Chapter 1: December 8
07:30 SGR departs Coney Island Design & Construction (A- 22)
07:53 SGR arrives Central Tile Company (A-96)
08:22 SGR departs Central Tile Company (A-96)
08:47 SGR arrives 959 74th Street (A- 96)
Natasha was drinking coffee and reading through the latest crop of papers when she looked up to find Barnes standing in the doorway to the bedroom, looking pale. "Hey," she said, "should you be out of—"
"Where is he?" Barnes asked, a little thickly. "Did he go?"
"He went, yeah." She made her voice sound casual. "But should you be—"
"I’m fine," Barnes said, and went, a little unsteadily, to the sofa. "You think he’d go if I wasn’t?"
"No," Natasha said, after a moment. "No, I guess he wouldn’t." She glanced, briefly, at the stack of older papers piled on the sofa cushion next to Barnes, and then said, as casually as she could manage, "Coffee’s up – do you want some?"
"No thank you," Barnes said absently, but turned to look at her anyway. "He went to work?"
"Yeah." She made a face at him. "I thought maybe he wouldn’t since the van’s blocked in, but he just took the motorcycle. On the up side," she added, wryly, "you’ve got a $400,000 car in your driveway. Tony’s surveillance vehicle – you should check it out."
Barnes rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead; not taking the bait. "Where did he go, 74th Street?"
Natasha sighed. "Yeah. To the Croydens."
"Going to finish their kitchen," Barnes muttered. "Course he is."
"Oh, it’s worse than that." Natasha found herself unaccountably irritated. "He said he's going to give them some money back because—"
Barnes put his hands over his eyes and half laughed. "Oh, Christ."
"—it was supposed be done by Thanksgiving and it wasn’t," Natasha finished. "Minor setback: just a terrorist attack on New York City. Christ, you won’t need the CIA to shut the business down if Steve keeps on—"
"You’re hired," Barnes said wryly, and then, frowning: "Are they shutting us down?"
"I don’t know," Natasha admitted grumpily. "Nobody knows. None of my sources—Nobody seems to know what’s happening."
"Well, I certainly don’t," Barnes said. "I’ve been on a total news blackout, courtesy of you know who." His metal hand dropped on top of the pile of papers, and she realized he’d been aware of them all along; well, of course he had. They were what he’d come out for, like as not.
She bit her lip, considering; Barnes was looking straight at her, maybe daring her to say something. Steve had been pretty insistent about keeping the newspapers out of the bedroom while Barnes was recovering, and he’d yanked the radio and television plugs out of the wall. But…
She shrugged and abruptly gave way. "I think you should look at them," she said seriously. "They’re about you, after all, and…well, they’re pretty interesting if you ask me. I wouldn’t mind having someone to talk them over with. Steve's…too angry to think straight."
"Since 1936," Barnes agreed, and dragged the topmost paper onto his lap.
"No," Natasha said, getting up and going to sit on the other side of the pile of papers. "If you’re going to do it, start from the bottom – that’s the first one." She tugged out a copy of The New York Trumpet from last week and handed it to him. "You guys sure do get a lot of papers. Now I know who's keeping print journalism alive."
"Old habits," Bucky said vaguely; his eyes were already on the headline: "Howling Commando James Buchanan Barnes, Reported KIA in 1945, Sighted at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters in NYC." Beneath that, in small caps, the sub-headers: "EVIDENCE OF AN EXPANDED SUPERSOLDIER PROGRAM," and "SGT. BARNES, BORN 1917, IS NEARLY 100 YEARS OLD."
Chapter 2: December 9
SORRY you guys on phones! I've posted a mobile-friendly version - no graphic, regular text. Hope that looks better! EDITED TO ADD: I've heard you could also hit "Hide Creator's Style" - that will still give you the overlarge newspaper, but the text below might look more normal on phones.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The New York Trumpet
"Howling Commando Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Reported
KIA in 1945, Sighted At S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters in NYC"
SGT. BARNES, BORN 1917,
IS NEARLY 100 YEARS OLD.
NEW YORK - Numerous witnesses, many of them agents of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement & Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), have claimed that Steve Rogers, Captain America, escorted a man closely resembling Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos through the lobby of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters yesterday. This claim is remarkable since Sgt. Barnes, popularly known as Bucky Barnes, was thought to have been killed in action in 1945.
Born in Brooklyn on March 10, 1917, Sgt. Barnes was reported killed on a mission in the Swiss Alps only days before war hero and super soldier Mr. Rogers, 98, went missing in the March 5, 1945 crash of the Valkyrie. Both men were presumed dead although their bodies were never recovered. Captain America was discovered frozen in the Arctic in 2011 by an expedition of Russian scientists, and subsequently revived. It now appears that Sgt. Barnes, 99, must also have received some form of "super serum" which has allowed him to survive. If the man who was sighted in downtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon is, as witnesses claim, James Buchanan Barnes, he is a man apparently untouched by the ravages of time. Photographs taken at the scene reveal a man appearing closer in age to thirty than to nearly a century.
In an unusual turn of events for the security-conscious S.H.I.E.L.D., photographs and cellphone videos of Sgt. Barnes and Mr. Rogers began appearing on the Internet almost immediately after their reported appearance in downtown Manhattan. @BreakingNews had the photo within the hour, tweeting, "BUCKY BARNES ALIVE OR DEAD Y/N?" along with the hashtags #howling commandos and #greatest generation. That photograph and others, which seem to be of the same two men taken from different angles, quickly went viral, though there were immediate suspicions of a hoax. Mr. Rogers, who has not appeared publicly in some time, had grown a beard and was wearing civilian clothes, while Sgt. Barnes – adding yet another bizarre turn to the mystery - was dressed in the familiar blue and white uniform of Captain America. The photographs also show Sgt. Barnes with a bandaged head and leaning on Mr. Rogers for support, which corroborates witness accounts that Sgt. Barnes was wounded and had to be helped through the S.H.I.E.L.D. lobby by Mr. Rogers and, later, fellow 'Avenger' Natasha Romanoff.
While there has been a surge of traffic to Internet debunking sites like FactChecking.org and Snopes.com, there has been little in the way of official confirmation or denial. Representatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. declined to comment on this story, as did those of the CIA, the Defense Secretary, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although Lieutenant KellyAnn Kolchek, spokesperson for the U.S. Army, said that she would certainly be pleased to hear of Sgt. Barnes's survival. However, several sources with knowledge of the situation told The Trumpet that they believed the story to be true and that an announcement of Sgt. Barnes's return to public life would likely be forthcoming.
EVIDENCE OF AN EXPANDED
SUPER SOLDIER PROGRAM?
WASHINGTON - The sudden reappearance of Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos in New York yesterday, nearly 73 years after his reported death on February 27, 1945, has caused many to wonder if the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) had a more elaborate program for developing super soldiers during the Second World War than has been previously admitted.
Under the direction of Colonel Chester Phillips, the SSR ran a project to produce a unit of chemically-enhanced super soldiers using a serum developed by German refugee and Nobel prize winner Doctor Abraham Erskine. This project, which ran from 1941 – 1943, culminated in Steve Rogers's transformation into Captain America in June, 1943, after which Dr. Erskine was killed and the formula for his serum lost. No unit of super soldiers was ever created, and until now Steve Rogers was thought to be one of a kind. However, it now seems that there was at least one other recipient of Dr. Erskine's formula. At the time of Mr. Rogers's transformation, Sgt. James Barnes was already serving in the European theatre as a member of the 107th Infantry. Later, rescued from Hydra by his childhood friend, he would be recruited by the SSR and become a founding member of the Howling Commandos. If yesterday's reports are true, and Sgt. Barnes is in fact alive and looking remarkably like his last known photograph, one can only conclude that the SSR had more up their sleeve than history has heretofore recorded.
Consequently, The Trumpet has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to all SSR records dated between November 1943, when Sgt. Barnes was rescued by Cpt. Rogers, and February 1945, when Sgt. Barnes was reported to have fallen to his death in the Alps. We hope to discover whether Sgt. Barnes, or anyone else for that matter, was used as a test subject during a second, previously undocumented phase of the SSR's super soldier program. “It is a vital to our national security to know whether the U.S. produced any additional super soldiers during the war and if so, how many,” said Senator Christopher Ismay (R-GA). "The intelligence gathered by soldiers who may have served their country over fifty, sixty, or even seventy years is of incalculable value."
Featuring amazing new art by Alby Mangroves aka artgroves! If you like her art, please reblog on Tumblr! :D
Chapter 3: December 10
One more chapter with multimedia, sorry, and then we'll return to a text-based universe! The actual story should be readable here even on a mobile, though; just scroll down past the newspapers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Holy shit." Bucky looked up at her with wide, glassy eyes. "They think it's the SSR. They think that what happened to me was—"
"That's the least of it," Natasha replied. "That's not what's interesting," and Bucky stared at her for a moment before reaching for the next paper in the stack, and then the next and the next.
Frustrated, Natasha snatched the newspaper out of his hand, though she felt an unexpected stab of guilt when Bucky looked up at her, shocked and almost childishly dismayed. "That's my sister," he muttered, reaching out for it. "That article was—"
"You're not looking at the big picture," Natasha told him. "Which is to say, the little one," and she picked up the Brooklyn Citizen, folded it, and handed it back to him, tapping the tiny photo inset within the picture on the front page. The main picture was yet another camera-phone shot of Steve pulling Bucky through the lobby of SHIELD, but the inset was a picture from the past: a black and white photo of Bucky and Steve by the seaside; Bucky and Steve from before the war.
He had been a good-looking kid, Bucky Barnes, and he had known it. In the photograph, he was shirtless and wearing swim trunks, his arm crooked around Steve’s neck. Steve had the squinty, diffident look of someone who didn’t much like exposure, to the sun or otherwise. He was carrying a small sketchbook; Natasha supposed that he was the one who normally did the looking. His long bangs had fallen across his face, into his eyes. She wondered now if that was on purpose.
“Look at this," she said, and Bucky frowned down at the picture. "Do you remember this?”
Bucky shook his head slowly. “I have no idea when that is. Could have been any time, I guess. Except.” He tilted his head, frowning. “Except for the camera. I don’t think we knew anybody with a camera.” He stared at the photograph, and Natasha wondered if he was marveling at his own cocksure youth. But then he looked up, mouth curving. “I know you love him, too--”
That surprised her. “That I do,” she said.
“—so let’s just admit that he’s got a lot of nose per capita, does Steve.” Bucky stared down at the newspaper again, his expression lit up with fondness. “It used to be worse, because he had so much less face. And that bump. God only knows how many times he broke it.”
“You’re missing it,” Natasha said softly, again, and handed him a copy of The New York Eye. “Here, again. Look,” and she pointed to another old photograph: in his one, he was sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette.
Bucky looked at it and shrugged. “What do you want from me: I take a good picture," and then he frowned and she could literally see the idea cross his mind. He began to fish through the thick pile of papers.
"Right," Natasha said, sitting back. "Not a scowl, not one single scowl – and I've logged some hours at the Smithsonian, so let me tell you: you did a lot of scowling back in the day."
He looked up at her, irritated. Scowling, in fact. "Well, we were fighting a fucking world war."
"Yeah, but look at you guys there: a couple of choir boys, day at the beach. Vulnerable, unarmored. Not to mention—"
"Where did they get these pictures?" Barnes muttered, shaking his head.
"--where did they get these pictures?" Natasha finished, because yes, that was exactly the question. "They're not in the Smithsonian, and when Rogers came back, I was—" She stopped, but it was too late; Bucky gave her a shrewd, assessing look and then nodded slowly.
"You were his handler," Bucky said.
"Yes," Natasha admitted quietly.
"And then later, of course, you were on his protection detail," Bucky said wryly.
"Well, that's how we got here, isn't it?" Natasha shot back. "You and me?"
"It sure is. You had to arrange Steve's security, protect him from me," Bucky said. "So you probably know a thing or two about him. And you probably know a thing or two about me."
"I'm pretty close to an expert, actually," Natasha told him. "I did my own research; due diligence. And I've never seen these pictures."
Bucky nodded and squinted down at the paper again. "There's no credit line."
"Must be public domain," Natasha replied, except she seemed to remember seeing… She hunted through the papers and found the one she was looking for. "Here we go," she said, and then read the caption aloud: "James Buchanan Barnes, circa 1938, courtesy of the Brooklyn College Library. " She handed the paper to Bucky, then reached for her phone. A couple of taps and she had the answer to her question. "Ha, they blogged it," she said, grinning helplessly at him. "Goddamned librarians." She read it out to Barnes: "Prompted by public interest in the story of Bucky Barnes's sensational return, previously unseen photos of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have been discovered in the archives of The Brooklyn Times-Union—"
"Shit, I remember the Times-Union," Bucky said. "Times Plaza's still there - Flatbush Avenue." He waved his hand that way.
"—which were donated to Brooklyn College after the paper ceased publication in 1950. The pictures were never properly labeled, it says here. The one of you and Steve at the beach was just 'Boys – Coney Island.' Part of a photo spread, man on the street stuff. Boys on the beach." She put her phone down. "It's a good picture: friendly, humanizing. Somebody went to the effort of digging up that picture, Barnes. I'd say somebody out there likes you."
Bucky looked uncomfortable, "Likes Steve, you mean."
"No, I don’t think so. I think you. Any idea who?" Bucky slowly shook his head.
12:31 SGR departs 959 74th Street (A- 96)
12:36 SGR arrives 13th Avenue Coffeeshop (A- 96)
12:51 SGR departs 13th Avenue Coffeeshop (A- 96)-- 12:58 SGR arrives 959 74th Street (A- 96)
17:35 SGR departs 959 74th Street (A- 96)
17:48 SGR arrives Marenstein Bakery (A- 96)
17:59 SGR departs Marenstein Bakery (A- 96)
18:14 SGR arrives Coney Island Design and Construction (A-22)
Chapter 4: December 11
"You shouldn't read that stuff," and they looked up to see Steve standing there in his dirty work clothes: heavy denim shirt and khakis and construction boots. He looked at Barnes grimly, then shot a look at Natasha as if it was her fault, as if she should have ripped the papers out of Barnes's hands or something. "Buck. What are they going to tell you that you don't know?"
"There's an interview with my sister," Bucky said. "With Ellie. From 1974—"
"What are they going to tell you about Ellie that you don't know?" Steve said angrily. "She's your sister, you know her better than anyone. It's a goddamned invasion of privacy is what it is."
"It's a plan," Natasha said quietly, from the other side of the room. "It's somebody's plan. I don't know whose yet but—"
"Whose could it be?" Steve said, rounding on her. "If it's not our plan, it's their plan."
"Maybe," Natasha allowed. "Except it's good press, Steve: sympathetic to a fault. The return of Bucky Barnes – young, handsome: nothing about the Winter Soldier or about Hydra. He’s a Brooklyn boy, a hero from a nobler age. A Howling Commando, straight out of a history book. Best friends with Captain America – or maybe he is Captain America. Maybe it's something the two of you do together on the weekends: like winning wars and playing stickball."
"Stop," Steve muttered. Bucky'd already looked away, jaw working – he looked somehow wrecked.
"It's a case, Steve," Natasha insisted, "someone is making a case here. They're printing pictures of the two of you together: Steve and Bucky, then and now. They're showing the world that he matters to you – and therefore, that he matters, full stop. You’re integrity personified, so it's an implicit endorsement; I couldn’t have orchestrated things better myself."
"Sure, let's have a parade," Steve gritted out. "A big one, with ticker tape down Fifth Avenue, a lot of glad-handing and kissing babies: maybe a photo-op with the President. They don't let you talk much, Buck, but that's okay, because you have a Brooklyn accent and nobody wants to hear what you have to say anyway. Then they have this nice cabin in the woods, upstate, by a lake: they let you stay there for a while when the grind of the publicity machine gets to be too much,” and Natasha felt that like a punch to the solar plexus; she’d brought Steve up to the lake house herself, after the Chitauri attack and before— “Then maybe they’ll find you a little apartment somewhere, with a dishwasher – though they’ll expect you to be very excited about that for some reason, so fake it if you don’t feel it. But the thing is, absolutely none of that will matter a damn if they decide you’re the enemy. I was Captain America,” Steve said, and the past tense made her stomach knot. “That didn’t stop them turning on me at the first opportunity.”
“That was Hydra,” Natasha protested. “This – whoever’s doing this, it’s not Hydra.”
“It’s all Hydra,” Steve said bitterly, and went to wash and get changed.
“Well,” Natasha said, determined to sound calmer than she felt, “that didn’t go very well.”
Bucky was still pale, but he looked at her and shrugged offhandedly. “He’s dramatic, don’t mind him. You gotta be a bit dramatic if you’re going to wear that outfit. I was embarrassed to death half the—hey,” he said, attention snapping immediately back to Steve, who had reappeared wearing clean sweats and drying his face with a towel, “so you think it’s a trap? You know, it could be a leak from below, someone trying to keep us out of a black site by shining a little light our way.”
“Could be,” Steve said, moving into the kitchen; pots banged and clanked. “Or it could be a set up: they normalize you with the parade and the president and cabin and then, whoa, hey, stop the presses: Bucky Barnes is The Winter Soldier, Hydra operative and deadly assassin. I can’t believe it! – can you believe it? I don’t believe it. Who wants soup, I’m making soup.”
“You’re heating soup,” Bucky corrected. Steve banged a pot and turned around.
“That’s right: I’m heating soup, I’m not making soup from scratch. You want soup from scratch?” Steve was breathing raggedly, and Natasha stared from one of them to the other, wondering why Bucky was poking him, winding Steve up like this when he was obviously—
Bucky idly scratched at his chin and said, “No, canned is fine,” and then, very softly, “Keep it together,” and then Steve was turning his back and staring down at the stove with his fists clenched, a wall of contained fury. Then Bucky got up and went over and stood behind him, close but not touching. And then he muttered, close to Steve's ear, “It’s going to be all right. It will,” and Natasha drifted into their bedroom, to give them space and a little bit of extra privacy.
The window in here was the only window that overlooked the street. Outside, she saw that an NYPD police car had pulled up next to the SHIELD surveillance vehicle – that was interesting. It had been Agent 22, Sidney Ormond, heading the team stationed outside last she checked: he was all right, Sid, not like some of them. Barnes had treated the window so that nobody could see in, so Natasha felt comfortable standing there and watching the action go down on the street outside.
The cops had come around to both sides of the car, and Sid had been forced to roll down the window. The cop on the driver's side had bent down to talk to him – was this a check-in? were they collaborating? – except now the cop was pulling his flashlight off his belt and shining it into the car, the circle of light bright in the dark winter evening.
Very interesting; very – and from this angle, two stories up, she couldn't see Sid's face, but a moment later she saw that he was passing something to the police officer: his identification, maybe; his driver's license or his SHIELD badge. It was a tricky thing, dealing with local law enforcement. Ideally, of course, an operative flew under the radar, but that was hard when you had to stake out a building like this, and if you got noticed, you couldn't always depend on inter-agency cooperation. It wasn't like there were permits or anything. SHIELD was an international organization, and it and the CIA worked pretty well together, but she knew that there was friction with the FBI on the one side and with Interpol on the other, and the local police were always…. She found herself smiling in a kind of bemused incomprehension as the cop summarily handed back the badge: were they going to give Sid a ticket, or— Her grin widened. The cop made a kind of shooing gesture. He was pointing down the street. Christ. The cops were sending them packing – would Sid call for backup or would he just go? He went. She stood there and watched.
"Guys," Natasha said, coming back into the main room, "you'll never believe what just—"
They were sitting at the million-dollar table eating bowls of soup. "Come and have some," Steve said, waving her over. "There’s fresh bread from Marenstein's—"
"The NYPD sent your surveillance team away," Natasha said, pulling up a chair.
"The NYPD passeth all understanding," Steve replied.
"The NYPD does whatever the fucketh it wanteth," Bucky said. "They'll be back,” and then he turned to Steve and resumed their conversation. “Look, I don’t have any other ideas, okay? I’m not a fucking fountain of ideas. This was my idea – this,” and he waved his metal hand around the kitchen, the apartment, the garage; the whole place, “and my other ideas are the same idea: we make a run for it, we go and hide somewhere, we start over. If you don’t want to do that—“
“I don’t want to do that,” Steve said.
“Well, then I am out of fucking ideas, Steve.” Bucky shoved his chair back. “What’s your idea?”
Steve stared into his soup for a moment, and then began, quietly, “We put it on them. We make them come here and get us. We don't make it easy, we don't go quiet. We make them drag us out of here in front of our friends and neighbors; we make them shoot us in the street like dogs.”
Natasha put her spoon down. Even Barnes seemed taken aback.
“And in the meantime,” Steve said, reaching for the bread, “we live our lives, we go to work—“
“Wait, whoa, screw that,” Bucky said. “I’m not going to work. I want to go dancing.”
Now it was Steve’s turn to look taken aback. “What?”
“Dancing,” Bucky said, scraping his chair back and standing up a little unsteadily. “Dancing. You know: moving your body in time to music. Come on, you and me – and Natasha, too: I’m paying. Let’s go to that thing you wanted to go to last year – the swing thing at Lincoln Center.”
“I didn’t want to go, I wanted you to go,” Steve said testily. “And you said you wouldn’t because—“
“Yeah, well, that was before I was waiting to be shot like a dog. You really know how to cheer a guy up, you know that? Jesus Christ, Steve.” Bucky took a breath and then his expression turned pleading. “Come on, come out. Put on a suit, I’ll buy you a drink. We’ll go up to Harlem if you think Lincoln Center’s too public. But if this is it – if this is really it – then I’m going out.”
“Well, then you should,” Steve said, his face somehow hard and apologetic both. “Knock yourself out, but I’m – not really in a dancing mood.”
“All right,” Bucky said, and then he looked at Natasha and said, “What about you? You coming?” and Natasha hesitated and looked at Steve, who jerked an almost imperceptible nod.
Chapter 5: December 12
She had no idea that Barnes was such a party animal. Four hours and three nightclubs later, and Barnes was pulling her through another dark and crowded bar to yet another dance floor, and who knew that there even were places like this in New York anymore? Sure, they’d had to come pretty far uptown, but this wasn’t the typical New York club scene of people rocking their bodies to a thumping base; these people had moves, these people were dancing like they meant it.
She’d learned swing formally, as a style, but for Barnes it was a lifestyle, and he danced it with a nonchalant ease that she'd never encountered before, even with professionals; he danced it like a native, moving and turning through the complicated steps like a fish sliding through water. The movements were natural to him, unstudied: swing, turn, pull back, push in, turn again. He wasn’t thinking about it: he didn’t have to think, he’d let his brain off the hook – which she could see, now, was the whole pleasure of it for him. He was letting his body drive.
For her own part, she had to focus, count steps, think about where her hands were, where her feet were, even as he lead her through it. A couple of times she was certain she’d mistimed it – that she was going to miss his outstretched hand as she turned and go flying off or crash down onto the sprung wood dance floor – but he always had her; always. He knew where she was even when she didn’t. It was exhilarating, and she was breathless, sweating; hair flying. She hadn’t had a workout like this in some time.
Bucky was sweating too: he’d started out in a jacket, but he’d had to lose that, though he’d kept his long sleeved shirt cuffed at the wrists and he’d loosened his tie a little - but not enough to show the glint of metal at his left collarbone. And Christ, he could put it away, could Barnes, though she'd known that: she’d learned that the night that Peggy Carter died, when he’d drunk her under the table. He’d always insisted that he had the second-rate serum that let him get sloshed, though she didn’t think she’d ever seen him really drunk until tonight: “If I'm gonna throw up,” he slurred with a kind of grim determination, “if I throw up today, it’s gonna be because I’m enjoying myself for a goddamned change,” and by then she was too muzzy-headed herself to argue. For what that was worth, it made dancing easier, and she just grinned at him and let him fling her around like a rag doll for another hour, trusting him to catch her even if he was plastered.
In the end, they ended up collapsed half on top of each other on a ratty red velvet banquette at the back of the club. Bucky was carefully sipping what had to be at least his tenth whiskey with the careful, precise movements of the very drunk, and Natasha stretched her legs out in front of her and looked at her feet. They seemed very far away. It was a good thing she’d worn her good dancing shoes; she’d have ripped the heels off any other pair she owned.
“You wanna’nother?” Bucky's empty glass slipped through his fingers and fell into her lap. He pushed his sweaty hair away from his forehead and sat up; he was trying to be a gentleman. “Getchoo’nother— “
She dragged him back by his shirt and he came easily, falling back beside her. “Forget it,” she said. “M’done, you’re done. We’re done,” she said, and blinked slowly at him.
“Yeah,” he said, and time went sideways, a little, so she was never sure if he’d kissed her or if she’d kissed him, though she thought from the look on his face after that he had kissed her.
"Let's pretend that never happened," he said, and Natasha let her head roll back to look at him and replied, licking her lips, “That what never happened?" Bucky slid further down into the balding velvet cushions. He smiled and closed his eyes and said, "I really like you, sister. I don't even like girls and I like you." He opened one eye and said, relaxed and squinting at her, "You should do that with Steve some time. It'd do him good. Steve likes girls, or he used to, before I got my mitts on him. And you know, I used to think you were a little sweet on him.”
"I am, a little," she said. “I think we all are, a little: just look at Tony. But Steve's not so easy."
"You saying I'm easy?" Bucky interrupted, and then, suddenly serious, "No, he's not easy. He's the furthest thing from easy. He doesn't get drunk, for one thing," and then his face crumpled and he buried it in his hands. "He's got no plausible deniability, that kid. He always has to do the right goddamned thing," and Natasha stared, helpless and a little horrified, as Bucky lifted his red, wrecked face and said, "How'm I gonna save him? How'm I ever going to save him now?"
She scrubbed at her cheeks, her hair, trying to get the blood flowing back to her brain: to get her brain working. “Taxi,” she said, twining her arm around his. “Come on, we’ve got to get a—“
“Okay,” Bucky muttered, letting her tug him forward; tug him up, tug him out.
He fell asleep in the cab, but she was wide awake as they moved through the city, which was deserted as it ever got at this hour: light traffic, all the lights twinkling on the East River as they sped down the FDR Drive to the bridge. She opened the window an inch or two to feel the cold air blowing against her face. It woke her up, a little. She stared out the window at the city and thought about things.
He stirred when the cab stopped in front of Coney Island Design and Construction, but he was groggy, and so she got out of the cab on the street side, coming down with a crunch onto auto glass, and went around to open the door on his side. There were no other occupied cars in the street, though there was light streaming onto the cracked sidewalk from an open garage door somewhere down the block. Bucky looked apologetic as she hauled him up off the back seat; in his rumpled suit and overcoat he looked like the tail end of a great New Year's Eve, circa 1938.
"C'mon," Natasha said, walking him unsteadily toward the door as the cab pulled off. "Where's your—"
"I got 'em," Bucky said, and clumsily fished for his keys in his suit pockets. "They're here. Somewhere," but it turned out he didn't need them, because suddenly Natasha heard the heavy bolts turning and then Steve was there, pale and anxious and yanking the door open for them.
"Hey," Bucky said, face lighting up, and then he was lurching away from her toward Steve, practically falling into his arms, and then his metal elbow was crooking around Steve's neck and he was kissing him and groping Steve's face with his other hand. This wasn't exactly surprising – this was clearly the kiss Bucky had been jonesing for all evening – but she was surprised at the way Steve clutched back, dragging him in, his long fingers digging into the back of Bucky's jacket. And then they were kissing and sort of grinding against each other, stumbling back against the wooden bench, and Natasha jerked a thumb over her shoulder and said, "I think I'll—probably—" and then she was stepping out into the night air and yanking the heavy metal door shut behind her. She tested it with a rough shove: it was solidly locked but not barred, though god helped the people who interrupted two supersoldiers fucking, she thought.
Not that there was anyone in sight, anyway. Tony's car was still parked across in front of CID&C's huge garage door, and Natasha slipped the handheld out of her pocket and consulted it: nothing, nobody within range. She frowned and walked into the street to study the scatter of auto glass in the circle of streetlight; it glittered across the black asphalt like ice. Then she began to walk purposefully down the block, toward the open garage door and the slanting yellow light.
It wasn't as big as CID&C's garage, but there was a cheap table set up with a bare bulb hanging over it, and three men sitting around it, drinking beer and playing cards. They looked up and nodded at her as she passed, and then one of them called out to her: "Oye! Eres la prima—?" and then, abruptly switching languages, "—the cousin?" He waved a scarred hand vaguely in the direction of Coney Island Design & Construction, down the block. "You are the cousin, yeah?"
"Yeah." Natasha smiled at them but didn't stop walking. "Si! I'm--the cousin," she repeated, because she didn't know whose cousin she was supposed to be, Rogers's or Barnes's. She waved vaguely and then she was out of sight and down the block; at the corner; turning.
Only then did she pull out her cell phone. "Clint," she said. "I need you."
Chapter 6: December 13
Bucky was heavy in his arms, and his mouth was cool and wet and tasted of whiskey like it had before everything in the world went to hell. Kissing him reminded Steve of a million other nights before the war when Bucky had gone out dancing and come home sweaty and drunk, with lipstick on his collar and a dame’s perfume in his hair. But it was Steve he’d come home to, and then, with the door locked, Steve would roughly unknot Bucky’s tie, unbutton his shirt and—
He had the idea that somehow, together, they’d manage to navigate the rickety wooden stairs up to their apartment and get to the bed, but halfway up they just sort of went down in slow motion, Bucky’s legs collapsing under him with the grace of the very drunk, and then Bucky was sprawled back on the staircase and laughing up at Steve and making faces. He looked happier than he’d been since before he’d replied to that goddamned Code Red on New York, and he was spread out before Steve like a smorgasbord. Steve bent down to unknot Bucky’s tie and unbutton his shirt, spreading out his overcoat and his dinner jacket – hell, he’d do him in the husk of his discarded dress clothes. He unbuckled Bucky’s belt and unzipped his wool trousers.
Bucky’s laughter turned breathless and throaty as Steve licked his hand and gripped him, then leaned in to kiss the soft skin of his belly, the scratchy base of his cock. This was a thing he knew how to do, and he fell into it instinctively: he knew how Bucky liked to be rubbed and stroked, how to use his mouth and what the rhythm was: it was their own sort of dancing, honed after many evenings of practice. Beneath him, Bucky moaned and stroked Steve’s hair, his hips gently rocking up into the rhythm of it. Steve lost track of time, lost track of everything except the warm intimacy of this, Bucky’s warm hard thigh and the slick, fragile skin beneath his lips, and then Bucky was tensing beneath him, hips trembling. Steve pulled off slow and worked him through it with his hand, watching his face turn inward. It took him over, then let him go: Bucky convulsed, arching a little, then let out of a series of gasps and sank back against the stairs, his jism pooled on his belly.
He looked raw, decadent, and Steve had never wanted him more. He was desperate for it, aching and needy, and without even thinking he made a grab for Bucky’s shoulder and struggled to turn him. Bucky went willingly, rolling and getting his knees under him, and Steve fisted Bucky’s shirt and jacket by the lapel and dragged them down his left arm both together, exposing his back. “Come on,” Bucky said, between breaths; he was suddenly panting like a freight train, and Steve shoved down his sweatpants and pushed his cock between Bucky’s pressed-together thighs, his cockhead nudging the back of Bucky’s balls, the shaft hard against his body.
They both groaned at the same time, and Bucky’s thighs tightened around him. Bucky slurred, “God, it’s good, but – I want you to put it in me, put it inside me,” and Steve, moving back and forth now, and drunk on the pull of it, the friction, muttered, “Vaseline’s upstairs; too far,” because it might have been on the moon as far as he was concerned; his body wasn’t waiting.
“Don’t need it,” Bucky said, his voice muffled against his arm, “I can take it: I’ve been fucking you for the better part of a century--” and then Steve couldn’t hear much else with the blood rushing in his ears, and he was fucking hard and fast between Bucky’s legs, hands tightly clutching his hips. They were smooth and pale, and he only realized when he finally let go, his come dripping down the inside of Bucky’s thighs, that he’d gripped hard enough to leave marks: there were red splotches where his fingers had been. “M’sorry,” he said, collapsing onto Bucky, and then he was pressing his lips to the sweaty back of Bucky’s neck and saying, “I didn’t mean to hurt—“
“Shut up, that was great,” Bucky muttered. “No fishing for compliments.” He reached back clumsily with his hand, found Steve’s, and twined their fingers together.
Steve closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the back of Bucky’s neck. “Bucky, if you want to run, I’ll run,” he said. “We won’t tell anyone; not a soul: we’ll go so far underground we won’t even recognize ourselves. I don’t care about winning. I don’t have to be right.”
Bucky lifted his head and said, blearily, “What have you done with the real Steve Rogers?”
"No, I mean it. I don't have to be right. I don't, Buck,” and whatever Bucky heard in his voice made him squirm and turn around, reach out to soothe him. “I need you to understand: if they take you again, I can’t live here anymore,” and Bucky understood better than anyone that by here Steve meant now.
“I don’t know what to do,” Bucky said finally. “I really don’t. You held it to them and they backed down. Maybe they’ll back down again. You can be awful persuasive when you think you’re right.”
“Yeah. But this time – I’d rather be alive and with you. I hear Chicago’s nice. The Cubs…”
“I could root for the Cubs,” Bucky said.
Chapter 7: December 14
Natasha groaned as her phone binged, not wanting to move out of the arms of a warm, naked Clint Barton. "Phone," he mumbled, even as she was reaching to drag it off the nightstand.
Text. Tony. IT'S ME LET ME IN, and she groaned and blearily texted back: I'M NOT THERE. Clint rolled over sleepily, lifted an arm, and pulled her back against him.
The bing came again a second later, as she'd known it would. WHO'S WATCHING THE KIDS?
THEY'RE WATCHING THEMSELVES, she texted back.
She didn't expect him to leave her the fuck alone, and he didn't. HOW DO I GET IN? and she half-laughed, half groaned and sat up, the sheet falling down around her waist, to text: BANG ON THE DOOR AND YELL HI ITS TONY. OPEN UP. She let the phone drop and saw that Clint was awake and watching her with a kind of dreamy expression. "I like the view," he said, and she smiled seductively at him and rolled her shoulders, thrusting her breasts forward. He reverently stroked the curve of her breast with his hand, then touched her nipple with a finger. Heat pooled low and she licked her lips, beginning to tingle and hum with wanting it. She--
Her phone binged and she groaned.
NO ANSWER. WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY? and she she sighed and then considered the time: nearly 2 in the afternoon. They'd gone to work, most probably, responsible bastards. Steve had probably gone to finish that kitchen, and odds were that Barnes had gone with him.
THERE'S A BAGEL PLACE TWO BLOCKS DOWN AND AROUND THE CORNER, she texted. I'LL BE THERE IN 15 and then she looked at Clint, smirked, and hit backspace, 25 MIN, and then she threw the phone onto the nightstand, shoved Clint's shoulders down, and straddled him.
Tony was sitting alone at a cheap formica table in the corner of Church Avenue Bagels when she and Clint finally walked in. "You're late," he said, looking up, "but I don't even care because these bagels are fucking amazing." He picked up another half, with cream-cheese, and bit in.
She pulled up a chair, grinning, while Clint went to get bagels and coffee from the counter. "Yeah, they're pretty good."
"So where the hell are they?" Tony asked. "Place's locked up tight as a drum."
"Probably went to work. They're remodeling a kitchen."
"Oh, well, as long as it's something important," Tony said, rolling his eyes. He waited until Clint came back with onion bagels and coffee, and then said, swallowing and lowering his voice, "SHIELD called me in for a conversation this morning. Asked for my help," and Natasha tried not to betray her surprise on her face. But Tony seemed to guess it anyway, because he nodded grimly and said, "They're being pressured – not to say badgered – to put out some kind of statement about Barnes, but they're a bit worried that--you know: Captain America might decide to go nuclear on them on the front page of the New York Times. "
Natasha blew on her coffee, then sipped it. "It's decent odds," she allowed.
"So they want to talk to him, run it past him, but – interestingly, they can't seem to get near him. Things keep going wrong. Last night, for example," Tony said, slouching down in his chair, "in a case of very interesting developments indeed, some guys smashed up their car with baseball bats."
Beside her, Clint didn't even blink; God, she loved him. "Well, Brooklyn can be a tough place," she said. "Tell them there's a good auto glass shop down the block, though. Russians. Fix 'em right up."
Tony ignored this. "Then the cops came by and said that – listen to this, you'll love this – that it might have been someone from the Neighborhood Watch. They said that some of the guys around here get what you might call enthusiastic about neighborhood protection, and then they pretty much blamed SHIELD for the whole thing—like, what did they expect if they were hanging around in the middle of the night, casing the joint? It's like the old joke: 'Doctor, it hurts me when I go like this!' 'So don't go like that." So the position of local law enforcement is: maybe don't be loitering around Coney Island Avenue on account of how a person could get hurt and that would be a crying shame, too bad. "
"Uh-huh," Natasha said, and unwrapped her bagel.
Tony pushed down his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "So they called me in, gave me a draft of the thing, and sent me here – and boy, it's a sad day for SHIELD when I'm their big ally. They want me to show a draft of this press release to Steve, see what he thinks of it."
"Oddly, he's not interested in being complicit in his own destruction," Natasha said, and then she was reaching for a paper napkin and wiping cream cheese off her fingers. "Give it to me," and Tony hesitated for only a moment before pulling an envelope out of his inside overcoat pocket. It was embossed with the SHIELD logo and had printed on it, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.
"The first rule," she said, slipping the paper – one folded page – out of the envelope, "is never to admit to anything that people don't already know," and Tony crossed his arms and said, "Well, that'll work out fine, because nobody seems to know anything. I'm serious, Natasha," he said, when she made a skeptical face at him, "I think they were genuinely shocked to find out that James Barnes was the Winter Soldier: that James Barnes was even alive. I mean, we were surprised – you and me, and Clint over here, who knows fucking everything about everything," Tony flung his hand at Clint; Clint rolled his eyes and kept eating, "and we're pretty on the inside of SHIELD as things go. Forget my father--though God knows it's hard to, even after heavy drinking, but—Aunt Peg? You think Dame Peggy Carter, MBE, head of SHIELD for fifty years, knew that Bucky Barnes was alive and didn't say anything, didn't do anything about it, didn't mention it to Steve when he turned up out of the ice?"
Natasha thought about this; put that way, it seemed very doubtful. "She didn't know," she agreed. "But Fury knew. He wasn't surprised."
"Fury knew," Tony admitted, "but he played everything close to the vest."
"Yeah," Natasha said, and then she unfolded the paper to stop herself from saying more. Tony was right: the press release, short as it was, had a note of uncertainty to it: SHIELD wasn't themselves sure what had happened, so they weren't sure what to say. There was no mention of the Winter Soldier, which was good: just an acknowledgment that James Buchanan Barnes, sergeant in the 107th Infantry, member of the Howling Commandos, posthumously made a founding father of SHIELD after his death in 1945, was, as the pictures on Twitter indicated, very much alive; that he had received some version of the super serum during the war (the release didn't say how, or from whom); that Steve Rogers was one of the few people alive who was in on the secret (fair enough), and that Barnes occasionally served as Captain America when Steve Rogers wasn't—"
" '—available?'" Natasha finished incredulously, looking up. "He serves when Rogers isn't available? Rogers ran for his life. He hates them. He feels they betrayed and manipulated him. He only took the shield back because Harry Perkins begged him--"
"Well, that's sort of like not being available," Tony said, and just then there was a little tinkle of bells as the bagelry door opened, and Natasha looked over her shoulder just by instinct, expecting nobody important – except there was Sam Wilson in a leather jacket, looking shocked to see Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye sitting down to an afternoon bagel brunch.
"I just thought I'd take some bagels over," Sam explained. "The bagels are good here."
"Yeah," Clint said, nodding. "We know."
Chapter 8: December 15
"Look, you guys," Sam Wilson said to Steve and Bucky in a low voice; he was leaning toward them in the armchair, hands dangling between his legs. "I'm well aware that I'm, like, your least super-powered friend." Sam shot a look over his shoulder at the million-dollar table, where Natasha, Tony, and Clint were arguing over SHIELD's draft press release, taking commas out and putting them back in again. "But I have been around the block a couple of hundred times and I think I have something to contribute to this situation, so listen up, okay? You need a lawyer."
"A lawyer?" Bucky repeated incredulously, but Sam nodded; he was serious, all business.
"A lawyer," Sam repeated, "and a damn good lawyer, preferably a military lawyer or someone who specializes in veterans issues. Look, man, I know you're all with the super-serum and that shit," he told Bucky, "but as strange as your situation is, it's hardly unique. There was that guy – they just found him a couple of years ago: what's his name. Robertson. Special ops in Vietnam: helicopter shot down, KIA, presumed dead. Turned out he survived," Sam told them. "He was captured, tortured, put in a bamboo cage for two years. Then he married his nurse. When they found him, he spoke Vietnamese like a native. He'd forgotten his family, his own name—"
Bucky'd gone pale. "Stop," he said thickly. "Just—"
Sam gripped his arm. "Barnes, you need to hear me on this. This isn't unique to you. You're not the only POW who's been forced to fight for the other side. But there are laws in place to—"
"But—" Bucky gritted out.
"—laws in place," Sam repeated resolutely, driving over him, "to determine when you do and do not bear responsibility for what you did as a prisoner of war. The Germans conscripted Soviet soldiers during the war, and the Soviets conscripted the Poles. There's a history there, man, and that's even before we get to the brainwashing and the amnesia. Hydra had a guy called Fennhoff; there was a book about him, won the National Book Award a couple years back. This Fennhoff worked for Hydra and the CIA both, doing mind control; getting people to do things against their will: shoot people, kill themselves, bomb buildings. He had scores of victims, this guy—"
"My dad," Tony Stark said softly, from across the room, and they turned to look at him. "Fennhoff nearly got my dad, back in the day. Peggy saved him—well, of course. Peg."
Sam nodded and turned back to Bucky. "I grant you this situation is weird but it is certainly not unprecedented. You got two more case studies in your kitchen – Natasha and Clint, both of them brainwashed by enemies of the United States. Don't you see: there's a case to be made, you just need somebody to make it; somebody who knows the law and all the relevant historical precedents. Like when the brainwashed POWs from Korea were repatriated, they sued for back pay and benefits, all the way to the Supreme Court – and they won; the Army had to pay them from the time they were captured to the time they were discharged. And you've never even been discharged, buddy; seems to me you're still wearing an American uniform. You were certainly fighting for your country a couple of weeks back, whatever things you did as the Winter Soldier—"
"But. I. Did. Them," Barnes gritted out, like he was talking to a child. "I'm guilty, I did those things, I—"
Sam pointed emphatically at him. "This is why we don't let people defend themselves, man. This is why we have lawyers in this country. Listen to me: just because you did things, doesn't mean you're guilty."
Barnes let out an explosive breath and threw up his hands. "What the fuck are you—"
"Bucky, be quiet," Steve said sharply; he was sitting up now and looking at Sam with urgent understanding. "Be quiet," and Sam met his eyes and nodded approvingly. "Sam, do you know somebody? The right…sort of person for this?" and now it was Sam's turn to let out a long breath.
"Yeah, I think so." Sam rubbed at his face. "At least…I think I know somebody who knows somebody."
"Get them," Steve said.
Chapter 9: December 16
The dark-haired woman standing outside on the sidewalk was wearing a wool coat with a fur collar, a navy blue pantsuit with heels, and a doubtful expression. "I’m Bernie Rosenthal," she said, when Steve opened the metal door. "Sam Wilson said…" She trailed off and gave him a probing look; he'd refused to re-Captain-America-fy himself, so he was wearing his glasses, a beige cardigan, his beard. "You're Steve Rogers," she said finally, and switched her briefcase to her other side so she could offer her hand. "It's an honor, sir. Sam sent me - may I come in?"
"Yes, please," Steve said, stepping back. "We've been expecting you," and she stepped out of the daylight into the dim, cool garage and looked around, taking everything in. She seemed like a sharp cookie, Steve thought; he liked her air of nonchalant competence. "We live in an apartment upstairs," he told her. "Bucky's waiting for us there," and she didn't need to know that Bucky'd begged off from answering the door at the last minute; that he was sick with nerves.
He'd pulled it together, though, by the time Steve had escorted the lawyer up the rickety staircase and into the apartment. Bucky'd put on a shirt and tie, shined his shoes – Bucky’d always known how to make himself look respectable – but there was no mistaking the tension on his face, the dark hollows under his eyes. “Thanks for coming,” he said, and Steve wondered if the lawyer could hear the misery in his voice. “I’m Bucky Barnes.”
“Yeah,” Bernie Rosenthal agreed, and stepped back to look at him with one hand on her cocked hip. “Wow. I guess you really are. Tell you the truth, I didn’t really believe it; there’s so much fake news these days, and there was no official confirmation from SHIELD or the army—“
“They’ve—drafted a press release.” Steve picked it up off the table and handed it to her. “For us to review,“ and Bernie shoved her wool coat down her arms and dragged a pair of reading glasses up onto her face from what looked like a solid gold chain around her neck. She scanned the page and tossed it aside. “Yeah, we’re not gonna do that,” she said, and showed them a broad smile. “We’ll be controlling our own press from now on. Sergeant Barnes—Bucky, can I call you Bucky? I’m Bernie. Bucky and Bernie: unstoppable,” and then, without taking a breath, “Bucky, the first thing I’d like to do is to hear your story, or as much of it as you can remember.” She unzipped her briefcase and pulled out a representation agreement and a yellow legal pad. “We‘ll sit down together for a couple of hours and sketch out a timeline, what do you say?”
“Okay.” Bucky swallowed, jerked a nod. “Sure.”
“Should I make coffee?” Steve asked, as they pulled out chairs and sat down.
Bernie looked up and said, “Water’s fine, thanks. And then I’ll need you to give us the room.”
“What?” Steve asked, surprised, turning back.
“There’s nothing you can’t say in front of Steve,” Bucky said. “Steve is - Steve knows everything.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t work that way,” Bernie told him, uncapping her pen. “You’re my client, not him; anything you tell me is privileged, but Steve and I do not share that privilege. Legally speaking, he’s a third party, and if we end up in a trial situation, he’s going to be called as a witness. You should have your own counsel,” she told Steve. “I can give you some names.”
“Third party?” Steve repeated.
Bucky sat back in his chair, arms crossed. “Look, I’m just going to tell him everything anyway.”
Bernie recapped her pen. “I have to advise you not to do that,” she said. “If you’re not going to take my advice, I may not be able to represent you to the best of my ability – or at all. I know you think your interests and Steve’s interests are the same, and maybe they are, but they may not be.” Bucky opened his mouth to argue, but Bernie waved her gold-ringed hand in the air and repeated: “They may not be. Legally, you guys are two separate entities, and he has no rights - or responsibilities - where you're concerned.”
Steve quickly put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed; he didn't want Bucky to say anything he might regret. “It’s okay, Buck. I’ll just—I’ll go down to the gym for a while and work out. You—just tell her everything, okay? Do what she says.”
“But Steve,” Bucky said, twisting.
“Just tell her everything,” Steve repeated. “And do whatever she says.”
It wasn't until he broke the chain on the heavy bag at Goldie's that he realized he wasn't boxing with his usual restraint. The room burst out into spontaneous applause – men catcalling, hooting and hollering at him in a way he hadn't heard since the war – and Steve turned, panting and a little embarrassed. "Hey Goldie!" somebody shouted. "When the hell are you gonna fix your broke-ass equipment?" and then there was more laughter and shouting: "Yeah, what the hell are we not paying our dues for, anyway?"
Steve reached for a towel and wiped his face, then saw Lalo ducking under the ropes and out of the ring where he'd been sparring. He looked up where the chain had snapped. "Te lastimaste?! Por poco y te cae esa cosa, te pudo haber volado la cabeza! Knocked your block off!"
"No, estoy bien," Steve replied, now more embarrassed than ever. "Really. I'm sorry, I must have...just hit it too hard or something."
Lalo rolled his eyes. "You're supposed to hit it hard," he said.
"Yeah, well, it's been a bit of a week," Steve confessed, rubbing his neck with the towel. "A bit of a month," he amended, and then he was laughing ruefully and saying, "A bit of a life, if I'm honest."
Lalo shook his head. “Man, you need a beer or something. Why don’t you come over later - we’ll be in the garage. Los muchachos y yo pasando el rato y jugando dominó.” He fumbled for a moment and then said “Dominos. Gina is making nachos. Trae a tu novio.”
"That sounds great," Steve said honestly, and Lalo pounded his shoulder a couple of times and then drifted off again, into the ring.
But it was hours before his phone vibrated and the text appeared – SHE'S GONE – so he could go home. It got dark in the afternoons now, but to Steve's surprise, all the lights were off—not just in the garage, but on the stairs and, when he opened the door, in the apartment, too. It wasn't until he flipped the switch for the metal dome lamp hanging over the kitchen table that he saw that Bucky'd been sitting on the sofa in the dark. He looked over at Steve with an expression that Steve couldn't remember seeing on his face before, or not for years, anyway: overwhelmed, overflowing; brimming with more inside than he could handle.
Bucky rolled up to his feet and took a step in Steve's direction – he was close to spilling over – and before Steve could think about it, he was closing the distance between them, pressing his fingers to Bucky's lips, and shaking his head no; no, no, shhh. Bucky's eyes widened with a kind of desperation, his lips moving under Steve's callused fingers – and so Steve shut him up the only way he knew how, sliding his fingertips across Bucky's stubble-roughened cheek and leaning in for a kiss, to smother the words against Bucky's mouth. Bucky let out a soft moan of protest, then gave in and took charge, grabbing Steve by his sleeves and yanking him in. It was always a surprise – it had always been a surprise – that Bucky wanted him. Bucky had been the first person to want him; Bucky had wanted him when nobody else did, when the very idea of wanting him was crazy. Sometimes it felt like Bucky's love for him had supercharged his whole life, that it was so powerful that they were both still alive and buzzing with it nearly a century later.
This time they made it to the bed; Christ, their bed, with its line-hung sheets and heavy wool blankets. This time it was Bucky pushing him back and unzipping him and worshipping his body with hand and mouth, with soft kisses and the gentle brush of his eyelashes. He could fight for this; if the world burned to ashes all around him and exhausted him, he would still fight for this. Steve breathed out, sighing almost soundlessly, as Bucky took him to the edge and pushed him over, then crawled up his body and kissed him almost brutally - his face, his neck, dragging his lips across Steve’s bearded jaw and sucking bruises onto his shoulder. Bucky teased himself against Steve's hip, digging into him and then growing slick. Then Bucky hmmed softly and buried his face in Steve’s hair, and Steve rolled closer and hooked his foot over Bucky’s ankle, anchoring them. They were sprawled, half in and half out of their clothes.
After a while he felt Bucky’s metal fingers tangle with his, and then Bucky whispered into his ear, “She says--“
“Don’t tell me,” Steve murmured back, tensing.
“I can tell you this. She says I’ve got rights. She’s says I’m in the U.S. Army and I’ve got rights,” and Steve had to turn away fast because his throat had closed up and his eyes were filling with tears and he didn’t want Bucky to see. He squeezed Bucky’s metal fingers and waited until he was pretty sure he could speak in a normal voice, and then said: “Lalo invited us down the block for beer and nachos. I’m going to take the dogs for a walk and then go over there. Come with me, okay? We’ll take a long walk and then go smoke cigarettes and play dominoes.“
“That sounds great,” Bucky said.
Thanks to fruitydany for Spanish beta! <3
Chapter 11: December 18
“You’d’ve made a great short-order cook, you know that?” Natasha told Bucky, who was making massive amounts of bacon and eggs with a casual ease that she’d never seen outside of the very best greasy spoons: working three pans without breaking a sweat. “How did it go with Bernie Rosenthal?” and now Bucky tensed and looked at Steve, who went a little twitchy and raised his mug to his lips.
“Good,” Bucky said absently. “We had a good… I’m not allowed to talk about it.” He wiped his hands on the sides of his jeans. “But—good, I think.” He made an absolutely enormous plate of food for Steve, and an only slightly less enormous plate for her, even though she was waving her hand wildly and making frowny faces at him; who could eat four eggs and half a pound of bacon?
She’d take the coffee, though; Bucky made the best coffee in the city.
“Tony wants to know what you want him to tell SHIELD,” she said. “He’s been holding them off by acting even more irresponsibly than usual, but they’re about ready to pitch a fit; the President got asked about it yesterday, did you hear?”
“I’m trying not to pay attention to the news,” Steve gritted out.
“He’s been ducking the press, but he ran out of time. They came at him like bees.” Natasha picked up a strip of bacon and munched on it. “Sir, is it true that James Buchanan Barnes is still alive? Mr. President, can you confirm that Sgt. Barnes was a member of the Super Soldier program during the war? Sir, has there always been more than one Captain America?” She licked her fingers. “Of course, they don’t have any answers – they’re all scrambling for answers – so Ellis was reduced to getting cute: ‘I like to think that every man and woman who serves to defend the United States is in some small way like Captain America…’ and then there was a whole song and dance about trusting the CIA and SHIELD to declassify the relevant information at their own pace, blah blah—as if they have any information to declassify. But they’re gonna,” she told them. “They’ve got both ends of the story – James Barnes falls off a train in 1945 and the Winter Soldier materializes on a D.C. street in 2014 - and they’re going to piece together the middle: track you from the Alps to Russia to Zola and Hydra —“
“Tell them to talk to my goddamned attorney,” Bucky growled. “I’ve got rights.”
“He’s got rights,” Steve agreed, swallowing and wiping grease from his lips with his napkin. “I haven’t, but—“
“Oh, Christ,” Bucky muttered.
“—that’s okay, because I’m just a third party. I’m legally irrelevant to this situation.”
“Fuck me,” Bucky muttered, and then he was turning to Steve and saying in a voice so laden with sarcasm it was almost cheerful, “So, I mean, do you also want to be on trial for war crimes, like for togetherness, or what is it that you want exactly? You don’t know, do you,” Bucky accused, as Steve’s jaw tightened. “You don’t even know.”
“I do know!” Steve said, and slammed his hand down on the table. “I wanted this; I wanted--“
“Hey, I wanted a table like this, too,” Natasha interjected coolly, “but you bastards never made me one,” and they both turned to her, and a moment later, the tension went pop. They all exhaled; they laughed. Steve rubbed his forehead and groaned.
“We’ll make you a table, I promise,” Bucky told her, and then he got up to get more coffee. “You’re a stupid fuck,” he told Steve in passing. Steve glared at him.
Natasha quickly changed the subject. “Did you notice: your SHIELD detail is back,” and that got their attention; their heads immediately snapped back toward her.
“Oh?” Bucky sat down again, face hard; all business.
“Yeah.” Natasha showed them the handheld: two red dots outside the dotted blue perimeter. “As of this morning, according to JARVIS, but I wouldn’t worry.” She looked from one to the other of them, and then smiled impishly. “I mean, I give it an hour before the cops boot their car or one of your neighbors slashes their tires.”
They didn’t laugh; they just stared at her, confused. “What?” Barnes began, just as Steve frowned and said, “I don’t understand.”
“Your neighbors,” Natasha repeated. “Haven’t you— Your neighbors have been looking out for you guys. This is not a block that takes shit; nobody’s been able to get within a hundred feet of your—“ and even as she said this, the handheld flashed, and JARVIS said, in his polite, mechanical voice, “There is someone at the door.”
For a moment, they all stared at it. “Who?” Steve asked, finally, and JARVIS answered the question literally, throwing up a slowly spinning window that showed… a small boy, jittering around on the sidewalk, dancing from foot to foot.
“That’s Anton,” Bucky said, frowning. “Dmitri’s son. What the hell?” and then they were all scraping back their chairs and going down through the garage to the door.
Bucky yanked it open and said, “Privet, Anton - what can I do for y—“
Anton nervously held out a pale blue envelope and then yanked it away again when Bucky reached out to take it. “Wait, sorry – I have to give it to Steve. Only to Steve, Dad said,” and so Steve came forward and Anton immediately handed him the letter.
“You want to come in?” Bucky asked awkwardly, and Natasha could see that he was scanning the street outside for anything dangerous, anything unusual or strange.
“No, I’m good!” Anton chirped. “Dad says hi,” and then he was racing back down the cracked pavement toward the auto glass store. Bucky watched the boy go until he’d darted inside. Then he gave the street a last look and shut and bolted the door.
Steve had moved deeper into the garage, turning on a goose-necked lamp so he could read the letter. “Why didn’t Dmitri just come down here?” Bucky asked him. “Or call?”
“Because it’s not from Dmitri,” Steve said absently, still reading. “It’s from Nancy.”
Bucky looked thrown. “Wait, who?”
“Nancy; client Nancy; Nancy Monroe. I turned the shop phone off when we...” Steve looked up, seeming dazed, and explained vaguely to Natasha, “Nancy lives in a big old house on Argyle. We do a lot of custom work for her. She…” He looked down at the pale blue handwritten letter again, and then said to Bucky, “She wants us to come over and meet her grandson.”
Bucky didn’t miss a beat. “Well, tell her that’s real sweet, but we--“
“He’s a journalist. He’s the dean of the journalism school at Brooklyn College.”
Natasha let out a long, low whistle. “That’s it; that’s him; that’s your guy,” she told Bucky. “Guy like that’ll have former students on every paper. Guy like that’ll have reach.”
“She wants us to talk to him. He wants to talk to us,” Steve mumbled.
“I think I ought to call Bernie,” Bucky said faintly.
“You ought to call Bernie,” Steve agreed.
“Call Bernie,” Natasha said. “Call Bernie right now.”
Chapter 12: December 19
"It's good timing," Bernie said absently, rummaging through her briefcase. "I've been preparing documents but I haven’t planned out the press angle yet. It'd be good if we had someone to leak this to - someone respected – and this guy seems like the ticket. It'd be good to give him an exclusive interview, too, if he wants one; I'd been planning on television, but—"
"I’m not going on television," Bucky muttered.
"— but I'll take a newspaper reporter if he's reliable." She looked over her glasses. "Is he?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "He's the grandson of a woman I know; a friend. Natasha thinks—" He looked over at Natasha, who shrugged and waved him on. "Natasha thinks the newspapers have been unusually sympathetic to us, and that this fellow's likely to have been responsible."
"Sympathetic is good," Bernie said cheerfully, "I'll take sympathetic: worth its weight in gold." She took the pale blue letter from Steve, scanned it, and nodded. "I'll set up a meeting ASAP: we'll do it at Grandma's house. We'll ask your guy to get there first, before us; that way, even if we're followed, they'll still have to figure out who we're meeting." She tucked Nancy's letter into her planner and added, with a smirk, "I don't like giving anything away for free. Let them earn it."
"All right," Steve said, and then, awkwardly standing, "Should we give you the room?"
"Yeah, please; if you would," Bernie said, and he and Natasha left.
"Come back with me to Clint's," Natasha said to Steve when they reached the bottom of the staircase. "We'll order some food, hang out; you know he'd love to see you."
"I – thanks, Natasha, but—" Steve ducked his head, too demoralized even to make up a good excuse, and she sighed and reached up to hug him. He bent in, his head rolling forward, and she held him in her arms and rubbed his shoulders. "I'm sorry," Steve rumbled, "you've been great – we wouldn't have made it without you. I don't know why you do it," he said, "or what I did to deserve it. I'm a terrible friend; ask Bucky."
She smiled a little at this. "It's because you're the real thing, Rogers. I've seen a lot of fakes in my time." She tilted her head and sucked, ruefully, at her lower lip before letting it pop. "Fakes all over the world. But you're real - the hundred percent genuine article – and we all know it."
"Yeah, a real idiot," Steve said, rubbing his eyebrow. "A real dope," and Natasha nodded and added: "Real stubborn, real bossy, real self-righteous; just generally difficult, actually, if you really want to--"
Steve's lips twitched. "I thought we were saying nice things about me."
"Oh, we were," Natasha said, all earnestness. "Sorry. I got off track."
In the end, Natasha went to Clint's and he whistled for the dogs and took them out for a long walk in the park. It was cold, and so only the die-hards were out: other dog-walkers and red-faced joggers, bundled up in their fancy running gear. He checked his watch and was just about to take the dogs off the leash when his phone beeped in his pocket. DONE HERE, HURRY BACK, and his heart leapt a little like it always did when Bucky called for him.
It wasn't what he expected though, because Bernie was still there, though she'd packed all her papers away and she was leaning back, casually expectant, on the thick, rolled arm of the sofa.
"Sorry," Steve said, hanging his coat on the hook. "I came back as soon as I could."
"No problem," Bernie said, and then she looked over at Bucky, who was sitting at the kitchen table with a faraway look on his face. Bernie said, pointedly, "Bucky, is it okay for me to tell him what we just talked about?" and Bucky nodded vaguely and then said, "Yeah, sure. Tell him."
Steve wondered if maybe he should sit down himself, but then Bernie turned to him and started talking, her voice studiously casual. "Just to keep you in the loop," she began, "I'm going to be filing a lot of paperwork on Bucky's behalf over the next couple of days. We're going to sue them," she declared, and Steve blinked and jerked to look at Bucky, who didn't react or act like he'd even heard her, "for benefits, for back pay, for redress commensurate with that given to other soldiers who were POWs during the war," Bernie was ticking these points off on her heavily-ringed fingers, "and for an honorable discharge in recognition of Sgt. Barnes's years of service to his country. We are also," and Bernie's voice suddenly turned careful, "filing an affidavit stipulating that Sgt. Barnes operated as the Winter Soldier from 1954 to 2014."
Steve did sit down then, dragging out a chair from the table and slowly settling down on it.
"We're going to admit everything, have him allocute what he remembers – which isn't a lot – and get them close the book on this, which I think they're going to want to do," Bernie told them. "Because the thing is – the thing that you both have to remember – is that your story doesn't end in 2014. That's a couple of years ago now: it's past tense, over, bookended. Our key word in this case is recovered. Bucky Barnes has been recovered."
Bucky looked up, frowning. "You mean like recovered from being brainwashed?"
"Sure, but what I really meant is that you were recovered by the United States after the fall of Hydra," Bernie said. "I mean, like, literally recovered. In 2014, Sgt. James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos was recovered from captivity by Steve Rogers after the Battle at the Triskelion. After which you guys resumed your life: you have been quietly living here and working and being Captain America when needed. That's the next part of the story," Bernie told them. "That's the part that's happening now, and it's as real and as meaningful as anything else." She began to put on her coat. "Try to relax, guys, okay?" she said, on her way out the door. "Get a good night sleep."
"Sure," Bucky muttered.
"Right," Steve said.
Chapter 13: December 20
"Bucky…" Steve slid his arm across Bucky's body in the darkness, not wanting Bucky to think there was something wrong. "Bucky, wake up…"
Bucky made a soft, sleepy sound, though Steve knew that, recovered or not, there was enough Winter Soldier in Bucky that he would have come fully awake at the sound of his name. "S'jus the radiator banging..." He patted Steve's arm reassuringly. "Jus'the steam."
"Yeah," Steve murmured into the darkness. "I know. Bucky, I think we should get married."
It was like Steve hadn't said it; Bucky didn't respond, didn't move, didn't say anything.
"Okay, well, this is a really weird dream," Bucky groaned finally, and so Steve had to sit up and switch on the bedside lamp. Bucky winced and raised a hand to his eyes.
"It's not a dream, I'm serious," Steve said.
Bucky rolled away from him, tucking a pillow under his head. "You're crazy is what you are. This ain't a time for gestures."
"It's not a gesture, it's good legal sense. For example, if we get married, then I don't have to testify if I don't want to," Steve argued, and that made Bucky groan and sit up and glare at him.
"You want to get into it?" Bucky ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Then let's get into it. First, Steve—Steven—in what possible universe are you not going to testify? You can't keep your mouth shut for five fucking minutes. You are temperamentally unsuited to not testifying. I would put my money on the Titanic rising out of the ocean before I'd believe that you'd sit there quietly in a situation where I'm on trial." Steve leaned back against his propped-up pillows, arms crossed, and blew out his cheeks; he was fuming, but he didn't quite have an argument for this. "And second," Bucky went on, "in what possible universe would even I want you to do that? You're the best witness I got. People love you - which is because they don't know you – but you are literally the most trusted man in the world. They took the U.S. government apart on your say-so. And what are you going to tell them that's worse than what I'm overtly admitting to: that I beat up Billy LaSalle in fifth grade?"
"He was a bad kid," Steve muttered.
"He was a bastard and a half but so what?" Bucky looked at the bedside clock and then groaned, "Steeeeeve, it's four in the morning. You woke me up for this nonsense at four in the fucking—"
"I still want to do it," Steve insisted. "It's just forms – we go to City Hall and fill out the forms, and then we go back the day after. There's a twenty-four hour waiting period."
"What, no syphilis test?" Bucky shot back.
"They got rid of that," Steve replied.
"Well, that's good. Okay, look." Bucky was clearly gearing up to try again. "You still can't sit in on the meetings. Even if we're married; even if you were my mother. The presence of another person ruins it, the whatsit—the privilege: attorney/client privilege. That said," Bucky added with a sigh, "it is true that you and me would then have our own privilege, which means that this nonsense need never be repeated in front of God or man if we don't want it to be. This here," Bucky said, waving a hand between them, "is what they call pillow talk, and it's not admissible."
"I still want to do it," Steve said.
"I don't look good in white."
"Like you would wear white."
Bucky let out a long, shuddering breath and let his head roll first to the left, then to the right, while he collected himself. "Okay," he said. "So you got new papers when you came out of the ice, but me, I'm a ghost; I don't exist. "
"Sure you exist," Steve said, "I'm looking straight at you: you're James Buchanan Barnes," and he raised his hand before Bucky could object, "—and for what it's worth, you're not dead, you're MIA. You've got a birth certificate on file somewhere, a baptismal certificate—we can get a copy of that on our way into the city, from St. Anne's. "
Now Bucky wore a look that was almost amused. "Are you saying that you want me to go down to City Hall with my birth certificate from 1917—"
"Well, I wouldn't want them to think I was cradle-robbing," Steve said, and Bucky laughed out loud and said, "You know what: okay. Fine. Let's do it. We'll go in the morning; I give up."
"Great," Steve said, and turned to switch the light off. "Glad we could come to an agreement," and they settled back into the darkness and pulled the covers around their necks.
"It's just a piece of paper."
"I know," Steve said.
"I shouldn't have pushed you at Peggy, all those years ago. I knew we were married; I knew."
"Yeah," Steve said.
"So it was wrong, but it was the right kind of wrong," Bucky said quietly, "like when those French women came up to us and begged us to take their babies out of the country. They were willing to give them up to save them; they wanted better for them. I wanted better for you than me."
"I know," Steve said, into the darkness. The radiator banged.
"The thing is, Buck, I can't stand it. Being nothing to you—"
"Jesus. Steve. You're not—"
"I'm not your brother. I'm not even your C.O. anymore. If we're going to live by the law then I want to live by the law. So maybe it’s just a piece of paper, but I want one. Why can't I have one?"
"You can have one. But Jesus, Steve, you're already everything. You idiot. You're everything to me; there's no life outside of you, and the whole wide goddamned world already knows it."
Chapter 14: December 21
"I’m just saying there are statues ten feet high. Bronze statues.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em." Steve was fishing through their closet; he couldn’t decide on a shirt.
“A thirty-foot-long mural in DC. A full-scale diorama of us storming a mountain in Cleveland--“
“I don’t remember storming a mountain in Cleveland. I thought we mainly fought overseas.”
Bucky ignored this. “I toured all these places after the helicarriers,” he told Steve. “And it’s always the same composition. I'm always, like, glued to your right shoulder. I'm like a parrot."
“A parrot with a gun,” Steve agreed, finally choosing a white button-down; you couldn’t go wrong with a white button-down. “A big gun. Usually you’ve got the biggest gun of any of us.” He held the shirt up, briefly considered an iron. “So somebody knew something.”
“My point is, we are not exactly hidden from history,” Bucky said, crossing his arms. “It’s not like people are going to be surprised that we're entangled with each other--it's not like finding out that Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot were friends. I’m halfway up your ass in every picture we’re in.”
“Yeah, you always had poor follow-through,” Steve shot back, and then: “Get dressed.”
Bucky opened his mouth to argue, but then his phone rang, and he glared at Steve and scooped it up off the nightstand. “Hi, Bernie,” he said, and then listened. “Two o’clock,” he said, meeting Steve’s eyes. “At Nancy’s,” he repeated for Steve’s benefit, and Steve nodded; two o’clock should be fine. But Bucky looked at the metal alarm clock on the table and then said, “That should be fine, but if we’re late, just wait for us: we’re going into the city to—“ Bucky stopped and rubbed his forehead, like he couldn’t believe what he was going to say. “Bernie, we’re going to apply for a marriage license.” Steve went still, and Bucky met his eyes.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Bucky said, and Steve held his breath.
“Yeah, City Hall—actually, I guess it’s the City Clerk’s office. Downtown somewhere. Worth Street.” Bucky scrubbed at the back of his head, which left his hair standing up on end.
“Yeah, I can hold,” Bucky said. He stood there for a while, phone to his ear, then frowned and held out the phone to Steve: “What the hell’s this song called, it’s driving me crazy.”
Steve took the phone, held it to his ear, listened. “Oh, it’s— it’s—“ He squeezed his eyes shut; it was right on the tip of his tongue. Then he had it: “It’s ‘Don’t Be That Way.’ It's Benny Goodman.”
“Right, that’s it,” Bucky said, relieved, and took the phone back.
Steve was eating a bowl of corn flakes, determined to be calm and normal, when Bucky came out of the bedroom wearing wool pants and a plain sweater and somehow looking infinitely sharper than he did. Steve squinted and tried to figure out how Bucky did it. It was the shoes, he decided finally. Goddamned narrow pointy-toed brogues.
“All right,” Bucky said, pouring himself a quick cup of coffee and slugging it. “M’ready; let’s go.”
Steve could hardly believe it. “She gave us the okay?”
“I think we gave her a minor coronary,” Bucky said, “and she put me on hold four times, but yeah, she said it was okay in the end. She says we gotta be prepared for it to leak—“ and Steve nodded at this, “—but at the same time, it might not, because this is New York and they’ve seen everything down there. Well, almost everything,” Bucky added, rolling his eyes. “We’re probably new. But’s let’s go,” he said, with a glance at his watch. “We've got to get to Nancy's after.”
“I’m ready,” Steve said, standing. “Let’s go.”
The New York City Clerk’s office had the decor of a contemporary bank lobby. They had to take a number, and so they did, and then they sat back in their chairs and people-watched. There were twenty-something brides clutching their boyfriends’ arms and a pair of middle-aged lesbians filling out paperwork while trying to keep control of two rowdy kids. A chic Japanese couple stood there, waiting, with a wedding party that looked like they’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine.
“A-261!” someone called out, and they looked at each other and shrugged and went to the window they’d been directed to. “Hello,” said the clerk, a friendly looking woman with elaborately braided hair, and then she was passing a form through the slot at the bottom of the thick glass window. Steve ran his eyes over it, surprised at how little information was wanted: their names and address, their place of employment, their parents’ names and where they were born. They neither of them had any previous marriages. And that was it; the only things that were even remotely anomalous were their dates of birth. March 10, 1917. July 4, 1918.
“Thanks,” the clerk said, when they passed the forms back. They watched her carefully, trying to seem relaxed, as she jotted down some information off their birth certificates—and then squinted down at the dates. Her head came up. “Steve Rogers?” she asked, leaning forward to peer through the thick window at him. “Are you that Steve Rogers?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Steve said. “I confess I am.”
“Well, well,” she said, and then looked over at Bucky. “And you’re really Bucky Barnes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky said.
“Well, that’s really cool,” the woman said, and then she was banging on their forms with a square stamp. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, gentlemen,” she told them, and after they gave her the money, she gave them the license. “You’ve got to wait twenty-four hours," she reminded them, "and it’s good for the next 60 days.”
“Great,” Steve said, standing. “Thank you, ma’am; thanks so much.”
They stepped out into the bustle of lower Manhattan. It was getting close to Christmas, so it seemed even more of a madhouse than usual. People rushed past them on the sidewalk, totally ignoring them. “New York,” Bucky said incredulously. “You just gotta love it.”
Chapter 15: December 22
“My vision’s not what it used to be, but I’m not blind, dear.” Nancy brought a teapot to the table and set it beside a plate of cookies. “I’ve had both the cataract surgery and the Lasik, and I saw you every week in the newsreels for years, big as life: bigger, in fact, now I've seen you in person. And you still have proper manners,” she added, “when nobody under eighty has proper manners. And you remember Kay Francis,” she concluded. “That was a dead giveaway, Steve; nobody remembers Kay Francis these days.“
“Who was Kay Francis?” Paul Monroe asked curiously, hand stealing out to take a cookie; he was forty-something and graying, but he still had a lean build and a young man’s face. Steve was a little unnerved to discover that Nancy’s grandson was fifteen years older than he and Bucky were. “I’ve never even heard her name.”
“Oh, she was a movie star,” Steve told him. “She was the most famous movie star in the world when we were kids. On the cover of every magazine every week. “
“And her clothes,” Nancy said. “The clothes she wore…oh, when I was a little girl I was astounded by them. Silk evening dresses and coats with enormous white fox fur collars. Strings of pearls that went down to the floor.” Nancy sighed longingly and then said to Bernie Rosenthal, “Will you have tea or would you like something stronger? I’ve got a very nice selection of wine and there’s whiskey on the bar.”
“I’m working today, unfortunately,” Bernie replied, “so I’d better keep my wits about me,” and then Nancy looked the question at Bucky, who showed her a thin smile and then said, with a slight rasp, “I wouldn’t mind a glass of something stronger, if you’re offering, Nancy.”
Bernie showed him a quizzical smile. “Huh, I thought I read somewhere that the super serum made you guys impervious to alcohol. I mean, it’s technically a poison, right? - however pleasant it might sometimes feel to be drunk?”
“Steve’s impervious,” Bucky replied. “ I got the second-rate serum, which lets you get stewed,” which was what he always said when the subject came up, but this time he licked his lips and went on, voice faltering a little: “Because they needed to be able to dope me, you see: to control me. Put me down, bring me up: shut me up. So my serum isn’t resistant to chemicals. They gave me a lot of different drugs over the years - morphine, heroin, scopolamine, atropine, dexedrine, mephentermine, and then there were all the experimental--“ He stopped, realizing the room had gone quiet. Paul Monroe had quietly picked up his pencil and was taking notes on a lined stenographer’s pad. “Anyway the good news is that I’d really enjoy a glass of whiskey if you’ve got one. Maybe with a little water?” and just like that, they were down to business.
Steve sat there, holding a mug of tea that had gone cold, as Paul Monroe gently asked Bucky question after question. Occasionally Bernie put her hand on Bucky’s arm and said, softly but firmly, “Don’t answer that.” Steve understood the game plan: Bucky was going to admit everything that he could remember first-hand, but put it all in past tense. He’d served in the war. He’d been captured and forced to fight: first for Russia, then for Hydra. He’d been liberated from Hydra in 2014. He had returned to serving his country by picking up the shield of Captain America.
“And the other Avengers know?” Paul Monroe pressed.
“Sure they know,” Bucky confirmed. “Stark, Romanoff, Barton - I work with them a lot. Sam Wilson. Dr. Banner, sometimes. I don’t see much of Thor.”
“What made you do it?” Paul Monroe asked. “Pick up the shield.”
“I really don’t know,” Bucky said. “Steve wanted a break from it. And I’d had the serum - I mean, I knew I could do it. It seemed like the right thing to do. When terrible things are happening…” He looked over at Steve, who was sitting there, trying to control his face. “…it’s really hard to do nothing. That’s the problem we’ve always had, Steve and me.” Steve nodded slowly and then looked away.
Paul Monroe laughed quietly and flipped his notebook shut. “That’s…not the problem most people have, Sergeant Barnes.” He smiled at Bucky and then looked over at Steve. “It’s quite a story,” he said. “To tell you the truth, when Gran first called me up and told me that it was true that you were alive because she knew you both, I thought…” He shook his head, perhaps not wanting to say what he had thought.
“Alzheimer's?” Nancy suggested cheerfully. “Rapid onset dementia?”
“Something like that,” he admitted, and then he turned to Bernie and appealed to her, “Well, what would you have thought? Your Gran hires Captain America and Bucky Barnes to take down your window screens and put up the shutters?”
“But she did,” Steve pointed.
“I did,” Nancy agreed.
“I would have taken my Grandma straight to the hospital,” Bernie reassured Paul. “But in this case…it really just so happens to be true. “
“Yeah, so I discovered,” Paul said. “And then Gran said…well.” He looked at them both. “She said that in her opinion you just wanted to be left alone. That the other men who served in the war got to come home and do that and you were just trying to take your chance at it. She said you boys were good neighbors and that you deserved that chance, and that maybe SHIELD and the CIA were going to try and take it from you.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Is that about the situation?”
Steve knew that Bucky wouldn't be able to speak. “That’s about the size of it.”
“Well, let’s see what we can do.” Paul Monroe opened his notebook again and idly scratched at the base of his throat as he reviewed his notes. “It’s a good time of year for this story, Christmas. People love a human-interest story at the holidays, and nobody’s going to want to dwell on the nasty stuff - war, assassinations, the torture of a POW. We’ve got to focus on the good stuff: Best friends reunited! The war is finally over! Our heroes get the ending they deserve! The thing is to sell it without giving away too many private details - because if you guys end up with paparazzi at your door, you’ve lost even if you win.”
“Right,” Bernie agreed, and then Steve started as she elbowed him in the ribs. “Do you want to tell him about the thing? You know, the thing?” She was widening her eyes at him. “The thing from this morning; the errand that you and Bucky…”
“No,” Steve said.
“No,” Bucky said.
“Okay, well--okay,” Bernie said, and pushed her glasses up, and rubbed her eyes. "That's fine."
Chapter 16: December 23
His phone rang and Bucky opened his eyes, shoved Steve off him, and grabbed it; who the hell would be calling at—was it 7:30 already? It was Natasha, and Bucky hit answer. "Hi, what's going on?"
"Sorry, did I wake you?" she said. "I figured you'd be up. In fact, you're the only people I know who'd be up."
"We're up," Bucky said, and that was almost true; Steve looked rumpled and sleepy, but he'd propped himself up on one elbow and had opened one eye. "What's going on?" he asked.
"I'm outside," Natasha said. "I brought bagels," and Bucky looked at Steve and repeated, "She's downstairs, she brought bagels," and they had a quick, wordless conversation—Steve making a face, Bucky nodding then shrugging, before Steve sighed and sank back on the pillows, draping his arm over his eyes. It wasn't a great time for company, but Natasha wasn't exactly company and they both knew it. "Hang on," Bucky said, "I'll be right down," he said and hung up.
"Just keep your mouth shut," Bucky said, groaning and rolling out of bed. "We'll tell her we have a job. It'll be fine."
"Right," Steve said, "because I'm an amazing liar and Natasha's kind of obtuse." He grabbed Bucky's abandoned pillow and pulled it on top of his own face. Bucky sighed: any plan that depended on Steve keeping his mouth shut was probably doomed anyway, but it was worth a shot.
Natasha was standing on the street holding a bag of bagels and wearing a tan coat. She looked strangely exhausted. "Goddammit, I did wake you," she said, and it wasn't a question. "I'm sorry, I really assumed—"
"Nah, it's good you woke us." Bucky waved her in. "We overslept and we've got a job to get to."
She stopped and gave him a sharp look. "You're starting a job this close to Christmas?"
He replied without hesitating. "Yeah, just a small one," he said. "Guy wants his fireplace to look nice for the holidays," and Natasha seemed to accept that as a reasonable explanation.
Upstairs, Steve had committed to the conceit by putting on his work clothes: stiff canvas pants and long sleeved shirt. "Hey, Natasha," he said, going to put up coffee. "Thanks for waking us. We've got a job to get to—"
"Right," she drawled, unbuttoning her coat, "the fireplace," but that line of inquiry was immediately derailed when they saw she was wearing her Black Widow gear, stingers and all.
Steve set the coffeepot down with a bang. "Natasha," he said, voice warming with concern, "you've been on a mission, you haven't slept—" but Natasha just smiled and said, "It's fine. It's good, actually – SHIELD called me in to work. Nothing too dangerous, but they wanted an expert. They can't ever stay mad at us for long, boys," she concluded wryly, "because they need us. With this world, they always need us. Make me a cup of coffee, will you? I'm too wired to sleep." Steve went back to the percolator and Natasha dropped into the armchair and put up her feet. "And I want to hear about your meeting with the reporter. Was he the guy? How did it go?"
"He was the guy, and it went fine," Bucky said, perching on the arm of the sofa. "He's gonna write an article about me where the Winter Soldier is, like, glossed over in paragraph three. He's gonna try to wedge the fact that I was a mass murderer in between my childhood love of jelly donuts and my feelings about the Cubs finally winning the World Series."
Natasha looked at him and then twisted her neck back toward Steve. "This is why we don't let people defend themselves."
"Word," Steve said.
"We don't really say that anymore," Natasha told him.
"Okay," Steve said; behind him the coffee started brewing, and he set out bagels, cream cheese, and butter.
"I want to hear about this mission they sent you on," Bucky said frowning. "What was important enough that they were willing to eat crow and ask you to do it?"
"It was nothing; I had to break in somewhere, blow something up, make it look like an accident." She shrugged. "I think they thought I wouldn't be conspicuous. It'll be in the papers."
"Coffee's up," Steve said, and then, looking pointedly at Bucky, "We should eat fast, because we ought to get to the—" He waved his hand in the air. "You know, the job," and that was when Bucky's phone rang again.
"These things are a curse of the modern age," Bucky declared, and then he pressed answer and held the phone to his ear. "Hi, Bernie," he said, and then, "Oh?" and then, meeting Steve's eyes. "When?" Steve groaned internally and braced for it. "Okay," Bucky said finally. "Hold on," and then he said to Steve, "Bernie wants to come over and have me sign some papers. She wants to file them today but the courthouse is gonna close early because of the holiday weekend."
"Yeah. I know," Steve said irritably, and then, he sighed and said, "Sure, tell her to come over; we've got coffee and bagels."
Bucky waited until Natasha went into their bathroom to wash up, and then said, gently, to Steve, "You know, it doesn't have to be today."
"I know," Steve replied. "Except then it's Christmas and then there's a holiday break that goes into the New Year--" and then the bathroom door was opening again and so Bucky hijacked the sentence, shrugging as Natasha came out, "—yeah, and we'll lose the job for sure. So we'll get there today hell or high water. Bernie promised it won't take long. It's just signatures."
Bernie Rosenthal arrived forty minutes later, breathless and laden with bags. "Sorry, sorry," she said, "but the traffic, Jesus. I wouldn't have driven into Brooklyn at this hour except I want to make sure this all gets filed and dated properly, and half of the part will take off after lunch. Five minutes of your time, I swear, and then I'll let you get on with your day." She pushed their plates out of the way and gestured for Bucky to sit down beside her, then began spreading out documents for him to sign. The signature lines were marked with little green arrow stickers.
Bucky stared down at them for a moment, and a little shudder seemed to go through him. Then he uncapped the pen she handed him and began to sign his name, over and over, with the formal handwriting he'd developed in Mrs. McLaughlin's penmanship class back in 1925.
James Buchanan Barnes, he signed. James Buchanan Barnes, James Buchanan Barnes.
"Great," Bernie said, gathering the papers up once he'd signed at the last green arrow. "We're done: enjoy your holiday, try not to worry about anything too much. Nothing's going to happen on the legal front until the new year at the earliest, and if things explode on the publicity front—well, you have my number; call me and we'll figure something out." She smiled and quickly repacked her briefcase, then shoved her arms into the sleeves of her coat and pulled a scarf around her throat. Then she stopped and said, "Oh, I nearly forgot," and pulled a velvet-sheathed bottle of champagne out of her leather tote bag. "Congratulations, mazel tov, good luck and all that," she said, and leaned up to kiss one of them and down to kiss the other. "All right, I'm going to court - I'll be in touch after," and Bucky stood up as Steve saw her to the door.
When they turned around they saw that Natasha was glaring at them.
"I’m going to fucking kill you," she said.
Bucky had a moment of sick, fluttering defensiveness - and so he was surprised when Steve suddenly came out with a strong offense, all self-righteousness and firm moral justification.
"No, you're not," Steve said, "because this is not a thing, okay?—It is not," he repeated, when Natasha glared and opened her mouth to argue, "—a thing. I am dead serious about this, Natasha; we are not those guys. It's a change of legal status, that's all; we are applying for a change of legal status, which we're entitled to if we want it, and I happen to want it. But we—Bucky and me--no piece of paper could—" and that's when Bucky saw the first real doubt in Natasha's eyes, because Steve was a terrible liar, but he could tell the truth like nobody's business. "What we've been through. Who we are to each other. Nobody could give that to us, and nobody can take it away either. Everybody else is irrelevant here; everybody."
"All right, I get it," Natasha said; she was backing down. "It's not a big thing to you."
"It's not a big thing," Steve agreed.
Bucky looked at him and said, "You should wear a suit though."
"I'll wear a suit; of course, I'll wear a suit," Steve said and rolled his eyes.
The Clerk's Office was the same as it had been the day they got the license, except the people were different; it was like watching the same play with a different cast. It was even more crowded than they'd feared, because the wedding ceremonies were first come-first served and it was the last Friday before the Christmas holiday and the post-holiday break, when all the offices would be closed. Again, they had to take a number, and Steve was really worried about how high it was until someone told him that if you had a number, they would definitely marry you if you waited.
Finally, someone called their number and they were directed to a door; inside there was a bland little room with a podium and a single painting behind it – which was bad, Steve thought; just paint slapped on to be colorful. There was a man looking down at some papers. "Steven Rogers," the man read out, not waiting for his answer. "James Barnes," the man went on, and only then did he stop and look up at them: "And your witness: where's your witness?"
"Witness?" Steve repeated.
"Yeah, you need a witness," the man said, and then he sighed and waved his hand. "Go and get someone from the waiting room," and so Bucky stepped out and came back in a moment with a pretty girl in a red sari. "Priscilla Singh," she said, when the man at the podium asked her name.
"Now Natasha really is going to kill us," Bucky muttered to Steve, but the man was waving them all closer.
"My name is Angel Ramirez," he said, "and I have the privilege and pleasure of marrying you in the great state of New York. Let's begin, shall we? Steve and James, do you—"
"Bucky," Bucky interrupted. "My name is Bucky."
"Bucky, okay. Steve and Bucky, do you—" and then Ramirez looked down at the paper, and then up at Bucky, and then down at the paper. "You're Bucky Barnes?"
"Uh-huh," Bucky said.
The man then looked at Steve. "So you're—"
"Wow. Well, that's cool," Angel Ramirez said, and then started again. "Steve and Bucky, have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?"
"Yeah," Bucky said. "Yes," Steve said.
"Bucky, do you take Steve as a partner for life? Do you promise to keep him, love and comfort him, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse and to be faithful until death do you part?" and Steve could see that Bucky was vastly amused by the question, like he didn't have a track record of doing these things that was miles wide and years long.
"Yes, I do," Bucky said finally, and Angel Ramirez turned the question to Steve.
"I do, I certainly do," Steve replied, thinking to death, yeah, and likely a good while after.
"Great," Angel Ramirez said. "Do you have rings?" and no, they didn't have rings, though as a kind of afterthought Steve fished the chain of his dog tags from around his neck, pulled them off, and slid them over Bucky's head. Bucky rolled his eyes at him like he was maybe a moron, but there was a flush to his cheeks and Steve thought he was secretly kind of pleased.
"All right, well. By the powers vested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you truly and lawfully married," Angel said. "You may now kiss, if you'd like," and Steve hadn't anticipated this somehow, and turned to Bucky feeling embarrassed and a little shocked. They'd never really kissed in front of other people; not real strangers like this, only Natasha.
All his feelings were mirrored on Bucky's face. "Don't hit me!" Bucky warned, and Steve burst out laughing. "I wouldn't!" Steve protested, and then he was leaning in to kiss Bucky awkwardly, sweetly, on the mouth. "Yay! Congratulations!" Priscilla Singh said, clapping and then they all had to sign the marriage certificate. They shook Angel Ramirez's hand. The whole thing had taken about four minutes. They went out the back door onto the street.
"Wow, I've just shackled myself to you for all eternity," Bucky said, but it was like there was new light in his face, something shining and glad. Steve felt it, too: there was a tingling running all through him that he hadn't expected, a feeling not so much adrenaline as—joy.
Steve jammed his hands into his pockets and said, shrugging and grinning, "You wanna go get cheesecake or something?"
"Yeah," Bucky said, grinning back at him. "I do. Cheesecake sounds great."
Chapter 17: December 24
At Bucky's suggestion they went to Jahn's, which still looked like it had when they were kids: semicircular red-leatherette booths, fancy chrome-plated soda fountain and ice cream counter. They ordered coffee and cheesecake and then, impulsively, decided to plump for a giant Kitchen Sink sundae on top of everything, picking at it with long silver spoons.
They'd started on opposite sides of the semicircle, but while eating the ice cream, Steve had slid over, a bit, and then another bit, and then Bucky'd been unable to help himself; they had privacy enough for a little canoodling anyway. He reached over and petted Steve's hair, then slid his hand into it, ruffling it with his fingers so that he could see the gold strands underneath. So soft and familiar to his touch, and time telescoped, connecting them – Steve a pale little kid with hollowed eyes, trying to sell papers; himself with torn pants and bruised knuckles – to who and where they were now. Bucky said, "You should grow this out. We're not fooling anybody anymore," and rubbed Steve's scalp with his thumb, and he could feel Steve go pliable in his hands, could feel Steve's desire for him like a living thing. His mouth went dry. "And you should shave," he added thickly. "I want to see your stupid face."
"Okay, Buck," Steve said softly and—Bucky's phone rang and the moment broke.
"Jesus Christ on a crutch," Bucky growled. "That's it, I'm getting rid of these things for New Year's. I don't care if there's bats on the Brooklyn Bridge, or glowing goo in the Hudson. They can all go to hell."
"Love that Christmas spirit," Steve said, and took another mouthful of ice cream and bananas.
It was Lalo, and Bucky listened to what he wanted, half-distracted by watching Steve eat the ice cream; obscene the way he licked the silver spoon like that. "Hang on," Bucky said finally, and then said to Steve, "They want some help hanging decorations at Holy Innocents later."
"Didn't that happen already?" Steve asked, frowning. "They hung all the boughs weeks ago—"
"Yeah, I don't know, it's something special for midnight mass, he says," and they had another wordless conversation: I don't want to. I really don't want to, either, but... Yeah, all right, and then Steve sighed and said, "Yeah, tell them we'll come. We've got to go home and change, though."
"Right, okay," Bucky said, and told Lalo, then hung up. "Why do these guys always call me?" he grumbled, sliding his phone into his suit pocket. "Nobody ever calls you," and Steve licked whipped cream from the corner of his mouth and replied, "Because you're a reliable neighborhood guy, Buck, just like your dad was," and Bucky, ambushed, had to blink rapidly to clear his eyes, "while I'm just a fatherless troublemaker who'll never come to any good."
"Oh, yeah, that's right; I forgot," Bucky said, and raised his arm for the check.
"Geez, it's really almost Christmas," Bucky said, once they were home and changing clothes. "And we haven't done anything - you maybe want to stop and get a tree on our way back?"
Steve, carefully re-hanging his dress pants, tried to stifle a smile. "Oh, I don't know, Buck," he said, "let's just not do Christmas this—"
"Oh shut up, just shut up; Christ, shut up."
It didn't take long before they were dressed and ready. "Come on, let's go," Bucky said to Steve. "The sooner we get there, the sooner we'll get back and—" he was surprised when Steve knocked him back against the door and kissed him, cupping his face and practically inhaling him.
"I always wanted you, you know," Steve whispered against his mouth; they were forehead to forehead and nose to nose. "Call me superficial, but you were so handsome. You could have had anybody and I knew it. You think this was all your idea but it wasn't." Steve's smile was just a little dangerous. "So don't cross me, Barnes," he warned, "because I always get what I want in the end."
"You're my lucky penny," Bucky said, swallowing. "You're all the good luck I ever had in my life."
Steve kissed him again, muttering, "That's an IOU," but the owing was all the other way around.
It was dark by the time they got to Holy Innocents, which was all lit up and draped with boughs. The inside was even fancier, with holly and ribbons and candles. "Jesus," Steve said, looking around the empty church, "how much more decorated do they want it to be?" and Bucky shrugged and jerked his head toward the propped-open door that led toward the rectory.
They could hear noises from inside the hall where they held the AA meetings and the Girl Scout jamborees and all that, and Steve had just stepped through the door when someone yelled, "Yo, Rogers – catch!" and he raised his hand just in time to catch, what, a flying football shaped in tin-foil; a hero sandwich, he recognized a second later. It took him another second to realize that the thrower of the sandwich was Clint Barton, and another second to wonder what the hell Clint was doing there. He blinked and looked around the room, which was surprisingly crowded: there was Dmitri and Marco and Yuri and Lalo, but also Gina and the kids, and what was Dmitri's wife's name, Susan? There was a long table piled up with sandwiches, and an enormous punchbowl, and bottles of soda, and a stack of what looked like eight pizzas, and wait, there was Father Miera talking to—
"Oh my God," Bucky muttered, somewhere behind him, "we're in trouble," and yeah, Steve could see that, because Father Anthony Miera, the pastor of Holy Innocents, was talking to Anthony Edward Stark, who was the least innocent person Steve had ever met.
"Tony?" Steve said, and Tony, who was already a little drunk, turned to him and said, "Steve, hi. I want to tell you that I really appreciate this paneling." He waved a hand at the blond-wood paneling on the walls of the church hall. "I think it's a daring move; retro before retro," and then Steve felt a hand on his shoulder and turned and saw Pepper Potts standing there, smiling. "Congratulations," she said, and kissed Steve on the cheek before disappearing into the crowd.
Steve turned again and saw Sam Wilson eating a turkey sandwich and chewing with a look on his face that meant, "I hear you but I totally disagree with what you're saying," and as Steve went closer he saw that Dmitri was talking to him, as Dmitri so often did, about the merits of hockey vs. basketball. Sam grinned as he saw Steve coming, and tapped Dmitri's chest, and then they were both pounding Steve on the shoulders.
"So this is pretty great," Sam said, waving his sandwich around at the room. "Lalo told me you call this a football wedding, though all this idiot wants to talk about is hockey," and Dmitri glared at him and said, "If you ever saw Sergei Federov skate, you would cry from joy. You would weep."
"A football wedding's not about football," Steve said, "it's about sandwiches," and he mimed throwing the sandwich Clint had tossed at him. "It's what people did, back in the day."
"Oh, I get it," Sam said. "They're good," and then he picked up a clear plastic tumbler and said, shaking it, "And you gotta have some of this punch, man. Gina made the punch, but then Stark added I-don't-even-know-what to it, and it's dangerous," and Steve smiled and made his way over to the table.
He found Bucky glaring at Natasha, who was sitting in Clint's lap, a plastic tumbler clutched in her hand. "Up yours, Barnes," she was saying, "this isn't about you, or even about your—husband," she said, and then laughed, pointing, because Bucky's face was reddening but he was smirking a little too. "This is more of a block party, where you are just the occasion, the goddamned pretext - you and your change of legal status. Honestly," she said, and slugged back the rest of her punch in one gulp, "you're pretty irrelevant to the situation," and then she turned to Steve and said, "Did you know that Father Miera's brother is in charge of the 70th precinct? I just learned that today. The more you know," she said, and held out her glass for a refill.