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The Company You Keep

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After SHIELD falls, Bruce manages to go a month and a half without trouble. He ends up in the Alps on a whim, with no real thoughts on a destination apart from Shit Shit Shit Run. Maybe it was watching The Sound of Music with Clint last Christmas (I lift up mine eyes into the hills) but for whatever reason, when he needs to split, he ends up in Switzerland, von Trapp style. Nevermind that the von Trapps didn’t climb any mountains en masse, as far as Bruce knows, and they most definitely took a train to Italy when they left Austria. His escape isn’t defined by its historical accuracy.

And since he will never fess up to Tony that he’s been walking the mountainside humming Edelweiss for the last five weeks, it doesn’t matter.

Bruce misses Tony. It’s a strange, unfamiliar feeling, to be drawn to something or someone. It seeps around the ever present anger in his mind, and numbs it. It drowns out the images of a helicarrier aiming a gun at him while he’s sitting quietly in an NYU library. He sleeps easier. He smiles more often, even if it’s only to himself. Tony keeps him entertained, from 4,000 miles away, mostly with jokes, threats of dick pics, and occasional news of SHIELD and Steve and Natasha. Tony isn’t as accurate as say... CNN, but he’s a hell of a lot more interesting. Their text relationship largely involves emojii abuse, coded sentences that take a full day to break, and an unsurprising amount of Pig Latin. Bruce would not have it any other way.

He’s sitting on the floor of an old barn, waiting for a text back from Tony, when he first sees the flash. A man is approaching from a distance, with a bare, metal arm angled to reflect the sunlight directly into Bruce’s eyes. It feels deliberate. Without question he knows who has found him. It’s the Winter Soldier.

It helps his control immeasurably that Bruce has already gotten enough of the story from Tony that he knows the Winter Soldier isn’t necessarily a threat. That he might not be on team Hydra anymore. Everything is okay for now. They’re far enough from civilization that this might not even get ugly.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bruce calls out in warning, as the man approaches. “Please don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”

The soldier walks on, as if Bruce hadn’t spoken at all. His hands are free of weapons, and he keeps them where Bruce can see them. That helps keep the Other Guy from shoving his way to the surface.

When the soldier steps fully into the barn he isn’t what Bruce was expecting. He’s limping ever so slightly. He looks miserably tired. And when he speaks his voice is scratchy and unexpectedly hesitant. Like English doesn’t come as easily as it should.

“You know Steve Rogers,” the soldier says, and it’s almost a question. There’s room for denial, if Bruce has any reason to deny it. He doesn’t.

“I do know him,” Bruce confirms. His own voice is the sound of calm. He is steady. Everyone gets to live (for now). “So do you, I think.”

“No, I don’t,” the soldier says wearily. “I don’t fuckin’ know him. Bucky Barnes knew him and I’m not Bucky Barnes.”

Bruce puts down his phone and telegraphs his movements as he sits it on the ground. They both need to prove that violence isn’t imminent.

“I guess maybe we should introduce ourselves then,” Bruce says, for lack of better conversation. “I’m Bruce Banner. And you are?”

The soldier’s eyes bore into Bruce. Bruce takes a deep, stilling breath, and lets it out on a four count. The Other Guy is definitely not a fan of the soldier’s sharp gaze.

“A weapon,” the soldier replies finally. “An asset.”

“I more meant your name,” Bruce points out. “Do you have a name?”

For nearly a minute the soldier says nothing. Bruce takes that time to catalogue the soldier’s injuries. When the man lets another minute pass without an answer Bruce speaks again.

“I’ve got some food,” Bruce offers.

He knows malnutrition when he sees it. He sees other things too-- tattered clothing, favoring of the left leg, dark shadows under the eyes, shallow breathing, rib retractions-- those aren’t as easily solved as hunger.

“Won’t stay down,” the soldier replies. He sounds weary in a way Bruce understands. Life on the run is a bitch. Doubly so, if you’re sick or injured.

Bruce really isn’t sure where else this will go and the staring contest going on between them only seems to agitate things. Bruce reaches slowly for his backpack and pulls a StarkBar out of a side pouch. StarkBars aren’t technically a thing yet, so much as a side project that Bruce had been working on before he left. On the run they’d been a life saver. When Bruce gets back, he and Tony are going to revolutionize food aid.

For now, it’s the best he has to offer.

“This might be different,” Bruce says. “Here, I’ll break it in half and we’ll split it.”

The soldier considers it and then steps closer when Bruce reaches out half the bar to him. Bruce is reminded sadly of a stray dog he and Betty used to see on campus back in the day. The poor thing had been about as wary of human kindness and food handouts as the soldier is now. The comparison only amplifies when the man sniffs the food cautiously before taking a hesitant bite.

“It’s meant to be easy to digest,” Bruce says conversationally, as if this isn’t one giant mind fuck unravelling around him. “High calorie. And it has enough fat that it will kind of... slide down. Ummmm... won’t induce thirst, and shouldn’t upset your stomach. Maybe. I haven’t let myself get thirsty enough for it to matter. But here--” Bruce reaches back into his bag for one of the two bottles of water he keeps refilling from a nearby stream. He rolls it to the soldier. “Just in case.”

The soldier stares at the bottle of water with the same intensity he’d stared at Bruce. Bruce gets the feeling it isn’t anything personal.

Eventually the man sits down, more obviously favoring his leg when he has to shift his weight to do it. He ends up facing Bruce, with his back to the door, and that feels odd in the same way it felt odd to see him moving toward the barn out in the open. Bruce has spent enough time around Clint and Natasha that he thinks sightlines are just a given with assassins. So either the soldier doesn’t care if he gets shot in the back of the head, or he’s good enough that he doesn’t need the reassurance of a view.

Or he’s Hydra and there’s backup out there, though that seems like the least likely of the three considering the calm Bruce is maintaining.

“You mentioned Steve,” Bruce says, bringing up the topic that had started this whole bizarre encounter. “Is there something about him you wanted to know?”

“He’s got eighty-six biographies in print,” the soldier says. His focus is entirely on his food as he takes small bite after small bite.

“Eighty-six, huh?” Bruce asks. “Did you read them all?”

“The ones I could find.”

“Did you read any biographies on Bucky Barnes?”

The soldiers eyes flick up. “The ones I could find.”

There is the slightest hint of life in the soldier’s stare.

“Did you learn anything interesting?” Bruce asks.

“Bucky Barnes is dead. I’m what they stuffed in his corpse.”

“That sounds painful,” Bruce says, which is the first thing that comes to mind. He hasn’t spoken out loud much lately either so he’s not exactly at top form. He has never been at top form, really, now that he thinks about it. “Is there a specific reason you came to find me?”

Bruce isn’t sure how to get an answer without being awkwardly direct.

“You know Rogers and you would be the most difficult to kill if I couldn’t...” The soldier struggles for words.

Bruce gets it though.

“If you couldn’t stop yourself from killing?” Bruce guesses.

“Yes,” the soldier replies. “I kill. That’s what I do.” He says the words in a different voice. It’s recitation. Rote learning.

“You didn’t kill Steve,” Bruce says carefully. He wants to tread lightly here, since he imagines the soldier’s conditioning makes a failure unacceptable. “You rewrote your mission. That’s... it’s incredible, honestly.”

“He’s an idiot,” the soldier says. For a moment he sounds as young and frustrated as he looks. “I could have killed him. He was going to let me kill him. I... I couldn’t let that happen.”

“Maybe Bucky was protecting his friend?” Bruce asks, not wanting to accidentally program any definites into the soldier. He knows just enough about brainwashing to know he treads on dangerous ground, and that he’s probably already fucking things up. “You said you’re Bucky’s corpse. Maybe there’s more of him left in there than just a body.”

“I don’t have his memories,” the soldier says. “Only his face.”

“It was a guess,” Bruce offers. “Not even an educated one. Maybe wishful thinking on Steve’s behalf. He’s out looking for you.”

“I know,” the soldier says. “He’s an idiot.”

The soldier stands, and despite his natural grace, lists a little on his feet.

“You can stay if you want,” Bruce offers. “I have more food, and a blanket. If Hydra comes looking for you, they’ll have to get through me first.”

“Hydra isn’t looking for me. I went down with the helicarrier. They won’t be looking for you either. They have other objectives.”

“You know that for certain?” Bruce asks.

“Yes.” The soldier’s tone leaves no room for follow up questions.

Chapter Text

“Hydra isn’t looking for me. I went down with the helicarrier. They won’t be looking for you either. They have other objectives.”

“You know that for certain?” Bruce asks.

“Yes.” The soldier’s tone leaves no room for follow up.

“I’m not ready to go back,” Bruce says, telling the soldier something he hasn’t been able to articulate to Tony yet. “Running’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. But if no one is coming, I don’t need to be in a barn. We could go somewhere else. Find something remote, with heat and a kitchen. I know a guy.”

Bruce is 100 percent certain that if he texts Tony with a few parameters he’ll have them a place before Bruce can finish packing his things. He’s usually shy about accepting Tony’s generosity, but desperate times, and all that.

“I might stay,” the soldier says, stepping over a few feet to a low, square hay bail and then carefully lowering himself onto it. “Will you tell him I’m here?”

“That’s up to you,” Bruce says, knowing exactly who him is in the context. “Steve will probably be upset with me when he finds out I kept you a secret, but I’m a grown man. I can handle disappointing Captain America.”

“That’s such a stupid name,” the soldier says. With the decision made to stick around, something changes in him. Bruce watches the man’s posture relax a little as he leans back against the wall of the barn.

“I take it you didn’t choose to be called the Winter Soldier then?” Bruce asks.

The soldier shakes his head. “That’s stupid, too. There’s a lot of stuff that seems stupid now.”

“There really is,” Bruce agrees. “So what should I call you? Because I’m not going to refer to you as The Corpse of Bucky Barnes. I’m just not.”

The soldier considers it as he finishes the last bite of his StarkBar. “You can call me James.”

“James,” Bruce repeats. “Sounds good. Not stupid at all.”

James nods once.

“If we’re going, would you mind if I take a look at your injuries?” Bruce asks. “I think I can make some suggestions without needing to touch you if that would make you more comfortable.”

James’s skepticism shows on his face immediately. “That matters?” he asks. “My comfort?”

“Yes,” Bruce says, with so much conviction he practically growls the word. “Yes, it matters a whole damn lot to me.”

Bruce has a few medical supplies with him, hidden away in a corner with his second bag and he walks over to dig through it, pulling out anything that looks remotely useful. When he realizes its more than an armful he starts to shove it all back in.

“Let’s start with your knee, if that’s okay?” Bruce asks from across the barn. He glances over his shoulder and James nods.

Bruce slings the strap of the duffel over his shoulder and approaches from the side. “Is the injury internal or external?”

“Haven’t looked,” James says, his face and eyes aim straight ahead. “The leg is functional,” he adds a little hesitantly, as if he’s concerned Bruce might assume otherwise from this report.

And it is a report. There’s a forced effort to James’s voice that Bruce hates more than a little. Not to mention the mess that is James not identifying the leg as his own. Bruce knows dissociation when he hears it.

“Do you think you could show me where you hurt?” Bruce asks.

James lifts his hips off the hay slightly and pushes his too loose jeans down. There’s nothing underneath and Bruce averts his eyes. It isn’t that he has an issue with nudity. God knows he’s over that by now. He’s just repulsed by the knowledge that James’s dignity has been disregarded for so long that he doesn’t blink at stripping in front of a stranger.

“I more meant rolling the material up over the injury,” Bruce says. “I mean if you’re more comfortable with having them off, that’s fine. Whatever you want. The hay might be itchy, is all.”

Bruce forces himself to look at James again. He doesn’t want to make James feel as if he’s done something wrong. Bruce doesn’t doubt his own intentions. He knows he’d never take advantage of anyone in this position so it isn’t like looking is lascivious.

James must notice Bruce’s discomfort, because he pulls the jeans back up quickly, and his body goes tense again. He sits absolutely still and stares straight ahead, the slight tremble in his jaw the only visible evidence that he isn’t a statue. Bruce recognizes the posture. James did something Bruce made obvious he didn’t like and now he’s waiting for punishment.

“I didn’t communicate that well,” Bruce says in the gentlest voice he can manage. “That was my bad. I’m not angry with you. If anything, I’m annoyed with myself for not being more careful.”

James glances up to look at Bruce. “You afraid I’m going to snap?”

“No,” Bruce says. He’s not afraid. “It’s important to me that I know you understand that all this is your choice,” Bruce says, figuring James can handle the honesty. “I-- I don’t have a medical history for you. I don’t know much about you, really. I’m afraid that people who’ve worked with your injuries before didn’t give you the option of telling them to fuck off.”

“There were no options,” James says. “Only obedience. You sure that’s not what you want?”

“God, no,” Bruce says, noticing the way James pauses a moment before each question. Like it’s shameful to want more information. "I want you to feel safe here,” Bruce goes on. “I want both of us to feel safe here.”

After a beat James lets out his breath and slouches a little. His posture is no longer rigid and Bruce is glad James is relaxing.

“How much do you know about me?” Bruce asks as he sits down on his knees, getting closer to James’s injury without making any move to touch him just yet.

“You’re doctor Robert Bruce Banner, born in Dayton, Ohio, to Dr. Brian and Rebecca Ban--”

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Bruce cuts James off with an embarrassingly frantic set of hand flailing. “You’re not doing anything wrong. That’s exactly right, actually. But please don’t continue, with the starting from the beginning and the... me, bits. I can’t.... with my family history.”

Bruce is apologetic in both tone and manner as James freezes. It hadn’t occurred to Bruce when he’d asked that James would know quite that level of detail.

“I asked because... I guess, I wanted you to know I’ve been treated like my body isn’t mine more times than I can count. Sometimes I’m still not even sure it is, if I’m being honest. So when I keep asking you questions, and keep confirming that we’re good here... that’s a lot of my own issues surfacing. I’m sorry about that. I’m kind of a disaster.”

This time James takes a few seconds to process Bruce’s rambling. Then like before, he nods. “Okay.”

“Thanks,” Bruce says. “I’m glad I got that out of my system. I think I’m going to need a minute before I start, though.”

Bruce reaches for the water bottle and sips at it, trying to wash those memories away. The symbolism of the water doesn’t do much to calm his pulse, but a buzz from his phone helps. He pulls it out of his pocket and can see that Tony’s response to his request for housing help is simply a selfie of Tony grinning brightly while giving the thumbs up sign.

Whatever Tony has set up, the look of enthusiasm in his eyes means Bruce is going to want to headdesk repeatedly when he sees it. Still, it is undeniably awesome that he has a friend. And that that friend is Tony Freaking Stark.

Bruce turns the phone toward James so he can see the picture as well. In the interest of trust, he’ll show him every text that comes through until James tells him it isn’t necessary. Maybe that’s the push James needs, since that’s when he speaks.

“You can touch my leg to assess my knee,” James says abruptly. “Tell me before you do.”

“Got it,” Bruce says. He pockets the phone, feeling it buzz again as he does. It’s an address that he turns to show James. James nods as if it’s perfectly reasonable to have a safe house in less than a minute. Bruce has earned an iota of trust; he wants to make good on it fast.

“I’m going to roll this up,” he says, gesturing to the material at James’s ankle. “If you need me to stop what I’m doing at any time, say so.”

Bruce looks up at James and waits for a nod before he begins rolling the jeans up over themselves. The smell is unpleasant. There’s no way around that. Thankfully his travels have made Bruce immune to most human-related smells. Hospital cleaner still unravels him, but that’s not a problem here.

Once he sees the knee he knows there isn’t much he’s going to be able to do in the barn.

“The damage to your knee is internal,” Bruce says, keeping to simple terms to try and help James identify with the words and put together that his knee belongs to him. “Your knee is bruised and swollen. I’d like to press there gently to see if I can tell what’s going on. Is that okay?”

James nods. He also takes a slow breath, bracing for something painful.

The barn is absolutely silent as Bruce ever so carefully thumbs over James’s knee. The knee cap feels structurally intact, though the swelling could be misleading. They need an x-ray machine or similar. Bruce would like to think if the knee is truly jacked up, James wouldn’t have been getting around so well, but that seems optimistic. No doubt he’s got a pain tolerance that’s off the charts.

“When did you injure yourself?” Bruce asks.

“On the helicarrier,” James says. “It lost additional functionality in the days after.”

Bruce feels like there’s significance in that explanation. Unfortunately dealing with his own mangled emotions is decreasing his ability to concentrate on the problem at hand. There’s reason to believe James has better than average healing abilities. So if the knee got worse after the initial damage something might be impairing that. Malnutrition. Exhaustion. Repeated use. James could have been in shock that day, and numb to the pain initially. Or a hundred other possibilities, none of which could be easily ruled out in an Austrian barn.

“I’ll see about getting something to scan you, where we’re going,” Bruce says. “There isn’t much I’m going to be able to do now. I can splint it to keep it straight. I’m just not sure how much that would help.” Bruce scratches behind his ear, wishing he could do more. “I’m going to touch you again to roll your jeans back down.”

When Bruce finishes, James reaches down with his human hand to run it over his knee experimentally.

“Leave it. I can walk,” James says. “If I slow you down, go ahead. I’ll find you.”

“I’m not going to ditch you,” Bruce says. “Your slow is probably my fast, anyway.”

James pushes himself up off the hay and shivers against the cool wind.

“I’ve got extra clothes if you want something extra to keep warm,” Bruce offers.

He stands, and this time carries his duffel bag back to the center of the barn. He pulls out a gray hooded sweatshirt and holds it up.

“Interested?” Bruce asks. “It’s fine with me either way. I won’t be offended if it isn’t your style.”

James looks suspiciously at the offered clothing.

“You can keep it,” Bruce says. “Or burn it. I really don’t care.”

“Give it to me,” James reproaches, limping to grab it from Bruce’s grasp. He looks entirely unimpressed. “Don’t burn things someone could use.”

Chapter Text


“You can keep it,” Bruce says. “Or burn it. I really don’t care.”

“Give it to me,” James reproaches, limping to grab it from Bruce’s grasp. He looks entirely unimpressed. “Don’t burn things someone could use.”

-----

It only takes them a minute to pack up after James pulls the Stark Industries hoodie over his head. Bruce doesn’t let himself take a picture even though he figures Tony would be exuberant there’s a 90 something assassin decked out in Stark gear. Before SHIELD fell, Tony’d been working for months to get a tiny Stark logo on Steve. Anywhere.

“If the first one’s sitting okay in your stomach, would you like another Starkbar?” Bruce asks, pulling one out for himself as well.

James looks no more trusting this time than he looked before. He still unwraps it like a bomb. He still sniffs it cautiously. But when he takes a bite, it’s a proper bite, and not the nibble from earlier.

“S’good,” James says, once they’re walking down the path that will lead to a road that will lead to the address Tony has texted. “Everything else causes a malfunction.”

It’s obvious these aren’t common words or concepts for him. Bruce thinks it’s a good sign he can express this shit at all.

“You mentioned that,” Bruce says. “I’m going to guess since they were freezing and thawing you, they were giving you liquid nourishment? Solids could pose a logistical problem to that process. Obstructions and ice damage.”

Bruce is rambling in that science stream-of-thought that only Tony can pin down.

“Based on the timeline I can put together from the little I know about you, it makes sense food would be difficult. I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep, but if you’re tolerating StarkBars, I think it won’t take long to build up to other things. If you want to we can work on it together. It’s probably not a permanent malfunction.”

James’s shoulders stiffen. He doesn’t reply for an awkwardly long time.

“I keep thinking I should kill you,” James says. Which is actually a lot more awkward than the silence, now that it’s out in the air.

“I really don’t think you could,” Bruce says, because it isn’t much of a threat. It sounds a lot more like a warning and the sort you get from someone who is so lost and confused that they’d rather push you away than deal with the problems at hand. “But even if you could, I wouldn’t run. One, I’m slow when I’m not big and green, and two-- I’d like to help. Even if it gets me killed.”

“That’s why you and Rogers are friends. You’re both dumb,” James accuses.

“You’re not wrong,” Bruce agrees. “Though I’d like to think having some faith in people isn’t always pure stupidity.”

Bruce contemplates his next words before speaking. “The first time I met Steve he shook my hand. Which probably doesn’t sound like much but-- that’s just not the reaction I expect. Or get. People who know who I am run if they have any sense of self-preservation. And I can’t really put into words how I feel about the people who don’t run. It’s complicated. It took me a long time to trust it.”

“He said he didn’t want to hurt me,” James says, after Bruce’s words sit in the air for awhile. “People have said that before.”

“Do you understand why he’s looking for you?” Bruce asks.

“He’s looking for Bucky Barnes,” James growls. It’s harsher maybe than he intends, from the look on his face. “And that ain’t me.”

Ain’t ain’t a word and I ain’t gonna say it no more. Bruce hears the nursery rhyme in his head. He’s damn sure HYDRA wasn’t throwing around that sort of grammar in front of the Winter Soldier but Bucky Barnes might have used it back in the day.

He doesn’t point it out though. He might, when James is less agitated. It’s obvious that James is tetchy on the Corpse of Bucky thing, and Bruce doesn’t blame him a bit. He’s got his own issues when it comes to dual natures. It isn’t the same thing but it resonates the same way. He won’t push.

After that they walk in silence. Bruce had shown the texted address to James in the barn, and while Bruce had figured they’d use a map, they don’t need it. James may be hobbling a bit, but he’s walking with purpose. There’s no telling how many maps are in his head because he absolutely knows the way.

A few hours pass hiking through the mountains before they get to the right town, and it’s on the other side of that town, past the outskirts, up a lengthy, steep climb. The small chalet could have easily been the inspiration for the evil witch’s house in the Hansel and Gretel story. It’s gingerbread brown, with icing white window shutters and dozen of suncatchers dangling like colorful glass candy. There’s a balcony that stretches all around, but only a few windows.

“Subtle,” Bruce remarks. He glances at James who looks... concerned. “I know it looks odd but I’m sure it’s safe. And no one knows we’re here.”

“He does,” James says, eyeing the house like it might eat them.

“Tony?” Bruce asks. “Yes, he does, but he won’t show up unannounced. Okay-- probably he won’t show up unannounced. Like... fifty/fifty at worst and I can ask him to leave.”

“Not Tony Stark,” James says, finally turning his face to look at Bruce before pointing halfway up a separate mountain, a mile or so away, into a forest of trees. “Him.”

Bruce feels all the tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickle, but logic keeps him in control. James isn’t upset and he isn’t aiming guns anywhere. He doesn’t even seem alarmed. If he isn’t alarmed, Bruce can at least take a deep breath.

“Is this a friendly?” Bruce asks.

“He’s one of yours,” James says. “The archer. You didn’t know he was tracking you?”

“What?” Bruce asks. “No. No, I didn’t know he was anywhere around here. Do you mind if I call him?”

James gives his head a slight shake then sits down on the wooden porch and waits. Bruce isn’t sure if it’s because he doesn’t trust him, or if he just doesn’t want to go into the house alone. Regardless, Bruce pulls out his phone and dials Clint’s number. It only rings once and then Clint is on the line.

“Look, I can explain. It’s not what it looks like,” Clint answers.

Clint isn’t fragile like James, but he’s got his own issues. Bruce keeps his voice calm.

“It looks like you’re halfway up a mountain, following me around the Alps."

“Well, shit. It’s exactly what it looks like then," Clint admits. "But, I’m not aiming an arrow at you or anything.”

“I didn’t think you were,” Bruce says. “But can we not do this over the phone? I need to get James inside, and contact Tony about some medical supplies.”

“If Tony knows you’re running around with the Winter Soldier he’s probably halfway over the Atlantic right now. It won’t be pretty.”

“I didn’t tell him who I needed a house for,” Bruce says. “Seriously, though. Come do this face to face. And his name is James. He thinks Winter Soldier sounds stupid.”

Bruce’s eyes are on James, and it’s a relief when he sees him quirk up the side of his mouth in the tiniest of smirks.

“Right. I’ll go,” Clint says. “Can I just apologize now, though, real quick? I was watching, but not watching, you know? I wasn’t making assassination plans if you weren’t behaving yourself, I swear. You could have fucked up whole villages. It wasn’t my business.”

“Clint. We’re good,” Bruce assures him. “I’m not upset.”

“Okay. I just don’t want you breaking out the Eyes of Disappointment when you see me. I can’t take them. You and Pepper can break people with that shit.”

“I’m hanging up now,” Bruce says, laughing at Clint’s observations. “Get down here, and do me a favor: keep where I am and who I’m with under wraps until we can talk about it all of us together.”

“Coming down now,” Clint agrees. “See you in a few.”

Bruce hangs up the call and turns his attention back to James.

“You didn’t know he was tracking you,” James says, repeating the thought from before the call.

“I swear I didn’t,” Bruce says. “I’m not surprised; I just didn’t expect it. I wasn’t trying to trap you or withhold information. I wouldn’t do that.”

“I noticed him before I got to the barn,” James says non-committally. “If I was going to kill him, I’d have killed him then.”

“Well, that’s good?” Bruce says, realizing then what a giant mistake he’s made here. “I can call him back and tell him I can meet him down the road. I should have asked for your permission before I invited him to the house.”

“Why?” James asks in a tone of disapproval that says his opinion has never meant anything to anyone before, so it’s stupid that Bruce suddenly wants to take it into consideration now.

“Because we’re both supposed to feel safe here? I should have asked you if Clint was going to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“He’s on my list,” James says, glancing back toward the mountain where Clint had been watching. “I'd have found him eventually.”

Chapter Text

“Why?” James asks in a tone of disapproval that says his opinion has never meant anything to anyone before, so it’s stupid that Bruce suddenly wants to take it into consideration now.

“Because we’re both supposed to feel safe here? I should have asked you if Clint was going to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“He’s on my list,” James says, glancing back toward the mountain where Clint had been watching. “I'd have found him eventually.”

Bruce hadn’t noticed James pulling out guns from anywhere, but now he holds one in each hand. Bruce follows James in the house, then leans against the counter to text Tony ‘thank you’, before he checks the fridge for food. It’s fully stocked. The dining room table is covered in a variety of tech manuals, schematics, and boxes of StarkBars. There are several layers of clothes laid out across the couch. From the looks of it, Tony had someone come in and drop things off, but there is no sign of that person now.

“All clear,” James reports, coming to stand in the center of the living room. He looks exhausted, despite his rigid posture.

“Good. Then you can sit down and rest,” Bruce says, before correcting himself to make it less of an order. “If you want to sit, that is. It might be good for you? There are some frozen vegetables here that we can use for an ice pack.”

Bruce opens the freezer and pulls down a bag of peas. “I’d like to put this on your knee to see if it helps. Doctors sometimes use ice to decrease blood flow to an area and reduce swelling.”

James’s eyes widen slightly and he doesn’t say anything but Bruce can feel the force of words that aren’t there. James’s face is a study in panic and he takes in sharps breath as he goes still. Bruce has the vegetables in his hand and James stares at them like they’re a weapon.

“Ice. Right,” Bruce says, after a beat. “I’m sorry. That was... not the right thing to suggest. What about soaking in a warm bath? That can loosen up the muscles a little so it won’t hurt as much if I need to reposition your knee.”

James goes ragged with relief. “I saw a bathtub.”

“Let me know if you need any help,” Bruce says, trying to sound as nonchalant as he can as if offering to help a grown man bathe is totally the norm. Though considering the number of times he’s shoved drunk Tony into a shower over the past year, it really sort of is his norm. “Warm, but probably not hot, if you can tolerate that? And if you would like any of those clean clothes to change into after, grab whatever looks good to you. I’m sure they’re here for us both.”

James nods, picks up a few things that may or may not match, and disappears down the hall. It's hard for Bruce not to follow him. Bruce doesn’t know if James knows how to run a bath, or take a bath. He doesn’t know if the metal arm needs special care in water. What he does know is that personally, he would be humiliated if questioned on those things, so he’s just going to chill the fuck out and give James some space. James can fly a jet; he can figure out water knobs and a plug.

Thankfully he’s distracted by a knock at the door, just as he hears the water begin to run.

When Bruce opens the door, Clint is standing with his hands up in surrender and a mischievous grin.

“No guilt eyes?” Clint asks.

“No guilt eyes,” Bruce confirms. “Come in. Make yourself at home.”

He steps aside so Clint can enter and watches as he takes in the room like a good sniper should. Exits. Windows. Where to stand to not get shot from outside.

“He’s running a bath?” Clint asks as he hops up on the kitchen counter then settles to dangle his legs over the edge.

“You’d know if I snuck in here with with anyone else,” Bruce points out. “But yes, that’s him. And I’m not 100 percent sure he won’t kill you when he comes out, so if you’d rather us take a walk, I can leave a note.”

“Eh, if I stopped hanging out with people who I’m 100% sure won’t kill me I’d be down to my dog... and maybe Steve. Maybe.” Clint gives it a second more of thought then shrugs. “I guess that’s all to say, I’m not worried. I know you’ve got my back. What’s he like?”

“You can see for yourself when he’s finished with his bath,” Bruce says, not really wanting to say much about James behind his back. “I think I’d rather talk about why you’ve been following me around Austria, but didn’t pop in to say hello. I wouldn’t have minded the company.”

“I didn’t follow you to Austria on purpose,” Clint says. “The day SHIELD fell, I had just gotten off a plane in New York from four weeks off grid. I was still in the airport when I got a text from Natasha. It was one word-- our go word-- and nothing else. I got on the first plane out, and ended up in London. I had some options from there, and-- you know how we watched that singing nun movie at Christmas? Climb every mountain and goats and stuff? I looked up where the movie was filmed and ended up in Salzburg.”

Which just makes Bruce laugh. “That’s where you saw me? That was six weeks ago.”

“I’ve only been following you off and on,” Clint says. “I’d wait for you to get settled, make sure it was safe and no one was trailing you, then I’d go explore for a bit. Tasha brought me up to speed on what had gone down. It seemed like a good idea for you and me to stick together.”

“Except for the part where I didn’t know you were around,” Bruce points out.

“Well, yeah. Except for that part,” Clint says. “But I wasn’t sure you didn’t know. I know you’ve said before that Hulk can sense those things even when you’re all... you shaped.”

“The Other Guy can sense danger. Sometimes. If I’m paying attention. But you wouldn’t register as danger.”

Clint looks pleased by that thought then he frowns. “Neither did the Winter Soldier.”

Clint’s eyes go to the hallway, but there’s a sort of splashing sound as the water stops so Clint continues.

“He’s bad news, Bruce. I know what went down with him and Steve, and if there’s ever been anyone who appreciates seconds chances it’s me. But just-- don’t get your hopes up that he’s not gonna try and murder us both in our sleep. That’s gonna take time. Moral qualms don’t happen overnight.”

Bruce nods. There’s a look on Clint’s face that gives away just how much it means to him that he’s gotten to the point that people like Bruce and Tony trust him since he’s put in the time. If Bruce was a hugger he’d have reached for Clint, but he isn’t so he just walks past him to the fridge and pulls out a beer instead. He slides it down the counter to Clint, and then opens one for himself.

“Must be nice to have a billionaire science boyfriend,” Clint says, approving of the quality German brand.

Bruce rolls his eyes, but doesn't correct Clint, since Clint knows damn well that Tony isn't his boyfriend. "Science boyfriends" just seems to be a thing Clint and Natasha and Pepper all like to toss out when Bruce and Tony have been cooped up in a lab together for a week and both walk out with rumpled clothes and mussed up hair.

For a few minutes they chat about less important things. Bruce finds out Clint broke into the famous gazebo from the movie, and Clint laughs hard at Bruce's story about laying down to sleep only to realize his head is resting in cow--

“Holy Shit--”

The Holy Shit has Bruce spinning around in alarm, since Clint’s not the most flappable guy around. But it’s nothing bad... just James. And James doesn’t even look particularly menacing. He’s standing there in plaid pajama bottoms and no shirt. The most intimidating part of him is his metal arm and his metal hand is clutching dirty clothes so not a gun at least.

“James, this is Clint Barton. Clint, this is James,” Bruce introduces for lack of anything more enlightening to say.

“Sorry, man,” Clint apologizes, since that wasn’t the most polite hello he’d ever made happen. “You surprised me. I’d been listening for you to get out of the bath or head this way and then I look away for a second and you’re there. I’m impressed.”

Clint does look impressed. Bruce actually smiles into his beer at the visible awe on his face. There really aren’t many people who can surprise the Amazing Hawkeye.

“You’re an assassin,” James says.

“Now if I told you that, I'd have to kill you," Clint says.

Bruce tenses, because seriously Clint, not funny, but James chokes out a laugh. Just one, but well-- apparently he got the joke.

"Seriously though," Clint says. "I'm a lot of things, but mostly I'm the guy that's been straight up creeping on Bruce for the last 6 weeks. Not you know... sexually. Just. Protectively.”

Clint flashes a smile at Bruce and Bruce rolls his eyes and smiles anyway, because he has friends, and that's never not going to feel awesome.

“I had my back to you in the barn,” James says. It’s definitely a non-sequitur and it lands somewhere between being a question and not being a question yet Clint seems to keep up fine.

“I noticed that, yeah,” Clint says. “And if I thought you were there to hurt Bruce, I'd have taken the shot. But I don't want to hurt you. I wasn’t out trying to rescue you, either. That’s Steve’s deal. Which-- look, I get you don’t want him to know where you are, but he’s out busting his ass looking for you. And since he’s scared as hell you’ve been captured by HYDRA he’s landed in some dangerous places.”

James looks at Bruce. “See?” James demands. “Idiot.

“I’m not going to disagree with you,” Bruce says. “But Clint brings up a good point. Would you consider letting me call Steve and tell him you’re with me, and ask him to back off until you’re ready to see him? It’s up to you. I won’t say a word about where we are without your permission.”

James shifts to look at Clint, and Clint nods. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here, either. Not unless you say it’s cool.”

James considers it. “Fine. Call him. He should stop looking.”

“Thank you,” Bruce says, and sounds relieved. “I know he’s going to ask-- are you interested in meeting him at some point?”

James looks conflicted and annoyed. “I’m not Bucky Barnes. There’s no one for him to meet.”

“You don’t owe him anything. You don’t owe me anything. So when I put this out here-- take it or leave it,” Bruce says, wanting to be extremely careful about applying any pressure at all. “Even though you aren’t Bucky Barnes, that doesn’t leave you as a no one. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. I think you seem interesting, and I hope I get to know you better before you decide to leave. Steve might like that, too. He’s a good guy.”

“You’ll try and keep me here,” James says, and again-- it feels to Bruce like two different conversations are happening at once, but Clint seems to get it easily.

“Dude,” Clint says, with a sort of disarming, midwestern charm that Clint manages to make seem natural. “I’m not bragging when I say I’m one of the best, and you just got the drop on me out of that bath like it was nothing. We aren’t keeping you here. I’m not, because I know it’d be pointless, and Bruce won’t, because he’s as decent as they get. If you want to go, we wouldn’t stop you, even if we could.”

Bruce nods his agreement. James huffs, and sits down hard on the couch.

“Call him,” James says. “Make it so I can hear. Tell him I’ll find him when I want to see him.”

Bruce nods again and pulls out his phone. He dials Steve’s number and hopes he answers it, so he doesn’t have to leave the most awkward voicemail ever. Steve picks up sounding slightly out of breath.

“Bruce? Is everything okay?” Steve asks, and it’s just obvious he cares. There’s worry in his voice.

“Yeah. Yes, everything is fine,” Bruce confirms. “Better than fine actually. Ummm. I guess there’s no non-dramatic way to put this, so I’m just going to say it. I’m here with Clint and James. The James Barnes you’re looking for.”

The line goes silent. The silence lasts long enough that Bruce speaks again.

“Steve?”

“I’m here,” Steve affirms. There’s a rough quality to his voice. “You’re with Bucky?”

Bruce sees James stiffen in his seat. “He asked me to call him James,” Bruce explains. “He doesn’t remember anything about his life as Bucky and he doesn’t much identify with that name. But he’s here and he’s safe. We’re all looking out for each other.”

“Wait, what? Where are you?” Steve asks. There’s a shuffling in the background and Bruce can picture Steve grabbing his go bag and pulling on his shoes.

“That’s complicated,” Bruce says. “He’s not ready to see you, yet. When he’s ready he says he’ll find you.”

There’s another long pause and then a thud. Either Steve’s kicked something or he’s dropped to the ground. Bruce can’t tell.

“I want to see him,” Steve says helplessly. Bruce flinches a little from the sorrow in Steve’s voice. It’s raw pain.

“You’ll see me when I’m ready,” James chastises. “Stop chasing me. And stop being stupid with your safety.”

There’s another pause. Clint gives Bruce a look that manages to say ‘this fucking sucks” very eloquently with only his eyes.

“I-- Okay. Okay,” Steve says. He sounds stunned. Possibly in shock. “I’ll go to New York. I’ll be at the tower. Bruce can tell you which one.”

There’s a muffled voice speaking to Steve, then the phone is shuffled around and Natasha’s on the line without introduction.

“Hawkeye, how’s the weather in Peru?” she asks.

“Better than the weather anywhere else, Widow,” Clint responds automatically. “It’s good to be out of the cold.”

“Confirmed,” she says.

There’s more shuffling and it’s Steve on the line again. Bruce wonders about the code Natasha and Clint have just sent back and forth, but it doesn't appear to worry James, so Bruce isn't worried either.

“Bruce... keep me updated?” Steve asks. His voice sounds a little more polished. He's trying hard to keep it together now.

“I will,” Bruce says. “We all plan to keep each other safe, for as long as we’re traveling together. Try not to worry.”

Which just gets a sad laugh from Steve. “Yeah.”

“We’ll talk again soon,” Bruce promises, and then the line goes dead.

Chapter Text

“Bruce... keep me updated?” Steve asks. His voice sounds a little more polished. He's trying hard to keep it together now.

“I will,” Bruce says. “We all plan to keep each other safe, for as long as we’re traveling together. Try not to worry.”

Which just gets a sad laugh from Steve. “Yeah.”

“We’ll talk again soon,” Bruce promises, and then the line goes dead.

Bruce turns his attention to James, who has slumped into the cushions looking drained.

“I need to ask for some medical equipment to get a better look at your knee, and Tony’s my best friend... I’d like to tell him who I’m with. I know he has a reputation for... well, being Tony, but if I ask him to give us space, he will. I trust him to keep you quiet.”

Bruce is rambling, because he was fine with Tony not knowing who he was with when the only people who knew were in the house. But now that Steve and Natasha know it isn’t just a secret. It’s a secret. And Tony’s feelings aren’t hard to hurt when he’s left out.

“Don’t suppose Tony’s mentioned anything about James to you?” Clint asks, before James can respond. There’s something off in his tone. He's worried.

“Just that Steve was out looking for him,” Bruce admits.

Clint sighs and looks to James, who gives half a shrug as if asking ‘what the hell does this have to do with me?’

“You killed Tony’s parents,” Clint says. “Sorry to be blunt, but there’s no point in trying to sugar coat it.”

Bruce pales a little and feels his stomach tighten. This would be easier if they were discussing it alone, but Bruce gets why Clint is keeping this conversation out in the open. Secrets are fodder for distrust and they really can’t afford that right now. Still, it sucks. It just sucks.

“Tony didn’t tell me. Shit,” Bruce swears.

James, for his part, doesn’t react at all. His face is blank of any expression outside of exhaustion.

“Do you remember killing them?” Clint asks.

Bruce can’t help but think Clint uses questions like word arrows and on occasion that would be an amazing skill to have. Maybe not right now, though. Right now Bruce really wishes he was doing yoga in a barn somewhere with only goats for company.

“Killing, maybe,” James says. “Faces, no. Or faces, yes. Killing no. Details are a liability.”

There’s something in his tone that gives away he’s repeating words he’s heard before. Someone has told him details are a liability, no doubt right as they were taking the details straight out of his head without his consent.

“Well, at least that confirms the intel we’ve got on you,” Clint says.

“What intel?” James asks.

“Basically? They fucked with your head so much there’s no rhyme or reason to what you’d remember. It makes sense. Torture can break just about anyone so how do you make sure your super soldier doesn’t give up all your secrets? Wipe him after every mission.”

Bruce flinches at the brutal honesty. James’s eyes move to Clint’s face with a sharpness that makes the Other Guy uneasy though the expression only lasts a second. Then there’s a flicker of what might be fear before James’s face is back to a mask of scary calm.

“That sounds terrible,” Bruce says. “And brutal. And inhumane and immoral and I would need a thesaurus to finish this sentence. But all of that-- it doesn’t change that I still need to look at your knee. And to get the equipment I need to talk to Tony, and really, I need to talk to Tony either way.”

James closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the cushions. “Do what you want. I don’t fuckin’ care.”

“Thank you,” Bruce says, worrying the worn hem of his sleeve as he watches James. The man doesn’t look like someone who doesn’t care. He also doesn’t look like someone who’s gotten enough to eat. “Then I’m going to call Tony from the porch. I’ll leave the door open so you can hear my parts of the conversation if you want to listen. Clint, do you mind getting James some cool water, with no ice, and a nutrition bar from one of those boxes on the counter?”

“What the hell are these?” Clint asks, picking up a bar from where Bruce pointed and tossing it to Bruce for him to inspect. “I watched you eat about a thousand of the silver ones.”

It’s definitely a StarkBar though the packaging has changed. The ones that Bruce had carried with him were prototypes and wrapped in silver, quick seal foil. These are... flashy. Specifically, they are covered in pictures of Bruce and Tony, making ridiculous faces. The pictures must have been taken from different security feeds in the lab. No doubt Jarvis had special orders to save any images that involved them looking like idiots.

It’s nice though. Nice that it’s his own face and not the Other Guy.

“Hopefully these are an end to world hunger,” Bruce says. “But if that doesn’t work out, they’re something James can eat without feeling sick. You can try one too, if you like.”

Bruce tosses the bar back and Clint unwraps it and shoves half in his mouth. He trusts anything that comes from Bruce. That’s nice. Nice for a few seconds until the Tony guilt hits Bruce again and reminds him he deserves to feel like utter shit.

He has no idea how the best friend he’s ever had is going to react to the news that Bruce is palling around Europe with a murderer. And that’s just one part of it. Tony had found out everything he’d believed about his parents’ deaths was a lie, and Bruce hadn’t been there. Hadn’t even offered to be there. Of course he hadn’t had an inkling of what was going on, but lack of intent never did anything to soothe Bruce’s guilt.

Bruce gives Clint a small smile then walks out on the porch.

“Shut the door behind you,” James says abruptly.

It’s permission to take the call alone. It could be trust. Or it could be James doesn’t want to hear Bruce talk to the son of his murder victims. Or James doesn’t want Bruce letting in the cold since he’s on the couch without a shirt. Bruce doesn’t ask for clarification. He needs to get the call over with before he chickens out. He sits on the ground and leans against the chalet wall and calls Tony.

“How do you like the house?” Tony asks upon answer, sounding enthusiastic and entirely unburdened. Bruce knows he should expect that, but it still sounds surreal in the moment.

“It’s great,” Bruce says. This awkwardness is the part where he fails at friendship. “Exactly what I needed.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Tony asks. “Why do you sound like someone pissed on your puppy?”

“It’s kicked my puppy, and it’s kind of a long story,” Bruce says. “Clint’s here. He brought me up to speed on some things. What happened with your parents, for one.”

“They’re dead,” Tony says. “Old news.”

“With a new twist,” Bruce says. “I’m not upset you didn’t tell me; that’s your business. I’m just worried. And I feel guilty. Really, guilty. I mean, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. You know me. I overthink things and then when it’s really important I get it wrong. And who knows-- maybe I’m destined to always make things worse...”

“You got all that from talking to Barton?” Tony asks. He sounds confused. And rightly so.

“I’m with the Winter Soldier,” Bruce says quietly. “Except he doesn’t want to be called that anymore, he wants to be called James. He’s the reason I needed a place to stay. He’s hurt, and I wanted to help him, and I think I’m doing the right thing except for the part where I just found out he killed your parents.”

“Does Steve know he’s with you?” Tony asks.

“As of a few minutes ago, yes,” Bruce says. “Tony-- I don’t know what to do.”

“Exactly what you were doing before Clint took a dump on your good deed. What’s Legolas doing there anyway?”

Bruce knows a deliberate change of subject when he hears one. At least now Tony knows who Bruce is with and if he wants to say anything negative on the subject it’s an option.

“Clint saw me in Salzburg six weeks ago and he’s been following me ever since. But not to keep me in line, apparently. He was extremely clear that I could smash whole villages and he’d have been cheering me on.”

“Good man,” Tony says. “I forgive him for tattling.”

“Seriously, though,” Bruce says. “Do you want me to come home?”

It’s out of his mouth before he realizes his phrasing. Home. The tower. Of course Tony notices and pounces on it.

“Home?” Tony asks. “I kind of love that. No. I don’t kind of love it, I really love it. I’m going to have someone cross stitch it onto something.”

“Just the word ‘home’?” Bruce asks, letting himself be pulled into this nonsense because he knows Tony needs it and honestly, he does too.

“You’re right. Not my best plan. What about we fire up a laser and burn it onto the moon?”

Which just makes Bruce laugh. “I feel like we’re jumping to extremes,” he says. “God, I miss you.”

“Stop,” Tony half laughs, half whines. “I have not had nearly enough alcohol for a heart to heart. Just-- stay where you are. Do what you need to do. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

“Are you sleeping?” Bruce asks.

“Irrelevant,” Tony dismisses. Which means no. Bruce chooses not to push.

“So here’s where it’s going to get even more awkward,” Bruce says. “James is injured. I need some medical equipment if I’m going to know how to help him.”

“That’s not awkward. Email Jarvis what you need,” Tony says in a tone that’s switched to serious. “Try and get some scans of his arm while you’re at it. Robocop might have trackers in there or kill switches. Send me pictures and I’ll tell you what we’re looking at.”

“I’ll ask,” Bruce says. “If he isn’t interested I won’t push.”

“So when are you expecting Steve?” Tony asks.

“We aren’t,” Bruce says. “James didn’t want him to know where we are. That’s my last favor. Do you mind keeping our location to yourself?”

“Hmmmm. I get to know something other people don’t get to know... Yes. Your secret is safe with me.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Bruce breathes out. With all that over, he feels nearly as tired as James looked when he left him inside.

“What are friends for?” Tony asks. “Keep me in the loop. Texting is fine. Dick pics are optional but appreciated.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Bruce agrees.

Tony hangs up before they can say goodbye, and that’s not anything new. Medical equipment is coming, Bruce’s best friend doesn’t seem to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and there are real, live people waiting for him inside a warm, comfortable house. Bruce may be exhausted but he knows things could be a whole lot worse.

Chapter Text

Tony hangs up before they can say goodbye, and that’s not anything new. Medical equipment is coming, Bruce’s best friend doesn’t seem to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and there are real, live people waiting for him inside a warm, comfortable house. Bruce may be exhausted but he knows things could be a whole lot worse.

~~~~

“Out of the bath!” James calls from his place on the couch, as Bruce steps in the door. James’s eyes are still shut, and he has a half eaten Stark Bar (StarkBar? Starkbar? Bruce visualizes it differently each time) in his hand. “Barton is practicing his stealth,” James explains, just as Clint yells “damn it!” from the bathroom at the same time something small takes a tumble and hits the bathroom floor with a clang.

“Spy games?” Bruce guesses.

“His idea,” James says. He takes another bite from his bar and chews it contentedly. Bruce goes to grab a StarkBar for himself and then glances at the fridge.

“I’m thinking of making a stir fry for dinner. I can make a side of rice in broth, if you want to give it a try? When I was living in India, that would be the first food I’d introduce to anyone recovering from stomach issues.”

James doesn’t respond, and at first Bruce thinks it’s because he’s still listening for Clint, but there’s a tenseness in his features that suggests otherwise. Something about his expression clicks with Bruce: James doesn’t want to disagree. And it’s not just that. He seems afraid to disagree. There’s no doubt in Bruce’s mind that any resistance at all to suggestion was beaten out of James a long time ago.

“Or you can just have as many StarkBars as you can stomach?” Bruce asks. “Whatever you want. You know your body better than I do.”

James slits one eye open and looks at Bruce like he’s just said the dumbest thing he’s ever heard. James was clearly telling the truth when he said a lot of things seems stupid to him now.

“Maybe no one ever asked you about your pain,” Bruce begins. “Or asked about your body apart from malfunctions. But that doesn’t invalidate your--”

“You didn’t even get into the bath that time!” James interrupts, shouting it loud enough that Clint will hear from the back of the house.

Bruce can’t help but smile at the image of Clint trying to sneak in and out of the bathtub to show up the famous Winter Soldier. It's also nice that the game is engaging James, and that seems promising. Bruce starts back with the conversation again after a pause, figuring the more times he can reinforce James’s autonomy to him, the better.

“Other people's disregard for your comfort doesn’t invalidate that your body is your own. But we can talk about this some other time, if you want. I’ll leave you and Clint to your fun.”

“I don’t have fun,” James says, as if the very insinuation is insulting. “I don’t have-- any of this. This is a malfunction. More malfunctions. A mountain of fucking malfunctions.”

James metal fist clinches into a ball so tight Bruce hears a slight grinding sound. He knows there is a fine line between pushing and giving James the support he needs to express himself so Bruce stays quiet for a moment. The best he can do is watch James’s face and look for cues. And when James’s frustration appears to fade slightly and he looks more lost than anything else, Bruce decides to try a different approach.

“Can you explain the malfunction to me?” he asks.

“I feel,” James sighs. “I feel...”

His words die off, and Bruce can see that James doesn’t have the vocabulary for whatever it is he wants to express next. James looks at him helplessly, as if Bruce can read minds, and Bruce chews on his bottom lip in thought. He doesn’t want to feed James emotions. If he gets them wrong, James could misidentify them for who knows how long, and Bruce really does not want to be responsible for fucking James up any worse than he is. So instead of giving any definites, he ventures a quiet guess.

“Is feeling the malfunction?” Bruce asks.

And it’s the right answer because James let’s out a sharp breath and nods.

“Yes,” he says emphatically. “I met Steve Rogers and then I malfunctioned.”

“If you process what’s happening as a malfunction that’s totally valid,” Bruce says. “You would know better than I would what your malfunctions feel like. But do you think I could offer an alternate explanation for you to consider?”

James considers it then shrugs indifferently. “No one's stopping you.”

Bruce starts to open his mouth but James interrupts him by shouting “You’re back in the bath, Barton!”

There is silence from the bathroom, and then the front door flies open and Clint’s standing there in nothing but a towel and a triumphant grin.

“Who’s got stealth mode now, bitches?” he demands.

Bruce shakes his head and laughs, as James gave Clint a slight, acknowledging tilt of his head. The childlike way Clint’s face lights up at James’s approval is frankly adorable. Bruce has the good grace not to point it out. Rather than go get dressed, Clint sits down on one of the bar stools, in a way that will give Bruce an eyeful if he doesn’t keep his face turned toward James.

“What’d I miss?” Clint asks.

It actually takes Bruce a moment to remember what they’d been talking about before the spy games interrupted.

“I was just about to tell James my thoughts on one of his malfunctions,” Bruce says. “And honestly, your perspective might be helpful. I... um... I’m not an expert on this. On any of it.”

Bruce really feels helpless now that it's time to talk this out on his own. Tony is always so helpful during brainstorming and intuitively knows when Bruce needs him to toss in a word or two to help fill in the verbal blanks. Still, James is looking at him with mild interest so Bruce shoves down his own inadequacies and insecurities and continues.

“Most humans are born with a capacity for emotions and feelings. There are definitely exceptions, but typically, a child is born and that child has emotions keyed in and ready to go,” Bruce begins. “That’s the... the typical state... of neurocircuitry. Umm.. the control mechanism that regulates thoughts.”

Bruce wishes he had a white board, or Tony’s holoboard, or even post-it notes and a pen. This would be so much easier if he had something to do with his hands other than wave them around like a lunatic.

“When you were captured and...” Bruce fumbles for a word. “And programmed, they could have altered your brain. They could have done something that caused a malfunction that-- that robbed you of your ability to feel. And seeing Steve could have been a trigger that shifted part of your natural state back into place. So in that scenario, what’s going on-- it might not be a new malfunction so much as a return to function. Maybe.”

“He’s going back to his factory settings,” Clint says, “If by factory we mean his mom’s vag.”

Bruce laughs at the ridiculousness of that statement, particularly because he knows that Clint knows a hell of a lot more about human anatomy than he lets on.

“That-- that makes me think you and I need to have a separate talk about where babies comes from,” Bruce says. “But that’s the concept, yeah. What do you think James? Does that feel valid to you at all? Because I could be full of shit. That’s fine, too.”

“I think you’re full of shit,” James agrees. “But go on if there’s more.”

“There’s a little more,” Bruce says. He isn’t insulted at all by James’s shut down. If anything, Bruce feels better knowing that James is willing to listen to new information and sort it out for himself. “The entirety of what the scientific community knows to be absolutely certain about how the human brain stores and retrieves memories would fill about half a pamphlet. When scientists publish papers they’re guessing. Like you just said, most of it is bullshit,” Bruce admits. “But one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that brains are resilient. And no matter what’s been done to you... no matter how much of your humanity was stripped away, I think that who you are at your fundamental core-- the version of you from the beginning-- I think that would be really damn hard to destroy.”

James becomes very interested in the half a Stark Bar in his hand so it’s Clint who speaks.

“That’s a real nice thought, doc,” Clint says quietly. “You genuinely think so?”

“I do,” Bruce confirms. “I absolutely do. James, when you defied your orders, maybe it was a malfunction. Or maybe it was the fundamental you of you, taking back control. Either way, you can get through this. You can choose what you want these malfunctions to mean to you, and Clint and I will help you go from there.”

James is still staring at the food in his hand with a spooky sort of intensity. He needs time to process what Bruce said. That much is obvious.

“You think that was Bucky Barnes?” James asks. He doesn’t sound as offended by the name, now. It's more like he’s talking about an old acquaintance than an old enemy.

“I don’t know,” Bruce says. “I never met him. I can tell you everything you want to know about what Steve Rogers is like, but Steve’s the only person who’s going to be able to give you his thoughts on Bucky.”

“He...” James starts. “The way he looked at me... I am not that person. I’m not who he thinks I am. I’m an asset. A weapon. Not Bucky Barnes.”

Bruce can practically hear the loop of all that playing in James’s head.

“That sound lonely,” Bruce says.

“I’ve been an asset and a weapon,” Clint adds. “It fucking sucks.”

Neither of them offer solutions. They both understand that some things can’t be fixed by anything but time. Clint goes back to his doodling and Bruce picks up a stack of engineering diagrams Tony’d had put there for him to review.

James stares up at the ceiling, looking tense again. He needs time to process. It's understandable.

“James, would you like a few minutes alone?” Bruce asks.

“Yes,” James says immediately. And he says it with the sort of finality that makes Bruce pretty sure when he and Clint return to the room James will be gone.

Chapter Text

James stares up at the ceiling, looking tense again.

“James, would you like a few minutes alone?” Bruce asks.

“Yes,” James says immediately. And he says it with the sort of finality that makes Bruce pretty sure when he and Clint return to the room James will be gone.

----

“Since you two are done splashing around in the bathroom, I think I’ll take a quick shower before I cook dinner,” Bruce says.

He grabs a few clothes off the couch, and tucks them under his arm. He wants to say more. Wants to ask James to stay. Wants to remind him that his knee is still bummed and point out the way his lungs seem heavy even when he’s resting. It’s the truth so it might not be manipulative. Bruce doesn’t know. For all his reading, he’s not a professional counselor and even if he was, he can’t imagine that there’s any therapist in the world prepared for what HYDRA’s done to James.

“I’m gonna go for a run,” Clint says. He stands and makes a quick grab for the towel as it starts to unfurl at his hips. “Though I guess I should put on some clothes first. Wouldn’t want to get all the locals hot and bothered.”

They walk together further back into the chalet, giving James the quiet he’d requested. It’s only one floor so there isn’t much to the place beyond the front room and the kitchen. There’s just a hall, two bedrooms, and one bathroom for them all to share. It’s exceptionally well appointed, because Tony would never have sent Bruce to anything less.

When Clint speaks it’s loud enough for James to hear them. Bruce is glad Clint seems to intuitively understand that for the time being they’re going to have to stay as transparent with their intentions as possible.

“I wish I’d talked to you after the whole New York thing,” Clint says. “You’re good at this.”

“I’m not,” Bruce sighs. “I have good intentions, and that’s pretty much the straightest paved path to Hell.”

“I don’t knock good intentions,” Clint says. “They’re more rare than you think.”

“I used to think so,” Bruce agrees. “Though I guess you’re right. I’d take good intentions over bad ones, any day.”

Clint nods. “You didn’t really get to know Phil, but sometimes you remind me of him. He was always good at this stuff. He put up with me, when I don’t think anyone in their right mind would’ve given me the time of day. I was a mess back in the day-- well, more of a mess. Phil just had this way about him that made me trust things could be okay.”

Bruce cocks his head, confused for a moment.

“Tony said Agent Coulson is still--” Bruce starts.

“Phil is dead,” Clint cuts him off sharply. “I don’t know who SHIELD has got running around with his face. The real Phil Coulson would never have left me to deal with all that shit on my own.”

Clint sounds as hurt and angry as Bruce has ever heard him. Honestly, he’s not sure he’s ever heard Clint sound this vulnerable now that he thinks about it. Either the subject is that raw, or Clint is letting his guard down a little. Whatever it is, it’s fine with Bruce. He’s always liked Clint. Trust seems like the next natural step.

“That’s my mistake,” Bruce says easily. “And for what it’s worth, I wish I could’ve been more help after New York. It took some time to get my footing. Things were... tense...”

Bruce sort of trails off with that sentence and Clint nods. He gets it.

“See you in half an hour or so,” Clint says, stepping into one of the bedrooms to dress as Bruce steps into the bathroom.

Bruce is pulling his shirt off over his head when he hears Clint walk back toward the living room to leave through the front door.

“Take your guns,” James tells Clint.

“I always do,” Clint assures him.

It’s quiet after that. Bruce runs his shower warm, and then stands with his face turned up to the stream and stays there until he has to shift away to catch his breath, and then he grabs the soap. It’s the first proper shower he’s had in a month in a half. He only realizes how filthy he’s become as he watches swirls of dirt wash down the drain.

He forces himself not to listen for the door. It won’t do him any good to hear James leave. Despite the warm water, Bruce’s muscles are still tense. He hadn’t realized how badly he wanted James to stay until he had to move back and let the man decide for himself. Now it's hell on his nerves.

So he doesn’t know if James is there or not when he turns off the water and begins to dry off. He steps out into a puddle of water, that’s not his own. There’s water all over the floor, from Clint’s “bath” and Bruce uses his own towel to soak it up. Cleaning is cathartic. He just wishes other messes could be as easily fixed with a towel and a little hard work.

He dresses methodically and allows himself to listen to the rest of the house. He hears nothing. He doesn’t know if Clint’s been waiting out on the porch or just isn’t back from his run, but it’s time to go see what James has decided.

He is ridiculously, embarrassingly, relieved to find the man where he left him.

Clint walks inside as Bruce gets to the kitchen. For someone who’d been taking a run, Clint doesn’t seem winded, though he gets himself a glass of water, guzzles it in a few gulps, then fills it again before taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch from James. Neither Clint nor Bruce speak to James, or to each other for that matter. No one seems to mind the quiet.

It’s James who talks first, after about five minutes. Bruce has just added the chicken to his stir fry when James speaks up.

“Tell me about Steve Rogers,” he says. It almost sounds like an indifferent request except Bruce can see the intensity in the way James is watching Clint as he asks it. It’s the tone of someone who has no memory of ever having any luck getting what he wants. It’s the tone of someone who is worried that showing too much interest in any given thing is sure to have it taken away. Bruce has been there.

Clint puts down the newspaper and pen he’d been using to pass the time. Bruce can see doodles of arrows and bullseyes around the edges.

“Steve’s the real deal,” Clint says. “And I mean that in the best possible way. He relies a lot on his instincts, and he’s not afraid of breaking rules if it’s going to help somebody. He can’t be bullied and he won’t stand for anyone else being bullied either. If someone’s earned his trust, he trusts them completely. He’d be the first person in any group to throw himself on a grenade to save everyone else, so I’m honestly not sure how he’s still alive. Especially considering the company he keeps.”

From the kitchen, Bruce wonders in his head how Clint would describe him. Because that was pretty much the perfect description of Steve: strengths, weaknesses and a lot of what was in between.

“Fortune favors the brave,” Bruce comments quietly.

“Or at least here’s hoping,” Clint laughs, raising his glass in a toast for luck.

James looks skeptical. “Tell me he didn’t make that up himself.”

“No, not him,” Bruce says. “It’s old. Older than either of you. From Roman times.”

“Well don’t let him hear you say it,” James says. “He doesn’t need ideas.”

Honestly, James sounds so protective of Steve both Clint and Bruce try to hide their smiles. It doesn’t work and James looks unimpressed, which only makes Clint laugh.

“Sorry-- sorry,” Clint apologizes. “I should not be laughing at someone with your estimated kill count. You just sound like pretty much every other person ever who’s been on a mission with Steve.”

“Yeah, he’s always been like that. There was this one time he--” James stops so suddenly he chokes on the word.

His whole body freezes and his expression goes from annoyed to terrified in an instant. His eyes widen and then he shuts them hard. Whatever he was about to say might be a memory. It might also be something less tangible. Whatever it is it obviously scares the hell out of him.

“It’s okay,” Bruce says quietly. “Whatever it is, you can let it pass. It helps to breathe. This is a safe place.”

“It’snotamalfunction,” James says in a rush, as if Clint and Bruce need convincing. He opens his eyes to look at them though his focus is fixed beyond the room in a way that make it look like he’s staring right through them at unseen captors and vicious men. “I have the mission report. I will give the mission report.”

James’s breath is coming in gasps and he is obviously terrified. Terrified and desperate, which definitely makes Bruce uneasy. James’s body is coiled like a spring and Clint suddenly seems so incredibly fragile sitting close the way he is. Breakable. Easy to kill. The Other Guy is not a fan.

“Stand down, soldier,” Clint barks, since one glance at Bruce tells him Bruce is busy with his own problems. “You’re fully functional. We don’t need a mission report right now. You’re field ready. At ease.”

Clint repeats it in German then in Russian, or at least that’s what Bruce thinks he’s catching from his limited knowledge of the language. That seems to get James’s attention even if Bruce can still see the way James’s pulse is throbbing in his throat.

“Don’t wipe my memories. I don’t-- I don’t--” James stammers.

He sounds so sad, it’s enough to help Bruce regain his own calm. The Other Guy feels the threat lessen and control is easier to wrestle back.

“No one is going to wipe your memories,” Bruce says, getting that Clint is pretty much just pulling random military reassurances out of his ass and is now looking at Bruce to do something more than sit there like a rigid stump. “And we don’t have any expectations. You can remember or you can not remember. You can report or you can choose not to report.”

James lowers his face. He ends up putting both hands on the cushion he’s sitting on and sort of bracing himself there, to keep from wobbling.

“Maybe take a drink of water?” Bruce offers. He’s still trying hard not to give orders, though right now it probably wouldn’t matter. Wherever James’s thoughts are, they aren’t on his own physical comfort.

Bruce looks back down at his stir fry and some of it has started sticking to the pan and it’s a little too brown, but seriously, fuck it. It will be edible and he knows both he and Clint have had far worse. Clint stands and walks into the kitchen slowly and deliberately. James isn’t looking but Clint is telegraphing every movement and making a good bit more noise than necessary.

When he walks over to James, his steps are heavy, and there’s no stealth. Clint is a solid, grounding presence and Bruce really never noticed before that Clint could do that. Be so... there.

Slowly Clint reaches out the glass to James.

“We’re gonna keep you safe,” Clint says. It’s the voice he uses for kids, but somehow it doesn’t sound patronizing. He sounds real. Honest.

James doesn’t respond. He takes the water and drinks down a few shaky sips before leaning over to place the cup on the side table. It takes him two tries to land it on the coaster.

Bruce doesn’t ask if what James experienced was a memory. James will talk about it when he’s ready. Anyway, Bruce needs to worry about his own pulse, and his own hand-eye coordination, and to Google “panic attacks give me panic attacks” to see if that’s a thing. He really hates tacking on his own issues to James’s, but he can’t deny that watching James go through that flashback triggered something he thought he was past.

Bruce is lost in thought when eventually Clint stands to walk over to the counter and pick up the beer he’d abandoned there a few hours earlier. He takes a drink, and despite the warmth, sighs contentedly.

“The first time I met Steve,” Clint starts. “I’d just spent the better part of a day trying to kill him.”

He puts down his beer and looks James in the eye.

“So I’m beat up, and exhausted,” Clint continues, leaning against one of the barstools without actually sitting on it. “I’m sure I looked about as trustworthy as a henchman from some kid cartoon, but I want to help, and I say as much. They needed a pilot, and I can fly. I was all ready to make some kind of case for myself, because let’s get real-- this is Captain America.

So I’m trying to remember the Pledge of Allegiance and wondering where I can get a bald eagle to swear on that I’ll be good. I was gonna offer to put myself in the brig when the battle was over, or flog myself publicly, and leave SHIELD all together. But all I do is make my offer, and Steve just looks to Natasha and she gives him a little nod, and that’s it. That’s all he needs. One nod and I’m on the team.”

Bruce has never heard that story before and he smiles to himself. Mostly at the image of Clint trying to wrestle down a bald eagle.

“I’d have shot you,” James says, finally lifting his eyes to meet Clint’s gaze.

“I get that a lot, actually,” Clint says, waving a hand dismissively. “Happens all the time. Tasha says I have a face that pisses people off.”

“Natasha Romanoff. Codename Black Widow,” James recites. “I shot her.”

“Yeah, you did,” Clint agrees. “Twice, actually. It’s not as big a deal as it sounds. I’ve tried to kill her; Bruce has tried to kill her. We’ve all pretty much tried to kill each other once or twice. It’s practically an initiation into the Avengers at this point.”

“That would be funny if it wasn’t true,” Bruce says, pulled from his intense chicken concentration by Clint’s comments.

From the smirk on Clint’s face, that had been the point. God bless him, he is trying to fix them both at once. Bruce feels guilt tugging at his thoughts. James had found him first. This ought to be his responsibility alone. Except what was it Tony had told him? Avengers are never alone. At the time Bruce had laughed that it sounded more like a threat than a promise, but having Clint here has done Bruce worlds of good. And without Tony they'd still be in the damn barn.

They sink back into silence after that. Bruce plates up dinner and Clint moves a box of StarkBars from the counter to the coffee table so they will be within easy reach of James. They eat in silence, then Bruce and Clint clean up just as quietly. When Bruce turns his attention back to James, the soldier's eyes are half shut and the dark circles under them make it achingly obvious he needs sleep.

"James, if you'd like a bedroom I can sleep out here and Clint can have the other bedroom," Bruce suggests. "Or you can sleep anywhere you want or not sleep at all. It's your choice."

"You can drop the ‘my choice’ shit," James says, without any venom in it. Honestly, Bruce can't help but think he sounds every bit the twenty-something he is. "I get it. You aren't going to make me do anything I don't want. At least not until you do."

Bruce nods. “I hope that never happens,” he says honestly. “It’s not my intention for that to ever happen, but you’ve got a point-- I can’t say it never will. People make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes. Really stupid ones.”

It isn’t the answer James is expecting, that much is clear from his expression. Despite the guarded way he’s watching Bruce, his body relaxes.

“I guess the best I can promise,” Bruce continues, “is that my mistakes probably won’t be intentional. I don’t want to mean you any harm. I want to help.”

"Ditto to all that mushy stuff," Clint adds, nodding his agreement.

James scrutinizes Bruce’s face for a few seconds, then Clint's, and then looks away.

“I’ll take a bedroom.”

Chapter Text

“I guess the best I can promise,” Bruce says, “is that my mistakes probably won’t be intentional. I don’t want to mean you any harm. I want to help.”

James scrutinizes Bruce’s face for a few seconds and then looks away.

“I’ll take a bedroom.”

“You can take the other bedroom,” Clint tells Bruce. “I already set myself up somewhere outside where I can watch the house.”

Bruce doesn’t ask when Clint had the time to do that, or remind him he needs sleep, or that it’s gotten cold out. He knows Clint well enough to know Clint’s got this. And honestly, it’s a relief that the only person in the house that James could go after if he freaks out during the night is going to be Bruce, and Bruce is nearly indestructible.

It takes Bruce a while to get to sleep. He’s so worried James will have nightmares, he can’t stop trying to listen for them. Though eventually Bruce drifts off and when he wakes up it’s dawn. As far as Bruce knows, James slept noiselessly. Unless he didn’t sleep at all. Or he’s gone. Or he’s dead. Or gone and he murdered Clint in the process. Or they killed each other and their bodies are out glistening with dew in the morning sun. Shit.

Bruce sits up with a start. He doesn't go peek in at James no matter how tempting it is. His head is spinning as he walks to the bathroom to splash some water on his face. He’s walking a narrow line letting his heart race like this. He needs to focus on something other than death and disaster and all the things that could have gone wrong overnight. He walks out of his room with an uneasy feeling and the weight in his chest only heavies as he turns on the coffee maker and starts making pancakes alone.

Five minutes later it’s a huge relief when Clint strolls inside, alive and well.

“Where’s Sleeping Beauty?” Clint asks.

“Sleeping, I hope. Still in his room,” Bruce says. “Unless he left.”

“He didn’t leave,” Clint assures him. “Well, okay, he’s stealthy as fuck, so yeah, maybe he left. But not in any way I could tell.”

“Should I knock?” Bruce asks. “Just to make sure he isn’t...”

Bruce makes a sort of death gesture that even he doesn’t understand. Sort of opossum-like, with his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his head tipping to the side. Clint laughs.

“I’m sure he’s fine. What’s that quote about letting sleeping bears lie?” Clint asks.

“Point taken, though I always heard it as sleeping dogs,” Bruce says. “I guess bears makes more sense, now that I think about it. Either way, you’re right.”

“Circus wisdom,” Clint explains. “We had a bear that rode a little tricycle. Mean as shit. I hated that thing.”

The bedroom door opens before Bruce can reply and James steps out in pajama bottoms. He's frowning and he's got a serious case of bedhead. It makes him look a lot less intimidating.

“I’m the bear in this story?” he asks. He doesn’t sound angry... maybe a little offended?

“I can’t picture you on a trike, but yeah--,” Clint says. “I think it’s a pretty solid bet that waking you up before you’re ready would be hazardous to my health.”

“Plus Bucky Bears were a thing,” Bruce adds. His voice is about a hundred times less burdened now that he sees James in the flesh. Especially since James looks like he’s made about a week’s worth of recovery in the 8 hours he slept. “You might have seen them actually, if you were doing research.”

James makes a face at Bucky’s name and Bruce flinches at his own stupidity.

“Shit,” Bruce apologizes quickly. “I’m sorry James. I know you aren’t Bucky and I didn’t mean to imply that you are. See? This is the mistakes thing I was talking about. It’s going to be constant. I try but I can never seem to--”

“I’m not gonna cry cause you say his name,” James cuts him off in a drawl, before limping over to the couch and plopping himself down. “I’m not a baby.”

“I don’t think you are. It’s just important to me to identify you in the way you want to be identified. I still-- I don’t really say the Other Guy’s name when I don’t have to. My friends all say it and it’s not like I can blame them; they’ve got to call him something. I just don’t like to own it.”

James actually manages a look that could pass for sympathetic before reaching for the box of Stark Bars. Bruce can see there are far fewer there now than there were when they went to bed. James must have gotten up at some point to snack.

“I’m glad you like the Stark Bars,” Bruce says, glad for a reason to change the subject. “I can’t say for sure, but you look like you’ve healed up more than a typical person would expect. You might have stayed injured as long as you did because your body didn’t have anything in it to use for repairs.”

“You think?” James asks, lifting an eyebrow.

It’s so perfectly sarcastic, the last of Bruce’s morning stress dissolves.

“I like you, James,” Clint says, giving him a nod. “Too many people are afraid to sass Bruce.”

“Really?” Bruce asks Clint with a smile. “Because the last time I checked it feels like there are plenty of you. Tony’s got to count for 10, minimum.”

“We could always use more,” Clint says.

He nabs a pancake off the plate where Bruce is loading them up and rolls it into a cigar shape before shoving half of it in his mouth.

“S’good,” Clint says, before swallowing it then placing the other half on a napkin before pouring out two mugs of coffee. “Forgot-- there’s a package outside on the porch for you. Didn’t pick it up cause it’s in some weird case that’s gonna need your fingerprints to open. A drone dropped it off about an hour before it got light. I wasn’t too worried since it was obviously Stark.”

“It’s probably the scanner. Flip this one when the bubbles start to set,” Bruce says, handing Clint the spatula and nodding toward the pancake.

Bruce sees James tense from the corner of his eye and adds “We’re not going to use the scanner until you’re ready, James. And before that happens we’ll do a scan on me first so you can see how it works. If you don’t like the looks of it we’ll figure something else out.”

He knows James seemed gripey the night before about getting too many choices but Bruce has no decent option except to continue on as he’s done so far. He won’t force this.

Bruce gives James time to consider his words as he walks out to the porch. The box the drone left behind is small. Whatever it contains can’t be any bigger than a laptop. He opens it by laying his hand against a blue lit square, a security measure Tony occasionally uses in the lab. Mostly for sandwiches or pie... the sort of things Clint might jokingly pick up and lick when he drops by.

The blue square turns green and a panel slides away allowing Bruce to reach inside. Everything is all wrapped up in high-tech bubble wrap and Bruce leaves it that way as he carries it into the chalet and places it on the table. He returns to the pancakes and the pancake stack that has grown significantly smaller. Bruce pours out some batter then looks up to see James staring at the still-wrapped scanner like it’s a bomb. Maybe something worse than a bomb, since Bruce has gotten the distinct impression that James wouldn’t be all that disconcerted by an actual weapon.

“Clint, do you mind unwrapping the scanner while I finish?” Bruce asks. “James, you can feel free to check it out or smash it with a hammer if you want it gone. Seriously. I won’t be mad.”

“Don’t exactly need a hammer,” James says, stretching out his metal arm. “Won’t Stark be upset?”

It's Clint who answers.

“The only thing Tony likes more than making things is seeing what they look like once they’ve gotten the hell beat out of them,” Clint assures him. “I swear he’s like a kid in a candy store every time I bring him back a jacked-up arrow.”

Bruce nods, even if he’s not entirely sure Clint’s assessment is accurate. It’s valid to Clint, and James seems to feel comforted, so Bruce isn’t going to provide further clarification.

James moves warily toward the table as Clint starts unwrapping. Whatever kind of scanner it is, it comes with instructions and James picks them up and then takes a few steps back to read them. He also keeps one eye on Clint and the process of unwrapping.

Bruce turns off the stove and carries the plate of pancakes over to join them. He could use a plate, but honestly, Clint’s method seemed kind of genius, so he picks one up and rolls it like a rug. Eating the pancake by hand makes it easier to inspect the new technology.

There’s a small, silver square about the size of a cell phone sitting out and next to it is a baton, about 12 inches long.

“The little one’s the scanner and the long thing is gonna put up a hologram,” James explains.

It’s a good sign James is owning some of this. Bruce nods and wipes his hand on his pajama pants before he picks up the baton. He knows that scrubbing up before touching the equipment will only make the tech seem that much more official.

“If you and James understand this stuff, maybe you should practice scanning on me first,” Clint offers. “It doesn’t look too likely to bake me or blow me up.”

Bruce puts down the baton and James stares at it like he’s trying to see through it. Or set it on fire with his thoughts. It’s hard to tell.

“Actually, before we get to that, maybe we should start small,” Bruce suggests. “There’s a ham in the fridge.”

“That’s some real science right there,” Clint agrees. “I am always up for a game of “What Shit Can We Scan?”

“You do this often?” James asks.

“You hang out with the geek bros long enough you get to do all the fun stuff,” Clint agrees. “Plus, they’re great to have around when shit breaks. Tony can hook up a DVR like a boss.”

“I’ll tell him you said that,” Bruce says. Because he knows Tony will love it.

And that’s how a two hour game of “What Shit Can We Scan?” starts.

It turns out, the answer to that question is pretty much everything.

James is hesitant to handle the equipment at first, but about the time they move out to the porch to enjoy the cool air of the late morning, he starts to get into it. It’s his idea for Clint to go find some cow shit, and when Clint comes back with a bucket of the stuff ten minutes later, it’s the first real laugh Bruce has heard from James.

They scan ants, and beer bottles, and a spider web. James finds an old watering can with a family of mice living in it around the back side of the chalet and when several mice end up running up the spout and making a jump for it, Bruce shrieks loudly enough to inspire a few rounds of impressions from Clint.

The scanner is genius. The small scanning brick is sleek and white and could pass for a phone except there’s no screen. The longer baton lays on any surface and slits open to project a surprisingly clear holograph above it. The holograph can be swatted through to move pictures forward and backward. It also sends all the information to Bruce’s phone so he can look at the images later or send them to Jarvis for a second opinion.

Bruce grows hungry around noon, right after they’ve done a full body scan of Clint, and suggests they take a break for lunch. James hesitates to agree. He doesn’t outright say no, of course. He just looks unhappy and frustrated and opens and closes his mouth a few times wordlessly.

Bruce picks up on his reluctance and picks the scanner back up from where he’d laid it on the porch.

“Or we could scan you now,” Bruce says. “If that’s what you’d prefer?”

“You should do it now,” James agrees.

Bruce notes the signs of alarm James is giving off. His eyes are slightly wide and his muscles are tense. Either because Bruce has seen this a few times now, or because James seems a little less murderous, the Other Guy doesn’t stir.

Clint wisely gives them space, as Bruce waits for James to settle carefully onto the porch. It had been Clint who’d first declared that getting scanned in a chair was too much like being in Medical for him, and he would rather be on the ground. James doesn’t say as much but copies Clint and sits with his legs out in front of him, resting back on his hands.

He’s staring straight forward, as if anticipating orders to hold still. He looks up in surprise when Bruce holds out the brick.

“Unless you would rather I do it, I think you could do all the scanning of your legs yourself,” Bruce suggests. “Or you can try the whole scan on your own and I can check the picture and if there’s something we can’t see clearly we’ll figure it out.”

“You sure you’re a doctor?” James asks, as he takes the brick.

His skepticism makes Bruce laugh. “I’m sure my degree in Nuclear Physics is valid. I’m not nearly as sure I’m qualified to be looking at scans and assessing your health. Thankfully, Tony has an AI that can help me, with your permission. Tony also suggested we get a scan of your arm so we can tell if there’s anything concerning in there. Things like a tracker, or a self-destruct button they could detonate remotely if they ever figure out you’re alive. But that is entirely up to you.”

James seems to weigh all that in his mind then looks to Clint.

“Would you scan the arm if it was yours?”

Clint doesn’t have to think about it. “Yeah, I would. I never trusted doctors much growing up. There was always a chance they’d report me and Barney and we’d get separated. And I never trusted SHIELD Medical because I guess I always figured their responsibility was to SHIELD not to me. But I’d trust Bruce.”

“Not Stark?” James asks.

Bruce can't help but admire that James picked up Clint's casually careful wording. With every interaction it is more and more obvious that James is genius level smart. He'd have to be, really, to do the things he's done.

Clint takes a second before he answers. “I trust that Tony will do what he says. If he tells Bruce it’s just between them and you, that’s how it will be. I guess I just wouldn’t be as sure he won’t see you as a science experiment. Sorry, Bruce-- I know he’s your best friend and all, but that’s what I think and if it was me asking, I’d want the truth.”

Which must have been about the last thing James wanted to hear since he dropped the scanning brick down on the porch like it had burned him.

“You don’t need to apologize,” Bruce says easily. “James wouldn’t have asked for your opinion if he didn’t want your honest perspective and I am being absolutely truthful when I say I want your honest perspective, too.”

“Do you agree with him?” James asks. “Stark’s gonna want to experiment on me?”

“I think Tony’s going to have ideas for improvements,” Bruce says. “I think he’ll have sketches and probably a dozen working models within a week, and at least one of them is going to be moderately offensive in that it will be painted to match Steve’s shield or be decorated with little Bucky Bears. But he won’t force the issue. He may create things outside your direct permission, but he would never experiment on you without your expressed, non-coerced consent. I know he won’t because-- and I’m not bragging here-- I am way more scientifically interesting than you. And while Tony might ask a nosey question here or there, he’s never once treated me as anything less than a person. Not ever.”

“Plus there’s always the threat of the ass-kicking Cap would dole out if he thought anyone was messing with you. That shield isn’t just for decoration,” Clint adds. “Though I guess you’d know that as well as anyone.”

James considers their words and then looks down at the scanner. Whatever he’s weighing in his mind, it must end up in favor of trust, because he picks it up and leans down slightly to begin the scan of his knee.

Chapter Text

“Plus there’s always the threat of the ass-kicking Cap would dole out if he thought anyone was messing with you. That shield isn’t just for decoration,” Clint adds. “Though I guess you’d know that as well as anyone.”

James nods and then looks down at the scanner. Whatever he’s weighing in his mind, it must end up in favor of trust, because he picks it up and leans down slightly to begin the scan of his knee.

Bruce takes a few steps back to give James plenty of space. The floating picture above the baton begins to fill in, and when James hovers the brick over his knee, Bruce gets his first look at the damage. It isn’t as bad as he’d worried it might be, though that seems more a matter of overnight healing than lack of damage. Bruce has seen enough of Steve’s second-hand charts to know exactly what he’s looking at.

“I think in another day or two your knee won’t be giving you any trouble,” Bruce says. “You’ll probably want to consider giving it about a week before you jump off any rooftops, but walking around should be fine. I still want Jarvis to double-check me if that’s okay?” Bruce asks.

“The computer can look,” James says, flexing his knee a few times experimentally. He frowns. “It still... there’s a malfunction in the knee... it’s not right...”

James trails off and lets out an exasperated huff of air that Bruce has grown to realize is his ‘I’m having trouble making words work for me’ signal.

“Your knee doesn’t feel like it’s healing?” Bruce asks.

“How the hell would I know?” James complains.

Bruce is struck by the depth of James’s frustration with his own body. Either James was put on ice and left to heal when he couldn’t remember what healing felt like, or he’s just been forced to continue missions in pain and eventually the healing factor kicked in while his focus was elsewhere. Either way, it’s yet another example of the shitty treatment James has endured for most of his life.

“Sometimes healing hurts,” Bruce says, trying to give James some starting points for understanding what he’s processing. “Sometimes healing can hurt even more than the initial injury. And that’s just taking into consideration someone healing in a way that’s typical. I don’t know what your healing is supposed to feel like. Steve’s never been all that specific about his recovery.”

Bruce regrets not having asked Steve more about it now. Not that he’s ever been Steve’s physician. SHIELD and then hospital doctors have had that responsibility. Bruce isn’t even a medical doctor despite his knowledge of biology. There is absolutely no reason Bruce should have followed up with Steve, and there’s no reason to feel guilty for lacking answers now. It doesn’t matter. Logic is guilt’s bitch.

“For me, I don’t think much about the pain, but being stiff feels weird,” Clint tosses in. “My body’s pretty much the only company I have when I’m on a mission so I know exactly what every muscle’s supposed to do and if they don’t do it just right, I don’t like it. Not because I can’t push through the pain but because-- it’s just not right. It’s off.”

James listens and gets that look in his eyes that he gets when he’s trying to reconcile what he’s being told with his own experience. Bruce stays quiet letting James work through this. James stretches out his knee again a few more times, and stares at it so hard, it’s almost like he’s trying to pin it down to the floor.

“It’s still malfunctioning,” James says finally, leaning back on his hands and staring up at the porch ceiling. He sounds defeated.

“There’s definitely going to be more healing,” Bruce says. “So this isn’t your stopping point. Another day could make a big difference here, but if you feel like something’s wrong in this healing process I want to take that seriously. I have two suggestions, and whether or not we try them is entirely up to you. If you would rather just have lunch and move on, I’m good with that.”

James shrugs. Bruce doesn’t take it as indifference. He gets that right now James is in totally over his head, so without waiting for a reply Bruce continues.

“The first suggestion is that we set something up behind you to get you a little more... grounded. And then you just sit with your hand resting on your knee for a few minutes. You have a lot of practicing identifying areas of malfunction; I’m not as sure that you have practice noticing the...” Bruce lets out a sigh of his own, because again-- this is where Tony starts tossing words in. “Noticing the nuances of pain,” Bruce continues. “And your right hand on your knee may give your brain a place to focus. Maybe. Or I might be talking out my ass, because this suddenly feels a lot like talking out my ass.”

Bruce ducks his head in apology, and James looks entirely unimpressed with his idea. Clint is giddy, though.

“I knew doctors did that,” Clint says with a huge smile, as he slaps his hand on his knee. “The talking out the ass thing,” he clarifies. “I just never thought I’d hear one admit it. I might be man-crushing on you a little right now, I’m not even kidding.”

Bruce laughs. Clint is scary good at knowing exactly the right thing to say to ease Bruce’s quickly multiplying self-doubt spirals.

“Yeah, fine, I’ll try it,” James concedes. “At least we all know it sounds stupid.”

Clint hops up to flip a porch table onto its side then brace its legs against the wall so James only has to scoot back a foot to have something to lean on. The entire time Clint is setting things up James is giving Bruce a look like he’s doing him a favor by humoring the hand on the knee plan.

Bruce doesn’t mind since he considers the side eye from James progress. If James is engaging at all, Bruce is going to take it as a good sign.

“What’s the other suggestion?” Clint asks, once James has settled into position. “Cause I gotta tell you, I’m really hoping it’s batshit crazy and ends with James wearing yoga pants and bunny ears and hopping on one leg.”

Which gets Clint a dirty look of his own from James.

“I’ve killed a lot of people,” James reminds him. “And just because my guns are inside doesn’t mean I couldn’t end you with a potted plant.”

“Oh god, please don’t. Nat will sit at my grave and never let me hear the end of it.”

James shifts his metal hand a few inches toward the plant, his eyes hinting at mischief.

“The second suggestion,” Bruce says, rolling his eyes at their silly antics, “is to call Steve. Ask him what his pain feels like. Then maybe you’ll have a better approximation of what you can expect. It’s up to you though. I won’t call or text him without your permission.”

James doesn’t answer right away. He weighs it like he weighs everything. Like a person just learning to make decisions for himself is going to have to weigh every last option.

“Call him. I want to hear but I don’t wanna talk,” James says.

“Understood,” Bruce agrees.

He calculates the time difference in his head and figures Steve is probably awake, fed, exercised and showered by now. He taps Steve’s name on his contact list, turns on the speaker function and Steve answers the phone before Bruce can make the words in his head turn into hello.

"Bruce?" Steve asks, both relief and panic edging into his voice. "Is everything okay?"

“...Yeah, everything’s... hello,” Bruce agrees, fumbling because he’d been mentally rehearsing his hello and then Steve started with a question and Bruce really, really hates the disconnect between his brain and his mouth. “Everyone’s okay here. We’re just okay out on the porch. Being okay...”

This is why he and Tony text.

"We're all good, Cap," Clint supplies helpfully. "You know, just in case you didn't get that from all the times Bruce said it.”

"Yeah, believe it or not, I put that together," Steve snorts. There's a fondness in his tone that betrays a sense of relief. Maybe he believed Bruce initially, but he sounds reassured to have it confirmed by Clint.

“For the record, this is why I avoid press conferences,” Bruce says. “Words are not my friends.”

"And here I thought it was because of the forks Tony sneaks in to poke you," Steve comments. "Is there a reason why you called? Did something happen?" He stops short for a moment, the tension crackling over a silent line. "Did something happen with..." He trails off. Bruce can hear how desperately hard Steve is trying not to push.

“I’m calling because I’m hoping you can shed a little light on what it’s like for you to heal after a significant injury,” Bruce says. “Is that something you’re comfortable discussing?”

Bruce doesn’t always phrase things so carefully but it feels important to show James that they aren’t just giving him constant choices to lure him into a sense of safety. Choices are what decent people give each other every time they interact.

"Injury?" Steve asks, a sharp intake of breath on the line. "Yes! Yes, of course. What kind of injury?"

“Something along the lines of a badly broken bone,” Bruce says.

“Well-- it’d be uncomfortable,” Steve says a little hesitantly. Bruce knows it’s because Steve never wants to be the one complaining. “Healing wears me out so I need more rest. I need more food, too. That’s about it.”

“That’s helpful,” Bruce says, even if he was hoping for a little more. It at least confirms why James’s body had been taking its time to heal. He’d been doing it with seriously restricted resources. “When you say that it’s uncomfortable, could you talk more about that? Actually, can I put you on hold for a second?”

“What? Yes. Absolutely,” Steve says with a stoic sort of enthusiasm, that sends a pang of guilt through Bruce. Steve is trying so hard to accommodate them, despite how hard it must be to know that James is practically within reach yet still so far away.

Bruce mutes the phone and holds it up so James can see that Steve can’t hear.

“I’d like to explain to Steve why we’re looking for the information. Only if it’s okay with you though. If you don’t want him to know more about you than he knows now that’s absolutely fine.”

James doesn’t seem to hear Bruce at first. He’s looking off past the phone, toward the trees. His forehead is creased in concentration. Seconds tick by. Bruce is about to speak again when James cuts him off.

“Take it off mute,” James says.

Bruce takes the phone off mute immediately. He’s not going to question James on any decision he manages to make on his own. Even if he’d said he didn’t want to speak, and now apparently he’s changed his mind.

“I don’t wanna hear how Captain America’s uncomfortable when he’s hurt,” James says, sounding annoyed. “I want to know what Steve Rogers has to say.”

There’s an accusation there that Bruce doesn’t miss. It sounds a lot like James doesn’t think Captain America is any more real than Bucky Barnes.

“Steve Rogers would say the same thing,” Steve says, after a pause. “You-- I mean Bucky-- always hated that. That I wouldn’t just admit it when things hurt. He’d watch me gasp for air all night, and then hear me tell my mom I was fine when she got home the next morning.”

Steve draws in a shaky breath, clearly taken by the memory.

"Some days I think he was ready to kill me himself. He'd usually just tell my Mom, though, which felt like a fate worse than death. He always said he knew I was looking for the quickest way to martyrdom and someone had to stop me.” Steve’s voice falters on the last word.

“Yeah, well, me and Bucky Barnes have a few things in common, then,” James says. “Thinking you’ve got no sense is one of them.”

“If anyone would call me out on my shit, it was Bucky,” Steve agrees, with a deep settling breath. “That’s why I could always trust him. So please, trust me now. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“I malfunctioned,” James says. “At the knee. Now it’s healing stupid and Bruce thinks you might know why.”

There’s a beat of a few seconds.

“Okay,” Steve starts. He takes a slow breath, like he’s got to sort out his own words since it’s been awhile since he’s used them on things like pain and discomfort. “After I’ve been hurt, the pain is like a ghost.”

Steve’s voice is low and vulnerable in a way Bruce has never heard him. It’s intimate. Bruce had always felt so alone in his inability to fully connect with the others but listening to Steve makes him realize Steve wasn’t connecting either. The Steve speaking to James is a world apart from the man Bruce knows.

“It’s sharp at first,” Steve continues. “Intense. And then I start to heal, and that pain fades, but there’s still something painful there. I guess my brain expects me to hurt so I hurt. Pain is relative, so it's hard to explain it. It's - I know it's there, but I just can't feel it. Like an itch I can’t scratch. I can feel the skin knitting. I can feel it healing,” Steve adds. “I just have to keep telling myself the pain’s not real and it’ll calm down after a few days. I mostly try not to think about it and by the time I do, it's usually manageable.”

The porch is quiet for almost a full minute as James stares at his leg, processing.

“It’s like he said,” James says, nodding toward his knee, directing his comment to Bruce.

If James cares to hear any more it isn’t obvious since he pushes himself away from the table and stands up, deliberately not looking at the phone. He walks inside, limping slightly, but without the hesitance in his step.

“He walked away, Steve,” Bruce says.

“More than once,” Steve says. “At least this time it’s his choice.”

There’s another pause as Bruce and Clint glance at each other. Hearing Steve this wrung out is killer.

“We’ll look after each other,” Bruce promises. He really doesn’t know what else to say. He is hopeless when it comes to consolation. Double hopeless when it’s consoling someone who never lets the cracks show.

“One more thing,” Clint interjects. “Tell Tony we’re gonna need new digs tomorrow, will you?”

“Of course,” Steve says. He sounds broken, but Bruce has no doubt the messages will get through.

The line goes dead. Bruce takes a second to compose himself. That entire conversation hurt in a way that he hadn’t expected. He tries not to let it show though. James is his concern now. He can deal with his own weird intimacy issues later. For now it’s Elsa time: Conceal. Don’t feel.

He’d secretly liked Frozen better than The Sound of Music anyway.

“You okay, doc?” Clint asks. He’s looking at Bruce like he’s checking for shades of green.

“I’m fine,” Bruce says. He is. He’s not smashing anything so he’s got to be fine, right? “Really. And good call on a new place. I’m getting antsy here, I think.”

“Figured it couldn’t hurt,” Clint says. “Take a minute if you need it. I can start lunch.”

Bruce nods and starts putting the porch back together after Clint walks inside. He rights the table, and sits the scanner and the holo-baton thing on top of it. He moves the watering can back to the side of the house, and empties the cow shit onto the patchy garden growing halfway down the lane. The sun is warm and Bruce sweats through the back of his shirt. He takes his time getting back. It isn’t because he doesn’t want to deal with James; it’s just emotions are taxing. Bruce is taxed.

When he steps inside, Clint has a sandwich and a cold beer waiting for him at the table. Bruce can hear the shower running.

“James had some more of your food bars,” Clint says. He’s sitting at the table with his own sandwich. They eat in companionable quiet until James walks out ten minutes later, wearing nothing but the same pajamas bottoms he’d had on before.

“What is it about shirts that you don’t like?” Clint asks. “That’s not criticism or anything,” he adds quickly, putting up both his hands in the universal sign for I’m not trying to be a dick here. “Just I’ve seen you on video and you were wearing a shirt and since you got here you haven’t put one on.”

“The shirts Hydra dressed me in were different,” James says. “They...” James trails off and looks up at the ceiling.

Bruce isn’t sure if James is having a flashback or just searching for the right words. When James speaks again he’s looking at Clint and it’s in Russian. There’s an edge to his tone that fades as Clint nods and responds and easily accepts whatever James is saying. Clint answers back again, and the conversation goes on for a few more sentences.

“S’it okay if I translate that?” Clint asks.

James nods before taking a seat.

“Hydra made him special clothes while they controlled him. His metal arm is bigger around than his skin arm, so all these shirts either feel restrictive to the metal arm if he wants a shirt to fit his skin arm, or they feel annoyingly loose on his skin arm if they fit the metal arm.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Bruce says, and honestly, the conversation solves another word problem Bruce has been struggling with. “So skin arm and metal arm is how you’d like us to talk about your arms?” he directs toward James. “I haven’t been sure how to differentiate them in conversation without being rude.”

“One’s got skin and one’s got metal. That seem complicated to you?” James asks. His eyes flicker up to Bruce’s face.

He looks more at ease now than Bruce has seen him. It’s tempting to hypothesize that hearing Steve’s voice helped reduce James’s tension but it could have been other things. Having his unusual knee pain validated, for one. Being given hope that the knee pain will go away is another. Or just food and a shower. It could be anything really.

What Bruce does know is that seeing James more relaxed is relaxing him.

“I overthink my words,” Bruce explains. “I want to be careful because people can be self-conscious when there’s something about them that isn’t typical. Not many people have metal arms.”

“But the ones who do are pretty bad ass,” Clint adds.

Maybe it isn’t significant, but there’s something about the way James is staring at his hands after they speak that feels promising. Like maybe for the first time in a long time he’s realizing that they belong to him. James runs his skin fingers over his metal ones.

“What if I don’t want Stark to make me a new arm?” James asks.

Bruce pauses. It’s hard to be honest when he knows what he’s about to say isn’t what James wants to hear.

“He’ll probably mock up some arms regardless, because like Clint mentioned, Tony can get a little single-minded about turning ideas into something physical. He won’t force an arm on you, though. What happens to your body is your choice. Tony understands that.”

James looks skeptical but doesn’t respond right then. He waits until Bruce and Clint are both done with their lunches to speak again.

“If I don’t scan my arm he won’t have anything to work with,” James says. Like so many things he says, it isn’t exactly a statement so much as a quiet question. He’s testing the waters.

“I can’t say for sure,” Bruce says. “If you don’t want scans of your arm though, that’s fine. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. At least I hope I won’t. I won’t deliberately do it anyway.”

“Deliberately?” James repeats.

“It’s weirdly hard not to give accidental orders,” Bruce explains. “Clint and I do it to each other all the time-- there’s-- there’s a freedom to say no in friendship that we take for granted. For example I might tell Clint, “Hey, grab me a beer.” It’s not an order, it’s a request, but I don’t always phrase it like a polite request to Clint because I know with absolute certainty that if Clint doesn’t want to get me the beer, he’ll tell me to fuck off.”

“Damn straight,” Clint says with a pleased smile. “I like to tell Bruce to fuck off at least once a week. Keeps him on his toes.”

Clint has never actually told Bruce to fuck off, which is why Bruce laughs.

“Right,” Bruce says. “So I don’t worry about accidentally telling Clint to do something. It’d be different with you right now. I’m trying extremely hard to phrase anything I ask you as a question with an out so you don’t interpret it as an order. But I might forget. It’s not-- It’s not the way I usually talk to my friends so it could slip out. Just know, if I ever tell you to do something and you don’t want to do it, I give you absolute permission to tell me to fuck off, okay? Like Clint says, it keeps me on my toes.”

For nearly a minute James stares at his hands, moving his fingers one by one.

“You’re saying you’re treating me like a friend,” James says. There is so much skepticism in his voice it almost sounds accusatory.

“That’s the jist of it, yeah. I guess that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. Poorly.”

James looks up from his hands and lets out a breath, like he’s exhaling his confusion. “Huh.”

Chapter Text

“You’re saying you’re treating me like a friend,” James says. There is so much skepticism in his voice it almost sounds accusatory.

“That’s the jist of it, yeah. I guess that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. Poorly.”

James looks up from his hands and lets out a breath, like he’s exhaling his confusion. “Huh.”

 

The rest of the afternoon and evening pass peacefully enough. James had heard the rest of the call with Steve so he knows Clint asked for a new place to stay. As far as Bruce can tell, James approves.

When it gets close to ten, Clint begins to pack up his bag.

“Don’t have too much fun without me,” Clint teases. “I’m gonna be really pissed if I get back in the morning and you’ve stayed up all night having bro talk and braiding each other’s hair.”

“You read it right out of my mind,” Bruce dead pans. “The only thing you got wrong was the timeline. I am an expert with braids. I’d have us both done in under twenty minutes.”

“Wait till we get to New York,” Clint says. “Cause now I’ve got something to put money on with Stark. Who’s the better braider, you or Nat?”

“The safe money is on Natasha,” Bruce says. “I might have been overstating my skills.”

“Or you might not have been overstating your skills and you want to rig it so Tony wins,” Clint points out. “I’m on to you, Banner. What to do you think, James? Is he bluffing?”

James doesn’t respond. He’s distracted by his reflection in the window and running his skin-covered fingers carefully over his hair. He looks troubled.

“I won’t really braid your hair,” Bruce assures him. “We’re just joking around. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“I don’t know when it got so long. I didn’t-- I don’t--” James lets out his usual angry huff of frustration when expressing himself takes effort. “--remember.”

“It doesn’t have to stay long,” Clint says. “Unlike Bruce, I’m not inflating my skills when I say I am one hell of a hair professional. I learned from the best.”

“SHIELD offers classes in that?” Bruce asks.

“Occasionally,” Clint says. “But no. I learned way before SHIELD. Hair and makeup is probably the most marketable circus skill on my resume, after The World’s Greatest Marksman.”

“Every day I learn something new,” Bruce says. The admiration in his voice isn’t a bit false. “I cut my own hair since I’m always a little worried about the Other Guy and strangers with scissors.”

“That explains so much,” Clint says, grinning. “So what do you say? The night’s still young. Want to play barbershop?”

Bruce makes a face, still not entirely sure the archer isn’t plotting to give him a mohawk just so Clint can go around saying mo-hulk for a month. But James nods.

“I want it cut. I want--” It’s painful to listen to James drown in the effort of words. “It’s always in my face.”

Clint nods, and drops to his knees to dig through his bag. He pulls out a small, beat up laptop, and hands it over to James.

“Tony put some kind of off-the-grid internet on here, so it’ll work. Google some haircuts and pick something you like. Just don’t look at my search history if you don’t want to see porn and pick something out for Bruce while you’re at it. A hairstyle, I mean. Pick out hair, not porn.”

“Nope, I like my porn on paper and my hair where it is, thanks,” Bruce says, saving Clint from more rambled explanations. “And James, feel free to tell Clint to fuck off, if at any point you feel uncomfortable. Even if he’s already got the scissors in his hand. You are always free to change your mind, and you aren’t obligated to let him do anything you don’t want, even if you've already given him permission.”

James appears to ignore them both as he opens up the laptop and starts typing. There are no technology issues for him there. For the next five minutes, Bruce and Clint search the chalet for proper scissors while James clicks through gallery after gallery of hairstyles. It’s hard not to notice that James keeps switching between tabs: some that are sets of pictures of random men and some are most definitely pictures of Bucky Barnes.

Once they find the shears, Clint plops down on the couch next to James, not touching, but probably closer than Bruce would sit if it was him.

“So what’d you decide? Like Bruce said, it’s not going to hurt my feelings if you change your mind. Your body-- your hair-- your choice.”

“I want it cut,” James says.

He points at a picture on the screen that is not Bucky Barnes. There’s no hesitance there, so Clint slaps both his hands on his knees and pushes himself back to standing.

“Let’s move out to the porch then. The hair can fly where it wants and we won’t have to sweep it up.”

James puts the laptop on the cushion next to him and follows Clint outside. Bruce joins them and watches as Clint moves the table out a little further from the wall and gives James room to sit.

“You want me to turn the porch light on?” Bruce asks.

“Nah-- I can’t stand being lit up when it’s dark out here,” Clint says. “Makes me feel like a target. I can see fine with the light from the window, anyway.”

Bruce nods and shifts toward the edge of the porch so he isn’t casting any shadows onto Clint’s work space.

It is hard not to ask James to confirm one last time this is what he wants. It’s hard, but Bruce resists because he will not infantilize James, and third-guessing him after he seemed so sure is something adults do to children. It's not the way to treat an adult. It's not the way Bruce would ever want to be treated.

So instead Bruce watches James carefully and really, everything seems to be okay. James is responding to questions, and he’s looking up at Clint when Clint speaks to him. James is fidgeting a little but Bruce can’t say that’s ever been a bad sign. He does it himself, when he’s feeling uncomfortable and needs to remember which skin he’s in.

Everything goes smoothly right up until the moment Clint lifts the scissors to within a few inches of James’s head and then James is on his feet. The table slams backwards into the wall hard enough for the wood to split and splinter in a dozen directions. It’s probably a miracle James doesn’t take off running and never come back. Instead he stops at the edge of the porch, and Bruce realizes somehow James now has the scissors in his hand and he’s holding them in a way that makes them an obvious weapon.

Clint has automatically put up his hands in surrender, looking calm as fuck, like he and Thor are in the middle of a Nerf gun war in the tower. Like this is exactly what he’d hoped to be doing on a Thursday night. Which is good since Bruce is digging his fingers into his palm and concentrating on all the very valid reasons he doesn’t need to go green to protect Clint. Clint’s got this, even if the Other Guy is pointing out how Clint is small, and squishy and made of meat.

“Hey James?” Clint asks. “Maybe don’t kill me with those? I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m just gonna keep my hands up and sit down real slow, if that’s okay with you.”

James’s expression is still dangerous. Predatory, even, but Bruce knows why Clint isn’t making a run for it. That’d be worse. Thankfully once Clint’s down on the porch, hands still on his head, James lowers the scissors slightly.

“So a haircut is out, I think,” Bruce says. “James, if you want your hair out of your face we can always get you a hair tie, or a hat. A drone would have us whatever we want here by morning. Everything’s going to be fine. No one’s going to hurt you.”

James takes a step back, still wary, and lowers his hand the rest of the way. He sways a little on his feet, like balance is a problem. Bruce can see James's pulse in his throat and his eyes lose their sharp focus.

“We aren’t angry,” Bruce continues. “You’re defending yourself, and you’ve got every right to do that, even if Clint didn’t mean to seem threatening. You can keep the scissors. It’s important you have what you need to feel safe.”

James’s eyes dart between the two men and he takes a step back to lean against the wood of the porch support beam. Now that the initial panic is gone Bruce empathizes with the struggle to regain control. Especially because James is breathing erratically and Bruce has struggled with that same thing, many times.

“We won’t stop you if you have to go,” Bruce says. “But personally, I’d like it if you stayed. There’s no punishment for this. If you stay, everything’s the same. I absolutely understand why scissors can be a trigger. They are for me, too. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Clint speaks in Russian, and while Bruce can’t understand it, it’s calm and Clint slowly takes his hands down off his head and puts them on his knees, without James freaking out. Then he lifts them as he counts (Bruce can recognize that much Russian) and after Clint gets to four he begins to lower them again. It’s a visual cue that seems to work since after the second time he does it, James does seem to focus in on Clint’s hands and his words and he’s able to control his breathing while he takes in air for four, then lets it out for the same.

Clint continues until James’s body slumps more heavily against the post. When that happens, Clint slowly stands.

“I’m going to go inside,” Clint says, in a tone that’s easy and peaceful and firm.

“Me, too,” Bruce agrees. “James, I hope you’ll choose to stay, but if you need to go, we won’t stop you and we won’t track you. You can track me, though. You are always welcome to find me, wherever I am.”

James doesn’t verbally acknowledge the offer. Instead he meets Bruce’s eyes, looks terribly unimpressed by Bruce’s efforts at comfort, and pushes away from the wooden beam to trudge into the house. He goes straight to his room and slams the door behind him. Clint and Bruce follow him inside and Bruce flops onto the couch and pulls a pillow over his face to just hold it there.

He can’t even fathom the depths of how much he may or may not be fucking this up. Is it good James stayed? Sure. Probably. Could it be a sign James has gone from one set of assholes telling him what to do, to a more well-intentioned set of assholes? There really isn’t a better description of Team Barton-Banner than that.

It scares Bruce that James didn’t run. It scares him because if he’s somehow put a psychological leash on the guy, it’s going to be a nightmare getting James the help he needs. And that doesn’t even start on the heaps of guilt Bruce will feel. Is already feeling.

Fuck.

He doesn’t scream into the pillow, as tempting as it might be. He’s too frustrated with himself to allow anything that might feel like a reward. He’d made the wrong choice. He should have pushed about the trigger. Clint could have died because of Bruce’s inadequacies. How would he even explain that? ‘I’m sorry Natasha, your best friend is dead because I was worried about hurting the assassin's feelings. My bad.’

Yes, maybe he's trivializing his own efforts-- His own efforts are stupid so they deserve to be trivialized.

When he finally removes the pillow, it's because his lungs are burning from lack of air, and Clint is still there, watching him, with a look Bruce doesn’t entirely understand. Fondness, maybe? It’s confusing.

“You feel better now?” Clint asks.

“No. Not really,” Bruce says. “I don’t know what I’m doing," he adds, since he really feels like everyone needs to understand that. "A real therapist would have seen the size of the trigger coming toward James, and stepped in. Redirected. Something.”

“You mean, a real therapist would have pulled a guess about what would happen out of mid-air, told him to stay away from scissors and left him with about as much dignity as a kindergartner who can’t wipe their own ass. That’s not going to fix him.”

“I’m not trying to fix him,” Bruce sighs. “I’m just trying not to make him any worse. And in the moments when it counts-- when he’s out of it and dangerous-- I’m a fucking mute because I’ve got bigger problems to deal with than saying the right thing. Why does anyone come within a mile of me?”

“God, I wish Tony was here. He loves it when you break out the F-bombs.”

“I’m glad you think this is funny,” Bruce says, shaky with exasperation and the last tinges of fear. “You could have been killed.”

“I don’t think it’s funny,” Clint says. “I just think you’re a first-timer at this, and it’s not my first rodeo. Natasha was a nightmare when I brought her in. She was in full on survival mode, she didn’t trust me any further than she could drop-kick me, and she nearly killed me a dozen times the first week. I got through that; we’ll get through this. When you do the right thing, most of the time it works out.”

The look on Clint’s face is so absolutely sincere, Bruce’s irritation can't hang on. The worst of it fades, and that's enough of a break that he can think more clearly again and get some perspective. Clint’s a good friend. Clint’s trying to help. Bruce is thanking him for that by being an ass. He sits up a little straighter and fluffs the pillow he’d mangled.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce sighs. “None of my frustration is with you. You’re just a convenient target.”

“I know,” Clint says. “And it’s all good. I’m not keeping a record of wrongs here, doc.”

Clint crosses the room, passes Bruce and gives him a hearty pat on the back as he moves toward his duffel. He picks it up by the strap and slings it over his shoulder before walking back to the front door.

“For what it’s worth,” Clint says, turning to look back at Bruce. “I think you’ve got it all wrong about the moments that count,” he says. “When shit goes sideways and James zones out, it doesn’t really matter what we’re saying. He only hears half of it, and what he processes is half that. The moments that count are what’s in between and you've got that. So, give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can.”

Clint gives Bruce a shrug, as if to say he's sorry that's all he's got to give, and then backs out the door. He gives it a kick to close it, and Bruce is left alone with his thoughts.

Awesome.

Chapter Text

“For what it’s worth,” Clint says, turning to look back at Bruce. “I think you’ve got it all wrong about the moments that count,” he says. “When shit goes sideways and James zones out, it doesn’t really matter what we’re saying. He only hears half of it, and what he processes is half that. The moments that count are what’s in between the rough times and you’re doing a hell of a job. So, give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can.”

Clint gives Bruce a shrug, as if to say that’s all he’s got, and then backs out the door. He gives it a kick to close it, and Bruce is left alone.

----

It takes Bruce a while to get to sleep after he showers and lays down in bed. Clint’s words bounce around in his thoughts until finally exhaustion wins sometimes around 2 am. When he wakes the next morning to light streaming through the window, he hears sounds of life outside the door. He can’t make out what’s being said, but he hears two voices he know are James and Clint (mostly Clint). There are dishes clanking, and Clint laughs, and Bruce can smell meat cooking. He stays in bed an extra few minutes to enjoy the peaceful feeling that comes with starting out the day knowing everyone’s in one piece.

When he does get up, he dresses in slightly warmer clothes for their hike to who knows where, and walks out to see what’s for breakfast. James is sitting at the table, typing on Clint’s computer again and looking skeptical as Clint narrates his cooking like he’s on Food Network.

“I think you missed your calling,” Bruce says, walking into the kitchen to pour himself some of the coffee Clint had brewed.

“Don’t encourage this,” James says with a slight roll of his eyes. “It smells like burning.”

“Like burning awesome,” Clint retorts. “Anyway, you’re not even eating it. You can complain when it’s going on your plate.”

“I taste it in my chest,” James says, with such appalled finality that Clint laughs out loud.

“You are so going to fit right in,” Clint says, plating up some extra crispy... ham?

Turkey? Bruce isn’t sure. He isn’t picky, though, and he’d burned the chicken the other night so he had no room to complain either.

“Figured protein would go further for breakfast,” Clint explains. “It’s a 4 hour hike to our new place, unless we want to steal a car.”

Bruce gets an immediate visual of Tony’s dramatic retelling of how the Winter Soldier ripped a steering wheel right out of a moving vehicle and decides to pass.

“I’m good to walk, unless James’s knee is bothering him,” Bruce says. “Then we can figure out a way to discretely borrow a car.”

“I can walk,” James says sounding unconcerned.

There’s an easiness in the way he agrees that’s maybe a good sign, but he also sounds tired. More tired than he’d been the morning before. Panic attacks could do that though, and James had had a significant one the previous night. That could be it.

“Sounds good,” Bruce confirms. “Otherwise, how’s your pain level?”

James considers the question as Bruce sits down across from him with his plate of charred meat.

“Like Steve said,” James replies. “It’s weird. Not bad. Functional.”

None of those are words that describe pain exactly, but James isn’t huffing in exasperation as he digs for vocabulary, so talking to Steve had worked in a way.

“I’m glad you talked to him,” Bruce says. “It seems like it helped, maybe.”

“Maybe,” James says, noncommittally.

It’s the last he speaks until later in the morning when they’re doing one last sweep of the house to make sure they aren’t leaving anything important behind. They can’t comfortably carry all the clothes Tony had provided them, but they can carry what they want, and James suggests they bag up what they don’t. Bruce writes out a note in rough German, asking that anything they leave behind be donated. It’s the best they can do on short notice, and it seems to satisfy James’s need to not be wasteful.

And if James caring about what happens to an old sack of clothes isn’t proof that deep down inside him there’s hint of a kid who was born around the Great Depression, Bruce doesn’t know what it is.

Jarvis had texted Clint an address overnight, so he’s the one to share it with James and Bruce. The texts Bruce receives over the course of the morning and during his hike are all from Tony and decidedly less useful. Mostly they’re GIFs. When interpreted one after the other as a story, they seem to indicate that Steve is driving Tony out of his mind by acting, progressively as: Depressed Cat, Frantic Cat, Grumpy Cat, Drinking Blankly from the Sink Cat (Bruce hopes that’s a metaphor), Gives Zero Fucks Cat, and then back to Depressed Cat again.

If nothing else, the texts paint a definite picture of Steve’s misery. A misery Bruce doesn’t see ending anytime soon.

Bruce has experienced the sort of abuse in his own life that makes friendship difficult and normalcy impossible. It’d be nice if James can do better. Nice for James and nice for Steve. Bruce doesn’t begrudge either of them that. He’s just not overly optimistic. For now it’d be great if they can keep James from killing anybody for awhile. Bruce will count that as a win. He’s not so sure Steve’s standards will ever be that low.

They walk for about two hours when the patchy clouds above begin to sprinkle them with cold rain. It’s not miserable, but it makes Bruce reconsider his stance on the Steal A Car plan, even if it’s too late for that. James seems to be keeping up with Clint fine, despite the wet ground. Both men are a good bit ahead of Bruce when he gets a text from Clint.

Isn’t just his knee. Something else is wrong.

“Can we stop for a rest?” Bruce shouts up to the men ahead.

Clint and James halt, then leave the path to take cover under a large tree nearby. Bruce joins them a minute or so later. He’s parched and out of breath. James and Clint look like they’ve been lounging in a pool all afternoon. Neither seem exerted.

“Are we getting close?” Bruce asks, as he wrestles his water bottle out of his bag and unscrews the top.

“We’ve made good time,” Clint says. “We’re probably 30 minutes out.”

“That is good time,” Bruce agrees.

He takes a drink and tries to get a better look at James. He doesn’t notice any immediate signs of distress or illness. His coloring is fine, his pulse seems unaffected by the climb. His ribs aren’t retracting when he breathes, which Bruce can see since he’s wearing an over-sized Stark Industries hoodie, that’s been left unzipped.

“James, what’s your assessment of how you’re functioning?” Bruce asks.

He really has no choice but to rely on James’s opinion, since he has no idea what Clint’s seeing that’s worrying him.

James shrugs. “If I wasn’t slowing down for you two I could have been there already.”

Bruce lets out a slight laugh, because Clint’s right: James is going to fit in great if he ever joins the club.

“That sounds functional to me,” Bruce says.

“But you’re worried,” James observes.

“I texted Bruce because I thought maybe he should look at you,” Clint cuts in. “Should have probably just asked him out loud. Or asked you. Or told you I was going to text him. Sorry-- I’m still not used to this touchy, feely, talky crap.”

Clint’s slightly disparaging description of their process gets the reaction Clint wants since James relaxes.

“You think I’m malfunctioning,” James says. “Why?”

“Intuition,” Clint says. “Years of watching targets for weakness. I can’t pinpoint it, though. I thought maybe Bruce could.”

“He looks fine to me,” Bruce admits. “Functional. I’m not an actual medical doctor-- I feel like maybe we should all keep reminding ourselves of that,” he adds. “If we’re only a half hour out though, I think as long as James feels up to continuing, I can look him over more closely once we’re indoors.”

Clint gives James a once over with his eyes and then grabs for his bag.

“If something feels off, we won’t be annoyed if you need us to stop,” Bruce tells James as he lifts his backpack. “Just say the word.”

James nods, but doesn’t reply. He picks up his borrowed satchel and takes off back in the direction they’d been walking.

They’ve been back on the path about 10 minutes when Clint’s intuition proves true in the worst possible way. One second James is walking fine and the next he’s on his knees. Bruce is ten or so meters behind him.

He makes a rush for James, but Clint is only a step ahead of the soldier and he turns when he hears James falter. It ends up being exactly the kind of mistake they’ve all been trying so damn hard to avoid. Bruce doesn’t even know what he’s seeing until Clint flies violently backward landing on his side in some deep grass. Bruce stops-- feels his panic rising-- and watches James fall forward on his face and begin to convulse there on the ground.

“Bruce, just stay there for a sec,” Clint shouts as he lifts himself up off the ground. He’s cradling his arm against his chest. “You got this?”

“I’m fine,” Bruce agrees as he closes the distance between himself and James. Probably not fine actually. Definitely not fine. But he’s not turning. James needs him. Clint needs him. Panic isn’t his trigger so much as anger, and it’s impossible to be angry with James when none of this is his fault. Bruce’s determination to stay in the moment propels him forward. He drops next to James, who is still seizing, and rolls him onto his side.

“See if you can help him stay like this, but don’t restrain him,” Bruce directs as Clint joins him. “And don’t put anything in his mouth.”

Clint reaches down to help with one hand and Bruce digs through his bag for the scanner. Not that he’s sure it will help. Not that he even knows what he’s looking for, but it’s the best they’ve got.

Bruce finally gets a better look at Clint as he’s laying the holo-baton on the ground next to James. He sees a dark bruise and a bone out of place nudged up just under skin above Clint’s wrist. Bruce has to focus on James for now despite how much he’d like to help his teammate. At least until he has some idea of what’s gone wrong.

The seizing stops and James lies motionless in the grass except for the harsh rise and fall of his chest. Bruce waves the scanner over him starting with his head and moving it lower, forcing himself not to rush this despite the urgency. A blurry picture isn’t any more help than no picture at all. What the hologram starts to fill in as Bruce works is a nightmare.

“What. The. Fuck,” Clint whispers.

And Bruce doesn’t fucking know. He just doesn’t.

“I can’t do this in a field,” Bruce says numbly. “Call Tony-- I need-- I need Jarvis. And we’re going to need a lift. He'll need an operating room.”

It doesn’t really matter-- it will take too long. James will die before Bruce gets him to an operating table, and honestly he has no clue where he’d even start. Bruce is watching blood ebb and flow and leak in the hologram. It pools around a twisted, jumble of metal and wires and tech. What isn’t obviously man-made is being compromised by a healing ability that’s repairing what it can in all the wrong ways.

James is dying and there’s nothing Bruce can do about it.

“Fuck,” Bruce mumbles. “It’s-- this is older damage, healing wrong. It must have been on hold this whole time. Waiting for him to get some rest. Waiting on calories and what his body needed to fix... the ribs maybe. Or this vein. It’s growing wrong-- splitting around the wires-- and this...”

Bruce is numb with horror. If he’d just pushed James to let him scan his chest instead of letting him blow off any more than his leg... If he’d--

“Tony’s too far,” Clint says, interrupting Bruce’s guilt spiral while tapping rapidly at his phone. “How long does James have?”

“No idea,” Bruce says, keeping the scanner brick where it is so he can continue to observe. So he can track the injuries, and solve the impossible puzzle, and fix this. “Not long. This is my fault.”

“S’Hydra’s fault. We’ll have help here in five,” Clint insists. “QuinJet, with a medbed.”

“SHIELD?” Bruce asks, pulling his eyes away from the hologram in confusion and flat out fear. SHIELD is gone, and if there’s anything left, Bruce doesn’t trust it.

“Nat,” Clint says. “And her sidekick. Five minutes. What can we do?”

“I need a knife,” Bruce says. He can try and drain off some of the blood. Maybe it will help. Maybe it will kill James. Maybe. Maybe. Fucking maybe. He doesn’t know.

“Can I be of some assistance, Doctor Banner?” Jarvis’s voice speaks loudly through the phone in Bruce’s pocket. Bruce digs it out while Clint uses his good hand to pull a knife from his boot.

“Fuck yes,” Bruce agrees in a rush. “Jarvis, can you access the scanner Tony sent me?”

“Accessing now.”

“Tell me how to keep James alive. First steps-- baby steps-- anything. I don’t need the odds. It’s better not to know.”

“Make an incision between the 8th and 9th rib on his left side,” Jarvis replies, with the blessed brusqueness of an artificial intelligence unmoved by the tragedy of it all. “Three inches wide, two inches deep.”

James is not conscious, but Bruce wouldn’t necessarily say he’s unconscious either. His eyes are open. A stab wound is going to hurt like a bitch, super soldier or not. He rolls James a little further to the side for access, pushes the hoodie out of the way and lines up the knife.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce whispers, wrinkling his forehead in troubled concentration as he takes a deep breath to steady his hand then drives the knife into James’s side, removing it just as quickly as he shoved it in.

For a moment there’s quiet. Then there’s not.

A flash of silver whips toward Bruce as blood begins to gush from James’s wound. Clint throws himself between James’s arm and Bruce’s body, knocking Bruce backward along with the knife as Clint’s side takes the full force of impact. He lands heavily on Bruce’s legs, barely missing the blade Bruce dropped in surprise. A foot away, James rolls to all fours, coughing and choking, and scrambles for the weapon. He makes it three feet, knife in hand, before he collapses.

“Careful,” Clint groans to Bruce. The wind is knocked out of him so it’s little more than a hoarse whisper. “Survival instincts. Bad.”

It’s not like Bruce could move to help anyway. He is paralyzed. Horrified. Lost.

Tony’s voice comes over the phone speaker, twice as loud as Jarvis.

“Bruce, buddy? Talk to me, big guy. I’m looking at these scans and we’ve got some work to do. Just talk to me. I’m right here.”

Bruce remains silent. This is his fault. This is his destiny: to destroy everything around him. Here lie his good intentions.

Chapter Text

It’s not like Bruce could move to help anyway. He is paralyzed. Horrified. Lost.

Tony’s voice comes over the phone speaker, twice as loud as Jarvis had been.

“Bruce, buddy? Talk to me, big guy. I’m looking at these scans and we’ve got some work to do. Just talk to me. I’m right here.”

Bruce remains silent. This is his fault. This is his destiny: to destroy everything around him. Here lie his good intentions.

James struggles into a crouch. Despite the blood and the pain, the knife looks deadly in his hands. But James’s eyes are no longer on Bruce and Clint. He’s looking over their heads, at the sky, and readjusting his weapon.

A huge bird sweeps over Bruce. Or not a bird. A man. A man with wings who lands a yard from James and raises a gun.

“They’re tranqs, Dr Banner. Super soldier tranqs.”

He fires two directly into James’s chest, just as James makes a wild rush for him. James’s reflexes are slowed by his injuries and this time when he drops to the ground, there’s no doubt he’ll stay there. Bruce can see he’s out.

“Sam Wilson,” the winged man introduces as he moves quickly to James’s side. When he notices the blood he rips a velcro pack off his black trousers. “Pararescue. Friend of Steve’s.”

“About damn time,” Tony speaks up from the phone. “Where’s our Widow?”

“A minute out,” Sam responds. He’s a flurry of steady, practiced motion. He’s already emptied out his pouch onto the ground and he grabs for some rubbing alcohol and dark gauze. “Doctor Banner, can you give me an assist here? I need an extra hand.”

Bruce nods, shakily, and moves forward. He glances at Clint who waves him off with his working hand.

“I’ll just sit here and look pretty,” Clint says. “Worry about James, Doc.”

“Jarvis is in my earpiece so I’m all caught up,” Sam says, handing Bruce the gauze and showing him where he wants him to hold it. “Can you apply pressure here? We’re going to slow the blood, get him on a stretcher, then get him on the plane. One, two, three, easy as that.”

Sam’s voice is an ocean of calm. It helps.

Bruce puts his hands over the cloth Sam has applied to the stab wound and puts some weight against it as Sam maneuvers James into a safer position.

The Quinjet drops down in the field nearby, and the bay doors slide open. Natasha appears at the top and she’s got some sort of high-tech stretcher under one arm.

“You fellas need a ride?” Natasha asks as she jogs down the ramp and then stops next to them so she can lay the stretcher down next to James.

“I do,” Clint complains. “Now get over here and help me up. Haven’t seen you in six weeks and I don’t even get a damn hello.”

He sounds a lot less tough now that Natasha’s around. He’s comfortable with Natasha. Bruce can hear it in Clint’s voice. And with Clint taken care of, it’s easier for Bruce to focus all his attention on James.

“Jarvis is suggesting we get both his arms above his head. Thinks that might ease some of the pressure on that mess,” Sam says. “My words, not his, but you get what I’m saying, right?”

Bruce recognizes Sam’s technique. He’s keeping Bruce engaged. He’s looking him in the eye and asking questions to keep him present. Bruce would tell him it isn’t necessary except a little bit maybe it is. If nothing else it’s easing the awful absolute that losing James is inevitable. Sam doesn’t look like a man with no hope.

It’s an effort to get James on the stretcher, but once he’s on, it isn’t difficult to lift. Tony’s got some sort of thrusters under it, because of course he does. It’s also got heart monitors and a pulse oximeter and Bruce keeps one hand on the gauze while he begins to attach what he can with the other. Sam works on securing James, so he won’t roll off, as they quickly guide the floating stretcher to the Quinjet.

Natasha’s got an arm around Clint's waist and she leads the way up the ramp.

“Where to?” Natasha asks.

“Head for the states,” Clint says.

Bruce lifts his head to object on James’s behalf then realizes he doesn’t have a better suggestion. Where else are they going to go?

The stretcher magnetically snaps into place over the med bed, and Natasha’s got them in the air a few seconds later.

“Someone needs to talk to Steve,” Natasha calls back.

“Busy at the moment,” Bruce responds. Not to be an ass, but because the lights and the beeps and the panels and the blood have his focus. They’ve finally snapped him away from the grips of stunned failure where he’d lost himself for a minute.

“I’ll do it,” Clint volunteers. He’s taken the seat next to Natasha up front, and is sweaty and pale, but uncomplaining.

Jarvis pipes in then, with new instructions for saving James and Bruce loses track of everything else. He can hear Steve and Clint, and then Tony as well, but words aren’t registering. For Bruce there’s really nothing other than Jarvis’s instructions, Sam’s quiet reassurances, and a whole lot of blood.

For a man Bruce has never met, Sam proves himself quickly. Bruce doesn’t miss the obvious military training and most days that would set him on edge. In the middle of a crisis Sam’s disciplined efficiency is appreciated. The work on James is too much for one person. Clamps are needed, and suction. A scope. Pliers. Some goddamn wire cutters. Bruce can’t imagine trying to make this happen on his own or on any other plane in the world. Tony, bless his mechanic’s heart, has enough random tools on the QuinJet they could open an Auto Supply store. And it looks like they’re going to need every last one of them.

James codes twice, and the monitors scream and flash angry red as James dies beneath their hands. Except he doesn’t die. His heart stops, everything stops, and then his healing factor repairs something necessary to life and James gasps in breath as the sirens shift to speeding beeps again.

Bruce has no idea how much time passes. He knows he’s thirsty and exhausted. He knows his calves ache and his shoulders are sore and that his hands have been cramping for the last however long. He knows that the back of his shirt is damp from sweat and Sam stopped talking any more than necessary maybe half an hour ago.

Jarvis is literally a life saver. Bruce has done some surgery in his day, but he’s never come close to what they’ve done with James. He’s not sure anyone has, except maybe the HYDRA scientists who’d butchered him in the first place. But Jarvis has calmly walked them through every step, every scan, every death-defying cut. And James is still breathing on the table.

Finally James is stable enough for Bruce and Sam to step away to change into clean shirts, stamped with SI across the chest, and to use the sink and the soap to wash up. Bruce figures he’ll be smelling blood for days.

At least James is out of the woods.

Now they’ve got new problems. They’d had to cut and snip and rearrange enough wires that James’s metal arm will be useless to him. Jarvis had brought Tony in for a consult at one point, and once the green wire was cut, he hopped off comms to go get started on a fix. Whether that fix would be to mend what was already attached or to create something new had yet to be seen. Hopefully it will be James’s decision, and Bruce prays the man will forgive him for disabling him in order to save his life.

“How long is this tranq going to last?” Bruce asks, as he slumps to the ground, under the med bed.

Sam joins him, looking just as beat. “No clue.”

“Four hours, give or take an hour,” Natasha says from the cockpit.

“How long has it been?” Bruce asks

“Almost four.”

“He’s still out cold,” Sam says, letting his head fall back against the metal support of the medbed.

“It wasn’t made for him,” Natasha explains. “An old friend sent me an ICER, in case I ran across an enhanced operative who wasn’t going to be taken down with anything else.”

“ICER?” Bruce asks.

“Incapacitating cartridge emitting railgun,” Natasha explains. “I know the kid who designed it. He’s good people. Whatever we gave James is safe.”

“You’re guessing it’s safe,” Bruce points out.

“It worked,” Natasha says firmly.

“We’ll know it worked when he wakes up,” Bruce points out. “If he doesn’t wake up-- it didn’t work.”

“Our other option was letting him bleed out,” Sam says.

Which-- well, it’s true. They really were damned either way. Bruce can’t deny that.

“Okay. You’re right,” Bruce sighs. “I’m just hoping he understands why we did what we did. He might have preferred us to let nature take its course.”

Clint shifts awkwardly in his chair to turn to look at Bruce.

“He’s had six and half weeks to eat a bullet,” Clint says, his words the slightest bit slower than normal. Like it’s an effort to concentrate. “He didn’t. He went looking for you instead, to ask about Steve. He wants a life. After everything-- don’t dismiss that.”

Bruce isn’t sure Clint’s right but his speech patterns are concerning. Which shit.

“Clint,” Bruce says, straightening up too quickly and smacking his head against James’s bed. “Let me look at your arm.”

“It’s still attached,” Clint says. “Focus on James.”

“We need Tony’s help to do anything more,” Bruce says. “James is stable enough for me to worry about you, finally.”

“He’s gonna be a lot less stable if he wakes up and we’re still in the air,” Clint says.

“He’s not going to be any happier to wake up in Stark Tower,” Bruce points out. “Now get your ass over here so I can look at your arm.”

Bruce says it so sharply that Clint chokes on a laugh. “I see how it is, doc. James is knocked out so you get bossy.”

Natasha turns her attention away from the view ahead, and Bruce can feel her watching the interaction. He and Clint have gotten a lot more comfortable with each other over the last few days, for sure, but also, Bruce is just mentally exhausted and it’s chilling him out. He’s over the tranq issue. They’re right, there wasn’t any other way. Also, he’s spent the last 4 or so hours coiled like a spring and now he’s done.

Just done.

“I don’t get how you’re not puking from pain,” Bruce says, once Clint has walked over, taken the seat next to Bruce, and shakily held out his arm for inspection. Clint’s wrist is deep purple and swollen and Bruce can no longer make out the shape of the bone he thought he noticed earlier.

“That’s ugly,” Sam says, as Bruce carefully turns Clint’s wrist a little to get a better look.

“I’ve had worse,” Clint says. “And Stark keeps the fun pain pills up front. Nat got me two and now I can’t feel shit.”

“That explains it,” Bruce says, glancing toward the cockpit. “Thank you, Natasha. For this, and for the pick up.”

“Any time,” she says.

“Thought you might be mad,” Clint adds, as Bruce carefully lets go of his wrist.

Bruce stands to retrieve the hand scanner and the holo baton from the sink where he’d rinsed them then returns.

“I didn’t tell Nat where we were,” Clint continues. “Just asked her to get to Switzerland, near the border, after James freaked over the haircut. Figured that back up might not be a bad plan.”

“I’m going to go up front,” Sam says, putting his hands on the floor to push himself up. “Let you two work this out without the guy you don’t know sitting in the middle.”

Bruce nods, though he really hadn’t minded Sam’s presence. He knows logically he has grounds to be angry with Clint but he’s not. It’s hard to muster up much ire when things had worked out.

“I wanted you around,” Bruce says. He isn’t actually sure how true it is until he hears it out loud and realizes he means it. “On some level that was me trusting you to make the right call if anything went wrong. It wouldn’t be fair to blame you for doing the thing I had hoped you’d do.”

Clint’s eyes flicker up to Bruce’s face in surprise. “Oh... thanks... that’s some faith that’s probably not deserved. But appreciated, man.”

Bruce doesn’t respond because his eyes are on Clint’s holoscan. The break is a clean one and even if Bruce was up for starting work on it now, they need to let the swelling go down first.

“I want to put your wrist in a splint for now. If you’ll keep it in a sling the swelling will go down more quickly and then you can either get help from a real doctor or I’ll fix you up.”

“I want you to do it,” Clint says without hesitation. “You admit you’re just making shit up half the time and that’s the only kind of doctor I’m going to trust. Do I even really need a splint or are you just pulling this out your ass?”

Bruce laughs. “Yes. Yes, you do. Hold still and I’ll get you set up.”

Compared to what he’s spent the rest of the flight doing, patching up Clint is a piece of cake. Bruce wraps Clint’s arm and bandages a splint into place. He helps him lift it to his chest and has him cradle it there before searching through the shelves of medical supplies he and Sam had left in disarray to find a sling he knows he saw. Once he finds it, he returns to hook it around Clint, who seems a bit more subdued.

“S’bad break?” Clint asks.

Clint’s forehead is creased with worry and for the first time it occurs to Bruce that this is the kind of injury that could end a career for an archer.

“Clean breaks make for the best recoveries,” Bruce consoles. “There’s nothing Tony and I won’t do to make sure it heals correctly. At worst, you may need some sort of metal reinforcement on the bone, but on the bright side, you’ll probably be able to launch rockets out of your fingers when Tony’s done with you.”

Bruce gives Clint a light pat on the back.

“Thanks, doc,” Clint says. “If you run again... you should let me have your back. I’ll be bad ass with finger rockets.”

Bruce nods. “You really will. I can see it--”

He’s cut off as the steady beeps from James’s monitors begin to speed up to something more irregular and his neural alarms go off. Bruce is on his feet in an instant. James looks okay, he isn’t seizing and his eyes are still closed. The neural monitors are showing increased activity, though.

“He’s waking up,” Sam says, turning in the chair he’d taken next to Natasha.

“Not up here he’s not,” Clint warns. “Two arms, one arm, this doesn’t work if he’s awake.”

“The sedative you used,” Bruce says. “Can it be extracted from the bullets and injected some other way?”

“There’s no time,” Natasha says. “Sam, shoot him.”

Sam takes the ICER out and takes aim.

“Now, Sam,” Natasha insists.

“I’m not a fan of shooting coma patients. Give me a second to make sure I don't shoot anything that I just fixed.”

Natasha’s got the gun out of Sam’s hand before Sam has time to protest. She fires once, hitting James expertly in the shoulder. The beeps steady back out and the neural alarms silence.

“I told Steve I’d keep us all safe up here. I’m not going to go back on my word.”

Bruce gives her a look that says he’s not enamored with her methods. “Before his next ‘dose’ let me take a look at the bullets. I’ll figure it out.”

“We’re 2 hours out,” Natasha says. “He won’t wake up before we land. We should be worrying about where we’re going to put down.”

“It’d be better to have Tony meet us away from the tower to work on James’s arm,” Bruce says. “Somewhere open, that James isn’t going to feel is a trap.”

“And isn’t going to trigger him,” Clint adds. “He doesn’t like chairs, that’s for sure.”

“I’ve run a dozen scenarios,” Natasha says. “None of them good. We may be aiming for the least of all evils.”

“Get Steve on the comm,” Bruce says. “He might have some thoughts. I probably should have connected with him already to let him know how James came through surgery.”

“Jarvis was keeping him informed,” Natasha assures him.

“Your attention was where it needed to be,” Sam agrees.

Natasha taps on a panel and a moment later the front window of the Quinjet lights up with a view of Tony’s workshop. Steve’s sitting in a chair at the desk with his head in his hands, and Tony’s a few steps behind him with enough holograms stacked over each other that you can’t see through the layers. Tony doesn’t turn or acknowledge the call. From the set of his shoulders Bruce can tell Tony’s in the Science Zone, and he isn’t going to allow himself to be disturbed.

“How is he?” Steve asks. There’s fear-- thick fear-- in his voice.

Bruce is sure it doesn’t help that he and Sam are stained with blood. They’d scrubbed off what they could but without a shower they can only get so clean.

“He’s alive and stable,” Bruce says. “The worst of it is that we had to cut a lot of the wires between his nervous system and his arm. It won’t work when he wakes up.”

“But he’ll wake up,” Steve says, letting out a breath that speaks volumes about Steve’s stress level. Maybe he’d heard it from Jarvis, but it’s obvious what he’d wanted, was to hear it from Bruce.

“Barring anything unforeseen, he’ll be up in the next few hours,” Bruce agrees. “Which is why we’re calling. We need to find a place where he can wake up and even if he feels alarmed, not hurt himself or anyone else. We’ve already ruled out the tower. The only place he couldn’t escape there is the Hulk-Proof room and I’m not doing that to him. I’m not going to allow him to wake up restrained either. When he comes to, I want him to be able to move and to feel like he can protect himself.”

There’s a pause as Steve considers the dilemma. “Does it have to be indoors?”

“Sanitation is a lost cause,” Bruce says. “We’ve been doing our best, but it’d be a joke to worry about a sterile environment now. Do you have somewhere in mind?”

“Not a somewhere,” Steve says. “But a something. If you could find a ball park. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Somewhere with bases and stands. If he woke up in the outfield, I think that’d be a place that-- it’s just somewhere safe. Always was somewhere safe. Maybe that would be enough.”

“I think that’s as good a solution as any,” Bruce agrees.

“We could land the Quinjet nearby and use the stretcher to get him outside,” Natasha says.

“I can stay close and the rest of you can be visible, but with some distance between you and him. All I need is time to explain,” Bruce says. “Then James can decide what kind of help he’s willing to receive.”

“It’s still risky,” Clint says.

“It’s a risk I’m fine to take,” Bruce says. He looks Steve in the eye. “The Other Guy isn’t going to be a problem.”

Steve shakes his head. “That didn’t cross my mind. Everything you’ve done for James is more than enough proof you’ve got his best interests at heart. You call the plays and I’ll help however I can.”

“Are you and Tony going to meet us there?” Bruce asks.

“I think maybe I shouldn’t,” Steve says. Bruce can hear what kind of a sacrifice that is. Can hear the weight of Steve’s unhappy resolve. “I want to give James his best shot at calming down quickly. That doesn’t involve me.”

“It doesn’t involve Stark either,” Clint adds. “Not until James can say whether or not he'll allow it.”

“So the four of us then,” Bruce says.

“Could just be you two,” Sam points out.

“It would feel dishonest if you and Natasha are around but not visible,” Bruce says. “I want us to be as transparent with James as possible when we can.”

“If I may interrupt,” Jarvis interjects. “I have found a location that may meet the parameters Captain Rogers suggested.”

A map of New York state appears on the screen, then zooms in to the northernmost border. A satellite image fills in of a baseball field surrounded by acres and acres of corn, a few miles outside of a small town.

“It’s only used once a year, for a tournament to celebrate the local harvest,” Jarvis supplies.

“I think we’re looking at the least of all evils,” Natasha agrees. “But like Steve said, Bruce, it’s your call.”

Bruce glances back at James, and then up at the screen. His pulse quickens as he remembers all the ways he’s failed friends in the past. And yet these people-- these strong, brave, intelligent people-- know an awful lot about him and yet they’re looking to him for the guidance here.

Maybe good intentions do count for something.

“We’ll make it work.”

Chapter Text

Bruce glances back at James, and then up at the screen. Bruce’s pulse quickens as he remembers all the ways he’s failed friends in the past. And yet here are these people-- these strong, brave, intelligent people-- and they know an awful lot about him and yet they’re looking to him for the guidance here.

Maybe good intentions do count for something.

“We’ll make it work.”

~~~~

Making it work is less complicated than Bruce had feared. Jarvis gets the quinjet to the field, and it’s a snap to get the stretcher unlatched from the medbed and hovering over the floor. From there they float James down the ramp, set the stretcher down in the shade of a tree on the edge of the outfield and then Clint, Sam and Natasha go set up shop on the bleachers.

At some point Sam jogs back into the jet to get a pillow for Clint, and Clint wedges himself expertly into a nook of the bleachers and nods off. Bruce hears Sam and Natasha playing what sounds, surreally enough, like Go Fish.

Bruce sits a few feet away from James on the grass, staring at the before and after images from the holoscanner and debating the ethics of what he and Sam have done. There’s no telling how James will react. If the situations were reversed, Bruce can’t decide how he’d feel. There have been times he wanted to die, definitely. There have been more times when he wanted to live.

He leans back on his elbows and watches the sun filter through the leaves. For the first time in a long time he thinks about Betty. Remembers picnics under maple trees, and giggled promises, and warm summer wind. The romantic feelings are gone now, but what’s left behind is fondness. Thinking about her doesn’t sting like it used to. Bruce doesn’t recall when that changed.

He wonders if that’s where Steve had arrived with the memories of Bucky. If Steve had thought fondly of his friend in the time between his thaw and SHIELD’s fall. If those thoughts had been happy ones, without the the awful sting of loss. And now, Bucky’s here, except his body has shown up with someone new inside. Someone who wants nothing to do with Steve. And who even knows at this point if Bucky and James are the same person? Bruce can’t say with any certainty.

It’s a nightmare come to life.

Bruce is lost in his thoughts when the neural alarms on James begin to chime. This time there are no ICER bullets to stall the inevitable. For better or worse, Bruce is going to let James wake and stay awake.

Bruce sits up and pushes away another few feet to give James space.

“James?” Bruce asks. “You’re safe. We’re at a baseball park. Weird, I know, but we wanted somewhere that didn’t feel... confined. I’ll explain everything once you’re more aware.”

James’s eyes blink open. He stares up at the leaves and remains motionless. The heart monitor alarms go off as his pulse begins to race.

“It’s just me and you under this tree, and some friends over on the bleachers,” Bruce says. “I’m Bruce Banner. You came to find me. Do you remember that?”

James’s head snaps to the left to first look at Bruce and then at the bleachers beyond him. His eyes are wide with alarm and he begins to choke as he sucks in air too fast.

“I’ll give you as long as you need,” Bruce says. “You don’t have to be afraid. You’re safe, I swear you’re safe. No one’s going to hurt you, or wipe your memories, or strap you to a chair. The bad people-- Hydra-- they aren’t here. And Clint, Sam and Natasha are here to protect you. Plus there’s always the Other Guy. The Hulk.”

Bruce is mostly sure of that. As sure as he can be of anything. He keeps up a quiet stream-of-consciousness type conversation, entirely one-sided, as James’s monitors steady out.

“Stop,” James groans. “Too many words.”

Which Bruce takes as a good sign. He stays quiet after that, letting James acclimate to his surroundings on his own terms.

“Arm is not functional,” James says after a few minutes of silence. “It won’t move.”

“Shit,” Bruce swears. “I-- that was important. Yes, your arm isn’t functional. We had to disconnect the wires to keep you alive. There was no other way; I’m sorry. Tony can fix it though-- either fix your arm as it is or make you a new one. We’ll do whatever you want.”

James struggles to sit up. There’s no hiding the wariness in his expression. There’s fear there.

“I’ll shut up until you’re ready for an explanation.”

James gives up any attempt at sitting and lays back down, the heaviness of his arm more apparent now that he has no control over it. It pulls his whole body slightly sideways.

“There’s a malfunction,” James says.

“Right, your arm isn’t going to work until--”

“You said that,” James scowls. “Not the arm. It’s...” His frustrated huff and sigh tell Bruce all he needs to know about the difficulties James is experiencing.

“We’re not in any rush,” Bruce says. “Clint’s over on the bleachers, with Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson. They’ll make sure no one disturbs us. And here--”

Bruce reaches next to him and grabs a knife he’d nicked from the jet. He leans across James and places it in his still-functional right hand.

“So you can protect yourself,” Bruce says.

James seems more at ease with a weapon in his hands, even if the look he’s giving Bruce is one of judgement. “I can kill them with only one arm,” James says. “Doesn’t need to be my metal one.”

“I have no doubt,” Bruce says. “I gave up trying to protect Natasha and Clint from themselves a long time ago. If they think they can survive you, they’ll find a way. Making you feel comfortable here is my bigger concern. And once you’re up for moving, we’ll figure out where we’re going to go. For now, the first thing we need to do is get some calories in you.”

James shook his head. “Not hungry. Sounds gross.”

“It’ll be a day or more before I think you should even attempt eating,” Bruce says. “I was talking about IV nutrition. You need it to heal and from what I know about you and Steve, your body is going to burn through the last of what you’ve eaten any minute now. I have everything we’d need in the quinjet if you feel like you can go in there.”

James’s eyes flick back to the bleachers. “What about them?”

“It’s up to you when they join us,” Bruce says. “They wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t sure, without a single doubt, that you were safe with them.”

James lets out a slow breath. “I trust you,” he says.

Bruce is momentarily stunned. It’s not that he hadn’t known on some level that was true, but it’s fucking huge that James is using those words all on his own. Bruce’s insides get tight. There’s no way he’s worthy of something so hard-earned as James’s faith in him.

“I’ll do everything I can to make you not regret that,” Bruce promises him. “Mostly I’m relieved you aren’t pissed I didn’t let you die.”

The look James gives him is almost comical in his confusion. “I just got a life of my own. You think I’m done with it already?”

Bruce laughs. He’s done right by James, so thank God for small favors. “No,” Bruce says. “Not now I don’t. So that’s it? You’re okay with all this?”

Bruce gestures toward the quinjet.

“It’s either be okay or kill everyone out here,” James says with a hint of a mischief in his eyes.

Bruce nods. “If that starts to change, give me a few seconds warning and we can clear everyone out.”

James nods and then slowly, with effort, relaxes more fully and stares straight up at the tree. “I’ll go in the jet. Clint can be close. They-- they should stay out of reach.”

“That sounds doable,” Bruce agrees. There is really no request James could make that Bruce won’t consider. This one is an easy yes. “Once we’re inside the jet, Tony might be on the screen. You’ll hear Jarvis’s voice if I need a second opinion. Steve was in Tony’s lab last time I saw him so he might be visible as well. Do you want me to keep any of them out of sight?”

James takes in a slow breath. Despite the monitors telling Bruce everything is fine, it’s still a little more shallow than he would like to see.

“Might as well get it over with all at once,” James says. “I don’t expect friendly from people I’ve tried to kill.”

“Clint and I will be right there,” Bruce assures him. “And none of the rest of them have given any indication they’re anything but concerned. Try to lay as still as you can. This thing is steady while it floats but every other time I’ve had you buckled down. It’ll be painful if you fling yourself off.”

James gives another slight nod. Bruce presses a few buttons and then helps guide the stretcher as it lifts off the ground. His hand hovers over the comm built into the health monitors.

“Are you okay if I let everyone know what you’ve agreed to?” Bruce asks. “If you’d prefer to tell them yourself that’s fine, too.”

“You do it,” James says. His eyes are closed now and his body more tense. The words seem like an effort.

Bruce presses the comm button.

“Everyone on the line, Jarvis?” Bruce asks.

“They are now, sir,” Jarvis supplies.

“Thank,” Bruce says. “To catch everyone up at once, James is awake and here with me now. He’s fine with moving to the jet for further medical care. He’ll allow me and Clint close and he’d prefer if Sam and Natasha stay up in the cockpit. Tony and Steve-- if you’re on the monitor he’s okay with that. Jarvis, he knows to expect your voice.”

“We’ll board first,” Natasha says through the speaker. “Then we won’t need to get close to pass him.”

“Sounds good,” Bruce agrees.

He watches as Sam, Natasha and Clint leave their spot on the bleachers and hustle to the jet. Bruce waits until they’re up the ramp before he starts moving. At the base of the ramp he has Jarvis assist with the calculations to keep the medbed level despite the slope. Once the stretcher is clipped into place on the medbed, Bruce feels like he can breathe again. James on the other hand, is struggling. The monitors begin to ping his accelerated heart rate and beep his elevated respiration. James’s eyes open at the noise and his working hand grips the handle of the knife more tightly.

“Jarvis, mute that,” Bruce says. “Monitor in silent mode. Only give me a heads up if there’s reason for concern.”

“Understood, sir,” Jarvis agrees.

“Look at you, sounding all official and shit,” Clint teases, sliding back from the cockpit to join them. “Better be careful or Tony’ll sign you up for med school.”

“Done and done,” Tony says from the view screen up front.

Bruce rolls his eyes but doesn’t turn him down. Tony is in Science Mode so he won’t remember this conversation in 5 minutes.

“Knowing James is going to live is doing a lot for my shame spiral,” Bruce explains. “James-- I’d like to officially introduce you to Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson. Natasha got us off the mountain and Sam kept you alive while I was melting down.”

“I think Bruce might be overstating things,” Sam says from up front. “Nice to meet you, though. And just to get it out of the way, no hard feelings over the shooting business, and total respect for your skills. I’m always glad to meet a fellow bad-ass.”

Sam’s grin can be heard in his voice, and James looks slightly amused.

“No hard feelings here, either,” Natasha says. “Most of us have been used. We don’t ask for apologies or explanations.”

“We do accept booze,” Clint adds. “As restitution. If you’re ever in the mood to make amends.”

“Amen,” Tony says from the screen.

Bruce puts a hand to his face in mock disgust.

“I am so sorry to put you through this,” Bruce tells James, though he’s smiling. “They mean well.”

“Clint means well,” Tony says, looking up from his work for the first time since he’s been on screen. “I’m hit or miss. J, add me to the rear display?”

A moment later Tony appears as a projection on the bay door. Steve is visible in the background, looking intently at a paper file on the desk.

“I can be an asshole, but I’m not the kind of asshole who’ll give you a bum arm for offing my folks. As far as I’m concerned, we’re cool. Now if you’ll stop interrupting me, I’ve got work to do.”

“He’s kidding-- about the interrupting,” Bruce tries to help, since James is eyeing the screen with a peculiar stare. Though it only takes Bruce a second to realize James isn’t looking at Tony at all.

“What about you, Steve?” James asks. “Cat got your tongue?”

Steve looks up in concerned surprise. Like he’s been caught sneaking into a movie without paying or cutting through a lawn with a KEEP OFF sign guarding the grass.

"I wasn't sure if you wanted to see me or if you wanted space," Steve explains, searching for an answer. "It’s good to see you, though. I'm glad you're alright."

Steve looks down for a flicker of a second then back up again. This time with resolve in his eyes. He says nothing. The silence in the quinjet is painful.

“Bucky Barnes is dead,” James says. “You glad I’m doing okay in his place?”

"I know a little about rebirth," Steve says, a wry smile at a bad joke. "Whoever you are now doesn't deserve any of what Hydra has done. You know that, don't you?"

James drops his head back to the pillow, his eyes on the ceiling. “I don’t know what I deserve.”

"Probably better than being stuck with me," Steve says, "But here I am. And you’ve got a lot of people who are less trouble than me hanging around, too."

James’s eyes turn to Bruce. He’s got that look he gets when he runs out of words and rather than make him explain, Bruce steps in.

“Steve-- I’m sorry to cut things short but I need to get to work. I’ll let you know where we end up.”

“If you’ll pardon the interruption,” Jarvis says, “Sir has already taken the liberty of having me purchase a home on the outskirts of the nearby town.”

“Purchase?” Bruce asks.

“Renting takes time,” Tony says, back to Sciencing in a way that makes Bruce wonder how he hears any of this at all. “And rental companies don’t like when people kick holes through walls. You’ll like this house. Big back yard. Excellent school district. Jarvis sounded excited.”

Bruce looks back down at James, who gives a small nod.

“Can we get there without tipping off the locals?” Bruce asks.

“Easy,” Sam says, giving Bruce a reassuring smile. “I could land this thing on a dime.”

A moment later the jet lifts off the ground.

“Then let’s move in that direction,” Bruce says. “Until we get something set up in the house, I think we’re good to work out of the jet.”

With all the distractions, Bruce has yet to really consider how he’s going to make this work. The first step is getting James’s consent.

“I’m suggesting total parenteral nutrition-- that’s nutrition through an IV-- instead of giving you a feeding tube, since your body has been under so much stress. Until you heal a little more, your digestive system may be sluggish and you might not absorb enough nutrients to jumpstart your healing. So I would like to run this--” Bruce rustles around under the bed then holds up a small, packaged tube “--into your subclavian vein, which runs right through here.”

Bruce draws his finger over his own collarbone so James knows exactly where he means.

“It’s similar to what they might do in a hospital, but the formula Tony keeps in here is years ahead of what’s out on the market. It lets us use a smaller needle and a thinner tube. Your body can start using it right away, and you shouldn’t feel any discomfort other than the initial insertion. The risk for complications is low,” Bruce explains.

Bruce can see the tension in James’s muscles as he eyes the needle in Bruce’s hand.

“I’ve got numbing spray I can use on your skin if you think that might make this is easier,” Bruce suggests.

“It’s not the pain,” James says.

“The memories?” Sam guesses from up front.

“Might be memories. I never fucking know,” James grumbles.

“What about if Jarvis puts something on the screen and Bruce props you up a little? Baseball? Cartoons? America’s Funniest Home Videos?” Clint suggests.

“Cartoons,” James agrees. He says it quickly enough that it might be the most emphatic decision he’s made yet.

“Old or new, sir?” Jarvis inquires.

“Old,” James says.

Tom and Jerry comes on the rear screen a moment later, and Bruce taps the control panel for the medbed to tilt James up slightly so he has a better view.

“If you aren’t comfortable with this, I can stop at any time,” Bruce assures James. “There are other ways.”

“Be quick about it,” James says.

James is being clear with his wants so it’d be rude to second-guess. Bruce hangs the bag of formula on a nearby hook and attaches the pump before using an alcohol swab to wipe the skin along James’s collarbone.

“I’m going to need Clint to hold the holoscanner for me,” Bruce says when he realizes he’s going to need it. “At least if I’m going to hit this vein on my first try.”

James nods and Clint steps closer to Bruce, then takes the small scanner to hover it over James. Once the image starts to fill in, Bruce begins. He’s done this a few times before, and that was with far less sophisticated equipment. The whole rig is set up in under two minutes, and then all that’s left is to wait for the liquid to enter James and do its job. That doesn’t take long either, and by the time the pump beeps to let Bruce know the process is finished, James and Clint seem well and truly distracted by the Tom and Jerry cartoon playing on the wall.

“That’s it,” Bruce says. “Notice any difference?”

“I’m tired,” James admits. “More tired.”

“That’s a good sign. It probably means your healing factor is kicking in. Do you think if you closed your eyes you could get some rest?”

James chews at the inside of his bottom lip, considering. “You two aren’t gonna leave me, are you?”

“Apart from a run to the shitter, we’re on you like glue,” Clint says.

Which makes Bruce laugh and make a face. “I’d leave out the word shitter, but otherwise ditto. We won’t leave you until you ask us to get lost.”

“Think I can close my eyes then,” James says drowsily. “Stark or Steve... don’t want them near me until I’m awake... can be in the house though.”

James’s eyes close and almost immediately the readings on the monitor calm. Even more promising, the activity on the holoscreen picks up. It’s incredible to watch James’s body at work when Bruce can observe without the terror of James’s imminent death hanging over his head.

“This is good,” Bruce says. “A few more rounds on the IV and I think he could be up and walking around. Tony, Steve-- did you guys hear that?”

“Loud and clear,” Tony says, his image replacing the cartoon cat and mouse. “I’ve got Jarvis sorting out a lab, Pepper clearing my schedule and Steve’s seeing if he can fit everything in the tower-- including the kitchen sink-- in his duffel bag. You’ll see us in under an hour. Good work, Banner. Way to save a life.”

“Sam was a big part of that,” Bruce deflects.

Steve appears on the screen again behind Tony, a huge bag slung over his shoulder and a lightness in his expression Bruce has never seen.

Tony shakes his head then tilts it slightly toward Cap. “Wasn’t talking about James.”

Chapter Text

Steve appears on the screen again behind Tony, a huge bag slung over his shoulder and a lightness in his expression Bruce has never seen.

Tony shakes his head then tilts it slightly toward Cap. “Wasn’t talking about James.”

~~~~

If Jarvis had a face, Bruce would kiss him. The house is exactly what they need. Large, and full of light, with oddly angled rooms that allow for large bay windows that manage not to give sightlines to the beds. Bruce can’t help but wonder if the house was originally built by people as paranoid as his ex-SHIELD agent friends, since Natasha and Clint both end up giving it their approval.

Once they have James in a bed, Clint stays with him. He needs the rest and he won’t be any help moving things from the quinjet into the house with his arm in a sling. Sam and Natasha come as close as the doorway of James’s room but never any further. Even though the soldier is asleep, they respect his wishes. It’s one of a dozen reasons why Bruce finds himself grateful for their help.

When everything is inside, Bruce joins Clint at James’s side and glances at the monitors.

“Neural activity looks good,” Bruce says. “Heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation are all within range. At this point he’s probably doing better than you are.”

“Damn super soldiers,” Clint grumbles. “Get to have all the fun and none of the consequences.”

He’s joking, obviously, and Bruce nods. “I’d say it must be nice, but I think if I had the choice, I’d choose to be like you.”

“Ordinary?” Clint asks.

Which makes Bruce laugh. “No, not ordinary.”

For a minute they sit in silence.

“You need to get some sleep,” Bruce says. “And to eat if you can. There are still some StarkBars in my bag, and once you’ve got something in your stomach you can take more pain pills.”

Clint nods. “Did Nat bring in the good ones?”

“I’m sure she did,” Bruce confirms. “Sorry I need to split my attention. I promise, though-- we’re going to have your wrist back to new. We can do that.”

“I’m not worried about it,” Clint says. “I was before you said you and Tony could fix it but I know you wouldn’t bullshit me. If you say it’ll be fine, I’m good to wait.”

That sort of faith in him is never not going to surprise Bruce.

“I’ll only keep you waiting long enough for the swelling to go down. I’m sure James won’t mind if you’re in here getting your scans or whatever surgery needs to be done. Plus, Tony knows a doctor in South Korea that’s doing incredible research on tissue creation. There may be a variety of ways we can address this.”

“You could come at me with a rusty knife and a can of Pepsi, doc. I’m going to trust you know what you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” Bruce says. He really can’t say anything more than that or he risks word vomiting to Clint that he’s a fraud, and a monster, and why don’t any of them have better sense than to spend time with him for fuck’s sake, he’s dangerous.

Clint gives Bruce a knowing half-smile and pushes himself up with his good hand before wandering out of the room.

“Rest!” Bruce calls after him, in case he has other ideas. “Doctor’s orders.”

It’s quiet after that. He hears Steve and Tony arrive. They stay out of sight. An hour passes before Tony texts him.

Tony: Scale of 1 to Hulk, how pissed would u be if the arm is green in ur honor.

Bruce: Scale of 1 to Hulk?

Tony: Don’t act like that doesn’t make sense, Banner. It’s an insult to us both.

Bruce: It’s not a question of how pissed I’d be. It’s more a question of who punches you first, James or Steve. My money’s on Steve.

Tony: Now u take up betting?

Bruce: Clint’s a bad influence.

Tony: Now ur trying to make me jealous.

Bruce: This conversation is really not going your way. Make him a nice arm, Tony. Please?

Tony: For u? Sure, why not.

Bruce considers his response for a minute then sends a GIF of a happy cat going down a slide over and over and over. Some day he and Tony need to talk about James. That day is not today.

Bruce ends up napping in his chair and isn’t sure how much time passes before the neural alarms beep to let him know James is waking up. This time, James comes to consciousness more easily.

“Give me a minute,” James says before he even opens his eyes. When James does open them, he turns his head to the side to look at Bruce. “Not-- functional? I can’t feel my-- anything.”

Which of course has Bruce jumping out of his chair because shit that isn’t good. Though a quick check of the monitors has him feeling more reassured.

“May I touch your hand?” Bruce asks.

“Yeah,” James agrees.

Bruce walks around to the other side to carefully lay a finger on James’s hand.

“Do you feel this?” Bruce asks.

“Yes,” James says.

“Without looking, can you tell me how many fingers I have on your hand?” Bruce asks.

He applies pressure with each finger separately to make it more obvious.

“Two... now three... now one... now four.”

“All correct,” Bruce says, smiling. He has an idea about what’s going on but wants to confirm it a little before he discusses it with James. “May I touch between your knee and ankle?”

“You gonna ask permission to breathe in my presence, too?” James asks. “Cause it’s gonna be a real pain when I say no.”

“If it’s bothering you, I’ll knock it off,” Bruce says. “You can tell me what makes you the most comfortable and that’s what I’ll do.”

“Well, if you’re gonna be all decent about it,” James says, with a little bit of accusation and some humor. “Go ahead. Touch. But make it obvious where it’s gonna be so I don’t get jumpy.”

Bruce holds up his hand, makes sure James sees it, and then slowly lowers it to James’s leg. “How many fingers do you feel?”

“One... four... three...”

“Right every time,” Bruce says. “When you say you can’t feel anything, can you tell me more about that?”

“There’s no malfunction,” James says. There’s tension in his voice as he works out words for what he means. “Usually when I wake up it’s all wrong. There’s... static, maybe. Like steel wool brushing over raw stuff. It’s how I knew where I started and ended. But it’s all gone.”

James’s flexes his fingers. “Will it stay like this? Without the static?”

“I can’t say for sure,” Bruce admits. “But it’s a good sign you aren’t feeling it now. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were getting neural feedback from the way they’d attached the leads for your arm into your nervous system. And now that the attachments are disconnected, the feedback should be gone.”

“If you reconnect it, will the feedback come back?” James asks. He sounds worried. Bruce totally gets that.

“Maybe at first,” Bruce says. “But we wouldn’t leave it like that. We won’t stop tweaking things until you’re entirely comfortable.”

“What if I get a new arm and start killing people with it?” James asks.

And for the first time Bruce really gets the feeling this isn’t so much a warning as a test. James is exploring the boundaries of personhood. Again, Bruce isn’t an expert but if feels like a step in the right direction.

“I guess it depends on who those people are,” Bruce says honestly. “If it’s Hydra, I might be inclined to help you. If it’s Steve--”

“It wouldn’t be Steve,” James cuts him off. He sounds annoyed that Bruce would even suggest it.

“If it’s Tony?” Bruce asks.

“Not Tony, either. Will you quit acting like I’m gonna kill your friends?” James demands.

Bruce nods. He can’t hide his smile and James narrows his eyes in annoyance.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce apologizes. “It’s not even the questions, it’s just-- this is probably the longest conversation we’ve had. It’s nice, even if we’re talking about murder. I feel a little less like I’m boring you out of your mind.”

“It’s easier to talk without the static.”

“That makes perfect sense,” Bruce says. “That must have been incredibly grating. And now, to get back to your question-- what I would do about you killing people is entirely dependant on who you’re killing. Which probably makes me a shitty person, but I don’t have the energy to go around defending assholes like Hydra, I just don’t.”

“Good to know,” James says.

“Would you mind if I ask you a question?” Bruce asks. “And even if you agree to let me ask it, if you don’t want to answer it, that’s all you need to say. I won’t be upset or disappointed or angry.”

“Ask,” James says.

“You came to speak to me about Steve,” Bruce says. “You wanted information about him you couldn’t find in books. Why?”

James looks away, and for almost a minute he doesn’t speak, so Bruce figures that’s the end of it.

“When there was nothing of me... only the mission and what Hydra put in there... I knew him.”

Bruce is speechless.

If he’d written down a thousand guesses as to how James was going to answer his question, that wouldn’t have been on there. He’s not even sure what to do with it.

“That’s... intense,” Bruce says.

“He was gonna die for me,” James says. “He wouldn’t fight me. He’s so fuckin’ stubborn I want to shake him.”

Bruce is torn between asking questions to dig deeper into this and backing off because he doesn’t want to introduce thoughts into James’s head that aren’t already there. It turns out, this time, James continues all on his own.

“That’s why I’ve got to keep him away from me. He’ll just keep trying to die for me. He won’t quit.”

Which is... puzzling. Bruce must look confused because James sighs.

“If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

“I’m not sure it would be helpful,” Bruce says.

“Say it anyway.”

“Steve would die for you whether you’re you, Bucky or some guy he met 5 minutes ago on the street. That’s just how he is. Avoiding him won’t necessarily change that.”

“He’s hard-wired for stupid, you mean.”

Bruce laughs. “I guess that’s one way of putting it. Or he’s hard-wired to value life. It’s not a bad thing, at least I don’t think so. But it’s a frustrating thing if you’re the sort of person who wants to protect him.”

“I don’t know what sort of person I am,” James says. “I can’t stop thinking I’m a weapon. Can’t stop counting doors and windows and thinking what I could use in here to cut your throat. It’s all in there. Louder now, maybe, since the static is gone.”

“If you’re the sort of person who’s noticing all this, I honestly think it’s a good sign for what kind of person you are. I can’t say I’m the best judge though. By any standard, if I was a decent person I’d figure out a way to kill myself.”

Which makes James roll his eyes. Actually roll them, like he’s twelve and Bruce is a particularly annoying parent.

“You’re the picture of evil,” James says. “I totally see it. I mean-- fuck every Hydra officer who ever smacked me with a cattle prod for moving half an inch out of place. You-- with your consent talk and your helping me without asking for anything in return. You’re the one I ought to be worried about.”

There were people who could say something like that and Bruce would be irritated. It negates his experience. It wipes out the bad that he ought to be held accountable for. It absolves him of crimes Bruce plans to mourn to the grave. But he doesn’t get irritated with James. James is new to friendship and he is trying.

“I can’t help how I feel,” Bruce says simply.

He doesn’t clarify if that’s a good or bad thing. James can figure that out for himself.

A knock at the door interrupts them. It’s Clint.

“I’m up, and I can chill with James if you want to go get some sleep or a shower or something.”

“If James is up for it, I’d like to give him some more of the IV nutrition, and then I’ll go collapse somewhere.”

James nods, and Clint joins them, and he’s carrying a wicked looking gun Tony’d brought Clint as a present since he can’t use his bow right now, so he and James chat as Clint takes it apart and puts it back together to see how it works.

The nutrition doesn’t take long, and James is drowsy when it’s over. His body is back to healing mode again, and he’s nodding off when Bruce leaves. He’s not too far gone to speak up, though.

“If you talk to Steve, tell him maybe I’ll see him when I wake up,” James says. “If he can keep from getting himself killed between now and then.”

Bruce nods and heads out to the living room in time to look out the window and see Tony’s car speeding down the driveway.

“We need coffee,” Steve says as he walks in from another room. “Tony and Natasha are going to Tops to pick some up, and whatever else they can fit in a cart.”

“They don’t think they’re going to draw attention?” Bruce asks.

“Natasha dressed them. They’ll be fine.” Steve smiles, mysteriously bright and new. An in-joke if Bruce has ever heard one.

“You and Natasha?” Bruce asks.

“Are friends,” Steve says. “When we were on the run she let me in on a spy trick, is all. Apparently people won’t look at you if you’re engaging in public displays of affection.”

“Good to know,” Bruce says. “It sounds like the two of you had an adventure and a half.”

“Something like that,” Steve agrees, his jaw clenching in frustration. “But it’s nothing compared to this last week. I feel so useless.”

Bruce nods. “Neither have I.”

“Clint said you’ve been incredible,” Steve says.

“Well, it’s not for any brilliance on my part, that much I know,” Bruce says. “I might really be screwing him up, Steve.”

Bruce wants him, of everyone, to understand that.

“You’re doing your best,” Steve says.

“And if it’s not good enough?” Bruce asks.

“He’s better off than he was,” Steve says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Sometimes you don’t get a choice in how you help people.”

Bruce laughs. “I think James would disagree with you on that.”

“He always did,” Steve says. “You like him, don’t you?”

“I do,” Bruce agrees. “He’s funny. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Steve smiles, then it fades to something more pensive. "Can I ask you something? If it's not private or -- I'll understand if you can't say." Steve pushes his hand over his hair, mussing it up. "It's just that he seems so much like Bucky."

It’s not even a question but Bruce understands what Steve is getting at.

“I can’t tell you whether Bucky is still in there,” Bruce says. “Not because of any professional need to keep that to myself so much as I honestly don’t know. On some level, it’s his choice.”

Sure, Bruce has his suspicions. James has said and done several things that indicate a post-depression American upbringing and an inside knowledge of what a stubborn punk Steve Rogers can be. But that’s still not proof.

“You’ll have a better chance of figuring it out than I will, since you knew Bucky Barnes,” Bruce says. “And if you want to speak to him, he said once he’s up from his nap, he might be willing to see you. He brought it up all on his own.”

Steve takes in a slow breath. “You think he’s ready? What if it’s too soon and his old mission protocols kick in?”

“I think you’ll be fine,” Bruce says. “At worst he’ll call you stupid and threaten to shake some sense into you.”

Steve lets out a sad laugh, as much from exhaustion as anything else. “Then some things never change.”

Chapter Text

Steve takes in a slow breath. “You think he’s ready? What if it’s too soon and his old mission protocols kick in?”

“I think you’ll be fine,” Bruce says. “At worst he’ll call you stupid and threaten to shake some sense into you.”

Steve lets out a sad laugh, as much from exhaustion as anything else. “Then some things never change.”

*

Bruce sleeps while James sleeps and asks Jarvis to wake him up once James is up. Bruce isn’t sure James is going to want him in the room while he talks to Steve, but he wants to give him that option. Though maybe he’ll prefer Clint. They have a trust too, entirely earned and bolstered by a mutual love of weapons.

Nothing in Bruce minds sharing James’s friendship. The more people he interacts with the less Bruce can fuck James up all on his own.

Bruce gives Sam, Nat and Steve a wave as he walks through the living room, then enters James’s room. James is awake with Clint next to him on the bed sleeping.

“He tried to take the floor,” James says.

“It’s nice you let him join you,” Bruce says. “I’ve got to say, James... You’re doing and saying some things that I think are really promising in terms of making a life for yourself. And I don’t know if that’s an end goal for you, but if it is-- I see a lot of hope there.”

“I want a life,” James says. “Don’t know how possible that is since at some point someone’s gonna lock me up. I just don’t know who’s gonna push first. Stark, if I had to guess.”

“I don’t think Tony will,” Bruce says. “I really don’t. And if anyone tries, Steve and I will have something to say about it. The Other Guy, too. You aren’t going anywhere you don’t want to go.”

James looks down at Clint’s sleeping form, then back up at Bruce. “Can I talk to him now? Steve, I mean?”

“Absolutely,” Bruce says. “I know he’s looking forward to it.”

“Will you stay?”

“Of course,” Bruce says. “And how about this. If you want Steve to leave but you’re having trouble getting those words out, just look at me and nod? It doesn’t even need to be subtle. I’ll let him know beforehand what to expect. We want you to be comfortable. Even if you’ve agreed to letting someone in here, that doesn’t mean they get to stay as long as they want. They get to stay as long as you want them here. Does that work?”

James looks a little skeptical but nods. “Go get him.”

Bruce stands and walks out to the living room. Sam and Natasha are playing Slapjack while Steve sketches in a notebook. He looks up toward Bruce, hopefully. Bruce knows Steve heard everything said in James’s bedroom. He also suspects James can hear everything said out in the house. In some way that makes it fair.

“James is awake and would like to see you. He can have some difficulty making requests so if he gives a nod in my direction you’ll need to go. Does that work for you?”

“Absolutely,” Steve says.

Bruce can tell he means it to his core, though when Steve pushes himself up, he looks unsure. Bruce gives him a reassuring smile.

Clint is still sleeping when they walk in, and James now has a knife in his working hand. Bruce isn’t sure where it came from, but he’s not surprised to see it.

“Hey, James,” Steve says carefully. “Nice to finally meet you in person.”

Bruce takes a seat in the chair closest to the door. Steve slowly moves to the chair next to the bed.

“Is this okay?”

James nods then watches Steve’s movement with the eyes of a wary assassin. Steve doesn’t flinch away from the stare. For more than a minute there’s nothing but cool, assessing eye contact and it’s intense enough that Bruce feels the Other Guy rippling down beneath the surface of his recent calm. Thankfully James speaks and it breaks the eerie silence.

“If I was Bucky, what would you say?” James asks.

“I’d tell you that I’m sorry,” Steve says without needing to think about it.

“What do you mean, you’re sorry?” James asks.

“I thought-- I saw him die. I should have jumped off the train after him. I should have followed him down that mountain. And I’m so damn sorry I didn’t.” Steve sounds haunted. From the look on his face, he is actively haunted. And right now he’s talking to the ghost.

“It would have been suicide,” James says.

“It would have been worth it.”

“Don’t say that,” James snaps.

“It’s the truth,” Steve says. “You aren’t Bucky, so what does it matter?”

James huffs. “I’ve got his body. His body doesn’t like you bein’ so cavalier with yours.”

“I don’t want to fight. You asked me what I’d say to him. That’s it. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being sorry. That’s what I’d tell him if I could.”

“That’s why you were going to let me kill you?” James asks in exasperation. “Cause you’re sorry?”

“That’s part of it,” Steve says. “But even before Bucky died, I would never have hurt him; I’d have rather died. Bucky was the best friend I ever had. And I don’t know how that connects to you-- to his body. But I can’t fight you without fighting him. That’s what I know.”

James goes still. The silence drags on and Steve looks to Bruce, and Bruce holds up a finger in the sign he hopes is universal for give it a minute. When James speaks, his voice is steady and low.

“I think you need to talk to somebody,” James says. “Bruce, maybe. You need help.”

Which makes Bruce startle laugh. “What? I’m not an expert.”

“You’re something. He’s got problems,” James insists.

Now Steve laughs, and honestly, it sounds a little relieved. More relieved than insulted.

And to James’s point... well, Bruce can’t deny he’s noticed some things, but it’s Captain America. Steve’s had big adjustments to make and... shit. Yes, Steve Rogers has problems. And apparently every one of them except James is willing to cross their fingers and hope for the best because Captain America.

“I’m not a therapist,” Bruce says, feeling like honest to goodness crap for never even considering it was a possibility worth pushing on Steve’s behalf. “It’s a miracle I haven’t messed this up, yet, James. When we get settled somewhere you’re going to need to see someone who knows what they’re doing, if you’re willing. And I think, if Steve will take the suggestion, he should, too.”

“You care about what happens to me,” James says. His voice is as firm as Bruce has ever heard it.

“Definitely, I do,” Bruce agrees.

“And you think instead of me talking to someone who cares, I should talk to someone who doesn’t know me or care about me.”

“Well... yes?” Bruce says. “Distance can give people perspective.”

James tilts his head so he can look at Steve. “You ever think the future is weird? Like everyone’s lost their damn minds?”

Steve laughs. “Yeah. I think that a lot.”

Clint laughs from next to James, and then props himself up on his good elbow.

“Hey, future boy right here, and I think it’s weird. too. I vote we all talk to Bruce.”

Bruce groans. “I vote we don't make any hasty decisions that involve an unqualified doctor until everyone is off their pain killers."

"You hear those crickets?" Clint asks. "That's the sound of inevitability. Maybe you should be more of a dick and then we'd leave you alone. That or go ahead and get your psych degree."

"I'll see what I can do," Bruce says. “Though I really don’t mind leaving the multiple degrees to--”

Bruce is cut off by one of the alarms monitoring James’s vital signs.

“How are you feeling?” Bruce asks, standing as Steve hops up to get out of the way. Bruce crosses to the bed and takes a glance at James, then the screens tell Bruce that nothing big has gone wrong.

“You’re burning through the IV nutrition faster than I expected,” Bruce says. “And when it’s all used up it puts stress on your system because... well, for lack of a better word... your body is willing to cannibalize itself to heal you.”

Bruce reaches for the nearest StarkPad and Jarvis must be anticipating his request, because the information he’s looking for is displayed.

“I think we’re going to need to finish the visit later, if that’s okay with you, James? You need an IV and you need rest.”

“I’m staying in the house,” Steve tells James. “Have Jarvis alert me, any time, and I’ll be right in.”

He sounds so eager Bruce feels a pang of pity for him.

“M’gonna go to the bathroom,” Clint says, pushing himself up off the bed, giving Bruce better access to James. “I’ll be right back.”

James just nods, and looks like he’s feeling as rough as the monitors indicate he should.

“I’ll give you twice as much this time,” Bruce says. “You’ll feel better within a few seconds of when it starts.”

Which means Bruce works fast to get the IV started. And once it’s pumping into James, Bruce sits down next to him on the edge of the bed. He’s still looking through scans, and Bruce’s brow furrows as he turns the scan in his hands, then taps the screen a few times.

“Something new gone wrong?” James asks.

“Not exactly,” Bruce says. “Do you mind if I touch your chest and up around your shoulder?”

“Do it slow,” James says.

Bruce nods, and very carefully turns on the bed and slowly lowers a hand to James’s chest. He presses lightly, observes the area and repeats several times.

“What’s wrong?” James asks. This time he sounds more alarmed.

“I was hoping we could give you a few more days before we had to deal with your arm, but as things are healing it looks like that isn’t the case. I know Tony isn’t your favorite person, but if he’s working on design he’s going to need to see this for himself. Is that something you could tolerate? If not, we’ll work around it. Get a bot in here with a camera that Tony could operate remotely or something. I want you to be comfortable.”

“He can look,” James says. “If you’re here. Do I have to get a new arm?”

“I’m still not sure,” Bruce says. “If you want to keep the one you have now, we’ll do our best to figure it out. If we can’t repair it, we’ll give you as many options as we can. But first-- you need sleep.”

*
James is out for eleven hours. After he wakes up, Bruce loads in all the new scanning equipment that’s been flown in from somewhere and then Tony joins them. The meet and greet goes exactly as Bruce expects.

“You want me dead,” James says within 30 seconds of Tony’s entrance.

“Geez, you don’t pull your punches, do you?” Tony asks.

James fixes him with his best irritated glare. Considering James is flat on his back it’s pretty impressive. “You hate me.”

“I didn’t say that,” Tony says.

“I killed your parents,” James says.

“Maybe next time we do this while you’re asleep,” Tony suggests. “Small talk has changed in the last 70 years. Let’s keep it to the weather, Rip.”

A part of Bruce wants to step in. To spare Tony from this pain when he hears the stress in his friend’s voice. Except Tony is a big boy. He knows how to walk out a door if being near James is too much. So Bruce glances back down at his StarkPad, checks over the readings Jarvis has taken over the last 11 hours and doesn’t interfere. From the chair in the corner, Clint seems incredibly interested in his gun.

Bruce hears James sigh and then huff and Bruce digs his fingers into his palm to keep from rescuing him. James will find the words. And it’s obvious to Bruce those words aren’t going to be about the weather.

Though when James speaks, it’s a few sentences in Russian.

“He needs all the parameters to assess if you’re a threat,” Clint translates easily, shifting the weapon in his hand as he looks up at Tony. “He could have asked Bruce if you hate him but he knew Bruce would tell him he needed to speak to you about it.”

Bruce has known all along that James has a tactical mind. At some point Tony had sent him the schematics of Steve’s old apartment to gravely geek out about the sort of sharpshooter it would take to kill Fury from those angles. It’s different to hear the tactical parts actively expressed. James had agreed to let Tony in the room. It’s only now that Bruce realizes it might not have been all about the arm.

James wants more information and he knows this is the way to go about getting it.

“I don’t hate you,” Tony says. He sounds tired. “What you did... that wasn’t your fault.”

“It was instant. They felt no pain,” James says. There’s no hesitation there. No struggle for the words.

Tony’s eyes snap down to James’s face. “Good.”

There’s a moment of silence before Tony speaks again. “Does that mean we can we start now? I want to get a look at your arm before we start singing kumbaya.”

James gives him a slight nod and Tony reaches above his head to grab for the swinging arm of the more advanced scanner Bruce had pulled in.

“You ready for this?” Tony asks.

“Will it hurt?” James asks.

And here’s a soldier, a frankly terrifying soldier, sounding like a kid. James doesn’t want pain. He’s afraid of pain and it’s thick in his voice and written all over his face. Bruce can tell from the change in Tony’s expression that he sees it too.

“No. It won’t hurt,” Tony says, and there’s a gentleness there that Bruce has only heard a few times. Usually directed at Dum-E when Tony doesn’t think anyone else will hear. “Hold still and this will only take a minute.”

It’s a tense minute. Still, Tony works fast and James holds still, and as soon as the scan is complete Tony steps back several feet and swings the scanner away with him.

“Bruce told me about the neural feedback,” Tony says. “A brain scan would help us figure out if that’s because of something in the lower wiring or up there in your head. You up for another test before we cart this stuff out?”

James looks to Bruce.

“I think it’s a good idea if you’re comfortable with it,” Bruce says. “Tony’s right. Working on the static issue from the start could give us better results in the end. It’s up to you, though. We can go on without it and no one will be angry if you say no.”

“Do the scan,” James says. “Get it over with.”

“Let me, Tony,” Bruce says. “James, you’re going to need to close your eyes and I know that won’t be easy if you don’t trust the person next to you. And if it will help to ground you, I don’t mind you holding your knife.”

“How come I never get a knife when you’re doctoring me?” Tony asks.

“Because you’d stab me with it,” Bruce says.

“Not hard,” Tony pouts.

“Just hard enough to be obnoxious,” Bruce says.

Tony throws up his hands. “Doctor Hulk would--”

“Tony, so help me, I swear, if you say Doctor Hulk one more time you’re going to meet him,” Bruce warns playfully. “And I don’t think you’d like his bedside manner.”

James is watching them banter and Bruce can see a hint of a smile there despite some pretty obvious nerves. Clint joins Bruce by the bed and waits for James to give him a small nod before plopping down on the bed next to him.

Bruce reaches for the swinging arm of the new scanner and brings it to rest about a foot over James’s face.

“Nothing to worry about,” Bruce says, since James’s forehead is wrinkled with the effort of staying calm. “This is just like out on the porch in Switzerland.”

“Are you calling my brains cow shit?” James asks.

Which causes Bruce to groan and practically trip over himself in his hurry to apologize and assure James that isn’t what he means. Which gets the first real laugh out of James for the afternoon.

“I’m messing with you, Bruce,” James says.

“He’s a keeper,” Tony declares. “Aren’t I always saying not enough people are willing to harass you, Banner?”

“It’s come up once or twice.”

Tony grabs at the back of the scanner and swings it toward Bruce, thunking him in the shoulder, and Bruce sighs and flips Tony off. The easy camaraderie gives Bruce a much needed moment to breathe, but more than that, it seems to give James a chance to breathe too. Whatever James has built Tony Stark up to be in his head, Bruce can see that meeting him has taken some weight off of James’s concerns.

“Sirs,” Jarvis interrupts. “I have information on James’s brain scan I believe you may want to see immediately. I can forward it to the screens here, but the most accurate representation requires a holofield. If you are willing to step outside, the Quinjet’s holofield would prove most informative.”

“Is it okay with you if I go?” Bruce asks James. “You can listen to the playback through Jarvis if you want to hear everything we discuss. No secrets.”

“I’ll be right here,” Clint adds.

“Jesus, I’m not a kid,” James says, in frustration. “I know I asked for it, but I don’t need a babysitter. That was--” He breaks off his words, making a sound of annoyance.

“We all get it,” Clint says, standing up without being asked. “After a bad mission-- some people don’t like to be alone. I don’t. And then once I’m a little more with it I want everyone the fuck out.”

“I’m the opposite,” Bruce says. “Right after... I don’t want anyone around. But a few hours later company is nice. At least when I think I deserve it.”

“I can go either way,” Tony says. “Story of my life, really.”

“If you want to be left alone, we’ll leave you alone,” Bruce says. “We’ve been waiting for you to send us packing. Just let us know if there’s anything else you need, okay?”

“I want...” James says, then trails off. Bruce watches indecision flicker across James’s face. Whatever he wants, it’s a difficult ask. “Is Steve out there?”

Bruce knows James already knows the answer.

“He’s sticking close,” Bruce says.

James gives a slight nod. “Tell him to find some playing cards and get his ass in here.”

Chapter Text

“I want...” James says, then trails off. Bruce watches indecision flicker across James’s face. Whatever he wants, it’s a difficult ask. “Is Steve out there?”

Bruce knows James already knows the answer.

“He’s sticking close,” Bruce says.

James gives a slight nod. “Tell him to find some cards and get his ass in here.”

 

Tony’s already in the Quinjet by the time Bruce grabs his duffel with what remains of his StarkBars and meets him in the backyard.

“We’ve got real food here, you know that right?” Tony asks. “Me and Natasha went to town for groceries.”

“I know,” Bruce says, unwrapping the StarkBar. “This is purely for science.”

“You aren’t allowed to claim scientific immunity. I invented scientific immunity.”

“I’m just eating a StarkBar, Tony. Compared to everything else going on, this is not a big deal.”

“I think you’re wrong,” Tony says. “I think the murderer in the house is small potatoes. I think you taking science and throwing it in my face as an excuse for not eating a real meal is frankly more than a little insulting.”

“The murderer is small potatoes,” Bruce repeats, sounding exactly as skeptical as he feels.

“I’ve got no problem there,” Tony shrugs.

“That’s nice,” Bruce says. “Is this something we should talk about?”

“Why? You feel like a nap?”

Bruce rolls his eyes. “That was one time,” he argues. “And I’d just gotten off a 16 hour flight. If you want to talk about the fact that we are harboring the man who killed your parents, I’m just saying I’m here for you.”

“Duly noted,” Tony says. “Unnecessary but noted. Jarvis, put up whatever it is you wanted us to see? Let’s get this show on the road.”

Bruce puts his hands up in surrender at the blatant dismissal. He hadn’t really expected Tony to open up. At least now Tony knows he can when he's ready.

“Accessing now, sir,” Jarvis chimes in, before the room starts to glow with what looks like a million points of racing light in various colors. “I have included an overlap of a neurotypical brain for comparison.”

Bruce spots the differences and tragedies right away.

“Hoooooooly shit,” Tony mumbles.

It’s a testament to how much time they’ve spent in the lab together that neither man has to say much after that. The holofields allow them to maximize, minimize and shift the picture, as well as pass each other information that ought to be considered. They’re out there long enough that Clint calls them over the comm.

“James needs his IV when you get a chance,” he says simply. “We thought Sam could do it but when he got close the monitors got beepy.”

“Right, sure,” Bruce says. “How long have I been out here?”

“Two hours and fifty-four minutes, sir,” Jarvis supplies.

Bruce swears it feels closer to twenty. Which explains a lot about all his late nights in the lab.

“Give me one minute to let my eyes adjust then I’ll be right in,” Bruce says, leaning against the wall and attempting to block out the sparkly lights flashing around him. Staring at moving holograms for three hours straight is a good way to nauseate yourself.

“Image off,” Tony says. “I’ve seen enough.”

“For a lifetime,” Bruce agrees.

“Don’t puke in my Quinjet,” Tony says, though it lacks any sting. Tony leans against the wall, too, in a similar position to Bruce.

There’s silence for a short stretch, then Tony speaks.

“He isn’t even 30 yet. Not really.”

Bruce doesn’t respond since he knows his friend well enough to know more is coming.

“You know what I was doing when I was 30?” Tony asks.

“Hookers and blow?” Bruce guesses.

“Got it in one,” Tony says. “Any and all damage done to my brain was entirely voluntary. What they did to him...”

“It’s sick,” Bruce agrees. “Brutal. Inhumane. I’ve already been through the synonym game a dozen times, and I still can’t get my head around it. In prisoner of war terms, he’s the worst case scenario.”

“I’ll give him a good arm,” Tony says. “Best arm ever made.”

Bruce pushes away from the wall and picks up his duffel. “I know you will. He may not know where your loyalties lie, but I’ve got faith in you.”

“Ugh. Sappy,” Tony says, doing a full body shudder. “Go. I’m taking the jet to New York. I need an hour in the workshop and then I should have what I need to set up shop here.”

Bruce nods. “See you soon.”

Tony doesn’t reply, and Bruce knows it’s because he’s got a shit-ton of feelings to process and for Tony that means either throwing himself into work or alcohol. Bruce is extremely grateful in this instance Tony is choosing the former.

It’s a short walk to the house, yet Bruce takes his time as he tries to chill out the Other Guy, who doesn’t quite grasp what’s going on, and can definitely sense Bruce’s simmering rage. The more he works out what Hydra has done, the harder it is to keep a lid on his anger.

He forces himself to focus on an objective view of what he’d seen on the scans to distract himself.

The good news is, they already know James isn’t brain-dead. By every indication and measurable scientific metric Bruce has ever studied, James ought to be. So silver lining, there. Otherwise, the damage is significant. How significant, there’s really no way to tell.

At least the sight that greets him in the room is a promising one. Steve and Clint are on the the edge of James's bed, and Natasha and Sam are lounging on the floor near the door.

“Looks like a party,” Bruce muses. His tone is off despite the intended levity and everyone visibly tenses.

“What is it?” Steve asks.

“He’s not dying,” Bruce says, since that seems important. “No faster than any of the rest of us at least. Anything more than that, James needs to hear first so he can decide what he’ll share.”

There’s no argument as everyone but James rises. Clint squeezes James’s shoulder lightly as he goes, and Steve gives him a small, awkward wave. After they exit, Bruce pulls the door closed.

“This is some serious pomp and circumstance for the results of a brain scan,” James points out.

“I’m sorry about that,” Bruce says. “It was upsetting for me to see. I don’t know if it will be as upsetting for you.”

“Why? Cause I’m too broke to know I ought to be upset?” James asks.

“No,” Bruce says, reaching up to run a finger through his hair, which has always been something of a nervous tic. “I don’t know. Maybe, yes, if I’m being completely honest. I’m trying to find a good balance, here, between professionalism and not turning green and snapping a few trees in half.”

“Whatever you’ve got to say,” James says, “I’ve already lived through the damage. Hearing about it can’t be worse.”

That really doesn’t help Bruce’s stab at calm.

“I think you’ve healed enough that if I put pillows behind you, you should be able to sit up. Mind if I try?” Bruce asks, not even trying to hide his fluster. “I need to-- to give the Other Guy a second to settle down. It might help if you look a little less helpless.”

James nods. “Do what you’ve gotta do.”

It takes some complicated shifting to get James in position, and a sling to support his dead arm, but it doesn’t take Bruce more than a few minutes to have James sitting upright. Seeing him against the pillows, his cheeks pink with improving health does exactly what Bruce had hoped it would. The Other Guy senses the immediate danger pass and Bruce regains control.

“How does that feel?” Bruce asks. The shakiness is gone from his voice.

James takes a moment to find the word. “Good. I was sick of being on my back.”

“I should have thought of that sooner,” Bruce says. “One more thing, and then I swear we’ll get to the results. Would you like a StarkBar? The scans Tony took of your arm and chest make me think you’ll be able to handle it.”

“Yeah, give me one,” James agrees.

“If you can eat two, you won’t need the IV nutrition at all,” Bruce says as he unwraps one and hands it over. “Just try to take it slow?”

James nods then takes a hesitant bite. “Tell me about my scan,” he says, while chewing.

Bruce pulls the holograph baton they’d used in Switzerland out of his bag and places it at the end of the bed near James’s feet. A miniaturized version of what he’d been looking at in the Quinjet appears.

“The blue dots are a map of your brain. The orange dots are the map of the brain of a neurotypical person about your physical age.”

“What’s the red?” James asks.

The red in question floats in the holograph like Sputnik, unanchored and held in place by the folds of the brain. Long, thin, spider-leg limbs protrude from it in every direction.

“Metal,” Bruce says. “Metal inserted into your brain so they could focus electrical pulses into specific areas. Mostly to your pain and memory centers.”

James lets that sink in. “How fucked am I?”

“What I see here. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know how you’re walking and talking and functioning. I don’t even know how you’re alive.”

Bruce sits his Starkpad down next to James on the bed.

“I had Jarvis load as much relevant research as he could find,” Bruce says. “I’ll answer what I can for now, and do my own research and you can keep this if you want, and work with me and Tony on sorting through it. I guess-- what I need to know is what you want from this information. Tony thinks we can figure out a hookup for your arm that doesn’t produce feedback. That’s a positive.”

“Could you remove it?” James asks. “The metal in my brain. So they can’t use it...”

His voice trails off and there’s that fear again. Not a cowering sort of fear, but more frustrated helplessness, maybe? James knows now what they’ve done to him in the past, the sort of pain they’ve inflicted on him with whatever the fuck it is inside his brain. And if they recapture him they’re going to do it again. Bruce gets why that is scary as fuck.

The dreams Bruce has of his time spent in military detention are spectacularly bad, and they can’t even compare. James has had it one hundred times worse.

“Our best bet is to get rid of Hydra so there’s no one left who knows about it,” Bruce says. The Other Guy definitely flexes happily at the mention of Hydra smashing. “If you really want the metal out, it’s your choice. We’ll find a doctor to operate. But I don’t-- I don’t think you could survive it. Then again, I don’t know how you survived them putting it in, so what the fuck do I know?”

“Can it be accessed remotely to hurt me?” James asks.

Somewhere in Bruce’s mind, he’s proud of these questions. Back when he’d been a professor he’d have adored a student like James.

“Tony thinks no,” Bruce says. “And I agree. You’ve mentioned a chair before. I’m guessing there were attachments that connected to your head?”

James nods. For the first time in days his eyes lose focus. The machines start to trigger their warnings that his blood pressure and heart rate are elevating.

“You’re safe here,” Bruce says. “No one’s going to put you in a chair and hurt you. No one here would use the metal in your brain against you.”

Bruce takes several deep, slow breaths of his own and lets them out slowly.

“I’m sorry I need to ask these questions,” Bruce continues. “I’m not trying to be cruel. They’ll help us work through what it would take for the metal to be used against you again.”

Bruce telegraphs his movements so there are no surprises as he scoots the StarkTab up toward the pillows so he can sit on the bed next to James.

“With your healing rate, you’re going to be up and kicking ass in days. Honestly, even now, I don’t think any Hydra goons would stand a chance. And in the mean time, I’m sure Clint would be thrilled to lend you a rocket launcher.”

The joke (or is it a joke when Bruce knows it’s true) has the desired effect and James relaxes slightly into the pillows.

“Why are you helping me?” James asks.

Bruce isn’t surprised James is asking, even though it’s a topic they’ve already covered. James is putting a world of trust in strangers after the equivalent of a lifetime of horrific abuse. It’s going to take a long time to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“At first it was because Steve is my friend, and because you looked like you needed help and I’m not the kind of person that can ignore that," Bruce explains. "It’s more than that now, though. You’re my friend, James. As long as that’s okay with you?”

“I don’t understand,” James says. “I don’t remember friendship.”

“Sometimes it seems like you remember Steve,” Bruce says. “Maybe-- Otherwise you wouldn’t intuitively know how hardheaded and frustrating he can be. Most of the world has no clue. Only a select group of people know Captain America is a huge pain in the ass.”

James smiles at that. And then chews on his bottom lip for a few seconds.

“He was smaller,” James says. “I remember him smaller.”

Bruce nods. “Can I ask you something that you don’t have to answer? If you don’t want to consider my question you can feel absolutely free to dismiss it. I won’t bring it up again.”

James takes another bite of the StarkBar. It’s 3/4 gone now. “Ask away.”

“I was just wondering... do you still think you’re what they shoved in Bucky’s corpse?” Bruce asks. “That’s one of the first things you said to me, and I don’t really know what it means. I have my own thoughts, but my thoughts don’t really matter. You get to choose.”

James looks toward the closed door and then back to Bruce.

“They hurt Bucky,” James says. “For so long. There was so much pain. He knew Steve wasn’t coming. They showed him... there was a newspaper. He knew. Steve was gone. They took his hope, first”

Bruce nods solemnly and remains silent.

“He fought them so hard. He fought until he couldn’t fight anymore even when hope was gone. Then they took more from him. Everything from him. Food, water, sleep, light, sound, air. His name.” James takes in a deep, slow breath. “My name. They took my name. And I don’t know how to get it back.”

James sounds so lost Bruce can barely breathe. And then he processes what James has just said. The significance. The enormity. His name.

Bruce blinks away tears so he can get a better look at James’s face.

“I think maybe, you just did.”

Chapter Text

James sounds so lost Bruce can barely breathe. And then he processes what James has just said. The significance. The enormity.

Bruce blinks away tears so he can get a better look at James’s face. It’s a struggle to make words work.

“I think maybe, you just did.”

----

James stares at the blanket after that, and Bruce lets the silence cover them. He isn’t going to push and he isn’t going to force anything. It’s hard not to consider this a huge victory, but Bruce knows enough about his own (ongoing) trauma recovery to know they’re going to take a lot of steps backward before they gain any ground. Honestly, recovery isn’t so much a destination as it is a direction to keep moving.

So while this is great, he’s going to wait to see if it’s something James wants to celebrate or if he needs more time to decide what this means for him. For all of them.

“Steve. Breathe,” James says quietly, seemingly out of nowhere. Then he looks up at Bruce to explain. “I can hear him holding his breath. Probably trying not to squeal or something.”

James sounds fond but tense. Fondness for Steve might be another step forward. Bruce can’t even guess at this point. It’s like they’re racing ahead into the unknown and Bruce can’t help but be terrified it’s toward the brick wall of reality. Still, he’s not going to manage expectations just yet. James’s brain is a thing of mystery and wonder and who-the-fuck-knows. Who is Bruce to say where hope can begin and end?

“Did it work?” Bruce asks curiously. “Did he hear you?”

“Yeah. He took a big breath but now he’s back to holding it again like an idiot. Just get in here, Stevie. I don’t want to be listening for you all night. You’ve got decent lungs now. Use them.”

James sounds exasperated and Bruce smiles. He’s never heard anyone call Steve Stevie before, but in some bygone way it fits. And more than that, it’s James admitting Steve’s a friend. Or was a friend. Will be a friend?

It’s like trying to talk about time travel, with all the wibbly wobbly tense issues that come with it, and Bruce can’t help but think the grammar of the situation is going to be what eventually drives him mad.

There’s one brief knock at the door and then it opens before Bruce is able to get on his feet. Steve’s standing on the other side, with his mouth tense at the corners in a barely suppressed smile. Bruce wants to tell Steve not to bet on this. To hold on to a healthy amount of skepticism because all of the progress-- it’s so tenuous. But he can’t find the words to voice his doubts. It just seems too cruel.

They’ve waited seventy years. He can give them a few minutes.

“You want me to stay?” Bruce asks James.

James considers it, then shrugs. By now, Bruce recognizes the gesture as a yes.

“I’ve got reading to do,” Bruce says. “Feel free to pretend I’m not here.”

Steve nods at him as Bruce rises to take the chair closest to the door, before Steve takes his place next to the bed.

“You remember now?” Steve asks, his voice wavering slightly, with what Bruce thinks sounds like a painful mix of hope and tension. “Being Bucky?”

“I...” James pauses, searching for the words. “I remember Bucky,” he clarifies. “Remember being him, maybe. Sort of. It’s not-- it’s not all there.”

“I could help,” Steve says. “Only if you want. It's...I knew you pretty well. Better than anyone. I could fill in any blanks.”

“Don’t know if it’d help,” James sighs. “It’s-- it doesn’t stick right. I read some biographies. I know all the names now and the dates. I think I could pass for him-- for me-- if I had to. It still feels a lot like stealing.”

"The biographies only see Captain America and his best friend, the loyal soldier." Steve looks away, with a sad smile. "They weren't there. They can give you names and dates, but they won't talk about you listening for my heartbeat or the number of times you slapped me awake to make sure I was still breathing. Once or twice after I got the serum too, though I think that was payback for the grenade..."

“Maybe I just liked slapping you,” James says. “You probably deserved it.”

“Probably,” Steve laughs. "I put you through a lot."

“I can’t-- can’t put it all together in a line. But I remember listening to you breathe,” James says. “You were...” James screws up his face in concentration “frustrating,” he finally gets out. “You didn’t take good care of yourself and it always ended up being my job to look out for you.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says automatically.

“Don’t apologize. I’m not saying I didn’t like it.”

Steve lets out a quiet, relieved laugh. “Never thought I’d get another chance at this. I could be better now, if you'd let me.”

“I don’t feel like I have a choice,” James says. Though he must realize it’s the wrong thing to say a moment later when Steve's face crumbles and James hurries to clarify. “Not like that. Not-- you aren’t forcing me to let you in here.”

“You’re sure?” Steve asks. "You've had enough choices taken from you. I'll respect any decision you make now. I’ll back off so far you’ll need binoculars to see me, if that’s what it takes to make you comfortable.”

“Do I look uncomfortable?” James asks.

“No,” Steve says, sounding unsure.

“What?” James demands. “You think I’m not comfortable because I still want Bruce in the room? He can leave.”

“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” Steve insists. “Bruce should stay. I-- It’s not you that’s not comfortable. It’s me. I don’t want to get this wrong. I don’t want to mess things up when you’re doing so good without me. And I figure if Bruce hears me say something wrong, he’ll step in." He raises his voice and directs it towards Bruce. "You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” Bruce agrees. “I would. But there’s no guarantee I’m getting it right either. We’re all just doing the best we can. And at the very least, we’re better than Hydra? That’s what I keep telling myself anyway.”

“Better than Hydra,” Steve laughs bitterly, but it dissolves quickly. "All of us still have our skin on, at least. And our hair."

James’s face dawns with the recognition of a memory. “And none of us are red.”

Steve nods. “We could be doing a lot worse.”

The tension leaks out of the room as James laughs. There’s another knock at the door, and this time it’s Clint.

“Sorry-- left my pain meds in the drawer.”

He walks in and, as quickly as James had started laughing, he stops. Bruce sees James track Clint’s movement, and his eyes are on the sling Clint wears that matches the one Bruce had put on James an hour ago.

“You look at me like I’m this good thing,” James says, shaking his head at Steve. “Even if I’m Bucky-- if I remember it all-- I’m not good. You can’t trust me. Look at what I did to Clint.”

“Clint doesn't blame you,” Steve says.

“Clint can speak for himself since he’s right here,” Clint drawls, with no ire in the correction. “And Steve’s right. You were defending yourself, James, and half unconscious. When you’re all here, I trust you fine.”

“So do I,” Steve says. “I trust you with my life. Always have. I--” Steve gets a look on his face like he’s trying to come up with the right word, and Bruce can’t help but notice how similar his expression is to James’s when he’s puzzling something out. “Trusting you is like breathing,” Steve tries again. “It’s the most natural thing in the world to me.”

“Says the asthmatic,” James points out, rolling his eyes. “Can you talk some sense into him?” he asks Bruce.

Bruce gives a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t think he’s going to listen to me.”

“Who do you think is right?” James demands. “Me or him?”

Bruce considers it. “It’s a complicated question.”

James looks unimpressed.

“Can I ask you a few questions to get a feel for something?” Bruce asks.

James nods.

“What would you do if I handed you a gun right now and asked you to shoot Steve?” Bruce asks.

James’s chin tilts down slightly so he can pin Bruce with the full impact of his best glare. “That’s stupid. I wouldn’t do it.”

“What if I ordered you to kill Steve?” Bruce asks. “Strictest voice. If I yelled at you to kill Steve. Put a gun in your hands and demanded it.”

James flinches. His eyes flick away toward the wall. “I’m not sure,” he says miserably.

“That’s not as damning as it sounds,” Bruce says.

James turns back toward Bruce but he won't meet his eyes. “It sounds pretty damn pathetic.”

“I do have a point I’m trying to make,” Bruce says. “And it’s not that you’re broken or that I’m an asshole.”

Clint snickers.

“James, what if a Hydra agent told you to kill Steve?” Bruce asks.

“I’d shoot the Hydra agent right between the eyes. Twice.” James doesn’t even have to think about it.

Bruce nods.

“What if the Hydra agent ordered you to do it? What if they shouted at you and threatened you and demanded you kill Steve? What if it was one of your old handlers?”

James closes his eyes for a moment in consideration, and when he opens them again, the raw animosity there sends a chill down Bruce’s spine.

“I’d shoot them in the face until I ran out of bullets. Then I’d beat their dead body with the gun.”

Bruce nods. “I think there’s your answer. I’m fairly confident that even if you’re conditioned to obey someone you trust, you’ve shifted allegiance.”

“That’s something, I guess,” James says. He doesn’t sound thrilled about it.

“It will fade,” Clint says. “It did for me, and it did for Nat. It will for you, too. My first handler-- he was really something. I always knew he had my back. And it was only a month or two before I could outright defy him without breaking into a cold sweat. It was awesome.”

“So,” Bruce continues, uncomfortable with the thought of being anyone’s handler but figuring that was a conversation that could wait for another day. “If you’re asking if I believe you’re capable of seriously injuring one of us under certain circumstances, the answer is yes. If you’re asking do I feel that you’re trustworthy? That answer is also yes. But considering I’m the guy who’s the most capable of accidentally murdering everyone in this room, I’m going to say danger levels are subjective in this group.”

At Bruce’s comment, Clint throws a wadded up ball of cotton padding right at Bruce’s face.

“So scary, doc,” Clint teases as it bounces off of Bruce’s forehead. “Seriously. I’m not afraid of any of you. And speaking as the squishiest, least bullet-proof person in this room, my opinion counts double.”

For a moment, James stares at Clint, and then he gives a half-shrug of surrender as he turns his eyes back to Steve.

“I keep forgetting stupid is contagious,” James complains.

Steve grins at that. “Where do you think I got all my stupid in the first place?”

****

It isn’t long before James sends Steve and Clint out of the room so he can nap. When James wakes, he eats four StarkBars and drinks a tall glass of water before he’s fully aware.

“Think you could tolerate a chest scan?” Bruce asks once James is more alert. “If everything looks set in place, I think we could try to get you up walking.”

“If it gets me out of this bed, you can scan whatever you want.”

Bruce nods. They’re alone in the room, and that’s always when James is the least tense.

“Your chest and your knee then,” Bruce says.

It’s old hat by now, so the scan is done within minutes. Bruce checks out the results on one screen while James looks them over on the StarkPad he’s been given.

“I think we can do this,” Bruce says. “If you’re sure you’re ready.”

“I was ready a day ago,” James grumbles.

“Since I cut the wires to your metal arm, you’re going to need to keep it in the sling,” Bruce says, ignoring the gripe since he knows James doesn’t really want an explanation for why Bruce is being extra careful with his health. “Otherwise the weight could compress your chest or put stress on your spine. I don’t think it would kill you, but it’d be a setback.”

“Me and Clint can be sling twins,” James says. His mood has improved considerably with the promise of motion.

“Please try to take it easy,” Bruce says, as he starts moving equipment out of the way. “No jumping off the roof or arm-wrestling Clint or anything if you can help it.”

“If I can help it?” James asks. His eyes narrow with mischief and Bruce laughs.

“God, I’m giving you ideas. Just-- please be careful?”

“It’s been awhile since anyone cared enough to say that,” James says. “It’s nice. I think this is what nice feels like, anyway.”

“I’m glad you recognize it for what it is,” Bruce says. “Tony calls me a mother hen. He makes clucking noises at me. He programmed the elevator to make clucking noises at me.”

James laughs. “I-- I used to get called that, too,” he says. “About Steve. Without the chicken noises.”

“Were the two of you--” Bruce cuts himself off, before he can get out the question. It doesn’t feel right to pry.

“Close?” James guesses.

“You don’t have to answer,” Bruce says.

“I think close is one word for it,” James trails off and takes a deep breath. “The war is harder... to remember. It doesn’t fit like a puzzle.”

“Can you describe for me what that’s like?” Bruce asks, all too happy to move away from the original question. “I’ve got some thoughts on what might help you with your timeline, but there’s still a lot I don’t understand.”

James pauses. “It’s like with Howard Stark. I see him different ways. I see him on a stage with a floating car. I see him in a war room. I see him in a bar, watching Steve like he wants to put him between two slices of bread and eat him. I see him older. I see the look in Stark’s eyes before he jerks on the wheel. I see him dead. I can maybe pick out which of those memories comes first, and I can definitely pick out which comes last. The rest are... floating. There’s no anchor.”

Bruce nods. “That makes sense. The electricity they were using on you could cause a disconnect between an event and the events surrounding it. It would explain why you could hold on to learned skills between.... everything. And why your memories lack context.”

James shifts against the pillows. “For someone like Howard who I met a dozen times, it’s not as hard to know what happened there. But Steve-- I’ve got more memories than I can count. Little Steve, big Steve, sleeping Steve, Steve in the sun, Steve in the rain...” James trails off and his face is such a jumble of emotions that Bruce reaches over to carefully put a hand on his arm.

“I think I understand,” Bruce says. “And thank you for sharing. That’s all really helpful.”

Bruce will put off thinking about the chilling reminder of Howard’s death until later. And if he ever thinks the question of Steve and James needs to be addressed, he can ask Steve. For now, he is much better off focusing on James’s mobility. They both are, really.

“Can I put my arm around you to steady you?” Bruce asks.

“Yeah, sure.”

It’s actually way easier than Bruce thought it would be to get James up. When James stands, he’s steady. When he takes a step his balance is fine.

“I think we’re good here,” Bruce says as he pulls his arm away from James’s waist. “If you start to feel tired or dizzy I suggest you sit down, but unless you want my company, I think you’re fine to go explore the house on your own.”

James takes another step, and then he turns toward Bruce and he’s got a small smile on his face. Relief is written into his expression. He takes several steps forward to grab his knife, and after tucking it into his sling, he reaches under the pillow and pulls out a gun.

“I’d like to go on my own,” James says.

“I’ll be around the house if you need me,” Bruce says, eyeing the weapon without comment. “But I’m sure you can handle yourself.”

And that’s it. James walks out the door and Bruce follows after him. James is alive. James is walking. And if nothing else, Bruce hasn’t screwed the physical part of this up, and if that hasn’t earned him a beer, nothing will.

*

The next 24 hours pass without incident. James eats half a box of StarkBars and plays spy games with the resident spies. He and Steve play a game of cards that involves a whole lot of swear words and half the silverware in the house.

Tony keeps to the lab he’s put together in the basement and Bruce spends most of his time down there alternating between psychology books and brain-focused dissertations. When all of this is over, he’s pretty sure he and Jarvis are going to be two of the world’s foremost brain experts and depressingly, it still isn’t going to be enough to fix James. Help him? Yes. Undo what Hydra did? Unlikely.

There’s really no telling how much time passes before Steve walks down the stairs carrying sandwiches.

“I was making these for you two when Clint got a text he wants to talk to us about all at once,” Steve says.

“Working dinner,” Tony quips, before grabbing a sandwich and walking up the stairs without complaint.

Tony’s being weird, and Bruce isn’t sure what to make of it. He’s been a lot more quiet than usual, for lab time. And as well as Bruce knows Tony, it’s impossible to tell if the silence is because of James or simply because the challenge of the arm is enough to distract Tony from everything else. Still, if he’s eating and he’s walking upstairs without being dragged, Bruce isn’t going to complain.

When they get to the living room, everyone else is already gathered.

“I just got a text from an old DC contact,” Clint says. He sounds unhappy. “There’s trouble over the Triskelion site. More than a dozen Hydra agents in jet packs are flying over the area like they’re looking for something. So far the police haven’t shown. Apparently they’ve got some kind of stealth tech.”

“If they’re willing to devote those kinds of resources to a mission, they could be looking for a weapon,” Steve says. “What do you think, Bu--James?”

James shakes his head. It’s the first good look Bruce has gotten at him since breakfast and he’s looking more himself. Healthy, even, apart from the sling. He’s wearing a t-shirt and cargo pants Bruce is sure he’s seen on Clint in the past week and he’s filling them out pretty well. James is well on the road to recovery.

“A dozen agents is nothing,” James insists. “Sounds like they’re trying to draw someone out.”

“Us,” Natasha says.

“I’m game,” Tony says with a shrug. “I could take out a dozen gnats in jetpacks in my sleep.”

“Take Sam with you,” Steve says. “If it’s a trap you could use backup.”

“You up for this?” Tony asks Sam.

“Hell, yes,” Sam says. “I am all kinds of ready to kick some Hydra ass.”

Sam gets to his feet and Tony gives him a light pat on the arm. “I like your enthusiasm, Crophopper. Plus it’s always fun to get to see my upgrades in action.”

“And what if this is exactly what they want?” Natasha asks. “Divide and conquer.”

Steve looks to James, who’s already strapping a gun to his side, and Bruce, whose eyes are going hazel.

“That’s their mistake to make,” Steve says.

Preparations begin. Tony and Sam take off in the jet while Natasha, Steve, James and Clint head upstairs to suit up just in case. Bruce stays in the living room alone. If Hydra shows here, it won’t take a Code Green for things to escalate. Hulk is out for blood. And if Bruce is honest with himself, he is too.

Chapter Text

Preparations begin. Tony and Sam take off in the jet while Natasha, Steve, James and Clint head upstairs to suit up just in case. Bruce stays in the living room alone.

If Hydra shows here, it won’t take a Code Green for things to escalate. Hulk is out for blood. And if Bruce is honest with himself, he is too.

----

James is the first one back downstairs and he’s tapping on a StarkPad when he walks back into the living room to meet Bruce. Natasha is only a few steps behind him, looking over his shoulder.

“Good thinking, Barnes,” she says.

James doesn’t flinch at the use of his old last name and it makes Bruce smile.

“What’s that?” Bruce asks curiously.

“Hydra’s entire operation,” James says, tilting the screen so Natasha can see more clearly whatever he’s called up to show her. “They think I’m dead so no one bothered to lock down their internal communications.”

“They won’t notice?” Bruce wonders.

“Not if they haven’t yet,” James says. “We’re running out of time though.”

James turns to glare up the stairs, as if they have personally wronged him. “Steve, get yer ass down here! You gettin’ dressed for a date or something?”

Natasha smiles and Bruce laughs, as Steve comes running down the stairs, still velcroing pieces of his uniform into place.

Clint follows Steve, looking a little worse for the wear. His arm is still in the splint, and Bruce feels terrible that it isn’t reconstructed yet, though he’d at least spent a little time the night before setting it.

“Are you good for this?” Bruce asks Clint, stepping over to him to help adjust the sling so his arm isn’t bouncing around at all.

Clint gives a one-armed shrug. “Wouldn’t sit it out, even if I wasn’t.”

“Fair enough,” Bruce says. He knows better than to argue with the team about injuries, even when every healer-inclined bone in his body is itching to intervene. Clint’s a grown-up. If he says he’s good, he’s good.

“What do you have for us, James?” Steve asks.

“The details on what’s coming for us,” James says, tapping on the StarkPad again, and then turning it for the other four to see. “Not such a big convoy we can’t handle it, but there’s a complication. They picked up a family-- husband, wife and three kids-- somewhere out on the highway. Two agents are in their minivan with them. They’re going to use them as collateral to get you and Natasha out of the house. But there’s a significant flaw in their plan-- I don’t think they know we’re here.”

“What?” Clint asks. "Seriously?"

“Natasha and Steve are on the run. Everyone knows they’re alive and Hydra’s been looking for them. Plus, they’ve been out of the house in the last couple of days. They were caught on cameras. Me, you and Bruce have all stayed inside. Hydra knew Tony was here, and Sam. So they set their trap and they think they’ve split the team two and two. Nothing I can see of their chatter makes me think they know I’m alive. Or that Clint and Bruce are here standing by.”

“Well that makes things interesting,” Natasha says.

“The civilians are our first priority,” Steve says. “Natasha and I will stall Hydra as long as we can to make time for their rescue. Buck-- James-- where’s the family car in relation to everything else?”

“Back of the group. There’s only one truck behind them.”

Steve nods. “Good. Take my motorcycle and stay under as much cover as you can. Take out the Hydra agents in the rear first, preferably without anyone noticing, and then do whatever it takes to get the family to safety.” Realizing that might have sounded too much like an order he added, “If you’re okay with that. Otherwise, we’ll figure out another plan.”

“I can do it,” James says. “I’m just not sure how that’s gonna keep you and Natasha alive. They’ve got execution orders.”

“Bruce and Clint are going to keep us alive once we can’t stall anymore,” Steve says. “Clint as a sniper on the roof and Bruce from everywhere else. If you’re in, Bruce?”

“I don’t think you could keep Hulk out,” Bruce says.

“You can do this, one arm down?” James asks Clint.

Clint nods. “Back in the circus I did whole shows with one hand tied behind my back. Never missed a shot.”

“Then it sounds like a plan,” Steve says.

“There’s a lot that could go wrong,” Natasha warns.

“I didn’t say it was a good plan,” Steve says. “But Hydra is only a couple minutes out, so this is the best we’ve got.”

James considers it for only a moment then gives them all a slight nod. Steve hands him the keys to his bike, then James heads for the door.

“James,” Natasha calls.

He turns and she tosses him an ear piece.

“Stay in touch.”

He meets her eyes, palming the listening device, and then he’s gone.

“I’m going to go wait outside the house,” Bruce says. “Clint-- don’t let the Other Guy get too far toward town if you can. Shoot him with some flares if he looks like he’s going to bolt, then get to cover.”

Clint laughs doubtfully. “It’s cute you think I’d have that long. But okay. I’ll do what I can.”

Bruce believes he’ll try. And he’s also putting a lot of faith in the Other Guy that he’ll realize Clint is their friend before he smashes him.

Bruce heads outside as Clint walks back up the stairs. Steve and Natasha go to stand in the front room. From what James had shown them on the StarkPad, this is personal enough that Hydra isn’t going to risk blowing up the house and letting their targets escape in the smoke. The orders are to execute them with shots to the head. No mistakes. No excuses.

Bruce has just stripped off his shirt when James’s voice is in his ear.

“Moving in on the rear truck now.”

Bruce hears a few muffled noises, some strangled, flopping thumps, and then silence. Less than thirty seconds later, James is back.

“Done. Moving in for the civilians.”

“Keep them safe, James,” Steve pleads. “I don’t want their blood on our hands.”

There’s silence again for a few long seconds before James responds.

“Neither do I.”

~~~~

Things get a little blurry after that. Bruce hears Steve’s phone ring over the ear piece. He can’t hear what the Hydra agents are saying, only Steve’s replies. And Steve’s pissed. His responses are clipped as Hydra makes their demands. Bruce can tell Steve’s trying to stall, but as the convoy rolls up they are having none of it. They might not be willing to blow up the house in its entirety but they have no trouble peppering it with bullets.

“Got the family. All clear,” James says.

And that-- that is the cue. Bruce looks back toward the house where the dozen Hydra trucks and slick, black cars have pulled up and formed a ring to block Steve and Natasha in. Hydra agents have surrounded the place and Bruce lets the Other Guy focus on the gunfire involved. Steve and Natasha are in that house. Guns are shooting at them. Bruce’s vision goes dim as the Hulk’s thoughts burst through, grasping at the images that Bruce has been trying to show him. Shield and Red are in the house. Hulk's friends are in danger.

The world explodes in green fire.

~~~~

“You wanna put that tree down?” Metal Arm asks. “There’s nothing left to smash.”

Hulk isn’t sure about that. To him, it looks like there are a lot of things left to smash. Smash until all the bad people are sand on the ground.

But not smash Metal Arm, even if the metal arm is nowhere to be seen.

Hulk drops the tree and frowns.

“If I walk over there, are you gonna hit me?” Metal Arm asks.

Hulk responds by plopping down in a heap. He tucks one leg under himself and watches Metal Arm approach. Hulk points at the man’s shoulder where metal arm is not visible. Hulk had really liked that arm.

“They’re making me a new one,” Metal Arm says. “I’ve still got this one though.”

Metal Arm reaches out his skin covered hand toward Hulk, and Hulk lifts his arm and stretches out his hand in a mirror of the movement. Metal Arm extends his skin fingers and holds very still, giving Hulk a chance to poke him if he wants. He does want.

“Everyone is safe,” Metal Arm says. “Steve and Natasha both have bullets in them, so I volunteered to come out here and get Bruce back. Can you do that? Let him come with me?”

Hulk makes a face and grunts in annoyance at the request but he doesn’t get angry. He’s ready for a nap anyway, and Banner knows about bullets and fixing bullets. He lets the doctor take control.

~~~~

Bruce doesn’t remember much of the hobble back to the house. James keeps his arm around him, supporting his weight, and gets some shorts on him when they reach the porch. Somehow Bruce ends up in a chair, covered with a blanket. When he’s a little more with it he realizes James is stitching up Natasha’s outer thigh while Steve sits nearby watching and healing from bullet wounds of his own. Bruce can hear Clint talking in the other room. He must be on his phone.

Bruce glances toward the window and Natasha tosses a pillow at him to get his attention.

“Don’t look out there unless you want to see a lot of blood,” she says. “It’s not pretty.”

“All Hulk?” he asks.

“Some,” she says noncommittally. “Clint didn’t miss any head shots, and Steve and I did our fair share of damage.”

“And you?” Bruce asks, toward James.

“Got the family to safety,” James says. “Then killed any Hydra agents trying to escape.”

Bruce nods numbly, somewhat relieved it isn’t all his own carnage. Not that he gives two shits about these evil assholes but it is always a little disconcerting to take a life. Clint walks back into the room while Bruce is lost in those thoughts.

“Called in a few favors,” Clint says. “Spare quinjet will be here in 5 to take us to New York, and a clean up crew will be here in 10 to make all this go away.”

“Will you come with us, James?” Steve asks.

“I don’t know,” James says, though he’s fighting a smirk so it’s obvious he’s teasing. “That bike of yours could get me just about anywhere.”

“It could,” Steve agrees. “And I’ll let you have it if that’s what you want to do.”

“It’s not balanced riding with one good arm,” James says. “Stark and Bruce can fix me in New York, then I’ll decide where I’ll go. If I’ll go.”

Steve looks relieved, and Bruce feels it, too. He’d have let James go, but he wouldn’t have liked it. This is better. Hopefully better for everyone.

They all move off in different directions after that to collect as much as they want to take with them. For Bruce it’s a box of StarkBars, his phone, his StarkPad, the portable scanner Tony had sent him in Europe, and his duffel bag. When he walks back into the living room, James has strapped an arsenal to himself and is carrying a large paper grocery bag stuffed with clothes.

“Seems wasteful to leave them behind.”

Bruce nods. “Take what you want,” he says. “Once you get to New York there will probably be more. A lot more. When I first moved into the tower I’d send my laundry out to be done, and it’d be sent back with twice as many clothes. I never figured out if it was Tony or Jarvis. Someone wanted me to dress better.”

“Pepper,” Natasha said, as she limps into the room. “And she was doing us all a favor.”

“Seriously, doc,” Clint added, trailing behind his best friend. “If even I noticed your clothes didn’t fit, you had problems.”

Bruce huffs in insult as Steve joins them.

“Pepper did it to me, too,” Steve says. “I stayed in the tower for two weeks and ended up with twice as many clothes as I started with. Most of them too tight.”

“Suuuuure,” Clint says. “Like you don’t wear them like that on purpose.”

Lights flash outside as a quinjet lands nearby.

“They’re more aerodynamic,” Steve insists.

Clint snorts as Natasha opens the door to lead the way out.

“You got something to say, Barton?” Steve asks. There’s a hint of an accent there-- he sounds more like the kid from Brooklyn than he ever has before.

“Not a thing, Captain Tight Pants.”

That makes James laugh, and the mood is momentarily lightened until they step outside and see the aftermath of their battle. They’re all quiet when they walk up the ramp into the empty jet.

The Other Guy senses the clean-up trucks rolling up the long driveway behind them. Bruce allows himself a moment to process the carnage he’s just seen. Bodies, bloody and crushed. Lifeless eyes. Likely they’ll all be piled high and then burned by whoever owes Clint this sort of favor.

It makes him feel slightly nauseated until his thoughts turn toward James’s brain scan. The metal spikes in his head, put there for cruelty’s sake. James’s words about his early torture and all the things Hydra took from him. His freedom, his hope, his name.

And that makes Bruce care about the body count a whole lot less.

Chapter Text

It makes him feel slightly nauseated until his thoughts turn toward James’s brain scan. The metal spikes in his head, put there for cruelty’s sake. James’s words about his early torture and all the things Hydra took from him. His freedom, his hope, his name.

And that makes Bruce care about the body count a whole lot less.

New York feels like home.

When Bruce had run, he hadn’t been sure he would ever return. Now he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. The lab is like an old friend. Not that Tony’s travel tech isn’t phenomenal. It is. But nothing beats the tower lab. Everything Bruce needs is at his fingertips, and he loses himself for days. Right up until Clint appears in the door, carrying a brown paper bag that smells like Indian delivery.

“Oh, wow. Hadn’t realized how hungry I am,” Bruce says. He blinks a few times and his eyes feel like sandpaper. He reaches for some eye drops on the desk and realizes exactly how many StarkBar wrappers he’s accumulated there. “What time is it?”

“Ten,” Clint supplies.

Bruce still looks confused.

“P.M,” Clint clarifies. “Twenty-two hundred hours.”

Bruce chuckles.

“Never thought I’d learn to appreciate military time, but without windows in here, there’s really no telling.”

Clint takes a seat at lab table, nudging some papers aside, and begins to pull out plastic containers filled with brightly colored food.

“Brought enough for both of us,” Clint says. “Figured you could use a break.”

“Funny,” Bruce says. “Figuring out my breaks is usually Jarvis’s job.”

“I ordered the food, sir,” Jarvis pipes in. “But thought you could use some human-shaped companionship.”

“Human-shaped companionship,” Clint repeats, with a smile. “I’ve definitely been called worse.”

“How’s the arm?” Bruce asks, once he’s rolled his lab chair over to the table to sit across from Clint. “One of the tower briefs said that Doctor Cho had landed. Yesterday? Maybe.”

Clint’s arm is still in a sling but all the bulky bandages are gone. Clint’s smile says it all.

“Fixed. Mostly. I’m not supposed to use it for a day or two, but I’m put back together. It doesn’t hurt anymore and she thinks I’ll be able to shoot fine.”

“That’s great,” Bruce says. “Anyway... I think Tony and I could have worked wonders, but the stuff she’s doing-- that’s miracles. I’m so glad she was available.”

“I’m lucky,” Clint says. “I heard her talking to Stark. There isn’t anything she can do for James. Something about his healing factor and all that shit they did to his brain.”

“I figured as much,” Bruce says, between mouthfuls of curry. “We’ll get him sorted though.”

“You really think so?” Clint asks.

“I can’t say our fix will be perfect,” Bruce admits. “But I’m about 99% sure we can get a limb on him and keep him out of pain. Tony’s working on building the arm, and I’m figuring out a way to attach it that won’t cause feedback.”

Clint glances up at the most prominent screen. “That’s his brain?”

Bruce follows Clint’s eyes and then nods. Clint’s making the same face Bruce had made the first time he saw the metal object shoved into James’s gray matter. Horror.

“It’s as bad as it looks,” Bruce says.

“You can’t get it out?” Clint asks.

“I’m leaving that decision up to him,” Bruce says. “As much as I hate that it’s there, I’m hoping he chooses to keep it where it is. Tony and I could short out the electronic components without moving it. Make sure it could never be hacked remotely. But taking it out... I’m just not sure it wouldn’t kill him, and that seems so damn unfair.”

Bruch sighs and then takes a vicious bite out of his naan. Clint smirks.

“Your eyes are looking a little green there, doc,” Clint points out.

“I’ve given up telling you to run,” Bruce shrugs, with a slight smile of his own. “I’ll be fine.”

“Didn’t doubt it for a second.”

Bruce doesn’t Hulk out. The green was only a momentary flicker, and Bruce has it under control. Clint changes the subject to some god-awful dog cop show he’s marathoning in his off hours, and his babble soothes away the rest of Bruce’s frustration. Clint makes him promise he’ll get some sleep eventually, as they clean up their dinner mess, and then he leaves.

Bruce’s thoughts are already back to his screens. Find the problem. Fix the problem. Run a simulation. Find the next problem. Fix the problem. Run a new simulation and hope like hell it doesn’t undo the last set of decent results. Repeat.

It’s 4 A.M when he drifts off, sleeping with his head resting in his arms, hunched over the lab table. It’s 10 A.M. when he wakes to the feel of something tapping the back of his head. At first he thinks it’s water dripping. When he finally opens his eyes and turns around, it’s James, with a wicked smile and a straw with wadded up spitballs.

Bruce makes a face and wipes his hand through his curls, knocking several soggy, pea-sized balls to the floor.

“Mature,” Bruce laughs. “What are you, ten?”

“Making up for lost time,” James says. He looks happy.

Bruce’s eyes sting at the edges because deep down his insides are made of gooey, sentimental caramel. He is so glad Tony isn’t around to notice. James notices though.

“Awww. Don’t go gettin’ mushy on me,” James insists. “I came down to see if you wanted to take a walk. Get some coffee. Jarvis showed me the back way to get out of this monstrosity so we can dodge the crowds.”

“If I’m going out in public, I need a shower,” Bruce says.

If it was anyone else he’d beg off. He’s still got work to do. He isn’t going to turn down James though, and James seems to know it.

“Get to it then,” James says. “I can wait.”

James plops himself down in a chair, to demonstrate said waiting ability, and Bruce is forced to stand and go make himself tolerable company. He finds several more spitballs in his hair as he washes himself clean. It’s funny until some mean part of his brain chimes in to remind him just how many head shots the Winter Soldier had made over the years. And how seldom they were harmless.

Bruce switches the water to cold to chase away the depressing thoughts, then turns the tap off completely before hopping out. It doesn’t take him long to put on jeans, a t-shirt and a flannel. He grabs a hat and pulls it low over his eyes. He’s entirely unremarkable. It’s all the disguise he ever needs in New York.

James is dressed much the same, Bruce notices, once he’s back to the lab. The only difference is that James’s sleeve is pinned up carefully, since the metal arm was removed their first day back.

The walk out of the building is spent in companionable silence. Bruce lets James lead the way and they end up in some coffee dive with only a few chairs and excellent sightlines to every exit. Some things are never going to change.

“You look good,” Bruce says, once they're seated, and he’s sipping his drink.

“Is that your professional opinion?” James asks.

“I never claim to be a professional,” Bruce points out. “I’m saying it as a friend. And as someone who has been watching this all play out for a few weeks now. Honestly... compared to what I expected, you look incredible.”

“Geez, Bruce. You sure know how to sweet-talk a guy,” James teases. There’s no flirtation in it and Bruce is glad for that. This is just James Buchanan Barnes being a smart ass.

Bruce lets out a laugh he doesn’t really intend. “So how do you think you’re doing?” he asks.

James considers it and looks more serious when he speaks. “I’m still a little worried I’m going to kill someone. Natasha keeps an eye on me. Barton says he does, but considering the shit he let us get away with in Europe, I’m not holding my breath he’d put me down if he had to.”

Bruce nods. “Sounds reasonable.”

They go quiet again. Bruce could ask questions but he feels like it’s probably better not to, and just let James take this conversation wherever he wants it to go. After a few minutes, it works.

“I need you to talk to Steve,” James says. “He’s driving me nuts with how freaked out he is to touch me.”

“He doesn’t want to take advantage of you. I’m sure he means that well.”

“I know he means it well,” James complains. “I wish he’d mean me a little less well. I’m not saying sex, or anything. I’m not ready for that. I just mean... I...”

James huffs, in a way that is totally reminiscent of those early days.

“If there’s something you want from him, it’s okay to be clear about it,” Bruce says. “And if you’re having trouble having the discussion with him about what you want, I can be there when you talk. If you think that would help.”

“You don’t think since I can’t talk about it I’m not ready?” James asks. “That’s what-- That’s what he thinks.”

He sounds frustrated and he’s staring at his coffee cup like it has personally wronged him.

“Did he tell you that’s what he thinks?” Bruce asks.

James makes a face. “I’ve known him for a long time. That’s what he thinks. And just because I’ve got some metal in my head and I’m an arm down doesn’t mean I’m out of order,” James complains. “He’s treating me like I’m broken.”

“The only advice I can give you is to talk to him,” Bruce says. “There isn’t a simple fix. I know it’s frustrating he’s so worried about hurting you, but the alternative to that... him not caring about you enough to worry? That’d be worse.”

James huffs again and goes back to glaring at his coffee. “I fucking hate this.”

“I have a lot of hope for you,” Bruce says. “You’re willing to bring this up to me. To have this conversation. To me that says this can be worked out.”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Absolutely,” Bruce says. He knows an unfair amount about James, from the things he’s revealed and from James’s medical records, and then what they’d been able to piece together from the old Hydra info. It’s only fair James can ask whatever he wants.

“Do you see anyone?”

“Romantically?” Bruce guessed.

“Or not-romantically,” James agreed. “I was with some girls before the war and I don’t think romance had too much to do with it.”

“There’s no one right now,” Bruce says. “And I’m fine with that. If what I want ever changes, I think I’d be fine with that, too.”

“You aren’t alone because you’re afraid of killing someone in bed?”

Bruce smiles. “There’s that, too. I think if there was someone I was strongly attracted to, I’d like to think I’d try to make it work. Right now that isn’t the case. I’m happy having friends. I’m content.”

“Good for you,” James says. “That’s what I want.”

Bruce must look confused because James clarifies.

“I want to be content. I kind of remember a time. A bad time, probably, since there was a war and people were dying and all. But we were in a bed and I remember Steve wrapped up in my arms, and my face was buried in his hair and I was breathing him in, and I wanted to trap that second in a bottle. I don’t know what was going on. I’ve got no idea where we were. I just remember that I didn’t want anything to change. And that feeling. That’s what I want.”

“Tell him all that if you can?” Bruce suggests. “Just like that. See what happens.”

“You really think I can make this work,” James says, mystified. It isn’t a question.

“It can’t hurt to try.”

 

Epilogue: Seven Months Later

“Daaaaaaaamn, Barnes,” Clint calls out, as Steve and James enter the bar. “Brooklyn looks good on you.”

James has no idea what Clint is going on about, but he shoots him a smile and a middle finger for good measure.

“It’s the jeans,” Natasha muses.

“You sure it’s not the arm?” James asks.

It’s only a week old, and it’s awesome. Tony’d put some certifiably weird-science into it and it can look like metal or it can look like skin, and James only has to think for a second about which he’d prefer for it to switch. For now, it’s skin. That’s easier when they’re in public.

“Who’s looking at your arm when these guns are out?” Clint asks, sitting up a little straighter to flex his right arm and managing to choke on the tiny straw in his drink simultaneously.

“So hot, Barton,” Steve drawls. "We're all super impressed."

They slide into a funky, half-circle booth that gives all four of them a view of the exit. It’s the perfect table for a group that hates sitting with their backs to a door.

“Where’s Bruce?” James asks.

“Sciencing,” Clint says. Clint always seems to know where Bruce is these days. “But he’ll be here.”

Steve slides his hand up over James’s thigh and squeezes. It’s under the booth, but Natasha and Clint can see. Clint elbows Natasha a little too enthusiastically.

“Our little caterpillars are butterflies now, Nat. I’m so proud.”

“You don’t think one of us is going to stab you, but you keep this up, and you’re getting a fork to the leg,” Natasha warns.

Clint’s laughed retaliation is lost as Sam walks in and he’s greeted loudly by name. He’s only a few steps inside when Tony and Bruce walk in behind him. James meets Bruce’s eyes and he gets a big smile, one that’s usually just reserved for Steve.

Somehow between the front door and taking a seat across from Steve, Tony manages to order a round for the bar.

“Well, let’s see it,” Tony insists, as he sits and makes grabby hands toward James. Sam has the decency to reach over and smack them away.

James shifts up in his seat and reaches into his back pocket to tug out a folded piece of paper. He flips it over and slides it toward Bruce. It’s not like it’s any big deal, really. It’s just a certificate that says he’s alive. Not under a fake name, but as him... as James Barnes. And maybe he should have let Tony see it first, since Tony shelled out big money for lawyers, and it was largely his political influence that had James declared alive and absolved of his crimes. But the honor goes to Bruce, because if it wasn’t for Bruce, James knows he wouldn’t be here.

Bruce gives the paper his full attention.

“Congratulations,” Bruce says sincerely. “This is incredible.”

Bruce looks up at James and his smile makes his eyes crinkle at the edge, and it’s kind of hard to believe that James is looking at the same man he’d first met in the barn. Yes, James has changed. Bruce has changed, too.

James doesn’t object when Tony finally grabs for the paper, reads it, and then passes it to Sam, who continues it in a circle around the table. They’re all happy for him. They’re happy in general.

And when the barkeep brings around the next round, the place gets loud, and James isn’t stressed out by the commotion. This is the good kind of chaos, and the best kind of friends, and as much as he knows he doesn’t deserve this life, he’ll take it. After all, it’s his.