Scenes From A Marriage: The Long Road Home
Author's Note: This is the 4 Minute Window Advent calendar for the 2016 holiday season. As with last year, my goal is to do a bit of story every day (knock wood) between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Explicit eventually, the rest as it comes. Feel free to send me your hopes and dreams and I'll see what I can do. Hope you enjoy!
07:30 SGR departs Coney Island Design & Construction (A- 22)
07:53 SGR arrives Central Tile Company (A-96)
08:22 SGR departs Central Tile Company (A-96)
08:47 SGR arrives 959 74th Street (A- 96)
Natasha was drinking coffee and reading through the latest crop of papers when she looked up to find Barnes standing in the doorway to the bedroom, looking pale. "Hey," she said, "should you be out of—"
"Where is he?" Barnes asked, a little thickly. "Did he go?"
"He went, yeah." She made her voice sound casual. "But should you be—"
"I'm fine," Barnes said, and went, a little unsteadily, to the sofa. "You think he'd go if I wasn't?"
"No," Natasha said, after a moment. "No, I guess he wouldn't." She glanced, briefly, at the stack of older papers piled on the sofa cushion next to Barnes, and then said, as casually as she could manage, "Coffee's up—do you want some?"
"No thank you," Barnes said absently, but turned to look at her anyway. "He went to work?"
"Yeah." She made a face at him. "I thought maybe he wouldn't since the van's blocked in, but he just took the motorcycle. On the up side," she added, wryly, "you've got a $400,000 car in your driveway. Tony's surveillance vehicle—you should check it out."
Barnes rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead; not taking the bait. "Where did he go, 74th Street?"
Natasha sighed. "Yeah. To the Croydens."
"Going to finish their kitchen," Barnes muttered. "Course he is."
"Oh, it's worse than that." Natasha found herself unaccountably irritated. "He said he's going to give them some money back because—"
Barnes put his hands over his eyes and half laughed. "Oh, Christ."
"—it was supposed be done by Thanksgiving and it wasn't," Natasha finished. "Minor setback: just a terrorist attack on New York City. Christ, you won't need the CIA to shut the business down if Steve keeps on—"
"You're hired," Barnes said wryly, and then, frowning: "Are they shutting us down?"
"I don't know," Natasha admitted grumpily. "Nobody knows. None of my sources—Nobody seems to know what's happening."
"Well, I certainly don't," Barnes said. "I've been on a total news blackout, courtesy of you know who." His metal hand dropped on top of the pile of papers, and she realized he'd been aware of them all along; well, of course he had. They were what he'd come out for, like as not.
She bit her lip, considering; Barnes was looking straight at her, maybe daring her to say something. Steve had been pretty insistent about keeping the newspapers out of the bedroom while Barnes was recovering, and he'd yanked the radio and television plugs out of the wall. But...
She shrugged and abruptly gave way. "I think you should look at them," she said seriously. "They're about you, after all, and...well, they're pretty interesting if you ask me. I wouldn't mind having someone to talk them over with. Steve's...too angry to think straight."
"Since 1936," Barnes agreed, and dragged the topmost paper onto his lap.
"No," Natasha said, getting up and going to sit on the other side of the pile of papers. "If you're going to do it, start from the bottom—that's the first one." She tugged out a copy of The New York Trumpet from last week and handed it to him. "You guys sure do get a lot of papers. Now I know who's keeping print journalism alive."
"Old habits," Bucky said vaguely; his eyes were already on the headline: "Howling Commando James Buchanan Barnes, Reported KIA in 1945, Sighted at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters in NYC." Beneath that, in small caps, the sub-headers: "EVIDENCE OF AN EXPANDED SUPERSOLDIER PROGRAM," and "SGT. BARNES, BORN 1917, IS NEARLY 100 YEARS OLD."
The New York Trumpet
"Howling Commando Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Reported
KIA in 1945, Sighted At S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters in NYC"
SGT. BARNES, BORN 1917,
IS NEARLY 100 YEARS OLD.
NEW YORK - Numerous witnesses, many of them agents of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement & Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), have claimed that Steve Rogers, Captain America, escorted a man closely resembling Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos through the lobby of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters yesterday. This claim is remarkable since Sgt. Barnes, popularly known as Bucky Barnes, was thought to have been killed in action in 1945.
Born in Brooklyn on March 10, 1917, Sgt. Barnes was reported killed on a mission in the Swiss Alps only days before war hero and super soldier Mr. Rogers, 98, went missing in the March 5, 1945 crash of the Valkyrie. Both men were presumed dead although their bodies were never recovered. Captain America was discovered frozen in the Arctic in 2011 by an expedition of Russian scientists, and subsequently revived. It now appears that Sgt. Barnes, 99, must also have received some form of "super serum" which has allowed him to survive. If the man who was sighted in downtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon is, as witnesses claim, James Buchanan Barnes, he is a man apparently untouched by the ravages of time. Photographs taken at the scene reveal a man appearing closer in age to thirty than to nearly a century.
In an unusual turn of events for the security-conscious S.H.I.E.L.D., photographs and cellphone videos of Sgt. Barnes and Mr. Rogers began appearing on the Internet almost immediately after their reported appearance in downtown Manhattan. @BreakingNews had the photo within the hour, tweeting, "BUCKY BARNES ALIVE OR DEAD Y/N?" along with the hashtags #howling commandos and #greatest generation. That photograph and others, which seem to be of the same two men taken from different angles, quickly went viral, though there were immediate suspicions of a hoax. Mr. Rogers, who has not appeared publicly in some time, had grown a beard and was wearing civilian clothes, while Sgt. Barnes—adding yet another bizarre turn to the mystery - was dressed in the familiar blue and white uniform of Captain America. The photographs also show Sgt. Barnes with a bandaged head and leaning on Mr. Rogers for support, which corroborates witness accounts that Sgt. Barnes was wounded and had to be helped through the S.H.I.E.L.D. lobby by Mr. Rogers and, later, fellow 'Avenger' Natasha Romanoff.
While there has been a surge of traffic to Internet debunking sites like FactChecking.org and Snopes.com, there has been little in the way of official confirmation or denial. Representatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. declined to comment on this story, as did those of the CIA, the Defense Secretary, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although Lieutenant KellyAnn Kolchek, spokesperson for the U.S. Army, said that she would certainly be pleased to hear of Sgt. Barnes's survival. However, several sources with knowledge of the situation told The Trumpet that they believed the story to be true and that an announcement of Sgt. Barnes's return to public life would likely be forthcoming.
EVIDENCE OF AN EXPANDED
SUPER SOLDIER PROGRAM?
WASHINGTON - The sudden reappearance of Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos in New York yesterday, nearly 73 years after his reported death on February 27, 1945, has caused many to wonder if the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) had a more elaborate program for developing super soldiers during the Second World War than has been previously admitted.
Under the direction of Colonel Chester Phillips, the SSR ran a project to produce a unit of chemically-enhanced super soldiers using a serum developed by German refugee and Nobel prize winner Doctor Abraham Erskine. This project, which ran from 1941—1943, culminated in Steve Rogers's transformation into Captain America in June, 1943, after which Dr. Erskine was killed and the formula for his serum lost. No unit of super soldiers was ever created, and until now Steve Rogers was thought to be one of a kind. However, it now seems that there was at least one other recipient of Dr. Erskine's formula. At the time of Mr. Rogers's transformation, Sgt. James Barnes was already serving in the European theatre as a member of the 107th Infantry. Later, rescued from Hydra by his childhood friend, he would be recruited by the SSR and become a founding member of the Howling Commandos. If yesterday's reports are true, and Sgt. Barnes is in fact alive and looking remarkably like his last known photograph, one can only conclude that the SSR had more up their sleeve than history has heretofore recorded.
Consequently, The Trumpet has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to all SSR records dated between November 1943, when Sgt. Barnes was rescued by Cpt. Rogers, and February 1945, when Sgt. Barnes was reported to have fallen to his death in the Alps. We hope to discover whether Sgt. Barnes, or anyone else for that matter, was used as a test subject during a second, previously undocumented phase of the SSR's super soldier program. "It is a vital to our national security to know whether the U.S. produced any additional super soldiers during the war and if so, how many," said Senator Christopher Ismay (R-GA). "The intelligence gathered by soldiers who may have served their country over fifty, sixty, or even seventy years is of incalculable value."
"Holy shit." Bucky looked up at her with wide, glassy eyes. "They think it's the SSR. They think that what happened to me was—"
"That's the least of it," Natasha replied. "That's not what's interesting," and Bucky stared at her for a moment before reaching for the next paper in the stack, and then the next and the next.
Frustrated, Natasha snatched the newspaper out of his hand, though she felt an unexpected stab of guilt when Bucky looked up at her, shocked and almost childishly dismayed. "That's my sister," he muttered, reaching out for it. "That article was—"
"You're not looking at the big picture," Natasha told him. "Which is to say, the little one," and she picked up the Brooklyn Citizen, folded it, and handed it back to him, tapping the tiny photo inset within the picture on the front page. The main picture was yet another camera-phone shot of Steve pulling Bucky through the lobby of SHIELD, but the inset was a picture from the past: a black and white photo of Bucky and Steve by the seaside; Bucky and Steve from before the war.
He had been a good-looking kid, Bucky Barnes, and he had known it. In the photograph, he was shirtless and wearing swim trunks, his arm crooked around Steve's neck. Steve had the squinty, diffident look of someone who didn't much like exposure, to the sun or otherwise. He was carrying a small sketchbook; Natasha supposed that he was the one who normally did the looking. His long bangs had fallen across his face, into his eyes. She wondered now if that was on purpose.
"Look at this," she said, and Bucky frowned down at the picture. "Do you remember this?"
Bucky shook his head slowly. "I have no idea when that is. Could have been any time, I guess. Except." He tilted his head, frowning. "Except for the camera. I don't think we knew anybody with a camera." He stared at the photograph, and Natasha wondered if he was marveling at his own cocksure youth. But then he looked up, mouth curving. "I know you love him, too--"
That surprised her. "That I do," she said.
"—so let's just admit that he's got a lot of nose per capita, does Steve." Bucky stared down at the newspaper again, his expression lit up with fondness. "It used to be worse, because he had so much less face. And that bump. God only knows how many times he broke it."
"You're missing it," Natasha said softly, again, and handed him a copy of The New York Eye. "Here, again. Look," and she pointed to another old photograph: in his one, he was sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette.
Bucky looked at it and shrugged. "What do you want from me: I take a good picture," and then he frowned and she could literally see the idea cross his mind. He began to fish through the thick pile of papers.
"Right," Natasha said, sitting back. "Not a scowl, not one single scowl—and I've logged some hours at the Smithsonian, so let me tell you: you did a lot of scowling back in the day."
He looked up at her, irritated. Scowling, in fact. "Well, we were fighting a fucking world war."
"Yeah, but look at you guys there: a couple of choir boys, day at the beach. Vulnerable, unarmored. Not to mention—"
"Where did they get these pictures?" Barnes muttered, shaking his head.
"--where did they get these pictures?" Natasha finished, because yes, that was exactly the question. "They're not in the Smithsonian, and when Rogers came back, I was—" She stopped, but it was too late; Bucky gave her a shrewd, assessing look and then nodded slowly.
"You were his handler," Bucky said.
"Yes," Natasha admitted quietly.
"And then later, of course, you were on his protection detail," Bucky said wryly.
"Well, that's how we got here, isn't it?" Natasha shot back. "You and me?"
"It sure is. You had to arrange Steve's security, protect him from me," Bucky said. "So you probably know a thing or two about him. And you probably know a thing or two about me."
"I'm pretty close to an expert, actually," Natasha told him. "I did my own research; due diligence. And I've never seen these pictures."
Bucky nodded and squinted down at the paper again. "There's no credit line."
"Must be public domain," Natasha replied, except she seemed to remember seeing... She hunted through the papers and found the one she was looking for. "Here we go," she said, and then read the caption aloud: "James Buchanan Barnes, circa 1938, courtesy of the Brooklyn College Library. " She handed the paper to Bucky, then reached for her phone. A couple of taps and she had the answer to her question. "Ha, they blogged it," she said, grinning helplessly at him. "Goddamned librarians." She read it out to Barnes: "Prompted by public interest in the story of Bucky Barnes's sensational return, previously unseen photos of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have been discovered in the archives of The Brooklyn Times-Union—"
"Shit, I remember the Times-Union," Bucky said. "Times Plaza's still there - Flatbush Avenue." He waved his hand that way.
"—which were donated to Brooklyn College after the paper ceased publication in 1950. The pictures were never properly labeled, it says here. The one of you and Steve at the beach was just 'Boys—Coney Island.' Part of a photo spread, man on the street stuff. Boys on the beach." She put her phone down. "It's a good picture: friendly, humanizing. Somebody went to the effort of digging up that picture, Barnes. I'd say somebody out there likes you."
Bucky looked uncomfortable, "Likes Steve, you mean."
"No, I don't think so. I think you. Any idea who?" Bucky slowly shook his head.
12:31 SGR departs 959 74th Street (A- 96)
12:36 SGR arrives 13th Avenue Coffeeshop (A- 96)
12:51 SGR departs 13th Avenue Coffeeshop (A- 96)
12:58 SGR arrives 959 74th Street (A- 96)
17:35 SGR departs 959 74th Street (A- 96)
17:48 SGR arrives Marenstein Bakery (A- 96)
17:59 SGR departs Marenstein Bakery (A- 96)
18:14 SGR arrives Coney Island Design and Construction (A-22)
"You shouldn't read that stuff," and they looked up to see Steve standing there in his dirty work clothes: heavy denim shirt and khakis and construction boots. He looked at Barnes grimly, then shot a look at Natasha as if it was her fault, as if she should have ripped the papers out of Barnes's hands or something. "Buck. What are they going to tell you that you don't know?"
"There's an interview with my sister," Bucky said. "With Ellie. From 1974—"
"What are they going to tell you about Ellie that you don't know?" Steve said angrily. "She's your sister, you know her better than anyone. It's a goddamned invasion of privacy is what it is."
"It's a plan," Natasha said quietly, from the other side of the room. "It's somebody's plan. I don't know whose yet but—"
"Whose could it be?" Steve said, rounding on her. "If it's not our plan, it's their plan."
"Maybe," Natasha allowed. "Except it's good press, Steve: sympathetic to a fault. The return of Bucky Barnes—young, handsome: nothing about the Winter Soldier or about Hydra. He's a Brooklyn boy, a hero from a nobler age. A Howling Commando, straight out of a history book. Best friends with Captain America—or maybe he is Captain America. Maybe it's something the two of you do together on the weekends: like winning wars and playing stickball."
"Stop," Steve muttered. Bucky'd already looked away, jaw working—he looked somehow wrecked.
"It's a case, Steve," Natasha insisted, "someone is making a case here. They're printing pictures of the two of you together: Steve and Bucky, then and now. They're showing the world that he matters to you—and therefore, that he matters, full stop. You're integrity personified, so it's an implicit endorsement; I couldn't have orchestrated things better myself."
"Sure, let's have a parade," Steve gritted out. "A big one, with ticker tape down Fifth Avenue, a lot of glad-handing and kissing babies: maybe a photo-op with the President. They don't let you talk much, Buck, but that's okay, because you have a Brooklyn accent and nobody wants to hear what you have to say anyway. Then they have this nice cabin in the woods, upstate, by a lake: they let you stay there for a while when the grind of the publicity machine gets to be too much," and Natasha felt that like a punch to the solar plexus; she'd brought Steve up to the lake house herself, after the Chitauri attack and before— "Then maybe they'll find you a little apartment somewhere, with a dishwasher—though they'll expect you to be very excited about that for some reason, so fake it if you don't feel it. But the thing is, absolutely none of that will matter a damn if they decide you're the enemy. I was Captain America," Steve said, and the past tense made her stomach knot. "That didn't stop them turning on me at the first opportunity."
"That was Hydra," Natasha protested. "This—whoever's doing this, it's not Hydra."
"It's all Hydra," Steve said bitterly, and went to wash and get changed.
"Well," Natasha said, determined to sound calmer than she felt, "that didn't go very well."
Bucky was still pale, but he looked at her and shrugged offhandedly. "He's dramatic, don't mind him. You gotta be a bit dramatic if you're going to wear that outfit. I was embarrassed to death half the—hey," he said, attention snapping immediately back to Steve, who had reappeared wearing clean sweats and drying his face with a towel, "so you think it's a trap? You know, it could be a leak from below, someone trying to keep us out of a black site by shining a little light our way."
"Could be," Steve said, moving into the kitchen; pots banged and clanked. "Or it could be a set up: they normalize you with the parade and the president and cabin and then, whoa, hey, stop the presses: Bucky Barnes is The Winter Soldier, Hydra operative and deadly assassin. I can't believe it!—can you believe it? I don't believe it. Who wants soup, I'm making soup."
"You're heating soup," Bucky corrected. Steve banged a pot and turned around.
"That's right: I'm heating soup, I'm not making soup from scratch. You want soup from scratch?" Steve was breathing raggedly, and Natasha stared from one of them to the other, wondering why Bucky was poking him, winding Steve up like this when he was obviously—
Bucky idly scratched at his chin and said, "No, canned is fine," and then, very softly, "Keep it together," and then Steve was turning his back and staring down at the stove with his fists clenched, a wall of contained fury. Then Bucky got up and went over and stood behind him, close but not touching. And then he muttered, close to Steve's ear, "It's going to be all right. It will," and Natasha drifted into their bedroom, to give them space and a little bit of extra privacy.
The window in here was the only window that overlooked the street. Outside, she saw that an NYPD police car had pulled up next to the SHIELD surveillance vehicle—that was interesting. It had been Agent 22, Sidney Ormond, heading the team stationed outside last she checked: he was all right, Sid, not like some of them. Barnes had treated the window so that nobody could see in, so Natasha felt comfortable standing there and watching the action go down on the street outside.
The cops had come around to both sides of the car, and Sid had been forced to roll down the window. The cop on the driver's side had bent down to talk to him—was this a check-in? were they collaborating?—except now the cop was pulling his flashlight off his belt and shining it into the car, the circle of light bright in the dark winter evening.
Very interesting; very—and from this angle, two stories up, she couldn't see Sid's face, but a moment later she saw that he was passing something to the police officer: his identification, maybe; his driver's license or his SHIELD badge. It was a tricky thing, dealing with local law enforcement. Ideally, of course, an operative flew under the radar, but that was hard when you had to stake out a building like this, and if you got noticed, you couldn't always depend on inter-agency cooperation. It wasn't like there were permits or anything. SHIELD was an international organization, and it and the CIA worked pretty well together, but she knew that there was friction with the FBI on the one side and with Interpol on the other, and the local police were always.... She found herself smiling in a kind of bemused incomprehension as the cop summarily handed back the badge: were they going to give Sid a ticket, or— Her grin widened. The cop made a kind of shooing gesture. He was pointing down the street. Christ. The cops were sending them packing—would Sid call for backup or would he just go? He went. She stood there and watched.
"Guys," Natasha said, coming back into the main room, "you'll never believe what just—"
They were sitting at the million-dollar table eating bowls of soup. "Come and have some," Steve said, waving her over. "There's fresh bread from Marenstein's—"
"The NYPD sent your surveillance team away," Natasha said, pulling up a chair.
"The NYPD passeth all understanding," Steve replied.
"The NYPD does whatever the fucketh it wanteth," Bucky said. "They'll be back," and then he turned to Steve and resumed their conversation. "Look, I don't have any other ideas, okay? I'm not a fucking fountain of ideas. This was my idea—this," and he waved his metal hand around the kitchen, the apartment, the garage; the whole place, "and my other ideas are the same idea: we make a run for it, we go and hide somewhere, we start over. If you don't want to do that—"
"I don't want to do that," Steve said.
"Well, then I am out of fucking ideas, Steve." Bucky shoved his chair back. "What's your idea?"
Steve stared into his soup for a moment, and then began, quietly, "We put it on them. We make them come here and get us. We don't make it easy, we don't go quiet. We make them drag us out of here in front of our friends and neighbors; we make them shoot us in the street like dogs."
Natasha put her spoon down. Even Barnes seemed taken aback.
"And in the meantime," Steve said, reaching for the bread, "we live our lives, we go to work—"
"Wait, whoa, screw that," Bucky said. "I'm not going to work. I want to go dancing."
Now it was Steve's turn to look taken aback. "What?"
"Dancing," Bucky said, scraping his chair back and standing up a little unsteadily. "Dancing. You know: moving your body in time to music. Come on, you and me—and Natasha, too: I'm paying. Let's go to that thing you wanted to go to last year—the swing thing at Lincoln Center."
"I didn't want to go, I wanted you to go," Steve said testily. "And you said you wouldn't because—"
"Yeah, well, that was before I was waiting to be shot like a dog. You really know how to cheer a guy up, you know that? Jesus Christ, Steve." Bucky took a breath and then his expression turned pleading. "Come on, come out. Put on a suit, I'll buy you a drink. We'll go up to Harlem if you think Lincoln Center's too public. But if this is it—if this is really it—then I'm going out."
"Well, then you should," Steve said, his face somehow hard and apologetic both. "Knock yourself out, but I'm—not really in a dancing mood."
"All right," Bucky said, and then he looked at Natasha and said, "What about you? You coming?" and Natasha hesitated and looked at Steve, who jerked an almost imperceptible nod.
She had no idea that Barnes was such a party animal. Four hours and three nightclubs later, and Barnes was pulling her through another dark and crowded bar to yet another dance floor, and who knew that there even were places like this in New York anymore? Sure, they'd had to come pretty far uptown, but this wasn't the typical New York club scene of people rocking their bodies to a thumping base; these people had moves, these people were dancing like they meant it.
She'd learned swing formally, as a style, but for Barnes it was a lifestyle, and he danced it with a nonchalant ease that she'd never encountered before, even with professionals; he danced it like a native, moving and turning through the complicated steps like a fish sliding through water. The movements were natural to him, unstudied: swing, turn, pull back, push in, turn again. He wasn't thinking about it: he didn't have to think, he'd let his brain off the hook—which she could see, now, was the whole pleasure of it for him. He was letting his body drive.
For her own part, she had to focus, count steps, think about where her hands were, where her feet were, even as he lead her through it. A couple of times she was certain she'd mistimed it—that she was going to miss his outstretched hand as she turned and go flying off or crash down onto the sprung wood dance floor—but he always had her; always. He knew where she was even when she didn't. It was exhilarating, and she was breathless, sweating; hair flying. She hadn't had a workout like this in some time.
Bucky was sweating too: he'd started out in a jacket, but he'd had to lose that, though he'd kept his long sleeved shirt cuffed at the wrists and he'd loosened his tie a little - but not enough to show the glint of metal at his left collarbone. And Christ, he could put it away, could Barnes, though she'd known that: she'd learned that the night that Peggy Carter died, when he'd drunk her under the table. He'd always insisted that he had the second-rate serum that let him get sloshed, though she didn't think she'd ever seen him really drunk until tonight: "If I'm gonna throw up," he slurred with a kind of grim determination, "if I throw up today, it's gonna be because I'm enjoying myself for a goddamned change," and by then she was too muzzy-headed herself to argue. For what that was worth, it made dancing easier, and she just grinned at him and let him fling her around like a rag doll for another hour, trusting him to catch her even if he was plastered.
In the end, they ended up collapsed half on top of each other on a ratty red velvet banquette at the back of the club. Bucky was carefully sipping what had to be at least his tenth whiskey with the careful, precise movements of the very drunk, and Natasha stretched her legs out in front of her and looked at her feet. They seemed very far away. It was a good thing she'd worn her good dancing shoes; she'd have ripped the heels off any other pair she owned.
"You wanna'nother?" Bucky's empty glass slipped through his fingers and fell into her lap. He pushed his sweaty hair away from his forehead and sat up; he was trying to be a gentleman. "Getchoo'nother— "
She dragged him back by his shirt and he came easily, falling back beside her. "Forget it," she said. "M'done, you're done. We're done," she said, and blinked slowly at him.
"Yeah," he said, and time went sideways, a little, so she was never sure if he'd kissed her or if she'd kissed him, though she thought from the look on his face after that he had kissed her.
"Let's pretend that never happened," he said, and Natasha let her head roll back to look at him and replied, licking her lips, "That what never happened?" Bucky slid further down into the balding velvet cushions. He smiled and closed his eyes and said, "I really like you, sister. I don't even like girls and I like you." He opened one eye and said, relaxed and squinting at her, "You should do that with Steve some time. It'd do him good. Steve likes girls, or he used to, before I got my mitts on him. And you know, I used to think you were a little sweet on him."
"I am, a little," she said. "I think we all are, a little: just look at Tony. But Steve's not so easy."
"You saying I'm easy?" Bucky interrupted, and then, suddenly serious, "No, he's not easy. He's the furthest thing from easy. He doesn't get drunk, for one thing," and then his face crumpled and he buried it in his hands. "He's got no plausible deniability, that kid. He always has to do the right goddamned thing," and Natasha stared, helpless and a little horrified, as Bucky lifted his red, wrecked face and said, "How'm I gonna save him? How'm I ever going to save him now?"
She scrubbed at her cheeks, her hair, trying to get the blood flowing back to her brain: to get her brain working. "Taxi," she said, twining her arm around his. "Come on, we've got to get a—"
"Okay," Bucky muttered, letting her tug him forward; tug him up, tug him out.
He fell asleep in the cab, but she was wide awake as they moved through the city, which was deserted as it ever got at this hour: light traffic, all the lights twinkling on the East River as they sped down the FDR Drive to the bridge. She opened the window an inch or two to feel the cold air blowing against her face. It woke her up, a little. She stared out the window at the city and thought about things.
He stirred when the cab stopped in front of Coney Island Design and Construction, but he was groggy, and so she got out of the cab on the street side, coming down with a crunch onto auto glass, and went around to open the door on his side. There were no other occupied cars in the street, though there was light streaming onto the cracked sidewalk from an open garage door somewhere down the block. Bucky looked apologetic as she hauled him up off the back seat; in his rumpled suit and overcoat he looked like the tail end of a great New Year's Eve, circa 1938.
"C'mon," Natasha said, walking him unsteadily toward the door as the cab pulled off. "Where's your—"
"I got 'em," Bucky said, and clumsily fished for his keys in his suit pockets. "They're here. Somewhere," but it turned out he didn't need them, because suddenly Natasha heard the heavy bolts turning and then Steve was there, pale and anxious and yanking the door open for them.
"Hey," Bucky said, face lighting up, and then he was lurching away from her toward Steve, practically falling into his arms, and then his metal elbow was crooking around Steve's neck and he was kissing him and groping Steve's face with his other hand. This wasn't exactly surprising—this was clearly the kiss Bucky had been jonesing for all evening—but she was surprised at the way Steve clutched back, dragging him in, his long fingers digging into the back of Bucky's jacket. And then they were kissing and sort of grinding against each other, stumbling back against the wooden bench, and Natasha jerked a thumb over her shoulder and said, "I think I'll—probably—" and then she was stepping out into the night air and yanking the heavy metal door shut behind her. She tested it with a rough shove: it was solidly locked but not barred, though god helped the people who interrupted two supersoldiers fucking, she thought.
Not that there was anyone in sight, anyway. Tony's car was still parked across in front of CID&C's huge garage door, and Natasha slipped the handheld out of her pocket and consulted it: nothing, nobody within range. She frowned and walked into the street to study the scatter of auto glass in the circle of streetlight; it glittered across the black asphalt like ice. Then she began to walk purposefully down the block, toward the open garage door and the slanting yellow light.
It wasn't as big as CID&C's garage, but there was a cheap table set up with a bare bulb hanging over it, and three men sitting around it, drinking beer and playing cards. They looked up and nodded at her as she passed, and then one of them called out to her: "Oye! Eres la prima—?" and then, abruptly switching languages, "—the cousin?" He waved a scarred hand vaguely in the direction of Coney Island Design & Construction, down the block. "You are the cousin, yeah?"
"Yeah." Natasha smiled at them but didn't stop walking. "Si! I'm--the cousin," she repeated, because she didn't know whose cousin she was supposed to be, Rogers's or Barnes's. She waved vaguely and then she was out of sight and down the block; at the corner; turning.
Only then did she pull out her cell phone. "Clint," she said. "I need you."
Bucky was heavy in his arms, and his mouth was cool and wet and tasted of whiskey like it had before everything in the world went to hell. Kissing him reminded Steve of a million other nights before the war when Bucky had gone out dancing and come home sweaty and drunk, with lipstick on his collar and a dame's perfume in his hair. But it was Steve he'd come home to, and then, with the door locked, Steve would roughly unknot Bucky's tie, unbutton his shirt and—
He had the idea that somehow, together, they'd manage to navigate the rickety wooden stairs up to their apartment and get to the bed, but halfway up they just sort of went down in slow motion, Bucky's legs collapsing under him with the grace of the very drunk, and then Bucky was sprawled back on the staircase and laughing up at Steve and making faces. He looked happier than he'd been since before he'd replied to that goddamned Code Red on New York, and he was spread out before Steve like a smorgasbord. Steve bent down to unknot Bucky's tie and unbutton his shirt, spreading out his overcoat and his dinner jacket—hell, he'd do him in the husk of his discarded dress clothes. He unbuckled Bucky's belt and unzipped his wool trousers.
Bucky's laughter turned breathless and throaty as Steve licked his hand and gripped him, then leaned in to kiss the soft skin of his belly, the scratchy base of his cock. This was a thing he knew how to do, and he fell into it instinctively: he knew how Bucky liked to be rubbed and stroked, how to use his mouth and what the rhythm was: it was their own sort of dancing, honed after many evenings of practice. Beneath him, Bucky moaned and stroked Steve's hair, his hips gently rocking up into the rhythm of it. Steve lost track of time, lost track of everything except the warm intimacy of this, Bucky's warm hard thigh and the slick, fragile skin beneath his lips, and then Bucky was tensing beneath him, hips trembling. Steve pulled off slow and worked him through it with his hand, watching his face turn inward. It took him over, then let him go: Bucky convulsed, arching a little, then let out of a series of gasps and sank back against the stairs, his jism pooled on his belly.
He looked raw, decadent, and Steve had never wanted him more. He was desperate for it, aching and needy, and without even thinking he made a grab for Bucky's shoulder and struggled to turn him. Bucky went willingly, rolling and getting his knees under him, and Steve fisted Bucky's shirt and jacket by the lapel and dragged them down his left arm both together, exposing his back. "Come on," Bucky said, between breaths; he was suddenly panting like a freight train, and Steve shoved down his sweatpants and pushed his cock between Bucky's pressed-together thighs, his cockhead nudging the back of Bucky's balls, the shaft hard against his body.
They both groaned at the same time, and Bucky's thighs tightened around him. Bucky slurred, "God, it's good, but—I want you to put it in me, put it inside me," and Steve, moving back and forth now, and drunk on the pull of it, the friction, muttered, "Vaseline's upstairs; too far," because it might have been on the moon as far as he was concerned; his body wasn't waiting.
"Don't need it," Bucky said, his voice muffled against his arm, "I can take it: I've been fucking you for the better part of a century--" and then Steve couldn't hear much else with the blood rushing in his ears, and he was fucking hard and fast between Bucky's legs, hands tightly clutching his hips. They were smooth and pale, and he only realized when he finally let go, his come dripping down the inside of Bucky's thighs, that he'd gripped hard enough to leave marks: there were red splotches where his fingers had been. "M'sorry," he said, collapsing onto Bucky, and then he was pressing his lips to the sweaty back of Bucky's neck and saying, "I didn't mean to hurt—"
"Shut up, that was great," Bucky muttered. "No fishing for compliments." He reached back clumsily with his hand, found Steve's, and twined their fingers together.
Steve closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the back of Bucky's neck. "Bucky, if you want to run, I'll run," he said. "We won't tell anyone; not a soul: we'll go so far underground we won't even recognize ourselves. I don't care about winning. I don't have to be right."
Bucky lifted his head and said, blearily, "What have you done with the real Steve Rogers?"
"No, I mean it. I don't have to be right. I don't, Buck," and whatever Bucky heard in his voice made him squirm and turn around, reach out to soothe him. "I need you to understand: if they take you again, I can't live here anymore," and Bucky understood better than anyone that by here Steve meant now.
"I don't know what to do," Bucky said finally. "I really don't. You held it to them and they backed down. Maybe they'll back down again. You can be awful persuasive when you think you're right."
"Yeah. But this time—I'd rather be alive and with you. I hear Chicago's nice. The Cubs..."
"I could root for the Cubs," Bucky said.
Natasha groaned as her phone binged, not wanting to move out of the arms of a warm, naked Clint Barton. "Phone," he mumbled, even as she was reaching to drag it off the nightstand.
Text. Tony. IT'S ME LET ME IN, and she groaned and blearily texted back: I'M NOT THERE. Clint rolled over sleepily, lifted an arm, and pulled her back against him.
The bing came again a second later, as she'd known it would. WHO'S WATCHING THE KIDS?
THEY'RE WATCHING THEMSELVES, she texted back.
She didn't expect him to leave her the fuck alone, and he didn't. HOW DO I GET IN? and she half-laughed, half groaned and sat up, the sheet falling down around her waist, to text: BANG ON THE DOOR AND YELL HI ITS TONY. OPEN UP. She let the phone drop and saw that Clint was awake and watching her with a kind of dreamy expression. "I like the view," he said, and she smiled seductively at him and rolled her shoulders, thrusting her breasts forward. He reverently stroked the curve of her breast with his hand, then touched her nipple with a finger. Heat pooled low and she licked her lips, beginning to tingle and hum with wanting it. She--
Her phone binged and she groaned.
NO ANSWER. WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY? and she she sighed and then considered the time: nearly 2 in the afternoon. They'd gone to work, most probably, responsible bastards. Steve had probably gone to finish that kitchen, and odds were that Barnes had gone with him.
THERE'S A BAGEL PLACE TWO BLOCKS DOWN AND AROUND THE CORNER, she texted. I'LL BE THERE IN 15 and then she looked at Clint, smirked, and hit backspace, 25 MIN, and then she threw the phone onto the nightstand, shoved Clint's shoulders down, and straddled him.
Tony was sitting alone at a cheap formica table in the corner of Church Avenue Bagels when she and Clint finally walked in. "You're late," he said, looking up, "but I don't even care because these bagels are fucking amazing." He picked up another half, with cream-cheese, and bit in.
She pulled up a chair, grinning, while Clint went to get bagels and coffee from the counter. "Yeah, they're pretty good."
"So where the hell are they?" Tony asked. "Place's locked up tight as a drum."
"Probably went to work. They're remodeling a kitchen."
"Oh, well, as long as it's something important," Tony said, rolling his eyes. He waited until Clint came back with onion bagels and coffee, and then said, swallowing and lowering his voice, "SHIELD called me in for a conversation this morning. Asked for my help," and Natasha tried not to betray her surprise on her face. But Tony seemed to guess it anyway, because he nodded grimly and said, "They're being pressured—not to say badgered—to put out some kind of statement about Barnes, but they're a bit worried that--you know: Captain America might decide to go nuclear on them on the front page of the New York Times. "
Natasha blew on her coffee, then sipped it. "It's decent odds," she allowed.
"So they want to talk to him, run it past him, but—interestingly, they can't seem to get near him. Things keep going wrong. Last night, for example," Tony said, slouching down in his chair, "in a case of very interesting developments indeed, some guys smashed up their car with baseball bats."
Beside her, Clint didn't even blink; God, she loved him. "Well, Brooklyn can be a tough place," she said. "Tell them there's a good auto glass shop down the block, though. Russians. Fix 'em right up."
Tony ignored this. "Then the cops came by and said that—listen to this, you'll love this—that it might have been someone from the Neighborhood Watch. They said that some of the guys around here get what you might call enthusiastic about neighborhood protection, and then they pretty much blamed SHIELD for the whole thing—like, what did they expect if they were hanging around in the middle of the night, casing the joint? It's like the old joke: 'Doctor, it hurts me when I go like this!' 'So don't go like that." So the position of local law enforcement is: maybe don't be loitering around Coney Island Avenue on account of how a person could get hurt and that would be a crying shame, too bad. "
"Uh-huh," Natasha said, and unwrapped her bagel.
Tony pushed down his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "So they called me in, gave me a draft of the thing, and sent me here—and boy, it's a sad day for SHIELD when I'm their big ally. They want me to show a draft of this press release to Steve, see what he thinks of it."
"Oddly, he's not interested in being complicit in his own destruction," Natasha said, and then she was reaching for a paper napkin and wiping cream cheese off her fingers. "Give it to me," and Tony hesitated for only a moment before pulling an envelope out of his inside overcoat pocket. It was embossed with the SHIELD logo and had printed on it, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.
"The first rule," she said, slipping the paper—one folded page—out of the envelope, "is never to admit to anything that people don't already know," and Tony crossed his arms and said, "Well, that'll work out fine, because nobody seems to know anything. I'm serious, Natasha," he said, when she made a skeptical face at him, "I think they were genuinely shocked to find out that James Barnes was the Winter Soldier: that James Barnes was even alive. I mean, we were surprised—you and me, and Clint over here, who knows fucking everything about everything," Tony flung his hand at Clint; Clint rolled his eyes and kept eating, "and we're pretty on the inside of SHIELD as things go. Forget my father--though God knows it's hard to, even after heavy drinking, but—Aunt Peg? You think Dame Peggy Carter, MBE, head of SHIELD for fifty years, knew that Bucky Barnes was alive and didn't say anything, didn't do anything about it, didn't mention it to Steve when he turned up out of the ice?"
Natasha thought about this; put that way, it seemed very doubtful. "She didn't know," she agreed. "But Fury knew. He wasn't surprised."
"Fury knew," Tony admitted, "but he played everything close to the vest."
"Yeah," Natasha said, and then she unfolded the paper to stop herself from saying more. Tony was right: the press release, short as it was, had a note of uncertainty to it: SHIELD wasn't themselves sure what had happened, so they weren't sure what to say. There was no mention of the Winter Soldier, which was good: just an acknowledgment that James Buchanan Barnes, sergeant in the 107th Infantry, member of the Howling Commandos, posthumously made a founding father of SHIELD after his death in 1945, was, as the pictures on Twitter indicated, very much alive; that he had received some version of the super serum during the war (the release didn't say how, or from whom); that Steve Rogers was one of the few people alive who was in on the secret (fair enough), and that Barnes occasionally served as Captain America when Steve Rogers wasn't—"
" '—available?'" Natasha finished incredulously, looking up. "He serves when Rogers isn't available? Rogers ran for his life. He hates them. He feels they betrayed and manipulated him. He only took the shield back because Harry Perkins begged him--"
"Well, that's sort of like not being available," Tony said, and just then there was a little tinkle of bells as the bagelry door opened, and Natasha looked over her shoulder just by instinct, expecting nobody important—except there was Sam Wilson in a leather jacket, looking shocked to see Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye sitting down to an afternoon bagel brunch.
"I just thought I'd take some bagels over," Sam explained. "The bagels are good here."
"Yeah," Clint said, nodding. "We know."
"Look, you guys," Sam Wilson said to Steve and Bucky in a low voice; he was leaning toward them in the armchair, hands dangling between his legs. "I'm well aware that I'm, like, your least super-powered friend." Sam shot a look over his shoulder at the million-dollar table, where Natasha, Tony, and Clint were arguing over SHIELD's draft press release, taking commas out and putting them back in again. "But I have been around the block a couple of hundred times and I think I have something to contribute to this situation, so listen up, okay? You need a lawyer."
"A lawyer?" Bucky repeated incredulously, but Sam nodded; he was serious, all business.
"A lawyer," Sam repeated, "and a damn good lawyer, preferably a military lawyer or someone who specializes in veterans issues. Look, man, I know you're all with the super-serum and that shit," he told Bucky, "but as strange as your situation is, it's hardly unique. There was that guy—they just found him a couple of years ago: what's his name. Robertson. Special ops in Vietnam: helicopter shot down, KIA, presumed dead. Turned out he survived," Sam told them. "He was captured, tortured, put in a bamboo cage for two years. Then he married his nurse. When they found him, he spoke Vietnamese like a native. He'd forgotten his family, his own name—"
Bucky'd gone pale. "Stop," he said thickly. "Just—"
Sam gripped his arm. "Barnes, you need to hear me on this. This isn't unique to you. You're not the only POW who's been forced to fight for the other side. But there are laws in place to—"
"But—" Bucky gritted out.
"—laws in place," Sam repeated resolutely, driving over him, "to determine when you do and do not bear responsibility for what you did as a prisoner of war. The Germans conscripted Soviet soldiers during the war, and the Soviets conscripted the Poles. There's a history there, man, and that's even before we get to the brainwashing and the amnesia. Hydra had a guy called Fennhoff; there was a book about him, won the National Book Award a couple years back. This Fennhoff worked for Hydra and the CIA both, doing mind control; getting people to do things against their will: shoot people, kill themselves, bomb buildings. He had scores of victims, this guy—"
"My dad," Tony Stark said softly, from across the room, and they turned to look at him. "Fennhoff nearly got my dad, back in the day. Peggy saved him—well, of course. Peg."
Sam nodded and turned back to Bucky. "I grant you this situation is weird but it is certainly not unprecedented. You got two more case studies in your kitchen—Natasha and Clint, both of them brainwashed by enemies of the United States. Don't you see: there's a case to be made, you just need somebody to make it; somebody who knows the law and all the relevant historical precedents. Like when the brainwashed POWs from Korea were repatriated, they sued for back pay and benefits, all the way to the Supreme Court—and they won; the Army had to pay them from the time they were captured to the time they were discharged. And you've never even been discharged, buddy; seems to me you're still wearing an American uniform. You were certainly fighting for your country a couple of weeks back, whatever things you did as the Winter Soldier—"
"But. I. Did. Them," Barnes gritted out, like he was talking to a child. "I'm guilty, I did those things, I—"
Sam pointed emphatically at him. "This is why we don't let people defend themselves, man. This is why we have lawyers in this country. Listen to me: just because you did things, doesn't mean you're guilty."
Barnes let out an explosive breath and threw up his hands. "What the fuck are you—"
"Bucky, be quiet," Steve said sharply; he was sitting up now and looking at Sam with urgent understanding. "Be quiet," and Sam met his eyes and nodded approvingly. "Sam, do you know somebody? The right...sort of person for this?" and now it was Sam's turn to let out a long breath.
"Yeah, I think so." Sam rubbed at his face. "At least...I think I know somebody who knows somebody."
"Get them," Steve said.
The dark-haired woman standing outside on the sidewalk was wearing a wool coat with a fur collar, a navy blue pantsuit with heels, and a doubtful expression. "I'm Bernie Rosenthal," she said, when Steve opened the metal door. "Sam Wilson said..." She trailed off and gave him a probing look; he'd refused to re-Captain-America-fy himself, so he was wearing his glasses, a beige cardigan, his beard. "You're Steve Rogers," she said finally, and switched her briefcase to her other side so she could offer her hand. "It's an honor, sir. Sam sent me - may I come in?"
"Yes, please," Steve said, stepping back. "We've been expecting you," and she stepped out of the daylight into the dim, cool garage and looked around, taking everything in. She seemed like a sharp cookie, Steve thought; he liked her air of nonchalant competence. "We live in an apartment upstairs," he told her. "Bucky's waiting for us there," and she didn't need to know that Bucky'd begged off from answering the door at the last minute; that he was sick with nerves.
He'd pulled it together, though, by the time Steve had escorted the lawyer up the rickety staircase and into the apartment. Bucky'd put on a shirt and tie, shined his shoes—Bucky'd always known how to make himself look respectable—but there was no mistaking the tension on his face, the dark hollows under his eyes. "Thanks for coming," he said, and Steve wondered if the lawyer could hear the misery in his voice. "I'm Bucky Barnes."
"Yeah," Bernie Rosenthal agreed, and stepped back to look at him with one hand on her cocked hip. "Wow. I guess you really are. Tell you the truth, I didn't really believe it; there's so much fake news these days, and there was no official confirmation from SHIELD or the army—"
"They've—drafted a press release." Steve picked it up off the table and handed it to her. "For us to review," and Bernie shoved her wool coat down her arms and dragged a pair of reading glasses up onto her face from what looked like a solid gold chain around her neck. She scanned the page and tossed it aside. "Yeah, we're not gonna do that," she said, and showed them a broad smile. "We'll be controlling our own press from now on. Sergeant Barnes—Bucky, can I call you Bucky? I'm Bernie. Bucky and Bernie: unstoppable," and then, without taking a breath, "Bucky, the first thing I'd like to do is to hear your story, or as much of it as you can remember." She unzipped her briefcase and pulled out a representation agreement and a yellow legal pad. "We'll sit down together for a couple of hours and sketch out a timeline, what do you say?"
"Okay." Bucky swallowed, jerked a nod. "Sure."
"Should I make coffee?" Steve asked, as they pulled out chairs and sat down.
Bernie looked up and said, "Water's fine, thanks. And then I'll need you to give us the room."
"What?" Steve asked, surprised, turning back.
"There's nothing you can't say in front of Steve," Bucky said. "Steve is - Steve knows everything."
"Yeah, it doesn't work that way," Bernie told him, uncapping her pen. "You're my client, not him; anything you tell me is privileged, but Steve and I do not share that privilege. Legally speaking, he's a third party, and if we end up in a trial situation, he's going to be called as a witness. You should have your own counsel," she told Steve. "I can give you some names."
"Third party?" Steve repeated.
Bucky sat back in his chair, arms crossed. "Look, I'm just going to tell him everything anyway."
Bernie recapped her pen. "I have to advise you not to do that," she said. "If you're not going to take my advice, I may not be able to represent you to the best of my ability—or at all. I know you think your interests and Steve's interests are the same, and maybe they are, but they may not be." Bucky opened his mouth to argue, but Bernie waved her gold-ringed hand in the air and repeated: "They may not be. Legally, you guys are two separate entities, and he has no rights - or responsibilities - where you're concerned."
Steve quickly put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed; he didn't want Bucky to say anything he might regret. "It's okay, Buck. I'll just—I'll go down to the gym for a while and work out. You—just tell her everything, okay? Do what she says."
"But Steve," Bucky said, twisting.
"Just tell her everything," Steve repeated. "And do whatever she says."