He’d chosen this. That was the only thought that kept him from slamming on the breaks of the wheelchair they’d forced him into and demanding they take him back to the god-forsaken hospital. Or — no, that wasn’t a line of thought he could entertain. His sisters didn’t deserve this bullshit.
There was a reason he’d refused all visitation, phone calls, and contact of any kind. He didn’t want them seeing him like this. A broken, hollowed-out wraith of the big brother they’d wept over as they said goodbye at the airport. He’d been fucking naive, but hadn’t most of them? The promise of a future, of a purpose, of serving . Yeah, he’d known there was a chance. The news talked about people dying over there every day, but you never thought it would be you. He’d felt too goddamn invincible.
The orderly accidentally knocked his chair against the door as they made their way past intake, and he bit back a hiss of pain. His left side was still a blanket of pins and needles, only broken up by arbitrary lances of agony or bursts of fire.
“ —-matic doors, but funding you know?” The distant apology (or at least he thought that’s what it was) came to him halfway through, nothing but a faintly garbled mumble in the beginning.
He hunkered down a little more in the chair, avoiding the eyes of a passerby that must be a resident, considering the braces. The hall went on forever, door after door, some open, wafting low-volume music, others closed with ‘do not disturb’ signs. It almost felt like a hotel if it wasn’t for the distant beeping of a heart monitor or the roving care nurses walking briskly on their rounds.
“Here we go, room 14, B hall.” He was wheeled through an open door, the scent of freshly laundered sheets and cleaning fluid assaulting his nose. It was deceptively innocuous. A normal bed with a standard wood headboard, a horizontal dresser with a television on top of it, a closet, bookshelf, and the bathroom door closed. The only thing tipping him off was the CPAP on his bedside table, the lowered bed rails, and his prosthetic set on top of his desk.
The sight of it made his stomach roll. The first time he was fitted with it had been agony, and he’d all but banned it from his body ever since, even for test runs. His burns were healing slower than his shoulder anyway.
“If you need anything, just press the button by the phone, someone will be around soon to get you settled in. You’ll like it here, tight-knit bunch.” The saccharine grin on the orderly’s face did nothing to lift his mood, and he gave a thin grunt as he wobbled to his feet. The fistful of pills he took daily always gave him head rushes getting up and down. The antibiotics were worse than the pain medications.
He sat on the edge of the bed, eyes trailing to the deflated outline of his left shoulder sleeve. A nurse at the hospital had knotted it up to keep the sleeve from dragging or catching, but it only served as a reminder.
Laughter burst out from down the hall, sneaking past his slightly-ajar door. Bucky scowled and stumbled to his feet to close the door, resolving himself to finding one of those signs to plaster on his door twenty-four seven. It would only be an illusion of privacy in a place like this. The caregivers made rounds morning, lunch, and at night, because this wasn’t a hotel, vacation, or anything he could fool himself with. This was a place for broken people to tuck themselves away while life went by as normal outside. A warped green army man thrust to the bottom of a toy box.
Easing himself back down, Bucky laid gingerly on the bed, content to stare up at the ceiling until someone inevitably came to disturb his silence.
”You can’t stay in your room for three days straight, James!”
Bucky sat in one of the most deserted ‘quiet areas’, which was nothing more than a spattering of armchairs and a loveseat by the window. There was a bookcase laden with beaten-up paperbacks, a table with magazines, but otherwise, this was apparently for the residents who just wanted to sit and stare outside until they met their quota for being ‘active and engaged’ of which he was neither.
The past days were limbo following the hellish hospital stay. His wounds would have healed ages ago had it not been for being shuffled around from one hand to the next. Iraq to Romania, Romania to England, and then England to New York. Somewhere between A to D, he’d contracted a nasty infection, and things went downhill from there.
He’d been so close to keeping his fucking arm.
A bluebird landed on a branch outside, fluttering and bobbing on its perch precariously.
Footsteps approached, and Bucky wheeled around fast enough to topple the bowl of untouched grapes from his lap. He wasn’t even sure who had come by and given them to him for his ‘midday snack’, as if he was some kind of toddler.
“Oops! Sorry, did I frighten you?” It was the caregiver he was getting used to seeing, and he hated everything about her. From her sweet voice to her pretty smiling face, he hated that the woman looked at him and saw this . A girl he wouldn’t have minded flirting with way-back-when.
“No,” He replied gruffly, getting to his feet.
Her smile waned just a hair before ramping back up, "Physio time,” Seeing that her good cheer wasn’t about to rub off on him anytime soon, she must have gotten the hint as she turned and started to ‘guide’ him down the hall.
Halfway to the medical hall she briefly paused and lifted her hand,” Hey, Steve! How was it today?” She greeted what at first Bucky took to be a child, but upon further inspection, Bucky realized it was a grown man, just one of the smallest, most fragile-looking people he’d ever seen in his life.
Steve, or so Bucky guessed, waved awkwardly from the looped wrist-band of his right-hand crutch.”Ah you know, running laps around ‘em.” His cheeks were a little flushed, and his eyes weak, but his smile was easy. “Still on for that rematch?”
“Bet your behind I am, Rogers. Going to figure out how you're cheating,” she winked as they walked by.
“Sounds like sore-loser talk to me,” Steve laughed, leaning back a little on the neighboring wall to re-balance himself on gawky legs. For a brief second, their eyes met, and Steve’s grin broadened. Some of the pain in Steve’s expression softened in favor of something else, and Bucky diverted his eyes, not wanting to get sucked into his warm expression. The last thing he wanted to do was chat up someone before he went to cuss and sweat for an hour. Judging by how tense Steve was and the little strands of blond hair clinging to his forehead, Steve had already been drawn through the wringer. How the guy still had the will to smile and make nice with the caregivers, Bucky couldn’t fathom.
‘Hurt’ didn’t quite sum up the level of pain and discomfort he was in. He laid flat against his bed, staring ruefully up at the ceiling as if the ugly popcorned finish would fall and end his suffering if he stared long enough. The skin on his shoulder felt angry and puffy from Physio, and his side wasn’t much better. The lotion to calm the tight ache was sitting on his dresser across the room, but he didn’t want to move. The pain grounded him.
A small knock not much louder than the general sounds of life from outside his door dragged him from his fugue state. He ignored it, but another three taps a moment later were louder than the last.
“What?” He snapped towards the door, and to his chagrin, it opened.
It was the blonde from earlier, smiling as if he wasn’t interrupting Bucky’s slow descent into disassociation. Rude.
“Hey there,” ‘Steve’(? — Fuck, he was bad with names), smiled as he walked into the room. Bucky’s eyes briefly tracked to his legs, noting the awkward, stumbling gait only saved by Steve’s crutches.
Bucky sat up, biting back the wince before it could fully form. Crossing his legs, he waited, staring at Steve without returning the casual greeting. It was his room, he didn’t have to make nice unless he wanted to. Unannounced visits weren’t his idea of a pleasant afternoon.
To his surprise, Steve just chuckled.”Oookay then, I wanted to come by and say welcome. Connie says you’re new?” Only getting a blink out of him in reply, Steve plowed on.”I know this place is kind of big and it’s a lot going on but it’s pretty nice here. Haven’t seen you around though?” It was a prompt, one that he didn’t feel like rising to.
Steve pursed his lips, bright eyes narrowing.”If you were deaf or mute there would be a sticker on your door, and I know sign language anyway, even if it comes out with kind of a stutter.” He chuckled at his own bad joke, seeing as his whole body seemed to be unsteady even when he was standing still.
Seeing as his original tactic wasn’t working, Bucky shifted gears.”It really doesn’t phase you that I don’t give a shit what you’re saying, does it?”
This time, Steve visibly blanched, dark blond brows furrowing. “Connie said you were a pill but I didn’t think she meant a jackass,” he volleyed back.
It was his turn to nurse that one, taken aback. He hadn’t expected Mr. Sunshine over there to be so frank.”Yeah well, now you know.”
Unphased, Steve continued,” Well if you can stow it for a few seconds, or at least listen, I’ll give you the broad strokes.” Steve back glanced and carefully maneuvered himself to sit down on the chair, breathing an audible sigh of relief. “Would avoid breakfast on Tuesday. In theory, the idea of breakfast casserole doesn’t sound all that bad, but trust me, it is. Don’t go on the shuttle to the therapy pool on Thursday, that’s when Davidson goes and he pisses in it without fail. And — “ His smile returned, even as he shifted a little to presumably get some pressure off his left side.”Always be nice to night shift and they’ll let you get away with anything.” He said it like he was speaking from experience, and Bucky wondered what a half-pint like this guy could possibly get up to.
“. . .Okay?” Bucky didn’t plan to apply any of that, considering he was taking all his meals in his room, wasn’t about to go to any form of group therapy, and he didn’t give two shits if these people liked him or not. This wasn’t summer camp, it was a place people sent cripples who didn’t have anyone to care for them. Or in his case, self-imposed exile.
Rolling his eyes, Steve looked at him, blue-green eyes weighing him carefully.”You’re going to have a real crap time here if you keep that up. You’re not the first person to want to sit here dyin’ in your room feelin’ sorry for yourself. I’ll give you two guesses how it turned out for them — Here’s a hint, not good.” He struggled back to his feet, and for a pulse-pounding moment, Bucky was pretty sure Steve was going to pitch forward entirely. But he didn’t, and Steve got a decent grip on his crutches to right himself once more.
“Young guy like you shouldn’t look like he’s eatin’ nails all the time.” He had the audacity to wink as he took his leave.
What the fuck?