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At a Crossroad

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        He walked alone. Wet from the incoming rain that was falling around him. Yet he didn't notice. The dirty streets suited him perfectly for he was wet and filthy from the dive he had earlier. Flashing images caused him to close his eyes as he remembered the man repeat his name. 

        "Bucky."

        That single name caused him to remember blurry images and created a painful headache. He leans on the brick wall that somehow materialized next to him. With everything that was going through his mind he didn't realize the sudden appearance of civilization. He closed his eyes trying to gain the solitude of his mind again. Ever since that man crossed paths with him he couldn't stop having these painful flashbacks. He couldn't differentiate if the men that held him captive, Hydra, had told him the truth or told him lies.

        He couldn’t be captured again. If he did, they’ll wipe the memories away and he was tired of losing his sanity once again. He hated feeling lost and alone in the world. He hated the feeling of being erased and he hated leaving the man that knew him behind.

        This was all he could do.

        He’ll have to forget once again but at least this time it was on his own terms. He’ll survive on his own, like he’s done before, but this time to save himself from being captured again and having his mind erased. This was his thought process beginning to unwind but the shattering of a beer bottle caught his attention.

        The soldier looks up in alert. His body automatically stands tall and he was on the ball of his feet ready for any kind of attack. He looks around and notices a group of men walking to their cars with beer bottles in their hands. That was the cause of the noise. There was no need to be this wired to attack. He tries to relax his body and looks at his surrounding once more.

        He takes a few steps forward and takes in account of the wall he had just been reclining on. Above him was a neon sign with bright green lighting. Crossroads. Not thinking it twice, he walks around the corner and enters the facility. He needed to get out of the streets fast and find a place to sleep tonight and perhaps something to eat. The ringing of a bell signals his entrance and he quickly becomes attentive of his surroundings.

        The place was filled with low tables and wooden chairs. A dartboard was placed on opposing sides of the room and a pool table could be seen in the back. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer filled the air and behind the bar was a woman who sang quietly as she cleaned. When the bell rung, she didn’t bother to turn around. A mistake, the soldier thought. You should always be aware. He could easily kill her... no... He doesn't do that anymore.

        The woman didn’t bother to look back since she expected it was one of her late customers wanting another drink. She stopped singing and gave her automatic response.

        “Last call was 20 minutes ago. I’m closing shop,” she says slowly turning around. She tries to hide her surprise when she saw the man in front of her. He was wet, most likely from the rain pouring outside, and his hair covered most of his face. His clothing was all black and she noticed that it covered him like some sort of tactical armor. Yet that wasn’t what surprised her at all. It was the look in his eyes. It was always the look in their eyes that made her uneasy. He was lost.

        She knew he wasn’t lost geographically but he may be lost because of that too. This man, like she recognized from the others, had lost himself. She, of course, didn’t know how correct she was since the Winter Soldier was so lost he didn’t even know who he was or what his real name was.

        The woman puts her broom away and eyed the shotgun under her bar. This usually went two ways. The first situation would be that the war veteran would ask for shelter nicely. The second situation would be the veteran tries to take it. She was ready for either way it went.

        “You look like you could use a drink,” she says trying to gain time to find his endgame. “Or two.”

        “I…” his voice was scratchy and he knew it was because he hadn’t used it in a long time. He clears his throat and tries again. “I…”

        The woman doesn’t wait for an answer and takes out a glass and fills it with tap water. She slides it across the bar and he catches it quickly. She took notice of his quick reflexes and takes a step toward the shotgun under the bar counter.

        The soldier didn’t know of her plan and took the glass gratefully. He drank it down quickly just realizing how thirsty he was.

        “Thank you,” he says. The words felt strange in his mouth. He never had been thankful for anything until now.

        “No problem,” she answer still aware of the standstill they were both in. The soldier takes notice of her apprehensive stance and instinctively does the same. They stared at each other unsure of the motive of the other. The silence in the bar filled with tension and neither of them wanted to break it in worry that the other would attack. The woman is the first to give up as she relaxes. Something about his eyes and his appearance told her that he wasn’t searching for a fight.

        “You look like you need a place to stay at.” She says grabbing a rag and cleaning the bar. She looks up to him still seeing his wary stance. “I have a vacant room upstairs, unused and clean. I hope that’ll do for you.”

        He didn’t trust her offer. This could be a trap. This could be a ploy to have him captured again. She noticed that he was still uneasy and didn’t push him.

        “The room is upstairs on the right. There’s a bathroom in the room across from it where you can clean yourself up. I think I have some clothing your size in the closet beside the bathroom. You can check for yourself if you decide to stay.”

        The man was now looking at her quizzically unsure of her propositions.

        “This isn’t my first time taking someone in.” she tells him. “I trust you to treat me with respect and leave my things alone. The bar is protected by a security system my friend created. You won’t be able to enter the storage room or the cashier and it’ll notify me if you attempt to.”

        After saying that she switches the light off the bar and walks around. She then presses a pin code at the wall aside and a blue screen flashed around the bar and the door to which he presumed was the storage room. She walks around and his eyes followed after her as she fixed the chairs and tables around the room. After doing this she grabs her jacket and keys before turning back to him.

        “So are you staying or leaving?” she asks him. He was still unsure and she knew it. She makes the decision for him and turns off the light from the whole bar. “The stairs are around the corner. Lock up before you hit the hay.”

        Without another word, she leaves and he remains in the dark unsure of what to do.

*******

        She arrived in the early morning and unlocked the door. The bar was filled with sunlight due to the open blinds so she didn’t bother to turn on the lights. She walks over and presses the pin on the keyboard to turn down the security system before she walked around the bar and placed all of the bags in her arms on the wooden surface.

        It was eerie how quiet the bar was this early in the morning. She usually wasn’t here around this time but knowing she had a guest and no food in the bar, except for the bowls of old peanuts, she decided to bring him breakfast.

        She knew that she shouldn’t barge into his room. She knew from her past experiences the things she could see or the things that could happen to her. There was a time that a soldier suffering from PTSD had almost strangled her if it wasn’t for her putting to use her self-defense classes she learned prior.

        She waited downstairs as she removed the lids from the containers that held the warm food. It wasn’t long until he came downstairs and she expected his early start to the day was due to his usual military schedule. He looks up at her and says nothing. She didn’t want to start a conversation so instead she set a plate in front of him and motioned for him to eat.

        Not having much of a choice, he did just that. While he ate the first good meal he’s had in years, she finished up cleaning the bar. The woman turned on the radio with low volume and sang lightly along with it. The soldier just watched her not knowing what else do to. He still didn’t trust her random act of kindness and she knew that too.

        “My name’s Jolene by the way.” She says over her shoulder. “I’m known for homing soldiers who've come back home to nothing or feeling nothing. They live upstairs but it comes with a price.”

        He freezes at the mention of this and looks for a nearby escape. Jolene turns back to him, which prevented him from any escape plans. She saw how unsettled he was and realized it was something she had just said.

        “I know you’re a soldier,” she states. “The signs are there. You stand straight and are quiet due to the lack of social contact. You wake up pre-dawn because of a strict sleeping schedule and your hair is long because of choice. Most soldiers in service have to shave it off but when they come back home they tend to grow it out. And then your eyes… they show the horrors you’ve seen. I know because I’ve had friends with the same look in their eyes.”

        A moment of silence passes between them since she didn’t want to inform him of her other observations. He remained silent because he just didn’t want to confirm what she said but either way she was right and she knew it.

        “What’s your name?” she asks him. He looks back down at his plate wanting to ignore the question but she asked him again. “What’s your name soldier? I gave you mine now it’s time for yours.”

        Once again he remained silent. He couldn’t say the Winter Soldier because that could raise red flags. He couldn’t say Bucky because he couldn’t risk that man from the helicarrier to find him again. He just needed to remember and he needed to be safe so he decided to remain nameless. He was safest that way.

        “Fine,” she states removing the empty containers and putting them away. “I’ll just give you one. Umm… John. You can’t get more basic than that. John Smith, that’s it.”

        “John?” he asks her confused.

        “Well you look like a John…kinda.” She replies. “Besides you didn’t offer a name so that’s what you get. If you don’t like it, oh well…”

        Jolene shrugs her shoulder and starts to stock up the bar. The containers of beer were always heavy and she hated this part of her job. Instead of carrying them she just kicked the crate softly across the floor until she was able to get it remotely near the fridge. The soldier, now named John, just watched her with amusement. She huffed tiredly and walked back to the storage room to retrieve the other cases.

        John seeing this gets up from the bar stool he was sitting on and follows after her. She struggled to carry the crate down and almost dropped it when she saw John behind her. Seeing this, the Winter Soldier took a step back knowing he did something wrong. Jolene just stared at him as her face turned red from exhaustion. The crate seemed to be getting heavier by the second.

        “What are you standing there soldier? Help me!” she exclaims.

        Hearing this, John takes the crate away from her hands. He easily carried them to the bar and set it near the fridge. He turned around to grab more to find Jolene blocking the door and staring at him unsurely. He looks down and sees how the hoodie he decided to wear last night had slipped down and revealed part of his metal arm. Her eyes were staring down at it but she didn’t ask him about it. Instead she looked back up at him and moved aside.

        “You have four more crates to go and I’m supposed to get a new shipping of Corona’s later on today. I’m going to need your help on that too.” She starts to instruct him. He looks at her in surprise and she continues with her instructions. “If you decide to stay you’re going to earn your living. The apartment upstairs is all yours. Food, I will provide. In exchange, you’ll do what I can’t. Carrying the crates, helping with the new shipping, and when the bar gets busy. Also some arm muscle would be nice to break up the bar fights and drunks. Does that sound good to you?”

        The Winter Soldier was surprised to hear that with the list of her demands he was given the choice to accept or deny it. With the other men he, Hydra, he had no choice. In order to survive, in order not to go through another mind swipe, he had to obey. He didn’t know what to say. He knew he couldn’t stay there for long because he’ll be found, but she was offering food and shelter over easy jobs and not asking questions. She was giving him a choice, he wouldn’t find that anywhere else.

        “That sounds perfect to me.”

        Jolene smiled at him and he didn’t know how to feel about that.

        “Great. So John Smith, are you going to keep on standing there or are you going to go grab those four crates?”

        The soldier now accepting his new name John, went back to the storage room and retrieved those crates. Jolene started to place the beers in the fridge getting a head start on her list of chores. She was done with the first crate when John came back in already finished. Before she could say anything, he started to help her unload the beers into the fridge.

        “Thank you,” she whispers and they were done in a matter of minutes.

*******

        The whole day went on like that. She started on a new task, whether fixing the lights or dusting the vicinity, and John would follow after her and helped her. She didn’t question his metal prosthetic arm and John didn’t remember his time before this. For the first time, the Winter Soldier felt normal, like a John Smith would in a regular day. His mind didn’t stray back to the memories he did have. The assassinations he created. The kidnappings. The spying. Everything had slipped his mind just like Jolene had expected him too.

        Keep the man busy, his mind will follow suit.

        This was the best she could do to ease them back to a normal life and lessen the painful memories. Not only did it help her and the bar, but it also helped these soldiers return to the “normal” standards of society. She knew how it felt to be an outsider and she hated that her country's heroes would usually find themselves on the street humiliated. That’s why she had an open heart and an open home for them. She’ll help out the soldiers whichever way she can.

        “So John, what about some lunch?” she asks finishing half of her chores already. She was tired and sweating slightly while he looked the same. She kind of envied him for that but didn’t say anything. “I can order some pizza or Chinese to be delivered.”

        John just shrugged his shoulders not caring.

        “Pizza it is.” She states dialing the memorized number on her phone. “Does pepperoni sound good to you? Or do we want to be kinda healthy and go with veggies?”

        John just shrugged again.

        “Ok, I guess it's ladies choice again. Let’s go with pepperoni and bacon. I’m craving that today.”

        John didn’t mind. He really didn’t have a preference for what food he ate. As long as there was something to eat, he was fine. Jolene quickly ordered the pizza and set down at a nearby table. She stared at him as he sat at the table beside hers. He looked around the bar searching for something else to do while Jolene just stared at him.

        She took in his appearance, avoiding his eyes, and noticed that he was somewhere around her age, maybe even older. His long brown hair framed his face and she noticed that he used it to hide his face. His jaw was strongly framed and he had a sharp nose. He looked like a nice normal guy but a darkness in his eyes showed that he was potentially dangerous. That something inside of him was prone to violence and she was afraid of that.

        She was afraid of what he had done and what he could do. The metal arm had also set another level of uneasiness on her but she pushed that away from her mind. The prosthetic arm didn’t say anything about him. It only showed that he got injured and he was scientifically improved with greater strength and a fully movable arm prosthetic. Yet she was still afraid of what a metal arm could do to a person’s face. She shivered at that thought and looked away from him.

        “You’re not much of a talker.” She states. “That’s understandable. I wouldn’t want to talk about the war either.”

        “Have you ever been in war?” he asks her wondering how she knew so much.

        “No but I heard a lot about them and I’ve seen some violent videos on the news. I also have a friend who’s part of this special defensive unit. He was pretty shaken after some of the things he's been through.”

        “This friend of yours is he the same one who invented the security system?”

        “The same one.” She states. “He’s really smart but can be a complete idiot. Really nice though… He helped me open up this bar. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

        She stays quiet for a while as she thought about him. It’s been awhile since she called him and right on cue her phone vibrated.

        “Speak of the devil,” she mutters as she pulls out her phone and finds the familiar name. A knock on the door distracts her for a second and she quickly gives out her next list of instructions. “I need to take this. Can you get the pizza? Just take some money from the register and give Ricky a good tip.”

        After saying that, she walks toward the pool table and answers the phone. John walks around the bar counter and walks over to the register after a couple of attempts to open it, he takes out the money. He looks at the array of bills longingly, knowing that he could take this and live out on his own. Yet he couldn’t. This place seemed to be all she had and for the first time he felt someone else’s need over his own. He grabbed a twenty-dollar bill and made his way to the door. He opened it to find a teenager looking up at him with a cheerful smile.

        “Hi I’m Ricky. You must be new. I haven’t seen you around.” He quickly says. “Here’s your pizza. Warm and ready.”

        The Winter Soldier didn’t know how he felt about the kid. He was overenthusiastic for someone who had to drive around pizzas all day. He just offered a grunt as he took the pizza from his hand and gave him the money. He was about to close the door when the kid pops his head in and looks around. Ricky smiles up at Jolene who gives him a small wave.

        “It was nice to see you Miss Jo. Thanks for the tip.” He says before popping out of the door. The soldier just shook his head as he closed the door. He turns back around waiting for Jolene as she continued with her car. His heightened hearing allowed him to hear her side of the conversation.

        “Tony I swear to God if you come in here and meddle with my bar I will punch you in the throat…No… I mean it Tony… I don’t care if it shows up in the media pictures…yeah, yeah… well you deserve it. Don’t come over Tony!” she yells. He grows worried at her tone and all of his instincts wired him to make the best of the situation. A plan was forming in his mind when her laughter stops it.

        “Don’t call him that. He’s not a stray. He’s someone who needs help.” She starts to say. “Yes, I call them my strays, but that doesn't mean you can call them that... You want to know his name. Well I do to, Tony. He wasn’t up to giving one… No, I do not find that sketchy… Tony, he’s harmless. Besides I can kick your ass can I? I’m pretty sure I can kick his ass too… Ok, maybe I was exaggerating.”

        The soldier chuckled at this liking her attitude. She seemed relaxed and more jovial with this Tony guy. They must know each other for a long time if they’re like this. He sounded very protective to her, like an older brother would be for his sister.

        “I’m not going to have you hack the FBI to find info on this guy. Besides how are you going to get his information?” she asks him. “…Yeah I know I gave you a name but it isn’t his real name… Tony, I swear he’s not going to try anything… Yeah, yeah. I know where to hit him where it hurts… Yeah, I know… Fine. Say hi to Pepper for me. I’ll see you for the holidays. Bye, bye, now.”

        Jolene hangs up and notices John looking at her. She smiles at him and pockets her phone as she makes her way towards him. She opens up the box of pizza and takes a slice. The cheese burned her fingers but she didn’t care. She was hungry and her conversation with Tony was aggravating but in a good way. Jolene knew that John had heard part of her conversation but he didn’t seem bothered.

        “So that was your friend Tony?” he asks her as he finished his slice. She nods since her mouth was full of pizza. “He’s protective of you.”

        “Yeah, he tends to be that way.” She answers with a smile. “Tony’s like an older brother to me. Our families were close friends and I always wanted to play with the older kids. Tony would let me sometimes but he was always busy building something evolutionary. I just couldn’t keep up. Either way, he didn’t forget about me with the fame and the money. He’s the only family I have now and vice versa.”

        John just nodded at this not speaking further. Jolene hating the usual silence decided to steer the conversation.

        “So do you have any family?”

        The question made his blood run cold. His head started to pound like it has before except this time it wasn’t from that guy. His mind pulsed for a memory that he didn’t know if he even had. He groans as his eyes go blurry and his head seems to convulse.

        Jolene noticed she asked the wrong question when John clutches at his head. He groans in pain and she wasn’t sure if she should help him or not. She knew that if she made contact he could go into attack mode. So she sat at the edge of her chair and spoke in a calm voice even though all she wanted to do was grab the shotgun under the counter and protect herself.

        “John, it’s me. It’s me Jolene.” She states. “Everything’s ok. You’re safe. Just listen to my voice and retrace your steps back to me. Focus on me.”

        The Winter Soldier, through his haze of pain, manages to hear the miniscule sound of her voice. The memories that had flooded in were of three young girls following after him. They would jump at his back or cling to his legs while he walked. Sisters. He had sisters that were pesky and annoying but grew up sooner than they had to because of the war. The memory subsided and her voice brought him back. He was breathing heavily and his vision came back to focus.

        “You should head upstairs and rest for a while.” She tells him. “You’ve done enough for today.”

        With no hesitation, he made his way upstairs and entered the room that was now his. The bed was near the window and he didn’t bother to make his bed. The bedroom was small but it was better than nothing. He laid down heavily causing the bed to creek. His head seemed to still be swirling from the intensity of the memory. Slowly and more calmly he remembered the name of the girls. Amanda, Stephanie, and Rebekah. Each of them were a year apart from each other and he was the eldest. Their laughs and girlish talks came to him so easily. His name. His real name was so fresh in his mind.

        James Buchanan Barnes.

        The eldest of his family. Born and raised in Brooklyn. His birthday was March 10. He had three younger sisters and his best friend from childhood was Steve Rogers.

        “I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.”

        That’s what Steve had said to him that caused flashes of his memory to come back. His head was starting to hurt again but it was all due to his thinking. He closed his eyes and groaned. A knock on the door distracted him from his thoughts and he was glad to see Jolene opening the door with a glass of water in her hands.

        “I brought you some Tylenol and a glass of water for that headache of yours.” She states handing him the glass and dropping the pills in his metal hand. “I’m not going to pry but I’m guessing your memory wasn’t pleasant.”

        Bucky just shakes his head and takes the pills. He drank half of the glass of water and looked up at her.        

        “I guess family talk is in the do not speak pile.”

        Bucky just nods not wanting to think of how the years went by and his sisters were most likely dead. Jolene notices the sad look in his eyes and knew he needed some time alone.

        “If you ever need to talk, I’m just downstairs.” She tells him. “You should get some shut eye and if you feel like it, the bar could use your help with rush hour.”

        Jolene closed the door after her and made her way downstairs.

        Bucky stared after the woman, gaining back the slightest hints of emotions. Gratitude was one of them. Fear was also another one. Confusion, anger, sadness… he had a hint of all of them. Bucky knew that his stay could be dangerous for both of them. He knew that anywhere he went it would be dangerous. Bucky couldn’t make up his mind in what to do so he just laid there hoping that sleep would give him a sign.