"Yes. In the newspaper."
When Natasha had been called in for an emergency, this was not what she'd been expecting.
"Our analysts found it this morning," Fury explained, tapping the folded newspaper in front of him. "We have alerts set up for any and all publications containing variations of Captain Rogers' name." Natasha didn't bother nodding: she knew that, and Fury knew that she knew. "Usually something like this can be quickly dismissed as a typo, a coincidence or a fake. This one, however, cannot."
He pushed the newspaper across the desk for Natasha to pick up. The ad in question had been circled in red: DUPONT CIRCLE - furnished bedroom for rent with shared bathroom and kitchen, easy access to red line and bus lines 42, D2, H1, L1 plus shops. All utilities included. For more information, call S. Rogers at—and the number matched that of Rogers' SHIELD issued phone.
Then Natasha saw the rent, and narrowed her eyes.
"From here we have two possibilities," Fury went on, leaning back in his chair and interlacing his fingers. "Either this is also a fake, in which case we need to worry about how and why that number ended up in DC's most widely circulated newspaper. Or this is the real deal, in which case this is still a problem, because we can't let half of DC have access to Captain America's professional phone number, or know the whereabouts of his flat."
In short, he needed Natasha to ascertain which of these two options was the right one and deal with it quickly and discreetly.
She was pretty sure that this wasn't what the Red Room had had in mind when they'd trained her investigative skills.
"I hear you're renting out a room," she said when Rogers opened the door, armed with a smirk and the newspaper Fury had given her.
Rogers' lips almost curled in dismay, before he smothered it and simply stepped back to let her enter. He knew how this worked by now.
"Yes, I am," he said. He also knew there was no point denying it. "Why, is that not done anymore either?"
"Oh, it is," Natasha said, following him to the living-room, "as shown by the number of calls you've probably received since the morning edition's come out."
She caught the sheepish glance he threw at the coffee table where his cell phone lay, dark and silent. Turned off, probably.
"What is not done," she went on, "is giving out the number to your SHIELD issued phone. Those are professional use only and should remain confidential. They're not your standard number either."
Anyone who saw it would've known it at once, too: there wasn't the right amount of digits. But, she realized now, Rogers might not have noticed. In fact, he probably had little to no idea what a standard phone number looked like nowadays, no basis for comparison.
"Well, it's not like anyone bothered to explain how to use that thing over there, or gave me the number to it."
He gestured at a device tucked under the window that was more buttons than machine. Natasha had noticed it the first time she'd come here, and suggested in her report that if SHIELD insisted on equipping Rogers' flat with something as obsolete as a landline, the least they could do was buy a design that was instinctively useable. Apparently they hadn't taken her up on it.
"It should be on the box. Or in the manual."
"Yeah?" Rogers said, irritated. "And where are they?"
She would need to have a talk with Fury about the people he hired.
But she wasn't here to gripe over the unacceptable incompetence of SHIELD's employees, so she went on: "There is also the issue of you being, you know. You."
Rogers looked away, jaw working.
"Annie suggested it," he said mulishly.
Natasha blinked. "Annie?"
"From bingo club," he said. "Where I go every week. Which you know all about, of course."
It had taken Rogers some time to realize that SHIELD was monitoring him—long enough, actually, for Natasha to almost feel disappointed. After the ripple of excitement that had coursed through the whole agency when the Captain had been found, she'd expected, well. More. One of World War II's chief strategists, like Coulson had said.
Then she'd realized that he'd had his suspicions from the start, and that his full realization had only been impeded by his reluctance to believe it; like, somehow, he'd expected something else from them—like he'd expected better. Since then, he hadn't stopped bringing it up. Not snidely, not quite, his tone was too neutral for that. But the comments popped up often enough to feel disapproving—like Rogers was the one with the reason and the right to be disappointed.
"I'm only here to help you ease into the present time," she said diplomatically.
Rogers arched an eyebrow. "And in the present time it's forbidden to look for a roommate when one has a room to spare?"
"Why are you doing this, Rogers?" Natasha asked. "Really?"
She thought for a moment that he wouldn't answer. Then he shrugged, reluctant. "I don't know. I'm just…" He trailed off and sighed. "It's just lonely, I guess?" He gave her one of his terrible half-smiles, so sad and so brief: there and gone in the blink of an eye. "I guess I'm not used to having that much room and no one to share it with."
"You've never lived alone before?" she asked cautiously.
"I have," Rogers replied. The curve of his lips turned wry. "In places the size of my current bathroom. Apart from that… I lived with my mom. Then with Arnie, for a while. And then, well. You rarely get a room of your own in the army."
She didn't remember the name from SHIELD's file on Rogers. But then, the information they had on his life pre-serum was woefully thin: a birth certificate, some excerpts from a church registry, a bunch of medical records… The first detailed documents available dated back to his enlistment, and even then true analyses had only started once he'd been selected for Project Rebirth.
"A friend," Rogers said, and left it at that.
Natasha was tempted to press for more, that infixed urge to know everything rearing its head. But she realized that he might not want to answer and that would lead their conversation towards an even worse direction. So she just made a mental note to look into it by herself later. She'd been assigned supervision over Rogers; she took that job seriously, and that meant finding out whatever she could about him. What might make him tick.
"Anyway," he was saying, "since I have all this now—" He gestured at the room around him, as if it was plenty, more than needed, more than he knew what to do with, even though it was pretty average-sized for DC. "—I thought I could help someone out. And in return… Doesn't SHIELD keep telling me to try and meet new people, get back into the world?"
His voice was now overlaid with sarcasm.
"You haven't done much of an effort in that direction up until now," Natasha pointed out. Clint had tried to get closer to him, but all his overtures had been rebuffed, if politely. Although that might've been because Rogers had believed that they mostly stemmed from orders, like hers had.
"You haven't given me many opportunities to meet people outside work," Rogers countered.
Natasha tilted her head to the side, conceding the point. No matter how much she liked and respected Clint, she was aware that he didn't count as normal—that might even be the reason why she liked him so much. Neither he, nor anyone at SHIELD, would be well-suited to help anyone adjust to a situation like the one Rogers was in.
But at the same time, they couldn't let just anyone get chummy with Captain America. It wouldn't be safe, or fair, for a civilian or for SHIELD. Surely Rogers could see that.
"And you're forgetting the people at bingo night," Rogers added.
"The people at bingo night are all 70 at least," Natasha retorted. She remembered doing a double-take when the game had popped up in the reports for the first time. Further investigation had revealed that Rogers had been roped into a couple of rounds late one afternoon as he'd come down after a visit to Peggy Carter. Somehow he'd turned it into a habit and now it was simply part of his week, when no mission came to disturb it: Thursdays, 6 p.m., bingo night at SSL.
"They're exactly the right age, then," Rogers said.
His sense of humor always showed up at the worst possible times. Natasha bit back a frustrated huff.
"Nothing I say is going to change your mind, is it?"
Rogers didn't confirm or deny, but she knew a losing battle when she saw one. She crossed her arms.
"It's a good idea," he finally said.
Listing all the ways in which it very much wasn't probably wasn't the right way to go.
"Which… Annie suggested," Natasha said instead. She might as well try to ascertain the situation fully.
Rogers nodded. "She told me a couple of her friends do it: rent out a room to make ends meet, or simply for company. She has a granddaughter who might be interested but…"
He trailed off. Natasha had a sudden vision of an army of little old ladies utterly charmed by one Steven Grant Rogers and ready, or even eager, to try and set him up with a nice young woman, preferably a relative.
She would have to do something about that too.
Shadowing Rogers was proving to be a lot more work than she'd first thought.
"But?" she prompted.
"I want to help," Rogers said. "I mean, I won't be doing this for the money. I'd like to help someone who might not have the means to rent their own place but still deserves—" He made a vague gesture. "That's why I didn't set too high a price. Or tried to."
He still had some issues with money, she knew, with how much—or rather how little—a dollar was worth these days. He kept boggling at the check whenever they met for coffee. Still, Natasha couldn't help but snort.
"A price that low, it's more likely to be dismissed as a scam, or flagged as unfair competition," she said. "In any case, it's sure to attract the wrong kind of people."
It was Rogers' turn to cross his arms. "And what kind is that, exactly?" he challenged.
"You know what I mean," Natasha said, but Rogers was getting that stubborn look on his face, brow furrowed, jaw squared, gearing up for a fight. She didn't back down.
"We can't let just anyone live with a national icon, Rogers."
His chest heaved, and she got ready to catch and return whatever he threw at her; but instead he breathed out slowly. "So, where does that leave us?" he asked. He'd realized they were close to a stalemate.
Natasha jumped on the opening. "Let me screen them."
"You need help," she went on, paying no heed to the immediate dismissal. "Your phone's definitely going to blow up the second you turn it back on. Clearly, you don't have a good handle on the situation, Rogers." She paused. "Besides, everyone does it nowadays, use a realtor. I'll even give you a good price."
Rogers raised his eyebrows. "Oh, that's on your resume, too?" he asked, skeptical.
"Not yet, actually," Natasha said. "But helping you out would change that." She smiled. "You'd be doing me a favor, really. I've never pretended to be a real estate agent, but it's definitely a good cover to have up one's sleeve."
He pursed his lips, considering. "Will I get final say?"
"Of course," she said.
Her easy acceptance only made him warier. "And do I have your promise that you won't use SHIELD's resources to delve into their past?"
He cared far too much about privacy.
"We will need to do a background check," Natasha replied—but then she gave a little bit of ground: "But I'll try to gather most of the information we need during the interviews."
Rogers stared at her for several long seconds. She kept her face carefully blank. In the end, he sighed. "Fine."
"Yay," Natasha said, and let a small smile tug at the corner of her mouth. It widened when Rogers said:
"I'll probably need a new phone, too."
Steve had to hand it to Ms. Romanov: once she set herself to a task, she knew how to deliver quickly and efficiently. Within two weeks he came home to find her sitting cross-legged on his couch, riffling through a file.
"Got you a first batch," she said without looking up, like her presence here was entirely expected.
They definitely needed to have that Talk about breaking and entering and about boundaries. Ms. Romanov—and SHIELD, for that matter—didn't seem to know what those were. However, given that Steve was curious and had been since she'd asked him to make himself scarce for a whole afternoon so she could set up some visits, he decided to postpone it for now.
He sat down on the armchair perpendicular to the couch while she briefly explained how she'd proceeded: which group she'd targeted and how, which criteria of selection she'd used, which questions she'd asked. Most of the candidates, she said, were veterans she'd found through the VA; people who'd have the right reflexes in case a crisis occurred and had shared life experience.
She'd also increased the rent so that it came close to the median for this neighborhood; anything lower would only have fostered distrust.
"Here's my selection," she concluded, patting the pile of folders on her right—so of course Steve's attention was drawn to the other, much higher pile on her left. It was, incidentally, the closest to him too.
"And those are…?" he asked.
"Those who didn't pass muster."
"Why not?" Steve insisted, tugging the stack towards himself. Ms. Romanov didn't try and stop him; it was like she wanted him to look.
He flipped through the files and understood why: so he'd see that she'd taken the few criteria he'd set himself into account. Most of the people on the pile weren't doing that badly; they'd been stateside for a while, had a job and a place to live and were simply looking for a place with cheaper rent.
Several others were labeled alt-right or white supremacist. He had to ask.
"Does that mean what I think it means?"
"If what you think it means is the American version of the modern wannabe fascist, then yes."
And here Steve had hoped that people would've moved past such ideas. More than once he'd been told that this century was better—and it was, in parts. But then he found out about things like this and—
Well. In short, it was a lot more complicated than people tried to have him believe.
The rest of the dismissed candidates either showed rather obvious incompatibilities of character, or had needs the apartment wasn't suited for, which they'd acknowledged themselves. And then there was:
"What about this one?" Steve asked, frowning at the second to last file. It was quite thin: the interview didn't seem to have yielded much. Maybe it hadn't lasted long. Maybe the guy had decided quickly that he wasn't interested.
"I don't think it'll be a good fit," Ms. Romanov said.
Steve frowned. "Why not?"
"He's only been discharged for a couple of months, most of which he's spent in and out of the hospital. He's an amputee and a former prisoner of war. He definitely needs more quiet and stability than he'd get as Captain America's roommate."
Steve looked back down at the file. He could understand that: he disliked being Captain America's roommate too. Still: "Shouldn't he be the one to decide that?"
Ms. Romanov simply stared at him. She had the uncanny ability to make her face into a perfect mirror: all you saw on there was what you expected or dreaded to see.
"Does he have anywhere else to go?"
"He told me he had family in Brooklyn."
Steve pursed his lips. "You do realize that this is precisely the kind of situation where I'd like to help if I can?" he asked. If that man had wanted to go live with his family in New York, then he wouldn't be looking for a room in Washington, D.C., would he?
"Rogers," Ms. Romanov said warningly.
"No, I think I'll meet him," Steve said, pushing the discarded pile aside to pull the other one closer and drop James Barnes' file on top. He glanced up at Ms. Romanov. She saw the challenge in his eyes and pressed her lips together, her disapproval clear.
But she let him.
Rogers picked James Barnes.
Natasha wondered why she was surprised. As his handler she'd had to give several evaluations of his character. And while her first assessment, her first impression, had been honest, to the point of being naive, she'd rapidly amended it to honest, to the point of being contrary.
She'd insisted on being there the day he'd staged the second interviews: someone had to make sure that they signed SHIELD's non-disclosure agreement before ending up in Rogers' presence. A necessary precaution, it turned out: more than once, the candidate's first reaction upon getting past her and entering the flat had been a resounding: "Holy shit, you're Captain America!" which she'd heard straight through the door.
Somehow she wasn't surprised that none of them had made the cut.
James Barnes, however, had remained quiet. He'd distrustfully stared down at the form she'd asked him to sign, long enough that she'd begun to hope that he wouldn't. But in the end he had, and the door had closed softly behind him, and there had been no exclamation of any kind.
The interview had lasted much longer than the others, too; longer than Natasha had expected. When Barnes had come for his first visit it had been short, even more so due to how scarce the man's words had been, how succinct his answers, if he'd given any. Not this time, apparently. When he'd left he'd even seemed less tense than when he'd arrived, and when Natasha had thrown a glance through the door Rogers had been smiling as he'd jotted something down in his notebook.
There had been several more candidates to go, but even then, Natasha had known.
She shouldn't have let Rogers see the files of the candidates she'd dismissed. She'd done it to build trust between them, to make him see that her choices had been sound.
She should've expected that it would backfire.
Minutes before he moved into his new flat, James was still having a hard time believing that it was happening.
But then, most days he still had a hard time believing that he was even alive and out of that cave, so.
It was just, he'd barely had the time to start worrying about finding a place before his brand new therapy group leader at the VA had pointed the ad out to him, pinned to the notice board. When he'd called—because he'd had to start somewhere, hadn't he?—he hadn't expected to obtain an appointment for a visit. He hadn't expected to be called back for a second interview with the owner himself. He hadn't expected to hear from said owner again afterwards, much less to be offered the room. Yet he had. And—
And James Barnes just didn't have that kind of luck—see the aforementioned cave. The fact that things had gone that quickly, that smoothly… It unnerved him. It made him wonder when the other shoe would drop.
He was wary as he climbed the stairs of the building, a feeling that toppled right into trepidation when, the second he stepped onto the right landing, one of the other two apartment doors opened. All his senses snapped to attention, his sniper's focus zeroing in on—
A woman, blonde, in pink scrubs, with a laundry basket under one arm. She closed her door, turned around and, catching sight of him, startled violently.
"Oh!" she gasped, hand rising half-way to her chest. James distantly realized that, of the both of them, he was definitely the scarier one, with his six foot height, the stubble on his cheeks and the rings under his eyes, the cap obscuring his face and the suspicious duffle bag slung over his shoulder; and that was without mentioning the probably half-crazed look on his face. Yet the woman just smiled and gave a small chuckle as she said, "I didn't see you there."
That was James' cue for a reaction, to return the expression, relax his shoulders, apologize, anything; anything to reassure her, to make it obvious that he was harmless, rueful, normal. But somehow he couldn't. He was rooted on the spot, throat so tightly knotted that he could feel his quickened heartbeat pumping up his throat, could barely breathe through it. Perspiration prickled on his palm, along his brow, on his upper lip. Fuck.
A beat, and the woman realized she probably wasn't going to get anything from him beyond a wide-eyed stare. Somehow, she didn't take it as a reason to grow suspicious. Her smile twitched, her gaze slid down and off to the side and she secured her hold on her basket as she headed for the stairs. James managed to unstick his feet right on time to clumsily step aside, letting her through. With the flash of another, thankful smile, she turned away and clattered down the steps.
James couldn't help but follow her with his eyes, breath abated, muscles coiled, ears straining even after she'd disappeared, even after the door leading to the basement and laundry room had slammed shut behind her. In the renewed silence he remained tense for a second, two, three, a whole minute, another one, and only then managed to shake himself, to gasp and take a deep breath, to run his hand down his face and squeeze his eyes shut. Fuck.
And fuck the cretin psychologist who'd deemed him ready for human interaction too. James clearly wasn't, if bumping into his neighbor sent him toppling halfway into a panic attack.
He took a while to calm down, eyes closed, breathing in and out, in and out. Fortunately, no one entered the building, no one honked or shouted down on the street, leaving him alone in the quiet of the corridor, making it possible for him to pull himself back together.
Once that was more or less done he braced himself, took the last few steps to his destination and knocked.
And just as he did he realized that part of the reason why he'd reacted that badly to his new neighbor's presence, beyond how unexpected her appearance had been, was that something in the picture had struck him as wrong: a nurse, taking her scrubs downstairs to put them in one of the communal machines. Because what nurse would trust a cheap industrial machine to wash her scrubs properly, what nurse would risk contaminating a machine used by other people, maybe people with children, instead of investing in her own?
But no, no, James was just being paranoid—like when he'd been faced with Ms. Rushman's questions, which he would've sworn had been nothing but a skillfully concealed attempt at interrogation; or when she'd asked him to sign that non-disclosure agreement and he'd wondered if someone was on to him for— for what? For nothing. This was no infiltration, no undercover mission, this was real life, civilian life, nothing more. And as it had turned out, Ms. Rushman had had a good reason for her caution, given who'd hired her to rent the room.
Still, it was enough for James to question his decision all over again. Maybe it would be better if he backed away and left before—
The door opened. He reflexively glanced up and looked right into that fucking face, into those fucking eyes, which crinkled as Steve Rogers smiled.
"James, hi," he said, looking and sounding like he couldn't be happier that James was here. "Come on in."
Struck mute all over again, although for different reasons, James gave a small nod in greeting and let himself be ushered inside, all his misgivings suddenly too weak to hold him back. All the while he tried not to be too obvious in his staring.
It wasn't the whole Captain America thing—although that was still one hell of a surprise. No, there was just… something, in Steve Rogers's features, in the shape of his body, in the way it moved, that arrested James' gaze. It caught him, again and again, and simply refused to let him go. Worse, the same went for what lay underneath, the person beneath. From the moment they'd shaken hands and sat down for that interview, it was like a hook had plunged deep into James' entrails and tugged.
He had been reeling about the whole Captain America thing at the time—because the thing was, he hadn't known. As it turned out, you could miss a lot by being sent overseas, then stuck in a cave and tortured for months; things like a team of researchers stumbling upon a frozen national icon in the Arctic, said national icon being alive, or aliens invading New York. And once he'd woken up stateside, injured but safe in the hospital, no one had been in any hurry to catch him up on the news, least of all his family. They lived mere miles from Manhattan, one of his sisters had been commuting from work when the attack had taken place: it had been a miracle that they'd all come out of it unscathed. So everyone had thought it best not to tell him just yet, lest his reaction interfere with his recovery—like in that German movie where the main character's mom fell into a coma and slept right through the fall of the Berlin wall.
So ending up face to face with the national icon himself? That had been quite a shock.
Only Steve Rogers hadn't looked or behaved like a national icon. On the contrary, he'd been just like any other guy, any other soldier come home only to realize that something had gone awry along the way, that home wasn't home anymore. James guessed that for someone who'd been away for almost seventy years, for whom "home" wasn't a place as much as a time now long gone, it was even worse.
During their interview Steve had been polite and respectful, understanding, not prying too much, and unable to quite hide the fact that he had no idea what you were supposed to ask a prospective flatmate in this new century. He was lost, plain and simple. Lost and, no matter how hard he was trying to hide it, devastatingly sad.
James had felt like he could relate; he'd felt like Steve could understand, too, about loss, about grieving, about needing companionship but also space and quiet. As the interview had drawn to an end James had felt like it would be possible to carve out a life here, in this flat, to build something back up from the rubble. So he'd decided to give it a shot and made it clear that he was still interested. And here he was now, still willing to try.
Steve led him to the kitchen counter, where two copies of the lease lay for them to review one last time and sign. James leafed through it, checking that everything was as it should be: it was. There was nothing fishy, all guarantees and precautions for both owner and tenant included. That, combined with the excellent state of the flat and the ridiculously low price Steve was asking for it, made James feel like he had to give something in return, be honest.
"I probably should've said," he blurted out. "You know I haven't been discharged long. I'm still in rehab for, well." He tilted his head to the side and shrugged his left shoulder.
"If you need any special equipment in the flat, you just need to ask," Steve said at once.
James blinked at him, caught off-guard by the offer. He shook his head minutely. "I meant that I don't have a job right now," he said, "and it might take a while for me to find one. I have savings, plus my pension for the time being, but I might have issues paying the rent some time down the road."
Steve didn't bat an eye. "Okay," he said with a nod and a reassuring smile. "Don't worry. If it comes to that we'll discuss it and find an arrangement."
"Okay," James said slowly. He'd expected that to be more of an issue. "Thank you."
His surprise had shown in his voice. Steve's smile turned crooked. "I've been there, is all."
James almost frowned, almost asked how, because there was no way Captain America—
But then he remembered the few scant lines about Steve Rogers in his school history book, about the man before the serum: a sickly kid raised by a single mother during the Great Depression. Of course he'd been there.
James suddenly wondered what it was like for him: to have known penury for years and to wake up in this new century, where everything was plentiful and so much went to waste. He refrained from asking, looking back down at the lease and signing both copies on the dotted line.
"Here are your keys," Steve said then, making them jingle before handing them over. There were six of them: one for the building entrance, the mailbox, the basement and the apartment, plus two for the lock on James' bedroom door—there was no third copy. James took them with a nod.
The next moment was slightly awkward: there was no need for Steve to offer another tour of the place, yet it felt like there should be something more to this. After a beat, Steve pushed back from the counter.
"I'll let you settle in," he said. "Put your things wherever you want. Feel free to push things around to make room, too."
James eyed the glasses and cups carefully arranged on the nearest shelf. "I wouldn't want to mess up your stuff," he said.
"They're not really mine," Steve replied with a dismissive shrug. "Most of it came with the flat."
"Uh," James said. Now that he thought about it, the place did kinda look like it had come right out of a magazine. Steve had told him that his employer had helped him find it and furnish it, but James hadn't expected that to extend all the way to kitchenware and decoration. He probably could've guessed, though—if only from the sad, thin grey mat someone had chosen for the front door.
Maybe they'd wanted to spare Steve from having to go buy everything himself. The guy probably hadn't had the time to, or wouldn't have known where to go.
What a disquieting thought: having no idea which store to enter when you needed something as simple as a lamp and lightbulb.
"What is yours, then?" he asked.
Steve's eyes flitted over to a corner of the room, where a reclining armchair sat beside a small shelf with a turntable, a small pile of vinyls and several history books. James nodded.
"I'll be careful," he assured, even as his discomfort increased. He didn't like the thought that these made up the entirety of Steve's current worldly possessions.
Fortunately, there was an easy remedy for that; James would just have to help him get more.
Putting the keys in his pocket, he picked up the contract, then his bag, not bothering to shoulder it on the short way to his new bedroom. It wasn't that heavy: it contained little more than what he'd need until his mom drove down next weekend with the rest of his stuff. She didn't like that he was moving away from New York, although she understood: huge parts of the city still lay in ruins or were under construction, which didn't create the best environment for recovery. But she wanted to at least get a glimpse of the place where he'd be staying. He couldn't begrudge her that, especially if it spared him the trip.
"I can lend you some sheets for now," Steve said, having followed him to the bedroom doorway.
James, who had planned on using his sleeping bag, blinked at him. "That'd be great," he said slowly. "Thanks."
Two minutes later Steve was back with not only sheets, but also a blanket and pillow. "I was thinking of getting some take-out," he said. "We could eat together, to celebrate? I was thinking Italian."
James nodded as he rummaged through his bag. "Sounds good."
"Okay," Steve said. "I'll leave you to it, then. Be right back."
Once the front door had clicked shut behind him, James let out a relieved sigh. He'd expected things to be awkward at first, but still. He hoped that Steve's eagerness to help would not turn out to be a permanent feature: any more hovering and he'd start to feel smothered.
For now he unpacked the few clothes he'd brought, took his toothbrush and shaving kit to the bathroom, and checked the various storage places in his room to figure out where he was going to put his things: the closet, the drawers, the space underneath the bed…
He wasn't looking for anything, not consciously; but years of military training had turned sweeping a place into a reflex. He wasn't expecting—
When he noticed the small protuberance neatly tucked under his bedside table, so close to a leg that it was almost invisible, he froze. Told himself that he was being paranoid again. Nearly dismissed it and turned away for that very reason.
He just had to make sure.
And, it turned out, he wasn't wrong. That, in his hand, was definitely a bug.
When Steve came back, James was waiting on the couch, a small pile of bugs and wires sitting on the coffee table in front of him. In that second, he missed his left arm acutely, which only pissed him off more: its absence made it impossible for him to sit with his arms crossed to complement his scowl.
Steve's first reaction upon seeing him was to smile—but then he noticed James' glare, and faltered.
"Everything okay?" he asked.
James jutted his chin at the coffee table. "Found these," he said curtly.
Eyebrow raised, Steve put down the takeout bag he was carrying. He squinted at the heap of deactivated bugs, glanced up at James, picked one up. "What are—" He blinked. "Are those mikes?"
Was he really going to try and go the naive route? James glared harder.
"Wow, they're microscopic, Howard would've been so—" Another glance at James. "Where did you get them? Don't tell me you can buy them on the street, they'd be— Oh." He'd probably noticed how James' jaw had tightened, his breath coming ragged he was so furious. "You found them here," he said, all excitement slipping out of his voice, "in the flat."
"Damn right I did," James growled. "Now care to explain to me why the fuck you'd listen in on your damn roommate? What kind of fucking psycho—"
"I wasn't." Steve had straightened up, his face suddenly nothing but a blank mask. "But I have a fairly good idea who might." He carefully put down the bug he'd been holding. "If you'll excuse me."
He turned away and disappeared into his bedroom, leaving James wrong-footed, his anger stumbling over the sudden lack of a person to direct itself at and toppling over into confusion. Because from Steve's reaction, it was like he hadn't known about the bugs. Like he hadn't been the one to plant them. But if not him, then who? And why?
Steve's bedroom door re-opened. James looked up, and stared: his roommate was now in full uniform, hooking the shield behind his back. And even though James had known, it was something entirely different to see it. Steve's demeanor was calm and controlled, yet somehow James knew that it was nothing but a thin veneer, could perceive something like concentrated fury churning right underneath the surface. It was the straight line of his shoulders, maybe, the tightness around his mouth; the distant, cold gaze in his eyes, which transformed his whole face. It was Captain America standing there, not Steve Rogers.
"Off to kick some bad guys' asses?" James asked warily.
Captain America gave him a stiff smile. "Off to have a talk with my boss."
He strode to the front door, opened it, and closed it quietly but firmly behind himself.
There had been no Be right back this time.
James remained stuck where he was, staring at the wooden panel, mind swirling with questions—most of which boiled down to: What the fuck?
The door to Steve's bedroom had been left ajar. James glanced at it, biting his lips. He hadn't scanned that part of the flat when he'd swept it, assuming that Steve wouldn't have gone so far as to bug himself. But given his reaction, and everything it implied…
In the end he couldn't resist. Sliding off the couch, he silently made his way over and checked: the doorjamb, the bedside lamp and table, the cupboard, the overhead light—and it took him less than a minute to find something. He sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the wire pinched between his fingers, nostrils flaring.
He'd felt betrayed when he'd found the first one.
Now he was downright outraged.
It was hours before Steve returned. By the time he stepped back through the door, shoulders still tense, jaw still tight, night had fallen and the street had grown quiet. The building, on the other hand, had come alive, their neighbors coming home one by one. Someone kept dropping things in the flat above, and downstairs a TV was on, playing some drama with a lot of arguing and musical sequences carried by violins.
James was sitting cross-legged on the couch, eating the takeout he'd just warmed: it was pasta, which had made its glorious return to the list of things he could digest a couple weeks ago, so there was no point in letting it go to waste.
"Good talk?" he asked, because Steve had stopped at the door, obviously surprised to find him still here.
Steve stared for a little bit longer. "Not really," he said belatedly. "It seems me and my employer don't really see eye to eye when it comes to privacy and safety."
James bit back a snort: he could've told Steve that. "Spying on your own agents is fucked up," he said.
A strange expression came over Steve's face, a faint wobble around his chin, and for a second James felt a spike of dread, convinced that he'd somehow made Captain America cry. But then the man's shoulders slumped, and he sighed, and suddenly he was Steve Rogers again: just a normal guy, tired and confused and hurt. "Yes," he said, voice wavering, "it is."
It was infused with relief, too, as if he'd just been told that he wasn't crazy or unreasonably naive, as if James was the first one to agree with him on such a simple matter. Which sounded absurd—except for the fact that most of the people Steve came into contact with probably worked for SHIELD, and shared the agency's apparently disturbing and invasive views. How was Steve to know that it wasn't the new normal in this century?
Forget spying on your own agents, not letting them find out for themselves how the world actually worked was even worse.
James' indignation, which had been quietly sizzling for hours now, flared once again.
"I'm sorry about all this," Steve said, sitting on the armchair perpendicular to the couch. "I'd like to say it won't happen again, but I do realize I can't guarantee it won't. I don't know how. So I'd understand if…"
He trailed off.
"If?" James prompted.
The look Steve gave him was unbearably sad, but he didn't shy from the situation—and damn, growing up the eldest of four, with three little sisters who, like him, had inherited their father's eyes, you would've thought that James would be more immune to those kinds of baby blues. "If you don't want to stay here after all."
James slowly chewed his latest mouthful. "Do you want me to leave?" he asked after he'd swallowed.
"No," Steve said unhappily. "But I understand that you already have enough on your plate without worrying about your privacy being infringed on."
James scrutinized Steve's features for a little bit longer, although he was honest enough with himself not to pretend that he was still weighing his decision. "I don't want to leave," he said.
Steve's eyebrows shot up. "You don't?"
"The room is cheap." James shrugged. "And you know I'm not rolling in money."
"As for my privacy, don't worry about it. I can take care of that—for me and for you."
"How?" Steve asked, brow furrowing.
James smirked. "I wasn't your average foot soldier, is all. I know all about that shit."
"But you're out," Steve protested. "You should be focusing on returning to civilian life, not—"
James shrugged again. "I'd be doing most of it anyways, if only to manage to sleep at night. At least I'll be doing it for a reason that's real, rather than paranoia over nothing."
Steve still looked reluctant—and it was sweet of him, to care so much about James' recovery. But it only made James more determined to stick around and help him.
"I'll teach you if you want," he said. "But in the meantime…" He pushed the second container of takeout towards Steve. "Pasta?"
Steve hesitated a bit more. James quirked an eyebrow. Steve gave in. "Okay," he said, tugging the pasta towards himself. "Okay."
And he smiled.
Chapter by Niitza
Chapter warning: Brief but graphic depiction of the moment Bucky lost his arm.
It wasn't that Natasha had wanted Rogers' little experiment to fail. It was just that if it had—if his roommate had moved out within the week, thus making Rogers understand that his trying to share a living space with anyone, especially a civilian, was a Very Bad Idea—she wouldn't exactly have minded.
But it didn't fail. Weeks, then months went by, and James B. Barnes was still sharing a flat with Steven G. Rogers. And the worst part was, you could see the effects of that cohabitation on Rogers himself—positive effects. It didn't go as far as making him look happy—Natasha suspected that he was one of those people who just weren't wired that way—but he was less out-of-place, more present, more open. He cracked jokes from time to time, letting the person behind the shield shine through, Steve Rogers shedding Captain America's armor. When Natasha had first started shadowing him, he'd clung to that persona—the hero, the symbol—like a child to its favorite plush toy on the first day of school. Now, he let himself slump on the journey back from a mission. He listened to music while training. He even stored his gear in his locker at SHIELD HQ before he went home for the evening, left the shield behind, left Captain America behind.
Not that he neglected it. Despite Natasha's assurances that someone would see to it, he insisted on taking care of his own equipment, like a good soldier. So after a mission, on an idle late afternoon, you could always be sure to find him down in the locker rooms, checking the strap of the shield for signs of wear, the seams of his suit for tears, the sides of his boots for cracks. If he could repair it he would, humming or even singing while he worked.
Natasha wondered if he noticed that last part. When it had started happening a ripple had gone through HQ, and even now, months down the line, you could still see the effect. People slowed down when they heard him as they walked down a corridor; if they crossed path with someone else they'd share a conspiratorial smile, agreeing about how great their job was, that it gave them the opportunity to hear Captain America singing old tunes while he touched up the paint of his shield. They did it in silence, too: the unspoken rule was not to disturb him, not to interrupt the song, have that moment last for as long as possible. And when they left the premises, took a turn at the end of the corridor or stepped into an elevator, there was a renewed spring in their steps, a quiet pride in the way they carried themselves, a brighter light in their gazes.
Natasha belonged to the happy few who were allowed to walk into that room if they wanted, and she would never admit the small thrill it elicited. She even made a game out of it: of coming as close as possible without being noticed, of figuring out which song Rogers was singing before he heard her and stopped. It wasn't easy: somehow her training hadn't covered popular tunes from the 20s and 30s.
Her repertoire was expanding, though, and fast.
Still, she was surprised one evening when she recognized the song the second she stepped inside. It wasn't even one of Rogers' favorites, which came up again and again; instead—
"Is that Don't Stop Believing?" she asked, a bit incredulous.
Rogers glanced at her and pointedly raised an eyebrow: she'd have to try harder to make him feel self-conscious. "We're watching Glee," he explained, as if that wasn't an even more frightening thought than him catching up on music from the 80s.
"Really," Natasha said.
"Yup." He gave his boot a last brush and put it down, perfectly aligned with its partner. "As a depiction of teenager life nowadays, it's pretty horrifying, but otherwise rather fun."
"I believe it's meant to be a caricature."
"Those are still based on reality," Rogers pointed out as he packed up his shoe kit. "That's what worries me." He twitched a smile. "I like that Kurt kid, though."
Natasha didn't bat an eyelash. Apparently Rogers hadn't yet reached the part where you found out that the kid was gay. Which was curious: she'd been led to believe that it was obvious from the start.
But then, Rogers probably wasn't well versed in what clothing styles and types of behavior were deemed "gay" nowadays.
She wondered whether she should tell him. But that would mean explaining about the whole LGBTQ+ movement, about gay rights, about AIDS—one of the topics SHIELD had been carefully avoiding because they had no idea how to broach it. Now was the perfect opportunity.
On the other hand, what better way was there for Captain America to find out that Gay Is Okay Now than through a harmless series about teenager struggles, no matter how dubious its quality? Natasha wasn't above letting it do the job instead of taking it upon herself (again).
She wasn't being lazy. Just… practical.
"So," she said. "TV shows."
Rogers gave her a quizzical look.
"Is that why you haven't been going to the movies as much as of late?"
Beside bingo club that had been the other thing that had surprised her when it came to Rogers' private habits: he often went to the museum, but that was nothing compared to how often he went to the movies. So much that they'd already mapped out some of his preferences: science-fiction, animated movies and romantic comedies. But recently, such outings had petered out, replaced by evenings spent indoors.
Rogers' lips curled. While he appreciated Natasha being open about the surveillance SHIELD was running, he clearly would've preferred for it to stop entirely.
"James isn't good with crowds," he said, "let alone dark enclosed spaces, especially when surrounded by strangers and sudden noises. I borrow DVDs with my library card instead. Plus, James has a Netflix account."
Natasha didn't let her brow pull into a frown. She'd had no idea that Rogers had been using the internet. As far as she knew, the router SHIELD's employees had installed when they'd helped him move in hadn't been switched on since it had been set up. So either he'd gotten another one, or Barnes had found a way to block the signal.
And that was the main reason why Natasha still wasn't happy with the whole setup, why despite how much better Rogers was now, part of her still wished it'd stop: the complete blackout on his flat. After Barnes had moved in, it had taken him mere hours to find and neutralize all of their bugs. When they'd tried to plant new ones, they hadn't lasted a day.
That wasn't all. He'd changed the locks on all the doors, added some on the windows, complete with a couple booby traps. He'd had the glass coated, so that no one could see inside. He'd set up devices that disturbed electronic frequencies: nothing came out or in, so that Rogers and his phone virtually vanished from their radars the second he stepped through the door. On top of that, Barnes had quickly identified Agent 13 for what she really was, and politely but firmly made her understand that it would be best for everyone if she kept her distance.
Natasha had long since pulled the man's army files, and cursed the fact that he was out for good: SHIELD could've used a man with his skill set on their side. But he wasn't, and wouldn't be. Coulson had tried approaching him once, while Barnes had been bringing some groceries home. They'd staged a collision with an overenthusiastic dog that had been sent to trip Barnes so that several oranges and apples had spilled from his overloaded bag. Coulson had walked over to help, had gotten the conversation going, had steered it towards Barnes' amputated arm, and segued into the latest advances in prosthetics. However, he hadn't had the time to get to the actual point, to the bargain they'd wanted to offer—a brand new, top-of-the-line arm in return for some… cooperation. He hadn't, because Barnes had quickly understood what this was about. His expression had shut down like a prison door, Coulson had said. Barnes hadn't let him get another word in, had strongly turned him down, and left.
On the one hand, it was a good thing, Natasha supposed: Barnes wasn't to be bought, and now Rogers' home was as secure as it could be, short of him living at the Triskelion or Avengers Tower. But on the other hand, it also meant that SHIELD had no idea what happened when Rogers was there—and given that it was where he now spent most of his free time…
It was a gigantic blind spot, is what it was.
Natasha hated those.
The first thing James became aware of was pain; an ache, dull but deep, throbbing down his left arm, all the way to the bone. He winced, and fumbled, and reached out with his right hand to try and soothe it, to massage the muscle and—
Stopped, woke up for good, remembered, a mere second before his palm made contact—or failed to.
His fingers curled into a fist as nausea roiled through him, hitting the back of his throat. He made himself breathe through it, pushed it back, pushed it down, just as he pushed down the memories from that moment when, lying on the hot pale dirt under a glaring sun, blinded by its light after months of obscurity, ears ringing, mind boggling and confused, his left side nothing but a scream, he'd turned his head, and seen.
(His arm, half shredded, the cracked bone showing under his torn sleeve, pieces of muscle turned into mere meat and a pink sinew grotesquely clinging to the remnants of his shattered elbow—)
Here and now in D.C.—he was in D.C., he was home, summer was turning into fall and there was no mission and there was no cave and he was free and he was safe—he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. Swallowed, breathed slowly in, then out, then in again, then out again, and again, and again. He ignored how much it trembled on the way, caught in his too tight throat and forced its way onwards dragging a soft sound behind it, not quite a whimper, not quite a sob, but close. Sweat had broken out on his skin, made his hair stick to his temple, his t-shirt cling to his shoulders, its collar chafe against his nape.
After a while he let himself collapse back down, roll onto his back, throwing off his covers to let the cooler air of the room brush against his overheated skin. Several minutes passed. Slowly, reluctantly, his stomach settled. Pain still lanced up and down his missing arm, his nerves begging him to do something to assuage it, to fix it, when there was nothing to be done. Still refusing to look at it, James finally scooted to the edge of his bed, heaved himself up into a sitting position and fumbled for one of the bottles of pills stacked on his bedside table. It wasn't easy to open—not one-handed and with trembling fingers, and James smarted at yet another reminder of his new disability. But off the top came, and at least the pills were large, easy to shake out one by one. The bottle of water he kept in the bag on the floor beside his bed, however, was empty. Of course.
Feeling already exhausted, James sat and weighed his options. He didn't want to get into the habit of swallowing pills dry, but the thought of standing up, of leaving his room, of walking all the way to the kitchen to fetch a glass—
At the same time, it might do him good: leaving his stuffy room, settling on the couch for a little while, basking in the quiet. He could brew some herbal tea and drink it slowly, pretending that he wasn't delaying the moment he'd have to go back to bed, to sleep.
Mind made up, he took a breath, stumbled up and walked to the door. There was no need to turn on the light: the glow from the street lamps was enough to get by in this increasingly familiar place, which his flatmate kept rigorously tidy, almost too much so.
What he didn't expect was to catch a movement out of the corner of his eye the second the living-room came into view. He startled, violently, his hand closing around the two pills he was still holding, his heart kicking into overdrive, his mind jumping to what he could reach and use as protection, as a weapon, against—
But it was only Steve, sitting in his favorite armchair under the window.
In the dark. At—James checked the oven clock—3:42 in the morning.
"Hey," Steve said quietly. "Everything okay?"
James was tempted to return the question, but in the end simply nodded. "Just my arm acting up," he said.
He took the last few steps to slip behind the breakfast bar. A couple glasses still stood on the drying rack. He took one, filled it at the tap, knocked back a couple mouthfuls of water along with his pills. When he looked down and over, Steve had gone back to staring through the window. His hands were folded on his lap, unmoving, relaxed, and the light filtering through the glass was too weak for James to make out his expression, yet watching him was like catching an echo of the pain he was feeling, shrouded in loneliness.
He took another sip of his glass, then walked over to sit on the couch.
"Can't sleep?" he asked, when after several minutes Steve still had given no sign that he'd noticed his continued presence.
"Apparently not," Steve said, and this close James could see that wry smile of his curl up the corner of his mouth. He knew that James had noticed how little he slept by now—although James still wasn't sure whether that was due to trauma or another aftereffect of the serum.
"Nightmares?" he prompted.
A beat, and Steve shook his head. "More like… homesick, I guess," he said, barely audible, eyes still riveted to the window, to the sky, and the look on his face…
James nodded. He remembered being deployed, missing home—like a limb, people said, and now he knew for a fact how apt the comparison was. It was an ache that came and went like the tide—except that it was even more capricious than the sea, entirely unpredictable, nearly absent one second, seeping into you and swelling the next, taking you unawares, making you choke and nearly drown. But even through the worst of it he'd had his anchors, his lifeline: phone calls to his family, the care packages they sent, and the knowledge that if he survived this day, this mission, this deployment, then he would return, see it again, feel it all again.
Steve had none of that. He hadn't even signed up to leave it all behind for good—not only his family and friends, but also the people whom he knew distantly, who made up the backdrop of his life: the shoemaker, the grocery store owner, the busker at the corner of his street, the downstairs neighbors… All gone. Gone too the jobs he might've picked back up, the rooms where he'd lived, the sound and shape of the streets, of life as he'd grown to know it. And even if he survived, there would be no going back. Not for him.
"Wanna talk about it?" James suggested awkwardly. He had no idea what he could say or do to help; he wasn't even sure Steve wanted help. "I grew up in Brooklyn too, we could compare. See what's different, what remained—"
"I know what's different," Steve cut in, almost harshly. Then he sighed and gave James a rueful glance. "Everywhere I went… You must have experienced that too, walking down a street you know, only to find out that one of its buildings has been torn down. And you stop, because it's wrong, that hole, it doesn't match the shape of the street as you know it—and yet you can't for the life of you remember what that building looked like. Just that it was there. And now it's gone."
Steve went on: "For me New York, Brooklyn, it's like that everywhere now, all the time. Or it's worse, because other buildings have already replaced the ones that are gone. And the more I tried to find places that were still the way I remembered, the more I found nothing but differences and—" He looked down, huffed. "I forget. The way my brain works now, with the serum, my memories are so much more vivid than anything from before. They superseded it, easily. Like a pencil sketch being erased and redone in permanent ink. So I know what's different." He glanced up, and his eyes were as sad as his smile. "I'm just not always sure why."
James understood better now.
He'd been surprised to hear that Captain America was still active. Not because he'd expected the army to have let him go easily—after all, even though it was pretty obvious that not even the most skilled sniper could shoot straight with only one arm, they'd still taken their sweet time before consenting to discharge him—but because he'd thought that the longest serving soldier in US history would've wanted to be done, to gather his honors and medals and go home.
But home was gone. And so of course he'd stay on: it was the only way to make it all make sense. The war wasn't over, he was still needed in battle, he couldn't just stop and leave—surely believing that was more tolerable than to admit that he had nowhere and no one to go back to.
So yes, James understood better. It didn't mean that he didn't find it awful. For the fight to be the only place Steve had found for himself in this century, the only form of stability, of normalcy… And James couldn't help but suspect SHIELD to have encouraged that. What better way could there be to secure their hold on the supersoldier, after all?
Well, James thought, fuck that.
He watched Steve closely over the next few days. And as he did, he noticed the grief that often clouded his eyes, the slump of his shoulders—and he reflected. He tried to remember what he'd missed the most when he'd been overseas, what had made him feel better whenever he'd been homesick, what he'd rejoiced most over whenever he'd gone home. He planned.
He called his Ma.
Winifred Barnes had been quite unimpressed by James' new roommate at first. But in her defense, at first she hadn't known anything about him, not even his full name; just the fact that, when she'd driven down one morning to bring her son's things, he'd been conspicuously absent.
Now, in Winifred Barnes' eyes, any decent person would've introduced themselves to her and stuck around to help—especially given her son's… limitations.
"He has work, Ma," James had protested, trying not to let her words sting too much.
"Still," Winifred had said, and hefted a second box into her arms before heading into the building. James had stayed behind, watching over the car, because it wasn't like he could help her bring his books and clothes inside, could he? No matter how wrong it felt to stand here like an idiot while she did all the work.
He couldn't begrudge Steve for not being there either: he wouldn't have been surprised if SHIELD had intentionally kept him extra busy that day just to make sure Mrs. Barnes wouldn't know about him. Except that apparently SHIELD hadn't known about her coming down, or Steve hadn't cared one bit about what they thought or tried, because before James and his Ma were halfway done a bike had rumbled its way around the corner and come to a stop right beside James on the sidewalk.
"Hey," Steve had said, smiling. He wasn't even wearing a helmet. "Need any help?"
James' Ma had been so flustered when she'd stepped back out and seen him. So much so that it had taken until they'd been done and Steve had gone to the kitchen to put the kettle on like he owned the place for her to realize that, well, he did, and that it wasn't just a case of Captain America playing good-Samaritan all over DC.
The look on her face had been priceless.
By the time she'd left she still hadn't settled on how to treat him: as the war hero who was technically older than her own father, or as the lost young man who was technically younger than her own son. She would only need the smallest nudge to topple either into respectful distance or borderline mothering, which James was acutely aware of when he called her to ask her for one of the Irish recipes she'd inherited from her own mother.
She was only too happy to help.
Unfortunately, when James had hatched his plan full of surprises and niceties and delicious homey food, he'd forgotten to take his fucking missing arm into account.
His therapist said that it was normal for him to forget. Still, James wished he wouldn't, wished for the realization to have already ingrained itself in his brain: then he wouldn't have to go through the process of remembering again, and again, and again.
He didn't give up, though. The preparations simply took him twice as long as they should have. The potatoes were poorly peeled, the bacon sloppily chopped, the onion slices undeserving of the name, and by the time the whole thing had gone into the oven to quietly sizzle for the next few hours, he was a sweaty, achey mess, with a cramping hand and a sweater stiff with drying grease and potato juice.
His physical therapist was going to be so proud, though.
That, and the look that came over Steve's face when he stepped through the door and James took the dish out of the oven made it all worth it.
"Is that…?" he started, but his voice appeared to fail him.
"Coddle," James said. He carefully put the dish down on the table he'd just set, then pulled off the mitt with his teeth and set it down beside his plate. "Thought you might like it."
Steve had come closer and was staring at the pot. It was unnerving.
"I mean, I can't guarantee it'll be as good as my Ma's," James found himself adding, even though part of him was annoyed at his own nervousness.
"No, it's—" Steve cleared his throat. "It smells great. I bet it'll taste great too." He glanced at James and tried for a smile, but his voice wobbled when he added: "Thank you."
James shrugged, feeling awkward—because such a simple gesture shouldn't have meant so much. He was just being nice, like Steve had been to him, and seriously, had no one even tried to make him feel at home since he'd been defrosted?
Seriously, fuck SHIELD, he thought with a flare of anger that was already becoming familiar and spurred him into turning towards Steve and holding his arm open.
"Come here," he said. It was only when Steve hesitated that he realized what exactly he was suggesting, and that such extensive physical contact might not be the best idea for a veteran fresh off several months of isolation and torture whose rescue had resulted in the loss of his arm. But then Steve had already stepped into the embrace, arms coming up and around James, and—
And Steve Rogers gave as good as he got when it came to hugs, it turned out. And when he ducked his head down, and his nose brushed against the juncture between James' neck and shoulder, James felt a shiver run up his spine—a shiver that had nothing to do with panic, or with feeling boxed in.
He was suddenly very warm, and very aware of his own heartbeat.
"I'll go wash my hands," Steve said when he stepped back, rubbing the heel of a hand against overly bright eyes. He smiled, a little bit broader, a little bit lighter. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," James replied faintly, and watched him go.
Well, he thought. Shit.
One year in and Sam Wilson felt like he'd finally gotten the hang of this whole counseling thing.
Not that he never doubted himself anymore, but at least he'd stopped being constantly afraid; stopped feeling like he never knew and would never know what he was doing, stopped wondering if he wasn't actually making things worse for his fellow vets instead of better, stopped inwardly dismissing their thanks, their claims that he'd helped them. He'd learned. He could do this. He was a professional.
And because he was a professional, he didn't do a double take when, upon noticing someone appearing at the entrance of the room in which his weekly meeting was taking place and throwing them that casual glance he'd perfected to look first-timers over without spooking them, he recognized none other than Steve Rogers, a. k. a. Captain America.
Fortunately it was the tail end of the meeting, and one of the vets was talking, which gave Sam the minute he needed to take in that information and determine what to make of it. His mind struggled, though—because what was Steve Rogers doing here? Was he looking for help? After what he had gone through—after the war and the plane crash, after the ice and waking up from it, after being dumped in an entirely different time and fighting aliens—yeah, that was enough for anyone to struggle, even a supersoldier. But had he gone searching for information on how to get help on his own, or had he been told by whoever his current employer was to come here?
And last but not least, what were the chances that of all the VAs in the country, he would end up at Sam's?
Sam, who'd grown up reading and re-reading old issues of the Captain America comics, all close to falling apart; who'd worshipped Gabe Jones and respected the Captain all the more for giving him a spot on his team; who'd spent his long, lonely years at the orphanage yearning for the hearty camaraderie displayed in these dog-eared pages; who'd found it when he'd enlisted—and who'd lost it, in the end. His found family, gone. Like the first.
At the time, it had felt like losing everything all over again.
But he couldn't linger on that, not now. He had people he was in charge of, vets he owed his attention to—and after all, if Steve Rogers was indeed looking for help, what better way could there be to convince him to give it a try than by showing him how things were done here, and done properly? So Sam focused back on Lena as she finished talking, and thanked her, and replied, and guided the group through the rest of the meeting. Afterwards there were a couple questions to answer one on one, from vets who hadn't wanted to ask them in front of everyone; there were others to say goodbye to, and the room to tidy up, and in all of that Sam lost sight of the Captain. By the time he finished and remembered and looked around, he was half-convinced that he had missed him, that the man was gone.
He wasn't, though. He was right there in the corridor when Sam stepped out of the room, talking to… Barnes?
That was a surprise.
Barnes was not the chatty kind. Hell, he wasn't the noisy kind, even. Dude wasn't what you'd call small, yet you never saw him coming. He was a pro at fading into the background, at sneaking up on you. He didn't even have to try. On bad days some vets broke down or blew up; not Barnes. Instead he grew still, even more so than usual, became entirely motionless, buried himself in silence until you stopped seeing him, until he disappeared.
It was eerie. But then, snipers often were.
He'd been doing good, though. Better than Sam would've expected when Barnes had first come in, given the state he'd been in and the luggage he'd been dragging behind him. He wasn't doing great—the bags under his eyes spoke of too many sleepless nights, his hunched shoulders kept tensing at the slightest surprise, he still refused to even consider trying a prosthetic to replace his lost arm—but he was improving, and most of all he was here: every week he came, every week he stayed, and there was something in his demeanor, a determination to get better and even, strangely, some sort of faith that he would.
Still, Sam wouldn't have pegged him for the type to just walk up to one Captain America and—what, gush at him like a fanboy and beg for an autograph? Ask him if he needed help and offer to answer all his questions? Sing the praise of the VA?
Sam's curiosity was piqued; he walked closer. Barnes, of course, saw him coming from a mile away. He didn't seem bothered by the interruption, though, even turned the slightest bit to include him into the conversation.
"This is Sam Wilson," he said with a nod in Sam's direction. "My therapy group leader."
Sam blinked in surprise at the introduction, and blinked again when the Captain smiled at him and held out a hand.
"Steve Rogers," he said, like he expected Sam not to know. "It's a pleasure." Then, before Sam even had the time to open his mouth to return the greeting, he squinted and added: "Hey, this is gonna sound— Don't you run around the National Mall every other morning?"
Clearly Sam wasn't done being caught off guard today. "I… do," he said.
The Captain nodded to himself as he let go of Sam's hand and stepped back. "I've seen you there once or twice." Another smile. "I'll be sure to say hi next time." Sam had no idea what to make of that, but already the Captain was turning back to Barnes and asking: "So, you ready to go?"
Barnes shook his head. "I still have to go check with Pete if we're still on for Thursday," and the Captain nodded like none of this surprised him, like he already knew that Pete was Barnes' physical therapist and renowned for making appointments on the fly then forgetting to confirm like he'd promised.
"I'll wait for you outside, then," he said, and threw a polite: "It was good to meet you, Sam," accompanied by another smile, before turning around and walking away.
This was not how Sam had expected the whole conversation to go. His plans to strike up a conversation, to draw the Captain in and get him to talk, lay in shambles at his feet. Because Steve Rogers hadn't come here looking for help, but for… Barnes.
Whom he apparently knew.
And who was still standing right there, watching Sam with a faint frown on his face.
"Dude," Sam blurted, half-incredulous, "that was—"
"My roommate," Barnes said.
Sam couldn't help but stare. Barnes returned his gaze warily.
"Captain America is your roommate?" Sam finally asked, because that couldn't be right. He remembered seeing that ad on the notice board and pointing it out to Barnes, knowing the man had been looking for a place to live. But surely Captain America wouldn't need a roommate; or, if he did, he wouldn't use a crappy notice board in a VA center to find one; or, if he did, no veteran would agree to share a flat with him, if only for the sake of their recovery; or, if some reckless idiot decided to do it anyways, then it wouldn't be Barn—
"My roommate," Barnes said slowly, his voice as flat and icy as his gaze, "is named Steve."
Damn those sniper types, really.
But Sam understood at once what Barnes meant, how the words he himself had used might've sounded: talking about Captain America like there wasn't a person underneath the title, like the shield and the myth surrounding it were all there was to the man. Yet they weren't, and Sam knew that. Hadn't his first thought been that Steve Rogers had come here because he needed some guidance, because he was struggling, just like any other traumatized soldier?
"You're right," he said.
Barnes relaxed minutely. A short silence followed.
"So. Steve," Sam spoke again, testing out the name. "He a good roommate?"
Barnes cracked a rare, unexpected smile.
Five days later, Steven G. Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, lapped Sam Wilson on their respective morning jogs for the first time.
And the second.
And the third.
"This is a travesty," James had said in that flat tone of his when he'd asked and Steve had confessed that no, he wouldn't be able to teach James how to swing dance.
He'd never really had the occasion to learn, is all. Arnie had shown him the basics, sure, but for anything beyond that he would've needed someone to actually dance with on an evening out. And no one had ever wanted that, not with him, not back then.
Hearing that, James had frowned ominously—the way he did when he decided that Shit Was Gonna Change, And Stat.
Sometimes, Steve stopped to think that James B. Barnes must have been quite a fearsome sergeant.
And things had changed. Now, whenever he wasn't on a mission, Steve came home to Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington playing, and to James squinting at a video on Youtube or practicing some steps. And while part of him was glad that James had so readily taken to the music he himself had grown up with, Steve couldn't help but wonder whether it wouldn't be better for him to devote all that time and energy to other, better things.
But then, recovery was a slow process, one that couldn't be rushed and could take many shapes; and James' job search, while in progress, still hadn't yielded anything.
It wasn't just that, though.
James was different, when he listened to music, when he danced. Something slid right off his shoulders, receded into the background: some of that anxiety that frequently made it impossible for him to step outside, some of those memories that dragged him back into that cave, onto the front, when he least expected it, or maybe simply some of the years and trials that had burdened him with it all. And Steve wondered—it wasn't something you asked, and even if it was he wouldn't have known how, but he wondered, when that happened, who it was he got to see: James as he had once been, younger, carefree, James before his war; or James as he really was, the core of him, usually hidden behind the fortress his psyche had had to become in order to survive. Steve didn't know. But that James was beautiful, all grace and languor, and sometimes…
Sometimes, like tonight, Steve would come home and Billie Holiday would greet him at the door, followed by James' smile as he looked up from his feet. He'd barely give Steve the time to put down the helmet he'd insisted he buy and wear, to take off his jacket, before he was waving him over, saying: "I think I got the hang of this one," and the second Steve'd be in reach he'd snatch him and get him into position to try the steps with a partner who wasn't imaginary for once.
A very inept partner: Steve might graciously submit—he'd long since learned that James was not to be deterred—but he always botched it. Yet James didn't seem to mind. He'd simply correct Steve's posture, his movements, nudging his feet further apart with his socked toes, using his hand to guide Steve's hip back and forth, showing him how it should follow the steps, the swinging of his shoulders… and Steve couldn't really deny anymore that his inability to improve had little to do with his being cursed with left feet, and everything to do with how tactile James became when focused on the dance. His hand would grab Steve's wrist, his shoulder, clutch at Steve's fingers, his arm would wrap around Steve's waist then push him away again, and every spot he touched Steve became acutely aware of, just as he was of his whole body, of the warmth churning through it, of how close James was standing.
"You know," he managed to say this time, and James looked up, flicking his ever lengthening hair out of his eyes—and Steve almost lost track of what he was doing all over again, "I'm sure Annie'd be happy to help you learn. She'd definitely be better suited for this than I am—or be able to point you towards someone who is. Or maybe Peggy could."
James pursed his lips, considering. "Maybe," he said, and Steve didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed by such easy acceptance. But then James smiled, a slow curving of his lips that was now appearing with increasing frequency. "Or—" he said. His hand, which had been resting on Steve's waist, slid on and around his back, bracing him. "—I could follow Agent Carter's advice and keep using you as my guinea pig—" He stepped forward, and Steve automatically stepped back, and sometimes, when he didn't think about it, following James' lead was the easiest thing in the world. "—and woo them all with my flawless moves the first time around, the second the music starts." He arched an eyebrow, his eyes never leaving Steve's. In the background, Billie Holliday was crooning about her man and sometimes—
Sometimes Steve really got the impression that James was doing all this on purpose.
So there was that, too.
(As it turned out, it was.
New Year's gala at Stark Tower: it was the second time they attended and Natasha could tentatively see it becoming a tradition for the Avengers—provided nothing worse than the Chitauri attack happened in the next few years (a naive hope) and that none of the members of their oh so volatile team did anything to antagonize the others too much (unlikely). Yet by some miracle neither of those had happened this year. And so here they were: Stark, of course, but also Dr. Banner, who hugged the walls but remained conspicuous thanks to the bright red tinsel Tony had wrapped around his neck, "to offset the green." Clint was sampling the buffet, probably stealing half the hors d'oeuvres he was pretending to eat so he could bring them back to his kids. Thor wasn't there: he'd been aware that there were celebrations on Earth around this time of the year, but had failed to ask about their significance or the occasion for them, and so had come… for the winter solstice, which Asgardians celebrated and thought they had established in all the realms they controlled.
Earth's alleged extraterrestrial rulers must have been seriously remiss in their duties if they'd missed something as significant as the rise of Christianity and its spreading all the way to the territories where they'd first touched down.
Thor had seemed fascinated and interested to learn more, but he hadn't been able to stay for any of it, neither Christmas nor New Year's Eve. Life as an Asgardian prince, it seemed, was pretty busy.
Rogers, on the other hand, had definitely celebrated Christmas, this Natasha knew for a fact. The year previous she'd had to drive him from DC—only then realizing that he'd spent the whole holiday season alone—but this year, when she'd offered him a ride, he'd told her that he'd already be in New York: his roommate had invited him to spend Christmas with his family.
Natasha didn't doubt that the Barneses had been more than happy to provide shelter for Captain America. As far as guests of honor went, you could hardly top that. SHIELD, on the other hand, had rejoiced a lot less. They hated it when Rogers moved from underneath their thumb.
Tonight would've to serve as their consolation prize: for a few precious hours they'd know exactly where he was, and be sure that he was as safe as he could be. The place was teeming with security detail, and Natasha never strayed far. Sometimes she even moved in very close indeed.
Rogers was a lot more agreeable to her offer of a dance this year. She still wasn't quite sure why her invitation last time had affected him the way it had: he'd looked like she'd slapped him in the face, something like fury, or maybe despair, flitting over his features before he'd pushed it all down, before he'd smiled past his obviously gritted teeth and taken her outstretched hand—and surely all of this hadn't been due to the fact that she'd been the one to ask, instead of waiting for him to do so. But this year, even though she was watching out for it, she didn't see any of that. What she did notice, however, was how little he stumbled, how easily he let himself be convinced, when the music faded, to stay on the floor for a second turn instead of excusing himself and leaving the room at once.
"You've improved," she commented.
Rogers twitched a smile and said, "Bucky taught me."
A flush had spread over his cheeks: he was still terrible at taking compliments, especially from women.
"He had to get some help from our friends down at the SSL, too. I was that much of a disaster."
Natasha let her lips curve. "And Bucky is…?" she prompted, even though she already suspected: Rogers' roommate had made quite an impression when he'd accompanied him to bingo night for the first time. Everyone had taken to him at once, even Peggy Carter, to whom Rogers had introduced him first—and that was more or less all the couple of agents doubling as medical aides had been able to see and hear, because months down the line the man still had an uncanny ability to pick them out and they'd had to beat a hasty retreat lest their cover be compromised.
"Oh, uh." Rogers ducked his head. "That's James, 'Bucky' is his childhood nickname." And was that a smirk, spreading on his lips? "He hates it, but his sisters still use it, and so…" It was. Rogers wasn't even trying to hide it, he just shrugged, and who would've thought that Captain America could be such a little shit?
Natasha's smile widened.
"I have to admit I was wrong," she said. It didn't happen often, so she hoped Rogers savored the moment. When he frowned in confusion, she added: "This whole thing, getting a roommate, it's been good for you. I'm glad you made such a good friend."
Rogers blinked at her.
"… A friend," he said slowly, his voice strangely blank—like somehow he hadn't stopped for a second to think that that was what Barnes had indeed become. "Right."
James stomped his way out of the library. Even there he wasn't safe from unwanted solicitations, it would seem, and seriously? How many times would he have to send SHIELD packing before they understood that he was not for sale, that he was never going to be for sale? First Mr. Ostensibly Mellow And Bland, now Tall, Dark And Asshole-ish—what, did they think that siccing one of their field agents on him instead of a suit would suddenly change his mind? That his good resolution this year had been to betray the best guy he'd ever known?
("My best guy," Steve had murmured as he'd nuzzled James' temple, and James had been able to feel his smile, right against his ear.)
If anything this conversation had made him even more suspicious and antagonistic than he'd already been, had brought him that much closer to caving in and doing what he'd strictly forbidden himself from doing up until now: hinting at Steve that maybe it was time for him to stop fighting, to retire, to come home. Steve wasn't ready for that, James knew, not yet. He still relied on being useful, needed, on saving people to accept what had happened to him—to give sense to his continuing existence, long past the life expectancy he'd imagined he'd have growing up.
But even if he didn't lay down his weapons, then at least he could leave SHIELD, because he sure as hell didn't owe them a goddamn thing. And they were shady as fuck. Maybe they'd hoped that James would be more inclined to listen to someone on the ground, like he'd been. But they'd chosen wrong. It wasn't just that they'd tried to lure him in with yet another offer for a prosthetic, like they couldn't fathom how someone could live while missing a limb. There had been something about that guy too: his irritating swagger, for one, which managed to be both cavalier and slimy at the same time; but also an edge, harsh and dangerous, audible in some of the things he'd said—about freedom, and security, and order, and that if anything had set off warning bells all across James' mind.
It said a lot about SHIELD, about its carelessness at best, its hypocrisy at worst, that they'd hired someone like that.
Seriously, James thought, not for the first time, fuck them. And again, he wondered if he should tell Steve about all this.
His phone buzzed in his pocket: a message. From Steve, like he'd been summoned by James' thoughts.
Hey Buck—and fuck that nickname, too, just seeing it James remembered the shit-eating grin on Becca's face, the exact tone of Steve's voice when he'd repeated it for the first time, thoughtfully, like he was considering his options, contemplating all the ways in which he could make use of such ammunition—congratulations on the job! Celebration tonight? I should be home at around 6 pm. Steve.
James' sour mood receded at the reminder of the reason why he'd been at the library in the first place, borrowing a bunch of sci-fi books—because he had a lot to catch up on if he wanted to be aware of the latest developments and trends in that genre and so do his copyeditor job properly.
His phone buzzed again.
PS: Natasha is trying to set me up with a SHIELD employee again. Help me figure out how to reply?
This time James couldn't help but smile, both at the content and the form of the messages, all correctly spelled and captioned and signed. It had taken him some time to understand: it wasn't that Steve wasn't aware of how people texted—he was observant and a quick learner, and he was bound to have noticed James' habits by now—but simply that he preferred to do it that way. It was one of the many small ways he had to show his defiance: fuck the 21st century, Steven G. Rogers was going to write the way he'd been taught, all proper and polite, if he damn well pleased.
James liked that quirk, even though he himself had no such qualms: k, he replied. i'll be waiting at home w takeout
He pushed all things SHIELD to the back of his mind and focused on this instead: a quiet evening in, lounging on their couch, and Steve.
It sounded perfect.
The group session at the VA was drawing to an end when Bucky's phone buzzed. He almost didn't check it: he was trying to abide by the rules, to be respectful towards Sam, whose work relied on the benevolent attention every member of the group had agreed to grant to the others. But he also knew that the not-knowing would only encourage his propensity to spin worst case scenarios, that little black spider that so enjoyed stinging his mind. It could be anything: one of his sisters having an emergency, one of his therapists canceling an appointment and throwing the rigorous equilibrium he needed to get through the day into jeopardy, one of his former subordinates trying to contact him, Steve telling him that he was off on yet another mission for SHIELD (fuck SHIELD)…
In the end, he discreetly drew his phone out of his pocket to glance at it, ready to push it back inside at once—and paused.
On the screen, the small alert kept blinking. The silent alarm in their flat had been triggered.
Bucky stared at his phone for a minute, two, then looked up, glanced around. He'd tensed, he knew, and part of him hoped that the other vets hadn't noticed—he didn't want to push anyone into an anxiety attack—but another, bigger part didn't care, felt wary of them even, of everyone and everything, felt threatened and hunted and at bay at the thought of someone making a breach into their home.
Maybe it was nothing, he tried to reassure himself. Maybe it was just SHIELD. They'd tried to gain entry several times, in the early days—and had stopped after one of their agents had ended up hurt and Steve had gone over to give them another piece of his mind. Maybe they'd just been biding their time, or wanted to see if their security was still as sound as it had been then.
(Actually it was better, thanks to some advice from one Peggy Carter.)
Or maybe it was Steve, tripping something—only even as he thought that Bucky knew that it couldn't be the case. Steve wasn't clumsy that way, and he understood perfectly how everything in their place worked, without Bucky having had to explain half of it. That, and given the time he probably was at the SSL, visiting Peggy as he always did after a mission, no matter how short—something anyone who'd spied on him even a little would know. Or maybe he was already on his way to the VA, to pick Bucky up.
Bucky's mouth curled down, and he stood up, discreetly, thankful that he still hadn't changed his habit of sitting all the way in the back, not too far away from the door. No one noticed, except Sam: Bucky could feel his eyes on his back as he slipped out. The man was getting better and better.
Steve was there in the lobby when he reached it, much to Bucky's relief: this wasn't the worst case scenario, where he'd already have been brought in and subdued. He was greeting the receptionist, but his smile faded at once when he looked over and saw Bucky: he knew the meeting wasn't quite over yet.
"Hey Buck, is everything—" he started asking, but Bucky simply snatched his wrist and dragged him away. He found a deserted corridor, away from the bathrooms and the most frequented pathways; the doors all led to storage cupboards or administration offices whose occupants had already gone home for the evening. Still, Steve's voice was barely above a whisper when he asked: "What is it?"
Bucky looked into his eyes: he hated being the bearer of bad news. True, it could be nothing, but chances were just as high that it wasn't—and Bucky had never been known to be an optimist.
Things had been so good lately. Something had to give.
He showed Steve his phone, the alert still pulsing on the screen. Steve knew at once what it was about.
"It might just be Natasha," he said, but it was weak: she might not have followed her employer's lead in staying far away from their place, but her few attempts at breaking and entering had always taken place when they were around—as if to make sure that they'd be there to help if she got snagged, or as if her actions were simply a tease, her quirky way of making her presence known.
Normal people used the doorbell. But then, Natasha Romanov wasn't normal people, was she?
Bucky's silence was telling enough: Steve's shoulders slumped slightly, then straightened as he took a breath, stiffened into that firm line that fit best under the uniform.
"I'll go check it out," he said. "You stay away—stay safe," but Bucky was already nodding anyway.
"I'll go window shopping at Union Station, maybe feel the sudden urge to go visit my Ma."
Steve held his eye for a long second. He didn't like the contingency plan, that much was clear; or rather, he didn't like that it had to exist, that it might prove to be useful.
"I'll keep you updated," he murmured, and returned Bucky's phone to him, wrapping his fingers around Bucky's hand to squeeze it briefly. And then he let go, was already moving, past Bucky and away, and as he rounded the corner Bucky realized that he'd expected, had wanted a kiss—like the naive movie debutante sending her sweetheart off to war.
But Steve wasn't quite Steve now: he'd switched right into Captain America's mindset, and that guy had no time for sweet niceties, no thought for anything that wasn't the fight.
Bucky really hoped that he was wrong; that this was nothing, that it was SHIELD, that it was Romanov.
He went to withdraw some money.
It wasn't Natasha—but it was SHIELD, in a way, and once it was all over, once Nick had flatlined and Natasha had left with her hackles raised and Rumlow was calling for him because SHIELD wanted an explanation and they wanted it now, Steve scarcely had the time to send Bucky a text, the code they'd agreed on forever ago—and how naive Steve had been, to half-believe that it was an unnecessary precaution, that he was simply humoring his new roommate and would never have to use them.
"Cap," Rumlow said again, almost snapped. He was all tension and impatience, nervous like a race horse waiting for the starting pistol to fire—but then, his boss had just been assassinated. One might understand why he'd be on edge.
Steve'd phone buzzed. Got it Avett, Bucky had replied, and Steve breathed out slowly, put the device away.
As terrible as it was to say, it was simply one thing less to worry about right now.
The train had just pulled out of Baltimore when the news broke, nearly blowing up Bucky's phone: Captain America had been declared a fugitive.
It wasn't on official channels, of course. The alert had come from SHIELD's private servers, which Bucky discreetly monitored—because if they were spying on their own agents, it was only fair for said agents to spy back. Not that Steve knew about it. Or maybe he did, he'd just never asked.
Probably to claim plausible deniability.
Besides, Bucky wasn't prying into state secrets or anything that might jeopardize national security. Had he targeted people too high on the food chain, he'd have been found out a long time ago, anyway. No, he'd aimed for the lower, weaker rungs of the ladder: their garage logs, to track the comings and goings of the Quinjet SHIELD favored when sending Captain America out, and a couple administrative accounts linked to their medical wing—the place where the information would trickle down first were something to happen to Steve, because informing the roommate they'd sooner wish didn't exist wouldn't rank very high on the list of SHIELD's priorities in such a case.
Through these small cracks Bucky didn't learn much: the way he'd set things up, no news was good news—just enough to appease his mind. This time, however, he was bombarded with almost more information than he knew what to do with. The memo had been sent throughout the agency, down to the fucking janitors it seemed: finding Captain America was to be everyone's top priority, all hands on deck until he'd been captured—because the garage logs showed that his bike had left the premises before it could be shut down.
They didn't have him.
Teeth gritted, lips pressed together, breathing tightly controlled, Bucky repeated that to himself as he stared at his phone screen: They don't have him. And then: I should've gone with him, only no, he killed the thought at once. No, he shouldn't have, it was better that he hadn't. What help could he have been? SHIELD would simply have gotten their hands on him at the flat—and even if they hadn't, if by some miracle he and Steve had managed to get out and find each other, what could he have contributed? It wasn't even that he could hardly fight efficiently with just one arm—although he could still do more than a little harm; no, it was rather the fact that even here, miles away from any immediate danger, he was struggling to keep his breath and mind under control, his vision growing fuzzy around the edges as the carriage seemed to shrink around him, the seat under him growing hard and cold like that chair they'd used in—
So yeah, he would've been a liability.
And he still was, he realized as he shook himself, forcefully dragged himself away from the edge—and God, how it hurt to take a full breath in. He was on SHIELD's radar, they would be looking for him too, either to try and get some clues out of him as to where Steve might be or, worse, to use him as bait, as a bargaining chip.
Bucky had no intention of finding out how far they would be willing to go for that. He couldn't go home to any member of his family, though: SHIELD would be sure to check there first. But he had a nice wad of bills in his bag, and a ticket he'd paid for in cash. All he needed to figure out was at which station he should step out.
And how to get rid of his phone.
After everything—after SHIELD's fall and HYDRA's exposure—Natasha found herself in the lobby of the Walter Reed Medical Center, sitting on a chair out of the way, pretending to drink a cup of coffee that had never been full. She was monitoring the entrance, because if SHIELD could be infiltrated, then you couldn't trust hospital security for a second, even military—and she was determined not to let anything past her, not this time.
(How the hell could she have been so damn blind?)
Besides, it was better than sitting in Rogers' room, waiting for him to wake up. Somehow she found that unbearable. His immobility made her feel restless, came off as profoundly unnatural, because Steve took hits that would've downed anyone else like they were nothing but friendly pats, he shrugged off bullet wounds like one would a fleeting cramp, he walked off broken bones like they were merely some morning stiffness that a little bit of stretching would soon ease. So for him to be down, really down, for nearly two days now…
So here she was, doing surveillance—or at least she thought she was, until Barnes stepped through the sliding doors and she realized she'd actually been waiting for him. Of course she had: these doors weren't the only point of entry into the hospital. Had she wanted to watch over them all, she would've hacked into the camera feeds. Hell, she wouldn't have had to leave Steve's room at all.
She scarcely had a second to take in his appearance before he saw her—everyone else had easily overlooked her, but he sure didn't—and walked in her direction. He wore a dirty cap and a multiplicity of layers, all fraying at the edges, which still didn't conceal the fact that his left arm was missing: the perfect get up to be let through without a backwards glance, to be put down as a former patient coming back for a checkup or as a vet visiting a downed comrade.
But wasn't that exactly what he was, after all?
He stopped three feet away from her, looking down; she hadn't bothered to stand up.
"Barnes," she greeted.
"Romanov," he returned, face impassive.
"You're no easy man to find," she said. HYDRA had tried, she knew, while she and Steve had been on the run—tried and failed. As had she: after the fight on and off the Roosevelt Bridge, when Maria Hill had rescued them and led them to Nick and Natasha had been told, point-blank, that Nick hadn't believed that he could trust her—
But of course he hadn't. Of course he'd trusted Captain fucking America instead, no matter how many more years she'd worked for him, no matter how obedient and quick and efficient she was while Rogers questioned every order he was given, no matter how unrepentantly clear Rogers had been about the fact that his loyalty to SHIELD was hanging by a thread. Of course.
After all, who would trust a Black Widow?
Captain America had.
Natasha still didn't quite understand how, or why.
She understood why he'd trusted his roommate though, or at least trusted that he wouldn't prove to be the weak link that'd jeopardize an already precarious operation. The time she'd had to try and find Barnes had been limited, of course, the means at her disposal even more so. But still, she hadn't found the smallest lead to start from. Barnes' exit had been impressively swift and clean. He'd disappeared and had remained well hidden: after they'd found Steve on the bank of the Potomac, she'd checked a second time, thinking that he might like to know, might've opened a channel. But there had been nothing.
He hadn't needed to receive a memo, though, obviously.
He didn't react to her comment, not even with an arrogantly quirked eyebrow. But then, he wasn't here to exchange niceties.
Natasha stood up, and didn't need to gesture for him to follow her.
Not for the first time, she wondered how the past few days would've turned out if they'd had Barnes at their side. They definitely could've used his skills, and maybe then they could've kept a better handle on things. Maybe it would've been less of a mess. Maybe less people would've died.
Steve had been adamant, though.
"He's out," he'd said. And when Natasha had pointed out that Wilson had been, too, he'd shaken his head. "No. I'm sorry, Sam," he'd added, throwing an apologetic glance at Wilson, even though the man hadn't looked like he was going to protest, or even taking it the wrong way, "but he wasn't, not in the same way. When he found out what was happening, he offered to jump in and help right away. The first thing Bucky did was think up a way to get himself out of the equation and vanish."
"Yeah," Wilson had said then, "I always figured he was a smart guy." And he'd grinned: no regrets to be found there.
Now, when they reached Steve's room, Sam was smiling again, this time in obvious relief: Steve was awake, and perked right up when he caught sight of Barnes.
Natasha stepped aside to let the man walk in and over to Steve's bedside. It was, she realized, the first time she'd get to watch them interact for more than a few seconds: the few times she'd dropped by their flat, Barnes had been absent or frustratingly quick to make himself scarce.
"Hey," Steve said with a small smile, which Barnes didn't return. His eyes were flitting over Steve's face, down his body, over the machines he was hooked to: taking in the number and nature of his wounds.
"Hey," he said gruffly, not quite glowering but close. "You look like shit."
"You should see the other guy," Steve replied.
Except that Barnes wouldn't: as far as Natasha knew, Rumlow's body still hadn't been fished out of the river. Not that finding it was very high on her list of priorities right now.
Silence settled, and stretched. Wilson was watching the whole scene like she was, his expression one of polite, if slightly confused, curiosity. Clearly he'd been expecting a more effusive reunion, or at least a friendlier one.
"So," Steve said after a while, that self-deprecating smile of his curling at the corner of his mouth. "No 'I told you so'?"
Barnes gave him a flat look. "No," he said. "I was never a fan of SHIELD and I always thought they were toeing the line far too much, but even I never thought it was because half of them were HYDRA."
So he'd noticed the undercurrent in Steve's voice, how close he was to blaming himself for not noticing earlier that something was wrong. Interesting.
Steve's lips pursed, like the implicit reassurance only made him more determined to believe that he should've known.
"So what now?" Barnes asked.
"Well," Steve said, shifting and badly concealing a wince. Barnes' frown deepened. "Looks like I'm out of a boss."
"Good," Barnes grunted.
Natasha couldn't quite decipher the look Steve gave him just then. There was something apologetic about it, almost rueful. "I'm not out of a job, though," he said. "There's a lot of clean-up to do if we want to root out HYDRA completely. You've seen the files."
Never let it be said that Barnes was the chatty kind.
"I expect we'll get a call from Stark any second now," Natasha butted in.
Steve smiled at her, swift and small. "It does sound like a job for the Avengers."
"So, New York?" Barnes asked.
Steve nodded. "New York." This time, the look he gave Barnes was almost expectant.
"Ma'll be thrilled," Barnes said after several seconds of silence.
Steve's smile widened.
Natasha narrowed her eyes. She looked at Rogers. Then at Barnes. Then back at Rogers.
"So," Sam said, "that Avengers team. There any vacant spot on it?"
Tony stood in front of the building JARVIS had indicated, hesitant to enter. It wasn't derelict, he didn't think, its red bricks neat, its black fence gleaming, its porch stairs mostly devoid of cracks. But the painting on the window frames was grayed and chipped, the fire escape rusted in places: it wasn't shiny and new either. Hence the hesitation.
On the one hand: Tony couldn't believe that Cap would've chosen this… this dump over the amenities of Avengers Tower, over its sound-proof and fully insulated walls, over its bay windows and their skyline, over its tastefully furnished private apartments, each with a fully-equipped kitchen and bathroom, over its top-of-the-line gym and its strategic floor, over its security system—everything a superhero might need to go after an underground network of slimy evildoers.
On the other hand: JARVIS. Because JARVIS was never wrong, so if he said that this was the place, then this had to be the place.
So into the building Tony went, past the trash cans and the second-hand bicycles, up the steps and through the creaking door. The whole thing didn't look much better from the inside: faded paint on the walls, mailboxes that hadn't been replaced since the 80s at least… One of the neon lights was flickering. The elevator was out of order. Fortunately, Cap only lived on the second floor—for a certain definition of "fortunately". The door JARVIS pointed Tony to was nearly nondescript, its only distinctive feature some ugly doormat with a badly drawn pair of red shoes and the words "There is no place like home" written in cheesy cursive. There was no name under the doorbell, no miniature shield sticker, not even an American flag: a disappointment, really.
Tony took a second to wonder whether it might be possible for his AI to have reached the next stage of development and emancipation from its original programming, which might manifest in pranking its own master. But no: JARVIS might have evolved much beyond what he'd been created as, the core of him, his loyalty to his maker, had never budged.
Well, now was as good a time to test that as any, Tony wagered. He rapped his knuckles against the door in a quick staccato. Then he waited.
And waited some more.
Finally, the door opened—to reveal someone who wasn't Cap.
"You're not Cap," Tony said.
The man, who already had an exceptionally bad case of the grumps, gave him a baleful glare. "Ain't no Cap living here," he said.
"Well, sorry not sorry, but this is the address he gave us," Tony retorted, piqued. He brandished his StarkPhone as a proof—although given the man's getup of fraying jeans and ratty brown sweater, he'd probably never seen one and so wouldn't recognize its advanced GPS app for what it was. "So if you could tell him I'm here."
The man glowered between the wisps of hair hanging over his eyes, which could definitely have used a cut. Or, you know, a wash.
"Steve's not here," he said, with a weird inflection on the name. "He's running some errands."
"Oh, I'll wait," Tony replied at once.
He hadn't thought that it was possible for the man to frown more deeply, and yet. "What do you want with him anyway? Clearly this ain't an emergency."
Seriously, who was this guy? Or, more importantly, who did he think he was? And who did he take Tony for?
Tony's reply was to ostensibly look him up and down over his sunglasses, eyebrows raised, making it clear how little what he was seeing was intimidating him, and how much it left to be desired.
And then he remembered: something Cap had said when he'd declined Tony's offer for an apartment in the tower, about a roommate—which had been thoroughly insulting, because who met devastating generosity with a plain statement that they preferred the company of some random guy over that of the people they'd fought aliens with, risked their life with? Self-righteous stick-in-the-mud pricks, that's who.
Seeing the roommate in question, Tony understood better, though: the guy looked one step away from homeless—hell, for all Tony knew, Cap had picked him up right from the streets, his patriotic bleeding heart desperate to help. With that in mind, Tony didn't tell the man the main reason for his coming here, which was to try and convince Cap once more to move to the Tower—and so incidentally to leave his roommate in the lurch. Instead he said: "Well, I was wondering how the hell Cap managed to end up in the middle of the Pride Parade, actually, and just how traumatized he came out from the whole experience." 'Come out', eh; Rhodey had it all wrong, Tony was hilarious. "Are you going to let me in?"
The man gave him a flat look, but eventually stepped back to let him through.
"You can sit here," he said, jutting his chin at a couch that had seen better days. Hell, Tony realized as his eyes roved over the room—which served as entryway, living-room, dining room and kitchen at the same time, damn—everything here looked like it had seen better days and belonged in a garbage dump instead of Captain America's flat. Tony didn't get it. Hadn't SHIELD helped furnish Cap's place in DC? Surely this wasn't what they'd come up with, unless they'd been aiming for some Great Depression Era vibe so that Cap would feel right at home. But if not, where had all those pieces of furniture gone, and where did these very-much-not-new ones come from?
"Want some coffee?"
Tony almost startled as he remembered that he wasn't alone. His eyes darted to Cap's roommate, who met his undoubtedly alarmed gaze with an unimpressed raise of eyebrows.
"Sure," Tony said, although if the state of the flat was an indicator of the quality of the drink… But Tony had always liked to live dangerously. Case in point: he gingerly sat on the couch, even though everything pointed towards it being infested with bugs or ready to impale you with its springs.
Neither happened. The thing was unexpectedly comfortable.
Tony took out his phone while he waited. He checked his emails and texts, his Twitter account, glanced at the news, went over the latest data from the various experiments and scans he had running and, there being no emergency, nothing new or at least worthy of his attention, found himself at a loss. Right foot jiggling, he inspected his surroundings more closely. He noted the numerous volumes crowding the bookshelf—boring stuff like history and biographies, but also a surprising amount of science fiction—, the easel near the window with a half-finished painting that wasn't bad, the countless vinyls—seriously? Was Rogers even trying to join the 21st century?—flanking a player that might actually have been the most high-tech device in the whole flat. On the scratched table in the center of the room, piles of sheets of paper sat surrounding some antiquity of a computer, along with a water bottle, a notepad and a bunch of pens: it looked like the roommate had been working, only to be interrupted by Tony's arrival.
The roommate, whose name Tony didn't even know, he belatedly realized.
What would be worse, to ask only now, or not at all?
The guy was also taking his sweet time putting the coffee on, still puttering around with—was that a French press? And—oh. He only had one arm.
This explained that.
Tony wondered if this was what Pepper and Rhodey meant when they said that he wasn't observant.
"You're a vet?" he asked.
"What d'you think?" the man replied, as he wiped the counter. Once he was done he had to put the sponge down so he could turn on the faucet, then pick it back up to rinse it and God, did all those extra gestures look tedious. Actually, everything had to be tedious when you only had one arm to do it.
"Don't you have a prosthetic?"
The man opened a cupboard, took out a mug, put it on the counter, reached back up to close the door. He didn't look around and his voice was gruff when he said: "No."
Tony nodded to himself: the man probably couldn't afford a good one anyway, and it certainly wasn't whatever program veterans got that'd help him with that. He didn't know much about prosthetics, but he'd be willing to bet that all those who existed on the market sucked—that they hurt, or only permitted a very limited range of motion, especially compared to what a real hand could do. Which was ridiculous, really: a toddler could do better. Actually, Tony could do better. He was already neck-deep in anatomy sketches for the development of Mark XLIII and of the second, improved Iron Legion.
"I could make you one," he said. All he'd need was to figure out how to make the prosthetic and the brain talk to each other, how to make commands travel along the neural system to the electronic parts without getting lost or corrupted on the way—and actually it was a great idea, he realized as he spoke. Pepper kept suggesting they expand the more humanitarian branches of Stark Industries, surely investing and innovating in medical engineering would fit the bill? What better way would there be to make up for all these years manufacturing and selling weapons than prosthetics for the people these weapons had hurt? They could start with the US, with vets, free fittings for the duration of the experimental stage then hefty financial support, and then they could expand abroad, set up a program for—
The French press slamming onto the counter interrupted his thoughts. He glanced up in surprise to find Cap's roommate glaring at him once again.
"The fuck is it with you people?" he snarled. "The VA I get, but first SHIELD, and now you? No, I don't want a fucking prosthetic, what's it gonna take for you to get that?"
"I'm just trying to help," Tony said, miffed, jaw ticking.
The man snorted, of all things. "The fuck you're 'just trying to help'. Did it occur to you for a second that I might be okay the way things are? No, because you can't fathom how someone might be okay without a full set of limbs. Because it makes you uncomfortable, because you don't like the walking proof of what happens to the people this fucking country sends abroad to fight with your fucking weapons, how fucked up it makes them, how irreversible it is. There is no making it better. You think that getting a shiny new arm is gonna make up for the one that got blown to pieces? 'Cause it won't! So you can take your 'help' and shove it up your ass!"
He turned away and picked the French press back up to pour its content into the mug.
"I swear," he added in a mutter that was more of a growl. "I can't believe that Steve's the only one who's never been on my case about this crap, and he's the one science allegedly made all better. Maybe you should wonder about that instead of hassling people with shit they don't want."
Tony opened his mouth, but before he could figure out an answer to that the front door opened: Cap was home.
"You got a guest," his roommate said at once. He crossed the room to plunk the coffee down on the coffee table—it sloshed and spilled onto the surface—, then stomped over to his laptop, which he picked up with the sheets of paper, the notepad and the pens, and carried into another room. The door banged shut behind him.
"I have to say, Cap," Tony said eventually, "that's some damn charming company you're keeping here. I can totally see the appeal."
Or, you know, not.
Stark came and went, but Steve stayed, much to Bucky's relief and pleased surprise: he couldn't take Steve's continued presence at home for granted anymore, not since they'd moved here—not since the Avengers had launched their offensive against HYDRA.
For all those operations, Steve was at the helm. Something had shifted since the fall of SHIELD: gone were the frustrations, the aimlessness, the uneasy questioning of methods, of intention, of strategy that had plagued him when he'd been working for them. Now he was calling the shots. Now the lines were clearly drawn, the enemy identified, and Steve could finally act for what he believed was right—far away from the grey areas an intelligence agency thrived in.
In a way it was good to see him now, full of determination, with a renewed sense of purpose. But there was a flip side too: he was relentless. Taking out HYDRA took precedence over everything else. Sometimes it felt like it was all he was doing, all he could think about. Series of twelve-hours days spent at Avengers Tower, analyzing data, strategizing, training, were only interrupted by something worse: missions that sent him away for days, sometimes weeks at a time. And while most of them were carefully planned, it wasn't unusual for some information to emerge that called for immediate action, and on those occasions Bucky had to count himself lucky if he received a hurried message of warning.
The only thing he actually felt lucky about was being back in Brooklyn, on familiar ground, close to his family. His parents were always glad to have him over, his sisters were all up in his business, Becca especially: it made it hard to feel lonely. The scars from the Chitauri attack were still starkly visible all over New York, the rebuilding a long way from done, but Bucky himself was better. He could be woken up by a jackhammer or a backfiring motorcycle without believing that they were under attack, he could walk past a construction site and barely tense at the sound of drills going their merry, nerve-racking way, on good days he could even take the train without choking on his own breath. His VA transfer had gone without a hitch; the counselor for the group sessions he attended wasn't as good as Sam, but his new physical therapist was much more reliable than Pete. He'd even gotten back in touch with a couple of friends from high school, or at least with those willing to put up with the whole PTSD thing and to spend an entire evening holding stilted conversation over a beer in the quietest bar they could find. And he had his job. He'd been hired on a telecommuting contract, so moving wouldn't have been an issue no matter what, but his moving to New York specifically had been warmly welcomed: that was where the publishing house had its offices. They'd offered him a desk, in a room he shared with only two other coworkers.
He went there on what he thought of as his bad good days: days on which he felt well enough to go outside without risking being triggered and to spend several hours in an enclosed space with people he barely knew unpredictably coming and going; but also days on which Steve wasn't there, had been gone and would stay gone, days on which knowing that made spending entire hours alone at home too much to bear. On those days Bucky would put on slacks and a shirt with its left sleeve neatly pinned, cram his manuscripts and computer in a bag, and go.
Steve took care of the ironing, surprisingly, whenever he allowed himself a day off or came home early. "Can't let my best guy go to work looking like a slob," he'd said when Bucky had told him that he didn't have to, that they could afford the dry-cleaning, that he should spend what little free time he had relaxing. Steve hadn't even argued against superfluous expenses, had simply said: "Just let me do this for you, Buck. I want to, I like doing it."
And he did. Bucky had watched him on an evening, wrangling a pile of laundry, he had seen the small smile Steve sported as he experimented with temperature and steam settings to best smooth out the creases—way cuter than his weird enthusiasm for their vacuum cleaner. He'd seen the relaxed line of Steve's shoulders, heard the way he hummed along the radio.
He wasn't one for idleness, Bucky knew. But it was more than that: all this, doing the ironing, the dishes, the household chores, it was all part of everyday life. It was mundane. It was normalcy, it was peace: something Steve sorely needed. It might even go further. Bucky would never dare ask, but he thought of Steve before the war, before the serum, of what he might've imagined his life would be like, growing up poor and sickly and queer and unwanted as he had. Maybe this and what it implied—having found someone, a partner he could take care of through gestures big and small—was something he'd yearned for, without being sure he'd ever get to have it.
But against all odds, he did now. So Bucky wore the shirts despite the teasing compliments it earned him at work, where most people stuck to t-shirts and jeans. He clung to all the moments they got together, to the evenings where Steve cleaned or ironed or darned his fucking socks while Bucky finished going over a chapter, where they cooked or watched TV together, where they retreated to bed early; he reveled in the few mornings where Steve was still here when he woke up, where he was gently tugged out of sleep by a kiss on his shoulder, on his temple, where he opened his eyes to a cup of coffee brought to him in bed: moments in which it felt like they had all the time in the world and nothing was more important than this.
It almost made up for all the time they spent apart; for all the sunsets Bucky watched from their living-room table, marking the end of yet another silent, lonely day; for all the Sunday lunches at his parents', his Ma giving him that worried look as she said, "I guess Steve won't be joining us this week either," while Becca pressed her lips together, angry on his behalf; for all the times he resolved to broach the topic, only to put it off the second Steve came home, because he was exhausted, sometimes horrified by what he'd seen, because he needed comfort, because this wasn't the right time. Only it was never the right time: Steve was always gone again before it could come.
And Bucky knew that HYDRA had to be stopped, he understood why Steve considered it his mission to annihilate them, he was aware of the fact that occasions had to be seized the second they arose, that the Avengers couldn't afford to give their enemies the time to regroup. But still, it felt like too much. And he wondered: what if the Avengers never managed to completely root out HYDRA? And even if they did, what then? He had no idea what Steve's intentions were, what would come next, whether it would be better, or worse, or more of the same—whether all this would ever have an end.
"This has to have an end sometime," Bruce said from under the cool compress he had put over his eyes.
Steve gave him a sympathetic glance. They were in the Quinjet after a mission that had required a Code Green, and while the Hulk had retreated easily enough, it had left its alter-ego with a splitting headache. Unfortunately, there were no private rooms on the small aircraft: Bruce had to make do with retreating as far from the cockpit and its lights as possible, lying down on three of the seats lining the hull, and trusting his teammates not to be too loud. Not that they found it hard, wiped out as they felt. Even Tony's incessant babble had faded.
"It does," Steve said. He was sitting nearby, in case Bruce needed anything—and because he himself needed the quiet, too. "It's getting closer."
He tried to sound convincing, but the truth was that even he doubted it sometimes. And even when he didn't, he still had to bear the fact that it was impossible to foresee how close that end was. Whenever they took off to neutralize another HYDRA base, they never knew whether they'd simply tie up another loose end, or on the contrary discover a whole new branch of the network that had remained buried up until then.
Trying to root out HYDRA was worse than trying to get rid of stinging nettle, it turned out.
Working under such unpredictable conditions was hard on the team, both in terms of logistics and morale. They never knew when to give their all and when to save their strength. There was no definite moment in the future, near or distant, at which they could point and say, We just need to hold on until then, after that it will be done, it will be over, for good. No date Steve could give Bucky to ask him to please be patient, no promise he could make him for what would come after. How could he? He didn't even know what 'after' might look like; he didn't let himself think about it, for fear of crumbling. Plus it'd be unfair to dangle that hope in front of Bucky's face, only to tell him that he'd have to wait for God knew how long, or that it might never come to pass. Steve might be enhanced, he wasn't immortal—that much he'd realized during the fall of SHIELD—and he knew battle, how unpredictable it could be: you could get cut down seconds after entering it, and you could survive it for years, only to be slain by a stray bullet right before it ended.
He wished he could give Bucky something though, anything. He knew how hard his repeated absences were on him, how unhappy he was with the way things were now. Steve wasn't happy either. But he didn't have a choice: all he could do was be as quick, as efficient, as ruthless as he could be, and hope that it'd bring them to the end sooner.
"In the meantime, we get to go home for a bit," he said, to Bruce as much as to himself. "That's something."
"Go home. Right." Bruce's voice was brittle with sarcasm and Steve realized how tactless his choice of words had been. He didn't even know exactly when the accident that had created the Hulk had occurred, how long it had been since Bruce had lost everything, down to the luxury of having a place to call home. He was currently living at Avengers Tower: with JARVIS and the special Iron Man armor he and Tony were working on, the safest place on Earth for him and for everyone else. But for all its amenities, it wasn't the same. Still, Bruce conceded: "It is nice to be able to let one's guard down from time to time."
"It's good to have some company too," Steve pointed out.
"Oh yeah, right," Bruce said after a silence that might've been confused. Steve wasn't sure: it was strange, holding a conversation with someone without being able to see their eyes. "You got a roommate." Another pause. "Must be refreshing. Normal people, and all that." His hand shifted on the compress. "Although in Tony's defense, he isn't as bad a neighbor as you would expect."
"I'm sure he isn't," Steve replied, while wondering if he should correct Bruce: he was pretty sure that his relationship with Bucky wasn't quite the same. But did it matter, in the end? "Having several interests in common probably helps," he added instead.
He'd witnessed enough brainstorming sessions between Bruce and Tony to know that they connected in a way they couldn't with anyone else. He wondered how that was like: living entire years surrounded by people who simply didn't think on the same level as you did, didn't have a fraction of the knowledge necessary to be able to follow; and, suddenly, meeting someone who could.
Probably something like ending up in a time and place where no one would ever get most of your references—and then finding someone who, unexpectedly and unlike everyone else, wanted to learn at least some of them, and to help you understand some of his.
Steve felt a pang: in that second, he missed Bucky so much it hurt. But the Quinjet was fast. Soon it'd be landing, and he'd only have a short drive left before he'd see him. And afterwards he'd keep working, and they'd destroy HYDRA, and then it would all be over, for good.
Steve should've known that it couldn't be that easy, though.
After they'd confronted Ultron and escaped—by a hair—Steve was furious.
It wasn't just the sheer arrogance of Tony's project, the hubris of it; it wasn't just the fact that Tony had hidden it from the rest of the Avengers, knowing perfectly that they wouldn't approve but refusing to stop and consider for a second that they might be right not to; it wasn't just the expected disastrous consequences.
It was that in all the upheaval he hadn't been able to call Bucky, and now had no way to: Ultron was all over the internet, might have control of all telecommunication networks, Steve couldn't risk it. His only relief was that Bucky hadn't been at the Tower that night. He'd declined Steve's offer to accompany him as his plus one, given that he still didn't feel up to facing all the Avengers at once. "Just don't stay too late?" he'd told Steve at the door, adjusting Steve's shirt collar with a smile that had promised all kinds of things—only Steve had never come home. Bucky wouldn't know where he was, whether he was okay, or even alive. Steve couldn't tell him to be cautious either, to turn off all connected devices in their flat, because who knew what evil Ultron could spread that way?
It was that it had scarcely been three days since the Avengers had been able to declare their mission done, a success, to say that HYDRA was gone with enough grounds to believe that it wouldn't rise again. Three days: nowhere near enough time for them to breathe, let alone rest, or for the realization to start settling in. Already another catastrophe was upon them, with the implicit message that the Avengers, that Steve couldn't let things unsupervised for three goddamned days before the world threatened to go to shit all over again.
It was being told that they weren't done, that he wasn't done—in the exact moment he'd realized, heart in his throat, that he wanted to be.
(It was an image, a flash: Bucky, dressed to the nines in a spiffy suit, his hair short and neatly coiffed making him look like a movie star, like Clark Gable, like Errol Flynn; Bucky holding out his left hand with a crooked smile and asking, May I have this dance?
And then another: Bucky, old and frail and diminished, stuck in a chair he couldn't leave of his own volition, turning a stunned, wrinkled face up at him and starting to cry like Peggy had. You're alive. You came back.
It's been so long.)
And it wasn't fair of Steve to blame Tony for that last part: something that Tony couldn't know and that Steve himself hadn't been entirely aware of. But.
It was that he just wanted to come home.
Clint had no reason to believe that they were in any danger, yet he couldn't help but do a perimeter check in and outside the house before retiring for the night. Everything was in order, suffused with the quiet of these dark hours. It was spring: young leaves rustled in the breeze, here and there a daring cricket had already started its summer song, the grass shifted under the steps of a small animal. Clint was torn between the calm it brought him and the dread he couldn't help but feel, the fear that he might've put his family at risk by coming here.
If only by exposing them to the combined presence of Thor and Tony Stark—even though Thor hadn't stayed long.
Ultron had no way of finding them here, Clint told himself. The Quinjet was untraceable, they'd gotten rid of all electronic devices and the farm itself was pretty much a digital black hole: no internet, no cell phones, only an antique TV set that they'd unplugged. Still, he wasn't entirely appeased.
He wasn't the only one. His round ended in the kitchen, where he found Cap sitting at the table. He didn't seem in any hurry to go lie on the couch he'd volunteered to take, given that there wasn't enough rooms for the whole team; he didn't even have the pretense of a glass of water in front of him. He was just staring into space, his brow furrowed. Strategizing, maybe. Or simply too keyed up to sleep.
He looked up when Clint entered the room, though, and offered a faint smile. Clint returned it with a nod and sat down.
"You okay?" he asked, because he'd seen the size of the wood pile Cap had cut during the afternoon, and while Laura had been quite pleased with the resulting fullness of their stores, she'd noted Cap's gritted teeth as he'd slaved away for hours on end and agreed that it did not suggest a healthy, peaceful state of mind.
Yet all Cap replied was a short: "Yes," in that decisive tone of voice that meant that if he wasn't, then he sure as hell was going to make himself be, and soon. He looked up and around at the kitchen, at the living-room beyond, and commented: "This is a nice place."
As far as attempts to steer the conversation away from the matter at hand went, this one was pretty obvious.
"Yeah," Clint replied gamely, "and I'm grateful to Fury for it, if anything." He watched Cap, pondering, and went on cautiously: "That something you ever thought about? A house like this?" He didn't dare add: A family?
Cap's gaze had lost its focus again—unless he was staring at their toaster, which Clint doubted: it wasn't that fascinating. He seemed to be miles away as he replied: "Once, maybe." His lips quirked and he glanced over: "Definitely not in Iowa though," and Clint felt a prickle of vexation at the way Cap stressed the word. "I'm a city kid through and through. I don't think I could survive without noise or having to fight three people for a single square foot."
Clint nodded, pretending he understood.
(He very much didn't.)
"I know Nat tried to set you up with some people," he said. "She wasn't very successful, though."
"That's one way to put it," Cap said. "She's stopped, though." He frowned minutely, like he was just noticing it now.
The conversation was going well, better than Clint had hoped—Cap wasn't really what you'd call the sharing type—so he felt safe enough to suggest: "You could let her start again. You're bound to find someone eventually."
Cap turned his head towards him. "I'm good," he said after several seconds of silence. "I have Bucky."
Clint frowned. "Bu— Oh!" He nearly snapped his fingers. "The roommate?"
Cap gave him a weird look. "Yes. The roommate," he said slowly, in an even weirder voice.
And well, what did you say to that? "Don't get me wrong, it's nice that you guys get along so well. But you'll have to admit that it's not the same."
Cap was still staring at him like Clint was speaking Chinese. It was unnerving. "If you say so," he finally said.
Clint was on to something with the Chinese thing: sometimes trying to have a chat with Cap felt like talking to a foreign speaker. Half of what you said flew right past him, and vice versa. Not that Cap made much of an effort to help, usually. This time however he picked up the conversation: "You know," he said, lips twitching in what looked like amusement, "it turns out he's my cousin, too."
Clint's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"Yup. Thrice removed."
"Uh." Clint blinked as he contemplated that piece of information. "I never knew your parents had siblings. Not that I know much about your parents, mind you." He tilted his head. "Crazy coincidences."
Rogers chuckled. "Yes. Crazy." He shook his head. "It really is."
And that was another thing, with Cap: Clint didn't share his sense of humor, and never understood his jokes. Like Nat, the things he found funny were never normal things.
But at least his mood seemed to have improved.
Bucky was lying in bed, not sleeping—and honestly, not sure he wanted to. Every time he closed his eyes, pictures of what he'd seen on the news flashed through his mind, intermingled with memories from his time overseas, from his botched rescue; every time he started to drift his thoughts slid right into worst case scenarios, each more awful and bloody than the one before, until he forcefully tore himself away and came to with a gasp.
Part of him regretted not taking his Ma up on her offer to stay at theirs again. But another part had wanted to be here, at home, in case—
The lock on their front door clicked, followed by the familiar creak of the bottom hinge as it turned. Bucky stopped breathing, eyes riveted to the ceiling as he strained his ears: it wouldn't be the first time he thought he'd heard something and rushed to the living-room, only to realize that it had all been in his head. But this time, there was a murmur. A light turned on.
Bucky was out of bed in a flash.
"Steve?" he called, pushing the bedroom door open.
And it was Steve alright, looking worse for wear, exhausted and dirty—but alive and mostly unscathed, standing firmly on his own two feet. At Bucky's call he turned and his face crumbled; he took a step, arms open, but Bucky was already there, barreling into him, clasping his arm around him. Steve hugged him right back, his hold almost crushing, but Bucky reveled in it, eyes squeezed shut, because God, this might not have been the worst week of his life, but it certainly had been the most harrowing, even worse than when SHIELD had fallen, because then at least his mind had been busy with his efforts to stay out of HYDRA's reach.
He didn't know how long they stayed that way, arms locked around each other, breathing each other in. But even when the embrace ended Bucky didn't go far, only stepped back enough to look Steve up and down and run his hand along his arm, down his side, to make sure that he was as okay as he seemed to be.
"Are you alright?" he asked. "Is everything—"
"I am, I swear I am," Steve replied quickly, and snatched his hand in his. "Bucky."
Bucky looked up, surprised by his tone and—
Froze, when he noticed that they weren't alone.
"Oh," he said, tensing right up, because in all the time since his discharge no one, not even Romanov, had managed to sneak up on him like that kid just had.
Also, he'd just thrown himself at Steve like the heroine of a harlequin novel at her long lost love. This was… kind of awkward.
But then, Bucky had thought that he might never see Steve again. He was entitled.
The girl was still hovering behind Steve, hesitant, like she wasn't sure of her welcome.
"This is Wanda," Steve said. "The Tower isn't— Tony has a facility upstate, he's got plans to convert it into our new headquarters, but the work will take a while and— I thought she could stay with us until a room's ready for her. I mean, if that's okay with you."
Knowing Steve, if Bucky said that it wasn't, then there would be no question and the Avengers would try and find another solution. But Bucky looked at that girl, who wasn't small but carried herself in a way that made her appear so, her eyes full of shadows Bucky was all too familiar with: he'd seen them on his men after a mission turned bad, on surviving civilians who almost wished they hadn't, because they'd lost too much, they'd lost everything. So he said: "Yeah. Yes, of course."
She looked so young. Bucky unstuck himself from Steve's side and reached out his hand, tried for a reassuring smile. "I'm James," he said. "But you can call me Bucky."
Recovering from Ultron took the Avengers a while. So much had changed: Bruce had disappeared, Thor was gone, Tony had unequivocally decided to stay as far away from the whole initiative as possible in the future, while Vision and Wanda had joined. The whole thing had shaken them, hard, and raised the question of their legitimacy, not only in the eyes of the world, but also in their own. They had to rebuild so much—especially the trust they'd broken.
They focused on themselves, on healing, on getting to know each other better and becoming a team again. That wasn't easy: months in Sam still didn't know what to make of Vision—but then, he (it?) didn't seem to quite know what to make of himself either; Wanda was another, no less delicate matter, the combination of the devastating loss and trauma she'd endured and of the abilities she was increasingly uncertain about making her entirely unpredictable.
Fortunately there was Steve: the rock at the center of it all, the tether the whole team clung to. He took that role seriously—so much so that Sam sometimes suspected that it was miles away from what he wanted, although Sam didn't dare ask what that might be. If he did, he doubted Steve would answer honestly; he was always entirely closed off when it came to the thoughts he harbored underneath his overblown sense of duty. And what duty dictated was simple: he was needed, and so here he was, solid, focused, reliable.
The only moments he stepped back from that earnest posture was with Wanda, actually. Sam would never admit to his face how cute he found it, how Steve doted on her: he taught her, trained her, but he was also there for her on a personal level. He made sure to always be available if she needed advice, or wanted to talk. He'd taken her shopping to buy civilian clothes, and books, and decorations for her room—small things that might help her feel more at home. They watched movies together too. By now the Avengers all knew that whenever they weren't on a mission, a week never went by without Steve watching at least three of those.
Sam was aware of Captain America's short, hilarious stint as an actor during the war, but he hadn't expected Steve to be such a cinephile.
It was doing him and Wanda a world of good, though. Not only was Wanda's English improving dramatically, she also understood the country she'd ended up in better, and she and Steve now had a plethora of jokes and references to laugh over—especially related to My Fair Lady, which they'd seen months ago but still hadn't gotten over, for some reason.
The only issue Sam took with the whole thing was that said movie nights took place at Steve's flat, all the way in Brooklyn. It was understandable: they were a thing Steve had started with his roommate, so it made sense for him not to want Barnes to be left out. But beyond the fact that such evenings would've been a great occasion for team bonding, and that the Avengers facility was fully equipped for screenings, it was a long commute. As a consequence, Wanda often spent the night over there. And how could she ever start to make a home in the compound if she spent most of the real down time she had somewhere else? That, and secondly—
"Look, I'm just saying," Sam told Steve, "I've been on your couch. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice one to lounge on—" Especially considering where Steve had found it. "—but not to sleep on on the regular."
Steve looked entirely nonplussed. "I know that," he said. "But that's not where she sleeps."
"Don't tell me she sleeps in your bed." Because if she was, it was a whole other conversation they needed to be having.
Steve stared at him. "Sam. We have a guest bedroom, you know that."
"You do?" Sam said, eyebrows shooting up. He tried to remember the configuration of the flat, which wasn't that big: he was sure that there were only three doors off the living-room, and one of them definitely led to the bathroom.
"The door next to the bathroom?" Steve hinted.
"Isn't that Barnes' room?"
"Then where does he sleep?"
Steve honest to God rolled his eyes. "Not you too," he said, half-pleading, half-frustrated.
"Not me what, what do you—" Sam stared, confused—until he connected the dots. "Oh. Ohhh. You mean—" He made a gesture that, he realized, made no sense.
"Yes," Steve said.
"You and Barnes—?"
"Since forever!" Steve exclaimed, flapping his arms. "I mean, since before you and I met!"
"Yes, really! I can't believe—" He broke off, raising a hand as if to pinch the bridge of his nose. "How could you not know? You were there the day I asked him to follow me back to New York! Do you think that's something I would've asked if we were just friends?"
"I don't—" Clearly Sam had missed something, because he had no memory of that. But then, the time around the fall of SHIELD had been quite fraught with changes and craziness and his whole life making a U-turn, so he felt like he was at least partly excused. "I thought the guy missed his family too much and had seized the occasion to move back to be closer to them or something."
"He did, but it wasn't just—" Steve rubbed his face with his hand. Sam had rarely seen him so agitated. "I can't believe you didn't know. I thought you of all people would."
Sam frowned. "Wait, the others don't?"
"I don't think so," Steve said, lips curling down. "I mean, Wanda does, of course. Maybe Natasha. But the others…" He shrugged. "They all seem stuck on the roommate part. And yeah, I haven't— And maybe I should— But it's, y'know, it's private," he said, cheeks coloring faintly. "And I shouldn't have to make an announcement about it."
"Of course not," Sam said. After all, had Barnes been a woman, then there wouldn't have been any misunderstanding. It clearly bothered Steve: his expression was tense, unhappy, bordering on angry. "Look man, I'm sorry," Sam added. "Captain America's associated with so many traditional values—and then there's Peggy Carter, it's just, it never occurred to me to question that." Plus he'd been of the opinion that, lest Steve broached the subject himself, his love life was none of Sam's business. "But I should have. I know that crap's not you, I shouldn't have assumed."
After a second Steve nodded, and his expression softened. "It's okay. I know I could be more open about it. I know it's… okay, nowadays, or at least more accepted."
"Yeah, well, thank you for telling me," Sam said, reaching out a hand to pat Steve on the shoulder—only Steve misinterpreted the gesture and stepped in for a hug. Not that Sam minded.
He hugged right back.
Bucky had gotten quite used to Steve coming home with Wanda in tow. He didn't mind: he liked Wanda, to the point where it was starting to feel like he'd inadvertently acquired a fourth little sister.
What he was less used to was for her to barely return his greeting before disappearing straight into the guest bedroom, which at this point was pretty much hers.
Bucky looked from the closed bedroom door back to the front one, where Steve was hanging his jacket after taking off his shoes. He didn't seem to be faring that well either, his face grave and weary.
"Everything okay?" Bucky asked, tilting his head up for a kiss when Steve walked over. "What happened?"
Steve sat down with a sigh. "Thaddeus Ross came for a visit."
"The dear old General," Bucky said wryly. He remembered how Steve had reacted to his nomination as Alexander Pierce's replacement. It had been… memorable.
Guessing that the conversation might take a while, Bucky pushed aside the proof he'd been working on and closed his laptop—not that the interruption was too much of a bother. He had half a mind to send an email to his superior to ask her if the publishing house was sure about printing that thing. Given that the book had gotten far enough through the editorial process to reach him, they probably were.
"What did he want?" he asked, suspecting that it was nothing good.
It still turned out to be worse than what he'd started to imagine.
"And it would all be overseen directly by the UN?" he asked once Steve was done explaining the broad lines of the Sokovia Accords, because he had some difficulties seeing how that might work.
"Yup," was all Steve replied.
"Uh. I can see why Wanda wouldn't be happy about that." Not when you knew how stellar the UN's performance had been in trying to deescalate things in the Balkans after the fall of Yugoslavia. Bucky chewed at the inside of his cheek. "What do the Avengers think?"
Steve sat back in his chair. "Oh, Tony is all for it," he said, which was pretty revealing in itself: clearly the team itself didn't agree on the matter. "He says, and I quote, that 'we need to be put in check'."
"Makes sense," Bucky commented. "He certainly does. Who else is for?"
"Rhodey, Vision. Natasha."
The first two weren't too much of a surprise, but Bucky raised his eyebrows at the third. "Romanov too?"
"That was Sam's reaction too. But she has her reasons." And Steve obviously respected them.
Bucky felt a spark of doubt. Given Steve's experience with governmental oversight—with SHIELD, with the authorities' reaction to the Chitauri attack, hell, even before that, with the League of Nations' utter failure at preventing a second worldwide conflict—he would've thought that Steve would've received such a proposition with a hefty dose of skepticism at least. But he'd been so factual when he'd laid it all down, and now…
Bucky forced himself to ask: "And what do you think?"
"Well, one thing's for certain," Steve said. "I'm not signing."
"And what happens if you don't sign?"
"Then I retire," Steve replied with a wry smile, clearly imitating someone else. Someone he didn't hold in high esteem.
Bucky had a pretty good idea who it might be.
He tried not to tense, not to sound too keen when he asked: "And you would be okay with that?"
Steve, of course, saw right through him and gave him a knowing look. Then he sighed, but it didn't sound weary: it was even followed by a small, unexpected smile. "I am, actually. I mean, all of this, making the world a safer place, helping people, of course that's something I want to contribute to. But I do believe that we, the Avengers, we can only do that under certain conditions. And if the governments of the world want to take those conditions away, and push through their own instead, then…" He shrugged. "I guess that's that."
"Sounds like something you've been thinking about for some time," Bucky said, testing the ground.
"Yeah," Steve admitted. "Ever since the fall of SHIELD, maybe even earlier. I thought you might've guessed. You were never their number one fan."
Bucky snorted. "That's one way to put it. And yeah, I mean, I'd hoped. But then…" He trailed off.
"Yeah," Steve said quietly. "I know." He reached over the table and took Bucky's hand in his. The time during which the Avengers had been going after HYDRA still weighed down on them both—not that they'd talked about it much.
But maybe they should.
"That was the plan, you know," Steve added. "I mean, vaguely. End things with HYDRA, and then… But then there was Ultron. And after that I couldn't just leave, not with Bruce and Thor gone, not with Wanda—"
This time it was Bucky's turn to squeeze Steve's hand and say: "I know."
Silence settled and expanded while Bucky looked down at their joined hands. Steve's thumb was stroking his knuckles. It was nice.
"Do you have any idea what you're gonna do now?" he finally asked.
"Not really," Steve said, and smiled when Bucky looked up. "Isn't that just great?" He sobered. "I thought I might try and finish that painting, to start with." He tilted his head towards the easel standing next to the window. The canvas on it looked a bit forlorn, neglected as it had been these past months. "Then I don't know for sure but… You know one of the flats on second floor is going up for sale, right? I thought I could buy it, fix it up. I have the money, and since Wanda isn't going to sign the accords either, she'll need her own place soon. We can't expect her to stay here for good."
And given her situation, her reputation, it wouldn't be easy for her to find somewhere to live, let alone a benevolent landlord.
"So more investing in real estate," Bucky concluded. At Steve's surprised gaze he went on: "What, you thought I didn't know about you keeping your DC flat?" Or about the fact that he was renting it for cheap to a family of immigrants? "Think again."
"Well, I can afford it," Steve said with a shrug, like that justified anything. "And there are lots of good people in need of decent lodgings. That's just me trying to contribute."
Bucky narrowed his eyes. "That's just you wanting to build a colony of misfits, you mean."
"Now there's an idea," Steve said, and grinned.
The following day Steve and Wanda went back to the compound: there were more discussions to be had about the Accords. Bucky suspected that they'd be rife with tensions and frustrations. Yet when he got a call early in the afternoon, it wasn't about legalese, or indecently short allotted time for reflexion, or even about Thaddeus fucking Ross.
"It's Peggy," Steve said.
Bucky had never heard him sound like that.
The conversation was short. After they'd hung up Bucky put on his shoes, a jacket and a cap, took a train upstate, then a taxi—then spent the next fifteen minutes arguing with the AI monitoring the gates to the Avengers facility because he refused to let it do a facial scan.
Bucky looked up and over, to see a man with sandy blond hair perched on top of the metal fence. He hadn't even seen nor heard him coming.
"Okay, I wouldn't have bothered talking to the AI if I'd known climbing the fence was an option," he said, pretending the guy's sudden appearance hadn't unnerved him.
For some reason, that made the man relax. "Wouldn't have worked. Anyone else would've been electrocuted right away." He swung his legs over and landed lightly five feet away from where Bucky stood. Strapped to his back were a bow and quiver.
So this was Clint Barton.
"Let's keep this nice and simple," Barton said, his tone light, but Bucky knew not to be deceived: no doubt the man was ready for any and all eventualities, including having to try and take him down. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"James Barnes," Bucky replied gamely. "I'm here for Steve."
Barton mouthed his name, frowning, then his face cleared. "Oh yeah, Barnes," he said, snapping his fingers. "The cousin, right?"
"The… roommate," Bucky corrected slowly, wondering what the fresh hell this was.
Probably Steve's fault.
"Yeah, that," Barton said, like it was anywhere near the same thing. "Why'd you come all the way here though, is there a problem?"
"I don't know, shouldn't you know if there was one?" Bucky jutted his chin towards the compound, which he could see about half a mile away.
Barton briefly glanced in that direction; by the time he turned back around, he'd understood that Bucky knew about the Accords. "Yeah, that discussion's a headache I don't need. I already know I'm not signing. I still don't get why you're here though. Did Cap call you to referee? Are you, like, an expert in law or something? I didn't think things were going to be that bad," he finished in a mutter, starting to sound worried.
"It's not about Accords," Bucky said. "It's personal. Look, can you just let me in? Steve called over an hour ago, I'd like to, you know, get there sometime before tomorrow."
He'd let some of his own concern and tension show through, which might've been a mistake: all it did was make Barton stare.
"You're not his cousin," he finally said, comprehension dawning, "are you? You're not even just his roommate."
Bucky's frown deepened: he didn't see how that mattered. "No."
"Uh," Barton said. "I have to say, I didn't expect Captain America to know what trolling was. Or to be, you know. Gay."
"Steve Rogers," Bucky said, teeth gritted, "is bisexual."
He belatedly realized that it might not have been his place to reveal that, but he was tired of assumptions, and he didn't want anyone to think for a second that what Steve and Peggy'd had hadn't been real, that she'd been nothing but a beard—especially not today.
And just like that the realization that she was gone hit him full on, followed by grief. Because he'd liked her. No, he'd loved her—not like Steve did, because no one loved like Steve did, but still. He remembered the day he'd met her, the first time he'd accompanied Steve to the SSL. Back then her good days had still outnumbered the bad ones. He'd been so anxious, intimidated without admitting it to himself, but also awkward, because by then he'd already been aware of his burgeoning feelings for Steve and, well. Everyone knew about Captain America and Peggy Carter's tragic love story. And from the way Steve talked about her, that part at least history had gotten right.
She had been very welcoming. And before long she had sent Steve on a ridiculous errand—but then, Steve would've stolen the Iron Man suit and flow off to England to buy a slice of pudding if that was what she'd wanted—so that she could talk to James alone. As it turned out, she had seen right through him, and through Steve, and had just wanted to dispel Bucky's doubts before they'd even begun to arise, to make sure that he wouldn't even try to convince himself that his affections were unrequited, or that Steve would mind about the arm.
"And please, do take him dancing," she'd told him, and given him a smile that was encouraging, and teasing, and sad all at the same time.
Bucky had done so, to known results, and when he'd next seen her she'd known right away. And the grin she'd sported then, the wink she'd sent Bucky… He wasn't usually prone to blushing, but this time he definitely had.
However, he wasn't going to tell Barton any of that. Fortunately, the man didn't ask: he simply nodded, then walked to the gate to get them open and let him through.
If Tony had bothered to ask, Natasha would've pointed out that they didn't have the time to drop by London on their way to Vienna for the signature of the Accords. But he hadn't. Instead he'd suddenly given instructions for a detour and landing, no discussion allowed, and proceeded to superbly ignore her judgmental stare.
It seemed to have become his M.O. these days.
When they reached the church, the religious part of the ceremony was already over, and the family busy greeting people and accepting the condolences of those who wouldn't or couldn't stay to follow the procession to the cemetery. Natasha and Tony deftly avoided the press and found Steve inside, standing in the aisle and staring at the countless wreaths of flowers that hadn't been carried to the hearse yet. He glanced over his shoulder when he heard them approach and seemed surprised to see them.
"I thought you'd already be in Vienna," he said.
"Well, excuse me for wanting to pay my respects," Tony retorted, abrasive behind his sunglasses. He was still angry about the Accords, about Steve's stout rejection of them. "You don't have the exclusivity of having had a relationship with her, you know."
"And we didn't want you to be alone," Natasha butted in, trying to diffuse the situation.
"Speak for yourself," Tony muttered mulishly, while Barnes, whom she'd noticed sitting on the front pew with Sam, mumbled: "What are we, skimmed milk?"
Sam simply raised a judgmental eyebrow at them.
"No, really, this is a nice building," Tony said, as if picking up the thread of a conversation only he had been aware of. "Such grandeur and inspiration. Plus given who we're honoring today—I'm just saying, it would make you think about higher purposes, wouldn't it?" A pause. "No? Nothing? Not even you, Cap?"
Steve knew at once what he was aiming for. "I'm not going to change my mind, Tony." He didn't say he was sorry, Natasha noted. At Tony's glare, he added: "I've done my part—or at least it feels like I have, now that HYDRA's gone and we've made sure that they won't easily rise again. I'm done."
"Well, not to be a bummer or anything," Tony said, "but HYDRA's not the world's only problem. There are other threats, some of them unexpected."
"I know," Steve said plainly. "And if I'm really needed, if the fate of the world is in the balance, then maybe. But right now, I just—" He sighed, then smiled. "I'm ready to come home from the war, I guess."
Tony stared at him, lips pale and tightly pressed together. "Well, that's cute," he snapped. "So that's it? That's the plan, you retire—although, yeah, you're way past the age for it, that's true. But then what? A white picket fence, a bunch of kids, a wife cooking in the kitchen, a dog?"
Steve didn't rise to the bait. "Something like that," he said.
"Let me guess, you already have dozens of girls standing in line to audition for the role?"
"I only need the one," Steve pointed out. He was so placid even Natasha was surprised: she didn't know him to be the picture of coolness and nonchalance. He had to be doing it on purpose; he had to know that all it would achieve was rile Tony up even further.
"I thought Peggy was the one," Tony said, a bit snidely.
That one hurt: Steve's features contracted, before he forcibly smoothed out his expression. Over in the pew, Barnes was now openly glaring. "Peggy gave us her blessing," Steve said stiffly.
"Oh, so there's already a missus? You've been holding out on us, Rogers. Anything else you've been hiding, apart from your longterm intention to dump us like yesterday's trash?"
"I haven't been hiding anything," Steve retorted. His voice was growing strained. "You just seem unable to get a hint."
Tony scoffed. "Right. So what will it be, a fall wedding? Should we expect a card soon, or are we not invited to your brand new boring civilian life?"
Natasha almost expected that to be the last straw, but instead of toppling over into downright anger and snapping, Steve glanced at Barnes. And blushed. And dropped his eyes to the ground.
"Well," he said awkwardly, "he kind of has to say yes first."
"He?" Tony asked, gobsmacked—but Natasha was more interested in Barnes, who was suddenly sitting really straight and staring incredulously. A second later he was on his feet and exploding.
"You asshole," he growled. "You fucking asshole, that's how you do it? Really? That's when you do it?"
"To be honest, I don't think she'd mind," Steve said winningly, all fumbling hesitation gone despite how threateningly Barnes was now stalking towards to him.
"She'd mind your utter lack of decorum, you dick," Barnes snarled, but his voice was thick, the anger badly covering the emotion underneath.
"Language," Steve tutted, reaching out a hand to clasp the back of Barnes' neck. "We're in a church."
"I can't believe I'm going to end up stuck with you," Barnes hissed, then slumped, his forehead bumping against Steve's shoulder.
Steve grinned. "So that's a yes?"
"Yes," Barnes said between gritted teeth. "You punk."
"Okay, what?" Tony said.
Romanov had to explain it to him later, on the plane to Vienna. Using small words.
"Wait wait wait," Tony interrupted for the umpteenth time. "So what you're saying is, he got a crush from 24/7 exposure and, what, decided to woo Captain America?"
"Uh. That's some steel balls right there. Unless Cap's that easy. Is Cap easy, Natasha?"
Out of all of them, she did seem to be the one to know him best. Or, at least, to have the best grasp on how his weird, outdated brain worked. Yet all she said was: "I wouldn't presume to know."
Of fucking course.
"But what about Peggy?" Tony asked after a short silence.
"She was okay with it. From what I gathered she even played a crucial role in it happening in the first place."
Tony frowned: it didn't make him feel any less betrayed. Then he paused. "Wait, so she knew? From the start?"
"Yes?" Romanov said, slightly nonplussed.
"Before you did?"
"You mean that we were all—that you were bested by a ninety year old with Alzheimer's?"
"Well," Romanov said, and smiled, "she was the best spy of the 20th century, wasn't she?"
Given that I'm totally ignoring all things Thanos, I imagine the future might look something like this:
Bucky coming home from work—ever since Steve started spending more time at their flat he kinda needs to go to the office if he wants to get any work done—to Steve on the phone, laughing.
"It's Thor," he tells Bucky. "He's back, Tony gave him my number and— What?" He turns back to his cell. "No, that was just Bucky—my husband, he's just come in and— Thank you, I'm looking forward to you meeting him—" And Bucky kind of is too, given how happy Steve looks just thinking about it. But then Steve says: "But wait, before that we need to figure out—how many refugees, you said?"
That's when Bucky's cheer turns to dread.