When Sgt. James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes went off to the War in Europe, he imagined that he'd return to New York in a fanfare of ticker tape and accolades. A hero.
In reality, James Barnes returned to New York seventy years after leaving for war on the back of a Greyhound bus, missing an arm, half his memories, and thirty seconds away from vomiting on his stolen jacket.
The New York skyline flashed by the bus's windows. James focused on the buildings so he wouldn't be sick. So much construction, so many new buildings; he couldn't tell where the old New York left off and the new expressions of capitalistic greed took over—
He closed his eyes, digging his right fingers into his thigh. He wasn't that thing any longer, not a mindless brainwashed Soviet killer. He was himself, James Buchanan Barnes, somehow still a Sergeant in the U.S. military. He wouldn't fall onto the old Soviet programming as a default. He had his own thoughts and opinions; he was not an automaton shaped and forged by those bastards in Department X.
The Winter Soldier was not all he was.
James opened his eyes. He was more than the Winter Soldier, he had to be. If not, he might as well just get off this bus and step on front of a speeding car; end it all before this went any further.
(Although being hit by a car wasn't the way to go. He had spent a long night in the SGC infirmary planning all the ways he could end his life, as his side ached and the place where his metal arm used to be burned cold and empty.)
The streets outside slowed as the bus turned into the station. This was faintly familiar, as the Winter Soldier had been in New York over the years, on missions or just passing through, one more anonymous face in the crowd.
(He'd take the train to New York that last time, a man with a satchel full of stolen alien technology, a metal arm at his left side, and a need deeper than breathing to see Natalia one more time.)
(Natalia Alianovna Romanova, Natasha, the Black Widow, the best agent he had ever known, the smartest and brightest, the most beautiful. He needed to see her again, to prove to himself that she was safe and alive. He had to see her again, to prove to himself that she still wanted him.)
(He had to see her again.)
The bus took a bump on the cracked asphalt, making James' stomach heave. Acid burned at the back of his throat as he swallowed hard. He was not a slave to his body. He was in control. He could handle the nausea from the road; the pain along his back and side where his muscles had stretched and torn; the gaping ache where his left arm had been ripped from his body.
If his years as the Winter Soldier had taught him one thing, it was how to maintain control.
All he had to do was to find Natalia, and everything would be all right.
It wasn't like he had anywhere else to go. Stealing a doctor's clothing and wallet from the Colorado Springs base hospital and sneaking out the back door was probably the textbook definition of desertion, even under American military rules. He just couldn't stay still any longer; too many shadowed memories of waking under a doctor's knife, to lie quietly in a hospital bed.
So what if he'd had his arm ripped off by an alien? Fuck anyone who thought that would cripple him. Hell, it hadn't slowed him down much the first time.
(On the back of his tongue, he could taste how it felt to fall off the train, reaching for Steve and falling away, reaching up with empty hands as gravity took him, wind screaming empty in his mouth.)
(He did not remember the impact.)
The bus slowly pulled into the transit bay. The air inside the bus took on an excited murmur as the passengers stood, stretching travel-weary legs and reaching for luggage in the overhead racks. Finally, after days of movement, the bus's engine turned off, and there was stillness.
James forced his hand flat, smoothing out wrinkles in his too-large trousers. All he had to do was find Natalia, and then everything would be all right.
The bus was emptying. He took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the seat-back in front of him, hauling himself to his feet. The world yawed lazily for a few moments, but he didn't pass out. He'd come a long way since he first hauled himself out of the bed in the Stargate Command infirmary, waking up a few minutes later sprawled flat on the floor.
The bus was nearly empty. James reached up for his stolen backpack, also taken from the doctors' change room in the hospital. He hadn't needed it, but a one-armed man travelling with no luggage was even more of a memorable character. The bag held the stolen wallet, a bottle of water he'd bought on sale in the Omaha bus station convenience store, and a religious magazine he'd picked up during the transfer in Chicago. Ample riches for a man with only one arm left to lose.
Slipping the bag's strap over his shoulder, James walked down the aisle without faltering. The driver was helping an old lady down the steps, so James had a few moments to analyze the bus terminal around him for security weaknesses. Given the layout of the building, there were not as many security flaws as had been at the Chicago terminal. New York kept learning that lesson, he supposed.
Finally the old lady was down the steps. James slipped around the driver, his feet touching unmoving ground for the first time in many hours. Shrugging the bag up his shoulder, he bent his head as he walked towards the terminal doors.
He knew exactly what he had to do. Natalia lived in Stark Tower, so all he had to do was get to Stark Tower. As plans went, it was pretty basic, but he had learned many years before that the more details in a plan, the more things that could go wrong.
He focused on putting one foot in front of the other, across the bus terminal floor. His stolen sneakers were a size too small, one more minor annoyance to distract him from the pulsating pain in his left side.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a few people staring at him. He steeled himself to keep going. What could they possibly see? A man with long hair, left jacket arm hanging empty, shuffling along like he had somewhere to be? They didn't know anything.
Just in case, he changed direction towards the men's toilet. Once inside the small room, he walked to the urinal farthest from the door and waited to see if anyone followed him. A few men milled about the room, doing their business. No one else came through the door. James didn't think that anyone was trailing him, but he hadn't survived for so long by taking anything for granted.
Attention on full, James undid his belt, unzipped the trousers and pulled out his dick. His bladder was full from the long bus ride, and he pissed for long enough that his trousers started to slide off his hips. He automatically reached for the waistband with his left hand, but since he'd left that limb in a pool of blood and bone shards in Texas, the pants slipped further. Gritting his teeth, James clenched up as he let go to pull up the trousers. This time, he held the pants against his hip with a press of forearm as he steadied his dick over the urinal to finish up.
Fuck it. He was going to have to start wearing suspenders again.
He gave himself a good shake, then tucked everything away and did up his trousers. The belt was more difficult; it was sadistic to make anyone try to thread a belt one-handed.
Finally, he was presentable enough for the streets of New York. He shuffled over to the sink and washed his hand. He'd spent years perfecting the art of washing one handed; too much water exposure on his left hand tended to screw up the metal joints.
Not that he had to worry about that any more.
He wiped his hand on his shirt and pulled his jacket over the wet spot. Looking at himself in the mirror was a bit startling, but at least he didn't look…. Abnormal. Just another sickly white guy with a few days' beard, long brown hair, missing an arm. Nothing to see.
James pressed his fingers against his neck. He felt a bit feverish, but his glands didn't feel swollen. Hopefully the three days without any medicine or antibiotics wouldn't turn into an infection. Once he found Natalia, he'd find a back-street doctor to hand over some antibiotics and painkillers. Barring that, he'd track down a drug dealer and get some heroin or something to take the edge off the pain, just for a few days.
So, no infection, and almost presentable. James shifted the backpack up onto his shoulder (he wanted nothing more than to ditch the thing, but leaving a backpack alone in a New York bus station was a sure-fire way to attract the attention of the police) and pulled his dog tags out to show against his shirt. Anything he could do to fit the public's preconceptions of a modern military amputee, to avoid people thinking too hard about how to classify him.
Taking a breath, James walked to the door of the bathroom.
The air in the terminal smelled almost sweet after the stench of stale urine in the men's toilet. No one followed James as he made his way out of the terminal. Outside on the street, a watery sun shone through the late-afternoon haze. The cacophonous noise of a workday rush-hour pressed against James' head. He took a deep breath, letting the metallic sheen of pollution into his lungs, and started walking.
Getting to Stark Tower wouldn't be that difficult. Just head along 33rd and then up Park Avenue to Grand Central Station, where Tony Stark's monstrosity of modern architecture stood like a beacon over the city.
New York flowed around James as he walked, just another face in the crowd.
As he trudged along the path to Stark Tower, gaping holes in the architecture began to show. Some buildings still bore the scars of the Chitauri invasion, a year later. Other buildings gleamed clean and whole, repaired as if nothing had ever happened.
Here and there lay tiny memorials for the fallen. Nothing large; a handful of plastic flowers here, a painted cross there. James remembered when he first learned about the Chitauri attack, a few days after he'd staggered out of the stasis chamber. He'd dug up a lot of information in those first few days; 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chitauri.
The world had changed since he went on ice in 1999.
The sidewalk passed under him, step by step. Nausea lurked in the back of his throat, mixed with the pain in his left side, the gaping ache where his arm had once been. Each step felt like he was carrying a full pack in one of those hellish marches in basic training (carrying full flour sacks on his shoulders in Mr. Hamish's grocery when he was eleven and desperate for any job after school) (carrying bleeding bodies over his shoulder in the field, bullets flying around him). But he would not stop to rest, he had a mission. Get to Stark Tower and find Natalia, then everything would be all right.
She'd told him she would come back for him. She'd said she loved him. So she wouldn't be too upset if he found her first. She knew how much he hated waiting.
(Impatient, someone had called him, someone adult and loud and dressed all in black. He'd been smaller then, sad about losing… a sister. He didn't remember her name but he'd had a sister and they'd taken her away from him.)
He reached the corner of 33rd and Park and turned northeast. It wasn't far, just ten blocks to go. When he was a kid, he'd walked farther than that to school every day.
A block in, and his breath hitched painfully in his chest. It'd been happening on and off since he came out of surgery, missing the last bits of his left arm. Do too much, try to force his body to do things it should fucking well be able to do, and the hitch in his lungs came back. He hated it, hated being weak.
Still, he would not let his weakness be seen. Even if he wasn't being tailed, showing vulnerability in a place like New York, even on Park Avenue, was just begging to get mugged. Or it had been in the seventies when James was last there. People said the city had changed, but he would believe that when he saw it. The few weeks he'd spent in Brooklyn earlier in the year wasn't enough to convince him of anything.
He shuffled over to a lamp post and leaned against the pole. In this part of town, loitering about a storefront in his scruffy condition was a great way to get arrested. One-armed veterans straight off the bus from Chicago were not a welcome addition to the Park Avenue landscape.
A shudder of revulsion slid through his belly at the thought of the consumer excesses in the shops along this street. One of New York's cookie-cutter rail-thin blonde women walked past him, carrying a purse that cost more than a maid would take home in a year. He wasn't sure what part of him was so disgusted: the Winter Soldier, Soviet agent, or Bucky Barnes, the dirt-poor orphan who'd spent an entire year working long hours at the grocery after school just to be able to buy his best friend some colouring pencils for his birthday?
James blinked at the shard of memory. He remembered that he had managed to buy the pencils for his friend, but he couldn't remember which friend. The gap in his memory ached; cold water on a broken tooth.
But James did not have time to think about his past. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the uniformed rent-a-cop swaggering in his direction, intent on sweeping the trash away down the street. James pushed himself off the lamp post and shuffled along, being sure to turn his empty sleeve in the guard's direction as a parting fuck-you.
Not that he blamed the guard. The man was just doing his job. His bosses would not want anything to disturb the rich people as they were being parted from their money.
Seven blocks to go.
The damage from the Chitauri attack was impossible to miss, this close to Grand Central Station. Scaffolding stood around the buildings crushed by the giant space whale. James had seen the spotty security footage pieced together by that hacking group, the Rising Tide. The footage was spotty and pixelated, but it was enough for his purposes. Enough to know what had happened.
A food truck sat on the corner, tempting passers-by with gourmet hotdogs. James' stomach rumbled, but he kept walking. Seven dollars for a hotdog, what the ever-loving fuck. When he and Steve were kids, they'd head down to Coney Island, having scrounged for weeks to save up the twenty cents for a hot dog each—
James stopped dead. Steve. That was who he'd bought the colouring pencils for, that was who he'd spent every day with after coming to the orphanage in Brooklyn. Steve, short and skinny and always sick, sharp cheekbones and enough attitude in his little body for three grown men.
Steve, now big and blond and every time James thought about Steve, something broken rattled around inside his head and he wanted to lash out, to inflict pain (falling) and he didn't know why.
A car horn blared, pulling James' attention back to himself. He had stopped in the middle of a crosswalk, and the light was about to turn yellow. He flipped off the impatient driver and continued across the intersection. He would not fall apart in the middle of Park Avenue. He might be missing an arm and fighting off a fever, but what was left of the Winter Soldier in his head would not allow him to crumple to infirmity.
He was not weak.
Stark Tower rose in the sky, the glass windows reflecting the grey afternoon haze. All James had to do was to make it to Stark Tower, and find Natalia.
He was at the viaduct now, where most of the Chitauri action had taken place. The city had patched up the structure neatly in the year since the attack. No broken concrete or rebar hung off the overhead structure, James saw as he walked past the open-air tables. Nothing stood between New Yorkers and their business sense.
James' breath hitched in his chest again. This time, he slid the pack off his shoulder and set it down on a vacant bench. He'd had the backpack for three days and still he wasn't able to open the zipper without a fight. Before, with his metal arm, he could at least have steadied the fabric with his metal fingers while his right hand unzipped it.
He struggled through, cheered by the thought that in three blocks, he could get rid of the backpack forever. He removed the bottle of water from the depths of the bag. There were two inches of water left, and he quickly uncapped the bottle and drank deeply. He had learned early in the field to never waste water; you never knew when you'd need it.
The water tasted musty, warm and plastic, but good. Finishing the bottle, he shoved it back into the bag. (Never leave anything behind; that's how they track you in the field.)
Almost there. James started walking again.
Every step felt like an eternity, but his destination was so close that he couldn't stop now. All he had to do was to make it to Stark Tower and find Natalia, then everything would be all right.
If she was there.
She had to be there.
He didn't know what he would do if Natalia wasn't there.
So close now. His stomach twisted in hunger. How long had it been since he'd eaten? The night before, at least. The stolen wallet had just enough cash left for him to buy a tasteless fast food burger when the bus stopped in Chicago. The dollar and thirty-eight cents remaining hadn't been enough for anything else. He hadn't used the credit cards after buying the bus ticket; they'd have been reported stolen by now and he couldn't risk it.
He rounded the corner on the way to Stark Tower. The afternoon traffic around Grand Central station was at full pitch; a work-day afternoon full of people trying to get home.
James put his head down and pressed forward. The crush of people would normally be welcome, bringing with it the anonymity of a crowd. But things were different now; human nature was very good at picking up on things that didn't belong, that were abnormal, and a man with one arm walking through the crowd was bound to attract attention. He knew of the phenomenon; had used it to his advantage in years past. Cripples usually attracted a mix of sympathy and avoidance; making it easier to lift information from a target or to plant something on their person. Very young children, vocalizing or crying, tended to turn the head of every parent in the crowd.
Someone bumped his right side, making the backpack slip down his arm. James grabbed at the strap to keep it on his shoulder, clenching his teeth to stop the Russian curse from crossing his lips. He was so close to his target, he couldn't break character now. This was the most precarious part of his journey, with the police presence around the train station.
He was just a guy, an old soldier missing an arm, nothing threatening about him. He carried no weapons, and nothing about him would raise concerns in the eyes of the police.
(That was his speciality. The Winter Soldier was the perfect Soviet agent; blending in to every background, speaking the language of the land without accent. He had the skills necessary for every trade, every business. Department X gave him everything he ever needed to accomplish his mission – death.)
James gagged on the sudden surge of bile in his throat, at the memories of slaughter in his head. Fragments of memories, no context or understanding. Just death.
A murmur from the crowd pulled James back to himself. He could not fall apart, not when he was so close to his target. He had to keep moving. He had to find Natalia.
With deliberate steps, he kept moving through the crowd. He could see the front doors to Stark Tower, glass and metal gleaming in the late afternoon light.
He was almost there.
He drew himself up and made himself walk with a normal gait. He had much practice in pretending he was not injured; injury drew attention.
Three steps and he was reaching for the door. It opened easily, a wave of warm air washing over him as he stepped inside. The lobby smelled of money; expensive carpet and furniture, air oxygenated from the plants arranged through the room and along the walls. James inhaled, filling his lungs as he prepared for battle.
The wide desk in the middle of the room seated three security guards, but these guards were nothing like the guy in Park Avenue. James would lay odds that every one of them was ex-military.
And all three had their attention fixed firmly on him.
He sauntered up to the desk, smiling his most charming American smile. "Hey there," he said, letting his accent slide right back down to Brooklyn. "I'm here to see Natasha Romanoff."
"Are you?" said the largest of the security officers. Probably former Marine – the man still had the set of jaw James associated with jarheads. "Is she expecting you?"
James shrugged his shoulder. "I thought I'd surprise her."
One of the other guards stood. "Mind if I look in your bag?" she asked.
James spared a glance around the room. Three other guards were surreptitiously standing around the room, very casual. If James didn't know any better, he'd have thought they were expecting him. "Not at all," he said, slinging the backpack around and dropping it on the desk.
He deliberately left it close to his body, to show he wasn't afraid of it exploding or whatever these guards expected. But rather than open the bag, the guard moved it two inches to the left. A blue light shone on the bag from the ceiling, and a three-dimensional rendering of the bag's contents appeared beside it.
Stark's technology, James realized, as the guard touched the hologram and turned it, examining the underside. Trust Tony Stark to have installed million-dollar technology in the lobby.
The guards exchanged a glance. From their expressions, James knew they weren't going to let him pass. The sudden wave of desperation that clenched in his chest took him by surprise. He had to see Natalia. These people would not be able to stop him from seeing Natalia.
Another look around the room. Eight guards now, and all of them carrying weapons. Hardly a fair fight, but he was missing an arm; that gave them an even chance.
As he was deciding which guard to take out first, something on the desk let out a soft ping. The older guard looked at his screen. He wasn't able to hide his frown as he said, "You're free to go up, Sgt. Barnes."
James didn't move. "Is that so?" he asked, trying to figure out what was going on.
The man gave a humourless smile. "Welcome to Stark Tower."
James picked up his backpack and slipped it onto his shoulder. Every guard in the room was staring at him. No one was reaching for their sidearm, but James had been around soldiers for decades; he knew from their alert stances that they were just waiting for him to try something.
Well, the joke was on them. James was just some guy dropping in to visit his girl. Nothing more.
He stood straight as he walked to the elevator doors. His back ached, the muscles in his side burned, his shoulder throbbed with remembered pain, and he wouldn't let these people see a damn thing.
The elevator doors opened as he approached. Not breaking stride, he entered the elevator and turned around just as the doors closed. Before he had a chance to push any of the buttons, the elevator began to rise. "Welcome to Stark Tower," came a voice from the speaker panel. "Mr. Stark is expecting you."
James narrowed his eyes at the voice. A smooth British accent on a very human voice speaking from the walls; he'd seen enough intelligence on Stark and his creations to suspect what this was. "You must be Jarvis."
A pause. "I am. And you are Sgt. James Barnes."
James smiled. "Looks like I'm not the only one who's done their homework."
"Indeed," Jarvis said, and now his voice was frosty. James had to hand it to Stark; his robot butler was living up to the hype. "Scans indicate that you are unarmed."
James' smile froze on his face. If Jarvis' voice hadn't been quite so curt, he'd have thought the robot had just misspoken. As it were, he couldn't help thinking the voice had said those words deliberately. "Jarvis, are you always this much of an asshole?" he asked.
"Only when the individual in question appears to be a threat to those in the Tower," Jarvis replied instantly.
"I've got one arm and my shoes are too tight," James snapped. The pain and exhaustion were getting to him, and his back was starting to seize up. "What kind of a threat do you think I am?"
"Would you like me to go over the SHIELD threat assessment on the Winter Soldier alphabetically, or chronologically?" Jarvis asked.
James bit his lip. Losing his temper at a disembodied voice in an elevator wasn't going to help anything. "Any chance I can see that file?" he asked.
"You will need to take that up with Mr. Stark." The elevator slowed, and the door opened. "Have a nice day."
More through force of will than any remaining stamina, James walked into the room.
Big and open and full of expensive fittings, the penthouse had floor-to-ceiling windows that showed a bird's eye view of half of New York. James' stomach lurched at the height. He didn't like being so high; when you could fall so far.
Movement caught his eye, and he turned to face the two men in the room. He hadn't even registered them and that bothered him. He wasn't so careless in an unfamiliar place, that wasn't him.
The man in front was Tony Stark – anyone who had access to a television knew Tony Stark. The man's face was plastered on magazines and billboards across the Western world. Ever since the Mandarin attacks at Christmas, the media coverage had only grown thicker.
The other man was unknown to James. He hadn't seen him on his preliminary surveillance of Stark Tower the month earlier, but that didn't mean much; a building this size could hold thousands of employees on a work day. The man was older than James; slightly taller than Stark, with messy brown hair and an intense air about him.
"Steve's not here," Stark said abruptly. "Still on that business in Chicago. Lots of freedom to protect."
At the mention of Steve Rogers, James felt a flash of anger. But he had his mission, and it had nothing to do with Steve. He turned his scowl into a sharp smile. "Is Natasha around?"
Stark scowled at him. "That's all you've got?" he asked. "You spend months on an international crime spree, break into Area 51, and you show up here to ask for Natasha?"
James' pulse sped up. Stark was stalling. Why wasn't she here? If Stark had known he was in the elevator, why hadn't someone sent word to Natalia? "Is she here or not?" James asked, the smile sliding off his face.
"You know she was on the mission in Chicago with Steve, right?" the other man asked, walking around Stark.
James shifted his feet so he was more balanced; something about the room was off. Maybe it was the wide empty horizon. He just needed to focus on something else. "Is she back?" he asked. His voice sounded strange in his own ears. "Is she here?"
The man frowned at James. "Should you be out of the hospital?" he asked, drawing nearer. "We heard what happened in Texas with Isis."
"I'm fine," James said. His heart was pounding now. Where was Natalia? She had to be here. She had to be; he hadn't even considered that she wouldn't be.
He needed her to be there.
"I'm pretty sure that's not what that word means," the man said. He was at James' side, sliding the backpack strap off his arm. James let him, not even able to rouse enough energy to go into a defensive stance. "I'm Bruce."
It took a moment for the name to sink in. When it did, James jerked back involuntarily, nearly overbalancing as he tried to stand away from the man. Bruce Banner, who'd tried to re-create the Super Soldier serum and ended up turning into a big green rage monster. James had read the intelligence files on the man, had seen the footage of the large green man defending New York from the Chitarui. Bruce Banner was not a man to piss off.
The man didn't react, just set the bag on the ground. "Do you need to sit down?" he asked.
James shook his head. The dizziness in his head was spreading through his body, clenching at his stomach and stabbing up his side. His left shoulder throbbed with sharp pain. "Where's Natalia?" he asked again. He wasn't begging. Not yet.
James looked up, blinking hard. Natalia stood on the far side of the room, like a vision from heaven, and all he could do was stare. Was she real?
As he stared, Natalia quickly crossed the room to his side. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and she was staring up at him with concern on her face.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, reaching up to put her hand on his forehead. He closed his eyes at her touch, swallowing a hiccupped sob. Natalia was here. He'd found her. "Why are you out of the hospital?"
He opened his eyes. "Had to see you," he said. He tried to smile, but his mouth didn't seem to want to work. "I missed you."
"You're an idiot," Natalia said, but there was no anger in her voice. "I just got back from Chicago, I was going to fly out to Colorado as soon as I packed a bag."
"Guess I couldn't wait," he said, putting his hand on her arm. She shook her head as she stepped into his embrace. She was so warm, so familiar, so Natalia, that James' knees went weak. He'd found her.
"Idiot," she said again, resting her head on his right shoulder. She hugged him tight, the pressure sending shooting pain up his left side and back. He must have made some sound, for she pulled back. "Come on," she said. "Let's get you to bed."
"I'm not tired," he protested automatically. "Just give me a minute and I'll be good as new." He tried to smile again. "What do you say we go dancing tonight?"
The roll of her eyes was not unexpected. "You're mixing up 'dancing' with 'passing out'," she informed him, putting an arm around his waist to draw him across the room to the elevator.
"The secret's all in the footwork," he said, letting her lead. He hadn't actually planned anything beyond tracking her down; he'd figured that he would sort all that out later.
"And you are quick on your feet," Natalia agreed. He knew that tone in her voice; she was humouring him, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Then, quietly, she asked, "Are you running from anyone?"
Only myself, James thought bitterly. "Not right now," he mumbled close to her ear.
"Hey, you okay?" Stark called after them.
Natalia didn't slow down. "Everything's fine, Tony."
"If he needs any medical attention, you can call me," came the other voice, Bruce. It took James a moment to remember why the man was so dangerous; then he remembered the briefing notes, the surveillance footage of a big green man ripping aliens apart. He nearly tripped as he tried to turn around, but Natalia's firm hand on his back kept him moving forward.
"We will, thank you." Natalia's fingers dug into James' side. "He is my friend," she said quietly in Russian, for James' ears only. "Do you understand?"
"You told me you don't have any friends," James said, relieved to switch back to Russian. His voice sounded slurred to his own ears. It must just be the dizziness, he reasoned. Give him a few minutes and he would be just fine.
"I told you that a very long time ago." Natalia pushed him into the elevator and pressed a button. "I have friends now. I told you that in Colorado, do you remember?"
He closed his eyes against the spinning vertigo in his stomach. That only made it worse. "Barton."
"Yes, Clint Barton is a good friend." The door pinged open, and Natalia pulled James out onto a quiet floor. "As is Bruce."
"What about Stark?" James asked. Natalia paused to key in a code at the big door directly across from the elevator door.
"Tony Stark is his own best friend." Natalia pushed open the door and walked inside. "Tony and I are colleagues."
"Do you trust him?" James asked as he stopped in the doorway. The large room was dim and still and smelled faintly of incense and coffee.
"In battle and in the lab, yes I trust him," Natalia told James. She turned on the lights to illuminate a room with wide open spaces, comfortable-looking furniture. Across the room, heavy curtains were drawn against the afternoon sunlight. The far wall was covered by a large quilt, hitched back to show an array of weapons mounted there, at the ready. "Tony Stark is a hard man to be friends with."
"His father was a smart man," James said. He took a few steps over to the couch and sat down, kicking off the too-small shoes. "Smartest we had. One of Captain America's biggest fans."
Until he spoke, James hadn't thought much about Stark's father. But it had been during the War, when the old man (what was his name?) had entangled himself with the Howling Commandoes on their quest to crush Hydra and Nazis. James didn't remember why the thought of the older Stark made him so uncomfortable and he didn't want to. Passing a hand over his face, he carefully leaned back into the couch cushions. The pressure made his back and side hurt, but as the tension lessened along his spine, he could finally take a deep breath.
After a few moments, Natalia sat on the couch at his side. "Drink," she said in a quiet voice. She handed him a mug. "It's water."
He took the mug. Instinct and long-ingrained paranoia made him first sniff at the liquid, then sipped carefully. The cold water was a relief, sliding down his throat to his stomach. He drank the entire cup without stopping for air.
"Good." Natalia took the empty mug from his hand and set it on the low table. She leaned back against James, soft against his arm. He turned to her, put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. She was so warm, so solid against him, and when she kissed him, her lips soft, the icy tension in his chest began to melt.
He had missed this so much, just being with Natalia.
Pulling back from the kiss, she curled up against him. As he held her, the spasms along James' spine eased, the clench of muscles in his back softening. He had been forcing himself in a straight line for so many days, he hadn't even relaxed enough to sleep on the bus. But now, he was safe with Natalia.
"Do you want to tell me why the Air Force hospital discharged you so soon?" Natalia asked in her quiet voice. Her hand was warm on his cheek. "It's only been a week since everything happened."
Seven days since he had woken up in the Stargate Command infirmary missing his left arm and any hopes of being able to get another one. Three days since they moved him to the top-side base hospital.
Three days since James hauled himself out of the hospital bed, stolen some clothes and a credit card, and got on a bus headed to New York.
He shrugged. "What do you think happened?" he asked, settling back against the cushions. His hand slid down Natalia's back to rest against her hip.
Natalia's eyes were steady and very green. "I know how much you hate hospitals and doctors," she said. "I'm trying to figure out if you hate them so much that you'd do something this stupid."
"Define stupid," he shot back at her, pulling away. This wasn't the way things were supposed to go. She was supposed to understand.
Natalia sat back, crossing her arms over her chest. "In this case, 'stupid' breaks out of a military hospital three days after having his arm torn off and hitchhikes his way across the country."
"Don't be ridiculous," James said, pushing his hair back from his face in agitation. His beard itched and his side hurt and his shoulder ached and all he wanted to do was find a quiet corner where he could curl up and sleep. But Natalia's glare told him that wasn't going to happen any time soon. "I took the bus."
Natalia sprang to her feet, stalking across the room through a doorway. James thought about going after her, but he hurt so much and he was just so tired.
Really, what had he expected? That Natalia not ask him any questions as she tended to his wounds? Even in his state, the idea made James pull a sardonic smile. It was ludicrous to expect Natalia to take him in at face value. She knew him too well; he should have known that she could get the information out of him without even trying.
He let out a breath. He should leave, get back out on the street, try to keep one step ahead of the Air Force. After all, he'd made his choice to abandon his post. If they hadn't locked him up before this, his flagrant desertion was likely to do it now.
At least General O'Neill would be happy.
Bracing himself for the inevitable pain, he sat forward. The muscles on the left side of his back cramped and locked, and it was all he could do to clench his teeth against the scream in his throat.
Just breathe, he told himself. It will pass. Just breathe.
"What do you think you are doing?" Natalia asked, coming back into the big room. She held a large white box.
He glared at her. "Getting out of your hair," he said between gritted teeth. His back wasn't getting any better; the cramps were deepening into the muscles.
Natalia glared back. "Really?" she demanded. "You come all the way here and then you just leave?" She slapped the box onto the low table and opened it; inside James could see a variety of medical supplies. "That is even more idiotic. Sit still."
Her words were harsh, but her hands on his body were gentle as she helped him ease back on the couch. He gripped the cushion in his hand and tried to stretch out his back, to get the muscles back into the alignment he'd had for over ten years, to balance his walk with his metal arm.
Natalia shifted him around to sit behind him. "Where?" she murmured.
"Same as usual," James ground out. He hated to admit weakness, even to Natalia. Especially to Natalia. Once upon a time, he'd been her instructor, her partner. Now he was injured. He couldn't be what Natalia needed.
"Let's get this off you." From behind, Natalia unzipped his jacket and slid it off, letting it fall to the side. Even then, James didn't realize what she was doing until she began to undo the buttons on his stolen shirt.
He grabbed at her hand, his fingers convulsing around her wrist. Rationally, he knew she'd already seen his disfigured body, seen what remained of him after Isis ripped his arm away, but the emotional side of his mind didn't want her to see, didn't want her to see how he was ruined.
"It's all right," Natalia said in his ear. She kissed the back of his head. "Let me take care of you tonight."
"Why?" he choked out, not releasing her wrist.
"Because you've done the same thing for me." She turned her arm in his grip, pressing her palm flat against his chest. "Please, James."
Hearing her saying his name stole James' breath away for a moment. For so many years, he had not had a name to give her. Hearing it here, now…
He let go of her wrist. "Say it again," he whispered. He needed to hear it again, to know he wasn't just imagining things.
Mercifully, she knew exactly what he meant. "James," she said in his ear, her voice low and soft and for him alone.
He closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath. Natalia slid her hands down his chest to resume her work on his buttons.
In no times at all, she had the shirt undone and was easing it off his shoulder, to the side. He braced himself for her comments on his ruined body; how could she not say anything? But she said not a word, just placed her hands on his back and started to massage the cramps out of his muscles.
She couldn't avoid the bruises from the beating Isis gave him, but the pressure of Natalia's hands on his back was enough to help him think beyond the pain. He sat still as Natalia worked her way up from his lower right side to his right shoulder. She always knew exactly where he hurt, and exactly how to help him.
"Are you getting cold?" she asked after a while. James blinked; he'd closed his eyes. His back felt better now. Had he blacked out for a few minutes?
"Doesn't matter," he said. He rubbed his eyes with his hand to rouse himself.
"Warmth helps healing, you know that." Natalia slipped out from behind him. She was grace and beauty personified, and James couldn't to any more than look at her. "How about a bath?"
He blinked again and tried to think through her words. Apparently it took him too long, because Natalia bent forward and half-pulled, half-lifted him to his feet. She slipped under his arm and began walking him towards an open door across the room.
"Where are we going?" James asked. He figured he should at least know that. But he trusted Natalia, she wouldn't hurt him or turn him over to the enemy. He trusted her.
"You are going to take a bath because you smell like you've been on a bus for days." Natalia led him to the darkened door and paused to turn on a light. The room inside lit up, in cream-coloured walls and white tiling. The room held a bathtub and shower.
And a large mirror.
James froze at the sight in the mirror. That wasn't him on Natalia's arm. It couldn't be.
The person in the mirror was a caricature of a man; disfigured and lopsided, arm gone like some animal had bitten the shoulder clean off his body. His left side was dark with bruises in various stages of healing, showing mottled purple and green.
Other bruises were scattered over his chest from Isis's beating, nearly hiding the scars that lay on his skin from years in battle. Under the bruises and swelling, his skin stretched tight over muscle and bone.
The man in the mirror was a wreck, a perversion of human anatomy.
This was what he had become.
"We're nearly there," Natalia said, guiding him into the bathroom. "This should make you feel better."
Unable to take his eyes off the mirror, James tripped on the small carpet in the middle of the room and pitched forward; only Natalia's arm around his waist kept him from falling on his face. With more strength than grace, Natalia turned them both around and sat James on the edge of the bathtub, kneeling before him.
"Not too hot," she said, her hands on his knees. "Okay?"
James' heart was beating so fast that he wasn't sure what she was saying, but he nodded. Natalia reached past him to turn on the water into the tub, then leaned back in silence. Her hands were warm on his thighs and she was so close to him, looking into his eyes.
James' stomach roiled. He knew now what Natalia saw when she looked at him and it made him sick, made him want to scream. He should have stepped off the bus in the middle of Nebraska and just kept walking until his strength gave out. Dying alone in the wilderness would have been far better than having become this thing, ruined and broken.
"Come on," Natalia said after a few minutes. "Pants off."
She hauled him up, again with no apparent effort, and deftly stripped off his trousers, underwear, and socks. She helped him to balance on her shoulder as he stepped into the half-filled bathtub, and to sit-down without slipping or falling over.
The water was warm, not hot, but still stung the bruises on his legs and lower torso. James let out a hiss as he settled down in the water.
"Too hot?" Natalia asked.
James shook his head. For the first time in days, weeks, he didn't have that bone-deep chill that had chased him ever since the stasis chamber. The last time he'd escaped it had been deep underneath CheyenneMountain, in Natalia's bed, lying beside her in the darkness.
The cold had been deep in his bones ever since Texas, on that cold concrete floor in a pool of his own blood, dying. He had never felt anything as cold as that, lying there, waiting for death to come.
In the days in hospital, he'd hardly slept at all, cold and in pain, reliving the sensation of his arm being twisted around, Isis's foot pressing down hard on his ribs, how the bones in his arm snapped one after the other, when the flesh finally split under the pressure—
Distantly, James heard the water turn off, the sudden silence in the room overwhelming. His breathing was loud in his own ears and he didn't know what to do.
Natalia knelt beside the tub, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows. She dipped one hand into the water and lifted handful after handful of water to his back, letting the warm water run down his skin. And all he could do was sit there.
"Why isn't your shoulder bandaged?" she asked.
James blinked up from where he had been staring at his submerged feet. "What?"
Natalia cupped his cheek with a wet hand, her thumb stroking along his jaw. "Why aren't there bandages on your shoulder?"
James was suddenly reminded of the pain in his left side. He swallowed against the churning in his stomach. "I took it off in Chicago," he said when his nausea was under control. "The gauze was rubbing."
He didn't want to say any more, didn't want to remember the way the bandage rubbed hard against the stitches, the dried puss making the fabric hard as sandpaper on his skin. He hadn't taken any spare bandages with him when he snuck out of the hospital; at the time it hadn't occurred to him.
Natalia didn't say anything, just stood and walked out of the room. By the time James realized that he should probably worry about that, she was back, carrying a small jar and a spoon. "Are you hungry?" she asked, kneeling once again beside the tub.
James shook his head. The thought of food made his stomach twist. With the pain he was feeling, all he wanted to do was to curl up in a corner somewhere and wait to pass out.
Natalia set the small jar on the side of the bathtub. James watched, unable to move his gaze elsewhere, as she unscrewed the lid, then she dipped the spoon into the jar. Pulling it out, she swirled the dark yellow substance around the spoon so it wouldn't drip.
"What's that?" James asked, his mouth dry.
"Emergency rations, soldier." She handed him the spoon. "It's honey. It will help your stomach."
"There's nothing wrong with my stomach," he muttered as he put the spoon in his mouth. The explosion of sweetness on his tongue made him close his eyes for a moment. He swallowed convulsively, the honey sliding down his throat.
Natalia wet a washcloth and used it to wash his back, his right arm, his chest. Her touch was light and she avoided the bruises as best she could.
When James had licked the last of the honey from the spoon, he put it down beside the jar. "Do you want more?" Natalia asked.
He shook his head. The bath water was cooling, and he had revived enough to be irritated by the sensation. "Can I get out of here now?"
Natalia stood instantly, reaching to steady him as he stood. He clenched his teeth at the humiliation; a man who had once been the Soviets' most agile and virile agent, now unable to stand by himself from the bath.
If Natalia had similar thoughts, she kept them to herself as she helped him step out of the bathtub and onto the mat. She wrapped a towel around his waist, tucking one end in to hold it around his hips. Then she picked up another towel and started drying his back.
That was too much. "I don't need your help," James said forcefully, grabbing the towel from her hands and stepping away. He would slit his own throat before being that weak in front of this woman.
Natalia spread her hands. "If that's what you want," she said, voice expressionless. "I'll leave some clothes on the bed for you."
And with that, she walked out of the room.
James gripped the towel hard, trying to breathe his way through the surge of panic and shame. He wasn't some crippled old man, he had to be more than that. There had to be some hint of the man he'd been before, even with only one arm. If his fate was to be a useless cripple, unable to bathe himself, he might as well take one of those guns off Natalia's wall and blow the back of his head off.
(His mind played over the weapons he'd seen, knew what kind of ammunition they used, firm in the knowledge that Natalia was not a woman to keep unloaded weapons to hand.)
His lower back twinged, pulling him back to the present. He used the towel to wipe most of the water off his chest and arm. He didn't even try to dry his back, just tossed the towel over his shoulder and gave himself a minute to compose himself before walking out of the bathroom.
Standing in the hall, James looked around. The living room was empty. Off to his left, he could hear the faint clink of cutlery against glass. To his right, a door stood ajar, light showing behind it.
He went right.
The door opened easily under his hand. A large bed was tucked into the corner opposite the door. Never let anyone sneak up on you while you sleep, echoed in James' mind. He pushed the sliver of memory away. The room was full of shelves and furniture, with books and knick-knacks on nearly every surface.
The room was friendly and warm and smelled like Natalia, faint hints of her perfume and her soap and leather from the jacket slung casually over an armchair in the corner. She had made this space herself, James realized. This was how she chose to sleep, in a room full of things she picked out herself. She wasn't under the control of the Red Room any longer. She could dress how she wanted, read what she wanted, live how she wanted.
Somehow, in the long months since he had clawed his way out of the stasis chamber in Russia, it had never occurred to him how different life was for Natalia now.
He shouldn't have come here.
James made himself cross the room to the bed. A pair of men's sweatpants and a t-shirt were laid out for him. He shucked the towel to the ground and managed, after a few false starts, to step into the sweatpants. They fit perfectly. James didn't want to think whose pants these could be, that Natalia could lay hands on them so quickly. Or had they been in her closet, left by a man who was sharing her bed?
James took in a breath through his nose and held it, counting to five before exhaling. Natalia was an adult who could live her life as she saw fit. It would only make sense that she was involved with someone; Natalia was beautiful and amazing, graceful and intelligent. Any man would a fool to not be interested in her.
A flash of recent memory, from the depths of Cheyenne Mountain, of a blond mountain of a man in Natalia's embrace. When he'd come across Natalia holding Steve Rogers in her arms, as if such a thing had been natural to her, he really hadn't put too much thought into it beyond driving verbal knives into Steve. But the more he thought of it, when was the last time Natalia had voluntarily touched anyone when it was not part of a mission?
She had told him point-blank that she wasn't sleeping with Steve, but what if she'd lied to him, what if she was in Steve's bed when she wanted to be; she'd never want a broken-down cripple of a man now, not when she had the choice of someone like that, someone big and blond and perfect.
Something broken rattled around inside his head when he thought about Steve, and he wanted to lash out, to hit somebody (falling) and he didn't know why.
James breathed through the panic, though the sudden cold fear in his guts. He should never have come here. He had to leave.
He would tell Natalia that he needed his clothes back, that he was leaving. Picking up the shirt with his hand, James made his way out of the bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen.
What he saw made him stop in his tracks. Natalia was busy in the kitchen, stirring a pot with one hand and pouring water from a kettle into a mug with the other. Her hair was tucked behind her ears and her cheeks were pink from the heat and she was so damn beautiful that James forgot how to breathe.
When the mug was full, she set down the kettle. "I thought you might like some tea," she said, glancing up at him. "Sit."
Unable to find the words to explain he was leaving, James numbly walked into the kitchen and sat in the chair she indicated. In a moment, she'd placed the mug before him. She touched his right shoulder gently as she walked back to the stove.
"I know you said that you weren't hungry, but I thought you might like soup at some point," she said over her shoulder. "This just needs a few minutes to heat up."
James stared at the mug, his hand gripping the t-shirt tight on his lap. "You didn't have to do this," he said automatically.
"If you don't want it, I'll eat it," Natalia said. She gave the pot one last stir, then moved to the sink. "Turn around, I need to wash your left side."
James looked down at the shirt in his hand. Even thought he wasn't looking at her, he could hear Natalia's movements around the kitchen; the quiet step of bare feet on the tile floor, the wet sound of water sloshing in a bowl. Natalia set the bowl on the table, laid a cloth beside it, then pulled the other chair around to James' side. There she sat, and she waited.
It took James a few minutes to look at his left side, at the gaping space where his metal arm had been. He couldn't see everything, but he could see the black thread of the stitches, the skin red against the stitches. The sight of the concave gap where his metal shoulder had once been made his stomach lurch.
"How long as it been since you had any antibiotics?" Natalia asked, as she dipped the cloth into the bowl.
James looked back at the table. It took him a minute to think through the past few days. "I left the base hospital three days ago," he said.
"And didn't take any medicine with you," Natalia finished for him. She held up the wet cloth. "This might sting."
"What is it?" he asked. He stared straight ahead so he didn't have to see the cloth touch his shoulder. The warmth stung against the stitches, but there was no chemical edge.
"It's salt water." Natalia dabbed gently at his wounds. "It will help."
"Help with what?" James hissed as Natalia pressed at a sore spot on the incision. "Shit."
Natalia dipped the cloth back in the bowl, wrung most of the liquid out, and started again. "You're lucky that you didn't get an infection on the bus."
James shook his head. "I never get sick."
"There's a difference between catching the flu, and having an open wound get infected on a bus." She spoke in a quiet voice, non-threatening, but James felt the bite of her meaning.
He made himself sit still. The thing was, Natalia wasn't wrong. He'd seen people fall to infection in the War, in countless places since that bloodbath. He swallowed his immediate retort, what would it matter, they already took my arm off. But he didn't have anything else to say, so the silence between them sat, heavy in the room.
Natalia re-wet the cloth twice more to bathe his shoulder, then stood to empty the bowl into the sink. The room was quiet, the only sounds the soft bubbling of the soup on the stove, the soft drip-drip as the sink drained. James tried to say something, anything, but the words sat thick in his throat.
After a minute, Natalia came back to the table. She sat in the chair at his side, hitching it closer to him, so close but not touching.
"I thought about you when I was in Chicago," she said quietly. "Wondering how you were, what you were doing."
"I wasn't doing much of anything." James forced himself to unclench his hand from the t-shirt in his lap. He reached for the mug of tea, took a sip. The liquid was cooling and bitter. "Lying around a lot."
Natalia put her hand on his knee. "Why did you leave? I told you I would come back."
James gulped down the rest of the tea. The bitterness lingered on his tongue. "I couldn't stay there any more, Talia, I couldn't. Just… the smell, you know?"
Hospitals didn't smell the same as when he had been a kid; the disinfectant wasn't as harsh, the sheets didn't smell of so much bleach, but there was only so much that could be done. Bandages smelled the same, the iodine stench and the body odors of men in various stages of healing.
"As soon as they moved me up to the base hospital on the surface, I just took off. No big deal."
Natalia squeezed his leg gently. "With no antibiotics, and someone else's clothing." It was not a question. "Did you take any painkillers?"
James pushed his hair back from his face. "You know hospitals, they keep the narcotics locked down. I bought some Tylenol at a drug store on the way to the bus station."
Natalia rose to her feet. She paused behind James and rested her hands on both sides of his neck. "That is the stupidest thing I have heard in months," she murmured, kissing the top of his head.
"That's not even the stupidest thing I've done all week," he said, and felt her smile against his hair.
"I won't argue with that." She kissed his head again, then walked across the kitchen to the stove. She spooned some liquid into a bowl and carried it back to the table.
James tasted the soup; it was salty and the vegetables were mushy, but there were bits of meat, probably chicken. The rumbling of his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten in a full day, and he tucked in.
Natalia moved around the kitchen, moving things here and there, refilling his mug with hot water, pouring the rest of the soup into another bowl. She returned to the table and sipped at her soup.
"You made this?" James asked between bites.
"Clint did," Natalia responded. "He's good at anything you can freeze for later."
James didn't slow down in eating as he thought about the intelligence he'd gathered on the people who lived in Stark Tower. Clint Barton was a SHIELD agent, the one with the bow. There had been some amazing footage of the man driving off the Chitauri attack with only a handful of arrows. "I've heard about him," James said. He scraped the last of the soup off the sides of the bowl. "Is he as good with that bow as people say?"
Natalia raised her eyebrows. "He's better," she said. She pushed her half-full bowl under James' spoon. "I owe him a great deal."
"You work together, you two?" James asked, hesitating only a moment before starting on the second bowl of soup. "Outside this Avengers stuff?"
"Yes." Natalia took the crumpled t-shirt off James' lap and smoothed out the wrinkles. "For several years." She picked at a loose thread on the shirt's collar. "He went with Coulson, to see if the Tok'ra can get the alien out of his head."
James' hand hesitated over the soup bowl. With the mess in his head over Steve, he'd managed, for a few minutes, to forget the man who had ripped off his arm. Tightening his grip on the spoon, he made himself continue eating as if his insides hadn't clenched up at the memory. "How's that going?"
"They have only been gone for a few days," Natalia told him. She pushed the t-shirt across the table to him. "You should put this on before you get cold."
James stared at it. If the thing was Steve's shirt, he didn't want it anywhere near him. But then, he really didn't want to explain that to Natalia.
He dropped the spoon in the bowl and reached for the ball of fabric. Unlike the button-up shirt he'd stolen from the base hospital, this one had to go over his head.
Natalia was watching him. He couldn't fumble, couldn't make a mistake, couldn't let her see how useless he was.
Faint shards of memory came to him, of trying to dress himself while his metal arm had been disabled; of pulling a shirt on over his head with a dead-weight left arm. The trick there had been to get both arms through the sleeves, then pull it over his head. Without a metal arm to wrestle with, he should be able to pull the shirt on without fumbling.
Natalia was watching him. He couldn't make a mistake.
He slid his hand through the shirt, seeking the open sleeve. His hand slid through the sleeve, and he shimmied his arm up and through the sleeve until he could work the collar over his head. The shirt didn't catch, didn't fall, and he quickly pulled the shirt down his torso.
The empty sleeve brushed the stitches on his shoulder, but that irritation was minor compared to the sandpaper rubbing of the stiff bandage on the bus.
Natalia took a sip of James' tea, not saying anything. He sat back in the chair, trying to regain his breath. Why did he feel such a sense of accomplishment? The emotion was quickly squashed by a wave of humiliation. If putting on a shirt by himself was the best he could do, he should have gotten off that bus in Nebraska and just kept walking until he fell over and the coyotes ate him.
Natalia stood quietly. "I'm going to make coffee," she said, as if she hadn't just witnessed the most pathetic thing ever. "Do you want some, or will you have tea?"
James rubbed his hand over his face, intensely grateful that Natalia's back was to him. The humiliation wormed its way into his gut, hotter and sharp as a bullet.
What kind of man was he now?
But Natalia had asked him a question, and if he didn't answer she was going to turn around. "Tea's fine," he said, his voice sounding weak in his own ears.
Natalia made a soft sound of assent and busied herself at the counter. After a long moment, James picked up the spoon and resumed eating. Only now, the soup was cold, and his stomach roiled with emotion. He put the spoon back down and pushed the bowl away.
Natalia glanced over her shoulder at the sound, and James reached for anything to distract her. "So who do I have to thank for the clothes?" he asked, plucking at the worn t-shirt.
"They're Clint's," Natalia said with a faint smile. "I borrowed them from him after an operation five years ago and never gave them back."
James' entire preconceptions twisted and hawed. Clint Barton. He'd suspected that Natalia and the man had been intimate; not all partners in this line of work ended up in bed together, but it happened more often than not.
But the rooms he'd seen were a woman's space, displaying Natalia's personality alone. He shifted in the chair. "So you and Barton are…"
Natalia's eyebrow went up. "He and I were," she said, stressing the last word. She returned to the table with a cup of steaming coffee in her hand.
The wave of relief that ran through James' body was a physical thing. The clothes weren't Steve's; Natalia and Steve weren't... He swallowed against the lump in his throat. "He's a good guy?" James asked, rubbing his hand against the borrowed sweatpants.
"He is a good guy," Natalia said, settling in the chair. "Do you think I would have been with him otherwise?"
The question was arch; James supposed he deserved that. He reached for his tea. The cup was cooling, but he didn't feel like asking Natalia for more hot water.
Natalia watched him for a few minutes, then set her cup on the table. "Are you ready now?" she asked.
"For what?" he asked with a frown.
"For me to call John and explain to him that you're in my kitchen?"
James shrugged. "You can do whatever you want," he said, trying to keep his voice casual. "He's your son."
Natalia's stare grew distinctly frosty. "And yours," she said. "And as of last week, he is your commanding officer."
"Yeah, well, I'm sure he's a busy man," James said. Anger and apprehension churned in his gut. He should have just kept running.
"What did you think was going to happen when you got here?" Natalia asked. She reached for James' arm, but he pulled away. "What were you going to do, James, just keep going?"
"What the hell do I have to go back to?" he demanded. He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up so fast that grey streamers swam in his vision. He put his hand out to steady himself, catching the edge of the table in time to stay on his feet.
Don't fall, don't fucking fall! James screamed at himself, willing himself with every shred of dignity he had left to stay upright. After a horrible moment, in which he couldn't tell which way was up, the floor righted itself under his feet. He hadn't fallen, hadn't added another layer of humiliation to his day. James focused on breathing, on standing, on the pressure on his palm where he gripped the table edge tight.
Finally, he let go of the table and straightened his back. Breathing through his nose, he looked around. Natalia was still seated, her face expressionless. But James could see her fingers were white where they clutched at the cup; the coffee spilled on the table.
She blinked at him. "If you're planning on running, tell me now," she said, her voice quiet.
James looked down at his palm. Red lines had been pressed into his skin from the edge of the table. "I'm not running," he said after a minute. "I… I needed to see you."
And he remembered Isis's words from that killing floor in Texas, taunting him that he had never been able to stay away from Natalia.
The memory of the words brought back more, so much more, of the agony of having his arm torn off, the unrelenting cold of slowly bleeding to death, alone on the floor after Natalia left him to track down Isis.
He didn't remember what happened after that.
He sank back into his chair, clenching his hand tight. The memories of that room were thick in his head; the stench of cooling blood, the dry dust of the concrete. If he had died there, that would have been the last thing he remembered. Being in that cold, alone.
"If you're not running, then I need to call John," Natalia said. "Let him know that you're all right."
James stared at the tabletop. All right was a generous interpretation of how he was feeling, but he wasn't going to tell that to Natalia.
"Did you hurt anyone on your way out of the hospital?" she asked, her voice still calm.
James' head jerked up. "No," he asked, not sure why she would assume that level of violence of him. "I forged some release notes on my chart, took some supplies from the locker room and took off. That's it."
Natalia pursed her lips. "I can make that work," she said as she put her hand on his arm. "Follow my lead."
James watched as Natalia pulled a mobile phone from her pocket, dialled a number, then laid the phone on the table, touching the speakerphone button on the screen. The ringer sound was loud in the quiet kitchen.
"Natasha?" John Sheppard's voice came clear through the connection. "Hi. Why are you calling?"
Natalia raised her eyebrow. "It's good to hear from you too, John," she said. Her voice was warmer than James had expected it to be – usually, during an operation, she spoke in low and measured tones, always thinking seven steps ahead. But this voice… this was not a voice James was used to hearing her use with other people.
This was the voice she used when she felt safe.
"It's not that," Sheppard said quickly. In contrast to his mother, he sounded harried. "It's just, well, there's been a little complication."
Natalia put her hand on James' wrist, squeezing gently. He took it as a warning to stay quiet. "Did something happen with Coulson?" Natalia asked.
"What? No, far as we know that's all fine," Sheppard said. There was a scuffing noise and muffled voices for a few seconds. "We shipped Coulson off to the Tok'ra with Barton and Thor as his escorts five days ago," Sheppard said when he came back on the line.
The set of Natalia's shoulders relaxed slightly. "So what seems to be the complication?"
There was a moment's hesitation, then Sheppard said, "Wait a goddamn second, is Barnes with you?"
"He arrived at Stark Tower an hour ago," Natalia said.
"In one piece?" Sheppard let out a muffled curse. "Fuck. I didn't know he was missing until Captain Rogers showed up looking for him this afternoon."
At the mention of Steve's name, James sat upright. Natalia's hand tightened on his wrist. "How did you not know he was missing?" she asked.
"Well, I've been a little busy dealing with Isis," John said. "There was a mix-up with his transfer and no one on the surface thought to be too alarmed when they saw the release notes on his chart. Three days later and I'm just hearing about this now, Jesus Christ."
"He came straight to New York," Natalia said. "Would you like to speak with him?"
"Yeah," Sheppard said, and now there was that iron James remembered creeping back into his voice. "That would be a good idea."
Natalia patted James' hand. He cleared his throat. "Colonel Sheppard," he said. "How's the weather in Colorado Springs?"
"We've had some rain, which you'd know if you'd stuck around in the base hospital like you were supposed to," Sheppard said. "You know, Sergeant, I get that it's been seventy years, but that whole thing about needing to ask permission to leave the base is still a thing we do in the military."
"Sorry about that," James said, then tacked on a "Sir," in the least sarcastic voice he could muster. "I figured that since I was just going to lie around for a few days, I could do that here."
"In New York," Sheppard clarified. "What did you do, walk?"
"Took the bus. Sir."
Sheppard sighed. "Sgt. Barnes, were you this much of a pain in the ass back in the War?"
James managed to smile at that. "Of course not, sir." Natalia rolled her eyes at him.
"So glad to hear that," Sheppard snapped. "Okay, here's a direct order for you – you stay put in Stark Tower. Consider yourself in the custody of SHIELD, courtesy of Agent Romanoff, until I personally come to get you, do you understand?"
"Yessir," James said promptly, but he didn't really understand why Sheppard was being so lenient. A derelict soldier, even one who hadn't spent decades being used by the other side, should have been taken back into military custody at once.
Given his history, James wasn't sure why Sheppard didn't already have the MPs there, slapping him in irons.
"Don't 'yessir' me, you're not the one who has to go talk down Captain America from forming search parties to go out into the hills," Sheppard said. "I mean it, Sergeant. If you start running again, the only option left is for me to lock you up."
"I get it," James said, slumping back in his chair. Like he had anywhere else to go.
"Now let me speak with Agent Romanoff, and take me off speakerphone, I can hear the echo."
Natalia picked up the phone and pressed the button before holding the phone to her ear. "Yes, John?" She listened for a few moments. "He's not running a fever or showing any signs of infection, but he's in pretty rough shape."
James rested his elbow on the table and propped up his chin with his hand. With every passing minute, everything seemed to be getting heavier. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he couldn't. Not yet.
"He's human, John, he needs time to heal."
James rubbed his eyes, trying to pay attention to the conversation. While he couldn't hear Sheppard's voice, he could just imagine what the man was saying.
"No. That is not a good idea—Because I know him, John, and I know what he needs." Natalia's voice was rising, enough to startle James into opening his eyes. "He's not going to a military hospital, he stays with me. End of discussion."
She put her free hand on James' thigh, shifting her chair closer to him. He leaned into the contact, unable to resist pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
"Fine," she said. "We'll see you tomorrow. Goodbye, John." She took the phone from her ear and ended the call.
"What's happening?" James asked. He slid his arm around her shoulders to rest his weight on her.
"He's going to fly out tomorrow with one of their physicians to make sure that you're not dying," Natalia said. She drank the remainder of the coffee in her cup, then stood, hauling James to his feet with her hand on his arm. "He's going to run interference with Steve tonight."
"Why's Rogers in Colorado Springs?" James asked, letting Natalia manhandle him out of the kitchen and down the hall to the bedroom. "Stark said he was in Chicago."
"After the mission ended this morning, Steve said he had something to do and took off," Natalia said. "I didn't know he was going to Colorado."
"Why is he there?" James asked again. He was missing something, he knew, but what it was kept eluding him.
Natalia propped him up against the wall and went to turn down the bed. "I guess he went to Colorado Springs is because that's where you were," she said. She guided James to the bed and helped him under the covers.
"Why would he do that?" James asked, then gasped as the bruises on his back and side pressed down against the mattress.
Natalia sat beside him on the bed, brushing his hair back from his forehead with gentle fingers. "Because you are Steve's best friend," she said quietly. "Steve lost you once and I don't think he'll let that happen again."
Something sharp and ugly rattled around inside James' head when he thought about Steve, and he didn't know why. "Yeah, well, things change," he muttered, shifting onto his right side.
Natalia got to her feet and left the room. By the time that James realized she was gone, she was back, holding a glass of water and two small bottles. She sat on the edge of the bed and set the glass on the bedside table. "Which do you want?" she asked, holding up the bottles for him to see. Medicine bottles. "Tylenol or Percocet."
James wasn't up on his modern pharmacopoeia, but he was pretty sure that Percocet was some kind of narcotic. He reached for the Tylenol. "You don't have any vodka around here?" he asked as he opened the bottle after a few fumbled one-handed attempts.
"That kind of pain killer won't help," Natalia said. She waited until he had two pills in his hand before taking the bottle away. "You don't normally drink when you're hurt."
James popped the pills in his mouth and cracked them with his teeth before swallowing them down with the help of the water. Once he was sure the pills wouldn't come back up, he lay down and said, "First time for everything, sweetheart."
Into his head came faint snippets of memory, of being drunk as a young man, getting into fights with the neighborhood boys on Saturday nights, of the hangovers in Mass the next Sundays. He remembered how easy alcohol made things, back then.
That's why he'd stopped drinking. Because of how easy things could be.
There hadn't been much opportunity for the Winter Soldier to drink. When he was on a mission, he refused to let himself be distracted, and for as long as he could remember, he had been on a mission. Even daily life in Department X had been one long, deadly mission.
Another memory. Summer on the steppe, up in the rocky hills above the Department X compound. He was stretched out in the sun, reading the propaganda papers aloud while someone listened. Someone wearing his jacket, smoking his cigarettes, sharing a small flask of harsh vodka.
He wondered who that person had been.
James opened his eyes. Natalia was gone from his side, and the space where she had sat was cold to the touch. Heart pounding, James sat up. She wasn't there. Where had she gone?
The door between the bedroom and the bathroom opened, and Natalia came back into the room. She had changed into a t-shirt and underwear. She closed the door behind her. "What woke you?" she asked. She turned on a small lamp on the desk, before turning off the overhead light.
James could only stare at her, waiting for his heart rate to slow, for the sudden anxiety and fear to leave him.
Natalia crawled over him onto the bed. "Come on, lie down," she said, easing James onto his side and pulling the blankets over them both. "Back to sleep."
"I was sleeping?" James mumbled, everything thick and slow in his head.
"You fell asleep three hours ago," Natalia said, curling up behind him. She was so warm against him that he nearly gasped at the sensation. "It's all right, I've got you."
James stared at the far wall, cast in shadows from the dim light. His eyelids were so heavy, but something was hiding in the back of his mind, something that he needed to pay attention to, something he needed to remember…
(A blade in his chest. Falling)
He couldn't remember.
He was so tired.
Natalia kissed the back of his neck, her breath warm on his skin.
He just couldn't remember.