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Helping Hands

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Bucky hated going to the food pantry. He tried to arrange his trips for mid-morning, the best time to avoid seeing other people. Even when they only stared because of the prosthetic arm, they were still staring. He’d done his best to conceal it with long sleeves, even in the middle of August and god, it was fucking hot and humid as shit and he could barely breathe, much less think in heat like this, but it was an older model and it still clicked and whirred as the servos that were connected to his nervous system activated to move the arm.

It was good that he had two arms; caring for his son when Steve had been an infant had been hard enough as it was. The doctor had explained to Sarah that Steve’s pulmonary condition was not going to get better and that he’d probably be weak and sickly most of his life, and that his care was going to be outrageously expensive, and that had been enough for Bucky’s beleaguered wife.

She’d already been dealt a hard blow with Bucky coming back from Afghanistan minus one arm and carrying a load of PTSD, flashbacks, and rage. Having a kid was supposed to bring them together again, but the pregnancy had been hard, and then she’d been hit with a brutal case of postpartum depression that wasn’t diagnosed until it was far too late. Bucky would have gotten her help if he’d noticed, but he had been so wrapped up in his own head that he hadn’t, and that would haunt him for the rest of his life, because after the doctor’s diagnosis for Steve, Sarah -- Sarah’s depression -- had concluded that she couldn’t live with two broken men and had shot herself in the head with Bucky’s service pistol. It had been about three days after Steve’s first birthday.

About a month after that, Bucky found out that Clint -- Sarah’s brother and an attorney -- had nominated Bucky for a grant to participate in the last-stage test trials for the bionic arm. He wished Sarah had lived long enough for that, since it had eased the burden a lot. Maybe she could have held on just a little longer. Long enough for him to realize that she was suffering, too.

As it was, installing the bionics and going through all the testing had been time consuming, occasionally painful, and difficult. Good thing Clint was a stand-up guy and didn’t blame his brother-in-law for Sarah’s death. Clint claimed that Sarah was just as much a casualty of war as the men Bucky had known in Afghanistan who’d come home to be buried instead of to a pittance of a pension and shitty medical insurance.

But people still stared at him. The bionic limbs had been made available to the public some three years after Bucky wore one of the first ones, but they weren’t common, not just yet. They were hideously expensive, and too new for most insurance to cover.

Which made it all the more unpleasant when Bucky was at the public service offices, or in line at the food pantry. Surely someone who could afford a six-figure replacement limb did not need to be picking over the shitty food choices at the Helping Hands Food Pantry. And Bucky couldn’t just accost everyone whose eyebrows lifted at the sight of his shiny metal fingers and explain that he’d been a labrat, that the free maintenance for the arm that had been part of the testing program had ended once the trials had concluded, and that these days he lived a balancing act between keeping the arm functional, keeping Steve in meds, and keeping the both of them fed.

Worse, Stevie was allergic to peanuts -- eventually, Bucky was going to take time off from his shitty life, track down some pharmaceutical CEO, and cut her heart out for raising the prices on Steve’s epi-pens, because that shit sucked rocks and Bucky could barely afford the pharmacy copays as it was -- and half of what the food pantry stocked was peanut butter, peanut butter crackers, and various granola bars that contained, you guessed it, peanuts.

The rest of the choices were depressing as shit.

Green beans, and not even the normal, firm kind, but the French cut shit that Steve would complain were mushy. Peas, corn, and tinned pineapple. Why did everyone always give pineapple to the food pantry? Seriously, would it kill people to donate a can of peaches for a change?

Bucky grumbled. The rule for the food pantry was one box per family, per week. And unfortunately, toilet paper was taking about about a third of his box already. At least the household consisted of only two men, because they’d gone through a lot more toilet paper when Sarah was alive. Bucky flinched at the thought -- a recent development in his depression, maybe, where one part of his brain would remind him of all the things that were easier because Sarah had died, and then the rest of his brain piled on the guilt and self-loathing.

A good sized bag of rice, some tins of black beans, and wow, someone had donated a bunch of those little spice envelopes, that was great. Poor food, Bucky had noticed, was always bland. He grabbed four of the packets -- technically, he could have taken them all, but felt like it wasn’t fair to other families who came in later in the day -- and headed to the checkout.

The volunteer yawned at him; a good-looking man a little older than Bucky, obviously suffering from a hangover, with a nametag that read “Tony.”

The man looked familiar, but Bucky couldn’t place from where -- definitely not here; Bucky usually remembered the names and faces of the volunteers. Tony was wearing a pair of battered jeans, a t-shirt for some obscure band that Bucky had never heard of -- Soldiers of Winter -- an unzipped hoodie, and a pair of bizarrely tinted glasses. “‘Morning,” Bucky said, not because he wanted to, but because as a rule, the volunteers expected him to be polite, subservient, and grateful, a mix of emotions that personally made Bucky want to puke because none of this was his fault. Except that it was.

Tony nodded, not speaking. Not even really looking. He poked listlessly at his phone, acting more like a sullen teenager than a man who had to be on the wrong side of thirty-five.

Bucky laid his box on the counter, the arm whirring contentedly to itself. What did it know?

That got the volunteer’s attention; he looked up sharply from the phone and looked around quickly before homing in on Bucky’s hand. Bucky tensed up; the other patrons were sometimes silently judgemental, but some of the holier-than-thou volunteers weren’t so quiet about it.

But Tony just looked excited. “Oh, wow,” he said, “you have a StarkTech arm. How’s that working out for you?” He looked delighted, and actually interested in Bucky’s answer, and his smile did painful things to Bucky’s belly.

He hadn’t been treated entirely like a human being since before the war. Even when he managed to hold down a job, his bosses tended to treat him like an extension of the arm, rather than the other way around. “Expensive,” Bucky said. “I got it on a grant--” He hated admitting that, but he hated the “poor people use welfare stamps to buy drugs” attitude worse, so it had become the first thing he led with. “--and that was great, but that money ran out years ago, and the maintenance costs are killing me. Can’t not get it maintained, though, because the last thing I need is a thirty-pound chunk of useless metal hanging off the side of my body.”

Tony glanced up, looking startled. He actually met Bucky’s eyes -- that was rare; no one wanted to look into a poor person’s eyes, because it might be contagious or lead to the horrifying realization that they were actually people. “Really? That’s… well, that’s a shame.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Bucky said. He actually kind of meant it. Tony’s sympathy sounded a lot more sincere than most. He finished unloading his supplies from the pantry’s box so Tony could scan them, and then loaded them into the reusable bags he brought with him every week.

Tony picked up a box of fruit jelly snacks. “You like these? I saw a couple more packs in the back before you came in; I could get them for you.”

“M’ son is fond of ‘em,” Bucky said, and Tony’s brilliant eyes dimmed a little.

“You married?”

“Widower,” Bucky said. “M’ wife died about six years ago.” Died. That was nice. Vague and unspecific and neat, not splattered all over the nursery with Steve sitting there in his crib, and not understanding and crying for his mother. Yeah. That would make cheerful small talk.

Tony nodded. “Stay right there,” he said, and actually walked backward out of the main area to keep an eye on Bucky, as if he was terrified that Bucky would vanish the instant Tony stopped looking at him.

Right, sure. That would be good. He could take his food and leave without signing for it, and then that would be another food source dried up. Bucky did night-shift work guarding a local self-storage facility, but the pay sucked and the hours were terrible. Bucky thanked God every day for public school and that Steve was now old enough to go, because trying to work nights, take care of his son, and still do necessary human things like FUCKING SLEEP had been horrible. Between his job and his benefits, he managed the rent, about half of the medical bills and enough to fool the utility companies into thinking that one day they might get paid in full. But he and his son had a powerful need to eat, too. Bucky couldn’t afford to get on the pantry’s blacklist. Not even after school started back up and Steve could get free breakfast and lunch there.

He scrubbed his metal hand through his hair and ended up with a squeeze at the back of his neck. Things were getting pretty damned desperate, he knew, and he might just have to bite off the rest of his pride and ask Clint for help. Again. God, that sucked. Bad enough perfect strangers knew he was a fucking deadbeat who couldn’t keep food on the table, skipping out on the rent and trying to find an even cheaper place to live, but to go to Sarah’s brother, who had every reason to hate him and didn’t, and ask for a fucking handout, made Bucky want to puke.

At least he had that option. Bucky’s other brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, would probably slam the door in his face and then try to have Steve taken away from him. Again.

Tony walked into the doorframe on his way back in, smacking his shoulder so loud that Bucky winced in sympathy.

“Oh, it’s okay, you can laugh,” Tony said, then held up a hand, which contained a box of fruit snacks, “but if you do, you have to go get me a cup of coffee.”

Bucky stared for a moment; there was something coy and sly in the way Tony said it, which made him wonder if Tony was flirting with him. Of course not, who the hell flirted with an impoverished, obviously ex-military widower with a child? Even if Bucky had both of his limbs, he never expected anyone to flirt, especially not a guy. Which wasn’t a problem, exactly. Bisexuality was a thing, after all, even if Bucky’s was mostly theoretical, because he’d never been with a guy, he just liked to check them out and fantasize about them when he was masturbating.

Tony was a pretty man, with fantastic hair, a high maintenance beard, and lovely brown eyes. The sort that Bucky liked, really.

He realized he’d just been standing there, staring, when Tony said, “Ooooor, not, I guess. Sorry, just… Look, the judge gave me a hundred hours of community service and absolutely could not be talked out of it, and I’m not even used to being up at this time of day. I mostly work at night. I almost got lost on the way here. My license got suspended for six months, too, so I had to take the subway, which I never do. So I didn’t have time to grab breakfast or a joe, and I have the worst fucking headache, and it was, you know, sort of a joke, and sort of not? But if you have more important things to do, or you’re such a homophobic twat you can’t even handle a guy half your size flirting...”

“I can get you a coffee, for fuck’s sake,” Bucky said, shaking his head, “if you shut up for five seconds and let me get a word in edgewise.”

“Shutting up is not a thing I have any experience with, at all,” Tony said. “But please. Coffee. Get yourself one, too.”

“How do you take it?” Bucky asked, mapping out the few blocks to the nearest Starbucks on his cell (another gift from Clint, sigh).

Tony made a strangled sort of noise and when Bucky glanced up, he wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but Tony was making a strange sort of face, like he was trying not to laugh.

“Um. It’s hot out, so just get me a bucket with an iced latte in it, please?” Tony said. He dug around in his pocket, pulled out a Starbucks gift card. “There’s like… I dunno, a hundred dollars on that, probably. My secretary gives me gift cards to Starbucks all the time, but mostly I use my machine at home, so…”

“Why does your secretary give you gift cards you don’t use?” Bucky wondered, turning the card over in his hand a few times.

“The same reason I buy her very expensive shoes that she only wears once? I dunno, it’s a thing we do. Feel free to grab yourself one, while you’re there.”

Bucky looked up and without thinking, said, “I love you.”

“Really?”

Bucky felt himself blush furiously and considered just throwing the card at Tony and walking away. “I… sorry. Coffee’s expensive. I’ve been drinking out of an 8 o’clock dehydrated coffee crystals jar for about a year now. On the plus side, it never gets any worse, but it was never anything more than caffeinated dishwater to start with.”

Tony finished inventorying the box of food, and Bucky left the canvas totes at the counter. He stared down at the card again, then headed for the Starbucks. Whoever Tony was, he was definitely out of Bucky’s league, flirting or no flirting. Gift cards he didn’t use and his own secretary that he admitted to buying expensive shoes for? Yeah. Bucky packed away any possible daydreams in that direction. Never going to happen. But maybe he could snap a photo and use it to spank off to, later. God, that man was pretty.

Arriving at the Starbucks, Bucky shuffled along in the line, eyeing the possibilities. When he got to the register, he handed the card to the cashier and asked, “Can you tell me how much is on there, please?”

The girl, half her head shaved and the other half dyed blue, nodded, swiped the card, and pointed at the display for him, her expression indicating that he was a moron of the highest order. Bucky almost choked. “About a hundred dollars”, his muscular buttocks. Tony had almost seven hundred dollars on the card. Jesus. Fuck.

It was wrong, so very wrong of him, but… he hadn’t eaten today, the store smelled like pastries and coffee and… Seven hundred, rarely if ever used. Tony hadn’t had breakfast either, right? Bucky got two coffees in the biggest sizes, plus a half dozen of the bearclaws. He could eat a few and bring the rest back to Tony as a surprise.

He inhaled one of the pastries before the barista could even get the coffees ready, which was good, because he couldn’t figure out how to hold two trenti-sized drinks and a bag of pastries, and eat one at the same time. He had two working hands, but he wasn’t a freaking octopus.

By the time he’d walked the two blocks back to the food pantry, his coffee was gone and he was eyeing Tony’s with a covetous expression. On the plus side, he was completely and totally awake for the first time in… oh, three years, maybe? Mainlining caffeine. It should totally be a thing.

He walked back in, put the coffee down at the counter and sat the bag next to it. Tony appeared delighted and poked a curious hand into the bag. “Oooh, bearclaws,” he exclaimed, helping himself to a huge mouthful and chewing with obscene amounts of groaning and sighing. He licked his fingers and Bucky nearly added his own groan in there.

“Love you back,” Tony said. Or at least, that’s what Bucky thought he said, as Tony had a mouthful of pastry and wasn’t bothering to finish chewing before speaking. Bucky was, however, the father of a seven-year-old and he spoke fluent talking-with-your-mouth-full-ese.