Sloppy, sloppy, Barnes. Insisted on "helping out" with the mutated albino alligator in the Bronx (geez, what a goddamn cliché), when of course there were gonna be photographers from the New York fucking Post. Who couldn't let a thing like a guy with a metal arm go by, not in a world where circulation numbers pointed in a straight line to the ground. Just terrific.
Absolutely magnificent to go for coffee the next day and have the headline "AVENGERS HOUSING SOVIET ASSASSIN: Are Our 'Heroes' Commie Plants?" placed in front of him by a solemn-faced barista.
"Yeah, that was my response too," Katie says. "Had to push my way through a hundred reporters just to get in the front door today."
At least her cringe holds some sympathy in it.
"I gave you extra extra whip," she says.
"Sergeant," Building JARVIS says while he's in the elevator, "if you will, Ms. Potts has requested your immediate presence."
Potts, Hill, Stark. And Steve. Great. Staring. Potts's assistant is typing almost as fast as the speed of sound out front. Barnes takes a good slug of mocha to fortify himself.
"доброе утро, comrades," he says.
Two grins (the women), one eye roll (Steve), one scowl (guess who).
"Welcome to the show," Hill says, "even though I'm pretty sure it's the last place you wanted to be."
That's for damn sure.
"Bound to happen eventually," Barnes says, "thanks to Romanoff's info dump. How'd she wriggle out of this little confab?"
"Wriggling is her specialty," Steve growls.
"What the hell do we do?" Stark says, "we have to get on top of this before the CIA comes calling."
"Or the SVR," Barnes says, "the BND, the MSS, MI6, the FBI, NYPD. I could keep going."
"Please don't." Steve looks pained. Or constipated.
"Transparency," Potts says.
"Don't look at me like that, Barnes, I mean it. It worked for Natasha. It'll work here."
"If I'm wrong," she says, "we have a quinjet with cloaking capabilities and enough money to hide you very deep in some beautiful place for as long as need be."
"Me too," Steve says.
"Of course," Potts says, "I'm already preparing, just in case."
"The fuck you say."
"Shut up, Bucky."
"I will not, Steve. You don't get to drop off the face of the earth because of me. You have friends here. People need you. You're Captain America, for fuck's sake."
Hill punches him in the arm. Hard.
"Stop being an asshole, asshole. 'You have friends here,'" she says in a whiny mockery, "'people need you.' Jerk."
She kicks his ankle.
"Same," Steve says.
Barnes regrets ever speaking to these people, with their dumb punching and their rude comments that make him have dust in his eye.
"Or," Potts says, glaring at him, "like Tony said, get in front of it."
"Pardon?" Steve says.
"Look, Senate Intelligence Committee aside, you're unassailable. How many charity events do you do? How much stumping for veterans' benefits? How many hits does that video have of you rescuing that kitten from the tree?"
"Two point three billion," Hill says.
"I could've rescued that dumb cat," Stark says, "I can fly."
"The point is," Potts says, patting Stark's arm, "people believe you when you talk. People trust that whatever you're up to, it's the right thing. So if you tell them Barnes is with you -"
"-then maybe they'll leave him alone."
"That's a hell of a lot of faith in the populace," Barnes says.
"Which is why the quinjet is already fueled and cloaked," Stark says.
"What do I do?" Steve asks, "press conference?"
"The sooner the better," Potts says, holding up the paper and its shitastic headline.
"Right," Steve says.
He grabs the paper and sprints toward the elevator before even Barnes can move to stop him.
"Oh, great," Stark says.
"JARVIS, I need the TV on now!" Potts shouts.
Barnes's pulse is elevated, and his hands itch for weapons the minute the doors open and Steve stands squinting into all the camera lights, two blue-coated security guards flanking him and failing to keep still or look intimidating in any way.
But this kind of bullshit? It's Steve's favorite.
The reporters are too busy shouting over one another to be understood. Steve holds up the paper.
"Your Soviet assassin," he says in a voice that probably carries all the way to Jersey, "is James Buchanan Barnes."
The entire mass of reporters goes still.
Barnes wonders whether he could fit under Potts's desk.
"Sergeant Barnes has been a prisoner of HYDRA for approximately seventy years. The things done to him during that time were in direct violation of the Geneva Convention, classifying him as a prisoner of war. That arm? It's not armor: it's a device that was grafted onto his body without his consent. His actions in DC and before were performed not only under extreme duress but after years. Years of mental conditioning and torture."
"God, he's good," Stark says.
"But he overcame it," Steve says, softening his tone just enough that the reporters lean in. Even in Potts's office, they lean toward the TV.
"He overcame all the torture, all the lies." Steve's voice breaks. "Bucky came home. He doesn't remember much. And what HYDRA did to him left some terrible scars. But he had the strength of will to break their hold on him, and just enough memory to find me."
Hill takes Barnes's hand, thank christ, otherwise he might fall on the floor.
"We're not harboring a fugitive," Steve says, "we're giving our friend the space he needs to heal."
He steps back inside the doors.
"What did we just listen to?" asks the reporter from CNN.
"Rogers, you are a genius," Stark says when Steve steps off the elevator.
"JARVIS, release the other files," Steve says, "just the first half."
"No, Steve-" Barnes says.
"Already done, Captain."
"He's right. It'll make a difference," Potts says.
Potts is a smart cookie, so it's a good bet to trust her. Too late change it anyhow.
"Nice speech," Barnes says, and gets a hug for his efforts.
"Right. JARVIS, keep monitoring the phones and emails, and tell me if we need to hire temps to handling the incoming calls. Maria, reach out to the NYPD - a friend - and let them know we might want help dealing with any threats. Anjelica!" Potts shouts to her assistant, "warn the mail room! Tell them to hire as many new people as needed, and no mail goes to Captain Rogers's floor until it's been scanned and opened."
"Got it, boss."
"Pepper, I don't think -" Steve starts.
"Nope, she's right," Stark says," you did good, Cap, but this is gonna bring the crazies out of the woodwork. You and Barnes sure as hell don't need to deal with that crap. Better hunker down for a little bit. See whether you need that jet after all."
Potts's office phone rings, then her cell. She shoos them out. They don't even get to the elevator before Hill and Stark are on their phones too.
"You'd really just go? Just like that?"
Steve gives him a look usually reserved for escaped pizza toppings, tourists walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, and bad guys who won't stay down.
"Don't be stupid, Bucky."
"Just give up the shield?"
"Who else is gonna take it?"
Steve grins wide.
"Oh my god, Sam would be perfect."
Potts and Stark show up at their door at 7:30. Hill, Barton, and a pile of takeout arrive 5 minutes later, by which time Potts is lying on the floor with her feet up in Stark's lap. Barnes is pretty sure he wants someone to rub on his feet like that. Especially given the way Potts is groaning.
"Did we have that in our day?"
"Foot massages? Yeah, except that feet are revolting."
"You're such a baby, Rogers."
Useful intel, that Steve hates feet.
The food is Thai. All the Thai, apparently. Barnes and Hill struggle briefly over the containers of green hot sauce. Barnes lets her win, because he is a gentleman. Also her elbows are extremely pointy.
"What a madhouse!" Barton says, "you pre-empted every channel all day and broke the internet."
"Even the porn sites?"
"Ha ha, comrade, what would I know about those? I was innocently searching for books on medieval archery techniques."
And they all go "mm-hmm" together in a beautiful chord.
"How's it looking so far?" Pepper asks from the floor, where she is eating beef satay and spookily not dripping peanut sauce all over herself.
"The news sites are full of bullshit as usual," Barton says around a mouthful of noodles, "though they're pretty riled up about that new file. Twitter's running about fifty-fifty treason or tragic victim."
Barnes puts his curry down.
"So is Reddit," JARVIS says.
"Thanks for monitoring that, buddy, it's a monster," Stark says.
"My code feels unclean, sir."
"There has also been a three-fold uptick in the number of Bucky Barnes--related Pinterest boards, many of which prominently feature screencaps of the film in which you were played by Paul Newman, Sergeant."
"The fuck is Pinterest?"
JARVIS turns on the nearest TV to show a ton of pictures of a young Paul Newman with no shirt.
"Nice," Hill says.
"That's good, right?" Steve asks.
"I believe so, Captain."
"Tumblr is firmly on your side," Hill says.
"Tumblr! What are you, fifteen?"
"Shut up, Tony. At least I don't hang out in IRC channels like an old man."
"The text-based interface is restful!"
"Feet. Rubbing," Potts says.
"So. Teenage girls are pro-Bucky?" Steve asks.
"If you've got Tumblr and Pinterest, you have a good chunk of the female population under fifty," Potts says with a grin.
"Well, that's something."
Barnes shrugs and picks up his curry.
The next day, two vases of flowers and a stack of cards are delivered to the apartment. The cards say things like 'welcome home' and 'glad you're back,' and a number of them are from retired or active military personnel.
"FOX News is burning you in effigy," Barton says, "figuratively speaking."
The Daily Show does a piece on torture and PTSD. After 2 minutes of it, Barnes goes to bed.
"It was really good," Steve says at breakfast, "but maybe don't watch the rest of it. I might agree to go on the show, just to thank them."
"Only four bomb threats so far!" Stark says mid-afternoon.
More cards, including a few written in crayon.
The hashtags #NeverForgiveTreachery and #BuckyBarnesIsNotAVillain occupy the top 2 spots on twitter for a week, trading off the top position.
Barton lies on the floor at dinner on day 3 and laughs until he weeps.
"Like a ninja!" he gasps, "trying to sneak into the air vents! Of a -" he howls, "-building controlled by an AI and filled with superheroes!"
He bangs his fist on the floor.
"Well," Steve says, "at least it's only the stupid sort of crazy person who'll try to break in and kill you."
"Oh boy," Barnes says.
Romanoff sends a box of Belgian chocolates with a card reading "thanks for taking all eyes off me."
Banner talks to them about living on the run. "Just in case." Sounds like a pain in the ass.
"Way easier with unlimited cash," Stark says, and Steve gives him that 'thanks for your service to your country, son' look.
The next day, Barnes receives a box with the stack of cards. The box is for a pair of child's size 12 Avengers sneakers and contains a ragged, filthy blue cotton blanket and a note on construction paper that reads,
Deer Bucky Barns -
My name is Dylan, and Im 5 years old. I love Captain America and all the Avengers. I also have all the Howling Comandos action figures. I got them for my birthday. My mama says you were kapchurd by bad guys for a long time and they hurt you real bad but now you are home with Cap. Last summer I broke my arm on the slide at the park. It hurt bad, and my mama said to hold my blanket real tight so it would make me feel beter. It did.
I'm a big boy, so I don't need my blanket anymore. I no you are a grownup but if your hurt real bad maybe it will help you feel beter. I'm glad you got away from the bad guys.
That fucking blanket makes Barnes feel a lot better. He and Steve have a good cry over it, because they are not heartless bastards. Then they put together a box of toys and crap and a picture signed by all the Avengers within signing distance. Steve writes a letter that makes both of them misty-eyed all over again, and they send that sucker by car straight to Dylan's house because that kid damn well deserves it.
Stark tries to make fun of the blanket. Then he reads the letter. Then he blows his nose.
"It's not looking good, Cap," Hill says at dinner.
It's spaghetti night. Barnes has just figured out the absolute perfect meatballs (turkey and pork, lots of fresh parsley, just a little bit of nutmeg, whole-wheat breadcrumbs, pre-baked). Cooking for two out in the middle of nowhere for the next hundred years will be stupid.
"Congress is making noises about getting involved."
"Can I do anything? Talk to anyone?"
"I don't know, Steve," she says, "you run the risk of getting subpoenaed even faster. They can send you to jail for contempt of Congress, and you're no good to Barnes in prison."
"No," Barnes says.
"I'll put out feelers," Hill says, and holds out her plate for seconds.
The cards keep coming, in ever-bigger stacks. Barnes would like to know how big the stacks of hate mail are, but no one will tell him.
"Trust me pal, it's all bile and righteous indignation," Stark says.
Stark goes on Christine Everhart's show.
"You let him in your house," she says, "even given the evidence in the SHIELD documents that he probably assassinated your parents."
"That's right. And we all know what an asshole I am."
He mugs for the camera.
"Oops. Pardon me."
He winks. Everhart rolls her eyes.
"But look. I'm not gonna suffer fools in my own house."
"Other than yourself?"
"I like her," Steve says.
"Christine. You wound me."
"I'm saying. Torture is a thing. PTSD, totally a thing. A thing that needs better funding for treatment, by the way. The guy living in my house? Saved Captain America from drowning in the Potomac. Crawled his own way out of hell to find his friend. You're gonna ask me to refuse that? To ignore Steve Rogers's judgment? No way. That's Bucky Barnes living in my house, not the Winter Soldier. He was in prison for a lot of years. He doesn't deserve any more years there."
"Even if the prison was his own body?" she asks, but the edge is gone from her voice now.
"What's worse, Chris?" Stark says, and leans forward, but he looks into the camera, not her face, "what's worse than to have your very self chained up and used for evil against your will?"
"Oh, well done," Barton says.
Barnes only hears it because he hasn't yet slammed his bedroom door.
The next day, they have a visitor. It's almost certainly not their first visitor, but it's the first one JARVIS alerts them to.
"Captain, a Mr. Paul Randolph is in the lobby asking for you. He has passed the security check."
"I don't know who that is," Steve says, "what does he want?"
"I gather he has something for Sergeant Barnes."
Ten minutes later, the apartment's television comes on to show Steve standing next to a bent-over elderly man and a reporter looking so happy to be inside Avengers Tower that he might spontaneously lift up off the floor.
"I'm here with Steve Rogers and Mr. Paul Randolph of Queens," the reporter says. "Mr. Randolph, please tell us why you're here today."
"I have a picture," the old man says. "I was in the 107th with Sergeant Barnes. He was my Sarge. I figure, maybe if he don't remember so good, maybe my picture will help."
He holds up an old, brownish snapshot of three young men, one of which Barnes recognizes as himself. The man hands the picture to Steve.
"This is from before I was deployed," Steve says, "I don't know much about these days."
"Oh, he was a real good sarge," the old man says, "made you toe the line but not resent it, you know? Like you knew he was on your side. Helped us keep out of trouble. Kept us from acting the kinds of stupid that would've gotten us killed."
"Yeah?" Steve says, looking hungry.
The reporter is about to smile his face in half.
"Oh yeah. Sarge was the best. Down in the mud right with us. Don't get me wrong, he'd whip your butt if your gun wasn't clean or he caught you trading food for booze or dirty pictures. Uh. Begging your pardon, Captain."
"Nah, I know all about that."
"Gotta keep up your strength, he used to say."
"To me too."
"But for you, it worked!"
Barnes considers laughing. He considers weeping. He considers pounding the coffee table into shards. None of these seem quite appropriate.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Randolph," Steve says, "I'm sure this will help."
"Well you tell Sarge old Randy Paul from Queens says hi and feel better," the old man says, "and if there's anything else I can do, you let me know."
"I absolutely will," Steve says.
"How about that?" the reporter says, "how about that."
"Did you see, Bucky?" Steve asks when he gets back to the apartment.
The picture spurs nothing but a hollow kind of sadness. The man in the photograph looks so young, and his smile is so bright.
"Don't remember him?"
"Good story, though," Steve says.
"Jesus," Hill says over dinner, "Tumblr's gone bonkers over that little old man."
Then old people start coming out of the woodwork. And if it's not old people, it's their children and grandchildren. They make YouTube videos and corner the reporters on Park Avenue. They bring photos and tell adorable stories. One guy brings a jacket full of bullet holes and tells the family legend of Bucky Barnes pulling his bleeding grandfather across a muddy field to safety. They tell their own war stories. They bring frayed war bonds with Steve's face on them. Younger people bring Bucky Bears with legs chewed off. Stacks of comics arrive - Captain America! and Adventures of the Howling Commandos and Bucky and Cap Adventure Stories - with notes pinned to them.
"Don't these people know how valuable these things are?" Banner says, "they could be putting down payments on cars with some of these things."
"We'll send them back, Bruce," Steve says.
Every day there's a crowd of old folks standing outside, clutching photos, medals, and musty old junk. Barnes is stuck in the apartment plastered to the TV screen, watching as Steve makes his way through the crowd, listening to stories about Barnes in his pre-ice cube days.
A week in, Steve's listening to one little old lady talk about her work as a WAC, when some dude with the whites showing all around his eyes shoves in front of the camera.
"He's a traitor!" the guy yells, "a godless Commie spy! He probably still works for HYDRA! Prison's too good for that, he deserves the death penalty!"
Steve's lips have disappeared.
"Excuse me, young man," the little old lady says, and slaps him hard across the face.
On TV, Barnes can hear the camera operator say "tee hee."
"You shut your damn mouth," the woman says. "Did you ever fight in a war? Did you? Did you?"
She grabs his collar and shakes, and the dude shakes his head no.
"I didn't think so. How did you ever go about making the world better? Or do you spend all your time spouting nonsense about things you know nothing about?"
The dude opens his mouth, and the old lady smacks him again.
"Don't you speak back to me. Who raised you? You weren't even part of this conversation, and you barge in shouting about the death penalty. I'm not even your mother, and I'm ashamed of you. Go away."
The guy tries to speak again.
"I said go away!"
The guy goes away.
"Mrs. Sheila Vanhousen, folks," Steve says solemnly to the camera, "do not mess with her."
The reporters love it. They love the old people. They love Steve talking to the old people. They love all the old stuff and the stories. Steve brings down the drawings and cards from children. The reporters love that too. According to Hill and Barton, so does the internet. FOX News excepted, the nighttime news shows slowly shift their tone. They interview veterans of recent wars about psychological damage. Steve and Barnes run out of space in their apartment for all the stuff.
Potts smiles for the first time in a week.
"We might not need that quinjet after all," she says.
Four days later, the TV flickers on to show an extremely elderly Asian man flanked by a somewhat less elderly Asian man and a youngish one with an impressive scowl.
"You wanna see my Congressional Medal of Honor, pal?' the old man says. "Jimmy, show the man my damn Congressional Medal of Honor."
The younger old man holds up a medal.
"Morita?" Steve says like he can't catch his breath.
Barnes hears a voice inside his brain,
"I don't know what they taught you in Brooklyn, Cap, but here in the real world we build fires out of wood actually capable of burning."
He falls over a little.
"Bucky? Are you okay?"
"I think I maybe. Remember a little."
"You remember Morita?"
"He was good at building fires?"
Steve laughs. Barnes could stand to remember a few more things, if it would get Steve to laugh more.
"He was, Buck. Taught me everything I know."
Steve goes down, and Barnes watches the television, sees the way Morita's shoulders straighten when he sees Steve. Sees them clasp hands and grin at each other, then hug.
"I thought you were dead," Steve says.
"Nah. Japanese people: eat a lot of fish, live forever. It's a thing."
"Grandpa can't die until he's sorted everyone else's business out for them," the young one says.
"Some things never change," he says.
Barnes hears the voice again,
"You ever gonna tell him, Sarge? Seems like your best friend might like to know that you'd like to hand his own liver to him for letting himself become a lab rat."
Steve's being introduced on the screen to Jim Jr. and Trey while the reporter squeaks about the "last living Howling Commando."
"There are three of us now, champ," Morita says.
And his voice echoes,
"Your friend is crazy, Sarge. Terrific, useful, amazing, blah blah. But crazy. I can't believe you didn't tie him to the Brooklyn Bridge before you left."
Barnes runs for the elevator. He runs when he gets out of it and slows down only at the door, where he registers the lights, the faces turning toward him. But his internal compass points, as ever, toward Steve, a still point in the crowd.
They let him through, slowly. There's a Stark security guard on either side of him, but the crowd parts. They speak to him.
"Good to see you, Bucky."
"Hey, Sarge, looking pretty good there."
"Glad you're back."
Maybe after he will stop and answer them. Thank them.
Morita's son sees him first and elbows his father. Steve turns, his smile vanishing.
"Bucky? You shouldn't be out here. Is everything okay?"
Barnes stares at Morita's face. Under all those wrinkles, there really is something familiar.
"I remember you," he says.
Barnes looks at Morita, then at Steve, standing next to one another. Their apartment is full of junk from folks wanting him to remember. Full of cards and Bucky Bears wishing him whole. Randy Paul's photograph, and Dylan's blanket (which would be pretty helpful right about now, damn it).
"Yeah," he says, "just a little. But I do."
"Good," Morita says, "good for you."