There was a homeless shelter on Second Street. He found it sort of by accident on the first day After, but when he realized what it was, he went inside and asked if he could have some food. They did him one better: the young volunteer he spoke to brought him a sandwich and a bottle of water, and said they had shower facilities if he'd like to use them. He thought about that for a long time while he was eating the sandwich.
(if you'd like)
He couldn't remember the last time someone asked him what he'd like. What he wants. He doesn't want. He doesn't like. He wakes up from the cold and they give him missions and he completes his missions and if there's damage, it's repaired and then he goes back to the cold until he wakes up again.
The sandwich was thick; the bread was white and relatively fresh and the sliced meat was brilliant pink, piled high and topped with bright green lettuce and dark green pickles and thick red slices of tomato. The water was cold and clean and didn't taste of minerals or drugs.
(if you'd like)
The young volunteer didn't stare at him while he ate; in fact, she didn't seem to worry about him at all, any more than she worried about any of the other people milling around the room. There were other men like him, men who were dirty and looked lost, and he thought that maybe he was unremarkable there with his jacket and his ball cap and his arm in a sling.
He ate the whole sandwich and drank the whole bottle of water and he made a decision for the third time in living memory. He formed the words carefully in his mind and he looked up at the young volunteer when she passed by him and he said, “Yes, I would like to take a shower.”
It felt good, to like. It felt good, to want.
It felt good to get clean.
The young volunteer found another volunteer - this one male, because the girl was good-hearted but not stupid - to show him to the showers. The room was semi-communal, but the individual shower heads were enclosed by stalls that locked. The male volunteer gave him a rough white towel and a little plastic bag of toiletries and told him to take his time, that there was plenty of hot water and nobody else to want the shower right then, and left him alone in the room.
He chose a stall and locked himself in. There was a metal hook on the back of the door, and he hung up the plastic bag containing his leather, then his jacket. He tucked his hat into the bag. Then he looked at the little bag of toiletries. He was now the proud owner of a small bar of soap, a tiny bottle of shampoo/conditioner, a safety razor, and a flimsy comb.
He stripped. He folded his clothing carefully and stowed it on a shelf beside the stall door. He unwrapped his arm, setting the bandage and the splint carefully atop his clothing. The arm felt better already, but he came in with the splint and he should leave with it to avoid questions.
He ran the water hot and wet himself thoroughly, then he crouched under the spray and held his left arm up into it. It was the best, quickest way he could think of to get it rinsed completely clear. The cybernetics themselves were fine, but the water quality in the Potomac was questionable at best and he'd rather not have anything gumming up the works. It's not like he can get it repaired if it quits working.
Once he was reasonably certain the arm was rinsed clear, he unpacked the toiletries and worked on the rest of his body. He was tempted to dump the whole bottle of hair cleaner onto his head, but he restrained himself. He didn't actually need that much, and he could take the rest of it with him. He used it on his face as well, reasoning that if it was good enough to clean the skin and hair on the top of his head, it was probably good enough to clean the skin and hair on the front of his head. Then he pulled the soap out and spent several long, blissful minutes watching accumulated dirt and grime run off his body and down the drain. He wondered, briefly, when the last time was that he was allowed to have a shower.
(your work has been a gift to mankind. you shaped the century.)
Once he was so clean that his skin glowed ruddy, he rinsed himself, crouching down to give the arm one more careful, thorough sluice. Then he shut the water off, shook himself like a dog, and grabbed the towel to do a more thorough job. Putting on his dirty clothes over his clean body wasn't very nice, but he lacked any other options, so he did what must be done. He combed his hair out straight back from his forehead, then shook his head and ran his fingers through it so that it fell side to side like it was supposed to. He thought about cutting it off, but decided that could wait.
He tucked the toiletries away in the bag with his leather, and thought that he needed something more sturdy to carry his things in, since apparently he had things now. He couldn't remember ever having things before, things that belonged to him.
He thought about the man in the blue suit. That man had a shield that he used as a weapon. He dropped it, though, and it fell into the river.
He thought about that shield for a long time: the way it looked, the way it sounded, the way it felt when it struck him, the way it felt when the man in the blue suit dropped it and it fell away into the river.
Then he realized that he was woolgathering. He fumbled with the splint and the bandage, but he needed better leverage, so he packed everything away in his bag. He paused, feeling the lump of cash in his pocket. He wondered how much was there. His handlers always gave him cash to carry in case he needed it on a mission; usually he didn't need it, so it just stayed there in his pocket.
He dug it out to count it and felt his forehead wrinkle in surprise. Not only was he carrying two thousand American dollars, but he also had several hundred Soviet rubles, three East German fifty-mark notes, and - somehow - fourteen Congolese francs. He snorted at the latter, but tucked them carefully back into his pocket with the rest. Then he paused. Thought.
He pulled the cash back out of his pocket, peeled three twenties and a ten out of the wad. Those four bills went back into his pocket. The rest of it went into his left boot for now. He used the clothing shelf as a support to hold the splint in place while he re-wrapped the bandage. Then he gathered his bag and left the stall.
There was another man in the shower room now: old, stooped, mumbling, shuffling. Not a threat. He ignored the other man, left the shower room, went back down the hall to the room where the young volunteer gave him a sandwich. There was another volunteer there now, an older woman with a no-nonsense demeanor but kind eyes. She saw him, gave him a nod and a slight smile, asked him if there was anything that he needed.
He thought about this.
Need is a very strong word. He needs food to fuel his body, but he's already eaten. He needs water, but he isn't thirsty. He needs to know about that man in the blue suit
(that man on the bridge, who was he?)
but this woman couldn't tell him that. He started to shake his head, and then a thought formed in his mind. He considered the thought, and he arranged the words that went with it. “I could use a better bag,” he said. He recognized the sound of his own voice and catalogued it: tentative, quiet.
The woman said, “Yeah, you could, couldn't you? That thing's not gonna last a week. Hang on.”
She went to a door with a digital lock, punched in a code, stood there while the door slid open to reveal a closet. Inside, he saw a fascinating variety of things. He realized that it was a donation center. The woman turned to face him, and in her hands was a black canvas backpack. She offered it to him, and he took it. “Thank you,” he said. His eyes flicked across the shelves behind her, and he was emboldened because it worked the first time, but he was slow to form the words and she divined his intent before he could speak.
“You need a change of clothes?” she asked. He nodded, and she said, “What size?”
He had no idea. He looked down at himself, wondering, and then back up at her. She waved a hand at him. “Never mind. We'll guesstimate, and you can try it on, and if it doesn't fit we'll try again.” She looked him over carefully, then went into the closet again. When she came back out, she was carrying two t-shirts, a pair of blue jeans, and a pair of camouflage pants with pockets quite like the ones he was already wearing. On top of those folded clothes was a package of brand-new boxer briefs and another of socks. She pointed him to a doorway nearby.
It turned out to be a single-occupancy bathroom. He stripped out of his dirty clothing, kicking it aside, and pulled on a clean pair of underwear. Then he tried on the camouflage pants. They fit fine, but there was something about them that made him feel strange. Like they should be familiar but weren't. He took them off, folded them up, and tucked them into his new bag. The jeans were better, snug and comfortable. He kept them on. The t-shirts both fit as well. One of them was plain gray, and the other plain blue. He folded the gray one and put it in his bag, along with the rest of the underwear in the package. Next he donned a new pair of socks, putting away the rest of the pack. Then he folded his leathers into the backpack. Finally, he rolled his dirty clothes all up as tightly as possible, tucked them into the plastic grocery bag, and stuffed that into the backpack as well.
He peeled a fifty off the roll of cash and returned it to his sock, stamped his feet into his boots, and shrugged his jacket on. Then he slung his new backpack onto his left shoulder. He looked at himself in the mirror for a moment, memorizing the contours of his own face. He left the bathroom.
The woman volunteer was sitting at a desk, and she looked up when he came out. She nodded once. “Damn, I'm good.”
He felt his lips twitch upward at that. Amusement was such an odd thing to feel. He stopped in front of the desk. “Thank you,” he said. It was the second time.
She smiled at him. “You're welcome.”
He laid the fifty dollar bill on the desk. She blinked. “You don't have to pay,” she said, trying to give it back. “It's what we're here for.”
“I know,” he said. He put his hand in his pocket, looked down at his feet, struggled for the words. Finally he said, “I want to.”
“All right,” she said. She folded the bill and closed it up into her hand. “I'll put it into the donations box.” She paused, and then she gave him another smile. “Thank you,” she said.
He didn't know how to feel about that, so he tried not to. Instead, he just nodded. Then he left.
He didn't have a destination in mind; he only knew that he hadn't found a place where he wanted to be yet. He thought that he would know it when he saw it. Then again, maybe he would just choose. He was starting to get the hang of making small decisions, like whether to have a shower or whether to ask for a bag or whether to give someone money in exchange for helping him. Or deciding not to kill someone who helped him.
(you've known me your whole life)
finding a secure place for his bag and making his way into the museum because there's a sign out front with a picture of the man in the blue suit.
He made his way through the maze of exhibits. He looked at things as he passed, sometimes stopped to read little signs. He spent ten minutes in front of a capsule that took men to the moon, and wondered where he was for that. Was he awake, or was he in the cold? He couldn't remember.
Finally, finally. There it was. He walked under a banner and passed a wall emblazoned with the words Welcome back, Cap. On another wall, the man with the blue suit stared heroically into the distance, saluting. Here was a picture of a little, scrawny guy with the blue-suited man's face; underneath it was the blue-suited man himself, and he could see that both men were somehow the same man. The audio explained about an experimental program, and he thought, oh.
(I thought you were dead.
I thought you were smaller.)
There was a display of mannequins; in the front, the blue suit - but with red and white stripes, and a different shield. The mural on the wall showed the same man, with six companions. He blinked. He saw the face, but he didn't, couldn't understand.
And then he turned. And he saw it.
A Fallen Comrade, it read, and under that, the name that the man in the blue suit had given him.
(your name is James Buchanan Barnes)
He listened to the audio talk about Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers and how they were best friends since childhood
(who the hell is Bucky)
and he read the wall that told him all about how Bucky Barnes died a war hero in 1944. He looked at the videos of Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers together, and he stared at the picture on the glass wall.
He felt his left hand curl up into a fist. He wanted to rage and scream and attack that smug, uncaring, hateful face on the wall because how dare he. How dare he be there on that wall, how dare he be a hero, how dare he have the respect and honor of all these people and the friendship of the man in the blue suit how dare he be up there with that face from the mirror
(i'm not gonna fight you. you're my friend)
He had to get out of there.
He didn't care if people stared; he broke and ran for the exit, ran like he couldn't remember ever running for anything before, he ran like all the demons of
Hell were after him, and he fell to the ground outside, behind a retaining wall where no one could see him and he wrapped both hands in his hair and he pulled, hard, and it hurt but the pain grounded him and after a few moments he could breathe again. And he looked up at the face of the man in the blue suit, at Captain America, and he realized, finally, that if he was ever going to understand anything, anything at all, that's where he was going to have to start.
He sat there and he stared at Captain America's face until the sun set.
Finally, as the crush of museum-goers ebbed, he pushed himself to his feet. He retrieved his bag from its hiding place. He found another shelter where he could spend the night; they didn't have any beds left but he doesn't need a bed, hasn't slept on a bed since
he can remember. He used all his best words on the woman at the intake desk, said please and promised not to be a bother and offered to help clean up after the communal meal and tried his very best to smile and the woman's eyes softened with compassion and she said there was a couch in one of the community rooms.
There was also a television, and after he kept up his end of the bargain - and really, helping to clean up an industrial kitchen was not the worst thing he'd ever done with his time - he found several men sitting around it. He staked out a space for himself, not on the promised couch but on the floor under a table wedged between two cabinets. It was a small space, covered on five of six sides, and nobody was going to fight him for a spot on the floor under a table when there was a broken down couch and some squashy chairs to be had.
He curled up and rested his head on top of his backpack and watched the television. The thought crossed his mind that it was better than the television he'd seen before, and then he wondered when he saw television. He couldn't remember. He listened to a dark-haired woman speak very earnestly about how nobody knew where Captain America was and people were worried about him. He wondered if anyone had yet found him lying there on the riverbank. He thought that maybe he should go back and check.
Someone changed the channel, and he saw a different program where a slender man with silver hair was also talking about Captain America, in conjunction with something called the Avengers Initiative. He came to the realization that whatever this Initiative was, Captain America was part of it. That was a good lead; he filed it away in his head.
He thought about everything that had happened to him in the last forty-eight hours. He thought about the exhibit in the museum. He thought about the anxious woman on the television and the slender man. He thought about Steve Rogers and he thought about Captain America. He thought about the next twenty-four hours. And he thought, In the morning when there is light, I will go to the riverbank and see if he is still there. If he is not there, I will find out about the Avengers Initiative and I will go there.
That thought felt good. It felt right. Satisfied with himself and his decision, he clamped his metal hand around his backpack, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
The first thing they had to do was find Clint.
Nobody knew exactly where he was, not even Natasha, though she suspected he was probably in Afghanistan. But she had ways of getting into contact with him anyway, and she was perfectly willing to burn the whole world down in order to find him if she had to.
Fortunately, she didn't have to. She started with an email to a girlhood friend, sent even before Steve left the hospital in Washington. Zlata, she wrote, I have not heard from you in so long. How are your babies? Is the little boy walking yet? I will be in Tblisi quite soon with my husband; would you be able to come on the train, do you think? Love, your Anastasiya.
She did yoga with Bruce, watched Tony blow up small objects, sparred with Thor, even went down to Pepper's office and smacked her head against the wall several times. It didn't matter. She was tense. SHIELD was HYDRA and they were everywhere and SI's staff had been reduced by about ten percent and Steve, Sam and Darcy were somewhere between Washington and New York in an armored SUV but where the hell was Clint?
And then, just as JARVIS was announcing that Steve and Company had arrived, her Starkphone beeped in her pocket.
She snatched it out and opened an email. Anastasiya, it read, I would be ecstatic to come in on the train to Tblisi. The little boy is already running quite fast; the little girl is always getting into so much trouble. Let me know the dates of your stay in Tblisi and I will surely meet you there. Your Zlata.
Beneath the name was an address in Grozny and a telephone number. She grabbed a pen and a sticky note off Pepper's desk and wrote down every third digit, then cross-referenced the results with a map application. “I knew it,” she muttered. “JARVIS, get me Stark!”
The intercom opened immediately, and Tony said, “Nat?”
“Tony, he's outside of Kabul, waiting for pickup.” She rattled off the coordinates.
“Got it,” Tony said. “JARVIS, feed those into the suit.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Give me an ETA, maximum speed,” Tony snapped.
There was a nanosecond's pause as JARVIS processed. “Forty-five minutes,” he said.
Natasha began typing a reply even as the comm closed with the sound of Tony's repulsors firing. Zlata, Anton and I will arrive in Tblisi in four days and plan to stay for five. I am so very excited! I look forward to each minute that we will spend together. Anastasiya.
There was nothing else to do but wait, and meet the new arrivals upstairs. She took her leave of Pepper's office - leaving Pepper a note to let her know that she'd been there, since Pepper was in Malibu - and headed back upstairs. She got there just about the same time as the others.
There was a chorus of voices as the four of them greeted one another, and Darcy headed straight for the kitchen. “I'm starving. Anyone else?”
“Yes,” all three of them spoke at once.
Darcy laughed. “I'll find something to reheat. Give me a few minutes.”
“How was the trip up?” Natasha asked.
“Fine,” Steve replied, dropping onto one of the sofas. “Just long. Five hours in the car with these two knuckleheads.”
“You're the one who started the pun contest,” Darcy objected.
“Guilty,” Steve confessed, looking not the least bit sorry. “Sam, sit down. Make yourself at home. God knows how long we're gonna be here; you might as well be comfortable.”
Sam tossed himself into a chair, looking around at the room. “This is one hell of a place,” he commented.
“You ain't seen nothin' yet,” came the voice of Bruce Banner, as he stuck his head into the kitchen from the other side. “Steve, I'm glad to see you're back safe.”
“Thanks, Bruce,” Steve said, giving his teammate a tired wave. “Is Thor around?”
“Down in the lab with Jane,” Bruce said. “They're trying to translate Asgardian magic into Earth science again.”
“The Soul Forge Debates, round two?” Steve asked, and Darcy, dumping spaghetti noodles into a pan of water, laughed.
“More like round four hundred,” she said. “But at least they seem to make progress every time they do it. Thor's just not a science guy. He's more like me.”
Sam, coming into the conversation blind, cocked his head. “What does that mean?”
“Thor's a prince,” Darcy explained as she scooped leftover pasta sauce into a pan. “He knows a metric ton about politics and governance and all those kinds of things, and he's also really into history and folklore. But he's not a science guy. That's like me. I'm into politics and history and stuff, and I know all the basic kind of science that they taught in high school, but when it comes to what people like Jane and Bruce do? Whoo. I'm way out of my league.”
“That makes sense,” Sam said.
Natasha worked off her nerves by dicing up tomatoes and peppers for a salad. She was just scooping them into the bowl of lettuce to toss when her phone began to ring. She nearly dropped everything she was holding in her haste to free her hands. Darcy rescued the salad, tossing her a towel, and she wiped her hands, snatching the phone out of her pocket as fast as she could. “Romanov.”
“Nat! Can you hear me? I can't hear a goddamn thing! I'm riding piggyback on Tony fucking Stark doing Mach Two over the fucking Mediterranean. We'll be in New York in like an hour or so if he doesn't drop me in the goddamn ocean.”
She felt her knees go weak with relief. “Hang up the phone and hold onto that suit, you idiot,” she said fondly. “If you let him drop you, I'll break both your legs.”
“Yeah, I'm sorry, who just burned all of SHIELD on fucking Wikileaks? We need to have a serious conversation when I get back.”
“You've got it,” she replied, smiling softly. “I'll see you soon.”
The line went dead, and she pocketed her phone, and with her heart as light as it had ever been, she went to help Darcy bring food to the table.