Plant-chair-plant, bowl-candy-pen, poster-poster-chair.
Bucky’s eyes darts to each object as he catalogs it. A few moments closer to leaving.
Glass-coaster-water fountain, door-wall-door.
A few breaths closer to going home. Precious breaths, if the proverbial elephant that’s settled between his lungs is anything to go by.
Bucky heaves his backpack on the reception desk. It’s mostly empty save for the essentials, so it does nothing to produce the loud sound that Bucky hopes will attract the receptionist’s attention. Instead, it makes a feeble swoosh that grates on Bucky’s shot nerves. He sets his phone on the desk – sets, he calls it, rather than slams, because slamming would be inappropriate. It gives out a thud, one that would make a techie lover’s heart skip beats, but no dice. The receptionist is still on the phone; Bucky still goes ignored.
For the most part, he avoids the VA meetings. He knows he shouldn’t. He knows he should find a therapist – a new one, after the previous three failed attempts. He knows that until he does so, he should at the very least come to the meetings. He knows all this, but the VA leaves him drained, filled with bleakness and a vague sense of dread; a reminder of what was, and a hopelessness over what he doesn’t yet have, and might not have any time that’s soon enough for comfort.
Damn his Stark Tech arm maintenance technician, slash doctor, slash whatever the hell else he is, for insisting that, “James, you’re lucky to be in good physical shape now, but if you continue not working out, you have to see a physical therapist. You must see one anyway, but especially if you don’t…”
Well, screw you too. If it weren’t for him, Bucky wouldn’t be standing here, waiting to get a physical therapist referral. If he could make himself work out, he would. If he could stop listing items to curb his anxiety, he would. If he could, he would get out of bed each and every day instead of his current ‘hopefully-on-most-days’ streak, and he would cook healthy food; he’d get a job, he’d make friends, he’d travel the whole world. But it is what it is, so Bucky does what he does.
The receptionist can’t finish her call soon enough. Bucky can’t get the referral soon enough. This day cannot end soon enough.
Bucky drums his fingers on the desk; they feel numb, whether from a chill he doesn’t register or one that’s coming from within. It unsettles him, so he has to stop. He sighs and hums impatiently under his breath.
The soft touch on his shoulder doesn’t startle him. Bucky has heard Clint coming before the latter has spoken – probably intentionally so. Clint has been a VA counselor long enough to know that it’s far safer and more considerate to telegraph his every movement and intention.
“Glad you came, as always,” the man says with a friendly smile that Bucky doesn’t even try to reciprocate. “Glen is leaving. He’s moving to Seattle, is about to give a goodbye speech. Did you see the cupcakes?”
Bucky grunts his “no”.
“Okay, well, come inside. We’d like to have you there. And we have cupcakes.”
Bucky sorely wants to decline, but he does have a soft spot for Clint and his easy-going attitude. He’s half the reason Bucky hasn’t quit the VA altogether, like he did with his therapists, his previous physical therapist, his former friends, his former hobbies, his former… well, life. He idly wonders if Clint would consider quitting his job at the VA to become Bucky’s life coach.
Maybe something softens in his face at that thought, because Clint interprets what he sees as an agreement. He squeezes Bucky’s arm – the metal one, devil-may-care as always – and softly directs him into the meeting room, away from Bucky’s possessions and, more importantly, away from the receptionist.
People cry, laugh and sniffle. Glen talks, thanks and encourages. Bucky counts floor tiles and hopes he doesn’t black out. A good fifteen minutes later, with a “take it for later, eat it at home!” cupcake in hand, Bucky is very close to losing it – the little of that “it” that he had in the first place.
The receptionist is improbably, impossibly still on the phone. A blond man stands before her, waiting with his forearms propped on the desk, but Bucky’s vision swims too much to focus on any of the man’s specifics.
Desk-pen-backpack (still here). Bowl-candy-plant. Phone (still here too)- identical phone-wate –
Ah, fuck it.
Bucky hastily grabs his backpack and his phone with his head ducked to the floor, his eyes trained on the tiles. His mind calculates the steps to the front door and to his freedom. To the outside world, he’s storming off in a huff, barely avoiding the tall guy also still waiting for the receptionist’s attention. In his world, he’s breaking free of the trenches, shaking off sand and that perpetual smell of lead, and breathing in the first fresh breath of air in ages.
The sight of the cupcake Clint made him take makes him nauseous, so he chucks it in the first trash can he sees; he’s not proud. He makes it back home on autopilot, throws his backpack and phone on the couch and hides under his duvet. He graciously allows himself to be a non-person for a while.
A few quiet hours later, Bucky reemerges to seek sustenance.
The oatmeal plate goes on top of the stack of unwashed dishes, a formidable Jenga tower that begs for his attention. Bucky shakes the chore off with a shrug. He cracks his neck and grabs his phone to check for messages from Becca, his very loving sister who’ll very likely turn up trying to knock his door down if he disappears for what she deems too long.
The lock screen doesn’t ask for Bucky’s password as per usual, but the oddity does not register as conscious thought at first. The default Stark Phone 7 home screen comes to life and stares at him in vivid colors. Bucky blinks at it dumbly. This is not his background picture; he’s chosen his background picture with meticulous care, and this is not it. He hasn’t authorized any updates in recent memory. He sweeps to the menu and draws in a sharp breath. These are not his applications. He doesn’t have PhotoEdit or WalkSteps, and definitely not MeetYourMate. This is, most assuredly, not his phone.
He scrolls through the picture folder in an attempt to find some clue about the phone’s rightful owner. There’s quite a few pictures, actually, but they’re mostly there for the aesthetics: food, sights, buildings, leaves. A lot of leaves. In any other case, this would strike Bucky as silly (it’s leaves), but somehow, be it the light, shape or angle of the photograph, these look like works of art, worthy of being captured and preserved in memory. Bucky recognizes spots of New York – a small miracle and mercy; the owner is a local, so that should make the task of Bucky getting them their phone back all the easier.
A redheaded woman and a handsome man feature in the few photographs of people. In one of them, they laugh over humongous cups of coffee; in the others, they’re silhouetted against the light in a play of bodies and shadows.
It’s the selfies of the blond man – a grand total of three – that stir something up in Bucky’s memory: a blond man at the reception desk of the VA.
Candy-plant-phone, identical phone…
The blond guy might need his phone. The blond guy might think someone stole it, that it’s lost forever, when it is in fact safely in the hands of Bucky, who genuinely wants to give it back. He looks like a good guy too, the blond man does. With his leaves, his light/shadow experiments and his goofy grin in his silly selfies, his sparkling eyes and his shiny hair. He looks like a guy who deserves to have his phone back.
The contacts in the phone are sparse, most of them full names and surnames. Bucky isn’t quite sure who he should call without descriptions like, “Mom,” “Dad,” “Best friend,” “Super hot lover” or “Call in case of emergency.” Using the stranger’s phone, Bucky calls his own number, hoping it is an honest-to-God swap and the blond man accordingly mistook Bucky’s phone for his. To Bucky’s disappointment, it goes straight to voicemail. Bucky lets out a guttural groan.
He taps the phone with his thumb, teeth chewing on his lower lip. He can’t text, he has the guy’s phone. He can’t call, he has the guy’s phone. He’s a New Yorker (probably), so maybe lost and found posters? Bucky giggles at the thought of a professional-looking photo-shooting of the lost phone set on a luxurious pillow, surrounded by a bunch of leaves and…
He stands up straight and hums. Photographs. JARVIS.
The Stark Tech online backup service to end all backup services. The service with unlimited free space that automatically uploads all files stored in a Stark Device on remote servers, to be accessed at anytime, anywhere. The service that synchronizes the content of all of a user’s devices, and which delivers an e-mail notification as soon as it’s done so – that is, if the user hasn’t disabled the JARVIS feature.
With any luck, this particular blond user hasn’t. Bucky grabs a stack of papers.
“And then,” Steve says indignantly, pushing his suitcase under the desk in Sam’s spare bedroom, in the lovely but not close enough District of Columbia, “he tells me, ‘Well, your numbers are low.’ Of course my numbers are low, you shitty excuse for a boss – for a person,” Steve amends, “because I don’t want to trick people into buying extravagant insurance that they don’t need.” He looks up at Sam, his nostrils flaring. “I’m not gonna lie to them.”
“That’s kind of the job that you signed up for,” Sam says calmly, leaning against the doorframe with folded arms.
Steve jams his phone in the charger without bothering to turn it on after his flight. The people he cares about calling him are in the near vicinity; the other people that could call him are from work, and he’s away, dammit. In any case, if they’d wanted to call, they had plenty of time to do so. There wasn’t a single vibration in Steve’s pocket from the time he left the VA building and ran to catch his flight until he hastily turned off the phone at the gate without even so much as looking at his screen, frantic not to miss his flight.
“I don’t care,” he says stubbornly. “It pays the rent, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna abandon my morals.”
“Mm hm,” Sam replies noncommittally to a conversation they’ve had before.
“That pathetic asshole sent me to the VA to ‘strike a deal or something’– his words, not mine,” Steve says, his cheeks pink with irritation as he takes his Starkbook laptop out of its bag. “Convince the VA people that the veterans need our insurance, absolutely need our overpriced, ridiculous, completely non-personal insurance, and – I quote,” he says, voice getting hoarse as he gets himself further worked up, “convince them that it’s a matter of ‘life and death, battlefield and peace’. What the hell?!” He drops the Starkbook on the bed and plops down beside it with a huff.
“He’s a dick, you know that,” Sam remarks.
“Well, you know who else is a dick?” Steve says unrepentantly, turning on his laptop. “Me. I am a dick.”
“Erm…” Sam shifts, not sure where Steve’s going with this.
“I went at the VA, told them everything,” Steve says smugly, gesticulating a straight line with his hand for emphasis. “Had a meeting, told them hi, I’m so and so, my boss sent me to mislead you into convincing your veterans to get our insurance, but it’s actually not in your best interest at all for such and such reasons. Let’s call him together and you can tell them you’re not interested, okay?”
Sam laughs softly. “Ever the hero.”
“Ever the decent human being, you mean?” Steve says as his Starkbook pings with new e-mail notifications. Hopefully it’s good news, or just spam. “Jesus, I hate this job,” he says as he navigates his way to his e-mail service.
“I hear you,” Sam says patiently.
Steve gives him a small smile. “Thanks. Sorry. Just arrived and I’m bombarding you with all my bullshit, Jesus.”
“It’s fine, Steve, shut up,” Sam says. “But now you’re here, and we’re gonna have a good time. Or Natasha’s gonna kill us anyway,” he adds, raising his eyebrows. “She’s pulled up a schedule for things to do while you’re here –all the things we mutually can’t be bothered to do on any other day. Museums, galleries, every quirky little shop in town. She wants to be a tourist in her own city.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” Steve says with a grin.
“Yeah, she was all like, ‘Steve’s been here so many times and never have we ever actually gone to places, it’s always the same coffee shop, the same bar.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, because he comes to hang out, not to go sight-seeing,’ but…” He shrugs. “She’s had enough.”
“I’m enjoying it already,” Steve says, and means it.
“Well, at least one of us will have fun,” Sam says resignedly. He straightens up. “I’m making a casserole, gonna check on it real quick.”
“Mm hm, feed me, friend,” Steve says at Sam’s retreating back, just to be rewarded with a snort.
Steve turns to his e-mails, or rather the one, a Stark Tech JARVIS notification: “Your devices have been synchronized.”
What the hell?
Steve stares at the e-mail in confusion. What devices? None of his devices have been active for the last few hours. A good half of them have been turned off, even.
His JARVIS picture folder has new photographs he never took, a series of handwritten notes. A whole bunch of them.
“Huh?” Steve mutters under his breath, thoroughly perplexed.
He clicks on the first picture.
It’s just a piece of paper – as are all the others, at a quick glance – held up by someone’s gloved hand. The little bits of background that Steve can see are dark and blurry, though if pressed, he’d guess it’s the interior of someone’s house. The letters are all capital, drawn in black sharpie in straight lines:
“I DIDN’T STEAL YOUR PHONE.”
Steve scrambles to his phone that’s peacefully charging on the desk, warming up under a beam of sunlight. It looks exactly like the device he owns, so what the…
The lock screen asks him for a password. Steve has never set up passwords; there’s no one to pick up and mess with his things, so there’s no need for such fuss. Steve would also never choose a background picture like this for his home screen. In all honesty, he wouldn’t bother changing the default in the first place.
Yep. Not his phone. Steve sets it gently down on the desk and returns to the laptop. He clicks on the second picture, then on the next, and on all of the next ones.
“DON’T WORRY, IT’S SAFE.”
“I MUST HAVE GOT IT…”
“ACCIDENTALLY. I THINK AT VA?”
“BUT I’VE GOT IT. I’M IN NEW YORK.”
“I CAN LEAVE IT SOMEWHERE…”
“FOR YOU AND YOU CAN GO GET IT…”
“AND LEAVE MINE THERE TOO…”
“IF YOU HAVE IT.”
“IF YOU DON’T HAVE IT…”
“IF YOU DO, PASSWORD IS 1917.”
“SEND ME DETAILS ON…”
“HOW TO PROCEED.”
Shit shit shit.
Bucky reassesses the pictures. Letters on papers held by a disembodied hand – gloved, no less, because his metal arm sent in a close-up to someone not in the know would raise questions – asking a stranger for an address to drop his phone off for him. Noble intentions, but it looks like a ransom note. Coming from a good place, but turning out a little creepy.
Bucky hastily pulls his tangled hair into a messy bun and straightens the creases on his sweater. He turns on the front camera, and tries not to scowl.
Steve clicks on the next few notes.
“REALIZED FACELESS MESSAGES…”
“MIGHT BE TAD CREEPY.”
Steve clicks on the picture of the most magnetic-looking man he’s ever seen.
He’s rocking the lumberjack style, or the hipster one, or maybe he’s somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, Steve is captivated by the deepest, gentlest eyes, and momentarily loses himself in their hues of blue and gray. The guy’s short beard makes him look cuddly. His brown hair must be on the long side, judging from a lock of it that’s escaped a presumed bun or ponytail and is falling on the side of the guy’s face, slightly curling at the end. The deep blue sweater and white t-shirt make him look soft, domestic. The look in his eyes is pained, says, ‘What the hell am I doing with this.’ Steve’s mouth tugs into a slow grin. He can’t take his eyes off the man’s lips.
Steve clicks on the next note.
“YOUR PHONE ISN’T HOSTAGE.”
“I’LL DROP IT OFF WHEREVER.”
“YOU GO PICK IT UP, LEAVE MINE ETC.”
“THANKS AND SORRY.”
“I’LL KEEP IT SAFE.”
Thanks and sorry. I’ll keep it safe.
Steve has been practically holding his breath since he saw the man’s – Bucky’s – picture. Now, he bursts out laughing.
Bucky folds one leg under the other, getting more comfortable in his chair. He glances at the television, his attention caught by strobe lights on some show or other, then turns his eyes to his laptop screen. Television, a couple YouTube videos at the ready, chatting with Becca, a book on standby should he get desperate – he’d add more, if it wasn’t overkill; anything to help him to avoid thinking of his mess of a ransom note.
“Well, order a pizza,” Becca writes as a response to Bucky’s professed lack of food. “With salad on the side,” she advises, making Bucky snort out a chuckle.
The laptop pings with a new e-mail notification. JARVIS informs him that his devices have been synched. Bucky’s heart gives a violent jolt, skips a few beats, then pounds hard against his chest. In his mind, the reaction registers as overly dramatic, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less real.
In his camera stream awaits a video. It’s easy to know it isn’t his; he only has screenshots of addresses and directions, and a select few pictures of shops and places done up for various holidays.
In his camera stream awaits a video.
“Hey, I’m Steve,” the blond ray of sunshine says, his soft-looking lips curled in a relaxed smile. “Thanks so much for reaching out, that’s so generous of you,” he goes on, and as his mouth moves to form words, Bucky leans closer to the screen, intrigued. “I do have your phone, must’ve been a mix-up, and I do live in New York, but I’m currently out of the city,” he continues, and Bucky thinks, Jesus Mary and Joseph, that voice. “I will be back soon though, so I’d appreciate it if you could hold onto my phone for me for a while, and I’ll do the same for yours. I’ll cherish it, I promise. I do love that background of yours, by the way – you sure do pay those Marvel movies tribute.” He smirks cockily. Bucky’s heart skips several beats – and mostly not out of indignation. His mouth is hanging open, he realizes, and he knows he’s gone dopey-eyed. He shakes some sense into himself. “Sorry, um… yeah,” Steve says. “Don’t want to buy a new phone, to be honest, so maybe we could forward each other’s calls for a while? Let me know if that’s okay with you. It’s only for a few days, but if not, I understand. Thank you, again, you’re so great. Thanks. Bye.”
Bucky takes a picture of himself giving Steve the thumbs-up of agreement. It uploads on JARVIS almost instantly.
Bucky stares at the screen, at the thumbnail picture of the man whose phone he currently has in his possession. If he gapes again, just a little, at loss for words or coherent thought, at least no one is around to witness it. He swallows hard, suppressing a wince or whine – he’s not sure which. Either way Bucky is, regrettably and very unexpectedly… well, smitten.