Choice

January 20, 2017:

The re-conditioned Winter Soldier asks to meet with his best friend for a difficult conversation. Not trusting the motives, Peggy Carter follows in the shadows.

Coney Island, Brooklyn

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster, Zatanna Zatara, Jessica Jones, Thor

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

A written message arrived for Steve Rogers at some point, filtered through Melodie the infinitely-capable secretary. It was not signed in any way, but for Steve there would be no mistaking the handwriting of his best friend.

Come meet me at Coney Island. You know where we always used to go. I need to talk. I'd prefer it be a quiet talk.

The insinuation he doesn't want company is clear. There is a time— late at night— and a date, a few days from time of receipt of the message. Apparently Bucky anticipated the level of bureaucracy it would take for any kind of message to reach through to Captain America.

Coney Island, at this time of night, at this time of year, is a ghost town. There's nothing around but the ghosts of past summers, the hollow husks of closed shops, and the sound of the sea— the wide horizon spread out over the dark body of the Atlantic. Nobody around, either— except another ghost, this one dating from 1945.

He's seated on one of the benches on the boardwalk in eyeshot of the rickety old rollercoaster, slumped, his hands in his pockets. He's dressed casually, save for the fact that his jacket is cut to have no left sleeve; his prosthetic metal arm is fully bared, if kept pressed against his side. The red star on his shoulder seems to gleam dully in the low light.

To all appearances, he is completely alone.

—-

When the note is given, there is only one person he contacts. And that's Peggy. While he makes it clear that he plans on going there alone as instructed, he is wise enough to clue in the woman to let her understand what is going on. After all, he's pretty sure he'll just let him go off, even though there are clear reports that something is up with Bucky. Kinda sure. Well, he has no idea, but well, it would be wrong to keep it from her and wrong for Cap to lie to his best friend. So 'alone', he makes his way toward the area in question.

SHIELD drops him off before they get even close to Coney Island, allowing Rogers to be able to walk the rest of the way. While Barnes is dressed causally, Rogers is not. He has his 'stealth' suit on, the one that he first encountered the Winter Soldier in. The trademark shield is given the darker coloring and slung over his back. However, Cap doesn't have his cowl on, leaving his face exposed. A keen eye would see that he has his earpiece on, though it currently isn't on. Just because Rogers trusts Bucky doesn't mean he doesn't concern himself with people setting up traps using his friends or loved one as bait: the downside of a public identity.

Seeing Bucky on the bench, Rogers moves to sit on the end of the same bench. "Surprised you wanted to talk so soon after our last conversation," he begins quietly, resting his elbows on his knees and intertwining his fingers together. "Hope you've been well."

—-

It's clear from the look on Peggy's face that while Steve may plan on going alone as instructed, she has her own ideas. In front of Steve she barely attempts to hide her determined expression that denotes her intention to be there to support him. There may be hope that Barnes is on the road to recovery, but she also knows that Steve wants him to be doing better and is a trusting person. That's a dangerous combination. Plus, 'meet me in a dark, deserted part of New York alone' is spy code for 'shady things are about to happen.' While Steve can handle himself in a fight, she's worried about what may happen to him should this take a turn for the worst.

And so, while Steve walks the rest of the way to the meeting point in Coney Island, Peggy Carter is dressed in dark clothes, straight hair pulled back and pinned about her head to keep out of her eyes and reduce convenient purchases for a grabbing hand. She has her own earpiece - though hers is on. The woman does not follow Steve or any identifiable pattern to the designated meeting place. However, she ends up in an alleyway nearby just the same.

Remaining in the shadows, she missed Steve approaching Bucky, catching only the very end of his greeting. Her eyes remain on Barnes for a few calculating moments before she checks rooftops, other alleyways and any other hiding place she can see from her spot. Unfortunately, it is Coney Island at night - there are quite a few places a sniper or a tactical team of baddies could be stashed.

—-

The Winter Soldier is silent as Captain America joins him on the bench. His frost-blue gaze is distant, pensive, heavy with countless years of recollection. He notices that Steve is suited up, that he has an earpiece in, that he has his shield, but he doesn't seem to care. If he himself is armed, he's not showing it.

Steve speaks, eventually. Bucky absorbs the words visibly, listening to them, but he does not directly answer the implied questions.

"You remember the first time we came out here, Steve?" he wonders instead. "I didn't make you get on the rides that time. Some kids pushed you in the ocean, as I recall. I had to come out there and settle it." Something very like a rusty, dry laugh escapes him.

"Eighty-five years later and here we are again. New titles, new identities, decades of things we've lost." He looks up at the distant body of the Cyclone. "And that god damn rollercoaster is still here."

He finally turns his head to regard Steve. "I'm better now," he finally answers. The slightly feverish light in his blue eyes suggests otherwise. "They gave me my memory back, Steve. My purpose. So I came out here to give you a chance."

—-

When you know a person for so long, when you have been with them in all manner of situations, you have an understanding that few know. A person might be able to learn or assume how a guy or gal will act when they are sad, happy, or angry… But a true friend knows how they will react when offered a sundae or being told that Ireland is the greatest place to visit.

Suffice to say, when Bucky starts to story tell, there is something off about it. Steve bites the back of his lip slightly, but manages a smile shortly there after. "Yeah, there were pretty salty about it when you set them right," he replies with a half second smile, trying (and failing) to break the tension with a pun.

The blue eyes lift up at the coaster, a ghost of the past that Steve doesn't have the heart to make a lighthearted comment about. His hands part, though they rest side by side as he continues to lean forward slightly in his seat, likely because it's hard to sit back on a bench with an unbreakable shield on your back. The blondish brows of Cap fur with concern, unable to maintain a ruse or hide anything from Bucky. Not that he would, even if he wanted to.

"…'They'?" It's that troubling word that he hyper focuses on. It's not Zatara, Constantine, The Dark Devil, Jones, or any other person who has mentioned and offered their desire to help. People that Rogers is sure would be mentioned, he hopes will be mentioned. Despite his hope, the knot in his stomach grows.

—-

From her position in the alleyway, Peggy can't hear everything Barnes is saying. There are glimmers of their conversation. She doesn't know the metal armed man as well as Steve does, however something about his posture, his calmness sets her ill at ease. The last time she saw Barnes, he was restless, couldn't stand still, couldn't bare to face Steve. Now, he's sitting there, with not even a nervous foot tap of tick of his fingers. A few sentences make it through the distance. Steve's response, as he is not facing her, is muddled.

Though there does not seem to be a tension between their conversation, something about the way Steve stands knots her shoulders. She's a trained spy, able to stand in position for however long it takes, but there is still the desire to shift, to move closer. She doesn't like this situation at all.

—-

The words are familiar. The stories are without error: remembered and related perfectly. But the cadence of his words, the aspect of his face, the expressions he wears… all of them are subtly off. So subtly that someone who did not know him might not notice.

To Steve they are like glaring semaphores being waved in his face. Bucky doesn't even hit him or chide him about the awful pun.

He just looks at Steve, intent, when his friend questions the word 'they.' Even the intensity of his stare is off. Never, in all their lives, did Bucky ever look at Steve with anything like an edge to his gaze.

"I lived after I fell," he says. "Minus this." A slight shift of his left shoulder. "I lay there in the snow, and I waited, because I thought you might come.

"I waited a long time, Steve," he whispers. "But you had your mission. And then the Russians came instead. Hydra came instead. Hydra saved me. They gave me— my new— purpose. They helped me see that there is no happiness or safety but the order they can provide."

He looks at Steve. "I came here hoping you could come to see this also. Come back with me. You don't fit in at SHIELD. You don't fit in this time. How can you?"

His blue eyes are as stark as the sea at their backs. "I want you to choose me."

—-

As soon as the talk comes of the train, blood leaves Rogers' face. One would think with everyone talking about Bucky with even Rogers himself confiding in Peggy multiple times the guilt of his fallen friend that somehow, it would dull the edge. Instead it only means that he knows how much the emotional spear will hurt. There are few things that hurt more than the person you wish forgiveness for using your sins as a cudgel.

"You're right, I don't belong in this time. Or with SHIELD. People don't value what they used to. It seems people care about how they appear more than who they are, as if the first defined the second. SHIELD isn't afraid to get their hands dirty, perhaps far more quickly than myself or anyone at SSR would prefer. I have the respect of the American people, but it will only last as long as I make the decisions they, on a whole, agree with."

There is a long silence. To some, it may seem as if Captain America is almost considering, but in reality, he is merely choosing his next words carefully.

"But that just means I have to work that much harder," he continues, his eyes starting to look forward. "Maybe there are things I need to change about myself. Things to make me a better person. And maybe I can be the agent of change within SHIELD, within America, within this age. I can't run from this." His hand lifts to motion the New York City skyline and ocean of lights. "I can't deny the responsibilities I took to defend this country. No matter what. Even from itself."

Slowly, Captain America rises to his feet. "If there was a way I could change the past, I would have. If I could have fallen off that train, if I could have asked someone else to be there, I would have. But you were there because you were my friend. And there was nothing to change that you would have been at my side. Because you were with me until the end."

A hard swallow is given as a hint of steel enters Rogers' words. To speak harshly to Barnes, he's done this before. But it was when Rogers was attempting to push away in fear and pain, not trying to keep a friend from a critical err that might cause more than just James' life. "But it wasn't my mistake or yours that ultimately forced you off that train. It was a Hydra agent. They aren't saviors. They aren't people that want a better world. They just want to feed you any line they can to make everyone but them the bad guy, to make it easier for you to be controlled." Steve looks at Bucky dead on.

"In the end, I don't want you to Hydra. I don't want you to choose SHIELD. I don't even want you to choose me. I just want you to choose the person that matters the most right now: Yourself."

At the end of the Star Spangled Man with a Plan's speech, he waits. His fingers flex loosely as hands remain at his side, the stance is intentionally kept causal despite warrior training urging preparation, his fingers calling to grasp the comforting protection of the shield. Cap won't do it; however, he refuses to do anything to suggest physical aggression. If someone strikes the first blow, 'scrawny' Steve won't be it.

—-

Peggy remains where she is in the shadows as the exchange happens. There's a soft, short inhale of breath at the words Barnes speaks revealing that the people who gave him purpose is not any one person, but an organization. Hydra. The tracker, the intel, it was leading in the right direction.

While she did not have her gun out before, she now slowly presses back against the building and the deeper shadows there. Once confident that she is hidden enough to move a bit more freely, she silently unholsters an ICER pistol. If Barnes is under the influence of Hydra, this meeting could go south incredibly quickly and she will be prepared for that possibility — inevitability?

Lowering the barrel of the gun to point at the broken pavement at her feet, she inches back to her previous position.

There's an instinct to shoot now, to take Barnes unawares and hopefully manage to hit him with an ICER round, spare Steve the heartache of a fight before it even begins. However, their previous conversation about hope and possibility…she knows he wouldn't wish to subdue Barnes that way.

A chance must be given. The ICER round must be the direct cause of Barnes' own actions, not before.

—-

The Winter Soldier— because that is who is sitting beside Steve now, and not Bucky— says nothing as Steve gives his long, sad response. He only looks down at his hands, one flesh, one titanium-steel, observing as if for the first time the way they flex: the way the fingers move and curl. The one looks indistinguishable from the other, in fluidity of movement at least. Technology has come that far since the 1940s.

"You haven't changed," he finally says. "At all." There is an entire undercurrent to the words, an unspoken corollary: I have. I have changed until I am unrecognizable. I have changed beyond all comprehension.

"I was with you until the end," he says softly. "I always have been. Don't you owe me? Everything I have done for you. You let me die, Steve. Hydra gave me my life back. They — " his eye twitches, his head pulling a little to the side as if in brief denial, " — taught me a new way of seeing. A new way of being. They have had me matter to the world… for seventy years. They have had me make a difference in so many ways." He finishes his sentence without seeming to notice that hitch.

Between the straggling strands of his long hair— uncut, unmaintained— light plays along the lightning-fork tracks of electrical scars along his temples.

They want to make it easier for you to be controlled, Steve insists. But I just want you to choose yourself. The Soldier's features tighten. A spasm comes and goes in his expression. And then it is gone. "What matters to me is YOU CHOOSE. You choose me. Come with me. We could fight together again. We could put this behind us."

I could not be alone anymore.

He rises slowly, in his turn. He looks Steve full in the face, though he makes no hostile move. He cannot seem to bring himself to be the first one to strike either. That much remains of Bucky Barnes. "I came alone, unauthorized. I hoped I could convince you. If you don't want— to come with me— I can't guarantee the nature of the next time we meet."

—-

If Barnes was at his full state, he might be infuriated with Cap. He would know the look Steve Rogers is giving him: The one where he is clearly listening, but uncompromising in his beliefs. It is clear that Barnes is right, Steve won't give an inch in this. Not one iota.

"I owe James Buchanan Barnes everything. My life before I was Captain America, for being the inspiration for me wanting to be Captain America, and for me living beyond that train so that I can continue being Captain America. I owe him everything. I owe that to you. Why would I sully the name you worked so hard to create? The only things that took from you unrightfully was Hydra. They used more than kind words."

Rogers takes a resolved step forward. Peggy will be able to hear the words from Rogers now. It isn't a whisper, but a firm and stern voice that carries with an actor's training, projecting to an audience of one. "I saw what they did to you on that table when I first took up the shield and saved you with the rest of the Howling Commandos. It wasn't a cozy chair. It wasn't some class, educating you on why the world was so wrong, they were breaking you down so they could get what they wanted from you. I'm just sorry that I wasn't there to stop it the second time around."

The two stand face to face. There is silence as Bucky explains how it was unauthorized that he was here and he had hoped for the best. How there wouldn't be a second time. Steve's response to that?

"You stole the words right out of my mouth. I care too much for your reputation and the people you care about to let you hurt them…. Peggy, Jane, Zatana, and all the people we've met in this world that show it still has hope in it. For them /and/ you, I can't let you go back. By your own admission, you said that the greatest mistake was letting Hydra take you. I won't let it happen again. For the final time, I'm asking you to come with me and get the help you need."

Steve's teeth grit and his eyes water as he realizes how it's going to go down. His feet slide into a position as if ready to fight, though his hands remain loose and at his side. He offers a word that is supposed to be the 'walk softly' that comes before the 'big stick', but instead comes out as a mere desperate plea.

"Please."

—-

In the shadows, Peggy remains, muscles tensing. She may not see Steve's expression, but she knows his voice. That speech voice. It's the one she listened to paired with old grainy black and white images after the Valkyrie. Multiple times after VJ-Day, Peggy would go to movies early enough to watch the news reels. For months, every once in awhile, they would pay tribute to Captain America and show old clips to show how indebted the war effort was to him and his sacrifices. She would sit in the back row and wait for the snippets of his encouraging speeches to the troops, to buy war bonds, to keep up the good fight. And once the news finished, she would leave the theatre, feeling both bolstered from hearing his voice and destroyed for the same reason.

If there is anyone that could reach Bucky, to get him to see reason and to come with him, she knows it's Steve and his ability to connect with other people. Maybe, just maybe, he can do it this time, too. However, she also knows that where Steve's strength is ability to be the standard bearer, hers is the shadows and to keep people safe - even when they don't know that it is needed.

As Bucky approaches Steve and Steve looks as if he may be ready to strike, Peggy prepares herself to shoot. Her eyes remain on Barnes as there is one last plea from Steve to his best friend.

—-

Steve steps forward. The Winter Soldier holds his position at first, but after a moment he breaks and steps back. His gaze averts, a trembling entering his limbs: a minute shaking that shows in a very physical way the strain building up mentally. Steve Rogers versus all the fabricated, conditioned lies interwoven with James Barnes' damaged mind.

For a moment, it seems as if Captain America might win through. Win through with his refusal to deny even the most grossly twisted, Hydra-implanted resentments of his best friend— with his recitation of how much he truly DOES owe him.

Steve says he knows what Hydra truly did to James. He saw it. He saved him from it.

"You're lying," he finally whispers. His features contort briefly with the effort it takes seventy years of conditioning to override Steve Rogers' voice and face. "That's not how it was. That's not what they do. There's nothing for you to be sorry about, because there is nothing to save me from. I am — " His teeth bare a moment, as if in brief and incredible pain. " — where I belong."

He backs away another step. Says that he had hoped for the best. Steve agrees… and says that it must stop here. For the sake of James Barnes' own reputation, for the sake of his legacy as a good man and war hero.

Steve says Jane's name and the Winter Soldier's hands claw into fists. "For her," he says, a brief flicker of the protector he is at his core flashing back into his eyes, "I have to go back. I brought her to be with me. I will see that through."

Please, Steve pleads.

The Winter Soldier looks up, staring into Steve's face. His right hand lifts, reaching forward to clasp Steve's forearm. "They are calling me," he says, his voice hollow, his eyes dead, and then he turns his back.

—-

The fingers clench as Bucky states those fated words.

'I am where I belong.'

The dice is cast, Rogers believes and he knows what he has to do. His knees bend, his mind running over which flurry of blows has the best chance of getting through the Winter Soldier's defense. Speed is clearly the way to go, keep the hand from having a reduced chance of catching and redirecting the attack. There is a good chance that this is a trap or there is some sort of failsafe system so the metal armed man can extract even if Steve wins, but if Peggy is here, if he is just creative enough, he can get around-

'I brought her to be with me.'

Instantly, the train of thought is shifted down a different lane. The mind is still racing at a hundred miles per hour, but the direction is oh so different. She was caught, she was brought, some sort of combination of the two. It doesn't matter, Hydra is easily vindictive enough to cause her death because Bucky didn't return. Hydra is easily vile enough to cause her suffering and death if they knew it would do so for Captain America or those linked to him. He can't risk the life of someone else. To save one innocent, he must let another one go… Until he has the ability to save them both.

"Then go to them" manages to escape the dry and broken voice of Rogers, though somehow, his will is even stronger through the pain. Rogers take a step back after his simple words, the sound of stretched leather heard after his own fists clench.

The mental list is run down swiftly of all the people that Steve needs to contact, the ones he mentioned to the Winter Soldier early. Zatanna, John, Jessica Now Thor needs to be made aware. Foster is his friend, it is only right. He needs to reach them soon or they could suffer bitter betrayals. They won't hurt quite in the way they hurt Cap, but they are in danger just the same.

Despite his many word, the Super-Soldier has none now, merely waiting for the awakened killer to leave so he can attempt to warn all the people and reduce the damage of his personal failures tonight, the first time he saw Bucky again and didn't stop him, and that train so long ago. Some would buckle under the shame, but not Steve. All he does is wait as his blue eyes narrow into thin slits. For everyone that is depending on him, one thought rings though:

It. Is. On.

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