It was intriguing, dealing with Barnes. Trying to figure out what was going on with him, figure out his angle. It was a challenge, and when she worked with him - whether physically or mentally, playing board games and chatting - she felt sharper. Focused.
Not heartbroken, like Steve did.
He could be charming and bluntly honest, she thought as they started to put the living room back in order. There was obvious intelligence and effort to learn, to gather his scattered wits, and to control himself. To rise above the destructive impulses that had been beaten into him.
But she often saw great and sometimes overwhelming temptation to slide back to the familiar and take refuge in what he knew. Which was violence and following internal directives that told him to view everyone as the enemy. Observe, catalogue, and use his subjects' weaknesses against them.
And not be confined or manipulated, by anybody.
“Good thing Stark’s got deep pockets,” said Barnes, putting a broken chair at the front door for Natasha to take with her when she left.
“And an engineer’s love for a challenge,” Natasha agreed. Tony was almost gleeful whenever any of them actually broke anything, and always promised better design or materials or both for the replacements.
And Barnes had broken the chair so easily. He was so damn strong - far stronger than Steve, who could match him in terms of the Serum but didn’t have what Tony called the psycho-killer arm. Not to mention lacking Barnes’s ruthlessness and viciousness.
She stepped into the washroom and splashed water on her face, wincing at a pulled muscle. He’d pulled back from pushing his advantage when she’d fallen, but she’d seen the temptation to push forward, to take her out.
She released her hair from its ponytail and brushed her fingers through it. She’d shower later, after his therapist came in.
“Sure wish we could go to that gym Clint always goes on about,” Barnes said casually as she came back into the living room. “The archery range alone sounds amazing.”
Natasha nodded, well able to imagine his frustration as he tried to deal with his captivity. She still remembered her own first days at SHIELD. Her suspicion of everyone around her - and the mistrust wafting like a near-palpable miasma from nearly everyone she saw every day. The weariness of dealing with that. The frustration, the doubts she'd had, wondering if she'd done the right thing by turning herself in. The growing awareness, from close contact with normal people - or what passed for normal, given SHIELD - that she was fatally flawed and stunted in so many ways by her own training and upbringing.
And she hadn't even had seventy years of freezing, memory loss and a deep-seated compulsion to get the hell out of SHIELD to fight against.
They finished pushing the coffee table back into place and Barnes pushed his hair back from his face, then grimaced and tied it back in a ponytail. He'd mentioned wanting to cut it once or twice but there was an obvious reluctance to let anyone near him with anything sharp, and it didn't seem like a huge priority to him. She'd also wondered - and shared her curiosity with Sam and Clint - if he really wanted to cut it to be more comfortable or to look more like the man Steve had loved.
She suppressed a sigh of relief as a chime sounded, letting Barnes know that his therapist had arrived and was ready in the observation room. Barnes gave her a distracted wave as he headed off to his session, and she went downstairs to the common area.
“How's it going?” she asked Steve, who seemed to be disinterestedly working on a crossword puzzle. He shrugged, continuing the crossword, no attempt to engage with her. He'd become more and more withdrawn over the week, as Barnes became moodier and more distracted, and brought up their shared past more and more often.
She got herself a glass of milk, observing Steve and thinking of the man she’d left behind to talk to a therapist through a screen, because he couldn’t be trusted having one in his apartment. She'd taken to watching Barnes and Steve’s recorded interactions, prickles of unease going through her at some of what she saw.
“I used to worry about you a lot, didn't I?” Barnes had asked at one point.
“Yeah. Most of our lives.”
“'Cause you were sick. I kept thinking you were gonna die.”
“You remember that?”
“Flashes. You getting beaten up, too. Just images of your face with a split lip.” He'd reached out and touched Steve's bottom lip gently and then withdrawn, frowning. “Also remember being ashamed. All the time. And scared. Wanting to protect you, be near you, but it...felt strange. Like I wasn't allowed.”
Steve had taken a deep breath and Barnes had dropped it. She'd watched them both, noting the spike in Steve's vital signs at the touch, the steadiness of the readings coming from Barnes. Noticed how Barnes went back to normal, but Steve was thrown off and pensive for the rest of the afternoon.
There were a lot of parallels between them, Natasha noted. Now Barnes was the one who had been hurt, and Steve wanted to protect him, be near him. And he certainly gave the impression of being ashamed of his feelings for Barnes, as though he wasn't allowed to have them. Was Barnes exploiting all of that?
“What was it like for you after you woke up?” Barnes had asked another day.
Steve had hesitated.
“Did you mourn me?”
“Every day,” said Steve.
“How? Did you go to my grave?”
Steve had nodded. “And I... I thought about you all the time. It wasn't... it wasn't very easy to get motivated.”
“Did you talk to therapists about me?”
Steve shook his head. “I talked in sort of general terms about feeling like I was in the wrong time. I didn't know - I didn't realize that it was OK to be... to be like we were, until I'd been talking to the SHIELD therapist for a while, and then it seemed kind of awkward to bring it up.”
“Awkward?” Barnes had given him a calculating stare. “Or did you want to protect your macho image?”
Steve had shaken his head. “There wasn't much macho image to protect.”
“Did you cry?”
“Almost every night, for the first few months,” said Steve, his voice neutral. Barnes had frowned pensively, made a small move towards him - and then pulled back.
Had that been deliberate?
God, it was like trying to take care of a barely caged tiger. One with intelligence and cunning and trust issues that made Natasha's own seem almost childlike.
“Any plans for today?” she asked Steve now, breaking the silence.
Steve shrugged and looked up at her. “Not much. Just waiting for Sam. We need to go over some stuff.”
Steve shrugged. “Talking about increased moodiness, withdrawn symptoms, what it might mean.”
“Oh good, I was hoping I wouldn't have to bring it up,” she said, deliberately misunderstanding. He looked up at her, puzzled. “You've been pretty down lately.”
Steve blinked, then shook his head. “No, not me; Bucky. Sam's not - he's not my therapist, he's-”
“Maybe somebody should be,” said Natasha. Steve's eyes shuttered and he pressed his lips together.
“I'm not the priority,” he said.
“No. But you're doing a piss-poor job of keeping yourself from getting sucked in by him to the point where you can't help him.”
“In your opinion.”
Natasha nodded, conceding the point. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“How was the sparring session?” asked Steve, obviously attempting to change the subject.
“Good,” said Natasha. “He kept control.”
“Are you and Sam going to talk about how he’s reaching out for you more?” asked Natasha, not letting him change the subject.
Steve stiffened slightly. “If it comes up,” he said.
“How are his nightmares?”
“He doesn't seem to have many. Some when he first came in - being chased, being shot - but not so much any more.”
“I was expecting him to. With everything that’s happened to him, everything he’s seen...”
“And everything he’s done,” said Natasha.
Steve shrugged uncomfortably.
“He doesn’t seem to let it bother him much,” she said, keeping her tone neutral.
“He shouldn’t. It wasn’t his fault.”
Steve sighed. “Sometimes he seems pretty... blank.” He glanced down at his crossword puzzle. “He’s never... never broken down in therapy. Never cried, that anyone’s ever seen him. Never shown much emotion. Flat affect, the therapists call it.”
“Except for anger. And frustration.”
“I was worried that he’d feel guilty,” said Steve. “He remembers a lot of what he did - even remembers feeling pleasure when he got the shot. Luckily he also remembers fighting them as hard as he could.”
“And being told over and over again that he was doing the right thing,” Natasha noted.
“It’s still disconcerting to you that he doesn’t feel guilty,” said Natasha. “Even though you’re relieved, you’re still uneasy.”
Steve chewed on his lip, nodding slowly. “I keep reminding myself that he deserves a clean conscience,” he said, his voice low. “But...”
“Was he particularly prone to guilt before?”
Steve gave a brief chuckle. “We were raised by nuns, Natasha. Guilt is part of the package.”
“From your stories, it doesn’t seem to have affected a lot of his behavior.”
“Not always, no,” said Steve with a small smile.
“Did he feel guilty when he almost got you court martialed?”
Steve, predictably, blushed slightly. “Yeah. I had to talk him out of that. It was my fault too. But it was hard for him to set it aside.”
“And now he’s just calmly set aside seventy years of assassinations and destruction. Men, women and children. Some pretty vicious stuff in there.”
“You make him sound…” He paused. “He was... you don't know what he was like, before.” He met her eyes and she was struck by the intensity there. “He wasn’t just a hero. He was one of the best human beings I knew. I wasn't just in love with him. I admired him. And they... what they did to him, they - nobody should be treated like that.”
“I know, Steve.”
Steve rubbed his forehead. “I was asleep, I was in ice, and the person I would've died for - the man I did die for, was being treated worse than an animal, and turned into-”
“None of that is your fault,” said Natasha gently. “And if they turned him into something less than human-“ Steve made a slight noise of protest in his throat but Natasha continued, “you may not be doing him any favors by continually reminding yourself - or Barnes, for that matter - of who he was. He may never be able to be that person again.”
“Do you think he'd be better off if I wasn't here?” Steve asked abruptly, and Natasha blinked.
“I don't know. Maybe. Maybe it would be easier for him to be around people who don't know what he was like. Maybe he wouldn't have the temptation of having somebody around who he can twist around his little finger. Who will give him the benefit of the doubt, whether he deserves it or not.”
Maybe that was the only way to get Steve to detach, if he thought it was for Barnes's sake. If only Natasha was sure that that was the best option.
“It's the clarity of the memories that's really hard,” he was saying, as Barnes nodded. “It's so crystal clear. I remember the images, everything I thought. And I can't help thinking... if I'd just tried a little harder, you know?”
Barnes nodded, his eyes shadowed, and returned a high ball flawlessly.
Clint took a deep breath. “I mean, I was able to do some stuff. Like, I didn't take the kill shot with Fury. That was good. But... I killed a whole bunch of other people. Agents. People I'd worked with.” His next hit flicked the net, but went over. “One of my friends had just had a kid. I’d bought his kid a onesie with a little bow and arrow a few weeks before Loki. Had to go to his funeral and look at his widow in the face.” He served again, swearing under his breath as he missed.
“I didn't know any of my victims,” said Barnes, waiting for Clint to serve again. “Except Stark. I can still see them, though.” He returned a serve easily. “Sometimes I don't want to.”
This really wasn't the right time to pull Clint out, not when Barnes might be on the verge of opening up to someone who wasn't a therapist, but...
“Clint, can I talk to you?” asked Natasha, and he looked at her, annoyed. Barnes's eyebrows went up, then he glanced at Clint.
“Must be Avengers business,” he said. “You know she wouldn't pull you out otherwise.”
Clint followed her out of the room, subdued, and Natasha suddenly wondered if Barnes had any idea how much it messed Clint up to talk about Loki. Wondered if he had the slightest clue how much all of them suffered, to help him.
“What's up?” Clint looked around at the overfilled observation room, where Maria, Steve, Tony and Sam sat around the chairs, and a guard kept watch over the screens. “Damn. Somebody's pissed in everybody's cereal.”
“He's been connected.”
“CNN,” said Steve heavily. “Some reporter did a facial recognition thing, tied Bucky to the Winter Soldier. Tracked down HYDRA secret service documents.”
“And spoke to some sources that I would love to get my hands on,” said Maria.
“Fuck,” Clint swore. “Why can't they concentrate on the Kardashians, and leave actual important stuff to us?”
“Who says journalism is dead?” said Tony.
“So what do we do? How do we keep him here?”
“They want to question Steve, of course,” said Maria. “And probably all of us, eventually.” She took out a stack of notes and started to pass them around. “This is all hard copy only, no electronic copies. Basically, we're going to stall. We're going to only give them written responses that we can control, keep up the appearance of cooperation as much as possible, but keep it all written.”
“How are you pulling that one off?”
“Very important HYDRA stuff going on,” said Natasha seriously. “Steve's going to be out of the country.”
“Damn.” Clint glanced over at Steve.
“He’s also going to make it clear that although he has information on the Winter Soldier, he doesn’t want it - or the Winter Soldier - to fall into the wrong hands,” said Maria. “We’ve found HYDRA in government positions--”
“That's not going to fly,” Clint pointed out grimly. “What’s left of the good guys at SHIELD are being hunted down, and the government doesn’t care that they keep saying they’re trying to fight HYDRA. They’re not listening to any excuses.”
“They'll have to,” said Maria. “We will let them know that we've spent a great deal of time trying to track down the Winter Soldier, and that we’re not going to share most of what we’ve discovered. They don't have to know that we've found him. Not for a while at least.”
“Maria...” Steve said softly, shaking his head and looking over the notes.
“It'll be fine,” said Natasha. “You won’t be required to lie on the spot - you’re terrible at that anyway - because you’ll be unavailable for live interviewing. And if I am, not a problem. I've spoken in front of Senate committees before.”
“Same here,” smirked Tony. “Piece of cake.”
“Here,” said Maria. She handed Steve a script. “We're filming you right away.”
Steve swallowed. “What, right now?”
Natasha nodded. “Now. Best time for it. Give the appearance of immediate cooperation.”
They stood and moved aside, with Tony speaking softly to JARVIS to set up filming and getting Steve into the light, and Steve looking over the paper Maria had given him. He jotted down some additional points of his own as he and Maria modified the script she’d written for him.
“Ready whenever you are,” said Tony, holding up a Starkpad in camera mode.
Steve looked at Tony, then down at the paper, and started without preamble.
“You want to know if I knew the identity of the Winter Soldier,” he read off his script, then looked up at the Starkpad. “Yes, I did. I recognized him during the fight when I was arrested by SHIELD. I didn’t say anything at the time because I was a fugitive from SHIELD - and HYDRA - and then after both were brought down I didn’t know who to trust.” He paused. “We know that there are elements of HYDRA within various governments worldwide. The more I found out about him, the more determined I was to not let him fall back into HYDRA’s hands. We determined early on that he was running from them. From that point on, our efforts became focused on getting to him before HYDRA did. We did not know who to trust, and could not risk contacting the government for help.”
Natasha sat and watched as Steve went on, calmly and methodically responding to the questions they had been sent. They had kept the script simple and forthright, as he explained that the Winter Soldier was very good at hiding, that they had also been concerned about the danger he posed to the public, that their priority had been protecting the public first and protecting Bucky Barnes second.
That they believed he needed help, after suffering years of abuse under HYDRA, and were determined to get it for him.
It was simple, it was heartfelt. It was Steve being Captain America, using the power of his appeal to man’s better nature.
It had always been inspiring in the past. They just had to hope it would do the trick this time too.
Steve paused. He cleared his throat and composed himself, putting the piece of paper down.
“I fought him, on the Helicarrier. It's the hardest thing I've ever done,” he said, and Natasha glanced at Maria, who was looking slightly alarmed. Steve going off-script, then. Oh well; at least he was good on his feet, as long as it didn’t involve deception. “But I didn't have a choice - it was him or millions of innocent people, and I know what Bucky would have wanted me to do.” He cleared his throat again. “And he recognized me. After I nearly killed him, after I fell from the Helicarrier, he pulled me from the water, unconscious. He didn’t have to do that. Then he disappeared.” He paused again, leaned toward the camera slightly. “He saved my life when he didn’t have to, when his mission was to end it. That’s why I truly believe that he’s more than the weapon HYDRA wanted him to be.”
He took a deep breath and glanced back down at the script. “Those are all the questions I can answer at this time. I would like to share more information, but it’s too dangerous to say more.” He looked down. “I know that the Winter Soldier caused a great deal of damage. But we know what was done to Bucky to make him become the Winter Soldier. There is nobody alive who could have resisted. If I had been in the clutches of HYDRA, the same would have happened to me; to anybody.”
He paused again. “Bucky needs help. I would like to share more information, to get him that help. But I will not risk it if doing so means giving HYDRA information they could use to find him and use him as a weapon again.”
“And cut,” said Maria softly. Natasha nodded and they all let out their breaths.
“You really think that’ll hold them?” asked Clint quietly.
“Not likely,” Tony snorted, breaking the mood. “Not for long. My legal eagles will have their work cut out for them.”
“I have to talk to him,” said Steve. “Let him know what’s going on.”
Maria nodded and Steve headed into the apartment. Natasha came to look over the recording, working through it with Maria to make sure Steve wasn’t saying anything incriminating or anything that was technically untrue. Because in all likelihood, someday somebody would figure out that Barnes had been in the next room when Steve had made this video, and Steve’s credibility would be shot. If at all possible, they wanted to keep his words at least factually true, so he could defend himself and point out he hadn’t actually lied.
Satisfied that the recording was helpful while not revealing anything and not technically lying, Maria and Tony left to contact the authorities with Steve’s statement and Natasha finally looked over at the monitor to Barnes’s rooms. Steve and Barnes were in the sitting room, the Wii still sitting abandoned from his game with Clint, Steve sitting on the small coffee table in front of Barnes and talking to him earnestly. Barnes looked down at his hands and chewed on his lip.
“What’s happened?” she asked Clint and Sam.
“He’s explained what’s going on to Bucky,” said Clint. “And they’re talking about whether Bucky should turn himself in.”
Natasha glanced over at him. “Really?”
Clint shrugged. “Well, he offered. Anybody who’s ever met Steve knows he wouldn’t go for it for even a second, so who knows if he meant it or not.”
They looked at the monitor together.
“We won't let you go,” Steve was saying earnestly. “I won't let you go.”
“It's hard to believe that.”
“I'm with you til the end of the line, you know that,” Steve said softly, and put his hand on Barnes's shoulder. Barnes looked up at him, then shifted closer on the couch, slipping a hand up his arm, their eyes locking together.
Natasha could see Steve's pulse pick up, see his breathing hitch.
“Bucky,” Steve said softly.
“Should I move back?” asked Barnes.
Steve bit his lip nervously. “I...”
Barnes swallowed and moved a hand to Steve's hair.
“Bucky...” Steve breathed, and Natasha could hear the longing in his voice. Damn it. Damn it, no, back up, back off...
Barnes leaned into Steve's space, and now his own heart rate was accelerating - which could be an indication that he was emotionally affected or an indication that he was on alert, body going into hyperdrive to ensure the effectiveness of his calculated actions. She tensed.
Barnes was drawing Steve closer, and looking up at him. His eyes were steady in contrast with Steve's, which were dazed and open and damn it, it was like watching a moth being drawn to a flame. Barnes dropped his eyes to Steve's lips.
“We're being watched,” Steve said, his voice husky. “You know that.”
“We're not doing anything wrong,” said Barnes. “Are we?”
“I told you...” said Steve.
“Tell me to stop,” said Barnes, and leaned closer, brushing his lips with Steve's. “Tell me you don't want this.”
Steve closed his eyes, trembling, and put a hand on Barnes's chest, pausing him, his heart racing, and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes again, gazing down at Barnes. “You said that before. Do you remember?”
Barnes shook his head slowly.
“We'd been apart for months. You came back. We’d said, just friends, we’d said just brothers, and then you...” he voice roughened and he stopped. “You came back and you kissed me and you said, ‘Tell me to stop.’”
Steve reluctantly shook his head. Barnes gave him a small smile and carded his fingers through Steve’s hair. Steve let out his breath in a sigh and closed his eyes again as they slowly kissed. Natasha chewed on her lip, glancing at their readings. Both were fully aroused, both evidently agitated and really, considering what else was going on maybe letting Barnes have something comforting was the human thing to do...
Steve took a deep breath. “Bucky, this isn't...”
“I know we're being watched,” said Barnes quietly. “But we're not doing anything wrong.” He came back for another kiss; Steve sighed and kissed him back. “What are you afraid of?”
“Messing with your head,” said Steve gently, one hand moving up to cup Barnes’s cheek. He shook his head. “There’s so much you don't remember. You... I don't know if you really do want me. If you even know what you want.”
“I know what I want,” said Barnes steadily. “I wasn't - I wasn't allowed to want anything. For a really long time.”
Steve made a low noise in his throat, his heart in his eyes.
Dirty play, Barnes, thought Natasha.
“But I know what I want now,” Barnes continued. “I don't know if it's leftover from what the man I used to be felt for you, or... or something new. I only know what I want, now.” He kissed Steve again, and Steve shivered, returning the kiss for a long moment.
Natasha glanced at Sam and Clint, reaching out for the intercom button and raising her eyebrows.
Sam gave a heavy sigh. “They're both grown men,” he pointed out quietly.
“Steve's judgment is shit when it comes to Barnes,” Natasha said.
“Yeah. And he's a grown man.” He pressed his lips together grimly. “And Barnes may be going away for a long time soon enough. They may not have a lot of time left together.”
“Bucky,” Steve whispered, and even over the monitor the anguish in his voice was palpable.
“I know,” Bucky answered him. He slowly sat back, moving his hand down to Steve’s and lacing their fingers together briefly before letting go. “Can't blame a guy for trying.”
“I...” Steve's voice sounded wrecked, and Barnes gave him a small smile. “Bucky, we can't. The others are right; it’s not a good idea, and...”
“Story of our lives, isn't it?” asked Barnes wryly.
Steve gave a shaky laugh.
“Guys,” said Sam slowly. “I think it’s time to leave them alone. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t feel like standing in their way any more.”
Natasha waited for either of the others to raise the obvious question. “And what if Barnes is just using Steve?” she asked, when it was clear nobody else would.
“What if he’s not?” asked Clint.