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Rock of Ages

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The Smithsonian leaves him with more questions than answers.

It also leaves him beyond unsettled: sick with both roiling knowledge and lack of it. Azzano and child of four and excellent athlete are meaningless voids in the asset’s mind, but Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers create an aversion so profound he’s still all but paralyzed by formless dread, hours later.

It’s the conditioning, he knows. Some memories

- the smell of burning flesh
- the taste of his own blood
- ”Cоблюдать!” the electric shocks that further hollowed out his shell of self. “Cоблюдать!”

were meant to remain. He wants to run from the museum exhibit, from the wordless accusations of Bucky Barnes’ face. He doesn’t, though.

The asset is morbidly curious as to whom his newly de-scaled eyes will fall upon as a mark. Without direction, without instruction, his own impulses are a bleak mystery to him. His gaze skips like a stone over the grandmother herding half a dozen children; the starstruck adolescent wearing spectacles and a hijab; the young marrieds with a stroller from which emits frequent squalling.

In the end he chooses a man berating his girlfriend over the manner in which she’d parked their rental car. The guy is youngish and white; a bonus - the asset could, with moderate effort, pass as him if necessary. He tosses the cards but keeps the driver’s license.

When the girlfriend strides out of the building just moments after the asset, alone and with the car keys in her hand, he feels a peculiar sense of affinity with her. He’s off to a good start, then.

There are a few hours of daylight left. He’s liberated one set of ill-fitting clothes from the foreclosed rowhouse he broke into the first night; the shoes were sizes too small and the shirt was ripping at the seams. It seems the height of indulgence, to eschew these for a better set. But - these garments constrain movement, a disadvantage the asset can’t abide.

He spends his newly-acquired but meager cash (no one carries it anymore; he thinks he has been told this) at a sprawling Goodwill. The store’s CCTV, although surely low-quality and possibly inactive, has him ducking his head and making a circuitous route through the aisles. The buzzing fluorescent lights trigger a slew of detailed and vivid nightmares that evening.

But the woman there has braids piled atop her head and the asset thinks regal, a word he didn’t realize he knew. She is not put off by his skittishness and tremors; she helps him find what he needs and even ferrets out new underwear and socks still in their original packaging.

He can’t remember, now, if he thanked her.

Sirens scream down the street and he instinctively leans back. The house is dark and he stands beside the narrowest gap between the musty curtains, but. He cannot stay in this city. The spectre of Hydra and implosion of SHIELD have only served to disgorge the aimless, anxious and armed onto the streets of the Capitol. He’s just as likely to be taken down by a lackey with a nervous trigger finger as he is any of the people actually looking for him.

(Is anyone looking for him?)

James Buchanan Barnes knew when to remain sniper-still, and when action was required. The asset wipes down the residence and leaves.

***

Natasha is Skype-ing them tonight, so Steve brings dinner. “How are you?” Sam asks, liberating the four pizza boxes from Steve’s hands. “Besides, apparently, hungry.”

“Fine. I’m fine.” Sam’s had his hands full, keeping Steve from going stir-crazy while they wait for information - any information - on Bucky’s whereabouts.

“Uh-huh. Here, I set us up in the living room.” Soon Steve’s finished one half-spinach, half-pepperoni and Natasha’s face somehow glows like a madonna through the weird light of Sam’s laptop.

Hola, boys.” She waves with the hand that’s not holding - Steve squints - a pina colada? She’s been monitoring anything Hydra-related uncovered by the various federal acronyms sifting through the rubble of SHIELD, a task she claims is best accomplished somewhere sunny and tropical. She’s seated on a balcony; Steve can hear waves crashing.

Bucky's arm, Natasha informs them, had a tracking device, which has been pinging steadily since his deployment by Pierce. The signal was relayed to a now-abandoned Hydra base carved out of a bank vault in Columbia Heights. Steve writes down the address.

Its last transmission was from 23rd and Independence, twenty-seven minutes after Steve was discovered on the banks of the Potomac.

"Does that mean -" If the tracker was tied to Bucky’s respiration, his pulse, his the beat of his heart -

"It means he removed it, almost immediately." Steve registers that, slumps back against the sofa. "This is good news, in my opinion. He obviously realizes that Hydra is a threat to him, and he's not courting danger. He's also willing to risk damage to the arm, which suggests that he doesn't have any large-scale bloodshed planned for at least the immediate future."

"You're right," Steve nods jerkily. "I know. I just don't like the thought of him being in the wind."

“No one does,” Sam says, and because he’s a good friend he doesn’t mention why.

“It’s been too long,” Steve says after Natasha signs off. “We need to move.”

“And by ‘move’ do you mean ‘go on a deranged, reckless, possibly violent rampage around the globe with nothing even slightly resembling a plan’?” They’ve had this conversation before.

“Pretty much, yes.”

“We need more to go on, Steve. Even a continent would help. I’m setting the bar awfully low, here.”

“We could start with every site they wiped him,” every site with one of those chairs, “burn them to to the ground.”

“And what, you think Barnes is going to wander up with marshmallows that we'll all toast by the fire?”

Think? No. Pray? Dream? Steve’s reunion fantasies are endless and varied: Sometimes they fight, back to back, against a nest of Hydra goons. Sometimes Bucky says Shame about the Dodgers, eh? and cuffs Steve on the back of the head. Most of them end with Steve sobbing noisily into Bucky’s Kevlar.

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Stranger things have happened this week. But that’s no reason to jump the gun.” Sam winces. “Pun not intended.”

Sam’s right. “You’re right. I just - I gotta do something.” He’d wasted time in the hospital, crucial days and nights during which Bucky may have lingered in D.C. But Bucky wouldn’t stay for long; Steve can’t say how he knows this.

“You are. You’re keeping it together because when the time comes, your friend might not be able to. You have to be the sane one in this relationship, until Barnes comes in from the cold.”

But it’s hard, it’s so hard, because his first and strongest instinct has always been to tear down the world for Bucky. Objective, rational restraint doesn’t sit well with him and he’s developed a newfound sympathy for the Bucky Barnes who kept Steve from taking on half of Brooklyn and a healthy portion of Queens.

So he thanks Sam, and he goes back to a life that’s becoming sparser by the hour. He makes calf eyes at the senior staff of the VA, because being a hero all over local airspace and national news wasn’t enough to get Sam’s hiatus approved. He gives away his furniture, asks his (actual) neighbor Loretta to collect his mail, methodically eats the contents of the fridge and writes his landlord a hefty check covering the remaining year’s rent and recent damages.

He can’t bring himself to patch up the bullet holes; it’s about all of Bucky that he’s got left.

He goes to the final group session Sam holds, and a couple more besides. He wires money to Clint, who didn’t ask for it but who’s gone to ground

somewhere safe, no worries
was expecting shit to go down, tasha gets bored when im away

and who is currently mired in a bureaucratic payroll nightmare.

next time just ask her to sort out my direct deposit before she torpedoes the government agency that employs us

Steve does.

He politely declines Stark’s offer to bankroll the search, then asks how much of the uploaded files Tony has read. “Enough,” Tony replies, clipped and curtailing further discussion. Banner promises to research neurological injuries of the type inflicted on Bucky, though Steve doubts there are many relevant case studies.

Thor teleports (is that the right word?) himself to just outside Steve’s apartment door, arriving with a thud and clatter loud enough for Loretta to poke her head out of her own unit and shush him. Thor flaps his cape, bows, and smiles at her and Loretta is instantly smitten.

Once Steve lets him in, they mostly sit in composed silence. Thor has some kind of ambrosia from Asgard that genuinely affects Steve, and he drinks enough to feel warm and loose and stupidly hopeful.

One night he goes to the bank vault.

A few well-placed projectiles darken the nearby streetlamps and he disables the bank’s alarm with a fist through a wall. He strong-arms his way in, leaves broken glass and crumpled steel-reinforced doors in his wake.

At ground level everything looks normal. He follows his instincts and the faint scent of ozone to the basement. He finds the chair almost immediately.

It’s obscene. It’s sadistic, in every line of its construction. Bucky’s fear and confusion and powerlessness still linger here; the air is choked with Bucky’s pain and Steve will end them, every last one of them -

He tears it apart piece by piece. His hands bleed, heal, bleed again around jagged metal.

At four a.m. one morning, Nat calls. “I’m not waking Sam up for this, but I knew you wouldn’t be sleeping.”

“I was sleeping.” He’d been watching YouTube videos of unlikely animal friendships.

“Ugh, still terrible. Pay attention because I have news. The NSA uncovered a signal, relayed once every twenty-four hours from a remote location to a terminal belonging to Rumlow's Strike team.” Steve sits up in bed, heart thundering the way it did in a smaller, narrower chest a lifetime ago. “Barnes has another tracker.”

“And he hasn’t removed this one?” Bucky wasted no time going offline before.

“He may be unable to. More likely he doesn’t know it exists at all. It was probably implanted sub-dermally and even if he was awake when it happened,” which stands to reason, Steve knows; the file indicates they had difficulty anaesthetizing the Soldier and eventually stopped bothering, “that knowledge has been scrubbed a thousand times over by now.”

Natasha is intimately familiar with the way animals like this operate. Steve’s vengeance, when it comes, will not be reserved merely for the torment Bucky suffered.

“What’s the NSA’s play?”

“They don’t have one. They don’t understand the significance of the signal. On the surface it’s obsolete - the outgoing device is vintage, much like you.”

“Ha.”

“Cold War era, if I had to guess. Rudimentary but that’s probably what kept it ticking so long. We don’t have a lot of time: if the agency follows SOP they'll dismantle the receiver any day now. I’ve downloaded all the current data.”

Steve counts back. He'd been in the hospital three nights, under extremely-armed guard (Natasha), moderately-armed guard (Sam), and voluble protest (his own). He was supposed to stay for a week but the staff lost patience with the lot of them and released him early.

"Where -"

“The first signals after we broke D.C. were local - Easby Point, then the Mall, then Dakota and 33rd. Then a nowhere town called Rising Sun, on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Next was Bayonne.” Her tone conveys what she thinks of that.

“And - the rest -” But Steve knows, he knows.

“The technology is imprecise, Steve. The Soldier could be anywhere within a half-mile radius of the signal. Are you even still listening to me or are you already booking a flight to New York?”

“Bike’s faster.” Steve grins into the phone. “You ever been to Brooklyn, Nat? It’s a great place. You’ll love it.”

***

Pepper Potts offers to help him find a place, but Steve privately believes a woman who runs a multi-billion dollar corporation and wrangles Tony Stark in her free time probably had better things to do than help him apartment-hunt. As a compromise, she recommends a real estate agent. Claudette is eighty if she’s a day, has witnessed the city transform itself while Steve slept and comes as close to anyone could at understanding the visual and cognitive dissonance that created. She also doesn’t blink at any of Steve's odd requirements: absolutely no common areas or shared space with other units; large rooms with good sight lines; direct roof access. “Oh, and I'll need to move in immediately.”

After feverish research of the links Claudette sends him, several walking tours via Google Earth, and an urgent (on his part) text consultation with Natasha

Do you think an in-unit washer and dryer would freak him out?

r u serious right now

he’s found a place. Pepper hastily creates a trust in the name of Roger Grant for the paperwork, Sam forwards his mail to Harlem and then Steve is signing the lease on a Boerum Hill two-bedroom.

It's got a rooftop deck, refinished hardwood floors, and no stainless steel (that's for Steve's own benefit; he doesn't get the appeal). The rent is so astronomical as to be meaningless; the cost of fresh produce bothers him more. And this is a place for Bucky to recover - “Or possibly murder you,” Tony says caustically when he hears - so any expense is worth it.

Pepper and Stark are in Fiji but as their housewarming present somehow both bought and installed all the furnishings and housewares down to the last soup spoon. It’s a ridiculous extravagance, especially since they’ve already been putting Steve up at the Tower. (“Thanks for the offer,” Sam tells them, “but I gotta stay with Mom first. Otherwise she’ll wreck Harlem worse than the Hulk did.”)

Pepper (or maybe her almost-as-terrifyingly-capable assistant) picked everything out so it’s all tasteful and what Steve would have chosen if he’d been able to care about anything past Bucky and where Bucky is at this exact moment.

Sam is worried. Sam, because he is a normal person and not a scary Fury-molded spy ninja, has no problem articulating this to Steve once the two of them finish moving Steve's few personal items in.

"Spy ninja," Nat repeats contemplatively, as she reaches for Steve's pad see eiw. She'd flown in from Rabat “to help,” although Steve suspects she just wants a chance to paw through his stuff. "I like that."

"I know what I'm doing," Steve tells Sam. "As in, I know what I'm doing is optimistic at best and delusional at worst. I'm aware."

"Well, okay then," Sam says, exasperated. Nat’s eyeing Steve like a mother cat about to snatch her offspring up by the scruff of the neck. It’s not super-flattering.

"I've been fighting other people's wars since 1943. I I did my duty and I'm glad I did, no regrets. But this is my battle, and I'm choosing it. Above all others. I'll always fight for Bucky."

“Hard to win without a strategy,” Sam points out. “Is ours basically to corner every tragic-haired white guy in the borough?”

“Um…yes?” Steve tries. Natasha rolls her eyes and pours herself another scotch. Pepper had seen to the practical matters but the fully-stocked liquor cabinet was all Stark.

“That might be feasible for you, but my ordinary-human legs can’t do that all day and night. I’ve got a contact at the Harbor VA; I’ll see if they can keep me busy while we search.”

“You can go back to Washington. You know that, right?” It’s Sam’s honor and compassion that have put him at Steve’s side, and Steve doesn’t want to take advantage of that. “Or just - stay in the city. Visit your family. Enjoy people not trying to kill you.”

“It’s still New York,” Natasha says.

“Steve, friend: I would’ve been happy to fly around the world on your dime, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to be your kept man stateside. And no way am I leaving you to deprogram Barnes on your own. Nah, I’ll be around.”

“Thanks. I really...just, thanks.”

They split a cheesecake three ways and Natasha trundles off to the guest bedroom, still sober as a nun. “When he’s ready, I’ll recommend some counselors.” Sam shrugs on his jacket. “Same goes for you.” Steve watches until Sam turns the corner onto Wyckoff. Their - his - their - apartment has a private entrance, attached garage and, after a visit from a team of Stark Industries technicians, impressive biometric security locks. Nat inspects and approves them the next morning, on her way to parts unknown but probably beachy.

Steve grabs his gear and sets off.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t considered that maybe Bucky could continue heading north: Hartford or Saratoga Springs; rural Maine or the mountains of Vermont or even somewhere across the border, to start another life beneath another flag.

Bucky, though, remains in Brooklyn. All over the place, like he spends his days walking the streets. Canarsie, East Bushwick, Williamsburg (really, Buck?). He never goes north of Metropolitan Avenue or east of the cemetery. Steve chooses to read more into this than he probably should.

Steve scours the streets until even his legs threaten to give out. Each dawn he returns alone to the apartment for a few hours of fitful sleep while Sam takes over.

He hooks up with a soup kitchen in Bed-Stuy. He'd worked quietly at one in D.C., to feel useful and to forestall a complete spiral of self-pity. And though he doesn't think Bucky would ever turn up here, it makes him feel like he's helping folks who could have been Bucky, who themselves were lost to their own history.

He meets more men and women than he can count, huddled on park benches and doorsteps, in stairwells and alleyways. He leaves them all with food and money but doesn’t ask them about Bucky. Sam’s warnings have stuck: Steve doesn’t know what condition Bucky’s in and he won’t put a civilian in harm’s way.

It’s possible that Bucky’s actually procured himself proper lodging, and that will make the search infinitely more difficult. But for that Bucky would almost certainly need to access Hydra resources, and there’s been no indication that he has.

The day the signal doesn’t come, Steve calls Nat and asks if they’ve found any chairs in New York.

“Not yet, although I do admire your handiwork with the last one. I erased the copious amounts of prints and DNA you left behind, by the way. You’re welcome.”

“You’re a good friend, Natasha.”

He can hear her smile over the line. “You know, I think I really am.” From somewhere behind her he hears a crash and a faint “Aw, sandwich.” It’s probably not a coincidence that her tone sharpens. “Now go pester Stark - he loves testing new polymer alloys and you need something to hit.”

“Yeah, maybe. Say hi to Clint for me.”

“I will. Steve? Trust me: you got this.”

It takes another two weeks, but Natasha is (“Always!”) right.

***

Bucky is shaking, when Steve finds him.

He’s taken refuge in the far corner of an overgrown lot. It’s strewn with broken glass and trash; it offers no protection from the elements. Of course: it’s an utterly unwanted space that will attract no one else. Even Bucky himself is nearly indistinguishable: a darker shadow among shadows, hidden between the crumbling brickwork and leaning barbed-wire fence. Just - something, in the line of his jaw or the curl of his arms around his knees -

Steve enters slowly, obviously. He’s not trying to get the drop on Bucky. Bucky stiffens, backs up and - goes for a weapon? Maybe. His hand is at the small of his back but when it reappears, it’s empty.

"Buck? Hey, Buck. It's Steve."

The shudders intensify, visible even from several yards away. Bucky averts his gaze. Steve steps forward, deliberate and nonthreatening.

“I’m really glad to see you. I’m glad you’re here.” He keeps his hands in front of him. "I know you may not remember me. But I want to help you.” Bucky’s eyes, that still won’t meet his, are wide and glassy. Like the very last moment Steve saw him.

He looks ill. Ashen and gaunt, with beads of sweat now dotting his temples, his stubbled upper lip. He’s relatively clean - Steve has learned the signs of weeks’ worth of grime. He doesn’t appear to be injured. He’s just...deeply unwell in a way that Steve knows goes beyond the physical.

“Just help,” Steve reiterates. “That’s all. You gotta know by now I won't hurt you." He closes most of the distance left between them, crouches down to meet Bucky’s gaze.

Bucky's voice is hoarse from disuse and Steve has to strain to hear him. "Not me I'm worried about."

"You're afraid of hurting someone else?" Bucky nods.

"Okay. Maybe that's another reason to come with me. I'm pretty hard to hurt."

"Lie," Bucky says, almost casually. "Easy to hurt, before. Easy for me to hurt, after."

Before the serum, Bucky means. And after…”In my defense, I didn't put up much of a fight."

"No," Bucky bites out. "You didn't."

And yes, okay, it's pretty valid to call Steve's self-preservation instincts into question. He won't write off Bucky's concern: he'll lose him, if he does. “The thing is,” Steve explains, “on the helicarrier, you had a hundred chances to kill me. A hundred clear shots, Bucky. And you didn’t take any of them. Then at the end, when we both thought it was over for me...I didn’t leave that river on my own steam, Buck.”

Bucky looks balefully at him. "I promise - this time I promise you - if you go for me, I'll defend myself. I won't let you do something you'll regret." He means it, too. He’s not going to saddle Bucky with the responsibility of keeping Steve alive; he had that job for far too long. “How are you?” Bucky just shakes his head like the question is pointless. Or meaningless. “I know you removed the tracker in your arm.” Bucky’s eyes dart down and left. “Does it hurt?”

“Its performance is impeded.”

“I know. But does it hurt?”

“I don’t - I -” Bucky is floundering.

“Never mind. But if you come with me, I can get you warm, and fed, and clean. And I won’t -” Steve takes a deep breath; he has rehearsed this part. “You can leave, if you want. After. What do you say, Buck?”

He’s read up on PTSD, on POWs, on every awful thing man has done to man in the name of a cause. Bucky’s executive function skills have been affected. Bucky will be looking for a new handler. Bucky will struggle with decision-making -

“No.”

It’s a near-mortal blow. Don’t make me leave you here. Don’t make me leave you again. Steve's voice cracks. “Please.”

Bucky remains impassive. Watching for Steve’s reaction, Steve realizes. And it’s cruel, to once again put his own selfish (needs) desires onto Bucky. That’s been done since 1945 and Steve will not be complicit in Bucky’s continued unmaking. He swallows.

“All right. That's - I understand. In the meantime...” Telegraphing his movements broadly he sets the duffel bag down between them. “This is for you. Things I thought you could use.” Steve gets himself comfortable on the ground beside Bucky, a mostly impossible task. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to stay for a bit.” Maybe, if he soaks up Bucky’s presence long enough, he’ll find the strength to go back to his apartment alone. “You always said I didn’t know when to walk away.”

Hours pass. They don’t touch. Steve talks.

“You, um. Used to do this. Sit up with me at night, when I was sick. Even when you had work the next day - although it felt like you always had work the next day. You’d say you wanted to finish the book you were reading or that the neighbors were keeping you awake even though it was me who was coughing enough the whole tenement could hear.”

And:

“Sam - guy with the wings?” He shows Bucky the text he's sending: With Bucky. Will call you later.

“Wing,” Bucky corrects acidly.

“He moved from D.C. with us. Was in Harlem first, yelled at me for turning him into a cliched millennial living with his parents. Now he’s at Stark’s tower, 58th and Broadway. Tony Stark - Howard’s son - he’s repairing the wings.”

And:

“Bucky. Buck. You won’t believe how much food there is now.”

The sun has risen, the city stirring to life with each minute that passes. People are already taking note of them and Steve has the sensation that he’s pinning Bucky down. Every soldier needs a foxhole.

“Right. I'll just -” Steve gestures vaguely. “Be careful, Buck. Yeah? And stick close? I’d really like to see you again. Very much. Very. Much. Oh! And I work here,” he digs around in his pocket, sticks out a well-folded flyer from the soup kitchen. Bucky doesn’t take it so he places it carefully down between them, “Thursday through Sunday. If I’m not there I’ve told ‘em to give you anything you ask for.” Out of delaying tactics, he rises.

He rises, and Bucky - Bucky scrambles back from him like a beaten dog. Steve stares. Bucky stills himself with effort; mortification seems to roll off him in waves.

Steve is going to cut off every head, Steve is going to flay the skin from Hydra’s bones -

Steve is...not making a lot of sense. He tamps down on the anger, forces it back and wonders how many more times he can.

For now, though, he steps away, gives a little half-wave that does not exactly convey the depth of his undying devotion to this man but it’ll have to do. He turns before he dives and wraps himself around Bucky’s ankles.

“Wait.”

Steve stops, stares at the aproned woman opening the bodega across the street because he can’t school the naked hope from his face. Behind him, he hears Bucky slowly stand. Risking a glance back, Steve sees the duffel clutched defensively to Bucky’s chest. “I'll come. With you.”

***

When Rogers smiles, warmth spreads within the asset. Strange. He has been cold for so long.

Together, they walk three klicks to Rogers' residence. It is more defensible than the asset would have given him credit for. Rogers scans in, furrows his brow, presses several buttons on the biometric panel without result, until the screen flashes and then displays the text: Place hand here.

“Your hand,” Rogers explains, unhelpfully. “This way you can come and go.”

He thinks he must be staring at the other man incredulously because Rogers shrugs. “Not the dumbest thing I've ever done.”

“I can believe that.” He steps back from the panel and Rogers doesn’t insist, just ushers Bucky inside.

He is...not comfortable. The asset does not belong in a home; at Pierce's he'd felt his own incongruity keenly. A monster, sitting at the table? A machine, breathing this rarefied air?

Rogers' place should feel no different but of course it does; all previously assimilated data and experience (that he has been allowed to retain) tend to go out the proverbial window where the Captain is concerned. So the asset is uncomfortable, but thinks – maybe he won't always be.

Rogers chatters as he shows the asset around. It's new, or new to Rogers; procured, the asset gleans, for the purpose of redeeming Bucky Barnes. Hopefully Rogers has a flexible lease.

“You’ve gotta be hungry -” Rogers stops, starts again. “Are you hungry? I can heat something up, been trying out places in the neighborhood so I’ve got enough take-out for the Commandos and then some. Ethiopian, Greek, Himalayan, can you believe it -”

The asset is used to eating – or, just as likely, not eating – under any conditions. But he's found, since wresting back control of his own body, that he is more meticulous than his masters were. “I'd like to bathe.” He does not ask for permission, he won't.

“Sure. Of course. I – here, lemme show you around.” He leads the asset through the dimly-lit front room, past a galley kitchen to a hallway with bedrooms on either side. Each has windows and high ceilings, and the one Steve calls yours exits to the fire escape. The asset deposits the duffel bag just inside the doorway, then follows Rogers to the bathroom.

“It’s a little extravagant. And...white,” Rogers says apologetically. White tile, white marble, white lights. Bright white lights.

“So you just -” And Rogers is leaning into the shower, adjusting one of several showerheads, and the spray turns on, abrupt and violent, and -

The asset stumbles backward, knocking something over as he does. But the door is behind him and he only succeeds in slamming it shut, cutting off his only egress route. The shower pounds relentlessly, frigid and waiting to scour the blood from his body and the resistance from his bones -

He sinks to his feet, back to the closed door, miserable and ashamed.

He cannot hear his own breathing but apparently Rogers does, because the Captain has bent so that they're eye level. “Breathe with me, Buck. Breathe.” Like this, Steve. In and out.

Can you feel my heartbeat?

The asset collects himself. It's been like this, since he...rebelled. Broke protocol. Broke free. Moments, hours, even days of competency and stiff control, then - this: skittering terror. Or childlike confusion. Or the echoing reverb of memory.

He is damaged. He is useless in this state, worthless. He attempts to tell Rogers as much, with unclear results. Then he asks “Will there be correction?”

“Correction,” Rogers repeats dumbly.

“The Soldier is required -” He stumbles over his words, starts again. “The Soldier is required to present as operationally sound at all times. Deviation will result in discipline.” It's a knowledge he's never even had to articulate; it lives in his limbs, not in the parody his mind’s become. Long after he was made a nameless thing, after all his truths had been taken from him, that one they preserved with the precision of a scalpel cutting into flesh.

Rogers is gaping at him in horror. “No. No correction, not here, not ever. Bucky. Bucky, you're shaking.” He scrubs at his eyes with one enormous hand, then both lower to hover lightly over the asset’s chest. He watches their path with a bizarre, pathetic mix of fear and yearning. “Forget the shower, terrible idea. I’m full of ‘em. I'm gonna run you a bath. Okay?”

He doesn't understand why he's being consulted. But he is, and Rogers seems to be waiting for an answer, so: “Yes. Okay.”

Rogers stands, with what appears to be reluctance; he drags his gaze from the asset only for it to return within seconds. But the bath is drawn, and the room fills with steam in a way that's somehow soothing, rather than stifling. It's a drowsy sort of heat, that makes him think of rooftops and humid, still nights.

Maybe with Rogers, during an ancient misspent childhood. Maybe with a sniper rifle, tar searing his skin to the bone during three days spent waiting for the kill shot.

Hard to say.

It is...good, to watch Rogers – ridiculously oversized even in a room that's ridiculously oversized – as he studies the filling tub, hands on hips; as he studies the asset, stupidly infatuated with a man who died screaming, seventy years ago. It is a balm that the asset’s soul had forgotten existed, balm for a wound that remained invisible yet unhealed and raw.

He doesn't realize his eyes have closed until Rogers is speaking, gently, above him. “Sure you don't just want to call it a night? The guest room's all ready.”

“No.” Here, in this place, he wants to be clean.

“Your call.” Rogers extends a hand and the asset takes it automatically. That could become a bad habit. He strips off his grimy hoodie, the undershirt beneath, rough work pants and worn boots.

He kicks the boots aside, and has the flash of an uneven wooden floor, no rug; the pervasive smell of cabbage in the hallway and sweat beneath his collar. He blinks and it is gone.

If the Captain is discomfited by his abrupt nudity, he doesn't show it. Instead he steers the asset, with everything-but-touch, into the nearly overflowing bathtub. The water's surface is strewn with bubbles; a mild, sweet fragrance wafts upward.

“Want me to leave? You can have privacy.”

“Not necessary.”

“Doesn't have to be necessary. Just – if you want it.” But Rogers hands over a nubby wascloth and soap as he speaks. The asset sinks down, into the hot lapping water, and the singular pleasure of it shocks him. He closes his eyes again, rests his head between his bent knees. He just needs – a moment. He senses Rogers' hand fluttering at the back of his neck but it doesn't alight.

“Feels good?”

Temporarily wordless, he nods tightly instead, savoring. He's been scrubbing up in public restroom sinks and deserted fountains in city parks that he slips into before dawn. Otherwise -

Blast of freezing water, strong enough to knock even the Soldier back.
“Christ, he looks like he’s been through a war.”
Laughter. “Nah, just a ‘coercive disarmament campaign’.”
“That’s what we’re calling it this week?”
The cold paralyzes him, and they have to drag him, halting and feeble, to his tomb -

He breathes through it. “I’m fine,” he says, because somehow he knows Rogers is about to ask.

“You’re not. Neither am I.” Rogers finally, finally lets his hand rest on the asset’s shoulder. The metal one. “We’ll get there, though.” His grip is firm without restraining and it’s such a small thing - probably thoughtless - but the asset has not been touched in so long. So long.

Rogers stays like that, kneeling on a cold tile floor, while the asset washes. He manages well enough at first, even with the damaged arm, but fatigue renders his movements increasingly slow and uncoordinated.

“...Your hair?” Rogers is asking. And by now the asset understands that when he merely tips his head back – bares his throat to Rogers, what is he thinking here, what is he doing here – Rogers will meet him more than halfway.

But for a long while - the asset doesn’t keep track, for once - all Rogers does is thread his fingers through the asset’s lank, overgrown hair, grazing his scalp and setting off comet trails of pleasure. The asset’s eyes drift closed again. To his chagrin, he feels the prickly onset of tears.

This tenderness - it is too much to bear, it must be, but Rogers only gives him more and more. He works shampoo through the asset’s hair and rinses, then simply occupies himself working his hands into the asset's constricted muscles; thumbs and fingers digging deep and cathartic across sinew and scars. The asset is dimly aware that he’s making noises that should embarrass him.

It's easier, eyes shut, to tilt his head and press a swift, chaste kiss to Rogers' nearest hand. The urge is primal, foreign, and without reason. He braces himself but is met only with a sharp intake of breath.

Rogers' ministrations stutter but don't stop. After a moment:

“You set the shoulder?” Rogers' voice is hushed, like what’s happening is special and sacred.

“Done it before.”

“And this side?”

He mumbles an affirmative; still Rogers doesn’t let go of the arm. He appeared dissatisfied with his status report on it earlier. But something about Rogers and this thing attached to him seem fundamentally incompatible; it’s a weapon that he doesn’t even want to acknowledge in Rogers’ presence.

And it's not just the arm: it's the thick mass of dead tissue that makes up left shoulder; it's the red star that remains their brand on him; it's the sheer mechanical inhumanity of it.

“Ruined it, probably. Don’t care.” His defiance sounds weak to his own ears. Rogers, not one to be dissuaded, turns his bicep carefully to scrutinize the ragged gouges in the metalwork.

“Looks painful, is all.” Rogers’ hands move up, to the scratched and dented star above. The asset moves his arm out of Rogers’ grasp.

“Got it. But we can fix it, if you ever want that. Tony -”

“I’ll wait on that, thanks.” He shifts his hands to either side of the tub, prepares to rise. Rogers is right there, naturally, helping to ease him up and out.

He tousles one of those absurdly plush towels through the asset’s hair so that it’s no longer dripping, then pats his skin dry with another one before wrapping him in it. The asset stands before him, pliant, knowing he could do all this himself but for the first time choosing not to. This caretaking is so far from the alternately brutal or clinical maintenance he’s accustomed to, he thinks they should not even be compared.

He wonders, wildly, if this is all some hallucination; if he’s not at this very moment rigid and bereft in the cryochamber. “Is this a dream?” he asks Rogers.

“What - what?”

“Am I dreaming?”

***

Steve has to pause then, turn so that Bucky doesn’t see his face. The damp towel he’s holding rips. Behind him, Bucky shifts. Wary, assessing.

Steve faces him again, slowly, balling up the mangled fabric as he does. “No,” he says. “It’s not, I swear. Why do you ask that?”

Bucky gestures vaguely but can’t seem to put thought to word. Steve’s surprised he’s as articulate as he is, in fact, and tries to remind himself of the horrific scenarios his mind had conjured up during the search. Bucky’s better, so much better than he could be. No thanks to Steve. He's been putting himself back together again, piece by piece, while Steve was lying in a hospital bed or arguing with Fury or searching the wrong underpass.

Bucky’s getting flustered. “Never mind,” Steve says, hopes he doesn’t sound too watery. “C’mon, I’ve got - clothes, and things - “

He leads Bucky to the guest room. “Was thinking, while you get changed, I could make us some dinner. Breakfast? You look thin, Buck.”

Bucky cocks his head. “Did you always worry this much, over Barnes?”

“You were the one usually fretting over me. I've got some catching up to do.”

“Mm.” Bucky turns to inspect the space, effectively ending the conversation. Steve departs, quietly shutting the door behind him.

In the kitchen he takes three minutes to just get his shit together, and if that means sitting with his head between his knees on the kitchen floor...well. He makes a thousandth vow of revenge. He revisits the press of Bucky's lips on his skin. He shreds the towel into pieces, and then he gets back up.

***

Alone for the first time since Rogers located him, the asset examines the room. The walls are freshly painted and hung with artwork. The bookshelf holds an assortment of odds and ends - a broken watch, dried wildflowers, a sketch of the Manhattan skyline. The window is closed but the curtains are open.

The closet is full of casual clothes, no leather or combat gear. The asset had quickly and with spiteful gratification shed his own, but doesn’t rule out the possibility of needing more. Tonight, though, he opts for thin sleep pants and a sweatshirt.

Dressed, he retrieves the bag Rogers brought him, sets it on the bed and sifts through its contents. More clothes, toiletries. Several protein bars, beef jerky, and a plastic container full of what look like square pastries. In another life, he'd have had a name for them.

Cash – around ten thousand American dollars. That's...intriguing. He would have expected the Captain to keep him on a short leash. But this - this is enough for the asset to disappear completely. You can leave, if you want.

He stows the bag under the bed.

An aroma filters through the air. Rogers, heating up take-out. The asset’s stomach growls, heedless of its current limitations. He goes to the kitchen.

“Everything fit okay?” Rogers looks a little wild - hair sticking up in tufts, face splotchy, eyes red-rimmed. He gestures with the large spoon he’s holding, and the asset, after some deliberation, sits at a stool on the other side of the island. Rogers is opening white containers of various foodstuffs. “You’ve lost some weight, since I last saw you.”

“You mean when I shot you three times and almost beat you to death?”

“Yeah, then.” Rogers sets out plates and silverware.

“Couldn’t keep much down, at first,” he admits. “Before,” with them, “it was supplements, nutritional shakes.”

“And now?”

“Depends.”

They eat Chinese food in near-silence. It’s not the taut, fearful quiet that he’s used to, when he’s in a room with someone else. His fear, their fear. Turned out the same, in the end.

He’s looking at the rice. Rogers heaps more onto his plate.

“Thank you.”

“Glad you like it.” Rogers is so earnest. It will be the death of him. “Your friend would be angry,” the asset tells him, sounding angry himself. Rogers frowns.

“Which friend? I wouldn't call anybody exactly thrilled but -”

“Him. Bucky.” He spits the name, like a challenge. Rogers doesn't rise to the bait.

“You always thought you knew best, how to keep me safe. It was a subject we tended to disagree on.”

The asset scowls. Rogers placidly continues to eat. He’s on his third serving of lo mein.

Rogers’ stubbornness is exhausting. Rogers laughs when he says this. Low and quiet, like they’re sharing a secret.

“How did you find me?” He hadn't thought to ask, before. Captain America's appearance in that blighted yard was only as improbable as the rest of him.

“Hydra implanted a tracker in you, somewhere. Before they added the one in your arm.” Ah. “Do you know anything about it?”

He might, astonishingly. “I went rogue in…’73, maybe. After I was deployed to New York for an assassination. When I was recovered, multiple measures were taken to ensure my future obedience. It’s possible a sub-dermal tracker was among them; their bioscience had advanced about that far by then.”

A muscle tics in Rogers’ jaw. He looks grim and noble. “What else did they do to you?”

“It was forty years ago.”

“What else did they do?”

“Steve.” It’s the first time he’s said the name. It stops Rog - Steve in his vengeful tracks.

“I - you’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to press.” The asset suspects that Steve Rogers’ hatred of Hydra will far outlast his own. “Signal’s dead, anyway. All that’s left is to find it and remove it.”

“Leave it in.”

“What? Why?”

“It can almost certainly be re-activated, and then it will be useful to your people.”

Steve's brow wrinkles. He is beginning to resemble an exceedingly virtuous bulldog. “How?”

“To locate and neutralize me if I become a danger.”

“You won’t -”

“I might.” This topic is tiresome; Steve is irrational and the asset does not want to argue with him. “There are eight million people in New York, and only one of you. Leave it in.”

Steve grumbles but subsides, unhappy. The asset casts about for a change of subject. "When did you arrive here?"

“In Brooklyn? Same time you did, give or take a few hours. How’d you get here, anyway?”

"Some walking. Some hitching." The asset pauses. "People don't really do that anymore, do they?"

"Not really. It's pretty unsafe."

“Yes. It is.” He holds Rogers’ gaze as he speaks.

The mood has darkened and the asset is sapped of strength. “I’m going to…” He angles his head toward the hallway. He and Steve stand at the same time.

“Good idea. Get some rest, Buck.” He nods and swiftly departs.

***

Steve’s lengthwise on the couch, thumbing through Humans of New York and occasionally glancing at the nature channel that was the least-objectionable thing on TV at this hour. It’s all underwater; something about exotic fish.

From Bucky’s bedroom there’s a cry, pleading and strangled. Then another. They go on, like sirens designed to summon Steve Rogers, but he’s only just stood up when Bucky staggers into view, shoulders his way into the bathroom and kicks the door shut behind him. Immediately, Steve hears the sound of retching. He goes to the tap, fills a glass with cold water.

When Bucky emerges he’s waxy and greyish. Steve hands him the glass and he nods before downing it, then refills it again himself.

“C’mon.” They make it to the couch but there Bucky falters, sliding to his feet gracelessly so that he’s sitting up against it. Steve follows suit.

“You all right?”

“I - probably the food - didn’t agree with me.”

“Or you’re horrifically traumatized, inside and out. You overcame seventy years of torture, you have to uncover your own memories underneath brainwashing and lies, and you’ve just started what’s gonna be a really unpleasant process to figure out who James Buchanan Barnes is, truly, today.” Steve winces internally. He meant to say: Sure.

A beat. “Definitely the food.”

And even though this is all kind of awful, even though Steve’s in pieces and Bucky’s skinny and scared, Steve is suddenly smiling. Beaming, really, dopey with joy. He feels it suffuse him, right alongside bitterness and hatred and sorrow and guilt.

Bucky’s a wreck and Steve’s a disaster, a fucking catastrophe of rage and loss. They both need eons of therapy. There will be broken bones and broken furniture, shouting fights, clumsy declarations of love met with clumsier responses and if Steve’s luck holds, Stark narrating the whole damn debacle.

Steve can’t wait to get started.

He turns his head. Bucky’s lips are quirked, in the most familiar way. It’s his What mess are we jumping into this time, dumbass? expression and it is very, very dear to Steve.

Bucky’s hand rests on the floor between them. Tentatively, Steve's own hand covers his. Metal fingers entwine with human, loose. Easy.

Steve tips his head back, lets his eyes close. “Welcome home, Buck.”