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re: I'm keeping him.

Chapter Text

The man named Steve and the man named Sam Wilson have to go on a mission.

You haven't been told what it is and you don't ask -- you know they can't tell you. If you know you might try to go after the man named Steve and there are too many failsafes and guards for you to be successful. You can't go with them because the therapists say you shouldn't be around weapons and violence. You know that if you go with them you will steal a rifle and slip to the comforting heights of a rooftop and take out anything that gets near the man named Steve. Pop, pop, pop, and they'll go down like broken dolls. Someone will shoot you with a dart and you'll wake up in the residential care place and never wake up in the middle of the night to find the man named Steve standing guard over your nightmares again.

You can't stay by yourself, either, because you still forget to eat and sleep or do anything but wait for your next order.

The three of you -- the man named Steve, the man named Sam Wilson, and you yourself -- are at the kitchen table holding a discussion about what to do with you. It's nice that they include you, but very strange. You don't say anything about it, because the man named Steve will get a pinched look around his his mouth, and the man named Sam Wilson will patiently remind you that humans are allowed to decide things. You are allowed to decide things because you are a human, he will say, and you will think,

Allegedly. Allegedly human.

The man named Sam Wilson says, "We can probably do, well, respite, at the residential care place. They owe us a favor and they like JB."

'Respite' means the man named Steve is too tired. You like the nurses and the staff there, but you hate that it means that the man named Steve is too tired. You'd almost rather stay there all the time, like they thought you might have to, but if you did you couldn't pad softly around the brownstone late at night to make sure it was secure. You couldn't take watch while the man named Steve slept.

"I don't like it," says the man named Steve. "Everything's been going so well lately and if someone --" he means the man named Phillip Coulson, who came back to life "-- finds out he's staying there, they might ..."

"Yeah," says the man named Sam Wilson, rubbing his face with his hand. "And besides, I bet someone would love to take this prime opportunity to evaluate you while Captain America isn't there to look disapproving."

'Evaluation' is worse than 'respite'. SHIELD and the government keep trying to bring you in for it -- not the gentle way that the residential care place or the therapists do it, to see if you are making progress at becoming a human again, but to see if you are still the Winter Soldier. They do it because they want to make you their weapon, or their scapegoat. Maybe both.

"What if --" says the man named Sam Wilson, "what if he could, well, stay at the Tower?"

It's the man named Steve's turn to rub his face with his hand. "I hate to owe Tony another favor."

You don't like the man named Tony Stark. He's loud and - and - and short, and tries to get you to agree to stupid ideas about your metal arm.

"It's probably our best option," says the man named Sam Wilson tiredly. "Clint and Tash are both going with us."

And the Tower has the AI who is named JARVIS, you think, and not even the man named Phillip Coulson, who came back to life, or his new SHIELD, or any government in the world can argue that you are left unsupervised. "I don't care," you say.

Both the man named Steve and the man named Sam Wilson look at you, and then at each other. You know that silent conversation look. You remember dimly you used to be able to read Steve Rogers at a glance, and he could look back at Bucky Barnes and know exactly what he was thinking too.

"If you're sure," says the man named Steve.

You lift one shoulder, and put it down again. You don't want to say you're afraid of going back to the residential care place, because you're not, exactly: you're afraid that someone will come while you are there and force the staff and the nurses, who are kind to you, to let them evaluate you again.

"I'll call Tony," says the man named Steve. He pulls out his phone, puts it on the table. "Begin call: Tony Stark private line."

The phone rings once, twice, and then a tiny hologram appears above the phone. "Cap," says the man named Tony Stark. "Sam! Robocicle. What's up."

The man named Tony Stark takes some convincing but after the man named Steve promises cross his heart and hope to die stick a thousand needles in his eyes that he will let the man named Tony Stark design a new uniform for him and he won't even say a word about how tight the trousers are, and the man named Sam Wilson crosses his heart and swears Scout's Honor that he won't tell the man named Colonel James Rhodes about the time with the whiskey and the graduating class of the Air Force Academy, ever, so help him, on his momma's pie.

You and the man named Steve snort in unison, because if there is one thing you both remember, it is that Air Force graduates are weak. The man named Sam Wilson gives you the evil eye and you keep quiet, even though the man named Steve looks happy that you made fun of the man named Sam Wilson, however briefly.

The man named Tony Stark doesn't ask any promises from you. He stares at you for a long minute from the hologram, and then he says, "Pepper's going to be home all week."

The man named Steve swallows hard and says, "I -- understand if you feel uncomfortable --"

"Nah," says the man named Tony Stark. "Pep can take care of herself." He lifts both eyebrows. "Are you going to be okay around a lady for a week, Vanilla Ice?"

You haven't been around a lady that isn't a nurse or a staff member or a therapist or the woman called Natasha Romanoff since -- since the lady named Peggy Carter, who Steve Rogers had loved. You don't say anything.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," says the man named Tony Stark. "Unfortunately you're right, Rogers, if you take Barnes to the residential care facility I am seeing an 83% chance of someone moving in to 'evaluate' him." His eyebrows lift as he says 'evaluate'. "And I owe more people than you want to know a bad turn, so I'll start by inviting Freezer Burn over there to stay with my sweet ladyfriend and dare them to say anything about it." He smiles. "Bring him along and we'll leave from the Tower tomorrow," he says. The hologram snaps out.

The man named Sam Wilson lets out an explosive breath. "Remind me not to get on that dude's bad side," he says.

"He really prefers to get even," agrees the man named Steve. He drags his fingers through his hair, and you want to go to him and smooth the ruffled silk of his hair. Don't worry about it, Stevie, says the echo in your head. We'll figure it out. "It's just not fair," says the man named Steve.

"If life was fair a lot of things would be different, man," says the man named Sam Wilson, not unkindly. "Riley wouldn't be dead, and we wouldn't be friends."

The man named Steve looks down, and his shoulders slump. "Sorry, Sam," he says quietly.

You think Bucky Barnes would have known what to do. He would have ruffled Steve Rogers' gold hair, cuffed him on the back of his dear head, but gently. Life ain't so bad anyway, is it, he would have said, and Steve Rogers would have looked at him and tried to smile at Bucky Barnes.

The thing you are now stands silently until the man named Steve Rogers looks up. "Aww -- jeez, Bucky," he says. "I'm all right. Really and truly, I am."

The man named Sam Wilson snorts, but doesn't bother to argue with him. "We gotta get packed. JB, you need to get your stuff put together, too. I'll come help after I get done. Hang on --" he grabs one of the notepads from the therapist's office that the man named Steve took to doodle on while he waited for you, and begins scribbling.

The man named Steve reads over the man named Sam Wilson's shoulder as he writes. "Pillow and blanket?"

"Yeah," says the man named Sam Wilson. "That way you know it's the type you like, and plus it smells like home."

You wait for the man named Sam Wilson to rip off the page and hand it to you. You look at it and hand it back to him.

"Oh, no," says the man named Sam Wilson and hands it back to you. "I know you got your freaky super memory and all, but today is the day you relearn the pleasure of crossing shit off a list."

You stare at him with your flattest expression for a long moment, and then slowly and deliberately fold the paper into a small square, put it in your mouth, and chew.

"Bucky!" says the man named Steve.

The man named Sam Wilson makes the worst face you have ever seen, even counting four year old Russian assassin trainees.

You keep staring at him while you thoroughly and methodically grind the paper between your molars. You swallow.

"That," says the man named Sam Wilson, sounding reluctantly impressed, "was the grossest thing I have ever seen."

"Is it going to hurt him?" says the man named Steve.

This is such a manifestly stupid thing to say that both you and the man named Sam Wilson just stare at him.

"If it gives him a stomach ache, he deserves it," says the man named Sam Wilson.

"Tastes like your cooking," you tell the man named Steve.

Chapter Text

You pace the perimeter of the brownstone most of the night, but when the man named Steve gets up and sits down with his sketchbook, you lie on the floor near him and manage an hour or two of sleep.

You wake up when the man named Sam Wilson comes into the room. He's dressed in dull colors, brown and green and gray. They don't suit him but they make him look very capable and serious. He's already in the underpadding for his wings. The man named Steve gets up and sets his art supplies aside, passing the man named Sam with a quick smile and a grip on his shoulder.

When he comes back, he's in the dark blue undersuit of his uniform. His blond hair flashes gold sparks in the cold dawn light. Your chest feels tight, and you have to look away.

"Better get your stuff, Buck," he says softly. You don't know why he's speaking so quietly, when all of you are awake, but somehow it feels right.

The man named Sam Wilson is in the kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator and cupboards. You hear him turn on the sink and the sound of water falling into a glass.

You get up and go to the bathroom and wash your face and brush your teeth like they taught you at the residential care place and comb your hair into a neat, low ponytail. The man named Steve won't have time to braid it for you.

You go into your bedroom and pick up the fuzzy blanket the staff at the residential care place gave you when you left, but you hesitate over your pillow. You pick it up.

You can hear the man named Steve and the man named Sam Wilson talking in low voices as they move around in the kitchen. You set your mouth and creep into the hall, pushing the door of the man named Steve's room open with silent care. You creep in and pick up his pillow and a dirty shirt from his laundry, and set your own pillow on his bed. He might not notice. You both use the same linens, plain white cotton. You ghost back to your room and shove his shirt in your duffel and set his pillow on top of your fuzzy blanket, take a deep breath, and walk out as if you never dreamed of such a thing as stealing a pillow because you are weak and you will miss his scent.

When you come into the kitchen, carrying your things, the man named Sam Wilson has your medication box on the kitchen table and is quickly and expertly shaking pills into each little box. You have to take a lot of pills. Before, when you were a weapon, they put the medicine in a needle and into your vein, but now that you are a human you have to take four or five pills four or five times a day. There are vitamins and anti-depressants and things to make reality more real and to give you an appetite again. There are painkillers because of your arm and pills to make your gut work as it should. There are pills to help you sleep and to make the panic attacks stop.

It's not that you don't understand why you have all these pills. It's just that there's so many of them, all the time.

The man named Sam Wilson finishes up and hands you the case. The rest of the pills go back in the medicine cabinet with the lock, and you put the case in your duffel bag.

The man named Steve picks up the case for his shield and goes into the foyer. He opens the door and the three of you step into the cold dawn air.

You occupy yourself on the car ride to the Tower with keeping track of where a sniper or tail would be. You're still pretty good at it, although the woman called Natasha Romanoff likes to surprise you. You've surprised her a few times as well, but you don't like startling people on purpose, especially if you like them, so you always end up giving yourself away before she stiffens up at your presence.

You lose track after a while, because there's too many good sniper spots, and instead you consider how you would cover the man named Steve and the man named Sam Wilson. If you could grab the man named Steve's shield, you could shove the man named Sam Wilson under it and block a clear shot at the man named Steve at the same time. If you held it with your right hand and used your metal hand to protect your head, you could probably get them to safety in time to go after the sniper before they had a chance to run.

You see a tail from the agency called SHIELD, one from what you're pretty sure is the CIA, and another from Russia, but you don't say anything. The man named Steve picks up on at least one of them, because his mouth goes all tight again.

"Assholes," says the man named Sam Wilson from the driver's seat.

You shrug.

The man named Steve has his phone out and is typing a text message. You look over, of course, and he leans back so you can see more clearly. Get that tail off us or I swear I will make you sorry, he texts the man named Phillip Coulson, who came back to life.

After about five minutes the tail from SHIELD breaks off and the man named Steve puts his phone away. His mouth is still set tight and grim, so you know he sees the other tails too.

"This," says the man named Sam Wilson, "this, right here, is why you are willing to owe Stark another favor."

The man named Steve lets out an explosive breath, and looks out the window.

The other tails veer off when they realize that you are heading for the Tower. They're probably reporting to their masters, but you can't do anything about that. The man named Sam WIlson turns the car into the massive parking garage of the Tower. The light on the dashboard of the car flashes and a door rolls slowly open in front of you. The man named Sam WIlson drives through it and into the private section of the parking garage. The door closes again and the man named Sam Wilson parks the car next to a beautiful vintage Harley-Davidson. It's not the man named Steve's, although it has a carefully rendered eagle holding an American flag in it's talons airbrushed on the side, and the leather fittings are red. The hubcaps of the wheels are shaped like stars.

"Tony thinks he's hilarious," says the man named Steve, glowering at the bike.

"Wait, that's his idea of a joke?" says the man named Sam Wilson. "Damn, he can pull that sort of prank on me any day."

You think it looks pretty good too, but the man named Steve is muttering under his breath and you know that he's probably offended by the bright chrome of the leather's brads. Or the way the eagle has a banner in it's beak that says TRUTH JUSTICE AND THE AMERICAN WAY!, because the man named Steve hates Superman with all his heart.

The man named Steve has a newer, comparatively cheap Harley-Davidson bike, which is painted navy and has black leather fittings. He won't bring it to the Tower for fear of the man named Tony Stark improving it.

The man named Sam Wilson pops the trunk of the car and you all carry your bags to the elevator that has silently opened its doors for you. You don't like elevators at all, but you set your jaw and endure it until the doors slide open again. "Good morning, Captain, Major, Sergeant," says a male voice from nowhere. You flinch instinctively and the man named Steve puts his hand out -- not grabbing you, but offering you space behind him, if you need it. "Mr Stark will meet you in the penthouse when you have put your belongings in your suites."

"What," says the man named Sam Wilson, and the AI named JARVIS lights up two doors, one on either side of the hallway. One has a falcon in mid-stoop on a screen beside the door. The other has the man named Steve's shield and a red star on a dark-gray circle, rotating each other, on the screen beside it.

The man named Sam Wilson says, "Huh," and goes to door marked with the falcon. When he reaches out to the handle a blue light forms a matrix and the voice from the ceiling says, "Biometric lock : Samuel Wilson recognized." The door slides open and you see a room full of dark, tasteful leather furniture and wood, lightened with white pottery and the tall windows that cover the wall.

"Holy shit," says the man named Sam Wilson. He goes further in and you lose sight of him. The man named Steve looks at you, and you look back at him. You take a step forward toward the other door and reach your hand out. The light matrix forms and the voice says, "Biometric lock : James Barnes recognized." The man named Steve steps forward and the voice says, "Biometric lock : Steven Rogers recognized."

The door slides open just as the man named Sam Wilson reappears. He says, "Holy shit, you guys, there's an infinity pool and the biggest fucking flat screen I've seen in my life in there--" before his voice dies away.

The apartment is not as immediately impressive as the one that the man named Sam Wilson just came out of. In front of you is a living area with several soft couches and armchairs covered in warm velvet. There's afghans and squashy throw pillows everywhere; velvet ones and quilted ones and crocheted and knitted ones too. Green plants fill the tables and the spaces between the huge windows. One window has a small easel and cabinet with art supplies already set up. There's bookshelves set into the walls, full of books and small bits of pottery and statuettes.

The kitchen lies just behind the main living area, with a cooking island and copper-bottomed pots hanging within easy reach. There's a giant refrigerator and a beautiful maple table with rush-bottomed chairs.

It is, you realize, exactly the sort of place that Bucky Barnes would have made for Steve Rogers, if he could have.

The walls are painting a pale cream, hung with pictures that the man named Steve stares at, gaping. "That's -- that's a real Picasso sketch," he says, dazed. "What --"

"I thought it would be nice to have them somewhere they'd be appreciated," says a voice behind you. You turn around.

A lady with red hair, almost gingery, dressed in white and holding a tablet in her hand, smiles at you. "I'm glad to see you, Steve, Sam," she says, and looks at you. "You must be James. My name is Virginia Potts, but everybody calls me Pepper."

Chapter Text

The man named Steve goes over to her and offers her his hand. "Miss Potts, I don't know what to say. I --"

The lady named Miss Potts offers him her cheek to kiss instead, which he does as if he isn't sure that he's awake. "Don't be silly, Steve, Tony doesn't appreciate this and I know you will." She accepts a kiss from the man named Sam as well, and looks at you with calm, friendly eyes. She offers you her hand and you take it in yours and drop it as quickly as possible, in case you make her shatter. "It's very kind of you," you tell her.

"Not really," she says. She smiles thinly. "I owe some people a bad turn too."

You can accept that.

The man named Steve, the man named Sam Wilson, the man named Tony Stark, the woman called Natasha Romanov and the man named Clint Barton all leave from the rooftop about two hours later. You and the lady called Miss Potts watch from the penthouse windows as the quinjet lifts up and takes off in a flash of arc-reactor light.

You don't say anything. You watch it until it disappears from sight, and then you turn away from the window.

The lady named Miss Potts looks at you with her kind, sharp eyes. "Would you like to have supper with me, James?" she says.

"No, thank you, Miss Potts," you say, carefully polite. Humans are supposed to be polite. You have a dim memory, almost the memory of a memory, that you are supposed to be polite to ladies. The man named Steve is always polite to everybody, even people who don't deserve it.

She studies you for a long moment and then says, "Tomorrow, then?"

You lift up one shoulder and drop it again.

"Hmm," she says. "Please call me Pepper, though."

This is such a blatant impossibility that you don't even bother responding to it. You take an uneasy step toward the door, and another, and she says, "Have a good day, James," and you take it as the permission it is to flee from the penthouse and into the elevator, and the AI who is named JARVIS doesn't bother to ask where you want to go. You bolt from the elevator and into the suite of rooms the man named Tony Stark has made for you and the man named Steve, and you find, by instinct, the pillow and the shirt and the blanket you brought from the brownstone and you crawl into the safest corner you can find.

You don't know how much time passes. The only thing you are aware is a constant, dull misery, of not being in your familiar place, filled with familiar scents and the man named Steve moving softly around and coming to sit with you sometimes, near and solid and expecting nothing. You hunch into his shirt, breathing in his scent, except for when you push it away, because you are afraid the scent will fade or because you are angry because you need it so much. Sometimes both all at once.

The first thing you hear is a soft chime. "Sergeant Barnes," says the AI who is named JARVIS. "Sergeant Barnes, sir, it is time for your medication."

You look up, faintly distracted from your dull misery. A tiny robot on large wheels trundles up to you. It's holding the compartment of your medicine case that you need and a sealed bottle of water. It's probably the tiniest, least threatening creature you have ever seen. It burbles at you and extends the bottle of water and your medication to you. You reach out to it and and touch the chassis gently.

"May I suggest, sir, that you consider taking one of your rescue medications," says the AI who is named JARVIS.

You really don't want to -- taking them means you're weak, you have to have help, you hate it, you hate it, but you know you should.That the man named Steve and the nurses would tell you that you ought. You take the pill case and the water from the tiny robot and swallow your pills all at once with a bit of the water. You stand up slowly and follow the tiny robot's encouraging burbles and chirps to where your duffel is.

Your rescue medication is packed separately, foil packed, with a place to write the date and time you took one. You've never taken one without the man named Steve or a nurse or the man named Sam WIlson to help you pop the pill out and sign your initials for it. You set your mouth and write the time, date, and JBB on the space for it, pop the pill out, and put it under your tongue.

It dissolves in a rush of gritty false-sweetness. You follow the little robot's dancing pace to the room set aside for you, and sit down on the bed. It rolls out again, chirping to itself.

Your head feels lighter. You still want to hide, but it seems less important now. The tiny robot reappears, officiously tugging your soft blanket, pillow, and the man named Steve's shirt after it. It rolls up to the bed and chirps imperiously at you. It lifts up the bundle as far as you can, and you reach over and pick it up. You slowly lower yourself to lie down on the bed, and take a deep, shuddering breath in. The robot chirps again and you roll enough to look down at it. It's tugging irritably on the comforter you're lying on, so you move enough to let the robot pull it to the end of the bed. Then it waits again, like it wants you to do something, and you listen to it chirp and burble until it finally occurs to you to lie down again. It jerks at the comforter until it's halfway up to your waist, and you pull it up over your shoulders. The pillow, blanket and shirt make a lumpy ball in your arms.

The robot trills. You know it's just a machine, but it sounds pleased.

Your eyelids are heavy. You close your eyes, just for a moment.

When you open them again, the room is filled with golden light. The west windows show a glory of sunset behind the outlines of the city buildings. The man named Steve would stand and stare at it until the light faded into nothing.

Even, you, now, can admit that it is beautiful.

Your head is heavy and everything -- sight, sound, scent -- seems over saturated. You know it will pass soon but it's unpleasantly dreamlike. You sit up slowly and the tiny robot, which has apparently been keeping watch over you, whirs up and chirps at you again. You get up and follow it to the bathroom, where it beeps and twirls until you wash your face, and then into the kitchen of your quarters.

There's chicken and rice, some sort of broth, and juice waiting for you. You force yourself to take a bite and then discover that you are ravenously hungry.

"It is seven pm, Sergeant Barnes," says the AI who is named JARVIS. "Captain Rogers has left you a video message. Miss Potts would like to reiterate her invitation for supper with you, and Dr Thompson has left an audio message to remind you that you are meeting her at the cafe downstairs tomorrow and to call her promptly if you feel at all in need of support. I have taken the liberty of telling Captain Rogers you will call him soon, Miss Potts that you believe you will stay in your suite tonight but may come for supper tomorrow, and Dr Thompson that you are doing as well as could be expected."

"Thank you," you say. Your voice is hoarse. You clear your throat. "And the little robot. Thank you for."

"Sir is developing them for the health care market," says the AI who is named JARVIS."It is the Mark VII of its development cycle."

"Seven?" you say, looking down at the little robot spinning and chirping to itself.

"Mark I to VI are either in private homes or facilities, sir. Mark VII is merely the one we happened to have available. If you wish it to leave your area --"

"No," you say. "It's -- I like it."

"I am glad to hear that, sir," the Ai who is named JARVIS replies.

You don't want to go see the lady named Miss Potts and you don't know if you can talk to the man named Steve yet because his absence hurts, dully. "Can you -- can you tell me about the little robot?"

"Of course, sir," says the AI that is named JARVIS, and you eat your meal and listen to his calm, friendly voice, and you watch the little robot spin and chirp to itself, and for a little while, the inside of your head is quiet.

Chapter Text

The little robot wakes you up by piping reveille shrilly just before your alarm goes off, and dodges the pillow you fling at it gleefully.

"Good morning, sir," says the AI named JARVIS.

"Can the little robot --" You stop and run your tongue over the roof of your mouth. It tastes terrible. "I can't, I can't hurt it?"

"The Mark VII chassis is designed using the same alloys as Sir's suit, Sergeant. Mark V was the first with this design, and survived a patient suffering a psychotic episode and a ten story drop, sir."

That makes you feel better. "Can it defend itself? Or - or other people?"

"I have full confidence in it, sir," says the AI named JARVIS.

The little robot is already bored with this discussion and reaches up a pincher and starts pulling your covers off. "Quit it!" you say, surprised, and the little robot makes a surprisingly rude noise and continues tugging.

It nags you out of the bed, into the shower, and plays a shrill beeping version of "You're In The Army, Mr Jones" until you swallow your pills and show it the empty container. It makes a satisfied trill and bullies you into the kitchen, where a meal is waiting for you. You sit down and the little robot bustles around the room, chirping to itself and letting out a warning trill when you try to push away the nutritional drink.

"You're worse than the Captain," you tell it.

The little robot whistles smugly.

You aren't allowed to leave the Tower, even with the tiny robot. You don't mind. It's better than wondering who you will hurt next. The therapist named Dr Thompson isn't allowed in the living areas of the Tower, though, so you follow the tiny robot to the elevator and go down - down - down, as the tiny robot plays a song to itself and rolls around the elevator. It doesn't stop until you reach the ground floor and the door opens, and then it flashes colors at you and takes off.

You follow it across the lobby and into a coffee shop -- or what you suppose is a coffee shop. The one that the man named Sam takes you to is like the bakeries you remember from before you were a weapon, and is slightly worn down and dingy at the edges, although scrupulously clean. This one is shiny and bright and sets your teeth on edge.

The therapist named Dr Thompson is waiting for you. She is soft and kind looking, although she was in the Army like you, and saw things overseas. She says she likes helping people now. Her hair is fading to gray and she wears soft, flowing clothes and a wedding band. "James," she says, smiling at you.

"Hello, Dr Thompson," you say.

"Let's get some coffee, and then we'll go to one of the meeting rooms," she says. This must be part of your therapy, you realize. You remembered your wallet -- or at least, the tiny robot remembered it for you -- so you nod and step forward as the doors to the coffee shop slide open in front of you.

The little robot makes an irritated beep and rushes in front of you, scanning the coffee shop while the lights on its back run from yellow to amber to red. It lets out a satisfied trill and the lights go green.

"What a little darling," says the therapist named Dr Thompson.

"It's Mark VII," you tell her, and the little robot bustles back to you and waits as you check to see that there's no threat.

"I want five of them for the VA," decides the therapist named Dr Thompson. "And three for me."

You go into the coffee shop and look up at the menu. There's too many choices, so you ask the girl at the counter if you can have a black coffee and a danish.

"What type?" she says. "We have savory and sweet danishes. Spinach, feta and chive, cheese, raspberry, apple, lemon --"

"Cheese," you say. You fumble out your wallet and give her the money.

The entire transaction takes about five minutes and when you walk out, you want to go straight back up to the suite and sleep for the rest of the day.

You're tired enough that you drift through your therapy session. The therapist named Dr Thompson looks at your workbook and you remember to report you had to take your rescue medication. Mostly the two of you sit in the conference room and look out at the sweeping vista of the city around you.

"Well, James," says the therapist named Dr Thompson. "I think you're doing very well, considering the stress of being out of your own space. I'd like to see you try to go downstairs for coffee or talk to someone every day." She rises, and you get up too. The little robot wakes out of sleep mode and chirrups grumpily. "I hope to see you at my office next week, but I can certainly make it here if you're still here," she says.

"Thank you, Dr Thompson," you say, and offer your right hand. She takes it, as if you are a real human who does things like shaking hands, and clasps it a second before she drops it.

"Would you like to see me downstairs, or would you like to go back from here?" she asks. It's very kind of her.

"Go downstairs," you say. It's not that you want to make sure she leaves, not exactly, but the therapist named Dr Thompson is a kind, soft person and you want to guard her as far as you can go.

You see her to the front doors and then you walk slowly back to the elevator that takes you to the living areas. You're very tired. You miss the man named Steve. You even miss the man named Sam Wilson. There's too many people around. You wonder if the therapist named Dr Thompson would count going to the coffee shop as an interaction. You hope so.

You're almost to the elevator when you see the lady named Miss Potts click-click-clicking her way across the floor. There's a man behind her, talking loudly. You stop. He's not wearing a Stark Industries badge, and his suit is a little too good to be something he wears every day. He wore it to impress the person he was speaking to, you think. "Come now, Miss Potts -- Pepper. I can call you Pepper, can't I? Just five minutes --"

"You may not call me Pepper," says the lady named Miss Potts, her mouth set. A security guard is drifting toward them but the man reaches out to touch her arm, and you're there in the next instant, bending his wrist backward with your right hand.

"Is he bothering you, Miss Potts?" you say. The tiny robot makes a hissing sound like a red hot kettle, and the security guard stops drifting and begins moving with purpose.

"What the hell!" says the man. Then he makes a noise of pain as you grind the bones of his wrist together.

"Oh, no, James, he was just leaving," says the lady named Miss Potts. She smiles.

"I --" begins the man, and catches a look at your face. You smile at him. He goes abruptly pale and quiet.

"Have a nice day," you tell him, and spin him toward the waiting arms of the security guard.

The elevator door opens. You wait for the lady named Miss Potts to go in, followed by the tiny robot, and then step in yourself. The elevator mirrors show her studying you. Her face is carefully blank, but you can tell she is coming to some sort of decision.

There is quiet for about ninety seconds, and then the lady named Miss Potts says, "Would you like a cookie?"

Chapter Text

The lady named Miss Potts takes you to the penthouse suite , gives you a fancy wrapped package of cookies, and sends you on your way with a smile. "Do let me know if you'd like to have dinner tomorrow," she says.

The little robot herds you back into the elevator and down to your suite briskly, chirping to itself. You think there might be a pattern to the chirps. It's something to pay attention to, you suppose. It nudges you toward the kitchen area and beeps.

You have no idea what it wants.

It beeps again.

"What?" you say.

"Pardon me, sir," says the AI that is named JARVIS, "I believe the Mark VII is attempting to suggest that you eat a meal. Your next scheduled dose of medication is in one half hour."

And taking your evening pills on an empty stomach is a good way to lose all of them, you know. You go slowly to the kitchen and look around. The man named Steve or the man named Sam Wilson usually make food for the three of you. The man named Sam WIlson isn't always there, of course, and the man named Steve has three or four dishes he can reliably make. You haven't cooked for yourself since your name was Bucky Barnes and you insisted on serving out the plates before you brought them to the table, so Steve Rogers would not realize you'd given him the larger amount of meat and vegetables until he was actually eating.

Bucky Barnes was an expert at that. He'd bring home oranges and peel them up in front of Steve Rogers, a smile on his face. Let's share, he'd say. Don't stop drawing, just open your mouth. He'd watched like a hawk as Steve Rogers ate three quarters of the orange without noticing. It made the bit he ate himself to fool Steve Rogers into thinking he'd eaten only half taste even sweeter.

You think Bucky Barnes was a bit of a liar and a cheat, but you don't know if you can blame him for it.

You don't know how to start cooking for yourself. You look at the refrigerator, and then at the cupboards, and finally at the little robot.

It chirrs at you sympathetically, but stays planted firmly in the path to your room.

"If I may make a suggestion, sir," says the AI that is named JARVIS, "the refrigerator is stocked with several premade meals that you may enjoy, as well as protein shakes and nutritional supplements."

That almost seems as bad, but at least you don't have to stand at the counter and cut things up, or use the stove. You just have to pick something out and put it in the microwave, and you're pretty sure you can do that.

You open the refrigerator and almost balk at the neatly labeled containers. There's so many of them, and they're all so large, and it doesn't seem right that you should eat one of them all to yourself.

The little robot trills at you. You close your eyes, pick a box at random, and then shut the door before you look at it.

You lucked out. It's macaroni and cheese. You put it in the microwave like the staff at the residential therapy place taught you and press the button with your right hand. The microwave makes a whirring sound and the box turns in the little lazy-Susan inside the oven. You can tell you're probably going to just stare at it, so you turn away and find a glass. Real people use glasses to drink from.

You open the refrigerator again, carefully not looking at the labeled boxes, and look at the bottles of milk and juice and nutritional supplement drinks. You have to have so many calories a day or you begin losing weight again and the man named Steve looks all tight-mouthed and worried, but you … don't really care about eating. You know you haven't had enough calories today, so you pick out a bottle of nutritional supplement and pour it into your glass.

The microwave beeps.

You set the glass of nutritional supplement on the table and take the box from the microwave. You should put it on a plate. Real humans eat from plates, or takeout containers sometimes. They don't just eat from the container like a dog, but the thought of transferring it to a plate and then eating it, and then washing the plate and the container makes you want to just go lie down instead. But the little robot won't let you, and the man named Steve would get the tight look around his mouth, so you find a plate and scrape the food into it.

If you cared about food it would taste pretty good, but you eat it as quickly as you can without making yourself sick and force yourself to rinse out the plate and the box and the cup, The residential care place taught you how to put things in a dishwasher, so you put the things inside it, and then, and only then, does the little robot move away from the doorway.

You go into your room before it changes its mind, get undressed and into the soft clothing the man named Steve bought for you. The little robot supervises this, the time you spend in the bathroom shitting, pissing, and brushing your teeth, and then follows you back to your bedroom and plays an annoying song until it sees you take your medications. You crawl into bed and take a deep breath in, and out, and in, and out, like they taught you.

You can't go to sleep.

You wonder if you will ever go to sleep. Sometimes you manage it almost on accident, but if you lie down and try to sleep at a time when a real person would, you just lie there and listen to the sounds of the city outside and the soft pacing of the man named Steve as he tries to pretend he's okay too.

In and out. In and out. The little robot is beside your bed. The lights on its back throb a gentle violet color, like a visual heart beat. Slower. Slower. Slower.

It's not working.

You're about to sit up again and go into the main area to huddle miserably into the couch and watch late night infomercials full of desperately happy people talking about how buying something gave them a new lease on life, when your phone begins to flash and play "Star Spangled Man."

You lunge across the bed and snatch up your phone, terrified that the man named Steve will hang up before you can answer it.

"Buck?" says the man named Steve.

"Yes," you say.

Chapter Text

Both of you are silent for a minute. Words are still hard for you, and the man named Steve seems content to listen to your breathing over the phone line. You imagine the sound of it going in the speaker, through the radio towers and up to the satellites floating above the earth and flying down again through the towers and to the man named Steve. Bucky Barnes would have killed for this, you know, before Steve Rogers came for him. Just five minutes to hear his voice before Bucky Barnes went back to the war and the blood and the mud. Even now, your shoulders relax and you slump down in the bed. It's a nice bed. You shouldn't hate it for being so far from the man named Steve.

"How're you doing?" he says finally.

"Okay," you tell him.

"Did you have a good day?" he says. He sounds tired, you think, and you can hear ambient noises in the background. The man named Sam Wilson talking to someone. Air moving.

"Yeah," you say. You know you ought to make an effort, so you say, "Dr Thompson came. We had coffee. There's a little robot."

"A little robot?" says the man named Steve.

"Stark made it," you tell him. "It's a therapy robot. It's like you, but it can sing." The man named Steve actually has a nice tenor voice, a little off tune most of the time, but when you are really sad sometimes he sits and sings the old songs that you don't know you remember until you hear them.

"Hey!" he says, but he laughs. "That sounds pretty neat. What does it look like?"

You roll over and peer at the little robot lying on guard next to you on the floor. "Like a breadbox on Jeep wheels," you decide. "It makes sounds and lights up when it wants me to do things. And it follows me around."

"That's amazing," the man named Steve says, and lets out the soft chuff of a laugh he uses when he's tired and comfortable. You shift a little and grab your fuzzy blanket to roll around yourself. "Are you in bed? Did I wake you up?"

"No," you tell him. "I can't sleep."

He's quiet for another long minute. "I --"

"Don't be sorry," you say. "Don't, okay." You can't stand it. He always blames himself instead of the hundred other things that it could have been, and he looks so miserable and it makes your head hurt.

"All right," he says.

You both are quiet again. It's nice like this, hearing his voice but knowing he's far away enough that you can't hurt him accidentally. "Miss Potts gave me cookies," you say finally.

"That's good," he says. "What type?"

"I dunno," you say. "I was gonna save them."

"Buck," he chides you. "You ought to eat them before they go stale."

Maybe I don't want to, you think childishly. It tastes better if you share it with me. "I'm not hungry," you say.

The man named Steve sighs but he doesn't argue with you. "Don't save it for very long," he tells you. You're both quiet again, listening to each other breathe. You remember that Bucky Barnes had liked this, in the long ago apartment they had shared, and during the war: the sound of Steve Rogers breathing near him, either faintly wheezy or strong and even. Sometimes during the war it had seemed like he could hear the beating of Steve Rogers' heart if he concentrated.

"Tell me a story," you say finally. Telling you a story makes him feel better, and you like it, too, the way his voice surrounds you, the way his accent deepens. It's like a secret between you.

"Hmm," the man named Steve says. "What type?"

"I dunno," you say. "A happy one. From when --" I was Bucky, you think, but you don't say.

"Okay, Buck," says the man named Steve, and then he's quiet for a minute more, thinking. You curl more comfortably into the bed and tuck your hand under your check, and wait patiently. "During the war," he begins, "You and Peggy had to rescue me from the Germans. It was my fault, but ---"

You let his voice wash over you. Gradually, your eyes sink closed, and between one breath and another you tip over the edge into sleep.

Chapter Text

When you wake up the next morning your phone shows that the call was disconnected after an hour of talking, so you know that the man named Steve stayed on the line with you even after you fell asleep. The tiny robot beeps at you as you sit up.

Today feels like it's going to be a good day. You wish the man named Steve was here to spend it with you, but you know if you spend time regretting it the good day will slip through your fingers and tomorrow will be worse. You promise yourself you will try to tell the man named Steve about it as much as you can, and get out of bed.

The feeling lasts through your shower and you even manage to cook eggs for your breakfast and wash your dishes afterward. The little robot trundles after you, making pleased beeping noises but mostly staying out of your way, as you pick up your workbooks and spread them out on the table. Your occupational therapist likes to make you write two pages a week, and is a stickler for you doing everything for yourself. You hate her sometimes, but the man named Steve's shoulders untense more and more as you progress, so you put up with it.

When you've finished your pages for the week ("modern chocolates taste like shit" is your theme) you put everything neatly away in the bag the man named Steve bought for you and pick up your wallet. You have to go downstairs and interact with people, or maybe talk to the lady named Miss Potts.

It'd be easier to get coffee. You have a plastic card that has money on it and the man named Sam Wilson showed you how to save the cardboard sleeve they put around the hot cup and give it back to the cashier. It has what you like in your coffee written on it and all you have to do is say "may I have one of these please". Or you can ask for black coffee, but you like the sweet drinks they have now. You head to the elevator and step inside when it comes. "Coffee shop," you tell the AI who is named JARVIS.

"Indeed, sir," says the AI who is named JARVIS, and there is nothing but silence and the little robot beeping to itself as you watch the numbers on the elevator go down, down down. It stops unexpectedly. "I beg your pardon, sir," says the AI who is named JARVIS. "I wonder if you would be kind enough to do me a great favor?"

"What," you say, somewhere between curious and completely fucking baffled.

"I believe Miss Potts would be grateful for your assistance," says the AI who is named JARVIS.

You look down at the little robot. The little robot spins in place, but offers no opinion. You know the man named Steve would think you ought to help Miss Potts, but you wonder how much help she really needs. Still --

"Okay," you say, and the elevator comes to a gentle halt and the doors open.

"I will send the coordinates to the Mark VII," says the AI who is named JARVIS. The little robot goes dark for a second, and then lights up in spectrum order and lets out a little do-re-mi trill. It spins in place and then takes off into the depths of the corridor. You follow it, wishing you had a gun, or at least a knife: all you have is a bracelet made out of parachute cord because you promised the man named Steve you'd try not to hide so many weapons. You both know that's not going to really happen, but it makes him feel better and you feel better for trying to make him feel better.

Also, you can pretty much kill anything or anybody you could hope for with your left arm and gravity, so it seems kind of pointless that they don't want you to have knives.

Still, this is an office building, there should be a stapler or paperclips somewhere. Maybe a paper cutter, if you're lucky. You follow the little robot down the hall, watching alertly as the office workers scurry past you. Your arm is mostly covered up by your sleeve and your hair is pulled neatly back, but you're not in a business suit, so they eye you cautiously. You put your shoulders down and walk with a slight swagger. Nothing to see here, just someone's slightly rough trade boy coming to offer his sugar some sugar. You see someone reach for their phone, staring at you, so you call up your memories of Bucky Barnes and tip them a lazy smirk and wink. They blink and flush and by the time they recover, you and the tiny robot are moving like you're meant to be there, across the hallway and into the sanctum sanctorum -- or rather, the elevator leading up to it.

The security guard stationed there steps forward but a light flashes on his handheld computer and he looks down at it, and then steps reluctantly aside. You let your mouth curl up a little and swagger past. You put a little hip into it. You don't remember where you learned it, but you know that it works because the security guard drops his eyes. When you get near the elevator it opens silently for you, and you go in like you own the building.

Once the elevator doors close you relax your shoulders again and roll them out. You straighten up and wait patiently for the doors to open again. When you walk out, the lady named Miss Pott's secretary -- are they called secretaries any more? you don't know -- is eying the door to the lady named Miss Pott's office like she doesn't know if she wants to interrupt or not. The light on her phone is flashing.

"I have an appointment with Miss Potts," you say, in your best imitation of the man named Steve's voice, the one that sounds trustworthy and competent. It comes out a little wrong, but the secretary doesn't seem to notice.

"I'm very sorry, sir, she's still in a meeting," she says.

"That's all right," you say, and smile at her like Bucky Barnes. "I'll just let her know I'm here."

"Sir, you can't --" she begins, even as you pick up a letter opener from her desk, slide it into your sleeve, and move in a burst of speed toward the lady named Pepper Potts' office door. The door's locks disengage as you push toward it, and you hear the secretary yelling for you to stop. You ignore her.

The lady named Miss Potts is backed into a corner of her office by a man who looks like a fish somehow, and two other men, big burly ones, dressed in badly fitting suits. "Miss Potts," you say politely.

"Ah, James," she says, calmly. "These gentlemen were just leaving."

"No, we're not," says the man from yesterday, with a vicious smirk. "Who's this, honey? Someone to keep you warm when Stark isn't here?"

The lady named Miss Potts rolls her eyes. The man doesn't seem to notice. "Seems like it would be something he would be interested in knowing," he says. "Or maybe People?" He jerks his head toward the two men and they come up to your sides, crowding you. One of them grabs your right arm roughly. "We could call Stars Weekly maybe," he says.

"Miss Potts," you say.

"Yes, James?" she says.

"They're annoying me," you tell her gravely. "I don't like being annoyed."

"I know, James," she says, like you're a spoilt child. The two of you look at each other for about three seconds, and then she says, "It's almost time for lunch."

You look at the two men trying to hold you and smile at them. "Miss Potts doesn't like to be kept over," you tell them, and in the next instant one of them has the letter opener from the secretary's desk in the meat of his ass, and the other is flying across the room.

"Holy shit!" says the man who looks like a fish, and tries to back up,

"It's rude to swear in front of a lady," you tell him, just as the lady named Miss Potts cracks the abstract sculpture on her desk over his head. He goes down like a log and she sets the sculpture tenderly down on the desk again. The man you threw across the room tries to get up, lifting his head with a groan, and you bare your teeth at him. He decides to go unconscious again.

"Ms Potts!" gasps the secretary, and behind her a big man with fading dark hair makes an anguished sound in his throat.

"Happy," says the lady named Miss Potts, "IT needs to look at our scheduling system." She smooths down her jacket and steps over the unconscious man in front of her.

"Yes, Pepper," says the man named Happy, in a strangled voice.

The lady named Miss Potts says, "James, shall we have lunch?"

You shrug.

She leads the way out of the office and into another elevator and you ride with her and the little robot into the penthouse above. Your right hand is trembling a little ,which she kindly ignores. You know this is why your therapists and the man named Steve don't want you around violence. You don't react so well any more. At the same time, though, you think you feel ….good? proud? You helped someone. You helped someone with what HYDRA taught you, and you are suddenly, viciously happy.

"Sir, I have taken the liberty of fetching a warm drink and your blanket," says the AI who is named JARVIS.

You're probably going to need them soon, you realize. You were fine until the adrenaline started sinking, and now the trembling in your hand is getting stronger. "Thank you," you manage.

"Are you all right?" says the lady named Miss Potts. "JARVIS, you shouldn't have --"

"I'm fine," you tell her. Your voice is a little rough but you clear it and try again. "I'm glad I could help you with something, Miss Potts."

"Call me Pepper," she says. This is such a manifest impossibility you just stare at her until the elevator chimes and the doors to the penthouse slide open.

"Have you figured out how they got in, JARVIS?" says the lady named Miss Potts, clicking her way across the lobby area and into the kitchen. Your blanket is folded up on the counter and there is a thermos of something beside it. The lady named Miss Potts pours you out a mug of it. It smells mostly like chamomile and milk, and you are struck by a sense-memory of the man named Steve when he was still small and yours completely, drinking a cup of chamomile steeped in milk and insisting he was fine, Buck, just fine. Sure you are, Stevie, just drink that tea until you stop shaking so bad. You pick it up and take a long drink of it. It tastes sweet like honey and you feel your neck relaxing as you inhale the steam.

The lady named Miss Potts pours herself a cup too, and you sit on the bar stools silently until you've finished your mugs.

"Miss Potts, it appears that the IT department is in need of some new employees," says the AI that is named JARVIS.

"I was afraid of that," says the lady named Miss Potts with a sigh. "Do you know who they were working for?" She must catch the look on your face, because she explains, "We have a lot of valuable intellectual property, even outside of the patents Tony personally holds. We deal with several cases of this a year."

"Also, your personal assistant has just offered her resignation," adds the AI that is named JARVIS.

The lady named Miss Potts tilts her head. "Was she with them?" she asks.

"No, Miss Potts, it appears she has suddenly decided she would prefer a less stressful work enviroment," says the AI that is called JARVIS. "I have taken the liberty of rechecking her work history and will compose a suitable reference for your approval."

"Thank you, JARVIS," says the lady named Miss Potts.

"But," you begin. You have to stop and think for a minute, slowly and carefully. You used to be good at this, but this sort of thinking was trained out of the Winter Soldier. You don't want a gun making connections and leaps of logic. "Why would they. Wouldn't it be easier to … not threaten the CEO?"

"That is an excellent question, James," says the lady named Miss Potts. "Have a cookie."

Chapter Text

"Mr Stark isn't going to like this," says the man named Happy Hogan. You wonder why they call him Happy when he doesn't look happy at all. He looks like he'd like to stand up against the lady named Miss Potts and impress her with how manly and caretaking he is, but if he meets her eyes too long his eyes start to water, just the tiniest bit.

You're standing in front of a conference room where two of the three men are being held for questioning. You suppose they should be with the police by now, but the man named Happy fancies himself a real tough.

"Happy," says the lady named Miss Potts, "who do you work for?"

"Tony," says the man named Happy promptly, and then swallows. "But -- technically -- Stark Industries might ---"

"And who signs Stark Industries checks, Happy?" she says.

"You do, Miss Potts," he mumbles.

"And when have I ever given you the idea that I care about what Tony will like?" she continues inexorably.

You sure do like the lady named Miss Potts. This shit is better than Horsefeathers.

"Never," he says, hunching further down. "Aww, come on, Pepper, Tony will have my balls if I let you talk to these as -- guys."

"I don't care," she says. "Besides, I'll have James with me."

The man named Happy looks at you. You spent half an hour shaving, slicking your hair down and rummaging through clothes that the AI named JARVIS sent up, and you know you look like a personal assistant chosen for his assets, and not his intelligence. These pants make your ass look great. Your belt has a buckle just large enough to draw eyes to your crotch but small enough to look relatively businesslike.

"What if they try something?" the man named Happy says. "They were surprised in the office, but --"

"James can handle it," says the lady named Miss Potts.

"I gotta tell Tony, you know I do," he says.

"Of course," says the lady named Miss Potts, just as if she and the AI named JARVIS had not had a hilariously oblique conversation about not letting any calls to the man named Tony Stark or the Avengers through -- accidentally, of course, one never knows with those satellite systems -- for at least half an hour.

The man named Happy gives her a look like he knows exactly what type of conversation they had, but he steps aside.

The lady named Miss Potts click-click-clicks her way into the conference room, and you follow after, holding a tablet computer and trying to look both violent and vapid. "Don't bother to get up, gentlemen," she says. The one you stabbed isn't there. You hope he's in a hospital somewhere, ass up and dignity destroyed. The man you threw across the room is sitting like his shoulder hurts, and the man that the lady named Miss Potts hit over the head has the most beautiful egg on his head you've ever seen. You feel like taking a picture of it and putting it into a nice frame. You could hang it up on your bedroom wall and admire it every morning when you woke up. "We're just here to have a little chat about this morning."

The one with the egg on his head calls her a name no gentleman would use, and you move, flicking the tablet computer to the table so it spins to a halt right where the lady named Miss Pott will sit, and twisting both his hands over his head and slamming his head against the table.

"Now, James, two wrongs don't make a right," she chides you gently.

"You're fucking crazy!" says the other man, trying to crawl into the corner of his chair. "I'll sue the shit out of you for this!"

This is such a stupid thing to say that you ignore him and the lady named Miss Potts only raises an eyebrow.

"Let our friend up, James," she says.

The lady named Miss Potts had initially felt this would be going too far, but you pointed out that "silent menace on a hair trigger" was a role you had played to perfection for twice as long as she had been alive. Also, you reasoned, anybody stupid enough to threaten her in her own office was probably too stupid to appreciate subtlety.

You let go slowly, and when he seems inclined to stay face-down on the table instead of sitting straight up like a gentleman, you haul him upright by the scruff of his neck.

"Now, as you can see, gentlemen," says the lady named Miss Potts, smiling pleasantly, "My assistant has a tiny bit of trouble controlling his temper. He has other talents, though."

Both of them are silent and rather bug-eyed.

You are surprised to find you are enjoying yourself. This is like when Bucky Barnes would come up behind Steve Rogers and smile a shark's smile at the assholes giving him a rough time.

"Now," says the lady named Miss Potts, as she allows you to pull her chair out, and then sits gracefully. "I'm sure businessmen such as yourselves will agree everything will be much more efficient and pleasant if you answer my questions succinctly." She smiles. "Honestly, too, of course," she says. "My assistant dislikes dishonesty, you see."

You bare your teeth at them in something that might be taken, by a stupider person than they are, as a smile.

"Excuse me, Miss Potts," says the AI that is named JARVIS. "If you will pardon the interruption, it appears that Mr Stark and the Avengers are heading back to New York. They are scheduled to arrive in approximately three hours. Also Mr Stark requested I pass along this message, and if you will forgive me for quoting verbatim: 'what the hell is happening to you, Pepper?' He seems rather agitated, I am afraid."

"Tony always gets so upset," sighs the lady named Miss Potts.

The two men's faces have gone pasty gray.

"Miss Potts," you say, wistfully. You would not mind one little bit breaking their fingers until they talked. Bucky Barnes probably would have been just as happy. The man named Steve would be upset, though, so you hope they talk without your encouragement. Even after all you've done, after all Bucky Barnes had did, Steve Rogers believes that you're essentially good. He's an idiot, of course, but you still don't want to disappoint him. You've never wanted to disappoint him.

"So," says the lady named Miss Potts, leaning forward. "I suppose the question is this: would you rather answer questions for me -- or Iron Man and Captain America?" She smiles. "And the Black Widow, of course."

They sing like a cage of canaries. You're a little disgruntled.

This is what they tell you:

There is a group of people calling themselves Port Hope Research Institute, who hired them to either bring the lady named Miss Potts with them or collect genetic material from her. They weren't told to be picky about what type - a vial of blood, some spit, anything, but of course they would get more if they managed to collect the lady named Miss Potts herself. If they had time, they were to leave a ransom note to exchange her for samples of Captain America's blood or other genetic materials.

They were not expecting you.

You look at the lady named Miss Potts. She's tapping her finger to her lips. "I see," she says finally. "Well, gentlemen, I believe that will be all the questions I have for you. Shall I have you escorted to the police station, or do you feel you have more information that the Black Widow might find useful?"

"We've told you everything," croaks the man with the egg on his head. "Please, lady, just send us to the police!"

"If you insist," says the lady named Miss Potts.

You ride up to the penthouse in silence. When the elevator door slides open, the man named Tony Stark is shouting at the man named Happy. "What the hell do you mean 'you couldn't stop her'? You're a hundred pounds heavier than she is!"

The little robot rushes up to you with a gleeful trill, and the man named Tony Stark spins around. "Pepper!"

"Bucky!" says the man named Steve. They both rush forward, and the man named Tony Stark pulls the lady named Miss Potts into his arms and pats her arms and face anxiously. It's a little funny because the lady named Miss Potts is wearing heels that put her nearly at your own height, and he's in socks, so it looks a little like a terrier bouncing around a greyhound. The man named Steve looks like he would also like to sweep you up in his arms, but stops just out of reach.

"Really, Tony, I was fine," says the lady named Miss Potts.

"Pep, I just got rid of one heart problem, don't give me another one," says the man named Tony Stark.

"Are you all right?" says the man named Steve to you.

You shrug, which seems to satisfy him: at least he relaxes and touches your right arm gently. It feels nice.

"Man, what the hell," says the man named Sam Wilson. "One minute I was thinking about a hot shower and a pizza and the next minute Stark was literally being restrained from jumping off the fucking Quinjet and going hell for leather back here. What were you guys even doing?"

You think about this. "Stuff," you tell him finally.

"Are those my pants?" says the man named Clint Barton. "Aw, pants, no."

You surprise yourself when you start laughing. It's a good feeling.

Chapter Text

[Stark Tower, Manhattan, Natasha Romanov's quarters]

"Port Hope Research and Industry?" says Natasha. "Based in … Kansas. That seems plausible."

"Indeed, Miss Romanov," says JARVIS. Charts and graphics bloom around her. "Perhaps their private name would make more sense for their location."

"Post Human Research Institute," says Natasha. "Hmm. Who knows about this, Jarvis?"

"Sir, of course," says JARVIS. "Unfortunately he has not had the time to devote to visiting them yet, although of course they have found it more difficult to deal with their finances lately. Miss Potts thought perhaps you could turn your attention toward them."

"This is the group that went after Rogers?" says Natasha, tapping a picture of Rumlow, post mortem. Barnes had really done a job on him. It warms the cold black ashes of her heart, it really does. "Does Rogers know anything about it?"

"I believe the Captain is generally aware that many groups would be extremely interested in samples of the supersoldier serum, madam. As it is, I don't believe he is aware of this one specifically."

"Do they know about Barnes?" says Natasha.

"I have seen evidence that they are becoming aware of him, madam."

"I owe them one," says Natasha, flipping through images of Clint's injuries. "All right, JARVIS, please let Pepper know I will take the commission. Use your discretion on telling Stark, won't you?"

"As always, madam."