I excel at making bad decisions. One of which is writing this in the middle of exam week. There isn't much I can explain about this story that can't be inferred from the writing. So, enjoy!
Bucky had thought that the week away from Steve would be an adventure. 1941, the year of adventure, the year of exploration, the year of discovery, the year Bucky finally figured out what the hell was up with Massachusetts.
(Like he wasn't listening on the radio for any indication of some kind of attack on New York because Steve you ass I can't believe you tricked me into doing this. Just because we had one little argument didn't mean we needed this much breathing room.)
The latest bus had dropped him off in a small town on the border between New York state and Massachusetts. Bucky had several hours to kill before the next one would come and take him away, and in the meantime he planned to walk around. He had nothing better to do, and if his luck held he might stumble across a souvenir to bring back.
(Okay, a big argument. Steve, I'm sorry.)
Steve would probably smile if Bucky got him a souvenir. Bucky would like that.
He didn't have too much money to spend, though—just enough for bus fares, lodging, and food.
(He was already homesick.)
Okay. First things first, he had to drag himself out of this pit of a mood. The long bus ride had done wonders for his sense of guilt, and now Bucky just felt—
He was hungry.
"Diner, diner…" Bucky muttered, casting his gaze around what he could see of the town. A trio of young woman was coming his way and Bucky walked up to them with a gracious smile. "Good evening, sorry to bother you. I'm looking for a place to eat, do you know one 'round here?"
The blonde one smiled and pointed with seamless grace that put Bucky's approach to shame while her friends did a poor job of hiding smiles. "Yes, Sally's Diner is just around that corner on the right."
"You're quite welcome, Mr..."
"Barnes," Bucky said. "Mr. James Barnes."
(Steve would be rolling his eyes right about now. Bucky could practically hear the thinly-veiled irritation even though Steve was miles away.)
"Mr. Barnes," the woman finished. "My name is Alice. These two are Jane and Sarah. Are you new to these parts?"
"Just passing through."
Small talk. He hated small talk. He was good at it, but that didn't make it any better. As though to save him from the inevitable awful conclusion of the awkward encounter, Bucky's stomach rumbled and he flushed, calling up an embarrassed smile. "If you'll excuse me…"
"Of course," Alice said, stepping back subtly with a hastily reciprocated smile. Bucky wondered how old she was. Younger than him? Older? He couldn't tell. Either way, he was leaving before the other two (what were their names? Jan? Sarah? Something like that) pounced on the lapse in conversation.
In five minutes he'd made it into the diner. It was a little more beat up than some of the ones he'd seen in New York, but it was just the kind that he and Steve frequented when they had a little more cash to spend. Sliding into a seat at the counter, Bucky grabbed a menu and began perusing it with a practiced eye.
"Thinkin' about anything to drink in particular?" The woman behind the bar asked. Bucky glanced her way, smiling on reflex. Her tag read, "Sally".
"I'll just take water, thank you."
"Of course, darlin'."
Seconds later, Sally had slid a cup with water and ice over and Bucky had decided on a hamburger, largely because it was one of the cheapest items on the menu.
(He would splurge on the last day. Until then, he'd make do.)
"Is this your place?" Bucky asked. Sally swelled with pride and Bucky knew the answer immediately.
"My mother's. Er, father's, but then my mother's. They named it after me."
(Bucky, you idiot, you just dragged yourself into more small talk. Bail. Bail now.)
Sally bustled off to address the one other person seated at the counter—an older man in a faded jacket—leaving Bucky to his thoughts, almost as though she'd sensed his rising panic. His eyes wandered the polished interior of the place, taking in the fact that everything was clean but nearly empty. Many of the napkin holders didn't hold anything at all, and Bucky suspected that the condiments containers would be in much the same shape.
Well. Wartime, even if the war was thousands of miles away.
He was so focused on the fine details that he nearly missed the third man in the place. It took Bucky a second to make sure that no, he wasn't hallucinating and that yes, there was a man in the booth by the corner. The weak sunlight from outside only barely reached that booth. He was eating the last of his fries, and Bucky quickly looked away so he didn't seem rude.
A few minutes later, Sally brought out Bucky's hamburger.
"Thank you," Bucky said, snagging a fry.
Bucky was halfway through the burger he was convinced was sent by the gods of burger-making just to appease his voracious appetite when the door to the diner slammed open hard enough that the little bell jangled in protest.
Instead of turning around the face the new arrivals—there had to be several, Bucky could hear them stomping all over the floor—Bucky watched Sally. She was standing a few feet away, and while she had a professional smile on her face, Bucky could see the tense set to her shoulders. Beneath the counter, she had one hand creeping towards a set of silverware.
The group filled up five seats to Bucky's right, sprawling on the stools as though they owned them. Sally had taken her hand away from the silverware, but only because she'd slipped the knife and fork from the set into her apron.
"How may I help you young gentlemen?" Sally asked pleasantly. Bucky didn't miss the razor edge to her smile, but apparently the newcomers did.
"We want some food, obviously."
"We're low on cash today, though," another person said. Bucky glanced at them out of the corner of his eye and guessed that they were around his age, if a little younger. "Hope you don't mind if we put it on the tab."
He knew their type. Apparently they were everywhere, not just in New York City.
"Sorry, boys, but you don't have a tab here," Sally told them. "And I don't think you ever will with the way you're speaking. Pay in full or don't eat."
The steel in Sally's tone and posture reminded Bucky of Steve's mom before she passed, before the sickness had withered her away. He could respect that.
"Don't think we will. Right, boys?"
A rousing chorus of agreement. Bucky wanted to roll his eyes.
(Steve wasn't here to get righteously angry on Sally's behalf. Bucky would do it in his place.)
"I'll take this," one man said, slapping his hand down on the whole menu. "Got it?"
Sally's eyes narrowed. "Can you pay for all that?"
"Won't have to." Laughter. They were laughing.
Bucky stood, a quarter of his burger left uneaten. He pulled out his wallet, counted out the money for his meal plus a tip and rough estimate of what the tax would be—and then turned to the group of five idiots who were still harassing Sally. To Sally's credit, she was matching them word for arrogant word.
"Excuse me," Bucky said, catching the attention of the nearest man. "I think you should leave."
The reaction was exactly what Bucky had been anticipating as the full force of their arrogant swagger turned to him. "Should I? Hey, guys, he thinks we should leave."
In a few seconds, Bucky was virtually surrounded by the five men. He could see that the other guy at the counter was watching with wide, concerned eyes. Not a fighter, then. Sally was inching towards the phone on the wall, not that the police would arrive in time to do anything but examine the aftermath. Bucky knew how this kind of thing worked.
"Why don't we take this outside?" Bucky suggested blithely. "I'd hate to make a mess in here."
While he followed the men outside, Bucky glanced back and waved at Sally. She was staring at him with her mouth set in a hard, disapproving line. She began to say something, her eyes looking towards something else in the room, but the door closed before Bucky could hear anything.
Five on one wasn't a fair fight by any means, but Bucky had known that going in. Street brawling was something he'd always excelled at (thanks, Steve) and he managed to down one of them with a hard punch to the nose before they caught him by the shoulders and dragged him off balance. Bucky kicked one away before they got his legs, too, and the man he assumed was the leader stepped forward with a nasty snarl. His nose was bleeding from where Bucky had smashed it.
"You think you're a fuckin' hotshot, huh?" He asked. Bucky smiled at him.
"That's the general idea."
The punch to his face didn't even hurt, but it set his ears ringing. Bucky spat at the guy's feet and got a blow to the stomach in return, followed by two more and a trio of rapid punches to his face. One hit his jaw and sparks exploded behind Bucky's eyes. His lip had split against his teeth and he could taste the coppery tang of blood.
He spat again. "My best friend hits harder than you do."
Bucky was fairly sure the next punch loosened something in his brain, because there was suddenly a seventh person in the alley by the diner. He blinked and gravity took hold and he hit the ground. The concrete was cold against his cheek. There were two bodies in front of him—the people that had been holding him in place.
Some blood pooled in his mouth and he forced it out through swollen lips, feeling it dribble down his chin.
He could hear the sounds of fighting over the buzz in his ears, but it was muffled and over before Bucky could really focus on it. He watched the bodies hit the ground instead and realized belatedly that the new arrival was taking the men out with incredible efficiency.
He needed to get up. With more difficulty than he was expecting, Bucky got his hands underneath him and pushed himself up into a kneeling position, his entire body aching but especially his stomach and head.
He was going to hurt in the morning.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Bucky pushed down the surge of nausea through sheer force of will and, when he opened his eyes, there was someone standing in front of him with their hand extended.
Bucky took the hand on instinct and nearly staggered when the person pulled him to his feet with far more strength than Bucky had anticipated. The nausea surged again and Bucky braced himself against the wall, gagging until his head cleared enough for him to focus once more.
"Thanks," he said to his savior. "I coulda handled them, though."
The man—Bucky knew him, but from where? Was he the one from the diner? The one in the corner?—nodded. Bucky wiped his mouth, glancing at the blood that streaked across his knuckles. He probably looked like shit.
That's what he got for going into a five-on-one. It was exactly the kind of thing he'd lecture Steve for.
Bucky snuck a glance at the man. He was wearing a cap and worn jacket with his hands tucked into the pockets. Bucky couldn't see much of his face through the thick beard and his long hair did a good job of obscuring his major features.
He looked…homeless. Or, he would, if Bucky didn't notice the nice boots he wore and the general way he carried himself. This wasn't a man who was waiting in the innumerable lines to take handouts.
Bucky's gaze switched to the men that had been beating him not two minutes previously. They were all out, lying down on the ground in various states of unconsciousness. There were spots of blood on the ground, but nothing serious.
"Did you…take all of them out?" Bucky asked, knowing immediately after he asked that it was a stupid question. The man nodded again, his lips quirking into an expression Bucky couldn't interpret.
He had blue eyes, but turned away before Bucky could see anything else. "You should have Sally help you," the man said. He spoke matter-of-factly and stepped over the defeated men as though they weren't there at all.
(Holy shit. He'd taken out five of them. Five. And Bucky didn't see any sign of injury on his part. What the hell.)
The bell of the diner rang in uncomfortable tandem with the ringing in Bucky's ears.
"Oh," was all Sally said as the man helped Bucky to a seat in one of the booths. Bucky sat heavily and winced, watching as Sally bustled into the kitchen and then emerged with bags of ice. "Stay still for a moment, honey."
Bucky complied, letting out a sound of relief as the cold bags were pressed to his temple and jaw.
"Nice?" Sally asked with a wry smile. Bucky started to nod and then reconsidered.
"Yes. Thank you."
"It's not a problem at all. Thank you for that, by the way. Those boys came through here a few weeks ago with the same routine. I thought it was a one-time thing."
"Rough times," Bucky said quietly, careful to move his jaw as little as possible. "And I didn't do all that much." Sally scoffed.
"Doesn't give those boys an excuse to act like a buncha fools. Don't try to act all modest, too. Can you tell me where it hurts?"
Bucky pointed and Sally adjusted the ice. "I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of medical supplies. But James is grabbing some napkins, and he should be back right—now. Yes, just hand them here. Thank you."
The man—James, apparently—stepped back after giving Sally the napkins. He was watching Bucky with an uncomfortable kind of intensity, and Bucky distracted himself from that by focusing on the feeling of Sally dabbing his bleeding lip with the napkin. Fortunately, the wound was already beginning to clot.
By the time his lip stopped bleeding entirely, Bucky had taken over holding the ice to his jaw and switched the other pack to his stomach while he stretched back in the booth, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling.
He was still nauseous.
(Five. What the hell.)
"How did you take on all five of 'em?" He asked.
The man—who was sitting on the other side of the booth—shifted. The booth creaked and Bucky wondered how heavy he was to make it do that because it hadn't for him.
"And do you actually have the same name as me?"
The man shifted again. "I have had a lot of practice." His words were very measured, said without any accent Bucky recognized. "And yes, apparently."
"That's really cool." He was out of it. So out of it. He must have gotten hit harder than he'd thought.
James said nothing. Bucky said nothing and counted each time his head pounded to pass the time. That only lasted for a few minutes, and neither James nor Sally was offering anything.
What a shitty dinner.
"Hey, Sally, is my hamburger still there?"
"You bet. You want me to bring it over?"
"That would be great. Please."
Bucky groaned himself into a sitting position as Sally put the burger in front of him. "Thank you."
The burger was cold, of course, but it was nice to finish and get a little more into his stomach. The nausea had mostly subsided and the water Sally placed in front of him worked wonders to wash everything down.
James was watching him with that unerring gaze of his. "Are you military?" Bucky asked after swallowing. He couldn't stand the silence.
"Ex," James replied shortly.
(Where was Steve? When Bucky's attempts to talk failed—which didn't happen often—Steve found something, even if it was too heavy. James seemed like a heavy guy.)
"Where'd you grow up?"
Bucky perked up a little at that. "Where in? I'm a Brooklyn man."
"Wow, really? What a coincidence."
James made a noise that was probably agreement. Bucky chose to interpret it as such.
After another few minutes of fruitless efforts to speak to James, Sally put two sundaes on the table. Bucky glanced up at her, feeling his jaw twinge when he said, "Sally, you—"
"Shut your mouth, honey. I'm feeling generous, and both of you deserve my thanks for what you did earlier. You eat too, James. Don't give me that look—you need food. No complaints." She pulled two spoons out of her apron and set them in the desserts. "Eat."
"Yes, ma'am," Bucky said, picking up the spoon.
The sundae was good, if a little too sugary for Bucky's taste. The first bite had him scrunching his eyes a little, and a cursory examination of James' reaction showed the same result.
He liked this James guy, for all that he was the equivalent of a brick wall in conversation.
The sundae went quickly, and Bucky made sure to get as much of the fudge out of the melted puddle in the end as possible. By the time he was done, he could feel his stomach pressing into his belt. It felt good.
Hopefully he didn't throw any of it up when he tried to stand. That would be a waste.
"Why are you out here?" James suddenly asked. It took Bucky a moment to process that James had been the one to speak, that he was initiating conversation. Taking his pause as confusion, James clarified. "If you live in Brooklyn. Why come out here?"
Bucky smiled a little bitterly. "I had a disagreement with a pal of mine. We figured we needed some space to cool down, and he's not fit to travel. So here I am."
"Yeah." Bucky hesitated, wondering why James' questions didn't feel like the usual prying he got from girlfriends. Then he dismissed the thought; he still owed the guy for saving his ass earlier. It wasn't as though he'd ever see James again. "You know the war going on in Europe, right?"
"Right, well, I want to help with that. I don't—I can't agree with the idea that we should stay out of this war when those European countries are fighting for their existence. I mean, not that high-and-mighty, really, but you get the point. I can't stand back and watch. It feels wrong."
James was quiet for a moment. "And your pal?"
"Steve." Bucky toyed with his napkin. "He…he's got the same ideas as mine. Sticking up for the little guy and all that. But he's—well, he can't do it. Can't enlist. Asthma. And stuff."
"He doesn't want you to because he can't?"
"No! No," Bucky said quickly. "That's not—okay, I didn't phrase that well at all. Steve isn't like that. Not that selfish. He does want to enlist, though. Probably'll try. He's just—he's worried about me, and I'm worried about him, and it's—a mess. Yeah. A mess. So that's why I'm out here; space. Time to think."
"Is it helping?"
"Considering that I just got my ass kicked in an alley and am now pouring out this whole thing to—to a stranger, no offense—I think that's still up in the air."
Speaking of getting his ass kicked, the ice bag on his head was starting to drip. Bucky wiped it with his napkin and repositioned it on his face, grateful that the ache in his jaw was slowly fading. The one on his stomach was making his legs uncomfortably cold, so Bucky moved it to the table.
"I am worried about him, though," Bucky muttered, more to himself than anything. "Idiot gets himself into all kinds of trouble."
"Then why do you stay with him?"
Bucky opened his mouth to snap out an offended reply and then paused. To an outsider, their relationship could very well seem poor. But he and Steve went way deeper than arguments. "He's my best pal," Bucky said instead, unable to hide all of the offense he felt. "We've been together through everything, and we'll stay that way until the end of the line." He waved his free hand in a frustrated gesture. "I can't explain it in words. But it's—that's really all I've got."
James took the answer seriously, to Bucky's surprise. "You must be…very close."
"I'd jump across space and time for that guy," Bucky admitted, his mind going back to the time he and Steve had managed to make it into the Smithsonian under the guise of brothers to celebrate Steve's birthday. To this day Bucky wasn't entirely sure how the guards had fallen for that. "So yeah, we're close."
"You boys need anything else?" Sally asked from behind the counter. Bucky noted that the man who had been there earlier had left at some point, probably while Bucky had been getting beaten up. That was a smart move, all things considered.
"No, thank you," Bucky replied. He then realized he'd never paid for the sundae and began to take out his wallet. "I should—"
"You shouldn't," Sally interrupted. "You won't be getting anything more for free, but you don't have to pay for what you've already had."
"Let me do you this kindness, honey."
Bucky couldn't say no to that, so he nodded. "Okay."
James was still looking at Sally with an unreadable expression on his face, so Bucky cleared his throat to get his attention. "So what brings you out here, pal? Did you get in an argument too?"
"No." For a second, Bucky thought that word was everything James was going to say on the subject. Fortunately, James proved him wrong. "I was…on a road trip with two friends of mine. We ran into some trouble. Got separated." He went quiet.
"Are you waiting for them?" Bucky asked. That would explain James' somewhat homeless appearance, if he was waiting to rejoin his friends and didn't have any money in the meantime.
James shook his head. "Looking for them," he corrected.
"Do you know where they are?"
"Around here," James said with a wry smile that quickly vanished. "We will run into each other eventually."
"Hope you don't have to wait too long," Bucky said. For some reason, that statement brought James' smile back.
"What are you friends like?" Bucky couldn't let this conversation die. James was talking, and he didn't seem to be super inclined to stop. Bucky could work with that.
James swallowed and said nothing for almost a minute.
(Barnes, you screwed up. Wrong question. Wrong. Question.)
"A lot like your pal," James eventually said, catching Bucky off guard.
"You know someone like Steve?"
James nodded. "He…doesn't think ahead, a lot. When he does, it's because he has to pick between two bad choices. But he always makes the one...the choice that follows what he believes in. He's got…this martyr complex. He'd sacrifice everything for just one person. Even if that person didn't want him to."
Bucky blinked. He hadn't been expecting an answer like that, and while he could see Steve doing those things, James' friend seemed as though he'd been through much more with that kind of attitude. Sacrifice everything? Damn. Then again, James appeared to have gone through some shit himself. Like attracted like and whatever.
"The other…" James bit his lip. "He tries. To help—me, and my pal. He's our…touchstone. Anchors us when we get too—out of it. When I get too out of it. He brings me back."
Definitely ex-military. Did James have the battle fatigue?
"He sounds like a nice guy."
"He's an ass."
"Oh." Bucky wasn't sure what to make of that. "In a good way?"
James shrugged, the most human gesture Bucky had seen him make the entire conversation.
The bell over the door rang again. James was the one facing the door, and Bucky saw the way his eyes flashed and his lips thinned.
Were those idiots seriously—
"Where the fuck is that asshole?"
The voice was loud enough to make Bucky wince, but James didn't react to it beyond standing up, his expression etched from stone.
"You boys—" Sally began, only to abruptly go silent. Bucky heard a familiar click and his heart skipped a beat. He knew that sound, because his dad had taught him how to fire a pistol when he was ten and Bucky knew exactly what kind of noise the revolver made when someone drew back the hammer.
A gun. They had a gun.
Moving very slowly, Bucky turned to see exactly what the situation was.
Three men had come back into the room. One was the one with the bloody nose—he had the gun—and the other two Bucky didn't distinguish from the rest. The last two were nowhere to be found, but Bucky guessed that they were probably still unconscious.
The gun was aimed solidly at Sally, who had gotten as far as getting her hand on the phone.
"Back away," the gunman said coldly. "I'm in a really bad mood, now."
James stepped forward and Bucky snagged his jacket.
"Are you stupid?" He hissed as quietly as he could while the gunman and Sally exchanged more words. "He's got a gun! Wait until he has hit back turned!"
He smiled. James smiled.
(He took on five guys and came out fine. But he had a gun.)
James carefully detached Bucky's hand and moved forward.
(What the fuck. What the fu—)
"Don't take another step!" The gunman shouted, and James paused. But it was only a pause, because he started moving again the second the gunman switched his attention back to Sally.
"Al!" one of the other men hissed, and Al—the gunman, apparently—swung the gun back towards James, his arm extended and his finger on the trigger.
James moved so quickly that Bucky had to piece together what actually happened several seconds after the fact.
James knocked the gun from Al's hand, caught it in mid air, fired it into Al's kneecap, used the gun as a blunt weapon to take out henchman number one, and then spun to drop henchman number two with a hard punch using his left hand.
All that happened within the span of a couple seconds. Al was on the floor in an instant, screaming and crying in pain as he alternately clutched and released his shattered knee.
James glanced at the gun in his hand, frowned, and walked over to Sally.
"You take it," was all he said before setting the weapon on the counter. Sally looked at him with concern.
"Are you all right?"
"No damage," James said. "I'm fine," he added after a beat. Sally didn't look convinced, but she dialed 911 anyway, still watching James as he frisked the men for any other weapons. Al was still screaming, and the noise was causing significant amounts of pain between Bucky's ears.
"Would you kindly shut up?" Bucky asked with as much irritation crammed into the request as possible. He was also trying not to throw up. Again. Al just started cursing at him.
Before Bucky could do more than respond in kind, James emerged from the supply closet with duct tape in one hand and spare cloth napkins in the other. Bucky hadn't even seen him walk over there, and he only stared as James bent down and secured Al's hands, and then duct taped his mouth. He then forcefully tended to Al's wound, no doubt to make sure the guy didn't bleed out before police arrived.
On one hand, the sudden quiet was a blessing. On the other, what the fuck.
"James," Bucky said softly. The man in question glanced his way, his face still doing that creepy blank expression thing that sent shivers down Bucky's spine. Bucky swallowed, not really knowing where he'd been going with that.
"The police are coming," Sally said, hanging up the phone. "They'll be here in a minute." She glanced down at the men and just shook her head. "Fools, the lot of 'em."
"Almost murderers," Bucky muttered. James said nothing.
They waited in silence for about half a minute.
"I should go," James abruptly said. "I think I remembered where my friends would probably be. We had a meeting spot."
The lie was obvious for all that it was delivered in a completely convincing tone. Bucky was just too keyed up from the surge of adrenaline to believe it. Still, after seeing the warning head shake from Sally, Bucky caught James' eye and offered an awkward wave goodbye.
The guy had his issues, but he was the best conversation Bucky had had in over a day. Bucky would miss him and his insane brawling skills.
"Good luck," he said. "I hope you feel better."
(What. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. Shit.)
James was staring at him with wide eyes. He was—surprised? Amused? Sad? Bucky couldn't tell. But for some reason, he looked maddeningly familiar in that second, to the point that Bucky wondered how the hell he hadn't seen it before. But he couldn't think of who James resembled no matter how hard he tried.
"Thank you," James replied. "The same to you. I hope you and your friend…work things out."
"We always do," Bucky said as James left. His head was still pounding. "We always do."
What the hell.
Bucky sat off to the side while the police investigated the scene. Sally handled their questions, deflecting attention from Bucky as much as she was able. While she did that, Bucky stared at the table.
He had to go back. He had to apologize to Steve, because the argument was stupid. They would figure something out, but leaving like this wasn't going to solve anything. It only made Bucky feel worse, and he knew that Steve hadn't meant for it to be like that.
Bucky switched his gaze to the other side of the table, where a small notebook and pen sat. Frowning, Bucky grabbed them, wondering if James had left the items behind. Flipping through the pages, Bucky didn't see any sign that the notebook had even been opened. The pen looked brand new, too, made out of a light material Bucky wasn't entirely familiar with. He uncapped it and ran the tip across his palm, his eyebrows shooting up when he saw the ink it left. It wrote smoother than anything Steve had, that was for sure.
James was long gone. There was nothing Bucky could do to return the notebook. But James was too meticulous to leave something this big behind unintentionally, not with the way he'd carried himself and dealt with those men. So.
Bucky had his souvenir, and he was going home.