More of the Enchantress’s demon-things surround Barnes and the Commandos while they stand there, but Barnes barely notices, because he’s got something much bigger to worry about: Crane is dying and in a few minutes he’ll be dead and Barnes can’t do anything about it. With emergency response, with an operating room prepped and ready to go—maybe. But all they have is Morita’s med kit, and Crane needs more than a field dressing and a shot of penicillin. Jesus Christ, the guy doesn’t deserve this. Abbie doesn’t deserve this. All they did was help a stranger who was in trouble, and now one of them is going to die and the other is going to lose the love of her life because they were trying to be kind.
Barnes doesn’t know what to do.
The Asset would shoot through him to take her down, a little voice in the back of his head tells him (it’s 2009 on a cliff outside Odessa and the troublesome redheaded enemy is blocking his shot on the nuclear engineer). Crane’s dead anyway. It’s what he’d tell you to do. The Asset would finish the mission.
The Asset conditioning can go fuck itself, because he knows (it’s 1943 in a HYDRA prison and he’s screaming no, not without you across a pit full of fire) that Abbie will die before she goes on living without Crane.
Steve would attack her anyway. Steve would say, Do what’s right, no matter what. But Barnes isn’t Steve. He’s never been as strong as Steve. He…
That’s what Captain America would say. But Steve, his Steve, the guy who lied on his enlistment papers four times and was invited into Project Rebirth as a result, the guy who literally went in through the front door of the Red Skull’s stronghold, the guy who choked the Asset unconscious when he could’ve easily just stuck a knife in his throat and who dropped his shield in the Potomac rather than fight his friend? That Steve would say, If the game’s rigged against you, find a way to change the rules.
The Enchantress has been speaking for a while now, and Barnes snaps himself back to attention. She’s telling Abbie, “It’s far too late to save him from dying. But my previous offer stands. All you need to do is use the Soul Gem. Return him from the underworld.”
Previous offer. So she wants Abbie to use this Infinity Gem, for some reason, and Abbie has already refused, for what’s probably a damn good reason. Crane warned him not to risk his soul; maybe this was exactly the situation Crane was talking about. And, oh, if it is, this is very bad. Because Barnes still isn’t sure what all is included in being a Witness, but he suspects it’s pretty damned important that both Witnesses keep their souls. And the Enchantress might have found the only leverage in the world—in any world—that Abbie will throw all that out the window for.
The Enchantress nods to one of the demon-things, and it removes the gag from Abbie’s mouth and drags her to her feet. She’s looking at the Enchantress with an expression that makes cryo look warm and inviting by comparison. But the desperation is there, too, raw and real. She shuts her eyes, and opens them, and looks at Crane. He’s trying to shake his head at her, trying to tell her no, but Barnes knows what’s going to happen before she says it, because it’s exactly what he would do if it Steve were the one who was dying.
“Okay,” she says. “I’m in.”
“Free her hands,” the Enchantress tells one of the demon things, which promptly rakes a claw down the ropes binding her hands behind her back.
“Abbie, no,” Crane says, with what sounds suspiciously like it might turn out to be his last breath, but the Enchantress is smiling. Asgardian, probably lived a couple thousand years already, she knows how to read people, and she knows Mills’ offer is genuine, and suddenly she’s holding out the container he knows as Minnie’s jewelry box in one elegantly gloved hand and Mills is reaching for it and—
“What the fuck is that?” he yells, staring at a point over the Enchantress’s shoulder, and in the quarter-second when her attention wavers before she realizes this is the oldest, dumbest trick in the Nine Realms, the kind of trick that would only work because nobody except a Howling Commando would be dumb enough to try it, he moves.
She should’ve tied him up, too, instead of just assuming the demon-things would be enough of a deterrent, because one of them grabs him and actually burns itself on his metal arm, and the other rakes its claws across him in a way that might slow him down if not for the whole super-soldier thing. When he crashes into the Enchantress, he knocks Crane free of her grasp and slams her against the wall, metal fingers locking around her throat.
“Loki Laufeyson sends his regards,” he says, as the hand starts to whirr and close. His gut is already saying this isn’t the end of the Enchantress, and he wants her to know that if she’s going after somebody for revenge, it shouldn’t be his family, or Abbie’s, or Crane’s, if he’s got one. Sure, Loki wanted her to know who got the better of her and Barnes hates to play into his hands, but he’s still going to consider it a little fuck-you to the bastard. He’s not wrong about the Enchantress being hard to kill, though. Asgardians are a lot tougher than humans; the couple of extra milliseconds that toughness buys her are enough for her to say something in a language Barnes doesn’t know, and then there’s a burst of weird green smoke and the woman vanishes, just like Loki has done at least once now.
But by then, his right hand has already reached into the box and closed around the Soul Gem.
Maybe it’s because it’s been used recently to open a way for the demon-things, or maybe there’s some other reason he’ll never understand, but for Barnes, holding a Soul Gem is nothing at all like Minnie described it. Instead, it’s skin-crawlingly reminiscent of the Chair: the way the pain slams into his head and knocks him to his knees, the way his brain blanks in response to the white-hot agony. He feels the unexpected sensation that the gem is reading him, studying him. It’s making its way down into the crevices of his brain, finding memories that he hasn’t even dredged up yet.
Oh, God, there’s stuff in there he really doesn’t want to see again.
Please, he thinks, please, no—and to his very great shock, the Soul Gem seems to listen.
what do you want, it says.
Well, it doesn’t say it, exactly. It’s more like it plants the idea of the question in his brain, which is more fuckery he doesn’t need right now, but honestly, the pain is pretty bad even on a super-soldier scale and he doesn’t figure he can keep it together for long. Fix my friend, he thinks back at it. Keep his soul in his body until we can get him some help. Can you do that?
he will be in pain, says the gem.
Yeah, tell me something I don’t know. Can you do it or not?
…it can be done, the gem tells him. And then, before he can even feel any satisfaction about that, much less consider his next move, it says,
you’re thinking too small
What the fuck.
you could bring all of them back. the ones you lost. your friends. your family. There’s a heartbeat’s worth of space, and then it adds, your victims
Barnes almost drops the thing when the implications hit him.
He could bring all of them back. Not just the Commandos; not just the men of the 107th who got vaporized right in front of him at Azzano, or Danny Lenoir, maybe the only other man besides Steve he’s ever loved, who was forced to his knees and shot in the head in the HYDRA factory for absolutely no reason except that the guards wanted to make an example. Not even just Sarah Rogers (and surely, a little voice in the back of his head whispers, surely Steve would do anything for that; maybe Steve would even love him back in the way he’s always wanted Steve to love him, for that). But he could go even further. He could restore all of the Winter Soldier’s victims, wipe out all the red in his ledger in one go.
Oh, God, he could bring back Howard and Maria Stark. Tony Stark wouldn’t just have to forgive him; he’d practically owe him for that. And he could tell Howard how sorry he is, that if he’d been in control of his mind, he would’ve died himself rather than murder a friend. There’d be nothing standing in the way of his going back to Steve, if he could make that one thing right.
He could, but can he? is never the right question.
Yeah, he thinks at the gem. Yeah, sure. I could do all of that. Or you, whatever you are, you could do all of that for me. But what’s it gonna cost me? Why did Mills refuse to do this? She’s lost people before. She didn’t need Crane to die to have somebody on the other side who she’d like to bring back. So if she had to be pushed that hard to even touch you, there must be one hell of a catch.
There’s a moment of… silence, for want of a better word, although the pain is still happening, which always makes for a lot of noise in Barnes’ head. Then it says,
it would bring back all of your dead
it would bring back all of your dead, the gem repeats, and then there’s a picture.
Johann Schmidt. The Red Skull.
Barnes slams his metal fist on the ground so hard that the flagstone floor actually chips. I didn’t kill Schmidt! He’s not my dead!
he was killed for you, the gem tells him, and then the picture is Steve. Steve crashing into a HYDRA facility, being an idiot like always, going up against like twenty guys with those disintegration guns that still count among the worst things Barnes has ever seen and, wow, has he seen a lot. Steve facing off against Schmidt, on some kind of weird futuristic plane, or maybe a rocket ship, for all Barnes knows or cares. Schmidt, the Red Skull—Barnes only ever saw him once, across a bridge in the HYDRA factory, and he thought at the time that he was just hallucinating a mutilated face the color of blood, but it’s not a picture he’ll ever forget; and it’s just a flash, just a second where Steve is standing across from Schmidt and Schmidt is holding the thing they chased all over Europe looking for, the Tesseract, and then Schmidt is somehow melting and he feels Steve think, although he doesn’t say it out loud, That’s for Bucky, you son of a bitch.
God. All this time he’s been wanting Steve to love him just a little bit differently than he does. But Steve did the single thing he was most famous for in the fight against HYDRA—he got on that plane, he ended Schmidt, he died—for him. Steve always loved him more than he knew, always.
It doesn’t make it less hard, exactly. But it makes it possible. And it’s definitely what Steve would do.
He opens a portal to home, like Loki told him to do. He can never explain it afterward—he suspects the gem does most of the work—but he does it, and instead of the HYDRA base, he makes sure it opens up right outside the emergency room entrance to Phelps Memorial. Then he opens his fingers, drops the Soul Gem into the wooden box it came from, and slams the lid shut.
Everything stops: the noise, the pain, the sense of someone or something else being inside his head. Then Abbie gets up and runs to Crane, and he realizes that to the rest of them, the whole thing with the Soul Gem happened in just a few seconds, and Abbie has no idea about any of it. Which means that he has a mission to finish.
He makes himself stand up, and go over, and touch her shoulder. She turns, and as she’s drawing a breath to speak, he interrupts with, “I made sure he won’t die, but he’s in a lot of pain and he needs help fast. Can you get him through the portal on your own?”
The raw pain in her eyes is staggering, deeply personal and uncomfortably familiar, but when his words register, he sees a spark of hope. She nods, and then she half-lifts, half-drags Crane—who looks to have passed out from pain, but is breathing pretty well, thank God—through the glowing circle of light.
Barnes takes a deep breath, and then he turns to face the Howling Commandos. Somewhere in there, they’ve dispatched the remaining demon-things, buying him time to play out his little drama with the gem. Dugan is even still holding the container of salt. The Commandos always did have his back when he did something stupid. “Guys…” he begins, and then he shifts the wooden box to his left hand and rubs his right hand across his eyes. “Guys, I’m sorry,” he says.
“What, for handling the situation?” Jones says. “You did right, Buck. You saved the lady from doing something that would’ve hurt everybody in the long run, and you’re helping her save her friend. Speaking of which, are the two of them…?”
“Are you seriously trying to ask if that sugar’s rationed, Jones? Come on, man, we all saw the way she looked at that Crane guy.” Dugan shoulders him aside, steps forward, and lays a hand on Barnes’ shoulder. “What are you sorry for, Jimmy?”
“I… I can’t save you. The Soul Gem is an all-or-nothing deal. I can’t bring you back to life without bringing Schmidt and a bunch of HYDRA shitheads back too.”
The words hang heavy in the air for a minute, and then Dugan snorts. “Barnes, what on God’s green earth makes you think any of us wants to go back?”
“Well, I mean, I hate to tell you this,” Barnes says, “but you’re dead, Dum-Dum.”
“Yeah, because I lived my life, kid. All of us did, in no small part because you had our backs in the war. Even after we thought you were dead, you gave Steve the push he needed to take down Schmidt once and for all. God knows we weren’t happy to lose him, but it had to be done or all of our kids would’ve been hailing HYDRA in kindergarten.”
“It’s true. We had good lives, thanks to you and Steve,” Morita agrees. “And good things waiting for us on the other side.”
“It’s not the harps and puffy clouds we were led to expect,” Falsworth says, “but yes, James, it’s a good place. And I expect we’ll see you there in due time. Although, now that Rogers knows you’re alive, you’d better do your best to stay that way as long as possible.”
“Yeah,” Jones adds. “You get killed, he’ll probably show up in the afterlife with his ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ face on, and nobody wants to see that.”
Barnes forces a smile. He’s still not convinced, but if the guys are okay, that’s something. “You guys are… you’re really okay with it, then? With… going back to wherever?”
“Barnes, one afternoon watching you make friends with bilgesnipes and I have a whole new appreciation for going someplace restful,” Morita tells him, grinning.
“Oh, shit, yeah. I didn’t see where it went. Do you think it’s gonna be okay?” Barnes asks, and even though he’s completely serious, all of them crack up.
“Only you’d be worried about the well-being of a two-ton monster, pal.” Jones grabs him and pulls him in for a hug, and then the others follow suit. Dugan waits until the others have had their moment with him, and then he lays a hand on Barnes’ shoulder.
“Kid,” he says seriously, looking into Barnes’ eyes, “I think it’s only fair to warn you that you’ve got a pretty rough time coming up. You’ve come a long way, and it isn’t fair that you’re gonna get thrown right back into the fire again, but it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse for you before it gets better.”
Barnes scowls at him, to cover the fact that the words send a shiver down his spine. “Why would you tell me that?”
“Because you’re strong enough to handle it,” Dugan says. “You’re the only one who ever thought you weren’t. And really, leave it to a moron like you to miss the most important part, which is: it’s gonna get better.” He smacks Barnes on the shoulder, affectionately. “When you talk to Steve,” he says, “when you really talk to him—which you will—you tell him we all said hello.”
“Et de lui dire de ne pas sauter des immeubles de grande hauteur,” Dernier adds.
“Yeah, like he’s ever gonna quit that.” Barnes rubs his eyes. He must be allergic to something in Asgard, because crying isn’t a thing former brainwashed HYDRA assassins do. “Thanks, guys. You’re a swell bunch of crazy assholes, you know that?”
“Hey, watch your language, Barnes,” Dugan tells him. “Don’t you know there’s a lady present?”
Barnes turns, and his breath catches. She’s the last person he expected here—and how or why this is happening is anyone’s guess—but it looks like the Soul Gem is going to give him one more thing before he locks it away for good. She’s so much smaller than he remembers, but there’s never any question but that it’s her. That blonde head with her hair out of its pins, like she’s just gotten off her shift. Those blue eyes, the same ones that still look out of Steve’s face a hundred years later.
He takes a step toward her and she wraps her arms around him, letting him press his face into her shoulder like a little kid. “You’ve still got a good soul,” she says, in that odd, mix of Brooklyn and Irish accents he’d almost forgotten. And then, “You keep an eye on my boy, now, Jamie Barnes.”
The noise he makes is somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “You know it’s Bucky, Mrs. Rogers,” he says, the words coming completely unbidden across life and death and seventy-something years. “And time hasn’t made your kid any less of a stubborn asshole, pardon my French.”
“Of course not. That’s why he still needs you,” she says, with that bright sunshine laugh of hers running underneath the words. She leans down, takes his face in both hands, and kisses his forehead, like a benediction, before she’s gone.
Barnes doesn’t really remember how he closes the portal any more than he remembers how he opened it; it’s one of those things that makes sense at the time and never will again. He goes through, but he doesn’t immediately go into the hospital. First, he goes back to the HYDRA base to check on his prisoner.
Loki has escaped, leaving the chain still padlocked to the desk and the base completely empty. Barnes doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s surprised. As long as he and the Enchantress concentrate on annoying each other instead of coming after the humans they were using as pawns, he’s not going to worry too much about it. While he’s there, he sweeps the base and extracts all the records and data he can—old hard-copy stuff, a lot of which never made it into the files Romanoff released into the world when HYDRA fell. It’s enough for him to guess which cells might still be active, and to line up his next couple of targets. Then he goes outside to look for a decent cell signal.
When Daisy picks up, he starts to say, “Hey, it’s Ba—” and then he stops. “It’s Bucky,” he says.
“Bucky!” If she notices the difference, she doesn’t harp on it; he figured she’d understand. “I’m so glad you called. You would not believe the day I’m having.”
“Same. I have a weird favor to ask you.”
Daisy laughs. “Nothing you say could possibly sound weird compared to what I just dealt with.”
He tells her what he wants. There’s a long pause on the line, and then she says, “I take it back. That’s pretty weird.” But she puts him on hold for a minute, and when she comes back, she says, “Done.”
“So you can tell me how to reach him?”
“You don’t find him, B.B. He finds you. Anything else?”
“Yeah.” He’s been pawing through the papers he found in the abandoned HYDRA base, and he has his next couple of targets lined up. “Think I can hitch a ride next time you guys have a Quinjet heading for eastern Europe? I have some business there.”
“Yeah, we can make that happen. Not before you buy me that milkshake you owe me, though.”
“You got it, kid,” he says. As he hangs up, he suddenly realizes that Dugan must’ve felt about him like he feels about Daisy. He must’ve seemed so young during the war; looking back, he wonders exactly how much Dugan kept a protective eye out for him without his ever even knowing it.
Which is why he doesn’t immediately go into a murderous rage when he opens his backpack and finds the tattered, filthy Bucky Bear tucked neatly inside it.
He goes back to Minnie’s house to return the gun and equipment he borrowed from her, and once again, he gets to have the surreal feeling of sitting on her porch, drinking lemonade, while he tells her a fairly horrible story. If he chokes up a little at the end, she doesn’t give him any grief about it. “I don’t remember Sarah Rogers,” she says, pretending she’s looking at the hydrangea bush in her yard to give him a minute to recover himself. “I know I’m named after her, but all I remember is stories you and Steve told about her. I’d like to have known her, though. She must have been quite a woman.”
“She was. …Do you remember much about Steve?”
“That you were always pulling him out of fights and then Ma would yell at you for coming home covered in dirt and bruises,” she says, with a grin. “That he was the only person who could get me to brush my hair in the morning. That he insisted on paying rent to Ma for as long as he lived with us, even when he had to do it in pennies.”
“Oh, God, his pride! I remember Ma giving the money back and telling him to buy himself a new pair of shoes instead, and he kept saying his were fine, even though I’d literally just helped him cut up the newspaper to put inside them because the soles were worn through in about three places—”
“—And then you called him a stubborn son of a bitch—”
“—And then you went to school the next day and repeated it on the playground, and Ma just about murdered me for teaching you bad words.” He puts his gloved left hand over his eyes, laughing.
“What was the first thing you remembered about him?” Minnie asks suddenly. “After the helicarrier, I mean.”
“After… I dunno, the first couple of days it was all really confused. Just pictures I couldn’t make sense of. The first real thing…” Barnes folds his hands in his lap and looks down at his mismatched fingers. “You weren’t even born yet, but Steve had scarlet fever in 1932. He was so sick, everybody thought he was done for. You know I never prayed much, but I remembered sitting in church and thinking that if he survived, I’d never ask for him to love me back, I’d never ask for anything again, I’d just watch out for that dumb little punk for the rest of his life.”
“Oh,” Minnie says. “So do you think that’s why you didn’t die when you fell off train?”
Barnes blinks. “Min?”
“Seems like a pretty big coincidence that you’re both still alive, doesn’t it? Maybe you got a little more than you bargained for, but it sounds to me like you got an answer when you asked for a miracle.”
“Wow,” Barnes says. “Minnie, I don’t… I mean, even if… I’m the last guy who’d deserve that.”
“I know, dummy,” Minnie says. “That’s why they call them miracles.”
Barnes is saved from having to answer by his phone making the incoming-text sound. “It’s Jenny,” he says, looking at it. “She, uh, she requests the pleasure of my company.”
“I’m old, not blind, Bucky. I can read ‘be here in 15 minutes or kiss your balls goodbye’ perfectly well, thank you.” Minnie grins. “Go. Tell the Mills sisters to come see me the next time they finish fighting evil; I’ll make them some cookies and they can tell me all about it.”
Minnie is awesome, but he likes his balls where they are, so he goes.
“I ought to be furious with you,” Abbie Mills says, when he finds her in the hospital hallway. “Why did you get in the way? I had a perfectly good plan.”
“I know,” Barnes says, honestly. The more he thinks about it, the more he thinks it was unnecessary, maybe even stupid of him to intervene in the matter of Team Witness vs. Soul Gem. Abbie is smart and capable and knows a lot more about supernatural stuff than he does; more than that, she’s good deep down in her soul, in a way he’s not sure he ever can be but is very sure he’d like to be. But he did what seemed right at the time, which is all anybody can do. “It was just that, you know, you’d already gotten abducted by a crazy Asgardian and it didn’t seem fair to make you do all the work. And I’m pretty sure I did get the gem to save Crane’s life, so… can we call it even?”
Abbie laughs, which pretty much confirms that Crane is going to be absolutely fine. “He’s out of surgery,” she says. “And he told me who you really are, by the way. Nineteen-seventeen, huh?”
“Yeah, he thought it was real funny for some reason.”
“So he didn’t tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“Just come in,” Abbie says, pushing open the door.
“…many strange things, madam, but you’ll never convince me that this substance is intended as a source of nourishment,” Crane is ranting at a bored-looking nurse. He’s got a tray of hospital food in front of him and is poking the Jell-O with a fork. It jiggles, and he glares at it suspiciously.
“So you seem to be feeling better,” Barnes says, sliding into the chair by the bed. It’s the first time he’s seen Crane out of his old-timey getup, and the hospital gown isn’t an improvement. He looks pale, but really remarkably good for having been stabbed; either Barnes misjudged the seriousness of the earlier wound—which he didn’t; the little part of the Asset that lives in his head doesn’t make that kind of mistake—or the Soul Gem did something a little more than just keeping Crane alive until he got medical attention. With all this talk about there being a price for using the Infinity Stones, he feels like he got away with something there, but then again, maybe the universe finally cut him a break. God knows it owes him one.
“You’ll want to get out of here before he starts quoting Thomas Paine,” Abbie tells the nurse.
“Too late,” the nurse says wearily, but she leaves, and Abbie shuts the door. “Crane,” she says. “Tell James what really happened to you.”
Crane looks at her. “Must I truly perform this dog and pony show again?”
“Rip off the Band-Aid, sweetie.”
Crane sighs, turning his attention to Barnes. “Very well,” he says. “In 1781, having left my home in England and joined the American Revolution, I fell in battle to a being known as the Horseman of War. My wife Katrina, who unbeknownst to me was a witch, ensorcelled me to sleep for over two centuries, until such time as I was needed in the world again.”
“Oh,” Barnes says.
“I imagine you have questions?”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, God, I have so many questions,” Barnes says. “Like, okay, have you found out what the deal is with nail salons? Because I swear, you can’t throw a rock without hitting one these days. And why do they need so many colors? Red was good enough for Rita Hayworth, it oughta be good enough for anybody. And on top of that, a lot of these places have beds that you lie on and get sunburned on purpose? Honestly, how is any of this a thing?”
“Sergeant,” Crane says, “as a fellow man out of time, I do realize that you may be less predisposed to incredulity, but compared to others I’ve informed as to the nature of my circumstances, you’ve still taken this better than I expected.”
“Are you kidding me? Crane,” Barnes replies, in complete seriousness, “at this point I’m like, ‘Oh, look, some weird supernatural shit is trying to kill me. Fuck me, is it Tuesday already?’”
“Oh my God, Crane,” says Abbie, looking delighted. “You’re disappointed. First time somebody comes along and believes your crazy story about witches and time travel, and you can’t stand it that he doesn’t want you to prove it with obscure historic facts or something.”
“Like I’d even know any obscure historic facts I could call you out on,” Barnes says, rolling his eyes. “Actually, the truth is, I only have one question I really want to know the answer to, which is, why aren’t the two of you hooking up?”
“Excuse me?” says Abbie, raising an eyebrow at him.
“I’m just saying, Mills, you must really, really like this guy to keep putting up with his Colonial-era bullshit. And Crane, no question about where you stand, you’re so obviously head over heels for this woman that you’d run blind into another dimension to help her even though you know she can handle herself. I swear, it makes me want to knock your heads together. So why the fuck don’t you two just kiss and be done with it?”
“I take offense to that,” Crane says, drawing himself up as much as he can manage, clearly ready to go off on another Founding Fathers rant at a moment’s notice. “I’ve behaved as a perfect gentleman toward Miss Mills, and she—”
“—Is starting to wonder the same thing as James,” Abbie says. “When someone who’s ninety-nine years old thinks you’re being ridiculously old-fashioned, I think you ought to hear him out.”
Crane is indignant. “I suppose I ought to be unsurprised to learn that the age of Tinder has no concept of courtship,” he says, and by now, Barnes recognizes when he’s winding up for a good screed. “No appreciation of romance, indeed, only the most base and lustful desire are to be celebrated under the guise of—”
If he was Abbie, Barnes would kiss him to shut him up, too. Hell, under different circumstances, Barnes might kiss him to shut him up too, but it’s better this way. He’s her Steve, he thinks again, and swallows hard as he gets up and goes out of the room, shutting the door and leaving them to it.
He almost walks right into Jenny.
“You,” she says. “I can’t wait to hear what you have to say for yourself, running off like that.”
What he says is, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, checked out earlier today. Knock on the head, couple bruises. I’ve walked away from worse. A lot worse, in fact. How’s Crane?”
“He’s gonna be okay too. Give them a minute, though,” he says, as she puts her hand on the door. “I kind of threatened them if they didn’t just kiss already, and I guess I’m intimidating or something.”
“Oh, thank God,” says Jenny, fervently. “They were taking forever. I was sure I was going to have to punch some sense into both of them.”
Barnes grins. “Hey, Jenny,” he says, “if you’re feeling up to it, is there any place around here where a guy can take a girl dancing?”
“Depends. Are we planning to Jitterbug or Lindy Hop?”
Barnes blinks. “Abbie told you.”
“She’s my sister. We tell each other everything. Well,” Jenny amends, “almost everything. And yes, I know a swinging gin joint where a hep cat could take a dame to cut a rug.”
“You know, we never really talked like that.”
“And you know what the best thing about this bar is?” Jenny adds. “It’s within walking distance of my place.”
Has Barnes mentioned that he really, really, really likes this woman?
Barnes is lying awake in Jenny’s trailer, with Jenny sprawled across the right side of his chest—seems like the metal arm might not be as much of a turn-off as he thought it was, turns out in some cases it might be kind of the opposite, actually, but it’s still an uncomfortable pillow—when he hears a low rumble of thunder off in the distance. He doesn’t want to get up; he may not be able to get all the way drunk anymore, but after he and Jenny conducted a science experiment involving a bottle with no label and something at the bottom that looked suspiciously like an eel, it’s clear that if he’s willing to ignore taste and common sense, it is possible for him to stay pleasantly buzzed for a good long time. He wants to lie here for a while longer, enjoying it, but he has a responsibility to fulfill. He gently shifts her weight off him, finds his clothes and pulls them on, wonders if it’s really a great idea to take a metal arm outside in a thunderstorm, then decides he’s a super soldier and he can take the chance. He shuts the door behind him.
There’s a rising wind, and that weird energy in the air that sometimes comes right before a big storm, and then there’s a crack of thunder and yeah, there it is: a flash of lightning nearly blinds him and when he blinks, there’s a figure standing there that wasn’t before.
Barnes puts his metal hand up in a little wave, and Thor moves forward—this guy definitely doesn’t walk, he strides—and stops a few feet ahead of him. “Bucky Barnes,” he says, and inclines his head, not quite making it a bow. “You are a friend of the son of Coul, and so a friend of mine.”
It takes Barnes a minute—possibly because part of his brain is still spinning on holy fuck, May was right, he really is a god, look at his arms—but then he gets it. “Coulson’s good people,” he agrees, and reaches into the pocket of the much-abused stegosaurus hoodie to hand over the wooden box with the gem in it. “I have something you might want.”
Thor opens the box and Barnes sees something on his face he doesn’t figure many humans have: surprise. “This,” he begins, “this is a dangerous—”
“I know, I had a talk with it. That’s what made me think maybe it doesn’t belong on, uh, Midgard. We kind of have too many weapons down here already.”
Thor closes the box, almost reverently. “How did you come by this?”
“Long story short, your brother Loki has a really crazy ex-girlfriend.”
Thor’s expression changes in a way that’s hard to read. “My brother is dead.”
Barnes raises his eyebrows at the thunder god. “I saw him less than forty-eight hours ago and he looked pretty lively to me.”
“You are mistaken,” Thor says, and there’s a low rumble of thunder somewhere not far enough away. “Or there is some trick—”
“Skinny guy, long dark hair, does ice magic? Likes to do a thing where he disappears in this puff of green smoke and then all of a sudden he’s behind you with a knife?”
“That is impossible,” Thor says. “I saw my brother die. I held him while he breathed his last.”
“No offense, but there’s no chance at all that he could’ve been faking it?”
The lightning bolt hits just far enough away for Barnes to know it’s not really intended for him, but close enough that he’s sure it’s not a coincidence. Thor is pissed. “If I find that you’ve been less than truthful—”
“With all due respect, pal, I have nothing to gain from lying and everything to gain from keeping that thing,” Barnes nods toward the stone, “and using it for myself. And I didn’t.”
Thor nods, just once, briskly. Barnes recognizes the look of a guy who’s trying to keep it together in front of a near-stranger, and feels a twinge of sympathy. Big muscley blonde guy, thought he’d lost a brother, maybe hasn’t—yeah, he doesn’t keep walking into these things at all. “Thank you for this,” he says, gesturing with the box in his left hand.
He’s still holding his hammer with his right hand, and as the last dregs of alcohol cycle through his brain, Barnes thinks very briefly about asking for a shot at lifting the thing, then shakes his head at how stupid he’s being. Worthy. What a joke. Still, there’s something in him that wants to be worthy. Maybe that’s what Sarah Rogers saw in him, or sees in him still, after all these years. “You’ll take it somewhere safe?”
“I will take this to my father’s treasure room to be safeguarded,” Thor says. He looks troubled. “And I will confer with him on this tale of yours, the matter of… Loki. If he lives, Heimdall will find him.” Thor hangs the hammer on a little belt holder thing and extends his hand. After a moment of puzzlement, Barnes shakes it—either Asgardians do handshakes or he’s learned it here. “Should there be need, Coulson can reach me again,” he says, and starts to walk away, reaching for the hammer again.
“Thor,” Barnes calls after him. “Can I—quick question? Just one, I promise.”
Thor turns back, looks at him inscrutably.
“I, uh, I know you know Coulson isn’t dead, and that he’s keeping that quiet from the other Avengers, and that’s fine. But I’d really appreciate, if you see Steve Rogers—”
“Your name is not to be mentioned either. I was told by the Lady Daisy,” Thor says.
“Thanks. I just wanted to know… Have you seen him lately? Is he okay?”
Thor hesitates. “He searches,” he says. “There is a longing in his heart. But he is well, and strong, and a good man.”
Barnes manages a half-smile. He guesses he knew all that already. “Thanks.”
Thor doesn’t answer. He stares up at the sky, and then he takes the hammer by its strap and starts to whirl it in a circle, faster and faster. His knees flex, he jumps, and then he’s gone, so fast that Barnes could almost believe he dreamed the whole thing.
He doesn’t feel relieved like he thought he would, getting rid of the Soul Gem; he can’t quite shake the feeling that he’s still been played somehow. And beyond that, it’s a little like watching his old life fall away again, knowing he’ll never have a chance to see any of the people he used to love again. His other two sisters, his mom. The Howling Commandos. Danny. All of them so long gone and not, at the same time.
He needs to talk about this. He needs to talk to Steve about this. He knows that. After he clears out the last few HYDRA bases, will he finally start to feel like he’s on that path to redemption he’s been looking for? Will he ever be ready for the way Steve’s going to look at him now?
He sits out on the little stairway that leads into the trailer for a long time, until the clouds roll away and the sky is quiet again. Then he goes back inside and lies down next to Jenny. For now, this is enough.
Crane has been uncharacteristically silent for so long that Barnes is starting to get worried about him. He’s staring at the tower of dinosaur fossils on their steel frame: the small head on the long neck, the massive ribs, the armor plates along the back, the spiked tail. Just as Barnes is about to finally give up and break the silence, though, Crane says, “It’s not so large as I expected.”
“You described the dinosaurs as the most massive beasts ever to walk the earth. I expected it to be rather more impressive. Now that,” he points across the hall at a T. Rex, “that, to me, seems more akin to a proper beast.”
“Crane, we’ve been through a lot together, but disrespect the stegosaurus again and I will fucking end you.”
“Hey! No killing people in the Natural History Museum, B.B.,” says a voice behind him, and he turns around and sweeps Daisy into a hug. He would’ve had her meet him at Minnie’s house, but he’s pretty sure that if an Inhuman walked into a weird-ass place like Sleepy Hollow, you’d need words like “smoking crater” to describe the results. A SHIELD Quinjet can take him as far as Constanța; he’ll make his way to Bucharest from there. He turns back to Crane, Abbie, and Jenny. “I’ve gotta go. Abbie, do your best to keep this guy out of trouble, okay? And away from self-checkout machines.”
“Be safe, James,” Abbie says.
Jenny leans in to kiss him, quickly, and he smiles. “Jenny, if I were in any shape to get involved with somebody long-term—”
“—I still wouldn’t be looking for that, and you’d still be in love with your oblivious best friend,” Jenny says pointedly. “But you’re a lot of fun. If you ever need to fight a demon again, look me up.”
“I will. Hey, English, do something for me.” Barnes drops the keys to his motorcycle into Crane’s hands. “Take care of my ride. And don’t pop any wheelies.”
“Is that some sort of drug?” Crane asks, and when Barnes just laughs, he says, “It’s been a pleasure, Sergeant.”
“A pleasure? Both of us got stabbed!”
“An honor, then. I was part of the founding of this nation. If it produces men like you, I feel we did well.”
There’s another round of hugs, and Barnes shoulders his backpack and he and Daisy walk out of the Hall of Dinosaurs. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but he does know one thing: he’s got friends again, not just in this world but also in another one. No matter what happens, he’s not alone anymore.
Or maybe he never really was to begin with.