Phil’s been a lot of places, known a lot of people, seen a lot things.
If there’s one universal truth he can vouch for though, it’s that when it comes to looking for a place for a drink: a dive is a dive is a dive.
And this hole-in-a-Belarusian-wall absolutely is a dive.
Is a dive, is a dive.
He assesses the risk of the patrons on instinct, but amidst the long greying beards and the motheaten sweaters, there’s only one that catches his eye, only one that sparks his interest, hints at danger.
Hints at something that resonates in Phil’s gut.
“То же самое,” the man in the corner grinds out, all grit and gravel in his throat, and he’s covered from neck to foot in a haphazard layering of black on black on black, his leather-clad hand gripping his glass as the barkeep sloshes amber into the tumbler, gets a grunt from the man in response that shakes the overgrown fringe of hair that hangs around his face, all trees that hide a forest underneath.
And Phil should probably be less eager and more wary, as he walks toward the man, as he leans on the bar and waits for acknowledgement that doesn’t come; Phil should probably take that as a hint.
But everything Phil does, everything Phil’s ever stood for is a mess, is a lie, and Phil’s tired.
He’s just tired.
“Isn’t vodka more of the,” Phil cocks his head, eyeing the whiskey with a half-shrug: “местное фирменное блюдо?”
The man pauses, his shoulders tense—he doesn’t look up, but his hand shifts his hair, shows the scruff that’s edging wild toward a beard below when he lifts the glass to his mouth and drinks.
“M’not a local.”
Phil’s surprised to get a response, honestly. He’s even more surprised when the man takes another sip, swallows, just to speak again.
“Your accent’s good.”
The tone is ambiguous: it might be genuine, but it might be mocking. Phil thinks either one’s probably decent, as far as replies go.
“Thanks,” Phil says, either way. “I think.”
He settles on the ratty stool with the man’s dark eyes on him, fixed, intense enough through that curtain of limp hair that Phil dreads to think what it’d feel like with nothing in the way.
“I take it you’re not from here?” Phil says, for lack of anything better, anything deeper. The man swirls his drink until the golden color starts to shine in the dim lights spackled overhead.
“I’m from a lot of places.”
“Mmm,” Phil hums, tucking his feet around the slats of the chair, getting comfortable before he decides to, before he means to, before he knows whether he should stay, despite already knowing that he wants to. “I hear ya.”
The man stares at his drink until his hand stills, until the liquid loses momentum and stills in kind.
“Drinking to remember,” Phil asks, because that’s who Phil is, that’s who Phil’s always been, and if nothing else gets to stay, that does; that does; “Or drinking to forget?”
The man’s shoulders shift, and there’s no noise, and Phil can’t see the man’s mouth through his tangles, but he thinks there’s a smirk. He thinks there’s a chuckle, even if it’s sharp; even if it’s sad.
“Little bit of both,” the man murmurs around the curve of his glass, stares straight, straight ahead as he drinks, and drinks, and drinks until it’s gone, and that’s an answer.
That’s an answer, right there.
“Hmm,” Phil nods, folding his arms. “Sounds like you were the right guy to sit down next to, then.”
The man says nothing, but when he calls for another whiskey, this time, he calls for two.
The sad fact is, Phil’s a lightweight. He’s always been a lightweight.
And given the givens, he’s far past caring about it, now.
“Do you know what it’s like,” his mouth moves before he can check it, before he can think; “to have your life just, fall apart around you?”
He gestures openly to the space between himself and the man in the black with the hair.
“To have everything you hold sacred just, tumble, and then you’re stuck in the middle of it, with nothing to fall back on, no roadmap, no one else to figure the next step, to help you figure the next step, because there’s no fucking next step because the ground’s fallen out and if you step anywhere you’ll fucking fall, too.”
Phil’s babbling, he knows that. He gets that. He’s allowed, now, though, because the entirety of his world is fair game. There’s nothing left to safeguard, nothing left to hide.
He’s as on display as anything, and he’s damn well going to get as shitfaced as he’s wanted to and simply couldn’t risk for fucking decades.
The man in the black with the hair tilts his head in what might be a nod, and Phil realizes that thinking of him as The Man in the Black with the Hair makes his head spin a little.
He’s pretty sure said man wouldn’t give him his name if Phil asked, but Phil really does need to think of a better thing to call him.
“Do you know what it’s like to have a hole in your memories, in your own mind, in everything you are, everything you stand for,” Phil swallows, and it feels thick, so he downs what’s left in his glass, and it feels warm. “Do you know what it feels like to walk around with that void so big inside that you can damn well hear the way it echoes for all that used to be there, and now just,” he falters, breathes: “isn’t?”
Phil shudders, nodding at the barkeep to fill him up because he’s cold; it makes him cold, the void.
“Yeah,” the man beside him exhales, barely a sound, barely a noise, no inflection, no voice in it: “Yeah, I know that.”
Phil nods, and eyes his replenished glass; eyes the man’s hands again on his own, leather-clad and creaking with the motions, and the sound of it’s wrong, almost metallic, but Phil’s more mesmerized by the pull of the cowhide, the way the second-skin flexes over the flesh.
Gloves, Phil thinks. ‘Gloves’ is easier.
He could call the man Gloves.
It’s by the time Phil’s on his third drink, and Gloves is talking about life and death with eyes that stare through, stare through, stare through—it’s only then that Phil decides that Gloves is a horrible name for his drinking companion. He shouldn’t be called Gloves.
Soldier, though. He should be called The Soldier, because that’s what he is, Phil can tell.
It’s the talk of life and death that gives him away.
“Which is worse, do you think?” the Soldier asks him, idly, unblinking, never looking Phil’s way. “Which has better earned a dead man’s toast?”
“Death,” Phil says, but pauses, backtracks: death gets the first say too often, he thinks. Death gets all the credit for the hurt.
“No,” Phil decides, nods into his glass. “Life.”
He takes a drink. A long drink.
“I think life, more,” he says, slow, considering the weight.
“Life,” he says: “without.”
The Soldier angles his glass toward Phil knowingly, in agreement almost, before he drinks just as deep.
“I died today,” Phil says, not caring anymore if he makes any sense. “Three years ago,” and Christ, has it been that long?
The void in him is vaster, echoes wider than he’d thought.
“I died three years ago today,” Phil tells the bottom of his glass, watches the whiskey move with his breath, with his words: “And he mourned me.”
The Soldier is watching him, he can feel it, and Phil almost wants to look up, almost wants to see if he can get a decent look at the man, for the force of his gaze, but he can’t.
He just can’t, because Phil can only see the currents, can only see the gleam in the surface of the drink like the gleam in the eyes that he left, that he hasn’t seen, that he can’t see: the eyes that made him know what sorts of things his chest could grow to hold.
“He mourned me, and I let him,” Phil whispers, and the world broke open, and maybe things are different now, but Phil’s own chest broke open, too: Phil’s mind and Phil’s ribs and Phil’s heart are splayed wide for the taking, and all he’s got is a finger of shitty bourbon, and it burns.
It’s a surprise, almost, when the Soldier gets to talking. Not as much of a surprise as it probably should be, but Phil’s going to pin that one on the alcohol.
“You think you know death, going in,” he saying, rolling the glass in his hands, and what skin can be seen through his still-hanging hair catches pale on the refraction of the light. “You think you know what it’ll feel like, what it’ll look like,” and Phil can hear it when the Soldier swallows, even if he can’t see it: “You think you know what it’ll smell like, even.”
And yeah. Phil remembers.
“But you go in, and then,” the Soldier sits there, and almost seems to be considering whether to take his glass and gesture for a top-off, or to hurl it straight against the opposite wall.
In the end, his hand just clenches around the edge, and Phil’s surprised that the glass doesn’t give.
“You go in, and it’s sour in every part of you,” the Soldier breathes out, like it’s sour in him still. “It’s wrong in every cell. And your hands get red for the way the wind howls, all cracked and too tight for your bones except…”
Phil blinks up, catches the way the Soldier isn’t moving, isn’t breathing, is somewhere else entirely before he inhales through clenched teeth as his fist loosens, as the glass clangs against the line of the bar.
“Might as well be blood there,” the Soldier murmurs. “Can’t ever wash it off.”
And Phil gets that. He does.
“I can’t look at my hands,” the Soldier says, half-chokes, and if he’s staring at his hands as they shake, at his hidden hands and it doesn’t matter, because Phil doesn’t have to see what’s under the leather to know that it hurts.
“I know the feeling,” he breathes out, and it’s not a lie, not in the slightest.
Phil’s broken enough things by his own hand—bones, bodies, beating hearts—to hate the color red well enough on his own.
Phil can’t stop thinking about deft hands and wide eyes, not after he says it, not after he puts the words out into the world—he mourned me, and I let him—and he doesn’t know where Clint even is, hasn’t been able to track him, not now, not like this, not with everything gone and done and toppled from the very peak: Clint could be dead, for all Phil knows, and that twists at the center of him, even if the way it would undo him is no more than he deserves.
Phil can’t stop thinking about Clint’s body, Clint’s voice, and it doesn’t matter that the Soldier said nothing, did nothing when he said it, when he confessed it, it doesn’t matter.
Not until the Soldier starts confessing for himself.
“He knew me,” and the Soldier speaks it sloppy, his tongue dipping into the line of his whisky, the words muddled between the drink and the glass and the ache.
“All this time, and he never forgot,” the Soldier mouths, tongues at his drink idly, slow and practiced, like a lover might, and Phil hurts for him; hurts for himself.
“I tried to take him from this world,” the Soldier breathes. “I let him go, and then I tried to make him go.”
He shakes his head, and downs the drink, lowering the empty glass with more force than necessary until just before it connect with the countertop; he settles it gingerly, and Phil can hear the hitch in his breath.
“What the hell does that make me?”
Phil understands, now, why the Soldier was quiet for him before, like this.
There aren’t words for the things that they know about love.
“I tell myself that it’s for his own good,” Phil breaks the silence that’s settled between drinks four and five. He should stop, he knows. Probably.
He should probably stop.
“I think,” he rolls the word, the thought, around his mouth like a real thing, a heavy thing.
“I think it’s a lie.”
Phil ducks his head and breathes; just breathes.
“I think I’m scared,” he mumbles, but the Soldier hears it.
Of course the Soldier hears.
“Could be both,” the Soldier shrugs, and shakes his head when the bottle comes around for more.
“Could be,” Phil nods, because yeah. It could. “Could be that’s a damned lie, too, though.”
The Soldier’s neck crooks low, and his hair shivers like a weeping willow, like the sorrow falling down across his whole being, his whole self, and the Soldier ducks his head and breathes, just breathes, and says:
Phil’s vision’s getting a little hazy, a little cloudy, but really.
He doesn’t need to be able to see clearly to get the way the Soldier’s voice softens, deepens, damn near breaks when he starts talking about the things that matter.
“His eyes,” the Soldier says, and Phil feels something in him grow tight with the way it’s spoken, the way other eyes, eyes like rainwater reflecting the sky shine back at him, hooded and sly and brimming with something so warm that it rivals, surpasses the burn of the drink as it slides down his throat in the now.
“His eyes were the same,” the Soldier whispers, reverent; heartsore; “Are the same.”
“Lips,” Phil offers, because that’s not the sort of thing you leave hanging, leave unmet. “S’all I’ve seen.” He clears his throat. “Security footage,” he adds; “the silhouette of him.”
And he gets lost, a little, in the memory of that silhouette, in the memory of those lips on his lips, on his skin, on his—
“He’s got,” Phil swallows hard; “really nice lips.”
Phil might be imagining it in the set of the Soldier’s shoulders, in the line of his frame, but there’s a smile there, he thinks, or the beginnings of one—the barest of hints.
“He moved back to where he’s from,” the Soldier says to the ground, to his feet; “Where we used to—”
He breaks off, tenses: wary, but only for a moment.
“Ah,” Phil grins, shifting so that his drink just sloshes over the rim of his glass. “So you are from somewhere,” he frowns, his tongue getting thick, getting languid for the alcohol in his veins: “Somewhere sp’cific.”
The Soldier shakes his head. “S’a good thing you’re all liquored up,” he grouses, but it lacks any real punch. “You probably won’t remember I’m from anywhere but inside your own head, come morning.”
Phil thinks it’s telling, that neither of them seem to care for keeping their secrets tonight.
It’s telling that they both have big enough secrets for it to matter.
“Nostalgia’s a tricky thing,” Phil says, instead of anything else, anything less important, less relevant to the point: “S’a heavy thing.”
The Soldier is still, is silent for a breath before he deflates and drains his glass again: three times—this time—to Phil’s single pour.
“Yeah,” the Soldier whispers to the residue that’s left: “Yeah it is.”
Come drink-number-Phil-can’t-remember, the Soldier’s body is weighted, dragged down.
And it’s not a physical thing, so much as a thing that’s leaden in the chest that drags, drags harder when it’s dark and there’s no one left to hide the burden of it from.
Phil can relate to that.
“If I was him,” the Soldier’s saying, telling the wall beyond them, telling the universe: “If I was him, I’d never want to see me again. I’d never want to so much as breathe my air.”
The air he breathes, just then, seems to catch, to choke, gets stuck: he trembles with it, the Soldier—he trembles with it before he draws in more to steady, to still himself, forced in through clenched teeth.
“I’m toxic,” he hisses, low and nearly feral, nearly broken at the seams, and it’s too familiar, it’s too damned familiar for Phil to sit and stand. “I’m an animal, I’m—”
“He said that to me,” Phil interrupts him, watches the trail of his fingertips, oily on the glass in his hands as he remembers the time and the place and the look in Clint’s eyes: “Once.”
“He thought he was broken,” Phil speaks through the glaze of memory, through the sting that still comes from thinking of Clint brought low by his own doubts, his own self-loathing, all of it shining so hateful, so overwrought inside those eyes.
“Thought he was damaged goods,” and it’s hard, to say that, to give it any more attention in thought, in words: to let those lies live any longer in this world. “Too much red on his ledger, I think he said.”
Phil knows damn well that’s what he said.
The Soldier’s watching him, and it’s a shock of blue that freezes Phil in place as he looks up, meets the gleam of that gaze through the hair and the hurt and the dark.
“And what did you say?”
Phil shrugs, and eyes the surface of his mostly-full drink.
“I didn’t say anything,” Phil tells him, simply. “I took him to bed, and made it clear that there’d be hell to pay, if I ever heard him talking like that again, talking about himself like he wasn’t worth the whole goddamned world.”
And the growl in Phil’s voice comes out without bidding, comes out because he’s spent and he’s flayed and there’s no reason to keep it in, now, no reason to push it down.
The Soldier’s quiet. He’s quiet for a good long time.
“Did he listen?” he finally asks, and Phil chuckles, but he’s not even sure how he means it, what he wants it to be.
“I told you,” Phil says, a little bit wistful, and little bit hollow. “He said that shit once,” Phil takes a drink from his glass: “Just the once.”
The Soldier ducks his head, but there’s an air of something like acceptance, something like meaning that settles, that feels prickly and charged.
“Can’t help the past, sometimes,” Phil breathes out, blinks too much, too fast. “Hell, most times.”
He rubs his thumb against the glass, back and forth, and pretends it’s something warmer, but just as goddamned smooth.
“Can’t help who your heart wants,” he murmurs. “And if you’re being honest,” he glances sidelong at the Soldier, who’s staring sharp down to the floor. “I think if you’re being honest, you wouldn’t want to help it, more often than not.”
The Soldier’s lips quirk, barely but there, Phil can see that much.
There’s a flash of something, and Phil doesn’t think too much on what it is, what he sees or doesn’t see through that scraggly mane, because Phil’s own eyes are burning, and he doesn’t want to think about that, either.
“S’a two way street,” Phil manages to get out: “Hearts that want.”
It’s a two way street.
The Soldier drinks.
The barkeep’s half-asleep in a corner, which Phil thinks might be funny, or might be sad. S’okay, though: they’ve thrown enough money at him between the two of them that they could drink what’s left of his stores and still have paid him more than well.
“Which is more essential, do you think?” And Phil’s just kind of talking, because the room’s too dark, and his head’s all cottony, struck through with a cloud or a stake or whatever. Phil’s just kind of talking because his breath, and the Soldier’s breath, it’s loud, and there needs to be something louder.
“Which has better earned a drunk man’s toast?” he leads, just manages not to slur: “The man you love or—”
“Him.” And the Soldier’s voice hasn’t been that smooth, that sure—the Soldier’s voice hasn’t made Phil feel anything so strong all night.
“God, him,” the Soldier exhales, long and slow, and it’s loud, but Phil thinks, it should be. This should be. “Always.”
“You don’t know what the other option is yet,” Phil points out. The Soldier shakes his head.
And it doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t.
Nothing matters, when there’s that.
“Go home,” Phil tells him. “Go home, and find him in the place where you’re from, and tell him that it’s always him, and the past is the past and everyone’s got one, but just,” Phil upends his glass and breathes out around the burn, the way his head spins.
“Go home,” Phil says with a conviction that’s written in his bones, in his blood: “Go home, and tell him.”
Phil doesn’t remember anything after that, but to be honest, he doesn’t need to.
There’s really nothing more to know.
Phil wakes up in a bed, in a room, that he doesn’t remember getting to.
As far as random rooms go, he’s woken up in worse.
He glances to his side, and it hurts. As in, really hurts. The motion rattles his brain against the surface of his skull until his feels nauseated, but really, given how much he drank last night, it should be worse.
He sees a bottle of painkillers—American packaging, and yeah, the Soldier was anything but a local—next to a glass of cloudy water that’s half-full, got lip marks on the rim.
Well, that answers how he got here, and why he only feels wretched, and not any worse.
There’s a scrap of paper tucked under the pill bottle, and Phil has to squint and breath deep through the spinning of his head before the letters coalesce:
If you’re ever in Brooklyn, next round’s on you.
Phil chuckles, though it catches sour in his throat, and it takes all he’s got to palm a few more tablets and swig the questionable drink before he falls onto the bed and drifts back to sleep.
When he wakes again, it’s to creaking outside his door.
Phil’s head’s still killing him, but he’s an Agent of—
Well, he’s a goddamned Agent, and he’ll be damned if whoever’s out there scouting his position gets the drop on him.
His gun, shockingly, is safely settled next to the bed, and he grabs for it, checks the safety, and stands with as much grace as most of a fifth of whiskey can leave him with.
When he reaches for the doorknob, it’s already turning.
“Jesus Christ,” he breathes out in a rush as he takes in the red curls and the wide eyes that are roaming over him from the threshold. “What the fuck are you doing here, Romanoff?”
“Tracking the Winter Soldier,” Natasha answers, and he knows, then, that T.A.H.I.T.I. was never in the files that were leaked: knows that the only way she’d answer him that fast, that openly, is if she’d been thrown for a real goddamned loop.
“Find him?” Phil asks casually, tucking away his firearm and trying his best to ease the shock, the burn of betrayal that’s clear in her eyes.
“Lost the trail.” Her tone is hard, and she’s asking him all sorts of questions with just a look, just a gaze.
“Hmm,” Phil glances around the room, takes the note but not the pills, slips it into his pocket. “Well, come on, then. You look like hell.” And yeah, sure, okay: hell on Romanoff’s still pretty good, but she’s drawn, pale, splotched yellow and red around the whites of her eyes.
“You look not dead,” she spits back, baring her teeth in a humorless grin; “If only just. You stink of bourbon.”
Phil tries to think: bourbon.
Yeah, there was bourbon, last night. Bourbon was definitely there.
He shrugs, and leads the way down a flight of stairs, comes out at the far end of the bar, which looks distinctly less like a bar but still like a dive, come daylight—Phil doesn’t care either way, though, because there’s the gorgeous scent of coffee swirling about, and if anything can banish the pounding that still lingers in his head, it’s caffeine.
“Два чёрный кофе, пожалуйста,” he says to the man behind the counter, the same man from the night before, who smirks at him knowingly.
“Jesus, Coulson,” Natasha snorts. “Your accent’s for shit.”
Right, so, one thing answered: the Soldier was being an asshole when he commented on Phil’s inflection.
“And to think that I’d almost missed you,” Phil deadpans and grabs for the coffees as Natasha takes a seat.
And in truth, he doesn’t have to tell the whole story, doesn’t have to defend his position and explain the particulars of coming back to life and lying low.
What he does have to do is apologize. And one of the truly gorgeous things about Natalia Alianovna Romanova is that, once you convince her you’re sorry, she lets the water flow beneath the bridge.
So when she nods, and sips with a grin from her cup, Phil knows they’re good.
Their coffees are almost gone, though, before Phil musters the nerve to ask what he needs to.
“Tasha,” he says, and his voice is dry, his voice is small. “Do you—” and the words crumble, crack apart and he has to clear his throat, swallow around the thump of his pulse as he squares with the fact that his heart doesn’t have to ache anymore, not if he doesn’t want it to; squares with the fact that for all that he loves the man, Clint’s not nearly as forgiving as Natasha.
Doesn’t matter, though. The answer’s always him.
“Do you know where I might,” Phil closes his eyes and breathes: “where I might find Clint, these days?”
Natasha considers him for a long moment that feels like maybe it stretches to the point of pulling apart—it certainly feels that precarious, that desperate where it lodges in Phil’s chest; but she considers him, before her lips curve and she drinks her coffee to the dregs, standing up and quirking a brow at him: not an answer, but it’s more than enough.
Phil knows her, after all.
Phil’s fiddling with his wallet, leaving extra for the owner just in case he did anything he needs to atone for the night prior—that smirk felt ominous, somehow—and he almost misses it when the only card he’s had a chance to replace from his collection—#2, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes—falls out with his fold of rubles.
Natasha’s answering her phone and Phil puts the card back, ever-so-careful, and wonders why the mass-produced copy of Barnes’ signature looks so damned familiar.
“I don’t give a shit if it’s the asscrack of dawn there, Rogers,” he hears Natasha barking in that impossible way she has of shouting just under her breath. “If your ungrateful Brooklynite ass wants me to track down your boyfriend, you’ll forward me whatever intel Stark’s got on his movements before I get bored enough of Eastern Europe to tell you to stick it up your—”
And Phil hears her, he does, but that’s why he stills, that’s why he pulls the scrap of paper from his back pocket and stares at it, stares at it long and hard.
If you’re ever in Brooklyn, next round’s on you.
He slides the card from his wallet one more time: the ‘B’ there, in Barnes has an uptick, and a strange little swivel around the curve.
Same as the ‘B’ in Brooklyn. Just the same.
The Soldier. Jesus Christ.
“And Rogers,” Tasha’s smirking in Phil’s direction as he looks up, eyes wide. “Tell Barton I need him in Budapest, ASAP. Got a present for him. Promise it’ll be an improvement on the last time.”
And Phil stares again at the trading card, at the scribbled note, and thinks, okay. Okay.
Next round’s on him.