One month after he moved into his uncle’s apartment, Bucky considered letting himself die as an alternative to ever going out again.
Maybe he should have stayed in therapy.
Objectively, all Bucky had to do was put on his coat, go all the way down from the sixth floor and cross the street to pop into the 24/7 convenience store at the corner. If he didn’t want to go through all this trouble—which was understandable: it was getting dark, and the six floors up were a bitch when you were carrying groceries—he could just stay in and eat whatever for tonight.
Except that Bucky literally didn’t have anything left to eat.
No rice, no pasta, no cans of any kind, no soup, not even some tomato sauce he could have scooped directly out with a spoon. (Something he’d done before, and for which he would not be judged.) All he had left was a half-empty bottle of soy sauce, which would’ve gone marvelously well with—let’s say, rice. So all he had to do was go out and buy some damn rice.
Except that Bucky hadn’t left his apartment since he’d moved in.
It wasn’t like he was enjoying it. In fact, he’d been doing a whole lot of nothing. Wandering from room to room, turning on the TV, turning it off again, booting up his antique computer and giving up when the Internet failed to connect again. That was on the days he managed to move. Mostly he couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed. He’d stay in and stare at his alarm clock, at the time passing by, promising himself he’d get up in five minutes, just five minutes more, yet just staying there and hating himself a bit more with each passing second.
Whenever he managed to get up, the first thing on his mind was that his sheets were disgusting. He should wash them, he really should, but he didn’t have a laundry machine in there. The second thing was that he should take a shower. But the shower was even grosser than him. So he should clean that first. But he didn’t have the energy, so he thought later, later. In the end he avoided the bathroom altogether and changed into slightly less dirty clothes—he didn’t have any clean ones anymore, so he had some kind of rotation system going on. His bedroom was a mess, and when he tried the living room instead, it was also a mess. He knew he should at least try to take the trash out. But he still had bags left, so they just piled up by the door.
He didn’t understand how this had happened. He couldn’t remember when he’d first started letting on. But now, all he could see were things he should clean, things he should put away, things he should tidy up, things he should do, things he should be. It made him want to go curl up right back under the covers. And most of the time, it was exactly what he did.
He barely even had enough energy for that. Even when he was resting, he kept catching himself thinking he wanted to rest. Kinda like wanting to go home but already being there.
Whenever he tried to motivate himself, to find something to kick his own ass with, he came up empty, and he kept asking himself questions which led to more questions which inevitably spiraled down into blank dread. In the end, why should he get up? Scraping by, pulling himself up, making himself cook and clean and plan—all of that, all this effort, and for what? What was the idea here? What was the point?
He’d tried talking about it with Rollins, once, during his short-lived week at the VA. That was before he’d moved in; he was still stationed with the others. Getting out of bed was already starting to become harder, and he’d tried to explain what he was feeling, struggling for words, thinking it’d be easier to tell someone he knew in private, rather than speak up in front of everybody. Rollins had looked at him and said: “Dude, you’re not suicidal, are you?”
As if it was a dirty word.
It was what they were all terrified of, at the VA. Like a bunch of high schoolers gossiping about who was or wasn’t a virgin. Except this time around, it was who did or didn’t want to kill themselves. They’d come back from the war and they’d survived their wounds and yet they still had to pretend and be brave. Still had to be strong and claim they were fine, they were adapting well, therapy was working absolute wonders and they were totally looking forward to the Fourth of July. “Getting better”—the words you couldn’t escape. I think he’s getting better. Have you been getting better? We’re all gonna get better.
Bucky had hated his mandatory week of therapy, and dropped out as soon as he was allowed to. He was fine, he had a place to live, he was getting better, he just wanted to be left alone, he didn’t want to see these people and be reminded of what he’d lived through and what he’d done, he wanted to forget all about it—and maybe repressing was bad for you, but then again so was smoking and yet everyone did it. So they could all go to hell. He’d left, and despite the little voice telling him he was making a mistake, it had been such a relief.
Besides, Bucky wasn’t even suicidal. He wasn’t. He was trying his hardest to find reasons to live. And he was eating. Regularly, if not plentifully. This had become his pride—which was so pathetic to think about whenever he stopped and looked at himself. All the rest had started slipping out of his grasp bit by bit. But no matter how truly disgusting he’d become, he still fucking ate at least one meal every day. Proof that he hadn’t gone all the way down into the rabbit hole. That he was still trying.
Going outside, though. Going outside was beyond him now. He hated it, and he hated himself for it—but it had been so much easier to just let go. It was so terribly easier, to wake up knowing at least he wouldn’t have to dress properly, wouldn’t have to go downstairs, wouldn’t have to face Brooklyn in winter, its noise and its people. Again, for what? He had no one to see, no places to go. And maybe he was literally living in a pile of garbage, but no one was here to see it, so what did it matter in the end?
Resignation tasted bitter. But resignation brought him quiet. All he had to do now was stay in and keep himself alive; this, he could still manage—just barely.
Except now he’d eaten everything there was to eat in his apartment.
At first, and because he was a fucking coward, he thought he could just order in—and the thought filled him with enormous relief: he could just order in. Except—and his stomach shrunk right back into a tight knot of fear—except he didn’t have Internet; which meant he would have to make a phone call. And phone calls weren’t really his area of expertise at the moment.
God, he raged helplessly sometimes. Just look at yourself. Can’t go out. Can’t get out of bed. Can’t even make a fucking phone call, and the panic squeezed hot tears out of him. But this angry voice belonged to the Bucky he’d once been. The Bucky he was now had turned into a shell of himself. A shadow gliding through the motions, unbothered by the filth left in its wake. A ghost.
His friends had stopped calling him long ago. Or rather, he’d stopped responding. He couldn’t check his emails because of the wonky Internet, so that was one thing he didn’t have to feel guilty about. He still got texts from Rollins or Rumlow sometimes, but those he’d learned to ignore. Rollins’ were just apathetic, kind of perfunctory, like a sedated man sinking into quicksand, vaguely believing he might still come out okay somehow. Hey, man, let’s get out sometimes. Hey bud, let’s catch up sometimes. Sent once in a while. Never worried by Bucky’s total lack of answer. Rollins wanted to convince himself everything was fine.
Rumlow, though—his texts were becoming increasingly aggressive. Often obviously drunk, often in the middle of the night. One day he’d sent come on you faggot let’s go kill someone. let’s go rape someone. whats it gonna change. you and me, we know. weve been there we know
Bucky had stopped reading them after that. Rumlow was crashing into flames and he wanted someone to come burn with him.
At least he didn’t know where Bucky lived. No one did. Except for Bucky’s uncle, of course, but he was content receiving a text once in a while to make sure his apartment was still standing. Bucky relied on him to inform the rest of the family he was doing fine.
Sometimes Bucky thought about how no one would know if he died—he’d done such a good job isolating himself, he could die and no one would know before a week at least—
—and then he started breathing too quickly and his chest went too tight, and soon enough he found himself curled up with his head between his knees, fighting yet another anxiety attack all alone in his trash-filled apartment, because he couldn’t even take care of himself without riling himself up into breathtaking panic for no actual fucking reason.
How was he expected to make a phone call in these conditions?
At least, when the person was there, you could avoid their eyes, mumble, fill in the silences with gestures and body language. It still wasn’t a very pleasant experience, but no matter how much Bucky dreaded human interaction, the fact remained that he needed it—one of the many miserable contradictions of his wretched self. He was going crazy with loneliness. He was losing his breath thinking about his forgotten death and his meaningless life. And, rationally, he knew talking to someone—anyone—would help appeasing these fears, just barely enough for his lungs to keep functioning. Talking to someone would help him believe he still existed. Maybe even give him the kick he needed to take out the trash at the very least, out of shame if nothing else.
But on the phone, the world tunneled down to a single line of communication, and suddenly you had to maintain a conversation for several minutes on end, with no blanks, no pauses, no silent talk allowed. The mere thought of it was enough to make his chest go tight again.
No. He couldn’t just order in. His choices, as they were, were down to two.
One: get dressed, go down, buy as much food as he could carry, come back up.
Two: starve to death.
Bucky lifted up his curtain to look out the window. From his apartment up on the sixth floor, he could see the streets of Brooklyn down below, the small convenience store blinking at the corner, the cars passing by. It was just beginning to get dark.
There was a third choice. It was called Get His Life Together, And Also Grow His Arm Back, While He Was At It.
It looked cold out there, even though it hadn’t snowed yet.
Bucky swallowed, then let the curtain fall.
The secret was not thinking about it. Bucky had dressed, he’d put on his coat with the pinned sleeve, he’d put on his scarf and he’d put on his shoes, all the while telling himself he was just doing this for shits and giggles and he was absolutely not going to leave his apartment. He was already exhausted. He would have loved to actually stay in. For a second, he was on the brink of giving up.
Then he tightened his scarf and opened his front door.
He hadn’t seen the hallway since the day he'd moved in, which was sorta funny, in a very sad way. He froze for a dreadful second on the doorstep, mesmerized by the ugly browning wallpaper. Then shook himself up, with what felt like an immense effort. If he stopped moving, he’d have time to think. He stepped out and closed the door.
Okay. Okay. Deep breaths. Just lock the door and go. Bucky tried to do it, but he quickly realized it was a lost cause; the keys were jingling with the force of his shivers, and he couldn’t fit them into the damn hole. He didn’t want to stay here. He had to keep moving or else he’d lose what little courage he’d scraped up.
Fuck it. He left his door unlocked. Any thief was welcome to go in there and steal some of his dirty dishes.
Okay. More decisions. Stairs or elevator. This one was almost easy: the elevator was out of the question—if he had to stand and wait while watching the floors go by, at the risk of having someone else enter this little box and lock themselves in there with him, he would literally die. Or maybe shit himself. The stairs were right here.
The banister was on the left; he used to grab it with his hand as he went down, but that wasn’t an option anymore and he focused on his steps like a little kid learning to go down the stairs like a grown-up for the first time. His hand was still shaking, but he’d buried it deep in his pocket so it was all good. All good. All good.
The six floors went by both too slowly and too fast. At long last, he found himself in the hall; he pushed the door open and got slapped in the face by a stinging wave of freezing wind.
For a second, he couldn’t believe he was actually outside. That was when he fully realized starving to death had been a serious option he’d actually considered.
Suck it, he thought to himself, breathing fast, I can still do stuff. I’m gonna go buy food. I haven’t given up. You’re not gonna kill me. Not today. Not today.
Okay. Okay, okay, okay. Bucky blinked, trying to get a hold of both himself and his surroundings. It wasn’t too bright, and it helped with the mind-numbing fear he’d started feeling under open skies; but God, the fucking noise. The long wail of an ambulance tore through the atmosphere and he closed his eyes as it grew louder, screwing them shut when the vehicle screamed by. Ambulances weren’t his forte either, and he focused on his breathing like his life depended on it, struggling not to let it go wild and airless. It was New York, so no one paid attention to the weird hobo fighting to breathe after two steps outside.
When he reopened his eyes, the ambulance was long gone, and his breathing was shallow, but regular. A few people hurried by, not even glancing at him—people didn’t look at embarrassments. At the moment, it suited Bucky perfectly well. These people would help him if he fell, but otherwise they would pay no attention to him. He was safe from a lonely death, and safe too from being scrutinized.
Still too many people.
Panic briefly seized him again when he wondered whether he’d taken his money with him, but the familiar bulge in his pocket chased the twist in his stomach at once. He hadn’t taken his wallet out of his coat since he’d last gone out. Thank God. He definitely wasn’t strong enough to go back up and then come back down again. Which reminded him—he’d forgotten to take the trash out with him. You fucking idiot. Too late for that now.
Okay. Too much stillness. He was getting jittery. Too many people, a space too wide around him. A threat could come from anywhere, or anyone. He was already scanning the buildings for snipers, and the darkening sky looked like it was calling for drones. He was imagining shadows disappearing around the corner, gazes drilling into his back. He must get a move on.
He started walking down the street, his eyes fixed on the blinking lights of the convenience store. It wasn’t that far. He could do it. He was allowed to walk fast. He was allowed to stare at the ground. He was allowed to look weird and mumble under his breath like a crazy hobo. Anything as long as he got this done.
People were talking on their phones, to each other, out loud; heels were clacking on the sidewalk; dogs were barking; bikes revved between the cars and roared through the atmosphere in sudden bursts of speed. Bucky shut it all off—tried, anyway—and kept walking. It was getting darker and darker, with just a tinge of pale blue westwards to remind people of the sun. If Bucky let his gaze go unfocused, the car lights and traffic lights and store lights all blurred together to paint a colored mosaic through the creeping shadow. This was Brooklyn. Despite everything, despite how unwelcome he felt even in his own skin, he was home. He’d managed to go out of his apartment; he was going to buy food; he wasn’t hopeless yet. He wasn’t going to die.
Another ambulance screeched by. He was losing his breath.
At long last, he crossed the street and, without allowing himself to think once again, slipped into the convenience store. The door jingled when he pushed it open, and suddenly it was quiet.
Bucky took a deep breath, and let it out.
“Hello,” called the kid behind the counter.
Can’t catch a fucking break. Bucky ducked out of his line of sight without answering.
He instantly wanted to kick himself, but this was almost a continuous feeling whenever he interacted with someone else, so he tried not to give it too much credit. He couldn’t be the only impolite customer of the day, he reasoned with himself. No, the kid would not hate him for it. No, the kid would not refuse to serve him. Bucky’s brain was ridiculous. His intrusive thoughts were like a flock of very belligerent seagulls—he tried to disperse them but they always came back, hungry and ready to peck him to death.
Bucky grabbed a basket. He should have made a list. He should also have checked his bank account—though considering he hadn’t spent anything in a month, he must be in the clear.
Bucky wasn’t rich, but money wasn’t really a problem either, as long as he rationed himself. The whole apartment building he was in belonged to his family—well, to his uncle—so he didn’t have to pay rent. His bills were taken care of by his Army pension; just barely, but still. In these conditions he still had enough to buy himself food every month if he wasn’t too greedy. And he wasn’t, because he didn’t eat much.
So he could survive until he died.
Oh hey, dark thoughts again. Must be the neon lights. Bucky shook his head and focused instead on the very important question of which kind of ramen to get.
All in all, the actual shopping took him less than ten minutes, because he quickly realized he couldn’t do a month worth of shopping without two good arms. Besides, he couldn’t stand the awkwardness of buying twelve cups of ramen with the cashier watching his every move. (Bucky had to check every two minutes whether he was following him with his eyes. He was not. He was, in fact, doing crosswords, which only barely soothed Bucky’s paranoia.) Bucky could have been done with it even faster if he didn’t have to put down his basket every time he wanted to grab something off the shelf. Something he’d realized, after leaving the hospital: the amount of things for which you needed both arms was astounding.
Eventually, Bucky brought his basket to the counter and the kid looked up from his paper.
“Got everything you needed?”
He had very dark skin, sharp, elven-like features, and some sort of accent. Bucky wasn’t sure which. Something European.
Bucky cleared his throat. “Yeah. Um. Yes.”
Not winning any prizes, but hey, look at him going. Social interaction. He almost didn’t want to puke.
The cashier was beeping his stuff at the speed of light. “Do you want to put in a few coins for the earthquake victims, sir?”
God, he was way too chipper for both his job and the subject involved. Bucky shook his head, then instantly felt the burn of helpless shame. He should have explained. He should have told him he barely had enough for himself.
He looked at the kid’s nametag. Kurt. Fat lot of good this did to him. He was as unable to start a conversation as he would have been to munch on broken glass.
“Here you go, sir,” said Kurt. “Cash or credit?”
Bucky wished he could have just teleported out of here, back to his place. He pushed it all down and tried to get a grip. He was half-way there. Couldn’t give up now.
He got out his wallet as way of an answer, fumbling a bit to dislodge it from his pocket, then fumbling some more to open it. God, he should have practiced this shit. His hand was trembling again. Why couldn’t he just get it done? Why did he always have to embarrass himself like—
“Need a hand?” the kid offered.
They both froze and Kurt’s eyes widened progressively.
“Mein Gott,” he choked out eventually.“This is not what I meant.”
The tightness in Bucky’s chest loosened a notch, which was a very welcome surprise. He wasn’t the only fumbling fool here.
“S’alright.” He pushed the wallet towards him. “Please.”
Kurt opened the wallet and counted the bills expertly. Bucky’s eyes tracked him, even though he was pretty sure this kid wouldn’t try to steal from him to his face. He still took back his wallet as soon as he could—with another spike of anguish; what if he thinks I’m racist? What if he thinks I’m suspecting him just because—and felt like an idiot when Kurt gave him his change back after he’d pocketed his wallet already.
Bucky clumsily shoved the change in his pocket while Kurt bagged his groceries for him.
“Thanks,” Bucky mumbled.
“You’ll be alright with all that?” Kurt asked in a worried tone.
It wouldn’t last him two weeks, but it was still a lot of bags. Bucky’s remaining arm had gotten pretty strong, though; and besides, he hadn’t bought anything really heavy, except for the milk.
“I’ll manage,” he said.
He picked up his bags and headed for the exit. He was almost out when the kid called him again. “Hey—”
Bucky had to make a physical effort to stop and turn. “What?” he asked, more curtly than intended, but—seriously, what now?
“You got a place to stay, right? Nights are getting cold.”
Bucky spotted the small shining cross around Kurt’s neck just as he remembered he did look like he lived on the streets. He shook his head. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
And he pushed the door, and got out, and took a big breath of freezing air.
The skies were completely dark now—well; dark orange—and just as he looked around, the traffic lights turned green, freeing the flow of cars which roared by as if they had somewhere to go. Bucky winced under the onslaught on his ears, but it was less of a shock than earlier; he shook his head like a wet dog and started walking down the sidewalk. He’d cross in front of his apartment so he didn’t have to wait here, where Kurt could see him through the glass.
As he walked, he started breathing a little easier. He’d made it. He had gone out to shop for groceries, like a grown fucking man; and even though he’d have to do it all over again in less than two weeks, he didn’t have to think about it right now. Right now he was going home with chocolate chip cookies.
He was almost there when he noticed the dark shape burrowing under the awning.
At first, he thought it was another kid; but when he looked closer, he realized it was just a small skinny guy, probably around his age. His legs were wrapped in a sleeping bag; he was wearing a jacket too big for him, old blue-and-red leather. There was a dirty backpack and several plastic bags around him, as well as a paper cup on the sidewalk, like some kind of hook without bait.
Bucky noticed him mostly because he was clean-shaven and all he could think was, Jesus, even this guy takes better care of himself than me.
He instantly felt horrible for thinking this. He wanted to cross the street to escape his own pettiness, but the traffic lights flashed green again.
Well—he could just turn his back to this guy and pretend he wasn’t here. It wasn’t even like he’d tried to get Bucky’s attention; and Bucky was a regular jerk, like everyone. He’d ignored tons of homeless people in his time.
But he had three bags of groceries with him. The acid feeling of guilt was already starting to fill his stomach.
The traffic lights turned red.
Bucky didn’t cross the street.
This wasn’t fair, he raged helplessly. He was almost there. He was almost there, and now he couldn’t move because of a fucking clean-shaven hobo who’d seen him carrying three bags of food. And Bucky was a big, fat, fucking whiner literally complaining because a homeless person had it worse than him. Outdoing yourself, Barnes, really fucking brilliant.
He thought of the change in his pocket, but—what if he gave this guy money just out of guilt, though? Wouldn’t that make him an even bigger asshole? Doing something meaningless just so he could feel better about himself?
But using that as an excuse not to give this guy money—wouldn’t that make him an even bigger bigger asshole?
But this guy didn’t give a shit about Bucky’s internal struggles. He probably didn’t give a shit why he got money, as long as he got it. Not a lot of room for dignity on the streets. He hadn’t even asked for anything.
But what if—
Fuck it, Bucky thought, fed up with himself. If he didn’t do something, this was going to haunt him for days. He slipped his bags down his arm so he could rummage in his pocket without putting them down. His change was still there, and he pulled out a bill.
Twenty dollars. He’d been digging into his open wallet.
He might miss them in the near future, but, again, fuck it. He just wanted to get this done so he could get the fuck out of here. He turned round just as the traffic lights went green again, then stiffly walked to the skinny guy and dropped the bill in his paper cup without a word.
The hobo looked up at him. Bucky didn’t avert his eyes quick enough and saw he had dirty blond hair and blue eyes, with dark rings under them.
“Thanks,” he said hoarsely, in a careful tone.
Bucky nodded awkwardly. The hobo bent down and stretched his arm to grab his cup. There was a star-spangled shield on the back of his jacket. He sat upright again and checked the contents of his cup. When he saw Bucky had given him a twenty, he blinked a little and looked up at him.
At this moment, the traffic lights turned red and Bucky whipped round with a lot of relief. He regretted having given away this much money, but all in all he felt better than if he hadn’t given this guy anything. This could have been him. And indeed, without his uncle’s apartment, Bucky had no doubt he would have been there under the awning to keep this guy company.
Chocolate chip cookies, he thought as he reached the other side of the street, and repeated it in his head like a mantra until he was home.
The next morning, the homeless guy was still there.
Bucky could see him clearly from the sixth floor, in his All-American jacket. In fact, it was the reason Bucky had managed to get up so early—out of curiosity, to check if the guy had moved. And he hadn’t. He was still under his awning, sitting up in his sleeping bag.
A lot of people were walking past; Bucky watched them go for long minutes, but he didn’t catch anyone giving him any money. Apparently, the guy wasn’t asking. He’d put out his paper cup again, but he didn’t actually ask people out loud for spare change. He didn’t even have a sign.
Bucky wondered if he was too proud or something. He wondered what he would do, himself, if he found himself in his place.
Probably ask. Probably do a sign and ask, and maybe he wouldn’t even need to bother; maybe people would give him their money anyway, because of his arm, because of how he looked.
This guy wasn’t even scruffy. He was just sitting there, curled up on himself, staring into space. People weren’t giving him anything.
Bucky ended up staying at the window all day. He had literally nothing better to do. Actually, this was the most motivation and interest he’d managed to muster since he’d gotten back on American soil. It was creepy, no doubt; but it wasn’t hurting anyone, and Sam would have probably pointed out it helped him feel connected to another human being while staying safe inside his apartment.
After a few hours, though, Bucky started to feel really uncomfortable. He’d always felt a pinch passing by a homeless person in the street, but every time he’d forgotten them and moved on; because the world was a cruel place and he couldn’t help everyone. Right?
But this guy—Bucky had stopped calling him “the hobo” in his head; it felt rude—was staying there, and Bucky stayed too. And so he couldn’t help wondering about him, so young and so frail-looking. Why was he out on the streets? Did anyone know he was there? Would anyone care if something happened to him?
And so Bucky was now spying on the only person he’d found who was less fortunate than him, and projecting his feelings on him like he was some kind of therapy doll.
Boy, but he really fucking despised himself.
It was easy to cultivate that; it was a fruit that didn’t need much to grow, and an activity that didn’t demand a lot of energy. So Bucky spent his day loathing himself and looking out the window.
Around 3pm, the guy got up and left, with all his stuff still under the awning. Bucky waited, and sure enough, the guy came back a few minutes later with a hamburger in a paper bag. He burrowed in his little corner again and wolfed it down.
Bucky’s stomach growled in sympathy. He’d forgotten to eat.
After he was done, the guy slipped down his sleeping bag, pulled his backpack under his head and apparently went to sleep. Bucky waited and waited, but he didn’t move.
Bucky gave up and went to cook himself some pasta, which he sprinkled with soy sauce before coming back to the window. The guy still wasn’t moving. Bucky waited, eating his pasta right out of the pan. It kept slipping from his fork.
When the night came, the guy woke up—Bucky must have caught him just getting out of bed the other day. He rolled his sleeping bag, which he shoved into his backpack. He checked his paper cup; nothing. (Bucky could have told him that. People were pigs.) He got up, stretched, shouldered his backpack and left, hurrying against the cold. Bucky could see him puffing out little clouds when he passed under a street light.
He wasn’t long to turn the corner and disappear.
Bucky supposed it made sense; it was better to sleep during the day when it was warmer and there were people around to unwittingly watch your back. At night, especially all alone and on the brink of winter, you kept moving.
This was a little bit like war, Bucky thought, idly rubbing his stump. A different kind than the one to which he was accustomed, but war all the same. He backed a little from the window; the cold made his phantom limb react in strange ways, and the glass exuded freezing air. The heart of his apartment was warm. He couldn’t see outside anymore, but there was nothing to see anyway.
Well. That had been his day.
Might as well go to bed.
The next morning, Bucky woke up at noon. He stumbled out of bed and shuffled through the trash littering his floor into the small living room, almost afraid of what he might see.
The homeless guy was back. Bucky was both relieved and annoyed. He’d vaguely hoped he’d vanish, if only so Bucky could tell himself he’d joined a shelter before the winter really hit. (Another testimony to how great a person Bucky was.)
Bucky pulled a chair near the window; his ass still hurt from sitting on the windowsill all day. At 2pm he ate a can of red beans, and watched as the homeless guy went and bought himself some chicken nuggets. Bucky wondered how long one could survive on a diet of greasy junk food. He had no doubt it was the cheapest thing available when you had no boiling water for ramen, but still—hamburgers and nuggets all the time. Not even good ones.
Time stretched by, slow like molasses. Whenever Bucky’s body got too stiff, he walked around his apartment, trying not to crush anything under his feet. Then he came back to the window, surprised with himself for staying interested in something for so long. The homeless guy was still there.
By nightfall, Bucky was getting agitated. His windows were frosting over. He could feel the cold through the glass. At least the skies were still clear, but the weather forecast announced snow later in the week.
Weren’t there, like, charity guys doing the rounds? Wasn’t anyone worrying about homeless people in winter? Surely someone would be there to pick up that guy. Direct him to a shelter. Right?
Bucky got out his phone. He was paying little attention to his own actions, so utterly convinced he’d never gather the courage to actually make the call that he was baffled to suddenly hear a voice into his ear.
“911, what is the address of your emergency?”
Oh God. Oh God, what the fuck had he done? What the fuck was he currently doing?
“Hi,” Bucky said, already starting to sweat. He hadn’t made a phonecall since his first and last disastrous try out of the hospital, two months ago. “Hello. Hi. Um. Hello.”
Hello? Are you saying hello to the 911 people? What the fuck is wrong with you?
“…Hello,” said the operator, sounding slightly disapproving. “What is the address of your emergency?”
“It’s not an emergency,” Bucky stammered. If he’d had a spare hand, he would have buried his face in it, but it was all he could do to cling to the phone for dear life. “Well—it—it sorta is, but it’s not. Um. It’s just—there’s a hob… a homeless guy across the street and I’m… I’m kinda worried?”
This was a disaster. This was a total disaster.
The operator seemed to think so; her tone was getting more and more doubtful. “Is he inebriated? Does he seem dangerous to you?”
“No,” Bucky said. “No, he’s not drunk or anything, he’s fine, he’s just sitting there. He doesn’t even drink—I don’t think.”
“Sir,” said the woman, clearly fed up now, “can you describe clearly your problem to me?”
“The… look, it’s—it’s getting real cold and I’m—I’m just worried, okay? Is there… is there any plan for that? For the homeless in winter?”
“What is the address of your emergency, sir?”
“Brooklyn. You know how cold it gets in Brooklyn, right?”
“Sir, what is your exact address?”
“Hey—” Bucky clutched to his phone. “Hey, you’re not gonna come remove him, right? He’s not bothering anyone.”
“No, you know what? You know—it was a, it was a mistake to call you and I’m—I’m very sorry I wasted your time and I’m gonna hang up now.”
Bucky hung up.
Then he put his head between his knees and pulled at his hair, hard, while taking deep breaths and thinking stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.
It took him an hour or so to be able to move again.
He slowly walked to the kitchen and dumped his pan in the sink, on top of the rest of them. It really had been stupid. It wasn’t an emergency, so he had no business calling 911 in the first place. He had no idea why he’d done that—an atavistic reflex of some kind, taking command while his mind was drifting elsewhere. And he’d ended up telling them not to come get him—way to go, Barnes, really. But he’d been so afraid he’d accidentally called the cops on this guy.
This wasn’t his business anyway. He shouldn’t get involved. He shouldn’t assume he knew anything about this guy.
He didn’t know anything about this guy.
So Bucky was planning on going out again.
This was stupid. He wasn’t going to do it. It was ridiculous to think he might go outside for no real reason, when he couldn’t motivate himself to leave his apartment for things that actually mattered. But he hadn’t slept at all during the night, kept awake by anxious thoughts which weren’t turned inwards for once. And now it was morning and he was putting on his shoes again, his fucking ugly little kid shoes because he couldn’t tie up his laces anymore.
He was so convinced he wasn’t really going to go out that he almost didn’t believe it was happening, even as he went down the stairs.
But hey, he was doing it. For a second there, he thought it would be—easy. After all, he’d made it last time. And this time around, he didn’t have to walk down the whole block. He just had to cross the street. It would be fine. (Shit—he had forgotten again to take out the trash. Too late, once more.)
He was at the bottom of the stairs now. He hadn’t run into anyone, which kept him under the delusion that this really could turn out fine.
Then he pushed the door open, stepped outside, and instantly knew this had been a mistake.
The cold had been like a slap to the face the first time; now it was like death was clutching at his lungs. He exhaled painfully and squinted against the sun. It was just before noon. There were tons of people, and they didn’t blur away when he squinted. The skies were wide over his head, like a chasm waiting to swallow him. Everything expanding around him. He wavered and stepped back, hitting the door of his apartment building.
His breathing was getting shallow. He gasped for air, then looked up. The homeless guy was there, across the street, and he was the reason Bucky was here—so Bucky was going to… Bucky was going to talk to him before he went back in. That was it. That was his goal for the day. His brief trip to therapy had taught him at least that. Stick to his goals. As long as they were reasonable. This wasn’t unreasonable. Right?
Okay, so. Crossing the street now.
His heart was kicking into overdrive, pounding painfully against his ribs. Jesus, this was why it was easier not to make any plans; he couldn’t possibly fail when he didn’t attempt anything. And he still loathed himself for making this guy responsible for his clear conscience. But—but—but now he was here. Because he was an idiot who didn’t think. And hell, he was terrified of phone calls and yet he’d managed to call 911 for no reason. He could cross the fucking street even though he was on the verge of a full-blown anxiety attack.
Bucky squared his shoulders; like a wink from the heavens, the traffic lights turned red. He held his breath and crossed the street, hunched down as though fearing sudden rain.
When he got on the other side, the little guy hadn’t moved, and for the first time Bucky got a good look at him.
This guy really was young, maybe younger than him; he was still clean-shaven, and he didn’t look dirty in a whole—probably went to a public bath or something, in the morning before he came back to his spot. But the shadows under his eyes had gotten darker. He wasn’t moving at all, trying to stay warm. He was really skinny. Not bad-looking; nothing too permanent carved into his face. He couldn’t have been out on the streets for very long.
His eyes were tired; maybe he’d glanced up at some point, but now he was looking away again. It was obvious he didn’t recognize or remember Bucky. Which was actually kinda strange. What with the arm and all.
“Um,” Bucky said.
That got his attention. The guy had really blue eyes, perhaps even bluer for the dark rings under them. He stared at Bucky and Bucky stared at him.
“What?” he said after a minute.
Bucky cleared his throat and shuddered—God, it really was freezing out here. Or maybe his nerves were finally snapping after too much tension. How was he out there? He was half-crazy with terror, heart rate still through the roof, breaking in a cold sweat. What the fuck was he still doing here?
“I’m… I’m Bucky,” he said.
He got a flash of how he looked: a scruffy, long-haired, one-armed guy who hadn’t showered in days and who spoke like he had to pry the words out his own throat with a crowbar.
“…Okay,” the little guy said, looking expectant and wary. “I’m Steve. You want anything?”
Bucky stepped back. “No, I…”
He swallowed. His throat ached with the cold already, and shooting pains were squeezing his stump under the pinned sleeve. He needed to go back. He needed to fuck off.
“You… you got a… a place to… somewhere to go. Right?”
Really fucking articulate. Also, this totally didn’t just sound like he wanted to kick the homeless out of his neighborhood so it’d look better.
“I mean,” he said. “It’s getting… really…um—cold.”
“Noticed, thanks,” Steve said dryly.
He looked like he wanted to fight, but also like he was afraid of Bucky. Bucky couldn’t really blame him. He tried to make himself less threatening, but he had no idea how to make himself anything.
“You… you got a shelter to—go to?” he tried again.
“I can get by on my own,” Steve said curtly.
“Okay,” Bucky said. He was very good at imagining people wanted him to stop talking; he didn’t have to imagine it in the present case. “Okay. Sorry.” He had to get the fuck out of here. He couldn’t breathe.
“Are you gonna call the cops on me?” Steve said, more aggressive now. “I’m not bothering anyone.”
“No,” Bucky said quickly. “No, you’re not, and I won’t. I’m really sorry. I’m gonna… Bye now.”
He turned away and all but ran back into his building. He was lucky, somehow, because he managed to close the door behind him before he collapsed under the staircase and started gasping for air.
He managed to drag himself back up, somehow. The next day, he stayed curled up under the covers. Whenever he thought about getting up, his conversation with Steve popped up in his mind and he just wanted to curl up under the covers forever. He was dying of shame.
Late in the afternoon, he dragged himself out of bed to take a leak, then grabbed a box of cookies and a bottle of milk before crawling back under the covers, without looking out the window.
He ended up falling asleep again.
When he woke up, it was almost dark. The milk had gone lukewarm. And it was snowing outside.
The skies had not cleared by the next day.
“It’s snowing,” Bucky said between his teeth, breath fogging the window. “It’s fucking snowing. Game over, dude. Just go find a fucking shelter.”
The little guy—Steve—wasn’t moving. He stayed under the awning all morning, slept through the afternoon as usual, and got up after dark with his little backpack, shuffling in the snow as he disappeared into the night.
Sleep eluded Bucky that night. At dawn, he was here to see Steve coming back, sweeping the snow away with his hand, and settling under his awning again.
Bucky wanted to go out and go to—a Starbucks or something, and buy this guy a cappuccino so he’d have something to warm himself up. The only problem was that Bucky was utterly unable to do it. After the disastrous episode of the other day, the mere thought of going back out was giving him palpitations. He had no idea what he would do when he ran out of food again, and he tried not to think about it.
It kept snowing, a little bit every day, so that every morning Steve had to sweep away the snow before sitting in his usual spot. Bucky wondered what he was doing during the night, where he was going. Maybe he was going to a shelter—but it was unlikely; he wouldn’t need to sleep during the day then, which he kept doing a lot.
As a matter of fact, he was asleep right now. His sleeping bag was slowly paling under a thin layer of snow.
By five, he still hadn’t woken up.
Bucky booted up his ancient computer. There must be a website he could check or (God, please, no) a number he could call to signal a homeless person in danger. The snow was bad enough already; but on top of that, the temperatures kept going down. Winter had engulfed the city like a silent wave.
The computer worked alright, but it still wouldn’t connect to the network no matter how many insults Bucky threw at it.
“Come on, you stupid fucking thing,” he said, almost tearing up with frustration, “come on, come on, I’m trying to do something here—” but computers were soulless and this one didn’t listen to him.
It was 7pm and Steve hadn’t woken up.
“Hey,” Bucky mumbled under his breath, his palm spread on the icy glass. “It’s dark. Get up, dude.”
9pm and Steve hadn’t moved. Still burrowed into his sleeping bag.
People passed him by.
He could be dead, Bucky thought with a stab of ice through his stomach, and they wouldn’t even know it.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ, what the fuck are you still doing here? It’s almost eleven!”
Steve wasn’t moving.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” Bucky said. “You’re fucking kidding me right now.”
Steve wasn’t moving.
Around midnight, it started snowing again.
“Fuck,” Bucky said, clear and distinct like someone was here to hear it. His throat was dry and his voice wavered when he said it again. “Fuck.”
Steve was probably fine; Steve probably intended to spend the night here; Steve was a complete stranger; Steve would probably be pissed if someone woke him up; Steve definitely didn’t want any pity; Steve had explicitly asked not to be moved; Steve didn’t bother anyone; Steve was too young to die like this; Steve was maybe already dead; Steve was—
“Fuck,” Bucky said again, one last time, around 2am.
The cold was infinitely worse than before, but there was little noise, only a few cars from time to time. The traffic lights were green but Bucky crossed anyway, hurrying across the street, feeling like he was breathing knives. He shouldn’t be out there. How was he out there again? Nothing for a whole month, and now three times in less than a fucking week? Was he imagining this whole thing?
“Hey,” he called, way before he’d reached the awning. “Hey, Steve!”
He got closer, roughly grabbed his shoulder, shook him without grace. “Steve, wake up,” he said. “Hey, wake up! Steve, wake up!”
Steve was very pale and very cold.
“Wake up!” Bucky started shouting. “Steve, wake the fuck up!”
Steve didn’t move. This close up, Bucky could see his nose was red and irritated, and his lips were chapped and cracked. Too much cold dry air, too much polluted snow.
Bucky’s arm hadn’t been cut off at the shoulder. In fact, his stump went almost all the way down to what used to be his elbow.
He bent down awkwardly and slipped his stump under Steve’s shoulders. It was awkward and he had to try several times, but in the end he made it. He then slipped his good arm under Steve’s legs and lifted him up in one go, sleeping bag and all.
He almost let him fall and swore, blocking him against the wall so he’d have time to readjust his stump to support Steve’s weight. God fucking damn it but he missed having two arms. He had to hold him very close, gathering him into a bundle. Steve almost didn’t weigh anything.
(Later, it occurred to Bucky that then would have been the perfect time to call 911.
At the moment, though, he didn’t have any single thought running through his head, except that Steve was dying.)
It was 2am, so Bucky didn’t mind taking the elevator. He much preferred enclosed spaces, actually, as long as he was alone there. Sure, he had Steve—and he had to keep blocking him against the wall so he wouldn’t slip out of his mismatched grasp—but it was as though Steve wasn’t there.
“Come on, Steve, wake up, Steve, wake up, wake the fuck up,” Bucky was saying in a constant stream, because he knew wounded soldiers—dying people—should be kept awake, but Steve hadn’t been awake to begin with and was definitely out cold now.
The elevator couldn’t go fast enough.
Bucky was so stressed he’d been sweating under his heavy coat; his apartment felt like a furnace to him, and he welcomed the heat with desperate gratitude. He didn’t have a bathtub, which had never bothered him until then. He was pretty sure a hot bath would have helped.
But he would have had to undress Steve for that, and he couldn’t do that—because he only had one arm, first of all, and also because… well, he couldn’t do that. This whole thing was creepy enough as it was, Christ.
So Bucky put Steve in his bed—the couch was way too lumpy and narrow—and propped him up with a few pillows before piling up all the blankets he had on him. Then he heated water on the stove, which took five excruciatingly long minutes; when it was bubbling, he put a spoon between his teeth and took the pan with him into the bedroom, careful not to trip on anything.
He thought of putting the pan on the nightstand, but ended up putting it on top of Steve’s lump of blankets instead, in hope the warmth would suffuse through the layers of cloth. Then he took the spoon and made Steve drink the hot water.
As far as rescue plans went, it was probably the absolute worst, but Bucky had never dealt with hypothermia and it was literally the only thing he could do right now. By then, calling 911 had crossed his mind after all, but he’d dismissed the idea in a fit of acute anxiety—he’d fucked up last time so they had blacklisted his number—they’d put Steve in jail for being homeless—they’d put Bucky in jail for not calling them earlier—a very distant part of Bucky knew this was all bullshit and he should have picked up the phone, but he was on autopilot mode and the most important thing in his life right now was to make Steve drink the fucking hot water.
It took a long time, spoonful after spoonful. Bucky fed him water in such small quantities that they went down even though Steve wasn’t really conscious. Bucky’s hand was trembling wildly by the end, and his sight was blurring and his back was aching with the hunched-over position he had to hold; but he made himself do it, made Steve drink the water, little by little.
Whispers of defeat were running through his head—he’d been utterly useless since he’d come back from his tour, he hadn’t even been able to take care of himself; it was laughable to think he could help anyone. He thought of what Rumlow would’ve said—for fuck’s sake, just look at yourself, you’re spoon-feeding lukewarm water to a comatose hobo.
And suddenly he thought That’s fucking right I am, with a surge of white-hot rage at himself—so vivid that for once, it was enough to send his anxieties running for the hills. Fuck everyone. He was trying to save someone’s life. He probably sucked at it and Steve would probably die anyway but at least Bucky was trying. He was doing something. He was trying.
After a long while, after the water had turned cold, Bucky put down the spoon, exhausted and shivering with nervous backlash, and slipped his hand under the covers to grab Steve’s hand.
And Steve’s hand was warm.