You had tucked your daughter Gracie into bed less than an hour ago, and she was already calling for you, crying, heaving sobs that left her hiccuping. Again. It was the fourth time that night and, if you were being honest with yourself, you were on the verge of tears. According to your phone it was two in the morning. You had to get up for work in four hours. You were going to need lots and lots of coffee to make it through the day.
Gracie was an imaginative, rambunctious, curious, adventurous, smart, carefree, trusting, and loving five year old. Having a wild and vivid imagination wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, until it bled into her dreams, twisting them into something dark and scary.
Three months ago, the first night in the new apartment, Gracie had a nightmare. You told your daughter that she could sleep with you for one night, and one night only. One night led to a week, which turned into a month. Last week, you put your foot down and told her that under no circumstances would she be allowed in your bed again. Sounded mean, yeah, but come on. You were a single mother that worked forty hours a week. The one place that was yours was your bed.
Pushing open the door and seeing the state your daughter was in, your irritation washed away. “Baby, it’s okay,” you cooed as you approached.
Gracie was sitting there, clutching the ever-present bear around its neck, sobbing, fat tears streaming down her reddened cheeks. Her skin was sweaty, golden curls sticking to her forehead, nape of her neck, and cheeks. The girl was so, so tired.
Hiccuping, your daughter latched onto you. “Mama, can I,” hiccup , “can I slee-” hiccup , “wif you?”
You stroked her braided hair and sighed. “Baby girl, we talked about this.”
“Mama,” Gracie rasped. “I’m scared.”
“What is it this time?” you asked, calm and gentle, hands rubbing against her sweaty back.
“Dra- dragons,” she stammered, clutching you tighter.
You sighed heavily. Apparently, she hadn’t been ready to watch How to Train Your Dragon like she proclaimed she was. While you wanted to nip this sharing your bed thing in the bud, you desperately needed to sleep. As did your daughter. May had mentioned Gracie’s short-temperedness to you the other day.
So, sleeping in your bed it was.
“Okay, baby. Just for tonight.” You secured Gracie to your chest and snagged her favorite blanket as you stood. It was a lie, the both of you knew it.
“Fanks, mama,” she murmured sleepily.
You carried her into your room, set her gently on the bed, and draped her blanket over her. She snuggled into the pillow and yawned, eyes squeezed shut, mouth stretched wide, muscles in her neck taut, teddy bear pressed against her forehead.
After circling the bed, you climbed in and tugged the blankets up. You stroked her hair and kissed her crown, humming when she scooted closer.
The last three years had been an absolute nightmare. Your husband, Trenton, left you for another woman, a woman who you called your best friend, and before anyone asks, no, you hadn’t seen the signs. You believed him when he said he was working late, when there was a case that they were ‘this close’ to cracking. You believed him when he said he loved you, that you and Gracie were the only thing that mattered. You believed him when he said there was nothing going on between him and Lucy, that she was planning a surprise for you.
You believed him and he broke your heart.
Gracie was the only good thing in your life. After the divorce, which stretched out for over a year, you were granted sole custody of your daughter, and since child support was less than ideal, you’d had to step outside of your comfort zone of being a stay at home mom and find a job. While being a waitress in a small diner wasn’t your dream job, in today’s job market, you considered yourself lucky. Even luckier since the diner was pretty much always busy. You hardly had time to register how badly you ached, until you got home. But it was moments such as this, curled around your daughter, listening to her deep breathing, her small hand flexing on your arm, that made it all worth it.
Bucky was drenched in sweat and couldn’t breathe, no matter how hard he tried.
Steve was kneeling next to him, hands on his chest, pushing, pushing, pushing . “Come on, man,” he shouted. He had a raw, feral, freaked the fuck out look in his eyes, darkening them. “Come on!”
Bucky was numb all over. His head was buzzing, ears ringing, vision blurred and skipping like a badly out of focus movie. It was over a hundred degrees outside, he was wearing eighty pounds of tactical gear, but it felt like he had just been dipped into an ice bath.
“You ain’t leavin’ me, Buck,” Steve ground out.
Push, push, push , breathe.
His lungs expanded once, twice, then the chest compressions started again. It should have hurt, the cracking of his ribs as Steve pushed. Again and again and again . Breathing into his lungs. More compressions. More breathing.
Why couldn’t he breathe? And God, why couldn’t he move?
Even through the haze of numbness, someone was messing around with his shoulder. Poking, prodding, pressing deep into the joint. What was going on?
“How’s it look?” Steve demanded to know.
“It ain’t pretty,” was the gravelly response.
“Fuck,” Steve snarled. “Where’s the goddamn chopper?”
“Five minutes out.”
Bucky sat up with a sharp gasp that got caught in his throat. He coughed and gagged, bitter bile rising, burning his chest. He staggered out of the bed and into the bathroom, dropped to his knees and hung his head over the toilet retching until there was nothing left for his body to purge. He fell back, landing on his ass, his head hitting the wall, and wiped a hand over his sweat-slicked face.
Soldat, his therapy dog, came running in, bottle of water in his mouth, and sat next to his owner.
“Eliberare,” Bucky commanded, his voice raspy, thready.
The pitbull released the water into his owner’s hand and gave a soft whine as he lowered himself to the floor.
“Sunt bine,” Bucky lied after draining the bottle. “I’m fine.”
Soldat’s tail swiped against the floor and peered up at Bucky. Who the hell was he kidding? He wasn’t fine. Not even close. But he was alive. He should be happy about that, right? He could have lost more than his left arm in the war.
“Sus,” Bucky muttered.
Soldat stood and turned, offering his back to Bucky to use for leverage. With a long and heavy groan, Bucky braced himself on Soldat’s back and pushed himself off the floor.
“Băiat bun,” he praised the pitbull, patting his head.
Bucky turned on the faucet and splashed his face with cold water, shuddering as it splashed onto his scarred shoulder. He looked at himself in the mirror, hating what he saw. Scars covered his skin, giant, red, and puffy. They covered what was left of his shoulder, and stretched out on his left pec like tendrils, the long fingers of Death’s grip that he miraculously slipped out of.
People called him strong, said that he was an inspiration, that he was a goddamn hero. They only said that because they hadn’t seen him spiral into depression. They hadn’t seen him lash out at the ones he loved the most, his brothers, his friends, his family. They hadn’t seen him count out the painkillers to see if there were enough to get the job done. They hadn’t seen him refuse to go through therapy, to work with the prototype prosthesis that had been gifted to him. They hadn’t seen him . They saw a wounded veteran and they pitied him. There was a difference.
Bucky brushed his teeth before taking a shower, washing away the sweat, wishing he could wash away the memories just as easily. He dried off, attached the sleek black prosthetic, got dressed, and ventured into the kitchen, Soldat trotting by his side. It may have been four in the morning, but Bucky needed coffee, and bacon.
You shoved your feet into the extremely plain yet comfortable white sneakers. “Come on, Gracie. We’re running late!”
Gracie came twirling out of her room wearing an orange t-rex shirt, pink and purple tutu, green leggings, and blue rain boots. “I ready, mama,” she proclaimed, giggling.
“Baby, I put out clothes on your bed.” You hurriedly pulled her hair back and tucked the golden locks under the band.
“I wanted to look pretty.”
“You do look pretty, baby, but - ugh, forget it.” You shoved your cell into your purse and hooked it on your forearm. “We have to go.”
“What about Teddy?” Gracie whined, eyes going wide, bottom lip sticking out.
You shook your head. “May doesn’t want you losing it.”
“I won’t lose it,” she assured you, voice shaking, tears in her eyes.
You squeezed your eyes shut and pulled in a deep breath. “Not today,” had been the answer for the last month, and every morning, Gracie asked to bring the bear to your friend’s house.
“But mama,” she cried.
“We don’t have time for this, baby,” you ground out, irritated with yourself for being short-tempered with your daughter. You grabbed her hand and pulled her out the door, locking it behind you.
When you twisted the knob, Gracie ran off with an excited shriek of, “Puppy!”
You turned to see her launch herself around the neck of a brown and white pitbull, one that was wearing an orange vest that advertised its occupation; Service Dog .
“Gracie, no,” you called out, jogging after her.
“Mama, puppy!” She buried her face in its neck and giggled.
You grabbed her arm and pulled her away, apologizing to the dog’s owner. “I’m so sorry. She… she doesn’t know any better, and that’s my fault. I haven’t -”
“He’s pretty, mama,” Gracie praised, reaching out for the dog. “I wanna pet him.”
“Baby, no,” you chastised her, dropping down to her level. “This isn’t a normal dog.”
“He looks normal.”
You couldn’t help the rueful chuckle that escaped. “Well, he is normal, just not the kind of dog you can run up to. See here?” You pointed to his vest. “It says service dog, that means he’s working and can’t be distracted by little kids, okay?”
Gracie’s bottom lip started shaking. “I can’t touch him?”
“Not right now,” advised the dog’s owner.
You peered up at him and swallowed thickly. You’d never seen eyes so stormy, so damn blue as his. “I… I’m sorry, she didn’t -”
“It’s okay,” he assured you, a small smile on his lips.
You stood, groaning as the muscles in your calves protested. “I’m Y/N. I believe I live right across from you.”
“Bucky,” he supplied with a curt nod.
“I’m Gracie,” announced your daughter, hand held out.
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Bucky and his service dog waited for you and Gracie before they entered. Once they did, the pitbull sat down and kept his eyes straight ahead.
Gracie peered around your legs as you pushed the button for the first floor. “Is he mad, mama?” she asked, not very quietly.
The man next to you chuckled softly. “I ain’t mad,” he assured your daughter. “Just cranky.”
“Like my mama!”
You groaned and slapped a hand over your face. “I swear to… I’m sorry,” you said once again. “She’s just… too damn chipper and honest, and she really loves dogs.”
The doors slid open and once again, Bucky and his service dog waited until you and Gracie exited before following.
“Kids don’t have filters. Besides, who could resist this face?” Bucky let go of the black handle and scratched the pitbull behind the ears.
“He is a handsome boy,” you confirmed, resisting the urge to reach out and pet him.
Gracie tugged on your hand. “Mama. We go to May’s.”
“Shit,” you hissed. “I completely spaced. Yeah, we’re going. It was nice to finally meet you, neighbor.”
Bucky gave a small wave. “You, too. And Gracie?”
“His name is Soldat, and next time, you can pet him, okay?”
Before you could register what she was doing, Gracie lunged across the hall and wrapped her arms around Bucky’s legs. “Fanks!”
“Come on, Gracie,” you called out, hand open for her to grab. You gave Bucky an apologetic smile before hurrying out the door.