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Burn the Ships

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It’s been over a year since the Avengers reversed The Snap. You still remember getting the call from Nat saying they had a plan. It was a long shot, but if it worked, they needed someone to be prepared for the world’s population to double instantly. Having worked your way to the top of the Stark Relief Foundation, you were the first person to step in after the Snap. You helped Nat account for the remaining Avengers, Steve set up counseling sessions, the UN organize a world census, and most everything else in the immediate aftermath. In fact, five years later, you joked with Nat that you were just starting to get your weekends back. But you were the only person who could possibly prepare for what would essentially be a global refugee crisis in a few weeks. These people had lost their homes, their families, their jobs. They would need to rebuild their lives, and that would take time.

Your highly sophisticated rehabilitation process included specialized teams around the world to ensure the strongest members of society- the firefighters, policemen, soldiers, Avengers- got the help they needed. You knew first-hand from working with Tony that people like that didn’t stop to help themselves, and no one made them. In fact, your main motivation in reaching out to Steve to lead the New York effort was to force him to participate in therapy. He’d never go to therapy, but he’d help in any way he could. He was one of your weekend meetings. Every Sunday. For five years. It was no surprise when he came to you after the Battle of Earth and explained his plan to stay in 1945. Well, the plan was a surprise. But you weren’t surprised that he asked you to watch out for Sam and Bucky. You didn’t even have to consider it.

That’s how you first met Bucky. It started slow. So slow, in fact, you were certain there was nothing there. Until there was. You thought for weeks that he and Sam were together. The way they argue, it’s still hard to believe they’re not. Sam offered to help as soon as he walked through the door, just like Steve said he would. You insisted he take care of himself first, and when your volunteers started to run thin, you’d welcome his help. Bucky didn’t speak to anyone besides Sam for a month. Not that you could blame him. You’d read his file (you’d read all their files). He’d been the Winter Soldier for seventy years, snapped out of it only to be put back under. He’d only been awake for two weeks when he turned to dust. He had no idea what to think.

Now, you were the one who had no idea what to think. When Steve (Mr. Rogers, as you liked to tease him ever since he got back) said he was too tired to go to the movie you had been wanting to see, he insisted Bucky take you. You were pretty sure he just wanted to force Bucky to make new friends, but it didn’t really matter. After the movie, Bucky drove you home and walked you to the door, just as he would have in 1945. But when you opened your door, he pulled you back and kissed you so hard you couldn’t think straight for days.

That was six months ago.

“I know you grew up in a different time, but goddamn!” You almost laugh, but hold it in. “You could not have possibly gone this slow before.”

He’s barely touched you since. Now, after spending over an hour holding hands and watching Netflix on his couch, it boils over. You know he saw it coming. He could tell something had been bothering you for a while. There’s no way he missed that, even if he is the most oblivious man you’ve ever met.

He groans, rubbing his hands across his face. “I didn’t.”

If nothing else, at least he’s not a liar.

“Then what the hell?!” Your anger turns into pleading, “Bucky, I want to move forward.”

“And I want to let this go.” He growls avoiding eye contact.

“That’s not fair.” You shake your head. “We’ve let it go for months.”

“No,” he scoffs, “just because we haven’t talked about it, doesn’t mean you’ve let it go.”

You lean away from him. “What the hell does that mean?”

“You keep pushing. Throwing yourself at me whenever we’re alone.”

“I would hardly call laying in your lap ‘throwing myself at you,’” you laugh.

“Fine, but my point stands.” He brushes hair out of his face. “You haven’t let it go.”

“You haven’t kissed me in six months!”

“Yes, I have.”

“Once.” You level your gaze at him. “On the cheek.”

He raises his eyebrows and tosses his hands in the air as if his victory is obvious.

"We're not in middle school." You slide over next to him, resting a hand on his knee. “Can’t we make out?”

He doesn’t react.

“I know you want to. I remember the way you kissed me that night.”

Still nothing.

“I should’ve pulled you into my apartment, pushed you onto the couch, and-”

“No.” He snaps his head up, looking you in the eye. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Bucky, please,” your begging becomes more desperate, “I’m trying to understand, but I need something. I’m not asking to-”

“Then find someone else because I can’t.” He stands and walks into the kitchen, leaning against the counter.

You look at your hands and swallow hard. You can’t do this anymore. You need real connection and human contact. Your job takes too much energy to spend your free time with someone who doesn’t care enough to even try. You stand up and walk to the door.

“You’re unbelievable.” And you leave.

 

“Really, Steve, thank you.” You take a stack of folders from the old man sitting across the table from you.

“I may be retired, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help.” He waves his hand in the air. “Even if it is just paperwork.”

You grin. “Well, ‘just paperwork’ is the biggest help.”

“How are things going? You look terrible.”

“Thanks, grandpa.” You shake your head and hand him a new stack of folders. “Busy as ever. You would not believe the hoops I have to jump through.”

He raises an eyebrow in challenge.

You snicker, “Alright, maybe a little.”

“There was too much red tape before the Sokovia Accords,” Steve chuckles.

Steve’s door opens, and your laughter stops short. Bucky nods.

“I’d love to stay and catch up, but my schedule is packed today.” You gather your things and turn to the door. “James.” You slink past him, careful not to touch him at all.

As you shut the door, you hear Steve. “What happened there?”

That’s the million dollar question. What would Bucky tell him about last night’s events? Not the truth, certainly. He doesn’t tell anyone the truth. Not all of it.

The next month passes in a whirl. You see Bucky around the rehabilitation center with Sam or when you stop by to visit Steve. After the first week, he talks to you like nothing happened. Ever. Like you’re old friends. Never anything more. And maybe you weren’t. Maybe that’s why he was so upset when you pushed him.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have time to guess what he was thinking or wish it had ended differently. The excitement of everyone’s return is wearing off. Volunteers are burning out faster than they can be replaced. Donations have all but dried up. Governments are tightening passport, visa, and citizenship laws, making it nearly impossible for some people to get home or find work. You’ve been in meeting after meeting for thirty-seven hours straight trying to find solutions. And, today, you’re flying to Sokovia to get a firsthand look at their progress.

The Sokovians have had a rough decade. They were still recovering from the Ultron massacre when half their population disappeared, and now all those people are back. According to reports, they are not handling it well.

As you walk through the rehabilitation center to go home to shower and pack your bag, you hear that familiar voice.

“Hey, can we talk?”

You slow and turn around. “What, Bucky? I really don’t have time.” You must really look like shit because he isn’t taken aback in the slightest.

Technically, according to your “Healing Heroes” program, you have to have time to sit down with any top tier survivors who want to talk. The Avengers, for example.

“Do you want to go out again some time?”

You take a deep breath. “You know what I want.” You turn back around and take another step toward the door.

“Can we go out again sometime soon?”

You stop, a million thoughts running through your mind and not one of them about Sokovia. Okay, maybe one.

You rub your eyes and turn to face him once more, smiling. “I leave for Sokovia in three hours. If the reports are true, I honestly don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“Sokovia?” His face tightens. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

You shrug, tossing your arms out. “They need help too, and no one else is doing it.”

“Maybe I should come.” He looks at the floor before meeting your eyes again. “You could use extra security.”

You feel yourself soften. He always cared too much. “You know I can’t hire you.”

“Volunteer, then.” He smirks.

You raise an eyebrow. “You know that’s not what I mean.”

He nods and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Conflict of interest and all that.”

“Buck,” you shake your head, “you haven’t gone through any of the steps for clearance. Have you even set the first appointment with a counselor? Been to a single group session?”

He drops his gaze again and goes silent.

“Work on the checklist. We can talk when I get back.”

He nods slowly, and you head home.

You resist the urge to drop onto your couch when you walk into your apartment. You know you’ll never get back up if you do. Instead, you strip off your clothes as you head to your bedroom, leaving a trail behind you. The floor is relatively clear; Jack must have come by and taken your clothes to the cleaner’s. Your suspicion is confirmed when you find your fresh dry cleaning on your bed next to your suitcase.

You let out a deep breath. It’s easy to understand how Tony fell for Pepper. He’s technically security, but you’d probably forget to eat if Jack didn’t leave sandwiches on your desk between meetings.

You take a quick shower and sort through your clean clothes while your hair dries. You have several freshly pressed skirt suits and two pairs of slacks. You pack two sets of heels, a pair of flats, and tennis shoes. You also choose a few sets of workout clothes and some jeans. After packing up your toiletries, you close your suitcase and begin filling a backpack with your work equipment. Laptop, files, tablet, migraine medication, and caffeine tablets.

Just as you finish there’s a knock at the door before Jack walks in.

“You ready to go?”

You smile as you drag your bags to the door. “Yeah, do we have time to stop for food?”

“Smoothie in the fridge.” He winks. “And I grabbed you a salad on the way over. It’s in the car.”

He takes your suitcase as you open your refrigerator. You grin as you take your tumbler from the middle shelf and take a sip. Strawberry mango. Perfect.

“Did you put-”

“Protein powder and chia seed? Yep.”

“What would I do without you?”

“Starve.” He says matter-of-factly. “But not before you got yourself shot.”

“First thing I’m doing when our federal funding gets renewed is giving you a raise.” You sling your backpack over your shoulder and follow Jack out the door.

“So, you and Barnes back together?”

“What?” You nearly drop your keys before you can lock the door.

“Sorry, not my business.” He takes a step back as you turn around. “Just saw you talking on your way out today.”

You snicker, “Do I have time in my schedule to date, Jack?”

“Not Barnes.” He presses the button for the elevator.

“What does that matter?”

“He’s…” Jack hesitates, “more damaged than most.”

“Yes.” You rub your burning eyes.

“He needs a relationship that can focus on him.” Jack sighs, “You just don’t have that kind of time.”

You nod, chewing at the inside of your cheek. It was an angle you hadn’t considered. Maybe the reason he never opened up to you was because you didn’t give him the attention he needed. He deserves a chance to heal from all that trauma. He needs to feel like he belongs again.