky what he’d like for his birthday. Out of nowhere Bucky remembers the violet. “A houseplant,” he says.

Sam gives him an Aloe in a terracotta pot. “It reminded me of you,” he says. The aloe doesn’t need much care; he’s not even supposed to water it very often. He does look at the plant a lot, where it sits on the window sill of his bedroom (his own room, where he can lock the door and slip out the window if he wants to). He runs his fingers over the smooth green skin with its tough little spikes. He knows that aloe is good for burns, and it soothes him to think about this fact. A useful and healing desert plant that reminds Sam of Bucky.

After that he starts noticing plants more. There are a few houses in the neighborhood with elaborate planters resting on the front stoops. He notices the different types of trees: not just as potential sniper roosts, but as objects of beauty, as places to find shade in the summer. He uses his phone to take pictures of trees and learns their kinds: pin oaks, ginkgo, maples, london planetree.

Bucky is walking home on an afternoon in the late summer. It’s just starting to cool off and everyone is out enjoying the weather. People have their windows open-- a rarity these days now that most people have air conditioning. A neighbor girl is sitting out on her steps, surrounded by little plants in pots. She has a sign up, Sharpie on a pizza box lid, “Plants $1.” He stops to look.

“Hey Mr. Barnes,” she says.

He realizes he knows her name, and nods at her. “Leticia.” He digs a 20 dollar bill out of his jacket pocket. “I’ll take them all. Help me carry them over?”

“What, seriously? That’s great. Let me get a box or something.” She runs inside the apartment building and emerges a few minutes later with a crumpled plastic bag and a cardboard box. It’s ten plants in all. They bring them into the apartment and she helps him find places for them. They have to move some furniture around. There isn’t space enough in Bucky’s room, so they put the plants by the windows in the living room and hang one from an existing ceiling hook over the kitchen window. The pot doesn’t have a hanger, but Leticia apparently knows how to knot string in a clever way to rig one up.

“These are spider plants, they’re the easiest. This one’s a philodendron. I don’t know the names of all the succulents. Just don’t overwater those and you’ll do fine,” she says. She shows him how to take the “baby” spider plant off the runner and put it into a cup of water to help it root. “Then you can just plant it, and it will grow, and you will feel like a powerful plant witch.” She smiles at him, and Bucky nods back gravely.

When Sam comes home from work, he looks at all the plants and he smiles. He puts a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “This is great, man.”

Bucky finds another store and buys a watering can, fertilizer, and a plant identification book. Plus two African violets to replace the long-lost Doris. He learns that the succulents have ridiculous names like Burro’s tail and hens-and-chicks and snake plant and pig’s ear. A little menagerie. Their Latin names stick in his head after he reads them, and he finds himself repeating the names like a song. “Sempervivum” means, roughly, “always alive.” Like himself. Like Steve. Succulents, the book says, are able to thrive in harsh conditions with little water and soil.

Another time Sam and Steve come home to find him sorting through two new boxes of houseplants on their wide kitchen table. Sam raises one eyebrow. “They were on sale,” Bucky says, and continues working. He doesn’t mention that he went out to the dumpster in the back of the plant store and picked up the half-dead ones.

For Chanukah Sam gives him colorful hair ties, and clothes, and fancy shampoo. Steve gives him books about plants.

***
“There is a potted plant hanging from the shower curtain rod,” Sam says to Bucky as he steps out of the bathroom.

“She likes the humidity,” Bucky says. He turns the page in the book he’s reading.

“She?” Sam says.

“Her name is Edith.”

“OK buddy,” Sam says.

***

“There are seventy plants in here,” Sam says. “I went to open the window and had to move six pots. This is ridiculous.”

Bucky shrugs.

“There’s potting soil on the dinner table. Man, that’s where we eat.” There’s no real complaint in his tone, but it’s a good point nonetheless. He could use a better space for this. He’ll have to think on that.

He constantly has dirt under the nails of his right hand. He doesn’t mind; it’s just good clean dirt. Not blood.

***
Bucky has a therapist named Jeannie. She’s an impossibly young black woman who wears her hair in little braids and has buttons and pins all over her laptop bag. She’s dressed in a business suit and comfortable clogs. She meets him at the apartment, which is necessary since her office is in Stark Tower and that’s just too much for him, most days. She comes by on Wednesday afternoons and stays for at least an hour each time.

He tries to offer Jeannie a houseplant, but she says, “Thank you but I can’t accept any gifts from clients.” She’s very into ethical behavior. Well, then, she’s a lesbian, so it’s not surprising.

Today, a cold January day, she wants to talk about “the incident,” which Bucky does not want to think about all. It involved a bad panic attack, a blackout, and Bucky hiding out in Central Park for two days. Jeannie says, “It’s OK that you ran. You were protecting yourself. But let’s find some safer responses for you. What do you think about getting a service dog?”

Bucky has very little experience with dogs. There were a few street dogs in their neighborhood in the 30s. Hydra kept some German Shepherds that tended to avoid him or growl at him. Beatrice, the old woman who lives downstairs, owns a tiny Chihuahua named Mocha. Mocha has buggy eyes and wears little patterned sweaters.

“I have a friend who trains these dogs. I’ll ask her,” Jeannie says. “Just think about it.”

Bucky does more than think about it. He uses his Stark Industries tablet to read articles and watch YouTube videos about service dogs. He finds a forum for veterans, called Stayin’ Alive, and there is a section where people post pictures and stories about their dogs. It seems to Bucky that posting all this personal information is a big security risk, but he enjoys reading the stories. “Bruno has saved my life over and over,” one guy writes under a picture of a stocky brown Pit Bull. Someone else says, “my dog gives me a reason to live.”

Bucky texts Jeannie and tells her to get the dog.

It takes a while. There’s paperwork, fees to arrange, more paperwork. He’s supposed to take an online tutorial about caring for and working with a service dog. He clicks through the tutorial, half-reading it and admiring the pictures.

A month passes, two, three. Finally Jeannie tells him that they have a dog for him.

The dog is snow white, fluffy, and named Bluebell. A plant name, which Bucky takes as a good omen, although they call her Blue. “A Great Pyrenees,” Jeannie says. Blue’s feet pad softly on the hardwood floor. She’s enormous, but her eyes are gentle and soft, and she makes almost no noise. Blue sits on the floor and looks up at Bucky with truly ridiculous brown eyes. Bucky holds out his metal hand-- a hard-won habit for touching new and potentially dangerous things. Blue sniffs at Bucky’s fingers and licks them.

Bucky feels something in his chest, a warm, tight feeling, not unpleasant, but like he’s on the edge of feeling too much. He moves his metal hand to the side of Blue’s neck, and she leans into his hand. He tamps down the feeling.

He has several orientation sessions with Blue and her trainer. Blue’s supposed to learn Bucky’s particular cues, and he is to learn hers. She is very sensitive and can detect oncoming panic attacks. She’s trained to stand in front of him and plant her feet if she senses one, and if he lies down, she can lie on top of him and use her weight to ground him. She can wake him up from nightmares. She’s warm to the touch, and he can feel her breathing and her heartbeat, steady and calm.

She’s a big dog, 87 pounds. She can press up against Bucky’s legs with her solid warm weight. She’s big enough that Bucky doesn’t have to lean down to pet her. Big dogs scare some people, which Bucky sees as an added protective benefit.

Blue wears a little green jacket that informs people not to pet her, which gives them both a little extra space, and there are zippered pockets in the jacket, for whatever little things he wants to carry around. He puts in a Swiss Army knife, a fire-starting kit, and a compass, to start with.

Blue sleeps in Bucky’s bed, and when Bucky can’t sleep, which is usually, he can just lie there and pet her soft fur. He has to get out of bed in the morning, to let the dog out to pee. He has to leave the house multiple times per day. It’s a change.

The first time he takes Blue out, he notices right away that people look at him differently. There’s a young woman jogging and she smiles at him and even waves. It’s strange. He’s used to people avoiding his gaze, the way New Yorkers often treat each other, just looking up to avoid running into other people (or, for many assholes, just expecting others to get out of their way). But today a woman coos over Blue, stops to look at her, asks, “What kind of dog is that?”

While he doesn’t remember much from his old life, he knows that the old Bucky used to be able to talk to people easily, even to manipulate them if he wanted to. These days words come out of his throat like gravel, scraped up and dry. He can say her name though, Blue, and Great Pyrenees, and it seems, today, that’s all that’s even expected of him. He knows he looks like an unwashed homeless person, but Blue is shiny and white, and dirt literally does not stick to her. People smile at her, and then they smile at him.

Bucky has read on the forums that some people with service dogs get harassed. People run up to them and start petting the dog and asking invasive questions and generally interfering. For whatever reason, this doesn’t happen much to Bucky. Maybe it’s the scowl that his face seems to wear. He decides not to worry about it.

Bucky used to own less than thirty objects, and most of those were knives. Now he has all kinds of clothes, and all these plants, and all of Blue’s accessories. There’s a harness and a vest, a collar, several leashes, dog food bowls, toys, brushes, a nail trimmer, a dog bed, heartworm preventative. Stuff that he would regret leaving behind if he had to run. Hopefully he won’t have to run. But if he did, Steve and Sam could look after his things. He supposes Blue could come with, and she could carry a few of her own things in the pockets of her vest.

The apartment that Sam, Steve, Bucky, and now Blue live in is fancy and fairly spacious. The door frames and floor are gleaming, light-colored wood. The kitchen fixtures are stainless steel. There’s even a gas fireplace that turns on with the flick of a switch. Blue takes to lying in front of the fireplace, snoozing, whenever she can. Her white hair drifts into little piles in the corners. She sometimes makes little yipping noises in her sleep, and her paws twitch from dreaming.

Sometimes when Bucky pets her he drifts into something like sleep, where he’s not so aware of time passing, and the noise in his head quiets down. It’s the way he used to feel when he was focused on a mission. That quiet, focused, calm place, like a still pond. He used to be able to find it so easily, to stay in that place while keeping his body and his rifle steady. It’s been hard to find that place lately, with no gun and no mission to lead him there.

***
February is cold and dark and long, and he gets the idea for a greenhouse. Some of his plants, clustering thickly around the apartment windows, are losing their leaves. The leaves turn yellow, then brown, then fall onto the wood floor with a little papery sound. The plants don’t seem to be happy. They would like more light.

He dreams about the greenhouse once, on a rare night when he sleeps and doesn’t have a nightmare. He dreams of a tall greenhouse, warm and full of tropical plants, quiet and bright, peaceful. In the center there’s a pond with goldfish. He thinks of this frequently; it’s a resting place for his unquiet mind. He imagines a sturdy potting bench and comfortable chairs, grow lights and an automatic watering system. Lots of dog beds, tucked under the benches.

The cold doesn’t bother him or Blue, and they spend a lot of time walking the city. He finds all the garden stores and buys supplies at every one. The workers get to know him-- not his name, because he never gives it-- but his face, and his dog.

His favorite shop, called Green Escape, has a whole room full of orchids. The most common are pink and fuschia, but then there are white, yellow, even green ones. Some have round, moon-faced flowers that are so large they bend their stalks; other flowers are light and airy, like flying insects or hummingbirds. The flowers are velvety, and seem to glow in the diffuse light of the shop.

The guy who works at Green Escape most of the time is called Marcus. He’s short and soft-spoken, likely queer, Bucky thinks. Marcus is wearing a t-shirt that says “Neon Trees.” Bucky is wearing a t-shirt that says “Veteran with Mental Problems,” which was a present from Stark. The shirt had earned a flat look from Steve, but Sam had laughed.

“What’s a neon tree,” Bucky says.

“Oh,” Marcus says, looking down at his own shirt. “It’s a band. This shirt is from a concert. Did you find something you wanted?”

“Yeah,” he says. “But how do I get one of these plants home without freezing it?” It was unusually cold and windy this week, bitterly cold, the kind of weather that kept most people inside.

“Well, we wrap it up. But it’s best if you don’t keep the flowers outside too long in this weather. Like, maybe call a cab.”

 

Bucky shakes his head no. There is no way he’s putting himself and Blue into a cab.

“An Uber?”

“Fuck no,” Bucky says.

“Fair enough. You could wait until the cold snap ends. They’re saying end of the week. Or maybe you have a friend with a car?”

“Hm,” Bucky says. “More like a frenemy, but yes.”

“Right on,” Marcus says.

Natasha picks up on the first ring, and agrees to bring a car over. “Not your little sports car,” Bucky says. “Something with actual leg room.”

She shows up in a beat up Subaru Forester with an “I heart Vermont” bumper sticker. “Don’t ask,” she says. Bucky doesn’t know if she is referring to the car, or to Barton, who’s sprawled out, asleep or maybe knocked unconscious, in the back seat.

They fit six wrapped-up orchids into the very back. Blue climbs into the back seat with Barton, and Bucky sits up front. Natasha drives him home, blasting the heat and driving too fast, parks illegally in front of his building, and helps him carry the flowers up to the apartment. She leaves Barton asleep in the back seat.

Bucky unwraps the orchids carefully and puts them near the windows in his room, moving some other plants out of the way. One large fuschia-colored orchid, he puts on the kitchen table, in the center under their fancy hanging light. The petals almost shimmer in the gold light.

***

Steve has taken up drawing again, and he’s drawing Blue a lot. Bucky’s metal hand resting on Blue’s back. Blue smiling and surrounded by bluebell flowers, rendered in meticulous colored pencil. Blue lying completely flat on the floor, sound asleep.

He draws Bucky with an orchid flower in his hair, makes him sit for the portrait. Bucky scowls but does it. Steve draws the scowl in, but somehow the portrait still looks soft, almost radiant. It’s a portrait of someone who is loved, who loves. Is that what he looks like, really? Bucky avoids mirrors, usually, even grew out his beard so he wouldn’t have to look himself in the face so often or so closely when he shaved. Looking at the portrait is different, though, less intense. The Bucky in the portrait is kinder, softer, and less afraid.

***

He’s tired a lot. He doesn’t sleep much, or well. He gets headaches sometimes, pain that settles behind his eyes and spreads into his jaw. The headaches come with strange lights in his vision, as if he looked at a bright explosion and now he’s left with the visual echo. It helps to close his eyes, and if it’s bright out, he can pull his baseball cap down low. He knows now that Blue will alert him to danger, so he doesn’t have to be quite so vigilant. He can go outside and walk even when his eyes are tired and full of aura.

He knows this about Blue because she’s done it. Blue stopped him once, planted herself in front of his feet and stood still. She perked her ears and looked down the cross street. Bucky looked too, and after a few moments he saw the slim man running frantically down the sidewalk. A cop was chasing the man, and tackled him, and the two fell into a tumble ten feet in front of Bucky. They would have run into him, had he kept walking forward, and Bucky might have hurt someone. Instead he stood still and watched and breathed. Then he turned around and he and Blue walked back the way they had come.

He lost time for a little while after that, but when he came back into awareness, he was still walking, and Blue was calm. They were not far from Green Escape, so he walked there. He sat on the bench that was near the door and watched people buy plants for an hour, until Marcus had to close up the store.

When he tells Jeannie about this incident, she suggests that Bucky himself had noticed the running man, and that Blue picked up on Bucky’s cues. “She’s attuned to you,” Jeannie says. How strange, Bucky thinks. How wonderful.

***

Jeannie thinks he should keep a journal, so he steals one of Steve’s sketchbooks.

March 4: Fucking arm is acting up, he writes.

It’s not so much the arm as the shoulder, where the arm attaches. The metal structures are heavy, and the arm wasn’t made or attached with his comfort in mind. The skin and muscles pull at each other. Knots rise up in his back. He has a healing factor, and it takes care of things eventually, but the damn serum came from some evil Nazis and it doesn’t always work right.

He records his migraines and the aura, sketching the squiggly lines that march across his vision.

When he reports back to Jeannie, she says, “It sounds like you should see a medical doctor.”

Where other people might flinch or tremble, Bucky goes still and silent. To react is to give the enemy information. But the strange thing is, Blue can read his cues. Perhaps she can hear his heartbeat tick up in tempo. He knows she can smell the sweat breaking out on his forehead. Blue rises from her spot on the rug, and comes over to press against his legs.

Jeannie pauses, watches, says nothing for a moment. Then she says, “Remember your breathing techniques. In for a count of four. Hold for four. Exhale for four. Hold for four.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes, with Jeannie counting breaths.

They end the session early. Bucky goes to bed, though it’s three in the afternoon. He actually sleeps, as if his body is defending him against anxiety. He doesn’t remember any dreams.

He wakes up at nine when he hears Sam come in. Sam looks exhausted, his shoulders drooping, a splint on his left index finger. His clothes look freshly changed. But for all that, Sam still takes one look at Bucky and said, “Hey, you OK man?”

Bucky looked up and said “Yeah,” his voice sounding rough and sleepy. “You? Steve?”

“Yeah, we’re both good. Steve stayed for more debriefings. Want some cold pizza?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Tough day?” Sam takes a box of leftover pizza and two beers from the fridge.

“Jeannie suggested I see a medical doctor.”

“Ah,” Sam says. “I know what this calls for.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Marvin Gaye.”

“Uh-uh,” Bucky protests, grabbing for the phone. “Britney Spears or nothing.”

“I cannot even believe you,” Sam says, losing hold of the phone. Bucky’s lightning reflexes win every time.

“You love her. I bet you had posters of her on your bedroom when you were a teenager. If we go to your mom’s house I bet I can find them.”

“I’ll take that bet and wager a bottle of whiskey,” Sam says. “Gasoline” starts playing from the Bluetooth speakers.

“Done, as long as it’s top shelf only.”

“Naturally,” says Sam, taking a long drink from his beer. “You want to meet my momma?”

Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, of course I do.”

“OK,” Sam says, smiling. He leans over the table and kisses Bucky. Bucky leans into it. “You taste like beer,” Sam observes, standing up so he can move around the table.

They make out for a while, slow, steady. Bucky notices his vision changing, bright white lines meandering across his right eye. He ignores it, hard. Maybe he does need to see a doctor. Fuck. Nothing in his life can ever be simple, can it.

“What’s the matter, where you at,” Sam says.

Bucky almost says, Nothing’s the matter, but he stops himself. Remembers that he’s supposed to act like a boyfriend at least some of the time. And boyfriends make an effort. They try to be honest. “Migraine coming,” he says. “Aura.”

“Can I do anything?”

“There’s this spot in my shoulder. A big knot.”

Sam moves behind Bucky’s chair and digs his fingers into the muscles, gentle but firm. “Can I take your shirt off?”

Bucky lifts his arms up and Sam strips off the red henley, drapes it over a chair back. He works at Bucky’s shoulder with his strong arms and hands. Bucky can’t believe how good it feels. It’s painful but a good kind of pain that signals a release of tension, and it radiates out to his neck and his right arm. It’s almost certainly his imagination, but his metal arm feels better too.

“If you lay down on the bed I can like, put my whole weight on this knot,” Sam says.

“Are you trying to seduce me, Sam Wilson?”

“Only if you want me to.”

Bucky goes to Sam and Steve’s room and shuts the door when Blue tries to follow him in. He knows some people don’t mind that shit, but it creeps him out when the dog watches him have sex.

The bedroom has hardwood floors and big windows, covered now against the dark and the miserable March rain. It’s lit softly by bedside lamps. Some of Steve’s art hangs framed on the walls. Bucky lies face-down and lets Sam work on his shoulder some more. He feels his breaths grow deeper and more even.

“Never thought I’d live anywhere this nice,” Bucky says, admiring the feel of the soft sheets against his skin.

“You and me both,” Sam said. “Where did you think you’d live?”

“Hm,” Bucky says, relaxing even more. “I thought I’d live in a cheap Brooklyn apartment with a shared bathroom for the whole floor. Me and Steve, if he lived that long.”

After a while Sam starts kissing Bucky’s neck, pushing the long hair away and kissing his ear. Bucky shifts his hips and reaches for his own belt buckle.

“How’s your head,” Sam says.

“Trying not to think about it right now, thank you very much,” Bucky says.

“All right, all right. Turn over,” Sam says, and helps Bucky pull his jeans off. Suddenly in a hurry, Sam strips his own clothes off and lies on top of Bucky, skin to skin all over. He kisses Bucky deeply. The pads of his fingers, soft and warm, touch Bucky’s face gently.

Bucky likes that he knows Sam’s tells, his body language, and he knows which things Sam likes best. Sam likes his palms kissed, he likes tenderness. He likes teasing and laughter.

Sam and Steve are both ridiculously easy to read, and easy to please in bed. Sam is casually affectionate and fun in a way that neither Steve nor Bucky have ever been. Steve has always been serious and intense in everything he does. But they are learning, the both of them.

It’s almost like thinking about Steve summons him, because there’s a gentle knock on the door and he comes in, looking tired but calm and happy.

“Sometimes I think I have the best life,” Steve says, walking over and sitting on the edge of the bed.

Sam grins at him, a mischievous look in his eyes. “Take off your boots, Captain. Stay a while.”

Steve complies, and strips down, but for a while he just watches as Sam and Bucky make out. Sam starts to slick up Bucky’s ass with the fancy lube, making small gentle motions with his fingers. Bucky put his legs up around Sam’s hips and pulls him in closer. Sam laughs, a little huffing noise. He takes a big breath and fucks into Bucky in one long stroke. It’s so intimate, so warm, so freeing. Bucky stops thinking about everything and just feels the fullness of Sam, his gap-toothed smile, his body heat, his fingertips brushing against Bucky’s neck. Sam has a thing about necks, and beards. Steve’s grown out his own beard just to please Sam.

Bucky sees Steve reach over to put on a hand on Sam’s ass, as if pushing or guiding him. It’s like he’s getting fucked by both of them. Steve’s intense stare and Sam’s sparkling one, both of them filling him up. Steve puts his other hand on Bucky’s chest, holding him gently in place, and lowers his mouth to Bucky’s cock.

Bucky’s only half-hard; sometimes it takes a while for him to get going. But his dick gets with the program as soon as Steve’s tongue and lips touch the head, kissing and sucking. “You’re so gorgeous, Buck,” Steve says. Steve’s head is right up against Sam’s abs; Sam is balls-deep in Bucky. They are crowded close and warm and Bucky feels so safe. Sam and Steve are big and powerful and protective. Usually it annoys him but right now it feels so, so nice to be taken care of. He’s embarrassed about it and that only seems to make him feel more turned on.

He hears a moan come out of his throat, deep and guttural. His breathing is fast and he’s covered in sweat. Sam moans too, grunting and gasping, his body moving in smooth thrusts.

Time slows and stretches pleasantly. Bucky’s world is filled up by Steve’s mouth on his cock and Sam’s fucking motions and the heat building low in his belly. Bucky braces himself with his metal arm and lifts his hips up. Sam catches right on and lifts Bucky’s legs, increasing his pace.

Steve sucks relentlessly at Bucky’s dick, until Bucky comes with a long groan, shooting into Steve’s mouth. Bucky deliberately flexes his thighs and tightens around Sam’s cock. Sam’s hips thrust wildly for a moment and he throws his head back, coming with a loud cry.

Bucky sighs, relaxed but sensitive, and feels a spike of pain from his shoulder, making itself heard through all the other sensations. Sam eases Bucky’s legs down and rolls away, only a little bit away, lying down next to Bucky.

Steve, lying on Bucky’s other side, has started jerking off, and Bucky and Sam turn their heads to watch him. His gloriously muscled chest is flushed pink; his nipples stand erect. Sam puts his hand across and brushes Steve’s lips. Steve opens his mouth and sucks on Sam’s fingers eagerly. It’s not much longer and Steve is coming, spilling onto Bucky’s stomach.

They clean up, and doze, and Bucky gets up to get something to eat. Blue is lying just outside the bedroom door, her head on her paws.

“Voyeur,” Bucky says to her.

***

“What about Banner?” Sam asks Bucky over breakfast.

“What about him,” Bucky says, taking a bite of French toast.

“He has an MD.”

It’s a strategically timed question. Bucky is often a little groggy in the morning, passive. And he fucking loves French toast.

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky says. He’s probably lying, but it’s the best he can do right now. He pours some more maple syrup on his breakfast.

***

He reads somewhere about rooftop greenhouses. The idea takes root and suddenly he wants to do it very badly. He of course wants a fancy greenhouse, a huge one, but for a couple of hundred bucks he can buy a starter kit and put it on the roof. He has a dedicated credit card with a fake name that he uses for online purchases, and it’s currently pre-paid with five hundred dollars. He reads the reviews and recommendations and purchases a large hoop-style greenhouse kit for three hundred dollars.

The kit arrives in a huge box on March 18th, and he notes the day in his journal. He carries it up the stairs to the roof, Blue padding along behind him. It’s a blustery late March day, overcast, sort of miserable. He ties his hair back to keep it from whipping around in his face.

He cuts the box open and peers at the instructions, which are not uncomplicated. This might take more time and effort that he’d originally thought. There are aluminum poles, screws and washers and anchors, and lots of clear, heavy plastic sheets for the walls. It’s not unlike a tent but with about eighteen more steps to construct.

Steve eventually shows up. The light is gone and the temperature is dropping. “Is it supper time?” Bucky asks him.

“Just about. Do you want help putting this thing up?”

Bucky pauses and surveys the mess in front of him. He’s pretty sure he made a mistake somewhere and will have to take the poles apart. “Yeah, maybe. Definitely should eat first though.”

Supper is salmon cooked with onions, fresh green beans, carrots, and rice. A grocery-store cherry pie for dessert. He and Steve both need to eat a lot, even on rest days. It’s a good thing that all of them have a decent handle on how to cook, and have a big kitchen. When Hydra had him, they kept him hungry, and fed him poor-quality food most of the time. It meant his brain didn’t work as well. Sometimes he’ll catch a smell of boiled meat or cabbage soup and his stomach will turn. There’s a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge with his “no” list, and every so often he adds to it. Cottage cheese, vodka, and beets are currently on this list. Sam had added “Grapefruit” and Steve wrote “green olives”.

Sam had suggested that Bucky make a “yes” list to make shopping easier, but then complained when Bucky just put “Sam’s cock” on the list. “Just telling the truth,” Bucky said. They ended up leaving it there, adding below things like mango, chocolate milk, and “SUSHI!!”.

“Does this make the yes list?” Steve asks now.

“It’s good,” Bucky says. He’s not really paying attention, though. He’s thinking about getting the greenhouse together. He wonders how soon it will be warm enough to put plants into it. Articles on the internet suggested starting tomato and pepper seeds inside, and then moving them out to the garden in the summer. He doesn’t have a garden, but he could probably make some raised planters and put them on the roof. He’ll start with those, and some herbs, and edible flowers.

It takes all three of them another two hours, with a fair amount of bickering, to get the greenhouse put together and anchored down to the roof. It’s not huge, but is big enough to stand up and walk around a little. Bucky figures he’ll put some metal shelving inside and trays of soil for his seeds. It looks pretty good.

When he lays down to try and sleep that night, he thinks about the future, and he doesn’t think about running away.

***

In April the weather changes constantly. His head starts to hurt all the time. He gets nauseated easily and feels too hot. He starts leaving his window open all the time to let the cool fresh air in. He wears sunglasses to keep the light out of his eyes. He spends a lot of time in his room, laid out flat on the wood floor with an ice pack for a pillow. He still has to take care of Blue, and water the plants, but that’s about all he’s been doing. Life slows to a painful grind.

After two weeks of this, he texts Banner.

Bruce meets him in the apartment on a Wednesday afternoon, just after his therapy appointment. Might as well get the horrible things over in one go.

“I didn’t know you were an MD,” Bucky says.

“MD and PhD. I went right into research, though, and never saw patients. If you were anyone else I’d tell you to go see a real doctor. But there aren’t many people who have experience with super-soldier serum. Just to warn you, I do not carry malpractice insurance.”

Bruce opens a case to reveal a white device of some kind. It has two parts, one of which looks like a tablet computer. The other part is a small round device with a handle.

“This is a portable ultrasound machine,” Bruce says. “It’s simple to operate. You can use it on yourself, I can show you how, although it might be better image quality if you can stand to have me do it. It will give us a look inside your body without having to use a big X-ray or CT scanner, and obviously MRIs are impossible considering your hardware. I’m thinking there may be a mechanical issue causing the migraines. Something that the healing factor can’t get around. We’ll start with your scanning your neck.”

“This is like what they use on pregnant women,” Bucky says, and Bruce nods. “Then they post the weird images to their social media accounts.” He’d seen some of these on the veterans forum.

“Yes, well, this is a next generation version. But it’s the same concept. It’ll be easier to see the images in the dark. Like, if we shut the lights and pull the blinds.”

“OK,” Bucky says. He’s not as anxious as he expected he would be, but the pain in his head is using up a lot of his bandwidth.

The darkness eases his aching eyes. The plants don’t like it, though; they need as much light as possible. Well, he can put the blinds back up in a minute.

“I’d like to see your shoulders, too, if you wanna take off your shirt,” Bruce says.

Bruce moves slowly and tells Bucky where he’s going to put his hands. There’s some cold lube-like gel that goes on his neck, then the sensor goes over that. It makes a whooshing sound and gray, staticky images appear on the screen of the tablet.

“Hmm,” Bruce says. He moves the scanner down Bucky’s spine. It doesn’t really feel like anything. Bruce’s hands are ungloved, cool and professional.

Something flickers into focus on the screen, jagged and bright white.

“What the fuck is that,” Bucky says.

“I have no idea,” Bruce says. He seems calm. Bucky supposes that Bruce has a lot of practice at staying calm. “Shrapnel? Metal and glass together according to the sensor. Some big pieces. Do you remember getting hit there?

Bucky shakes his head, no. “Can you get it the fuck out of there?”

“I can’t, personally. We’ll need a qualified surgeon. The sooner the better, I think, though it will take some arranging.”

“Fuck, can’t you just do it now. I can give you a choice of knives.”

“Hm, tempting but no. Trust me that you want someone with a very steady hand, who is incapable of sudden body transformation.”

“Hmm,” Bucky says. He’d rather not think about surgery right now. A sudden wave of exhaustion rolls over him, and he closes his eyes.

“Enough for now, huh? I’ll text you,” Bruce says. Bucky hears Bruce pack up his things and leave, and then he falls asleep right at the table.

***

The hospital has a smell of cleaning products and stressed-out people. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead. He takes a few steps inside and has to stop for a minute because his chest feels tight and Blue is pressing up against his legs. He sees sparkles in his field of vision.

“I don’t think this is gonna happen,” he tells Steve.

“All right,” Steve says, unfazed. They turn around and leave. They were just doing recon anyway, but Bucky appreciates Steve’s ability to roll with things.

At home, Bucky lies on the big sofa and puts an ice pack over his eyes. Steve sits down next to him and lifts Bucky’s legs onto his lap. He unlaces Bucky’s boots. “What do you want to do,” Steve says.

Bucky takes a breath, pauses. “I want you or Sam or Natasha to cut the fucking shrapnel out of my shoulder.”

Steve doesn’t say anything for a full minute. Bucky peels the ice pack off his eyes and looks at him, checking to see if he heard. Steve has that determined look on his face.

Bucky kicks his boots off, one by one, and they fall with a thump to the floor.

“OK,” Steve says, finally.

“Really?”

“It’s not the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.” Steve starts rubbing Bucky’s feet, digging his thumbs into the arches.

Bucky huffs a laugh. “It’s like that time Morita did field surgery on you to get that bullet out.”

Steve smiles, wide and sunny. “I’m glad you remember that.”

“Yeah I remember you being a big baby about the whole thing when the guys weren’t watching.”

“And I remember you taking care of me.”

Bucky smiles, remembering mud and the smell of cigarettes, and a lot of frantic handjobs. “I can’t believe I’m feeling nostalgic for the war.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and leans over to kiss Bucky.

***

“You’re taking this better than I expected,” Bucky says.

Sam shifts in his seat at the kitchen table. “It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into, getting into a relationship with The Cowardly Lion and Tin Man.”

Steve cracks a smile. “I guess that makes you the Scarecrow.”

“Yes, the original Friend of Dorothy. Also the brains of the operation. Maybe you can just tell me why the hospital is not an option,” Sam says.

“A hospital is full of civilians. I could hurt them, kill them, without even realizing it. Plus the smell… the place smells like…” Bucky makes a frustrated noise. “I don’t remember, but it’s bad.” He doesn’t feel panicked right now, but his mind just won’t go there. There is a locked door between him and the memory.

“I feel like,” Bucky starts, stops. Reaches for words. “Most likely a knife to the back will trigger something. Fighting. If it’s Steve there, at least he can take me down if I lose control.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Steve says.

“Drugs aren’t going to be enough,” Bucky says. “Likely they’ll burn off. I have to have… fail safes.”

“But Steve’s not a surgeon,” Sam says. “And from what you said, you have shrapnel close to your spine. We should find a real surgeon.”

“What surgeon is going to agree to doing surgery outside of an OR?” Steve says.

Sam looks at Steve and then at Bucky. “Oh no,” Bucky says. “Not that wizard clown.”

“Yes, that wizard clown. He’s our best option.” Sam stands up and walks to the kitchen. “I’m calling him.”

***

Bucky liked to make fun of Stephen Strange, largely because it amused Steve, and because Strange’s wild clothes made him an easy target. Steve disliked the man for reasons he couldn’t explain. But when Bucky was being honest, he found Strange just unbelievably hot. Strange’s long black hair curled a little where it met his shoulders. His golden-brown skin looked warm and touchable. Slightly graying stubble shadowed his sharp jaw. He had a nice voice too, smooth and low. Bucky was going to have to concentrate hard to follow the conversation at all; his mind kept derailing to sex fantasies.

That worked out well, though, because it meant Bucky didn’t think too hard about surgery or the mechanics of what was going to happen.

The three of them meet in Strange’s ridiculous mansion, which is blessedly quiet and smells like old books and whiskey. The weather is miserable, rainy and dreary, but in Strange’s office, a cheerful fire burns in an old brick fireplace.

“Is that a parrot? A real parrot?” Sam says, walking excitedly to the stand in the corner.

“An African Gray,” Strange says. “A friend of mine was no longer able to look after her, so she came here six months ago. Her name is Uhura.”

“A communications specialist, naturally,” Sam says. “Who’s a beautiful bird? That’s right, you are.” Sam leans down and nuzzles the parrot’s head with his nose.

“Well, Sam will be occupied for the next hour,” Steve says. “Meanwhile can you help Bucky?”

“Absolutely,” Strange says, sitting down in a wingback chair. “Magically-assisted surgery is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I don’t get to do it as often as you might think. But rest assured that I remain the world’s best surgeon, with or without magic.”

Steve makes a face, just a little tilt of the eyebrows, which means he’d roll his eyes if he could get away with it. Strange doesn’t seem to notice.

“All right. Let’s get it over with,” Bucky says. The room is starting to feel stuffy.

It’s true that Strange has a huge ego and many irritating qualities, but to his credit he does a good job of helping Bucky feel comfortable. Strange has a table set up in a small room, but it’s just a massage table with a pillow and sheets on it; it doesn’t look or feel or smell medical. Bucky takes his shirt off but leaves his cargo pants and boots on. He leaves the knives that are strapped to his ankles.

The room has natural light in addition to bright lamps, and he can hear the rain falling on the windows in a soothing, drumming pattern. Bucky lies face-down on the table and Steve sits in a chair by the door. Sam, claiming squeamishness, leaves and heads back to the study.

Bucky puts his headphones in, playing his Britney Spears mix. Dr. Strange touches the back of his head, says a few muffled words, and Bucky goes away for a while. He isn’t totally asleep. It’s more like drifting, dozing while very relaxed.

When he comes back to awareness, he isn’t groggy at all and he knows just where he is. His heartbeat is slow and steady. Steve sits calmly in the same chair by the door. Pain stretches across his back, but he can feel the itch that means the wound’s already healing.

“That’s it?” Steve says.

“That’s it,” Strange replies. “You should monitor the incision for signs of infection. Given the fact that the tissue is already healing, I taped it rather than putting in stitches. Sergeant Barnes, you can sit up slowly.”

Bucky sits up and rolls his shoulders. His back twinges and shifts and it feels like the muscles are re-aligning themselves, sliding into place and untwisting.

“Can I see it? The shrapnel.”

Dr. Strange picks up a metal tray and brings it over to him. “I don’t think it’s shrapnel.”

Bits of metal, plastic, glass, and wire sit in a metal bowl, small and innocuous, washed mostly clean of blood. There are shards of what look to be a broken circuit board.

A memory hits him all at once, flooding back into his mind. It was after the helicarriers. A grimy truck stop shower stall where he could lock the door. He cut the one tracker out of his right thigh and pocketed it whole. Blood ran down and mixed with dirt and grease and bled away into the drain in the floor.

He couldn’t reach the other tracker. The metal arm just wouldn’t go that way, it didn’t have the flexibility or give that his other arm did. He braced a knife into a crack in the concrete wall, jamming it in hard. It was the boot knife with the leather-wrapped handle, a favorite. He leaned back against the point carefully, trying to line it up with where he thought the tracker would be. Then he slowly shifted his weight back onto the knife. The pain registered as a far-away alarm; the body trying to tell him to stop. He bit down and kept going until he heard a small crunch, then another. He wasn’t sure if it was broken, but it was time to get moving.

He washed the wounds and bandaged them with rags and duct tape from his backpack. The unbroken tracker from his thigh, he threw into the open bed of a pickup truck.

The memory stops there, and Bucky grips the table where he’s sitting. Steve is looking at him with that piercing, concerned face, his forehead wrinkling. Dr. Strange is cleaning up, taking off his gown, not paying attention to Bucky.

“Hydra tracker, junk piece of shit tech,” Bucky says. “I couldn’t reach to get it out.”

“Do you think there are any more trackers?” Steve asks.

“No. There were two. Primary and redundant.”

“OK. Let’s go home,” Steve says.

Sam’s still talking to the parrot; it’s like no time has passed. “That was quick,” he says, looking Bucky up and down as if to make sure he’s not missing any pieces.

This impulse seems to last. Sam touches Bucky’s shoulder as they exit the mansion. When they get home, Sam wants to see his back, to touch his skin. “Good Lord, it’s already healing,” he says. “How do I always forget how amazing that is.”

“OK, show’s over, time for sleep,” Bucky says. And he finds he does actually want to sleep; he curls up with Blue. She’s warm and soft and her breathing is steady. Sleep comes easier than it has in months.

***

The memories are coming back, and he doesn’t want them. It’s as if the locked door in his mind has cracked open. He remembers the chair, most of all, the coldness of it, the unyielding hardness, the taste of metal. Instead of blanking him, the chair is putting the memories back in. It’s going too fast. It’s relentless. He gasps, fighting for breath.

Bucky jerks awake. Blue is licking his face. He’s sweating and the blankets are on the floor.

He remembers killing a lot of people. He wishes he could put those memories away again.

He turns his tablet on and stares at nature photos for a while until he feels calmer. Then he navigates over to the veterans’ message board and looks at the updates.

There’s a veterans’ support group that meets in a church basement just six blocks away. He’s been eyeing it for a while, and there is a meeting at 4 pm. It’s 5 AM now.

It gives him a deadline. He has to shower, take Blue out, feed her, and water the plants. This takes the better part of an hour. He cooks up eggs and toast for everyone’s breakfast. This doesn’t take as long as he would like, so he makes some banana bread too. Sam’s always buying bananas and Steve and Bucky never eat them, but they make good sweet bread.

It’s hard to fill up the hours after Sam and Steve leave. They always have more work: Avengers missions, meetings, charity dinners, photo shoots, visiting sick kids. Bucky’s alone more often than not these days.

He thinks about what his therapist would say. She’d probably tell him to make some friends. He’s not sure how to do that.

Bucky goes for a run with Blue, which takes up another hour. The weather is gross, rainy and dreary. He showers again just because he can. One thing about the future that Bucky will never get used to is the endless supply of hot water, and a big bathroom that he can have all to himself.

He spends some time in the greenhouse, checking on his tomato seedlings and monitoring the temperature. It’s warm and humid inside, and the rain is loud on the plastic walls. It feels like another world. The tomato seedlings are sprouting, little fragile green leaves pushing themselves up out of the soil. The air smells like earth.

Finally it’s 3:30, a reasonable time to leave the house so that he won’t be too early for the meeting.

Thankfully, he’s not the only one to arrive early. He’s not even the only one with a service dog. A young man sits in the front with a German Shepherd. Bucky wasn’t going to sit in the front, but Blue wants to greet the other dog, so he follows her and sits two chairs away from the young man. The chairs in the room are all facing the door, so that no one has their back to the entrance. Bucky and the young man exchange nods and sit in silence for a few minutes.

“What’s your dog’s name,” the man says. He’s not looking at Bucky, instead looking down at his own dog.

It’s a familiar script. “This is Blue. She’s a Great Pyrenees. I’ve had her for a few months.”

“This is Griffon. German Shepherd. He’s four years old.”

“Pleased to meet you, Griffon,” Bucky says. The young man cracks a half-smile.

“I’m Carlos.”

“James.”

More people filter into the room and sit down on the metal folding chairs. A few of them are older guys but most of them look so, so young.

Someone stands at the front and talks for a while. Bucky tries to pay attention but he zones out, letting the voices wash over him. People are talking about hypervigilance and nightmares and coping strategies. It’s nice to be around other people and not feel like they are expecting anything from him. His brain registers the people in the room as not-immediately-threatening.

Suddenly the hour is up and people are standing, milling around. Blue rouses and puts her feet into downward dog pose and stretches luxuriously.

He figures that’s enough activity for one day, and spends the rest of it sitting in the greenhouse with Blue, thinking about nothing. He sits in the folding camp chair and dozes.

Sam wakes him for dinner, or rather Blue wakes him up when she gets up to greet Sam. “This place could use some lights,” Sam says. “Maybe some of those little Christmas lights on a string.”

“I’ve seen them at the garden store,” Bucky says. It’s a good idea.

Sam grabs Bucky’s hand to help him up from the chair. Bucky doesn’t let go, and they hold hands all the way down to the apartment.

***

He gets a text on his Stark Industries tablet.

Hi Mr. Barnes! This is Darcy Lewis. We met one time at a Thing but you probably don’t remember me. I’m Thor’s friend and self-appointed president of the Avengers Auxiliary. Anyways this is an invitation to Passover Seder on Friday at my parents’ place. Please come! Don’t bring any food because we already have too much.

Hi Darcy. He types out on the tablet. His fingers feel clumsy. That sounds nice. Should I bring Steve and Sam? And i have a dog now, she goes where i go.

He gets a reply almost immediately.

Yes!! The more the merrier. See you then!

On Friday he wears his best black jeans and a button-down shirt, even though Darcy has said the dress code is “just wear clothes. Or don’t. ;) ;p”
He combs his hair and brushes out Blue’s coat. He hasn’t been to a Seder since the war. “Well, this tradition is thousands of years old. It won’t have changed much,” he tells Blue, petting her ears to ease his nerves. She leans into his touch.

“Do you want to borrow a tie?” Steve says, leaning around the open door frame into Bucky’s room. He’s holding a dark red tie in one hand and a teal silk tie in the other. Bucky chooses the teal and Steve steps close, arranging the tie around his shirt collar.

A memory comes back, of Steve when he was small, putting a tie around Bucky’s neck while he sat in the kitchen of Steve’s Ma’s apartment. It was for… a wedding? A funeral? Maybe it’s multiple memories blended into one. Steve smells the same now, and his hands feel the same brushing up against Bucky’s skin. Steve smoothes the tie and kisses Bucky softly, just as he did back then.

“This feels like old times,” Bucky says.

Steve smiles soft and steps back. “If our mothers could see us now, what would they say?”

“Your Ma would be happy we’re together. I think she placed a bet on it,” Bucky says as they put their coats on. “Though I don’t know what kind of fool would’ve placed a bet against us.”

Sam is the best dressed of all of them, wearing a gray suit, a pink shirt, wing-tipped shoes and a fedora. He looks like a movie star. They all pile into a private car that Steve has rented and in hardly any time at all they’re walking up the stairs of a decently nice apartment building.

Darcy’s father, Ezra, takes their coats and ushers them inside. He’s a wild-haired man with the air of a professor. He’s wearing a t-shirt with writing on it under a corduroy jacket and has an earring in one ear. Bucky likes t-shirts with writing on them, so he looks closer: it says “Jews for Peace” in flowing script.

The huge table is set for fourteen people, and Bucky quickly loses track of all the new names and faces as people introduce themselves. He recognizes Jane Foster, Wanda, and Pietro. Darcy herself is only vaguely familiar, but she grabs his hand and acts like they’ve been friends for years.

“When you said you had a dog, I didn’t know you meant a polar bear dog,” she says. “There’s a bowl of water for her in the kitchen.”

As the sun goes down, they settle at the table. Blue finds a spot to lay down, against the wall behind his chair, and she relaxes; Bucky feels his shoulders drop a notch. He doesn’t speak, but no one seems to notice. Darcy’s father and stepmother lead the Kiddush together. The prayers and rituals are familiar, though he doesn’t seem to have a specific memory attached to them. It’s just a feeling, a certain warmth, of being among his people.

They eat the parsley and salt water and matzah. There are no children present, so Darcy asks the four questions. There is some laughter, sharing of memories, and then Mr Lewis clears his throat and speaks.

“We do not hold strictly to tradition at this household. But we always celebrate Passover. At Passover we feast in the knowledge that we are no longer slaves,” Ezra says, “while recognizing that slavery still exists in this world and that we all share in the responsibility for ending slavery. We who were once slaves must oppose prison labor, sweatshops, human trafficking, and other forms of slavery.” Ezra meets Bucky’s eyes for a long moment, a clear-eyed, open, knowing look. “We must release each other from bondage,” he says, “and thus free ourselves.”

Bucky feels a rush of realization. He’d thought of the Winter Soldier, of himself, whoever he was and had been, as a tool, a thing, a machine made for killing. But he had been a slave. Like so many of his own people before him. His heart starts beating faster. He takes some deep breaths and feels the air fill his lungs, expanding his chest. There’s a rush of emotion that he cannot name; it’s intense and complicated. He grips the edge of the table with his flesh hand and squeezes.

He’s already feeling too much when he catches a whiff of the borscht.

There’s nothing like a smell to trigger a memory. This memory lives in his body more than in his mind, and it turns his stomach over. The back of his right hand goes to his mouth, hitting a wine glass on the way. The glass rocks and starts to tip, it hits the table and spills but does not break.

Bucky’s chair scrapes back. Pain on the left side of his face, the place where the chair contacts went. Anxiety like noise in his head, telling him to either fight or get the hell out. Memories of green light and grinding noises and screaming. Time slows and distorts. Fuck.

Sam and Steve are staring at him. “Excuse me,” he says, voice like gravel. He can keep it together, he can. His metal hand finds Blue’s harness as he flees the room. Bathroom. Close the door. Blue presses up against his leg.

He finds the sink stopper, an old-fashioned rubber one, and starts filling the sink with cold water. Cold water on the face, to slow the heart rate and stop a panic attack. Time stretches as he listens to the water. Finally it fills and he puts his whole face into the bowl of the sink. It’s not as cold as he would like but it still seems to do the trick. The cold water soaks his beard, the loose end of his hair; when he comes up for air it streams down his neck and onto his shirt and tie. He takes a breath and does it again.

After a while there’s a knock on the door. It’s Steve, come to check on him. He lets Steve in and closes the door. Blue is still leaning on Bucky’s leg, so he sits down on the cool tile floor, letting her put all her fluffy weight onto his chest. He’s suddenly cold all over and Blue’s warmth feels like a lifeline. Her fur tickles his nose.

“Anything I can do?” Steve says, calmly. He sits down on the closed toilet.

“It was the fucking borscht.”

“The what?”

“The beet soup. Bright red with a wicked smell.”

“Ah. Tastes like an angry grandma hurled a beet at your face.”

“That’s the one,” Bucky says, and laughs hysterically.

“We’ll go home,” Steve says.

“I’ll be OK in a minute. You should stay. Blue can get me home.”

“Compromise,” Steve says, still calm, commanding. His Captain America voice. “Sam stays and you and I go home.”

“Yes sir,” Bucky says, relieved to not have to make any decisions.

They get their coats and leave quickly. No need to drag it out. Steve says goodbye and they’re out the door and onto the sidewalk and into the car. “We were all having a nice time,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry for ruining it.”

“Don’t apologize,” Steve says. “It’s not your fault. And you didn’t ruin it.”

“At least I’ll have something to talk about in therapy this week.”

Steve squeezes Bucky’s hand. “I remember what it was like to be sick and have to cancel plans and stay in bed. You never complained.”

“That’s different,” Bucky says immediately. “You were sick. Not crazy.”

“Bucky. Do you hear yourself? You are sick. It’s not different.”

“Hmmm,” Bucky says. He leans into Steve’s shoulder. “Can we stop and get some sushi?”

“Of course,” Steve says, and kisses the top of Bucky's head.
***

Bucky’s therapy homework is to write down in his journal a list of things that Aren’t Terrible. He writes:
Sam;
Steve;
Blue;
My plants and greenhouse;
Fewer migraines than before;
My knives;
Sushi.

***

Darcy texts him the next day.

Thanks for coming to Passover! There’s a string of emojis that he can’t quite interpret.

sorry I freaked out, he types back.

Whomst among us hasn’t, etc etc. Hope you are feeling better and hmu if you want some herb, that sometimes helps me. Special discount for Avengers Auxiliary club members.

Right on, he texts back, after he asks the tablet what “hmu” means.

He’s not sure it’ll work, given his metabolism, but he figures, why not.

This is how he ends up smoking marijuana outside the greenhouse with Darcy and Jane, who, he discovers, are also a couple. It’s a nice feeling to pass a joint and let the time pass. It reminds him of the good parts of the war. Camaraderie.

“Lesbians are seriously the best people,” Bucky says. “This was a good idea.”

“I’m bisexual, but thank you,” Jane says.

“I on the other hand am a certified man-hating lesbian,” Darcy says. “But don’t worry, I have a soft spot for emo goth boys.” She puts her feet up and rests them across Bucky’s thighs. “So is it true that you and Steve and Sam are a throuple? Or is it more of a roommate situation?”

“What the fuck is a throuple.”

“It’s like a couple but with three of you.”

“That’s the worst word I ever heard. But yes, that’s the situation.”

“Jane you owe me five bucks,” Darcy says.

“It’s not a secret exactly,” Bucky says. “We just try to keep it out of the press.” He grimaces. It’s a well-worn frustration, an old problem with no solution. “You know Steve, he needs other people to think about things like consequences and self-preservation.”

Darcy nods slowly and blows out a cloud of smoke. Jane, perhaps sensing the awkwardness, changes the subject and starts telling a story about Asgard. Bucky feels himself relax just a little more. He’s not really high but he’s not anxious either; the background buzz in his mind feels quieted. He has friends now, he realizes. Maybe real friends, if he plays it right.

***

Bucky hasn’t had a panic attack in two weeks. He’s kept to a careful routine, and while he’s still not sleeping much he tries to go to bed at the same time every night.

He’s building garden boxes on the roof. His body and mind take to the work. He hauls lumber, soil, and tarps up a little at a time. Hammers together the lumber and fills the boxes with clean dirt. Plants the seedlings. He has tomato, pepper, lettuce, basil, nasturtium, rosemary. The work takes all day and he doesn’t notice time passing. Sweating, he takes his shirt off and feels the Spring sun warm his skin.

Without even meaning to, he’s started to make plans for the future. He could build a little patio up here, put out a picnic table and a grill. He could cook for Darcy and Jane, make salads with the tomatoes and herbs.

He knows that tonight, Sam and Steve will come home and bring food with them. He knows that Blue is safely asleep. His plants are growing. Bucky thinks that today was OK. Maybe tomorrow will be too.