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What I Used To Be

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Determined to prove that to himself that he wasn’t too damaged to function like a regular human being, Bucky spent the morning following the nightmare debacle setting up an e-mail address and using it to create a Facebook account. He cursed at his phone while he spent ages figuring out how to e-mail himself pictures that he’d taken with his device, only to discover a few minutes later that he could have downloaded the Facebook app on the damn phone and uploaded them directly.

But whatever, Bucky committed to using the laptop so that was what he did. He chose a picture of himself that he’d taken with Win a couple of days ago while they were outside on the swings for his profile picture, and then a picture with all three of the pups as his bigger “cover” photo, whatever that was.

Bucky got the hang of the website after putting up a few more pictures: Steve coloring with the pups at the kitchen table, the pups on the Fourth with ice cream cake smeared across their delighted faces – they’d never had ice cream before that day, but Bruce gave it the go-ahead, various “selfies” (as Steve called them. Bucky wasn’t sure if everyone called them that or if it was just a Steve thing) with the pups, the pups playing on their new playset.

Looking at all the photos that he’d taken in the past months lightened the heavy weight that crouched on his shoulders since he woke with Win cuddled into his chest, in his bedroom that morning. Maybe they all had nightmares, but Bucky’s pups had never been happier than they were now. Steve had the means to get them whatever they wanted and everything that they deserved, so whether or not Bucky deserved to be here with such a considerate alpha, he knew that the pups did.

Bucky’s pups deserved the world.

Before anyone could request him as a friend, Bucky went ahead and did the work for them. He sent a request to his mom, his dad, his grandmother, and all five of his sisters.

Within instants, Bucky’s new Facebook went wild.

Judy Barnes posted on your wall

Winnie Barnes commented on your photo

George Barnes posted on your wall

Becca Barnes tagged you in a photo

“Jesus,” Bucky said aloud.

“What was that?” Steve asked from across the table, where he’d parked himself with a sketchbook and was drawing alongside Becky.

“I made a Facebook,” Bucky said, “and it took about two seconds flat for every member of my family to go actually fucking insane. Look at this.” Steve scooched out his chair and looped around the table to see Bucky’s laptop screen.

Judy Barnes

July 9 at 10:26am

                BUCKY!!!! OH MY GOD!!!

George Barnes

July 9 at 10:27am

                I am so happy to see your face, James

 On the photo Bucky took of himself with all three of the pups, which Bucky had captioned “Me & the babies”: 

Winnie Barnes They are so beautiful, honey

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:27am

And Becca, being the shit that she was, “tagged” Bucky in a photo of his acne-ridden self at his freaking bar mitzvah, though his annoyance dulled to a throb of sorrow when he saw that Becca had posted the picture in September of last year, on the day that Bucky disappeared, and that she’d captioned it “To my twin and other half, rest in peace, wherever you are.”

Becca still missed him, even after ten years went by. His chest ached thinking of how much he’d missed her, too, and how maybe Skype wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted to wrap his arms around his twin sister, wanted to breathe in her scent, the clean, fruity smell of a beloved family member. Or would she smell different, now that so many years had passed?

Bucky thought of that this morning, too, when he watched Becky crawl up next to George where he’d elected to watch cartoons from the armchair. She snuggled against her older brother and put her nose to the skin on his neck just below his cropped dark hair, and George wrapped an arm around her.

“You should add me,” Steve advised, effectively stopping Bucky from zoning all the way out.

“You have a Facebook too?” Bucky said.

Steve replied, “Everyone has a Facebook, Buck,” echoing Becca’s earlier words on the matter.

So Steve helped Bucky find his profile and add him as a friend, a request that Steve accepted in seconds from his phone. He showed Bucky how to tag Steve in the pictures that he’d taken, and then asked, “Is it all right if I put up pictures of you and the pups on my Facebook? I didn’t before ‘cause I figured you wanted your privacy.”

“That’s fine,” Bucky said, and then, “Wait, you have pictures of us?”

“Of course I do,” Steve said, “You’re my family. Whether or not you decide to strike out on your own someday, you guys are always gonna be a part of my family.”

“Sap,” Bucky accused.

“Sentimental,” Steve replied.

Another notification popped up on Bucky’s laptop monitor.

Beth Barnes commented on your photo

It was one of the pictures of Steve, smiling up at Bucky while he and Win planted the yellow flowers that he promised they would at the clinic.

Beth Barnes omfg your support alpha is hoooottttt

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:30am

“For the love of God,” Bucky said, “She was a pup the last time I saw her. And now she thinks you’re hot! She’s gotta be…fifteen. Jesus.” His youngest sister was as old as Bucky was when he birthed George in that shithole sub-basement room. And she went by her middle name, the same way he did. Who could blame her, when their parents saddled her with the name Rhoda Beth Barnes? Tragic.

Bucky Barnes don’t make it weird

Like   Reply   July 9 at 10:31am

Bucky made the executive decision to close his computer after that, though he was certain that his family would keep going whether or not he replied to any of their interactions with him. Ma already started going through and “liking” every photo that Bucky put up, leaving comments on any picture that included one or more of the pups.

In the pocket of Bucky’s sweatpants, his phone chimed with a text message. It could only be from Becca, and sure enough:

10:33 Becca: They are FREAKING out

10:35 Bucky: really i hadnt noticed

10:35 Becca: Ma is actively crying about your pups

10:36 Bucky: christ

Bucky closed the laptop and broke from the family drama to pour himself a fresh mug of tea, which he took out to the back porch. George was swinging from the monkey bars over the swings, but promptly leapt off when he spotted Bucky on the porch. He rushed Bucky from across the yard and threw his arms around Bucky’s middle, pressing his face into the cotton t-shirt that Bucky had stolen from Steve.

“What’s the hug for?” asked Bucky, holding his tea out of the line of fire.

“I wanted to,” George said.

Bucky stroked his fingers through George’s hair, debating if the kid needed a haircut. While he’d been out cold at the hospital, the staff had the pups bathed and their hair cut. George chose a short hairstyle because he saw an omega male doctor with something similar, or so the nurses relayed to Bucky when he asked how his children managed to select gendered haircuts for themselves. Bucky didn’t know if that was the truth, but George didn’t seem to miss the mess of long hair he had in the basement.

The pups – thank God – didn’t have the same hang-ups about having their hair touched that Bucky did.

Wisely, the staff cut Bucky’s hair while he was dead to the world and couldn’t freak out. Absently, Bucky wondered if Steve had any hair-cutting ability. He was the sole person outside of his pups that Bucky trusted to touch his hair, and that was only because Steve had stroked his fingers through Bucky’s hair so gently so many times before.

With a sip from his tea mug, Bucky fell back on the porch swing. He patted the striped canvas cushion beside him and said, “Come sit next to me. I wanna ask you a question.”

George eyed Bucky but scooted up and let his legs dangle off of the edge of the swing. Bucky rocked them back and forth and said, “So, me and Steve noticed that you really like hanging out with Lucky.”

That elicited a grin. George said, “Lucky’s the best.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty cool,” Bucky agreed, “and you know what else is cool? It’s Lucky’s job to help people feel better. There are actually lots of dogs whose job it is to make people feel better, and Steve had an idea about that. He thought you might like to get a dog of your own to make you feel better.”

“My own dog?” George echoed, “Like a dog that lives with us?”

“Exactly like that,” said Bucky, “and you could take your dog with you outside, and to therapy, and wherever else you needed to go. What do you think, baby?”

If Bucky expected enthusiasm out of George, he would be sorely disappointed. Instead, an expression of wariness took up George’s face and lent him a look of having seen far more than was fair for his ten years. Too-old eyes in a too-young face, and it broke Bucky’s fucking heart that this was how his son was destined to be. Was there anything Bucky could have done in that hellhole to make George steadier? To prevent his son’s suspicions of inane things?

No time machine could take Bucky back and show him.

Bucky hadn’t been equipped at fifteen to raise a pup, but he did all he could. At least, he’d been telling himself that. Maybe there was more he could have done, and he was just bad at being a parent.

“What does Steve want?” asked George.

Bucky frowned. He asked, “What do you mean?”

“When Alpha gives you something, he wants something back,” George reasoned.

“Oh, baby,” Bucky said. He pulled George into him, into a hug, and kissed the top of his head. He went on, “Baby, baby. Steve’s not like that. He’s been nice to us, hasn’t he?”

George nodded, all-too-serious. He said, “But he put his mouth on yours.” Well, shit. Bucky didn’t know his son had seen any of that, though Bucky supposed there had been ample opportunity to witness one of the many shy kisses that he and Steve shared together.

Bucky exhaled. He said, “That’s a kiss, sweetheart. Um. Sometimes grownups kiss people that they care about. I care about Steve, and he cares about me. So…uh. We give kisses.”

“You like giving kisses to Steve?” George asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Bucky answered, surprised at how true it was. Few things made him as happy as he felt when he leaned up to kiss Steve and Steve bent down to kiss back. Instinct assured Bucky that he was safe in Steve’s arms and while logically he knew he shouldn’t rely solely on instinct in his decisions on whom to trust, Steve’s kisses made Bucky want to tempt fate. Steve never touched without permission, never tried to escalate a kiss to something sexual – he was every inch a good goddamn alpha.

Bucky set his half-drunk mug of tea aside on the windowsill behind the porch swing and hauled his pup all the way into his lap. He stuck his nose against George’s skin and let the scent of his son swallow him, all pup-soft with the edge that belonged solely to George. He rubbed George’s back and said, “I don’t think Steve is ever gonna make us trade him for things we want.”

“But what if he does?”

“Then we’ll run away,” Bucky said, “We can go right out the front door and we’ll never come back, okay?”

“Okay,” George said, voice muffled by Bucky’s chest, “Then can I really have a doggy?”

“You really can, baby.”

**

The onslaught of Facebook notifications carried over into the next several days. Bucky’s phone kept dinging into his session with Sam at the clinic, enough that Sam finally gave up and asked, “Do you need to answer that, Barnes?”

“It’s just Facebook,” Bucky said.

That garnered a reaction. Sam masked his shock in the next second, but Bucky caught the look of floored surprise before Sam trained his face back into therapist-mode. He asked, “Did you…make that yourself?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “Becca said no one uses Myspace and everybody uses Facebook, so…but you know, I miss having music on my page. Why can’t I put a song on my Facebook like you could do on Myspace? And how come you can’t do fancy code shit and make your page look cool?”

“You do know that if the press finds your Facebook that there’s nothing we can do to protect you, right?” Sam asked.

Bucky opened his mouth to retort, and then snapped it closed. He didn’t think about that. Would the press really give a shit about him? They would, wouldn’t they? Steve said that the news covered Bucky’s disappearance for several months before they got bored, and that on the anniversary of his kidnapping often news channels and websites revisited the case in specials and asked anyone with information to come forward. No one ever did come forward – Pierce lived alone. He brought friends, or maybe business associates, down to Bucky a couple times, but Bucky was under the impression that those guys were almost as scared of Pierce as Bucky and his pups were.

“They’d – care?” Bucky asked anyway.

Sam folded his fingers together and rested his chin on his hands. He answered, “Bucky, your case is exactly the kind of story that the media would be all over sensationalizing. Do you have all your privacy settings on?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “I mean, I think I do. I’m only friends with my family and Steve, anyway.”

“Tread carefully,” Sam said, “That’s all I’m saying. Protect yourself.”

“I will,” Bucky said.

“Steve’ll go to bat for you, too, if it comes to that,” Sam went on, “but hopefully no one’s paying close enough attention to have noticed your sudden reappearance.”

Sam shifted focus after that, but Bucky left his therapy session with the sensation of being watched prickling at the back of his neck, like some guy with a camera might leap out from around the corner and jump him at any moment. He couldn’t tell if the fear was irrational or not after everything that Sam said, but his mind was so occupied that Thor noticed at physical therapy.

“Are you well, James?” Thor asked.

“Uh,” Bucky managed at his physical therapist’s good-natured, curious expression, and then lied, “Yeah, fine. Just didn’t sleep so good.”

Thor accepted that excuse, thankfully. Bucky didn’t know if he could handle an interrogation over his mental well-being, especially knowing that his day was far from over. After the pups left Sam and Thor released Bucky, they had an appointment with Clint regarding the therapy dog for George – for all of them, really, but to benefit George in particular.

And by the time that Bucky’s session with Thor came to a close, he vibrated with nervous energy. Checking his Facebook notifications worked against him, as every member of his family wrote essays and waxed poetic about what beautiful children Bucky had and how much that they had missed him.

The reassurance of his family should have eased Bucky’s conscience, but instead, as so many things about the world did now, their words overwhelmed him. He’d been tagged in several dozen photos now, almost all of them captioned with some variation of resting in peace or how they loved him or how they missed him. He’d cried last night when Beth tagged him in a picture, one of ten-year-old Bucky holding little Beth at the hospital, the day after she’d been born. The caption read, “It’s amazing how much you can miss someone when you barely had the chance to know them.”

Steve mentioned only once that Bucky could delete his Facebook or turn off his notifications. Maybe Bucky shouldn’t have, but he snapped at Steve that he wanted to be able to do normal thing and to let him figure it out by himself. Steve didn’t bring it up again.

When Bucky trudged out of the clinic gym, sore and grumpy, he found Steve waiting outside the doors with Win on his hip and the other two pups flanking him on either side. Becky rushed Bucky as soon as he exited, throwing her arms around him.

“Alpha Steve says we’re gonna get a doggy,” she bubbled, “Is that true?”

“It is true,” Bucky said, “We’re gonna look at some doggies with Clint today. We have to drive to a different place, though, okay?”

In truth the prospect of going outside their usual haunts slapped Bucky with an additional onslaught on anxiety, but getting a therapy dog wasn’t for him. It was for his pup, and Bucky couldn’t deny his pup something because he himself could not get his shit together for a couple hours at a time.

With the kids buckled into the Beetle and Steve’s phone GPS dictating directions at him in that disembodied female voice, they set off toward SHIELD, the shelter and training center for working dogs that the Stark Omega Clinic worked in tandem with. Being that Bucky and the pups’ case was hell on wheels, Clint promised he’d be able to fast-track them to getting a dog as soon as possible, instead of being filed away on a waiting list.

The drive took around an hour and a half, and brought them to what looked to Bucky like the edge of Denver proper. The outline of skyscrapers some miles away met him when he glanced out the window, and his heart seized up. Was the art museum still the same, with the sculptures outside that he used to climb on with Becca when their dad took them as pups for the free Saturday admission? Did the park across the street still have the fountain that posted signs said not to play in, but pups still splashed around in anyway?

Steve turned and a building obscured the skyline from view, shutting down Bucky’s musing over what became of the city he used to know.

The place that Steve pulled into looked far more unassuming than the historical building that housed Stark Omega Clinic, just a squat, grayish concrete structure. Utilitarian. It would be unidentifiable if not for the lettering on the sides and front that read “SHIELD Therapy Animals”. Clint met them just outside the double doors in the front, sans Lucky but with a smile on his face.

“Hey guys,” he greeted, “You ready to meet some dogs?”

“Yeah!” exclaimed Becky.

“Becks, baby,” Bucky said, “Remember that the doggy is mostly to help George, all right? He’s gonna choose the dog that he likes best.”

“I know,” Becky sighed. She rolled her eyes at him. Rolled her eyes! Feeling delight at his daughter’s disdain could not be normal, but Bucky was thrilled that she felt comfortable enough in her position to express thinking her dad was an idiot.

Bucky beamed and said to Steve, “My daughter thinks I’m a moron.”

Steve cocked one brow and said, “And you’re happy about that?”

“Hell yeah I’m happy about it,” Bucky said, “She knows she’s safe enough that she doesn’t have to listen to me one hundred percent of the time. How fucking amazing is that? Freaking, I mean. Freaking amazing.” He spared a glance at the pups, but all three had their focus elsewhere and not on their father’s incurable potty mouth.

As soon as they stepped into the building, a chorus of muffled barks greeted them from someplace beyond the lobby walls. Clint leaned against the front desk, where a doe-eyed brunette sat behind a computer monitor. He said, “Darcy, my favorite lady. How are you this fine afternoon?”

“Well, gee, Clint,” Darcy replied, “I’ve been waiting here just for you, all day.”

Clint snorted. He asked, “Maria ready for us, or does she need a few?”

“Nah, you can go on back,” Darcy answered.

Clint snapped his fingers and shot finger-guns at Darcy before he waved for Steve, Bucky and the pups for follow him through a door to their left. The overpowering aroma of canine permeated the air and the barking grew ever-louder. A professional-looking beta woman with her dark hair pulled back met them and stuck out her hand for Bucky to shake. She said, “Maria Hill. I run operations here at SHIELD.”

“Good to meet you,” Bucky replied. He tried not to sound as high-strung as he currently was.

Maria took them back through another door and to a kennel area, where dogs stood in small, partitioned areas that struck Bucky as looking too much like cells. He swallowed his anxiety and groped blindly for Steve’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Steve gave Bucky a reassuring squeeze.

 As Maria led them through the kennels, she explained, “These are the dogs we have that are fully trained and equipped to become therapy animals. If you find one that suits your needs, we’ll have some paperwork to do, but we can get the dog to you in around twenty four to forty eight hours, as Clint has said he’s willing to bring the dog to you himself.”

Bucky glanced over at Clint at that. Clint shrugged as if to say, hey, anyone would do it, but Bucky knew that wasn’t true and he was experiencing the generosity of yet another person that he’d never be able to repay.

George took his time approaching each dog, walking strategically from kennel to kennel and sticking his fingers out for the dogs to sniff each time. When he found her, the choice was obvious. A sedate German Shepard sniffed at George’s extended hand and lapped at his fingers. George giggled, and the dog sat, beating her tail against the floor in an enthusiastic show of wagging.

“This one’s name is Winter,” Maria said.

George turned. The smile that he aimed at Bucky made Bucky melt all the way to his core. He’d never seen his son look so happy before, so – at peace, almost. George said, “I love her.”

“Then let’s get the ball rolling,” Clint replied.

Steve squeezed Bucky’s hand again and said to George, “She’s all yours, kiddo.”