Maybe because her labors had been succesful. Three HYDRA cells found and wiped out. It seemed Sam hadn't been so lucky.
"It's always the unsteadiness that's the hardest," Sam was saying. "I told Steve what to expect, but it's different, seeing it. One day he's fine, making progress in therapy, remembering random things and able to process them and move on. Working with us. The next..."
Natasha nodded, and met Clint's eyes. Both of them were just a little too familiar with what that felt like, both to go through it and to witness it.
"But overall he's on board?" asked Clint.
"Yeah. With the therapy, with Tony examining his arm - even with us keeping information from him."
"I can imagine that part would be frustrating," said Natasha.
"It is, but he understands. He remembers things on his own every so often. And he says it's different when he's prompted. The other day he remembered that Steve used to draw, and he said that felt real. It's always so hard, with memories, to tell what's your own memory and what's just a memory that you think you have because somebody told you that you should have it."
"HYDRA gave him enough of those," said Natasha.
"Which is why he's OK with us staying quiet about his own past until he figures it out. It's a hard line to skirt, though."
"How is he today?" asked Clint.
"It's a pretty good day so far. Steve's in there with him right now."
"How's Steve doing?"
Sam tensed minutely.
Sam shook his head. "I would not want to be in his shoes."
"Has Barnes remembered they were lovers yet?" asked Natasha.
"Don't think so. He looks at Steve a little oddly every so often, but no, we don't think so."
"How's Steve?" Clint repeated.
Sam shrugged. "Well, you know Steve. Stiff upper lip all the way." Natasha had a sudden vivid memory of him weeping broken-hearted in her arms, and blinked impatiently, focussing on Sam again. "He's helping," Sam continued. "Even though it's gotta be incredibly painful. He's in there every day, keeping Barnes company."
Clint frowned. "Without being able to talk to him about his memories, what can he do?"
"Well, Barnes has an hour in the morning and an hour at night of therapy, and in between he's got lessons on all the stuff he's missed. You know - history, technology, politics, general culture stuff. Steve helps him with that, sometimes. And they play board games. Cards. Talk about politics. Books. Anything that isn't talking about memories." He blew out his breath. "That's assuming Barnes is stable."
"What happens when he isn't stable?"
Sam swallowed. "That's a little rougher. Sometimes therapy doesn't go so well. Sometimes he gets frustrated, or has nightmares. Those aren't good days."
"What does he do?"
"Sometimes it's not so bad, he's just moody or quiet. Other days - well he scared the hell out a therapist a couple days in when he threw a chair leg at her. Just ripped it off and threw it before she could even react. It's spooky - he doesn't look that pissed off. Just... cold. He wasn't really aiming for her, or she would've been dead." He cleared his throat. "And then there's the other stuff..." He sighed. "You know how his arm had some weird-ass poison darts in it, and we'd read about it and disarmed them while he was unconscious and it was OK because they were out of poison anyway?"
"Yeah he can also shock people with it. It's like a Widow's Bite."
"That wasn't in his file," said Natasha, alarmed.
"No. And he didn't tell us about it. Because apparently he fucking well didn't know. Until he got pissed off at his therapist - different from the one he threw the chair leg at - and Steve came in to subdue him, because he was tearing the room apart, and he shocked Steve."
"Jesus," muttered Clint.
"Yeah. Good thing it was Steve - he was just a bit stunned. And good thing Barnes was too surprised himself to take advantage of it. Gave Steve time to get back on his feet." Sam paused. "And then there's the shit he says."
"He's pissed off. He knows he needs to be here, on his good days. But he's pissed off, and on bad days he wants out and he knows he's not gonna get out unless he kills a bunch of people, and he doesn't want to do that. So he lashes out."
"Verbally?" asked Natasha.
"He knows all our weak spots, too. Figured out Steve's pretty quickly. Not so bad when he's swearing in Russian, but when it's in English..."
"What does he say?"
Sam grimaced. "Says he's being kept prisoner. That we're no better than the people who made him the Winter Soldier. Called Steve out for having worked for HYDRA. Me for being a failed flyer. One of the therapists for being more concerned with his patients than his kids."
"How would he know any of that?" asked Clint. "He was an assassin, not a spy."
Natasha shook her head. "He wasn't just trained to shoot; he could already do that. He was trained to examine his targets to detect weaknesses, like emotional ties, addictions, fears."
"And he used that while he was the Winter Soldier?"
Natasha shrugged. "Most of his kills used force more than anything else. But he could also get into places where he shouldn't have been able to get in. Pass as staff. Figure out personal things about his targets. I guess this is how. And he had to do it fast, too - apparently the longer he was off the ice, the more erratic he got, so they had to train him to recognize weak spots and make plans and infiltrate and get his target - within a very short period of time."
"It's taking a toll," said Sam. "Two therapists have quit. And Steve needs a break."
"He's not gonna take one," said Clint.
"He's showing the strain. He told off one of the therapists for not seeing that Bucky was agitated. Considering what Bucky had just done, that wasn't... helpful."
"I'd like to see him," said Natasha.
"Nat, we just got back," Clint protested.
"We won't stay long. Is Barnes settled into the apartment Tony made for him?"
"Yeah," said Sam. "It's still pretty bare bones, but we've got furniture in there. The only thing is no wifi and no knives. There's not much point to that - if he really wanted to get out he could make a weapon out of anything - but this way at least he has to work to weaponize. Which is why JARVIS monitors him and we look at what he films when we're not there. There's usually somebody watching too, if anybody's in there with him. Tony's got a guard posted."
"Thank God for deep pockets," said Clint.
They got off and went into the small control room attached to Barnes' apartment, and Natasha looked around. Several screens showed rooms in the apartment, which now had bookshelves. On one, in the living room, Barnes and Steve were playing what looked like cards. Poker.
She narrowed her eyes, taking in the scene before her. "You said today's a good day?"
"It was this morning." Sam looked at the screen. "Damn. It's not any more."
The security guard frowned at them and moved to Natasha's side as she peered at the screen. Steve and Barnes seemed tense, laying down cards stiffly, neither one speaking. She'd played cards with Steve a few times on missions and he'd never seemed this tightly controlled.
"Gonna lose this one," said Barnes.
"You don't know that yet."
"Believe it or not I was taught to play poker at a professional level. Dunno if it was to blend in if a target was a player, or to train me to detect tells." He blew out his breath. "More useless shit I'll never use."
"You don't know that," said Steve. "Some of your training might come in handy some day."
"Which part?" asked Barnes. "Figuring out poker tells? Or fifty-two ways to jab a man in the jugular?"
"You don't like it," said Barnes flatly. "You hate when I point this shit out."
Steve swallowed. "I don't if it helps you feel better," he said, eyes back on his cards.
Steve looked away.
Barnes put the cards down. "So what am I supposed to do now? All my training's for shit. All this therapy bullshit you're shoving at me--"
"We're trying to help," said Steve.
"And what if I can't ever be released from here?"
"I'll stay with you."
"I don't want your charity."
"It's not charity. You would've done the same for me. In fact, you did. When I had nothing, you took me in."
"You remembered that the other day," Steve said quietly. "After we reburied my mom next to my dad. I'd paid for the plot and then lost my job. You made me move in with you--"
"I'll do the same for you."
"You don't know how long--"
"As long as it takes. I'll take care of you till you die if it comes to that."
"Till death do us part, is that it?" Barnes flung bitterly, and Natasha winced as Steve flinched.
"Something like that," said Steve, his voice low.
"The hell with you," muttered Barnes. "Don't you ever get tired of playing hero?"
"All right." Steve put his cards down. "Look, you're not interested in cards--"
Barnes suddenly kicked the table, shaking it, and Natasha realized it was bolted to the floor. "No. No, fuck, I'm not interested in the fucking cards."
Sam swore under his breath. Steve rose to his feet smoothly, but Natasha could tell from his stance and the tension in his limbs that he was prepped for a fight.
"It's all right--"
"No. No, it's not fucking all right," Barnes said, and picked up a chair, throwing it at Steve, who ducked. Barnes's face was a mask of tension, but he was otherwise eerily calm. "You hate when I say that. When I say you're jailing me just like HYDRA did."
"Yeah, I do."
"At least they never said it was for my own good."
Steve shook his head. "Because it wasn't." Steve ducked again as Barnes threw another chair. "James, calm down!" he stepped into Barnes's space. "Look, I know you're frustrated, but--" he went to put a hand on Barnes's shoulder and Barnes snarled at him, violently slapping his hand away.
"Fuck you!" Barnes said, his voice low and vicious. "Don't - you can't understand. You don't know - you just went to fucking sleep for seventy years, what the hell do you know?"
"I don't. I don't know. But I can try to help--" Steve stepped closer again and Barnes stepped into his space, metal hand in the middle of Steve's chest and shoving him back. Steve smacked into the wall.
"Jesus--" Clint moved toward the door and Sam stopped him.
"Wait, don't," said Sam. "Steve can get him to pull back sometimes. If we step in, he feels cornered."
Clint glanced at the room, where Barnes was now stalking closer to Steve. "Yeah? Looks like Steve's cornered right now."
"Give him a moment," Sam muttered, and they watched as Barnes threw another broken piece of chair and Steve backed away, his eyes fixed on Barnes and his hands held by his side, still murmuring calm words - and then Barnes reached out his metal hand to Steve's neck. "Fuck," Sam groaned. "Never mind, in we go."
Natasha moved to the door, and they burst in as Barnes pulled back to punch Steve in the face, and the next moments were a blur as all of them fought to subdue him, finally wrestling him to the ground and getting the specially modified handcuffs on him, Steve talking to him the whole time.
"It's all right, James," he said, gasping, when they finally had him restrained. "It's all right. We're not gonna let you hurt anyone."
Natasha suppressed the urge to snort rather indelicately. Her lip felt bruised, Clint was gonna have a hell of a shiner, Steve's cheek was scraped and Sam was holding his ribs gingerly and all she could think was bozhe moi it had taken all four of them, trained fighters all, to get him down, never mind that they were trying not to hurt him and he had no such compunctions. His strength was unbelievable.
No internal Russian, she reminded herself sternly. Barnes wouldn't appreciate it if it slipped out; he'd spent enough time in the clutches of the Soviets.
Barnes was lying on the floor, muscles strained against the restraints, eyelids clenched shut, but Natasha had seen the fear in his eyes during the struggle.
Steve drew closer to Barnes, drawing his knees up and clasping his arms around them. "It's OK," he murmured, wearily resting his head on his knees, and Barnes nodded tensely. "It's OK. You didn't hurt anyone. We're all fine."
Barnes nodded, his breath evening. Within moments he was asleep.
Sam nodded, wincing slightly and putting a hand to his ribs. "If his pattern holds, he's gonna sleep for a few hours and wake up feeling a lot calmer. He seems to relax when he's in those restraints, we're not sure why. He either feels safe, like he can't hurt himself or anyone else, or he shuts down because he's been trained to understand that it's futile to fight. Either way, he gets some rest."
Steve grimaced, staring into the room. "That's not rest," he said brusquely. "It's unconsciousness."
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," said Sam. "He'll feel better later."
"I think we need to put the telemetry Bruce was talking about," said Sam. Steve made a noise in his throat. "I know, I know, you feel it's invasive. But it's getting to where you're the only one who'll risk going in there with him. With the telemetry, we'll be able to monitor his heart rate, heat signature - maybe see the explosions coming before they happen."
"We'll tell him what we're doing, he'll know we're monitoring him - and he'll know we're monitoring everyone in there, it won't just be him."
Steve bit his lip and nodded, then got up and left.
Natasha gingerly touched her lip.
"Still glad you insisted on coming up here?" asked Clint. She gave him a dark scowl. "Look, let's go settle in. We can deal with this shit tomorrow, OK?"
Natasha nodded and followed Clint out of the room.
Steve blinked, his spoon halfway to his mouth, puzzled. "Uh. No? I don't think so."
"Do you want to?"
Steve shook his head quickly. "No. I want to be here. Sometimes he gets... upset."
Natasha nodded and stirred her oatmeal. "He doesn't seem to have a lot of self-control," she agreed. "Though Sam says he's remembered a lot more than we thought he might."
"Yeah," Steve nodded. "But it's all disorganized. And some of it isn't new memories - he's always remembered a lot of what they did to him. They took away memories of what he did and what he knew; they didn't usually wipe memories of his training."
"What about the wipes themselves? Does he remember them?"
Steve shuddered. "Yes."
Natasha winced and took a sip of her coffee and cast about for another topic. Hardened as she was to the ruthless ways human beings were capable of using and abusing each other, the thought of the mindwipe process left even her slightly nauseated. She glanced sideways at Steve. "You know, I've been trying to decide if you lied to me about something."
"Remember when we were in the stolen car? I asked you if you'd kissed anyone in the last seventy years. You said you had."
Steve looked away, a slight blush on his cheeks. "I wasn't lying."
Steve took a deep breath. "I went to a few bars."
Steve nodded. "I didn't want - I wasn't ready to date." He cleared his throat. "I - I never have. I've only ever been... involved with Bucky. But I... was curious." Natasha nodded. "I went outside of New York and I wore glasses," he said defensively, apparently mistaking her silence for disapproval. "I have learned a little from you. I made sure I wouldn't be recognized."
"And you kissed someone?"
"Twice." Steve gave her a wry smile. "I didn't do much more than kiss either of them. We made out a bit, but I couldn't - I didn't want to take it farther. It was too weird. They both... they both looked a bit like Bucky."
"When was this?"
"Second time was about a month before... well, everything."
Natasha nodded, thinking it over. So Steve had been getting used to this time, to this world. He might have rejected all of her attempts to matchmake, but he'd started taking the initiative, tentative as it was, to get over his supposedly dead one-and-only.
He had been doing better. She'd sensed his sadness, his loneliness, but he had been getting better. He'd been working, he'd gone to bars - he'd even struck up a friendship with Sam. Which could have been a simple human connection or a fledging attempt to flirt with an attractive man...
And then everything had gone to hell. Because even if he'd been able to pick up the pieces professionally and ethically after the fall of SHIELD, here was Barnes, effectively derailing any progress Steve might have made emotionally.
"Were you ever going to say anything?"
"Eventually, maybe. I'm not indifferent to women, you know." She gave him a skeptical glance. "Look, I really did have a sort of crush on Peggy," he said defensively. "Besides... it felt familiar."
"Having someone try to set me up with a girl. With a lot of girls. The old lady on our floor back in Brooklyn used to do that." He looked down. "So did Bucky."
Steve nodded. "Didn't do any good. No girl ever looked at me twice until after this," he gestured to his body vaguely. "And then I was with the USO girls and some of them were nice but it was - I didn't know how to talk to them. Didn't even really know how to talk to Peggy either."
Natasha stirred her oatmeal thoughtfully. "What did you think when you saw how things are now?" Steve looked at her questioningly. "For gays, that is."
Steve took a deep breath. "I guess you're waiting for me to say I think it's great that kids these day don't have to go through what we went through. Hiding, feeling ashamed of themselves." He met her eyes steadily. "Showing they love each other by leaving each other. They can even serve their country openly now. Brave new world, acceptance, all that stuff."
Natasha tilted her head to the side. His voice sounded remarkably flat and tired.
"I'm glad things are different, yeah. Of course." He put his spoon down. "But it all came seventy years too late for us. So don't expect me to not feel a little bitter."
Sam appeared in the doorway. "Steve."
Steve sighed and turned to the door. "Yeah."
"He's asking for you."
Steve stood and headed out, his face grim.
"So... how is he?" she asked Sam.
Sam grimaced. "Who knows. Same. He slept pretty well."
"It's always hard on him the day after Barnes has one of these episodes. He'll probably go for an extra-long boxing session this afternoon."
"I mean how is he, other than day-to-day. Big picture."
Sam regarded her seriously for a moment. "He doesn't want to admit that there may not be a happy ending to this."
"He seemed pretty realistic about it before we got Barnes," said Natasha.
"And he's still putting up a good front. Saying the right words. But I can tell he's holding out hope for a full recovery, for Bucky to be what he used to be. That might not happen."
Natasha nodded. "Surrender isn't in Steve's dictionary," she noted.
"He may have to add it in," Sam said grimly. "Barnes is doing his best. But even he doesn't know everything about what they did to him. Besides, all of his training and conditioning tells him to use every advantage he can to get the hell out of here. I don't know how long he can fight that. We've got JARVIS monitoring and we try to do what we can, but he's done a few things that are a little scary."
"He's managed to loosen some furniture that was bolted down without us noticing, and then used it as a weapon. Going back and looking at the surveillance we could see when he'd done it, but..."
"That's not good."
"No. We've got surveillance on him 24/7, and he knows it. We're monitoring his vital signs, so hopefully we'll be able to tell when he's feeling strongly about stuff. Who knows. Sometimes he's pretty... disconnected. Basically he's a mess." Sam took a deep breath. "And we don't know if he'll ever not be a mess. I don't know if Steve can accept that."
"He may not have a choice, if Barnes goes on the FBI's Most Wanted list."
Sam groaned. "That's still a possibility?"
Natasha nodded. With the takeover of much of SHIELD's operations by the government, and with the coordination of various world governments in trying to track down the remnants of HYDRA, there was no shortage of HYDRA fugitives being tracked down. And the Winter Soldier was still such a semi-mythical figure that it wasn't surprising that there hadn't been a concerted effort to put together all intelligence on him and make his capture a priority.
But it might be only a matter of time. And really they all knew they were harboring a wanted felon, whether or not there was an official bulletin out connecting James Buchanan Barnes to the Winter Soldier. Plausible deniability could only get them so far if he went on Most Wanted, especially as, by this point, there were several therapists and guards involved who could put two and two together and had no reason to commit a crime by concealing his whereabouts.
Natasha finished her breakfast in silence and returned her plate to the dishwasher. Well, she and Clint were going to be in town for at least a week. Maybe they could help; offer fresh eyes to the situation. Or at least offer their friendship when things went wrong.
"Shit," muttered Clint, and Natasha leaned forward, her morning coffee forgotten, eyes intent on the window before her. Barnes was gazing steadily at Steve, his voice calm and measured, his vital signs steady. Steve put down his cards and swallowed hard, meeting Barnes's gaze steadily and seeming just as calm, but his vital signs were quickly going haywire.
"Yeah," he said quietly.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Not supposed to prompt you, remember?"
Beside Natasha, the guard on duty quietly spoke into the phone, sounding like he was leaving a message for Sam to let him know what was going on. She was abruptly very glad that she and Clint had decided to drop by to the observation room today; Steve was probably going to need a lot of support by the time Barnes was done with him.
Barnes gave Steve a small smile. "That's a pretty big prompt. You didn't introduce yourself that way when we met on the Helicarrier. You just said we were friends."
"Yeah." Steve hesitated. "How much do you remember?"
"Not much," said Barnes. "Images - but it's sometimes hard to tell what's real and what's made-up. Holding your hand. You on your knees sucking me off." Steve drew in his breath and Clint choked on his coffee. "Lying in bed together. Touching you." He paused thoughtfully. "Feelings. Shame. Fear. Frustration."
Steve swallowed, his face having reddened slightly at Barnes's nonchalant words. "That pretty much sums us up," he said, his voice low.
"You said you were my friend. You never mentioned anything else. The Smithsonian never mentioned it."
"We didn't call ourselves anything else," said Steve. "Even when we were living together. It wasn't... at the time, it wasn't possible for us to be anything except friends who slept together sometimes even though we weren't supposed to. We didn't call each other lovers."
"We were, though," said Barnes, more confident now. "There were things I couldn't explain otherwise. The Smithsonian didn't say anything about it - but I remembered holding you. And it didn't make sense, how you broke down when I said you should leave."
Steve's heartbeat was slowing down slightly, but his posture was still tense, still on edge.
"So we didn't even have a word for what we were," said Barnes. "At the time."
"We couldn't. We were afraid of... everything," said Steve. "Going to hell. People finding out. Being arrested."
Barnes chewed his lip. "They found out, didn't they."
Steve nodded. He hesitated. "Do you remember anything about that?"
Barned closed his eyes, thinking, for a long time. "Fear. Handcuffs. Guilt." His brows drew together. "The Colonel. He was disgusted. He..." Barnes trailed off, sighed. "For the longest time I thought those memories were made up, because they didn't make sense. Why would we have been arrested while we were in the Army? We were heroes. You were a hero."
Steve had paled slightly. "I was kinda hoping you wouldn't remember that."
Barnes stared at the floor, eyes unfocussed. "It was my fault, wasn't it?" he said slowly. "You were cuffed and looking at being publicly disgraced, and it was my fault because I'd wanted to - and the men overheard us. They overheard us fucking." He blinked. "Don't remember who. They all went from admiring you to hating you."
"Jones and Morita overheard, and it wasn't your fault," said Steve. "I could've said no. Besides, it wasn't as bad as we'd thought it would be."
Barnes stared at him. "I remember the Colonel's face. I remember feeling lower than shit because of him."
Steve shook his head. "He let us keep serving. He even let you stay in the unit, and kept everything quiet." He gazed down at the table. "And after you... died, he gave me his condolences. He told the men to go get me drunk - which they couldn't. He... he did his best. He just... he was in a difficult position."
"A difficult position?" Barnes glared at Steve. "He put us through hell. And you sat there and let him." He paused. "And the men... they treated us like lepers."
"At first, yeah. But it got better. And after we lost you, they tried to help. Sat with me while I tried to figure out how the hell I was gonna go on without you."
"How did you?"
"I didn't," Steve said evenly. "I put my plane in the water instead."
Barnes looked away. "Hey, no pressure."
"No pressure on me, to be the guy you killed yourself for."
"I'm not him," said Barnes.
"I just wear his face and carry around his memories."
Steve sighed, misery etched across his face, and Barnes gazed at him dispassionately.
"Do you still feel that way?"
Steve looked away. "You can't ask me that."
"It's not fair."
Steve faced him again. "I've been in love with you since we were kids. Tony called us childhood sweethearts." He swallowed hard. "Never thought of us that way, but he was right. But you... you barely remember me."
"Do you still feel the same way?" Barnes insisted.
"You don't stop loving somebody just because they've been hurt, James," said Steve gently. "It doesn't work that way."
Barnes nodded, a curious expression on his face. "His memories are pretty vivid sometimes." He paused. "My memories."
Steve's eyes were glued to Barnes as Barnes stood up and came around the small table, their cards forgotten on its surface.
"I remember. I remember how you looked. I remember..." he drew closer, then put a hand on Steve's cheek and Natasha and Clint tensed as Steve's heartbeat raced. Barnes's was steady, though slowly getting faster.
He gazed at Steve curiously, and Steve swallowed, frozen in place. Barnes slowly lifted his hand to brush his fingers through Steve's hair, then leaned closer and touched his mouth to Steve's, and Steve's breath left him in a gasp. There was a frozen pause, then Barnes moved his lips against Steve's and Steve closed his eyes, his hands clenched tight on the edge of the table, then tentatively moved his lips against Barnes.
Natasha eyed the readings on them both. Steve's heartbeat, temperature, respiration - everything was going off the charts, his whole body trembling. Barnes's readings were getting erratic as well. Barnes gently urged Steve to his feet and then brought his metal hand to Steve's back and drew it down his back to his waist as they kissed again.
Natasha exchanged a glance with Clint. No. No, this was going too fast, and they had no idea why Barnes was doing this - if it indicated genuine feelings for Steve or some attempt at manipulation. She nodded towards the small button for the intercom. Clint cleared his throat and tabbed it. "Captain Rogers, we’re going to need you to come out of the room," he said quietly.
Steve slowly drew away from Barnes, his eyes dazed, radiating fear and uncertainty and... and hope.
Barnes smiled at him ruefully. "I knew you’d have to," he said softly. "I’m surprised they let it go on this long." He brought Steve closer, kissed him again. "Go," he whispered as he drew back. "Unless you want them to break down the door coming in to rescue you."
Steve bit his lip and turned to the door, and gave Barnes one last long look back. "I'll come back," he said quietly.
"I know," said Barnes. "You always do."
Yes, he did, thought Natasha. He always did. And Barnes knew that.