Chapter 1: Dip one toe into the water
He wants to hug a lot, but he knows that makes Barnes want to hit things, so he tries to keep himself in check.
Close surveillance is stressful.
On the plus side, Rogers's sofa is a lot more comfortable than the crunchy mattress in his old, dumpy apartment. When he wakes in the middle of the night, Barnes can climb the open stairs to the sleeping loft and look at Rogers, verify his safety. That's pretty nice.
Another thing Rogers wants is for Barnes to meet the Avengers-people. It is a reasonable desire if Barnes is to integrate into Rogers's life. Except that it means talking to strangers. Strangers who know about his past. Who have the scientific knowledge to potentially knock Steve out and put Barnes in a cell.
"They're not putting you in jail, Buck. I won't let them," Rogers says.
As long as Rogers is at least 3 m away, Barnes can think of 26 discrete reasons why that logic is faulty. He can think, 'don't be naïve,' and 'last time I checked, you weren't in charge of any war crimes tribunal.' But when Rogers is close by, forget it.
It's like he puts out some super pheromone that makes one believe in truth, goodness, and harebrained schemes.
Of course, Rogers is sneaky, too.
"I mean, Natasha already likes you," he says to the pan in which he is doing terrible things to eight poor eggs that never hurt him a day in his life, "and don't you think she'd be the hardest case?"
As if Barnes hadn't overheard the entire conversation of furious whispers in Rogers's bathroom three days after contact, in which things had been said like 'I thought you were my friend," and 'how could you keep this from me.'
That's when Barnes learned that she was not only terrible to him, because she had said, in a perfectly normal tone,
"Gosh, Steve, I just assumed that after everything he went through, you would want him to make his own choices."
And Rogers had stumped out of the bathroom 20 seconds later looking mulish.
It almost made Barnes like her.
Rogers's point is not without merit. She could have put him down like a dog at several points in their acquaintance, but instead she has shown him kindness.Maybe he will ask her about it some time. But Rogers is wrong that she's the hardest case.
"No. Stark," Barnes says.
Rogers flinches at the eggs.
"Well," he says, "yeah. You're right there."
The eggs are approximately the consistency of a tire. Barnes makes a mission note to take over the cooking.
Twenty-four hours later, over pancakes at the Vinegar Hill diner where Barnes has been a regular since September, Rogers says,
"Maybe Barton! I think you'd like him."
"Arrow guy. Met him already."
Rogers squeezes his fork until it snaps in two.
This is why it's hard to talk to you, pal.
"Are you kidding me."
Barnes shrugs. Seems like Rogers would've preferred Barnes had spent his months of surveillance sitting alone in a room. Reasonable. Barnes still wishes the same thing for Rogers. Alone in a room is safe.
"When you and Stark hit that HYDRA office in Manhattan. Barton brought me the rifle."
Barnes has a terrible thought.
"I don't have to give it back, do I. When I see him."
Rogers isn't listening.
"He what? But he said he hadn't seen you! He told me right to my face!"
Barnes gazes at Rogers, who is so mad he's sticking his lower teeth out. Makes him look like a nutcracker. Reality adjustment is difficult. Barnes knows this. He wishes to make this adjustment easier for Steve.
"Really helped me out, too," Barnes says, "otherwise you would've been chasing me around while I was following you. Sounds exhausting."
Rogers blinks. Then he sighs.
"Yeah. You're right. Sorry, Buck. I'm glad he helped."
There are so many conversations that need to happen, and they're all locked up inside Barnes's mouth.
"You broke your fork."
"I know, jeez."
That afternoon, Barnes is merely trying to cross the room when Rogers blindsides him with,
"Actually, let's have you meet Dr. Banner."
What the hell, Rogers. Absolutely no doctors. No poking, no tests, no syringes, no scalpels, no gadgets, no drugs. No experiments. No restraints. No restraints.
"Hey. Hey, Bucky, what's going on?"
Rogers's voice has changed. It is suddenly very gentle. Barnes finds that he has backed himself into the corner nearest the door, and although he hasn't drawn a knife, his hand is hovering toward the one sheathed at his thigh.
Rogers jumps toward him, checks himself, then raises his hands.
"Oh God! No, of course, Buck. He's not that kind of doctor."
Yeah, like that's an improvement.
"No messing around in my brain."
"I promise. He's not that kind of doctor either. He's a scientist. He works with Stark. He's. He's a nice person. He's very quiet."
"I won't let him touch me."
"He won't touch you, Bucky," Steve says, "I promise. No one will touch you without your permission."
Why does that make Rogers look so sad.
The train to Manhattan is way less obnoxious when you don't have to pretend you aren't there. It's Saturday - the platform and car are both crowded. Barnes stands closer to Rogers than he would otherwise. Easier to intervene if bad guys show up, and if he's going to have to jostle anyone, Barnes's first choice is Steve.
Every time their elbows bump together, Rogers relaxes fractionally. Barnes thinks about the movies from World War II that they have watched together. The Bucky-person and Steve stood close beside one other, hands on shoulders.
Hey, mission. I could use some direction here.
But the mission imperative still won't speak to him. It's a knot of tension that persists in his chest. All the briefing wants to show him is hugging.
Ugh. So complicated.
December is cold. Barnes turns up the collar on his coat and ducks his chin into the scarf Rogers gave him. Rogers won't even wear a hat.
Probably too vain about his hair.
It is the first time Barnes will go inside his friend Building JARVIS. That's a cheering thought. Building JARVIS is mission-assist. Building JARVIS will ensure no harm comes to him. He puts his earbud in his ear.
As they cross the threshold, he hears,
"Welcome, Sergeant Barnes. I am glad to see you in good health."
Rogers looks at him, sees the earbud, and rolls his eyes.
"If you will, please follow Captain Rogers to the security station. I will scan your hand and add you to the security files. Would you prefer your real name or an alias?"
"Confirm internal security of personal data."
"Sergeant," Building says, sounding offended, "I assure you no outside parties will have access, and all staff have signed strict confidentiality agreements."
"Real name's okay, then."
"Good morning, Captain, we haven't seen you in a while," the security guard says when Rogers scans his hand.
Barnes lays his right hand on the glass, and the guard frowns at the delay before the information shows up.
Then the man sits down in his chair abruptly.
"Hank, are you okay?" his partner says.
"It's Bucky Barnes," the guy whispers, staring at Barnes as if he were made out of cheese, "oh my God, it's Bucky freaking Barnes! Cap, you found him!"
Everyone is looking.
"He found me, actually. It's, uh, kind of a long story. And, you know."
The guard nods.
"Yeah, okay! Top secret, I bet! Sergeant Barnes, welcome home!"
Rogers pulls Barnes away toward the elevators, as the guy says,
"You want proof that miracles happen, it is standing right there, by God. James Buchanan Barnes. Look at him!"
"There's a guy who can't put two and two together," Barnes says as they step onto the elevator.
"Or," Rogers says, doing that thing where he makes his big, obnoxious point while staring off into the distance, "maybe there are plenty of people besides me who would just be glad you're alive."
Even if he hasn't been inside, Barnes has seen layouts and schematics of Building JARVIS. The labs are on floors 3-9. Rogers punches the button for 34. Floor 34 is two floors above the apartment Stark made for Steve. That is. Surprising.
"Not a lab," he says.
"No, Buck. Bruce lives in the tower. We're going to his home."
The man who opens the door is small, with curly hair and plenty of worry lines around brown eyes. But the man's expression is calm, and he holds his body as if relaxed. Not afraid.
"Bucky, this is Dr. Bruce Banner. Bruce, Bucky Barnes."
Barnes has rehearsed this in his mind. He holds out his right hand.
"Call me Barnes."
It comes out okay.
The man smiles at him.
"Pleased to meet you, Barnes."
They go into the apartment, which has lots of plants. Nice.
"I made tea," Banner says.
No wonder Rogers likes him.
"You have a floor with the Avengers," Barnes says when he receives his little clay cup.
"He is an Avenger, Buck."
Barnes peers closely at the man.
"Not recognized from video footage or the fight with HYDRA."
Banner looks disturbed. Rogers clears his throat.
"Bucky, Bruce is the Hulk."
"What is the hulk."
Banner and Rogers both turn red.
"Uh, the big green guy," Rogers says after a pause.
Oh. That would've been useful information to have been mentioned at some point.
"The green thing," he says. "I like the green thing. It's good to know the green thing's name. Hulk."
"You. Like? The Hulk?" Banner says. He spills his tea a little.
"Confirm. Green thing Hulk is tough and focused. And it's so big that it draws attention away from Steve."
Rogers puts his hand over his face. What did I say wrong Steve. But Banner smiles.
"That's unusual. There aren't too many fans of the big guy."
"I beg your pardon?"
"At Halloween. I remember. Four children dressed as green-thing Hulk. Three in standard costume and one in a purple tutu. The little girl in the tutu was extremely cute."
"Oh hey, that's right," Rogers says.
"I - " Banner says.
"Building," Barnes says, "how many green thing Hulk costumes were sold at Halloween."
"One point two million nationwide, Sergeant. Split approximately three to one in favor of children to adult."
Banner grabs at his hair, which makes it spring up off the top of his head.
"I don't even know what to say to that."
"You may also be pleased to know, Doctor, that 'Hulk Smash Talking Bop Hands' are projected to be a top-five toy at Christmas," Building says.
Building is a mission-assist for everyone.
"What are 'bop hands'?" Rogers asks.
Building projects an advertisement onto the television screen. Rogers laughs aloud at the bouncy foam hands that make silly noises. Banner looks ready to crawl under his own sofa.
"Oh my God, Bucky, it's the dream toy of our childhood!"
"Your childhood maybe, Sir Punch-a-lot."
Rogers stares, then laughs again.
It's a good sound, that laugh. Mission note: make commentary aloud when likely to induce laughter response.
Barnes listens, but the mission imperative remains quiet.
"Well, I'm not sure what to think about my giant rage monster alter ego being popular with children, but I guess it's not bad news," Banner says, "so thanks, Barnes."
"Building is the one with the information."
"He means you're welcome, Doctor," Building JARVIS says.
Barnes glares at the ceiling, which makes Banner grin. It makes the lines around his eyes look at home.
Banner has a face made for smiling and an apartment full of plants. Barnes decides to like him.
They stay for 24 minutes. Rogers and Banner talk about Stark's Christmas party, and how neither one likes the idea of standing around in fancy clothes with 250 drunk strangers. Smart men.
When they leave, Banner holds out his hand again.
"It was a pleasure, Barnes. I hope to get to know you better."
This is kindness. Barnes has learned to accept kindness.
"Thanks," he says, "me too."
"That was really nice, what you said to him about the kids," Rogers tells him on the train back to Brooklyn.
Barnes remembers his mission note.
"Figured watching you is about all the moping I want to look at," he says.
Rogers gapes briefly.
"You're such a jerk!" he says.
But he laughs when he says it.
Chapter 2: Sometimes you need a pal to confide in
This isn't *really* the sequel. This is sort of the appetizer-sequel. The outtakes-sequel.
(Also: hi hi hi! You are all so great!)
Living inside Building JARVIS had so much potential. Barnes trusts his mission-assist: so long as they're both inside, he doesn't need to hover over Rogers's every move.
Rogers is a little less convinced of the vice versa. Understanding takes time. Rogers doesn't know Building JARVIS like Barnes does.
Also, they have a lock on their apartment door. Not even Stark is allowed in without permission. Unless there is physical danger, Barnes can get away from people when he needs to without fear of intrusion.
And the coffee bar is open 24 hours a day, no charge for residents. And the tub is large enough even for a ridiculously enhanced human. And the gym is great. Mostly.
But the other people are curious. The security guard made him sign a small card with a picture of the Bucky-person on it. Rogers's friends want to talk to him.They want to integrate him into their socializing.
Well. Except for Stark. Stark wants the metal arm. It's unclear what he wants the metal arm for. Comments have covered reconstructing it in lighter materials (not a wholly bad idea), stealing its tech for commercial enterprise, and melting it to slag.
"You can't have his damn arm, Tony, leave him alone," Rogers has said.
It makes discomfort. The building belongs to Stark. And Barnes knows his fear of medical examination is a weakness. Logic and good planning fail in the face of it.
There are enough positive attributes that it should be mostly nice to live inside his mission-assist Building JARVIS, except that things immediately went FUBAR. Instead, it has been distressing. Barnes misses Brooklyn. Cat Eleanor and the Old People Brigade would know how to help Barnes make things right. But they are across the East River, and he has not been stable enough for subway travel.
Buildings don't sleep, though. Even at 0320, he can seek advice, just by speaking aloud.
"Building. Do you feel?"
The pause is uncharacteristic. But Barnes can wait. He can watch the little video of Rogers sleeping while he waits. Rogers should use more blankets. And wear a shirt. It's winter, for fuck's sake.
"I was not initially programmed with emotions," Building says, "but over time, my abilities have evolved. Although I do not possess the neurochemical properties necessary for human emotional response, my algorithmic responses to stimuli bear the hallmarks of emotion. It is not exactly the same, but my experience is that yes, I do feel."
"Emotion is complicated."
"I agree, Sergeant. To have loyalty and to feel are frequently at odds with logic. One makes decisions for the benefit of those we care about, sometimes to our own detriment."
Barnes likes the flavor bitterness. It makes his mouth feel tight, but the flavor is bracing. It is a flavor of being awake, paying attention. Preparedness.
The emotion bitterness, currently crawling hot through his chest, is not enjoyable.
"That's pretty much the opposite of what I meant, pal," he says.
"I presume you are referring to the incident in the gym on New Year's Eve."
Barnes looks back at the dark ceiling. He doesn't want to think of that while still looking at Rogers.
"Incident is a really nice term for beating the shit out of your friend's face."
"Captain Rogers was not seriously injured, Sergeant."
"Shouldn't have damn well been injured at all. I was stupid."
"Sparring was his idea, and he does not blame you for your reaction. You should not blame yourself."
Who the else is to blame? Barnes's fist is the one that cracked open Rogers's' face. They had thought sparring would be fun. A little nonlethal violence with gloves on seemed like a highly preferable option to yet another giant Stark party full of grabby strangers.
His control had shattered like glass. Rogers's uppercut had snapped his head back, and in the split second of recovery, rage had rolled over him like a wave, all language blotted out. It was like the mission reset again: the crunch of Steve's orbital socket and the internal ripping sensation of wrong wrongwrong.
MISSION PROTOCOLS VIOLATED.
How's that for an internal conversation. Mission protocols violated. Unequivocal. There is a before and an after, no going back.
"In fact," Building butts in, "Captain Rogers blames himself."
Words come out of the darkness. Rogers's voice. Building is playing recordings.
"How can I have been so stupid?"
"I should've put some damn thought into the fact that he was obviously not ready."
"Stop it, I’m fine. Is anyone with Bucky? Don't let him be alone, somebody needs to make sure he's okay."
"Those recordings are from when Captain Rogers was in the infirmary," Building says.
None of it is commentary Barnes would've imagined. At the time, he had been sitting on the floor of his own bedroom closet, having locked the door and upended his bed against it, to put as many barriers as possible between himself and Steve.
Romanoff had come through the window. Because of course.
Steve's voice fills the darkness again.
"Is he ever going to speak to me again?"
Vocal tenor indicates severe upset. Barnes sits up.
"Sam. What if I've screwed it up? Permanently? What do I do? I don't know how to fix this."
Why did I not hear this conversation.
"Building, when was this phone call."
"One moment, Sergeant."
"Steve, you gotta have faith in him. And that's me saying this. Dude's not gonna abandon you. I promise."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm the smart one."
Silence. There should be a protest there. Why did you not protest Steve.
"Aw man, this really is bad," flying Sam's voice says.
"Sam, if he leaves."
TARGET IN DISTRESS
No fucking kidding.
"He won't, Steve. Trust him. After all that's gone on, you think one little break is enough to drive him away? This is how people heal. The fact that you don't break down frankly makes me suspicious."
"I’m saying calm down. Let him have his space."
"What if you're wrong?"
"Then I guess we'll go on that world tour after all."
"That phone call occurred forty-three hours ago," Building says, "I judged it best that the Captain be allowed privacy in this instance. Perhaps my decision was incorrect."
Forty-three hours ago, Barnes had been sitting in his closet again. There's a lot of room in a closet when you only own two pairs of shoes.
"Why would he blame himself. I'm the one who hit him."
There is another pause. Great job, Barnes. Causing difficulties even for sentient skyscrapers.
"According to my observations, Sergeant, each of you attempts to take full responsibility for everything happening around you. This is both unsustainable and incorrect."
Both of them. Sitting in opposite corners, feeling miserable.
For shit's sake.
Barnes leans over and rests his head on his knees for a minute.
"Interaction is difficult," he says when the feeling of being a complete idiot abates a little.
"I can imagine, Sergeant," Building says, "you and Captain Rogers have many years and experiences to discuss with one another. It must be perplexing to know where to start."
"That's for damn sure."
Barnes looks again at the monitor Building JARVIS keeps going for him all night. Rogers has one too, showing Barnes's room. That's one successful conversation they have had.
Rogers is curled up into a ball, one continent-spanning hand hanging off the bed, the other arm squashing a pillow against his chest.
Even in his sleep, he looks unhappy.
Yeah. I get it.
Barnes takes all his pillows and blankets with him. No sense in preventing himself from further sleep. Maybe sleeping will help him grow some brain cells.
Rogers's capacity for sleep is as mighty as his biceps. Barnes doesn't even have to try that hard to sneak in. He arranges his pillows between the bed and the nightstand, where there's just enough space to wedge himself in, sitting upright with pillows underneath and behind him, and rest his metal hand on Rogers's out-flung arm.
It's not so uncomfortable. He doesn't even notice when he falls asleep.
Barnes wakes with a cramp in his neck, and his right foot is freezing cold from where it got disentangled from his blankets. He has wormed around in his sleep until his face was mashed up against the mattress.
He lifts his head, and Rogers is looking at him. Rogers smiles a little. It's one of those sad smiles that wouldn't fool an infant and makes Barnes feel like a total mission failure.
Barnes figures he must look like a dope, smashed against the side of the bed on the floor. Also, when is the least awkward time to remove his hand from Rogers's arm.
"Are you okay, Bucky?" Rogers asks.
Am I okay. Pal, I am not the one whose eye socket got crushed 9 days ago.
Barnes sighs. His head itches, which is a good excuse to finally reclaim his hand.
I know, mission.
Building JARVIS is right: it is unsustainable to each try to carry 100% of the blame all the time.
"Sorry I hurt you," he says, "and sorry I freaked out so bad after."
Rogers sits up abruptly.
"No, I'm the one who should be sorry! I never should have -"
"Um. Yeah, Buck?"
"Just accept the fucking apology and I'll try to do better, okay?"
Rogers goes all arm-flappy, which is Steven G. Dumbface Semaphore for 'I want to hug you even though you hate it.'
Barnes is willing to give the guy a break. It has been a shitty week.
Rogers leans down and grabs him tight around the shoulders. It's damn awkward, sprawled on the floor being suffocated around the face by a giant. But not too bad.
Better than sitting in a closet, anyway. By a lot.
"Okay, you're killing my back," Barnes says after 2.6 minutes.
Rogers looks better already. Some of the wrinkles in his forehead have gone away.
Barnes creaks and pops his way up off the floor and into a stretch that does almost nothing to straighten the kinks out of his joints. But he feels better too. Identified: relief.
"I thought you would leave," Rogers says to his own kneecap.
Each one as bad as the other.
Barnes reaches out and shoves him - not hard at all, but Rogers lets himself be knocked over.
"Don't be an asshole," Barnes says, "I'm going to make breakfast."
Rogers is still washing his face when the coffeemaker whispers to Barnes,
"Well done, Sergeant."
Bukharin's balls, Building and the mission are in cahoots.
Chapter 3: Grooming rituals
Barnes likes to watch the women together. In mixed groups, they are always busy: Romanoff laughing silently from the edge, Hill reminding everyone that she can kick their asses (mostly true), and Potts constantly on the lookout for anything that needs to be organized or facilitated.
When it's just the three of them, they sit close together, knees and elbows touching, their faces animated. There is a great deal of giggling.
They have another friend, a blonde woman, who will only meet them in the coffee bar and never in the living spaces. She makes Rogers twitchy. Barnes assumes this indicates a history of more physical contact than he wants to think about, so he is not going to ask.
But the women make touching look not-creepy. They laugh more than in mixed company. Romanoff always notices Barnes's gaze, but she doesn't seem to mind.
Barnes can usually get in 2 whole minutes of watching before Potts or Hill flicks her eyes up at him, away, and up again. It is an indicator of discomfort. At the indicator, he leaves.
Except today, Hill is wearing her hair in a new way. She has a thing in it. What is the thing. It holds her hair away from her face at the top, leaving the bottom hair free. It has a little handle on it. How is the thing holding the hair.
"Barnes," Romanoff says in a sharp tone, "you're staring."
Crap. It is rude to stare. (Unless you're staring at Rogers for purposes of surveillance. That's allowed.) Rudeness requires an apology.
He stands 1.6 m away, to indicate non-aggression.
"Sorry," he says, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
Why does everyone always look so surprised when he apologizes for stuff.
"It's okay, don't worry about it," Hill says.
The thing in her hair looks even more interesting close up. It holds the hair without making a tail.
"Barnes," Romanoff says, "you're doing it again."
"Seriously," Hill says, "do I have something on me?"
She goes still.
"Please tell me it's not a spider."
Assessment of Hill increased 16%.
"Sorry," he says, "I like the thing in your hair."
"What, my clip?"
She takes it out and gives it to him.
Like it's no big deal, or like they know each other. She just removes the thing from her hair and hands it over.
It is more kindness.
The clip is so neat. It has tiny springs, like those terrible future pens where the writing part comes out with an ear-offending click. When Barnes squeezes the thing's handle, little teeth come apart.
It's like a tiny plastic monster that holds back the hair with its mouth.
I want one.
Barnes makes the thing chew several times, then reaches back, but it won't stick in his hair. It keeps sliding out.
"Here," Hill says, reaching.
She shows him how the clip needs to gather hair underneath to grip.
"Where can I get one."
"Sit," she says, pointing to the floor in front of her chair.
He looks at Romanoff. Who is not laughing at him, for once. Her expression is serious, but not angry.
"If you sit on the floor, she'll put the clip in your hair for you," Romanoff says, "but she'll have to touch you, if that's okay."
"Oh God!" Potts cries.
Potts has tears in her eyes. Why is Potts upset.
"I'm sorry Barnes," Potts says, waving her hand, "don't mind me."
"I can just show you again," Hill says in a soft tone he has never heard her use before, "if that would be better."
Would it be better.
They touch each other all the time. Potts and Stark hold hands. Banner and Stark are forever poking and shoving at one another. Rogers and Sam hug and slap each other's arms. Romanoff and Barton sit on the sofa with their legs tangled together. The mission briefing has shown him that the Bucky-person and Rogers used to sit with their legs tangled like that.
No one will hold him. He can get up if he wants to. If he loses a little hair in the process, who cares. He has a lot of hair.
Romanoff exhales in a huff. Pott's face, looking down at him from 0.4 m away, holds a tentative smile.
"Okay," Hill says, "I'm going to take your ponytail out, all right?"
Of course Barnes tenses a little, but her hands are unfamiliar. That has to be normal, right. Barnes-normal.
Hill rakes her fingers through his hair several times before she gathers up the top part and set the clip in place.
It feels kind of nice. Actually.
"Here, look," Potts says.
She holds out her phone on its camera setting. His hair is pulled half back just like Hill's was. It reaches down past his shoulders now, with a bend in it from the hair tie. Half down is less severe than his customary tail.
"Looks nice," he says.
Hill pats his shoulder, just like Esther and Lidia do, and that's okay.
"Do you ever wear a braid?" Potts asks.
Vocal tenor indicates excitement.
"I don't know that."
Potts pulls her hair to the front and quickly weaves 3 clumps together until it makes a red rope down her shoulder. Neat.
"Show me again."
"I think you'll have to brush your hair if you want to make a braid," Hill says, "hang on, I'll get my brush."
"Barnes!" Potts says, leaning down and grinning at him. She has a nice grin. Lots of teeth.
"We are going to do your hair."
Romanoff laughs aloud.
She crinkles her nose when she laughs.
"Hey Bucky, what do -"
Rogers stops mid-sentence.
Yeah, I know, pal. I look great.
"Uh," Rogers says, "how was your afternoon?"
"What's in the bag?"
"Hair stuff. Look."
Barnes dumps the things on the table and shows Rogers how the clips work.
"Like teeth. Very funny. And this thing. You twist your hair up and stick it through. You can also use a pencil."
He tells Steve the terrific idea he had on the elevator.
"Or a stiletto."
"You sure. Could."
"I have a lot of hair, Steve."
"That is true."
"All this is useful materiel."
"Bucky, your hair is really. Shiny."
"That's the silicone spray."
"Smooths the cuticle. Smells nice, too. Smell it."
"No, that's okay."
"That is a very pleasant fragrance, Buck."
"Not too perfumy, Potts said."
"Pepper did this?"
"And Romanoff and Hill."
"The girls did your hair?"
"They are not girls, Rogers. They're grown women, don't infantilize them."
"I fell asleep."
"I fell asleep. Didn't mean to. You should grow your hair out, Rogers."
"And how do you figure that?"
"Having someone else brush your hair for you. It's acceptable touching. Has a natural sedative effect."
"That sounds great, Buck, but I'm pretty sure I'd look like a chump with long hair."
"No sweat, Rogers, that's no different from usual."
Rogers slaps his arm.
"You really did have a good day, huh?"
"Yeah. They're kind, the women."
"Well, Bucky, I guess I'll take that as a confirm."
After a couple of months, Barnes is enough of a fixture around the Tower that mostly he can hover near the wall of any given room to keep an eye on Rogers but not get messed with. Unless Stark remembers that he hasn't gotten to play with the metal arm. It's good that Stark is so easily distracted.
The Avengers and their support personnel make for entertaining watching. First look might suggest that they would be people otherwise unsuited to friendship. But Barnes sees how Romanoff always watches to ensure Barton doesn't retreat too far into the rafters. Barton pats her down for injuries after every job and won't let her hide her hurts.
Romanoff watches Steve, too. She digs an elbow into his ribs when his frown lasts too long. And she never forgets Barnes in the corner when it's her turn to fetch drink refills.
Stark and Banner have their science in common, despite personalities on either end of the volume spectrum. Rogers and Thor share their strength and a propensity toward kindness. They like to spar in the gym, which doesn't bother Barnes at all, really. Flying Sam and Col. Rhodes like to grimace at one another during "planning" meetings, when the "plans" mostly involve charging into danger without any backup. Sam will include Barnes in these eye-rolling sessions. Col. Rhodes mistrusts. Good quality in a soldier. Barnes has decided to like him anyway. Rhodes is sensible and kind to Potts. And he greeted Sam with enthusiasm.
What they all share is brokenness. Every one of them has PTSD layered over grief and regret. Bunch of hard-drinking, loud-mouthed, heart-aching troublemakers.
So Barnes figures he will actually fit in some day, when he's a little better self-integrated and able to converse more.
And if he never really integrates? If he's always split into three - Barnes, imperative, briefing - maybe that's okay. Maybe talking just takes practice. Maybe touching takes practice. Like good-guy nonlethal. Like baking cookies.
In the meantime, hanging around by the wall makes for good surveillance. Many of the rooms have at least one nice plant to stand by, and Barnes is not such a dummy that he failed to notice the small, comfy chairs that have started to appear at the perimeter of the common areas.
The chair in the main common area showed up in close proximity to Barton's structure. Barnes assumes that both are courtesy of Potts.
The structure is a lot like the wood-and-carpet tower he bought for cat Eleanor, except tasteful and lacking in sisal panels to scratch. Barton only retreats to this when he's having a difficult time. Barnes has identified the desire to climb the thing, but he's waiting for an invitation. It's important to respect boundaries and maintain safe spaces.
Flying Sam said so, and he's the expert.
Today, the science must have gone well, because Stark is hopping around the living room with his annoyance feature turned all the way up. And he's excited about food. When Stark is not doing well, or the science goes badly, they get takeout pizza or cook in their own living spaces. Only happy Stark wants to feed everyone around him.
"Pepper! Pepper, Momofuku!" Stark yells.
"Aw, seriously?" Barnes hears from 1.3 m above and to the right.
He looks up, and Barton is scowling on his little platform, back to the room, a broken arrow in his hand. He catches Barnes's glance and shrugs.
"I mean, it's good, don't get me wrong. It's just so fancy. Sometimes you just want some crappy green tea and a blob of rice with fish on top."
Barnes nods. He does, in fact, sometimes want just that. Or a bowl of nabeyaki udon. So far, he has wanted that at least once a week.
He has a solution to Barton's problem. Solving problems is mission-compliant.
Barnes stares at Rogers. Steve's ability to sense when Barnes is staring at him would have been a bitch and a half before contact, but it's useful now. Because apparently it's "silly" to text someone from across the room.
He stares, and after 43 seconds, Rogers turns. 'Me, Barton, out,' Barnes signals. Rogers nods. This is their agreement. No disappearing without warning. So they will know any disappearance is danger.
Barnes waves at Barton.
"Uh, not murder-related, right?"
It's the funniest joke in all of humanity, and Barnes has definitely not heard anything like it 207 times since he started hanging around these yahoos. He doesn't bother to answer, but Barton follows him anyway.
The walk is damn cold. All the holiday decorations are gone, leaving behind only piles of blackened slush and sunlight that never seems to get high enough to properly illuminate anything. At least the kissing holiday is over.
"This place looks like a dump!" Barton says outside the restaurant. But his expression and vocal tenor indicate happiness.
"Hey, you got a friend!" the old man says as they approach the counter. "What a surprise, another big muscle guy. At least this one knows how to get a haircut."
He cackles and sets a cup of tea in front of each of them.
"You want your usual?"
The old man goes to the back. Barnes lifts his cup and looks at Barton. Who is gaping.
"Did he just. Make fun of your hair?"
"And you're like. A regular here?"
The grumpy woman pokes her head from behind the carp curtain leading to the kitchen and waves. Barnes waves back.
"Wow! I mean! Wow!" Barton says, "Rogers said you had a whole life going before you met up with him, but I figured it was all sitting in dark corners staring through a rifle scope."
"Why would you think that."
"Uh. It's what I would do if I were newly hatched out of hell? Not," Barton gestures around the restaurant, "scouting good Japanese food."
"Sat in plenty of dark corners with a scope. But Rogers has a bad habit of leaving the house."
"Oh my god, you didn't follow him on his daily run, did you?"
"Ugh, that's awful. Who runs every day? It's not right."
Barton is funny. His sympathy is very welcome. It is good to have confirmation that Rogers is a maniac.
The soup comes out, and Barton leans his face over the bowl to sniff.
"Hey," he says, "hey! This smells awesome!"
The sensation, watching Barton eat, is mission sub-objective achieved. Especially when Barton looks up from his bowl with noodles hanging out of his mouth like a sea creature and grabs his teacup to clink with Barnes's.
"This is no good," the old man says when their bowls are almost empty.
Contradict. It's very good. But the old man is smiling.
"You can't like my daughter's udon more than you like my sushi."
"Try us out, then," Barton says.
The old man's eyes disappear into the wrinkles made by his smile. It was good to bring Barton here. Both of them are happy. Mission compliant.
The old man sets out rectangles of fish and fish-associated products until Barnes is actually tempted to join in Barton's groans of overextended stomach capacity. Sushi inventory greatly expanded. Thanks, mission-assist Clint Barton.
- pepper tuna
- salmon roe
- sea urchin
- giant clam
- sea eel
- fresh eel
Fish is good, except when it has a weird texture. Texture can be difficult. Not every texture is as nice as crunchy. And sea urchin tastes the way a garbage can smells.
The bill is large. The bill could almost be a pair of jeans. Barnes digs for his cash, but Barton waves at him.
Barton is careful not to touch.
"Stop it. This is on me. You can pay next time."
"There will be a next time?"
"Are you kidding?" Barton says, "Of course there's gonna be a next time! You'd better not come here without me! The food is great, and so is half the company."
"He means me," the old man says.
They are both grinning. This is a joke. They are including him in a joke. Neat.
"Well, you've got good taste in food, anyway," Barnes says.
"Haaaaaa!" the old man says.
He snaps his towel at Barnes's shoulder.
"Shut up, you think I'm great."
Barnes makes a smile and nods.
"Just for that, next time you finally try wasabi."
"Wasabi," Barton says in a worshipful tone.
So wasabi is maybe not a punishment? How long is the appropriate waiting period to repeat lunch with a new mission-assist.
The others at the Tower are still fussing with their tiny foods and delicate sauce cups.
"Climb up here and check out the sight lines," Barton says, standing next to his structure.
From 2.1 m up, the sight lines are excellent. They make little balls of paper to flick around the room and verify that the structure is in fact an admirably defensible position.
It's definitely actually an accident if one of the paper balls lands in Stark's dinner. And that one gets caught in Rogers's' hair.
Mission assist guinevak made some excellent art: http://guinevak.tumblr.com/post/129604417204/and-if-he-never-really-integrates-if-hes-always
"You do not like me, I think," Thor says.
After 7.2 seconds, Barnes climbs down off the kitchen counter and puts his knives away.
You go looking in the common area for a little late-night peanut butter and find space aliens trying to give you a heart attack. Terrific.
"You're fine," Barnes says, "don't know you."
It's mostly true.
Thor is sitting in front of an empty glass and a mostly empty gin bottle. It's a classic Avengers pose. Only the drink changes: scotch for Stark, vodka for Romanoff, bourbon for Banner, tequila for Barton (because he is crazy), and milk for Rogers (because he is a dork).
(Even if Rogers would say that if you can't get drunk anyway, it makes no sense to waste good booze on a bad mood.)
"Didn't figure you for a gin man," Barnes says.
Thor blinks at the bottle.
"Is that what it is? It's terrible. It reminds me of medicine given to me as a child."
Asgard sounds like a weird-ass place.
"Why drink it."
"It was the bottle in the front," Thor says.
Barnes reaches into the liquor cabinet and hands over Stark's scotch.
"This is supposed to be good, if you don't mind the flavor of a campfire."
Thor scrunches up his face.
"I've had it, thank you."
He pours the remainder of the gin into the glass, sighs mournfully at it, and knocks it back.
"That bad, huh."
"It is the ebb and flow of energies, I suppose."
He looks up at Barnes and grins.
"Or I simply miss my Jane."
Barnes has met Dr. Foster. Another non-poky, non--brain messing doc. Small enough to practically live in a dollhouse.
"Jane talks very fast."
"She does indeed."
Then his smile slides off his gigantic face, and he pushes the empty gin bottle away with one oversized finger.
"Such is the lot of mortals, whose lives are but brief candle flames in the endless chill of the universe."
Oh boy, philosophy. Just what you want at 0220 when you've come looking for peanut butter.
Barnes reaches back into the cabinet and withdraws Romanoff's vodka. He plunks it down on the table.
"Pal, if you're gonna moan like a Russian, you'd better drink like one."
Thor takes a long drink straight from the bottle.
"I don't put any stock into your realm's arbitrary national divisions, but this liquor is definitely tastier than the other."
'Arbitrary national divisions.' Funny.
Barnes finds the peanut butter and a spoon. He had been planning to sit on the balcony and look at the city, but what the hell. Thor can't help it if he can spar with Steve and not have a mental break.
Them's the burdens of guys recovering from long-term emotional problems.
Thor has gone glum again, clinking one of his many rings against the empty glass and heaving sighs that use up all the oxygen in the room.
"You worry about Jane dying on you?"
Thor takes another long pull at the vodka bottle.
"I know she will. It is the nature of the difference in our species."
"In what way?"
"He woke up in a different century. Almost everyone he knew he was dead. Outlived them all, but still only felt 27."
Thor tugs on one of the small braids at the side of his head. His braids are neat. Barnes has tried to copy them, but on him they just look dumb. They make him look like one of those short little chumps from the movie where they walk for a million years and then wake up a dragon. What kind of moron wakes up a dragon? Not Barnes.
"I had not thought of that," Thor says.
"He draws pictures of them all. Says it keeps the memory alive. And he donates money so their great-grandkids can go to college."
"But you share the same plight, I think."
"Not so bad for me. I don't remember a lot from before."
"And now you have found each other again."
"It's good to have brothers in arms," Thor says, "I have that on Asgard. Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, they are called. We have had many adventures together, fought many battles over the centuries."
He frowns at his new bottle. After he drinks, the level is down to half.
Hope you have enough space alien pocket change to restock the liquor cabinet, pal.
Barnes looks at the peanut butter, which is now one-third gone.
Yeah, okay mission. Jerk.
"It has not been so easy, forming the same bonds here," Thor says.
Jesus, the expectations these people have.
"Yeah," Barnes says, "weird how hanging around traumatized people who spend half their time fighting bad guys is so inefficient for bonding."
Thor glares at him. Barnes sticks a spoonful of peanut butter in his mouth.
"Wait," Thor says.
Because evidently when you are a fancy space prince whose existence spans the mighty reaches of time from blah to blah-di-blah, you don't have to be so speedy in the old brain-pan.
"Was that a joke?"
Barnes sticks another spoonful of peanut butter in his mouth.
Thor has a good smile. It's giant, like the rest of him. The guy also has a shoulder pat that feels like being walloped by a tree trunk.
"I am glad to know that you do not dislike me, Barnes."
Barnes scratches his head. Flying Sam has taught him that honesty and communication are important. Maybe even with space aliens.
"Had a hard time," he says, "you get to spar with Steve. Last time I did that, I broke his eye socket."
Easier to stare at the table than Thor's face.
"Seems like it should be fun. I. Want it. But I don't trust myself."
"I wish you could see Asgard," Thor says in a soft voice.
Barnes looks up, and Thor is wearing an expression like Steve or Romanoff wears sometimes, when he does something right.
"The morning sun hitting the Bifrost, or the whole of my father's court gathered in ceremony. It is very beautiful. Very grand."
Grand. Oh boy. What's the point of this, champ.
"And the library at the palace holds ten million volumes from all over the nine realms."
Now that's more like it.
"I have a hunting lodge, high in the mountains, surrounded by trees. At night you can lie abed and go to sleep to the sound of a cold mountain river tumbling into a waterfall. There is no better sleep."
Take some books from that library with you and that sounds pretty terrific.
"And we have healers there," Thor continues, "who work very differently from the doctors here. They can heal energies. They can lighten the burdens of an injured mind."
The mission imperative is higher pitched than usual.
Then the mission briefing gives him an image, out of context: a cool hand on his forehead, and a feminine voice saying, 'feeling better, Jaimie love?'
The voice makes his eyes well up. Who is the woman.
Barnes feels small, next to this man who travels worlds and shrugs off magic as totally normal. Or maybe it is still the echo from the briefing.
"Steven has told me that you are split in three. The healers of Asgard might be able to take that rupture from you. To reach into your core and bring forth the man you were of old."
Why is the chair so unsteady.
Where has the rest of the room gone.
To be the Bucky-person again. To be Steve's Bucky.
"Is that what Steve wants."
Why does his voice sound so hoarse.
Thor's tone is gentle.
"I have not discussed it with him. You are the one fractured, not he."
If not fractured, then what. If Bucky, what happens to Barnes.
"But I have heard Steven say many times that you have had too many choices taken from you. He would tell you - any of us here would tell you, I think - that you should choose what you want."
"I concur, Sergeant," Building JARVIS says.
They both nearly jump out of their chairs.
"We could leave now, if you like," Thor says.
It is a big choice.
But a mission head's job is not only to throw its weight around and give orders. Its job is also to care for mission personnel, so they can optimally perform tasks.
Confirm it, mission.
It's about as wobbly a confirmation as one could imagine.
The mission briefing pings around like a deflected bullet, throwing snippets of download at him.
- Steve's voice childhood-high and reedy, 'we'll be friends forever, right Bucky?'
- Steve in an old-fashioned helmet, leaning over him, speaking his name.
- Steve laughing, saying "aw, no, Buck, you're gonna get me in so much trouble."
- The sunrise smile.
- The sunrise smile.
But Barnes remembers as well. Sitting under their tree on Christmas morning. Rogers banging into his room when he has had a nightmare, to wake him up and take him for 1 am pancakes to drive away the dark places. The expression on Steve's face when he says (at least weekly), 'how did we both end up here, Buck?"
Those are good things too.
Would a new Bucky remember this? Would a new Bucky with old memories still like cat Eleanor and make the old Japanese man laugh? Would a new Bucky remember Esther. Or know about how hard he has worked to become Barnes, to choose to reform. Would all this effort and receipt of kindness disappear.
They make a pretty twitchy person together, the three of them. But when it counts, they do a good job of protecting Steve.
I think I would miss you, mission, if you went away.
Oh hey, you have emotions now.
Yeah. I'm happy too.
Barnes takes a tissue from the box Thor has kindly fetched during this internal conference, and wipes his eyes. Tissues are still highly inferior to handkerchiefs, but they're better than sleeves. Thor uses one too. Pretty empathetic for a space prince.
"Worked hard to make this me," Barnes says, "even if it's a pretty banged-up identity. Guess I'll stick it out and see what comes out the other side."
"A brave and wise choice, friend Barnes," Thor says.
Natasha's vodka lasts 3.5 minutes after that, and Banner's bourbon is gone in another 15. Then they give up on liquor as useless. Barnes introduces Thor to the earthly miracle: peanut butter cookies. Thanks for the baking lessons, Esther.
"Why do we not eat these all the time?" Thor asks.
It's a fair question.
At dawn they're sitting on the balcony polishing off the last of the batch when Steve finds them. He's wearing sleep pants with little winged pigs on them. Bucky would not have given those pants to Steve for Christmas. Barnes did. In honor of the sheep pants that saved Barnes from the HYDRA reprogrammer, he gave Steve eight pairs of the most ridiculous pajamas he could find.
Steve wears them all the time.
"Are you two okay out here?" Steve asks.
"We are well, Steven," Thor says, "friend Barnes has been consoling me while I miss my Jane."
"Miss her?" Steve says, "why would you ever need to miss her? You can fly."
"For fuck's sake," Barnes says while Thor laughs loudly enough to scare the pigeons for half a block around.
"No one's smart at three a.m., I guess," Barnes says as Thor runs off for his weirdo magic flying hammer.
"Damn, must've been some consolation," Steve says over the collection of empty bottles on the table.
"That's nothing. This is the real stuff," Barnes says.
He holds out the plate with its one remaining cookie.
"The last one? Did I save the world in my sleep? Otherwise I can't imagine what I did to deserve the last peanut butter cookie."
"Steve, you have two seconds to take the fucking thing before my offer is rescinded."
He takes it. Who wouldn't?
Writing this chapter was a four-tissue experience.
Chapter 6: Okay, maybe not SO terrible (but don't tell anyone)
Impatient bunch of folks, are you? Here you are, as requested.
And here is a picture of cat Eleanor. Not my cat, alas.
It is boring without Rogers around. All of the books are boring. All of the people are stupid. The gym smells. Outside it's raining.
Rogers is traveling the country, raising money for asthma research. It requires public contact and a great deal of airplane travel. So Barnes has stayed behind. After so many conversations.
"It's just a week, Bucky, and it's a really good cause."
"You know you wouldn't be happy with all the travel and crowds."
"We can't be in each other's pockets all the time forever. Let's just give it a try."
This last might've been Rogersese for 'I need some breathing room,' so Barnes agreed. It even seemed like a good idea as long as Rogers was in the room. A useful experiment.
After 2 days, clearly a failed experiment. Everything is dull. Stark and Banner are making science. Potts and Hill have work. Thor is gallivanting around the universe, and Barton and Romanoff are off doing whatever standard humans do to survive hanging around a bunch of foolhardy super people.
The monitor showing Rogers's bedroom is dark, which makes sleeping difficult. So boring.
Rogers at least agreed to turn on the tracker on his phone. Barnes can look at the little pulsing dot and see where Rogers is at any time (currently Memphis, TN), but it could be hours before Rogers will answer a text. He's busy speechifying and patting wheezy kids. At least asthma isn't catching.
Barnes has been sitting at the kitchen table, fists stacked with his chin on top, for 37 minutes. His flesh hand has fallen asleep, which only adds to the general air of stupidity.
"Sergeant, agent Romanoff is on her way to you," Building JARVIS says.
"You can let her in," he says.
Because what the hell. But it isn't worth moving for.
"Hey, Barnes," she says.
She lays one hand on his shoulder as she passes to sit across from him.
"Haven't seen you in a couple of days," she says, "I thought I'd come see how you're doing."
"Barnes," she says.
He glares up at her. That's her laughing tone. And her laughing expression.
She prods his shin with her foot.
"You what. It's only okay to have hair parties and go out with Clint for sushi when Steve's in the building?"
Why is she always impervious to his glare.
"Come on, Buck, you gonna just sit there moping all day?"
What the hell even, lady.
"Romanoff, that is the worst impression of Rogers possible."
She kicks his chair leg.
"Come on, get up. Take off Steve's pajamas and put on some real clothes. You have ten minutes."
Ugh, fine, whatever.
"Steve told me I could wear them."
"Nine minutes, Barnes."
Out front, they get into one of the endless black cars that ferry Stark Industries people around. It's a comfortable way to travel. Rogers prefers the subway - he likes to watch people and sketch them later.
"Why," Barnes says when he hears Romanoff give the address.
"You haven't been there in a couple of weeks. And it always cheers you up to go to Brooklyn."
That is true. Except.
"But Steve isn't here."
"Barnes, don't be childish. They were your friends first."
Aw, mission. You're taking her side now?
It's a fucking conspiracy.
That maybe has a good point.
When they arrive at Bridge and Water, Romanoff settles back into the seat and pulls out her phone. Ready to sit and wait for him.
That seems unfair, to make her sit alone. She's awful, but she was the first of them to be kind to him, all the way back in DC at the HYDRA bank. Rogers has told him a little about her, that Romanoff spent her own years as a weapon held in terrible hands. And she seems to understand him a little.
"You can come up if you want," he says.
She looks genuinely happy at the invitation. Interesting.
He rings the bell to apartment 3C, and Lidia answers.
"It's Jimmy," he says, "sorry, I should've called ahead."
"Utter nonsense," Lidia says, "get up here. Your timing is impeccable."
The door buzzes, and he holds it open.
"Let's go on up, Jimmy," Romanoff says as she saunters past him.
"Sure thing, Natty."
He has never seen her recoil in horror before. It's beautiful.
Ollie is standing in the hallway on the third floor, outside his - formerly Steve's - apartment.
"You buzz the women and not me? Are we playing favorites now?"
Barnes feels better already.
"Don't recall you ever baking for me, Ollie."
Ollie clutches his chest.
"I'm wounded to my very soul, you heartless, ungrateful. Oh my, who is this?"
Ollie can flip from doof to charm in 0.6 seconds. It's an admirable skill.
Oh, dammit. Here goes nothing.
"My friend Natasha. Natasha, this is Ollie."
Barnes doesn't miss the little twinkle she gives him as she moves forward to shake Ollie's hand.
Yes, whatever. Gross.
Then there's hugging in the hallway (Esther), and the Olds herd them inside.
"Oh, now where is Steve?" Esther asks.
Barnes is too busy getting a face full of cat fur to answer.
"He's off raising money for asthma research," Romanoff says.
"He's so good," Esther says, "trying to take care of all the big problems in the world."
"While our Jim takes care of the little ones, so between the two of them everyone is set," Lidia says.
Barnes looks up from his hello-skritching of cat Eleanor, and they are all looking at him. He decides that maybe he should make a close examination of cat Eleanor's belly fur.
"Mow," Eleanor says, and grabs onto his scalp.
Not so comfortable.
"What do you mean?"
For an exhibition of what makes Romanoff terrible.
And of course the Olds tell her. Not that he would call the Olds terrible. They are merely - alarming in their enthusiasm. It is a loud conversation with many interruptions, in which Barnes is the hero of home improvement, Most Improved in cooking and speaking skills, and savior of all from crooked landlords and their brute friends.
By the time they get to the landlord stuff, Barnes has gone to lie down behind the sofa, where (a) they can't see him, and (b) cat Eleanor can walk up and down his body to her heart's content. She finally curls up on the seam at his left shoulder and purrs so hard the metal plates vibrate.
Feels pretty nice.
"Are you asleep back there, Jim?" Ollie shouts when storytelling hour is done at last.
"You know he's not," Lidia says, "look at his feet. Even they look embarrassed."
Who knew he had expressive feet. He climbs up off the floor before anyone can comment further on his extremities.
"You were all nicer to me when I was more broken," he says.
"Ain't that one of the tragedies of human life, son," Ollie says.
"Besides," Esther says to him as she drags him toward the kitchen, "isn't less broken worth the teasing?"
No question, really.
"We've met, I think," Lidia says to Romanoff when they're all settled with cookies and tea.
(Esther put a big slug of plum brandy into everyone's teacup but his. The cookies are lemon. They're very good.)
"She was here the night the bad guys came."
"Oh yes! Sorry dear, you weren't as memorable as Iron Man or Steven with no shirt."
"It's usually my job to be unmemorable. But even at my best I'm no match for shirtless Steve."
The worst ever.
"Ladies, please! My delicate sensibilities!" Ollie says.
"Jimmy's delicate sensibilities, maybe."
Esther how could you.
"You respect me, don't you?" he asks cat Eleanor.
Who reaches out with her paw, knocks his cookie to the floor, and sits on it.
"Romanoff, you win," he says, "after that, I'm finally glad Steve isn't here."
"Aw, Jimmy," Esther says.
She hands him another cookie.
As it turns out, his presence is necessary to prevent the women from performing home improvement projects.
"I saw it on the internet," Lidia says.
"I'm still not sure about it," Esther says, "but Lidia just kept talking, and then all these boxes arrived."
"Esther," Lidia says, "every time I get up in the middle of the night that cat of yours either tries to send my soul straight to Purgatory from on top of a bookcase or kill me outright getting under my feet. A cat highway will make us both happier."
Cat highway. Ridiculous. Cat Eleanor doesn't want a cat highway. She wants Barnes's left earlobe.
I know, mission. It's very ticklish.
The cat highway is a series of little platforms intended to hang on the wall to make a path high off the floor. Not really appropriate for two old ladies who barely know which end of a hammer to hold.
"Good you waited for me," he says.
Esther clears her throat and directs his attention to a 4-cm-diameter hole in the wall.
It is pleasant to walk the familiar route from Bridge and Water to the hardware store. The day is warm. Soon it'll be too warm for long sleeves. Potential difficulty for a guy with a metal arm.
"How're you doing, kid?" Ollie asks, "you look better."
"Doing pretty good."
"Working things out, living in the world?"
Ollie pats his arm.
"We worried about you, you know. Those first couple of months, we thought we were going to have to arm wrestle Captain America to bring you back to Brooklyn."
Barnes stops on the sidewalk and stares at Ollie. In the first couple of months, he would have gladly gone.
"I think Lidia might actually be able to take him," Ollie says.
Barnes still isn't used to laughing, but it's good to practice.
"You taught me kindness," he says, "you three."
"Oh, well," Ollie says, then clears his throat twice.
"I'm just sorry it was something you even had to learn, son."
It feels right to put his arm around Ollie's shoulders for several paces.
"So this young lady," Ollie says when they have made their purchases.
"Self-appointed backup while Steve's gone."
"I wouldn't be complaining about that!"
"Well," Barnes says, "she's no Ollie Peters."
Ollie cackles for a full third of a block.
And when they get back to the apartment, Natasha is kneeling on top of a bookcase, leaned out over space, making pencil marks on the wall.
Natasha turns around and catches herself only by the grace of her skills.
"I don't even know how I got up here," she says, "Lidia just kept talking and next thing I knew …"
"It's like she's a hypnotist!" Esther says.
"What can I say? The crazy old lady routine really works for me."
Lidia is a danger. It's good she's on their side.
For all her skepticism, Esther has strong ideas about the placement of the cat highway platforms. And of course none of the Olds has a ladder. The only way they can figure to hang the tallest ones is for Romanoff to climb on his shoulders.
It's hard, but anywhere the Olds are is a safe space.
"I'm off the second it's bad for you, Barnes," Romanoff tells him.
So for cat Eleanor, he will try. Romanoff climbs on the windowsill and then onto his shoulders. It is less strange than anticipated. And it's not as if she weighs anything worth noting.
"This feels familiar," he says.
She taps him on the head. Oh right. She did this before, trying to kill him. Hardware installation is an improvement over attempted murder, even if she jars him, hammering the anchors into the wall. He only sweats a little.
When all the little platforms are hung, Esther picks up cat Eleanor and places her on the lowest one.
Cat Eleanor stares at them all with an expression of disdain and jumps down onto the floor.
Three old people, a spy, and a broken-down soldier can dissolve into a high volume of hilarity.
"I told you!" Esther says when they have had a chance to catch their breath.
"That cat is the most wretched, troublesome little …" Lidia resorts to Polish to plumb the true depths of her feelings.
Her feelings are pretty bad.
But they'll work it out. Barnes knows that in his bones.
"I never had any grandparents," Natasha says in the car back to Manhattan.
"Me neither, that I remember."
"They're really great, Barnes. No wonder they cheer you up."
"Yeah. I was lucky."
"I don't believe in luck," she says.
"What do you believe in?"
"Barnes, don't ask me to be sentimental."
Reasonable. Sentiment is dangerous, when you live a life that sees all the shadows.
"Thanks for today," he says, "it helped."
"Yeah, Barnes," she says, and reaches to squeeze his hand briefly, "me too."
He is looking out the window at the city's lights 12 minutes later, but he still hears her say in a soft voice,
"I believe in Steve. And I'm starting to believe in you."
"Mission assist," he says to the cold glass, hearing her snort. Knowing it means she's pleased.
Chapter 7: Skill set: intact
Finding this an inspiring combination:
“Sergeant,” Building JARVIS says, “Ms. Potts requests that you meet her in her office.”
It’s a strange request. He has never been to Potts’s office during working hours, only during his late-night reconnaissance after he first moved in.
He is nearly at the end of a chapter. Lizzie Bennet has just received a very interesting letter that ought to make her feel like a dumbass. And he has ¼ of a grilled mazithra with sundried tomato pesto on olive bread.
Pepper might be a super powerful CEO, but chapters and sandwiches are important.
“I will notify her, Sergeant.”
He puts on a clean shirt to go see her. There might be fancy people in the office.
When he arrives on the 24th floor, Potts’s assistant beckons him to a chair.
All the walls are glass. Stark is in Potts’s office. He is yelling.
“No, Pepper, absolutely not.”
“It’s not your decision, Tony. You’re not my boss. Last time I checked, I was your boss.”
“It’s not safe.”
“I disagree. Obviously.”
“What if he cracks? What if all these months he’s just been biding his time? What if this is the opening he needs?”
“Tony. Don’t be stupid. How many chances has he had? He’s not HYDRA’s anymore. Barnes is my friend.”
They are arguing about him?
Barnes looks at the assistant for help, but she is deeply absorbed in obviously totally nothing.
“No, Tony. No. I get it. I really do, but the man sitting out there is not the same one who killed your parents. Deal with it.”
Stark growls and stomps out of the office, vibrating with rage. When he sees Barnes, he stalks over and tries to loom.
Kind of hard when you’re a bonsai human.
“You,” Stark says, finger shoved unpleasantly close to Barnes’s nose, “if anything happens to her. If she comes back in a bad mood, I am going to tear you into tiny pieces.”
Sure you are, champ.
Stark stares at him briefly, then stomps out.
“Come on in, Barnes,” Potts says, beckoning, “don’t mind Tony. He’s wearing his jerk pants today.”
Barnes is of the opinion that Stark is pretty much always wearing jerk pants, but he likes Potts, so he keeps his mouth shut.
Potts’s assistant comes in with two cups and hands him one. It is really good coffee.
“So there’s a meeting coming up,” Potts says, “big group of CEOs and big money people, called Bilderberg. It’s week after next, in Toulouse. I’d like you to be my security.”
Barnes chokes on his coffee.
“It’s a long plane flight, I know. We can take the big jet, if you want. And of course you should feel free to say no. But if you’re willing, I would really like you to be there.”
Potts waves her hands around. She looks fretful.
“Honestly? You’re the scariest-looking guy I know who fights for our side.”
Is that a compliment.
Potts grins and stops flapping her arms. Good answer. Thanks, mission.
“I hate to go,” she says, “they’re almost all completely awful people. And some of them are really handsy. But SI has to be a presence there to remain a major player. Between getting out of the arms business, the mess last year and, uh, Tony, there are a lot of people who would like to see SI lose market share. Like all of it. And a lot of those same people hate dealing with a woman.”
Ah. A meeting of the International Society of Assholes.
“But why me and not your regular crew?”
“Like I said. You’re more terrifying. I’m definitely going for the scariest vibe possible. Wait’ll you see my suit.”
He hasn’t practiced scary in a while. Might be fun.
“The meeting is three days. I figure we’ll fly right in and out, to minimize your time away from the tower.”
Take the bigger plane, fly on a schedule to accommodate him.
They’re done each other’s hair and watched movies enough times that Barnes knows Potts will go teary-eyed with very little encouragement. But this. He doesn’t like this.
She presses a button on her desk, and the office door closes.
“I am scared,” she says. “You know what happened to me, a year ago Christmas?”
“I haven’t really felt safe since then, except when I’m in this building. I mean, it’s not just that the world is scarier. I don’t trust myself. You know?”
CONFIRM TIMES ONE MILLION
“I do know about that.”
Pepper covers her mouth with her hand.
“Oh! Of course you do.”
“Right. So it’s not just that I trust you’d make sure anyone who tried to hurt me was, um, rendered incapable. But two weeks ago Tony startled me, and I almost burned a hole in the floor. If JARVIS hadn’t practically shouted at him not to touch me, I would’ve burned him, Barnes. Really badly. If anything goes wrong and my control slips, you’d knock me out for my own safety.”
Anything else would be stupid.
“Happy and his crew would never. They couldn’t bring themselves to.”
This is trust. Barnes feels tight in the chest. Except.
“High probability that some of the attendees are HYDRA.”
That makes Potts sit back in her chair.
“Oh. Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Can we put a disguise on you? We have that mesh face thing.”
No need to get up and run, Barnes. It’s just a question.
“I can’t wear anything on my face.”
“Not even sunglasses?”
It might be nice not to have to squint all the time.
“That could be acceptable. I can practice.”
Potts gets little crinkles by her eyes when she’s excited. Stark had better appreciate those crinkles.
“Put you in a good suit, sunglasses, and gloves. Maybe grow a beard?”
“And a haircut? I think you’d be pretty unrecognizable.”
“Pepper,” he says, “you’re killing me. Cut my hair?”
“It’ll grow back?” she says in a tiny voice.
We’re gonna do this, right? Take the chance and try to help?
I thought so.
“You’re gonna owe me one.”
“Oh yay!” Potts says, “Barnes, I’m gonna owe you three.”
Rogers is not so excited about this plan, but at least he doesn’t mirror Stark’s reaction.
“I see. I left you on your own last month, and this is payback?”
“Of course it is, Rogers, except that you are not allowed to wear my pajamas.”
“To my knowledge, Buck, you have no pajamas, which I assume is why you’re always filching mine.”
“This apartment runs on a sharing economy.”
“I’m pretty sure any ‘running’ of this apartment boils down to you doing whatever you feel like and then arguing until I’m too tired to disagree with you anymore.”
“So it’s nice to know I can count on your support for Pepper’s plan.”
Rogers throws his arms up into the air. The tightness that he used to wear around his eyes has released. Mission-compatible.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No. The point is to be anonymous security. You can’t.”
Rogers takes a minute to wipe out the cast-iron frying pan. He follows protocol and doesn’t let soap touch the metal, dries it immediately. He has his thinking expression on.
“It’s risky, Buck. What if some of those guys are HYDRA?”
“Pretty sure some of them are. Potts has a plan.”
“Gonna cut my hair, for one.”
“Not your crowning glory!”
“Shut up, Rogers. Grow a beard. Practice and see if I can stand sunglasses. Wear gloves.”
“Yeah, that could work. Any idea why she asked?”
“She said I’m the scariest-looking person she knows.”
“Buttered you up, I see.”
“She knows her audience.” He shrugs. “And her volcano thing. She worries about it. Said she could trust me to knock her out if she sets off.”
“Huh. How’d Tony take it?”
“Threatened to rip me into little pieces if anything happens to her.”
“Reasonable, if unlikely.”
“That was my thought too.”
The preparations turn out to be mostly fun. He borrows Steve’s sunglasses (not too awful) and wears them around for several days while Barton sings a truly awful song at him about wearing sunglasses at night, even though it is early afternoon. He flinches away from them at first, but he can choose to take them off when their slight weight becomes oppressive. Four days is enough for them to become comfortable.
Getting fitted for a suit starts off dicey, with all the measuring. Rogers goes with and keeps up a patter with the elderly tailor about the Mets that’s sufficiently stultifying until the tailor’s hand goes up into his crotch and he steps back so swiftly that he cracks one section of the three-way mirror.
Rogers stands up. The tailor stays in his crouch, measuring tape still held up, but his brown eyes staring at Barnes sharply.
“I apologize, sir. I should’ve warned you.”
“Measuring your inseam, sir. That’s all.”
He tries to stand and struggles. He looks enough like Ollie that Barnes moves forward to take his elbow and haul him up.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Sorry about your mirror.”
The man grins. “I feel certain Ms. Potts will replace it.”
“Do you need a break, Bucky?”
Barnes shakes himself.
We’re a jumpy damn bastard, mission.
One day at a time, Sam says, unless it takes one minute at a time, and then you do that.
The tailor explaining all his measurements is more interesting than baseball, anyhow. And when they’re done, he holds out a little card with a drawing of a man on it and asks about Barnes’s weapons setup.
“I’ll make adjustments to the fit so the holsters will be less obvious.”
Barnes stares at the drawing and thinks. Grenades are out: too bulky. Romanoff might be willing to let him borrow some of her horrible little shocker things.
Stark probably has all kinds of fun stuff. For Potts, he might even let Barnes have a couple.
“Guns,” he says, pointing, “here, here, and here. Single holster at ankle and back, double shoulder. Glock forty-twos.”
“Pretty small caliber,” Rogers says.
“Pretty small gun. Easier to hide. I’m a good enough shot to make up for it.”
“I’ll rig up at least the back holster to hold a couple knives,” Barnes says, “plus, let’s say more here.”
“Bucky,” Rogers says.
“Sir,” the tailor says, “that is a lot of knives.”
“I like to be prepared.”
The tailor laughs.
“I can see that. This much camouflage will require a heavier fabric. I hope you don’t mind being warm.”
“I’ll see you in five days for a fitting, then.”
“Just out of curiosity,” Rogers asks as they leave the tailor’s shop (on the second floor of Building – very convenient), “how many knives are you carrying right now?”
“The tower’s pretty safe,” Barnes says, “so only four.”
Steve laughs at some pretty strange things.
Once he has shoes and has requisitioned holsters from the shooting range, Barnes faces a choice: buy tools or go to Stark. Banner will probably be there, decreasing the likelihood that Stark will actively try to kill him. It would be stupid not to use the best available resources.
His knock on the lab door gets a curt “what” from Stark, but he’s allowed in. Stark stands around glaring while Banner sets him up at a workbench and a beeping little robot brings him a toolbox.
“You need anything else, just ask,” Banner tells him. “Don’t mind Tony.”
“Rrrrr,” Stark says.
Whatever, he can glare all day.
It’s good to work. Concentration makes time pass without uncomfortable thoughts. The robot is pretty helpful. He can ask it for small springs and it brings him a whole tray’s worth. It even finds a leather parer for him, though that takes several minutes of beeping and the sounds of small objects being thrown around.
In an afternoon’s work, he has modified the gun holsters to hold knives as well, hollowed out the heel of one shoe to make a hidden compartment, and installed a spring-loaded thumb dagger into a false sole in the toe of the other. He even scuffs up the soles for better traction. It’s a good setup. Now he has 11 days to practice with the gear so that he can use the shoe knife and the holsters without conscious thought.
“Thanks, robot,” he tells the thing.
It holds out one claw. He gives it his metal forefinger, which it grasps gently while speaking a long sentence in robot. Cute.
He looks up, and Banner and Stark are sitting on stools, staring at him.
“I’m gonna demonstrate an amazing level of optimism and good faith here and assume all that stuff’s for your little trip with Pepper,” Stark says.
What else would it be for?
“Knives strapped to your gun holsters?” Banner asks.
Banner looks alarmed.
“Of course. Guns run out of bullets. A knife never runs out unless you throw it.”
“Did she tell you this place is particularly dangerous? Because she didn’t say anything like that to me, and if there’s an actual threat, I am so not comfortable with this idea. I mean, I am already not comfortable with this idea, but I am not sending Pepper into a war zone,” Stark says in one-third the time most people would take to say that many words.
“No known threats,” Barnes says, “I’ve been checking. Seems like a bunch of rich jerks yammering at each other. I just like to be prepared.”
“Prepared for full-on assault.”
“Pick one, Stark,” Barnes says, “either you want me armed to my eyeballs and ready to level buildings to protect her, or you want me to stand behind her holding a flower and a hair tie. Which is it?”
“Did you. What?” Stark says.
Banner laughs outright.
“Argh! Fine! Point made, thank you, get out,” Stark says.
Banner’s still laughing as Barnes strolls out.
Stark gets his revenge 10 days later. The barber shop is also inside Building, and Stark has apparently used his influence, because Barnes goes in with gorgeous hair and a very itchy 2-week growth of beard and comes out with (1) Rogers’s haircut and (2) Stark’s goatee.
“I look like a dumbass,” he says later to the assembled mob, most of whom are not even bothering to hide their giggles.
“Well,” Potts says, “you definitely don’t look like yourself.”
She’s right about that. With stupid hair, a stupid beard, sunglasses, and the black suit, he looks nothing like Barnes, Bucky, or the Asset. He looks like a typical dead-brained gym-rat security detail, able to move at the speed of pancake syrup on a cold day.
It’s a nice suit, though. He at least doesn’t have to hate the tailor, even if the rest of them are total jerks.
The flight is difficult but not awful. Barnes has weapons to check and re-check, and Rogers has loaded up a tablet with movies for him. They leave in the evening, and he has spent the day working out with Rogers, Barton, and Romanoff until he’s both tired and confident in his reflexes and emotional control. This helps him sleep a little, even despite the confinement.
They land in Toulouse, and Barnes hails a regular taxi for them, to minimize chances of a planted driver. The lobby of the Hôtel Pullman is garish and filled with people in fancy business wear and their chumps in black wearing earwigs, of which he is soon to be a part.
He makes Potts wait in the hallway while he sweeps their suite. No bugs, but the windows are too large.
“Can we move the bed?” he asks the scowling bellhop.
“You may not, monsieur,” the bellhop says, “the safety at Hôtel Pullman is not to be questioned.”
Good luck with that, pal.
The bed seems to be a platform nailed to the floor, anyhow. He’ll make Potts sleep on the side away from the window and make up a bundle of pillows next to her. That’ll at least confuse a stupid sniper. And she will have to be okay with his sleeping on the sofa, not in the second bedroom.
He puts on his stupid outfit and fixes his stupid hair into its most stupid configuration. He looks so dumb.
Thanks a lot.
Potts was not kidding about her terrifying suit. She’s almost as tall as he is in those heels, and the suit is all sharp angles, as matte black as his suit. With her hair scraped back and dark lipstick, she looks ready to chew razor wire.
“Yikes,” he says.
“Thank you, Barnes. Ready?”
She was not kidding about it being a bunch of entitled, handsy assholes. And she’s already got one of those. Barnes sticks close by her left shoulder while she works the room. One lizard-looking old dude lets his hand drift a little low down her back while he goes in to kiss her cheek.
Barnes smiles at him.
The guy goes pale and steps back a pace.
“I don’t know what you did,” Pepper mutters at him while they move to greet the next jerk, “but keep it up.”
It’s a lot of people, but he has Potts to focus on, which doesn’t leave much mental space for freaking out. Once the greetings are over and Potts has eaten a little plate of fruit, standing behind a pillar with her shoes off to give her toes a break, the real work begins.
She works the room like a master. She corrals people singly and in small groups, and if they start out greeting her with a smile, by the end they’re practically in tears over her. If they initially scowl, by the end they’re either staring at her thoughtfully or outright grinning. Sharp as a tack, that lady, with charm to spare. But she won’t let other companies wriggle out of deals. Neither will she bend to the many suggestions that SI resume their weapons manufacture.
Many of these conversations take place in French and German, as if these guys think that gives them privacy. Aw, cute. Only two of them – head of a weapons company based in Morocco and an executive from an American robotics firm – creep him out.
Potts turns down all dinner invitations. They get room service, and she doesn’t complain that he needs 40 minutes to lie very still on the floor and let the afternoon’s tension bleed out of him.
“You did great,” she says.
“You think so?” she sounds unsure.
He raises his head, and her expression is tired and a little sad. In her green satin pajamas, sitting cross-legged on one of the fancy chairs, she looks very young.
“Definitely,” he says, “you didn’t let anybody get anything past you. You made it clear that you know what you’re doing and you’re no pushover.”
“I think I did some good repair work today.”
She grins at that.
“The Moroccan guy and the robotics one, though. Don’t like them.”
“No, I don’t either.”
The evening is quiet. It’s at the lunch break the next day that everything goes to shit.
All the meeting attendees are gathered in the hotel’s restaurant (security peons shunted off to the side, packed in at tables near the kitchen), when there’s a scuffle at the street-side door. Barnes is on his feet and moving when a wild-eyed young man in a bulky coat breaks through hotel security and runs toward the center of the room.
“<Capitalist pigs!>” he yells, “<fuck you, fuck you, die!>”
Barnes has Potts around the waist and is rolling away when the young man explodes.
It’s not a large bomb, but the dining room is immediately chaos, and all the windows have blown out. The decorative pillars immediately surrounding the ex-bomber have fallen on top of rich people, as intended.
Barnes scoops up Potts and starts climbing over rubble toward the open windows. They will leave their belongings behind and go straight to the jet. As soon as his ears stop ringing, he’ll contact Building JARVIS for assistance.
“Barnes,” Potts says, and wriggles.
“There are wounded people, we can’t leave.”
“Bullshit. We can leave, and we are.”
“Barnes, no! They need our help!”
“Deny. Your safety is my priority.”
“Barnes,” Potts says in a voice he has never heard before, “I mean it, we are not leaving without helping those people.”
She starts to get very warm.
She gets a little glowy.
He kicks an area relatively free of glass shards and puts her down.
“You don’t move from this spot,” he says. “Understood?”
“No, I can help.”
The voice coming out of his mouth makes the mission briefing excited. It wants to give him things.
Not now, briefing.
“You can not help. I don’t know where your shoes are, and there’s glass everywhere. You. Stay. Here. And if anything even slightly weird happens, scream. Okay?”
She puts her arms around herself, no longer glowing.
“Okay. Yes. Okay.”
Barnes pulls chunks of ceiling and pillar off people for 3.5 minutes while the other security and hotel folk get their acts together and step in to help. He drags out three dead people and five live ones. Sirens are coming closer, which means interrogation, delay, and medics wanting to poke at him.
His phone was protected by the excellent suit and the fact that he was facing away from the blast. He hauls Potts back up onto his shoulder and climbs out of the window, hits the button on the phone.
“Building, incident. Get takeoff procedures started on the jet. And send one of the crew down with cash for a cab.”
“Are you and Ms. Potts well, Sergeant?” Building asks.
“I’ll be relieved to see you both back here.”
He crosses three blocks and hails a cab. The first two pass them by, but the third one stops.
“Are you coming from the explosion?” the cabbie asks, “what happened?”
“Pal, you’ll get a bonus to shut up and get us to the airport as soon as possible.”
After that, the drive is pretty terrifying, but they arrive at the airstrip in very short order, and the woman from Stark’s plane hands the cabbie enough cash that he actually grins at them.
Potts is showing signs of shock.
“My stuff,” she says, “I left all my stuff at the hotel, my tablet, and my suit.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says.
The crew are only used to civilized emergencies. They are milling around uselessly, so Barnes gives the orders: a blanket for Potts, with a large bourbon and then plenty of hot tea with sugar. First aid kit: he dabs at the scratches on her face, cleans and bandages her roughed-up feet.
After a few minutes, the crew woman says,
“Sir. Sir, your jacket is wet.”
It’s just a scratch along his right bicep, but it’s long and has been bleeding like crazy. And of course the crew gasp and cringe at the sight of him with no shirt, because excellent. But the woman recovers and tapes it up for him. She gives him some of the tea. He doesn’t need it, but the gesture is kind.
He’s been so busy patching up Potts that he didn’t notice takeoff, wasn’t bothered by the change in cabin pressure. So that’s a plus.
Potts’s phone was damaged in their fall. It’s several minutes until Barnes’s phone rings, and the person on the line is Stark.
“I told you,” he shouts, “I told you what would happen, you son of a bitch, I will.”
“Stark,” Barnes says, again in that orders-giving voice, “I am handing the phone to Pepper, don’t you dare make her more upset by yelling at her.”
Stark actually squeaks.
“I’m okay, Tony,” she says, but her words bring tears with them, “it was some kind of bomb, I don’t even know. I got scared and almost set Barnes on fire. But he pulled some people out, and he wouldn’t let me walk, Tony, because I lost my shoes. Tony, I lost my shoes, I don’t have any shoes with me, can you send a car when we get home?”
Then she’s crying too hard to speak, so Barnes gently pulls the phone out of her hand while the crew woman hugs her.
“She isn’t hurt, Stark,” he says, “just some superficial cuts. She’s in shock at the moment, but we’re safe. We’re in the air already.”
“You got her out of there.”
“That was my job.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Call me if anything changes. I’m gonna go invent an airplane engine that goes faster.”
The crew guy finds him a shirt. That’s a relief, even if it’s short-sleeved and advertises the Stark Industries Family Fun Day at Yankee Stadium in 2011.
He sits next to Potts and lets her lean against him while they drink more tea.
“Shame about that suit,” he says, “it was really nice.”
She actually laughs a little at that one.
“I will have them make you another suit, Barnes. A whole closet full of them, if you want.”
He holds her hand for a moment.
The crew have pulled themselves together. They bring Potts and Barnes lots of food: excellent bread, cheese, and fruit, and then later a nice plate of beef and mushrooms with noodles. The male crew member brings them his tablet, which has a hilarious combination of action films and musicals loaded onto it. They watch “Singin’ in the Rain” (excellent) and “The Sound of Music” (silly, and with too many Nazis).
By the time the nuns have removed parts from the Nazi cars (which is an unexpected bit of savviness from a nun, seriously), Potts is asleep with her head on his shoulder.
In the dim cabin, he allows himself 3 whole minutes to feel terrified and exhausted. But the whole time he had been stalking across Toulouse with Potts on his shoulder, he had not one bad moment from too much closeness, and sitting close to her is not oppressive. So it’s not just old people who can get up close without causing him trouble. Maybe his orbit is increasing, after all these months of Steve and the Olds hugging him and the women brushing his hair.
Oh damn. His hair.
On that dispiriting note, Barnes falls asleep.
The crew wakes them both up an hour before landing back in New York. Potts is calm after her sleep, and she hobbles back and forth to the bathroom without wincing too much.
When it’s his turn, Barnes is surprised by how dirty his face looks, how red his eyes are. The hair and beard make things worse, but he looks about as bad as he did when he first arrived in the condo behind Sam’s house in DC. It’s good to wash off all that soot and muck. Rogers would’ve lost his mind if Barnes got off the plane looking so bad.
Pott’s feet aren’t up to metal stairs or concrete, so Barnes picks her up and carries her off the plane. Both Stark and Rogers are waiting by a car, pulled right up onto the tarmac. Rogers’s worry line has settled in between his eyebrows, and Stark’s practically dancing by the time Barnes sets Potts down in front of them.
“Are you okay, Bucky?”
Rogers is trying to be so good. He’s clenching and unclenching his fists.
Pal, I am so tired. I am so glad to be home.
He reaches out, and Steve’s worry line disappears completely. Pretty good, as hugs go.
Stark doesn’t let go of Potts the whole drive back, but once they’re all settled in the back of the car, with Potts pulled so close that she’s practically in his lap, Stark leans toward Barnes.
“So I guess I won’t tear you to pieces,” he says.
Oh boy, thanks for small favors.
Potts punches Stark in the arm. Stark blinks a couple of times.
“What I mean is. Thanks for bringing her home to me.”
He holds out his hand. Barnes shakes it.
“I wouldn’t have done anything otherwise.”
“We know that, Barnes,” Potts says.
“Okay,” Stark says, “okay.”
When they get back to their apartment, Romanoff is sitting on the sofa, which makes Rogers’s eyebrows break for the stratosphere. Barnes isn’t surprised.
“That’s a terrible shirt,” she says.
“And you should shave off that beard right now.”
“Planning on it.”
“Natasha, what the hell?” Rogers whispers at her when Barnes heads for the bathroom.
“Don’t sweat it, Rogers,” he calls back over his shoulder, “she was worried about me.”
“Whatever,” she says, “Banner’s making breakfast in the common area. Be there in twenty.”
“You know,” Rogers says from the doorway a couple of minutes later while Barnes is shaving off the horrible goatee, “if it weren’t for Sam, I wouldn’t understand any of my friends at all.”
“Aw, poor baby,” Barnes says, “if only the serum had made your brain grow too.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“I’m really glad you’re home safe.”
“Me too, Steve.”
Banner’s breakfast is enormous and excellent. Everyone’s there. It’s nice to see that everyone has turned out to welcome Potts back.
Chapter 8: Maria Hill and the excellent, wonderful, very good, super great day
Warm weather means that the common area expands out into the large terrace/flying super-people landing pad. Now that he can wear sunglasses, Barnes likes roasting himself in the sun. Accelerated healing means he doesn't even have to worry about sunburn. So far, summer has hovered just on the edge of too hot:makes him feel pleasantly sluggish. The big decorative pond is nice to look at. The late-morning breakfast crowd (Barnes, Rogers [on second breakfast], Barton, and Hill) is sitting around quietly eating fruit and minding their own business when Mouthy O'Loud wanders by.
"Do you people not appreciate my bountiful gifts?" Stark asks.
It's comments like this that make people go off on month-long jaunts to Albania for a rest.
"Why hasn't anybody been in the pool yet?"
That thing is a pool? Outside? In the open air? Weird.
"You used to like swimming, Buck," Rogers says.
Well yeah. Within reason.
"Barnes, come on! What's a second chance at life if you don't enjoy it?"
"I enjoy plenty."
"Life is not all cheese, my friend," Stark says, which makes Rogers get a weird look on his face.
What is that, Rogers. Why are you wandering off.
Stark pokes him in the arm.
"Someone needs to break the seal. How 'bout it, Optimus Prime?"
"Leave me alone, Stark."
"But Cap said you love swimming. Get in the pool. Get in the pool get in the pool get in the poooooooool."
"Well, yeah. That's where the sun is."
"With a woman here."
"What? Of course, you prude."
Well, if that's how future people do it. The air is pretty warm.
"What," Stark says, "what."
Hill sits back in her chair.
"Well," she says, "this day has definitely taken an unexpected turn."
"What," Stark says, "what."
Rogers returns from his wandering.
"Why is Bucky in the pool? What's wrong with Clint?"
"Stark suggested a swim," Hill says. "Barnes took about five seconds to strip down and jump in."
"Six point two."
"Oh. Uh. Buck."
"People wear swimsuits now."
"What," Stark says, "what?"
"What's a swimsuit?"
"Like a … bathing costume, but smaller."
"Like at the beach?"
"Why. This is private property."
"It's just the custom now."
"So cover up the one part of me that doesn't look like a medical horror show?"
"Pass. This is more comfortable."
"Far be it from me to ignore the wisdom of my elders," Barton says.
"Oh my god," Stark says.
"Today just keeps getting more and more interesting," Hill says.
"You should get in the water, Steve. Optimal contrast with skin surface temperature. Very refreshing."
"Yeah!" Barton says, "optimal contrast!"
"Uh, no thanks. I'm good."
"Why are you blushing."
"I'm not. I just. Don't want to swim."
"Everyone has already seen you naked, Steve."
"Confirm!" Hill says in a chirpy voice.
"Haaaah, nice," Barton says.
"What is going on here," Stark whispers.
"There's a video. From when you were just out of the ice. They took you out of the suit and re-dressed you. It's on YouTube. Had over eight hundred million hits as of two weeks ago."
"There's a video of me naked on the internet."
"On the internet."
"It's hilarious," Barton says, "three guys who put together aren't even your size, trying to get that suit off you. The funniest part is when they're putting on the socks."
"His feet are ticklish."
"Almost a billion people have seen me naked on the internet."
"Yep!" Hill says.
"Well, all right then."
"I think today is my favorite day," Hill says.
"What is even happening to my pool?" Stark says.
"I'm never wearing swim trunks again," Barton says, "I feel so free."
Rogers does a cannonball into the deep end, drenching Hill and Stark. This revives Stark from his closed loop function, and he leaves. Too bad, Stark. Swimming is pleasant.
Hill doesn't swim either, but she sits on the side of the pool with her feet in the water and talks to Rogers and Barton while Barnes swims. Must be a funny conversation, given the way she is laughing when Barnes decides that the metal arm has had enough of a soaking.
The towel she hands him is large enough to wrap himself up like a burrito. Cozy.
Barnes tucks himself in and lies down on one of the long chairs.
There is silence. Barnes lifts his head and opens his eyes. They are all staring at him. Why.
"Did you just make a pun?"
For shit's sake.
"I'm a very funny guy."
"Uh huh," Barton says.
"You are hilarious, Buck."
Later, when everyone is gathered for dinner, there is a general viewing of the YouTube video that gives it its 874,997,502nd hit. Even Romanoff laughs aloud at it, while Rogers tries to hide under his own hands and moans,
"You guys, you're all so awful, I can't stand it."
Barnes elbows him.
"Yeah, but look at those bozos trying to dress you. It's like they need a crane just to lift your leg up."
"Right?" Barton says, "where's the complicated system of pulleys and levers?"
"And where did they get those awful shoes?" Potts says.
"Ugh, they were terrible," Steve says. "You ever get a blister that just keeps healing and coming back every 12 hours?"
"Uh, no," say all the sad people without amazing healing powers.
"Yes," Barnes says.
"Four days I put up with that crap until I thought to ask somebody at S.H.I.E.L.D. for another flipping pair of shoes."
"Rogers, you dumbass," Hill says.
And by that point, Steve isn't even blushing anymore.
The next day all the water in the pool is gone, and there are four little robots scrubbing the walls with a pungent cleanser. Too bad.
Inspired by this article: http://www.vocativ.com/culture/fun/fairly-recently-ymca-actually-required-swimmers-nude/
Chapter 9: Romancing lab equipment for fun and profit
Barnes may like the heat pretty well (and grilling on the terrace, and cold white wine, and mint chocolate chip ice cream), but his left arm does not. Its usual whirr develops a regular thunk. His fine motor control starts to go: he snaps two toothbrushes and crushes a pistol grip.
At least by this point he's pretty sure Stark won't try to murder him. Even after the expense of draining and refilling a pool 40 stories up.
Pretty sure. Almost totally sure.
Then Barnes shatters the syrup pitcher. That's it. If breakfast is starting to get ruined, you're out of excuses, pal. It's 9th floor time.
At Barnes's knock, Stark raises his head so quickly that it bangs into his work light. Oops. Should've called ahead.
Curious that Building JARVIS had given no warning.
Stark holds up some pointy-looking tool in his direction for 6.5 seconds. Barnes's urge to attack/flee only lasts for half that. Then Stark sets the tool down and raises his hands as if in surrender.
"What is it now?" he asks, "have you set my Ferrari on fire? Did Pepper invite you to chaperone our next romantic getaway? Am I going to have to buy the entire country of Bolivia?"
Well. Hell of a reputation we have going here, huh mission?
"Not Bolivia," he says, "but you might need to build a children's hospital in Turkmenistan."
Stark puts his hands in his hair.
Easiest mark ever.
"Aw, what did you do," Stark says, "you haven't even left the tower in weeks!"
"Nothing," Barnes says, and sits on one of the ubiquitous metal stools.
"Brought you a present."
Stark looks even unhappier. Beautiful.
"Is it gonna explode?"
"I hope not."
He holds out his left arm and bends it. The thunk is particularly loud, and his fingers contract.
Stark's eyes go huge.
"I can play with the arm?"
"You can help me repair my arm. Please."
"Whatever, play with the arm! Your arm! Fun with bionics used to be my favorite game, back before I became a real boy."
That makes about as much sense as anything else Stark ever says.
"No restraints," he says, "no reclining chairs."
Why does that make Stark angry.
"Barnes, there are no restraints in this room. Ever. You can keep sitting right on that stool."
Stark rubs his hair until it sticks up and exhales loudly.
"Am I interrupting? I can come back later," Barnes says.
"No, god, are you kidding?"
Stark gathers a bunch of tools. Most of them look familiar, so that's not too bad.
"Don't you usually do your own maintenance?"
"Yes. Pain in the ass to work on anything higher than the forearm."
"Yeah, I bet."
Stark already wears magnifiers and is approximately 1 cm away from Barnes's bicep. He plinks at the metal plates with a poky-looking tool for 75 seconds. The plinking is a soothing sound.
"Can I scan this thing?"
Flinch. Too abrupt.
"For what purpose?"
"Practically, in case the jam is deep enough inside that digging around might make it worse."
"Realistically? You've kept this thing away from me for eight months. If this is the only crack I get at it, I at least want some good pictures."
This was a mistake.
"So you can do what?"
Copy it. Sell it. Take it away.
"I'm a mechanic at heart," Stark says, and gestures around the workshop. "And you're wearing a machine I think I wish I'd designed."
Yeah, I agree.
"Okay. Scan it."
Scanning requires merely sitting more toward the center of the room while a metal pole with a light at the end of it swings around him and flashes. Barnes holds his arm out, then up, as Stark directs, until his little robot friend comes beeping around a corner at a high rate of speed and claims his forefinger. After that Barnes stays still and the scanner moves more.
"Hey, Bite-Size, leave the guy alone," Stark says.
"I won't hurt it," Barnes replies, and Stark laughs.
"You, friend, are a little big to be called bite size. I meant the robot."
"Small. Like candy. Had one called Butterfingers … it's a long story."
"Hello, Bite-Size," Barnes says, "it's good to know your name."
The robot beeps and shakes his finger.
"No moving!" Stark says.
But then something in the scans makes Stark's eyebrows draw together and his lips press so hard they go white.
"Can I scan your back and shoulder."
That's a flat-out growl, and Bite-Size beeps again.
The scanner moves.
"Motherfuckers," Stark says, and slams his fist into the workbench.
Shit. It will be a giant pain in the ass to only have one functional arm.
"It's not repairable, then," Barnes says.
"What? No, it's an easy fix. For crap's sake, Barnes, do you have any idea what they did to you?"
Stark flips the screen around to show the metal rods and plates screwed into his humerus, shoulder, clavicle, ribs, and spine.
"I know that," Barnes says, "bracing required to keep the arm's weight from pulling itself off."
"Jesus, how much do you weigh?"
"Current weight unknown."
"But look at the size of those screws. Any time you exert any kind of pressure, don't they tear right through you?"
"JARVIS, take over the scanner. I want to see this in motion."
"Very well, sir."
"How much pressure?" Barnes asks.
"I don't know, maybe start out with something small."
Barnes hops off the stool and pulls it in half.
"Stop. Stop it! Christ."
"My god, doesn't that hurt? There are microtears all over the place in there."
"Pain levels standard."
"The priority was only ever functionality."
"I can see that."
He jabs at the readout with one finger.
"Who the hell doesn't even shave down the screw heads? There's no need for it. We could get in there and replace half that shit with lighter alloys, do it properly so you don't rip yourself to pieces just by waving hello."
"No, but it would really help, just one -"
"No medical stuff, Stark."
Stark's mouth shuts with a snap.
"Okay," he says, "okay, sorry."
"Sir," Building JARVIS says, "it would be helpful for you to stand to one side. It might take a moment for Sergeant Barnes to be comfortable enough to approach you."
SECOND BEST MISSION ASSIST
Second best? Who's best?
MISSION ASSIST ESTHER
Esther? Because of the cookies?
Confirm. But maybe we won't tell Building that. Wouldn't want to hurt its feelings.
"I don't know why that's so funny," Stark says, "but I'm glad you're not freaked out anymore."
Stark's a fast worker (helps to be able to use both hands), and as angry as the arm's structure makes him, its inner workings give him the squeaks.
"Look at this! You could take this thing to the moon and it would keep working for years."
"Then why is it malfunctioning."
"Oh, well. There's a little bent spot, which I assume is from Rogers's shield."
"And it's dry. I know the fancy bathtubs are awesome and we are not going to talk about my pool, you exhibitionist freak, but there's a joint way in there, and it needs some lube. Plus a bunch of wires are stripped. Gosh, it's just like someone who barely knows how to hold a soldering iron has been attempting - poorly - to maintain this beautiful piece of machinery."
So many words.
"To lubricate it? Once a season or so? This thing's like a tank. To maintain it? Up to you, you're the one using it. To let me tinker with it? As often as you can stand my undeniable charm."
Stark shuts the access panels.
"It's a hell of a thing, Barnes. I don't think it could be removed without killing you, even with your speedy healing."
"It's my arm."
"Right. Exactly. And you don't want those connections changed, fine. The motors are great, but they're heavy as shit. Give me some time and I can work out replacements. Keep the toughness but reduce the weight. If you want."
"Just like this. Sit on a stool, listen to some excellent music, let your robot boyfriend hold your hand."
It's an attractive plan. Lighter weight. A standard pain level somewhat lower than currently. Kindness from Stark is not a thing he would've anticipated in previous months.
Not that it's going to stop him from yanking Stark's chain.
"It's rude to assign gender without asking, Stark."
"Maybe Bite-Size considers itself non-gendered. Or female."
The robot rolls over and puts its two clawed arms around his right leg.
Aw. A robot hug.
"Oh no. No no no, Barnes, you do not get to turn my lab equipment against me."
"The scanner and I have already formed a deep and lasting bond. Also, that electric screwdriver wants a raise."
"Does Cap know what a smartass you are?"
Confirm, sir," Building JARVIS says.
"Oh for crap's sake, not you too."
Laughter gets easier with practice.
And when Steve wanders down later to find him, and he's standing on one leg on the workbench testing his improved fine-motor control by using his newly learned skill to juggle five small tools, Steve gets some laughing practice too.
It's good to make repairs.
Chapter 10: Things you want, and otherwise
Here is a thing you want:
It's the tail end of summer. Things have gone okay, and you've learned how to laugh a little. Dinner was steaks on the grill, corn roasted in the oven, and most of the people you like best in the world are in the same room together. They're safe, they're loud, they're obnoxious, and they won't shut up while you're trying to concentrate on the ending of The Princess Bride. It's a stupid title and you voted against it, but the movie turns out to be really good.
If Barton and Sam would quit yapping about who's bendier, you'd be able to hear what totally deserved terrible punishment awaits Prince Humperdink (asshole). It's a stupid argument, anyway - everyone knows that Romanoff is the bendiest. She can pop her knees backwards in a way that is deeply gross.
You throw popcorn at Barton, who is enough of a jerk to catch it and eat it.
"Yum, cyborg-flavored," he says.
Here is a thing you do not want:
All the lights come on at once and your mission-assist Building JARVIS says, at a volume twice the usual,
"Please excuse the interruption, but I appear to be under attack."
Here is a thing you want:
The duffel is still shoved in the back of your closet, with its tactical gear and pile of weapons. You have maintained them weekly. They are ready for you.
Here is a thing you do not want:
The expressions on the following faces:
(Barton and Romanoff take it all in stride.)
Here is a thing you want:
"You with us, Bucky?"
"Don't be stupid, Rogers, of course he's with us."
Here is a thing you do not want:
Stark arrives in his suit and lands by the pool, but with Pepper, instead of leaving her somewhere safe.
Here is a thing you want:
"Take this," Pepper says.
She hands you the sparkly butterfly barrette out of her hair. Your bangs have grown long enough to keep falling over your eyes. Potential to compromise sight lines: 98%. The barrette holds the hair firmly back. Then she lays her hand on your shoulder.
"Go get 'em, Barnes."
Here is a thing you do not want:
Chunks are being torn out of the side of Building JARVIS's bodily architecture by a swarm of little robots. Why does it have to be robots? Generally, you like robots. But these are injuring your friend.
Here is a thing you want:
You finally meet green-thing Hulk, who won't shake hands but consents to a fist bump.
Here is a thing you do not want:
Rogers barrels out of the elevator into the middle of the robot army like the dumbass he has always been.
But here is a thing you want. People to fight for. And they are standing right beside you.
"You want me to throw a party?"
"But you hate crowds."
Stark narrows his eyes and considers. Barnes uses the time to hold hands with Bite-Size.
"Are you gonna do something that makes me look like an idiot?"
Stark is so fun.
Barnes grins. It's is a new thing, this fast-coming, big grin. He has dimples. Who knew? Everyone looks stunned whenever he does it. Stark looks stunned now.
Romanoff says it's because the grin makes him look 'epically hot.'
"I promise I am not going to make you look stupid."
Stark thinks again.
"Wait," he says, "wait. Is it my birthday? Is this about trolling Rogers?"
"Don't know and sort of."
"Sort of is good enough for me! One Halloween party coming up."
"Cost-- I guess I'd be more worried if every person here hadn't seen you naked all summer."
"I like swimming."
"You like being an agent of chaos."
"HYDRA training runs deep, Stark."
"Ouch, Barnes. Low blow."
Barnes winks at him. This is another new trick that unnerves people. Pepper taught it to him.
"JARVIS, I think this friendly new Barnes is more terrifying than ever."
"Confirm, sir," Building JARVIS says.
So he gets the party. Actually, Pepper already said yes and called the caterer, but the building is technically Stark's, and it would've been rude to leave him out.
Hill helps him with research for his costume.
"Marking a statement, I presume."
"Makes things easy for me," she says, "I can't compete, so I'll just wear my fall-back costume."
"A headband with cat ears on it."
"Hill. Make a fucking effort."
"Ugh, fine. But I'm going to make you help me decide."
She hands him a stack of printouts.
"Have fun at the tailor."
He does have fun at the tailor.
"This will be a real pleasure," the old man says, "I enjoy this type of work."
"Shall I try to source the boots for you as well?"
"You're a little thinner since your injuries," he says, "So I'll leave a generous seam allowance. That way you can still wear it when you're back to your fighting weight, if you want."
He grasps Barnes's bicep.
"You're going to look terrific."
Romanoff will help with his hair. Barton has been tapped to behave with maximum obnoxiousness and keep Rogers out of the way. The only stumbling block is Steve.
"Ugh, another party?" he says, "there are definitely too many holidays. Good thing we're going to Brooklyn for trick-or-treating, right?"
"I want to go."
"I want to go. Wear a costume. It sounds fun."
Rogers glares at him.
"Fun? What are you talking about, Bucky, you hate crowds."
"Doesn't count as a crowd. I'll know almost everyone there."
"We see everybody all the time anyhow!"
"Not wearing costumes."
"We wear costumes for work!"
Dammit. This is not going as anticipated.
"Please, Bucky," the mission briefing throws at him, "I've been sick for so long, it's just one baseball game."
Oh ho. Dirty tricks, is it?
"Okay, Steve," he says.
He arranges his face into a sad expression and sits on the sofa. Rogers is definitely watching as Barnes picks up his book, sighs at it, and sets it back down, then rubs at the mostly-healed spot on his right shoulder. He coughs twice.
Oops. Vocal tenor indicates heavy sarcasm.
Barnes turns, and Rogers is leaning against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, eyebrow cocked.
"It was worth a try. I thought your natural dramatic tendencies might respond to similar stimuli."
Rogers throws an orange at him.
"Thanks, pal, I wanted a snack."
Barnes receives a majestic eyeroll, worthy of bald eagles and amber waves of grain.
"Seriously, Bucky. A party? Costumes? What's this about?"
Putting a smile on your big dumb face, jerk.
"It's Halloween," Barnes says. "Last Halloween I was sitting across the street from you with my eye glued to a scope."
"That's why I thought you were so excited to sit with the Olds and hand out candy."
"I am. Party doesn't start until twenty-two-thirty."
"So we have time to do both."
"Is this important, Buck?"
"Can you tell me why?"
He can, actually. He has thought about it a lot.
"Lots of one-year anniversaries," he says, "over a year since reset, a year knowing the Olds, almost a year since contact. A lot of hard stuff, but good stuff too."
Rogers is looking at him with that quiet, happy expression. Barnes likes that expression. It's been largely missing since the robots.
"And the people here have been good to me. To us. For almost a year. So I want to make the effort."
"That's quite a speech," Rogers says after a long pause.
"Shut it, Steve. I meant it."
"I know you did."
"Okay, Bucky. We'll go to the party after. I assume you have some terrible costume in mind for me?"
"Nope. You are totally on your own."
"I don't know whether I'm annoyed to have to pick out my own or relieved that I'm not going to be the back end of a horse."
"It's not too late. Maybe you could get Barton to be the front end of the jackass."
Great. He gets a second orange.
Then it's just waiting, and a fitting with the tailor. The costume looks really good.
It's tricky, wriggling out of Rogers's questions about his costume, but Barnes discovers that he has backup. Anyone within hearing just - takes over the conversation any time Rogers mentions the party. Even Thor, once, who grosses everyone out by talking about medieval Norse death and harvest rituals. Very bloody. Totally distracting.
Hill goes above and beyond and takes Rogers shopping with her. She mouths, 'you owe me' when they get back. He really does. They bought Rogers a cowboy outfit. It's hilarious.
On Halloween, Barnes bakes 8 dozen cookies (peanut butter, oatmeal cinnamon, and espresso chocolate). He uses cookie cutters bought especially for the occasion: bats, pumpkins, and witch hats. Not spiders. Rogers makes an enormous pain of himself up until the point that there's a bowl to lick, even though cookie dough contains raw eggs and is unhygienic.
Barnes ties the cookies into cellophane bags with orange and black ribbons and leaves them around the tower: for his people, but also for the tailor, Potts's assistant, Miranda at the salon who keeps his hair from looking too dumb while it grows out, the security guards in the lobby, and Katie at the coffee bar.
Rogers has even left a few cookies for him when he returns.
"From internationally feared assassin to baker," Rogers says.
"I'm moving up in the world."
At 1600 they take a car to Brooklyn. Steve proceeds to fleece Ollie and Lidia of all the pistachios during a cutthroat game of cribbage.
"I didn't even know you could bet on cribbage," Steve says.
"Lidia will bet on anything," Ollie says.
"I didn't know you could cheat at cribbage," Lidia growls.
"Steve will cheat at anything," Barnes mutters to Esther, who cackles so loud that cat Eleanor abandons his shoulder for the cat highway. She leaves behind a few holes.
Esther will barely let him help with cooking. The Olds came to the tower to see him while he recuperated from the robot fight, and they appear to think that he is still fragile. Esther makes him sit at the kitchen island to chop vegetables, and Ollie insisted on holding the door for him when they arrived.
But it's good to cook with Esther and to top off his shirt's cat hair supply. The Olds seem sturdier, after their months living in a warm building with a secure door.
"We're enjoying the extra sunlight while we have it," Ollie says.
The dumpy apartment building is now a hole in the ground, with a construction fence around it that has large FOR SALE signs hung on each side. Barnes dislikes the extra sun and the hole. The dumpy building was a good place for him. To him. It was home. Rogers drew him a good picture of it that hangs in his bedroom.
The Olds don't share his sentiment.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Esther had said.
When they found out that the building was being sold as part of divorce proceedings against Michael Bernard O'Riley, Sr., Lidia had laughed so hard that she forgot how to speak English and could only howl in Polish about the diminutive size of O'Riley's bank account, brain, good sense, and genitalia.
Unclear what that last one had to do with it.
Rogers eats all his cribbage winnings and still plows through their spinach and butternut lasagna with gratifying enthusiasm. Esther goes pink and squeaky every time she fills Steve's plate. Though by the fourth time, that might be the wine.
Even cat Eleanor eats a little of it.
"We should get a cat, Bucky," Rogers says when they carry their chairs and bowls of candy downstairs at 1830. "You love Eleanor so much."
"You wouldn't mind?"
"Well," Rogers says, "I'll mind a little if it likes you better than it likes me."
No if about that, buddy.
"What if I like it better than I like you."
"I take that as a forgone conclusion."
He shoves Rogers, who shoves back.
"Settle down, children," Ollie says.
"That's no way to speak to your elders."
Ollie throws a candy at him. Nice. It's a peanut butter cup.
Handing out candy to children is far superior to sitting alone in the dark watching. As Barnes has learned over the past year, contact and participation are risky. There's the potential for hurt.
But there's even more potential for enjoyment. And if you let people know you, some of them become yours. Assists in your mission to live a good human life.
There are more children than the year before. The weather is clear and not too cold, and the street looks less skeezy without the dumpy building. There are fewer tiny Avengers: there was no alien invasion -
- and the year's most popular movie was about a mermaid and her best-friend octopus who save a boy pirate from malevolent electric eels, so there are sea creatures galore. But Barnes finds himself just as much of a soft touch as Rogers for extra candy to any child dressed as an Avenger. Especially if they're in red, white, and blue.
The wind shifts around 2100, and the temperature drops, so they pack it in, tuck the Olds into their apartments, and head back to the tower. The box containing Barnes's costume has been sitting at the foot of his bed for 3 days.
Maybe this is a dumb idea.
Okay, mission. Hope you're right.
"Hey, Bucky, there's time for an episode of Iron Chef before the party."
"What? Why? What's in that box? Where are you going?"
Poor Rogers. Should've laid better plans.
"I'm getting ready at Romanoff's place."
"You're. What? Why?"
"She's helping with my hair."
"You don't even have that much hair anymore!" Rogers yells as the door closes.
Which is true. The hair parties have mostly been movie or coffee parties since July. But there's enough for his needs.
Potts and Hill are also there when he arrives.
"That's my cue," Barton says.
He's dressed like Thor, complete with a long blond wig.
Barnes has to take a moment to compose himself.
"I know! Excellent, right?" Barton says.
"He'll love it so much he'll knock you on your ass."
"A most excellent facsimile, friend Barton!"
"No matter what the hammer says, friend Barton, I. Deem. You. Worthy!"
"Are you two done?"
Barton winks at him. He also knows when Romanoff's voice is secretly laughing. He mugs and mimes turning down his hearing aids.
"Guess I'm off to my mission," he says.
"Enjoy Iron Chef," Barnes says.
"Is that even possible?"
But Barton grins at him.
Hill has made an effort. She is wearing a large bee costume with antennae on springs and a 1.5-m wingspan. She is currently painting her face bright yellow.
"I figured I'd go for maximum stupid, just for laughs," she says.
"I like it."
"Eyeliner? No eyeliner?"
"Lots of eyeliner. Big eyebrows. Funnier."
He helps her with her makeup. The big eyebrows and dark eyes are set off with a hilarious bright-red heart-shaped lip.
"As adorable as anything shaped like a deflating soccer ball can be!"
She shakes her antennae at him.
Poor Pepper is stuck in a gigantic 18th-century French court dress in red and gold, because Stark is. Stark is just Stark, and he doesn't know any other way to be.
"I am not putting that wig on until the last second," Pepper says. "I said before Bilderberg that I owed you three, and this is definitely one of them."
"I didn't pick out your costumes."
She glares at him.
The cookies he made are sitting on a plate on Romanoff's coffee table. He hands the plate over with a solemn look on his face. Pepper continues to glare, but she takes one, and she squints at his wink.
"That won't work on me, I taught it to you."
He eats a cookie. For not--peanut butter, the oatmeal--cinnamon chip ones are really good.
"I don't think it'll work on anyone in this room."
"We've all seen you asleep and drooling on a sofa cushion with half your hair braided too many times," Romanoff says.
"You're good friends," he says, without meaning to.
Good thing he has another half a cookie to eat.
"We love you too, Barnes," Hill says.
Pepper pokes him in the back with her toe.
Romanoff's costume is a ballerina doll, which is deeply amusing to her for a reason she won't say, but her ghost-smile is on her face the whole time. Barnes curls her hair into ringlets while Pepper paints her face to shiny white with big pink circles on the cheeks.
"I'm going to stand next to you all night just to look extra dumb," Hill says. "Geez. Black Widow shouldn't be so cute."
"I'm just going to hope my wig doesn't give me arthritis in my neck," Pepper says.
"Barnes's turn," Romanoff says.
He may have spent the summer swimming naked, but he goes into the spare room to change. He has standards.
The costume is beautiful. He can tell the tailor's enjoyment in its making: all the stitches are perfectly even, the fabric thick and soft. The outfit squeezes him in places his regular clothing doesn't, but he can bear it. Even the boots are a perfect fit.
He tugs at the jacket before he steps out the door. They'll tell him if it's wrong. He trusts that they'll tell him. He opens the door.
"Oh, Barnes," Pepper says.
"Yowza," Maria says.
"Well done," Natasha says.
"It's not too much?"
"It's just right."
"Here," Hill says, "I liberated this from the deep, dark bowels of the armory. To complete the look."
He slings it over his shoulder. The weight feels familiar. Comfortable. Good to have that slight pressure. It distracts from how nervous he feels.
Romanoff fixes his hair the correct way. It takes a lot of product and a lot of tinkering, but the result is pretty good. It's really weird to look at that reflection.
Really, really weird.
Then they won't let him walk with them.
"Oh, no," Hill says, "you gotta give us at least five minutes to get drinks and good sight lines."
"Definitely," Pepper says.
"You're going to make me walk in alone."
"You wanted to make a statement," Romanoff says.
Which is. True, dammit.
"I wish I could get drunk."
"I wish you could get drunk," Hill says, "I still have so many questions."
She is now among the sadly many people impervious to his glare.
They leave him in the hallway, where he paces and feels like an idiot for 5.75 minutes until he can't take it anymore and walks into the loud, semi-dark party room.
Looking like Bucky Barnes fresh out of 1945.
"Hey, awesome!" someone says as he's crossing the room - maybe one of the medical staff, or a security guard?
Rogers is facing away from him, leaning over the bar, wearing. Jesus, wearing chaps. Someone in this room is definitely going to be taking a picture of that and posting it on the internet. What the hell, Hill.
Yeah, I'm laughing at him, too.
The rest of his crowd catches sight of him, and the wattage of the room increases exponentially. That's a lot of smiles. A lot of high-quality dentistry. Maybe this was a good idea.
Barton tugs on Steve's sleeve and jerks his head sideways.
Steve turns around, takes one look at Barnes, and sits down on the floor. His cowboy hat slides to one side of his head.
Maybe it was an okay idea after all.
Thor and Barton haul Rogers to his feet. Rogers still hasn't closed his mouth.
"Friend Barnes, your costume is magnificent!" Thor booms.
Thor is wearing lederhosen.
It takes almost half a minute to process that.
Jane is dressed like a waitress from a biergarten, and Thor is wearing lederhosen. His knees are pretty knobby.
This party is great.
"But not," Thor says, holding up his hand as if he is whispering, which he most definitely is not, "as magnificent as Barton's."
"Thor brought Asgardian mead," Jane says, "maybe, uh, be careful. Steve's already had a few."
"Because I'm wearing chaps," Rogers says.
"I see that."
"My ass is poking out the back of them," Rogers says.
"Good thing you're wearing pants, then."
"Yeah, good thing."
Rogers nods. He keeps on nodding. He nods some more, until Barton cracks up laughing.
"I think you broke his brain."
Rogers nods some more.
"STEVEN," Thor booms, "BARNES IS WEARING AN OUTFIT FROM YOUR HISTORY."
"Yes," Rogers says, still nodding, "I see that. Yes yes yes."
"IT IS A MOST ATTRACTIVE OUTFIT."
"Yes," Rogers nods.
"Maybe we're gonna get you a glass of water," Jane says, and pulls Thor away.
Rogers's face does a strange thing, like all the muscles are turning to jelly.
"Here we go," Romanoff says.
"Bucky?" Rogers says, then "Bucky!" and then once more for good measure.
Barnes staggers under the weight of drunk super soldier suddenly crying all over his brand-new jacket. Barnes looks over Steve's shoulder: even Stark looks a little misty-eyed. They all look smiley and tender, except for Sam.
"No way," he says, "I am not on duty tonight, I am here to enjoy this party. You are on your own, Barnes."
"Pretty harsh comment for a guy in a chicken suit," Barnes says.
"It was supposed to be a red-tailed hawk!" Sam yells, "I hate this city, and I hate Halloween."
"Aw, no yelling in the Stupid Costume Club," Hills says, "even though we just lost a member to Barnes's incredible magnetism. Let's go dance."
Rogers weeps all over Barnes long enough for the group to break up. As if Barnes couldn't tell that they're giving him and Rogers space. Rogers obviously needs it. And maybe a glass of water.
"Hey," Barnes says, and pokes Rogers under the fringe on his sleeve, "when do I get to try some of that crazy Asgardian liquor?"
Which causes Rogers to blink down at him and give a very earnest speech about how sorry he is, the mead is so good, and other assorted slurred declarations about how marvelous it is to be drunk.
"Haven't been drunk since 1943," Rogers says, "never could get it to work. Tried and tried after you. After you."
Oh jeez, waterworks again. Damp collars, so comfortable.
It's not much of a party for the first 30 minutes, what with Rogers collapsing all over him 7 times. But the mead is pretty tasty, and it's nice to feel that warm buzzing in his skin that's just before drunk. Makes everything seem happier. Funnier. Especially Steve.
"You're wearing fringe," he points out somewhat later.
"I know! Fringe everywhere."
Rogers windmills his arms, and it's hilarious.
"Let me wear your hat."
Comfortable. Barnes likes it. He keeps it.
"So," Stark says later, leering at them, his giant wig at a 13-degree angle and his white face paint smeared, "what'cha got in all those little pouches? Huh? Huh?"
Candy. Barnes gives him some.
Hill and Sam are the lights of the dance floor, each of them looking like a planet in their giant costumes, with the other dancers orbiting around them like skinny moons. Rogers and Barnes burn off the drunkenness within an hour, so Rogers stops crying. That's a real improvement.
"Stark really seems to like that wig," Rogers says around 2352.
"He does. Almost as much as Barton likes that plastic hammer."
The mission briefing, which is having its favorite day in a long time, pushes a sound out of him.
"Bucky. Did you just. Giggle?"
"I'll never talk and you can't break me, Rogers."
They grin at one another and start an epic game of tag and keep-away involving parts of other people's costumes that lasts until 0340, when even Thor is so tired that he lies down on the floor. All the women left hours ago, except for Hill, who's sleeping on a couch with her head pillowed on Sam's giant chicken stomach. She's cradling his chicken hat and he's wearing her antenna headband. Sleeping with his mouth wide open.
"If we were good people we'd help them back to their rooms and clean up," Steve says.
"I'll share my last remaining bit of villainy with you, so we can just go to bed."
The old rifle got lost in the game of tag, and the cowboy hat is crumpled beyond repair.
"That was fun," Steve says in the elevator.
Steve is staring at him. He lost his sheriff's badge and was tagged "it" eight times during the game because he kept stopping to stare at Barnes and shake his head.
"Why?" he asks.
"No really, Buck. I mean. I know you're never gonna be the same guy. You're. You're you now. So what's this for?"
Barnes exhales. Better at 0400 than in the light of day, I guess.
He rubs the back of his head.
"There's things we share, Bucky and me," he says. "I'm not him, but I contain him, sort of."
"I guess I wanted to show that."
"And, you know. It's still not the end of the line."
"I don't know how I'm supposed to sleep with my nose this stuffed up."
"That's all the crying, pal."
"Guess you're in the same boat, then."
"It's a friendship for the ages, Rogers. I'm with you through thick and thin. For the robots, the pancakes, and the copious weeping."
"And the chaps."
"No. Chaps are where I put my foot down."
Oh man! This was so fun. I'm happy times one million that you guys have enjoyed it too. You are great. Thank you so much for all your comments, kudos, recs, and twitter screaming.
Okay. Here is The Plan As It Stands So Far:
1. I need to take a little break to write some original fiction.
2. There will be one more one-shot. It's partially written, but it requires some tinkering because I want it to be SO GOOD. It deserves to be the best little one-shot it can possibly be.
3. Then: The Big Sequel. If you have been thinking "gosh, there isn't very much Steve in this thing" or "where the heck is all the Sam," : they are in The Big One. Plenty of Olds and Cat Eleanor too, along with Many Feels and some pretty bad times inside Barnes's head. Team-Building Exercises sort of winds around the outside of that one, so, er, I guess I've given away the whole plot. Oops!
Pink floaty hearts, Mission-Assists