A Good Start

February 18, 2017:

Azalea meets Bucky Barnes on a park bench to reconcile her mistakes.

A park in New York


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Red Robin, Batman, Jane Foster


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

A cold wind cuts from the east, and the diminutive figure of Azalea Kingston hunkers down against it, her back to a bench that isn't so much part of a park as it is part of a basketball court. It's unused at the moment, and though the months are far removed from the season, the scent of autumn is in the air - just one of the side effects of a weather pattern that has tossed the city left and right as if it were a salad in a bowl.

People pass by on the street beyond, far enough away that she cannot hear them talk, an important test for the privacy she had hooped to gain in plain sight. Normally she did not care about such things.

That, of course, was the problem.

Jessica had laid her out with the kind of blunt truth that she had needed, and even asked for. And now she sat, and had done the opposite of what she'd done the first time. Oh how it weighed on her mind. Oh how it tormented her, to be so unprepared.

Sitting low in her light jacket, she should probably be shivering, but still she ran hot. A spiritual adrenaline always waited beneath the surface, and an oppressive gaze lanced out at those who thought to cut through the basketball court to interrupt something before it even began.

It was not a conversation he thought he would feel comfortable having, but it was probably one that was necessary. He had studied the missive in silence a few minutes, before he pulled on his coat, told Jane where he was going, and headed out.

Bucky Barnes, befitting his former title, doesn't really feel the lingering cold in the air. It's nowhere near intense enough to bother a man who has spent decades of his life in ice. His step is unhampered by anything like shivering or the lock-limb of cold, meaning his approach is as silent as befits the ghost he used to be.

He is quiet, a seamless part of the passing faceless crowd, up until he detaches from the few passerby in order to join her on the park bench. He sits down, not far but not too close, and regards the melting snow still clinging doggedly to the brush across the walk.

"I sent something to you through Jessica," he says eventually.

Sitting and waiting is something the worst part of her enjoys. The part that likes being a predator in wait. It can appreciate Bucky's silence far better than the girl that hosts them ever could. It melts though, much like that snow, when Bucky speaks. It's the shift in her eyes, searching sidelong, away from him, for the dying embers of her humanity.


The silence afterward and the part of her lips suggest she wants to say something else. Her legs pull up, and her arms wrap around them, making her seem far smaller than she is. Finally it comes, in a tone so detached and hollow, it almost doesn't seem like her voice.

"I was in school, and worked weekends as a waitress. One night, some guys who wouldn't leave me alone at work chased me into an alley. I ran into this guy.. he smelled so bad. Babbling. Drooling. I begged him for help. Because they were going to rape me. Maybe kill me. He touched my forehead. Five minutes later I took them apart. I beat them to within an inch of their lives. I moved like someone else. I /was/ someone else. He passed on something to me. Something Zatanna Zatara has figured out. A Murdered God. A creature that has existed.. who knows how long. It used to be this thing I could tame, let it out to play, fight some people… bad people. I put it to work, doing good."

There's a pause as she swallows, because back then she thought it was bad. Back then, she thought, this couldn't get worse. "That Muller guy burned my soul. Brought me closer to it. Now it isn't a wave that rises, or something easily placated. It's always there. Dancing on my thoughts. Pushing at me from the inside out. I don't.. know, anymore, how to be around people. I can stand in a room, and not talk. I can do that. But the minute I have to talk, the minute I try to relate, I fake it. Because I prepare. I take notes, Bucky. I practice in a mirror. 'Do nice things, for the people you care about.' I have that written down, in a little book. I read it every day."

Her breath quickens a little, because emotion wells, and she fights it away by closing her eyes and placing her hand on the bench between them, as if bracing herself. "I'm telling you all this because I wanted to do something nice for you, because I care about you. Instead I did something horrible to you, and crossed a line. Because I just…" Her head shakes, and she dips it, another cold breeze rushing over her words, forcing them to a stammer. "..I really am not a good human being. But there's still enough left of me to say that I'm sorry. You didn't have any choice in what I know about you, and I shouldn't talk about it like it's something you told me. So I won't. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

She says it again and again, because she's harrowed to think about hurting him. She was harrowed when she sat in the dark at Jessica's, churning inside, staring at notes about banana bread and listing things that might be nice to do for Bucky and Jane. And all those things that might have been alright, been good, even, if she had any sense of boundaries anymore.

That might have been okay if she were human anymore.

He listens in silence as she tells him the full story. Everything about how she acquired her dark passenger. A dark entity, a murdered god, that she at first used at her choice… but now feels, all of the time, behind her eyes, in her thoughts. In her soul.

He remains silent as she explains that it has… changed her, made her unable to be around other people, driven her further away from the condition of being human. He does not interrupt, does not look at her, does not do anything except look at his hands in his lap. They are gloved, but when they flex, one of them does not sound like the other.

He stays silent as she finally stammers out her apology, because she crossed a line, she did something horrible, all because she isn't good. She doesn't know how to be good anymore. But there's still enough left for her to say she's sorry.

There are a few more moments of silence after she finishes. Then Bucky pulls the glove off his right hand, allowing something to slide down his wrist from where it was heretofore hidden in his sleeve. It's a military ID bracelet, a plain curved piece of metal on a heavy steel chain. On it is graven his name, JAMES B BARNES, his serial number, blood type, other information pertinent to the identification of a soldier— or his body.

"This is who I was," he finally says. "Who I still am, in some way. I wear it to remind myself I was this person before I was the Winter Soldier, and with enough time and effort— enough paying for what I've done— maybe I could be this person again." He slips the thing from his wrist, holding it in his hands. "I don't know if you have anything similar to remind yourself of who you were before that thing was put in you, but I think it's probably worth looking. The fact you're here means she's not dead. Not entirely.

"If I can find a way to reconcile this man" he turns the plate until the light catches his name, "with the Winter Soldier, then you can find a way to reconcile your own two halves."

He slides the bracelet back on. His voice is a little more stern, a lot more exhausted, when he says, "I know you couldn't help seeing what you saw. Can't help having it in your head. But I'd rather you not look. Enough people have looked through my head."

A pause. More gently: "And we'd both rather you feed yourself than worry about us. You already gave us a gift pulling us out of that place."

Those crystal blues tick down, to the side, to the motion at his wrist. A well of moisture rims her lids, and she blinks them away as she watches that piece of metal come fully into view. It hammers her in a way she did not know she could feel anymore, a ringing echo of guilt, followed by a rousing hope. It is small, it is fragile, but it is stoked by his words. It hangs against her heart, and her passenger wants to feed on it, but right now it has no power. Right now, she's listening to a living legend.

Xiuhnel is only a dead one.

When he speaks to her of the violation she's subjected him to, she looks to his face, searching it for the way back - the way he took from the edge of oblivion to some small slice of normalcy. It's long enough to know that she can't find a map in his expression, and even if she could it wouldn't be her way back.

"I won't look, won't mention it again. It isn't mine." Unless it will save his life. It is a caveat she cannot tell him, but one she will always hold in reserve. She has found that in the long journey of chasing him, of helping to free him, she has come to care for Bucky Barnes very much.

"I hope you'll let me get to know you the right way. Jane too. She seems so.. /so/ nice."
Her voice cracks a little, and she reaches up to wipe at her cheeks, trying to somehow regain her composure. Part of it is the dump of adrenaline from her anxiety. Worrying that he might never forgive her. Part of it is the reminder that even the most broken among us can find some salvation among those who love them. It gives her hope, for both of them.

There is no roadmap in his features that she can see. Not one she can follow. His way back from the Winter Soldier is not even complete— is, in fact, just beginning. There is no guidance for her there.

But there is a small, exhausted, but solid determination to somehow find one. A determination to atone for what he has done, since to simply put a bullet in his head is no longer an option. And, darker and more deeply buried… a determination to avenge what was done to him.

She promises not to look or mention it again. That seems to be enough for him. There is a corollary to her promise, one she does not say, but he seems aware of it and does not object. May even rely upon it, should the day come he fails and the Winter Soldier takes primacy again.

His attitude softens afterward. She hopes he lets her get to know him properly— and Jane too. His response… is to reach over and take one of her hands, grasping it wordlessly. It's firm but painless, his strength controlled, a gesture that lets him say a great deal without requiring the awkwardnesses of the spoken word.
It might be surprising… but then again, it's also not. Bucky Barnes was always a tactile sort of a person, something that not even being the Winter Soldier could fully take from him. It makes him uncomfortable now— too much physical contact— but he's trying to reclaim it away from the experimentation and torture he suffered, not wanting the Soviet Union and Hydra to fully take from him something that used to be part of who he was.

"I think you'll find you haven't forgotten how to be human as much as you think," he says wryly, his grasp releasing and pulling away.

As much as seeing the symbol of the life he wanted to reclaim was inspiring and harrowing all at once, feeling him take her hand, to express something more profound than words could carry, has her looking away. She'll raise her thumb, returning the squeeze in what small way she can. It won't matter if she feels metal or flesh. She'll only know it as human kindness either way.

As far as her humanity goes, she isn't really sure how to measure it anymore. It's a desperate game she plays, one she is hoping to win with the help of Zatanna Zatara, John Constantine.

And now Bucky Barnes.

"I ask my friends to try and keep me honest. To forgive my small indiscretions. But I don't think I have them so much anymore. I really hope Jessica didn't tell you how we met." She laughs, an almost musical thing, and when his hand slides away she glances back at him with a tiny notch of levity, to raise the conversation from heartfelt depths to something else. "Anyway. Part of trying to fight it is paying back all the harm I've caused in other lives. It's why I was in that parking garage where we met. I've got.. more of that, coming up. You've fought enough to last a hundred lifetimes, so if you say no, I'd understand. But if you want, if you have time, I could use your help with something that's a little over my head. It might save some lives."

She doesn't go into the details right away. Maybe she won't at all, right now. Azalea just has to put it out there, because she doesn't know what Bucky wants out of his life right now. He can help people, help her, if he wants. But she'd never hold it against him if he didn't want to.

Not everyone can try to find purpose the way she has.

"She didn't," he says dryly. "But I have a feeling the more you hang out with people, the easier it'll be to remember how it is to be one. The easier to keep that other thing at bay."

This is advice he should probably be taking himself, but hey, it's easier to tell others what to do than to do it yourself.

He sobers a little as she expresses that she too wants to pay back the harm she's caused. And there's something she wants to do related to that, but she might need help with it. It could save lives.

He glances sidelong at her. In his blue eyes reflect, briefly, the memory of lives that ended in his hands.

"What is it?" he asks.

Her legs drop down again, and she leans forward a little, a slow exhale mixing with a cool breeze that buffets them both from time to time. It's only when the wind hits them both in just the right way to jostle their hair that she realizes how much more beautiful his is.

She really needs to start using conditioner again.

"There's this gang in Gotham, called the Skullduggers. They like to use baseball bats and paint skulls on themselves. Seems stupid enough. But Batman and the rest, no one's broken their spirits. A few individuals, sure, but it's almost like a cult or something. They killed someone I knew, so I went down there to to beat them senseless and.. well, one of them did something. Changed. Grew big all over. He punched as hard as you punch, and if I'd been by myself, I'd probably be a really rude smear in a Gotham alley-way right now."

Her gaze turns hard when she looks out across the basketball court, to a few kids walking by, who stopped to stare at the pair like they might be someone who could be pushed out of one of their favorite loitering spots. It doesn't take long for them to move on.
"I'm not half the investigator they are, Red Robin, Batman, they're all pretty good at what they do. But I did find out that a few of them had recently come from New York. I started looking around. The Skullduggers are here all right. But in the last couple weeks, they've vanished. Just a little while after we came to get you, they stopped operating on street corners. Every homeless guy who can speak in complete sentences tells me they're still here, under the city. I think I have a lead on where, and I want to scout it, but Bucky.. if something goes wrong, if one of them changes, I don't know if I could fight my way out without a hand. I'd ask Jessica, and I still might, but she's.. dealing with some stuff right now."

Azalea has noticed her big sister's struggle, and maybe sparing her /one more catastrophe/ could do them both some good. "I don't know if what they're into is related to anything you were involved in before, down there, it isn't.. it's not anywhere near where we came to get you. But the timing was something that clicked, and so I thought I'd ask you first."

Bucky absorbs the information in silence as she relays it. A gang, comprised of people who can transform and hit as hard as he can. He's gotten used to the fact, over the years, that he and Steve are certainly not unique anymore… but at the same time enhanced individuals are still, broadly speaking, uncommon enough that it's always a surprise when more turn up.

And, apparently, they are originating from New York. Where they've gone underground. Underground, where Hydra had been keeping him… perhaps not the exact same place, but the concept is close enough that…

"You got any idea what they want other than kill people?" he says, frowning. "I mean, I'll back you, but best to gather as much information as you can prior to just going down there."

"Their whole thing used to be exotic drugs. I wanted to ask Zatanna and John.. it sounded like maybe it could have been magic. Something about making drugs better? It would explain why Red and the others couldn't put the screws to them in a way that would stick. Some loyalties are literally branded on the soul." She shakes her head in a grim way, and then raises her hands to cover her face for a moment. It could be the weather, or maybe some frustration showing through.

Azalea wants to hard to be like them, to learn to solve things without having to smash someone's face in to figure it out, but she's not even close yet.

"Let me see if I can pull together a real report for you. What I have so far, maybe call Red, see if he found anything after our fight with the last guy. He kinda.. uh.." She rubs the back of her neck, one eye squinting. "Exploded? Or his head popped off. Guess he took a little to much of /whatever/ it was. My worry is that, whatever they are doing with drugs, that's bad enough, right? But when a bunch of guys who have been raking it in just decide to up and stop selling in New York, and start doing ritualistic killing bullshit in Gotham, something's up. Something's changed."
It's his insistence on gathering information that has her changing her tune. Really, she /did/ just figure that running down there to have a look was the best way. She has /so/ much to learn. But she's learning fast. "I'll get.. I'll go do that now, make some calls back to Gotham and write everything up. Then you can tell me what you think is best."

When she stands it's look at him like plenty of people have looked at him before, but all of those people are from another time, back when they stood against the kind of evil that almost washed over the entire world. Back when the only Bucky was the good Bucky.

"I trust you."

Azalea means his judgement, for this mission, but her look says it goes beyond that. It's the kind of trust comrades in arms need to operate as a team.

Magic again, it seems. Exotic drugs, at the very least. It's not anything Bucky has too much experience with, but he's a quick study. He's finding that the twenty-first century is, if nothing else, full of nothing but curveballs. Nothing seems quite as straightforward as it used to be, decades ago.

He supposes that's the price of progress.

She promises to pull together a real report— especially when he cautions her to gather together some information first before just running down to stick her face into it, confidence in her own abilities to do so be damned. Her enthusiasm and genuine apparent surprise at the necessity of this brings him to faintly smile, the expression decidedly rusty— but there. "I spend 90 percent of my time doing that, honestly," he says. "Scoping shit out. It's not all glamour and headshots and punching."

She trusts him, she says. The statement transparently means more to him than it would to most.

He nods up at her. As if to unconsciously answer the way she looks at him, the nod he gives her is a gesture from decades and decades past: an echo of the Bucky Barnes that was an NCO in war, charged with quietly looking after his men. "That's a good start."

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