He’s coming apart, coming unravelled. It used to frame the missions, this shakiness, this uncertainty, and then it starting to squeeze inside the borders. Hand damp with sweat on his gun. Breathing short and shallow. A ringing in his ears. Lately it’s started to fill up the missions, so that he stands shaking sometimes. Now he asks, again and again, the time of the rendezvous. Now he asks confirm, confirm in the earpiece. Now he checks the safety on the weapons again and again and again and it’s isn’t possible he’s forgotten that the safety is on, it’s not. His mind isn’t like that any more. But he checks because he must. Because if the safety isn’t on someone could end up dead. He could kill someone. A friend. A comrade. That’d make him the Winter Soldier again.
It’s bad on the missions, but it’s worse at home. Perimeter checks become nightly, then twice nightly, and Steve groans, half waking, drowsy hand reaching for him because he knows by now it’s not an emergency, it’s just Bucky. “Come back to bed.”
“Just gotta check, Stevie. Go back to sleep.”
“You checked earlier.”
“Yeah. Go back to sleep.”
It’s not that he’s forgotten the touch of locks turned and sealed windows under his fingers; rather, it’s that he needs to be reminded of the turning and the locking all over again. Like the confirmation of orders. Like the careful repetition of the rendezvous. Like the safety on a gun.
It’s just that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. That’s good, right?
Last night, Steve found him in the kitchen.
He was standing near the sink and couldn’t move. It was, oh, well past midnight. He’d passed his flesh finger over the place where the window and the frame joined up, senses alert for the seep of cold air that meant anything but a perfect latch, a deep-bitten lock, security. He’d been standing there when he’d seen the knives in the block near the stove, and gone cold.
“Bucky?” Steve asked. Bare feet on the hardwood, the soft shuffling of pyjama pants that were too long and one day one of them were going to sit down and hem. Bucky’s head roaring with noise, like a radio stuck between stations, blasting at a party full of people speaking a language close but not exactly like his own, and a jet passing overhead.
The knives. How easy it would be to take one, and while Steve slept…
So easy. How many throats did he lay open with lesser tools?
A piece of glass once, in Bucharest. A tin can lid in Seattle.
Stop, please, stop.
All these knives. The movements all well practiced. It’d be so easy. It’d be so horrible. It’s exactly the sort of thing that he would do.
“You…” he wanted to make Steve understand. It was important. It was the most important thing he’d ever had to say. “You shouldn’t trust me.”
“You shouldn’t trust me. I could kill you. Look at this place. Look at these knives. I might kill you.”
“Are you…” Steve’s hands warm on his arms. Gripped him and turned him, and Steve studied his face. “You're sleepwalking, aren't you?” he whispered, probably asking mostly himself.
“Steve, listen to me. I’m not safe. You can’t trust me.”
Steve’s mouth made the shape of a smile but his eyes were bewildered. “I do trust you. Bucky, I know you won’t hurt me.”
“You don’t know that,” he said. "You can’t. I don’t know it.”
“Bucky," Steve's voice had gotten a little firmer. "You’re not going to hurt me.”
But hurting is what he does. It’s what he is. There was probably a time when he wanted to be a doctor or a clerk or something, but those desires were scrubbed out of him a long time ago.
“Listen to me," Steve's voice was low and steady. "It’s late. You’re sleepwalking, and it sounds like a nightmare. Come on. Let me take you back to bed.”
He didn't protest. After all, they had a four a.m. flight and the others were counting on them.
But Bucky’s coming apart and they both know it.
It’s a two-day mission, and nobody gets hurt but the target. Bucky makes sure of it.
He sleeps in his seat in the quinjet, or at least, he pretends to sleep. While he fakes, he listens to Clint complaining about the meagreness of the MREs. He listens to Stark chatter about what he’s going to build next. He listens to Steve reassuring himself that they did the right thing. He reminds himself that they're all coming home. In spite of everything. Against all the odds.
It’s never good, this after-the-mission feeling, that he could have let them down, he could have hurt one of them, he might have, and maybe no one's saying anything. It's never good. But it’s never been this bad before. He listens to the chatter to drown out the racket in his mind. He tries to hold himself together the way a kid tries to hold a sandcastle together when the tide comes rushing in.
Thor suggests a drive through. Bucky cracks one eyes to take the temperature of the room. He sees Bruce Banner watching him with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Yeah!” Clint says. “Yeah. I could totally fly this through a drive through.”
Just get me home, Bucky thinks. I just want to go home.
When he stops holding himself together he sees electrodes and the tiles one the floor. He smells his own puke. He feels himself reaching for the emptiness of unconsciousness, desperate for it, knows that begging will only make things worse. He wants to be sick. He wants to hide in the dark. He wants to be allowed to crawl away. He remembers crying for his mother in the cell.
“I would eat the entire ass end of an elephant,” Tony says. There’s a stunned silence. “I mean, eat-eat. Like a giant ham, not the other way. I’m not actually a pachydermophile. I know, shocking. Clint, you think you could get us through the drive through at the Big Burger?”
“One way to find out,” Clint says.
Please, Bucky thinks. His stomach is a knot, and there’s the faint taste of vomit in his mouth. I just want to go home.
“I’m not sure I’m up for it,” Natasha demurs.
“Yeah,” Bruce says quietly. “I think some of us are done for the day.”
“Another time, Clint,” Steve says.
Clint groans, c’monnnn but that’s the end of it and Bucky’s so grateful. Bruce could have said, I don’t think Barnes is up to it. He could have said, Steve, you think he’s okay? but he’s a better man than that. One day he’s going to do something nice for Banner. As soon as he can afford to divert effort from keeping himself together. He thinks about that. Keep himself together. That’s all he has to do. Keep the sandcastle up. It's just the tide.
He and Steve get back to the place they’ve been sharing for the better part of a year. He’s so glad to get inside the confines of the apartment. So glad when he can push open the door to their shared bedroom.
“Gonna shower,” he says.
“Yeah, sure,” Steve answers, a little absent. He’s absorbed in something on the tablet Stark gave him. Good. Bucky goes into the bedroom. Dark and cold. He can hide here, but the bathroom, small and dark and with the light switches inside the door that locks, that’s better. He wrenches open the straps of his suit. It peels away like a scab and he’s already shivering. The place is cold, it’s late in the year and they didn’t leave the heat on.
Sometimes the cold is soothing but not today. He’s too keyed up, too frightened. His stomach clenches. Too many basements and too many vaults. He has to strip and get into the shower. He sheds the rest of his clothes. Takes fresh clothes, cold, from the dresser. He wants the sweater Steve gave him, the one with the hood, the one he can hide in. He has to kneel to retrieve it from the bottom drawer and with the kneeling comes a rush of terror and vertigo. He closes his eyes and that’s worse. It’s been over a year since he went like this. Over a year. He thought he was better. He thought these things were done but since he’s been having the nightmares he hasn’t been sleeping and now.
Please. I just want to go home.
Hmm. Perhaps try increasing the voltage.
Please. Please, I don’t want…
No, no, no. That’s the past. This is now. No. He puts both hands on the cold hardwood. Therapy, therapy, therapy, they taught me something. For when it gets like this. Not pain-taught, school-taught. He calls it up.
Where are you?
I’m here. Steve’s place. My place. I’m home. I’m safe.
When are you?
His own voice, begging. Please, stop, please!
He swallows. There’s something awful in his mouth. He’s got to keep it down till he can get into the bathroom. He can keep it down till he gets to the bathroom. If he throws up here Steve’ll know. They’ll know. They’ll…
Steve’s voice, coming closer, “Oh, hey, I meant to-”
He looks up. Steve, standing in the doorway. He’s got a tablet in his hand and it’s on and glowing. But he’s not looking at it, he’s looking at Bucky. “Bucky, you don’t look so good.” Steve’s easy posture is gone now. He comes into their room. “Did you get hurt?”
“No.” Damage means maintenance. Damage implies deviation. Deviation from programming means the chair. “I’m fine,” Bucky says.
“Are you… are you having a hard time?” he asks. It’s their way of saying, is the past eating your guts like acid? Are you crawling out of your skin? You know you’re acting crazy, right?
“Yes,” he whispers. His head is roaring so loud he can hardly hear his own words.
He knows that Steve understand missions are hard for him, but he doesn’t know. Steve’s still at war, still fighting for the good guys, on his own terms. You can run a long way on personal conviction, you can fight a hell of a lot of battles because you believe it’s the right thing to do. Because you’ve got allies. Because you know somebody’s got your back. You come home at night, and you sleep the sleep of the righteous. At least, you're supposed to.
Bucky’s been having these nightmares, nightmares where he goes looking for Steve. They’re on a mission and Steve doesn’t make the rendezvous point. So Bucky goes looking for Steve and finds Natasha. She’s always Red Room Natasha, young, clear-eyed, January-cold. She’s always standing near something covered with a sheet. There’s always blood on the floor. A lake of it. In the dream she looks at him and says, you did this, and he knows it’s true.
It’s gotten so he’s afraid to sleep. It’s gotten so he can’t tell if Steve is dead or not until he sees him. It’s gotten so he’s not sure when he’s awake and when he’s dreaming. Tired is an inadequate little word.
Tide. Sand castle. He feels sick. The wave crests and crashes and swamps him.
Big hands on his arms. Steve never cringes from the metal of his arm. Sometimes Bucky thinks he forgets about it, the way Bucky wishes he could. “Hey,” Steve whispers. “You’re safe. You’re home. Tell me where you are, Buck.”
Direct order. No deviation.
“Home,” he says. He mouths emptily. “I can’t,” he says and it takes effort. "I can't…"
“Okay,” Steve says immediately. “You don’t have to.”
Bucky chokes out a single laugh. “You don’t even know what I can’t do.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he answers. Then he smiles. “There. You’re just about through it. You want to tell me? What you can’t do?”
He swallows. Programming. It must be programming that makes this so hard. It must be. He has to mouth the words once, twice, before he can make the sounds that go with them. “I’m…” he starts and can’t.
“Bucky, where are you?”
He can do that one. “Here. I’m here. I’m home. I… I’m… I’m tired,” he blurts. It's terrifying. "I'm tired."
"Okay," Steve whispers.
“No, I mean… I’m tired,” he says it again and this time it’s like water cutting a path between rocks, around a dam. He closes his eyes and he sighs. “We’re the only soldiers who never came home, you know? It’s just us.” He thinks of the dream of Natasha, and knowing what's lying under the sheet without ever having to see it. You did this. Negligence just as fatal as a bullet. "I'm sorry," he whispers.
Steve makes a low, sorrowing noise. "It's okay."
"No, it's…" He open his mouth and says the thing they trained him never to say. “I don’t want to fight any more. I'm tired of fighting, Stevie. I'm sorry. I can't. I just want to go home.”
Steve agrees to tell the others Bucky’ll be stepping back from the Avengers Initiative. They’ll ask if he’s okay. Natasha will probably drop by to collect that book she left accidentally-on-purpose four months ago, and see to her own satisfaction that Bucky is all right. Stark will complain, thoughtlessly, that they’re losing a weapon and Steve will come home seething about it. The others he’s not sure about.
This time, in the dream, there's no sheet and no Natasha. It's Steve who says, you did this, and Bucky wakes up screaming.
Bucky and Lucky is a bit of a thing to juggle. Sorry if there's any confusion in the text.
Two days after Bucky’s given it all up, there’s a knock at the door.
It’s the afternoon but Bucky’s still wearing his pyjamas and walking barefoot around the place, picking stuff up and putting it back down and not knowing what to do with himself, because if he’s not fighting he’s training, and if he’s not training, he’s recovering, and if he’s not recovering he’s prepping and if he’s none of those things he doesn’t know. He slept a little last night, and a little more after Steve left in the morning, when he was out of Bucky’s reach and safe in Stark tower for some kind of mission-related meeting.
Bucky’s been trying to remember what he’d wanted to be back when he was a little boy with scabby knees, but that memory won’t come. He’s trying to think about what he likes and see if that helps, but his head feels like someone sawed it open and dumped the contents of a jar of bees in there. The knock on the door is a welcome distraction. He answers it.
It’s Clint. He’s carrying a backpack and a big bag that’s probably got a bow and quiver in it, and there’s a dog with him. A big yellow dog that is definitely a mutt but looks like it might be at least part retriever. The dog looks like he’s had a hard life. He’s got a permanently closed eye and a big notch take out of one of its ears, and considering the colour of the coat matches exactly the colour of Clint’s hair, Bucky can’t help but think about the old adage, people look like their pets. True. He looks from the dog to Clint.
“Hey,” Clint says.
There’s an awkward moment when neither of them speak. The dog huffs and sits.
“So you quit,” Clint says.
Bucky nods again.
“So… that means you’re going to be around for the next couple days, then, right?”
Bucky nods again.
“I gotta look after some personal stuff and Kate’s busy. You mind looking after Lucky for me?”
Bucky looks down at the dog. The dog is looking around with an air of benign interest, wet nose twitching, tongue hanging out of his mouth as if it’s been forgotten.
Bucky shrugs. “Sure,” he says. It’s not like either he or Steve have allergies, or like Bucky has anything else to do.
"Great." Clint smiles. “Thanks. Uh, walk once a day; he’ll take you wherever he wants to go. Food’s in the backpack. I feed him twice a day.” Clint shrugs the backpack off and drops it. Lucky turns his head and sniffs enthusiastically at the bag. “And, uh, keep the toilet lid down.” He shoves the backpack over the threshold with his foot and puts the red leash in Bucky’s hand. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” Bucky says.
Clint scratches the dog once behind the ear, all gruff affection. “Stay out of the garbage,” he tells Lucky. Then he waves at Bucky and takes off.
Lucky gets up and heads into the apartment. He snuffles the backpack with his food in it, then pads across the floor, pausing to sniff shoes and bags and other crap lying around. He goes right over to the couch and climbs up, then lies down with his head on the arm and blinks at Bucky.
“Sure,” Bucky says, letting the door swing closed. “Yeah. Why don’t you just make yourself comfortable?”
When Bucky gets up at 3:30 for his second patrol, Lucky pads along with him. When he goes back to bed, Lucky climbs up and flops down in the space between him and Steve and Bucky falls asleep listening to his stupid whistling snores. The dream comes, and he wakes up panting, Steve turning over on his side, hand on his shoulder. “Hey, hey, you’re dreaming again.”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m okay,”
Steve makes a soft noise and curls close and falls back to sleep. Bucky lies there, mind all tangled, trying to stay awake, trying to listen to Steve’s slow and steady breathing, trying to believe he’s here, fast asleep, all at peace, not dead. That this is reality, and not a dream. Lucky ambles into the room and puts his head on the bed and sniffs at Bucky. Then he climbs right up and flops down across Bucky’s legs. The weight’s uncomfortable, and undeniable. Not dreaming.
He falls back to sleep again.
He sleeps in. When he wakes, there’s an empty place where Steve would be, and the sound of the shower running. Bucky hauls himself out of bed and gets dressed and when he goes out to the kitchen Lucky comes over.
“Thanks pal,” he murmurs, giving the big head a good scratch behind the ears.
The phone on the kitchen table flares awake and subsides again and he takes a look.
Text from Bruce Banner: Steve, there’s a reason I’m usually alone.
It’s Steve’s phone, and he knows he shouldn’t. But.
He says he thinks he’s going to hurt me.
It would be hard for me to convey
how terrifying that feeling is
What do you do?
My situation is unique.
Has he asked for help?
Let him ask.
How are you holding up?
Not getting much sleep.
So he is hurting you.
It’s not his fault.
Steve, there’s a reason I’m
Bucky puts the phone down. He sits. Breathes. Just function. Just function, Barnes. Eat. Sleep. How fucking hard is it? He rubs at his face. Please, just function.
Lucky puts his big head on his lap and whines.
That afternoon Steve gets a call from Tony, something about updating the suit. Steve says he’ll go, and then he sits beside Bucky for a long time, trailing fingers in his hair.
“It needs a cut,” Bucky says.
“You going to go or what?” he asks.
“Guess I should.”
He looks at Steve and Steve doesn’t bother to hide the way he’s looking back at Bucky. He can’t stare Steve down. He looks back at the tv.
“I’m sorry I keep waking you up,” he mutters. “I’m in a bad patch. It’ll… it’ll get better soon.”
Steve’s fingers grows still. “If there’s any… if… you need anything…”
“You keep Stark waiting he’s going to whine the whole time,” Bucky says. He even manages a grin. Steve smiles back, the angles of his face growing soft.
“Whatever you need,” he says.
“I know,” Bucky answers. Steve is not the problem. “Get going. I’ll take Lucky out.”
After Steve’s gone, he and Lucky go down the street, around the corner, and there are trees to sniff and garbage cans and car tires to pee on. Lucky’s tail is in continuous-wag mode, which ramps up to greeting speed when a half-grown grey mongrel pup comes over for a sniff. She looks like she might be some kind of a pit bull. Her whip-like tail wags with less enthusiasm than Lucky’s, but then, Lucky’s likely to get liftoff if this keeps up.
“Hey,” Bucky says, tugging a little on the leash. “C’mon, Lucky. Not everybody is a friend,” he says. The stray goes one way, and Lucky reluctantly follows him again.
They’re going to the park that’s a couple streets down. Not much of one, just a sort of undeveloped patch between buildings that somehow became a park. It’s probably contaminated ground or something. Anyway, there’s a little pond with a fountain and the geese keep the grass short, and there’s one big tree that’s squeezed into the corner that provides enough crappy sticks that Bucky can play a kind of careless game of fetch where he throws the stick and Lucky might or might not bring it back.
Tonight there are a pair of guys in the park, hands in pockets, breath hanging in the cold air. They watch him with Lucky for a little while, and Bucky keeps them in the corner of his vision. Something about the way they move; they're not really a threat, but they could be unpleasant, and even Lucky, affection-seeking-missile that he is, avoids them.
Bucky’s walking with his hands in his coat pockets while Lucky’s snuffling through the weeds that tangle at the shore of the pond when one of the guys comes over.
“Hey man,” the guy says, so at least he’s not stupid enough to try to sneak up on him. “Your dog?”
Bucky looks at him. This guy's big guy, well over six feet and, judging from the shoulders, he's tough. Maybe professionally. Stiff on the left side. Problem with the knee or the foot. Unschooled. Not Hydra, unless they’re getting real desperate these days. Which would be nice. “I asked you if that’s your dog.”
“What about it?” Bucky asks.
“Is he tough?” When Bucky doesn’t answer, the guy gestures in Lucky's direction. “He looks tough. If I kick him you think he’ll try and bite?”
Bucky looks at the guy and thinks, with a sort of muted awe, how remarkably difficult is it to live in the world and not fight all the time. “If you kick that dog, I’m the one you have to worry about,” Bucky says.
The guy grins. He’s missing two molars on the left side.
“Tough guys like tough dogs,” he says, nodding. “You gamble?”
Now the other guy is paying attention to Lucky, and Lucky’s a suck for attention but he ain’t stupid. He’s stopped snuffling around and he’s looking at the guy approaching. His head level with his back, ears down. Not growling. Yet.
“Tell your friend to leave my dog alone.”
“Aw, he’s just being friendly.”
“I’m not,” Bucky says, very quiet. “And if your friend touches my dog, I’ll show you how unfriendly I am by taking off your skin and wearing it as a suit. Got it?”
The guy shrugs and nods and yells, “Hey man, leave the dog alone,” and backs off a bit. “And you,” he says to Bucky, “you have a good night, okay? You have a real nice night.”
Bucky waits till they’ve both left the park, walking fast, south, talking together. Lucky comes over to him, uncalled, and noses at his leg. He looks down at Lucky looking back up at him. “Yeah,” he says. “Let’s go home.”
Clint comes back the next day, with his nose broken and a matched set of black eyes. “Thanks for looking after Lucky, guys,” he says, nodding at both him and Steve.
“You sure you’re okay to take him back?” Steve asks, face all scrunched up with concern.
“It’s fine. I wanna take my ears off and having the dog around makes it safer.” He smiles wryly. “Lucky’s good at keeping me out of trouble.”
“Maybe you should've taken him with you,” Steve says.
Clint shrugs. “It had to be done,” he says with a sigh. He clips Lucky’s leash on and then heaves up the big bag of kibble with a grunt. “C’mon, stinkface,” he says to Lucky. “Let’s go home.” But then he pauses, half turned, and looks at Bucky. “He didn’t give you any trouble, right?”
“No,” Bucky says.
“You mind looking after him again? Another time? Kate's going to be in Honolulu for something like a million years.”
Bucky wants to say yes but he glances at Steve. Bucky lives here, but this was Steve’s place first. If this is going to be a regular thing, Steve should probably agree. Steve looks at him and smiles. “He and Bucky seem to get along," he says quietly.
Bucky nods. "And it's not like I'm too busy to look after him," he adds.
Clint smiles and makes as if to rub his eyes and catches himself before he does it. “Well that's great because South Africa's next week. So… this weekend?” he asks. "I can bring him back on Sunday night.”
Bucky nods. Four days. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Perfect.” He shunts the bag of kibble off his hip and back down to the floor and pushes it back through the door with his foot. “Got another bag at home,” he says. He grins. It’s ghastly with the two black eyes. “Didn’t feel up to carrying that anyway.”
“Get home safe,” Steve says after him. Clint doesn’t answer.
“Lucky’ll look after him,” Bucky says. Steve nods, but he doesn’t look convinced.
Clint drops Lucky off again before he goes to South Africa, and Bucky and Steve kind of fall into the habit of having a dog. He and Lucky are just getting in from the park when Steve texts. Assembling. Alaska. Three days min.
He feels a jolt in his belly. A mission. A fight. He should be there. He tries not to think of the dream but it comes to him anyway, because if there’s one thing about his brain, it does whatever the hell it wants and he is not in charge. You did this. He should be getting ready to go.
But Steve’s done missions. Lots of missions. Plenty of missions without Bucky. He’d still be doing missions without Bucky if things had gone just a little bit different. If he hadn't done the stupid thing and thrown away his shield. If he hadn't… you did this. Someone needs to be there to cover him.
Lucky licks his hand and it startles him. He didn’t realize he’d stopped walking. “Sorry,” he mutters. Climbs the stairs and unlocks the apartment door.
The problem is, nobody else is going to have Steve’s back, not like he can. He lets himself into the apartment and sinks down onto the couch, reading and rereading the little message. He knows what he should say. He should say, I’m ready to go or come pick me up. He isn’t broken. He isn’t out of commission. He should fight. Refusal means maintenance, retraining, pain-compliance, wipes.
He pushes it away, tries to separate then and now in his head. He looks at the text again.
With Thor for sure.
Others as needed.
… … …
Probably have to keep Lucky
a few more days
Anchorage. En route now.
That makes him feel a little better. He trusts Clint’s skill with range weapons to keep Steve safe even if Steve goes tearing off into trouble, which he invariably does. He breathes in a deep breath.
Lucky climbs up onto the couch and sighs at him and squirms so that he’s squeezed between the back of the couch and Bucky. And Bucky is suddenly so grateful for the presence of the big, stupid dog who’s already distributed a thin layer of fur on every surface of the apartment and is starting to slowly but efficiently work Bucky off the couch.
Ok with Lucky staying?
I like Lucky
Hairiest dog i ever knew
Normal for dogs
i found a fur ball the size of an orange
in my uniform this morning.
Thought it was a mouse.
Did you faint?
Maybe i yelped
The pressure falls on him again. He’s not going. Steve’s not even asking. It’s not even a question. He’s not going. It’s fine. Steve can look after himself.
Bucky closes his eyes. He’s not going. It’s fine. It’s just three days. It’s just…
Don’t do anything stupid
I mean it Rogers
Banner’s staying behind
if you need
… … …
See you in 3
Report in sometimes
But after that there’s nothing, just the pressure on the edges of Bucky’s mind. His pulse is up, well past his resting rate. Confirmed mission refusal. He’s done this before.
What did you say? Asset: Repeat.
Please… I don’t want…
Oh, Christ, is he…? He’s fully conscious.
He remembers being confused. The table is wrong, too many things hanging off it. The man leaning over him is wrong, he's tall and lean, has a full head of hair, lacks glasses and the little bow tie. He remembers being tired, the throbbing of a day-old wound in his thigh. Thirst. They wanted him to fight.
I don’t want…
The shocks suddenly the only things in the world.
“Breathe, breathe, breathe,” he whispers to himself, and tries to push away the past.
No, he’s been off ice too long.
Well turn up the god damned machine then.
Sparks. Airlessness. Blood in his mouth, a leaking hole in his tongue.
Emptiness. One word like a piece of wood in a stormy sea. He says it. A… Asset?
Confirmed. What do you want, Asset?
That word, meaningless. Want?
A relieved kind of sigh. Good. New mission. Are you operational?
He should be going with Steve. He is a weapon and a tool and Steve is the mission and he should not be here not working, not training, not on ice, not an asset. They will reset him, and if they cannot, they will decommission him. He does not want to be decommissioned. He’s not supposed to want. They mustn’t know. No one must know. Steve knows. Steve told the others. They know. They know.
Heart rate above resting. Climbing. The servos in his arm whirring up.
Suddenly there’s a cold nose against his cheek, and a hot kibble-breath gusting over his face. Bucky recoils and stares for a second. Lucky pants at him.
“Yuck,” Bucky says.
Lucky puts his big head down on Bucky’s chest. He huffs. The servos in Bucky’s arm power down. His heart rate begins to fall. Breath normalizing. He scratches behind Lucky’s ear and looks at the scarred up muzzle.
"Thanks," he murmurs.
Lucky opens his one good eye. He squirms and wriggles and gets another inch of couch. Bucky lets him have it.
The place would be too big, oppressively empty without Lucky. Steve takes up space, not in the way Tony does, all personality and bluster, but physically, in a way that Bucky’s never really gotten used to. Well, maybe he has now. He’s starting to lose the memories he got back, of gaunt-Steve, underfed-Steve. The Steve women looked around and men overlooked. The one that got his nose broken outside a grocery store over the matter of a piece of litter. The one who used to cough like a cheap window rattling in its frame. A man trapped in a body that wasn’t, couldn’t possibly be his.
Those memories are few, and now all his memories of Steve are the man he couldn’t kill. The huge, heavy bulk he fished out of the Potomac when his own head was thick with programming and orders and the world was breaking to pieces in his head. The warm weight of arms that manage somehow to be steadying and safe when things fall apart. Now he’s gone, and the place feels hollow without him.
Bucky tries to fill it up with sound. He leaves the radio on to chatter, even at night, and the steady muttering and intermittent music is soothing. After he’s finished his first nighttime patrol of the apartment, as if Bucky’s patrols are not sufficient, Lucky does a round too. And then he climbs up onto the too-big, too-empty bed and Bucky hasn’t got the heart to push him off again.
When Lucky gets up for the pre-dawn patrol, Bucky means to get up and go with him. He means to. But somehow he misses it.
Later, when he’s dreaming of the long corridor, and the heavy foreboding has settled in his chest, when Steve has missed the rendezvous and Bucky is looking for him, Lucky’s whining wakes him up.
Bucky cracks an eyelid. Lucky's got his head resting on the bed, maybe two inches from Bucky's face. Bucky grunts. As soon as he moves, Lucky makes a half-growl-half-whining noise and starts to wag his tail. He turns a circle, trots out to the kitchen and then comes back, leash hanging from mouth.
Bucky sits up and scrubs his face with his hands. "Yeah, yeah," he whispers as Lucky dances back and forth with the leash swinging. "C'mere." He clips the leash onto his collar, stuffs his feet into his shoes, and follows Lucky out into the cold.
Steve has not been checking in. Bucky doesn’t want to be the mother hen, but spends at least twenty minutes typing out, Mission report? and then deleting it again. He never does send it.
Two and three quarter days after the deployment, when the terror of saying no has ebbed, but the terror of what Steve is getting up to hasn’t, when he’s counting down the hours to Steve’s return, he gets the text.
Mission report: 2 more days.
Lucky gets up and comes padding over to him where he’s sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee next to the newest Janes. Stark sent it over so Bucky could get a look at the specs for the new quinjets. It's not as interesting as it ought be.
Lucky stuffs his wet nose directly into Bucky’s palm.
“Stop with that,” Bucky tells him. He wipes his hand on his pants and then scratches the damn dog behind the ear anyway. Lucky plops down and closes his good eye in an expression of bliss.
Mission ok? Bucky types. No answer. Not for a long time. Long enough for him to start to get antsy about it. Long enough for him to start to think of all the stupid shit that little Steve got up to and all the ways big Steve could just-
See you soon
“Yeah,” Bucky says, sighing. “Me too.”
Lucky pads away to do whatever it is he gets up to, and Bucky looks back at the Janes, but he doesn’t really give a damn, not even about the glossy two-page full-colour photos. Lucky reappears with his leash in his mouth and sits with a conspicuous thump at the door. Bucky turns around and frowns at him.
“You already went,” he says.
Lucky whines and thumps his tail on the floor.
“Like, an hour ago.”
Thump thump thump.
Silence. Then, thumpittathumpittathumpitta and a frustrated, mouth-full-of-leash kind of growl.
Bucky sighs and gets to his feet. He hasn’t got a proper winter coat; he refuses to pay the cost in the shops and Steve wants to go to the military surplus shop Sam told them about, so he’s been waiting to get something there. But it’s cold out, and he’s not a weapon any more, he can wear something that is suboptimal for combat, just to stay warm. For comfort.
He grabs Steve’s leather coat, the one lined with sheepskin like an old bombers’ jacket, and pulls it on. It's big on him, but doesn't swamp him. It's warm, and the leather is soft, and it smells faintly like Steve. Then he takes the leash out of Lucky’s mouth and Lucky turns rapturous circles. “Okay, but Lucky, you gotta hold still,” he says to stop the wriggling, and Lucky sits on his tail just long enough for Bucky to get the leash clipped on.
They go to the park, circle the block, walk down to the water, and come back late. That evening they go out again, down to the park, in the last rays of the weak sunshine. Since there's nobody around, he unclips Lucky's leash and lets the dog do his thing while he texts Banner.
Wanted to say thanks
In the jet
I've looked like that.
Does it get better?
For me? No.
But our situations are not
You get it though
It is as difficult as you think it is
He slips his phone back into his pocket tries not to think about that. Instead, he looks around for Lucky. At first, he doesn't see the big yellow mutt. Then he realizes that Lucky is on the far side of the pond, watching with head-tilted, ears-up sort of interest a gaggle of big Canadian geese at the edge of the pond. “Don’t you dare,” Bucky says. He sees Lucky’s head twitch at the sound of his voice. “They will fucking murder you.”
Lucky doesn’t budge.
“Hey, it’s the tough guy and his tough dog,” says an unwelcome and familiar voice.
He turns to see the two assholes from before strolling across the park green. He's sure it’s the same guys. He recognizes the silent one by his slouching posture, and the other by his voice.
Bucky turns to him. The guy smiles and spreads his hands. Empty. Not that it means anything. Bucky takes a couple deliberately slow breaths.
“And people like money,” the guy adds. He looks at his friend. “Don’t they like money?”
“Yeah, they like money.”
The guy looks pointedly at the jacket Bucky's wearing, Steve's leather bomber jacket. “Looks like you like money and tough dogs.”
“Don’t touch my dog,” Bucky says.
“I’m not gonna mess with your dog,” the guy tells him, suddenly grinning wide. “I’m just telling you, you got a tough dog you can make a bit of money. You like money. I like money. You want in, I’ll get you in.”
Bucky says nothing, but there's something breathtaking in how wrong an assessment this guys have made. Lucky’s greatest ambition is to claim dominion of the couch, either by gas attack or main force. His greatest enemy the lid on the garbage can. His greatest woe is the itch he can’t scratch himself. But with that big chest and the ruined eye… maybe Bucky can see how somebody who doesn't know Lucky's temperament might mistake him for an old fighter.
“Dog fights,” Bucky says.
“Give the man a medal,” the guy says. “Dog fights. Put 'em in a pit and see who wins.”
Rage comes up. Bucky shuts himself down before it's too late. Shutters it. He turns.
“Lucky,” he says, voice too sharp. “Ko mne.”
Lucky stands for a moment, one paw raised just slightly, eyes flicking between Bucky and the geese. Then he comes over. Bucky clips the lead onto his collar. He turns his back on the two guys, and walks Lucky home.
He can’t shake it, the rage. At first he thought it was just that those two dickwads were in his park, in his face, being dickwads. But it’s not just that. It’s the dog fights. Darkness. Starvation. Stink and deprivation. Terror and violence. He can’t shake it. “Fucking dog fights,” he whispers once to Lucky. He's still shaking.
Lucky looks at him steadily for a little while, then comes over and lies down at his feet.
Natasha makes an appearance that night. “I forgot my book,” she says. He tries not to give her a tired kind of smile.
“Yeah. Four, going on five months ago.”
“Steve thought it would be helpful to have something to assist me if I felt I need to be dishonest,” she says. He grins.
“Steve’s an old fashioned guy.”
“He’s worried about you. We’re all worried about you.”
She doesn’t ask how he is. Instead, she reads him and when she’s read him to her satisfaction, she nods. He smiles at her. “You got enough for your report?”
“You’re eating, and you’re sleeping, and if you’ve done violence to yourself you’re not showing it, which is better than I had hoped for, frankly. Anyway,” she adds, straightening her shoulders, “I had a favour to ask.”
He steps aside so she’ll come in, and Lucky comes trotting over to investigate, then goes off on some kind of canine-mandated perimeter check. He's considerably more assiduous about it than Bucky ever was.
“A favour?” he asks. Natasha nods.
“Since you’re dog-sitting for Clint, could you look after Brodyaga while I’m gone?"
“Brodyaga?” he asks. It means tramp.
“My cat,” Natasha says.
“What kind of a name is that for a cat?”
“She was a stray,” Natasha says. “Which means she doesn’t need much, and won’t be much trouble.”
“Clint’s looked after her before, she and Lucky get along fine. Normally I would leave her with my neighbor, but think she's overfeeding her. She’s getting so big.”
He crosses his arms over his chest and frowns at her. “Is this some kind of smother him with pets thing?” he asks. “'Bucky’s upset, quick, deploy the service animals'?”
“Brodyaga is not a service animal,” Natasha says sharply. “That cat will tear your face off if you cross her.”
Bucky doesn’t say that thing about animals and their owners but he thinks it.
“And no,” Natasha adds, smiling faintly. “This is not some plot. But everybody’s out, and Pepper’s in LA, and the other woman is feeding her too much. Besides, this is starting to look like the Endless Mission,” she adds, sighing. “I don’t want to board her out if I don’t know how long for.”
Bucky shrugs. “Sure, then. Fine. Bring her around. As long as she doesn’t try to kill me or the dog, I don’t mind.”
“No promises,” Natasha says.
The next morning, Brodyaga arrives.
Brodyaga is a sleek, multicoloured cat. She sits curled in her carrier for two hours after Natasha leaves, and when Bucky kneels down and puts a saucer of water near the door she hisses at him and takes a swipe. Almost gets him too. He likes her.
He takes a pillowcase from the cupboard and drapes it over the back of the carrier so it’ll be dark and cozy and then, because Lucky’s lying by the gate of the carrier, staring with a slightly deranged kind of fascination inside, he takes Lucky out for a walk.
It’s cold and bright. He pulls on gloves as they go, and tugs his collar up. They have to walk a few blocks, Lucky snuffling at people and things indiscriminately, until to get to the park. In the daytime the park lies like a missing tooth in a strip of land between two buildings.
There are no assholes lounging on benches today. Small miracles. The place is actually empty, except for a half-dozen Canada geese walking slow and splay-footed, nibbling at the grass on the pond edge. Lucky takes care of his personal business, and Bucky frowns at him.
“If dogs are so smart why can’t they clean up after themselves?” he mutters, reaching for a plastic bag. Lucky opens his mouth, tongue lolling out, tail wagging so hard his whole squat body sways back and forth like he’s been waiting for a human to figure it out and Bucky’s won a prize. A prize made of poop.
Bucky cleans up after him and then, since the park's resident jerks appear to be nocturnal, he unclips Lucky’s leash. Lucky trots away to pee on a bush and then a garbage can, and then another bush, and then returns to stuff his cold, wet nose into Bucky’s palm.
“Yeah, yeah, go crazy,” he says. “Pee on everything. Knock yourself out.”
Lucky whuffs and ranges away again, nose half an inch off the ground and working hard.
Bucky goes to the edge of the water, watching the geese across the pond, listening to the steady sigh of the fountain. Like static in his ears. Like the near-silence in his head that always came after the chair. When his past was a road map that had been torn to pieces, a radio bringing in two stations at once, he’d been pathetically grateful for the silence. His head hasn’t been quite so loud lately, but there’s still comfort in the white noise.
His phone buzzes in his pocket and he takes a look at it. He grins and pulls off his gloves to type.
Mission status: Improving.
Nat’s bringing a charger.
Y. At park w Lucky.
Why don’t we train dogs
to clean up their own crap?
… … …
I miss you too?
He grins at the phone.
Good. When are you coming home?
Not soon enough.
Two more days at least.
Are you kidding?
This guy’s got a white base
in the arctic
and it’s snowing.
You haven’t even found the…
He stops typing. This is why they called Natasha in. At least she knows how to find her own ass when her eyes are closed.
Ok yes bad planning
but the 2 day whiteout
Do you need me to
come wrap things up?
Your mission is Lucky.
Bucky looks up, considering.
90% of park furnishings peed on.
At least one of us is getting
their work done.
Bucky thinks about the park, and the guys, and the dog-fighting. He thinks about how he’s going to word this.
Some dog-fighting guys
think Lucky’s worth money.
… … …
That still happens?
I guess there’s a ring
in the neighbourhood?
Did you call the police?
And tell them some jerks think
I'm a jerk too? No.
Speaking of the dog… Bucky looks up. He’s getting pretty close to the geese.
Gotta go. Dog.
He feels the phone buzz once more, but Lucky’s getting too close to the geese. Head level with his shoulders, tail sticking straight out behind him like a rudder, one paw up. Hunt mode.
“Hey, Lucky,” he shouts. Lucky looks at him, like, Jeeze, man, you’re going to ruin it. He creeps a little faster toward the geese. “No, Lucky.” Bucky starts walking around the pond. “No, Lucky, come. Come!”
Lucky must figure it’s now or never because he lunges at the nearest goose, and Bucky doesn’t think that Clint’s city-bred dog would have any idea what to do with a goose if he managed to catch it.
The goose, on the other hand, hasn’t got thousands of years of domestication in its lineage and does know what to do when a predator comes after it. Where Lucky’s just playing around, the goose is being serious. Wings flare out. The goose hisses. Bucky can’t see what happens exactly, because of the wings, but Lucky yelps and retreats and the goose follows, fast, hissing, and Lucky yelps again, and bolts. The goose follows in a blur of honking, hissing, and feathers. Lucky, naturally, runs behind Bucky and cowers.
“Oh, thanks, pal,” Bucky shouts. The goose lunges at him, flapping big wings, hissing, comes right at both of them, and things the metal arm was not designed for include but are not limited to fending off geese. The goose might not do actual damage to the arm, but that fucking thing is way stronger than Bucky figures it has a need to be, and there’s a neural interface in the arm, so the bite of the beak and the thumping of the chest and wings hurts. And it’s got teeth, teeth in a beak.
Bucky shoves it away once, but the stupid goose comes right back, and now Lucky’s barking at it from where he’s cowering behind Bucky. “Shut up,” Bucky shouts, “Get lost,” he adds, shoving the goose back again.
In the end he has to pick the goose up by the neck and walk down to the water and put the damn thing into the pond while Lucky stands on three paws, yelp-barking at the goose as it swims away with an air of satisfaction and dignity. Bucky looks down at Clint’s stupid dog. “Picking fights you can’t finish,” he says. “Jesus, Lucky, you remind me of somebody.”
Lucky whines. He tries to sit and then decides to stand. There’s blood on his back right leg.
“Aw, shit,” Bucky mutters. “You got bit pretty bad, didn’t you?”
He bends to have a look and Lucky’s leg shakes under Bucky’s careful touch. The goose drew blood on Lucky’s tail and on his legs. Nothing looks deep, but it's probably painful. “Hey, buddy,” he says and kneels down. Lucky curls up against him, whining piteously. "Lesson learned. Geese don't have a sense of humor. Okay?”
Lucky licks at his hand a few times. Bucky sighs. It occurs to him that the goose was a wild animal and he’s not sure if geese can be rabid, but he’s sure rabies still kills. “Well, Lucky, guess what? You just won a trip to the vet.”
Lucky doesn’t seem to want to put weight on his injured leg, and the hobbling is pathetic. Bucky gives up and carries the big oaf the six blocks to the nearest vet. He comes out two hours later and a hundred and fifty bucks lighter, and carries Lucky home.
Tags updated because this one's sad :(
Mission status: Tell Clint his stupid
dog lost a fight with a goose and he
owes me 150$
Probably not rabid.
Lucky’s okay. Back leg got bit.
Nat wants to know about her cat
She’s not stupid enough to attack a goose.
She’s still in her carrier.
After he types it, he realizes he’s not sure if that’s entirely true. He’s been leaving Brodyaga alone because, well, because he knows what it’s like to want to be left alone. But he should probably make sure she’s eaten at least some of her food or had some water or something.
He gets up from the couch and goes over to the carrier, making little kissing noises. He would never do this if Steve was home. There’s no growl from the inside of the carrier. He kneels down and has a look. It’s empty. Well shit.
He has a moment of panic wondering if she might have slipped out of the apartment while he was getting Lucky in, but he’s sure he didn’t see her, and he’s sure he would have noticed. So she’s somewhere in the apartment. Well, fair enough. She was probably exploring when he and the dog came blundering in. She’ll be holed up in a closet somewhere. He gets up and goes looking.
Brodyaga is, in fact, holed up in a closet somewhere. She’s holed up in the bedroom closet. She’s pulled down the soft blue sweater Steve loves, and a dragged in a pair of socks and a dress shirt, and she’s lying on top of them all, splayed out a bit, and looking serene.
“Nyet, Brodyaga,” he says and reaches to pull Steve's sweater out from under her.
She growls a low, warning growl and he remembers what Natasha said. Face, ripped off. He hesitates. Brodyaga makes another noise and shifts where she lies and suddenly the air is full of tiny mewling. Bucky squats down and pushes open the door so the light will fall in on nest and he sees now that Brodyaga is an island in a sea of kittens. He takes a quick count. Seven. There are seven of them.
“Oh my god,” Bucky whispers. He hears Lucky limping ta-ta-ta-tack ta-ta-ta-tack across the hardwood floor.
Brodyaga looks at him and meows again. The kittens mewl back like it’s some kind of miniature game of Marco Polo. Bucky reaches over to touch one of the fuzzballs and Brodyaga growls. “Okay, okay,” he says and withdraws his hand.
Lucky bumps his big head against Bucky’s back and whuffs softly and peers over Bucky’s arm to have a look in. Brodyaga’s growl gets louder. Lucky’s tail starts to wag.
“Maybe not, big guy,” Bucky tells him, and pulls the door closed a little. Lucky backs off with a whine and folds himself recumbent on the floor, nose working overtime.
“Well.” Bucky sits down on the floor and scratches Lucky behind the ears. “I guess the neighbour wasn’t overfeeding her.”
He sits for a while, scratching Lucky's belly and listening to the kittens. One of the kittens is mewling steadily, louder than the others. Bucky takes a look.
The little guy is extra-tiny, like he could have done with a couple more days before being born. He’s also pointing the wrong direction, slightly apart from the other kittens. Seems like too far for it to have gotten on its own. Bucky goes to grab the kitten and put it back with the others but he’s not sure if you can do that. He turns on his phone and types cat having kittens help into a search engine.
He’s reading when Brodyaga gets up, the kittens all complaining in tiny voices. She goes to the kitten that's facing the wrong way, the one making the racket, and picks it up by the scruff. Bucky smiles, but the smile drops away when she takes the kitten down to the cold hardwood floor and leaves it there. The kitten mewls. Lucky whines. Brodyaga goes back to the rest of her litter.
Bucky gathers up the abandoned kitten. It meeps softly, a broken not-quite meow. Its body is cool to touch.
Bucky doesn’t know anything about animals except that you need to keep babies warm and fed. He knows there are hot and cold packs in the mission jump bags, and his is still here; he still hasn't unpacked it.
Cradling the kitten, he goes over to his bag, rifles one-handed through it, and activates the hot pad. He wraps it in a face cloth and puts the kitten on it. The kitten meeps again and starts moving around a little.
Lucky comes over to the bed and snuffles with surprising gentleness at the kitten and the kitten continues moving around, like it’s going to make it to the edge of the bed and go over if he’s not careful. He sees why Brodyaga made a nest. Fucking kittens. There’s a box of tissues at the head of the bed, he grabs that, pulls the tissues out and tears the top off the box, then puts heating pad, cloth, and kitten into it. Safety, food, warmth. This is not the first orphan he’s looked after.
He searches kitten abandoned by mother. He makes a list. He calls the vet he was just at and tell them what happened. They agree to send somebody over with what he needs as long as he’s got cash to pay for it. Bucky only ever uses cash, so he does.
When the vet assistant comes he shows her the kitten and takes a look and hmms. “Well he looks okay to me, but sometimes you can't tell. If she's abandoned him there's probably a reason.” She smiles sadly at Bucky “You should probably be ready if he doesn’t make it.”
He nods. His throat has closed up so completely he can’t even say thank you when she leaves. Then he sits down at the kitchen table with the kitten in its little box, and spends an hour learning how to feed with a syringe.
He sets his alarm for two hours. The kittens mewl in the closet and Brodyaga purrs. Lucky huffs and snuffles in his sleep. The abandoned kitten meeps in the box. Bucky gets up every hour, changes the cloth and the heating pad, and spends twenty minutes syringing formula into an unwilling mouth. Some time around four in the morning, when he’s missed his second patrol and he’s starting to wonder if his eyelids have been replaced with sandpaper, the kitten makes a lunge for the syringe and eats like it’s starving. “Hey,” he whispers. “Look who’s suddenly got an appetite.”
Lucky comes limping over. He butts his head against Bucky’s leg. “Good news,” he says to Lucky. “It looks like this little guy’s a fighter.” Lucky’s eyebrows take turns going up and down. Bucky grins at him. “Should we name him Felix? Then we'll have two Luckys.”
Bucky falls asleep at the table and wakes up with a crick in his neck, the slow yellow sun passing over the floor. Lucky’s whining. He rubs at his neck, scratches Lucky reflexively, and looks at the box. The kitten is still. It’s lying there. Dead.
It’s lying there on the warm cloth, and he knows the vet’s assistant said it might happen but the fact is the kitten was doing better and he wasn’t ready for it, he wasn’t, and it’s not fair because the kitten was starting to eat, he was a fighter, and Bucky fell asleep trying to decide if Felix was too old-fashioned a name for a cat and now it doesn’t matter, none of it matters because it’s dead.
Tears happen and he can’t stop them. He’s never cried like this. Never. He’s never cried so hard in his life, and Bucky and sorrow are old friends. In the past, wretched exhaustion has driven him to tears, misery has wracked him, but the expression of those things was never allowed to go on unchecked. There were always reasons to keep quiet. Other soldiers, and later, guards who should never have the satisfaction of seeing him fall apart.
Later there were chemicals if human emotions were beyond his ability to control. The cool sting of something in a needle passing into a vein, or a mask exhaling something into his face.
And after, after Steve brought him out of the haze in his head, there was always a reason to stop himself before the wave crested. There were always doctors watching and assessing, or others near by who might be alarmed, or Steve in the next room, Steve who must never see him feeling like this, who should never, ever know that something inside of Bucky is as ruined as a smashed chancel window, and just as jagged.
But now there’s nothing.
Now he’s alone and he’s exhausted and he’s heartsore and all those ugly words people use when they talk about crying, blubbering and sobbing and wailing, he does all of those things. He does them all, head buried in the crook of his arm, chest and shoulders convulsing, because the stupid little thing was tough and he was a fighter and Bucky was so sure he was going to make it. It was going to be something he and Steve would share; a comedy, another close scrape, a funny story. Not a tragedy so mundane that only one person would ever really care about it.
He sobs until his face is a mess of tears and snot and spit. He sobs until Lucky is licking his hands and then his face and whining and pawing at him so insistently that he collars Lucky with his arm and slides off his chair to cry into the stupid dog’s smelly fur.
He sobs until he falls asleep like that on the floor, the dead kitten in the box on the table, Lucky’s bulk pinning him against the wall, keeping him fixed in time.
It's the dream. The awful one.
Steve's missed the rendezvous and Bucky's looking for him. C'mon, Steve, where the hell are you? But instead of a long hallway, or the aisle of a grocery store, he's outside. It looks like it's a park. Big, silver-barked trees with spreading branches. People moving around somewhere. Natasha up ahead. Standing near something. It's not a park, it's a cemetery. There's no lake this time, just a big mat of astroturf covering up the heap of dirt that marks a new grave, unfilled. Fear makes him cold.
Natasha looks at him.
Please don't say it.
Please don't say it.
He wakes with a jolt, squashed between Lucky and the kitchen wall. His alarm is going off. He crawls over to the table, grabs his phone where he left it, turns off the alarm. He's shaking. He set the alarm to feed the kitten. If there's a kitten up there, he hasn't killed Steve. If there's a kitten up there he's not here in the apartment alone, on the floor, face and chest and throat aching from tears, eyes stinging, because of something he's done. He puts his arms on the seat of the chair to steady him and fumbles a text.
where are you are you ok
steve where are you
He puts his head down on his arms. He tries to be sure that Steve left on a mission and that's why Lucky is here and that's why the cat is here, and if he looks there will be a dead kitten on the table. He tries to be sure but he can't work up the courage to look.
His phone buzzes.
are you ok?
were you dreaming?
youre ok right
Are you ok?
He sighs and cradles his head in his hands for a moment. The relief is overwhelming.
really bad night
I didn't mean to wake you up
I'm on third watch.
Bruce is still in New York
maybe you should call him?
I'm ok now.
Just needed to hear your voice.
Or read my texts.
you know what i mean
… … …
Maybe if you tell me about the dreams
I can help.
… … …
Sometimes I dream about the train
… … …
… … …
… … …
Steve has plenty of demons of his own, he doesn't need Bucky's too. But he asked. He asked and it's just a dream. It's an awful dream but it is just a dream. None of it is true. Bucky swallows.
i dream you're dead
and i did it
stay like that
… … …
It's still early there.
Can you get a bit more sleep?
Maybe Lucky will help
Lucky has terrible breath
You should probably stop kissing him
He smiles. He rests his head on his arm. The fear is draining away, and now he feels hollowed out. He texts a goodbye and then pushes himself to his feet, stumbles into the bedroom and falls down on the bed.
It’s about noon when he wakes up again. He pushes himself up off the bed, metal arm aching from lying on it, and stumbles into the bathroom to wash the crap off his face and brush his teeth and look at himself in the mirror.
He needs a shave. His hair was too long before Steve left. He's been wearing the same shirt for days. He combs his hair and frowns at the way it kicks up around his ears. He pulls his razor and the bowl of shaving soap over and works up a lather with the brush. While he shaves he hears Lucky go by, patrolling.
He changes, throws his old stuff in the basket, pulls on jeans and the hooded sweatshirt Steve gave him when he first came home, then he checks on the kittens.
They seem fine, as far as Bucky can tell. Brodyaga watches him with a predator’s eyes. “I guess you know your son died last night," he tells her. "Sorry, ma'am. I did everything I could."
She blinks slowly at him and then begins licking one of the kittens. He squats down. Nobody else looks sickly. Everybody else looks fine. One of the kittens near him, the one with a black and orange body and a big white patch over one ear, is trying to climb out of the nest. Bucky reaches down and rubs him between the ears. The little guy looks up, noses at Bucky's finger, and then bites him.
"Hey,” Bucky says. It would be his flesh hand too. “You jerk.”
The kitten mewls at him.
He sighs. He goes over to the box on the table, takes out the cloth and the heating pad and rubs one finger down the fluffy little body lying cold there. Then he covers it up. He knows Nat’s place has a yard, and besides, it was her cat who had the kittens. He puts a leash on Lucky and they walk slow, Lucky limping and Bucky feeling sad and sick, up to Nat’s place to bury the kitten in the yard.
He takes Lucky back to the apartment and it's too much walking on Lucky's bad leg. He has to help Lucky get up onto the hairy patch that marks his favourite spot on the couch. Bucky checks the bandages over. Lucky hasn’t licked the bandages loose yet, which is something. "Good dog," Bucky says. "Leave 'em alone and you'll get better faster."
He goes to stand by the windows. It's getting late, the sky a very pale pink. A chevron of geese go flying over the buildings and Bucky entertains a wonderful fantasy of getting the vicious geese in the park to attack the two losers who hang out there, but it seems mean to the geese. He puts his hands into his pockets and tries to make himself forget about those assholes. Impossible. Impossible because he wants to fix something, and the kitten's dead, and he can't fix himself, and thinking about cruelty done to the helpless hurts like touching a rotten tooth. And the pain is making him angry.
He’s got Steve’s jacket pulled tight around him and his hands jammed into the pockets and he’s walking to the park before he’s really thought about it. Before he’s thought about any of it. He should have called the police. He stayed behind because he does not want to fight, and here he is, out looking for trouble.
But he’s drawn to the park, and of course they’re there, the two losers. Waiting. Slouching against the back of the bench, like this is how they’re burning down their lives. He goes over to them.
“What, no dog?” the chatty one asks.
“Is there a fight tonight?" Bucky asks.
"Probably somewhere," Chatty says, shrugging.
Bucky bares his teeth. "I might have a dog."
"Pit fighter, out of Russia. Toughest fucking dog you ever saw. But I want to see the set up."
Chatty grins, showing his missing teeth. "What did I tell you?" he asks his friend. He nods at Bucky. "Come on, tough guy."
He smells it before they even get inside. Blood and dirt and shit mingling with cheap cologne applied too liberally, and coffee, and cigarettes, and booze. His heart speeds up. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Expensive leather coats and unwashed canvas jackets. Rotten teeth, expensive cigars. He feels the servos in his left arm responding to his pulse rate and his breathing.
Memory intrudes. An exhibition. Showing off the progress on the arm. A kid on the opposite side of the pit. Sixteen. Seventeen. Dog tags lying on his pale, skinny chest. Probably lied about his age to get in. Knows he's going to die. He’s pissed himself already, uniform trousers dark and damp. Bucky’s naked. The sky is that luminous, sourceless white of deep winter. The air is cold and flecked with snow. Awareness of feet aching. Awareness of discomfort. The distant prickle of the shame of being naked in front of a crowd of onlookers. An empty, hungry gnawing in his belly. All muted by the lightening of the chair and the input of the mission.
They didn’t give him a weapon. Just show off the arm. Let’s see you break femur, shoulders, and skull this time. Make it pretty. We all want to get paid.
They don’t specify, so he does it in reverse order. Skull first, because a part of him still knows mercy. Skull, then shoulders broken out of sockets, then both femurs. It's not hard. He's aware, distantly, that it ought to be.
Dozens of eyes looking down, watching him do it. He returns when the handler calls him Asset, come.
Did we all get paid?
What the hell is he talking about?
Never mind. Yes, Asset. We all got paid.
They left the boy there for days. Frost feathered his hair. His eyes white, like marble.
This time he’s not cold, he’s too warm. The place is packed, almost tropical in temperature and humidity. His chest not working quite right, servos whirring up. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
“Step right this way,” Chatty says.
Bucky blinks the memory out of his head and follows.
The place is a pit. A literal pit. It’s on the main floor of an old store with boarded-up windows, about three blocks west, and it looks like maybe there were renovations going on down in the basement once, but they stopped and there’s concrete-lined pit now, with a drain in the floor, and it’s standing-room only and people crowd in tight and shout at the dogs killing each other below. They’re not fighting dogs either. They’re just mutts. Street dogs, maybe.
“You put just any dog in there?” Bucky asks.
Chatty looks at him. “It’s the pre-show warm up,” the guy tells him. “The big dogs are in the basement.”
He nods. He stands by the edge of the pit with its smeared and scored hospital-green paint job, and looks on while a whip-thin mongrel cowers in front of a big, old Shepard that’s missing the better part of both ears. The mongrel only stops yelping when its dead.
Bucky turns away. He nods at the guy because the guy’s watching him, narrow eyed. Bucky swallows bile.
"Who do I talk to?" he asks. "About my dog?"
The guy grins. “That guy," he says, pointing through the crowd. "C'mon. Hey, hey, Mike.” Chatty weaves through the press of people and calls to a middle-aged man who’s standing slightly aside from the crowd. This Mike guy is all sepia tones, from his washed out skin to his tobacco-stained mustache to his dusty beige shoes. “Hey, this is the guy from the park, I one I told you about. Says he's got a pit fighting dog he got in Russia.”
Mike raises his head and nods at Bucky. “You bring it?”
Bucky shakes his head. “Just came to check it out.”
The man frowns. “No money in just watching,” he says.
“Do I look like I need money?”
Mike smiles a one-sided, insipid sort of smile. “No. No you don’t. You have a good time watching. And if you ever feel like you wanna bring your Russian dog, you come talk to me.”
He claps Bucky on the shoulder and Bucky would like to grab that arm and twist it until it jumped from the socket and tented flesh. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
“Your guy says the big dogs are downstairs.”
Mike narrows his eyes at him. “You wanna see them?” he asks.
Bucky shrugs. “If I want to see strays fight I’ll throw a steak into an alley,” he says.
Mike grins. “Come on,” he says.
There’s a metal door at the bottom of a set of stairs, and a damp, cold, subbasement that’s all bad lighting and grey paint. The air is thick with the ammonia smell of old urine. The dogs are fixed to the walls with chains stapled into the concrete. Scarred faces, missing eyes. Shit on the floor, shit clogging a drain. One of the dogs is lying on its side, maybe dead, the chain at full extension.
Bucky can hear the servos in his arm whirring, and he’s aware of the metal warming to optimal tensile strength. He should have known better. The whole point of staying here and not going on the mission was to not fight, not fight. And maybe when he was still being sort of rational he was just going to find the place and report it. But now. But this.
“That one’s the star,” Mike says, pointing at a barrel-chested silver pit bull with black scars all over his muzzle. “It’s going to be those two,” he points at another dog, caramel-brown with white patches, its ear torn and clotted with old blood. “They’re the main attraction.”
Bucky nods. They walk the length of the room and back. One of the dogs, a silver-grey thing, he recognizes it. The little cur from the street. Lucky's pal. Not fully grown, paws still too big for her body.
“You putting that one in?” he asks.
“What, the little grey bitch?” Mike glances at the dog and then at him. He grins. “Sure. You like her chances?”
He shrugs. "She's not full grown."
“She might get a lucky kill. I'll put her in with one of the old ones. You want to put a bet down? I’ll give you good odds.”
“Let me have a look at her.”
Mike frowns. “Can’t have something happen to her, you know? Not fair to everybody else.”
“Just looking,” Bucky says. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the money he brought, all the cash he has. It makes a sizable roll of bills. He puts the wad of cash inside Mike’s coat and pats him on the chest once. Mike’s washed-out face goes pink.
“Now can I have a look at her?” Bucky asks.
Mike grins. “Sure, buddy. For the right price you can have anything you like.”
Mike goes over and reaches for the pup. She cowers.
“Doesn’t look so good for her,” Bucky says. His voice is flat and bleak.
“She’ll fight,” Mike says. He grabs the dog by the muzzle and shakes her. She whines and goes down to her belly. "You know how it goes. They all fight in the end. Once in a while you see one that wants to die, but not her. She'll fight."
Mike lets her go and unfastens the chain around her neck. It comes off with a clatter, and that’s it. It’s the sound, probably, that is the last thing, the thing that’s just too much. Bucky’s got Mike by the throat before he realizes he’s moved. He’s got him pinned on the shit-smeared floor, and the little grey pup is barking her head off and all the other dogs have started up too, and Bucky's got his left arm tucked right under Mike’s chin. Mike's staring, stunned, breath knocked out of him.
“The fuck man?” he gasps.
Bucky grabs for the chain and fastens it around Mike’s neck.
“I should throw you in that fucking pit,” he snarls, shoving down with his arm till Mike chokes. “I should beat you till you stop screaming. How would you like that?” He’s so angry he can’t see. He wants to beat Mike’s face to pulp. He wants to pull the chain so hard it pops his fucking head off. “I said, how would you like that?”
“You fucking lunatic-”
He punches Mike's face, and then his stomach, not nearly as hard as he wants to, just to keep him disoriented and out of breath. He takes his money back, Mike’s phone, the gun he was carrying, safety off, in the waistband of his pants. Then Bucky gets to his feet and kicks him hard in the belly, so that Mike rolls onto his side, gagging. Bucky stands there, breathing hard through his teeth while Mike coughs and gasps and the dogs keep barking. Then he turns to the little grey pup. She skips away from him, head down, tail down, cowering.
“Come,” he says. Some of the dogs fall silent. The pup stands still. Bucky's mind is white with rage. He can't see. He can't breathe. “Ko mne, shavka,” he snarls.
When she doesn’t move he goes to her and picks her up. He's too rough, but she doesn't yelp. She’s built to be a barrel-chested dog, but the nobs of her spine stick out. He tucks her under his arm and she hangs there like a dead thing, not fighting. On his way out, he calls the police.
Apologies in advance about the German and the Russian. I asked Professor Google and did my best.
Thank you for the help in the comments! I've tidied up the German a little bit :)
He throws Mike's phone and gun into the pond at the park and puts the dog down. She runs. Bucky stands alone in the darkness until he hears the sounds of sirens coming up in the distance and getting closer. He has a moment of grim pleasure, then he starts back toward home.
The little shavka follows him. She ranges around him, staying out of arm’s reach, sometimes disappearing but always coming back. He stops at the door to the apartment building and sits on the cold step and waits for her to reappear. She creeps out of the shadows toward him, going lower and lower as she does, till she’s on her belly.
“I know,” he tells her softly. His heart rate is falling again, his breathing leveling out. He's exhausted. He holds out his metal hand to her, knowing she might bite but figuring she won't. She doesn't. She lies still. He sighs. “I know, malyutka."
He slips his belt off and loops it carefully around her neck like a collar and leash. They sit there for a while, Shavka watching him, Bucky's head quieting, the narrow focus of his eyes widening up again, so he can see the street, people bundled against the cold. The warm yellow lights in the building opposite.
I got a dog, he texts as soon as he’s steady enough to do it. Then he looks down at her. “Come on, kid,” he murmurs and gets to his feet.
He opens up the door. She pads beside him, balking once at the stairs, and then she scrambles up them with her rump tucked down as far as she can manage and still move. They don't pass anyone in the hallway, and there's no more balking.
He pushes through the door into the apartment and takes the belt off Shavka and she darts away a few steps and then stops. Lucky comes trot-limping over to investigate and Shavka stands still for a moment, shaking.
Bucky spreads his hands. “Lucky, Shavka. Shavka, Lucky. Get along.”
Both dogs look at one another for a moment. Lucky tips his head.
Shavka bolts, claws chattering across the floor as she scrambles for purchase on the wood. Lucky looks up at him, quizzical, like he’s saying, I thought you said I couldn’t be friends with this dog.
“I know, I know,” Bucky snaps. Then he remembers. The kittens, Brodyaga. "Oh shit." He goes running into the bedroom, Lucky barreling after him.
By the time he gets there, Brodyaga is standing in the closet doorway, making a noise fit for an animal five times her size, and Shavka is under the bed. Lucky prances between the closet and the bed, and back again, tail wagging.
Bucky’s phone buzzes. Lucky starts barking. "Quiet, Lucky," he says.
Brodyaga hisses like a gas leak.
“Okay, okay,” he tells her and pulls the closet door closed all the way. “Just cool your heels in there for a while. Lucky, Lucky, enough.”
Lucky subsides, tail still wagging. He comes over to get a reward for his obedience. Bucky pats him and then kneels down by the bed.
“Shavka,” he says, trying to sound friendly. It’s not working. He’s still too keyed up, too shaky. “Shavka, come." Lucky demonstrates his ability to respond to that command too. "No, Lucky, not you,” he pushes Lucky away and Lucky prances out of the bedroom. “Come, Shavka, come." He waits. "Ko mne?” he tries. "Ici? Hier?"
A silver nose appears under the bed. “Deutsch?” he asks. “Really? Okay. I can do that. Brave Hund. Hier.”
His phone buzzes again.
Lucky comes back with a towel in his mouth, marching around the bedroom like he’s leading an invisible parade. He stops between Bucky and the bed.
"No, Lucky, get lost. Hier, Shavka.”
Lucky presents him with the towel.
Lucky drops the towel.
“No, you asshole, I’m trying to-"
Lucky licks his face.
The phone. Still buzzing.
"No, god damn it, Lucky.”
He pushes Lucky away, grabs his phone and yells, “What?!”
“You got a dog?” Steve’s voice. Confused, quiet. Bucky has no idea what to say so he doesn't say anything, just mouths emptily for a minute. “Hello?” Steve asks. “Hello?”
“Yes," he blurts at last. "Yes I got a fucking dog. She was going to go into a pit at a fucking dog fight, what else was I going to do? A dog fight.” Suddenly Bucky can’t breathe. “That place was a god damned prison. It was worse. There were chains in the concrete and blood and shit everywhere and it was cold, the cold, I didn’t want to… I didn’t want to, Steve, I didn’t-”
“Bucky?” Steve’s voice rising a little. “Bucky, are you okay?”
He rubs a hand over his face. He's exhausted and his eyes are wet. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just." He stops, and makes himself breathe. "Brought back memories, you know?” He laughs. It’s not funny. It’s not really a laugh. "So I took one of the dogs. Called the police. Because it's not fair, you know? To do that. To anything.” He’s laughing again. Laughing-not-laughing. Laughing-not-laughing hard. So hard it hurts his throat. He never wanted Steve to hear this. He never wanted Steve to know.
“Oh, Bucky,” Steve whispers and it sounds like his heart is breaking.
“I'm sorry," he whispers. "I'm sorry. It's just…" he's managing to get himself together again. "It's just not fair.”
“I know,” Steve’s voice is soft. “It's not."
“So.” He sniffles. He sits back against the wall and even manages to sigh. “So now we have a dog.”
“Listen Buck, I’m glad you did what you did. But fighting dogs…”
There’s a long silence on the other end of the phone. Steve doesn’t want to say the words, he doesn’t want to say that sometimes fighting dogs never recover, that sometimes they are a danger to the people around them and have to be put down.
“I know,” Bucky says. “But. Look. She’s literally hiding from Lucky right now. From Lucky. She’s under the bed."
"Well, Lucky's pretty big."
"You should see him. He's the happiest dog on the planet."
Steve laughs softly. "I'll tell Clint."
"But, you're right. He is big. And Shavka's still a puppy, and she's scared. And, actually, she’s probably mostly hiding from the cat. Brodyaga’s been pretty unfriendly and the whole thing with the kittens really isn't helping. But Shavka's not vicious." He wants to explain, he wants Steve to understand. "I saw her, in that place, you know? I saw one of the guys trying to wind her up to show me that she could fight and… and I just… I don’t think she’s too…” he stops. He was going to say too far gone to save but he can’t say it.
“You think she’ll be okay,” Steve supplies.
Bucky nods. “She just… didn’t want to fight.”
Steve makes a little noise. “I guess you’d know all about that,” he says.
“Yeah,” Bucky whispers. He rubs his forehead with his knuckles. "Yeah, I know all about that." He sighs.
They're quiet for a while, and then, after a moment Steve says, “Did… did you say ‘kittens’?”
He puts food, water, and the litterbox into the closet, and spends most of the night coaxing Shavka out from under the bed with a little dish of Lucky’s kibble. Some time closer to dawn than midnight, Shavka creeps out from under the bed and has a sniff at the bowl of food, then gobbles up a mouthful.
“Good girl,” he murmurs. She freezes. “C’mon girl,” he whispers, getting stiffly to his feet. "Hier."
He leads her out of the bedroom and into the living room where Lucky’s sprawled on the couch. He puts the mat from the bathroom down in the corner, and gets the old blanket from the closet, and puts that down too. “Platz,” he tells her. She goes at once and sits. “Good girl,” he says. Lucky raises his head from the arm of the couch as Bucky walks by. “Good boy,” he adds, patting Lucky. “Everybody's good. Everybody get some shut eye.” He checks the lock as he goes by the front door; that counts as patrol. Then he falls into bed. He sleeps for hours.
In the morning, Shavka’s still curled on her makeshift bed, and Lucky’s sitting by his bowl. He looks at Bucky like Bucky’s flying the last helicopter out of Saigon when he pours some kibble into it. Shavka comes padding slowly over to see what's making all the noise.
He looks at her for a bit. Frowns. “This’ll have to do for now, little one,” he tells her and pours some into one of the mixing bowls. She darts away when he puts it down, then comes back. Lucky stops eating. He goes over to Shavka, and sniffs her, then goes to his bowl and eats some more. Then stops, and does it again.
Shavka goes to her bowl, and starts eating too. Lucky drops his hindquarters and gets stuck into breakfast.
“Good boy,” Bucky murmurs. Lucky probably didn’t hear it over the crunching of the kibble.
Bucky’s looking at Shavka, just wondering if he should go buy puppy food when the text from Nat comes in.
How many kittens do you want?
I'm not kidding
What did Steve say?
I’m asking you.
I just got a dog.
Big dog or a little dog?
… … …
So two then.
Bucky goes out and buys food and water dishes, one of those leashes that goes around a dog’s nose instead of the neck, and a huge sack of puppy food. He makes an appointment to have Shavka come in for shots and a check up, and the vet assistant’s eyes get moist when he admits, very quietly, that the kitten died.
“Poor little guy,” she says, sniffing a little.
“Yeah. I really thought he was gonna make it.” He smiles at her as she daubs her eyes with her sleeve. “Thought you’d be used to it by now.”
“Some things you don’t really get used to,” she says. Then she smiles faintly. “And now you’ve got a puppy?” she asks.
He looks down at the sack of food he’s buying. “Yeah. I guess I do.”
She scans the last thing and tells him the total and he fumbles around for the money. The roll of cash is still in the pocket where he put last night. There’s a rust-red stain on the money. Mike’s blood.
"Did you see the thing on the news last night? About the dog fighting ring the police broke up?" she asks.
He shakes his head. "No, I musta missed it."
"Too busy with the new pup, I guess," she says. "We'll be housing some of the dogs till they go for rehabilitation. They'll need socializing. You're welcome to come down and see them if you want."
“Yeah, thanks. If I can.” He looks down at the stained hundred dollar bill and then at her. “Sorry I, uh, don’t have anything else to pay with.”
She shrugs and takes the bill, spritzes it with something and sets it aside, then makes change.
His phone buzzes in his pocket as he’s walking home but his arms are full of puppy chow and he can’t answer it. When he opens the apartment door, Lucky barrels into him and Shavka yelps and flees. Lucky's finally chewed off his bandages, but he seems more or less better now. He prances like a show pony until Bucky gives him the new leash, and he carries it away, head and tail both up. Shavka hides behind the kitchen cabinets until Bucky pours some of the new food, clattering, into her new bowl. Then she peeks around the counter at him.
“Hier, Shavka,” he says. “Brave Hund. Come on.”
She does. Hesitant at first, but drawn to the food. “Good girl,” he murmurs, moving away from the dish so that she can go to it. She does, wasting no time once she’s close enough to the bowl to eat. She watches him as she eats, and he leans on the counter where he knows she can see him, and plays a pointless game of tug-o-war with Lucky over the leash. Then he remembers his phone. He checks it.
Mission status: Coming home.
Good. I missed you.
I missed you too. Things OK?
Shavka status: Eating.
Lucky status: Playing.
While Shavka investigates Lucky’s food bowl and clears up the crumbs on the floor, Bucky checks on Brodyaga and her brood.
Brody status: Purring.
He considers that, and it occurs to him that he’s absolutely starving. Between the dog and the vet and the kittens and the dog pit, he can’t remember the last time he fixed himself a meal.
Fuckin hungry. Having lunch.
Good. See you soon.
He’s just scraping out the last spoonful of leftover curry when he hears the unmistakable sound of a dog throwing up.
He finds Shavka cowering near a slick of semi-digested puppy chow in the living room. He frowns at the mess.
“Ate too fast, huh?” he asks.
She flattens onto the floor. When he comes comes back with a roll of paper towel and some cleaner, she rolls onto her back, belly and throat exposed, whining.
“It’s okay,” he says, careful to keep his voice soft. “It’s okay.” He figures he should probably keep talking. Maybe noise and tone of voice might be enough to get her to calm down. “Look, I know things haven’t been great for you and so it might take a little while for you to get used to having a full belly. Maybe I should've thought of that, you know? Later we'll just…” he stops because it’s familiar, the soft, soothing patter. Only, it wasn’t him saying those things.
My God, you're so thin. When was the last time you ate? Steve asked him, but time hadn't meant anything to him then.
I don't know.
He can't remember what it was Steve fed him, only that his stomach had clenched up and twisted. Request medical? he'd asked.
Steve hadn't understood. He'd shaken his head and there hadn't been enough time for Bucky to clarify before he was doubled over and puking.
Deviated from orders. Sparks of fear, like a forest fire seen by satellite, burning him up.
He’d flinched when Steve touched his shoulder. Flinching: self-protective. Desire to not be harmed. Evidence of self-awareness. Recallibration certain. Steve looking at him, saying something. I'm sorry, he'd whispered over and over. Didn't want recallibration. I'm sorry.
It's okay. Jesus, Buck, it's okay. Come on. I’ll… I'll get you some water. You think you can handle some water?
“Listen to me,” he whispers. He reaches out, careful, with his metal hand and rubs behind her ear very, very gently. “Listen to me, little one. Nobody’s going to make you fight again. You're safe now.”
It might be the first time he's ever believed it.
He’s got the mess cleaned up, Shavka’s dozing under the bed, Brodyaga’s nesting with her young, and Lucky has taken the second couch cushion with a mixture of stink and stealth while Bucky was watching a news story about a dog fighting ring the police shut down last night. His phone rattles on the counter top. He gets up and goes to retrieve it, and Lucky comes too. It’s like taking over the couch isn’t any fun if there’s nobody else on it.
Caller: Sam Wilson.
“Sam?” he asks.
“Hey, you home?"
"Good. You’ve got incoming.”
His stomach lurches. “What? No, I-”
“You’re, like, super pet man, right?”
“That’s what Barton says. There in ten seconds. Get a big box or something.”
“What? No, Sam, I can’t-”
“Too late, pet whisperer. Open your damn window.”
Shavka starts barking. Lucky turns a rapid circle and starts barking too. “Enough, okay, enough!” Bucky yells over them and goes back to the living room. There’s Sam, perched on the windowsill, wings fully extended, eyes watering with the cold. Shavka runs between Bucky’s legs and vanishes into the kitchen. Lucky runs the opposite direction and puts both paws up on the sill, panting.
Bucky heaves the window open and Sam sticks his head and chest through, but he doesn’t collapse his wings, so he can’t come in all the way. He’s dressed in heavy winter gear and he’s cradling a cream-and-brown speckled thing very carefully against his chest.
“What the hell?” Bucky asks.
“Go get a damn towel,” Sam answers.
Bucky lurches back toward the bathroom, grabs a towel and returns. Sam leans forward, stuffing a disgruntled, dishevelled looking bird into the towel. “It got knocked down pretty hard and I think it’s got a bad wing on the left side. Check that out.”
The bird flaps one big wing. Bucky holds it away from his face.
Sam leans back and looks at the sky. He frowns hard, like there’s an ass up there that needs a kicking. “Gotta go. Bad guys.”
“Two dogs and a cat,” Bucky says desperately. “Kittens. Not a vet.”
“Owls are endangered,” Sam says. “Do not let me down.”
Then he’s gone back out the window, a little snow eddying in his wake. Bucky stares after him. Lucky comes over to see the newcomer, and Bucky has a look at it too. It’s an owl, like Sam said. Full grown, brown-and-white. As big as Brodyaga. He stares at it, and it looks back at him with an expression of stunned surprise on its pie-plate face.
“Yeah. You and me both, buddy,” he tells it.
He kicks over the laundry basket to get the dirty clothes out of it, then he rights it again, and sets the owl inside. It frees itself from the towel, and Bucky can see Sam was right, it’s left wing hangs askew. Maybe broken. He sighs.
“Leave it,” he tells Lucky, but between the cat being territorial, Shavka being dangerous and Lucky being curious, there’s only one course of action. He takes the laundry basket out to the kitchen, clears a space among the dogs things and the kitten formula and puts the basket there. Then he looks up owl rescue service.
Lucky whines and snuffles at the laundry basket. The owl sits very still, but after a while it fluffs its feathers like it’s settling in for a long wait. Bucky digs around a little and finds a raptor rescue place. He calls the number and gets another number for an owl rescue service. He calls that number. Nobody answers so he leaves a stammering, halting message that leaves out the stuff about how he came by the owl, and is heavy on the please call me back and here’s how to contact me.
While he's muttering into his phone, Shavka comes over. She snuffles around the kitchen as if she's looking for more kibble, and works her way, as if incidentally, under the table, and lies down. Bucky realizes, with a little swell of pride, that he can never move again ever because Shavka is lying on his feet, and this is trust. He grins a big, stupid grin and pulls the laptop a little closer to he won't have to shift to type.
A little later, Brodyaga deigns to come out of the bedroom to see what all the fuss was about. She looks at Shavka with unconcealed dislike, and then at Lucky with a benevolent sort of tolerance, and then hops up onto the table.
"Nyet, Brodyaga," Bucky whispers, when the cat has a speculative look at the owl. "No more visits to the vet." He reaches for her and she allows herself to be settled in his lap. Bucky turns his attention back to the computer.
“I dunno,” he murmurs, mostly to himself. “Do you give owls water or not?”
Lucky comes over and snuffles at Brodyaga and then at Bucky. Brodyaga gets up with an aggrieved air and climbs up to Bucky's shoulder. Well, he wasn't going anywhere anyway. Lucky worms his head under Bucky’s arm until Bucky lifts his arm up. “Okay, okay, you suck,” he says and gives him a little attention too.
When the phone buzzes, he has to move pretty carefully to not dislodge anybody. The guy promises to send somebody up to collect the owl, and Bucky promises to keep the dogs and cat away from it.
Lucky twists where he sits, extracts his head from Bucky’s arm, and pads over to the door. Bucky turns in his seat, careful not to dislodge Brodyaga. Keys rattle in the lock and then Steve comes in. He’s pale, shoulders rolling with tiredness, but he pats Lucky on the head and whispers, hey boy, and looks at Bucky. His expression goes from relieved to pleased to baffled pretty rapidly.
“St. Francis?” he asks. Bucky snorts.
Shavka gets up and slinks into the kitchen. Brodyaga jumps down from his shoulder and strolls away. Bucky gets to his feet.
“I’m no saint, Rogers,” he says. He sobers a little. “Crappy mission."
"Are you okay?”
“Me?" Steve asks. "I've been…" he sighs. "I've been so worried. I shouldn't have gone. I knew things were bad right now and I-"
Bucky kisses him. It's been a while.
"Anyway," Steve says softly, after, "I'm glad I'm home. I missed you." He leans in close and slides one hand over Bucky's hip. He pauses. "Um? Is that dog food in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"
"Can it be both?" Bucky asks. Steve laughs. He sounds tired. "Come on," Bucky says, taking the bag from his arms. "You sound like you need to sleep for a week."
Steve nods. “Yeah. But first a shower. And, uh, where are the kittens?”
“Bedroom closet," Bucky says, dumping the bag. "Sorry about your sweater,” he adds.
Steve makes an unhappy noise and disappears into the bedroom and Bucky hears, aww, jeez a half a second later. Bucky grins and goes into the bedroom, so Lucky and Shavka come too.
“Platz, Shavka,” he tells her at the door. She stops and glances at him. “Good girl,” he adds, thumbing a treat over to her. She gobbles it.
Steve’s squats down with his head in the closet, looking at the kittens. He's smiling.
“See the one with the spot over the ear and the bright pink nose?” Bucky asks.
“Vampire kitten. He bit me. The little bastard.”
Steve grins. He looks back at Bucky. “Do I dare ask why there’s laundry everywhere and the basket’s on the table?”
“Uh. Sam brought me an owl.”
“Yeah, I guess Barton told him I was good with pets."
"Yeah, but an owl."
"I know. Anyway, there’s a rehabilitation facility that’s sending somebody up to collect it. I was gonna put it in the bathroom till they come, keep it away from the dogs.”
Steve frowns. “After I shower?” he asks, a little plaintive.
Bucky laughs. “That's probably okay.”
Steve sits down on the floor, looking up at him. Lucky comes over and flops down beside him and Steve gives him a perfunctory scratch on the belly, but he’s still looking at Bucky.
“What?” Bucky asks.
Steve shrugs. “I was worried about you. But you’re okay, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I… Sorry. I've been a bit of a mess but… I think I sorted some stuff out.” He sits down too. Shavka sniffs carefully at the back of his head. “The dog thing was bad. Shavka-” he shrugs at Steve, “-I just started calling her Shavka, we can call her whatever.”
“She’s doing really good.”
Steve nods. He sighs. “So,” he says, stretching out long legs. “You acquired a dog. And Nat told me you want two kittens.”
Bucky laughs. “That’s funny, she told me that too.”
“Well I'd like a cat. And if you get a dog…” he shrugs. “That guy.” He nods at the kitten with the patched ear. “The tough guy. I like him.”
“You like the tough guys, huh?”
Steve shrugs again. “Gonna need somebody to keep Shavka in line.”
Clint and Natasha show up a few hours later, after the owl is gone but there's still a laundry basket in the bath tub and feathers drifting around the kitchen. Natasha actually coos softly at the sight of all the kittens, and she strokes Brodyaga's head until Brodyaga closes her eyes and purrs like a distant engine.
Shavka stays on her mat, curled up into a little ball, watching Clint and Natasha with untrusting eyes. "Yeah she's cute," Clint says, nodding. "What are you calling her?"
"Shavka," Steve answers.
Natasha looks at him. Then she looks at Bucky. "Shavka?" she asks. "Cur?"
"Is that what it means?" Steve asks.
Natasha frowns at Bucky. "What kind of a name is that for a dog?"
He shrugs at her. "It's what I called her that first night and it kind of stuck."
Her mouth moves, as if she was going to say something, but she stops. She looks back at Shavka and tilts her head a little. "She's very pretty. You should call her Lady or something."
"Brodyaga," Bucky says, accusatory. Natasha shrugs.
"We're not talking about my pets, Dr. Doolittle. We are talking about yours." But she smiles and she waits while Bucky and Clint gather up Lucky's things and Bucky says goodbye.
"You're a pain in the ass," Bucky tells him, giving him a gruff scratch behind the ears. "I'm gonna miss you. Stay away from geese."
Clint sighs. "He never learns. Dog-sit again some time?" he asks.
When they're gone, Bucky stands at the door a moment. Steve's hand slips into his.
"Cur?" he asks. He's wearing a lopsided smile.
Bucky shrugs. "I was upset. I started speaking Russian." He shrugs again. "We can change it."
"No," Steve says. "She's probably getting used to it by now. Right, Shavka?"
Shavka raises her head and looks from him to Steve and back again.
"See?" Steve says. "Too late now."
In the dream, Steve's missed the rendezvous and Bucky's looking for him. He's outside, under silver-barked trees that hold up clouds of sun-drenched leaves. Ahead of him, there's a funeral. A shiny red casket being lowered into the ground, mourners all in black or in military uniform. He edges forward. He needs to find Steve.
Natasha is standing among the mourners, right beside the gleaming casket. She looks at him. Please, he thinks, dread covering over him like a weight, please don't say it.
"Thanks," she says. She comes forward and takes both his hands. "Steve'll be glad you came." She propels him toward the casket.
Steve's at the graveside in uniform. Not in dress uniform, not a modern uniform. It's olive drab, and scuffed up too. Boots caked with mud. Upright. Alive.
"Hiya, Buck," he says. "Thanks for coming."
Bucky feels lost, adrift. This isn't how the dream goes. "Steve, what's going on?"
"It's a funeral."
"For who?" and then, with creeping dread he asks, "Is it for you?"
Steve laughs softly. "Don't be ridiculous, it's for Sergeant Barnes." It's weird but Steve's smiling a little, and it's okay, and Bucky's not afraid. "We lost him in the Alps. It was a long time ago. Maybe you haven't heard that story."
"No," Bucky whispers. "I know it."
"Well. I'm glad you came. And thanks for bringing him home. It means a lot to me. I think it'd mean a lot to him too."
Bucky stares. Then it comes to him the way the sun rises over the sea. "I did this," he whispers. Steve smiles at him.
"Well yeah. Who else was going to?"
He's lying on his back in his bed, and the stippled ceiling is striped by the light filtering up from the street. A siren rises in the distance and falls away again. He can hear Steve's breathing, soft and regular, there beside him.
Bucky slips out of bed, careful not to wake Steve up, and pads out to the living room. Shavka hops down from the couch and runs over to her bed. He grins at her. He goes over holds out his hand till she's done sniffing it, then scratches her gently behind the ears.
"Okay, malyutka?" he asks her softly. She wags her tail just a little.
Chapter 9: Epilogue
Sorry, guys, I couldn't resist.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Text from Bruce Banner: Are you busy on Wednesday?
Bucky frowns at his phone. Shavka, curled under his chair in the waiting room, peeks out to sniff his hand. He scratches her behind the ears a couple times then types back,
There's a conference on stress and trauma
Is this a joke?
I thought the service animal programming
might be of interest to you.
You know i don't have any letters
after my name right?
But you'll understand the subject matter
Plus I don't like going to these things alone.
I find it stressful.
He did tell himself that one day he'd do something nice for Banner. Maybe this is going to be it. He rubs his chin where he missed a patch when he was shaving this morning.
You sure you want me there?
OK you'll come?
I'll send you the programming.
He's about to reply when the door opens and the vet assistant comes out. It's not the one that helped him with the kitten, it's a new guy. "Shavka and Mr. Barnes?" he asks.
"Yeah, that's us."
Bucky gets to his feet and coaxes Shavka out from under the chair. She comes out with her tail tucked.
"Oh, big baby," says the vet assistant, laughing softly.
"Well," Bucky says, a little defensive. "She's had a hard life."
The guy nods. "Then I take it back. C'mon kiddo. The shots kinda stink but there are treats at the end."
They go into the little room and Bucky gets Shavka up on the table and warns the vet that she was a stray, and Bucky's not sure how she's going to react. The vet's a nice enough lady, speaks soothingly but works efficiently, and Bucky likes her. But Shavka yelps and whines and give Bucky a look of deep betrayal when he holds her forepaws so the vet can finish up with the shots. He knows that expression. He's pretty sure he gave Steve a look like that once, when he realized the people coming into the room to see him were doctors, and that the room was a cage.
It's okay, they're just going to make sure you're alright.
I'm sorry. He was shaking. Without the machine, the ice, the constant chemical restraints, fear overwhelmed him and he was shaking so hard his teeth chattered. I'm sorry that I disobeyed.
Bucky, hey, look at me. Don't look at them. Ten minutes okay? That's all.
Please. Begging, pathetic. Gripping what he remembered like a child holding a doll. Please. I don't want to forget.
Five minutes, Buck, just five.
Captain Rogers, five minutes is-
Going to have to be enough. Keep looking at me, Buck. It's almost over. We're going home soon.
The white coats worked fast. They drew blood, downloaded data from the arm, and listened to his lungs and heart, shone a light into his eyes. There was no chair. No lightening. No ice. No pain. And afterward, seated in the room, just him and Steve, he stared.
Yeah. When you're ready we can leave.
Nothing about deadlines or timetables. Not even really an order. And want still present in him. I want to go, he whispered. He waited for reaction. For the white coats to come in again and fix him. Instead, Steve said okay and took him home.
Shavka follows him out of the vet's with her head down and her tail tucked. She stays exactly at his heel, and doesn't balk at the stairs. When they get back to the apartment she spends a moment staring at him. Then she runs over to her bed and lies down.
"See?" he says.
She wags her tail once and rubs her nose on his hand when he holds it out for her to sniff. He gives her a scratch behind the ears, then checks his phone.
As promised, Bruce has sent him the pdf of programming for the conference and most of it is Greek to Bucky, but Self-Reported PTSD Symptom Severity and Access to Service Dogs sounds slightly more manageable than Cortisol Levels Among Animal Carers with a History of Trauma and way better than the totally incomprehensible Alpha-1 Adrenergic Receptor Antagonists: A Review of the Literature.
Bucky always liked school and was good at it, but it's been a hell of a long time.
I don't know what half
this stuff even means
Look at the things in blue
they're mostly non-technical.
I don't think I have
the brains for this
Actually, you're probably the world
expert on some of it. If anyone
asks I'll introduce you as a
traumatic amnesia specialist.
… … …
10$ says somebody will
ask you to present a paper
They're sitting the couch that evening, him and Steve. Bucky's still reading on his phone, scrolling between the lectures that sound interesting. He's narrowing down the ones he wants to see when Steve looks over at the screen. He makes a little noise. Bucky looks up.
"What?" he asks.
"Vet school?" Steve asks softly.
Steve smiles at him, and suddenly his eyes are a little bit glassy, his mouth tightening up.
Bucky sits up. "Steve?"
"That's great," Steve says. He nods at Bucky and blinks a few times. Bucky can hear him swallow. "Buck, that's great."
"What are you…?" he looks down. There it is, on the header of every single page of the pdf, Lawrence College of Veterinary Medicine. He stares at it. Then he looks at Steve. "It's a…" he starts to explain, but something stops him. He slouches back down among the couch cushions and shrugs. "Yeah," he says. He shrugs again. "Maybe."
I dunno if there is a Lawrence College of Veterinary Medicine. There probably is. Somewhere.
Also: Okay, now it is for real done. For real.