Bucky says, late in the twilit night, his voice pitched so low Steve has to lean up against the bars to hear him, far too close to be safe—from Bucky, his Bucky, Bucky who'd tried to put a bullet through his brain, an armoured fist through his face, Bucky—too low for even the bugs to pick up on it, “There was a dame. In Russia.”
He looks up when he says it, the whites of his eyes shining beneath his hair, his mouth twisted up in a half-smile, and Steve, well, he knows when he's being fed a line, knows he should laugh and provide snide commentary on Bucky losing his touch if there was only just the one dame; he can recognise at a distance of a hundred yards and seventy years Bucky curling around his wounds like a whipped dog, snapping at a soothing hand. They've danced this dance before, in alleyways and orphanages and factories—“Ma did always want a girl”, and “I thought you were smaller”, and “I guess I'm a real boy again, huh?”—but there is something perverse in him that stayed up nights reading the file on Winter Soldier, that spent weeks and days trying to worm intel out of Agent Romanova, and he says nothing, only nods, creating an expectant silence for Bucky to fill. In its quieter way this is as familiar as playing straight man to Bucky's clown; even the dim light is familiar from evenings sitting on the stoop staring at his own feet letting Bucky regale them with stories of his dates. Bucky has always filled Steve's silences with words and jokes and snatchets of songs sung badly; in New York and in London and on libo he has always been loud and exuberant and splendid.
It is strangely unsettling to encounter the stillness of German forests in him so near their old haunts in Brooklyn, and far more so to have his eyes settle into the sniper's long stare, patiently waiting. It had been easiest, waking up unanchored in a strange world not even the pulps had thought of, to forget Bucky waiting for hours watching from a vantage point while he led the Howling Commandoes on a raid. If he had acknowledged this cold-eyed man he wouldn't have been able to deny the bare possibility of the Winter Soldier having once been his friend, of having always been potential in Bucky, hidden down below the careless smiles. He says, shamefully conscious of backing down from a necessary fight, “Just one?”
He wants Bucky to smile like a sunrise, like the slow burn of acid eating through his armour, the dull thudding of bullets bolting through flesh, the pain twisting his heart with everyone of Bucky's smiles. A piece of the old Bucky back as reward for carrying on with this charade, something beyond vicious calculation and this grinding misery.
But all it brings is Bucky's fake smile dropping instantly off his face without any sign of a real one to replace it. All that happens is Bucky shrinks away from him, further into the dimness of his cell, and says, “She gave me the same name, every time, any rate. Moved the same, too, but that's just the Red Room; I can move like that, I taught her to move like that, she said, last time I saw her. She had red hair, but that's just colour.”
And this is just what he's been told not to do, and he'd thought that obvious enough when the Director told him, and now God knows how much Bucky's regressed. Because of him. He says, light like he's talking a child out of nightmares, “It's alright, Bucky. Hey, listen to me. What'd she say her name was? We've got agents who were in the Red Room, they'll know. We'll find out.”
Bucky says, and Steve knows he's going to, the Director told him himself before Natasha came in, and he would have known by the look in her eyes anyway, and hadn't that been a punch to the gut, that she cared enough to have an expression, Bucky says, “Her name was Natalia Romanova.”
“I was hoping you'd say that,” he says, and pulls his phone out of his pocket. “You can't see if you're gonna keep sitting all the way over there.”
Bucky crawls up beside him, shoulder to shoulder through the bars and says, without doing more than glancing at the picture of Natasha, “Could you arrange a meeting with her?”
Steve says, “Moment she comes back, Buck,” and scrolls through the rest of his pictures, letting Tony and Bruce and Thor and Clint and the new pandemonium of New York loom up in the empty air between them.
Bucky stiffens at his side and says, on a picture of Agent Coulson—Phil, Steve keeps trying to call him inside his head—looking deceptively stodgy, “First time I met her she couldn't have been more'n sixteen—twitchy little thing with ribbons in her hair and a kick like a horse.”
“Clint says he's seen her kill a man with her thighs,” he volunteers presently, after the photos have spun back to the beginning, to Natasha suspended against the artificial half-light, looking up from her pancakes and grinning. Sunday Team Breakfast at Avenger Tower, and for once it hadn't ended in Tony and Bruce dismantling the toaster or 'upgrading' the coffee machine. “Said he wasn't sure if he was more aroused or terrified.”
Bucky grins again, the sharp fake smile that sits too right on his ragged face, and says, “That's my girl.”
Natasha comes back from Iran with what she calls a flesh wound and S.H.I.E.L.D. Medical calls four-to-six week bedrest minimum. Phil Coulson, no man's fool, restricts her to HQ with Darcy Lewis and a mountain of paperwork for company, and effectively splits the Avengers up by having Pepper drag Tony and Bruce away to Miami and the neglected West Coast Stark Industry labs. With Thor still doing his princely duty in Asgard—and please God babysitting Loki properly this time 'round—it brings the team down to him and Clint, who keeps alternately disappearing for hours and dropping out of the ceiling.
Steve takes to haunting the hallway outside Director Fury's office, and asking for Bucky to be let out—they've moved him from the holding cells to a guest suite, but it's a prison just the same, and Bucky's proven himself no threat time and again already. He's gone through medical tests and physical tests and psychiatric tests and the Director even had a telepath flown in from the Westchester facility; seems to Steve they're just holding him to hold him, now. But he can't complain because they're taking precautions while securing one of the nightmares of the Cold War; he's seen Bucky's old files, he knows what they'd have done if they'd caught someone with that sort of kill-list, back in the War. It's no easier to forget, now that it's not his responsibility. But he still goes, thrice a week, different days and times, just to look in on the Director and get a “no” before drifting down twenty-three levels to spend the rest of the day with Bucky. It's become their routine, in that vague way anything you do more than thrice becomes routine, and he's been doing this for three weeks already before Agent Coulson gives him anything beyond a shake of the head. He goes down anyway.
Bucky grins at him when he walks in, waves him over to the bed. “Both in the same day, lucky me.”
“Ah, did Natasha come in?” He doesn't check the roster, but he thinks that she might, because they've never run into each other, and she's never said a word about it, and he'd take it to heart, but Natasha isn't really the chatty sort, from what he's seen, except with Clint. And Bucky, of course, though that doesn't seem as real: he's never seen them speak after she said, “James, I'm really sorry”, and kicked Bucky in the face hard enough that his eyes rolled up. “What'd you two do all day?” He feels like a mother, asking that; he feels like his own mother, watching him slope in after a morning trying to match strides with Bucky.
“She brought down a computer and we watched a couple of flicks on it.” And that's far too routine for the look in Bucky's eyes—and thank God he can recognise those now, again—so he makes an encouraging little noise in the back of his throat, like Dr. Mehta does when he's telling her how he feels about the twenty-first century. “So how was your day, dear?” That's a new one. He knows for a fact that Natasha and Darcy have been conspiring about bringing him up to date; it's the degree of Bucky's intentional involvement that he's not too sure about.
“Peaceful,” he says, and “Buck. Listen. I gotta ask. Quarters here or my apartment in Brooklyn?” It's a little bit nasty of him to say it like that instead of just outright, but he figures he's owed the look of dawning realisation on Bucky's face, the smile—the first real smile—that floods his eyes, the ullulating war-whoop that gets one of the guards peering in through the grille set high on the door. He's missed all of it, and the pounce is pure Bucky, too—though some of the muscle in it might belong to the Winter Soldier—surging up from the floor to pin him down on the bed, hands gripping his shoulders tight. “They're letting you out next week; ow, you jerk, I still do gotta breathe, y'know.” But he's wrapping his arms around Bucky while he's saying it, pulling him inexorably down till he's lying mostly on top, face pressed to the crook of Steve's shoulder. It's like looking at his life through a mirror, everything familiar flipped on its side. Before the war, Bucky used to hold him like this, sometimes, when he was wracked with pain and they didn't have the money for medicines.
“It's not been six minutes yet,” Bucky mutters, and pushes up to his elbows again. “Steve, will this mean them curtailing your movements any? Cause you don't need to, then. Natalia said they're bound to let me go anyway, cause they're down a lot of snipers and it's just easier to send me back out if they're sure about my psych results and.” He pushes up the rest of the way in a contraction of muscles and sits carefully balanced on Steve's thighs. “I can just stay here; be easier to get a hold of.”
“You know, Bucky, you really don't need to keep on carrying around all the stupid in New York.”
It takes them longer'n a week, but that they're both expecting—the mills of bureaucracy grind slowly, and they grind your spirit exceedingly small—but by the end of September Bucky's sent out on a non-essential mission to test his field-readiness. Coulson, who had already been most of the way there and has since his recovery—Steve refuses to think of it as resurrection, despite and because of all Tony's jokes to that effect—been assigned only and all missions to do with the Avengers, signs up to ride herd on him, with Clint and a junior agent along for damage control and writing reports; Steve manages for half a day to not take this as a reason to be cautiously hopeful.
By lunch the next day he's wandering around with a smile big enough to scare off the agents he encounters in the S.H.I.E.L.D canteen. Natasha drops into the chair opposite him with a tray loaded up with lasagna and mashed potatoes and says, between bites, stabbing a loaded fork through the air—he'd been surprised when he saw how much she ate, and had been immediately ashamed of it; it wasn't as though Natasha was some dame out on a date, pretending to her fella she ate like a bird—in a way that makes several of their nearest neighbours eye her with undisguised concern, “You realise you'll be kept under surveillance.”
“Didn't know I was ever not being watched.” He's never known the army to have much concern for privacy, and it only stands to reason they'd utilise the improved technology to keep a closer eye on everyone.
Natasha nods approvingly at him. “Tony tends to disable everything and then throw a fit about being spied on. Phil swears it's because he likes giving him ulcers.”
Given Tony, she's very likely correct, but he knows they have history of the sort that leaves Tony edging behind Bruce after mouthing off at her, and he doesn't much care to take sides in squabbles, so he settles for saying, “Well, he's a civilian,” in as mild a voice as he can manage.
He's expecting another nod, or a flip retort—this is near enough the first time Natasha's spoken to him when they're not on a mission or strategising for one, but he does know she's laconic at best. But she purses her lips, instead, and pushes her hair from her face, and scrapes her fork through the last of the lasagna. “I think he'd feel immensely less violated if he was the one doing all the spying.”
Something—or everything—of his reluctance to offer any opinion about that must shine visibly on his face, because she hoods her eyes and looks carefully at her plate and eats her potatoes very neatly. If he didn't know better he'd think he'd hurt her feelings. He doesn't know what to do with girls whose feelings he's hurt—before he became the new and improved Steve Rogers, no dame who looked like Natasha would have even given him a second look; afterwards, well, Peggy shot at him to relieve her frustrations. “I'm going to the gym,” he says. She inclines her head a very careful fraction down towards her plate. “I... Come spar with me?” She look up at him and smiles beatifically, and he thinks it's a different sort of seducing answers out of folk than he would have expected from a dame who looks the way Natasha does.
The agent in charge of the gym for the day calls enough of his friends that it feels like a prize-fight by the time they finish. Somebody starts a pool, apparently betting on him being too chivalrous to punch Natasha out. Bruce shows up mid-way through it and makes a killing—nobody bet on Natasha ending it in a draw, and he feels unhapy on her behalf till she snags Bruce's winnings and divides it into three neat stacks. It's the first money he's had since he came back that wasn't given him by S.H.I.E.L.D.
He hands it off to Darcy Lewis when she shows up at his apartment for their weekly movie night, and asks her to get him pencils and a drawing-pad. She looks surprised when he doesn't give her his Amex, but doesn't ask any questions, just cues up Sound of Music and pats his shoulder while he winces through it.
He goes to see Tony propelled largely by a sense of duty and guilt and spends an hour in his garage sketching him repairing a motorbike. The trick to it is to convince Tony you're around because you like his company, without overwhelming him or behaving as though you require reciprocation. It's a bit of maneuvering he'd got rather good at, in the year and change between the Chitauri invasion and the Winter Soldier appearing on everyone's radar—if anyone had asked him a couple months ago who he liked best among his team, he'd probably have said Tony.
It's been a long couple months. And Tony, well, he's never restful, but he's twitchy enough now that Steve's itching to drag him up from the floor, sit him down and hold his hands tight so he doesn't try moving, probably step on his feet for good measure.
He shows Tony the sketches half in self-defense, to try and get him to hold still before he vibrates to pieces. It doesn't help any. Tony stares for a moment, says, “I didn't realise you took up drawing again,” and practically lunges beneath the bike with something far too complicated to be a wrench.
Twenty floors up, Bruce hands him a cup of coffee and waves him into a seat. It takes some doing to find one—the whole apartment looks like a couple hundred Doombots had an enthusiastic orgy all over it and then exploded into their component parts.
“I'd say avoid Tony today,” Bruce volunteers eventually. “S.H.I.E.L.D called in the morning and he's been frantic since. Had to toss him out before he brought out the Other Guy.”
Obscurely, it makes him feel better. It's a little difficult sometimes to determine without context whether Tony is sulking because he's offended or because he's in a creative fugue. “Should I be concerned?”
“No. It was just something he hasn't tried for a while, from what I gathered.”
They drink another cup of coffee each. Bruce puts on a new pot and unearths his tablet from underneath a stack of scrap metal. He takes his pad out and starts detailing the sketches of Tony. It feels a little like sitting in the newspaper offices, drawing advertisments while Johnny writes copy on the other side of the desk. One of these days, he's going to ask Bruce to sit for a portrait, but it never feels like the right time.
Darcy shows up the next morning with bagels in a paper bag and an itinerary on her phone. “Boss says they're wheels down and I need to appraise your roommate situation. Hey, try one of the cheese ones.”
“No, really, I know you usually don't like them, but they're amazing today, here, have a bite from mine. No? Your loss.” She finishes hers, dabs at her mouth with a napkin, and grins. “Seriously, though, you should try it. Better than the poppy-seed, I promise.”
“Darcy, what are you appraising?” It's difficult to not snap that out as an order, but he knows there's surveillance. They probably wouldn't send Darcy to check on his mental stability, but nobody really knows, with Coulson.
“Your complete lack of furniture, for one thing. I mean, it's a nice apartment, don't get me wrong, I would happily taze someone to get my hands on a place nearly as good as this, but it's empty. I mean, you only have the one bed.”
It's a huge bed that takes up most of the room. Steve found someone to make it on the Internet, and it looks like something out of the romance novels his mother used to read. It could probably hold his entire team if Bruce wasn't the Other Guy and he hasn't really thought about where Bucky will sleep—they've tucked into cots before that could barely fit them before Dr. Erskine got hold of him—but he can't make himself say that to Darcy's expectant face any more than he'd tell Tony. He settles for saying, “I hadn't really given it a thought,” because that's as truthful as he feels he can be.
“That's why they pay me the medium-sized bucks. Finish your bagels and we'll make a list, and then I can go get everything, or you can come with me if you prefer. We'll have to settle for the basics right now, but we should be able to get through with that in a couple of days.”
They need everything, it turns out, and he'd feel bad about making Darcy run around all that much if she didn't say how bored she's been all week, with Coulson prepping for and then away on the mission. He'd have expected her to have switched over to running errands for Dr. Foster, but Jane's in no need of being reminded of the neccessity of food these days, and Darcy doesn't really like science any more than he does himself.
She goes a little overboard with the shopping, going so far as to buy not only shelves and picture frames and a full dining service—his kitchen's pretty well stocked for more than one person anyway, but he knows people nowadays like having more than they did more than he ever did or got to—but even more than one bed, which he can't help thinking an unfair use of his S.H.I.E.L.D-issue black Amex, but they're both sturdy and serviceable, and he remembers breaking the first bed he bought, so maybe it's a good thought to have a spare. He does step in when she tries to buy Iron Man sheets and pillow-covers, and can't tell her to get the Batman ones instead.
They're having lunch at what he will always think of as Tony's shawarma place when he gets a text from Clint and Darcy, when he looks over to her for permission to check it, has her phone up to her ear already. The message opens up to a picture of Bucky slumped in his seat with his eyes slitted barely open and his metal hand tocked neatly out of sight under the jacket folded over his lap. It takes him a minute to notice that there's an actual message appended to the photograph, and by then Darcy's snapping her phone shut and leaning across the table to take his.
“World's most unexpected attack-dog, huh?” She grins and hands it back. “Remind me to get you the photos from the time he went undercover at a circus, looks like something Dick Grayson wouldn't wear.”
He asks her who Dick Grayson is, and they talk about the Robins till the server clears her throat pointedly at them, and then about the newest film—which she keeps talking about but won't let him watch till he's worked his way through the others—while she picks out curtains for him. She promises to get him No Man's Land and swirls one of the curtains over her shoulders like a cape and keeps it that way for the rest of their walk back to his apartment to put away their purchases. She looks like someone who walked right out of a pin-up, with the sun setting in her hair and the smile that looks nearly too bright to be real. He doesn't tell her that the only joke is that Bucky's not gunning for them any more.
Clint knows already; they'd had Hawk-Eye in position to shoot the Winter Soldier down.
His team throws a party day after Bucky and Clint get back that starts out as a housewarming and devolves swiftly through help-your-friends-move-and-demolish-several-pizzas into drinking contests all over his newly-furnished living-room. By the time Agent Coulson inevitably shows up, Natasha's having an involved conversation in Russian with Bucky; Clint's building a tower out of the shot-glasses in front of her; Thor's tried to get him drunk with a wide variety of Asgardian liquors—all of which taste wonderful and none of which have alcohol-related effects—and has shifted focus to plying Jane with mead; Tony's leaning against Bruce and slurring expansively at Darcy.
Phil sighs, shoots his cuffs, and takes the margarita Pepper's holding out. “Miss Potts. Captain.” He peers at Bruce. “Is Dr. Banner alright where he is?”
“He survives in a lab with Tony without adult supervision,” Pepper says, and “It's a party, Phil.”
“And I made everyone check their weapons at the door,” Darcy puts in. “Except Natasha, but she said she only kept one knife. 'Lo, boss. Tony said he was bored with the boozing and went to take a look 'round. I made Bruce go with him, so they'll be fine.” A series of thumps sound out in contradiction and Darcy looks immediately guilty. “I'll go check on them.”
Phil inhales and exhales like he's letting go of something, and says, “That wasn't loud enough to be the Hulk, and there's nothing particularly irreplaceable in this apartment, to the best of my knowledge. I'm sure they're fine.” Pepper pats him on the hand, and he smiles. “It's a party, Miss Lewis. Enjoy.”
Darcy stares at him for a moment like she's trying to deduce how much of that is sarcasm and not to be taken to heart before shrugging and weaving carefully across the room to slump into the middle of what Clint declared the Assassins' Circle a half-hour ago. Bucky snags her before she can upend Clint's construction and she grins at him and taps his arm. They look good together.
“I trust your shopping went well?”
“Yeah.” When he turns back to them, Pepper's hiding a smile behind her drink. “We did well. I just didn't realise till this morning that Natasha was going to be living here as well.” In light of her history and present co-operation with the operative formally known as the Winter Soldier, Fury had said into the little recorder, and that's the first anyone had bothered to tell Steve about it, like a challenge he couldn't possibly rise to, with Natasha sitting beside him and Bucky waiting outside the door.
Phil raises his eyebrows a little. “Will that be a problem?”
It's nothing he can in any honour answer, so he pastes on his best USO smile. “It sure would've explained why Darcy bought two beds.”
“I can see how that would've been confusing,” Phil nods, and finishes his margarita.
Pepper looks a little concerned and then gets distracted in rapid succession by her phone, Bruce arriving silently to whisper into her ear, and by whatever Tony's excavated, which turns out to be Bucky's last arm. It's struck Steve as a morbid sort of memento, but Bucky'd only got fitted with his new arm—stamped with a Stark Industries logo, which had gone a long way to explain what Tony'd been so jittery about—while Steve was being briefed about his new living situation, and there hadn't been the time to dump or destroy it, not that either of them had been sure they were allowed to.
Tony doesn't seem to have any such concerns, thumping it down between Bucky and Natasha and settling on the other side of it. He produces a folded bag of tools from his suit jacket and starts testing them on the chassis.
“I see Darcy needs to expand the definition of weaponry,” he ventures, when Phil looks unlikely to faint right away at the desecration of his valuable prototype. Maybe it makes a difference that it's Russian.
Phil nods. “I've been keeping her away from Mr. Stark far too well. It seemed cruel and unusual punishment.”
Pepper, down three margaritas, says, “For which of them?”
And that's, well, that's probably true, because he's read Tony's file, and then he's read what the Internet has to say about Tony, and he knows Natasha gained Tony's confidence a couple years ago because she looks the way she does, and Darcy looks the way she does and it probably is tempting for a man like Tony. It just doesn't seem fair to be laughing about it at a party when Tony's never been anything but a perfect gentleman to Darcy, far as he or anyone knows, and God knows Tony makes it a game to leer at just about everyone. Maybe that's why Pepper's laughing about it, and after all if anyone has the right to joke about that sort of thing and Tony, it has to be Pepper.
“Definitely Darcy,” he says. “Said being Dr. Foster's intern put her off science for all time, and I don't think she much liked it before.” Pepper stares at him a little unfocusedly, and he smiles blandly back.
Phil says, “That's true, actually. She nearly refused to oust Dr. Banner from his lab before his briefings yesterday, and she's decidedly unafraid of him in either form.”
That brings their attention neatly back to the group clustered around what he really has to stop thinking of as Bucky's arm, where Darcy is practically climbing onto Clint and over Bruce's shoulder to get a closer look at the innards of the contraption. Natasha puts a hand under her thigh and hooks it away from the shot-glass tower, piling her neatly up into Clint's lap, and says something in Russian that makes Bucky laugh and Clint colour guiltily. Tony doesn't look up for any of it, which is disturbing in and of itself—he's seen what the man can do to a toaster with a screwdriver at his disposal, and every single one of the tools in front of him right now looks a hell lot more complicated.
Jane says, leaning suddenly and precipitously away from Tony, “I'm not sure you should do that, we don't know if...”
The arm emits a shower of sparks; Tony swears extensively; Thor pulls Jane and Bruce nearly to the other end of the room before bounding back to start in on Natasha; Bucky and Clint scrape back a few inches with Darcy between them.
Phil says, “God I love my job,” and wades in to separate Tony from his tools.
Pepper smiles at the way Tony hunches over the parts, trying to hug them to himself. “How are you, Steve?” She twists a little to look at him, feet tucked up under her. “Take a moment, don't just say you're fine.”
For the first time in well over a year—in well over seventy years—he doesn't actually need to lie. His team's in good health and humour; his CO approves of him; his best friend's back in the right mind and in his life. “I'm better'n fine,” he says, and from the smile she bestows upon him, he thinks Pepper believes him.