Lee versus Li: Fist of Legend
January 8, 2017
After dropping off his bags in one of the guest studios and washing off a day of travel, Sam wandered into Stark’s kitchen to find Vision and Barnes in a spirited discussion. As spirited as an android and his fleshier but somehow no more expressive cyborg teammate could be. Whether it was because Vision didn’t show much emotion, or because he was basically indestructible, Sam wasn’t sure, but either way Barnes had warmed up to the purple guy pretty quickly. Warmed up meaning that he spoke more than one word responses. It was a good thing. For Barnes’ part, he needed to feel accepted by the people he was working with. Accepted by someone. Sam would guess Vision’s easy manner brought the total of people Barnes felt mildly comfortable with high enough that he’d have to use both hands to count them.
Whether it would make the situation with Stark worse was a tossup. Either the billionaire would feel hurt and betrayed that his creation liked the man Stark credited with the murder of his parents, or he might give Barnes a second look if the objective and logical Vision found something worthwhile there. Despite Steve’s eternal optimism, Sam gave it a 60/40 chance of ending in disaster versus peaceful coexistence.
“I was unaware you had any education in architecture, Sergeant. Your opinion, while in opposition to my own, would be welcome during future discussions regarding Mr. Stark’s rebuilding project.”
Maybe more like 80/20.
“Doubtful.” Barnes frowned at the holographic projection hovering above the table. He still needed years of therapy – maybe decades, a hobby that didn’t involve murder or maiming, and getting laid wouldn’t hurt either – but the man was getting better. What he went through would have killed anyone without the serum. Even with it, Sam would have expected someone with his history to be in a psychologically-induced coma. Or to have eaten a bullet. God knew Sam had seen more than enough good men and women go down that road.
“Why’s this one not split into apartments? Stark inviting some other millionaires to live in the neighborhood?” Sam watched Barnes prod at the projection, zooming in on a group of three brownstones as if he had been using touch screens and virtual technology all his life. His ease with learning new skills was almost enough to make Sam jealous of the serum. Almost.
“Mr. Stark has selected several units of varying sizes to be offered to Avengers and support staff, as well as targeted industries such as law enforcement, education, and healthcare workers. It is the primary action step toward Miss Lewis’ recommendation for normative public interaction.” Sam raised his eyebrows at Vision’s statement. He had read the infamous thesis, and was certain Darcy Lewis was as smart about politics as Stark was about computers, but he doubted the price tag on a renovated brownstone in Park Slope was feasible for any cop or EMT. He knew he couldn’t afford it, and he had an army pension and his Avengers salary.
Vision continued, “This particular building was tentatively planned for the Bartons, but since Clint has purchased the abandoned property adjacent to the upstate Facility, the project has been tabled for the time being.” Barnes was pulling up additional information on the blueprints, contractors, and materials sourcing, frowning and making note of suggestions. Sam only caught a few of them. Barnes seemed to be a stickler for craftsmanship and ease of long term maintenance. “The next residence to the west is still under construction, but the upper floors are intended for Steve. The garden level unit was finished first, at Mr. Stark’s instruction, so that Miss Lewis could move in before Christmas.”
Sam felt his eyes widen involuntarily. He had agreed with Barnes that Darcy Lewis and Steve were a match made in – well, either heaven or a mischievously destructive hell, the final determination remained to be seen. But they were currently out on their first date. Living in the same building could make things exceptionally awkward if it didn’t work out. Steve was awkward enough on his own. And the team needed Darcy Lewis too badly to jeopardize her assistance with poor interpersonal relations. Barnes’ face was inscrutable. He could have been holding in a laugh or planning on slitting Stark’s throat.
“Vision,” Sam began slowly, trying to carefully phrase the idea that Stark was making a colossally huge mistake by sticking his nose into romantic affairs, “does Darcy know that her upstairs neighbor is going to be Steve?”
Vision frowned. “I don’t see how-”
“If I may interject,” Friday sounded both apologetic and admonishing, which Sam felt certain was not something an AI should able to do. Jarvis/Vision notwithstanding. Ultron, that’s a cautionary tale people. “I do not believe Mr. Stark intended to show Captain Rogers his new residence until it is complete. And, as you are aware Vision, Miss Lewis’ home address is considered sensitive data.”
“And it’s rude to divulge a lady’s personal information,” Barnes added in a low tone. He kept his head down, hair falling over his eyes, but his shoulders were tense and the corners of his mouth tight. Sam was more than aware of how protective Barnes was of Steve. The guy might think Darcy would be good for his friend – but there was no telling how he might react to Stark meddling in the Captain’s love life. Or worse, making a hugely inappropriate joke at Steve’s expense.
Vision sounded perturbed. “I had not considered that, Sergeant. When Miss Lewis and Captain Rogers return, I will offer my most sincere-”
“Good God man! Don’t!” Sam rubbed a hand over his face. The purple guy looked puzzled. There was a time when Sam thought helping veterans was the most frustrating and rewarding job he could ever have. So far, Avenging was pulling about neck and neck on personally rewarding and was light years ahead on frustrating. And he didn’t know Darcy Lewis well enough to guess how she would react, but his Mama hadn’t raised him to believe women wanted a man dictating their life choices. Life choices like having a potential sexual partner living literally on top of them.
“Is this a…” Barnes was now clearly holding back amusement, gesturing at the blueprints. While Sam appreciated not having to stand between a metal-armed super soldier and Iron Man during a confrontation, he wasn’t sure it was a good sign if Barnes found any of Tony Stark’s machinations humorous.
“What?” At Sam’s long-suffering question, Barnes highlighted a particular area around the staircase on the schematic. He looked, but Sam couldn’t find anything strange about it. “What?” he demanded.
“The walls Sergeant Barnes has indicated are, indeed, designed to be temporary. It is my understanding that when the Captain is ready to-”
“Vision,” Friday interrupted smoothly. Barnes was outright laughing now, rusty, deep chuckles that sounded like they came from the bottom of an unused, dry well. “Ms. Romanoff has sent an update on her mission with Ms. Maximoff, would you like me to covey it to you?”
“Mission?” If Vision had eyebrows, Sam figured they would have been furrowed at that moment. “It was my understanding they were having a girls’ night. I believed this to typically include drinks and dancing or other entertainment. Is that not…” Vision drifted away, still in conversation with Friday. Sam stepped around to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. He never thought he’d see the day where he was thankful to a computer for sidelining a conversation between a man made in a lab and another man nearly unmade in one. It was something special when the most tactful person in a room was not really a person at all. Hell of a night.
“This gonna be a thing?” Sam knocked off the cap and eyed Barnes as he took a long pull.
Barnes shrugged. “You mean Natalia’s night out? ‘Cause if it doesn’t involve at least making someone piss themselves she wouldn’t find it very entertaining.” Sam frowned and took another gulp. It was good beer, but there wasn’t enough of it in the Tower, or maybe even New York, if Cap and Stark were going to come to blows. Again. “I suppose you mean the brownstone. Doesn’t look like there’s an apple tree in the backyard, but otherwise it’s just about everything the punk ever wanted.”
“Apples, huh?” Sam consciously switched tracks from friend to counselor. He leaned on the counter, watching the unfocused way Barnes stared off as he remembered something. Things from before he had received the serum were still like that. Indistinct. Unpredictable. Tragically precious.
“When we were kids, we were always hungry. Just a fact – for pretty much everybody back then. Not starvin’ or nothin’, just not a lot of extras and two growin’ teenagers – not that Stevie grew all that much ‘cept his hands and feet. And ears. Jesus, that kid had ears so big a strong wind coulda blown him to Jersey.” His Brooklyn accent became more pronounced when he talked about the past. As if the recollection brought him closer to the man he had been then. In a way, it does.
Sam waited for Barnes to continue on his own, then gently prodded, “Apples?”
“Cousins of one of his neighbors lived in the country, sent up bags and bags of apples one fall. Mrs. Rogers delivered a baby for ‘em, and they paid her with so many she used every jar she and my ma had makin’ preserves, and there was still enough left that we made ourselves sick eatin’ ‘em. Sour little things, but we thought they were the greatest. And Stevie and I were sittin’ on the roof of his building – his belly was so full he looked like he’d been dead in the sun three days – bony ribs, pale skin, and a swollen stomach. So we were sittin’ out, too full to move, and Stevie points out a building across the street – whole thing was just one house.”
Sam could feel his own smile grow at the calm, happy look of remembrance on Barnes’ face. It was rare, even after they had worked so hard to get rid of the brainwashing. This is what every person deserves. Peace and a few minutes, at least, of happiness.
“He’d sold his first poster that week, and the agency he worked for wanted another. Paid him $25 – that was groceries for a month then, pretty good for a no name artist. So he’s feeling rich and full and the weather’s been good so he’s not hackin’ away, and he points to this big ole house and he says – ‘I ever find a girl that’ll marry me, Buck, and I’m gonna buy her a place like that, with a real bathtub and enough bedrooms that our boys and girl won’t have ta share-’ and I, I almost threw up I laughed so hard. ‘Three kids?’ I said. ‘You got the names picked out too?’ But he just kept noddin’ and smilin’ like we hadn’t had to call the priest the winter before when he was a hop and a skip from death. ‘Buck,’ he said, ‘If I could find a sweet dame that’d put up with me I’d plant an apple tree in the back yard and make her a pie every day if she wanted.’”
“Stevie was always real handy in the kitchen,” Barnes finished quietly. The memory was over, but a soft half smile remained, so Sam reached into the fridge and got another beer for himself and one for Barnes. A metal thumb flicked off both caps with little effort.
“So you don’t think this is going to blow up on everyone?”
“Well, I don’t know about you-” Stark’s voice had Sam tensing and straightening slowly.
He was standing between the elevator and the kitchen, his bare feet leaving greasy smears on the floor, the ragged hems of his jeans dripping oil. He had a rag in hand, but it had fallen forgotten to his side as he shifted in place.
Sam’s eyes cut from one man to the other, although he kept his arms loose and his words light. “Didn’t know you were home, Tony. Rhodey here too? You guys want to watch a movie?” Barnes remained where he was, but alert in a way that made Sam expect he hadn’t heard Tony approach. That must have been one hell of a memory.
Stark continued, “-but I wasn’t planning on telling him anything at all. Either Captain Stick-Up-His-Ass screws up the best shot he’s got at sex on the regular and I move Lewis to another place – or he manages to keep his mouth closed long enough for her to take charge and then I will have earned a very well-deserved thank you from the rest of the Outlaw Gang for getting you some R and R. So either way, shut your fucking face holes and if you want to help your golden boy toy, get him some aftershave that was made in this century. And none of us are watching a movie in here. The space is reserved. For someone I like better than you. And her date. Whom I don’t like at all. So go find a shuffle board somewhere. Or I am sure there is a government in Southeast Asia that you and Go-Go-Gaget-Arm could overthrow, if you can’t find anything else to do on a Saturday night.”
“Sorry, Tony,” Sam continued as if the older man wasn’t looking a little pale and wide-eyed. He purposefully made his breathing deep and obvious. Stark scowled at him knowingly, but his own shallow huffs began to slow. “We can get out of your hair. It’s your place. I brought back a couple of old movies for Barnes and Vision. We can go to one of the guest studios to watch.” Stark looked mutinous and opened his mouth – ready with another pithy remark Sam was sure.
“Clinton and Sam are trying to help Sergeant Barnes decide on a favorite action genre actor. I have expressed interest in their discussion.” Vision glided back into the kitchen, his questions about the nature of a girls’ night apparently resolved. As if the typical women going clubbing were an ageless assassin and a mystical witch. Their evening is more likely to involve actual weapon clubs than fruity cocktails.
“Who are you considering?” Stark still looked irritated and itching for a fight.
Sam edged between Stark and Barnes, ostensibly to poke at the projection. He was fairly certain everyone there knew what he was doing. Even Vision. Probably even Friday. “Clint has some sort of bromance from beyond the grave with Bruce Lee. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he had never even seen the Shaolin Temple trilogy. Clearly, Jet Li is better. I’ve been trying to get someone who hasn’t taken one too many punches to the head to come to the right side with me.”
“That’s because you’re wrong, Dodo. Fist of Legend has nothing on the original.” Tony crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. Sam desperately wanted to glance at Barnes and make a crack about a furious fist, but he kept his gaze on Stark. “Did your fearless, patriotic leader refuse to take sides or what?”
“He said something about Michelle Yeoh and challenging industry stereotypes.” Sam took another drink of beer.
Stark snorted. “Of course he did. All-American feminist.” He paused. “Friday, strike that from the record. Pepper shall never hear this conversation. Or read it. Or have it transferred into her subconscious via Kabuki pantomime while she sleeps. No knowledge of it shall be had by her. At all. You three-” Stark didn’t stop for air, but gestured to the room in general while he pulled a bottle of water and a container of mixed nuts and berries from the refrigerator. “My screening room. Now. This is the type of gross malfeasance in cinema education that leads to the rise of anarchy. And not the cool kind either, the shitty Kurt Russell kind. Unbelievable,” Stark muttered as he marched to the elevator. “You have a mostly-fried communist brain on your hands, ripe for potential partial reformation or at least house-training and you try to cram this complete bullshit down- hey!”
Sam tried to gain control of the situation, “Tony, I think-”
“Friday has more important things to do than hold the doors for you! Get in here so I can explain why you are so wrong – and, I can’t believe I am fucking saying this – why Clint fucking bird brain Barton is right. Friday! Strike that! Is Mrs B in the tower? Is she online? Can she omnisciently determine when I am accurately but fervently degrading her husband? Never mind. I don’t want to know.” He muttered under his breath, “Woman could pitch for the Yankees. It would only improve their stats.”
“They don’t deserve her,” Barnes said lowly, so quiet that Stark couldn’t hear. Vision headed to the elevator and Sam reluctantly followed, Barnes trailing behind. “Bombers, egh, more like Bronx Bleeders.”
Sam grabbed another beer, even though he hadn’t finished the one in his hand, and walked with a sense of unavoidable doom toward the impatiently waiting Tony Stark. He hoped Steve was having a hell of a good date, because that asshole was going to owe him big for refereeing what was sure to be a shitshow. The insults disguised as overtures of acceptance, or maybe overtures disguised as insults – Sam wasn’t certain, kept coming.
“Hurry up, Sykes. You and Tinkerbell over there are are about to be schooled.”
He should have stayed in Virginia with his mom. Hell, even girls’ night was less likely to result in injury and the destruction of personal property. Sam held his unopened beer to his temple to stave off a headache. Help the Avengers, he reminded himself. You owe it to Captain America. He side-eyed Barnes, the irritating, broken, and stoic idiot best friend of Sam’s best friend. Steve better get a kiss out of this. With tongue. Maybe even second base.
He downgraded their odds to 70/30. Worst group therapy idea ever.