He still has a room that he retreats to when things became too overwhelming. But now the room is in the apartment that he shares with Steve. The door is keyed to his voice alone, but most of the time he gives Steve access, too. There is no clear wall, the cameras have been disabled. No one watches him now.
The walls of his room are still covered in words but now the original words have been joined by words like Good (waves of bright yellow and warm orange and soft blue) and Laughter (blue and pink circling around yellow centers).
Soft is a kitten that shares his room. Warm is orange and red and brown and made out of yarn knitted into a blanket. Fun is cut out of photos taken from a day when Tony had rented out a theme park and all of them had gone on rides and eaten cotton candy and hot dogs until they were sunburned and sick and laughing.
Traditions is a fresh Christmas tree, with paper cutout ornaments and strings of popcorn and cranberries. He hadn’t wanted to waste the food, but Steve reassured him that they’d put the popcorn and cranberry out in the park for the birds afterwards.
Friends is a word made out of framed pictures on top of his dresser, placed so he can see them from his bed. A soft light is shining down on them so that he is never alone in the dark. They help to make his bed one of his safe places.
He has more of them now. He comes to the common rooms frequently, watching subtitled TV with Clint and Natasha in the afternoons or reading silently with Bruce in the mornings. Sometimes, late at night, he’ll watch movies with Pepper. She’s trying to learn Cantonese, so she’s watching the movies to learn more about the culture and proper pronunciation and intonation. He likes it because the words don’t press on him and chase him with expectations. He can sit on the couch and eat popcorn and provide company to someone who is soft as silk and defenseless in a fight, but who is strong and brave. He hopes to be like her one day.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” she asks him.
He considers the question for a moment. So-so he signs.
She waits patiently. It’s one of the things he likes about her; she never tries to fill in his silences with her own words.
What if I don’t have enough spoons? he asks. She doesn’t sign, but JARVIS translates for her. Bucky signs Thank you J and gets a holographic You’re welcome in return.
“Then you don’t go. Tony and I will be there, and Sam, and the gallery staff. We’ll be able to handle the show if you aren’t there.”
That takes pressure off, makes it easier to breath.
What if I get there, and realize that I can’t do it?
“Then you leave and again, the staff and Tony and I handle it.”
What if no one likes my art?
“I think every artist worries about that. But we wouldn’t be having this showing if there weren’t a lot of people who’d been moved by your words.”
That makes him both happy and sad at the same time.
He’s nervous the next day. Or rather, he expects to be nervous, and his stomach is trying to tie itself into knots and his mind keeps trying to tell him everything that can go wrong and his hands keep trying to shake.
But Bruce makes biscuits on the common floor and invites him down to a breakfast of comfortable silence, Bruce reading scientific papers while James draws another word. His pencils have been used so much that they’re all different sizes, some sharp, some dull, all of them banged up and scraped. Bruce says imperfections are signs of a life well lived.
He goes back to their apartment for some coffee. Soft knocks over the Christmas tree and then chases the ornaments all around the apartment. Clint comes to help him and they end up playing video games all morning. And then Darcy shows up on roller skates and challenges Clint to a race down the long hallway. Afterwards they eat popcorn and watch a documentary about dragonflies.
All afternoon, his friends show up and keep him distracted. He knows what they’re doing, of course. He’s damaged, not brain dead. But he also accepts that they’re doing it because they want to help.
(It helps that he’s done similar things for them. He sat up with Darcy and watched comedies and ate ice cream when her latest relationship ended. He’s made popcorn for Clint and watched nature documentaries when the nightmares got too bad. Once he got Soft and put her in Pepper’s lap when she was having a bad day. So he understands about helping others and he appreciates being on the receiving end.)
The day goes by and he doesn’t have time to work himself up. Gentle laughter and silly car races and holding Darcy up while she tried to catch her balance with wheels strapped to her feet take up all of the time and energy he would have spent worrying. When it’s time to get dressed, he and Steve help to tie each other’s bowties.
There are too many people at the gallery opening, but there’s a balcony upstairs. It’s open to the lobby so he can hear all of the people who have come to see his art, but he doesn’t have to look at them unless he wants to. There are never less than two Avengers with him, and at times there are more. He eats tiny, delicious snacks and hears stories from art therapists on the healing value of art and self expression. He listens to the music and dances with Steve and Darcy and Pepper and Tony, who steps on his toes because he only knows how to lead. Clint finally takes him and they dance all over the floor wildly. Bucky laughs, and Steve smiles.
They leave before they need to. Bucky doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone so he doesn’t have to push himself to the limit or beyond. This way the party’s never quite overwhelming, but he’s still glad to get home. He’s pretty sure he’ll end up spending the next day in his white room, until he can process all of the noise and sights and interactions, but that’s okay.
He goes back to the apartment he shares with Steve. They make popcorn, one batch with salt and pepper and one batch with chocolate, because they can. Then they sit out on the balcony and watch the city lights while they eat in comfortable silence, the only noise the soft, rumbling purr of Soft in his lap.
“I’m beat, turning in,” Steve eventually tells him. “How ‘bout you?”
“Not yet. Have to draw a word first,” he says out loud.
Steve smiles, gives him a gentle hug and heads off to bed while James goes inside and gathers his art supplies.
Once upon a time, the shell of a man stared at a piece of paper because he didn’t know how to draw Safe.
He knows what Safe looks like now. It looks like signed conversations with Clint, gentle nature documentaries when he requests them, art supplies that are well worn. It feels like the certainty that he’ll eat again soon and that he’ll have a place to sleep, warm and out of the elements. It sounds like the purr of a cat, bumping her head against his arm for more petting. It smells like biscuits cooking in the common kitchen and early morning coffee and late night popcorn.
Safe is mornings in his room, afternoons with his friends, evenings with Steve. Safe is all around him. He knows what it looks like now.
James Buchanan Barnes starts to draw.