Death does not come free of charge, for it costs us our life.
Bucky knocked on the door, then took one step back to wait. He could hear movement inside, some scuffling and a woman’s voice with a firm but loving tone. Domestic sounds - sounds he suspected he would never be intimately familiar with in his own life. He’d only ever hear them like this - from the outside.
The door opened with a creak and a tiny brunette gave him a bright, if tired, smile after a moment’s consideration.
“Thank you so much for coming, Sergeant Barnes.”
“No. Oh god no. Bucky. Please.”
“Bucky,” Laura Barton agreed with a smile.
He tamped down the urge to shift his weight. It would be a tell, letting her know he was uncomfortable, which would make her uncomfortable. Or worse - make her want to fix his discomfort. “Heard you needed help with some boxes?”
Laura nodded and opened the door wider, letting him into the house. He poked around, instinctively checking the sightlines, counting the exits, finding the blindspots and adjusting his posture accordingly. Laura merely smiled, as though she expected this behavior, and lead the way through the large living room, past the kitchen, and down a hall to a small bedroom at the back of the house. There were no photographs on the walls, but everything still felt...personal. Like people actually lived here and it wasn’t just a safehouse or a cover.
Which made sense, as people did actually live here and it wasn’t a safehouse or a cover.
Bucky shook his head. How in the world Clint Barton of all people ended up the most normal of any of the people he's met in this new century was a mystery, but it's not like he actually knew the man all that well. Maybe more of his personality was a front than anyone realized.
Or maybe Bucky’s ability to relate to other people was left somewhere in a trench in Europe. It was hard to say.
Laura stood to the side and made a soft, jerking motion with her head towards the room. "He's inside," she said quietly. "He's...well. You'll see." With that, she turned and left him.
Bucky slowly, silently entered the room. Clint was sitting on the neatly made bed, the quilted bedspread slightly mussed from Clint's movements. There were a few boxes around the room, cluttering the space, but otherwise the room was fairly empty.
"Hey," Bucky said quietly, not wanting to startle the archer. Clint looked like he was a thousand miles away right now, and Bucky was not entirely sure he'd welcome being roughly catapulted back to Earth.
Clint blinked a few times, then his sight focused on Bucky.
Bucky looked around. "What's all this? These the boxes you needed help with?"
Clint's smile was bitter and broken. "Yeah."
The boxes weren’t big and probably weren’t heavy. Even if Clint was hiding a moderate injury (and who wasn’t, here in the aftermath), they didn't look like something he couldn't handle on his own or with Laura's help. But Clint wasn't elaborating and Bucky was going to have to use his words, apparently.
"What do you need?"
Clint ran a hand through his mess of a haircut. The stupid style he'd cut it into while he was...doing his ninja thing...was finally growing out, but it would be awhile before Bucky would stop laughing at him. Internally, of course - Bucky knew better than to laugh in the face of a man who could impale him with an arrow from over a mile away without breaking a sweat.
"Laura, she's..." Clint started, then huffed. "Nat left a will."
Bucky blinked. That...was unexpected. Not of Natasha, necessarily. He barely knew her. But if Clint needed help sorting out something as mundane as a will, Bucky would never have expected to be the person he’d call.
"You knew her," Clint continued. It wasn't a question. Bucky knew that Clint and Natasha had been close, but he didn't realize that they were the kind of close that prompted Natasha to share the details of her past.
"I...knew her," he confirmed slowly. “Briefly. A very long time ago.”
"Laura seems to think that I'm not prepared to go through all this on my own," Clint said, nodding at the boxes. "Thought having someone else here who knew Nat might be good."
"Natasha had boxes?" Bucky asked, unable to keep the skepticism out of his voice. It was unlike the Widow to be sentimental.
"A lot has changed since I pulled her out of that hellhole in Russia," Clint snapped. Then he grit his teeth and softened his voice. "She left most of it to the kids. Money, things we could liquidate to pay for college or whatever. But..."
"But there are certain things the Black Widow held onto that weren't meant for children?"
Clint glared at him. "Don't do that."
"Don't do what?" he replied flatly, aware that he wasn’t fooling the archer at all.
"Don't reduce her to that. She was so much more than-"
"You think I don't know that?" Bucky snapped.
"I don't know what you know," Clint spat.
Bucky sighed and motioned to the spot next to Clint. Clint shifted slightly and Bucky sat down on the bed next to him. He was quiet for a moment, then decided to offer up a tiny bit of history as a peace offering.
"I didn't know her well. And what I did know was a very long time ago." Bucky shook his head. "I'm...I'm not sure I'm the right person to help you with this."
"She didn't have anyone else," Clint whispered.
Bucky snorted. "Now that is definitely not true."
"Laura. Steve. Sam. Whatshername - Hill. Banner. Sharon Carter. Nick Fury. I heard she and the raccoon were close by the end. Pick one." Bucky shook his head. "You don't need me for this."
"Bucky..." Clint said, his voice breaking a little. And that’s when the truth hit him. Clint didn’t need Bucky’s help to go through things from who Natasha was now. He needed Bucky’s help with the things left behind from who Natasha was then. The bits and pieces left over from a scared little girl forced to grow up way too fast, who had been willing to do anything to get out of a bad situation. Clint wasn’t prepared to face those bits alone again, and had reached out to the only other person who had been there to see them for help.
He sighed. "She was fifteen years old when she got out."
"When you got her out," Clint argued.
Bucky closed his eyes and counted to ten. "That's not...She got herself out. Nothing would have changed if I hadn't been there."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Bucky didn't respond, letting the silence settle into the room. He didn't have any response for Clint, so he didn't try for one. The entire conversation was dredging up a lot of memories that he had feelings about - memories he hadn’t quite put behind him yet, feelings he hadn’t quite worked though. Silence was the only safe option he had at the moment.
The smell of a damp, dark room hung in his memories as though he were still standing in the middle of it, instead of a farmhouse in Iowa. He forced his eyes to remain open, terrified that if he closed them, he’d be pulled under and thrust back in time. Back to the day he’d been dispatched to kill a Black Widow. The Black Widow. The only trainee with any humanity left in her eyes when they fought.
She hadn’t made it far before he found her. Having seen her opportunity and taken it, she ran as quickly and quietly as she could, with the desperate hope that she’d make it far enough to disappear before someone had been sent to fetch her. Before he had been sent to deal with her.
The little redheaded spider he’d trained, the one with so much talent, so much promise. And too much damn heart for the horrors of the Red Room.
His own handlers weren’t far behind them, he knew that. But he’d also spotted a lone SHIELD agent in the area. Young enough to still have a few ideals left. Young enough to not have had all of the humanity burned out just yet.
Old enough to know when to disobey a kill order.
A knife flew past his head as he entered, nicking his ear and embedding itself into the wall. He raised one eyebrow at her and she mirrored his expression in response.
“Are you here to kill me?”
“It’s me or the SHIELD agent outside.”
“Only the two of you? At least I know what you think of me then.” Her hands trembled, belaying her words, as she turned to the window, pressing against the wall to keep herself out of sight. Her back was to him. A surprising display of trust from her.
“Others will follow me,” he warned. “You don’t have much time.”
Clint shifted and pulled the closest box into his lap, pulling Bucky out of the memory. “Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered. He flicked open a knife and quickly cut the tape on the box. He opened it and peered inside, his breath catching. Clint choked on a sob and pushed the box into Bucky’s lap, then lowered his face into his hands.
Bucky carefully turned away, giving Clint a moment. He looked inside the box.
“How much do you remember?” she asked.
He didn’t answer and instead pulled off his jacket. “Use this to cover your hair. Change it as soon as you can.”
She accepted the jacket but didn’t put it on. “Come with me.”
“You don’t belong here any more than I do.” She waited a beat, clearly assessing him - seeing just how many lights were on at home today. “I don’t know how much of you is in there today. But I’ve heard the rumors. And that SHIELD agent outside might be very interested in bringing home an American POW.”
He could feel his heart pound in his chest at the thought. It wasn’t that she was right...but he wasn’t sure she was wrong either. He didn’t remember where he came from. They’d ensured that. But there was something there, in a dusty corner of his memory, long neglected by everyone, that suggested maybe she was right.
Or maybe she was playing with him, to use him later as bait or leverage. It was hard to say.
They’d trained her well, after all.
A loud thud outside the window startled them before he could decide on an answer. He flattened himself against the wall next to the window and surreptitiously looked outside.
His handlers had arrived.
Her lip quirked. “Time’s up,” she said, knowingly.
“Not quite. Put the jacket on. The SHIELD agent is on the roof of the next building over.”
She looked skeptical. Good. A healthy sense of skepticism might keep her alive. “You know him?”
She didn’t say anything, just put the jacket on and zipped it closed. He checked the window again. Not long now.
“How do you want to do this?”
“You’re going up. I’m going down.”
She blinked, the first sign of surprise he’d seen from her. “You’re-”
“I taught you better than that, Widow.”
“Natalia,” she insisted. Pled.
Bucky blinked as he peered into the box. Inside, was the jacket he’d given her to cover her escape. When he’d traded himself for her freedom. The jacket she would have been wearing when she met Clint.
The smart thing to do would have been to ditch it at the first opportunity. The Red Room and HYDRA both were fond of both boobytraps and tracking devices. Sentimentality was not a trait that kept one alive. Keeping the jacket was exceptionally stupid.
Natasha Romanoff had never been stupid.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out too that day,” Clint said as Bucky pulled the jacket out of the box.
Bucky shook his head. “Someone had to lose that fight.”
Clint shrugged. “Didn’t have to be you.”
“What was the other option?” Bucky shoved the jacket back in the box. “What else is here?” he asked, putting an end to the conversation. There was no use in dwelling on what might have been. It was done, it was over, and there was no changing it now.
Clint shook his head. “Not today. I...just not today.”
Bucky stared at him for a moment. “I can take the boxes, if-”
There was a knock at the door. A young brunette leaned in. “Dad? Mom needs some help. Nate got into the finger paints again.”
“Yeah,” Clint replied, his voice cracking. “Be right there, Lila. Thanks.”
Bucky felt Lila's eyes on him as she gave him a long look before disappearing into the hallway, leaving the two men alone once again. Clint set the box on the floor and stood up, rubbing his eyes. “You stickin’ around for dinner?”
Bucky to a moment to draw in a deep breath and felt some of the weight in the room drift away. “I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
“Good.” Clint grasped Bucky’s shoulder for a moment, then left the room, leaving Bucky alone with Natasha’s boxes.
He thought about opening them, going through and sparing Clint the reminders. He wasn’t sure he would be able to do it though.
Bucky looked to the door, to see Laura standing there, looking helplessly at the boxes.
“No one’s ever ready.”
Laura gave him a small, sad smile. “No. I guess not.”
Bucky stood up. “Do you want me to get these out of here? Take them with me when I leave? Clint said no, but if you want, I could...do something with them, I guess.”
“What do you want?”
Bucky didn’t know how to answer that. He hadn’t been able to answer that question since the 1940s. Maybe not even then.
After a few moments, Laura answered for him. “No one uses this room. They’re not hurting anything staying here.”
“I can’t be sure there isn’t anything here that the kids-”
Laura snorted. “If there’s one house on the planet where you do have to worry about that, it’s this one.”
Bucky nodded, still unsure, but he was willing to take her word for it. She would know her own family best.
“You know,” Laura said, “Nat meant a lot to me and the kids, too. If you ever want to talk.”
Talking was the last thing he wanted to do, but the gesture was appreciated. And hell, Laura seemed to have life figured out much better than anyone else he knew - maybe her idea had merit. “It’s...complicated. But thank you. I’m…” he sighed as his voice trailed off. “I’m not sure I even remember how to grieve,” he muttered.
“Well, maybe we could help with that, too,” she offered. “Now. Are you staying for dinner? I made spaghetti and plenty of it.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Good. Then you can set the table.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll be right in.”
Laura gave him a look. “Your ass isn’t in that kitchen in three minutes and I’m not going to be happy about it.”
Bucky smiled. “Understood.” Laura gave him a nod and then left to return to the kitchen.
He looked around at the boxes again. He lightly kicked the box with the jacket in it, sending it sliding. It bumped the corner of the bed and spun, revealing writing on the side, in a familiar hand.
He knelt down to read what she might have labeled the box.
“Bucky Barnes, don’t make me come back there!” Laura called from the kitchen.
The breath caught in his chest and he forced himself to stand. He felt a small smile pull at his lips.
Natasha hated debts. It might have taken her almost 25 years, but she was finally pulling him out, not letting him sacrifice himself all over again.
“Thanks, Red,” he muttered. “Know it all pain in the ass.” He went to the door and looked back at the boxes. The sound of the Barton family gathering in the kitchen beckoned.
He shut the door.