When Bucky wakes up, Lorraine is already pulling her shoes onto her feet. He must make a noise or a sudden movement, because she looks up through her curtains of blonde hair and announces, “Last night was incredible,” in her low, husky voice. She’s smart enough not to continue and say something like ‘Can I see you again?’, and Bucky appreciates her for it.
Possibly because he’s just woken up, and also possibly because he knows what tomorrow is, he follows her progress to the bedroom door and says, “You wanna do this again tonight?” Waking up alone on Christmas is a bit of a bummer, and he’s done it often enough in the last fifteen years to know it. It’s been a very long time since any of his romantic liaisons could be considered anything but a hookup, but having another warm body to wake up to on Christmas is a luxury that he’ll allow himself. James Barnes isn’t in the habit if denying himself luxuries.
Lorraine stops in the doorway, turns half around and favors him with a bemused smirk. “It’s Christmas Eve, James.”
Bucky sits up in bed and raises an eyebrow. “All the more reason. ‘Tis the season to be jolly.”
She chuckles. It’s reminiscent of a cat. “I have to visit my parents. In Boston. I’m heading to the train station now.” She rakes a hand through her hair, which bounces right back into its elegant, cascading waves down her chest and back. Sometimes Bucky still wonders how women do that, how they go to bed after sex looking taken apart and debauched, and wake up the next morning without a hair out of place. “I’ll be back in New York on the 27th, if you want to do something for New Year’s.”
With a smile to signal no hard feelings kept, Bucky says, “Yeah, sounds great. I’ll call you.” He hasn’t given his number to someone on a personal basis in about ten years. If he changes his mind, he has the option of just not calling.
Lorraine’s mouth curls at the corners, like she’s aware of exactly what he’s up to (and he wouldn’t be surprised; she’s a professional woman as well, has probably told her fair handful of guys the exact same thing) but she still blows him a kiss on her way out the door. Part of him is tempted to perform some antic, catch it out of the air and hold it to his chest, but he hasn’t done anything like that since college, when he was still Bucky Barnes to others and not just his own internal monologue.
He doesn’t dwell on this thought. It’s just not something he does. Instead, he gets out of bed and makes himself a cup of coffee (An underling gave him a Keurig for his birthday two years ago, no doubt trying to suck up without any regard for subtlety, but it’s been a godsend all the same) and eats a breakfast bar in two bites. It wakes him up, makes him feel a bit more alive and helps to clear the residual fuzziness that two glasses of campaign and one of cognac left him with last night. For the next hour, he jogs on the treadmill set in front of his living room windows, smart phone on some special holster that clips to the display (another bribe) so that he can scroll through the relevant websites.
Halfway through this morning ritual of scroll-jog-scroll, a call comes through on a number he doesn’t recognize. It’s local, but then so are a lot of wrong numbers. He refuses it with barely a thought, barely a pause in his gait, and pants, “If it’s important, you’ll leave a message.” He can almost hear his mother saying it even as it comes out his own mouth, years of her yelling at the phone when it rang during dinner time, Bucky giggling around a mouthful of tuna casserole.
He finishes his jog without further interruptions, grabs a towel and lumbers into the bathroom. As he showers, the lyrics to Have a Holly Jolly Christmas leave his lips without his strict permission, but it’s one of those songs that you can’t help but listen to four times a day between November 1st and December 31st. He turns his head towards the spray of water, like a turkey in the rain, to drown out the sound of his own singing.
His closet is a walk-in, roughly twelve by fourteen feet; probably about the size of the living room in the house where he grew up. One entire wall is just suits in varying shades of black, dark grey and navy. This morning, he selects a dark grey number, because the grey matches his winter coat better, and carries it with him back into the bedroom, drapes at the end of his bed. In the mirror, he shaves and styles his hair (Checking for grays which he doesn’t have, but it’s a habit; his mother started going grey at thirty and he’s thirty-six) into the slicked-back look he prefers. He spends a moment posturing into the mirror because Bucky Barnes will admit to being a lot of things, and his vanity is…admittedly not one of them, but it’s something that he has inwardly come to terms with.
Strangely, he hasn’t always been this way. There was a time before all of this, before becoming junior vice president and then senior vice president and then president of the company, when he would roll out of bed ten minutes before he had to be somewhere and throw on jeans and a shirt. Used to glance in the mirror and, if he didn’t look like death warmed over, deem himself worthy of public consumption. Sometimes he even let himself leave the house when he did look like a member of the walking dead.
Things haven’t been that way in a long time.
He realizes that he has been standing, staring at the tile of the bathroom for longer than necessary, grumbles at himself for getting caught up in reminiscing—dwelling in the past is not something that James Barnes does—and stomps back into the bedroom. He dresses in short, precise movements like he does everything; neither the minimum or maximum amount of effort but just right, everything careful and calculated, even in private. He was once told by a colonel at a party that he had the look and presence of ex-military, asked if he’d ever served. Bucky had smiled politely, shook his head with a laugh, like that was an amusing idea, and neglected to mention that he almost joined the army when he was eighteen and didn’t think he had anywhere to go.
How far he’s come. He pulls up a pair of silk socks and does not think about a childhood during which he sometimes had no socks. Damn the holidays for making people broody and sentimental. He sighs and rolls his eyes at himself, pulls on a pair of Italian shoes and makes mental note to tell his assistant to make some sizeable donation to a children’s charity out of his personal account.
It is, after all, Christmas.
In the elevator, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas is seeping softly through the speakers. Bucky hums along, loudly, in spite of himself until the elevator receives another occupant. On the tenth floor, which can only mean that it’s Herr Schmidt. Indeed, the doors open and the man steps on, gives Bucky a once-over that makes his skin crawl and greets, “James.” His accent makes it sound like he’s not saying Bucky’s name, but is just announcing the word yams to the elevator. Sometimes Bucky finds the guy amusing. Others—most—he just finds him repugnant.
Herr Schmidt is some old, creepy German expatriate that, as far as anyone can tell, has lived in this building since the dawn of time. He predates every else’s memory, even the doorman’s, so no one is quite sure when he got here. The entire building is pretty sure that he’s also an old, creepy Nazi, but there’s no real proof. He and Bucky are the vice-president and treasurer of the co-op board, respectively, and because of this Bucky also knows that Herr Schmidt is an old, creepy poof. Bucky hadn’t even been living here a month when Schmidt first came onto him, and he seems incapable of taking no for an answer. Bucky should know; he’s been saying no for seven years.
“Any Christmas plans, James?” Schmidt asks. The watery things his accent does to his vowels might be attractive if he weren’t approximately a century old and sleazy as fuck.
Bucky says, “Ah, no. Not really,” without thinking. Realizes too late that he should have said something, anything, but that. Should have made something up if nothing else.
Schmidt fixes him with a look and says, “Well, I would love to have you for dinner. Over for dinner, that is. It will be a rather private affair, I’m afraid. Just the two of us. But I’m making my mother’s roast duck with apple stuffing. It is, if I do say so myself, to die for.”
The elevator doors open, and Bucky has never been so grateful in his life. He forces out a laugh, because part of him is still afraid that Herr Schmidt is going to sneak into his apartment one night and flay him. Says, “Um, thanks for the offer, Herr Schmidt. I’ll think about it.” Which really means No, not for a million years and not even then you walking corpse, but he still has to live with the man.
As they exit the elevator, Herr Schmidt says, “Please, James. We’ve been living together for seven years. Call me Johann.” He touches Bucky’s shoulder, smiles, and trails his eyes over his body slowly. When he pulls away, Bucky is ready to go right back upstairs and take another shower.
“Oh, sweet mother Mary,” he whispers to himself, as Herr Schmidt finally slips out the revolving doors. He leans against the concierge desk and rubs his brow. He does not need something like that this early in the morning.
“Alright there, Mister Barnes?”
Bucky glances up, finds the face of Happy on the other side of the desk. He clears his throat, nods and straightens up. “Yeah. Just a rough morning.”
Happy says, “I saw that blonde that came out of the elevator earlier. I figured she was coming from your apartment.” He gives a wink, and it would be a bit lascivious if Bucky didn’t know that Happy was possibly the most cheerful and earnest person in existence. He still isn’t sure if Happy is a name or a nickname, but Bucky has never heard anyone call him anything else in his seven years living here.
With a smirk, Bucky says, “Yeah. She’s gorgeous, ain’t she?”
“That a serious thing, or…?”
Bucky leans back, barks out a laugh as he shakes his head. “God, no. I met her last night. Not sure I’ll ever see her again, to be honest.” He slaps a hand on the desk, once-twice, and steps back and towards the door, nodding his farewell to Happy. “Have a good day, Happy. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Mister Barnes.”
Outside, it’s snowing. He pulls his camelhair coat closer to himself and presses his nose into his scarf. The walk to his car—a sleek, black Ferrari FF—is short but grueling, and he turns the heat all the way up when he gets into it. The revs the engine, just because he can, and peels out of the underground parking structure.
“…and everyone knows that tomorrow, we’re closing a deal that is going to revolutionize the way people look at StarkTech. I know tomorrow is Christmas and everyone will want to celebrate and blah blah blah, but this deal is important to all of us. I’m gonna need you all to be here, and not complain about it…” He glances out of the corner of his eye, to his senior vice president poking at a bauble hanging off the small Christmas tree someone put in the middle of the conference table. “…and not drift off in the middle of meetings. Penny for your thoughts, Arnim?”
It takes Zola a moment to realize that the entire conference room has gone silent, and then a second longer to realize that he is now the focus of the room. He jumps to attention, sits up straight in his chair and stutters, “Oh, um…no. It’s just. It’s Christmas Eve. I was hoping to be home before dark. I made a promise to my wife.”
“Do you think I want to be here any more than you, Arnim?”
“Well…sometimes I wonder,” Arnim mumbles, and there’s a smattering of half-nervous laughter. Bucky gives a short smile, if only to display that he does, in fact, have a sense of humor about himself. Arnim adds, “Sometimes I just wonder where your holiday spirit is, that’s all.”
Bucky nods sympathetically, because he’s not entirely cold-hearted even if he doesn’t understand the softness that people are prone to when family is involved. He pats Zola’s shoulder and straightens up and says, “Look, I know it’s difficult. But each and every one of you has put months of your lives into this merger, and this is the culmination of all our efforts. At midnight on December 26th, S.H.I.E.L.D will officially join the StarkTech conglomerate. After that, you all have my express permission to celebrate however you want. Sleep for twenty-four hours straight, if you want. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.”
Another titter of laughter, this one generally good-humored. He smiles, crosses his arms and nods at the presentation still on display at the front of the room. “We have twenty-eight hours until the merger officially goes through. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow. I want everyone to go home, get plenty of sleep, and come in bright and early.”
There is a general clamor as twelve people all rise at the same time and exit the board room. For each person that exits, an assistant glues themselves to their side as they come out the doors. Bucky is no different. Sharon falls seamlessly into stride with him as he walks across the floor to his office, tapping away at her smartphone.
“So how was the meeting, Scrooge?” she inquires, without looking up. She’s practically a superhuman, with the way she can walk, talk and text without ever having to look up or break her concentration.
Bucky rolls his eyes and quirks his lips. “Oh, come on. Don’t be that way. You know that having a full business day tomorrow is necessary. Why are you complaining? Got a hot date?” He bumps their shoulders together. They have an easy camaraderie that’s hard to come by in business, probably because they’ve been together since the beginning. Most people assume that StarkTech runs on the raw willpower of James Barnes alone, but Bucky and Sharon both know that the company would not exist in its current form without her contributions.
“Yes, actually. I have a long-standing date with my mattress on Christmas and I promised it that I wouldn’t be getting out of it until at least two PM. Now I’m going to have to let it down. Again.” At last, she puts away her phone and looks up at him. “See, when I decided not to have kids, I sort of figured that getting out of bed before eight AM on Christmas was something I would never have to do.”
Bucky pushes open the door to his office, stops to pour himself a glass of sparkling water at the bar in the corner and tips it at her with a smirk. “Well, Sharon, that makes two of us. I guess we’ll just have to suffer together.” He takes a sip, crosses the room to his chair, sits. “Besides, I think I’m being very festive. The sound of seventy-six billion dollars going straight into StarkTech’s pocket sounds almost exactly like jingle bells to me.” He leans back and folds his arms behind his head.
“Alright, Kris Kringle,” she mutters. “Only two calls today. Someone from Neiman Marcus called; your suits have come in.” She hands the note to Bucky, who gives a little hum of recognition and pleasure. “As if you didn’t have enough already.”
“Nothing suits me like a suit, Sharon,” he drawls. He scans the sticky note—“Marion” Neiman Marcus suits—and nods. “Just have them deliver to the office like always.”
“Already done. They should be here on the 26th.” Sharon hands him the other note. “The other call was from someone named Steve Rogers. Well, his assistant. Said you could call him back anytime today.”
The name doesn’t ring a bell for a moment, until Bucky pulls his head out of his ass and realizes just who Steve Rogers is. He leans back in his chair, stares at the name Steve Rogers in blue ink on one of Sharon’s trademark pink sticky notes. It’s like two entirely separate portions of his mind meeting for the first time. He traces a hand down his face, huffs out a breath, mutters, “Steve Rogers. I haven’t thought about him in…God, at least ten years. Probably longer.”
“Who is he?” Sharon asks, and perches on the corner of his desk, hands folded in her lap. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Bucky clears his throat, tosses the sticky note onto the desk. “Steve was…my college boyfriend. We almost got married.”
Sharon snorts, pulls her light grey suit jacket closer to her body. “You, married. Yeah right.”
“Almost,” Bucky corrects. “I almost married him instead of going to Berlin for the internship with Hydra Enterprises.”
“Wow,” Sharon drawls. There’s a soft look in her eyes, but her mouth is a sharp smirk. “If it was anyone but you saying that, I’d probably believe it.”
“No, I’m serious, I did,” Bucky chuckles. “I was twenty-one and I was in love and I almost thought that was enough. I was different.” He rests his elbows on his chair arms, drops his eyes back to the sticky note on his desk. Steve Rogers call anytime. “A lot of things were different.”
December 27th, 1999; John F. Kennedy Airport, international departures gate 2C
"This is the last boarding call for Lufthansa flight 454 to Berlin Tegel. Please proceed to Gate 3 and have boarding pass in hand. I repeat: This is the last boarding call for Lufthansa flight 454 to Berlin Tegel. Thank you.”
Neither of them moves for a moment, then Steve mumbles, “You have your ticket, right?” and stands up. There is a woman at the boarding desk watching them closely, obviously waiting for one or both of them to board. They’re the only ones left at the gate.
“Uh…yeah. Yeah.” Bucky pulls the ticket out of his left jacket pocket, shows it to Steve. “Right here.”
“Good,” Steve says, and he stares at Bucky for a moment, with Bucky staring right back. He’s wearing Bucky’s old windbreaker, hair unstyled and limp on his head, hiding the shaved sides and the tattoo on the right side. Bucky wishes he could make that look on Steve’s face go away, but it’s just not possible. He’s leaving, and they both know it. They both know it’s something he has to do. Steve looks down into the bag in his hands, clears his throat, and says, “So, I brought you something. A few things. Just to, y’know, keep you company. I guess?”
They’ve never been awkward around each other, and Bucky knows that this isn’t really awkwardness. It’s the melancholy weighing on them that makes it hard to interact.
“Yeah?” Bucky asks. “You didn’t have to get me anything, bud.” Bucky’s windbreaker is about three sizes too big for him and has a hole in the cotton lining. Bucky burrows his finger into that hole now. Presses his nose to Steve’s temple and says, “But since you did, what is it?”
“It’s nothing special. Just…” He reaches into the bag and pulls out a sketchbook. He hands it to Bucky, says, “You can have that. The whole thing. It’s not full, but there are drawings, and notes. It’s just something to remind you of me, let you know I’m thinking of you.” Bucky wants to say something, but Steve is already plunging his hand back into the bag and bringing out a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Bucky’s favorite book. “Your copy was getting old. You can read it on the plane. Or something.”
“Thank you, bud,” Bucky whispers, staring down at the two books clasped tight in his big hands. “Thank you. It means a lot, it really does.”
“One more thing,” Steve says, and spares an anxious glance for the clock above the boarding desk. He speaks to the attendant. “One minute, ma’am. Please. He’ll be right there.” He reaches into his pocket and brings out a silver chain. Bucky realizes after a moment that it’s not just a chain; at the end hangs one of the Rogers family heirlooms. A small, silver compass. “This compass helped my grandfather make it through Austria. He always said it was good luck. Maybe it’ll help you come back to me.”
Bucky takes the compass. It’s small and fits in the palm of his hand. He flips it open, and finds a picture pressed into the lid. Him and Steve, and Steve’s got his head on Bucky’s chest, all that blond hair fanned around his head like a halo. Bucky doesn’t know when the picture was taken or who by. He doesn’t even know where they were, but a lump forms in his throat like it’s a reminder of some deep, visceral memory.
“Too much?” Steve asks, hesitant. His hands flutter next to Bucky’s, ready to take it back.
“No, no,” Bucky says, and closes the compass, hangs it from his neck before Steve can take it back. “No, it’s great. It’s perfect. It’s…” He sighs, leans down and presses their mouths together. “Boy, am I gonna miss you, buddy.”
“You too, pal,” Steve sighs, and presses his forehead underneath Bucky’s chin. “Just come back to me, alright?”
“You know it,” Bucky says, and pulls away with incredible reluctance. “You and me, bud. ‘Til the end of the line.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, hands still curled into the flaps of Bucky’s coat. He tilts his head up for a kiss, which Bucky delivers, and then lets him go. His eyes look too shiny and red blotchiness is rising in his cheeks. He swipes a thumb under one eye and tries to make it look like he’s scratching his cheek, because he hates people seeing him cry. This thumb comes away wet. “So, um. Yeah. Go get ‘em, Tiger. Europe won’t know what hit it.”
“Hey,” Bucky says. Claps his head onto Steve’s shoulder. “I love you.”
Steve nods, licks his lips. “Yeah, I love you too.”
“Don’t say it.” Steve shakes his head in two jerky movements, left-right. “Just don’t.”
Bucky pauses, mouth hanging open mid-word, then he nods. Clicks his jaw shut and nods. “Yeah, alright. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
“How can I? You’re takin’ all the stupid with you.”
Bucky turns his eyes to the ceiling, wonders how he can want to laugh and cry at the same time. “You’re such a punk.”
“Jerk,” Steve says, and he gives a watery chuckle as Bucky dives in for one more kiss. “Go, get out of here. Can’t stand the sight of your ugly mug anymore.”
He laughs, and takes five big steps backwards, thumps a hand on his chest and points at Steve, who points at him and thumps his own hand over his heart. They both laugh, and Steve’s lips wiggle as the lump in Bucky’s throat gets harder, more painful. Before he can have an utter meltdown in the middle of JFK Airport, he turns around and hitches his carryon further up his shoulder, shoves the books safely into a pocket on the bag and digs his ticket out of his coat.
Bucky stops, turns around. The woman behind the desk looks put out, but he doesn’t really care that much. “What, Steve? I’ve gotta get on a plane, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Steve opens his mouth, hesitates for a moment. When Bucky makes a frantic look with his eyebrows and mouth, Steve blurts, “Don’t go.”
“Steve, c’mon, don’t kid around—“
“I’m serious. Don’t go. Don’t go to Berlin, Buck. I got a real bad feeling about this.” He crosses the distance between them in fewer strides than Bucky would have thought him capable of. His hands fist into Bucky’s coat again. “It doesn’t feel right, feels like…”
“Waddaya mean, bad feeling? Like what, you think I’m in danger?” He glances at the attendant, leans his head closer to Steve’s and presses a reassuring hand to his back. “Y’think the plane’s gonna crash? Don’t say that, bud, ‘m nervous enough about transatlantic flying as it is—“
“No, no, it’s just…” Steve sighs, and his hands clench tighter. “I know we agreed. I know that. But part of me…there’s part of me that feels like, if you get on that plane, you won’t come back.”
Bucky stares at him. “I have to come back, pal; my visa’s only good for a year.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it!” Steve snaps. “I mean…we’ve made all these plans, and I know that this is the start of the plan, you going off to Germany, but I…” He sighs, ducks his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m sorry Buck, I’m actin’ nuts.”
Rubbing Steve’s back, Bucky sighs, “No, it’s alright. We’re at the airport; no one thinks clearly at the airport. It’ll be fine. I’ll spend a year in Berlin, probably workin’ my damn ass raw for Hydra. You…” He laughs, pulls Steve close. “You keep makin’ art. Y’hear? You draw or paint or something every day.” He kisses Steve’s cheek.
“Excuse me, sir, but the plane starts taxiing in five minutes—“
“One damn minute,” he snaps over his shoulder, and the attendant falls into silence. He looks down at Steve, whose fine-boned face looks both beautiful and terrible with shimmery wetness beneath both his eyes. “We’ll be fine, Steve. We’re gonna do great things.”
“You wanna do something great, Bucky?” Steve asks, fierce determination leaking out of every pore. “Don’t get on that plane. Come back home with me. Let’s start our lives, let’s not wait a minute longer. I dunno what’ll happen, but I know that there’ll be you and me, and that’s all that’s ever mattered.” He clears his throat, presses his body as close to Bucky’s as possible, and Bucky has to bend his head at an awkward angle to maintain eye contact. “C’mon, Buck. Please. Please don’t go.”
Bucky glances back at the attendant, down at Steve, down as his ticket and back to Steve. He sets his jaw and wraps his arms tight around Steve’s middle, whispers, “I love you, Steve,” and kisses him.
With an exhale of relief, Steve kisses back. He sinks his slim fingers into Bucky’s long, wild hair and whispers, “Oh, thank God. I love you too, Bucky, I really do—“
“And a year in Germany isn’t gonna stop that,” Bucky says, pulling back. Pulling all of himself back, because he doesn’t trust himself to get on that plane, get where he needs to go, if he touches Steve for one more minute. “A million years couldn’t stop that.”
He turns, and gives the attendant his ticket. She doesn’t make eye contact with either of them—and Bucky’s relieved, because it would be pretty awkward after a scene like that. He hikes his duffle up onto his shoulder, takes his ticket back from the attendant after she looks at it and stamps it, and enters the gate for the plane. He resists the urge to look back until he’s at the bend of the gate, and then throws just the barest glimpse back over his shoulder.
Steve has a hand fisted in his hair, pulling it away from his face. Crying in earnest. It’s too painful to look at for more than a split-second, so he doesn’t.
December 24th 2014
The image of Steve crying in an airport fifteen years ago is a hard one to shake. Bucky stares down at his desk until Sharon gets off and slides into one of the two leather chairs across from him, crosses her legs and drawls, “So…you gonna call him?”
Bucky sighs. “Maybe later.”
“Oh, c’mon, James. You almost married the guy.”
From the door, a boom of, “Who’s marrying who?” announces the arrival of the company’s chairman. He breezes in, all swagger even at age seventy-something. Heads straight for the bar, where he pours himself a tumbler of rum. “You getting married, Barnes?” He examines them over the rim of his glass.
“Turn up your hearing aids, you old coot,” Bucky says, and slips right out of melancholy and right back into cockiness. He crosses his legs and presses himself back into the cradle of his wingback office chair. “She said almost married. Some old flame of mine called earlier today, wants me to call back.”
“Ah, ignore it,” Howard mutters. Sits down in the unoccupied chair. “It’s the holidays. People get sentimental. She’s probably lonely, wants to reminisce. Don’t encourage it.” He sips from the glass in his hand. “I was only married once, that was enough for me. Gave me a son.” He scowls across Bucky’s desk at the thought of his only child. “Tony could learn a thing or two from you, Barnes. You’re the same age, and yet you’re president of my company while he’s off cavorting with some redhead, peddling…clean energy. Isn’t that a kick in the head?”
“Ain’t it, though,” Bucky says, noncommittally. He met Stark the younger a total of once, and it was at a party five years ago. The guy talked a mile a minute about things that Bucky couldn’t even begin to understand, in words he wasn’t sure were English. He also drank about an entire bottle of tequila and didn’t sway once all night; it was enough to earn him Bucky’s respect. Howard is a genius too, but in different ways. He’s also cantankerous and obnoxiously self-righteous and everything Bucky hates about the older generation. He raises an eyebrow at the other man, asks, “So, Howard, what brings you to mingle among the little people?”
“Can’t a guy come and say hello?”
Bucky smirks. “Not when the guy owns the building.”
Howard shrugs. “Got me there. I need a favor.” He leans forward, locks his fingers together. “Phil Coulson is getting nervous. He needs some hand-holding for the merger tomorrow.”
“I would too,” Bucky says. “Seventy-six billion dollars is a lot.” He stares at Howard for a moment, eyes narrowing steadily. “Where exactly is Phil Coulson on this fine holiday eve?”
“Portland,” says Howard, and he has the grace to sound just a little guilty. “I need you to go talk him through this, James. If there was anyone else, I would send them, but you’re the only one I can trust to keep Coulson in our pocket.”
“I’ve gotta be with my people on this end, Howard.”
Again, Howard waves a dismissive hand. “Zola can get them through it. He’s not half as useless as he appears. It’s just that everyone seems useless next to you, Barnes.”
He knows Howard has said this to flatter, but Bucky can’t help it; he preens. He smoothes a hand through his hair and smirks, throws a glance in Sharon’s direction. “Book me a flight to Portland, Sharon. Then get yourself home. Looks like you won’t have to come in tomorrow after all.”
Howard returns the smirk. It makes his mustache look a bit like a question mark. “Knew I could count on you, Barnes.” He finishes his rum in one gulp, sets the tumbler down on the edge of Bucky’s desk, and rises from his seat. “Let me know as soon as you get to Portland. I’ll be at my sister’s on Martha’s Vineyard.” He gives an exaggerated shudder. “Luckily, she hasn’t set up some bullshit no cellphone rule. Yet.”
“Roger that, boss,” he says. Howard leaves with Sharon on his heels. As soon as the door clicks shut behind her, he crumples up the sticky note with Steve’s name and number on it, throws it to the bottom of his wastepaper basket. It makes a metallic tink as it hits. He stares at it for too long and mumbles, “Sorry, Steve.”
It’s even colder outside when he leaves for the night. Even his camelhair cannot properly defend against it. He huffs to himself, watching his breath swirl up and towards the dark, starless sky. His car is parked in a reserved space right in front of the building next to Howard’s. He spends a long minute staring at the sign marking the spot as his: ‘Reserved—James B. Barnes, President’. Looks up and down the disserted street, spares a thought for everyone in this city, what they’re doing at nine PM on Christmas Eve. Many of them, he knows, are probably wrapping presents, and will be until the small hours of the morning. The idea is almost depressing, but not for the reasons he would have thought.
He gets into his car and lets it warm up, puts it into drive and heads off down the street. He doesn’t drive for long. He doesn’t know if it’s because his mind is elsewhere, or because the streetlights seem to be out on this particular block, but his headlights catch the form of a man standing stock-still in the middle of the street just in time for him to bring his car to a screeching halt, inches from the man’s kneecaps.
He sits there for a moment, shocked. The other man doesn’t move, just stares at him. Bucky can see his eyes through the windshield and meets them with his own, but they seem to stare through him.
Finally, he reacts. He rolls down his window, leans his head out. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?! I could have killed you! Are you fucking suicidal?”
The other man doesn’t respond for a moment. Bucky feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up. There’s something about this that doesn’t feel right.
“Nah,” says the man eventually. He steps around the car to Bucky’s window, leans down. Bucky can make out his features clearly now, can see that he’s dark skinned and van dyke bearded, with high cheek bones, mouth and eyes that would be friendly if they weren’t frowning at Bucky with speculation. Like this guy had almost hit Bucky with his car and not the other way around. “Just waiting for someone, I guess. Didn’t think the guy I was looking for would be in the car.”
“What?” Bucky demands. This is before he notices what this other man is wearing. He’s got nothing on but an oversized sweatshirt and a pair of nylon track pants. With an outfit like that in below freezing temperatures, there’s only one thing a person can be. Homeless. Also possibly deranged, if his ramblings are anything to go by, but definitely homeless. Bucky takes up a different approach. “Hey, alright, it’s…sorry, you gave me a shock there. Here, let me…” He opens the door of the car against his better judgment, but he figures he’s less likely to upset this guy if he’s not sitting pretty in the front seat of a 200,000 dollar car. At their full heights, he stands several inches shorter than this other man. Carefully, he locks the car behind him. “Do you have anywhere to stay? I know some shelters.”
A smile splits the man’s face. He uses all his teeth and his eyes and it should be reassuring, but it’s not. “Oh, are you trying to help me?”
“Yes,” says Bucky.
“That’s funny,” he says. “That’s real funny, Bucky.”
Bucky’s eyes widen. “How’d you know my name?” More importantly, his nickname. The one he hasn’t heard on another person’s lips in fifteen years.
“You just look like a Bucky,” he says with a shrug. Bucky’s stomach knots with unease. He wants to get back in his car and drive off. “White boy with a trench coat and some kinda hairdo that looks like it hopped outta 1945? Yeah, sure. Bucky. Look like you belong in a cheerios commercial or some shit.”
“Okay,” Bucky says slowly. “What’s your name, then?”
“Lotsa people have lotsa names for me,” he says. Walks around to the hood of Bucky’s car and plops himself down on it. “You? Hmm. You can call me Sam.”
“Sam,” Bucky repeats. “Okay. Do you need something…Sam? Is there a reason you were standing in front of my car?”
Sam laughs, shakes his head. “Man, don’t even try to pull that psychoanalysis shit on me. Doesn’t work. I’m not the one that needs helping here.”
“Everyone needs something,” Bucky says carefully.
“Okay, big shot,” Sam says, nodding at him. “You need something? What is it?”
“Nothing,” Bucky says automatically, because it’s true. He’s got the life of dreams. He’s got what every middle class American aspires to have and more. “I mean, not anymore. I have everything I need. I’m not the one standing out here in a sweatshirt.”
Sam glances down at himself, raising an eyebrow. “Huh. So I am.” He looks back up at Bucky. “Doesn’t really matter what I look like, does it?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?” Bucky demands. This conversation is becoming ridiculous and confusing with the meandering circles Sam is weaving it in, and he doesn’t know why he’s continuing to let it happen. “Look, just…just get off my car, okay? I’ll help you. I can take you to a shelter, or I can buy you some food, or…do you want money? Just straight up cash? I have that, too.”
Sam looks away, up at the sky as though he expects someone to hear him when he says, “This guy just isn’t getting it.” He turns back to Bucky, slides off the car and says, “You don’t need anything. You’ve got everything you need?” At Bucky’s nod, he clears his throat and nods. “Alright. Wow, must be great to be you.” He digs his hands into his pockets, purses his lips, and nods again. “Alright. Alright, fine. We’ll have a little fun with this. Just remember that you brought this on yourself, Bucky.”
“Brought what on myself?” Bucky demands, but Sam is already walking away. He disappears around the corner and, like a switch has been turned on, all the streetlights on the block flicker to life. Bucky looks up, stares at the snow particles caught in the beams of light, and runs his hand through his hair. Part of him is worried that Sam is going to press charges or something, that he’s going to sue Bucky for almost hitting him with his car. He pats down his pockets, making sure he has his wallet and his keys just in case.
You brought this on yourself.
Bucky wants to take those words as the rambling of the mentally unhinged, but something keeps him from that conjecture. Perhaps the clarity in Sam’s eyes. Perhaps the fact that the unease stays with him, in the pit of his stomach, even as he drives back to his apartment. Stays for the next three hours, as he climbs into the treadmill for his evening jog, as he fixes and eats dinner, as he goes to bed. He lays awake for a long time, staring at the glowing red numbers on his clock until he finally falls asleep as they near midnight.