She turned back to Steve. He'd been silent since they'd called him out of the room, gazing into space, unable to concentrate. She and Clint had gotten him a coffee - which had cooled untasted while they waited for Sam - and tried futilely to make small talk.
Sam walked in and sat down, putting his elbows on the table. There was a brief silence. "Well, it's not totally unexpected."
Steve nodded, still gazing into space, his face blank.
"I looked over the surveillance on my pad," said Sam. "He's not angry at us for keeping this from him, that's good. Though I wish we had our resident anger expert here."
"When does Bruce get back?" asked Clint. "Thought his conference finished yesterday?"
"It ran over a bit,"" said Natasha. "He'll be back tomorrow."
Sam nodded. "OK. So. Steve, what do you think?"
Steve shook his head. "I have no idea."
"OK, first off, you know why they called you out, right?"
"I know. He could be manipulating me. I know that." He ran a hand through his hair and glanced back at the monitor where Barnes was still reading, and Natasha could almost feel his confusion and frustration.
"Do you think he was?"
Steve shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I honestly don't."
"What were you feeling?" asked Natasha.
"When he kissed you."
Steve blushed. "Uh."
"You know she's not asking out of idle curiosity," said Sam. "We need to know what's going on with you. You need to know what's going on with you."
Steve closed his eyes. "Nervous. Scared. He’s not - I don’t want to set back his progress. I don’t know if he’s… it’s too soon."
"Were you afraid for yourself at all?"
Steve frowned, puzzled. "No, not really. But he’s - I was confused."
"Do you think it could be manipulation?" Sam asked Natasha.
Natasha pursed her lips. "I don't know. He's good at getting information. He's been trained, in ways you can't imagine, to tally up every human interaction and use it for his benefit."
Steve shuddered, but nodded. "Do you think I don't know that? I know he might have had ulterior motives. But - I don’t think he did. I think he was genuine. I think that was Bucky in there."
"You may be right. I'm not saying it's impossible. For one thing, he did get aroused."
Steve blinked. "What?"
Sam gave Natasha a pained look. "He, uh, he got hard," said Sam.
Steve flushed deeply. "How would you know--"
"Heat signature, remember? His changed. Yours didn't. You were too off-balance, right?"
"Uh." Steve crossed his arms, clearly wishing the topic of conversation would move somewhere else. Somewhere far away. "Yeah, I guess so."
"All right." Sam bit his lip. "I say we take this as genuine. For now."
Clint rubbed at his hair. "Great. So what does Steve do next time? Just pick up where they left off?"
Sam shook his head. "I definitely wouldn't recommend that," he said. "And... I think Bucky knows he can't. I don't think it'll come as a surprise to him if you ask him to back off. For now."
"Do you want to ask him to back off?" asked Clint.
Steve blinked, startled. "Whatever he needs."
"You know he's not the only one involved here, right?" said Sam patiently. "He's the priority, but you have to be aware of what you want too."
"I want whatever's best for him," said Steve stubbornly. "That's all I've ever wanted."
"Well, he might ask you. You'll probably have to come up with something better than that."
Steve swallowed nervously.
"Seriously, dude, do you still... I mean, we all get that it's a forever broship and all, but are you still..." Clint paused, then went on impatiently. "If he wasn't massively fucked up right now, would you still wanna get horizontal and bump uglies with the guy? Or is that done for you? 'Cause he's gonna need to know."
Steve's mouth dropped open.
"Thanks for the visual, Clint," said Natasha, rolling her eyes.
"Ignore his tone and think about his question," said Sam with a chuckle.
Steve cleared his throat and looked away from them. "I... oh, God." He stood up, looking at the monitor. "I haven't let myself think about anything... like that. He's not himself. He's hurt. Until about an hour ago, it was - it was a no-go zone."
"Well it's not any more," Sam pointed out.
"I don't know. Of course I want - if he was healthy and himself again, of course I'd want..."
"But he's not. Do you want him the way he is now?"
"Sam, he's..." Steve sighed. "I don't know how not to."
"OK," Sam nodded. "We can work with that. You're OK with telling him to back off for now, though?"
"Yeah, of course. What should I actually say, though?"
Sam shrugged. "You can frame it as, neither of you is really in a position to provide free consent. Right? I mean, he's essentially our prisoner. And you're... pretty messed up too, though you don't need to share that with him if you don't want. Just give him a time frame. Maybe a month and then you revisit where you both are."
Steve nodded, taking refuge in orders. It was interesting, thought Natasha, that for a man who'd become America's most iconic soldier, Steve actually wasn't generally very good at the whole "chain of command" thing - but he was completely out of his depth here, and seemed grateful for any guidance.
"What about after that month?" Clint asked.
Sam nodded and squared his shoulders. "Look, Steve, about the whole... about his motivations." He took a deep breath. "I know how much it messed me up when Riley died, and we were just friends. If I'd been able to get him back, and he was - if he'd gone through what Bucky's gone through..." Steve's lips were pressed together stubbornly and Sam paused. "I can understand, up to a point, all right? I know about wanting a friend back, and I know he's a lot more than a pal to you." Sam thought over his words carefully. "But you need to understand him. You need to be realistic about him. He's not really in control. I know you want him to get better, but he may not be able to. The hostility, the possibility of manipulation, the fact that you may have to be on your guard against him--"
"I know all of this," said Steve, crossing his arms again.
"You've heard all of this," Sam corrected him patiently. "Look, it's like... I deal with a lot of vets who come back with addiction problems, right? They're pretty rough on their families. What I tell their spouses is that the love is there, they don't need to doubt that, but--"
"But I do, Sam," Steve broke in. "I don't know how he feels any more. And we're not like the people you work with. We--"
"I know I haven't dealt with super soldiers - trust me, I know I'm completely outta my element there," Sam said, and Natasha could feel his frustration. "But I have dealt with couples separated by a war. In some ways you're not that different--"
"You don't understand," Steve interrupted. "The last time he felt anything for me, we were both told it was dirty and wrong by everyone around us. It's taken a lot for me to get past that, and I've had a couple of years to do it." He took a deep breath. "He was being tortured and treated as less than human while the world changed around him. By the Russians."
"Not exactly the most rainbow-friendly country on earth," Natasha noted. "And Sam... for all we know they may have found out about his orientation and tried to break him of it."
Clint swore under his breath.
"So, you're saying I shouldn't even hope," said Steve, and his voice was rough.
"Hope is fine," said Sam gently. "Just don't let it be blind hope. Keep your eyes open."
"Rough day at the office?" asked Tony.
"She and Clint tracked down two more HYDRA cells, both in New York," said Maria Hill, passing over her plate of fries.
"You mean we missed two HYDRA cells," Natasha corrected her, picking up a fry. She spotted Steve at the diner entrance and waved him over. "And Clint's getting his dislocated elbow treated."
Maria shrugged. "You made them have to relocate. It's a pain in the ass. That's as good as it gets sometimes." She ate a fry and moved aside as Steve sank down next to her, and glanced over him. She met Natasha's eyes and Natasha gave her a small nod.
Yes, he was trying to act like everything was fine, like he wasn't weary down to his bones, like this wasn't the first time he'd been out of the Tower in weeks. There was a reason Tony had insisted they meet outside.
"How's our winter friend doing?" asked Maria.
Steve tensed. "Why do you ask?"
"I've been asked some interesting questions lately. I think people suspect we know something."
"Has anybody put him together with Barnes yet?" asked Natasha.
Maria shook her head. "Not yet."
Tony cleared his throat. "Pepper and I were talking about what to do when that happens."
"When?" asked Steve.
"It's really not an 'if' kind of thing," said Tony.
"For starters," said Tony, "I'll testify on his behalf."
Steve raised his eyebrows.
"You don't think that would cause a media circus?" asked Maria. "Iron Man, testifying for a killer?"
"Not thinking of it so much as Iron Man, more as one of his indirect victims," said Tony. "You know, killed my parents and all that fun stuff."
Steve stared at him. "I didn't know if you'd read the report about that. You never mentioned it."
"Yeah, well it was a little awkward," said Tony dismissively. "What was I supposed to say? 'Dude, you're asking me to house your sweetie, but we've got a bit of a conflict here, he's the reason I lost my parents when I was still a kid?'"
"I'm sorry." Steve looked down. "You'd do that for him?"
"There's a decent guy in there. I think he's probably fighting to get out, with everything he's got." Tony sipped on his soft drink. "Nobody needs to know that Howard was a piss-poor father and that my mother cared more about her society friends than her kid, and that I may have been better off without them. If I need to I'll go in and swear that their deaths shattered me and sent me into a tailspin of drugs and sex and bad behavior, but that I can forgive him."
"You - you can't lie to--"
"It's not a lie, Steve," said Tony. "My parents weren't great, but their deaths messed me up. Forty thousand dollars worth of therapy tells me that when you've had a bad relationship with someone who dies, it can be worse than losing someone you got along with, because now you can never make it better. Your guy stopped me from ever getting to know my dad as an adult. Ever being able to get along with him." Steve winced. Tony leaned forward. "And I will testify that I forgive him. Even though I don't need to, because he didn't have a choice. I'll also testify that the man my dad knew in the War would never have done what he did in a million years. I mean, my dad had a serious man-crush on you, but he also said your buddy was one of the most loyal people in the world."
Tony grinned at him. "Yeah did you know he funded most of the post-War stuff on you guys? He worked with Peggy Carter and Dum Dum Dugan setting up SHIELD. After a few years of hearing their stories I think he realized he had some serious PR gold on his hands. So he had interviews done with the Commandos - I think that's what they're using in the current exhibit, as a matter of fact." He sipped his drink again. "They had a lot of good stuff to say about both of you. Dugan said Barnes was the most loyal man he'd ever met. One of the best soldiers too."
"Dum Dum said that?" asked Steve, his eyebrows rising.
"It's too bad all the Commandos are gone," Tony mused. "We could get all of them to come testify."
Natasha nodded. "All of us will, Steve. All the Avengers. Unfortunately Clint and I can't really do that much since I released all our files from SHIELD..."
"I dunno, Clint's got that 'heroic kid with a tragic past goes good' thing," said Tony.
"We'll talk about it," said Maria. "Stark PR can look into what will work best in terms of who says what."
"Clint's willing," said Natasha. "He's even willing to talk about what Loki made him do, and how he's all right now."
"Clint's brainwashing was different," Steve pointed out.
"We'll figure out how to spin it," said Tony. "Might even put out Bucky Bears again."
Steve grimaced. "He'd probably hate that."
"Would he hate it more than being confined for the rest of his life for stuff that wasn't his fault?" Steve nodded, conceding the point, and Tony paused for a moment before continuing, his tone almost gentle now. "So... how's it going with him? Heard he figured out you two had a thing going back in the day."
"Yeah," said Steve heavily.
Steve shook his head.
"You're not picking up where you left off?"
"Don't you think it would be a little unethical?" said Steve impatiently. "He can't provide meaningful consent."
"Look who's all twenty-first century with his terminology," Tony snickered.
"Screw you," said Steve, but his lips twitched.
"So it's all look but don't touch. Was he OK with that?"
He had been, to everyone's surprise. The two of them had had a somewhat uncomfortable talk, mostly with Steve apologizing and saying what Sam had told him to say and Barnes nodding, and then gone back to playing chess.
"It's not that different from what we had before," Steve said quietly, his brief glimmer of humor gone.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Sure it is. Because this time there's a good reason for it." He pursed his lips. "Another thing Pepper brought up, about the Avengers testifying. What do you think about testifying to just how close you were?"
Steve rubbed the space between his eyebrows, looking lost. "Would it do any good?"
"It all depends on when and how the news about him gets out," said Maria. "It's a pretty volatile topic."
"Anything related to the Winter Soldier is gonna be volatile," said Tony. "It's just a matter of figuring out proper containment for volatile substances. Stark Industries specializes in that, for weapons and people." He gave her a wide smile. "And now we've got all you SHIELD refugees to help us along." Maria gave him an eye roll and he smirked at her. "Well, enough of the depressing talk," said Tony. "We'll put together a proposal--"
"Somehow when you say 'we'll' I don't get the impression you're going to be part of the 'we,'" said Maria.
"I leave PR stuff to the experts," said Tony. "And I never get in the middle when you and Pepper start talking; I can never decide if I'm incredibly turned on or in fear for my life." He turned around. "Right now I'm thinking of this diner's specialty. Cap, ever have kangaroo burgers? Yak burgers? Goat burgers? No? You don't know what you've been missing. Then again, neither do I. Let's find out. Let's order one of each."
Natasha looked around at the unholy mess. Two smashed walls, broken furniture, shattered plastics - there had been no glass, thank God - gouges in the walls, a sizable hole in the floor. A large pile of broken masonry was accumulating on one side of the room as Tony and his bots moved it, clunking around the room.
She glanced through the hole in the wall. In the bedroom - mostly trashed, but not as badly as the main room - Bruce lay sleeping on Barnes's miraculously intact bed, dead to the world, a blanket preserving his modesty and a neat pile of fresh clothing at the foot of the bed.
"Is the therapist all right?" she asked Steve as he and Sam exited from the guest room.
"Yeah, she's all right," said Steve, looking hollow. "Near as we can tell."
She found a broken chair and judged its stability. The back was gone; the seat itself and the legs were fine, so it would do. "What happened? And is he sedated?"
"Sedated and restrained," said Sam, and pulled out another chair. "JARVIS'll let us know when he starts waking up. Steve, sit down."
Steve was staring into the room where Bruce slept on.
"Steve." Sam's voice was stern. "Sit. The fuck. Down."
Numbly, Steve took a seat, staring down at his hands blankly.
"What happened?" Natasha repeated.
"Near as we can tell, Bucky figured out the unit exit code from the therapist. We're trying to figure out how he did that, since everyone's trained not to let him get close when they're at the door. But of course he needed her fingerprints in order to actually get out, so he let her get comfortable enough with him to let him get pretty close to her, then immobilized her and brought her to the door and used her fingers to press the code into the keypad."
"How did he immobilize her?"
"He has some kind of nerve-paralyzing substance under his fingernails," said Steve.
"We didn't know about that," said Natasha.
"But he did." Natasha pursed her lips. "This isn't like the stunning power in his arm, that just activated and surprised him as much as us. He planned this, with the substance in mind."
"Yeah, he did," said Sam heavily. "We don't know when he remembered that he had it, but obviously, he didn't tell us."
"Bruce was in the control room. He came in here, tried to talk Bucky into not going through the door, Bucky attacked him, and... well." He gestured around vaguely at the trashed room.
"You can't blame him for that part," said Steve.
"Don't have to blame him for any of it," said Sam mildly.
"Not even him keeping the stuff under his fingernails a secret from us?" asked Natasha. "What if that woman had been seriously hurt?"
Sam rubbed his hand over his face. "This isn't about blame," he said. "This is about trying to understand him, and being realistic. This is about knowing that of course he's going to keep information from us. We're his jailers, Steve. We're the enemy. And the therapist is fine, you know that. Temporarily stunned."
"He... I can't believe he just..." Steve looked down.
"He was used by his jailers before, and he doesn't want it to happen again," said Sam. "HYDRA brutalized him and forced him to go along with it, Stockholmed him to hell and back. Is it honestly surprising to you that he would be on his guard against letting that ever happen again? He's not the same guy he was before, Steve!"
"You think I don't understand that?" Steve flung out. "You think I don't know that he's different now? I knew him before, remember? Fuck you, Sam!" He stood, glaring down at Sam, and Sam returned his gaze, utterly unintimidated.
"So stop thinking of him the way he was before and think about him the way he is now. And don't loom over me."
Steve checked himself and slowly sat back down.
"You still feeling hopeful about him?" asked Sam quietly. It should have sounded accusatory, thought Natasha. Bruce was sleeping off a Hulk episode, a therapist was traumatized, and there were several thousands of dollars of damage to the apartment.
It didn't sound accusatory. It sounded curious.
"No," said Steve, his voice low.
Natasha glanced around the trashed apartment. "If it comes out that this happened, he'll be taken somewhere. I'm not sure we could prevent it."
"I'm not even completely sure we should," said Sam. "Maybe a psychiatric center would have better facilities. Be able to help him."
Steve shuddered. "We wouldn't have any control, though. He'd... he'd have nobody to speak for him. He doesn't have any family."
Steve bit his lip. "It's funny, when we were kids we used to say we would've gotten married if we could've. And now it's legal, and I would if I could, but..."
"But most places don't let you get married if you're not in your right mind," Sam finished for him. "And he's very definitely not."
"Tony's legal department could work something out," said Natasha. "To give you some kind of authority over him..."
"I don't want to trust his safety to other people," said Steve stubbornly. He glanced around the room. "This - this isn't hopeless."
Natasha winced. For all that Steve was normally self-assured and able to keep going despite setbacks, she hadn't seen him this discouraged and off-balance in a long, long time.
"He... he didn't have to do this while Bruce was here, for one thing," said Steve. "He knew he couldn't hurt Bruce. If he was operating on all cylinders to get out, he would've waited until Bruce wasn't around."
Natasha and Sam exchanged a look. He did have a point.
"Maybe he tried it with Bruce because he figured Bruce would break everything and he'd get out then," said Sam.
"He's a better planner than that," said Natasha.
"And." Steve cleared his throat. "He manipulated the therapist into letting him get close. He could've done a lot more with me. He probably knows he could get me to do anything he wants."
"You've got a point there." Sam sighed. "In any case. This means no more therapists. Not in the room."
JARVIS broke in. "Mr. Barnes is showing signs of waking up."
They left Tony and Dummy to the clean up, hurrying past them and heading into the spare room, where Barnes was blinking, blue eyes dazed. His eyes widened as he pulled on the restraints and Steve hurried across the room, coming into his field of vision.
There was a long silence.
"Are you OK?" Sam finally asked and Barnes pressed his lips together.
"Fine," he snapped. He turned his gaze away from Steve, and Natasha wasn't sure but he looked... ashamed? Maybe? Defiant too, though.
"James, I have to ask," Sam said quietly. "What were you hoping to do if you got out?"
"What the fuck do you think?" snarled Barnes. "Just get the fuck out."
Steve cleared his throat. "HYDRA's still--"
"I know HYDRA's still out there," snapped Barnes. He lay his head back, shaking it slightly to get a lock of hair out of his eyes and Steve leaned forward to gently move it for him. Barnes bit his lip, not meeting his gaze.
"You gonna put me back?" he asked sullenly.
"Back where?" asked Sam.
Steve started. "What? Jesus. Buck - James, Jesus, no, of course not."
"What about wiping me down? I know you know how, my file included enough info for Stark to figure out--"
"We're never gonna do that," said Steve, sounding shaken. "That is never gonna happen to you again."
"Maybe it should," said Barnes defiantly. "Ever think of that?"
"It's not an option," said Sam.
"Gonna hand me over to the proper authorities?"
Sam cleared his throat and Steve spoke up. "No. We're as close as anybody's gonna get to being the proper authorities."
"We will have to change some things, though," said Sam. "No more therapists in the room with you, for one thing. They'll have to talk to you from the observation room. We're also going to discuss your breakout conditioning. Try to figure out what happened to make you do this. Prevent it from happening again."
Barnes sneered at him. "It's not just conditioning. You try being cooped up with nobody but fucking shrinks for weeks on end. See how you like it."
"I'm sure I'd hate it. Anybody would," said Sam patiently. "But you were cooperating for quite a while before this. We'd like to make it as tolerable as possible."
"Tolerable. Great." Barnes lay his head back, staring at the ceiling. "At least with HYDRA I didn't have hours on end to sit and think about how much I wanted out."
"And how was it when you were on the run?" asked Sam, his tone carefully neutral. "Was that more tolerable? Knowing HYDRA and a whole bunch of governments and god knew who else were probably hunting you?"
Barnes pressed his lips together. He took a deep breath, then let it out. "I guess not." He turned back to Steve and Sam. "Tell Bruce... tell Bruce I'm sorry."
Steve gave her a small smile. "It's the thought that counts."
"Instead you've got a love affair with an assassin who may be trying to play you, and we're trying to figure it out through surveillance." She sighed. "This is actually completely inside my comfort zone."
Steve chuckled tiredly and unpaused the recording.
"Is it any better, having other people in here?" Steve was asking as he set out the cards for yet another round of Chrononauts.
Barnes shrugged. "It's fine. Better than nothing. Better than just the therapists and Sam and Bruce."
Steve dealt out their hands, and Barnes frowned at his Identity card, giving it back. "Nah, I don't like this guy."
"Why, who'd you get?" asked Steve, handing him a different Identity.
If Natasha recalled correctly, that particular Identity required Hitler to live past the 1936 Olympics and the Soviet Union to rise again in 1991. "I don't understand what you both see in that game," she commented as the pair on the screen quietly looked over their hands and prepared to play. "You've already learned all the history you could learn from it."
"It's dark humor," said Steve. "And we both get a bit of a kick out of killing Hitler. And preventing the Hindenburg disaster."
"I notice neither of you pays particular attention to gathering historical artifacts. You both try to win by manipulating the timeline."
"Did we used to play a lot of cards?" Barnes asked onscreen.
"Yeah. Poker mostly though. We didn't have games like these." Steve flipped over a timeline card, saving the Titanic.
"Funny, I remember us going to baseball games and fucking. Not a lot else."
On the screen, Steve blinked, and Natasha's eyebrows went up. Barnes didn't usually refer to their romantic past.
The pair on the screen played silently for a few minutes, flipping over Event cards and patching time paradoxes. Predictably, Hitler died almost immediately, and stayed dead. Lincoln survived his assassination attempt and was then impeached in 1868, Reagan died in 1981, Al Gore won - and then lost - the election of 2000, and the Crown of Thorns was found and then stolen. Steve's readings, jarred slightly by Barnes's offhand comment, settled to baseline again.
"This place is driving me crazy," Barnes said softly a few minutes later. "I know, short putt. But it's... it feels like I can't take this much longer."
Steve swallowed. "I'm sorry. We can't let you out, James. You're wanted, not just by HYDRA, but by our own government too--"
"You know you still stutter a tiny bit when you call me James? I don't mind if you call me Bucky." Steve's head snapped up and he made a small sound in his throat, which Barnes didn't seem to notice as he peered at his cards. "I know, we've gone over this, it's not your choice to keep me here and you know it's difficult for me to overcome my conditioning to get out and so on and so on," he said impatiently. "It's not even the conditioning. Think I'd be going nuts whether I had that or not." He flipped a card and saved the Lusitania.
Natasha eyed their readings. Barnes's hadn't changed since he'd mentioned his name. Steve's had spiked slightly.
"Is Bruce OK?" asked Barnes. "He hasn't been in since--"
"Yeah, he's fine," said Steve quickly, putting the World Peace card on 1945. "He's pretty busy. Still keeping up with your progress though."
"I didn't mean to trigger him."
"He knew the dangers of being here."
"Funny how the Serum worked for you, but not for him. Or me." Barnes saved Kennedy and put down a copy of Shakespeare's Last Play.
"Hey, it worked pretty well for you," said Steve. "Compared to Bruce."
"You know, it's a hell of a collection of people coming to visit me in here," Barnes mused. "I've tried to kill..." he seemed to be counting in his head, "three - no, four of you - and did kill Stark's parents."
"Four?" Steve said. "How do you figure?"
"You, Romanova, Sam and Bruce. The only one untouched is Barton."
"You didn't try to kill Bruce," Steve objected. He flipped the Kennedy Assassination card the right way and Barnes swore.
"I just saved that guy," he said irritably. He gave Steve a small smile. "It's kinda funny that I didn't have anything to do with his death in the real world. All the people I killed that nobody suspects - and the one guy everybody's got a conspiracy for really was just killed by a lone nut."
Steve gave him a wry smile.
"I wonder if my handlers saw it all as seriously as we see this game," Barnes mused, and put down a Mona Lisa card. He sighed. "Wish I could get outta here. Even just for a day or so."
"I know. You can't, though. If the government caught you, they'd probably take you in for a lot longer than we will. And we don't know how they'd treat you."
"You know it's gonna come out eventually. Who I am. Where I am."
"You know Stark Industries already has a contingency plan."
Barnes prevented the launch of Sputnik. "He's not too much like his old man, is he? Stark, I mean."
"How much do you remember of Howard?"
"I remember you thought he was sweet on your girl."
Steve blinked, a card in his hand. "She wasn't my girl. You do know that, right?"
"I remember I told you to go out with her. And you said no." Barnes gave him a humorless smirk. "You fucking hypocrite. After all the times you'd pushed me at girls..."
Steve cleared his throat and put down his Marijuana Legalized card on 1986.
"Will you testify like Stark said he would?" asked Barnes, lips pursed as he figured out his next move.
"We'd have to be really careful with that."
"Why? Don't wanna admit you used to fuck the Winter Soldier?"
Steve shook his head. "I'd want to speak on your behalf. It's just... complicated."
"Yeah." Barnes put down the Sarah Palin Elected President card on 2008. "Captain America, and a killer."
"I'd probably be accused of bias," said Steve patiently. "It would make anything I said suspect."
"Especially if everything that happened during the War came up."
"Would you admit to that? Nearly being court-martialed? Being overheard fucking another man? Although I guess it wouldn't come up," Barnes mused. "Nobody left alive who remembers it. They promised to take the secret to their graves and apparently they did."
Steve smiled slightly. "Yeah, they did."
"And nothing's happened since then. One kiss. You wouldn't have to say anything about it."
"I wouldn't lie under oath."
Barnes rolled his eyes. "Don't give me that noble shit. We're not together now; there'd be nothing to lie about."
Steve sighed. "We're not together now, but that's not by my choice."
Barnes sneered and flipped the Titanic card back over, sinking it again. "Please. It's always been your choice."
"I remember, you know. You sent me away before. Over and over again. It was always your choice."
Steve took a deep breath and put down his cards. "Do you remember why?"
Barnes shrugged. "Because you were a fucking coward."
"Because I cared about you and I didn't think being with me was what was best for you."
Barnes tilted his head to the side, gazing at Steve thoughtfully.
"And you would have done the same thing. You did, when you told me to go after Peggy." He ran a hand over his hair. "Who knows, maybe that's the one thing we can do for each other," he said. "Send each other packing. You even did it when we first brought you in. You didn't even remember me and you wanted to send me away."
"You think that was out of concern for you?"
"Sounded like it to me."
"Maybe I just couldn't be bothered," Barnes said, his voice cold. "And maybe that's what this is," he gestured between them. "You say it's that I can't 'meaningfully consent' or whatever bullshit you fed me. Maybe that's not it at all. Maybe it's that you can't be bothered."
Steve swallowed. "You're wrong."
"Pal, it doesn't feel like it from here," said Barnes evenly, his heart rate increasing slightly. "It feels like a pretty pat brush-off. Nice solution for you; not so nice for me, as long as I'm gonna be honest about my inner feelings like those damn therapists keep pushing."
"There's never been a happy solution for us," said Steve bitterly. "You think there was a happy solution when we were kids? When we both thought the choice was pining away forever or losing each other as friends? When I had to choose between doing what we both wanted and feeling like I was sending us both to hell? When I thought about being alone forever or keeping you from getting married and being happy?" He glared at Barnes. "Or do you mean when we were in the Army and we could choose between being together but never touching or risking being caught? Or when we did get caught and nearly court-martialed--"
"Star-crossed lovers, huh?"
"To be honest a big part of me hopes you never get back most of those memories," said Steve. "Maybe you're better off without them."
"Yeah? Well I remember a hell of a lot. I remember rejection, asshole," said Barnes, his eyes glittering. "I remember begging you not to send me away. I remember telling you I didn't give a damn, I didn't care what anyone thought, I just wanted to be with you! But you - you were scared someone would figure out you were a flaming fairy. You wanted to go back to Church, you wanted to be the good Catholic boy everyone thought you were, like you didn't love getting down on your knees to suck my cock more than you ever loved getting on your knees to pray! You fucking coward."
Steve glared at him. "Yeah? Well I remember feeling like shit when you came home smelling like some dame. I remember feeling like I wanted to kill you for listening to me when I told you to! Like I wasn't enough - because I wasn't!"
Barnes blinked, startled.
Steve ran a hand through his hair. "I remember feeling like I had no right to you," he said, more quietly. "Feeling like if it wasn't for me, you could be happy. And I remember sending you away, Buck. To hell with you if you think it didn't tear me apart too."
"You're giving him ammunition against you," said Natasha, reaching out to pause the recording. "You know that, right?"
"I have to be honest with him."
"There's being honest, and then there's handing him information he can use against you. How guilty you feel over what happened. How much you wanted to stay with him. How you would've done anything for him then, and you'll do anything for him now."
"You think he doesn't know that already?"
"No, I think he knows all of that. I think you need to stop giving him more, though."
"Treat him like the enemy, is what you're saying."
"This is for his protection as well as our own. We don't let him have sharp objects or metal or glass or anything that can be made into a garrote or a projectile. This is the same thing."
Steve set his jaw and Natasha tamped down her own frustration. This had to be incredibly difficult for him, she knew that, but...
She paused for a moment, marshaling her thoughts. "SHIELD agents are told in training to always be aware of exactly what conversations we have with other people," she finally said. "It's not uncommon for two people to have two different conversations at the same time: yours may be about the weather, but theirs may be about trying to get into a secure area. You need to be aware of your own goals, and theirs."
Steve frowned at her, puzzled at the non-sequitur, and she leaned forward. "The conversation you're having with him is about reaching him, and helping him," she said. "It may be about that for him too. It's also likely that his conversation is about getting you to feel guilty, to go back to seeing him as your lover again, in order to manipulate you into helping him get out."
"I can't - even after all this time, I can't see him as the enemy."
"Part of him is the enemy, Steve. To you and to himself. If you're going to help the part of him that isn't - assuming that part exists - you're going to have to be more careful."
She noted the time stamp on the screen, forwarding it slightly and seeing that moments after this spot, Steve had left as Barnes's afternoon therapist showed up for the behind-the-screen session.
"Did you go back in after the therapist was done?" Steve shook his head. "That's probably a good thing. How do you feel about what happened in there?"
"That's why I called you. I'm too close to this. I don't know how I feel. It just felt... off."
"And how do you feel in general?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "No, lie to me."
His lips twitched. "Oh in that case, just peachy."
"Of course. Now tell me the truth."
Steve took a deep breath. "Seeing him like this. Having to treat him like a stranger. Not being able to - to touch him, to be with him again." He swallowed. "It's... it's a lot harder than I thought it would be." He gazed at the paused recording. "Now I understand how he felt, when I was always on the verge of death and there was nothing he could do."
Natasha reached out and put a hand on his arm. "You called me here to ask my professional opinion about whether he's manipulating you or not, right?" Steve nodded. "I think you're asking more than that."
He stared at her blankly.
"I think you want to know if I think he's a person or a weapon - a bunch of trained responses and impulses. Whether he's a human being any more." She paused. "Whether he's your human being."
He looked away. "Maybe."
"Whether any part of James is still Bucky." He swallowed. "Can I ask you something? Why did you go to those bars? Why did you ask Sharon out for coffee?"
He blinked, startled. "Uh. I was curious. Why?"
"I think you were getting over him."
He swallowed but didn't look away. "I, no - maybe. I... I didn't want to be alone any more, Nat. And Sharon - I didn't know how to ask a guy for a date. I'm not good at it with women either, but at least I know some of the rules." He cleared his throat. "And I went to those bars because I thought maybe I could... at least... you know." He flushed. "It was something, anyway."
"It was you starting to get over losing him," Natasha insisted.
"That's academic now, isn't it?"
"Is it? Or are you starting to consider that you may not be able to do anything else to help Barnes? And that you may have to get over him again?"
Steve pressed his lips together, blue eyes darkening.
"Maybe you also need to consider that even if he is able to get out of here some day, even if he can get better... maybe it's healthy to want to get on with your life. I know you two have a history, but maybe it's... history." Steve frowned at her. "He can still be your friend. He doesn't have to be your lover."
"You really don't get it, do you?" Steve said softly.
"I get loyalty," Natasha said evenly. "I get friendship, and debt. I don't get star-crossed lovers and eternal love, no." She gazed at him, frustrated. "It's not a betrayal of what you had if you move on, Steve. Not if he's a different person." Steve opened his mouth to reply and she pressed on. "Would the person he was have done what he's done?" She gestured to the screen. "Not as the Winter Soldier, but now, while he's been with us. Would he have said any of the kinds of things he's saying to you now?"
"He wasn't perfect, you know," said Steve, bristling. "He was a real son of a bitch sometimes. And a manipulative bastard. He called it charm, but it wasn't always so charming. And he was very good at getting what he wanted."
"Is that why he said it was his fault that you got caught during the War?" she asked.
As she'd suspected he would, Steve dropped his gaze and flushed. "We, uh, we didn't get a lot of chances to..." he cleared his throat again. "To be intimate. I was OK with it, but he could be very... um... persuasive."
"He... talked me into it one night when we were out in the field."
"And you went along with it? Even though it could get you court-martialed?"
"It... it should've been safe. The men were in another building - we thought. And I... I missed him too."
Natasha nodded. "So your judgment has always been impaired when it comes to him." Great. Good to know. She tilted her head, curious. "So what happened?"
"Uh, Morita and Jones overheard us. Told the other men. They confronted us the next day, then went to Phillips."
Natasha nodded, imagining what that conversation must have been like, but gauging from the mortification emanating from Steve that that was probably as much as he would be willing to tell her. And that was probably enough putting him on the defensive for now, she decided abruptly. "You know, I did some research on them when we were thinking of getting their testimony for Barnes," she said, leaning back. "Did you know that Morita and Dugan both argued in favor of Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"
Steve's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Morita was retired by then. He'd made a name for himself representing Japanese internment camp victims for a few decades. He came in and made a pretty impassioned defense of gay soldiers. Compared what people were saying about gay soldiers disrupting unit cohesiveness to what people had said about racially integrated units, and pointed out the Commandos' record during the War."
Steve shook his head, bemused.
"Dugan wrote in too. Said it was about damned time people focused on what soldiers did in the battlefield and not in the bedroom."
"Would've been nice to hear that during the War," said Steve quietly. "Though they were getting better, by the end. Good enough that Bucky was starting to talk about staying together after the War..." he trailed off and tears suddenly sprang to his eyes.
He gazed at the frozen screen before him, then covered his face with his hands and leaned forward slightly, taking deep breaths. Natasha waited patiently as he steadied himself. "Nat, why couldn't I stop this from happening to him?" he finally said, his voice hushed. "Why can't I make this better for him now?"
"Because you're not that kind of superhero," said Natasha. "And it may be that you can't undo seventy years of torture and abuse and conditioning, no matter how much you want to."
He put his hands down. "I can't give up on him. I won't."
"Nobody's asking you to. But you have to think about yourself as well. It's not a sin to take steps to protect yourself from him hurting you."
"Bucky and I have never not hurt each other," he said bitterly. "Being with him has always hurt."
"On a scale of one to ten, how's this?" she asked gently. "And please be honest. For his sake."
He was silent for a long time. "Bad. Like barbed wire being pulled through my gut, every single time I look at him."
She gazed at him. Something was going to break, she knew it. She just hoped it wasn't Steve himself.