A man walks into a bar.
He’s not really sure if it’s a bar. Not really sure about the rest of it either.
When he’d crawled out of the river his instinct had been to put distance between himself and the body he’d left on the bank, the flaming wreckage in the water. By the time the checkpoints had gone up he was safely wedged into the back of a Chinatown bus, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, his gear stowed in a cheap duffle under his feet.
The sign on the front window had said NEW YORK. He’d picked it because it was the first bus leaving, nothing more, nothing less. Five hours later it shudders to a halt at the corner of Bowery and Canal, and he stumbles coming off the steps when he catches sight of the Manhattan Bridge over his shoulder.
For a minute he stands there, letting old Chinese people flow around him like a river. There’s a wind up, and the air smells like old fish sitting on newspaper, like the Hong Kong cakes being sold on the corner, like gasoline and hot garbage and dirty, stagnant water. The names and smells come to him easily, without question: East River, Liberty Island, Staten Island, Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn. He knows them without knowing, without knowing how - the way he knows most things.
He has a sense of deterioration. A feeling like fraying. It’s been that way for a long time.
There’s no reason to cross the bridge. But he doesn’t have a reason not to, so he does.
The pedestrian path shares its level with the subway cars that rattle back and forth across the wide river. Cars and trucks rumble overhead, unseen. The bridge takes its time getting off the island, rising mostly level to the tenement buildings that crowd closely to either side, windows clogged with hung laundry. A spindly tree crawls out of a chimney, reaching towards muggy sunlight. People in tight, brightly colored clothes jog past.
He keeps his head down until he’s over the water. He kneels onto the concrete and shrugs his jacket off. His shoulder glints dully in the sunlight, scuffed and still covered in greasy ash. He cuts his fingers wedging them underneath the shifting plates. His reward is four tracking devices and something the size of a bullet, about half full of a malignant red gel. It’s a ritual cleansing, and meaningless, since he has no way of knowing whether he’s gotten everything, and they have other ways of tracking him, anyway. Hydra always finds him, whether he goes to ground or spends the hours in the open, like he’s doing now. The only variable is how many of them he’ll kill before they take him again.
He grinds the tracking devices into powder between his fingers, and throws the poison pill into the river. It arcs high, and glints in the sunlight as it falls. The lacerations on his fingers itch as they close up.
The damage from the fight (and the fall, and machines) is healing too. He’d popped his shoulder back into place before he’d left DC, and all that’s left is a lingering ache, an almost pleasant soreness. He does most of his healing on the ice these days, lurching back and forth between the shuddering nausea of reconditioning to the agony of a job completed, then back again, bruises sprouting and vanishing and appearing elsewhere. He can’t remember the last time he was out long enough to feel better .
He wonders about the man on the bridge. (Bucky?) If he’d survived. (Who the hell was Bucky?) If they really knew each other, and how. The man had fought hard, until abruptly he hadn’t. (He let that shield fall right into the water, like it meant nothing. Why would he have done that?)
That shield -
“You’re keeping the costume, right?”
- it had meant something. Like a language he’s forgotten he knows how to speak. Like the ache of a tooth about to die, abruptly all encompassing -
The smell of gun oil and spent cartridges. The peculiar stink of those blue weapons, which lingered on a battlefield for days, keeping the buzzards away. Wind and ice whipping in his face, cold enough that it stung as he drew breath. Papers rattling around behind him, just far enough away from the gash not to have been sucked right out.
The leather strap had creaked in his hand. It was heavy. Heavier than most people expected, after seeing him whip it around like a child’s toy. It pulled him off balance, dragged his aim out of true. Or maybe his aim was fine and his stance was the problem: his feet spread wide to compensate for the shake of a train but not braced for recoil as that blue light hit the shield -
The wind ruffles through his hair. He’s sweating all over. His heart is racing. For a moment he sways, vomit climbing into his throat. Then it passes, and with it the memory, if it is a memory.
He opens his eyes, and starts walking again.
A man walks into a bar.
It isn’t really a bar. There’s something off about it, something other than the strategic set up of little tables in relation to each exit point, the nearly hidden cameras, the weapons-as-decor.
He’d felt it from across the street. He’d felt it since he stepped off the bridge and into Brooklyn. He’d followed little patches of cobblestones into winding streets of old brick buildings, still covered with the faded ghosts of advertisements, the names of industry sitting on the tip of his tongue.
He’d seen the gold stencil on the front window. The place was garden level, unremarkable. Just a bar. A couple rusty iron chairs sitting out front, a bucket half full of cigarette butts. A fearsome looking vine creeping out of the split concrete, reaching everywhere it could get. The stenciling was the only thing new about the place: the front window sagged, the door frame peeled. Not neglected. Just old.
He stands for too long in the doorway. The nylon strap of his duffle creaks in his hand. It’s the tin ceiling, the coal stove in the corner. The wooden bar that runs the entire length of the room, oiled to within an inch of its life. The seep of old nicotine from the meticulously scrubbed walls. The crowd of photographs and framed newspaper clippings behind the bar, all yellow with age.
He knows this place.
“Sit wherever you like,” calls the bartender, his back to the door. So he does, tucking himself into the back corner table, the one that’s nearly hidden behind the big iron belly of the stove. He traces the fingers of his right hand along the wall, finding a gouge of three or four inches hidden underneath the paint. He stretches his feet out: they prop just so on the bricks sitting under the stove. If the stove was lit, they’d be warm.
The bartender drops a menu in front of him. Long hair, tied back in a bun. Broad shoulders and arms. A soldier. “Lunch is over,” the man tells him. “But I can still make you a burger if you want.”
“Sure,” he says. “A beer too.” Who knows how much more time he has before they come for him. He likes this place. The narrow door and crumbling steps would keep too many of them from coming in at once, and the angle’s bad for a long range shot. There’s only one other customer, a civilian at the bar, tapping away on a laptop. It’s warm and comfortable. He’s been here before. He’s been -
He studies the walls. The framed clippings span decades. Brooklyn Eagle. The Irish Echo. The Village Voice . Grainy black and white. Peace Has Come . He leans forward to look at this one. The peace for which millions of Americans have prayed for has come to Europe. God has heard our supplications. The last gun has roared. The last bomb has crashed. The last soldier has fallen. The terror of war has given way to the calm of peace.
He laughs, somewhere back in his throat. Gotta be a sucker, to believe something like that.
His eyes roam on. The realization that he’s looking for something comes slowly. A message in one of the photos? Something to tell him who the man on the bridge was? How he knows this place?
(He knows the bar will break. He can feel it shuddering under his weight. He can feel the metal groaning, but there’s nothing else. Nothing else he can grab hold to. His feet scrabble uselessly in the air. Terror claws up his throat. Please. Please save me. Please catch me before -
Not a question. A scream. The word almost snatched away by the wind. Weightlessness. The certainty of pain about to come. When it comes -)
“Hey, you okay?”
He opens his eyes. His boots dig into brick. His hand digs into the bench underneath him. The world swims into focus. He’s sweating. The bartender, a plate of food in one hand, a pint glass in the other, looking down at him from a great height. “Hey,” he says. Soft, meaning no harm. “You doin okay, buddy? Lemme get you some water.”
He leaves the burger on the table. Comes back with a second pint glass, this one full of water, sets both of them on the table. Then takes the other seat. He keeps both hands in view the whole time.
“You look like you’re havin a rough day,” the bartender says.
It hasn’t been too bad, he thinks. There’s been sunshine.
“You a veteran?” the bartender asks. “What’s your name?”
He licks his lips, says nothing. His jaw clamped down around the name that rises in his throat, that wind-whipped feeling of falling. They took it from him before. He’s not gonna let it happen again. A bead of sweat slips from his forehead, disappears into his shirt collar.
“It’s alright,” says the bartender. His voice still pitched in a friendly tone. Showing his empty palms. “I’m not gonna -“
Fear stinks up the air between them. He looks up, sees the bartender looking down. The glint of his uncovered wrist draws the eye. The bartender recognizes the arm, and is afraid of it.
He says nothing.
The bartender’s face is implacable, showing nothing even as that fear sweat soaks into his clothes. His body coils with readiness. He’s glancing up towards the dusty hunting rifle over their heads, even though it clearly doesn’t fire. He’s a smart man, experienced. Comfortable in close quarter fighting. He won’t be enough, and he knows it.
“What are you doin here?” the bartender asks. His voice has changed from friendly to scratchy and low. “We never had anything to do with Hydra. If someone’s sent you, they made a mistake. We don’t - we’re not making any trouble for you. Please .”
He thinks about that. Did someone send him? Was this a trick? He looks at the bricks under his boots, the scratch under the paint that his fingers had unerringly traced. It feels real enough. He’s been here before. He’s sure of it, as sure as he’d known - the name an ache at the tip of his memory, just out of reach - as he’d known the man on the bridge.
“No one sent me,” he tells the bartender. “I’m looking for something.”
“Information?” the bartender guesses. “Money? Weapons?”
“No,” he says, the answer dawning on him slowly. “I left something here. Something important.”
Confusion slips through the grim line of the bartender’s expression. “You - left something here?” he repeats. “In this -? What’d you -?”
He nods. His gaze tilts up towards the tin ceiling, decades of nicotine seeping gently from the corners. “Don’t know,” he says. “But I’m not leaving without it.”
Eliot walks back behind the bar. It’s the only thing he can think to do. He spreads his shoulders, braces his fists on the old wood. Alec sits tapping at his keyboard. His fingers fly so fast on the keys that Eliot always thinks maybe he’s faking it, like a hacker in a movie just mashing buttons at random.
“Was that the last truffle burger?” Alec asks. Exaggerated disappointment in his voice. He doesn’t even look up.
For a second Eliot can’t say anything at all. The words are strangled in his throat. They come out gritted and forced between his teeth. “We gotta go,” he says.
“Nah, just make me some chilaquiles,” Alec says. “Wait, do we still have that fermented hot sauce you made? I could live off that hot sauce, I swear to god.”
Eliot takes a deep breath. “No,” he says again. “We gotta go. We gotta - we gotta burn this place.”
Alec finally looks up. His eyes are red and tired looking. By Eliot’s reckoning, he hasn’t slept in at least eighteen hours - not since those damn S.H.I.E.L.D. files poured onto the internet. Dragging Alec out of the apartment and into a sunbeam had been Eliot’s achievement of the morning. “You okay?” he asks.
Eliot looks over his shoulder. Alec’s eyes follow, and they both look at the man sitting in the corner, calmly eating Eliot’s last truffle burger. Scruffy. Inconspicuous. Smelling like he climbed off a bus. Eliot had thought he was a vet, maybe homeless, could smell military on the guy even when he’d been standing in the doorway, gaping like a fish. Got part of that right, at least.
“He’s,” Eliot says, and then whispers the rest of it, leaning as far across the bar as he can reach. “He’s Hydra. No, shut up, Hardison, shut up. We gotta burn this place to the ground. He’s - that’s the Winter Soldier.”
He sees Alec’s pupils dilate. His fingers hover over the keypad, like he could just google image search his way through the S.H.I.E.L.D. dump. Hell, maybe he can, for all Eliot knows. “The Winter Soldier’s a fairy tale,” Alec says.
Eliot’s fists drum against the bar. “He’s not -”
“Okay,” Alec says, slowly. He reaches around his computer and wraps his fingers over Eliot’s wrist. “Okay. I can see you’re all up in your feelings. What makes you think that this guy is - you know. You’ve seen him before?”
No. But he’s seen the aftermath. Not that he really wants to tell Alec about that. “It’s a very distinctive arm,” he grits out.
Alec looks again. The Winter Soldier is drinking his beer, one handed. The silver arm Eliot had glimpsed under the table is still there, resting on his thigh, palm up. From the angle they’re at they can see silver fingers, a silver wrist disappearing into the cuff of his jacket.
“That’s - that’s the dude who almost killed Captain America!” Alec says, hushed.
“Almost killed Cap?” Eliot demands.
“It’s been all over the news - Eliot, I swear to god!”
“I don’t watch TV!”
The Winter Soldier looks up and they both look away quickly. Huddled over the bar like a couple of fools. The Winter Soldier could kill both of them as easy as drinking that beer, and there wasn’t a damn thing Eliot could do to stop it.
“Okay, so we got the Terminator sitting in our bar,” Alec says, sounding only a little hysterical. “What’d he say?”
Eliot rakes his hands over his hair. He doesn’t want to look back again. “Not much,” he says. “That no one sent him.”
Alec looks down at his computer. Eliot can only see the back of it, but if the screen looks anything like it has for the last eighteen hours, it’s full of green strings of letters that make his eyes hurt. “I guess Hydra might be a little busy,” Alec allows. “With the failed coup and all.”
“Then why is he here,” Eliot says.
“I don’t - I don’t know, man,” Alec says. His fingers spread wide over his keyboard. “We always tried to stay off Hydra’s radar. I’ve been looking for any mention of us in this data drop, but there’s terabytes on terabytes of information here. It’ll take me weeks just to decode it, let alone read it.”
“Is he in there?”
Alec’s whole face creases. “Why do you do this,” he says. “I literally just got done telling you I don’t know. He might be. He might not be. Ask me again in a couple months, if we ain’t managed to get him out of our bar yet.”
“He said he left something here,” Eliot says.
“In here? What was it?”
“He doesn’t know.”
Alec stares at Eliot for a long minute, unblinking.
“Don’t,” Eliot says, pointing a finger at him.
“That’s weird,” Alec says. “How’s he not know?”
“Just - don’t, Hardison,” Eliot tells him.
“You don’t think it’s weird?”
“Can I get another beer?” calls the Winter Soldier.
He can feel Alec’s eyes on him as he draws the beer and carries it over. It’s an IPA, because Brooklyn loves IPAs. Alec brewed it himself in the sprawling basement that came with the place, stuffed full of the detritus of previous tenants. It had been a hell of a process, cleaning everything out before moving in.
The Winter Soldier has very, very blue eyes. They look almost clear in the afternoon sunlight filtering through the front window. “It was good,” he says. “The burger. It was good.”
“Thanks,” Eliot says. He shared a bottle of vodka once with the Butcher of Kiev. Drank champagne with Damien Moreau. Never ran with Hydra, though. Not that he knew of, anyway. He could smash the empty glass into the Winter Soldier’s face. Buy a few seconds for Alec to get out of here, at least. Warn Parker to get out of the apartment upstairs without being seen.
He sets the beer down. Stacks the empty glasses and picks up the plate, feeling like he’s standing outside of himself.
He drops the dishes in the pit and goes back to Hardison. “What’s the plan,” he says.
“Find out what he left here, I guess,” Alec says. “I tried to think of one of those, you know, ‘let’s steal a’ things but -“
“Sometimes you gotta use humor to cope, Eliot,” Alec tells him. “Sometimes - you gotta use humor to cope.”
“What was this place before we bought it?” Eliot asks, because it’s no use arguing with Alec when he’s like this, in the grey space between on-the-job and panic.
“Closed,” Alec says. “Alright, calm down. It was a video store. Fastraxx Video. Opened in 1986, closed in 2005. Then vacant til we bought the building.”
“That’s what’s in the basement?” Eliot asks. “Old videotapes and, and -“
Alec’s already shaking his head. “This place took four feet of water during Hurricane Sandy - the demo crew had to throw almost everything out. That was part of the reason the building was so cheap - cleanup was part of the price. The stuff in the basement came from our apartment. The guy who owned this place before it was Fastraxx Video lived up there.”
“What kind of place was it?” Eliot asks.
Alec shrugs. “Before eighty six? It was a bar. This dude owned the building for decades. You shoulda seen some of the weird shit he had collected over the years. I’ve really been meaning to do something about it, it oughta be in a historical society or something. Anyway, that’s why it’s so authentico in here, I just basically redecorated like it’d been back in ye old days. Only prettier.”
They look at the Winter Soldier. He’s staring up at one of the clippings on the wall. He’s perfectly still, his human hand loose around the half drunk glass of beer. A sniper’s stillness, Eliot thinks, and shudders.
“Alright, so,” Alec says, “Who is the Winter Soldier?”
He’s looking at Eliot expectantly.
“How would I know?” Eliot demands. “Just cuz I’ve seen the arm before don’t mean I ever met the guy.”
Alec rolls his eyes, like Eliot’s being stupid on purpose. “The Winter Soldier is a Cold War spook story,” he explains. “He’s been a ghost in the machine since Sputnik. That dude look like he’s been a one man army since the Fifties? No he does not. But maybe the Winter Soldier is a code name you can inherit, like 007.”
“There’s only one Bond,” Eliot says, reflexively.
“There are seven,” Alec says. “Don’t get distracted. This guy’s like, what, thirty? Not that much younger than you are. And if there’s anyone who knows anything about being a one man army, it’s you. So tell me about him. Where does a guy like this come from?”
Eliot closes his eyes. He’d been facing away from the door when the Soldier had come in, but he’d watched the man walk across the bar out of the corner of his eye. Lot you can tell about a hitter from the way they walk. Lot more from the way they fight, but Eliot didn’t wake up this morning aiming to get killed. It was a steady walk. Purposeful. Not an ounce of hesitation, even as those blue eyes opened wide to take the place in. He’d gone straight to the corner table like he knew the place, propped his feet up on the bricks like Eliot likes to do too when it’s cold enough to light the stove. He’d known the place, alright.
But a video store wouldn’t have had a corner table. There would’ve been shelves along the walls. Narrow aisles and tall wire racks. The incongruity tugs at him. He shakes his head, focuses on the question.
The Soldier looked to be about the right age to have signed up after 9/11, hot with patriotism. Showed enough promise to get a tryout for Special Forces. Action in Afghanistan for a few years. Then maybe Pakistan or North Africa, for a while. Worse places, doing worse things. Sucked deeper and deeper until his whole existence became deniable.
The last time Eliot heard anything about the Winter Soldier had been about five years ago. A tangle with S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives in Iran. A body count that had been called thorough when the whispers filtered through to their side.
The time before that - when he’d seen that kind of body count for himself, up close - that had been in the 90s. This Winter Soldier would’ve been in middle school, years from inheriting the name. Maybe he’d grown up nearby, spent his pocket money at Fastraxx Video. There was a blurriness to his speech that could be a New York accent. It was possible.
“So we got some eliminations to process,” Alec says, watching his face.
“Either he hid something here as a kid,” Eliot says, “or he broke into the space cuz it was empty.”
“Whatever he’s looking for, it’s either real sentimental or real valuable,” Alec agrees. “This guy tried to take down the US government yesterday, but he made a beeline for Brooklyn instead of Bahrain.”
“But he doesn’t know what it is,” Eliot says.
“Could be something a handler left for him.”
Eliot shakes his head. “He said he was the one who left it.”
“Yeah,” Alec says. “I said that was weird earlier. I said that.”
“I heard you,” Eliot says.
“Yeah,” Alec says, and then says, in a different tone of voice, “Hey babe? You mind hopping on surveillance for us? We got a situation down here. Nooo , no, do not come down. Just keep an eye out for us. Yeah, outside too. No, you don’t need to do that. Definitely not that either. Okay. Yeah. Thanks.” His fingers fly over the keys. If Eliot tried to type like that it’d be gibberish.
“Alright,” he says to Eliot, after a moment. “Guess we gotta go talk to the man.”
Alec’s nice day had sure gone all to hell. He’d hissed and yowled when Eliot had come to drag him out of his lair, but to be honest he’d been kind of enjoying that sunny spot at the bar. Had definitely been enjoying the thought of those chilaquiles, and that fermented hot sauce Eliot makes special.
But out of all the bars in all of Brooklyn, a ghost story had to walk into theirs. Ain’t that just typical.
Eliot sticks half the bar knives down his pants before they approach, which Alec normally takes a lot of comfort in, except even Eliot looks scared to death. It’s that - even more than the fact that this guy went toe to toe with Captain America!!! yesterday and apparently came out on top - that’s got Alec rattled.
He flips the sign on the door around: CLOSED to the world. The last thing they need is anyone else walking into this mess.
The Winter Soldier watches them approach. Parker usually leads interrogations these days, but Alec’s not too shabby at it. This is just another job.
The chair scrapes across the stone floor as Alec settles in. There are crumbs scattered across the little table, crumbs on the Winter Soldier’s jacket, a little smudge of ketchup in the man’s scraggly beard. It’s just another job. Alec’s stood on top of bombs before. Plenty of times.
“My name’s Hardison,” he tells the Winter Soldier. He points a chin over his shoulder. “This is Eliot.”
Eliot doesn’t say anything. Alec can feel the stress radiating off of him, like heat on the back of his neck. He doesn’t like Alec sitting so close to that metal arm. Doesn’t like it at all when he or Parker are in the line of fire. He’s standing with his body pointed towards the rifle up over the stove, the one that doesn’t fire. Hoping to give himself a bit of range, or something to put in between Alec and capital-d Danger, should the situation change.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t say anything either.
“He looks familiar,” Parker says into Alec’s earpiece, contemplative.
He doesn’t look familiar to Alec, except as the guy who kicked the shit out of Captain America!!!
“You go by anything friendlier than Winter Soldier?” Alec asks.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t answer that. Just sits there like a blank brick shithouse. The only reaction is the slightest dip of his chin toward his chest. There’s a weird, soft whirring sound when you get close to him. Something slack in the shape of his mouth and jaw, like he’s drugged. Something in his eyes, like a pane of glass between him and the rest of the world.
Super soldiers are so above Alec’s pay grade.
Alec shifts in his seat. “What you’re looking for,” he says, “it might not be here anymore. The building flooded. All the video tapes, everything that was here before - it’s gone, man. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It’s here,” the Winter Soldier says. Alec flinches instinctively. He flings a hand down and to the side, warning Eliot back.
“How d’you know?” Alec asks him.
The Winter Soldier looks up at the walls. “He was reading them, the whole time you guys were talking,” Parker says. “All the clippings. Even the ones in other languages.”
“I know,” the Winter Soldier says.
Jesus, this dude is creepy.
“Hey, ask him how old he is,” Parker says abruptly.
I don’t know the Terminator wants to play Twenty Questions, Alec says to the Parker inside his head.
“When’d you leave - whatever it was here?” Alec asks instead. “How old were you?”
The Winter Soldier’s brow furrows. “Were you grown?” Alec tries.
“Yeah,” the Winter Soldier says immediately, almost before the question was out of Alec’s mouth. He’s almost smiling, a look in his eyes like painful relief. Then his eyes roll back up towards the ceiling, and there’s a grinding noise from under the table. It’s that metal hand, crushing the oak bench he’s sitting on into splinters. He punched through cars with that hand. Alec saw the Youtube footage. Saw the security footage of him kicking a person into a jet engine, too. He shakes his head. “I was leaving. We were leaving.”
“Leaving New York?” Alec guesses.
This gets a response too, but not verbally: another flat look. Obviously.
“Ask him how long ago it was,” Parker says, but before he can, Eliot chimes in.
“Was it when you shipped out?” he asks. Less growly than Alec expects. Like he’s talking to just any old witness. Like it’s any old job. Just another soldier.
The Winter Soldier looks back up at the walls. Something tickles the hair on the back of Alec’s neck: it’s the same spot he was looking before, where the rifle hangs over the cast iron stove. There used to be something hanging up there, in the old photos Alec had used as reference when he was decorating. His lips press together and then part, but nothing comes out but the barest puff of air. And then he just - keeps staring. The whirring sound gets louder, and Alec thinks: is it the arm? Is it his arm doing that?
“What’d he say?” Parker asks. “The mics didn’t pick it up.”
“What was that?” Alec asks. “You say something?”
The silence stretches on and on, long enough that Alec risks a look over his shoulder at Eliot, makes a soundless what the fuck? motion at him. Eliot shrugs. They both look up at the little camera in the corner as if they could catch Parker’s eye that way.
“I don’t like this,” Parker says, real low and slow.
“Me neither,” Alec answers. And out of some kind of boneheaded automatic instinct, the kind that would’ve gotten him ground into the dirt by Nate, a moment he’ll lay awake tonight tearing himself up over, he reaches out and snaps his fingers in front of the Winter Soldier’s face.
The reaction is instantaneous, and as violent as Alec would have expected, if he’d been thinking at all. He doesn’t even see the man move. It’s muscle memory - dozens of hours of sparring with Eliot, learning over and over again how to block, how to fall - that keeps him loose enough that he doesn’t break his ribs when he hits the cast iron stove. He hits the ground hard, curls into a ball with that same hard won instinct. The little cafe table smashes down inches in front of his nose. He’s gotta get out of the way. He’s gotta get out from between Eliot and the Winter Soldier.
They all stop. The rifle’s in Eliot’s hands, ready to be swung like a club. The Winter Soldier’s teeth bared, his whole body strung tight, fists up. Alec on the floor, peering between his wrists, his own fists trying to protect his skull. It’s Parker. Standing halfway behind the bar, the hatch to the basement still flung open, her hair wild and dusty. She’s got a box in her arms, and she’s the most beautiful thing Alec has ever seen. He still thinks that, every single time he sees her.
“Stop,” she says again, panting. “I have what you want. Stop.”
“Give it to me,” the Winter Soldier says, raw and terrifying.
“Stand down,” she orders - and miracle of all miracle, he does. He sits right down in the wreckage of their bar, right on the same heavy bench he drank their beer at.
There’s a clatter behind Alec, and then a yank under his armpits, hauling him up and back. Then the familiar feeling of Eliot’s broad hands on his body, seeking rough confirmation that Alec is alright. He’s alright. He’s alright. The wind’s all knocked out of him, and he already feels like one giant bruise, but he’s alright. He aims himself into an upright chair the second Eliot’s grip loosens.
Parker steps forward. “Is that,” Alec wheezes, and then gives up trying to talk. She doesn’t look at them, not directly. She sits down on the bench next to the Winter Soldier, her eyes never leaving his. She gives him the box.
“What the hell is that?” Eliot asks. But then, he hadn’t set foot in the building until after the bar had been set up, and they’d been ready to move in and make it the new Leverage International Headquarters. He’d never met old Mr Roth, who’d taken over the bar from his granddad, and held on to so many of its memories.
That box had been something special to Mr Roth. He’d told Alec about it, when they’d met to finalize the sale of the building. It had been the very last box he’d packed up when the bar closed in eighty six. “I took them down one at a time,” he’d said. His liver-spotted hands had curled over the sealed carton, protective. “I even swept the dust on them into a little bag, and kept that too.”
The Winter Soldier opens the box. His mismatched hands hover over what’s inside of it, and then reach in. The contents click against his metal fingers as he shifts them around. They make a sound like dry wood.
“They’re wishbones,” Alec tells Eliot, through the dry sandpaper lining his lungs. “During World War One, soldiers from the neighborhood would bring ‘em to hang up, before they shipped out. When they came home, they took their wish down off the wall. When World War Two happened, the tradition continued. And every war after that, till the place closed.”
“So the ones left up there,” Eliot says, half a thought that Alec finishes for him.
“Yeah,” he says. “They’re the ones that didn’t get to come home.”
The Winter Soldier is holding a wishbone in his hands. It’s the color of old paper, cracked and fragile with age. “Is that one yours?” Parker asks him, very quietly.
He nods. He clears his throat. Then tells her, just as quietly, “My name is Bucky.”
“I know,” she says. “I had your bear when I was little.”
She looks up briefly to meet Alec’s puzzled stare. Gives him an I’ll explain later sort of nod. Eliot shifts from one foot to the other, still holding the rifle in both hands. Both of them just watching Parker watch the Winter Soldier, tracing the edges of his dusty, long ago wish.
The Winter Soldier sets the box aside, cradling the wishbone in his metal hand. He reaches under his feet with the human one, tugging his duffle bag up onto the bench and unzipping it. “Hold it,” Eliot says, so abruptly both Alec and Parker jump.
“That uh,” Eliot says, floundering a little when the Winter Solider narrows his eyes. “That looks - fragile. Lemme get you a uh, lemme get you a thing.”
He hands the rifle to Alec, as if Alec is gonna be the one to club the damn Winter Soldier over the head with it. Kicks his way through the debris towards the bar, leaning over it to grab - to grab some paper napkins, a to-go box, and a plastic bag. The Winter Soldier accepts these with a nod, and they all watch in silence as he swaddles the wishbone in paper napkins, nestles it into the waxed sanctuary of their recycled cardboard to-go boxes, and then seals it in a bag printed THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US in cheerful red letters.
“I don’t pretend to understand any of this, but -” Eliot says, and goddamn if Alec isn’t feeling the same, “ - are we cool?”
The Winter Soldier looks up. He zips his duffle bag bag closed, the package safely tucked away, and nods. “You’ll never see me again,” he says.
“Okay,” Eliot says, the line of his shoulders slumping down, just the barest amount. “Okay.”
He doesn’t look look at any of them, not even Parker. He moves through the ruin of the bar as if he doesn’t see any of it, and walks back out into the world.