The shout was a bellow of pure, unadulterated joy, and it echoed down the length of the train platform. Rhodey, who heard it and knew what was coming, set his bags down just in time for Tony to go barrelling into him with a leap, legs around his waist, arms around his shoulders, laughing joyously. Bucky, trailing behind Tony, took Rhodey's hand when he extended it from Tony's back, then grabbed the collar of Tony's shirt and peeled him off Rhodey, setting him on his feet.
"Look at you! It's been forever. I think you put on a few inches," Rhodey said, clapping Tony on the shoulder.
"It's the shoes," Tony said, lifting a foot to show them off. They were thick snow boots with rather more heel than a man's shoe generally had, but Tony had spent all week breaking them in and Bucky had to admit he was making them work for him.
"I see you're ready to get out on the ice again. Buck," Rhodey added, leaning in to give him a one-armed hug that Bucky returned clumsily. "Keeping the kid in line?"
"Doesn't need much, these days, the boots slow him down," Bucky replied. Tony gave them a dark-eyed scowl, but he couldn't sustain it.
"Come on, you gotta get settled in and get changed out of this stuff," Tony said, plucking at Rhodey's uniform.
"Respect, Tony!" Rhodey said, giving him a gentle shove. "I'm an officer of the US Air Force now, come on."
"You'll always be Blueberry to me," Tony said, mocking a kiss on his cheek. "No uniforms, it's my birthday party tonight!"
"Gee, is it?" Rhodey asked. "You haven't mentioned it in any of your letters. Except for all of them."
"The idea is," Tony said, leading him along towards the car, "Jarvis is sending our luggage over as soon as we get home. We are going to celebrate all night, and when we get tired, we just take a cab straight to the ship and get onboard and in the morning we're off to the arctic."
"This is the worst idea ever," Rhodey said to Bucky.
"There's a lot could go wrong," Bucky agreed.
"What if we get on the wrong boat? What if we don't make it to the boat at all?" Rhodey asked, shooting Tony a teasing look.
"You have so little faith in me," Tony said.
"Well, I spent three years in college with you," Rhodey said.
"Bucky, he's being cruel, make him stop."
"Stop," Bucky said, deadpan. "Please. Don't say such things. You monster."
"Cruel," Tony repeated.
"How old are you gonna be again, twelve?" Rhodey asked, and Bucky hid a smile.
"Twenty, thank you very much," Tony answered with dignity, wrapping an arm around Rhodey's waist because he couldn't quite reach his shoulders comfortably. He had to disengage again almost immediately as they reached the car, where Jarvis was waiting. The older man gave Rhodey a pleased nod of welcome and held the door for him and Tony, while Bucky circled around to take shotgun.
"You're still taking this bodyguard gig seriously," Rhodey said, leaning forward to rest his chin on the back of Bucky's seat.
Tony said "IXNAY!" at the same time Jarvis said, "There have been some threats made on Master Anthony's life."
"What?" Rhodey asked, the surprise and anger in his voice clear. "Now that didn't make it into the letters, T. I wonder why?"
"They aren't specifically against him," Bucky allowed, as Jarvis pulled through the midday traffic, heading for the mansion.
"It's diplomatic, I'm afraid," Jarvis continued. "This year's search is slated for the eastern coast of Greenland. The Soviets aren't happy."
"Greenland's got half of Europe between it and Russia."
"Apparently half of Europe isn't enough. We had to do some fancy footwork just to calm them down," Tony said. "But none of them threatened to shoot me, that's just hearsay from unreliable sources."
"I want to know what happened," Rhodey said.
"With due respect, Lieutenant Rhodes, it may be above your security clearance," Jarvis ribbed gently.
"I'm an attache to Stark Industries starting tomorrow," Rhodey pointed out.
"It's fine, Jarvis, I'll take the heat," Tony said, and launched into an extended monologue.
Bucky tapped his fingers on the edge of the car door, resentful, as Tony and Jarvis explained things. Not...not of them, precisely, but of the entire situation -- his own history with the Soviets, the awkward madness of the cold war, the way Tony disregarded the USSR as a threat when they had kept Bucky on a leash for a long time. He knew he was a threat, and he knew they were a threat when they could produce men like him. It had been Hydra, operating within the Russian state, but still --
"So there's a diplomatic...doodah, I don't remember what his title is -- "
"Observer," Bucky put in. "A diplomatic observer from the USSR is assigned to the ship. Fella named Romanoff. He'll be a spy."
"Who cares? We won't have anything sensitive onboard," Tony said dismissively. "It's not even a new ship, it's older than I am."
"With some modifications," Bucky said.
"And we will if we find Captain America," Rhodey pointed out. "Plus anything you doodle on a napkin becomes sensitive information, T, you know that."
"I'll confine my doodles to my workshop," Tony said. "And if he can pick the locks on that thing without getting electrocuted, Russia deserves to win."
Bucky's hand curled against the armrest, and there was a creak.
"I don't mean it," Tony said softly, after an awkward pause.
"I'd frankly be happy if neither side won," Jarvis said lightly, and Bucky was grateful for his ability to defuse any situation with a few deft words. "I feel like a decisive victory by Great Britain is just what this war needs. Then everyone can have tea and a plate of biscuits and get back to running their own affairs instead of all this sabre rattling."
"Politics tomorrow, when we can't avoid Diplomatic Observer Comrade Red Romanoff anyway," Tony decided. Bucky forcibly relaxed, wincing when he saw what his steel hand had done to the armrest.
"Not to worry," Jarvis said to him in an undertone, as Rhodey and Tony bickered in the back seat. "Sir's been meaning to get this one refurbished. Leather is out, plush is in, you know."
"I hope you brought your fancy threads, Rhodey," Tony continued.
"I'm telling you, girls love a man in uniform," Rhodey said.
"Yeah, but nightclub bouncers don't. Here we are -- look, Mom came out to say hello."
"She loves me best," Rhodey announced.
"She probably does, you're in her hair the least," Tony agreed.
Before they could go out to celebrate Tony's 20th they had to, as Tony put it, run the gauntlet of dinner with Howard and Maria. Rhodey had told Bucky that it wasn't nearly as awkward as it used to be, back when Tony was at MIT; Bucky knew his presence had mellowed Howard somewhat, but even with two and a half years of more-or-less good behavior under their belts, Tony and Howard could still get into it with each other if one of them forgot to mind their temper. Still, the more time Tony spent bouncing between Robotics and HQ, the less it seemed to happen, for which Bucky was grateful.
"I was thinking next year I might go with you boys out on the search," Howard said, as they settled in to eat. "Relive a few of the glory days."
"Howard," Maria murmured.
"Well, they've made a lot of advances since I quit polar exploration," Howard said. "I could sit in the radio room, give orders to these punks."
"Yeah, that'd go well," Rhodey muttered to Bucky, who stifled a laugh.
"Well, you can't go this year, so it's a moot point," Maria said.
"There's still time to pack a suitcase," Howard told her, but he was grinning teasingly. "All right, I'm not serious. I hope you find him this year, anyway; these expeditions aren't cheap, and SI needs you, Tony."
"You're both witnesses he said that," Tony said, pointing his fork at Bucky and Rhodey.
"I'm not afraid to tell a man when he's shirking his duties," Howard said, but he smiled. "Anyway, you look after yourselves this year. Remember, the Reds are watching."
"Oh my god, the Reds," Tony rolled his eyes.
"Have a healthy concern for the Soviets, Tony. They certainly have a healthy concern for you. I'm sure you have a KGB file. I know I do."
"What do we know about this Romanoff character, anyway?" Rhodey asked.
"Literally nothing," Bucky said. "They're keeping his identity top secret to keep him from becoming indisposed, at least that's Peggy's theory. They think we're going to send a hit squad if we know where or who he is ahead of time."
"He's meeting us at the boat tomorrow morning -- coming straight off a transport from Britain and straight onto the Marvel," Tony said.
"What does Captain Danvers think of a Soviet aboard the Marvel?" Rhodey asked.
"She's paid to look after my son, not to have opinions," Howard said.
"She's paid to run the Marvel, Dad, she's not a babysitter," Tony interrupted. "We hired her because she's the best pilot and navigator, not because of her maternal instincts."
"All this business of women having careers before they've even had families," Maria sighed. "I'm not sure I'm for it. What man wants to marry a woman who works all day?"
"I don't know," Rhodey said. "I think it shows a real sense of purpose."
"Yes, but what will she do when she does have children? Go off to work with the baby strapped to her back like Pocahontas with a papoose?"
Tony rubbed his face with his hands. "Mom."
"Well, I worry for the younger generation," Maria insisted. "When Peggy had her babies at least she had Angie to help look after them. Take my advice, Rhodey, find a nice girl who keeps a clean house and put a ring on her finger. You can't afford to wait, you know, God knows where they'll send you. Vietnam or somewhere equally awful."
"I'll bear that in mind, Mrs. Stark," Rhodey said, shooting a covert grin at Tony and Bucky. "What about Tony?"
Kill you, Tony mouthed.
"Anthony's not a soldier. He has years yet, and he won't be in Boston forever; a nice debutante is just the thing to lure him back to Manhattan," Maria said. "And anyway in a pinch you can usually find a girl from Smith who's not too selective," she added, winking at Tony. "I trust Bucky in these matters to keep him out of trouble."
There was a momentary amused lilt to her voice that made Bucky narrow his eyes slightly. He'd never dreamed of broaching the topic with Howard or Maria, but he suspected Maria knew where Tony's interest had lain for the last two years. Sometimes he could practically hear her voice -- Well, at least neither of them will get pregnant and it keeps Anthony out of mischief. Time enough for wives later.
He hoped that was what she felt about it, anyway.
"And of course spending the summer in the arctic tends to thin out the herd of gold-diggers," Maria finished.
"Jan van Dyne's coming along this year," Howard remarked.
"Jan has her own money, she's not after Tony's. Besides, she's just tagging along after her father and Vernon's a good sort."
"He's a pacifist. Wouldn't surprise me if he were in league with the Reds."
"You've known Vernon for thirty years, Howard, he's not a Communist."
"I'm just saying, Vernon's not the most dependable, politically, and I don't care if Jan's got her mother's fortune coming to her, a young woman on a shipful of men is a hazard," Howard said firmly. "I've told Bucky to keep an eye on the van Dynes."
"You men and your security briefings," Maria sighed. "No more shop talk at the table. Rhodey, you must tell us about the Academy. Did you in fact get inducted into any secret societies this year?"
They had to be a little choosy in the clubs they went to, that evening; there were still nightclubs in 1970 that wouldn't look kindly on Rhodey keeping company with Tony Stark.
Granted, those were a lot fewer lately. Early that spring, Tony had been asked about what clubs were his favorites in New York, and he'd rattled off a few; when the interviewer named one, Tony had frowned and replied, "No, they're last decade's news. I mean who wants to go to a club so square they're not even integrated? These places might as well be your dad's country club," and he'd named names. Of the half-dozen he'd mentioned as "too square to tolerate", three had since integrated; the other three were doing poorly.
In Manhattan in the late sixties, Tony Stark was the voice of the young socialite, even from his home base in Boston. What he said was hip was hip; what he called square was square.
They started out at Cheetah, which was a good place to dance and waste some time and pick up hangers-on; they buzzed the Latin Quarter, more for the scandal than for any real entertainment value. By the time they hit the Copacabana, where The Supremes were headlining a late show, Bucky was definitely the only sober member of a crowd Tony and Rhodey had accumulated and were ruling over. He kept a little distance; Tony was a target like this, but more importantly he was also a little less circumspect when he drank, and Bucky didn't need the publicity of Tony getting handsy with him at a nightclub.
They ended up in some swanky no-name bar, the kind Tony liked because you could basically invade and make yourself the center of attention; Bucky watched with an indulgent smile as Tony held court, Rhodey with a girl on each arm, the low light picking out the sharp planes of Tony's handsome young face, the shadow of the beard he was working on (any additional warmth for a polar expedition was welcome). He felt a secret spike of pleasure whenever Tony gently disentangled himself from one or another of the various girls who were looking to give him a birthday kiss (or more). Or when Tony leaned over the shoulder of a hanger-on and gave Bucky a smoldering look.
When Tony and Rhodey both started looking tired, around three in the morning, Bucky broke out his bodyguard act and gently shepherded them away from the crowd, into a cab bound for the docks.
Tony leaned against him in the cab, mouthing at his neck, and Bucky ruffled his hair with his hand, allowing it since Rhodey was taking a nap and the cabbie was ignoring them.
Sunrise was just hitting the horizon as he half-carried Tony, Rhodey staggering along after him, towards the Marvel, the sleek little icebreaker Tony had bought three years ago and Howard had helped to outfit. Captain Danvers, apparently aware of Tony's birthday plans, was standing watch; she met them with a flask of coffee, teeth flashing in the dark as she grinned a welcome.
"You're a blessing, Carol," Tony said, gulping coffee eagerly.
"Don't get used to it, this is your birthday present," she said. She nodded at Rhodey. "Jim."
"Captain," Rhodey nodded back. Bucky thought they weren't fooling anyone. "How's she running?"
"Come up to the bridge tomorrow and see for yourself. Engine's had an overhaul, we're fully stocked and supplied. Crew's nearly all present and accounted for, now that you three are here. You're in cabin one with Sam. Tony, you and Bucky have cabin two. Do not mistake it for cabin three, Miss van Dyne's got that one to herself."
"Jan wouldn't care," Tony yawned.
"She might not, but her father will," Carol warned. "And he's in four, so he'd hear you."
"If he notices," Tony said. "Talk about your absent-minded professor. What about Red Romanoff?" he asked, swaying into Bucky.
"No sign of him yet. He's due to arrive any minute now. We shove off at seven, though, and if he misses the boat I won't be upset," Carol replied.
"M'kay. I'm goin' below. Don't wake me until we hit Greenland," Tony said, staggering towards the stairwell that led belowdecks. Bucky glanced at Rhodey, decided he was a big boy who could handle himself, and followed Tony down. The door to the second cabin was open, and Bucky noted with approval that it was directly across from the little cubby Tony had overhauled for use as a workshop. The door to the third cabin, Miss van Dyne's cabin, was decorated with a sprig of patriotic bunting.
Tony was undressing almost before Bucky shut the door; there wasn't a lot of room to move in the tiny cabin, with its narrow bunks on either side and desk in the middle. Tony, in his underwear, pressed up against him, wrapped his arms around Bucky's neck, and said, "Hello, sailor."
"Cheesy," Bucky told him, but his hands came up to rest on Tony's waist.
"Did I make you jealous tonight?" Tony asked.
"No," Bucky said, as Tony nosed into his throat again.
"Why not?" Tony asked.
It was a question. It probably deserved an honest answer. But because I don't get to keep you was too sad for that, especially on Tony's birthday. It was true; Tony liked him, and he liked Tony, but Tony didn't belong just to himself. He belonged to SI, and to the Stark dynasty. Bucky knew that they couldn't have -- at least not forever -- the kind of life Peggy and Angie did. Tony was too visible, and he had the pressure of his father and mother to contend with. And he'd need an heir one day.
So Bucky held on to what he could, and when Tony asked questions like that, he lied. Tony probably liked the lies. He was a romantic, at heart.
"I knew you weren't into them. You kept lookin' at me," Bucky said, which was at least factually correct.
"So I made you eager," Tony said, and Bucky picked him up, enjoying the way Tony always seemed surprised that he could, and dumped him onto the narrow bunk. He stopped barely long enough to pull off his belt and shoes, shedding his shirt, and then he followed him down, assured now that they were safe on the ship, and no harm or interruption could come to them until at least the morning.
"There's nowhere I'd rather be," Tony said in his ear, thighs coming up to cradle Bucky's hips.
"Tiny little bunk on a bucket of bolts headed for Greenland?" Bucky huffed, amused.
"In your bed," Tony murmured, pulling him close, and Bucky let himself be enclosed by Tony's body, burying his hesitations and worries for now, reminding himself it was his own philosophy of life in the moment that had led them here to begin with.
Bucky did wake early the next morning -- it was habit, at this point, and also the jerk of the ship leaving dock was pretty good as an alarm. He lay still for a few minutes and then untangled himself from where Tony was basically sleeping on top of him, which was really only the way two grown men could share one of the bunks. Tony grumbled in his sleep as his heat source went away, then burrowed deeper in the heap of blankets and resumed snoring, faceplanted in the pillow. Bucky washed as best he could in the little sink, found his luggage where it had been stowed under the opposite bunk, and dressed enough to be decent before making his way down the corridor to the mess.
There were two men already in the mess -- one, presumably, the cook, a new fella who was behind the counter making a huge pan of scrambled eggs, and a second fella who was sipping coffee, also unfamiliar. Bucky mumbled a greeting and poured himself some coffee at the service hatch, then looked around vaguely for the sugar.
"Sorry, it's over here," the seated fella called, holding up the sugar shaker. Bucky settled in across from him and poured a measure into the cup.
"Like a little caffeine with your sugar?" he asked, grinning. "You must be Barnes. It's the hand," he added, as Bucky narrowed his eyes. "Kinda stands out. Sam Wilson," he added, offering his free hand. Bucky set his coffee down and shook it. "Call me Sam."
"Then I'm Bucky. You're the new medic," Bucky ventured.
"Yep. Rhodey recruited me. Just about to take him a hangover cure, wanna come?"
"Is it brutal?" Bucky asked.
"What'd Jim Rhodes do to you?" Sam asked, amused.
"I was sober shepherd last night," Bucky said with a grin. "The things I do for the two 'a them, I deserve a little entertainment. Tony could probably use one too."
"Sure, I got enough for both."
"What's in it?" Bucky asked, looking at the thermos flask sitting at Sam's elbow.
"Raw egg, tabasco, shot of bourbon, shot of strong coffee, sugar," Sam replied. "It's medically sound."
"Hair of the dog?"
"Something like that. Hey, look, they live," Sam added, as Tony came stumbling through the mess door in pants and an unbuttoned shirt. Rhodey was behind him in rumpled uniform slacks and a sweater. "Here, have a cure for what ails you."
"Who's this?" Tony asked, as Rhodey took the glass Sam poured for him and threw it back. He sputtered and heaved, tumbling onto the bench next to Sam.
"Sam Wilson, I'm the new medic," Sam said, offering Tony the thermos. Tony glanced at Rhodey, then shrugged and downed the remaining brew. His face went red, but he swallowed and kept it down. Bucky rubbed his back consolingly.
"I hate you," Rhodey rasped.
"Hey man, you got me the job, shouldn't have hired me if you couldn't take your medicine," Sam said lightly.
Bucky was about to take pity on them and bring them some breakfast when a woman walked into the mess.
It wasn't Carol, and it wasn't Ms. van Dyne, who Bucky had met once or twice. This woman moved like a dancer, body held erect even against the gentle sway of the ship, and she had thick red hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head.
Bucky had a strong sensation of deja vu, the kind he felt when a memory from his past life rose to the surface. At this point the memories of America, of growing up in the thirties and fighting for the US Army in the war, were stronger than those of Hydra -- his time as the Winter Soldier seemed dreamlike, which was probably for the best. But now in the haze of half-remembered scenes one rose to the surface.
Two straight lines of little girls, hair held tightly in buns, their slim, preadolescent bodies throwing long shadows in the dim corridor. He passed through them like a wolf through lambs, going the other way. None of them turned to look at him, but he felt their eyes on him as he passed, especially the last girl, the smallest one with the bright red hair. He remembered one of the soldiers escorting him making a filthy remark about the girls, something about it being good they were already used to being handcuffed to the bed. He remembered being punished for lashing out and killing him with a well-placed backhand so strong it snapped his neck.
Two straight lines of little girls, older now, sitting on a sprung wooden floor, looking up at him. A voice saying he could pick one for training; he had two days to wait until his assignment, and he might as well put the time to use educating a future Black Widow.
He shook the memory off because the other men were staring at the woman, who took a plate from the edge of the mess counter, helped herself to eggs and toast, and poured herself a mug of coffee. She came to the table, stood at the bench opposite Bucky, and looked at him steadily.
"May I sit here?" she asked, in thickly accented English.
"Holy shit, Comrade Romanoff's a girl," Tony said. Rhodey elbowed him sharply. Bucky gestured for her to sit, and she settled in gracefully, turning to Tony.
"I am Natalia Romanova," she said. "I am sent as your...diplomatic observer, I think, in English? You have problem with my being girl?"
Tony blinked at her. "No. No problem."
"Good. Will you pass salt, please?"
Rhodey silently handed the salt down to her. She salted her eggs, then spooned them onto her toast and began to eat.
"How long were you in transit to get to the States?" Rhodey asked.
"Not so long," she said, and didn't offer anything more.
"Do we need to have some kind of meeting?" Tony managed. She gave him an amused look. "About, you know, security and things. Maps. Making sure we're not planting tac-nuke launch sites on Greenland."
Rhodey covered his face with one hand. Bucky sympathized.
"No nuclear weapons on this boat," she said. "I have looked."
"Uh, okay. So you're just gonna...hang out?" Tony ventured. "Do Russian crosswords or something?"
She set down her toast, folding her hands in front of her.
"Anthony Stark," she said. "I go where, do what, I am told. They tell me, go see what Stark does on his little boat, protect interests of Motherland. I come, I watch. If you please, I help, if not, is no skin off my face."
"Nose," Sam murmured.
She graced him with a smile. "Maybe I practice my English. Diplomacy is new watchword in this brave nuclear world, eh? I am diplomat. Not here to make trouble."
"Then we shouldn't have any problems," Rhodey said.
"I'm disappointed, I like crosswords," Tony said in Russian. Romanoff's eyebrows shot up.
"A couple of us could be diplomats," Bucky added. She tilted her head.
"Do they deliver Pravda to Greenland?" she asked. "If so, you can have the crossword. I only read the Arts page."
Rhodey exchanged a look with Sam.
"Hey man, I've got like fifteen words in Vietnamese, and most of them mean look out," Sam said.
"I speak French," Rhodey replied.
"I'm joking," Romanoff added. "Pravda doesn't have a crossword. Or an arts page."
"Well, this is all great, but I'm gonna have some breakfast," Tony said, standing up. "Back in a minute. Buck, you want anything?"
"Couple'a sausage and some toast," Bucky said.
"I'm good with coffee for now," Rhodey said.
"I ate," Sam added. "Actually, I should go check on van Dyne, he spent most of last night getting his lab in order. See you later. Miss Romanoff, nice to meet you," he added, with a quick nod of his head.
"Ms., please," she said, smiling to take the sting from the response. "Or comrade."
"Ms. Romanoff, sorry," Sam agreed. "Anyway, sure I'll see you around the ship."
"Undoubtedly," she said. Sam looked back so often as he left he almost ran into the wall. Tony returned, laying a plate in front of Bucky, who hungrily began to eat.
"I don't understand," Natasha had told her handlers, when she received the assignment. Her new cover was a young woman with the diplomatic corps, low-ranking, smart but not too smart, and barely proficient in English. "I speak English perfectly. Surely it would be better..."
"Your purpose on the Marvel isn't to blend in," her handlers told her. "You're there to be obvious."
"Ah," she said, as she reached the second page. "I'm the yudasgoat."
"Where do they get these expressions," one said to the other, amused. "In a way, Black Widow Romanoff. You will have a partner on the boat. His cover is more covert than yours. You are to be seen to be Russian, to be the obvious spy. If necessary, to draw attention from your comrade."
"Which is why you send a Black Widow, and not simply an actual idiot from Diplomatic," she said.
"Interesting," she said, more agreeable now. "May I ask..."
"You wish to question your orders?"
"I wish to learn."
"Is Tony Stark such a threat? He's not much more than a boy. Even if he were to find Captain America, the world has moved on. People distrust patriots in America. And even with a decade of work, I know Zola never re-created the Serum when he worked for us."
"Precisely why he was allowed to leave when the Americans lured him away," one of the handlers said. "Sometimes you will receive assignments that are beneath the honor of the Black Widow, this is true. But eh...sometimes it turns out they aren't. Watch Stark. Talk with him as often as possible. Steal anything you can get away with. Seduce him if you can."
She raised a delicate eyebrow.
"A Stark under the thumb of the Red Room would be a valuable asset," the other one said. "As would Captain America. If they do find his body, there will be a ship nearby. Your partner is tasked with that recovery, but of course you should lend him all aid."
"And you have one other job."
"Three years ago the Starks recovered the Winter Soldier," one said. "Do you remember him?"
She did, yes; she'd seen him once in a corridor as a child. She'd thought he was the most exciting, dangerous-looking man she'd ever encountered. A few years later, he'd honored her with a few lessons in knife fighting. And a few years after that, after Zola had gone to the Americans, the Soldier had killed a scientist rather than let the Red Room get hold of him. From a train carriage that was already pulling away, she'd watched both the scientist and her partner at the time fall to the Winter Soldier's rifle. Such was war.
"Yes, I remember him," she said.
"Do you imagine he remembers you?"
"If so, it's only as a child he once took a passing interest in," she said.
"Find out if he does. Find out if he is...recoverable. See if the Starks have broken him completely."
"And if they have?"
"Ignore him; he's no longer a threat. If you decide he is a threat who can't be recovered, kill him."
"There is a chance for glory here, Black Widow Romanoff."
Yes, she thought. Rob a child, fuck him if you can; find out if his pet can still bite.
Outwardly, she smiled.
"My life for the motherland," she said, and took her dismissal, hurrying back to the Red Room. She had to practice a Russian accent, it appeared.
Life aboard the Marvel was routine, but not unpleasant. That first day, Natasha met Janet van Dyne at lunch; Jan was a small slip of a woman but her personality could fill a room, and Natasha was immediately fascinated. Over lunch it emerged that Natasha had never painted her nails (untrue, but certainly it was rare; she'd never done them just for fun). Jan brought out a manicure kit, a ridiculous luxury on a ship without much storage space, and they spent the afternoon doing their nails. She would have counted it time wasted except that Tony Stark showed up in the middle to flirt with Jan and keep them company.
"Did you know Natalia's never done her nails?" Jan said to Tony, eyes wide.
"Neither have I, but you never offered me a manicure," Tony said. He had a smile like the princes in the old Disney films they used to watch for English lessons, Natasha thought.
"If you painted your nails you'd shock the world," she said. "Your dad would have your head."
"No photographers for the next three months," Tony pointed out.
"If you really want to, do it yourself," she said, tossing him a bottle of blue nail polish, which he caught with a startling deftness. Jan went back to concentrating very hard on the red lacquer she was using for Natasha's fingers.
It was a little shocking, watching the supposedly dangerous young genius sit down and begin carefully painting varnish onto his fingernails. Some formidable foe he was turning out to be. Rumors in the Red Room were right; the west was effete, decadent, and probably doomed by its own hand (a hand wearing fetching blue nail polish).
It did go nicely with his eyes.
She spent most of the first week, as they slipped past Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, skirted the tip of Greenland and turned towards Reykjavik for supplies, doing exactly what her job said: observing. She studied the crew (all men except for Captain Danvers, who avoided her with a gentle skill that suggested wariness more than dislike) and the scientists; she matched up what she knew of each man with how he behaved.
The crew were mostly uninteresting. Danvers less so, because she was a woman, but apparently otherwise she was as ordinary as any captain for hire. There were two mates under her, three sailors, and the cook, all unremarkable. The only standout was the medic, Sam Wilson -- relaxed, friendly, and kind, but also, so her intel said, on this three-month voyage to nowhere because the FBI had taken an interest in his civil rights work, and he needed a place to lie low. She liked him better for it, in a way that made her uncomfortable. You shouldn't admire those who defied their own government, even a bad one.
James Rhodes was different -- fresh from the Air Force, disciplined and solemn, and she rather thought using Stark Industries to get a leg up. Not that she blamed him; compared to most of his classmates he was at a disadvantage because of his skin color. He was also either sleeping with Danvers or wanted to be. That could perhaps be used if necessary. She thought Stark might not care for it and she knew the military wouldn't. What was it they called it, miscegenation?
Vernon van Dyne was riding along to study the extremophile fauna of Greenland; his daughter had no visible purpose on the ship that Natasha could determine except to enjoy herself thoroughly. She purported to help her father in the lab, but Natasha couldn't see how. She was nice, but clearly the shallow product of an unjust capitalist upbringing.
The Starks had been good about keeping Bucky Barnes out of the spotlight, hiding away both his past as the Winter Soldier and his origin as Captain America's second during the war. He showed no sign he recognized her. His obvious concern was Stark, and she began to think the Starks had broken him. He was quiet and watchful, and when he wasn't following Stark he kept to himself, reading or playing cards with Rhodey or the crew. He didn't seem unhappy, precisely -- he was quick to laugh -- but he was hardly the fierce, intense warrior she'd known as a child.
Stark himself was an enigma. For a ladies' man he didn't do much philandering; he acted like a big brother towards Jan, and he flirted with Natasha but never took her up on anything more. Granted, she'd been subtle, but Stark knew how to read subtlety. He spent much of his time with Danvers studying maps of their search grid -- which he obligingly shared without complaint, a gesture of transparency that her cover-alter-ego appreciated. Otherwise he occupied himself in the little workshop, where not even Barnes was allowed in. Possibly because there wasn't room for two people in the converted storage closet, but still.
She wanted to get into that workshop. He had some pretty interesting locks on it.
The day that they left their last resupply port in Reykjavik under a brilliant blue sky, she followed Tony up to the bow, where the coast would soon be visible.
"There are people living on Greenland, yes?" she said, leaning on the railing backwards, so that she could study his face in profile better.
"Sure. Some Danish, some Inuit, mostly both," he said with a grin. "More on the west coast. We'll stop at Kulusuk, eventually."
"Mostly just to say hello, ask around. They say they've never seen what we're looking for but it never hurts to ask again. You never know who's seen a debris field since the last time. We'll do the same at Daneborg."
"A US outpost."
"Figured you'd know that one," Tony agreed. "You'll probably want to come ashore, make sure we aren't getting up to mischief."
She rolled her eyes. He gave her a wink.
"What will you do with recovered plane?" she asked.
"It's old junk," Tony said dismissively. "Search it, then slag it. Dad knows everything there is to know about how Schmidt built his airplanes, there's nothing new there. Even your paymasters wouldn't be interested, I guarantee."
"So Captain America is prize."
"I guess you could look at it that way."
"And if you find him?"
"Take him back to New York, in state," Tony said.
"You speak openly, very openly, for who you speak to," she said. He glanced at her.
"I don't have much reason to be covert with you. We don't have anything Russia especially wants," he said. "We're on a mission of study and recovery. You already know our reasons for being out here. Why would I bother lying?"
"Forgive. In diplomatic corps, lying, it is expected," she said.
"Maybe you oughta think about what that says about Soviet diplomacy."
"Oh, no, you misunderstand. I mean, we expect Americans to lie."
He barked a laugh. "Fair enough. But I'm not a diplomat. I'm not even in the arms business, not yet. Right now, Ms. Romanoff, I build robots for assembly lines, I throw fun parties, and I spend my summers looking for the body of my dad's war buddy. That's really all there is to me."
"One day, you will be a great tsar of America," she said.
"Well, that's the nice thing about America," he replied. "I might. Or I might spend my whole life building robots. I might join a commune. I might move to France. I might become president. My destiny is only as set as I allow it to be. How about yours? You know where you'll be in twenty years?"
She nodded. It wasn't untrue. Her alter ego would be a diplomatic attache in some minor foreign state. She herself would still be a Black Widow of the Red Room, if she wasn't dead.
"Do you like it?" he asked.
"Is not question of like," she said. "Is my duty."
"Duty implies a debt."
"Russia raised me. Fed me. Taught me. I owe everything."
"Does everyone in Russia feel that way?"
"Everyone I know." Although admittedly, that was mostly other Red Room agents and soldiers. Almost universally they were orphans.
"But if nobody's happy about it, then what's the point?" he asked. He seemed genuinely curious, but she felt caught suddenly, pinned in a trap. "I believe we're owed more from the universe in general. I believe we're owed the right to seek out what makes us happy. It gets me in a lot of trouble," he added. "But if I don't even get the opportunity to look for joy, what was the point of getting this far?"
"This is why our people, they never get along," she said, and he nodded acknowledgement. "We are too different."
"At least you and I have better sense than to threaten to bomb one another over it," he said.
"So, someday when you're secretary of state and I'm president, maybe things will be different."
"Would you like? No more cold war?"
"Russia has beautiful architecture. Some of the best classical composers. Great literature."
"Yes -- you speak the language well, for American."
"When I was a kid, my dad worked with a guy who immigrated after the war. He taught me the language. Taught me a lot about your country, made me interested to see it. I hope I can one day. And I wouldn't say no to taking you to Coney Island for a hot dog, either."
"You offer me...sausage? In return for Tchaikovsky and Nabokov?"
"Well, everyone's got their passions," he shrugged. "When we get back to New York, you should consider it."
"Not allowed. Your rules, not mine."
"My country's rules. Not mine personally. I bet we could smuggle you out. At least as far as the roller coaster."
"I will consider," she said with a smile. "Is date?"
"Is date, if you say yes," he agreed. "I'm going below, Cook's got a craps game going with Rhodey and Buck. You're welcome to buy in, we accept Rubles."
"I will come, I watch."
"You're the observer," he said, and led the way to the stairs. She did watch -- the game was fascinatingly stupid -- but mostly she thought about what he'd said.
She'd had people try to flip her before. It was a test they administered before graduation from the Red Room. That test had been more subtle, the offer more seductive. Stark had offered her a little flattery, a hot dog, and a good time. The agent who'd tried to recruit her had offered her money, power, escape. Comfort. Capitalist luxury. She'd been in the process of disarming and subduing him when one of the Red Room instructors had stopped her, told her she'd just been passing a test.
Perhaps that was the charm of it, how disingenuous it was. Tony didn't seem to really mean any harm by it. There was no hidden offer, no quid pro quo. He just...thought she'd like a Coney Island hot dog. Maybe she'd like the idea of choosing her own path. No one had ever thought to offer her a choice.
Sam, having lost all he was planning on losing, joined her on the sidelines of the craps game, offering her a cup of popcorn. She took it, smiled warmly at him, and was surprised to find she meant it.
"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines," the Winter Soldier said to her one morning, a few days later. He sat down at the table in the mess with her, a cup of coffee in one hand, and cocked an eyebrow at her. "The smallest one was Madeline."
Natasha tilted her head, confused. "A poem?"
"A book. It was Moscow, not Paris, and there were more than twelve, if I remember, and your name isn't Madeline," he said, sipping his coffee. "But there were little girls in two straight lines, and the smallest one was a redheaded girl, just like Madeline. I remember her now. Took me a while, I admit."
"I do not know what you mean," she said.
"I remember you," he said, and then switched to Russian. "You were one of the dancers, the girls marked out for the Black Widow program."
She carefully didn't tense, but something must have given her away, the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of a finger.
"Don't worry," he continued. "We already knew you were a spy. I just happen to know you're a better one than they think. At least if I'm remembering how good you were with knives."
"So what if I am?"
"I just thought you should know that I know," he said, leaning in a little. "So you're aware that I am watching you. If you hurt my Antosha, I will stop you before you kill him, and then I'll kill you slowly. You know how slow a Red Room veteran can kill."
"I'm not here to kill him."
"You won't have the chance, anyway."
She considered her breakfast, wondering if she was fast enough to kill him from here. He chuckled.
"You couldn't touch me," he said in English, as if he understood her thoughts. "Well, maybe you could, but you couldn't finish the job. Still, I applaud your ambition. Don't forget, I know the Red Room."
"You do know the Red Room," she said, and curiosity got the better of her. "You were Red Room. You were the Winter Soldier, the best of all of us. You were...effortless. Beautiful. You were the perfect son of the motherland."
"I'd say flattery won't help, but that's not flattery at any rate," he replied, looking sour.
"I don't mean to flatter, but I wonder. Why did you defect? What made you run to America? What made you ally yourself with the Starks, of all people?" she asked.
"Do you know what my name was, when I was Winter Soldier?"
"Neither did I. I didn't have one. Because I wasn't a son of Russia," he said. "I was born American. My name was James Barnes. I was taken prisoner and made into the Winter Soldier, someone I didn't want to be, someone they forced me to be. I was luckier than you; I was grown when they twisted me."
"They haven't twisted me," she said.
"Then you're a dancer for the Russian Ballet, eh? You're not a spy? You've never killed someone without knowing what they did to deserve it? I didn't teach you to fillet a man when you were twelve?"
Natasha glanced away. The Winter Soldier's voice drew her back.
"I came to a place where I could choose, to be the Winter Soldier or James Barnes," he said, and there was a longing in his voice when he said his own name. "I chose to be who I was. Not who they made me into."
"We are all what they make us into," she replied, perplexed.
"No, Madeline. What they make us into is only a shell." He considered her, grey eyes searching. "Do you ever feel a pain? Under your breastbone? Against the small of your back? An ache in your chest?"
She stared at him. He couldn't know, there was no way he could know, she never even told the doctors in the Red Room --
"That's where the shell presses too tightly, because you weren't made for it," he said. "If you're lucky, some day someone will help you crack it open, like Antosha did for me. He's very charming; perhaps he'll do it for you too. Or I could, given time."
"You're talking about breaking me," she hissed.
"I'm talking about breaking you free," he said. "But it's no concern of mine if you don't agree; I'm not your papa, Madeline. As long as you don't hurt my people, well, in America we say It's a free country."
She was going to reply, but Tony arrived then, shuffling over to the table and sitting down next to the Winter Soldier, leaning sleepily on his metal arm. The Soldier smiled indulgently and offered him the coffee mug; he watched as he drank deeply, affection in his eyes.
"Morning," Tony said finally, when he'd drained the cup. He drummed his fingernails against the ceramic, the blue polish chipped and beginning to wear away in patches. "Whatcha talking about?"
"Literature," Natasha said. The Soldier gave her a knowing look.
"That's all there is; there isn't any more," he agreed.
It was late July when they reached the northern tip of Greenland, the scattered series of rivers and islands that in winter would be frozen over completely. Even at high summer they had to break the ice on occasion. And from here, really, there wasn't much else for Tony to do but decide whether they wanted to turn around and go back down the eastern coast, or press on and pass into Baffin Bay, heading south between the coasts of Canada and Greenland until they let out into the North Atlantic again.
The likelihood of another failed search weighed on all of them, but Tony saw it pressing hardest on Bucky. Bucky knew what it was like to freeze and freeze; even if Steve Rogers was beyond suffering by this point, it must be hard to imagine his friend locked in the ice, alone, undefended. Harder to know he'd have to wait all year for another chance. He grew quieter, and at night he slept deeply, in his own bunk, pulling away when Tony touched him.
Some of that was probably -- some of it might be memories of Rogers, too, Tony knew that. He knew that what he and Bucky had was on loan, that if or when Steve was found alive, well. He couldn't compete with Captain America on his best day, and they'd grown up together, fought a war together. He'd never asked, but if Bucky was willing to get into bed with Tony, then he must have been with Rogers, too. Honestly, Tony had seen pictures, he'd have been all over that himself and he didn't even know the man. And he'd seen the way Bucky in the film strips had looked at Rogers.
It had been like this last year, too, though it hadn't happened until later, this depression and withdrawal. Tony didn't know what to do, how to reassure or comfort him. Maybe next year they should give up the ship and go by land. He could probably build some kind of lightweight rolling tank that could carry the equipment they needed, maybe from a modified ski-doo.
He was considering this, sketching out ideas in his head to put to paper later in his workshop, when one of the mates came into the mess. "Danvers says get topside," he said. "We might be dropping the expedition boat."
"What? Why?" Tony asked, rising and following him out, Rhodey trailing behind him. Up top, Bucky was looking through field glasses at a distant speck, unmistakably a man.
"Stranded dog patrol?" Tony asked Captain Danvers, who was conferring with the mate.
"Could be," she said. "He clearly wants our attention."
"How close can we get in the Marvel?"
"Another hundred yards, maybe. I've already given the order. Okay to drop a boat?" she asked. They had two -- a large one meant for evacuations or machinery transport, and a smaller one, the expedition boat, for getting to land if need be.
"Sure, we can't just leave him there," Tony said.
"I'll go," Danvers said. "Let me take Sam, Rhodey if you can spare him, van Dyne if he's interested in taking samples. You want to come or stay?"
"Stay, I think," Tony said.
But then, when the Marvel drew closer, they killed the engines and the man's voice could be heard, carrying through the chilly air.
"MARVEL! HEY MARVEL! HEY, STARK AND THE MARVEL! MESSAGE FOR STARK AND THE MARVEL!"
"Get in," Danvers said from where they were preparing to drop the boat. Tony hefted himself over the side quickly, Bucky following him.
When they reached the spit of ice on which the man stood, they could see there was another man in the distance, and a pair of dog sleds. The man skidded down the bank to the lowest point and Tony stood up, close enough to see his friendly, open face.
"You've got a message for the Marvel?" he asked. "Do you need aid?"
"No, we're fine and thank you sir!" the man said, with a hint of Danish lilt to his voice. "You're Stark of the Marvel?"
"I'm from down Ptuffik way, you stopped by last year," the man said. "Said to keep a lookout for debris fields or any funny lookin' wreckage. I came up through the interior for a bit of a holiday..." he jerked his thumb at the dogs. "Well sir, I think we found your debris field."
"Really?" Tony asked, as Bucky stood up too, balancing carefully in the boat. "How far?"
"Day and a half by dogsled," the man pointed south. "We stopped at Nord to see if we could catch you but you'd already gone on. They said we might catch up on the coast, so we camped here the last day."
"Can you take us there?" Tony asked.
"Fraid not sir, we're overdue to home already. But I did you a map, and if you've got anyone can navigate by the stars you can't miss."
"We'd appreciate that map," Tony said, and the man tossed a tube of paper, wrapped in oilskin, down into the boat. "You're from Ptuffik, you said? What's your name?"
"I'm Kuupik Hansen, sir. I run the post at Ptuffik, is why I can't stay."
"I'll telegraph you when we get back to New York," Tony said. "There's a reward in it for you and your friend if we find anything, and a reward either way if you don't mention you did."
"I take your meaning, young Stark! My lips are sealed. Good hunting!" the man said, and began scrambling back up the hill. Bucky almost went after him, but Rhodey grabbed his arm.
"We'll come back with the snowmobiles," Tony said, urging him down into his seat as Danvers carefully maneuvered them back towards the Marvel. "Bucky, we need supplies, equipment. We've had false alarms before."
Bucky subsided, nodding, and Tony settled down next to him.
"We've got the ski-doos and the heavy cargo sled, but we'll have to get the crane up to move that one," Rhodey said.
"Let's travel light," Tony told him. "Day and a half is nothing; if we need the Heavy we can come back for it. We'll load up the cold-weather gear, week and a half of rations, and the retrieval stuff. Buck and me'll take one electric sled, you and Sam take a second one."
"If we take the radio, we can call in when we find something," Rhodey said. "You can bring the Heavy out if we need it," he added to Danvers.
"We should have a code if we're going over radio," she said. "Don't know who's watching."
"Well, we know one person who's watching," Bucky said darkly.
"Lay off," Tony said, even as he saw Sam opening his mouth to defend Natalia too. "She's fine. She won't interfere."
"Still can't hurt," Danvers insisted. "Look, if you don't find anything, radio in and say so. If you find something but you've got it covered, say you just found junk and scrap. If you need the Heavy, say the ski-doos are broken. That gives us an excuse to get it out."
"You're the boss, boss lady," Rhodey said. Tony gagged at Bucky, who summoned a smile.
The map was crudely drawn, but it was also useful and detailed. They'd even marked out the site of an abandoned weather station nearby, and anyone with the map could sight off the station and get their bearings. Good thing too; after a day of packing supplies and another day on the ski-doos it was late when they reached the station, and it'd be the best possible shelter that night.
The door to the station was locked, but Bucky snapped the chain slung through the handles, then jerked the doorknob out, effectively removing the deadbolt as well. Inside, the haste with which the station had been evacuated was obvious, as was the fact that nobody had been there in decades.
"This was German," Sam said, hand drifting over a framed picture of Adolf Hitler. Rhodey reached out from behind him, yanked it off the wall, and tossed it into a bin half-full of paper nearby. "This was a German weather station?"
"Supposedly they had spy stations all over," Tony said. "Dad and Bucky bunker-busted a few of them, right Buck?"
"That was in Europe," Bucky said. "Expected them there. Not way the hell out here."
There was still canned food on the shelves, and dusty medical supplies in the cupboards. When Rhodey cautiously fired up a generator in the rear of the station, the lights came on. So, blessedly, did the heat.
"I'm going up top," Bucky decided, and Tony followed him outside, watching as he easily swung his way up, using molding and ice crenelations and bare exposed struts to get to the roof.
"See anything?" Tony asked.
"There's a long shadow, there," Bucky said, pointing south. "Probably the debris field. We could get there tonight."
"I'm not stumbling around in the dark in Greenland."
"Hardly gets dark here in the summer," Bucky said, but he jumped down, landing lightly after a leap that would break the leg of another man. "I could go alone."
"That's not a recipe for disaster," Tony said, tugging Bucky's fur-lined hood up over his hair. "There's a reason an engineer's always been in charge of this search, Buck. We have to be careful and meticulous. If you go out there tonight, fall in a hole and drown, we won't even know what happened to you. And I can't have that," he said lightly.
"But he might be there."
"And if he is, one more day will make sure we get him out safely," Tony said gently. "Look, I know I didn't know him, but I want to bring him home safely just as much as you do. For you. So just this once, let me be the rational one, okay?"
"For me?" Bucky asked.
"Of course. What do you think this is about?" Tony asked, confused. "I mean yeah, he's a war hero, he should be recovered, blah blah, but this is for you, Buck. He's your best friend. After what you've been through you deserve to have him back."
Bucky nodded, like he was trying to digest it all, and then he stepped forward, pulling Tony close, into the warm and slightly musky smell of unwashed parka and barely-washed body. You got used to it, living on a ship in the middle of nowhere. He kissed him, quickly, covertly, and then leaned into him like Tony was the only thing keeping him grounded.
"We'll get him, Buck," Tony said into his shoulder. "And if it's not him out there, we'll keep looking until we do."
"Thank you," Bucky said. "Let's get inside before you freeze."
They'd stocked surplus LRP rations on the ship when they set out, and they were proving useful now; Sam, who had some experience with LRPs, reconstituted them with water heated on the stove.
"I ate so many of these on my tour," he said, digging into a packet of spaghetti and meat sauce. "I feel lucky when I get 'em hot at this point."
"How long were you in Vietnam?" Rhodey asked.
"Too long," Sam said. "I mean, I was PJ, so you know, wasn't as bad as the boys in the ground forces. Plenty bad, though."
"Is that why you left?" Tony asked.
"I had other responsibilities," Sam said. "And I stopped thinking Vietnam was a righteous war pretty fast. I started thinking maybe civil rights was a better use of my time."
"What'll you do when you get back to New York?" Tony asked.
"Why, you got a job for me at Stark?" Sam asked, grinning.
"Sure, we could. Though I think SHIELD would be a better fit," Tony said. All three of them looked at him. "SHIELD was hit really hard when we had to take Hydra down. They're still not fully staffed and finding good agents isn't easy. They could use someone like you."
"I'd never pass the background check."
"Why, 'cause you pissed off the FBI?" Tony asked. Sam tensed, looking at Rhodey. "Don't blame Rhodey, he tried to slip it past Dad. He would have, too, if Danvers hadn't caught it when she did her own checks. Honestly, at this point, pissing off Hoover is a character reference, not a flaw. Dad can't stand the old bastard, but he still deals with him because Aunt Peggy threatened to castrate Hoover the last time they talked, so now Dad has to be his liaison."
"Well, I'll think about it," Sam said.
"Sleep on it. We all should," Tony said.
"Listen to you, commandant," Rhodey grinned.
"I do run SI Robotics," Tony said. "I realize that's not like being a second lieutenant in the Chair Force -- "
"Oh no," Sam said, looking at Rhodey. "You gonna take that from him?"
"You want to go, little man, I'm ready any time," Rhodey said to Tony, with a serious expression but a glint of amusement in his eye.
"Okay, enough," Bucky said, rolling his eyes. "Everyone sleep. We're up early tomorrow. I want all the daylight we can get if we need to salvage."
There was a barracks in the station, a six-bed room with two basins for shaving and a single mirror; Rhodey, Sam, and Tony took beds near each other, and Bucky pulled the thin pad off the fourth, laying it in front of the door.
"You really think prowlers are afoot?" Tony asked sleepily.
"Better safe than sorry," Bucky said.
"Let him, if it makes him feel better," Sam called.
"I'll make coffee in the morning," Bucky promised, and turned out the lights.