A/N: I posted this type of explanation on one of my other stories as well, but I'm going to add it to the newest update for all of my stories just so it gets out to all of my readers: Looks like I have some explaining to do. I mean, technically, I don't have to—but I want to because I feel bad. Basically, this whole year has been pretty bad for me in terms of stress. I suffered with an illness in the spring that really drained my strength and I dealt with some really dark personal stuff that made me kind of lose my will to live for a long time. I won't explain exactly what's been going on because A) it's personal, and B) I don't think you guys care much for the gruesome details. I was able to update a few of my stories a few times, but I had to take a mental health break in a major way. I took a break from pretty much all of my social media and even my friends in real life. It's been a really bad year and I'm only just now starting to get better. So thank you for being patient! I don't quit on my stories and don't plan to do so anytime soon. And just recently, I was suddenly hit with some hopeful feelings which cut through the bad stuff in a major way. I got this burst of inspiration and an intense need to WRITE, which is a feeling I haven't felt in a year. I hope this means I'm recovering from the traumas I endured. Updates for my other stories are definitely on the way, since I'm finally now feeling a little better, and I'm definitely going to try and get back into the groove of updating all my stories pretty regularly. I just wanted to thank you guys for your patience. I love all of you so much. Hope you enjoy this chapter! Let me know what you think in the reviews.
Maddeningly enough, Barton and Natasha refused to tell them what they'd learned until they got a decent meal and some rest. "But why?" Steve had asked, looking frustrated. As nice as he was, he'd gotten used to people following his command, so it clearly threw him off when people blatantly disregarded what he asked for…especially when what he was asking for was important information regarding something potentially very dangerous.
"It's hard to explain," Natasha said, "but it's not very…" She paused, looking like she was searching for the right word. "It's not very urgent. I mean, it's definitely important and worth looking into—but trust me when I say that it's not currently a matter of life or death. And it's all a bit weird, so it'll take some time to explain."
"And if I'm going to be honest, neither of us really have the energy to explain it all right now," Barton cut in. "Trust me when I say our trip was…"
"Weird?" Ari suggested.
"Wow, how did you guess?" Barton mocked but his smile was casual.
In the end, Ari volunteered to go pick up food for Barton and Natasha. She stood up, jangling her keys around her fingers while she wrote a Note on her phone as to what Barton and Natasha wanted. Steve stared at Bucky the whole time with uncomfortable intensity, looking increasingly puzzled and annoyed as the seconds passed. Ari turned to Steve and his expression changed in a nanosecond, switching into an easy smile. Because Ari was easy to smile at. She turned to Bucky and his heart jumped uneasily for a moment, the way one's heart might jump when they know a scare is coming in a horror movie. It wasn't a feeling he was accustomed to when looking at Ari.
"And you?" she asked. Her voice sounded normal and he thought her expression looked normal too, but he was too uneasy to look at her so he looked down at his phone and mumbled something about burger and fries.
"…Right," Ari said after a strange pause in which Steve, Natasha, and Barton all gave Bucky odd looks. What? What had he done? "Noted. So…I'm off. See you guys in a bit."
"Hey, Ari, do you—" Steve stopped mid-sentence, an awkward look crossing his face.
"Do I what?"
"Uh…sorry, never mind," Steve said, looking slightly constipated. "I—I forgot what I was going to say. My mistake."
Ari looked slightly puzzled but smiled, nodded, said goodbye again, and walked out. They heard the front door close shut and sat in silence for a long moment before Barton started laughing and Natasha snorted, saying, "You're all morons."
"What?" Bucky said, feeling thoroughly perplexed now. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Bucky, can we take a walk?" Steve asked suddenly, a frozen smile on his face.
Bucky's hackles immediately rose. Barton laughing. Natasha looking annoyed. Steve looking like he was having trouble with a bowel movement. He was clearly missing something and he neither appreciated being out of the loop, nor being treated like a stupid little boy who had done something wrong…the way Steve seemed to be treating him now. "Let's talk right here," Bucky said, his tone just a shade too hostile.
Sometimes he forgot how much Steve had changed. How could he not? He'd had only a little over a year with the Steve of now and a head full of painful memories of the Steve from then. And while the Steve from then never cared about following orders or rules, he'd never bristled and stiffened in the powerful manner that the Steve of now was doing…right this moment. He wasn't Steve Rogers anymore; he was the Captain.
"Bucky," Steve said, his voice sounding deeper and just the tiniest bit colder. "Let's take a walk. Now."
Bucky would have loved to launch himself at Steve—slam his fist straight into his intense, Captainy face and have an old-fashioned, testosterone-fueled brawl—but as his eyes darted to Barton and Natasha, and noticed Barton casually drumming his fingers on his bow while Natasha examined her nails with a small smile on her lips…
…He knew he was outnumbered. Barton and Natasha were Avengers first and his allies second; they would back up Steve in a heartbeat and unless he wanted to go full Winter Soldier on them—which he didn't—then a fight with Steve would only result in his loss and Steve's destroyed house.
Which would be unfortunate, because Bucky couldn't really afford to pay for the damages.
So even though it took all of his self-control to do so, he nodded with a tight smile on his face and said, "Sure, buddy. A walk sounds nice." He stood up, insolently jammed his hands into his pockets, and loped to the door, making sure to keep his exposed back turned directly at them. An aggressive part of him needed to assert that he wasn't afraid of them.
Steve followed him. They both stepped outside onto the porch. Bucky folded his arms and looked out at the sky. Night had fallen and all was peaceful out, stars faintly glowing above like the tiniest of seed pearls thrown half-haphazardly across a dark cloth. He and Steve stood side by side for a moment before Steve swung towards him and said, "So?"
"So what?" Bucky asked with controlled politeness, still staring out at the sky, expression a mask.
"Are we really going to do it like this?" Steve snapped.
"Do what, Steve?" Bucky asked in the same infuriatingly polite voice.
Steve folded his arms too and gave Bucky a hard stare. "I never pegged you for a coward, Buck."
This was too much for Bucky. He turned towards Steve and snapped, "I'm not a coward."
"Oh yeah?" Steve challenged. "Then what is all this? This posturing, this…this bullshit? Pretending you don't know what I'm talking about so, what, you can avoid the topic? And run away from it like a coward?"
"Fine," Bucky shot at him. "Then address it! Since you're so hell bent on interfering in every aspect of my life!"
"Oh sure," Steve said sarcastic. "It was only my interference that clued you in to your real identity when you were with HYDRA—"
They both froze as the impact of Steve's words hit them like the force of a punch.
Smoke in the air from small fires burning here and there, where cars had flipped or been hit.
Slamming a dagger into a van, ripping it to the side, trying to reach his throat.
The mission. The mission. Get the mission.
Being flipped over head, hitting the ground hard.
Fist into shield. Again. And again.
Fist into face.
Shield into arm. Cracks. Tiny electrical currents of pain sending spasms up and down his arm, neck, and spine. Jolting him. Angering him.
A hand grabbing at his face.
Suddenly, smelling the smoke—the air—
And then that fateful word, so confusing, so familiar, so strange while the rest of the world seemed to go muffled and muted, silent, chaos receding into nothingess—
How close he had come. How close he'd come to tearing apart his best friend. How close he'd come to killing the one person who had the ability to bring him back, to let him start over. He could be sitting in some cold HYDRA cell right now. He could be frozen in cryostasis right now. No Steve, no Ari, no Sam, no Natasha, no Fetch, no Team Beta, no nothing—just darkness and orders and chaos and the cold.
He was only aware of his ragged his breathing was when he felt Steve's hand on his shoulder, tentative, and Steve saying, "Bucky, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to rub that in your face—it was an asshole thing to do."
"You're fine," Bucky said, his voice hoarse, shrugging Steve's hand off and turning away.
Sometimes…he just wanted to die. This shit wasn't worth it.
"It's just…" Steve faltered.
Bucky squared his shoulders and turned around. "It's just that you noticed something between Ari and me," he said loudly, needing to have this be done with—preferably before she got home.
"Well…" Steve frowned and ran his hands through his hair, a habit of his. "Yeah. Earlier today, when she came over, it was just…you were just…"
"You looked afraid of her," Steve said, looking puzzled. "And when she offered to go get food, you didn't offer to go with her. You didn't even look at her. Which…I don't know. And then when she asked you what you wanted? You said burgers and fries. When she'd been talking about how she was going to pick up pizza from a really good place she knew. So…I mean, you obviously weren't listening to a word she said."
Bucky didn't know what to say to any of this. He scratched his neck and looked out into the dark street. All of the children were gone now. The world was silent.
"Ari and I had a fight," he finally said.
Steve looked startled. "You and Ari had…a fight?"
Bucky knew why it was surprising. From day one—when Ari, the strange nurse with no friends or family, had insisted upon helping the confused, lost, and angry Winter Soldier—there had been a bond between the two of them. And while the bond had seemed strange or unexplainable at times, it had never seemed weak. Steve had seen it. Sam had seen it. Natasha had seen it. None of them had spoken about it, all of them shelving away their thoughts and curiosities in their hearts. But it was clear as day; there was something between Ari and the Soldier. Whether it was friendship, whether it was a romantic love, whether they were like siblings…they weren't letting go of one another. And they'd never had a fight before.
"It was a bad one," Bucky said quietly. "Not even like a normal person argument. This one was…bad, Steve. And I don't know how to fix it because—because I still don't think everything I said was necessarily wrong. But I somehow said it wrong. And she said some things…and I don't know. I feel like…"
"Like?" Steve prompted.
"It feels like something is ending," Bucky said, not caring if he sounded sappy. His heart felt so hollow that it almost ached. He'd messed up. He'd messed up. But a part of him kept screaming that he hadn't been wrong—that his words had had some truth to them. And this was the part that kept him wound and knotted up in confusion.
Which way was up? Which was down?
Steve probably sensed from Bucky's hollow tone that Bucky was dead serious about this because he didn't try to placate Bucky with any false reassurances, for which Bucky was grateful. All he said was, "I know you didn't ask for my opinion, but I'm your brother, so I'm going to give it to you anyway. I think that what you and Ari have will always go deeper than any problems you might have. So while I'm sure it might be really serious—I don't think you should give up. Maybe something is ending…so you can begin something new. If there's one thing I've learned…" A small, rueful smile crossed his face. "Nothing is impossible."
A car was coming down the street and its headlights swept across the grass and porch as it slowed down and pulled into Steve's driveway. Ari was back.
"I sure hope so," Bucky mumbled to himself. He knew what he had to do now, even if it still didn't feel one hundred percent right to him.
Apparently Steve knew too. He clapped Bucky on the back once and stepped back inside the house.
Bucky stepped down the porch and headed to the car just as Ari stepped out, trying to balance three pizza boxes and a few brown takeout bags on top. She wobbled slightly, her toe catching on a crack in the cement and he darted forward, grabbing the boxes, saying, "Here, let me."
"Thanks," she said, letting him take the boxes and reaching for the bags on top.
"About this…" Bucky stepped away, out of her reach, his hand resting on top of the brown bags which had a burger place logo on them. "I'm sorry." His voice was quiet and he seemed like he was talking about inconveniencing her for his food order—but the world seemed to stretch and tilt between them for a moment, his tone burning with deeper meaning. He knew it was dark but his face and eyes seemed to burn with intensity as well, so hot that he wondered if they were glowing. "I'm sorry," he said even more quietly again.
Ari stood still for a moment, a slight dark silhouette in the night, and then she stepped closer to him and pressed her hand to his cheek for a moment. Flares ran down his neck at her touch and he held himself back from sighing. "It's okay," she said quietly. Her tone was less intense, more reserved, and he wondered if she was still holding things and frustrations and fears back the way he was—
But she was smiling at him normally and this was all he wanted in the moment, for things to be easy and good again—so he let go of his paranoia and questions for the moment and let himself hope against hope that it was all better now.
Only time would tell that answer, however.
And time was never something to be reckoned with.
They headed inside, where they were greeted by the bemusing sight of Natasha hanging upside down from Steve's ceiling fan, her legs wrapped around its base, a screwdriver in her mouth, focusing hard on something at the base of the fan. Steve paced relentlessly beneath her, giving her pained looks, while Barton lay stretched out on Steve's sofa with a bag of Cheetos on his lap, grinning at the scene.
"What the shit?" Bucky asked.
"Aw, Steve, are you worried about Natasha?" Ari asked delightedly, going into Avenger fangirl mode again. "That is so cute!"
Steve turned an agonized expression on Ari. "I'm not worried about Natasha, I'm worried about my fan! She's going to bring the whole thing crashing down!"
"Relax, Steve," said Natasha thickly through a mouthful of screwdriver.
"Listen, Nat, I get that you're tiny but I don't think a fan can handle even a 120 pound woman hanging off of it—"
"We have food!" Ari announced.
"Sweet Jesus, thank the Lord," Barton muttered, throwing the bag of Cheetos aside and sitting upright. Natasha threw herself backward, doing a back flip in midair and landing on her feet. Barton threw a Cheeto at her head. "Showoff."
"Showoff is what I'd say you were in Tunisia," Natasha sniped at him.
"What happened in Tunisia?" Ari asked eagerly.
Natasha smiled at her.
Ari wilted. "Classified."
Ari and Bucky set the table in tandem, moving like a well-oiled machine, and Steve watched them with an interested, semi-satisfied expression. Natasha caught his expression and looked down at her mat, expression thoughtful. And Clint Barton just daydreamed about food.
They all had a nice laugh at Bucky's expense when only he had burgers and fries while the rest of them ate pizza and he actually blushed, because he couldn't come up with any sort of excuse that didn't draw attention to the horrible tension he and Ari had had earlier. So he took the jokes with as much grace that he could and ended them by finally asking, "Okay, so brief us on what you guys found. What connects all these, uh, dead mummy people?"
The mood in the room immediately changed. No one visibly moved but it was as if the air became charged, as if the house itself was readying for battle. Barton and Natasha exchanged looks and Natasha sighed, slowly tapping her fork against her plate. "This pizza is really good, Ari," she said.
"Thanks," Ari said, looking startled at how the conversation was starting. "I mean, I'm glad you like it."
"I'll have to get the place's name. Anyway…so the mission. Defectors Assemble and all that. To start off, I hope you all are aware that Clint and I were both in Europe for different missions—so we couldn't give this intel-gathering our complete concentration."
Bucky, Steve, and Ari all nodded.
"So, naturally, it's possible that Clint and I missed some things. In fact, given the rules of spying and intel-gathering…I can say with certainty that we missed things. However, we did manage to find one connection between all of the victims so far."
"What is it?" Ari asked eagerly, clearly keen to hear something very shocking.
Natasha's words were slow and measured—so much that when she spoke, it took them all a good moment to understand the meaning of what she'd said. "They all bought artwork from the same art dealership company."
For a long moment, everyone was silent. Then Ari said, "The same art dealership company? That's it?"
"It's not as lame as it sounds," Barton cut in. "This art dealership company is very old, very exclusive, and very prestigious. Their artwork is insanely expensive and not available to the public. You don't reach out to them—they reach out to you, if you're worthy somehow."
"And how was an old Japanese woman living in a small apartment alone worthy of this company?" Bucky asked critically.
"She was really old," Natasha said. "She was around 105 years old and her father had been an important Japanese diplomat. Her artwork looked old and I think it was inherited. So you could say she had worthiness in her blood."
"So what is this company? Where is it based? Who owns it?" Captain America quickly emerged, mild Steve Rogers melting into the background as the seasoned battle tactician and combat fighter took control. Bucky knew they were one and the same guy, but it really felt like two different people to him sometimes. He knew the gears in Cap's head were already racing, forming plans, which was alright because the same things were going on in his own head. But while the Captain formed battle plans, Bucky planned methods of infiltration and—if need be—torture.
His eyes flashed to Natasha's piercing eyes for a moment and he knew he and the Widow were more alike than they were different.
Perhaps this was why Natasha unsettled him so much sometimes.
"Prohaska & Reiter," Natasha said. "It's an Austrian company that's still based in Austria and has been around since the founding of the Austrian Empire. You know when you hear the names Ladurée and De Beers, you immediately know what people are talking about?"
"Macarons and diamonds," Ari immediately said, sitting up straight when two of her favorite things were being addressed. Bucky looked away and hid a smile. Girls were so cute sometimes.
"Right," Natasha said. "Prohaska & Reiter is like that. All you have to do is say the name and anyone who's anyone will know what you mean: art. And not just any art—but some of the best, most influential, high-end art in the world. It was originally co-owned by the Prohaska and Reiter families, which were joined in marriage, but the Reiter line has withered and died out. Now only a Prohaska owns the whole company: Simon Prohaska. He's a billionaire. Nothing on our boy Tony, since less and less people are buying art these days, but his fortune is still nothing to sneeze at. The fact that it's Old World blue-blood money helps too."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, resuming eating, all of them lost in thought. Bucky dragged a cold, limp fry through the ketchup on his plate and slowly put it in his mouth. So all of these strange deaths were connected by art dealt by the same art dealership company, a wealthy and famous company which had existed for over two centuries now. The art in the old Japanese woman's home seemed like old family heirlooms, so the all the art presumably hadn't all been dealt recently. This meant that if the killer was connected to Prohaska & Reiter, it was someone deep within the company…because only someone deep within the company with know of clients from most likely over a century ago (assuming the old Japanese woman's father had bought the art when she was much younger or perhaps not even born).
But what was the motive? Simon Prohaska was very well-off, according to Natasha, and his family's company hadn't faded. He had fame, fortune, and good ancestry, which Bucky knew was important to these wealthy European crowds. What reason would he—or someone in close connection to him or his company—have for killing former clients? The art hadn't been stolen from the victims, so theft wasn't the motive. The only motive was cold-blooded murder; cold-blooded because the killer had chosen to kill a harmless old woman and a priest along with the others. So not only was this not some vendetta against rich people…but it seemed like these victims had done something to incur this specific type of wrath. Had someone wanted revenge on them? For what? What could each of these people have done to earn this fate? As stereotypical as it was, Bucky could imagine a middle-aged billionaire indulging in shady behavior and earning enemies. But what the hell could some old lady and a priest do to get enemies this vicious?
And as confusing as the victim selection still was—despite now knowing the connection between all of them—what was even more confusing was how the victims had been killed. He knew the world had gotten stranger and scarier in the past few years but he still couldn't fathom what murder weapon could turn someone into a withered, mummified corpse in a matter of hours or days, reducing them to nothing but bones and dust and skin so dry that it almost looked fake. They looked like ancient cave people who'd been frozen for thousands of years and been found by scientists later—except this had happened to them almost right away. How?
"I don't get," Ari said finally. "I'm sorry if that makes me sound stupid, but I don't get it. That's it? That's the only connection?"
"Like I said, Clint and I might have missed something." Natasha shrugged. "We were dealing with a lot at the time."
"Like getting your helicopter shot out of the sky," Steve said dryly.
"Totally unrelated to this mission," Barton interjected, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands over his stomach. "We were kind of playing the field with a few things at once."
"So about our next move," Steve said. "Let's call in Tony. He doesn't need to know all the nitty-gritty details, but Pepper is always buying new art for them and I'm sure he could find some time to meet with Prohaska."
"Make that Plan B," Natasha said, eyes darting to Bucky. He had a feeling she knew about his strange and tense relationship with Tony Stark and probably thought it best to keep them apart from each other for as long as humanly possible. "Luckily, a Plan A has fallen into our laps. Coincidentally, Simon Prohaska is throwing a ball next weekend in Italy where he has a summer residence. It's an art auction but also a fundraiser for some sort of charity of his choice—a children's hospital, I think." Bucky noticed the tiniest flicker of something in Natasha's eyes at the words "children's hospital" and privately stored the information away in his head to dwell upon later.
"Call Sam and let him know," Bucky told Steve.
"Yeah, I wanna meet the other bird guy," Barton grumbled. "Stealing my damn thunder. Hawks are better than falcons."
Natasha fixed Barton with a beady gaze. "'Hawks are better than falcons'? Really, Clint? Are we in kindergarten again?"
Barton gave her a lazy smile that made everyone look away because of how intimate it truly was. "Never left, Natty."
For the first time since he'd known her, Natasha looked taken off guard—and then she smiled at Barton, a smile so human and warm that it made him re-evaluate everything he'd thought about the reserved and dangerous woman.
People were such funny creatures.
"And we could sneak in," Steve mused mostly to himself, "but I'm pretty sure Pepper can swing us formal invites so things can go much more smoothly…"
Ari's eyes had been darting from Barton to Natasha to Steve and she looked more and more excited with each passing second. Sitting up straight, she swept her dark hair off her shoulder and breathlessly asked, "Wait! So does—does this mean we're going to go a ball in Italy?"
Ari had never left the country and Bucky knew she'd dreamed and dreamed and dreamed about leaving and traveling and seeing the world. He couldn't tear his eyes away from her face, glowing with breathless anticipation for the glamour of this future mission they'd set themselves upon.
Natasha smiled at Ari. "Pack your bags, Ari, 'cause we're going to Italy."
The night absolutely fell apart after that. Even though they were going on a mission next week and the mission involved strange and disturbing deaths…the mood in the room was a cozy, uplifted sort of one. Everyone felt it, no one could escape it, and no one wanted to escape it. Barton and Natasha had returned safely from their other missions, which was clearly a relief for Steve. Ari brightened in Natasha's presence, and Barton and Natasha clearly had a special friendship. Steve kept joking with Bucky and Ari's excitement over going to a fancy ball in Italy was infectious, making even the wry Barton give a small smile.
In fact, the only two people who didn't really speak were Ari and Bucky. Despite the fact that they'd made up earlier and she didn't exactly ignore Bucky, he got an uneasy feeling that she was looking in his direction less than was usual.
Unless he was just being anxious and paranoid? That was entirely possible. But…
As the late night stretched into the wee hours of the morning, Barton and Natasha said their goodbyes, both claiming that they were utterly spent and desperately needed sleep. Ari took their leaving as her opportunity to go as well, saying that she had to go to work at the free clinic the next day and wanted a little bit of rest before going. She hugged both Steve and Bucky goodbye, even standing on tip-toes to give Bucky a kiss on the cheek before leaving. But something still felt off to Bucky; he felt as if she'd kept her face turned away from him as she'd left, her curtain of dark hair hiding her eyes. Eyes that he could usually read in seconds but had felt so closed-off to him tonight, even after their reconcile.
"So…are you and Ari okay now?" Steve asked cautiously as Bucky shrugged on his leather jacket and pulled out his motorcycle keys, tucking his helmet under the crook of his arm.
His heart lurched ever so slightly and the unbidden answer that rose to the tip of his tongue was an emphatic "No".
But he couldn't say that.
He'd just be causing issues. Creating trouble. Making a mess. Like he did with every goddamn thing.
He and Ari had made up and he wouldn't let his paranoia—no matter how much it screamed that something was wrong, something was wrong, something was wrong, somethingwaswrong—ruin his life any more than it already had. He would suffer in silence, if need be, because no one could help him from his thoughts.
He was all alone in this particular case.
He turned back to Steve and gave him an easy smile. "Yeah. Seems like we…worked it out."
Steve studied him with serious blue eyes, his expression hard to read. "Right. Good for you then."
"Yeah," Bucky said lightly, heading to the door and giving Steve a two-fingered salute before slipping out into the night and shutting the door. "Good for me," he muttered under his breath, hunching his shoulders slightly and heading to his motorcycle.
Stay sane and stay alive.