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What I Used To Be

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Bucky did everything he could to make this ten by ten basement hellhole into something like a home for his pups. A single, dim lightbulb swung from the ceiling and illuminated the pathetic amount of belongings that Bucky had accrued in the God-knows-how-long he’d been down here. Long enough, at least, to push out three kids by himself, but he suspected it was much longer than that.

He knotted together old t-shirts and towels to make blankets, made ragdolls so the pups had something to play with, and piled it all in the corner opposite the hard mattress on the floor. Maybe his pups should have slept on a real bed, but Bucky didn’t have the strength to let them rest their heads in the same place that Pierce fucked and knotted him.

Bucky told them to close their eyes when Pierce came down, but he doubted the pups always listened. And they couldn't listen to Bucky if Pierce used his Voice, which he did.

Several sets of heavy footsteps made the ceiling tremble. The lightbulb flickered, and dust and dirt shook down onto the four of them.

Something wasn’t right.

“Guys,” Bucky said, herding with his hands, “Stand behind me.”

If Pierce brought friends again –

Pierce wouldn’t fuck his own pups, would he? They were young, younger than Bucky was when Pierce snatched him off of the street and locked him in a freezing underground room. The oldest – George, Bucky thought of him as, but Pierce didn’t let them have names – took each of his sisters’ hands and tugged them behind Bucky’s rail-thin body.

Bucky wasn’t much in the way of protection, but he was better than nothing.

Indistinct shouts carried into the room, and the footsteps loomed closer. Then, the square door in the ceiling rattled as something fell against it. Somebody cursed, somebody whose voice was Not Pierce at all. Bucky spread his arms out further, shielding the kids.

More shouting. The door rattled again.

Then the thing fucking splintered. Bucky held his hand over his eyes and squinted against the light that poured into their dark room. The hazy silhouette of a man both taller and slimmer than Pierce greeted him, and the scent of concerned alpha floated down and wrapped around the room like a well-loved quilt.

“What the fuck,” the silhouette said, “What in the actual hell?”

“Who the hell are you?” Bucky demanded.

The silhouette jumped down. A dark-skinned man in Kevlar and cop gear said, “I’m Officer Rhodes. You – you’re safe now.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. Thick, sticky relief pounded into him. His head swam, vision doubled, and he managed, “Good. Finally,” before black spots clouded Bucky’s eyes and he toppled backward into the dark.

**

Rhythmic beeping pierced the fog of Bucky’s mind. He was floating somewhere far away – beep – a place beyond the hellhole in the ground where he lived with his pups – beep – pups that he forced in his belly, but he loved them anyway – beep –

Shit, his pups.

Bucky’s eyes flew open. Dizzily, he drank in his surroundings. Taupe-colored walls. Heart monitor. IV in the crook of his arm. He was lying on a hospital bed that was the most comfortable thing he’d felt in ages, but his pups weren’t in sight; he was alone in the room and that was bad, bad, bad. Bucky forced his legs over the edge of the bed and stumbled forward toward the door, dragging his IV pole with him –

Only to be intercepted by a curly-haired man in a white coat.

“Whoa, whoa,” the doctor said, “You’ll rip out your IV. You can’t overexert yourself, sir. Please sit back on the bed.”

“The fuck I will,” Bucky spat, “Where are my pups?”

“The pups are safe,” the doctor said.

Bucky scowled and said, “I’ll believe that when I see it. Where are my pups?” He didn’t mean to shout, or to shove the doctor away so hard, but Bucky didn’t give a shit about niceties when his goddamn babies were missing. Using the wall to prop himself against, he hobbled out of the room and into the hall, but his great escape lasted all of ten seconds before a couple of nurses in scrubs pulled him back. Bucky fought against them and yelled more about bringing him his pups, kicking and flailing, but nobody listened.

The doctor injected something into Bucky’s IV, and like magic everything was dreamy and nice, not so scary anymore. They drugged him. They fucking drugged him. What the hell was going on?

“My pups,” Bucky slurred, even as the nurses herded him back into bed.

“The children are in the room beside yours,” the doctor said, “and you’ll see them soon. I need you to answer some questions for me, though. Do you know your name?”

“My name is Bucky.”

He hadn’t said his name in a long time. Pierce called him James, because James was the name on his plastic high school ID card.

The doctor paused.

“My name is Dr. Banner,” he answered, “Bucky – is that short for something?”

“Bu…Buchanan.”

Dr. Banner went about three shades paler. He swallowed and said, “Your full name wouldn’t happen to be James Buchanan Barnes, would it?”

“That’s me,” Bucky said, offering Dr. Banner a placid, dumbass smile. Something itched in the back of Bucky's mind. He was supposed to be worried about something, but at the moment all he could think about was floating like an errant cloud over his hospital bed.

“Do you know how long you were being held in that room?” asked Dr. Banner.

Bucky shook his head. He mumbled, “Last time I was outside it was 2005. Pushed out a few babies down there so I know it sure as hell ain’t 2005 no more.”

Dr. Banner cleared his throat and said, “It’s 2016.”

“No shit,” Bucky said, “Then eleven years, I guess. Huh. I’m twenty five.”

Bucky thought that maybe there should have been more questions, but Dr. Banner excused himself after that. No more than a few minutes later, he returned with a well-dressed beta lady with strawberry blonde hair, and –

“My pups,” Bucky breathed, “They’re okay.”

“Daddy!” exclaimed the youngest. She was the only one to shout, but all of them ran to him, wearing hospital gowns too big for their tiny bodies. A pang of guilt axed Bucky through the middle seeing how thin they all were. He tried. He tried to give them everything he could. He understood what his ma meant when she said she would do anything for her pups, after George came.

The pups leaned over his bed to hug him. Bucky hugged back best he was able, but he was hooked up to a bunch of shit and was weak as a kitten besides. Their dark hair was clean and brushed, and they smelled like soap over their usual Bucky’s-pup-scent. Somebody had cut their hair. In the light of day how similar they looked to Bucky struck him. He’d never seen the pups in daylight before. Maybe the drugs made him sentimental, but seeing them here in actual, natural light warmed him up from way down deep inside.

“Mr. Barnes,” greeted the beta, “I’m Pepper Potts. I represent the Stark Omega Clinic. We were hoping you could tell us the names of your children. They don’t seem to know.”

Bucky smeared a hand over his face and hoarsely answered, “Yeah. Alpha didn’t want them to have names, wouldn’t let me call them their names. But they have them. I named them,” he pointed to the oldest, “George,” and the middle, “Rebecca,” and the youngest, with her eyes that were too big for her tiny face, “Winifred.”

“Do you know how old they are?” Pepper asked.

“Uh,” Bucky said. His brain moved like molasses, thoughts coming too slow and slippery to grasp onto. He said, “George is…like nine months after September 2005. So I guess he’s ten? Probably? It’s hazy. I stopped counting days. I’m not real sure about the girls.”

Pepper and Dr. Banner exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Thank you, Mr. Barnes,” Pepper said, “You’ll be seeing a lot of me in the next few days here. C’mon, guys. Let’s get you back to your room.”

“No,” George said, “I’m staying with Daddy.”

“I don’t wanna go,” said Becky.

Win just clutched at the fabric of Bucky’s hospital gown like he might float away if she let go.

In the end, they moved the kids into the same room as Bucky. They told him that the pups weren’t as dehydrated and malnourished as he was, and Bucky replied that that was probably because he made sure that they ate and drank before he did, unless he thought he might die. He was no use to his pups dead.

Lots of people came and went from the room, monitoring Bucky, monitoring the pups, bringing bland foods that they could keep down without it coming right back up again, putting more shit in Bucky’s IV – Bucky had no fucking idea what was going on. He didn’t know where he was other than that it was obviously a hospital, and he didn’t know what the fuck he was supposed to be doing.

But he did know one thing, and that was that his pups were safe. For the first time in ten years, Bucky’s pups were safe.

That was what mattered.

**

Steve wiped the sweat from his head with a kitchen towel and reached for the juice in his fridge when his phone vibrated against his granite countertop. He didn’t recognize the number, but plucked it up anyway and held it against his ear with a, “Hello?” as he took a glass down from the cupboards and filled it with OJ.

“Am I speaking to Steve Rogers?” a deep voice rumbled on the other end.

“Yes, sir,” Steve answered. He nursed the orange juice, chest still heaving from the exertion of his morning run.

“My name is Nick Fury. We met once – at a Stark fundraiser event.”

A vague memory of an imposing guy decked out in black surfaced, and Steve replied, “Yeah, I remember. How can I help you?”

“As you know, you registered several years ago as a potential support alpha for outpatient needs at the Stark Omega Clinic. I’m calling today because a recent case chose your scent sample as compatible, and if you’re open to it, we’d like to arrange a meeting at the clinic as soon as possible,” Nick said.

Steve wet his lips, at a loss.

“Rogers?” Nick said, when Steve’s silence extended too long.

“I’m here,” Steve said, “Just surprised. What do I need to know?”

“I can only give you the basics for now,” said Nick, “and if you and the omega decide to move forward and take you on as his support, then I can give you his file.”

“Then give me the basics,” Steve said.

“Male omega, twenty five. Has three pups, all of which are a result of rape,” Nick said, “So you would be supporting not only an omega, but his family, as well.”

“Jesus,” Steve murmured, “When do you need me at the clinic?”

“As soon as you can make it,” Nick said, a degree of relief in his voice – did he think that Steve would shoot down this case? Nick added, “We need to move this process along as quickly as humanly possible.”

Steve considered his schedule and answered, “Is today okay? I need a shower and some coffee, but I can be down in a couple of hours.”

“Perfect. I’ll let the clinic know to expect you,” Nick said, “and Rogers…thank you.”

“Of course,” Steve said, but Fury had already hung up.

In a daze, Steve finished his juice and peeled off his exercise clothes. He climbed into his shower. As the water beat down on his back and he soaped himself up, he wondered what kind of omega had found him scent compatible.

Traumatized omegas filtered through Stark Omega Clinic for healthcare, the most severe cases of which often required a support alpha to help reintegrate the omega into the world in a safe space. When Steve’s patented animation technique took off and his bank account filled, he registered as a support alpha candidate, provided a scent sample, and took the required courses. He had the means to help somebody if they needed.

And help he would, provided that the omega and his pups wanted to move forward after they met Steve. He didn’t intend to go back on his word.

Too hopped up on anticipation, Steve forewent coffee and climbed straight into his old VW Beetle to head to the clinic. He dressed to impress in neat slacks and a plaid button-down, throwing on his leather jacket over it to stave off the bite in the spring air. Forty-five minutes later, Steve pulled into the parking lot of the Stark Omega Clinic. He pried his hands off of the steering wheel and wiped his sweating palms on his slacks.

The building that housed the clinic was older, a relic out of Colorado’s gold mining days. Worn brick and a sloped roof faced the incongruently modern parking lot. The building began as a hospital, changed hands and became several iterations of a bed and breakfast, and eventually landed in the lap of the late Maria Stark, who decided to wield her family’s wealth for the greater good and refurbish the place for omegas in need.

Tony took care of the clinic now. He lent it personality.

Apprehension swallowed Steve as he crossed the parking lot and headed toward the front doors.

What if the omega didn’t like him?

What if the pups didn’t like him?

He must have smelled like the mess that he felt like, because Natasha – the self-defense instructor and Steve’s friend since they kept meeting at Tony’s parties – intercepted him in the lobby of the clinic and said, “You need to pull it together, Steve. This is the hardest case I’ve seen in my life and if you smell anxious you’re gonna be useless.”

Steve ran his fingers back through his hair and exhaled. He said, “You’re right. Sorry. I just – this is unexpected?” Out of hundreds of scent samples, this omega chose him. The likelihood that Steve would ever take on the role of support had been low and grew ever-lower as more and more alphas registered as candidates for the cause.

“I know,” Natasha said, resting a hand on Steve’s arm, “but you can do this. There’s Pepper – she’ll take you out back. They’re in the courtyard.”

“Good morning,” Pepper greeted. Briskly, she went on to say, “Just so you know, if the pups don’t like you, then this won’t be happening, so make sure that you treat them with respect as well as Mr. Barnes.”

“Of course,” Steve replied, “Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.”

That teased a fond half-smile out of Pepper. She paused at the tinted glass doors that opened to the inner grounds of the clinic and stopped Steve with a hand to his chest. She said, “Obviously I can’t give you the details yet, but this is hands down the most serious case that we have ever had come through the clinic. You are going to be taking on something huge, so if you can’t do that, I need you to turn back now.”

Steve lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. He said, “Ma’am – Pepper. I’m willing to do whatever I can to help.”

Pepper nodded. She said, “I knew you would say that. Here we go. Look alive.” She pushed open the doors.

The sun filtered down through the trees, dappling newly-planted flowerbeds that ringed around a mostly-green lawn. Several omegas sat outside in white clinic garb, two playing a game of checkers, one reading at a bench in the corner of the courtyard, another curled up in the grass. The pups were what captured Steve’s attention – three of them in clinic white, chasing each other in the grass. Behind them, a long-haired omega looked on with a tender expression on his face.

He looked like he’d been through hell. He was so skinny that Steve’s stomach hurt to look at him, and his cheekbones jutted out against the pale skin of his face. He held his body as though waiting for a blow, even here at the clinic, a safe haven.

Every head turned when Steve trod into the courtyard – not many alphas were allowed in this sanctuary beyond the alphas on staff, and there was no mistaking Steve for anything but.

Pepper’s heels clicked against the stone path that ran through the courtyard as she guided Steve to the romping pups and the gaunt man Steve assumed was their omega father, and the omega that chose his scent sample. As soon as they approached, Pepper extended her arm out at Steve and said, “Everyone, this is Steve Rogers. He’s the alpha you picked out of the scent book.”

Steve stooped down and fell to his knees in the grass so he’d be closer to the pups’ level. He offered a smile and said, “Hi, guys. I’m Steve. What are your names?”

“I’m Win-i-fred,” said the littlest, stumbling over her own name.

“Pleased to meet you,” Steve said. He stuck out his hand to shake, but Winifred eyed it like it might sting her if she touched, and so Steve backed off, letting his hand fall to his side. He blinked back at the other two pups and said, “And what about you guys?”

Neither spoke, so the omega intervened. He placed a protective palm on each of the children and said, “This is George, and this is Becky. We’re not so good at our names yet,” he sighed, “I’m Bucky.”

“Good to meet you,” Steve said.

And it was – God, it was. He knew that if his scent was compatible to an omega that the omega’s scent would intoxicate him right back, but he wasn’t prepared for the perfect smell that surrounded Bucky. Even beneath the musty aroma of sickness and fear, Bucky smelled like salvation. He smelled like soil on a rainy day, like a cup of coffee in the cold. Steve almost bit through his lip in an effort not to scent the air.

“You can ask Steve any questions that you’d like,” Pepper piped up from behind Steve.

Steve made himself as nonthreatening as possible, tilting his neck back to bare it and dropping his shoulders to make himself smaller. Bucky raised his eyebrows, but the pups didn’t react one way or another.

“Do you got a job?” Becky finally said.

“I do have a job,” Steve said, “but it’s a job I do from my house. I’m an artist.”

“Do you have a garden?” asked Winifred. She dared to step closer to Steve than the rest of her family.

“I do have a garden,” Steve answered, “and you can plant anything you want in it.”

“Flowers?” Winifred asked.

“Yup. Any flowers you can think of,” Steve told her.

“Yellow flowers?” she went on.

Steve smiled, “Definitely. I love yellow flowers.”

“Are you gonna hurt my dad?”

Everyone’s attention whipped to George, who wore a thunderous, protective expression on his face. Steve hadn’t even noticed that George placed his small, underfed body between Steve and Bucky until now, like he intended to use himself as a shield if Steve tried anything funny. He was a tiny warrior without armor, facing down an enemy far more powerful than he. Steve shook his head and said, “I would never, ever hurt your dad.”

“If you hurt my dad, I’ll hurt you,” George said.

Bucky reached out, looking panicked, and pulled his son back. He said, “Okay, that’s enough. We decided we liked Steve, remember? Remember, you said that you liked his scent?”

“It’s okay,” Steve said, “George, I don’t ever want to hurt anybody on purpose. But if I did hurt somebody by accident, we would make sure that you all got someplace safe.”

Bucky let out a breath that he’d been holding. He addressed Pepper and said, “Can you guys give us a second? I wanna talk with my pups.”

“Of course,” Pepper said, “Steve?”

Pepper led him across the courtyard a safe distance away, where Steve watched Bucky settle in the grass and speak to his children. He should have been unnerved by the blatant judgment of his character, but Steve found in the face of knowing how much this family had suffered, his own discomfort felt trivial at best. Several long minutes later, Bucky waved them back over.

“We decided that we want you to be our support,” Bucky said to Steve. He didn’t quite meet Steve’s eye and instead looked just to the left of it. Steve furrowed his brow and wondered if this was something that he was going to have to work on with Bucky.

“Great,” Pepper said, clapping her hands together, “I’ll start getting the paperwork together. Steve will have forty eight hours to make sure that his home is up to support alpha standards, and as soon as it’s ready, we will escort you to his house and ensure that you and the children are settled comfortably.”

Bucky nodded, a faraway look in his eye, and murmured, “Okay.”

Pepper poked Steve in the side and called, “Steve?”

“Yeah, sounds great,” Steve said. Great. Like Steve was planning a barbecue instead of the lives of four scared human beings.

This was happening.

Steve was about to be the lifeline of an omega trying to fit back into a world that treated him, for lack of a better word, like shit. Not just that omega – but his pups, too. The responsibility bore down on him like sandbags stacked on his shoulders, but Steve found as he blinked at Bucky and his pups that he had never been more determined to do right by somebody in his entire life.