It’s going to be one hell of a storm. Bucky knows it because all the shelters in this part of town are full, and on a warm summer’s night that only happens when the homeless folks get worried. Considering the locale, worried takes a lot.
Bucky isn’t really homeless. He has a room in a halfway house for disabled vets. He eats there most days, and reads his mail, and showers, but when it comes to sleeping he’d rather be on a park bench or an anonymous cot than anywhere near his new ‘home’.
The halfway house is loud and the walls are paper thin and that grates on his nerves. On the few nights when he does sleep there, he’s never sure what’s worse: his own nightmares or the nightmares of everyone around him.
Maybe he’s ungrateful, but what exactly does he have to be grateful for?
He’s got no friends anymore except Steve and there’s no way he’s gonna burden Stevie with more of his dysfunction. Steve does enough already. Tries at least once a month to get Bucky to move in with him. Takes him to the movies to cheer him up when Bucky fucks up another job interview. Talks to Bucky’s caseworker more often than Bucky does, to make sure he keeps his place in line for the prosthetic arm insurance has been dicking around on.
Bucky’s tried to push Steve away more times than he can count but Steve Rogers is an immoveable pain in the ass when he wants to be so mostly Bucky’s given up on that front.
The food line shifts forward.
Bucky shivers against the wind and watches as a sudden gust lifts dust and litter and leaves into miniature tornadoes. A woman with children steps up behind him and Bucky motions her ahead. An old, wrinkled man shuffles up next. Bucky steps aside to let him go as well, and when the man sees Bucky’s pinned-up jacket he smiles a mostly toothless grin and holds up a hand that’s missing the middle three fingers.
“Normandy,” the man says, his eyes crinkling a little around the edges as he smiles.
“Afghanistan,” Bucky says after a pause.
He hates this. Not the man. The man is fine. The man means no harm. The man had left some fingers on a beach and Bucky had left his arm in the desert, and now here they are waiting for a handout from a church that serves a God who had abandoned them. Bucky can’t stand it.
“Sorry, man. Gotta go,” Bucky mumbles, turning to walk away and hoping the old-timer doesn’t blame himself for Bucky’s abrupt departure. He just can’t do this today. No one’s fault but his own.
“Hey!” a young woman’s voice calls after him. “Hey, sir? Wait!”
Bucky stops and turns, confused and not too happy about it. “I wasn’t bothering anyone.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you were,” the young woman says. She tucks a long strand of her dark hair behind her ear, though it does little good as the wind blows it right back out, smacking around in every direction. “You left the line.”
“That against the law or something?”
“I’m probably the last person you should ask about what’s legal,” she says. “I’m kind of working here for court-mandated community service. I tazed some grabby asshole and now I’m serving soup three nights a week. Go figure. I’m Darcy by the way.”
“Something I can do for you, Darcy?” Bucky asks. “I’m not looking to be anyone’s charity case.”
“Just-- I wanted to give you this,” Darcy says, digging a crisp red business card out of her jacket pocket. “There’s a bar down the street, and if the soup kitchen ever runs out of food or if people show up early or late, we give them these cards and they can get a meal there.”
Bucky takes the card and glances it over.
Riley’s it says in thick script at the top. There’s an address, phone number and website underneath it, and a small rainbow flag at the bottom of each corner. It looks legit.
There’s no such thing as a free meal. Bucky knows this all too well. Someone hands you free food and then best case scenario is they take your picture and use you in their latest fundraising newsletter as a charity case, or worst case scenario-- they’re looking for a drug mule or a handjob in the alley.
Bucky’s heard it all from his time in various shelters and he doesn’t want any part of it.
“I saw you let those people go ahead of you,” Darcy says, interrupting his thoughts. “You deserve some good karma, is all. Plus, the food at Riley’s is way better than what you’re gonna get from the church. And the owner’s a cool guy. Everybody likes Sam.”
Once upon a time maybe, he’d have believed he had good karma coming to him. Back when he was in college and studying to be an accountant. Before Steve had enlisted. Before Bucky decided to follow him. When he’d bothered to shave, and his hair was shorter, and he had two arms. But not now. He tries to hand her back the card and she takes a step backward.
“If this is some kind of prank--” Bucky says.
“It’s not,” Darcy insists. She shoves her hands in her pockets so the card’s got nowhere to go. “Sometimes people are nice. Deal with it.”
Thunder rumbles in the distance and there’s a hint of rain in the air. The storm isn’t far off, and if he goes to the stupid restaurant and eats slow he might avoid the worst of the weather. Cold, wet socks are the worst.
“Fine,” he grumbles, since the girl is still watching him intently. “You’ve done your community service. I’ll go.”
“Good! You won’t regret it,” Darcy says, ducking to the side as another gust of wind sends a scattering of papers their way. “Oh, and have a good night, sir. Sorry you’re homeless!”
She jogs off back to her ‘volunteer’ work and Bucky heads down the street toward Riley’s. He doesn’t really know what to make of his interaction with Darcy, but at least it’s over. There are whole days that go by where he doesn’t need to say more than a dozen words, and that’s for the better. What would he even say anymore if people talked to him on a regular basis?
The restaurant isn’t hard to find. It’s on the first level of a three-story brick building, and there’s a brightly painted sign that says Riley’s above the door. Large rainbow flags hang on either side of the entrance, an echo of the business card. The menu posted on the big picture window only lists a few options, but they look appetizing enough that Bucky wishes he had the money to order whatever he wants and not just whatever this place decides to give him.
He steps inside and bells jingle above his head. The bartender smiles at him brightly from behind the long, wooden counter. The man is about his age, with brown skin and the kind of body that speaks of long morning jogs and a whole lot of pull ups. Bucky shifts his eyes away to take in the rest of the bar before he’s called out for staring.
There are drink glasses and liquor bottles lining the wall behind the man, and beer taps below. There’s also a bright, neon sign that says Stark Industries that looks more than a little out of place. The bar is all done up in brick and dark wood, and despite the dark color of the walls there’s still an airy feel about the space. A small stage sits off to the right. There’s a jukebox, too, over in the other corner, and it’s casting a rainbow of lights on the floor and wall surrounding it.
There are two sets of men eating together, and a group of women playing darts next to a sign for a unisex bathroom. An older couple is eating at a table near the stage, chatting with a man at the next table over as he finishes his drink.
“Come on in,” the guy behind the bar calls. “If that wind picks up any more, the door’s gonna fly off the hinges.”
Bucky walks inside, pulls the door shut behind him and feels embarrassed by the card he’d been given. This place is way too nice for the likes of him and for the first time in awhile, that’s upsetting. He calculates how much change he has in his pockets, and wonders if he can buy a glass of tea and then leave with his dignity intact, but it’s too late. The counter guy spots the card in his hand.
“I see you were down the street. Have a seat wherever, I’ll be right with you.”
Bucky hesitates, then sits down at a table for two by the window. Out of habit he takes the seat that puts the missing arm out of view. If he stays away from the other patrons, he might avoid the inevitable looks of pity he hates so damn much. He relaxes a little when the bar man approaches with a menu and a glass of water, so to anyone looking he’ll appear to be a customer just like everyone else.
“Pick anything you like,” the man says. “The whole menu, plus water, tea, and soda are on the house.”
Bucky gets the implication there. They aren’t giving out free booze. He doesn’t care. He’s mostly just surprised he isn’t being handed a peanut butter sandwich and sent on his way.
“I’m Sam,” the man adds, as he puts the water down on the table and holds out his hand to shake Bucky’s. “When you’re ready to order, just holler or wave or make some awkward eye contact or something.”
Sam smiles at him in a way that’s genuine and makes Bucky feel oddly at ease, and Bucky puts together what Darcy said. The owner’s a cool guy. Everybody likes Sam. Now Bucky can see why.
“Thanks, I will,” Bucky says.
He takes his time with the menu as he watches the rain begin to fall. He’s not going to be a jerk and stretch this out until they close, but he isn’t going to rush things either. It’s been a long time since he’s had the chance to eat a real, sit-down meal. He wants to enjoy it.
Sam comes back over to refill his water glass a few minutes later and Bucky holds out the menu.
“Is this a hint I should hurry?” Bucky asks, not meaning it to sound quite as grumpy as it does.
“Take your time, man,” Sam says while collecting the menu. “We’re open until midnight on weeknights and I’m slow about locking up.”
Bucky feels a little bad about being rude, he’s just not sure how this is supposed to work. Well-dressed people on the street don’t usually look at him, and they definitely don’t talk to him. Now two strangers have been decent to him on the same night. This goes well past drug-muling and into organ-stealing territory.
“I’ll have the bacon cheeseburger with fries,” Bucky says. “And a tea.”
“Sweet or regular?” Sam says.
“Sweet,” Bucky says, not needing even a second to think about it.
“Good choice,” Sam says. “I’ll have it out as soon as it’s up. Try to save some room for dessert, too. Nick makes the best apple dumplings in DC.”
Bucky nods in agreement and then turns his head to look out the window before Sam tries to draw him into more conversation. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the kindness. He just knows it’s stupid to get used to this. He’ll save room, though, like Sam suggested. Bucky hasn’t had an apple dumpling in 20-some years, but he’s sure he’ll still like them.
The meal turns out to be the best thing that’s happened to Bucky in a year. Not that it’s been a great year, but still. It’s a rarity to feel full and sated, and the next time he has five dollars he might say to hell with making it stretch and buy himself another one of these amazing apple dumplings. That’s how good they are.
It’s nearing 9, and Bucky is still scraping his fork across the bottom of the bowl, hoping to catch the last hints of cinnamon there.
“Told you they were the best in DC,” Sam says. “Mind if I sit?”
The bar had emptied out during a lull in the storm and Bucky is now the only customer.
“It’s your bar,” Bucky says. Sam doesn’t sit, and Bucky feels another pang of guilt. “Go ahead. Sit. This was all very good. Thank you.”
He means it. And he means it about more than just the food. It’s nice to feel normal for once. Nice not to worry he’s going to be run out of the restaurant for looking out of place. Good that Sam didn’t rearrange the silverware for him all to one side like he’s some kind of cripple incapable of reaching over a plate.
“I should be going,” Bucky adds as an afterthought.
“If you want,” Sam says. “But the worst of the storm hasn’t hit yet, so if you want to hang out, feel free. We’ll probably get a few more stragglers before close but it ain’t gonna be busy.”
Bucky considers it. The rain is falling in sheets against the windows and if that’s not the worst of it, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to be outside when the worst comes. But it’s hard not to be suspicious of this level of kindness. Good shit never comes for free.
“I’m not gonna have to blow you for all this, am I?” Bucky asks, because he figures he might as well toss that out there and get it out of the way. “Or run some package for you to across town?”
“No,” Sam says. “Absolutely not. This meal has no strings attached. None.”
Sam says it with such conviction it’s impossible not to believe him.
They chat for a few minutes more. Sam never asks Bucky about his arm or his situation or his housing status. It’s a nice change, since for the most part, the people who do speak to Bucky (doctors, social workers, police officers) reduce him to those three topics alone.
It’s while they’re talking that someone new walks into the bar through the kitchen door and the guy’s balancing two plates of food, silverware, a laptop, a phone and a steaming cup of coffee.
“You talking to yourself again, Sam?”
Bucky glances at the exit because he’s pretty sure the safest thing to do at this point would be to go running out into the rain. The new guy’s arms define the idea of gym bro. Gym bros do not take kindly to the actively homeless. Ever. Even bros that hang out in gay bars.
“Still one customer left,” Sam says. For his part he doesn’t seem concerned for Bucky’s safety, though he does do something kind of odd. He shifts his chair very deliberately around so he can see them both at once. “This is Clint. He lives in one of the rooms upstairs, and helps out every now and then when he's not busy with his day job. Total walking disaster...”
“Hey, am not!” Clint complains, then as if on cue, the fork he’s got balancing on his plate teeters off the edge and goes clanging to the floor despite Clint’s best efforts to recover it in mid-air.
Sam makes a gesture like ‘told you.’
“I was just going,” Bucky says.
“Wait! Don’t leave on my account,” Clint says urgently, as he leans down to pick up his fork while keeping every other item in his hands perfectly still. His movements are so careful and precise it’s like watching a contortionist. “Really, please don’t go. Nick won’t mind if I eat in the kitchen.”
Clint is looking at Bucky in a hopeful sort of way that makes Bucky feel all kinds of awkward. There’s no judgement that he can sense. No disgust. Just... maybe a quiet desperation not to be the guy who ran off the one-armed homeless dude.
Which is better than being an asshole bro, at least.
“I’m not homeless,” Bucky interjects, about a minute too late, considering Sam had brought it up before Clint had appeared. “If that’s what you think. I have a home. A halfway house. I hate it there, but it’s a roof and a bed.”
“If you hate it there, it might not be home,” Sam points out.
“I wasn’t trying to scam you out of a meal,” Bucky says, like they’re having two entirely different conversations. He’s feeling guilty, now. Knowing how it must look. He’s got a place to sleep and a place to eat and he’s lining up for a soup kitchen instead.
“You came in with the card,” Sam says simply. “If ex-President Obama walked in here with that card, he’d get a meal on the house. It isn’t about the money.”
The door to the kitchen swings open wide right then, hitting the wall with a crack, as a tall black man with an eyepatch and an apron steps out. “If that no good, cheating son of a bitch shows his face in here, he’s getting tossed out on his ass,” the man says, matter-of-factly. “Username Chicago2DC my left eye. It’s Obama.”
“Nick’s got a Fantasy Baseball nemesis,” Sam explains. “He’s convinced it’s Obama. I don’t even try to reason with him anymore.”
“It’s Obama,” Nick insists. “You think just because he lived in the White House for eight years he didn’t have access to Yahoo sports? He’s got insider information. He’s cheating.”
“This conversation is as bananas now as it was the last time we had it,” Sam says, rolling his eyes dramatically. “Did you need something?”
“Yes. I need you or Clint to stare at a light bulb while I go flip some switches on the circuit breaker.”
“Clint’s eating,” Clint protests. As if to prove his point, he shoves a fork (the floor fork) full of food into his mouth.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Sam says. “And hey-- I didn’t catch your name?”
Bucky considers lying but a name is a small price to pay for all this food.
“Bucky, it was a pleasure meeting you. Don’t feel like you need to rush off while I’m gone. Stay as long as you want.”
“It was good meeting you, too,” Bucky agrees. He’s surprised to realize how much he means it.
Sam turns, and Bucky tries not to be too obvious as he gets a glimpse of the curve of Sam’s ass in his jeans as he exits through the kitchen door. He looks away quickly only to notice that Clint’s watching, too.
“If you like what you see, you better give him your number tonight,” Clint says. “With an ass like that he’s never single for long.”
Bucky lets Clint’s words hang in the air because he’s got no idea how to respond. Bucky’s social skills ran out hours ago.
“Sorry,” Clint adds quickly. “If-- that was super gay. And you’re not gay. And I made it awkward? It looked like you looked but you were probably just doing something straight like noticing his... shoes. Or his jeans. Straight people do tha--”
“I’m gay,” Bucky interrupts, to stop Clint’s rambling before Clint says something well and truly stupid. “And I’m not offended.”
It’s been a long time since Bucky’s said it out loud, because who the fuck cares about Bucky’s preferences at this point. Still, it was worth throwing it out there to see the look of relief in Clint’s eyes.
“I’m also not gonna give him my number,” Bucky says.
Partly because the only phone he’s got access to is in the common room at the halfway house and also because who is he kidding? Sam’s not gonna be interested. That’s not how reality works.
Thunder crashes outside, and Bucky startles. Clint doesn’t flinch.
“I don’t think the storm is gonna ease up for another couple of hours. If you want a ride back to your place, Nick’s got a car I can borrow once I finish my dinner,” Clint says.
“You give a lot of rides to strangers?” Bucky asks, giving Clint a look of disapproval he can’t hide. “You should maybe watch the news, or something. You and Sam.”
Clint shrugs and laughs good-naturedly. “We get by.”
“I should rob you just to prove a point,” Bucky frowns.
Clint considers it. “If you need money that bad, I just might let you.”
Bucky is not impressed. “Look, I should go. It’s weird sitting around watchin’ you eat.”
“Then don’t watch,” Clint says. “You want another apple dumpling?”
Bucky almost says no. Intends to say no. Has every intention of saying no.
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
Clint is on his feet before Bucky can headdesk at his own sudden and irritating desire for company. Or maybe it’s just the apple dumplings are that good. Bucky doesn’t even know.
Clint returns in under a minute with a tray that’s carrying an apple dumpling, a side of ice cream, a glass of milk, a fork and a napkin. He’s also wearing bright purple hearing aids in both ears. Which makes a lot of the odd things from the evening make sense. Why Sam had turned so Clint could see his face. Why the thunder hadn’t made Clint jump. The intent way Clint kept staring at his mouth.
Bucky doesn’t avert his eyes away from the hearing aids because god knows he hates when people refuse to look at his lack of arm. Clint notices Bucky’s stare and smiles.
“Lost partial hearing in Iraq. I can hear some without the aids but it's easier when I can watch your lips move. That’s not gonna work as well when you’re chowing down on dessert.”
Bucky nods. “I like the purple.”
“Tell Sam that,” Clint says. “He called them gaudy.”
Clint sits the tray of food down in front of Bucky, and Bucky stares.
“I’m not exactly an accountant or anything,” Bucky says, “but it seems like Sam probably shouldn’t empty out the fridge for every bum off the street if he wants to stay in business.”
“Sam’s not gonna let people go hungry,” Clint says. “And the food is all paid for by that sign up there above the bar. Stark Industries rents the wall space, Sam uses the rent money to cover any meals he gives out, and he donates the rest to the shelter down the street at the end of every month.”
“And Tony Stark just does that out of the goodness of his heart?” Bucky asks, shaking his head in doubt.
“His best friend has a room upstairs,” Clint explains. “A guy named Rhodey. He was in the Air Force with Sam, and he’s only in town two or three times a month so he keeps a crash pad here. Stark comes down from New York whenever Rhodey’s in town. Sometimes even when he isn't.”
“What’s that have to do with the neon sign?”
“Sam doesn’t talk about it. I figure it doesn’t really matter since it means people get food on the house and Sam can stay in business,” Clint says.
“I’ve walked into the Twilight Zone,” Bucky says.
“Stark’s not a bad guy once you get past the song and dance,” Clint insists.
“If he was singing and dancing, I’m sure we’d get on fine,” Bucky counters as the kitchen door swings open. “It’s the making weapons, then acting surprised when they end up pointed back at American troops that I’ve got a problem with.”
“Tony’s got a problem with that, too,” Sam says, as he enters. “He’s doing what he can to make things right.”
Clint looks thoughtful. “I’m usually the last one to defend Stark and he’s got plenty of solid flaws-- but not caring about what happens with those weapons is not one of them.”
All three men turn to stare at the Stark Industries sign.
“This isn’t about my arm,” Bucky says. He can’t help but assume that’s how it must sound.
“I didn’t say it was,” Clint says.
“That’s not how I lost it,” Bucky continues. “It was an accident-- not some Stark missile.”
“You don’t owe us an explanation,” Sam says.
“And you can feel free to ignore me,” Clint adds. “Ask Sam-- I’m a huge pain.”
“He is,” Sam agrees. “Though I’m mostly stuck on the part where you’re defending Tony now, Barton. He’s going to love that.”
Clint wads up a napkin and tosses it at Sam’s face. It hits him square between the eyes.
“Don’t tell him,” Clint groans. “I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I keep telling you he’s got a video camera rigged up in that sign,” Sam teases. “Tony sits at home, all alone, watchin’ our sorry asses wipe down tables every night. He’s lonely. He’d probably take you on a date if you asked real nice.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Clint laughs, while flipping Sam the bird.
“What about you, Bucky?” Sam says. “Want me to set you up with a lonely billionaire?”
Coming from anyone else that would sound like straight-up mocking, but Sam sounds sincere as hell.
“Yeah, I’m sure he’s into one-armed hobos. I read that in last month’s Forbes, I think,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes.
“I like you,” Sam says. “You call it like you see it. You need to come by more often.”
“I’m pretty sure your free meals aren’t meant to be a regular thing,” Bucky points out. “At least not if you want to stay in business.”
“Let me worry about my finances,” Sam says. “You worry about getting back here next Thursday night. We’re having a pre-Pride party. We’ll shut the place down early, Nick’ll set up the whole bar full of food, and you can meet everyone.”
“I wouldn’t fit in,” Bucky says, shaking his head. “And it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs when someone gets drunk and starts asking about my arm.”
“No pressure,” Sam says, holding his hands up in surrender. “But don’t let not fitting in be the reason you won’t show. Me, Nick, Rhodey and Clint are all vets. Me, Nick, Clint and a couple others have spent time in shelters. Outside of a halfway house for veterans you aren’t gonna find people with more shared life experience, and you’ve already said you aren’t overly fond of that scene. Try ours.”
“Plus, if anyone says anything rude about your arm, I’ll throw them out on their ass,” Clint says matter-of-factly. “Though I don’t think anybody will. They don’t say shit about my hear aids.”
“There’s no point in arguing,” Sam says. “You ate the apple dumplings; you’re gonna be back.”
“The secret ingredient is...” Clint looks around and drops his voice low, "crack.”
He says it with such a serious face that for a second Bucky stares at him in confusion, and then Clint and Sam both start cracking up. It even draws a grudging smile from Bucky.
“Fine. I’ll come to your party, but I’m bringing a friend. And it’s on you if I make it all awkward and shit.”
“You won’t,” Sam insists. “Next Thursday. Eight pm. Come ready to eat.”
Bucky looks doubtful as he nods, then drags his spoon through the last remnants of his second dessert. “There better be apple dumplings.”
“A whole pan, just for you.”