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Making Your Way

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“You should come work at the Tower & Shield,” Steve says over a bowl of Cheerios, in that tone that’s supposed to sound nonchalant but that Bucky knows means he’s been trying to figure out how to say it for about a week.

“Are you kidding me?”

“No—I mean, there’s an opening, and they like to hire by word of mouth—”

“Steve. What the hell kind of job is there for a twitchy, one-armed hobo with the crazy eyes at a bar?”

“You don’t have the crazy eyes. And you’re not a hobo. I told you, there’s plenty of room here for you.” After a pause, he adds, “Though you’d probably look less homeless if you actually shaved and got a haircut.”

Bucky reaches protectively for his ponytail. “The ladies like it.”

“What ladies?”

“Well, not the ladies you like. Speaking of which—have you called that waitress from the Cask 'n Flagon yet?”

“Stop trying to change the subject. There’s an opening for a bouncer now that Phil’s gone, and as long as you can figure out how to hold the black light and a fake ID at the same time, you’d be good at it. Maybe with a lanyard…?”

“Door guy means dealing with people.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to be nice to them. And on good nights, you’d get a share of the tips. And Tony’s okay to work for, once you get used to him.”

“Steve…”

“Buck, you need something to do besides therapy every day. I get that your payout from the Army is okay, and I swear this isn’t about rent, but you can’t just bum around the apartment all the time and let your hair grow out. It’s not healthy, and it’s just…it’s not you. It’s been months, and I can’t just let you keep going like this. You should be back out in the world, doing—something. Anything. Please.”

Bucky hasn’t been able to say no to Steve since he’d perfected his puppy-eyed look at the age of eight, and twenty-odd years later the damn thing still works.

***

“Okay, this is how it goes: you show up on time. You stay at the door. You don’t let in anyone, anyone with a fake ID. I don’t care how hot she is; Pepper will kill both of us and then bring me back from the dead to do it again. Not worth it. You get a fifteen-minute smoke break every two hours—”

“I don’t smoke.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Three tours in Afghanistan and you don’t smoke?” Steve’s boss, Tony, is exactly as uncensored as advertised. Bucky kind of likes him.

“It was Iraq. And I did while I was over there, but after two months in a VA hospital for the whole limb amputation thing…not anymore.” Bucky hasn’t been on many job interviews, but this has to be one of the stranger ones.

“Fine. Whatever. It’s a break; you’ll take it,” Tony rolls his eyes and scribbles on what appears to be an inventory order form without actually looking at the paper. “Clint’ll walk you through the gig before we open—he’s been covering since Phil left—but you do not bother him when he’s behind the bar unless it’s an absolute emergency. Actually, you don’t bother anybody, period, because you’re staying at the door.”

“Got it.”

“You get a month’s probation at minimum wage—don’t look so surprised; there’s a reason people like working here in spite of me—and if it works out, we’ll bump you up to getting benefits or whatever. Don’t hit on the customers, don’t fucking drink on the job, and if you steal so much as a shot glass from me, I will have you out on the curb faster than you can blink.” Tony pauses for breath, though his pen is still moving, and adds, “Now’s the part where you say, ‘Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Stark.’”

Working here is either going to be awesome or terrible, Bucky figures. “Thanks. Uh, thank you. Really. Steve seems to like it here a lot, so…”

Tony gives him a funny look. “You know, I hate doing hiring searches anyway, but I’ve never had Steve Rogers sound so sure that I needed to hire someone I’d never met. That guy tells you someone’s a good pick, and, well…even I’m going to listen to him, you know? Although I don’t know how you can stand to room with that much sunshine.”

“You get used to it, I guess. He’s been that way since we were kids, so…”

“Anyway, as I was saying,” Tony continues. “Congrats, you have a job. Now get a damn razor—I don’t care what you look like as long as it seems intentional—and don’t make me regret hiring the sullen, one-armed hobo guy with no formal experience.” He rises from the barstool, pivots, and heads toward the back room in one swift motion.

“You forget the crazy eyes,’” Bucky calls after him.

Tony doesn’t even break his stride. “Believe me, I’m trying to.”

***

An hour later, after the paperwork is filled out, Steve arrives and ropes Bucky into helping him set up tables as the rest of the staff trickles in. Steve introduces people as they arrive, and Bucky finds it entertaining to finally have faces to put with the names he’s been hearing since he moved into Steve’s spare room.

Clint Barton, bartender and interim bouncer, turns out to be a square-jawed Southie native, Bucky’s height and maybe ten years older, with an easy grin and a thick Boston brogue that would make Ben Affleck jealous. Steve lets Bucky off of table duty to get the gist of being the “door guy,” which is a relief—Bucky’s remaining arm is in excellent shape, and he appreciates that Steve doesn’t treat him like an invalid, but pulling down chairs isn’t an action he’ll be executing with grace anytime soon.

“So, you ever done this kind of thing before?” Clint asks once they’ve run through how to recognize fake IDs and when to call the police.

Bucky shakes his head. “Three tours in Iraq, but I’m thinking this’ll be a lot more drunk college kids and not as many bombs.”

“Well…probably not, no,” Clint trails off.

Bucky follows his gaze to the “Boston Strong” poster hung by the door and flushes. “Sorry, I was just—I haven’t been back in town that long. Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s okay. Gets rough here, but nothing like what you had.”

“It’s, uh, not a competition,” Bucky says, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “So…the door? Tony said it was pretty much…don’t leave this spot, don’t let them in if they’re underage, and don’t bother anyone else who’s working.”

“That’s mostly it, yeah,” Clint nods. “Make sure you use the counter—can’t have too many people in here, you know, fire regulations, but Steve’ll let you know if it’s getting too full before that anyway. You hit his limit or the fire marshal’s, then it’s just a one-in-one-out gig. Anyone gives you lip, get in their face. Don’t hit ‘em, ‘cause that’s an easy ride to a lawsuit, but make ‘em think you will, and after nine or so make sure you got the police on speed-dial. Phil never had to call ‘em, but you never know.”

“That’s it?”

“What, you wanna role-play or some shit? Yeah, that’s it. Oh, and don’t fucking drink on the job. Tony’ll let you have whatever after we close, but you gotta be stone-cold sober on the job. Trust me, it’s not pretty otherwise.”

“That’s fine. Not a big drinker.”

“Seriously?” Clint’s eyes flicker to Bucky’s empty sleeve. “After—?”

Bucky shrugs. “I spent almost two months in the hospital after I lost it, and I’m still on way too many drugs for booze to be a good idea. It’s not that big a thing, but it’s easier to just not drink than it is to try to sneak around Steve.”

Clint snorts. “He’s a good guy, Steve. Talks a lot about you.”

“I’m lucky to have him. Wouldn’t have had anywhere else to go after I got discharged.”

“Everybody needs one of those friends.”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll meet Nat at some point—she’s mine.”

“Wicked,” Bucky says, with just enough of an accent to make Clint smile. “Mind helping me figure out how to deal with this flashlight and the IDs all at once?”

***

Bucky’s first night on the job is a Tuesday when the Red Sox aren’t playing, so the Tower & Shield is fairly quiet, and the most interesting thing that happens at the door is a random German guy whose passport appears to be out of date, until Bucky remembers the month and day are switched and feels like an idiot.

He hasn’t really spoken with most of the staff, but, after closing, Clint and Steve rally them for a quick welcome toast: Tony, Tony’s girlfriend-slash-business manager Pepper, Bruce the cook, and Steve’s team of servers—the industrious Rhodey, stern and silent Maria, and Steve’s friend Sam, whom Bucky vaguely remembers meeting once or twice before.

(He also vaguely remembers thinking that Sam’s temperament matched Steve’s much better than Bucky’s did these days, and that that was the kind of friend Steve should really have let live with him.)

It’s nice of them, anyway, even if Steve makes him toast with ginger ale and he doesn’t actually know any of his new coworkers yet. Around two, everyone finishes cleaning up and heads home. Steve nearly nods off mid-stride as they cross the bridge back to East Cambridge—poor guy has been burning the candle on both ends, between school and work—but Bucky, pockets heavy with change from his share of the tips and fingers sore from toying with ID cards, feels more awake than he can remember feeling in a while.

***

The following afternoon, Bucky’s helping Steve sort through new paper inventory when the back door creaks open and a redheaded woman steps through it with a sleepy, “Hey, Steve.”

Bucky ducks behind the bar faster than he would’ve thought possible, knocking an empty bottle off the counter in the process. Steve squats down next to him, without even offering Bucky the dignity of pretending that the bottle fell first.

“Any reason we’re hiding behind the bar, Buck?”

“You,” Bucky hisses, “You did not tell me that Natalia worked here!”

Steve looks confused. “You mean Natasha who just came in? I know I’ve talked about her before…she’s the one doing a Ph.D. at BU—”

“No, I mean Natalia—sukin syn, she must be going by her name in English. Well, fuck me.”

“Wait—the cultural trainer you had the thing with before you deployed back in…what? 2007?”

“Yes—wait, how do you even remember that?”

“And you didn’t keep in touch with her even though I kept telling you how happy you sounded on the phone?”

“It was only, like, a month or two, it wasn’t like…anyway, we ended things in a perfectly fine place…”

“Then why are we hiding behind the bar?”

“Beats me,” Natasha herself says from above them. “Nice to see you again, James.”

He winces but there’s not much else to do besides stand up, smile awkwardly, and say, “You, too. Sorry—I don’t do surprises so well these days.”

She glances at his pinned-up left sleeve so briefly he thinks he might have imagined it, and then turns to Steve. “Why didn’t you tell me your crazy veteran friend was James Barnes? Or give him fair warning, apparently.”

Steve is looking between the two of them like he’s not sure if he knows either. “As far as I can tell…he goes by Bucky but you knew him as James, and you go by Natasha but he knew you as Natalia. Don’t blame me for not keeping track of everyone’s aliases.” He throws up his hands in defeat and determinedly stalks toward the storeroom where the rest of the shipment is.

Bucky stares at the woman who’s been quietly haunting his dreams for the better part of a decade, and it’s gratifying that at least she’s staring right back at him.

She recovers first, though, and asks, “So, you’re the new bouncer? How’s that working out?”

“All one night of it? Fine, so far. Just nice to get out of the house for something other than physical therapy. Or occupational therapy. Or regular therapy, which just feels like an insult some days.”

“After two tours in Iraq?”

“Three—there was another one after you, uh, saw me off. And I don’t have PTSD or anything; it’s just a thing they make you do, especially after...” He shrugs his left shoulder in demonstration rather than finishing the sentence.

“That’s what Steve said—you’re fine with crowds and whatever, just…I believe “twitchy” was the word he used?”

“Yeah. And, uh… you’re in grad school, I guess? That’s great; I remember you wanted to do that.” He shoves his hand into the pocket of his jeans, hoping he looks more casual than awkward.

“Yeah, it’s all right. Stipend barely covers rent, though, thus the waitressing.”

“Steve said you were the reason all the servers like to split tips at the end of the night.”

She chuckles, and her smile takes him back several years. “Steve says nice things about everybody.” He thinks there might be a flirtatious edge to her tone.

“Well, if we’re having a good night, I get in on that pool now, so I hope it’s true.” Bucky smiles. It’s lucky he finally shaved.

“Only if you’re very good,” she replies as she turns to help with the table set-up, and this time there’s definitely a certain lilt in her voice. “See you around.”

He kneels back down to pick up the pieces of the bottle, but after about fifteen seconds hears Clint gawk, “Oh my god, Steve’s crazy hobo friend is your winter-2007 soldier?”

“He looked less homeless then,” Natasha says at the same time that Steve interrupts Clint with, “He’s not crazy—it’s just a ponytail!”

Bucky decides he’s definitely keeping the hair, and he doesn’t know what on Earth he’s supposed to do now that the woman he’d known as Natalia Romanova is apparently a semi-permanent fixture in his life again.

***

Once the Tower & Shield opens for the night, he doesn’t have a chance to wonder about Natasha. It’s a game day, and the crush of Red Sox fans doesn’t relent until the fourth inning. By the time Rhodey pops out to remind him that he’s overdue for a break, Bucky’s hand is starting to cramp from thumbing IDs. Around the back of the building, Bruce is also on break. It’s possible his cigarette is actually weed, but Bucky’s not about to say anything.

They sit silently on a wooden bench by the back door for a minute or so, before Bruce says, without turning his head, “It’s medicinal.”

“Okay.”

“Keeps me sane. Tony knows, so.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“Oh, okay.” Bruce exhales a small cloud of smoke.

According to Steve, Bruce makes great food, but he’s strictly not allowed near customers. The guy seems pretty chill; in Bucky’s experience, volatile people who like to start bar fights tend not to wear glasses. Still, that could just be the pot.

Bucky’s grateful for the quiet after the crowd at the door, but he can’t just sit here breathing Bruce’s exhalations for the next thirteen minutes. “So, how’d you end up working here?” When Bruce doesn’t respond, he tries again, “What’s it medicinal for?”

Bruce sighs mightily. “Anger management. I’m…I’ve got a temper. Like, hairline trigger kind of thing. Got booted from MIT a few years ago, and Tony was the only person who’d take a chance on me.”

“What were you doing at MIT?”

“Post-doc. Studying radiation, mainly. Not exactly relevant to this place, but I’d done enough cooking in life to know how to flip burgers,” he shrugs. “It’s a good gig, honestly. Haven’t had an outburst in a while now, and the pay’s decent. Keeps life interesting.”

“Do you miss it?”

“MIT?”

“Doing what you always thought you’d be doing,” Bucky catches himself as soon as the words leave his mouth, but Bruce just shrugs.

“Eh, I miss getting to pursue new knowledge. I don’t miss the egos—Tony’s aside—or academia, or undergrads, or tiny readings on poorly calibrated gauges that the RA didn’t clean the night before...” The hand holding his joint starts to shake, and Bruce falls silent again, inhaling and exhaling in a presumably calming rhythm. “And I like it here, even if it wasn’t where I planned to end up originally. Good people, you know?” Bucky, unsure of how to respond, just shrugs.

After a few minutes, Bruce asks, “So, how’s Day 2? Besides Natasha.”

“How do you—?“

“It’s not that big a place. Everyone knows everything; that’s just how it works. Also, Clint’s got a mouth.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky says, ignoring the other part of the question. “No trouble yet, but it sounds like it’ll start getting messier after the game, when it’s later and the only people here are getting wasted.”

“Sounds about right.  You okay with the, uh, arm thing?”

Bucky grins wryly. “What arm thing?”

“Fair enough,” Bruce chuckles. “Can I ask what happened? I know Steve said you’re a veteran.”

“Yeah…there’s not much to tell, though. I was guarding a supply convoy on the way back to Al Taji, we drove over one of those makeshift roadside bombs, and I woke up in a hospital a few days later with a stump coming out of my shoulder. That was…um, a little over a year ago.”

“But, I mean, you’re military. You got a Purple Heart or something, right?”

“Two, actually. The leg-shrapnel isn’t as noticeable.”

“So wouldn’t they hook you up with a decent prosthetic?”

Bucky shrugs again, jerking his empty sleeve. “The default one is pretty basic, and not that comfortable—too many straps and buckles—and it’s not much more useful than a hook. A lot of guys like me just go without. I’m on a couple of waiting lists for something fancier, but…”

“They’re expensive, and a lot of people want one?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, man, that sucks.”

“Yeah,” Bucky studies the other guy for a moment.

“You know, you seem kind of nonchalant about the whole one-armed thing. I mean, considering.”

“Well, it’s not like it’s going to grow back.”

Bruce laughs, an honest and unguarded chuckle that seems like it’s a rare expression for him. Bucky wonders exactly how bad the cook’s temper tantrums had been to leave that kind of mark, and then he catches himself trying to remember the last time he’d smiled in front of anyone besides Steve before yesterday.

He’d told Clint yesterday that trauma wasn’t a competition, but now he wonders if maybe it’s more like a team sport.

***

Bucky is unfortunately right about the latter part of the night—there’s a steady trickle of customers that isn’t so much overwhelming as increasingly drunk, and he’d forgotten about the particular brand of rich Masshole banker type that liked to slum it at a place like the Tower.

No one really talks to him beyond the occasional, “here” and “thank you,” but the ones who are clearly already a few drinks in stare openly at him, and a couple of the women in particular give him the sort of pitying look that he can’t stand. He’s mostly adjusted to functioning as he is, but sad looks from strangers make him want to claw through concrete.

It’s finally quiet about an hour before closing. Bucky’s exploring a new iPhone game when Natasha appears, dragging a middle-aged customer by his shirt collar. As soon as she’s clear of the door and Bucky’s stool, she gives the guy a hard shove, and he stumbles toward the curb but manages not to teeter over.

“Too drunk to stay?”

“Among other things,” she grimaces. “I have to go run his poor wife’s credit card. Try to make sure he doesn’t wander into oncoming traffic, but don’t try too hard.”

Bucky mock-salutes and then looks at Natasha more closely. “What did he do? Besides wobble?”

She sighs and runs a hand through her hair, which is as bright and borderline-unnaturally red as he remembers. “Not the first time I’ve had my ass slapped by an idiot downstairs, but having the wife sitting right there was new.”

Bucky feels his face cycle through about six different expressions at once, but all that comes out of his mouth is, “Are you sure he shouldn’t just be waiting in the street there? I could strategically flag down a bus or something.”

“Nah, his wife can deal with it. Although I may offer a couple of pointers, as long as she tips like she should after that display.”

The drunk is swaying back toward them, looking almost cartoonish. Bucky stands up to block the door—and Natasha—but the man just stops a few feet away and slurs, “Hold onto that ass, man. It’s a good one.”

“Right. That’s it,” Natasha says, and leaves, pulling the door shut behind her with a slam.

“You guys make such a good couple,” the man adds. “Your kids’ll have really big eyes. And matching angry faces!”

Bucky groans, half-hoping he’ll just throw a punch so that hitting him back will be justified.

***

The night ends with another round of drinks. Bucky chugs a glass of water and is surprised when Natasha places two glasses of soda on the bar in front of him and then drinks from one.

“Thanks. You’re not…” He gestures vaguely at Tony, who’s pushing shots of what might be tequila on Maria (who crosses her arms and glares), Rhodey (who accepts), and Clint (who accepts two).

“I’m not. It’s the constitution, don’t you remember?” she says in Russian.

He grins and switches languages, too. “How could I forget? But do you ever drink, with that attitude?”

“It’s never worth the effort to get properly drunk. You?”

“I only bleed for the Motherland on my mother’s side, and it’s always worth the effort to overcome that. The last year or two exempted, of course.”

“Right. Steve made it very clear that you were not to be served alcohol until you’re clean.”

“I’m not a drug addict!” he says. “I have a handful of shrapnel in my thigh and I lost an arm and I’m in three kinds of therapy. I’m allowed a couple of mood elevators.”

She leans away from him, taken slightly aback. “That’s not what I meant. It was just a joke.” After a moment, she adds, still in Russian, “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well,” he mutters in English.

“Hey!” Clint skids to a stop behind their stools and stares at Bucky. “You speak Russian?”

Bucky remembers belatedly that Clint had mentioned Natasha the night before, and he likes Clint thus far, so he replies as evenly as he can, “Yeah, my mom was from Novgorod. She taught me growing up—liked having someone to talk to.”

“That how you met Nat?”

“It was when I was still doing the cultural trainings in D.C.,” Natasha explains. “I had more of an accent then, so he started asking me questions in Russian. The rest of the class hated him, I think.”

“They were fine with it, once I got your number,” Bucky pointed out.

“Oh, I gave that to you?” she asks, too innocently. “You never did call it after that winter.”

“Seven-hour time difference between Washington and Baghdad, and you could’ve gotten the APO address for Camp Taji pretty easily.”

“Fair enough,” Natasha says, taking a long pull from her straw. Her eyes stay on Bucky.

“Am I interrupting something?” Clint asks.

Bucky honestly isn’t sure, but Natasha laughs beautifully and shakes her head.