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The Long Road Begins at Home

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The first night’s easy: they’re both giddy with adrenaline, and Barnes with blood loss too. It’s a night of “can you believe it” and some frankly masterful grilled cheese (made one-handed, even). Romanoff proved herself a decent hand with a bandage, and why would Barnes be surprised to discover that Lidia has a bottle of what must be horse tranquilizers. They make the world seem pretty hazy around the edges, anyhow. They make it acceptable to fall asleep sitting up on Rogers’s sofa with his plate still in his lap.

Waking … later (what are in Lidia’s pills), Barnes finds himself prone, with a pillow under his head and a blanket over him. How did you get so sloppy, Barnes.

And Rogers, sitting on the coffee table, staring. Smiling. Smiling is mission-compliant, at least.

“Good morning,” Rogers says, “sorry to stare, I just. Can’t believe you’re really here. That it wasn’t all a dream.”

Rogers's proximity and the intensity of his gaze give Barnes a new, slightly uncomfortable view on surveillance. But given his many aches, he’s pretty certain this is all real.

“Think I might’ve bled on your sofa,” he says, “that proof enough?”

Miscalculation no. 1. The smile drops right off Rogers’s face. Great.

“Is it bad? Can you get up?”

Can he get up. It’s only a few gunshot wounds for shit’s sake. They just hurt, he’s not incapacitated. The worst part is the welts on his face. They smart. And the limited mobility owing to his right arm being strapped to his chest. Barnes pushes himself upright.

“Not so bad. Just need a tighter bandage.”

That through-and-through will take a while to seal up. Unknown how long, without a tank to lie in. Especially if he has to run every day.

“What time is it.”

“A little after nine,” Rogers says, stripping the cardigan off Barnes’s right shoulder and working on the bandage.

Rogers owns a number of cardigans. They look like the kinds of things Ollie would wear. Mission sub-task: set the cardigans on fire.

He listens for the mission imperative.

He gets nothing.

Rogers sits very close. He has his hands on Barnes’s skin. Sleep obtained: 3.25 hours. Function level under 60%. Rogers is so close. Respiration increased.

Note: his hands are gentle. Note: this is the target. Chance of target intentionally causing one physical harm: 7.4%. Proximity necessary for wound dressing. Proximity necessary, not intended as intimidation tactic.

“Here, take this,” Rogers says, one of Lidia’s pills in his hand.

Barnes takes the pill and has it halfway to his mouth before his brain engages. What the hell is that, following orders.

“Don’t want it.”

Where’s the mission.

“Are you sure? It’s stupid to sit around in pain, Buck.”

“Can’t run if I’m doped up.”

Surprise makes Rogers sit back to a more acceptable distance.

“Are you out of your mind? There’s not gonna be any running today, Bucky. You got shot. Multiple times. And shocked. Multiple times. I think maybe your workout routine can take a couple days’ pause.”

My workout routine could take a couple decades’ pause, pal.

“No. We are staying in today, and I’m not letting you out of my sight. Jesus. Bucky.”

This last is said in a different tone of voice. Softer, accompanied by an expression of wide, earnest eyes. And. Leaning in.

For fuck’s sake is this going to be hugging why is Rogers so large.

There is a metallic sound.

“Bucky! Whoa! It’s the door buzzer, calm down! Where did that knife even come from?”

Between the sofa cushions, where else? (Under the sofa cushions, under the sofa, and in the band of his left sock.)

Thank the motherland, the Old Person Brigade has arrived to save him again. They bring noise and cheer, even through the speaker. They clatter up the stairs, and Rogers is smiling again. Barnes lets go the breath he has been holding and tucks the knife away, pulls the cardigan back up around his shoulder. It's dark brown: the blood won't show much.

Pain levels moderate. Maybe a pill would be a wise choice. Since he doesn’t have to run.

“We brought you boys some bagels!” Ollie says at the doorway, holding up a paper bag. “Nothing helps set the world right again like an onion bagel and a schmear.”

“It’s the carbs,” Lidia says, “they cause an insulin spike that dulls your stress response.”

“That sounds like something I would say,” Barnes says without meaning to.

“Oh dear me, how ironic,” Lidia says, and winks at him.

Esther sits next to him on the sofa and prods at the welt on his face with cool fingers. Why is her presence so much less upsetting than Rogers’s. Rogers is the target. It makes no sense.

“Did you get any sleep?” she asks him, “you have to sleep to heal.”

“And grow new blood,” Lidia says.

“No blood!” Ollie says, “we’re not gonna talk about blood, or scary people, or holes in the wall until after bagels.”

They even brought coffee. Because they are the best mission-assists alive, even counting Building JARVIS.

He listens.

There is no “CONFIRM.”

Well. They are.

Esther fixes his coffee for him (three sugars, lots of cream), and Ollie piles what has to be multiple servings of cream cheese onto a bagel. Lidia makes a gesture suggestive of trying to feed the damn thing to him, which is an absolute deny. She grins at his glare, though.

“Just checking to see how far you’d let us coddle you,” she says.

“If it’s up to me,” Rogers says, “infinite coddling, and the welcome-home party would last at least a year.”

No parties, Rogers. What the hell.

"Say, that's a nice sweater, Jimmy," Ollie says.

Barnes stares at Rogers.

"Eat the other half of your bagel," Esther says.

She slathers more cream cheese on it, and Lidia pours another cup of coffee from the cardboard container.

"How is there coffee inside cardboard."

Rogers wears an expression of surprise.

"There's a plastic bag inside," Lidia says, then, to Rogers, "he likes to know how things work."

That is accurate.

"And you like cream in your coffee now, Buck?"

Why does that make Rogers sad.

"What's the ridiculous concoction he always drinks?" Ollie asks.

"Three-shot, two-pump white mocha with extra whip," Lidia says.

"I don't even know what that means," Rogers says.

We gotta get that guy a proper hot drink.

Silence.

We do.

"Keep eating," Esther says.

He's going to, but Barnes blinks at her twice. Just to show that it's his choice, not following orders.

That's another thing that makes no sense. He's let the Olds boss him around for months now.

Pain levels high.

Stress levels high.

Room silent. He looks up to a crowd of frowns. Why.

"So! Iron Man!" Ollie says," that's something you don't expect to see in your hallway in the middle of the night!"

"Did he help you clean up last night? Do I need to speak to the police or anything?" Rogers rubs his head, "I'd like to. Keep Bucky out of it, if we can."

"Oh, that's all done," Esther says, "some people in black outfits showed up, and Lidia and that nice Mr. Stark talked at them until they couldn't think anymore, and they took those horrible things away without asking hardly any questions at all!"

Lidia and Stark together. Chilling. Barnes shudders.

"Are you cold, dear heart?" Esther tucks the blanket closer around him, "keep eating."

He has cream cheese on his finger plates.

"And he dragged the bed out of Walter’s old place to plug up the hole in the wall! Very useful young man, with the flying and the shooting lasers out of his hands. Bit of a know-it-all, though."

"Takes one to know one, Ollie," Lidia says.

"You should know," Ollie says.

No more frowns. Good job, Olds.

Sigh.

Confirm.

"I hope your landlord can get that fixed soon, it's too cold to be open to the elements like that," Rogers says.

Rogers is significantly behind on the latest intel. Even Barnes, low on blood and high on the freak-out scale, can smile at that one.

"Might was well hope for my old teeth back!" Ollie says, "after everything Jimmy's put that bastard through! Pardon my language."

It's embarrassing to sit under four pairs of eyes and be talked about. To be described as the hero. All he did was chase away one rat of a landlord and his large, ugly friend. Well, and without killing them. That was pretty good. But it shouldn't be enough to make Rogers look all melty about the eyes like that.

They weren't even that tough. The ugly friend only had a lead pipe, not even a proper weapon. Barnes probably wouldn't have done more than toss him out on his ear, except the guy had tried to ruin Barnes's stuff when he'd just bought supplies for -

"Oh no," he says, and why are words coming out of his mouth, "I was going to buy a heat-conserving container and make a mocha for Steve."

Hmm. Function levels might be lower than originally calculated.

"Oh, Jimmy," Esther says with a quaver in her voice.

And there is Rogers too close again, with those wide eyes. The mission is not here, and the briefing is not here, and Barnes has a catalog of impairments: fatigue, injury, restraint, confusion, abrupt mission reconfiguration. Is there some left over cognitive damage from last night's struggle against reprogramming. Everything seems very close by and loud.

"Bucky," Rogers says in a soft voice, "you still can. We've got time."

Respiration decreases to 10% above baseline. Time is good. Time is required to regain function. Acceptable.

He nods. Rogers sits back on his heels.

“Look at the two of you!” Ollie says.

He is unable to sit still in the chair Rogers pulled up for him. He moves every second, and he doesn’t stop smiling even to chew.

“Cap and Bucky, together again! What a day. I could never have even imagined it.”

“Me neither,” Rogers says, his voice hoarse.

Which makes tears come into Esther’s eyes, and she pats Steve’s arm.

“Everything will be all right now, you'll see,” she says. “Just don’t push Jimmy too hard. It’ll be okay.”

Push too hard. Push what. If running is detrimental to healing, so is pushing.

“I. Sure! Okay, yeah. Okay,” Rogers says, frowning at Barnes.

What is that frown.

Barnes looks at Esther. She smooths his hair out of his eyes and pats his uninjured cheek.

"You'll see," she says.

See what.

He looks at Lidia.

“You look as if you could use another pill,” Lidia says, “tight around the eyes. You don’t want to wear yourself out with hurting, do you?”

“No.”

“Just so. Will you take one?”

“They make me sleepy.”

“As well they should. You had a very exciting night. You should sleep.”

It’s rude to sleep around company.

“You’re here.”

“Son, we’ll be here so much you’ll think we’ve moved in,” Ollie says. “You’ve had your breakfast, now have a nap. Steve’s the only one hale and hearty around here, so he gets to do clean-up.”

Rogers laughs, and Esther rubs Barnes’s knee.

Okay. Okay, he can sleep for a bit.

He takes the pill. He lets Esther tuck him back in on the sofa under Rogers's scratchy blanket. She has her fingers in his hair, which doesn't bother him at all. It calms him, though the contrast with his reaction to Rogers’s proximity disturbs. She hums at him, so the quiet conversation Ollie, Lidia, and Rogers are having in the kitchen reaches him only in snatches.

"Busy's better … just stay … not too many questions," Ollie says.

“But I need,” Rogers says.

"Don’t. He'll let … give it time," Lidia says.

"What are they talking about."

"Don't you worry about it, Jimmy," Esther tells him, "you know those two, always running off at the mouth, it's nothing you need to concern yourself with. You just lie there and go to sleep, we've all had enough excitement for –“

He wakes to find that the Olds have gone, 4.5 hours have passed, and Rogers has fallen asleep in his armchair, a sketchbook tipped over in his lap. Clearly drawing Barnes in his sleep.

On one hand, it is a minor violation of privacy. On the other hand, if someone's going to stare at him while he sleeps, Barnes prefers Rogers to all the other nefarious bastards of the past 70 years. Seems fair, anyhow. Barnes has stared at Rogers for months now.

Rogers looks tired, even in his sleep.

It's a challenge to move silently with one's right arm strapped to one's chest, but Barnes has had excellent training. He rises from the sofa so slowly that Rogers doesn't wake, has a pee, and discovers that if they are in a contest for who looks most likely collapse in a heap, Barnes wins by a mile. He should probably be in a hospital.

Silence.

He might even agree to go to one, if it'll bring the mission and the briefing back. All this silence in his head. It's terrible.

Also terrible: the state of his hair. Looks like he's been spending time in a wind tunnel. He has no information as to whether it's rude to share hairbrushes, but this counts as an emergency.

Barnes wanders the apartment while Rogers sleeps. The body feels stiff under all its injuries. He will walk some, then sit back down. It's a boring plan, but it's still a plan.

The plant he gave Rogers remains alive. Barnes gives it a glass of water. The soil feels dry, and the leaves droop a bit. Bad form, Rogers.

The refrigerator is mostly empty, containing only orange juice, milk, Rogers's apples nestled up next to Barnes's pears, half a container of cream cheese, and 4 slices of dried-out pizza that do not look fit for consumption.

Rogers's phone is upstairs next to the bed. Its screen reports 5 missed calls. The bed is rumpled.

The sheep pants are lying on top of the wastebasket, one leg trailing on the floor.

No.

Barnes picks them up. They're stiff with blood – his blood. But they can be cleaned. Rogers should not discard clothing just because it got a little blood on it. That's wasteful. Also. These are the sheep pants. They are an important object.

If Steve doesn't want them, maybe he will give them to Barnes.

He goes back downstairs and sits on the sofa, the sheep pants on his knee, and waits for Rogers to wake up.

Rogers awakens 56 minutes later. Fifty-six minutes is a long time to wait for someone to wake up. It is a long time to consider operational possibilities. What if the briefing stays silent. What if the mission imperative stays silent.

He can feel the mission. It's like a knot of pain in his chest, just to the right of his heart. He can feel the briefing: it's a sense of something in one's peripheral vision. Present but unseen.

If they remain silent. If their only purpose was to guide him until he contacted Rogers.

Well that's fucking unfair, isn't it? You can't expect a mission head to do everything alone. What if there's another HYDRA reprogrammer out there.

There's always another HYDRA reprogrammer out there, Barnes, don't kid yourself.

Steve has to have the sheep pants. If there's any chance Barnes's control can be overridden, and the mission and the briefing are gone, what's left to stop him?

What if the Asset is still in there somewhere. The Asset hurt Steve. But the mission is to protect.

The sheep pants are critical to target safety. They remind the self to stay the self.

Also: if Rogers is going to spend all this time sleeping, Barnes is going to have to go across the street to fetch his phone. And a book.

"Hey, Buck, you okay?"

Rogers doesn't look any less the worse for wear after his nap. This is a sub-optimal day.

"You can't throw these away," he says.

Rogers looks at the pants in Barnes's hand.

"Throw them away?"

"They were in the wastebasket."

"I just took them off without looking, Buck, they have blood all over them. I'm not gonna throw away clothes just because they're dirty, that's wasteful. Why do you care about my pajamas?"

Oh. Explaining.

"I need them."

"You need my pajamas? You can have them Buck, of course.”

"I need you to have them."

“You need me to have them?”

Nod.

"But why?"

The words won't come out. Barnes's mouth feels stuck shut. He can only shake his head. He holds the pants out toward Rogers.

"It's important?"

Nod.

So much frowning. Mission adjustment is difficult. Proximity should have resulted in happiness.

What are you doing wrong, Barnes.

Probably everything.

"What's wrong, Bucky?"

What.

"You look upset. It’s okay about the pajamas. I won’t throw them out.”

That’s not what he meant. But Barnes doesn’t know how to make the words come out.

“Your shoulder hurting?"

"Pain improved."

"Which I guess means no pill."

"No pill."

Are they going to stare at each other for the rest of their lives.

"Look, uh. Ollie and Lidia said."

Anything Ollie and Lidia said will probably be useful.

"They said you have a hard time talking about things."

Confirm, useful.

Nod.

"There's so much I want to ask, Bucky. But I don't. I can see it's."

Talking is apparently not Rogers's' strong suit either.

"See what."

"I can see it's hard, Buck. For you. I. Want to help."

The mission isn't here to yell at him, but Barnes remembers: Rogers shares the order to protect.

"One question."

Rogers's right eyebrow hops up and down.

"Just one?"

Barnes feels his face almost smile at that one.

"No! No way, Bucky, that does not count."

He looks so relieved. Good job, Barnes.

"Okay. One more, then."

Some of the stiffness runs out of Rogers's shoulders, but his face does a strange thing. He ducks his head, then lifts his eyes - wide, almost fearful.

"You remember me, Buck?"

Barnes runs through the information left to him by the briefing. It is a wholly inadequate amount. But remember: yes. He has this consciousness's memories as well, going back to September. Those are his own.

"Some."

"You remember that we're. Friends?"

1. That is a third question, pal. 2. It is a stupid question. Twelve hours ago Barnes had the argument of his life with himself just to avoid shooting this guy in the face.

Reassess: if that amount of memory is insufficient, what the hell's it gonna take, Rogers.

"From the look on your face, if this were the old days I'd say you were thinking what a dumbass I am," Rogers says in a voice that is not one bit successful at sounding light and joking.

However.

"Accurate."

Rogers actually laughs a little at that one.

We’re on a roll, miss—dammit.

“Okay, Buck. I’m glad.”

He opens his mouth, then shuts it again, more questions clearly desperate to come out. Poor guy. Following the rules is so hard for him.

“Go ahead.”

Rogers shakes his head.

“I want to know what happened last night. And how in the world you ended up living across the street. And how you got to New York. And what happened in DC, after. I want to know everything, Buck. I want to know how this is even possible. You. Here.”

That is too much. Too many words. Barnes shakes his head.

“I’m sorry. Just the first one, then. What happened last night? They were HYDRA, right?”

“Confirm.”

“I don’t have a lot of Russian. But he was trying to control you? The tall guy?”

That is a memory. It carries with it pain, fear, and a lump in the throat that prevents speech.

Nod.

“But you fought it off. Like you did when we. Fought.”

Obviously. Nod.

Barnes watches Rogers have a strong emotion. What does one do for that. Especially given that Rogers is clearly trying not to show the emotion rolling through him. Maybe the correct action is to pretend nothing is happening.

“You’re so strong. Bucky. I can’t even. I just.”

Rogers’s voice is hoarse. Barnes knows emotion is difficult. This would be a good time for a run. Or a sandwich. Distraction. Or maybe affirmation. Which is correct.

If only the Olds were still here. Ollie would clean his glasses. Lidia would pour small glasses of alcohol. Esther would hug Steve and tell him it’s okay.

Well. That much Barnes can do.

“It’s okay.”

“What?”

“Strong emotion. You will recover from it and be all right.”

It must be the correct thing to say, because Rogers passes his hand over his face and laughs a little.

“I don’t. God. Thanks, Buck. But I was worrying about you.”

“Healing progressing.”

“That’s good. But I kind of meant everything on the inside.”

That’s more complicated.

“Mission adjustment. It’s difficult.”

“You mean being here? Instead of watching?”

Nod.

“Well, I’m glad. Just to see your face, I can’t even believe it. I mean. You’re here! Bucky.”

Rogers looks almost happy. That’s an improvement. How do we keep this going. How do we not mess this up.

Barnes makes a little smile.

Rogers makes a huge smile. So that’s good.

“Right. What do you need? You want a shower? Some food? How’s the shoulder?”

At least these questions are easily answered. Too bad none of them are “how about 30 minutes alone behind a closed door.’

“My phone,” he says.

His ear feels weird without the earbud in it.

“Expecting a call?”

In this instance, being glared at seems to be what Rogers wants.

“I’ll get your stuff, Bucky. You gonna trust me for ten minutes out of your sight?”

Not really, but Barnes is too wobbly from blood loss and fatigue to do anyone any good. Also, he can’t wear a shirt with his arm strapped up, and it’s fucking cold outside.

“No.”

Note: Rogers really likes sass.

“Them’s the breaks, Buck. I’ll hurry, I promise. Here, you should eat.”

Barnes eats his pear slowly, to make the time seem less long that Rogers is gone, out of both observation and listening distance. Unacceptable. He needs to get back on track. Proximity doesn’t lessen the task of protection. Just adds to the difficulty of protecting Steve from his own fuck-ups.

But Rogers keeps his word. It’s only 4.5 minutes later that Rogers emerges from the front door across the street with a small bundle in his arms.

He doesn’t look before crossing the street, because he is an asshole.

“Gee, who could’ve guessed you’d be watching at the window?” Rogers says. “Here’s your phone. I grabbed some clothes, too. I figure you don’t want to spend every waking moment in my sweatpants until we can get all your stuff.”

Why not? They’re comfortable.

His phone has many text and voice messages. The familiar sensation of the earbud calms him.

“Is that how you listened in? Bugs programmed to your phone?”

Nod.

“Don’t need them now.”

Shrug.

“Okay, Buck. Look. Can I … call a friend? Will it be weird to hear me talk about you? I really want to let him know what happened.”

Flying Sam. He will say useful things to Rogers. And to Barnes too, but Rogers doesn’t need to know about his phone yet.

“Okay.”

Barnes reads his messages while he listens in on the conversation. Building JARVIS called and texted repeatedly, inquiring about his safety. That’s gratifying. Barnes texts back a status report and his thanks for sending assistance. It’s a touchy operation, one-handed and having to be so careful not to shatter the screen with his metal hand. Takes a long time.

It almost makes Barnes feel regret for the Asset’s causing a similar wound to Romanoff, except that the one text not from building JARVIS is from her, and how did she get his number.

Building JARVIS, probably. Mission-assists ganging up on him.

The text is in Russian.

<Call if you need a break from the hovering.>

Which is. Why.

He types back, “thanks.”

Meanwhile, Rogers is 75% more animated on the phone than he has been speaking to Barnes. Why.

The story Rogers gives to flying Sam leaves out several pertinent details. For example: the amount of time Rogers spent with a gun pointed at his face.

Rogers keeps smiling.

“Where is he now?” flying Sam asks.

“He’s here, Sam. With me.”

“You sure about that, Steve? That can’t be safe. You don’t know how he is, not really.”

An excellent point.

“Don’t care. I’m not letting him out of my sight.”

“Steve. Come on, man. It’s definitely a big deal that he keeps breaking his conditioning for you, but you can’t trust it. You don’t know how deep that shit goes. It’s dangerous. He needs to be somewhere he can’t hurt anybody.”

While also an excellent point, this causes the pulse to elevate.

“That’s here. I can take care of myself,” Steve growls, “and him.”

The mission would be so excited to hear that growl. It’s Rogers yelling ‘PROTECT.’

“Come on, Steve, you don’t –“

“Sam. He just spent two months living with a bunch of old people who think he hung the moon in the sky and took half the morning to lecture me about how I have to treat him gently or they’ll kick my ass.”

They said what.

“He’s been living across the street with your old folks?”

“Yes, Sam. Doing home repair and bonding with a cat.”

“That shouldn’t even be possible!”

“Bucky can do anything he sets his mind to,” Rogers says.

That makes the briefing shiver. It doesn’t quite speak or give him anything, but Barnes is so relieved to feel it there, to not be alone in his own head, that he leans over into the side of the sofa. Fatigue levels high.

“Gotta go, Sam, call you later.”

Rogers comes too close. He puts his hands on Barnes’s body. But for the moment, Barnes has no energy for panic. The briefing is still there.

Maybe it feels shy, with its object of purpose so close by.

“You okay, Buck? Something wrong?”

“Tired.”

“You lost a lot of blood. Breathing okay?”

“Respiration unimpaired.”

“That’s not – you don’t have to give me a report, Bucky. I’m asking how you feel. Come on, get your feet up, it’ll make your head feel more clear.”

Barnes would like to cringe away from Rogers’s touch, but he’s too tired. Those hands are gentle, at least, as they tuck the blanket around him and check his shoulder.

“We’re gonna have to take those stitches out tomorrow afternoon or you’ll have them permanently.”

Won’t that be fun.

“Think you can sleep a little?”

Nod.

He doesn’t, though, at first. He lies on the sofa and listens to Rogers resume his conversation with flying Sam from the sleeping loft.

“I can’t believe it, Sam.”

“We agree on that part, anyway.”

“Come up here and see.”

“Now that’s where you luck out, because if I don’t spend Thanksgiving at my mama’s house in Harlem, she will remove me from existence.”

That is positive news. Barnes has some things to say to flying Sam. He can practice them so they will come out right. And it will be a benefit to have an assessment of his emotional state from a professional. The Olds and Steve are not objective observers.

It takes 3.1 seconds for Rogers to convince Sam to let him call Stark to request a private jet from DC. Funny.

“Just stay alive for another week, okay?”

Rogers doesn’t think that’s amusing. Rogers is wrong.

Barnes wakes much later. He guesses 7.75 hours. The phone tells him 0126: close. His internal timekeeping must require adequate blood flow for accuracy. His head feels less full of static, and his small wounds itch, indicating healing.

A glass of orange juice and a sandwich sit on the coffee table behind a note reading ‘EAT THIS.’

Eat, sure thing. He puts the juice into the refrigerator and pours a glass of milk instead. A hot meal would be better, but he doesn’t want to wake Rogers.

Watching Rogers sleep calms the body and mind. Even though he looks like a dope, snuggling one pillow as if it were a lifesaving device.

Between the calm and the nutrition, Barnes is ready to return to sleep, and the hope that day 2 of close proximity will be slightly less awkward.