Once the initial panic and confusion wear off, once he’s sure he’s made it off the grid, once the state of emergency blows over – then, the mundane reality of his situation starts to sink in.
Because survival without Hydra? Turns out not to be all he thought it would be, in that single moment of dizzying madness when he decided it was time to strike out on his own.
He lives on a park bench. Well, several park benches – it’s safer to keep moving – but he can’t honestly say that variety improves the experience. The nights are getting colder. It’s raining as often as not, and the local homeless community aren’t big on sharing their shelter. Old men with cask wine on their breath shout him out from under bus stops. Swaggering police patrols drive him away from train stations and public restrooms. It would take five seconds of effort to dispose of them, slit their throats with their own shitty pocket knives and let them bleed down the drain while he enjoys five fucking minutes of peaceful sleep –
He lets them go. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it, fuck.
The hunger is the worst part. It’s been weeks, a whole lifetime, since he walked away from the burning Triskelion, and he’s starting to forget what it feels like to not be hungry. He queues for hours at overcrowded charity kitchens for a bowl of thin, watery soup. He snatches hot dogs from inattentive street vendors. He picks pockets on the bustling main street and spends every cent of his stolen cash on cheap bulk food from the supermarket. It’s never enough. He’s dropping weight like a consumptive patient, and all his cunning and ingenuity can’t keep up with the screaming demands of his metabolism.
He thinks about food night and day. It’s starting to blot out everything, even the memories, even the flashbacks – and he’d be glad, if it weren’t so fucking miserable. He lies awake fantasising about feasts of roast meat and soft-boiled eggs and fresh fruit and rich, aromatic stews. He drops into a restless sleep and he can taste fresh bread, can feel its spongy softness in his mouth, can breathe in the beautiful scent wafting from a still-warm oven. The hunger pangs are worse than ever when he wakes.
One morning he snaps completely. He wakes up with the phantom of a fresh sourdough loaf on his tongue, and the bakers across the road have left their doors wide open so that the wafting smells pierce his gut like claws, and it’s 5am and there’s no one around to intervene and the bakers don’t even try to stop him –
It’s that morning, huddled beneath a graffitied overpass and gorging like a feral dog on his precious bag of stolen pastries, that he decides he needs a better life than this.
Trouble is, there aren’t a lot of places he can go.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s a tough crowd we get around here. I gotta know my guys can handle themselves, kid, you feel me?”
It took longer than it should have to come up with his cover name. ‘Bucky’ was tempting, but no one in the twenty-first century is called Bucky; it would only take one slip of an employer’s tongue in the wrong company to bring Hydra and the Avengers and the CIA and the FBI and god knows who else crashing down on the joint in search of a potential lead. He needs something invisible, something untraceable. Something that doesn’t make his heart race and his head spin with random fragments of disjointed memory every time he hears it.
He wasted hours weighing up his options and in the end it doesn’t even matter, because the balding little owner of Porky's Gentleman’s Club is going to call him ‘kid’ for the entire rest of his life. And there’s fuck all he can say about it if he wants the job. He’s already been turned away from three places who wanted ID before they’d hire him.
James Black does not have ID. James Black has only existed for about forty-five minutes, and he hasn’t had time yet to make the contacts who could get him his papers.
But the man who James has mentally christened Porky – he’s on a roll with the made-up names now – isn’t interested in ID. If the cops ever raid a place like Porky’s, they’re going to have bigger problems than one unregistered security guard. “Trust me,” James says, “I can handle the crowd you get here.” He can handle a fucking paramilitary death squad, if one ever decides to attack the club – but it’s not like he can explain that to Porky.
Turns out job hunting is hard when you’ve got no work experience you’re willing to admit to. Every elite security agency in the world wants a shot at him, and he can’t fucking beg his way into a menial job throwing drunks out of a strip club.
“Look, kid,” says Porky, contorting his face into what James can only assume is meant to be a condescending smile. “You seem nice. You march right into my bar and ask for what you want like a man, and I can respect that. But I run a solid business here, and I need people I can trust with my security. You’ve got no references –“
Maybe begging is the wrong approach. “What good is a goddamn reference?” James takes Porky by the arm and steers him towards the door. Porky makes a loud, piggish grunt of protest. “Come on, let me show you something.”
Outside the club’s battered door, the current security detail is standing with his feet planted and his arms folded tight in front of his enormous torso.
“Look at this guy,” says James loudly. “He’s a little bitch. That’s what you’ve got guarding your club?”
Little Bitch rounds on him, eyes popping with fury. “What the fuck did you just call me?”
The ensuing fight lasts about point three seconds. James feels kind of bad for the guy, but not as bad as he feels for his own growling stomach. He plants his foot on Little Bitch’s neck and looks Porky dead in the eye. “I can do better,” he says.
Beads of perspiration have formed on Porky’s receding hairline, but he puffs himself up like a blowfish before speaking. “You’re hired, kid,” he says. “I’ve got a spare jacket and baton downstairs. Can you start today?”
The memories come back in floods. He remembers safe houses, weapons caches, assets in the field who can get him just about anything he wants. They’re all useless now. They all lead straight back to Hydra.
Everyone at Porky's has bought his story about his time in the Navy and his dishonourable discharge. He collects his pay in cash at the end of each shift, and nothing ever gets written down or signed. No one seems to find the arrangement strange. Everyone who works at Porky's is on the run from something.
He’s found himself an apartment a few blocks away, with electricity some of the time and running water almost always. The rent is low; the rest of his money goes on food. His pantry is stocked with cheap canned goods to last for a week at a time – soups, processed meats, anything the roaches can’t get into. At the end of each shift he buys a hot meal at the twenty-four hour diner around the corner. He spends half his time on the clock snacking on bar nuts and candy, and crams footlong sandwiches in his mouth during breaks. Porky doesn’t give a shit as long as he’s on his feet when someone tries to run out on their bill.
At the pace Porky’s clients run, it’s not like the work is especially hard.
“Are you ever not eating?” asks Angel, leaning against the outside wall on her cigarette break. There’s nothing stopping her from smoking inside, but she seems to enjoy the company. In her miniscule skirt and twelve-inch platform heels, Angel towers over him. “I swear to god, every time I see you you’re stuffing your face. How the fuck do you not get fat?”
James shrugs, and pops another salted peanut in his mouth. Things are better now, but he’s still burning calories about as fast as he can swallow them. Hydra used to give him some sort of supplement; he took it through a nasal tube between missions. He wishes he could figure out the secret formula.
“Anyone giving you grief in there?” he asks.
“No more than usual,” says Angel, and takes a deep pull. “Couple of guys at the bar are getting pretty rowdy. Might get you to throw ‘em out soon.” She thinks for a moment. “Not yet, though. They’re still tipping well.”
“Well, let me know when they dry up.”
James spent his first couple of shifts terrified that training would take over when patrons started causing trouble. The guys who come to Porky's are losers, drunks, they’re fucking helpless; he could knock them over with a well-placed glare. But James’s reflexes are faster than the rest of him – what if he lashes out too hard and kills one?
(Why would it matter? Who’d cry about a dead drunk in a strip club gutter, how would the world be worse off, why does he even care –)
But he stopped worrying after his first couple of nights on the job. A few of the troublemakers bring knives, but hardly any of them bother with guns. Most of them barely even know how to throw a punch. He takes it easy. He grabs the guys Porky points him at and roughs them up a bit, just gently, and then they pay up and go on their way. There’s no danger. Nothing unpredictable. Nothing to blow his calm for more than a second or two at a time.
It’s completely fucking boring. On long shifts he finds himself wishing a drug lord or a serial killer would show up and start shit with the girls, just so he’d have an excuse to get off his ass and do something.
The club always closes by 6am. No one ever hangs around. The girls are coming down from their pills, they’re dead on their feet; Porky likes to get his night’s earnings off site as soon as possible. The cleaners don’t come till later, just before opening.
The days are harder than the nights. James has boarded over his windows, but he hardly ever manages to fall asleep. And when he does, the dreams come back. The faces are always different but they always die the same in the end.
He doesn’t think about Hydra. About Pierce, and his lifeless body buried beneath the rubble of the Triskelion. He doesn’t think about Steve. Doesn’t think about the Smithsonian. Doesn’t think about James Buchanan Barnes.
Some days he gives up on sleep and heads down to Rusty’s, the dirty little dive bar on the ground floor of his block. The place is as crooked as an old man’s teeth, and he’s pretty sure the barman is running some kind of drug racket out of the back room. James knocks back cheap whiskey that does nothing for him and shoots pool with anyone stupid enough to take him on, and after the first few times they give up on trying to beat him up when he takes his winnings.
He goes to work, he goes to the diner, he goes to the bar; in between he walks the back streets to keep himself moving and keeps a sharp eye out for anyone who follows. He’s walking a fine line: too much routine makes him easy to trace, but every new place he visits is a brand new chance for someone to recognise him. So he sticks to trodden paths and stays out of sight.
Life goes stale. For a while, he almost welcomes the monotony.
Porky's is probably the shittest strip club in America, but it keeps him busy and it pays his bills. He has no friends, no family; he has no life skills that don’t involve killing people. Even if he weren’t in hiding, he’s not sure he could hold down a job where he never got to hit anyone .
( You have one friend , whispers the sing-song voice in the back of his head. But he’s not thinking about that. He’s not thinking about any of it. James Black doesn’t have any friends.)
Here’s the worst part, worse than the nightmares, the guilt, the godawful confusion and the gaping holes in his memory, worse than any of it: a part of him still misses Hydra. Misses the danger, the excitement, the challenge; misses having a place where he belonged. He knows now that half the shit Pierce told him was a lie, but he still misses the feeling of being special. Being important. Working for something bigger than himself. Getting shit done .
He doesn’t think about that, either.
The dreams keep coming back, day after day. If he thought about it closely, he might think it served him right.
“Let’s go out after work,” he says one night, leaning back against the wall and taking a drag of Angel’s cigarette. He remembers those beautiful little four packs that used to come with the army rations, and god, he misses the headspin. Nicotine doesn’t do shit for him now.
He’s not on shift tonight. Little Bitch is back, his broken ribs and arm all healed up; he glares at James from the doorway but says nothing. James only came out tonight because he couldn’t sleep, and no one was biting at the pool table. The girls don’t care if he sits in on their shows. And Angel is always good for a chat between sets.
Angel has been standing there by the dumpster, inspecting her manicure; now she brightens and looks up at him. “Oh yeah? Where do you want to go?”
“Dunno,” he says. He hadn’t planned to ask her anywhere, but the question just popped out like a reflex. “We’ll grab a bite. My treat.”
Without her towering heels, Angel is a whole foot shorter than usual. She emerges from the back room with an oversized handbag tucked under her arm and a long coat draped over her tiny outfit, and he hardly even recognises her without all the stage makeup. But her smile hasn’t changed, and neither has her snorting laughter when he offers her his arm. Little Bitch glares after them all the way down the street.
They eat pizza at an overnight joint a block from James’s apartment, and Angel tells him about her upbringing (nice, apparently: small town, loving parents) and her ambitions (party, travel, meet new people; ‘really live my life’, whatever that means). She doesn’t seem to expect much in return, which is good, because James doesn’t have much to give. His brain supplies fleeting impressions of dance halls and frothy milkshakes and prim girls in swishy frocks. Angel talks with her mouth full and spills diet coke down her exposed cleavage, and James feels an unexpected surge of affection as he helps her mop up the mess with a napkin.
She comes home with him after their date, by silent mutual agreement. “Holy shit,” she says when he shows her through the door. “Your place is fucking worse than mine. Where’s all the furniture?”
He’s never needed much until now, other than a mattress to sleep on and a few cupboards to store his gear. It has never actually crossed his mind that the lack of a proper bed might cause him problems.
He also hasn’t given much thought to the metal arm situation. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
But Angel doesn’t seem to share his reservations. She pushes him back towards the mattress with an eager glint in her eye and doesn’t make a move to undress either of them, which solves one problem. Angel’s tiny skirt bunches up over her hips when she straddles him, and he props his left arm behind his head to keep it out of harm’s way and pulls her close with the other hand. It feels like it’s been fucking decades. It probably has been fucking decades. She moans and bites her lip when she lowers herself onto his cock, and it feels so good that for a second he thinks he’s going to cry.
He actually does cry, afterwards. He retreats to the bathroom before Angel can notice, and buries his face in a dirty towel and nearly shakes to pieces. He’s crying and crying but he doesn’t feel anything, just tired and limp and weirdly drained. He could swear he never used to be one of those guys.
Angel is sponging herself clean in the kitchen sink when he emerges. A lit cigarette dangles between her lips, mixing with the scent of mould that hangs around the kitchen. He thinks about asking her to leave. He thinks about running out the front door and not coming back. He thinks about wrapping both arms around her and burying his face in her peroxide hair and never, ever letting go.
Rusty the barman has a weird look in his eyes. He’s been watching closely since James stepped through the door. “Hey,” he whispers over the counter as he pours out James’s whiskey, “I keep seeing you around this place. You do private security, dontcha?”
It’s completely normal for a barman to keep an eye his regulars. James knows it full well; his hackles go up anyway. “Just small time stuff,” he says, which is completely and embarrassingly true.
“You don’t look small time,” says Rusty, which is also true. “I seen plenty of guys come through this door, and I know how to spot a fighter. I’m calling ex-SEAL.”
“I’m looking for some extra hands,” says Rusty, unfazed by the one-sidedness of their exchange. “I’ve been having some problems with a business associate of mine, and I need a couple of charismatic young guys to help him see things my way. I’ve had my eye on you since I saw you give Old Blue the shakedown.”
Old Blue was one of James’s earlier pool opponents, and not a graceful loser. Old Blue hasn’t been back to Rusty’s in weeks now. “That was self defense,” says James, and tries not to think about the crunching sound that Old Blue’s jaw made and the fading stain of blood-streaked saliva on the pool table.
“When you think about it,” says Rusty philosophically, “all fighting is self defense. An empty wallet’s no better or worse than a guy with a crowbar. You’re defending yourself against poverty. You’re renting one of those rooms upstairs, right?” Rusty’s face rearranges itself into a look of knowing pity, like he can see right through the ceiling to ugly mess of stucco and carpet stains two storeys above.
“I don’t do that kind of work,” says James. Who gives a fuck about carpet stains? He thinks about Angel, and the way her nose wrinkled when she stepped past his threshold, and he glares at Rusty.
“Well,” says Rusty, in that same calm, unflappable tone. “You just give it some thought and get back to me. I know potential when I see it, and I could use a guy like you on my side.”
“I’m bored,” says Angel.
It’s a slow night inside. This is Angel’s third smoke break in the hour. “You’re drunk,” James reminds her.
“Drunk is boring,” says Angel. “Dancing is boring. Clients are boring. God, I’m just so fucking bored . Hey,” her eyes light up, “wanna go fuck in the bathroom?”
It’s tempting. “I can’t leave the door unwatched,” says James. Because then the club might fill up with drunk, rowdy morons, which would be a disaster for Porky’s stellar reputation.
Angel heaves a loud sigh. “ You’re boring.”
There are worse things in life than boredom. That’s what James has been telling himself for weeks now, over and over like a mantra. There are worse things in life than working a job where the only people who ever try to kill you are too drunk to count, and having a solid roof over your head, and mostly not even going hungry anymore.
“I’ve been thinking about my career options,” says Angel, flicking her cigarette into the gutter and lighting another. “Stripping used to be fun, you know? Maybe I’ve been doing it too long. I need to get out there, see more of the world. Explore my potential.” She grins. “I’m thinking of becoming a cat burglar.”
“I’d love to see you trying to climb fences in those shoes,” says James. “No, I’m serious, I’d love to see it. Let me watch.”
Angel swats at him. He lets the slap connect, and grins back.
But Angel’s smile is fading. He’s never seen her look serious about anything before, and it makes him uncomfortable. “I mean,” she says, “don’t you ever feel like life’s supposed to be better than this?”
James shrugs. His mind tends to shut down on its own when faced with the threat of introspection.
Angel studies him silently for a long moment. There’s something a little too intent in her gaze. Then she brightens again, fake and deliberate and jarring. “No, forget cat burglary. Breaking into rich people’s houses, stealing their jewellery, where’s the fun in that? I’m gonna become an assassin instead.”
She’s still staring at him. James goes very, very still.
“I’d wear a gun on each hip, like Lara Croft. And I’d keep these heels so I’d be taller than all my victims…”
He can feel his blood freezing in his veins. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, she’s drunk and bored and just playing around and James’s stomach is twisting into knots and all he can think is: She knows .
“…and of course I’d have to keep a list of snappy one-liners in my head, to fire off at my targets before I kill them.” Angel is smiling, prattling on, completely at ease. “Like Buffy the Vampire slayer, you know? Or Black Widow. Hey, maybe I could be the next Black Widow, what do you think?”
If she knows, she’s got no reason in the world to keep it quiet. They alley is dark, no one’s watching; he could shut her up now before she blows his cover, make a run for it, skip town, get away from this stupid shitty dump where too many people know his face –
James puts down the packet of pretzels he was munching. He pushes off the wall and walks to the end of the alley and, very calmly and tidily, vomits into the dumpster.
“...you okay?” Angel is saying when he starts listening again. His mind is blank. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. He’s not going to shut her up , fuck. She’s Angel. She’s sweet and harmless and five seconds ago he was thinking about fucking her in a public bathroom. “Did you eat something bad? I always said you’d make yourself sick if you kept eating like a damn pig all the time.”
“I’m fine,” he says. “Must have been that burger from earlier.” She doesn’t know. This is stupid, this is crazy. If she knew she wouldn’t be standing there, if she knew she wouldn’t be touching him, wouldn’t be rubbing his back, wouldn’t be leaning in close with wide, worried eyes.
“You’ve gone all green. I can get you some water if you -”
“No,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.”
He’s not sure where the night goes after that. At some point the stupid, pointless panic wears off. Later on he’s home, and the mid-morning light is streaming through the cracks in the boarded windows and shining a spotlight on the roaches as they scurry across the walls.
Later still, his phone rings. It’s a burner; the only number on it is Porky’s.
He kicks it across the floor and goes back to bed.
But if she knows –
It’s Friday night, and the bar is packed. It takes Rusty almost ten minutes to notice him waiting at the end of the counter.
“I like that face,” says Rusty, and pours him a stiff glass. “That’s a face that says you’ve been thinking about my offer.”
James downs his whiskey and tries to pretend he can feel it kicking in. He could use a little liquid courage right now. Something to help him convince himself he doesn’t know what a terrible fucking idea this is.
“I’m gonna invite you out back tonight,” says Rusty, pouring out another generous glass. “Show you how my business here works. But…” He leans in closer, shows James a winning smile and three loose teeth. “Let’s save the shop talk for later. I’d like to get to know you a bit better.”
“What do you want to know?” says James. Yes, it’s a terrible idea. But where else is he gonna go? He can’t hang around at Porky’s for the rest of his life, he’ll fucking die of boredom. He knows his skill set. He knows what he can do.
He’s being wasting his time, trying to live a life he was never made for.
Rusty’s smile widens. “Let’s start with the basics,” he says. “What’s your name?”
It’s not like James Black was ever a real person. James Black is just a guy he made up, a name to put on the paychecks he never actually signs. James Black is a figment of his imagination, who works at a place called Porky's and spends his nights flirting with bored strippers on their off-hours and ripping people off at pool and beating up the occasional drunk.
James Black isn’t exactly a great loss to the world when he stops existing.
Years down the line, he’ll run into Angel again. Things will have changed by then: he’ll be Bucky Barnes, the world’s least popular Avenger, and she’ll be Rachel Sweet, the exotic dancer at one of New York’s most prestigious clubs. They’ll cross paths in a crowded Starbucks, where Steve has stopped to order them both a coffee, and she’ll stare at him for several long incredulous moments over the rim of her venti frappucino.
“Holy shit,” she’ll say, oblivious or indifferent to Steve’s suspicious glare. “Is that really James Black? You look good .”
And then: “I thought you fucking died, you know. I staked out your shitty old apartment and everything. It freaked me the hell out. You could have left a note.”
And then: “Holy shit, does this mean I fucked an actual superhero? I can’t believe I fucked an actual superhero.”
Afterwards Steve will have questions. Bucky will never have talked to him to him about his life between Hydra and their reunion; Steve will have filled in the blanks with stories of his own making, about hidden safe houses in Eastern Europe and desperate isolation and paralysing remorse. Angel won’t fit into that story.
But today, new recruit Jack Masters is driving through dusty Arizona towards the Mexican border in a borrowed truck. He dangles his left hand out the window and pretends that his metal fingers can feel the breeze. Somewhere across the border is a business associate of Rusty’s who needs dealing with.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he can hear the tinny echo of the goodbyes he should have said.
Jack turns up the radio and stuffs a loud handful of chips in his mouth.