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A thick file was slapped onto the table in front of him.

 

The Asset was broken out of his blank stare, and he refocused on the manila folder bulging with scraps of paper.

 

The Asset looked up at the Handler.

 

The Handler raised his chin and wordlessly flipped the file open to a page that had some text at the base of a blurry image.

 

The image depicted a small, thin man struggling to haul a portfolio through a crowded street. Analysis: not a threat, unless strapped with a time bomb or some shit.

 

The Asset turned to the text.

 

ROGERS, STEVEN GRANT

 

Analysis: That was a very. Vague name.

 

“This is your new target,” the Handler said, tapping the image of Rogers, Steven Grant. “The mission takes high priority. Level seven target, you hear me?”

 

The Asset’s mouth twitched, wanting to frown. The last level seven target had been a fucking president. This was surprising, especially because of how non-threatening Rogers, Steven Grant looked.

 

“High stealth. Scope him out first. We don’t want it to be messy. Make it look like a suicide, yeah? You’re good at that.”

 

That was true. The Asset was very good at many ways of murder, though.

 

“You’ll go in alone. You’ll have enough resources to last you three days. You will complete the mission and report to this address,” the Handler said, tapping a post-it note stuck to the side of the folder. “Is that clear?”

 

“Confirm,” the Asset said.

 

The Handler nodded decisively. “Get him dressed,” he called to the men in tactical gear. “Civilian clothes.”

 

The Asset was hauled to his feet and wrestled into clothes. Jeans. A gray shirt. A rather comfortable jacket. Gloves. Combat boots.

 

The Handler handed him a bulky backpack. “Your supplies are in here.”

 

“Acknowledged,” the Asset said. He put the backpack on and stared blankly ahead.

 

“Sedate him and prep for transport,” the Handler said.

 

The Asset felt a needle bite into his neck. Cold rushed through his veins, and he succumbed to the pull of the dark gladly.

 


 

 

The Asset woke up slumped in a very grimy alley.

 

Analysis: Typical.

 

The Asset got to his feet, taking note that he still felt fuzzy on the edges. Which meant it would be highly suboptimal to encounter hostiles.

 

He stumbled out of the alley, metal hand deliberately coming up to clutch at the strap of the backpack. It would also be suboptimal to lose all of his supplies.

 

The Asset looked at the street. He was... somewhere in Washington DC.

 

Rogers, Steven Grant’s address came back to him, and the Asset swung his backpack around and reached into the front compartment. He counted his money.

 

Five hundred dollars for a three-day mission.

 

Analysis: The Asset could spend money on a cab.

 

The Asset hailed a cab.

 

An overweight man with five-o-clock shadow and grease stains on his shirt picked him up. “Where to?”

 

The Asset rattled off the address, coming to the conclusion that this man would not be a threat, even in the Asset’s suboptimal state. When he estimated that they were approximately three blocks from Rogers-Steven-Grant’s apartment building, he said, “Stop.”

 

The cab driver pulled over to the side. “Seventeen twenty,” he said.

 

The Asset gave him a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

 

The Asset began scoping out the area as he walked towards Rogers-Steven-Grant’s building. He lived in a nice place with limited foot traffic. His apartment window looked out onto the streets, much to the Asset’s satisfaction. It was not difficult to select a building with good sightlines. He scaled the side of the selected building and sat down on the roof.

 

He unzipped his bag to examine his supplies.

 

Three guns. Eight knives. Two grenades. A sedative and a needle. His money. A bag of powdered food. Three water bottles. A disposable cell phone. Equipment to bug Rogers-Steven-Grant’s apartment.

 

Analysis: Hell yeah.

 

The Asset set up his sniper rifle and aligned the scope so that he could see inside Rogers-Steven-Grant’s apartment.

 

Nobody was home.

 

The Asset was going to bug the fuck out of Rogers-Steven-Grant’s apartment.

 

It was easy to break into his apartment. Rogers-Steven-Grant didn’t lock his windows. The apartment itself was very minimalist. It looked more like a magazine’s version of an apartment than an apartment anyone could live in.

 

But then again. What did the Asset know about apartments?

 

He placed a bug in every room, which didn’t take very long, since there were only three rooms, including the bathroom. The kitchen shifted into a living room (and studio?) halfway through. The bedroom was through a slightly ajar door. And the bathroom was connected to the bedroom.

 

The Asset turned on all the bugs and turned on the program that would give him sound. He tested each one by snapping his fingers near them and was satisfied with their functionality.

 

The Asset heard a key jiggle its way into the doorknob.

 

He was out the window and down the fire escape in less than ten seconds as if he had never been in the apartment in the first place.

 

“Fuck,” Rogers-Steven-Grant said over what sounded like a bunch of papers falling. The Asset paused in surprise. Rogers-Steven-Grant’s voice was much lower than he had expected from the small man in the file’s photograph. The Asset made sure his earbuds were secure in his ears before he made his way back to the roof of his building. There was some irritated grumbling as Rogers-Steven-Grant picked up his papers.

 

The Asset settled down and looked through the scope of his rifle.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant stood in his kitchen/living room/studio(?) with his hands on his hips, looking vaguely annoyed. He set his portfolio down against the drawing table that was in front of the window the Asset had gone through. Rogers-Steven-Grant then kicked off his shoes and sat down at the drawing table. He frowned at some papers for a long time, and then opened up his laptop.

 

There was a ringing sound that the Asset did not recognize. Then, crackly noise burst through his earbuds, and a woman’s voice was saying, “What up, Rogers?”

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant ran his hands through his hair, making the blonde strands stick up horribly. “I had a shitty day,” he said, and the Asset was, for some reason, surprised again by how deep his voice was.

 

“Wanna talk about it?” the woman asked, and the Asset inferred that Rogers-Steven-Grant was using some kind of video communication software.

 

“Not particularly.”

 

“Okay,” the woman said. “Do you wanna hear about the dumb things Clint did today, then?”

 

“Sure,” Rogers-Steven-Grant said, folding himself on his chair so that he was sitting crisscross-applesauce on it.

 

Analysis: Was that even very comfortable?

 

The woman launched into a story about the Clint person, allowing the Asset to come to the conclusion that the Clint person was very stupid and that the Asset did not need to be bothering himself with listening to such stories.

 

But the Asset was patient. He could wait for Rogers-Steven-Grant or his companion to say something interesting.

 

“How’s the comic book coming?” the woman asked after a while of senseless chatter.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant shifted in his seat. “Um.”

 

“Not good?”

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant scowled. “My characters aren’t realistic enough,” he huffed. “Personality-wise or artistically. It’s just complete shit so far. Maybe I wasn’t meant to make comics, Nat. Maybe I can settle for graphic design. I like it enough.”

 

“But that isn’t your dream,” the woman said, and the Asset imagined her frowning. “Look, Steve. The first time I met you, I knew that you had the power to be one of those rare people who can actually change the world.”

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant scoffed.

 

“I don’t say this shit lightly,” the woman said, her voice sounding grave.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant shut up.

 

“You have power in you. Don’t discount yourself too quickly.”

 

Interesting. Although emotional speeches from a friend did not equate reaching a level seven threat, the Asset could admit that he was a little bit intrigued.

 

“Whatever,” Rogers-Steven-Grant grumbled. “I’m putting on some music.”

 

He did, and the Asset’s mouth twitched in distaste. What the fuck kind of music did this guy like? It just sounded like pretentious screeching.

 

Analysis: This mission was going to be three days of torture.

 


 

 

Correction: This mission was going to be three days of trying not to kill himself.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant was going to kill him. The Asset was certain.

 

Reasons:

 

  1. The target had the worst singing voice the Asset had ever heard.

 

  1. He did not watch anything interesting on television- just some show about ladies with plastic surgery yelling at each other a lot.

 

  1. His only friend appeared to be the woman that he had to speak with through the internet. How tragic, Rogers-Steven-Grant, you poor button.

 

  1. He liked. To take. Walks.

 

The Asset glared at everything around him as he dragged his feet, reluctantly following Rogers-Steven-Grant from a safe distance. There was no way to hear him since the Asset had only bugged the apartment, but the Asset didn’t think he was missing anything important. Today, it was just important to gather intelligence.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant walked into a bookstore called The Corner. The Asset followed him inside and pretended to browse through the shelves, which seemed to hold a combination of comic books, novels, and biographies.

 

Analysis: Rogers-Steven-Grant was a nerd.

 

“Hey, man,” a warm voice said, and the Asset managed to smother a jolt of surprise. He turned around sharply to face a man.

 

Analysis: Threat level, considerable. Muscular body. Light stance. Distance in eyes suggesting military past.

 

The Asset tensed.

 

The man held up his hands, eyes widening. “Whoa, sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Sam Wilson. I own this shop,” the man said, grinning toothily in a way that took the edge off of his sad eyes. “I’ve never seen you in here before, and I just wanted to introduce myself.”

 

The Asset swallowed, telling his body to stop being so fucking tense. “Hello,” he said mechanically.

 

Sam Wilson nodded at the book he was holding. “You wanna buy that?”

 

The Asset glanced down at what he was holding. It was a book of jokes. He wrinkled his nose in distaste and was about to shove the book back into the shelf when Rogers-Steven-Grant wandered into the isle with a distracted greeting to Sam. “Yes,” the Asset blurted out, suddenly panicked. “I would... like to buy this...”

 

Sam snorted. “Sure thing, man. Just follow me to the counter.”

 

The Asset reached into his backpack and carefully removed the suitable amount of money to pay.

 

“Where’d you serve?” Sam Wilson asked as he rummaged through the cash register, trying to sound casual.

 

“What.”

 

“I was kinda all over the place. You?”

 

The Asset was not prepared for this line of questioning. “Um.”

 

“Lemme guess. Classified?” Sam Wilson asked wryly.

 

“Um. Yes.”

 

“That’s cool. Me too, mostly.” Sam Wilson established eye contact before handing the Asset the stupid joke book. The Asset quickly looked away. “Anyway, hope you have a nice day.”

 

“You too,” the Asset managed before bolting out of the store and waiting for Rogers-Steven-Grant to emerge as he calmed himself down, twisting the joke book absentmindedly in his hands.

 

Interacting with people. Was highly suboptimal.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant strolled out of The Corner with a little bag supposedly containing books. Nerd books. The Asset pushed the frazzled air out of his lungs and resumed following the target.

 

The target was boring.

 

He went to the grocery store and bought food items. He went to CVS and waited for a long list of prescription drugs. He met with a client at a coffee shop. He started walking home.

 

The Asset was frowning. Rogers-Steven-Grant was exceedingly normal for someone so high on Hydra’s threat list.

 

The Asset was trying to focus on the nuances of Rogers-Steven-Grant’s gait when it happened.

 

A homeless man with a rudimentary prosthetic leg stumbled into a wall, cursing softly under his breath. He was carrying a big bag of what the Asset assumed were all of his important belongings. A man in a suit passed with a scoff and surreptitiously kicked at the prosthetic. The homeless man went down in a scramble of limbs.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant immediately dropped down to help the homeless man up. After he’d gotten to his feet, he barked, “I’m fine,” with genuine anger and began to storm off.

 

Not deterred, Rogers-Steven-Grant whirled around towards the man in the suit, expression infuriated. “Fucking asshole.”

 

The man in the suit tossed a look over his shoulder at Rogers-Steven-Grant and rolled his eyes. He dropped a cigarette on the pavement, not pausing, not even responding.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant visibly considered going after the guy, his stance tense, but his phone started to ring. He cursed and picked up, distractedly saying, “Hello?”

 

The Asset was frowning harder. Why was Rogers-Steven-Grant on Hydra’s threat list? Why was this guy a level fucking seven?

 

Analysis: It is not your job to ask why anything is done.

 

(Sub-analysis: The Asset wanted to know anyway.)

 

The Asset shook his head, glaring at nothing in particular. He started walking after Rogers-Steven-Grant again.

 

When Rogers-Steven-Grant went to bed that evening after some more terrible reality shows, the Asset realized that he had never thrown out the book of jokes like he had initially meant to.

 

He would throw the book away tomorrow. The Asset stuffed it into his backpack and returned his gaze to the target.

 


 

 

It’s not that the Asset had never questioned a mission before.

 

It was just that... the Asset had never questioned a mission before.

 

(At least that he could remember.)

 

The problem was, the Asset saw no reason Rogers-Steven-Grant should constitute such a high threat. Sure, a level one may have been justifiable. Level ones could be eliminated for something as mundane as speaking out against a certain policy that Hydra supported.

 

But level seven?

 

Level sevens meant considerable danger to the stability of society as the world knew it. And Rogers-Steven-Grant was decidedly not dangerous. He even helped the homeless man with no leg without expecting thanks.

 

He listened to bad music and watched bad TV and needed to swallow between fifteen and twenty pills every morning just to make it through the day.

 

So. The Asset was a little bit weirded out. Which wasn’t allowed. He wasn’t designed to question orders.

 

But... Rogers-Steven-Grant was so fucking harmless that it was hard not to second-guess himself.

 


 

 

Never fucking mind.

 

It had been halfway through the second day of the mission.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant was out on some errands again that the Asset really didn’t care about, so the Asset decided to step inside The Corner for reasons he did not bother to analyze.

 

Sam Wilson grinned toothily at him. “Hey, you’re back,” he said cheerfully.

 

The Asset nodded slowly.

 

“You don’t have to buy anything,” Sam Wilson went on, “You can just keep me company if you want.”

 

The Asset swallowed. “I’m not very good company,” he managed, internally wincing. His tone sounded so robotically monotonous.

 

Sam Wilson scoffed. “I’m making coffee. Don’t leave.”

 

The Asset shuffled around for a moment, pretending to look at the cover of a comic book.

 

Sam Wilson returned and handed the Asset a cup of coffee. “I don’t have any sugar or shit,” he said apologetically.

 

The Asset lifted a shoulder. “That’s okay.” He took a sip of the coffee. It tasted bitter, but the Asset had tasted worse.

 

Besides, the bitterness was somewhat pleasant.

 

He and Sam Wilson drank in silence for a moment.

 

“How’s your joke book?” Sam Wilson suddenly asked.

 

The Asset shot him a look, vaguely alarmed. “What?”

 

“The joke book.”

 

The Asset felt the skin of his face heat. Which was. Highly unpleasant. He frowned. “I haven’t read it yet.” It was still in his fucking backpack. Fuck, why hadn’t he discarded the thing yet?

 

Sam Wilson’s eyes were twinkling. “I bet it’s a good read,” he teased.

 

The Asset just nodded noncommittally, not really sure what he was supposed to say.

 

But Sam Wilson didn’t say anything else. He just sat down on an out-of-place beanbag chair and breathed in the scent of his coffee with a content smile.

 

The Asset hovered awkwardly.

 

Sam Wilson wasn’t looking at him like he was weird, so the Asset figured it was okay when he gingerly sat down on the floor, a safe distance from Sam Wilson in case of threat.

 

They drank their coffee in silence, which made the Asset feel surprisingly warm. When that was finished, the Asset lingered for a minute before sliding the empty mug towards Sam Wilson, leaving it within arm’s reach. “I have to go,” he muttered, still with the fucking humiliating monotone.

 

Sam Wilson just nodded. “Cool. See you around.”

 

The Asset exited The Corner and made his way to the store that Rogers-Steven-Grant had been in when he’d gotten bored.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant was not there anymore.

 

The Asset made a displeased face. He had literally turned his back for five minutes.

 

But Rogers-Steven-Grant couldn’t have gone terribly far.

 

The Asset was debating his search route when he heard a slight crash in the nearest alley. Curious, he went to investigate.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant held up both fists as he faced a nicely muscled man. He spit out a wad of blood, and the Asset scowled. What was going on here?

 

“That it?” Rogers-Steven-Grant said.

 

The muscled man said, “Just stay down,” and swung a fist towards Rogers-Steven-Grant’s face.

 

Analysis: Rogers-Steven-Grant may not need the Asset’s help- he was doing a fine job of getting himself to an early grave without a target on his back.

 

But, to the Asset’s shock, Rogers-Steven-Grant sidestepped the punch with expert grace, twirled around almost like a dancer, and kicked down at the back of the muscled man’s knee.

 

The muscled man lost his balance. He quickly got to his feet, furious. “The fuck?”

 

“Just stay down,” Rogers-Steven-Grant said, smirking humorlessly through a split lip.

 

“You’re crazy- get out of my fucking alley,” the man spat.

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant shrugged and turned to start walking away when the man muttered something that the Asset couldn’t make out under his breath. Rogers-Steven-Grant half-turned, and when the Asset blinked, Rogers-Steven-Grant was pressing his forearm across the muscled man’s neck. “Shut the fuck up,” he snapped, and then moved to storm off with more finality as the muscled man coughed.

 

The Asset frowned the entire way back to Rogers-Steven-Grant’s building.

 

Analysis: Obviously, Rogers-Steven-Grant had gotten into a fight before. He knew how to handle himself, despite his weakness and other limitations.

 

(Sub-analysis: Maybe this was part of why Hydra wanted him dead? He could fight?)

 

((Sub-sub-analysis: That did not sound right.))

 

Rogers-Steven-Grant gotten home and politely dodged a Skype call from his only friend. Instead, he grabbed an icepack, pressed it to his face, and started drawing at his drafting table.

 

He was not taking care of the cuts on his face properly. They required more than a fucking ice pack. Get it together, Rogers-Steven-Grant.

 

The Asset was starting to feel mildly irritated with the whole thing, so he turned away from the scope of his rifle and rummaged through his backpack.

 

He paused when he saw the joke book.

 

After a long moment of indecision, the Asset pulled the book out and flipped to the first page.

 

He’d just read a few dumb jokes as a healthy distraction from the pointed focus of this fucking mission.

 

 


 

 

The Asset read almost half of the jokes before he realized that Rogers-Steven-Grant had fallen asleep on his drafting table.

 

 


 

 

It was the third day.

 

The Asset was supposed to kill Rogers-Steven-Grant.

 

And to be totally honest, the Asset was kind of baffled as to why he hadn’t done it yet. It’d be easy.

 

But it was like there was something in his conditioning that was telling him to wait, just wait a few minutes, even though the Asset knew that this was a ridiculous idea.

 

Besides. The Asset still had a full day to do it. It’s not like he was in a rush.

 

The Asset belatedly broke himself out of his increasingly distracting thoughts in time to see Rogers-Steven-Grant leave the apartment, presumably to meet with a client.

 

Well.

 

The Asset was in no state to follow him. He was... malfunctioning. Badly. Highly suboptimal conditions for fieldwork.

 

But he could snoop around the apartment while Rogers-Steven-Grant was gone. Maybe if he could see why the target was a level seven, the malfunctioning would stop.

 

The Asset broke into the apartment through the same window that he had used when he’d gone to bug it.

 

The Asset poked around the living room first. Rogers-Steven-Grant had a bunch of books- mostly comics and biographies, which seemed like an odd combination until the Asset remembered that this was almost exactly what Sam Wilson sold at his store. There was nothing particularly treasonous in the titles, so the Asset moved to the kitchen.

 

And stopped in his fucking tracks.

 

On the counter, a sandwich sat on a paper towel, looking condemningly at the Asset. The Asset cautiously approached it and saw that there was a note on a piece of sketchbook paper.

 

Hungry? I make a mean sandwich :)

 

-Steve

 

Analysis: ---

 

There was a little doodle that looked unfairly professional, displaying the target offering the sandwich to the viewer.

 

With a horrifying tremble to his fingers, the Asset picked up the paper and flipped it over to see if there was anything on the back.

 

There wasn’t.

 

Analysis: What the fuck was happening here?

 

The Asset examined the sandwich. Who did the target leave this for?

 

Who did he-

 

Who-

 

Analysis: You know the answer.

 

The Asset’s mouth went dry. This had never happened- he was- the Asset was too good at what he did- this was-

 

Steve Rogers had somehow noticed him.

 

That was the only explanation.

 

Steve Rogers with his fucking smiley face and his fucking doodles and his fucking sandwich.

 

The Asset should just stay in the apartment. Kill the bastard the second he walked back inside.

 

Instead, the Asset continued to stare at the sandwich, a soft shudder coursing through his body without his volition.

 

What was he supposed to do?

 

The Asset panicked.

 

He grabbed the sandwich and the note and scrambled out of the apartment, back to his nook on the roof.

 

The Asset was breathing harshly, staring at the sandwich with blurred vision. It was a fancy-ish sandwich with tomatoes, lettuce, roast beef, and mustard or some shit (the Asset didn’t know- didn’t care- fuck). He crumpled the note into a ball and tossed it aside, watching it land a few feet away.

 

What the fuck was he gonna do?

 

There had been no protocol for this. The Asset had never been spotted before- at least until he wanted to be spotted. He’d never had a target spot him and somehow decide to make him a sandwich and an admittedly adorable note????

 

Analysis: He was fucked. Hydra would find out. They’d punish him severely, which hadn’t happened for a while, if the Asset was remembering correctly (which was something he never liked to assume). Level seven indeed- this Steve Fucking Rogers had just ruined everything with his- with his-

 

Kindness, a voice in the back of his head supplied quietly but certainly.

 

The Asset made a broken noise of horror. That wasn’t supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to be able to think for himself. This whole entire fucking mission had been fucked from the beginning.

 

The Asset’s conditioning was being overwritten by two very strong urges.

 

  1. DO NOT LET HYDRA PUNISH YOU AGAIN.

 

  1. DO NOT LET THEM HARM STEVE ROGERS.

 

No,” the Asset hissed, squeezing his eyes shut. This was all wrong.

 

He knew what to do in the case of the collapse of conditioning, at the very least.

 

With fumbling fingers, he reached for the handgun that he’d dropped at his side, flicking off the safety and readying the bullet.

 

He closed his eyes and pressed the barrel to his mouth, waiting for his finger to apply the pressure to the trigger, waiting, waiting, wait-

 

(His conditioning screamed to pull the trigger. But the two other instincts were somehow overwhelming. His hands shook terribly. Putting a bullet in his mouth could satisfy only one of the two instincts. Hydra would come for Steve Rogers soon- it was only a matter of time.)

 

The Asset’s hands shook so badly that he dropped the gun, which landed in his lap with a soft clatter.

 

“Fuck,” the Asset said roughly, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, willing the shaking to stop. His right arm jerked spasmodically, which was something that had never happened before. Terrified of his own body, the Asset restrained his right arm with his left, teeth chattering.

 

The sandwich stared at him placidly.

 

Maybe- maybe the Asset would be able to figure out why Steve Rogers was a level seven within the coming days. Maybe the timeframe for the mission was only an estimate. Maybe three days was too short to gather Intel.

 

Analysis: The mission does not require anything past baseline gathering of Intel.

 

(Sub-analysis: The Asset will not be able to kill Steve Rogers without a reason. Not after he made him a stupidly thoughtful sandwich.)

 

He would... he would stake out the apartment for just a few more days. Drawing the mission out wouldn’t be a fucking crime. It would just make the Handler angry, which would result in the Asset’s punishment, but the Asset couldn’t think about that right now.

 

Instead, he curled into a ball, willing his limbs to stop shaking. He tentatively grabbed the crumpled note and put it in the pocket of his jeans before the wind would be able to blow it away.

 

He closed his eyes.

 

 


 

 

Steve Rogers came home and beamed at the empty counter-top.

 

The Asset was going to be sick.

 

Steve Rogers opened his computer and Skyped his only friend, and they chatted about their days for a while and how Steve Rogers had fucked up his face until Steve Rogers said:

 

“I think someone’s been following me.”

 

His voice was so nonchalant that the Asset propped himself up on an elbow to look more carefully through the scope of his rifle. And yeah. Steve Rogers’ face was completely blank.

 

There was a long pause.

 

“What,” only friend said.

 

“Yeah. I don’t know. I’ve just seen a few glimpses of him. It’s just a feeling, y’know? Anyway, I made him a sandwich.”

 

There was another long pause. “Steve,” only friend said lowly. “You think you’re being stalked and you made the potential stalker a sandwich?”

 

“And he took it,” Steve Rogers said proudly, squaring his shoulders.

 

“Steve,” only friend said again, and the Asset frowned at the edge in her voice, “Do you know how incredibly dangerous that is?”

 

Steve Rogers just shrugged. “I feel like he needed food, is all,” he mumbled. “I’m gonna keep feeding him.”

 

“Don’t you dare.”

 

Steve Rogers raised his chin defiantly, and the Asset knew what he was going to say before he said, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

 

(Fucking typical, Steve Rogers.)

 

Only friend scoffed. “You’re being needlessly reckless. This is extremely stupid.”

 

“Well, he hasn’t hurt anybody yet.”

 

Analysis: Sweet summer child, that was such a fucking lie.

 

Only friend blew out an irritated breath. “I’m driving down to DC this weekend so I can keep watch.”

 

Steve Rogers sighed. “Fine.” But he sounded a little bit pleased.

 

The Asset let another shudder run through his limbs. He was so fucking tired. He let himself half-collapse at the base of his rifle, closing his eyes as he listened to Steve Rogers’ deep voice.

 

“What does he look like?” only friend asked, her voice sounding a little bit softer.

 

Steve Rogers hesitated. “I haven’t been able to see much detail. But he’s got long hair. And a backpack.”

 

The Asset gave an irritated huff. How did Steve Rogers even notice this shit?

 

Only friend laughed a little bit. “Nice details to catch.”

 

Steve Rogers snorted inelegantly. “Ah, shut up. He didn’t want to be seen.”

 

“This is incredibly dangerous,” only friend said, her voice serious again.

 

“Eh,” Steve Rogers said. “Worst comes to worst, which I don’t think will happen, I’ll use the techniques you and Peggy taught me.”

 

Who is Peggy? Did she teach Steve Rogers how to fight?

 

Only friend just groaned. “You’re killin’ me, Rogers.”

 

The Asset could hear the smile in Steve’s voice when he said, “You love me for it.”

 

Analysis: Steve Rogers was a fucking stupid-head.

 


 

 

The Asset was feeling highly suboptimal.

 

Approximately six hundred and twenty-four minutes after the Sandwich Incident, the cold sweat had started.

 

Approximately three minutes after that, the shudders had intensified to the point that his teeth were chattering uncontrollably.

 

Steve Rogers was asleep, slumped over on his drawing board. That could not be comfortable. The Asset wanted him to wake up and move to his bed. Because. Being right in the center of the window gave him or any other sniper an excellent sight line.

 

And the Asset was still breaking apart on the inside.

 

KILL HIM.

 

NO.

 

BUT PUNISHMENT.

 

IF YOU’RE SUCH A COWARD, PUT A BULLET IN YOUR MOUTH INSTEAD.

 

PUT A BULLET IN STEVE ROGERS’ MOUTH.

 

NO.

 

It was exhausting.

 

The Asset had been vaguely aware that his conditioning wasn’t supposed to last very long. He didn’t expect it to take only three days for the collapse to begin.

 

Analysis: He couldn’t remember how long the longest mission he’d ever been on had lasted. The only thing he could remember was the conditioning and the current consciousness. It was entirely possible that he had never been conscious for more than three days.

 

The Asset found himself staring at his guns with increasing twitchiness. He dismantled them with fumbling fingers. He was- he was still gathering Intel. No need for lethal force quite yet.

 

The Asset was so wired and confused that he almost didn’t notice when Steve Rogers woke up.

 

Steve Rogers groaned a little bit, and the sound of his deep voice put the Asset at ease, if only slightly. That was familiar.

 

Steve Rogers made himself a cup of coffee, his hair messy and his big shirt slipping off his shoulder, exposing a narrow collarbone that the Asset would probably be able to snap without blinking and-

 

STOPSTOPSTOP.

 

The Asset’s right arm jerked violently again, and he gritted his teeth.

 

Steve Rogers poured a second cup of coffee.

 

Analysis: Did he... have more friends besides Only Friend?

 

Steve Rogers didn’t touch the other coffee, and he drank his own cup slowly (It was probably decaffeinated so that it wouldn’t kill him.). He downed his usual pills, and then gathered his laundry to shuffle down to the basement. Before he exited the apartment, he gave the second cup of coffee a very unsubtle nudge towards the center of the counter.

 

Analysis: Oh.

 

The Asset clamped his teeth together so that they would stop chattering and scrambled over to Steve Rogers apartment. He inspected the coffee cup and found a little post-it note.

 

I’ll be back in 20 mins. if you want to stick around.

-Steve

 

The Asset sighed and frowned at the doodle of a coffee cup with a smiley face.

 

He downed the drink in less than two hundred seconds, not bothering to question his instincts when he snatched the post-it note and put it in his pocket.

 

He put the empty coffee mug in the sink. It was only polite.

 

YOU ARE BLOWING YOUR COVER YOU IDIOT.

 

HE ALREADY KNOWS I’M HERE.

 

P U N I S H M E N T.

 

SHUT. UP.

 

Analysis: The Asset should probably stop talking to himself in his head.

 

He settled back into his nook on the roof and paged through the joke book to get his jumbled brain to think about anything else.

 

His lips twitched at the second one he read. These were actually kind of funny.

 

He wondered if Steve Rogers would think so too.

 

Steve Rogers returned to his apartment, trying not to look expectant. His face fell when he saw that the apartment was empty, but then he laughed when he walked over to the sink where he presumably saw the mug.

 

“Oh god,” he groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m going crazy.”

 

The Asset could empathize.

 

Both sides of the annoying conversation in his brain agreed.

 

Steve Rogers didn’t do anything very condemning for the rest of the day. He mostly just lazed about, which was good because it wasn’t very interesting to watch, and the Asset felt like he was going to burst into flames or split apart at the seems or something.

 

Analysis: That would be highly suboptimal.

 

(Sub-analysis: You sure about that?)

 

The Asset decided to take a break from the mission for approximately thirty minutes. Since the mission was going to last longer than initially expected, he’d need some supplies.

 

The first thing he did was walk over to The Corner.

 

“Hey,” Sam Wilson said.

 

“How do I buy a phone,” the Asset asked.

 

Sam Wilson grinned.

 

And then, instead of supplying instructions, he declared that it was time for his break anyway and that he would accompany the Asset on his errands.

 

The Asset did not want to admit how reassuring that was. Sam Wilson was decidedly not a threat. He may even be the opposite.

 

The Asset fumbled with his new phone, and Sam Wilson cheerfully plugged in his number so that the Asset would have contact. The Asset just nodded. They walked along the street, and the Asset was still shaking all over, his human hand twitching almost unbearably, but Sam Wilson didn’t even bat an eye. Because he was the opposite of a threat.

 

The Asset was thinking about how to tell Sam Wilson one of the jokes from the joke book when something bright caught his eye. He stopped in his tracks, flinching violently when someone brushed against him.

 

“You okay?” Sam Wilson asked.

 

The Asset swallowed and forced his feet to keep moving. “Yes.”

 

Sam Wilson followed his gaze. “Do you like that shirt?”

 

The shirt was red. It was tactically idiotic. But the red. Was very nice. “No,” the Asset lied.

 

“I think it’d look nice on you.”

 

The Asset glanced down at the gray shirt that the Handler had given him. It would also be tactically idiotic to disregard hygiene. Bad smells and grubby appearances stood out. Having two shirts would help correct this.

 

When the Asset didn’t say anything and continued to stand still (except for the jerk of his right arm (again)), Sam Wilson walked into the store and examined the red shirt. “It’s not too expensive.”

 

The Asset glanced at the price tag. True. It would also be tactically idiotic not to buy a shirt that had a good price.

 

He turned his brain off when he purchased the shirt. By the time he was finished, he was shaking even more violently.

 

Sam Wilson just beamed at him, as if he were almost proud.

 

Sam Wilson was definitely the opposite of a threat.

 

The Asset returned to his nook after attempting to clean himself a little bit in a public restroom. He put on the red shirt and immediately zipped up his jacket to hide the color.

 

He was really spiraling out of control here.

 

The Asset sighed and peaked through the scope at Steve Rogers, turning up the volume on the device that allowed him to listen in.

 

Steve Rogers was singing horrifically in his kitchen to some of his terrible, terrible music, swinging his hips as he made something that the Asset could assume was some kind of pasta dish.

 

The Asset cringed. The song was something about fireworks. What the fuck. Who wants to sing about fireworks.

 

Steve Rogers seemed to be enjoying himself, though. And the way he was dancing was drawing attention to the narrow line of his hips and the slim cut of his-

 

The Asset blinked and drew away from the scope, scowling at nothing. He decided to ignore Steve Rogers for now and picked up the joke book.

 

Knock, knock, who’s there, motherfuckers.

 

The Asset only got two pages in when the shaking of his limbs became so bad that he couldn’t make out the words.

 

He dropped the book, unable to grip the pages anymore.

 

This sucked. The Asset almost wished he was back in the cryochamber. Steve Rogers and his sandwiches really had ruined everything.

 

The Asset didn’t really know what to do now that it seemed he was incapable of holding things. Or focusing. He closed his eyes and let Steve Rogers’ awful rendition of the shitty firework song wash over him. His mental and physical states were highly suboptimal. He was collapsing, falling apart- maybe irrevocably.

 

He was not aware of the point in which his consciousness dissolved into nothing.

 

 


 

 

The Asset woke up feeling like he’d just been electrocuted.

 

He was breathing heavily, adrenaline crashing through his limbs until his mind sharpened into a refined scope, like a rifle.

 

He took stock of his surroundings.

 

Analysis: Safe.

 

(Sub-analysis: That could not be true.)

 

The Asset made a sound low in his throat that almost sounded like a growl as he stalked the perimeter of the roof.

 

His limbs were not shaking now.

 

He found the agents in the back alley, gearing up for some sort of assault. The Asset saw the Handler directing the agents and felt a wave of cold permeate his skin.

 

Was that fear or anger?

 

Analysis: The Asset had not checked in with Hydra when he was supposed to. On a level seven mission. They had sent a team to finish what he started and then punish-

 

The Asset’s mind went blank.

 

Analysis: Steve Rogers.

 

The Asset sprang into motion, snapping together the clips that would secure his backpack to his body. He didn’t pause when he grabbed his rifle (the only thing he had that was not in the backpack) and vaulted himself off of the roof.

 

He scrambled through Steve Rogers’ window in record time, the quiet in his mind becoming a frantic buzz.

 

This was terrible.

 

Steve Rogers emerged from his bedroom, looking confused but alert, his hands curling into fists. The Asset took note of the way his throat bobbed as he swallowed- the way his eyes flicked to the rifle and his expression hardened.

 

Analysis: You fucking dumbass. You can’t fight a rifle with your fists.

 

“We have to leave,” the Asset blurted out, the quiet panic in his brain beginning to guide his actions much more decisively than the conditioning ever had.

 

“What the fuck,” Steve Rogers said.

 

“We have to get out of here. Come on.”

 

“No. What the fuck- who are you?”

 

The Asset gritted his teeth. “There’s no time for-“

 

“I’m not an idiot,” Steve Rogers said, crossing his arms.

 

(I beg to differ.)

 

The Asset made a noise of frustration. “You are in danger-“

 

“You have a fucking rifle in your hand,” Steve Rogers cut in, raising a judgmental eyebrow. “The only danger I see right now is you.”

 

“If I were a danger,” the Asset snapped, “you would already be dead.”

 

Analysis: Who even fucking knew? Everything had been so upside-down lately.

 

Steve Rogers rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna call the cops.”

 

“No,” the Asset begged, his vision narrowing. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled post-it note. “I’m-“

 

Steve Rogers’ face lit up in recognition. “Oh. You’re my stalker.”

 

The Asset wanted to be offended. “I am not a fucking stalker.”

 

“You’ve been following me.”

 

The Asset made a frustrated noise. “We really don’t have time for semantics.”

 

“Stalker,” Steve Rogers insisted, his entire demeanor different. It was less rough now. More friendly. Which should be worrying in regards to his sense of personal safety and easiness to trust.

 

“I am not-“ the Asset blew out an angry breath. “We have to leave.”

 

“I don’t really want to.”

 

“Giving you a choice was more of a formality.”

 

Steve Rogers narrowed his eyes. “Now I’m even less inclined to follow you.”

 

“Please.”

 

Steve Rogers shrugged and made a big show of moseying into his bedroom. The Asset was going to have an aneurism.

 

Steve Rogers emerged almost five full minutes later, a bag slung over his shoulder. “Only because you asked nicely,” he muttered sarcastically. “And if you turn out to be a serial killer, I’m warning you that I have some friends who will find you and cut you into pieces.”

 

The Asset rolled his eyes and didn’t bother to comment, grabbing Steve Rogers’ arm and dragging him along with much longer strides than Steve Rogers would be comfortable with. He was forced to jog.

 

The Asset glanced around in front of the building before deeming the coast clear. He knew Steve Rogers did not have a car, so the Asset just methodically broke into the nearest one and hotwired it.

 

Steve Rogers eyed him from the passengers seat. “Oh. Lovely. We’re doing illegal things now.”

 

“Shut up,” the Asset grumbled and started to drive.

 

Three other cars immediately started following them, abandoning subtlety.

 

“Ah, fuck.”

 

“What?” Steve Rogers said. “What’s going on?”

 

The Asset gritted his teeth. “Put on your fucking seatbelt,” he said before slamming his foot down on the pedal.

 

Steve Rogers jerked forward, but he managed to steady himself on the dashboard, wincing. He fastened his seatbelt, and the Asset pursed his lips as the other cars gunned their engines as well.

 

“More illegal things?” Steve Rogers asked tersely.

 

The Asset didn’t deign that with a response as he weaved through the less heavy but still considerable amount of traffic that was characteristic of DC.

 

It was worse in New York.

 

Analysis: How did he know that?

 

He ignored his brain for now and jerked the wheel so that they careened down a one-way alley. The first car missed the turn, but the other two made it, and the Asset cheered internally.

 

“How are you driving like this?” Steve Rogers was saying. “You’re still wearing your backpack. That can’t be comfortable. And I feel like some radio is required for the badass kidnapper car chase we’ve got going-“

 

Steve Rogers reached for the radio and the Asset glared hatefully at him. “No.”

 

“What?”

 

“No radio.”

 

Steve Rogers looked offended.

 

The Asset made another sharp turn, and they reached a ridiculous-looking roundabout. What the fuck. DC streets were so confusing.

 

The Asset twisted the wheel in the opposite direction so that the car made a 180. Both Hydra cars were able to recover, but they were slow.

 

“Do you know where you’re going?”

 

“Of course,” the Asset lied.

 

Steve Rogers looked incredibly judgmental and too calm for the current situation. “Go this way if you want to get out of the city,” he said, pointing. “And if you want to do something very illegal that may lose the other two, I suggest going to wrong way on a one-way street.”

 

The Asset was beginning to rethink Steve Rogers’ survival skills.

 

He unbuckled his seatbelt.

 

Maybe not, then.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Helping,” he said vaguely, and the Asset bristled in irritation. Steve Rogers crawled into the backseat and opened the side door a fraction. He reached into his bag for something, took a considering look at the Hydra cars, and threw something out the door.

 

“What was that?” the Asset demanded as Steve Rogers smugly buckled his seatbelt in the passengers seat again.

 

“You’ll see in a second.”

 

The nearest Hydra car swerved, tires squealing. The Asset glanced at the tires, and saw that the front tire was not there anymore, leaving sparks flying as the car veered off the road.

 

The Asset blinked. “What the fuck was that?”

 

“I brought a drawing board with a really sharp edge,” Steve Rogers said with a little shrug.

 

“Why.”

 

“It’s my favorite drawing board.”

 

The Asset was half-baffled and half-annoyed.

 

“There’s a one-way street in a few blocks.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

The Asset was ready to turn when the final Hydra car decided to cut corners, anticipating his turn. The Hydra car smashed into their back right, sending their own car into a half-tail-spin.

 

“Fuck,” the Asset said and maneuvered the wheel so that they’d be able to slingshot out of the spin. Somehow, he pulled it off, and they shot off towards the horizon (not on the one-way street).

 

They heard sirens start up in the distance. The Asset took a sharp turn, then a few more for good measure. He abandoned the car in the middle of an alley and quickly commandeered a new one, Steve Rogers following silently.

 

The Asset’s limbs only started shaking again when they’d left the city, adrenaline abruptly draining from his system.

 

Analysis: Fan-fucking-tastic.

 

His head hurt.

 

Steve Rogers was biting at his lip, suddenly looking a lot more tired and a little bit scared. “Oh my god,” he whispered, dropping his head into his knees. “I was kidnapped and avidly participated in a car chase.”

 

“This wasn’t kidnap,” the Asset said, offended. “You followed me consensually.”

 

Steve Rogers just groaned. He lifted his head slightly. “What’s happening? Are you actually gonna kill me?”

 

KILL HIM KILL HIM KILL HIM KILL HIM

 

FUCK YOU, BRAIN, SHUT THE FUCK UP

 

KILL KILL KILL KILL

 

STOPITSTOPITSTOPIT

 

The Asset had been silent for long enough that Steve paled. “Oh my god, you are.”

 

“No,” the Asset said hastily.

 

“You fucking hesitated.”

 

The Asset paused. “You are correct.”

 

“Why did you hesitate?”

 

“Collapse of conditioning is a fucking psychological nightmare.”

 

Steve Rogers blinked very slowly. “What.”

 

“What.”

 

Steve Rogers shook his head, as if trying to orient himself. “Who were those guys? What were they doing?”

 

The Asset sighed. His right arm gave an annoying jerk, and the wheel twitched a little bit in his grasp. “They work for Hydra.”

 

“The fuck is that?”

 

The Asset shrugged. “I am not subject to many details,” he said vaguely.

 

“Why were they after me?”

 

“I do not know.”

 

“They were after me, right?”

 

“Affirmative.”

 

Steve Rogers blinked. “Did you just say-“ He shook his head. “Never mind. Why did you save me?”

 

The Asset frowned. “I do not know.”

 

“Do you know anything?”

 

“Some,” the Asset said noncommittally, squinting at a road sign for New Jersey. Ew. He switched lanes. “Probably because of the sandwich.”

 

“What?”

 

“You made me a sandwich. I saved you. Now we’re even.”

 

Steve Rogers looked a little bit faint. “I wouldn’t call that even.”

 

The Asset frowned. “I would.”

 

“Why were you stalking me?“

 

“I wasn’t.”

 

“Fine,” Steve Rogers huffed. “Why were you-” he made a motion of sarcastically exaggerated air quotes- “’following’ me?”

 

The Asset hunched his shoulders. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

Analysis: PUNISHMENT.

 

(Sub-analysis: He’d just broken from his conditioning. Just to repay a guy for making him a sandwich. What the fuck. What the actually fucking fuck.)

 

“Okay. I deserve to know something.”

 

“You make good sandwiches,” the Asset said conciliatorily.

 

Steve Rogers threw his hands up in exasperation. “Fine. Don’t tell me anything. Just. When can I go back home?”

 

The Asset frowned. “Oh. Probably never.”

 

Steve Rogers’ jaw dropped open inelegantly. “What.”

 

“They’ll always have an eye on your apartment, just to cover their basis.”

 

“Why take so much effort to hurt me?” Steve Rogers said, his tone rising into something bordering on hysterical.

 

The Asset froze. Fuck. He didn’t know how to deal with an emotional Steve Rogers.

 

“Um. You are apparently a very high threat?” he said uncertainly.

 

Steve Rogers pushed his hands through his hair, starting to look a little bit queasy.

 

The Asset panicked.

 

“Why do ghosts love elevators?” he blurted out.

 

Steve Rogers blinked very slowly.

 

The Asset cleared his throat, feeling his face heating in a highly suboptimal manner. “Because- because they lift their spirits.”

 

Steve Rogers blinked again. “Did you just make a bad joke?”

 

The Asset was kind of offended. That was a great joke. It had made his lips twitch into a smile when he read it. “Affirmative,” he said nervously.

 

“My stalker is a dork.”

 

“I am not a stalker.”

 

Steve Rogers fell into a slightly worrying silence, his shoulders bunched around his ears as he stared out the window. The Asset wondered what he was thinking. The Asset wondered if he felt like his mind was a prison.

 

Finally, Steve Rogers looked at him, expression resigned but set in a sort of stubborn determination. The Asset watched him warily out of the corner of his eye. “What’s your name?”

 

“What,” the Asset said.

 

“Your name,” Steve Rogers repeated in irritation. “If I’m going to be stuck with you for a while, I need to know your name.”

 

The Asset frowned, confused. “I don’t... have one...”

 

“You don’t have a name,” Steve Rogers deadpanned.

 

“No. Not required for optimal function.”

 

Steve Rogers dropped into silence, fidgeting uncomfortably. “Well, that’s just stupid. Everyone needs a name. You know what? I’m gonna give you one.”

 

What.

 

Steve Rogers stared at the window, seemingly thinking. The highway cut through some pretty uninteresting land. It was mostly fields and trees. Nothing to write home about. A group of deer passed by the car, and Steve Rogers said, “Buck- Bucky. How does that sound?”

 

The Asset’s brows furrowed. “That is not a real name.”

 

“Sure it is,” Steve Rogers said defensively, pretending he hadn’t just made it up when he’d seen a buck in the pack of deer.

 

“It isn’t.”

 

“Well, do you want me to think of something else?”

 

“No,” Bucky said as if Steve Rogers had suggested Bucky eat his own vomit.

 

Steve Rogers hid a smile. “Bucky it is, then. And you can call me Steve.”

 

Steve.

 

Analysis: The bloom of warmth in Bucky’s chest should be attributed to Steve.

 

“Alright.”

 

 


 

 

The shakes were starting to get near unbearable again.

 

Bucky could feel Steve watching him with that weirdly perceptive gaze. It was making him squirm in his seat. He scowled at the darkness of the open road and ground his teeth together.

 

His right arm jerked.

 

Bucky shoved his hand under his thigh and elected to drive with the metal arm.

 

He saw Steve glanced at the metal and look away. For some reason, it made him feel disproportionately pleased.

 

When Bucky could no longer keep his teeth from chattering, Steve said, “I’m hungry.”

 

Bucky shot him a glare. Steve stared at him, lifting his chin defiantly. Finally, Bucky sighed. “Okay.”

 

He pulled off the highway at the next exit that didn’t have nothing in it. He pulled to a stop outside of a vacant gas station.

 

“There is money in my backpack,” Bucky managed.

 

Steve frowned. “I have my own money.”

 

“You can’t use a credit card. Hydra will see it.”

 

Steve was quiet for a moment before he breathed out a frustrated breath. “Can I have a ten?”

 

Bucky handed him a twenty. They both pretended to ignore the way his hand was trembling.

 

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

When Steve left, Bucky let his forehead thunk onto the steering wheel. He took deep, shuddering breaths, trying to center himself. He was being completely irrational.

 

As the weight of what he’d done finally started to settle over him, his breaths grew more hitched and frantic, his trembling more acute.

 

Analysis: This was the most serious malfunction he had ever experienced.

 

There were two (three) possible ways this situation could end:

 

  1. Hydra would take him back, kill Steve, and punish Bucky SEVERELY.

 

  1. Hydra would terminate both Steve and Bucky.

 

     (3. They would somehow get away. Escape.)

 

Bucky shook his head a little bit along the steering wheel. This was all terrible. What was he going to fucking do?

 

He wanted to contact Sam Wilson. He wanted to rewind to before this mission had ever been assigned. He wanted Steve to have never been a threat in the first place.

 

Steve climbed into the car and remained quiet as Bucky instantly made a much more concentrated effort at controlling his breathing.

 

When he lifted his head, not feeling remotely calm, Steve just said, “I have to call Nat.”

 

“What,” Bucky said, his voice a dry rasp, reminding him of how it felt to come out of the cryochamber. Or the chair, for that matter.

 

“I have to call Nat and tell her I’m okay.”

 

Bucky tried to think of a coherent argument, but in the end, he just reached into his backpack and tossed Steve his phone. “Use this. Throw your current phone in the garbage.”

 

“Electronics really should be properly disposed of,” Steve said absently as he typed into Bucky’s phone. “Environmental concerns for e-waste are drastically underrated and relatively simple to counteract.”

 

“Just throw away the data chip in the back.”

 

“I’ll look up the nearest safe disposal location,” Steve said, ignoring him.

 

Analysis: This was going to be an absolute hoot.

 

Steve pressed the phone to his ear. “Hey, Nat.”

 

“Hey,” Bucky heard Only Friend say distantly. “Qué pasta?”

 

Steve rolled his eyes fondly and put his feet on the dashboard before thinking better of it and placing them on the floor. “So. I met my stalker.”

 

“I am not-“

 

Steve hushed him.

 

Only Friend was good at creating ominous stretches of quiet.

 

“He’s cool.”

 

“Steve,” Only Friend said tightly.

 

“I’m safe. He actually, like, totally saved me from these other people.”

 

“What?” Only Friend said in a strangled tone.

 

“Yeah. What’d you say they were called?”

 

“Hydra.”

 

“Yeah, Hydra. Bucky doesn’t really know much about them, but they apparently want to kill me,” Steve said, sounding deceptively casual.

 

Only Friend created another ominous stretch of quiet.

 

“We’re safe,” Steve insisted. “We’re going on a road trip or something. Bucky said I can’t go back to DC.”

 

“Did you say your stalker’s name is ‘Bucky’?” Only Friend asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Did you say Hydra was trying to kill you?”

 

Steve frowned. “Um. Why do you sound like that means something to you?”

 

“It doesn’t. I’m as in the dark as you are, Steve. I just. <Fuck me, why do you get yourself in these messes?>”

 

“I can’t understand Russian, Nat.”

 

Bucky whispered a translation, trying to be helpful.

 

“Oh. Never mind. Bucky apparently does.”

 

Only Friend’s voice was hard when she said, “Can I speak with him?”

 

“Bucky?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Steve passed the phone over to Bucky. Bucky fumbled with his still-trembling hand as he shakily brought the phone to his ear. “Um. Hello.”

 

“<Listen, fucker,>” Only Friend snapped, and Bucky instantly straightened and shrank in on himself, “<If you lay one goddamn hand on Steve, I will personally rip your spine out of your throat and shove it so far up your ass that your internal bleeding has internal bleeding. Am I making myself clear?>”

 

“<Affirmative.>”

 

“<Good. Now who are you and how are you connected to Hydra?>”

 

Something about her tone booked no room for deflection. “<I was their Asset. Mission assigned less than a week ago: terminate Rogers-Steven-Grant, threat level seven.>”

 

“<And now what?>” she growled.

 

“<Sandwich broke the conditioning. New protocol,>” Bucky whispered, voice raw.

 

“<Protect him like your life depends on it. Because it does. After you’re sure you’ve lost Hydra, report to Brooklyn. I will take over from there. Check in with me on a twelve-hour basis with a status report.>”

 

“<Affirmative.>”

 

“Good. Now hand the phone back to Steve.”

 

Steve was watching worriedly as Bucky distantly handed him the phone. He zoned out and didn’t hear the rest of the conversation.

 

Steve eventually reached for the radio, breaking Bucky out of his funk. “Don’t.”

 

Steve crossed his arms. “Why the fuck not?” he honest-to-god whined.

 

“Your music taste. Is. Suboptimal.”

 

Steve looked aghast. “My music taste is what-now?”

 

“Suboptimal.” Bucky paused, then amended, “Highly suboptimal.”

 

Steve let out a hysterical laugh, covering his face with his hands. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Okay.”

 

Bucky frowned. “That’s incorrect. High levels of stress should naturally indicate suboptimal mental and emotional states.”

 

“What the fuck even is your vocabulary?”

 

Bucky frowned harder. “I have a normal vocabulary.”

 

“Buck, it’s way too technical to be normal.”

 

Analysis: Positive reaction to being referred to as “Buck.”

 

Steve cleared his throat. “Anyway. I’m fine.”

 

“Incorrect.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

Bucky shrugged, and his arm jerked, and he scowled. “My mental and emotional states are extremely suboptimal as well, if it’s any conciliation.”

 

“Not really,” Steve muttered, pressing his cheek against the window.

 

They lapsed into quiet.

 

But Steve was obviously upset. And so was Bucky. So. There was only one way to proceed.

 

“What does an evil chicken lay?”

 

Steve gave him a startled look.

 

Bucky’s lips twitched upwards when he said, “Deviled eggs.”

 

Steve groaned loudly and knocked his forehead against the window.

 

Bucky cleared his throat, now actively fighting the twitch of his lips. “Where do hamburgers go to dance?”

 

“Please don’t,” Steve begged.

 

Bucky paused theatrically. “The meatball.”

 

“Nooooooooooo,” Steve said, but he was laughing now.

 

“What animal has more lives than a cat?”

 

Steve shook his head, covering his mouth to try to hide his laughter.

 

“Frogs. They croak every night.”

 

“Oh my god. Stop.”

 

Bucky decided to spare Steve, but only because he was 62% sure that the jokes had lifted his spirits marginally. Bucky would have to thank Sam Wilson. The joke book was a deceptively useful investment.

 

Steve fell into a fitful sleep less than twenty minutes later.

 

Bucky let out a breath, ignoring the spasm that went through his right arm.

 

He had a mission.

 

 


 

 

Steve was highly suboptimal after sleeping.

 

He made a disgruntled noise, squinted at the sun in profound irritation, and rubbed at his eyes. His hair was awful too. Bucky decided not to say anything about it because although it was awful, it was also kind of hilarious.

 

“Sleep okay?” Bucky asked, the words feeling odd and too normal in his mouth.

 

Steve made another disgruntled noise and scowled at the sunny dashboard.

 

Thirty-two minutes later, he said, “Coffee,” in a rough, scratchy voice.

 

Bucky pulled off the highway to get to a Starbucks. He waited in the car while Steve payed.

 

“Do you want,” Steve began, blinking owlishly, “to take off your backpack?”

 

“No.”

 

“Fine.” Steve reached into his own bag and took out his container of pills, which he swallowed with the coffee.

 

“I am not going back on the highway,” Bucky said as he started driving again, searching for a gas station. “We’re taking a scenic route.”

 

“To where?” Steve mumbled, his face buried in his coffee cup.

 

“Who knows.”

 

“Where are we right now?” Steve asked after a minute, his voice still croaky.

 

Bucky blinked. “Somewhere in Pennsylvania.”

 

Steve’s lips curled into a smirk. “Wanna get hoagies for lunch?” he asked in a weirdly mocking voice.

 

“What is a hoagie?”

 

Steve stared at him for a moment. “It’s like. What Pennsylvanians call sandwiches.”

 

Analysis: Steve was making fun of the Pennsylvanians.

 

“Pennsylvanians did three things right,” Steve was saying. “Cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, and Wawa.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Also,” Steve said, seemingly beginning to wake up, “can I request that we not go through New Jersey?”

 

“Of course. Why?” Bucky said, mildly concerned. What was in New Jersey?

 

“Because it’s New Jersey,” Steve said.

 

Bucky thought about that for a moment. “Where are you from?”

 

“Brooklyn.”

 

Analysis: That explains it.

 

(Sub-analysis: Even though Bucky wasn’t really sure how that explained anything besides the faint undercurrent of a drawl that sometimes appeared underneath Steve’s words. It had been especially apparent when he’d just woken up.)

 

“Text Only Friend,” Bucky said when he checked the time on the dashboard. “Tell her that you’re alive and grumpy.”

 

“Did you just call Nat ‘Only Friend’?”

 

Bucky felt his face heat. Urgh. “Affirmative.”

 

Steve sighed but tapped out a message anyway. “Can I turn on the radio?”

 

“No.”

 

Steve turned on the radio.

 

Bucky scowled.

 

Steve managed to ignore him as he found a station that, of course, played his same horrible music.

 

Bucky resisted the pressing but petty urge to smash the radio with his metal fist. That would prove inconducive and may startle Steve.

 

After several horrible songs had passed, Steve shifted in his seat to face Bucky, expression strangely optimistic. “So. What’s the plan?”

 

“The plan,” Bucky echoed dumbly.

 

“Yeah. What’s the endgame here? Where are we going?”

 

Bucky blanked out a little bit. “Um.”

 

Steve’s face fell. “Oh. You haven’t thought that through yet.”

 

The Asset had never created a mission for himself before. “Um. The endgame is Brooklyn.” Only Friend could substitute as a handler before he figured things out. If he figured things out.

 

“That’s not very far from DC,” Steve pointed out warily.

 

“...You have a point.”

 

Steve stared out the window for a few minutes. “I’ve never left the east coast before,” he admitted, sounding oddly hesitant.

 

Bucky frowned. “You want to go sightseeing in the west?”

 

Steve huffed. “I’m just saying that if we’re on the run, we should make the most out of it. Why not turn this into a road trip?” Steve offered him an uncertain smile. “We could turn around at the Grand Canyon or something.”

 

Bucky was abruptly enchanted with the idea. “Yeah. The Grand Canyon.” He rubbed his hand up and down his leg to stop it from shaking. “We could go to the Golden Gate Bridge.”

 

“Mount Rushmore.”

 

“Yellowstone.”

 

“The Badlands.”

 

“And then back to Brooklyn.”

 

Steve beamed at him, and Bucky tried not to shrink under all that unfettered brightness. “Can we also go to Disneyland?”

 

Bucky glanced at Steve. “We’ll see how much money I can con off of Hydra.”

 

Steve smirked to himself, and Bucky inexplicably felt his face heat again. What the fuck.

 

He cleared his throat. “Do you make a practice of turning near-death experiences into vacations?”

 

Steve was startled into a laugh, which did not do any favors for the heat in Bucky’s face. “It’s a hobby,” he joked, and Bucky felt his lips twitch.

 

They drifted into silence, and Bucky found that he didn’t want to violently dismantle the radio as much anymore. Weird.

 

“Aren’t you hungry?” Steve asked after the sun had climbed until it was overhead. He was squinting with the brightness, and Bucky wished that their van didn’t have the skylight thing.

 

“I don’t know,” Bucky said. He couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d eaten a real, solid meal that he hadn’t thrown up quickly after eating. Poor Steve’s sandwich did not deserve its fate.

 

“You don’t know,” Steve deadpanned.

 

“The backpack contained some rudimentary nutrients, but they were only meant to last three days. Was able to extend to five days.” Bucky frowned a little bit. “It is possible that the body is exhausted.”

 

Steve swallowed visibly. “You can’t feel it?”

 

Bucky looked at Steve for a moment, trying to articulate himself. “Hunger is difficult to differentiate from other sensations.”

 

Steve clearly wasn’t tripped up by Bucky’s “technical vocabulary” as an avoidance technique. “You’re in pain?”

 

“Are you hungry?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, looking weirdly pissed off. Bucky was breathlessly thankful that he seemed to hold back from the other conversation, though. He stopped at the nearest restaurant and moved to relax in his seat while Steve went inside, but Steve just said, “Oh no, mister. You’re coming with me.”

 

Bucky glared at him, but Steve was radiating a sense of righteous fury, and how was he going to combat that? Bucky made a vaguely displeased noise but got out of the car.

 

He didn’t realize the extent to the body’s exhaustion until his feet hit the pavement. He stumbled half a step, and then had to lean against the van to remain upright.

 

“Ah, fuck,” Steve said, but his voice sounded distant to how lightheaded Bucky had suddenly become. “Come on.”

 

Bucky was vaguely aware of Steve guiding Bucky’s arm to wrap around his narrow shoulders as he half-dragged Bucky inside, breathing heavily with the addition of Bucky’s weight.

 

The hostess did a double take when they staggered inside. She tried to plaster on a bright smile. “How can I help you?”

 

“Table for two please. If it’s possible, can we have one in the back corner?” Steve said politely. “He has PTSD.”

 

Bucky came back to himself enough to mutter, “I do-fucking-not.”

 

Steve rolled his eyes.

 

The hostess’s face had melted into understanding that made Bucky bristle a little bit. “Of course. Wait right here. I’ll grab you guys some bread while you’re waiting.”

 

Bucky mechanically ate the pieces of bread that Steve handed him, tense and shaking and weak. He was self-aware enough to know that he needed to replenish his strength. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to defend them from threats. And threats were highly probably in this self-assigned mission.

 

Bucky’s awareness of his surroundings sharpened, and he noted that he was sitting in a chair with excellent sightlines, Steve dutifully sitting in the chair that exposed his six to the entire world. Steve was eating whole-wheat spaghetti and kicking Bucky in the shin.

 

He smiled tightly at him. “I ordered you some stuff that shouldn’t be too hard on your stomach but will help you get your strength back. You need to eat.”

 

“Thanks,” Bucky muttered and forced himself to eat the bland-looking food. “Your sandwiches are better,” he mumbled halfway through the meal, his stomach already a tight, unpleasant knot.

 

Steve rolled his eyes, but something about the gesture seemed strangely affectionate.

 

When Bucky reached into his depleting stack of money to pay for the meal, the hostess smiled at him and said, “Thank you for your service.”

 

Bucky shrank in on himself. “Um. No problem,” he whispered, loathing himself. People like Sam Wilson deserved to hear this shit. Not Bucky, who had killed and killed and killed-

 

“C’mon, Buck,” Steve said, nudging him. “Let’s get going.”

 

Analysis: Surprisingly, Steve’s little touches seemed to ground him.

 

They had been driving for twenty minutes when the cramps in Bucky’s stomach became unbearable. He pulled the car to a stop so that he could throw up on the side of the road, his stomach aching, bile getting caught in his hair.

 

Steve was watching with that same righteous fury, but all he said as Bucky ashamedly got back into the car was, “You’ll need to shower tonight.”

 

Bucky rubbed a hand across his forehead, stalling driving again. “I’ll need to find some more money,” he mumbled.

 

“You’ll need to sleep.”

 

Bucky ignored him. “And make sure the weapons weren’t damaged.”

 

“And make sure you keep acclimating yourself to eating solid foods.”

 

Bucky flinched at the words, trying to hide it behind the trembling. He started driving.

 

Steve sighed and removed a sketchbook and pencil from his bag, balancing them on his knees. “We’ll find a motel for tonight, okay? I, at the very least, need to sleep in a real bed every once in a while. Scoliosis is a bitch.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky said and tried not to think about it as he wound through the back roads of rural Pennsylvania.

 


 

 

They found a cheap motel.

 

Bucky swept the perimeter for security after they rented a room, Bucky trying not to wince at his depleting funds. He’d have to remember a Hydra bank code soon. But that wasn’t the number one priority right now, so he pushed those thoughts aside and tried to make sure their room was secure.

 

Steve watched him curiously, perched hesitantly on the edge of the room’s only bed. “What are you doing?” he asked after a while.

 

“Making sure we are safe.”

 

“Oh. Cool.”

 

Steve turned on the TV to watch the news, and Bucky tuned it out.

 

Analysis: The room didn’t have excellent security. Bucky would need to remain vigilant.

 

Steve made a derisive noise. “I can’t believe we’d actually consider electing this fascist.”

 

Bucky glanced at the TV, feeling inexplicably cold as he looked at the weathered face of a politician who looked more like an aged movie star than a politician.

 

Secretary of state, Alexander Pierce, is polling much more successfully than Colonel James Rhodes. He is expected to easily win the general election.”

 

“They’re probably rigging Florida again,” Bucky said quietly, not sure where the knowledge came from.

 

Steve looked at him, confused.

 

“Hydra,” Bucky said, pointing at Pierce.

 

Steve’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “I don’t know shit about Hydra, but I already hate them.”

 

“You are dealing with everything remarkably well,” Bucky said as he reassembled his rifle, making sure nothing was damaged.

 

Steve was eyeing the weapon warily when he said, “I’m an adaptive person.” He stretched a little bit, and his shirt rode up to expose a pale stripe of skin. Bucky felt weird and looked away. “Do you want to take a shower? I’ll keep watch.”

 

Bucky hesitated. “Okay. Do you know how to use a gun.”

 

“Yeah. Safety off, aim, pull the trigger.”

 

Bucky sighed. “Good enough.” He tossed him a handgun and padded into the bathroom.

 

Analysis: The shower was the opposite of a threat.

 

Bucky spent a stupidly long time cleaning himself before he started to get anxious and twitchy again and hastily stepped out.

 

Bucky glanced at himself in the mirror and did a double take. His body looked... emaciated. He was thin and sallow. Gaunt. He looked. Profoundly unhealthy.

 

Maybe he could see why Steve had wanted him to eat so badly.

 

Bucky put on his red shirt and did not put on his jacket. He pushed the sleeves to his elbows, only frowning at the metal arm for a moment before stepping into his jeans and walking back into the room.

 

“Your hair looks ridiculous,” Steve said from his position on the bed. Bucky felt strangely proud when he saw the handgun was still in his fingers.

 

“Is that a problem?” Bucky asked, running his hand through his hair.

 

“Nah, just funny.”

 

That was suboptimal. “How do I fix it.”

 

Steve laughed softly and threw himself half-off the bed so that he could rummage through his bag. He handed Bucky a rubber band. “You can tie it back with this or something.”

 

Bucky stared at the rubber band for longer than was socially optimal.

 

Steve laughed again, and Bucky’s face heated. “Here. Gimme. Let me do it.”

 

Bucky silently handed the rubber band back to him.

 

“Turn around.”

 

Bucky tensed a little bit at the thought of exposing his back- and especially his neck.

 

Steve just looked at him kindly. “Don’t worry, Buck. I’ve got your six.”

 

Bucky let out a puff of air and hesitantly turned around.

 

Steve shifted to sit on his knees, and Bucky felt his artist fingers gently tug through his hair. Bucky’s eyes almost slid shut in pleasure at the sensation. Steve gathered his hair into a little ponytail and looped the rubber band around it several times. Instantly after Steve let go, some of the strands fell loose and started to curl onto his cheekbones. But. Still. This much improved his ability to see.

 

He turned around, and Steve grinned. “Man, I never realized how killer your cheekbones are. You definitely do not look ridiculous anymore.”

 

Bucky ducked his head. “Um. Thanks,” he mumbled, feeling... weird.

 

Steve scooted back on the bed and pulled Bucky’s phone closer to him. “I’m gonna facetime Nat.”

 

“Alright,” Bucky said. He was eyeing a folded-up map of the United States with interest. “Can I have a marker?”

 

“Any particular color?”

 

“Red,” Bucky blurted out, then felt kind of dumb.

 

“Sure,” Steve said and tossed him a fancy artist marker.

 

Bucky opened the map and studied it for a moment, then started marking little circles.

 

Steve started talking to Only Friend. “Hey, Nat.”

 

“Hey, Steve. How you doin’?”

 

“I’m okay,” Steve said. “We’re in a motel, so that should help my scoliosis not act up or anything.

 

Bucky looked at all the red dots and started to connect them with lines.

 

“How are you guys on money?” Only Friend asked.

 

“Bucky said he’s gonna steal some from Hydra, so we’re great.”

 

“Good, good.” There was a pause. “How do you know you’re safe with him?”

 

“He can hear you,” Bucky said.

 

Steve and Only Friend ignored him. “He hasn’t given me any reason to believe differently,” Steve said simply.

 

Analysis: Oh, honey.

 

(Sub-analysis: You need to tell him about the initial mission.)

 

((Sub-sub-analysis: Noooooooooooooooo.))

 

Only Friend sighed, sounding exhausted. Bucky could sympathize. “Steve, I love you dearly, but your self-preservation skills are exceedingly subpar.”

 

Bucky concurred. Maybe Only Friend wasn’t as bad as he thought.

 

“I can make my own decisions,” Steve huffed snappishly.

 

Bucky finished with his lines and wandered over to the bed, peaking over Steve’s shoulder to see Only Friend’s face.

 

She was pale with curly red hair. Stunning but cold green eyes. Bucky frowned, and his eyebrows pulled together. Only Friend looked at him, and her eyebrows shot up.

 

“Did I miss something here?” Steve asked after the silence stretched on a beat too long.

 

“I do not know,” Bucky said.

 

Only Friend scowled at him. “<You’re the Winter Soldier.>”

 

“<I’m the what?>”

 

Only Friend shook her head. “Never mind. We’ll need to talk later. In depth.”

 

Steve was looking increasingly paranoid. “No, you are not talking later. ‘In depth.’” He even threw in mocking air quotes. “What the fuck is going on, Nat? I’m not an idiot.”

 

“Did- did I ever shoot you?” Bucky asked uncertainly.

 

“Bucky!” Steve exclaimed.

 

“What? What did I do?”

 

Only Friend rubbed a hand across her jaw. “I need a drink. I’ll talk to you guys in the morning,” she said and abruptly hung up.

 

Steve and Bucky sat in slightly shell-shocked silence.

 

“I have no idea what’s going on. Nat is an accountant.”

 

Bucky shrugged. “I have terrible memory. I probably mistook her for someone else. I’ve shot a lot of people.”

 

Steve swallowed visibly. “Have you?” he said, trying not to sound worried.

 

Bucky looked away and stood. His right arm jerked once- twice- three times, and he shuddered. “I’m not a stalker. I’m an assassin. A little bit.”

 

Steve stared at him. “You’re a little bit of an assassin.”

 

Bucky winced and held his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart.

 

Steve blew out a breath. “Okay.”

 

“And, um.” Bucky swallowed. He scratched his metal fingers down his flesh arm, the little pinpricks of pain grounding him in the conversation. Steve tracked the movement uneasily. “I maybe. Was a little bit. Assigned to murder you.”

 

“Just a little bit,” Steve deadpanned, arching an eyebrow with an incredible amount of sass.

 

“But then you were cute,” Bucky said hurriedly.

 

Steve’s eyebrows shot up so fast that Bucky startled. “I was what?”

 

Bucky blanked out, and his face got so hot that he wanted to die. “You- you weren’t doing anything treasonous. But they said- they said you were a level seven- but that just seemed- wrong- and- and- and then you made me a sandwich and those notes- and then-“

 

“Whoa, slow down, Buck,” Steve said. Bucky took a shuddering breath, wrapping his arms around himself. He felt out of breath. That was the most he’d said in probably his entire life- at least from everything he remembered. “Hey. It’s okay.”

 

Bucky just shook his head. “The conditioning started to collapse, but I still may...” Bucky trailed off, unable to finish. He cleared his throat and nodded to the handgun. “That belongs to you now. If I revert, protect yourself.”

 

“Now that’s just ridiculous.”

 

“That’s safe.”

 

Steve glared haughtily at him. “I’ll keep the gun if it makes you feel better, but I’m not gonna shoot you.”

 

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

 

They glowered at each other for a moment until Bucky finally looked away. He picked up the map and tossed it in Steve’s direction. “Here is the plan of attack. I’m going to take watch. You get some sleep.”

 

“Bucky, wait-“

 

Bucky ignored Steve and climbed out the window.

 

The night air was cold, but he’d dealt with much worse. He couldn’t stop shaking, but he was beginning to get used to it. He got used to everything eventually.

 

Steve tapped on the window, and Bucky turned as Steve slid it open, poking his head outside. “Buck, you need to sleep.”

 

“Not safe here.”

 

“We can take shifts on watches,” Steve whispered. “It’s either you get some sleep now, or I’ll drive and you can sleep in the car.”

 

Bucky wrinkled his nose in distaste.

 

“Exactly. I promise I’m not entirely clueless.”

 

Bucky sighed. “You’re not. You noticed me when I was doing recon. You’re actually remarkably perceptive.”

 

“Aw, thanks, Buck. But you know that means I won’t miss any sign of danger. I promise I’ll wake you up right away if I notice.”

 

Bucky’s limbs were heavy. He hadn’t slept properly in several days. That ensured suboptimal function. “You promise?”

 

“Yeah.” Steve smiled hesitantly and nudged Bucky’s shoulder. “C’mon.”

 

Bucky sighed in resignation and climbed into bed. Steve took the handgun and settled by the window, watching the world outside. Bucky forced himself to close his eyes.

 

Steve did not wake him up.

 

 


 

 

Bucky startled awake.

 

He reached for a rifle blearily, but then froze as everything came back to him. He had broken the conditioning. He had saved Steve Rogers. Steve had given him a name. Steve had made him eat and sleep and-

 

Where the fuck was Steve?

 

Panic shot through Bucky’s brain in a screaming static, and he was coming to increasingly frantic conclusions when the door opened and Steve moseyed inside.

 

“Oh, hey, you’re awake,” Steve said, oblivious to Bucky’s inner turmoil. Steve reached into a bag and pulled out some pants with little cartoonish ghosts on them. “I got you pajama pants because sleeping in jeans sucks shit. And they have ghosts on them. Aren’t they cute?”

 

Bucky clambered out of bed and made an aborted motion to touch Steve. Steve gave him an odd look.

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Um. Can I?” Bucky hesitantly reached out, and Steve made a confused face but stepped closer. Bucky ran his hand over the back of Steve’s head to check for injuries. There were none. His muscles finally relaxed, and he withdrew. “Sorry. I. Um. The ghosts are cute.”

 

Steve chose not to acknowledge Bucky’s weird touch and smirked. “I got them because of the joke.”

 

Bucky frowned. “The one about the elevators and the ghosts?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky’s heart felt a little bit weird. Not like- medically. But. Weird.

 

Analysis: He should probably figure out why.

 

“Also, I approve of the map. I couldn’t help but notice that Disneyland was one of the destinations,” Steve said slyly.

 

Bucky’s lips ticked upwards. “I was being optimistic. That map is a best case scenario. Don’t get your hopes up, Steve.”

 

Steve’s grin turned from coy to bright in an instant.

 

“What?”

 

“I think that’s the first time you’ve called me Steve.”

 

Bucky swallowed with some difficulty. “Well, it’s your name.”

 

“Yeah, it is.”

 

“We should get going,” Bucky said, abruptly straightening. He threw on his jacket and boots and clipped his backpack securely to his chest, feeling inexplicably more secure. “If we want to get to Mount Rushmore in approximately two days, we should start driving.”

 

Steve tried to hide a smile as he threw his stuff into his bag.

 

“I need to rob Hydra sometime today. Don’t let me forget.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

“Did Only Friend contact you and explain strange behavior?”

 

Steve’s expression darkened a little bit. “Not yet.”

 

“She will. She loves you.”

 

Steve ran a hand through his sunshine-colored hair. “I know.”

 

Bucky got the feeling that Steve didn’t want to talk about this, so he changed the subject as they walked to the car. “Was there any other place you wanted to stop on the way to Mount Rushmore?”

 

Steve shrugged. “Not really. I mean, the most interesting place would be Lincoln, and I’m not exceptionally interested in history.”

 

“Alright. You’re in charge.”

 

Steve shot him a look, his eyes taking on a devious glint. “Careful, Buck. You may be regretting that later.”

 

“I doubt it.”

 

They climbed into the car. Steve turned on the radio.

 

Bucky did not destroy the radio.

 

 


 

 

“I’m bored.”

 

Bucky glanced at Steve, and then at the barren surroundings of the Midwest. “There’s not much to look at,” he allowed hesitantly.

 

“I know,” Steve huffed. “We can’t even play I-Spy. Or like. The license plate game. It’s all monotonous.”

 

Bucky shrugged helplessly.

 

They stopped for gas a few minutes later, and Bucky pulled out his phone, hesitantly opening up a text to Sam Wilson.

 

BUCKY: I am going on a road trip.

 

The response came surprisingly quickly.

 

SAM WILSON: Eyyyyy good for you man!!!! :) :) :) Keep me updated!!

 

Analysis: The amount of exclamation marks that Sam Wilson used was kind of adorable.

 

BUCKY: Affirmative.

 

Steve climbed back into the car. “We’re pretty much out of money.”

 

“I think I remember a few bank account codes. We’ll stop at the first one we see.”

 

Bucky remembered four codes, so he was able to extract a small amount of money (small was relative in this case- Hydra was so fucking rich that “small” equated anything under one million dollars, which would include nine hundred ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred ninety-nine dollars).

 

As soon as Bucky stuffed his three million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred ninety-six dollars into his backpack, he clambered into the car and got back onto the highway as quickly as possible, explaining to Steve that “Hydra probably won’t notice the loss of funds, but I’m being careful.”

 

“We’re rich now,” Steve said, sounding vaguely uncomfortable.

 

“This amount of money is just an insurance in case anything unexpected happens. I will donate what’s left when this is all over,” Bucky explained, glaring at the too-slow car in front of him. He passed them easily, though. Nobody lived in the Midwest anyway, so there was no traffic.

 

Steve shifted in his seat until his legs were curled underneath him, making him seem slightly taller to an outside observer. “So,” he began, and Bucky felt a spike of nerves at his tone. “Wanna get to know each other a little bit?”

 

“What do you mean.”

 

Steve paused. “Like. We’re gonna be stuck on this road trip together for a little while. I think we should try to become friends or something to make it more fun.”

 

Analysis: What is “or something?”

 

Steve cleared his throat a little bit. “I’ll go first. I’m Steve. I’m a graphic designer. I lived in Brooklyn up until college, and then just never moved back from DC. I never knew my father, and my mother died a few years ago. Um. What else...”

 

“You only have one friend,” Bucky added helpfully.

 

Steve shot him a glare. “I do not,” he huffed. “I have way more than that.”

 

Bucky arched an eyebrow. “Okay.”

 

Steve crossed his arms. “Alright. Your turn.”

 

Bucky shifted uncomfortable, and his arm jerked. “I don’t remember.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Memory wiping technology.”

 

Steve’s entire body flared with that righteous anger, but he managed to keep it contained. “Your history doesn’t make you who you are. Tell me about you. What you like. What you don’t.”

 

Bucky gave that a lot of thought before he hesitantly said, “I like red. The color.” Steve nodded encouragingly. “And. I like the joke book. I like my backpack. My rifle. I like you.” Steve smiled a little bit, ducking his head, and Bucky somehow felt like that was a victory. “I do not like the conditioning. Or Hydra. Or your music taste.”

 

Steve laughed. “My music taste is amazing, fuck you.”

 

Bucky let a tiny smile spread across his lips. “Lies.”

 

Steve, the little shit, locked eyes with him as he deliberately leaned over and turned the volume on the radio up until it seemed to take up the whole car. “I KNEW YOU WERE TROUBLE WHEN YOU WALKED IN,” he half-shouted, half-sang into the car.

 

Bucky resisted the urge to bang his head on the steering wheel, settling for a groan (but the tiny smile hadn’t disappeared).

 

Analysis: Steve was a goddamn terrible singer.

 

(Sub-analysis: And Bucky totally didn’t care at all.)

 


 

 

They found another motel for the night. Because Bucky wasn’t going to be the reason that Steve fucked up his spine.

 

Bucky took watch, settling into his sniper mindset as night took over.

 

A positive development: He felt much calmer than he had a few days ago.

 

Maybe he could get used to this whole Technically-Being-A-Fugitive-From-Hydra thing.

 

Only Friend called them and said, “Can I talk to Steve?”

 

Bucky said, “Sure.”

 

Steve took the phone, and Bucky failed at not listening in on the conversation.

 

“I’m not an accountant.”

 

Steve swallowed visible. “Um. Okay.”

 

“I work for an international organization called Shield.”

 

“Which means?”

 

“I’m a spy,” Only Friend said quietly. “I, um. Was assigned to protect you.”

 

Steve went still. “Oh.”

 

“But it goes beyond that now, I promise. You’re my best friend. I-“

 

“I need a minute,” Steve muttered and hung up. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Fuck.”

 

“You okay?”

 

Steve glared at him. “My only friend. Was assigned to be my friend,” he said, voice raw.

 

“But she became your friend anyway.”

 

Steve lurched to his feet and stalked into the bathroom. He splashed some water on his face. “This is...” he trailed off. “I don’t know if I can forgive her for this,” he confessed.

 

Bucky hesitantly approached him and laid his hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve turned and rested his head against Bucky’s collarbone. Bucky raised his arms to wrap them around Steve.

 

“I was assigned to kill you, and I became your friend anyway.”

 

Steve laughed humorlessly.

 

“You bring it out in people.”

 

“Yeah, right,” Steve muttered and stepped away. “I’ll take the next watch.”

 

Bucky could do nothing as Steve took a seat by the window.

 


 

 

They arrived at Mount Rushmore on a sunny Autumn afternoon.

 

Steve brought his sketchbook, and they settled down on a bench with a good view. It was the middle of a weekday, so there was barely anyone there, and it was quiet. Bucky felt his shoulders relax, and he let his elbow rest on the back of the bench.

 

Steve sketched the faces in the mountain. Bucky alternated between watching him and staring kind of blankly at the mountain.

 

“Why did they build the mountain?” he asked eventually.

 

Steve waved a vague hand, mostly distracted by his drawing. “I dunno. They were important historical figures.”

 

Bucky stood and wandered over to pick up a brochure to read.

 

“George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln were chosen because they preserved the US and expanded its territory. They built it to promote tourism,” Bucky let his lips curl up wryly. “I guess it worked.”

 

Steve snorted.

 

“They finished building it in October of 1941.” Bucky turned the brochure over. “It was originally supposed to be at a different place, but that mountain had an erosion problem, and Rushmore has better sunlight exposure.”

 

“Cool,” Steve said. He was drawing two tiny silhouettes at the base of the mountain. It was cute.

 

Bucky nodded, opening the brochure again. “They have some neat statistics here. Guess how much dynamite they used.”

 

Steve offered him a blank stare. “Did you just say ‘neat’?”

 

Bucky blinked. “What’s wrong with ‘neat’?”

 

Steve bit his lip to smother a little snicker. “Nothing.”

 

Bucky watched as Steve stood up to stretch. His shirt rode up a little bit, and Bucky looked away. He straightened when he felt a little bit of a prickle at the back of his neck.

 

“Buck?” Steve said. “What’s up?”

 

Bucky reached into his boot to grab his handgun just as he spotted the sniper. Bucky shot to his feet and tackled Steve to the ground as he heard the telltale pfft of a gunshot.

 

“Are you okay?” Bucky demanded as they landed on the ground.

 

Steve sucked in a breath, winded from the collision. They both looked down at the same time to see the bloom of red spreading from the denim over Steve’s thigh. “Oh,” Steve said softly, the sound startled out of him.

 

Fuck.” Bucky scrambled to his knees and hooked one arm under Steve’s legs and the other under his shoulders.

 

“Don’t,” Steve snapped. “I can fucking walk.”

 

“Shut the fuck up, Steve,” Bucky growled. “Hold onto me.”

 

Steve huffed in supreme irritation, but he must have not been 100% stupid, because he wound his arms around Bucky’s neck. Bucky grabbed his handgun and aimed and fired in one smooth motion, hitting the Hydra agent in the neck with a gush of red before he could reload his gun.

 

Bucky dove behind a couple of trashcans and laid Steve down for a moment. “Stay.”

 

“I’m not a fucking dog-“ Steve gritted out, but Bucky ignored him and turned back towards where the sniper had been. Sure enough, a strike team stepped from their hiding places now that they had been made.

 

“That’s a fucking dumbass move,” Bucky muttered to himself, something akin to rage burning through his muscles as he made sure his handgun was loaded. He shot the nearest one in the head without pause, watching the brain matter explode out behind him with mild satisfaction.

 

The rest of the strike team ducked for cover, and Bucky bared his teeth. Funny how they thought they stood a chance against him.

 

He shot a woman in the head just before she could find cover behind a large map/sign. Four to go.

 

Two of them were hiding behind a truck parked nearby. Bucky didn’t even bother to scope it out- he just jogged a little bit towards it, reached into a pocket of his backpack to pull out a grenade, pulled the pin out, and tossed.

 

The truck exploded with lovely flames, and Bucky didn’t stop to check if the two were dead. They were, at the very least, out of commission.

 

The remaining two agents had gotten better cover, but they were struggling to regroup. Normally, it would be good strategy to try and surround Bucky, so they had been hiding on either side of him. However, they did not account for the fact that Bucky was the goddamn fucking Asset, and now it just meant that they were separated and that they were going to die alone.

 

Bucky swung himself up into a tree and was able to see one of them, fumbling with his gun and trying to call for backup. He shot the man in the neck, and then shot the communicator, because he was feeling particularly angry right now.

 

The last woman, he had to seek out. Her hiding place had been the best, but it still wasn’t enough. He hauled her up by the collar, and she tried to stab him, but he crushed her wrist in his metal hand.

 

“Hey, there,” Bucky said, surprised by how calm he sounded.

 

The woman spat in his face. “Traitor.”

 

Bucky tsked. “Sellout.”

 

“Hail fucking Hydra.”

 

“Yeah, honey, they’re not here to help you now,” Bucky said darkly before he snapped her neck in one fluid motion. She crumpled like a paper doll. How fitting.

 

Bucky took a shuddering breath and scrambled back to where Steve was still bleeding on the ground behind some trashcans.

 

“That was fuckin’ terrifying,” he muttered, his words sounding all slumpy.

 

Bucky gritted his teeth and picked Steve up again.

 

“’M not Sleeping Beauty.”

 

“We need to fucking move.”

 

You can put me down.”

 

“You got shot in the fucking leg,” Bucky snarled and started to run. He reached their van and helped Steve into the passenger’s seat, letting himself slow down to make sure Steve would be as comfortable as possible, before vaulting himself over the hood to get to the driver’s seat and launch out of the parking lot.

 

Steve was pressing his head back into the seat, his eyes squeezed shut.

 

“Put- put pressure on it. Hold on. I’m- we’ll stop as soon as it’s safe and I’ll- you’re gonna be okay, Stevie, just hold on-“

 

“Shut up,” Steve said through gritted teeth. “Shut. Up.”

 

Bucky clamped his mouth shut and gunned the engine, praying that the strike team hadn’t been able to send a sufficient report to call for backup. They needed another fucking car, and they needed it fast.

 

Bucky pulled into a miscellaneous parking garage and stole another nondescript van. He carefully laid Steve out in the backseat and found a first-aid kit in the front of the car. “I’m taking your pants off.”

 

“How forward of you,” Steve managed, his eyes still shut. “Although you have already bought me dinner.”

 

Bucky ignored him and yanked the jeans down until they were around Steve’s ankles. Steve’s legs were pale with fine, blonde hair. He was skinny, but Bucky was distantly surprised by some existence of muscle mass.

 

Bucky examined the wound with careful fingers, finding the bullet fairly easily. It hadn’t hit anything vital, but the muscle would take a while to reknit itself. He’d have to stitch everything together precisely now in order for Steve to recover easily and without a limp.

 

Steve sucked in a harsh breath when Bucky started to extract the bullet, and Bucky froze. He’d forgotten that Steve probably hadn’t gotten much pain conditioning.

 

“Hey, hey, we’re okay,” he said in a soft voice, running his free hand down Steve’s uninjured thigh as a sort of soothing gesture. “Just listen to my voice. Don’t pay attention to what I’m doing down here. Just listen.”

 

“’Kay,” Steve said, voice tight.

 

Bucky stuck his metal finger back into the wound, and Steve whimpered. “Why do seagulls fly over the sea?” Bucky blurted out, frantic to revoke the pain in some way.

 

Steve shook his head and bit down hard on his hand.

 

“Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be bagels.”

 

Steve made a choking noise, and Bucky tried to pull the bullet out as quickly as he could. A few silent tears leaked out of the corners of Steve’s eyes. Bucky sanitized the site as best as he could and reached for the stitches for sewing muscle together to start working.

 

“Um. Okay. Let’s see. What do you call a fly without wings?”

 

Steve’s hand was bleeding now too with how hard he was biting down.

 

“A walk.”

 

“Clever,” Steve choked out, voice muffled around his hand.

 

Bucky gave him a relieved smile that he couldn’t see. If Steve could still sass him, everything was going to be alright. “What do you call a cow with no legs?”

 

Steve made a valiant attempt at making a questioning hum.

 

“Ground beef.”

 

Bucky tied off on the muscle stitches and reached for the ones for the skin.

 

“Just a little bit more, Stevie, and then we’re gonna be fine. One more joke, okay?”

 

“Gimme the best you got,” Steve said, sounding half-conscious.

 

Bucky thought about it as he readied his needle. “What did one cannibal say to the other while they were eating a clown?”

 

“Oh boy,” Steve mumbled.

 

“’Does this taste funny to you?’”

 

Steve let out a hysterical laugh, and Bucky finished the stitches before the sound fully tapered off. He covered his thigh in a band of gauze, and Steve’s muscles relaxed.

 

“You okay?”

 

Steve opened his eyes, and he looked bleary with pain. “Buck,” he said roughly. “I got shot.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“We could’ve died.”

 

Bucky didn’t say anything, and Steve’s face crumpled for an instant before he visibly tried to shove everything down. Bucky made some sort of angry noise and clambered fully into the new van, leaning down to grab Steve by the shoulders. “You can feel things,” he whispered, not really knowing what he meant.

 

Steve evidently understood, because he immediately grabbed onto Bucky’s shirt and pulled him down, tucking his face into Bucky’s neck. Bucky instinctually wrapped his arms around Steve’s body, pulling him close into his chest and rolling them onto their sides so that Steve wouldn’t be crushed by his weight.

 

Steve’s body shuddered, and Bucky felt damp, warm tears on his neck, but Steve was silent. “A lot of people want me dead, huh?” he mumbled hoarsely, pressing his face more firmly into Bucky’s neck.

 

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, tightening his hold. “But stronger people want you alive.”

 

“You?” Steve gasped, voice bitter.

 

“And Only Friend.”

 

“So I’ve got two in my corner.”

 

“Three, if you count yourself.”

 

Steve didn’t say anything. He just clung onto Bucky a little bit more desperately. His little body was shaking, but he was being so quiet. Why the fuck was he being so quiet? “I don’t know what I did,” he said into Bucky’s skin, voice cracking. “I’m such a normal person.”

 

“I don’t know what to tell you, pal,” Bucky said, running his hand through Steve’s hair. Wow. Steve’s hair was soft. “But you’re also not normal.”

 

Steve shook his head ever so slightly. “I’m a fucking graphic designer who only has one friend.”

 

“Two,” Bucky corrected gently. “And you helped the conditioning collapse without even speaking to me. So. I’d say you’re pretty damn special.”

 

“Fuck you,” Steve said tiredly, and he was still crying and still trying to be so fucking quiet, like Bucky would judge him if he started sobbing or something. What the fuck.

 

Bucky sighed and kept running his hand through Steve’s hair. Because of. Reasons. “Do you have any moderately loose pants?” he eventually asked. Because Steve’s fashion style seemed to consist of really tight skinny pants and big loose shirts.

 

“Brought- brought sweats, yeah,” he whispered, not moving to relinquish his clinging grasp on Bucky. So new pants could wait, he guessed.

 

Analysis: Steve needed the cuddles more than he needed the clean pants.

 

(Sub-analysis: Also. Bucky maybe needed the cuddles a little bit too.)

 

Steve’s body eventually went mostly limp against him, and Bucky came to the conclusion that he was almost unconscious. He reluctantly extracted himself from Steve’s grip, making a pained face when Steve made a soft noise of protest. But he ignored it and located the sweatpants, removing the ruined jeans the whole way and sliding the sweatpants on.

 

Bucky moved Steve to the passenger’s seat and reclined it as much as it would go. He then did his best to clean up the blood in the backseat because he figured Steve might not like the smell. Not that Bucky was a huge fan of the smell either.

 

When everything was sorted out, he started to drive.

 

They’d take the long way to Yellowstone.

 


 

 

Steve woke up trembling violently, but neither of them said anything until Steve made a frustrated noise and banged his head back against the seat, pressing his arms into his sides to try and make the shaking stop.

 

“Hey,” Bucky said quietly, holding up his right hand where they could both see the humiliatingly apparent tremors going through his whole arm. “We match.”

 

Steve laughed wetly, and it was a horrible, bitter sound.

 

“I’m going to call Natasha.”

 

“She’s gonna be so angry,” Steve said, voice hoarse.

 

“That’s why I’m gonna be the one to tell her,” Bucky said and reached for the phone, dialing Only Friend’s number.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I am going to start this conversation by saying that Steve is alive and well enough to sass me.”

 

There was another one of those signature beats of ominous quiet. “What happened.”

 

“Strike team found us at Mount Rushmore. Steve got shot in the leg. Nothing vital was hit. He should heal nicely barring any extremes. I think I’m gonna pick up a crutch for him in the next place we stop, though.”

 

“I don’t need a fucking crutch,” Steve snapped, his muscles drawing into a tight, defensive coil.

 

“I don’t want you to fuck up your leg forever,” Bucky said, trying to keep his voice even.

 

Analysis: Steve could be exhausting sometimes.

 

“Okay,” Only Friend was saying. “Okay.”

 

“We’re going to take the scenic route to Yellowstone. Make sure we lose them. I will make sure we stop in motels whenever we can. Steve’s going to get a lot of rest, and he’s going to get better.”

 

“I’m holding you to that,” Only Friend said darkly. “That’s an order, by the way.”

 

“Acknowledged,” Bucky said, shrinking in on himself.

 

“Contact me immediately if anything changes,” Only Friend said and hung up.

 

“She mad?” Steve whispered, staring blankly at the window.

 

“More worried, I think,” Bucky said truthfully. “She loves you a lot.”

 

“My best friend,” Steve mumbled bitterly with a sigh, letting his eyes slide shut. He looked exhausted. “I knew she was hiding shit from me. She didn’t seem too surprised with the whole turn of events.”

 

Analysis: Bucky was “the whole turn of events.”

 

“Maybe,” Bucky allowed. “She sounds dangerous, is all I can say for sure.”

 

“Yeah. And that you think you’ve shot her.”

 

Bucky frowned deeply. “I have learned to never trust anything my memory tells me, so please do not dwell on that.”

 

“How many people do you think you’ve killed?” Steve asked idly. “What was it just today? Seven?”

 

“Affirmative,” Bucky said stiffly.

 

“Way more than that?”

 

“Way, way more than that.”

 

“But you never trust your memory.”

 

Bucky gripped the steering wheel so hard that the wood started to dent. “That is the only thing I can trust sometimes.”

 

Steve’s head lolled so that he could look at Bucky. “Your kill list?”

 

Bucky shrugged. “The fact that I am a killer.”

 

“That’s no identity,” Steve said quietly.

 

“Yes,” Bucky said, turning to stare at Steve for a beat too long. “I think I’m beginning to understand that.”

 

Steve looked away first. Bucky tried not to feel pained by it.

 


 

 

Bucky bought a room in an actual, nice, clean hotel for the night. Because Steve fucking deserved it.

 

They were both goddamn exhausted, so Bucky even selected a hotel with nice security so that he’d be able to sleep a little bit. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t wake up immediately if there was a threat in the vicinity anyway.

 

But there must have been a misunderstanding in booking the room because there was only one king-sized bed.

 

Steve hobbled into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He groggily pulled his shirt off, left the sweatpants where they were, and burrowed under the plush hotel sheets until just his head was poking out.

 

“I will change the gauze in the morning. Try not to move around too much in your sleep,” Bucky said awkwardly after he’d brushed his teeth and showered and sent some of his clothes down to be washed because this was a fucking nice hotel. He was wearing his ghost pajamas and trying not to fidget with the lack of a shirt.

 

Because. There were scars. All down. His chest.

 

Analysis: It was disgusting. It was disturbing. The place where his metal arm was sealed to his shoulder was fucking terrible and-

 

Steve just blinked owlishly at him. “’Kay.”

 

Bucky started to settle down to sleep on the floor when Steve made a questioning noise.

 

“What’re you doing?”

 

“Getting ready to sleep?” Bucky said. Was he doing it wrong?

 

“Not on the floor you’re not, you idiot. Come up here.”

 

Bucky froze. “Um.”

 

“You’ve already seen me with my pants around my ankles,” Steve said, trying for a teasing tone that fell only slightly short. “I promise I won’t touch you or anything, but the floor can’t be comfortable.”

 

Bucky had two reactions to that statement:

 

  1. Not touching was highly suboptimal.

 

  1. He had definitely slept in less comfortable places than the floor of a nice hotel.

 

But. Steve was kind. He was the opposite of Hydra. And if he was asking for Bucky to sleep in the same bed, Bucky would do it in a fucking heartbeat.

 

It occurred to Bucky that he might do anything for Steve. Which should have been concerning, especially given the fact that they did not know each other very well.

 

Steve seemed to like him, though. Or at least. Tolerate him.

 

Bucky would take whatever he got. He wasn’t particularly picky.

 

He climbed under the covers, and Steve wiggled around a little bit, but Bucky lay still, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

 

“I can hear you thinking,” Steve grumbled after twenty-eight minutes. “You’re uncomfortable.”

 

“You don’t want the touching, right? I am trying to stay still.”

 

“Touching is fucking fine with me, Buck, what the fuck, you were literally caressing my legs earlier today.”

 

Bucky’s face felt hot. Why did this keep happening to him.

 

“I just kinda thought you wouldn’t want to be touched.”

 

“I don’t think I have been touched in a very long time,” Bucky admitted, staring at the ceiling.

 

Steve’s voice went all soft when he said, “You know, you’re allowed to ask to be touched.”

 

Bucky swallowed roughly. “Can- can you?”

 

“Yeah, Buck.” Steve shifted until their sides were pressed together under the covers. Steve’s skin was warm and soft and Bucky let his eyes flutter shut. “That enough?”

 

“Yes,” Bucky said, his face still hot. “Don’t move anymore. Your leg.”

 

“My leg’s fucking fine,” Steve muttered and turned his head so that his nose was brushing Bucky’s neck.

 

“Go the fuck to sleep, Stevie.”

 

“See you in the fucking morning, Buck.”

 

 


 

 

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Steve threw his arm across Bucky’s chest, his artist fingers brushing against his metal arm, his breath hot and reassuring at his neck.

 

Analysis: Highly optimal.

 


 

 

Bucky and Steve woke each other up, accidentally elbowing each other in the ribs.

 

Steve hissed a little bit and sleepily buried his face into Bucky’s skin.

 

Analysis: Wow.

 

“Iwannatakeashower,” Steve mumbled. “Leg?”

 

“I’m not a fucking doctor. I guess just try to keep it dry? That sounds right. I’ll change the gauze after.”

 

“Then coffee and fancy hotel breakfast.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Steve clambered to his feet and paused, breathing somewhat heavily as he leaned against the wall, not putting any pressure on his leg. He then limped into the bathroom.

 

The shower started.

 

Bucky felt. Weird.

 

He didn’t really think about it before he was calling Sam Wilson.

 

“Hey, man,” Sam Wilson said cheerfully. “How’s the road trip going?”

 

“Good,” Bucky said hesitantly, not thinking about seven dead bodies. “Did I tell you that Steve is with me?”

 

“Steve Rogers?” Sam Wilson asked, surprised. “You two know each other?”

 

“Kind of.”

 

“Care to elaborate?”

 

“Not particularly.”

 

Sam Wilson paused. “Not that I don’t love the fact that you called me, but is there a particular reason why?”

 

Bucky hesitated. “I feel. Weird.”

 

“Weird,” Sam Wilson echoed.

 

“Yes,” Bucky admitted. His face was going all hot again- what the fuck. “When Steve. Does cute things.”

 

“Cute,” Sam Wilson repeated, sounding kind of deadpan, which Bucky did not appreciate.

 

“Sam Wilson, this is serious shit.”

 

“Have you considered,” Sam Wilson began, voice dripping with sarcasm, and Bucky thought, oh boy, “that you might have a crush?”

 

“A crush,” Bucky said.

 

“Yeah,” Sam Wilson said, still just as sarcastic. “Like, you like-like Steve.”

 

Like-like.”

 

“Like you want to make out with him.”

 

Bucky paused, considering this. Steve’s mouth was incredibly soft looking. And. Nice.

 

“Oh my god you’re fantasizing about it right now I cannot believe you-“

 

“I am not,” Bucky said, the heat in his face returning full-force.

 

“Hate to break it to you, dude,” Sam Wilson said, “but you definitely have a crush.”

 

“I hardly know him.”

 

“I didn’t say you were in love with him or anything,” Sam Wilson sighed, sounding exasperated. What did Bucky do to deserve that tone? “God, you’re a piece of work. Lucky for you, I have my fair share of experience in wooing the girls and boys, so I can provide some advice.”

 

“What do you mean.”

 

“On not just fantasizing about making out with Steve. About actually doing it.”

 

“Oh my god,” Bucky groaned, throwing his metal arm over his face.

 

“And I’m like at least eighty-eight percent sure that Steve is at least a little bit gay. So you’ve got a chance.”

 

“I am going to hang up,” Bucky said, not actually moving to do so.

 

Sam Wilson laughed. “Okay, man, I’ll let it go for now.”

 

They drifted into silence, until Bucky blurted out, “Hey, my name is Bucky. I never told you that.”

 

“Thanks, man,” Sam Wilson said, sounding happy. “Now I can change your contact name.”

 

“What was it before?”

 

“Joke Book Guy.”

 

Bucky rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Original.”

 

“Hey, it was either that or Red Shirt Guy. Or even Backpack Guy. Joke Book Guy was a lot more indicative of your personality.”

 

“I didn’t even mean to buy that book,” Bucky admitted.

 

“You didn’t return it either,” Sam Wilson said smugly.

 

“Shut up.”

 

Sam Wilson laughed again, and Bucky heard the shower shut off.

 

“Okay, I have to go. Steve just got out of the shower.”

 

“Oooooooooooh, go get some, Bucky,” Sam Wilson sang teasingly.

 

“You are the worst.”

 

“I looooooove you,” Sam Wilson crooned.

 

“Bye,” Bucky said, smiling, and hung up.

 

Steve stepped out of the shower a moment later, wearing the same sweatpants and no shirt. Fuck, his collarbone was so nice-looking. “Who were you talking to?”

 

“My friend.”

 

“You have friends?” Steve asked, lips curling up.

 

“Two.”

 

“Including me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Steve grinned, ducking his head. “Gauze?”

 

“Gauze.”

 

Steve’s leg didn’t look any worse than it did yesterday, so Bucky took that as a win as he replaced the gauze, maybe holding Steve’s calf more gently than absolutely required.

 

“Thanks,” Steve said quietly when he was finished, pulling his sweatpants back up. “You stay here, okay? I’ll go grab your clothes.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Steve smiled tiredly at him and shuffled out of the room. Bucky ran his hand through his hair, wondering what he was going to do.

 

Obviously, he could not act on these feelings. He had literally been assigned to kill Steve. That would not be a healthy foundation for anything. Plus, he was fucked up. And still probably a little bit at the will of his conditioning. What was more, he was disfigured. That would be another negative to doing anything. And he was a flat character in his own story. There was no dimension to him. He was just an Asset, maybe trying to reform a little bit, maybe trying to find out who he could be beyond that.

 

These were not attractive qualities.

 

No. Bucky would gladly settle for protecting Steve until Steve decided he didn’t need Bucky anymore. Or until Only Friend decided for him. Bucky didn’t really know what he was going to do after the road trip was over. He didn’t want to go back to Hydra. Maybe he’d just decommission himself. Mission over. Conditioning collapsed. Defunct Asset. Self-termination.

 

It’d be easy as one flex of the finger.

 

Bucky thought about this until Steve walked back into the room, trying not to look like he was in pain. Bucky took his clothes and nudged Steve until he went to sit down on the mattress.

 

“I’m going to change.”

 

“Okay,” Steve said, rubbing the heel of his hand hard down his uninjured thigh.

 

Bucky put on his red shirt and his jeans, frowning. They had a few more destinations before they’d turn back east at the Grand Canyon. What was he going to do? Maybe he’d drop Steve off at Only Friend’s house, say good-bye, and jump into the Hudson. Mission complete. Self-termination.

 

Bucky shook his head to himself. There was really no reason to be thinking about this right now.

 

He wandered out of the bathroom to look at Steve, who was staring at the floor grimly. “Breakfast?”

 

“Coffee,” Steve agreed, lurching to his feet.

 

Bucky wrapped an arm around Steve’s waist, and Steve actually had the audacity to glare at him.

 

“I do not need your help.”

 

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Steve. You got shot in the leg.”

 

“So?”

 

“There is no need to over-do it.”

 

Steve was still glaring.

 

“And isn’t this a normal thing that normal people do? Put their arms around each other?”

 

Steve’s expression lost a little bit of the edge, softening ever so slightly. “Yeah.”

 

Bucky tried for a smile, resolutely not thinking about what was going to happen after they saw the Grand Canyon. “Then humor me.”

 

“Fine.”

 

Steve took his meds at breakfast, and Bucky nodded to himself. At least Steve was keeping himself safe in that respect. Bucky guessed that Steve had never been shot before. That was probably why he was being so reckless about it.

 

Bucky purchased a crutch from a dubious store before they left the town. Steve glared at him with suck ferocity that Bucky shrank under it a little bit, but he didn’t waver. “You have to take it. It will help.”

 

“I don’t have to do anything,” Steve said, crossing his arms.

 

“I could just carry you everywhere. This is a fucking compromise, Stevie.”

 

Steve’s glare lost some of its heat, and he snatched the crutch, grumbling under his breath as he settled irately into the passenger’s seat.

 

As a form of sick revenge, Steve took control of the radio and blasted his awful music as loud as he could. Bucky shot him occasional glares, but he would concede that it was only fair.

 

They switched cars three times, but Bucky brought the first aid kit from that first van with them, stuffing it in his backpack.

 

Steve didn’t seem phased. He looked calmer after yesterday- after he’d allowed himself to feel the gravity of everything that had happened since Bucky had shown up. It made Bucky feel more relaxed as well, and the atmosphere of the road trip changed a little bit.

 

Steve smiled more. Bucky knew how to smile. The road was open before them.

 

It felt like they were actually on vacation now, rather than just pretending they were on vacation to avoid unpleasant thoughts.

 

Bucky quite liked it.

 

He’d never try to argue that Steve getting shot had been a good thing, but it did have positive outcomes.

 

And Bucky was starting to get excited to see Yellowstone. He didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that if it erupted, it would probably kill all of America (which was pretty fucking cool). And there was a geyser. What a fun time.

 

Steve seemed relatively excited too. “The scenery, Buck,” he sighed, smiling. “Sometimes I wish I knew how to do photography.”

 

“I bet you could be killer at it without knowing anything. You’re a fucking amazing artist.”

 

Steve grinned, drumming his fingers along to the latest horrible song. “Thanks, Buck. But I don’t think it works like that.”

 

“Sure it does.”

 

Bucky still wasn’t sure if they knew each other very well, but they were at least comfortable with each other. But then again. What did he know? What constituted knowing a person very well?

 

Analysis: He should consult Sam Wilson.

 

(Sub-analysis: Sam Wilson will laugh at him.)

 

((Sub-sub-analysis: Suck it up, asshole.))

 

(((Sub-sub-sub-analysis: Wow. Fuck you too.)))

 

While Steve went to the bathroom at some seedy gas station, Bucky opened a text to Sam Wilson.

 

BUCKY: How do I tell if I know Steve well

 

SAM WILSON: oh honey

 

BUCKY: What

 

SAM WILSON: you are too good and precious for this world

 

BUCKY: What does that even mean

 

SAM WILSON: call me when you can be low-key it looks like i’ve got some shit to explain

 

Bucky called Sam Wilson. “What?”

 

“Everyone is different,” Sam Wilson said immediately. “There’s not some sort of formula for making friends.”

 

“What the fuck. Why not.”

 

“Because everyone’s different.”

 

“That’s fucking stupid.”

 

Sam Wilson hummed. “Here. I’ll test you. What’s Steve’s favorite color?”

 

“He likes them all except purple because purple is a manifestation of the bourgeoisie ruining colors,” Bucky said. Steve had gone off on a twenty-minute rant when Bucky had made the fatal mistake of calling a lampshade “purple.”

 

“Okay, what?” Sam Wilson said, laughing.

 

“Crayola invented purple because they’re bourgeoisie scum.”

 

Sam Wilson was rendered incapable of response because of how hard he was laughing. “Aw man. Is he turning you into a damn communist?”

 

“I think he prefers socialism.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

Bucky shrugged, even though Sam Wilson wouldn’t be able to see. “Capitalism apparently sucks.”

 

“Every economic system sucks,” Sam Wilson said. “Okay. You two are friends. If you know him well enough to give that interesting of an answer to the most standard question in the book, you know him well.”

 

“Oh. That’s. Good.”

 

“Getit, boy,” Sam Wilson said. “Suck his dick or something.”

 

Bucky’s face went hot. “Whyyyy.”

 

“I support you,” Sam Wilson went on. “Get laid now that you’ve reached level four friend.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s a joke I read on the internet. It was fucking funny. Do you appreciate millennial humor? You probably do. You like that pun-centric joke book, which is the lowest form of humor, so you’ll like millennial humor too. Oh boy, I’m gonna send you some fun links.”

 

“Alright.”

 

“Oh shit, I’ve gotta go. New customers. See ya, Bucky.”

 

“Bye, Sam Wilson.”

 

“Oh my god stop using my full name every time we- Hi! Welcome to The Corner-“ Sam hung up before he finished.

 

Bucky frowned at his phone. A few minutes later, Steve got into the car and laid his crutch against the door.

 

After several moments of quiet, Bucky said, “Sam Wilson thinks you’re a communist.”

 

“Why?” Steve asked curiously. “You know I prefer socialism.”

 

Bucky smiled. “I was talking to him about your opinions on the color purple.”

 

“Oh?” Steve said, straightening. “That bourgeoisie construction that proves no one is safe from capitalism?”

 

“Yes, exactly.”

 

Steve faltered. “Oh. I guess I can see why he’d think I’m a communist, then. Regardless, the bourgeoisie are everywhere.”

 

“The freer the market the freer the people,” Bucky whispered conspiratorially.

 

Steve laughed. “Not you too,” he groaned, eyes still crinkled.

 

“Proletariat dirt.”

 

“Noooooooooooo,” Steve said and cranked up the volume on the radio to avoid Bucky saying anything else.

 

Bucky just smiled at the road.

 

 


 

 

“You pick.”

 

Steve considered the two shirts critically. “They’re both nice.”

 

“You pick.”

 

Steve shrugged. “Why don’t you get both? You only have two shirts.”

 

Bucky looked at the shirts skeptically. They were both bright colors, which was tactically idiotic, but he was the fucking Asset and he could wear whatever fucking colors he wanted. “Which do you like better, though?”

 

Steve grinned and shoved lightly at his chest. “Go try them on and we’ll see.”

 

Bucky looked down at Steve. He was standing very close and already looking up at him. His grin widened, and he poked Bucky’s chest again.

 

“Model for me.”

 

Analysis: Sweet fucking Jesus.

 

Bucky’s face heated, and he fumbled with the shirts for a moment before stumbling into the changing room, Steve laughing softly behind him.

 

“Keep watch, yeah?” Bucky called, voice slightly hoarse.

 

“Buck, the door has a lock.”

 

Bucky rolled his eyes. “An entirely feeble lock.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I got you.”

 

Bucky slipped on the first shirt and flexed his metal hand, which caught the light. He glanced at himself in the mirror, surprised to notice the color of his eyes.

 

Bucky opened the door. “Did you know I have blue eyes?”

 

Steve’s expression went all soft and semi-tragic. “Yeah, I did.”

 

Analysis: The way he said that. Was. Highly optimal.

 

Bucky’s face went hot (why did this keep happening), and he glanced down at the blue shirt. “How do I look?” He spread his arms out a bit.

 

Steve made a jokingly considering face and twirled his finger. Bucky turned around in a slow circle, shamelessly enjoying being on display for once. “You’ll do,” Steve finally said, eyes sparkling as he shifted his weight onto his crutch.

 

“That all I get?”

 

“Bucky,” Steve said, batting his eyelashes theatrically, “You look gorgeous, darling.”

 

Bucky let out a little giggle and was instantly embarrassed (although Steve looked absolutely delighted). “Punk. I’m trying on the other one now.”

 

“I support you.”

 

“Jackass,” Bucky grumbled and pulled on the pink shirt. It had a different collar- lower. V-neck, Bucky thought it was called.

 

Steve blinked at him when he stepped outside, his eyes flicking down to Bucky’s chest. His cheeks went pink, and Bucky ducked his head, not sure what to do with that information. Steve cleared his throat. “This one’s nice.”

 

“I’ll get ‘em both.”

 

“Good choice.”

 

And if Bucky elected to wear the pink shirt for the rest of the day, that was nobody’s goddamn business.

 

 


 

 

Yellowstone was superior to Mount Rushmore.

 

“Stevie, look at this plant!” Bucky said excitedly, pointing. He got the phone out and clicked on the camera app, lining up for a picture. Bucky showed Steve the picture. “Look.”

 

Steve laughed at him, hitting him in the leg with his crutch. “Nerd.”

 

Analysis: Steve using his crutch as a thing to hit people with was not fair. But kind of expected.

 

Bucky skipped over to the next plant that caught his eye and took another picture. “These are so cool.”

 

Steve was struggling to doodle his surroundings and lean on his crutch without falling at the same time. Bucky picked up a fucking awesome violet flower and bounded over to Steve, offering it to him with exaggerated majesty, bowing a little bit. “For you.”

 

Steve beamed at him and took the flower. “I don’t think you’re supposed to pick the flowers.”

 

“Like that’s the first illegal thing we’ve done on this road trip,” Bucky scoffed.

 

“You’re such an asshole,” Steve said, tucking the flower into his jacket pocket. “We’ll have to hide it.”

 

They found a place to watch the geyser, which was an experience in itself. Steve blinked at it while Bucky tried to blindly take pictures on the phone, not wanting to physically look away but also wanting to capture the moment. The pictures turned out blurry. Whatever. Steve sat down on a bench to furiously draw it after it ended, which would probably be better than any picture Bucky could take.

 

“If the volcano explodes, we’re all going to die,” Bucky said happily, taking a picture of Steve as they walked along a path. Steve was lightly flushed from exertion, and he was beautiful.

 

Steve made a vague humming noise. “What do you think would be the best way to die?” he asked.

 

Bucky wondered if the question was rhetorical, but he decided that didn’t really matter. He was going to answer anyway. “Something quick.”

 

“Like?”

 

“Bullet straight through the brain.”

 

Steve nodded thoughtfully.

 

“How ‘bought you?” Bucky asked, genuinely curious as he snapped a picture of a really tall tree.

 

“I dunno. Something noble. Doesn’t matter the means of death, really. More the circumstances. I wanna die doing something worthwhile. Something that’ll make a difference or help people or whatever.”

 

Bucky frowned. “So, like... You want a martyr’s death?”

 

“Aw, don’t say it like that,” Steve muttered, stabbing the dirt with his crutch with a little more force than necessary. “I just want to- god, this sounds so fucking cheesy- but I want to make a difference.”

 

“I think it’s more about depth than breadth. How your life affects certain people rather than how many people your life affects.”

 

“Why can’t you have both?”

 

Bucky thought for a moment. “That sounds exhausting.”

 

“Probably,” Steve conceded, kicking a rock. Bucky took a picture of the rock.

 

“I have a question,” Bucky asked after a while of walking in silence.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Did you hate how you were living in DC? You didn’t seem very happy.”

 

Steve paused, frowning deeply. Bucky stopped in his tracks to face him because this was probably important. “I was kinda lonely,” he conceded hesitantly. “My only friend lived in New York. And I wanted to draw comics, not design logos.”

 

Bucky nodded slowly. “Do you feel happier now?”

 

The question seemed to take Steve off-guard, and Bucky blanked out for a second. He’d just walked himself into a corner. This was a bad question to ask.

 

But Steve. Steve just said:

 

“Yeah.”

 

And they started walking again.

 


 

 

Bucky fell back onto the bed of the latest motel, sighing contentedly. Steve stepped out of the bathroom, his skin slightly red from the shower, and grinned at him. “Hard day?”

 

Bucky stretched like a cat, just because he knew it would make Steve laugh. Steve did laugh. Bucky liked Steve’s laugh.

 

Steve picked up the flower that he’d lain on the motel room’s desk and put it in his ear. “How’s it look?” he asked.

 

Bucky picked up the phone and snapped a picture. “Like some sorta goddamn tree nymph.”

 

“Aren’t nymphs- like- temptresses?” Steve asked, sitting on the bed and rolling the leg of his pajamas up to offer Bucky access to the gauze around his still-healing bullet wound.

 

Bucky started unraveling the gauze. “I dunno.” Steve could be a temptress. He wouldn’t even have to try. Bucky was briefly launched into a fantasy of Steve sitting in the branch of a Yellowstone tree, smirking down at him. Yeah. Steve could definitely be a nymph-temptress.

 

“What’re you thinking about?” Steve asked, nudging him.

 

“Trees.” It wasn’t technically a lie.

 

“Of course.”

 

Bucky replaced the gauze, after checking the state of the wound, pleased with what he found. It was healing very nicely. Score for Bucky, unlicensed doctor with minimal experience in dressing wounds for long-term sustainability.

 

“I have a question,” Steve said.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Do you think Hydra always had you in their custody or do you think they captured you?”

 

Analysis: What a heavy fucking question, Steve.

 

Bucky sighed, sitting up. He watched Steve pull down the leg of his pants. The fucking flower was still in his hair. “I don’t know.”

 

Steve looked at him like he expected him to say something else.

 

“I kind of assume I was captured, just because of some things I remember like muscle memory. But there’s absolutely no reason why Hydra couldn’t have replicated the outside world in order for me to be a more versatile Asset. It doesn’t really matter anyway.”

 

Analysis: Wow. That was a lot of words.

 

Steve reached forward and grabbed Bucky’s metal hand, fiddling with the fingers. “Why doesn’t it matter?”

 

Bucky watched Steve for a moment, and Steve looked up. Whatever he saw in Bucky’s face made his cheeks flush, but he didn’t look away. “It wouldn’t influence my future either way.”

 

Steve cleared his throat, and his voice was a little bit strained. “Your future?”

 

Bucky wanted to say, Yeah, you, but he settled for just not looking away.

 

Steve was a fucking perceptive asshole, and Bucky saw the moment he realized that Bucky was implying that Steve was his future. “Oh,” he said quietly, like the word had been punched out of him.

 

Analysis: ABORT. TOO MUCH.

 

(Sub-analysis: FUCK YOU, BRAIN, I DO WHAT I WANT.)

 

But Steve let go of his metal hand and stood up, wincing a little bit as he put weight on his leg. “We’re going to the Golden Gate Bridge next, right?” he said, voice slightly off.

 

Bucky recognized it as the deflection it was and stared down at his feet. “That is the plan.” His voice had dropped back into monotone (no, come back, expressiveness).

 

Steve ran a hand threw his hair, making sure not to displace the flower, which was at least a small victory. “Yeah, I still wanna do that.”

 

A lot of people committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Bucky wondered if there was a difference between there and the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

“I’ll take watch,” Bucky said, getting to his feet. He climbed out the window before Steve could respond.

 

He opened his backpack and took out the joke book. He took a deep breath, fanning out the pages with his thumb.

 

He went back to the beginning.

 

By the time he finished the joke book again, it was the time of night where only creepers and drunkards were still out. He glanced in the window, finding Steve asleep. Good. He deserved some rest after all that walking they did today.

 

He ran a hand through his hair and tugged hard at the strands. The faint twinges of pain were welcomed.

 


 

 

The car ride the next day was a little bit awkward.

 

Bucky hated it.

 

So, he did the only thing he could.

 

“Knock, knock.”

 

Steve gave him a relieved look. “Who’s there?”

 

“Otto.”

 

“Otto who?”

 

Bucky smirked. “Otto know. I’ve got amnesia.”

 

Steve made a squawking noise and whacked Bucky repeatedly on the arm while Bucky laughed. “That’s not funny! You actually have fucking memory issues!”

 

“It’s fucking hilarious.”

 

“You’re a disaster,” Steve groaned, dropping his head onto the dashboard. “We can’t be friends anymore.”

 

“Fuck you too, Rogers.” Bucky suddenly got cut off by an asshole driver. “Oh, suck my dick,” he said to the driver, flipping them off.

 

Steve choked a little bit on his next breath, but he didn’t say anything.

 

The radio changed songs, and Steve instantly perked up at the tune. Evidently, this was a song he liked. He cranked up the volume and threw Bucky a saucy look before he started to sing in his awful voice, “Humidity is rising, barometer’s getting low.”

 

Bucky sighed in feigned exasperation.

 

According to our sources, the street’s the place to go.”

 

“Stevie, I fuckin’ swear.”

 

’Cause tonight for the first time, just about half past ten-“

 

Steve threw up his hands, trying not to grin.

 

For the first time in history, it’s gonna start raining mennnnnnnn.”

 

“What-“

 

IT’S RAINING MEN- HALLELUJAH- IT’S RAINING MEN- AMEN.”

 

Bucky threw Steve a horrified glance. And the song got even worse.

 

Exhibit A, B, and C:

 

A. “I’m gonna go out, I’m gonna let myself get absolutely soaking wetttttttt.”

 

B. “IT’S RAINING MEN- EVERY SPECIMEN.”

 

C. “Tall, blonde, dark and lean, rough and tough and strong and mean-

 

There was more. But Bucky kind of blanked out. Because Steve was singing it as sassily as possible, which was kind of unbearable sassy. And it was.

 

Well.

 

Bucky’s face was very hot.

 

Analysis: Fuck.

 

As soon as Bucky had a chance, he stopped at a convenience store, locked himself in the disgusting bathroom, and called Sam.

 

“Steve sang a song about raining men.”

 

Sam burst into laughter. “Hoooo boy.”

 

“It was- it had. Sensual. Lyrics.”

 

“’Sensual?’ What kind of fucking adjective is-“

 

“Sam. Help.”

 

“That’s like the gayest thing a boy could do. It’s a good sign, Bucky, I promise.”

 

You know what wasn’t a good sign? Whatever the hell had happened last night.

 

Bucky sighed. “I’m not looking for anything anyway.”

 

“Alright, man,” Sam said dubiously. “You do you.”

 

The car ride was not awkward anymore, though, and Bucky could have died of relief.

 

 


 

 

The Golden Gate Bridge was kind of anticlimactic. They just ditched the car, walked across the bridge, and stole a new car.

 

“Well,” Steve said, “it was very red.”

 

“Why didn’t they name it the Red Gate Bridge?” Bucky asked, driving through the nightmarishly hilly streets.

 

“I don’t fucking know.”

 

Bucky rented them a hotel room because why-the-fuck-not. They had the money. And San Francisco was a nice city. Very pretty. And environmentally friendly-ish- they had compost bins everywhere, which Steve had enthusiastically pointed out.

 

“Can we go to Disneyland next?” Steve asked, as Bucky checked and re-gauzed the wound.

 

“How’s your leg?”

 

“Fine.”

 

Bucky gave him a doubtful once-over.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“I’m asking for Only Friend’s opinion.”

 

“Fuck, would you stop calling her that?” Steve muttered, half-annoyed.

 

Bucky ignored him and called Natasha. “How do you think Steve’s leg would hold up in Disneyland?”

 

She sighed through her nose. “It’s fucking late here, what the fuck?”

 

“Answer the question, Мошка.”

 

Natasha paused. “Did you just call me ‘gnat’ in Russian?” she asked, vaguely bewildered.

 

Bucky smirked. “Yeah. Get it? Because Nat sounds like gnat.”

 

“Jesus.”

 

“I’m funny.”

 

“Sure you are, Олень.”

 

“You’re calling me a deer?”

 

“Yeah. Because Steve calls you ‘Buck’ sometimes. A buck is a deer.”

 

Bucky may have to reevaluate his opinion on Natasha. She had a quality sense of humor. “So. Disneyland.”

 

“Disneyland,” Natasha agreed. “Just do it. Steve sounds excited about it, and there’s too many people for even Hydra to make a scene over him, and it should be fun for you too. Just make sure he doesn’t overexert himself. Bring his inhaler.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Now let me get some sleep.”

 

“Yes, Мошка.”

 

“Fuck you,” Natasha said without heat and hung up.

 

“Disneyland is a-go,” Bucky said, and Steve grinned.

 

They slept in the same bed again that night. And Steve ended up sprawled half on top of him. Which was nice, despite the fact that Bucky had Feelings.

 

They set the course for Disneyland.

 


 

 

When they arrived, Steve looked like a little kid. Bucky kind of felt like one too, so he didn’t hold it against him.

 

They went to a ride called Space Mountain first, and Bucky paused to read the disclaimers.

 

“Do you have heart problems?”

 

Steve glared at him. “They fixed my heart murmur when I was four.”

 

“What about your scoliosis?”

 

“Fuck my scoliosis. Come on.”

 

Steve grabbed Bucky’s hand, and Bucky forgot how to formulate a sentence, so he let Steve drag him into the line.

 

Bucky was frowning deeply. “The thing said people with back problems shouldn’t ride.”

 

Steve scowled. “I have minor scoliosis that was mostly corrected.”

 

“Mostly.”

 

“Let me have my fun, Buck. We can go see a chiropractor if it doesn’t turn out well.”

 

Bucky was still doubtful, but Steve was also still holding his hand. So.

 

They rode Space Mountain.

 

Analysis: Bucky did not like roller coasters.

 

He clung tightly to Steve’s arm as they walked outside. Steve was trying not to laugh at him. “Can we. Not. Do that. Again,” Bucky managed.

 

“Not a roller coaster person?”

 

“Apparently not.” It was the restraints. Mostly. And the sharp drops. But mostly the restraints.

 

Steve looked at his ashen face, kindly refraining from prying Bucky off of his arm. “Alright. We’ll stick with the tame shit.”

 

Bucky briefly dropped his forehead onto Steve’s shoulder. “Thanks,” he croaked. Steve patted his cheek consolingly.

 

Bucky then absolutely destroyed Steve in the Buzz Lightyear ride. “That’s not fair,” Steve sighed as they walked out. “You’re a sniper.”

 

“Life’s not fair, pal,” Bucky said smugly.

 

He took out his phone and started to line it up for a picture of the cool ride in the middle of Tomorrowland when someone said, “Oh, do y’all want me to take your picture?”

 

Bucky glanced at the kind-faced woman and then at Steve. He still wasn’t great at talking to people who were not Steve, Sam, or Natasha. “Oh, sure,” Steve said, and Bucky handed the woman the phone.

 

They posed in front of the cool ride with their arms around each other, smiling. The woman took a few pictures and handed the phone back. “Thanks,” Steve said.

 

“No problem,” the woman said, smiling. “You two are very cute.”

 

Analysis: What did that mean? Like. Cute as individuals? Or cute together? Further data required.

 

“Um. Thank you,” Steve said, blushing.

 

The woman waved and strolled along, linking her arm with another woman that was emerging from the Buzz Lightyear store.

 

Bucky cleared his throat. “Let’s go to the other sections.”

 

They stayed away from any rides that had restraints, to Bucky’s relief. Steve was genuinely enjoying himself, even in spite of this. They stopped frequently to buy little snacks, pretending that they were not stops structured so that Steve could catch his breath and take some stress off his leg. It was a good system.

 

And it was interesting. Being so anonymous in the bulbous crowd of tourists.

 

Bucky didn’t particularly enjoy feeling like a tourist (or being in crowds, for that matter), but something about Disneyland made everything feel a little bit different. A little bit surreal, he thought. It made everything less present and somehow less stressful.

 

Nevertheless, he tried to keep his backpack securely clipped to his chest at all times.

 

By the end of the day, Steve’s favorite thing had been the Soarin’ Over California ride and Bucky’s favorite thing had been the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

 

They reached their hotel (Bucky was spoiling them with buying all these nice hotel rooms), happy and exhausted. Bucky carefully checked Steve’s leg and was relieved to find it still looking healthy.

 

They fell asleep quickly.

 

 


 

 

“The next location I circled on the map is the Grand Canyon, which would be our last location. Is there anything else you would like to see?” Bucky asked over breakfast.

 

Steve shrugged. “Nothing else I can really think of. Honestly, I’m blown away by what we’ve seen so far. I feel like-“ Steve cut himself off and concentrated hard on his omelet.

 

“You feel like...” Bucky prompted.

 

Steve shook his head. “Like I’ve remembered why I like being alive,” he mumbled, so quietly that Bucky almost missed it. He cleared his throat. “Anyway.”

 

Bucky kind of wanted to cry. Instead, he reached over and grabbed Steve’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Steve stared at their hands in a kind of numb shock before squeezing.

 

They didn’t let go for the rest of breakfast.

 

 


 

 

According to Bucky’s calculations, it wouldn’t take long to get to the Grand Canyon. They got to Arizona late, though, so Bucky rented a motel room in some quasi-ghost town in western Arizona.

 

Bucky was lounging on the bed while Steve sketched in the chair. “What do you think you want to do for the rest of your life?” Steve asked idly. “Now that you’re not an assassin.”

 

Bucky kind of thought he was still an assassin, but he didn’t say so. “I dunno,” he lied. Jump into the Hudson. Bullet to the mouth. “What do you wanna do after you get to Brooklyn?”

 

“Comics.”

 

Bucky nodded. “You’ll be great.” He got to his feet. “I’m gonna take a walk real quick.”

 

“’Kay,” Steve said, glancing up from his drawing. “Buy me a snack too.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Bucky strolled along the dusty street of the town, hands in his pockets. He walked into the tiny drugstore to buy some snacks, and the guy behind the counter stared at him with abject interest. It was uncomfortable.

 

As soon as Bucky left the store, he saw the man pick up his phone and call someone. A pit of dread rose up in Bucky’s throat, and he thought of Steve sitting alone in their motel room.

 

Analysis: It is probably a coincidence.

 

(Sub-analysis: Heading back to the motel quickly doesn’t confirm any existence of danger.)

 

Bucky hurried back to the motel, making a concentrated effort to not run.

 

He opened the door, and Steve was right where Bucky had left him. Bucky felt his shoulders relax, and he tossed Steve his snack.

 

“Thank you. Hey, I’m gonna need to refill my medications’ prescriptions soon.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky said. “We’ll figure something out.”

 

“That was a short walk.”

 

“I got paranoid.”

 

Steve made a sympathetic noise. “I’m safe.”

 

“Good.”

 

Analysis: The guy at the drugstore was probably not affiliated with Hydra. Why would he be?

 

Bucky paced the room for the rest of the day, hyper-vigilant.

 

But. He was kind of exhausted. He’d realized somewhere along the road trip that he needed sleep. So he fell asleep, slumped in the chair, trying to cling to consciousness.

 

His worries were confirmed when he woke up to a creaking floorboard.

 

Bucky scrambled to his feet, and light poured into the room as he flicked on the light switch in the same fluid motion.

 

Hydra agents. In their room.

 

Steve startled awake, and his mouth opened in surprise.

 

Bucky reached for his gun. An agent fired his gun, and pain flared through his hand. Bucky pulled it to his chest, hissing with pain, trying not to examine the messy hole that went straight through his palm.

 

The fucking agent pulled down his mask, and it was the goddamn fucking Handler. “Long time no see, huh?” he said, sneering. “What happened to a level seven termination?”

 

“Conditioning collapsed,” Bucky said, answering almost reflexively because it was the fucking Handler. “Instinctual overwrite.”

 

“Aw, you developed a personality, did you?” the Handler cooed. “Well. Nobody has any use for a dysfunctional Asset.”

 

Bucky reached into his belt with his metal hand and threw a knife at the jugular of one of the agents. It landed hilt-deep on its mark, and the agent made an unpleasant gurgling noise as he collapsed to his knees, and then all the way down.

 

Somebody shot some sort of techy gun that hit his metal arm, and the arm went limp at his side, nothing but dead weight. Bucky stumbled with it.

 

But the Handler had already turned to Steve. “Ah, so this is the precious Captain of the Algorithm,” he said, and Bucky could hear the proper nouns in his voice.

 

“The what?” Steve said, trying to look unamused. There was a deep furrow of worry in his brow, and he kept shooting Bucky concerned glances. Bucky wanted him to be concerned for himself, goddammit.

 

“Oh, he doesn’t know,” the Handler said, looking around at the agents behind him. “You’re in high demand, Rogers.”

 

Bucky made an angry noise and threw himself forward, tackling the Handler to the ground. Another shot went off, and it hit Bucky in the lower back, probably right where his kidney was, before they hit the ground. Bucky had the air punched out of him, but he’d been conditioned better than letting the pain get to him. He pressed his elbow into the Handler’s neck. “You’re not touching him.”

 

The Handler choked on a laugh, and there was another shot. It hit Bucky in the right bicep, and his hold on the Handler eased up enough for him to be shoved aside.

 

“Don’t-“ Steve said in a strangled tone, shooting belatedly to his feet.

 

The Handler pinned Bucky to the ground. “You know,” he began, pressing his gun under Bucky’s chin, “I should thank you.”

 

Bucky bared his teeth, while Steve said, “Stop, stop-“

 

“Hydra wanted him dead first. But you actually gave us an idea with what to do with him. He’d be much more effectively used in the hands of Hydra than you ever were.”

 

Fear went down Bucky’s spine like a bolt of lightning. Was it that or the gunshots that made him feel sick? “Don’t.”

 

“A much better Asset. Probably wouldn’t experience a collapse of conditioning.”

 

Bucky snarled. “Take me back, then, goddammit, I can-“

 

“We don’t want you. You’re being decommissioned. We want him.”

 

“Why- why fucking- why-“ He wasn’t making any sense.

 

Steve was saying, “Please let him go,” in this horribly desperate voice.

 

The Handler turned his head to look at Steve, and Bucky saw that the remaining agents had restrained him. Had Steve tried to run at the Handler? “Okay,” the Handler said, standing up. Bucky struggled to sit up, starting to feel the weight of the gunshot wounds.

 

“If you take him, I’m gonna burn down every last fucking one of you,” Bucky growled.

 

“Take me,” Steve was saying. “Just don’t hurt him.”

 

The Handler clapped his hands together, glancing between them. “Awwww, this is so cute! You two want to protect each other. You’re both self-sacrificial idiots.” He turned to Steve. “Bring him in. Tell Pierce.”

 

Steve started to struggle against the agents, and Bucky wanted to cheer. “Don’t hurt him,” he begged, staring at the Handler.

 

The Handler made a noncommittal noise and stepped on Bucky’s right hand. Bucky sucked in a sharp breath, feeling all the nerves short out with pain. His vision blurred. The Handler pulled another gun out and shot Bucky point-blank in the stomach. Bucky had the breath squeezed out of him, and he struggled to stay conscious as Steve shouted, “STOP!” with his voice cracking.

 

“Leave him for dead,” the Handler said. “I want him to die slowly. Maybe throw him in a ditch for good measure. Let him rot.”

 

“No,” Steve said, shaking his head rapidly, starting to cry now (or maybe that was Bucky). “No, no, no.”

 

The Handler spread his arms out. “Hey, what can I say? It’s my favorite game: nobody wins.”

 

“Don’t-“ Bucky rasped. “Don’t fucking touch him.”

 

The Handler grabbed a handful of Steve’s hair. “Too fucking late.” He turned to one of the agents. “Knock him out.”

 

A heavy boot collided with his head. Bucky fell into nothingness.

 


 

 

It was hot.

 

Bucky woke up sweating all over, covered in dust in a ditch.

 

He tried to move, and he felt pain all over. He clutched his hand to his chest, whimpering at the pain in his bicep.

 

One wound in the back. One in the stomach. Two along his right arm. Left arm disabled.

 

Why wasn’t he dead.

 

He looked down. The blood had congealed thickly over his stomach wound. Lying still and in the sun may have helped. He didn’t know. He wasn’t a fucking doctor.

 

Analysis: STEVE.

 

Bucky cried out softly as he forced himself into a sitting position. He’d been stripped down to his underwear, so he couldn’t have his phone on him. He was probably half-dead with injuries. He didn’t know what to do.

 

Analysis: STEVE.

 

Bucky lurched to his feet and immediately collapsed to his knees. He vomited, and his bile was bloody. That wasn’t a great sign. He dry-heaved a few times. Spit out some blood. Got to his feet again.

 

The world was lurching, and he stumbled out of the ditch, panting with exhaustion already.

 

Fucking idiots, Bucky thought joyfully as he spotted a convenience store several hundred meters away.

 

Walking was agony, and he started bleeding again in most places that had stopped bleeding, but he staggered into the convenience store eventually.

 

The clerk, some poor unfortunate teenage boy, startled. “Holy shit,” he squeaked. “Please don’t kill me.”

 

Bucky just shook his head, unable to find the strength to respond.

 

The guy, terrified, fumbled for the phone. “911? There’s a guy in his boxers bleeding all over the floor.”

 

“Ah, fuck, not the police,” Bucky mumbled, somewhat unintelligibly, choking on some blood.

 

“Are you a serial killer?”

 

Bucky tried to laugh, and the sound that came out of his mouth was barely human. “Depends on your definition,” he slurred.

 

The guy hid behind the counter. Bucky didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was reforming, so he just slumped to a sit on the floor.

 

The cops burst in with a paramedic trailing behind them, and the paramedic quickly took over, strapping Bucky to a board while Bucky panicked. “No,” he croaked, but she ignored him. One officer started questioning the kid while the other followed him into an ambulance.

 

The paramedic injected him with something. Bucky passed out. Again.

 

 


 

 

He woke up in the hospital and instantly tried to get out of bed, fear coursing through him.

 

Someone laid a hand on his arm. “Easy.”

 

“I have to- Steve,” Bucky said, frantically prying off the doctor’s hands.

 

“You just got out of surgery, sir. You’ve sustained severe internal damage. You’re not going anywhere.”

 

Bucky made himself look at the doctor. “Where am I?”

 

She told him the name of the hospital.

 

“Can I call someone?”

 

“Sure.” The doctor came back with a phone and handed it to him.

 

He couldn’t move his fingers, so he had to move his entire hand in order to jab the buttons of Natasha’s phone number.

 

“It’s Bucky-“

 

“Where have you been?” Natasha demanded before he even finished talking.

 

Bucky swallowed. “I surrender. I’m in a hospital in Arizona. Come fucking get me.”

 

“Bucky. Where is Steve?”

 

Bucky made a small, pathetic noise and snapped, “Just get here and fucking arrest me.” He rattled off the address and then started to cough.

 

“Fuck. I’ll- someone will- we’ll be there in less than three hours.”

 

The doctor was staring at him hard as he handed back the phone.

 

“I’m a wanted assassin,” he explained.

 

“Jesus,” the doctor sighed tiredly, rolling her eyes and looking generally exhausted with the entire world. “Press that button if you need anything.” She left.

 

One hundred forty-eight minutes later, a man walked into the room and yanked Bucky out of the hospital bed without so much as a hello. He slammed Bucky’s face into the nearest wall and roughly cuffed him. “Fuck,” Bucky gasped, hoping he wasn’t bleeding again. “I fucking surrendered. No need to be violent.”

 

“You’re funny,” the man said dryly, grabbing Bucky’s head and slamming it against the wall once. Bucky blinked away stars. “And also now in Shield’s custody.”

 

Bucky’s lip was bleeding from where his teeth had torn into the skin from the man’s shove. He spit, and it was bloody. “Fantastic.”

 

The man tightened the handcuffs unnecessarily violently, giving Bucky a shove forward. “Come on, then, Soldier.”

 

“My name’s Bucky.”

 

The man made a derisive noise. “Okay. And I’m T’Challa.”

 

“Not very nice to meet you.”

 

“Likewise.”

 

Bucky was unceremoniously shoved into a shady jet. T’Challa removed the handcuffs and put on these insanely heavy cuffs that he wouldn’t have been able to break out of even if his metal arm had been operating. Some of the same cuffs were clamped onto his ankles.

 

“They’re also capable of electrifying you, so I wouldn’t try anything.”

 

“Man, I have had a very hard day. I do not want a fight right now.”

 

T’Challa just laughed a sharp laugh and went into the cockpit.

 

Bucky dozed on the plane ride because all of his muscles were dying, his history of pain conditioning notwithstanding.

 

He woke up in a cell, handcuffed securely to a table. He looked up groggily, and a goateed man stared at him with interest. “Do you know anything about your arm?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Does it send poison into your veins if we try to remove it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

The man looked at the ceiling. “Bruce owes me twenty dollars.” He walked out of the room. Bucky let his head drop onto the table.

 

The door opened again. “Well, if it isn’t the Winter Soldier.”

 

Bucky looked up sharply to see Natasha standing on the other side of the table, her hands behind her back. “Мошка-“

 

Natasha hardened her gaze, and Bucky fell silent. “You’ve got over twenty kills to your belt. Why surrender yourself now?”

 

Bucky was beginning to understand what was happening here. He assumed nobody knew that Natasha had been helping them. He’d have to act like they hadn’t known each other, just to be safe. “Hydra has him,” he blurted out because he couldn’t keep it within anymore.

 

Natasha’s mouth went tight, but she didn’t react otherwise. “Who?”

 

“Steve. Steve Rogers. They called him- I don’t know- the Captain of the Algorithm or some shit. They took him.”

 

“And why should we listen to you?”

 

Bucky bared his teeth and made a concentrated effort at leaning forward. “He is the only thing I care about in this world.”

 

Natasha regarded him with interest. “Ah.”

 

“You’re Shield, right? We need to mount a rescue mission. Immediately. He hasn’t got much time.”

 

“You don’t get to make the decisions here,” Natasha said coldly.

 

A voice said something from the ceiling that Bucky didn’t understand, and Natasha inclined her head slightly.

 

“We’ll be speaking again later.” She left.

 

Bucky made a frustrated noise and banged his head on the table.

 

A long fucking time later, Natasha reentered. “We have considered your information, and there will be no rescue mission. The Intel is too sparse. We’d be walking into a massacre,” she said in a clipped, detached tone. Then she smiled, and it was sharp and painful and Bucky wanted to die. “We’re moving you to a different cell, Оленьашка.”

 

Analysis: Оленьашка. Little deer. She was- that meant something. She was still on their side. She was on Bucky’s side.

 

Bucky relaxed slightly, and the door banged shut as Natasha left.

 

Bucky slumped in his seat. His breathing started to pick up, and his right arm jerked hard. He bit his lip to smother a whimper of pain.

 

He had to. Rationalize. He was- fuck- he was panicking.

 

He dropped his head back onto the table and took shuddering breaths.

 

Good news: Steve was probably alive.

 

Bad news: What he was going through was probably worse than death. Bucky would know.

 

What the fuck did “Captain of the Algorithm” mean????? What was happening? Why was Steve a level seven threat??? Why was a Shield agent on his heels posing as his “best friend”?? Why was- Why-

 

Bucky was hyperventilating now.

 

Calm down calm down CALM DOWN.

 

If Shield wasn’t going to help him, what was he going to do? He’d have to wait until he healed to break out. He’d just be wasting a fuck-ton of time. Steve may not last that long. What if- what if they’d already wiped his memory? What if he didn’t remember Bucky? Fuck, what if-

 

Somebody put a hand on his shoulder, and Bucky flinched away violently, then hissed in pain. He hadn’t noticed somebody else in the room. He looked up, breathing raggedly, glaring through limp strands of hair.

 

A man was holding up his hands peaceably. “Yo. Sorry, dude. I’m just here to take you to your new cell.”

 

Bucky took a few moments, and for some reason, the man let him catch his breath. “I’m Bucky,” he finally said in a hoarse voice.

 

“I’m Clint,” the guy said, grinning toothily. “Here, you can put all of your weight on me. I’m a strong bitch.”

 

Clint helped him to his feet, and Bucky leaned heavily on him. “Listen, you gotta find a way to help Steve. They’re gonna. Try and make him another Asset or something. I don’t know.”

 

“We’re on it,” Clint said, winking.

 

Analysis: Was that a friendly wink or a duplicitous wink?

 

They half-staggered through these pristine halls, and Clint nodded at a few Shield agents. He leaned in close to Bucky and whispered, “Follow my lead. Do not make any noise.”

 

They turned down a hallway, and then turned down a few more hallways. When they got to a vacant one, Clint immediately did this sort of acrobatic jump and pulled off an air vent. He then crouched down at the base of it. “C’mon. I’ll give you a boost.”

 

Analysis: It was a duplicitous wink before.

 

Bucky struggled up into the vent, ignoring how badly he wanted to throw up with pain. Clint followed quickly after and re-screwed in the vent cover. “We’re gonna have to be fast. They’ll know you’re gone in six and a half minutes.”

 

“Why are you helping me?”

 

Clint shrugged. “Nat asked me to.”

 

Bucky stared at him.

 

“She knew I’d follow her blindly. She’s taking the time to convince the others that you’re a pal.”

 

“Oh. Cool.”

 

“Cool beans,” Clint agreed. “Follow me.” And then he started doing this little army crawl.

 

Bucky gritted his teeth and followed.

 

This was for Steve.

 

Clint whispered over his shoulder, “Don’t make any noise. We’ll have to be careful. Sometimes new recruits train in these vents, but everyone knows that the vents belong to me, so. Oh, eventually they’ll put that together, so there’s another reason we have to be fast.”

 

Bucky took a deep breath and muffled the sounds of his movement as much as he could, making sure his metal arm wouldn’t drag on the floor of the vents.

 

Six and a half minutes later, an alarm started to blare. “Now you don’t have to be as quiet,” Clint said, throwing him a grin. “Loud alarms.”

 

They moved quicker after that, and Clint stopped over another vent grate. He quickly unscrewed it and placed it aside, then dropped down to the floor.

 

“All clear. I’ll catch you.”

 

“Reassuring,” Bucky grumbled sarcastically and dropped out of the vent.

 

Clint did catch him and helped him regain his footing. “Nice. Come on, I’ve got a car.”

 

Bucky collapsed into the passenger’s seat of the pickup truck that Clint had indicated while Clint took the wheel.

 

“My brother got me this car as a joke,” Clint explained.

 

“Your brother bought you a car as a joke,” Bucky deadpanned.

 

“Stole,” Clint corrected cheerfully. “I live in Brooklyn, so I never really wanted a car, and his one belonged to some sort of farmer, so it smells. But whatever. My dog likes it, and Nat said it could be useful for something, so suck it, Barney.”

 

Bucky closed his eyes as Clint drove out of the Shield garage at a very nonchalant pace.

 

“We’re hiding in plain sight, by the way,” Clint said, like an afterthought. “Here.” Clint reached into the backseat and threw a backpack at him- wait- it was Bucky’s backpack. Bucky clutched it to his chest and tried not to cry of relief. “The police officers in Arizona found that near the ditch you were dying in. Put on a normal shirt.”

 

Bucky pressed his face into the backpack. He took a shuddering breath, then carefully unzipped it to grab his red shirt. As he pulled it over his head, tears sprang into his eyes. His hand fucking hurt.

 

“There’s like, over three million dollars in there too,” Clint added.

 

“Yeah, I stole that from Hydra.”

 

“Nice.”

 

Bucky rummaged through his backpack and pulled out four items:

 

  1. The joke book

 

  1. The cartoon Steve had drawn with the sandwich

 

  1. The post-it note Steve had left with the coffee

 

  1. The phone

 

He stared at all the items. He clicked the home button of the phone. A few missed calls from Natasha. One text from Sam.

 

Bucky fumbled with his one semi-functional arm to open the phone. His hand smasmed when he tried to move the fingers, and he cursed to himself quietly.

 

SAM WILSON: dude this meme is so you [Attached image]

 

Bucky stared at the picture and couldn’t hold back a half-hysterical laugh at the “meme.”

 

BUCKY: It is

 

BUCKY: You still in DC?

 

He got a reply almost immediately.

 

SAM WILSON: yeah bro its my place of work and shit

 

BUCKY: I think I’m in NYC

 

SAM WILSON: you “think”

 

“Clint, are we in New York?”

 

“Upstate.”

 

BUCKY: Actually we’re upstate NY

 

SAM WILSON: what happened to the road trip

 

BUCKY: Nothing good.

 

Sam called him. Bucky hissed in pain as he fumbled to answer.

 

“You okay?” Sam asked worriedly.

 

“Um. I’ve been shot four times and my metal arm has been disabled.”

 

“What the fuck, man?” Sam said, sounding incredibly worried. Bucky felt a burst of warmth for him.

 

“And. Um. They took Steve.”

 

“What the FUCK, man?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, voice cracking.

 

“Who’s ‘they,’ dude?”

 

“Oh. A shady secret organization that I used to work for- well, I wasn’t paid, I don’t think. But I did steal almost four million dollars from them, so maybe that counts.”

 

“What the fucking fuck?”

 

Bucky sighed. “Can I call you back later? They shot me through my hand. It- it hurts. I don’t have optimal functional status.”

 

“Jesus, Bucky,” Sam sighed, and Bucky could picture him rubbing a hand across his face. “Promise you’ll keep me updated, though?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, definitely.”

 

“Stay safe.”

 

“You too.” They disconnected.

 

Clint glanced at him. “If Nat got Dr. Cho on our side, we’ll be able to seriously speed up your healing process. You may be able to have full function of your hand again.”

 

“The nerves got all fucked.”

 

“Dr. Cho is a miracle worker, my man.”

 

Bucky shrugged, then winced. Everything hurt.

 

“So,” Clint said, drawing the word out. “Hydra captured Steve?”

 

“Yeah. They want to make him their new Asset. I dunno why. I mean, Steve is smart as fuck. He’s the best artist I’ve ever seen, and he is the single most uniquely kind and passionate person in the world, but he’s got so many medical issues. He wouldn’t be able to be a great fighter with all that.”

 

Clint didn’t say anything.

 

“You know something.” It wasn’t a question.

 

Clint rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah, I do. But Tony always explains it better, so I’ll let him handle it.”

 

“What if Natasha didn’t get everyone on our side?”

 

Clint shrugged. “We’ll deal with it then. But Nat is hella persuasive.”

 

A little bit over an hour later, they arrived at a safe house that looked more like a safe mansion.

 

“Tony is very rich,” Clint explained. “And even if Nat didn’t get him on our side, he’ll turn his head the other way and let us do our thing.”

 

Clint helped Bucky out of the car, and Bucky reached for his backpack, but Clint stopped him.

 

“Here, your arm’s fucked. Let me.” He grabbed the backpack and put it on Bucky’s shoulders.

 

“Could you clip it?” Bucky asked quietly.

 

Clint nodded and fastened the clip.

 

Bucky relaxed slightly. “Thanks.”

 

They made their way into the mansion, and Bucky sat heavily on a couch while Clint meandered into the kitchen. “I’m making pizza.”

 

“Yay,” Bucky said.

 

Bucky dozed on the couch and woke up when Clint sauntered into the room with a pizza pie, singing a nonsensical song about pizza. He placed it on the ridiculously expensive coffee table with a flourish. “Split it with me.”

 

“I barely have any control of my one working hand.”

 

“Right. I’ll feed you.”

 

“That really isn’t necessary.” But Bucky’s stomach growled as if on a particularly sadistic cue.

 

“Uh-huh,” Clint said dryly.

 

So, Bucky endured the humiliation of Clint holding a slice of pizza while he ate.

 

“Hey, this could be really kinky,” Clint pointed out cheerfully.

 

“Please, no.”

 

“It’s okay. My heart is promised for a certain redheaded beauty.”

 

“Natasha?”

 

“Yep,” Clint said, not bothering to elaborate. “And yours is promised to a certain righteous five-foot-four blonde, right?”

 

Bucky’s face went hot. “Anyway.”

 

“Anyway,” Clint echoed with a smirk, wiping his hands off on his jeans.

 

They heard the door open, and Natasha called, “It’s just us!”

 

A group of people walked into the room a moment later, and Bucky instantly tensed, eyes zeroing in on T’Challa. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

 

T’Challa glared at him. “Saving Steve Rogers is the right thing to do.”

 

Bucky glared back. “Yeah? And suddenly you don’t care that an assassin is a part of saving him?”

 

“I’m going to put you in prison myself when this is all over,” T’Challa snapped.

 

“Boys,” Natasha cut in, raising her hands in a pacifying gesture. “Let’s see how it all goes first. Everyone, this is Bucky.”

 

Bucky nodded at the group warily.

 

“I’m Tony,” the goateed man from before said. “This is my quaint summer villa. I’m here to reboot the function of your sick metal arm.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Natasha took over the introductions. “This is Bruce, Wanda, Pietro, Jane, Dr. Cho, Scott, and Peter.”

 

The names swam around in Bucky’s head. “Um. Okay.”

 

“Dr. Cho is gonna take a look at your injuries real quick.”

 

One of the women stepped forward and started examining him. “Can you take off the backpack?”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

“You’ll need to eventually.”

 

“Not yet, please.”

 

Dr. Cho nodded and lifted his shirt to inspect the first bullet wound.

 

“Can someone please tell me why they took Steve and what the hell ‘the Captain of the Algorithm’ means?” Bucky said, ignoring Dr. Cho’s cold fingers.

 

Tony raised his hands. “I got you.” He walked over until he was standing in front of Bucky. “So. One of the greatest computer scientists in history developed this algorithm.”

 

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Bucky said.

 

“It was me,” Tony confirmed, preening a little bit. “Anyway, the algorithm was developed in reaction to the sudden surge of terrorism. The world needs a reason not to live in fear every day, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Well, the world also needs a reason to put faith back in some governmental institutions so that we can protect them better. Ever since Vietnam and Watergate, everyone hates the US government. So, Shield made sure that we’re not directly associated with the US government, and we started looking for a spokesperson in order to get ready to go public.”

 

Bucky swallowed. “Um. Okay.”

 

“The algorithm is designed to search through people for ideal qualities. Passion, for one. Kindness. Approachability.”

 

Bucky frowned deeply.

 

“Brucie, here,” Tony said, gesturing to another man with curly hair, hiding in an oversized shirt, “had just developed this really cool serum that sort of amplifies a person’s qualities. The algorithm was designed to look for the perfect candidate for the serum. Someone who would be relatively incorruptible. Someone whose goodness and ideals hold so firm that they’d be so fucking genuine that people would trust them. And maybe, this person would also have a role to tell Shield when it starts going off its rocker.”

 

“Steve,” Bucky said.

 

“Yep. The algorithm identified less than a hundred candidates. Steve Rogers ended up being the most ideal, for reasons that I was not subject to. They deployed Natasha to befriend him and protect him as a screening process to validate the algorithm’s selection. He was scheduled to be briefed for the serum in about half a year.”

 

Bucky felt uneasy. “Oh.”

 

“But then Hydra somehow got wind of what we were doing. That’s where you came in, we assume.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You were assigned to kill him. Instead, you took him on vacation. Major props for that, by the way.”

 

“Um. Thanks.”

 

Tony clapped his hands together. “Hydra originally thought that all of the qualities in the algorithm would doom their cause. However, I have developed a hypothesis as to why they changed their minds.”

 

“And?”

 

“And. All of those qualities can be twisted if Steve genuinely believes what he is fighting for. If Hydra were to, I don’t know, brainwash him, as they did to you, he could be their most deadly weapon.”

 

Bucky frowned. “You were gonna use him as a weapon too.”

 

“Yep. He was gonna be the face of propaganda and counter-terrorism. I thought that was a little bit sketchy, but I didn’t bother questioning it because of the greater good. Now, I’m not so sure what the greater good even is.”

 

“That’s the whole point,” Natasha said. “Shield has been continually blurring the lines between good and not-so-good. We’re trying to set things a little bit more right.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” T’Challa muttered.

 

“You promised you’d see how this plays out before you make a decision,” Natasha said, her voice dangerous.

 

“Fine. But the Winter Soldier still conducted a terrorist attack on my people, and I can’t forget that.”

 

“Sorry,” Bucky said, shrinking in on himself. “I. Uh. Don’t remember anything.”

 

T’Challa looked at him, his face more quizzical than critical now. But he didn’t say anything.

 

“And why are you calling me the Winter Soldier?”

 

Natasha waved a hand. “It’s a nickname that Shield came up with. Since we had next-to-no Intel on you.”

 

Dr. Cho finished her examination and said, “He shouldn’t take long to heal.”

 

Natasha approached him and crouched down so that she was below his eye level. “We’re going to come up with a plan to get Steve back. You let Dr. Cho do her thing, and you can accompany us on the rescue mission. Tony’s gonna go with you and see what he can do with your metal arm.”

 

Bucky sighed. “Thank you, Мошка.”

 

Natasha smiled, and she looked exhausted and terrified and worried beyond belief. “Anything, Оленьашка.”

 

Bucky trailed after Tony and Dr. Cho into a room with a machine that looked like a tanning bed crossed with the cryochamber. He stiffened immediately.

 

“What’s up, Robocop?” Tony said, seeing him freeze.

 

Bucky’s words got lodged in his throat, and he shook his head.

 

“That’s the machine that will help your injuries heal at an accelerated rate,” Dr. Cho said.

 

“Looks like. Cryo,” Bucky managed.

 

“Oh shit. Hydra put you in a fucking cryochamber? That’s fucked up, my dude. I’ll hold your hand if you want. The metal hand. The other one needs the healing rays of magic.”

 

“Not magic, Tony,” Dr. Cho said, rolling her eyes as she prepped the machine.

 

Bucky moved to unclip his backpack, bile rising in his throat, but Tony approached him and said, “Hey, let me. Your arms are fucked up.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Tony set the backpack at the base of the machine. “It’s right there. Anything we can do to help?”

 

“Um. There’s a book of jokes in the backpack. Could you maybe read it to me?”

 

Tony grinned, visibly holding back witty insults. “Sure thing. I’m a great multitasker.” He leaned down and rummaged through the bag. “Um. There’s also, like, three million dollars in here.”

 

“We’re gonna donate it,” Bucky said, trembling all over as Dr. Cho helped him onto the machine. “Stole it from Hydra.”

 

“Eyyyyyyy,” Tony said. “Props.”

 

Dr. Cho turned on the machine. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut.

 

“Okay,” Tony said. “Chapter one. Puns.”

 

Bucky let the familiar jokes wash over him, concentrating on that instead of the weird painful/itchy sensation of his muscles knitting themselves together. He couldn’t feel Tony tinkering with his arm, but he could hear it.

 

Tony finished reading the book aloud, and Bucky whispered, “Could you start again?”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, voice kinder than Bucky had heard it before.

 

When it was all finally over, Bucky had control of his metal arm again, and his wounds looked like they had seen a month of healing. It was really amazing, even though shudders still wracked his body.

 

“Bad news,” Dr. Cho said. “Your nerves were severed pretty cleanly in your hand. You’ve gained moderate control of your fingers again, but all feelings there are going to be muted.”

 

“Two for two,” Bucky managed, holding up both arms.

 

Tony laughed loudly. “I like you.”

 

Bucky outstretched his flesh arm. “Gimme a hand, will you?”

 

Tony continued giggling as he pulled Bucky to his feet. “You may need two hands.”

 

They both started laughing, and Bucky was pretty sure his laughter was at least 75% hysterical. Bucky leaned down and reclipped his backpack to his chest. Both Dr. Cho and Tony ignored how badly Bucky was shaking, and Bucky was grateful for it.

 

Tony and Dr. Cho led them through a bunch of mansion hallways, following the sound of voices. Bucky was surprised by how easily he was walking. Dr. Cho knew her shit.

 

But the feeling in his hand was now pretty much just as muted as the feeling in his left hand. Maybe even more muted. His left arm could feel temperature and pressure and occasionally texture. But everything in his right hand was dull now. At least he could move his fingers a little bit. He’d have to get used to how firing a gun felt like with that.

 

When they entered the room with everyone else, they all stopped talking. Natasha walked over and inspected Bucky’s body, and Bucky felt weirdly exposed. Then, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a fucking hug.

 

Analysis: Good.

 

Bucky crumpled into the embrace, tucking his face into Natasha’s neck. Natasha didn’t seem to mind that he was still shaking all over. “We’re gonna get him back, da?” she whispered.

 

Da. And burn all the fuckers responsible.”

 

Natasha pulled away and smiled at him, and Bucky tried to remember why he didn’t like her at first. He was unsuccessful.

 

“So, we have a plan,” a kid with glasses said. Peter, Bucky thought his name was. “Well, the rough outlines of a plan. We still have to figure out where Hydra took him.”

 

“Which Bruce, Tony, and I can handle,” the woman named Jane said. “Scientists. We get the job done.” They all high-fived.

 

“While they do that, I’m gonna help you learn how to use your hand again,” Clint said. “I’m the best marksman for Shield. You were the best marksman for Hydra. I think we’ll get along.” Clint grinned at him.

 

“And we’re going to brief you,” Peter said, gesturing between himself, T’Challa, and Natasha.

 

“Pietro and I are on finding-food duty,” Wanda (?) said.

 

“I made pizza before. But I doubt there’s much left in here that’s edible,” Clint offered.

 

“Hey. Don’t blame me. I only come up here during the summer,” Tony muttered, holding up his hands.

 

“I’m taking a nap,” Dr. Cho said.

 

Bucky listened to the plan, which was not a very great plan, but it was better than nothing. Then, he went to a shooting range with Clint, which Tony had somehow put inside the mansion.

 

“So, I’m a hella great sniper, and I know how to shoot with a disability,” Clint said, pointing at his own hearing aids. Bucky nodded. “We can figure out a way around a fucked hand.”

 

“Good.”

 

And they did. Firing a gun and throwing knives felt odd, but it wasn’t impossible. And Bucky was the Asset. He could make due with anything.

 

They all headed to one room for a dinner that Wanda and Pietro had procured.

 

“We should have Steve’s location by morning. We’ll head out tomorrow night,” Jane said through a mouthful of broccoli.

 

“Also, we all technically committed treason to help you,” Peter said. “So we’re gonna need to do this really low-key.”

 

“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled.

 

“Not your fault,” Natasha said. Bucky kicked her affectionately under the table.

 

Tony led him to one of the many rooms in the mansion after dinner. “Get some shut-eye, pal.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Bucky locked himself in the room, took a shower, and then took out the phone as he sat on the bed.

 

He clicked on the photo app.

 

And scrolled through all the pictures he’d taken over the course of the goddamn road trip.

 

Analysis: Steve had looked so happy.

 

Bucky pressed the phone into his chest and tried not to cry. They were gonna get him back. They were gonna save him. And Hydra was going to fucking burn.

 

He pulled up the music app, looking at all the songs that Steve had downloaded somewhere along the vacation.

 

He clicked shuffle.

 

And he pressed his face into the pillow to tell himself that he wasn’t fucking crying when the “Firework” song came on.

 

Analysis: He’d listen to this terrible music for the rest of his fucking life if they got Steve back.

 


 

 

“You don’t have tac gear.”

 

Bucky shrugged. “Don’t need it. I’m the fucking Asset.”

 

“We’re walking into a massacre,” Natasha pointed out. “You could use it. At least take a fucking bullet vest and put your hair up.”

 

Bucky sighed and pulled on the bullet vest over his red shirt. “Can you do it?” he asked, turning his back and not feeling as paranoid as he once did about offering his six to someone else.

 

Natasha gathered his hair and knotted it. “There you go.”

 

“Let’s gooooooo,” Pietro said, bouncing from foot to foot. “I’ve got places to be.”

 

Wanda rolled her eyes. “No you don’t.”

 

Nevertheless, they all boarded the jet that Tony apparently had in his secret basement.

 

Tony, Dr. Cho, Bruce, Jane, and Peter were staying behind because they were “squishy techies who do not like bullets.”

 

Before they’d suited up, Bucky had tried to ask Tony how they found Steve (some Hydra base in the fucking Arctic). Tony had just waggled his eyebrows and smirked, so Bucky figured he didn’t really want to know.

 

Clint was flying the jet. “I’m a man of many talents,” he’d explained.

 

The main part of the jet was quiet and awkward. Natasha sat next to him, and Wanda and Pietro were having some weird twin-aside in a different language, and T’Challa kept staring at him with his arms crossed over his broad chest.

 

“He hates me,” Bucky whispered to Natasha.

 

“I think he’s coming around a little bit,” Natasha said optimistically. “Try telling him a joke. It worked on Steve.”

 

“Something tells me that he’s not the joke type.”

 

“Hey, T’Challa,” Natasha called, and his gaze switched to her. “Do you like jokes?”

 

T’Challa just stared blankly at her.

 

“Oh, jeez,” Bucky muttered before raising his voice and saying, “What do prisoners use to call each other?”

 

T’Challa blinked very slowly.

 

“Cell phones.”

 

Natasha snorted, and Bucky’s opinion of her continued to increase. T’Challa just shook his head and pulled out his phone, which Bucky kind of considered a win.

 

He was thrumming with nerves.

 

“<We’ll get him back,>” Natasha said in Russian.

 

Bucky blew out a puff of air. “<How can you be so sure?>”

 

She shrugged. “<I’m not. But he’s my best friend, and I can’t afford to think differently.>”

 

“<I understand.>” Bucky dropped his head onto her shoulder, and Natasha let him stay there for the rest of the flight.

 

They landed a mile away from the base and approached on different sides, splitting up into three teams of two.

 

They paired Bucky with fucking T’Challa. “Wasn’t my choice,” T’Challa muttered in annoyance when Bucky glared at him. “Wanda and Pietro are inseparable, and so are Natasha and Clint. You and I are the only ones who don’t belong.”

 

“Promise you won’t shoot me in the back while I’m not looking?”

 

T’Challa looked pained when he said, “I’ve got your six for now.”

 

“Likewise.”

 

“No promises when this is all over.”

 

“I figured.”

 

They broke into the base fairly easily. Hydra wasn’t big on subtlety once you actually found them.

 

T’Challa and Bucky shot their way through the first squad of agents and quickly started combing the level. They found a few rooms of doctors, but not much else. A few stray agents that they picked off without blinking, stepping over their corpses with practiced apathy.

 

T’Challa touched his comm. “Not much on level one.”

 

“Thank Clint for that,” Natasha’s voice said. “There’s a good sightline from level two.”

 

“Level three is pretty clear. Just some weird computer rooms,” Pietro said.

 

“T’Challa and I will head to the underground levels,” Bucky decided. T’Challa nodded in agreement and they headed for the stairwell.

 

“Be careful, Оленьашка. You’ll be going in blind.”

 

“You be careful too.”

 

“Find him.”

 

T’Challa and Bucky fell silent and turned their comms off, quietly heading down the stairs.

 

On sub level one, there were a lot of strike teams.

 

Bucky removed himself from the forefront of his mind as he shot his gun, reloaded, threw knives and grenades, and snapped necks. The bloodshed was horrible. It was amazing.

 

What grounded him immediately was stumbling straight into the Handler’s chest as they rounded a corner at the same time.

 

“Oh. I thought you were dead,” he said, not sounding very surprised. “You’re like a fucking cockroach.’

 

Bucky bared his teeth and twisted a knife into the Handler’s chest, right between his ribs. The Handler grunted and kicked him in the windbreaker, taking the time to draw his gun.

 

T’Challa shot him in the hand, and he dropped his gun with a gasp. “Payback,” Bucky snapped and shot him in the bicep. He then tackled him to the ground, making sure his knee landed on the Handler’s hand.

 

Face ashen, the Handler managed to stab Bucky in the thigh. Bucky just gritted his teeth and pressed his gun to the Handler’s tac vest, right over his heart. He fired, knowing the tac vest didn’t stop the bullet when the Handler’s face twisted with pain.

 

“Hail-“ he began.

 

“Yeah. Hail fucking Hydra,” Bucky finished, patting the Handler’s cheek. “Lotta good they did you, you fucking asshole.”

 

The Handler spat in his face before the light left his eyes.

 

T’Challa extended a hand and helped Bucky to his feet. “Thanks,” Bucky whispered. He pulled the knife out of his thigh, wincing. T’Challa passed him a piece of cloth to stem the bleeding. They moved on.

 

But not before Bucky shot the Handler in the head, just to watch the brain matter splatter onto the wall.

 


 

 

They’d searched all the levels and fought through fucking hell before Bucky paused, leaning against a wall, his various injuries throbbing. “He’s not here, is he?”

 

T’Challa sighed. “I don’t think so. If you want to do one last sweep, go for it. I’ll wait in the stairwell.”

 

As soon as T’Challa disappeared from eyesight, Bucky punched the brick wall, choking down a cry. He rubbed his bloody knuckles, barely feeling anything in his fucked hand, and swept the ground floors again.

 

He stopped in his tracks when he heard something weird. He took a step back and stomped his foot down. The sound was hollow.

 

Bucky scrambled to the floor and let out a cry of relief when he found something like a trapdoor obscured among the other floorboards. He pried them up and dropped down into the darkness that had been revealed.

 

He stumbled through a set of dungeon-like corridors, trying not to shake apart at the seams.

 

Steve was sitting with his back pressed into the corner of the very last cell.

 

He looked up at the sound of Bucky’s footsteps with a beaten face, and Bucky felt a fresh flare of rage.

 

“You’re alive,” he breathed, dropping his head back onto the wall in relief.

 

“You remember me,” Bucky said in the same tone, and his knees buckled, but he caught himself on the door to Steve’s cell. “Are you okay? What did they do?”

 

Steve went stiff and looked away. “Less talking. More breaking me out of prison.”

 

Bucky attached one of the mini detonators to the lock that he hadn’t had the opportunity to use yet. It exploded with a little satisfying blast, and the door creaked open. Bucky threw himself into the cell and helped Steve up, his right arm jerking a few times.

 

Steve heaved to his feet and staggered into Bucky’s chest. Bucky wound his arms around Steve’s frame and buried his face in his dirty hair.

 

Steve let out a shuddering breath, and his fingers twisted into Bucky’s shirt. He pressed his forehead into Bucky’s collarbone. “I was fucking scared, Buck.”

 

“Nobody is going to lay a fucking hand on you again,” Bucky swore lowly. “I’m making sure of that.”

 

Steve pushed at his chest, and Bucky stepped away, pretending not to notice when Steve wiped his eyes. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”

 

Bucky nodded shakily and peered around the corner to make sure the coast was clear.

 

“Buck, wait.”

 

Bucky turned back around, only to find Steve’s hand coming up to hold the side of his face. Bucky blinked, and Steve rose up on his toes so that he could press their mouths together.

 

For one moment, Bucky couldn’t think or breathe or move. But then his eyes fluttered shut as he kissed back, gently but insistently. His hand slowly came to rest on Steve’s hip, just to make sure that he was there- that he was real.

 

Fuck. He was real, wasn’t he?

 

Analysis: Yes.

 

They pulled away at the same time, foreheads pressed together. Steve nudged Bucky’s nose with his once before drawing back. “Okay. Now you can go.”

 

“Oh. Okay,” Bucky said haltingly, not sure where all of his brain function had gone. He hesitantly removed his hand from Steve’s hip and turned back to peek around the corner, his face burning hotter than the fucking sun.

 

Steve was close at his back, and his proximity was not helping Bucky’s focus.

 

“Come on.” He grabbed Steve’s hand with his metal one, and they clumsily made their way down the corridors, both of their gaits lopsided with injuries.

 

“Gentlemen,” a voice said from behind, and Steve went very tense at his side.

 

They turned, and a man Bucky recognized from the news and a few Hydra reports faced them. Alexander Pierce.

 

“You’re not leaving that easily.”

 

Steve made a derisive noise and crossed his arms. “Like hell,” he said, his entire body burning with rage.

 

“He hurt you?” Bucky asked quietly, nodding in Pierce’s direction.

 

Steve nodded tersely.

 

“I was prepping him, much in the same way that I helped prep you to be the Asset,” Pierce said. Bucky’s mouth went dry. “Have you ever wondered about your past? Your real name? Your family? Because I can tell you. I’ll tell you whatever you want if you just hand him back to me.”

 

Bucky’s lips curled into a humorless smile. “Fuck off,” he said, drawing a gun and pointing at Pierce’s head. “I’ve got my name and my family right here.” And he squeezed the trigger.

 

The bullet hit Pierce between the eyes, and his blood and brain matter decorated the musty walls behind him. His body collapsed lifelessly.

 

Steve sucked in a harsh breath. “That was so fast. Oh my god,” he squeaked out. “That happened so fast.”

 

Analysis: Death was generally anticlimactic. Steve didn’t know that yet. Well. Maybe he did now.

 

“Come on,” Bucky said, lacing their fingers together again. “We’ve gotta get out of here and burn this place to the ground.”

 

When they got into the stairwell, T’Challa did a double take. “Where did you find him?”

 

“The double-secret basement,” Bucky explained, tightening his hold on Steve’s hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

 


 

 

They watched the Hydra base burn down with the bodies of people who had hurt them and maybe some bodies of people who never wanted to hurt anyone.

 

Steve stood at his side, his jaw tight, nothing but distance in his eyes.

 

 


 

 

Everyone was kind enough to let Steve and Bucky have their own corner on the plane, although Natasha hovered for a moment. But Steve ignored her. He was still unconvinced that she was genuine, even though Bucky had seen the evidence in the fear and pain in her eyes. He watched as Natasha practically shut down as she sat in a seat in the opposite corner of the plane.

 

Steve plastered himself to Bucky’s side and refused to move, tucking his face into Bucky’s red shirt. He shivered. And Bucky shuddered. And they clung to each other.

 

T’Challa watched them with interest, and there was no glare accompanying his attention this time around. Bucky didn’t know what that meant for them.

 

Halfway through the plane ride, Natasha rose from her seat and stiffly made her way over to them, stopping when they faced each other.

 

Steve removed his face from Bucky’s shirt and stared at her with grim, swollen eyes.

 

“You two have a choice,” she said quietly. “Well, mostly Steve, but.”

 

Bucky nodded at her encouragingly, and she squared her shoulders.

 

“I’m going to report back to Director Carter after this mission. I’m going to tell her one of two things.”

 

“What’s that?” Steve asked quietly, voice rough.

 

“I could tell her that we located you successfully and with no fatalities and that we’re going to brief you on the Captain of the Algorithm project.”

 

Steve said nothing.

 

“Or,” Natasha paused and tried for a shaky smile, “I could tell her that we didn’t find you, and that you’re still MIA. That the Winter Soldier was killed in the mission.”

 

Steve blinked once.

 

Natasha stared at the floor. “There’s a brownstone in Brooklyn registered to the name of Steve and Buchanan Barnes.”

 

“Buchanan?” Bucky asked curiously.

 

“Bucky is obviously a dumb nickname that you could never shake,” Natasha said. “Steve Barnes has an interview with a comic book publishing company in a few weeks. Buchanan Barnes has a job consulting with Stark Industries security.” She smiled at them, and her eyes were sad. “It’s your choice.”

 

Steve stared at her for another moment before he hesitantly removed himself from Bucky’s side. He got to his feet and regarded Natasha carefully for a moment.

 

Then, he threw his arms around her, and they melted into each other’s embrace. Bucky relaxed slightly, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

 

“Steve. You’re my best friend. I’m so sorry I lied to you.”

 

“Me too, Nat. Me too. I’m sorry. I love you.”

 

“I love you too.”

 

He stepped back after a moment. “Option two.”

 

“Bucky?” Natasha said, and they both turned to him.

 

Da, Мошка.”

 

They both smiled at the same time, and Steve tucked himself back into Bucky’s side.

 

T’Challa walked off the plane first and didn’t look back at them as he went into Tony’s mansion. Bucky took it as the blessing of approval and forgiveness that it was.

 

 


 

 

The brownstone was beautiful.

 

And it was all his and Steve’s.

 

They curled up together on the lone mattress lying on the floor of the master bedroom. They were half asleep when Steve asked, “What would you have done if the road trip ended without us being attacked?”

 

Bucky swallowed, and he knew Steve felt it. “Nothing good.”

 

“I figured.”

 

Bucky nuzzled Steve’s cheek and asked, “What did Hydra do to you?”

 

“Nothing absolutely terrible,” Steve said after a long pause. “Sensory deprivation. Got punched a few times. Isolation. Some starvation. Probably nothing compared to what you got.”

 

“Sensory deprivation is enough to drive someone insane.”

 

“Well,” Steve said in a self-deprecating tone.

 

“I don’t even remember what they did to me,” Bucky reminded Steve gently, and Steve sighed like he wanted to argue with him about something in that statement. “You’re justified in feeling traumatized.”

 

“Can we just... feel traumatized together?” Steve mumbled, sounding kind of embarrassed.

 

“Yeah.”

 

 


 

 

BUCKY: Visit Steve and I for Christmas?

 

SAM WILSON: HELL YEAH MOTHERFUCKER OMG DID YOU GET LAID WAITWAIT DON’T TELL ME WAIT PLS TELL ME

 

BUCKY: A man doesn’t kiss and tell ;)

 

BUCKY: That was Steve sorry

 

SAM WILSON: YOU GOT LAAAAIIIIIIIDDDDDD GETIT BUCKY

 

BUCKY: Shut up

 

 


 

 

“I need you,” Tony said as soon as Bucky picked up. “Jarvis said you forgot a thing.”

 

Bucky sighed. “I’ll pick it up tomorrow. I wanna go home.”

 

“Can’t keep your boy waiting?” Tony teased. “C’monnnnnn, Buckinator. I’m bored. Come back to Stark Industries and keep me company.”

 

“I was just there, Tony. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

“But, Bucky. I think I love you,” Tony said with this theatric sincerity. “How will I live without you?”

 

“Ask Pepper,” Bucky said, seeing their home now as he walked. “I gotta go.”

 

“I LOVE YOU!” Tony shouted as Bucky hung up, shaking his head.

 

Bucky got home and saw Steve sitting at the drawing table in the loft. He walked upstairs and dropped his chin onto Steve’s shoulder. “How’s it coming?”

 

Steve turned around, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He never slept very well anymore. “See for yourself,” Steve muttered bitterly and leaned back so that Bucky could have a look.

 

Bucky looked at the page for the comic book and was met with grotesque imagery. A naked, armless man cuffed to the wall in a cell, mostly obscured in darkness, his hair limp and lifeless. On another panel, another man being shoved into a blizzard, wearing almost nothing, his eyes wild and desperate.

 

“These are spectacular,” Bucky managed, his throat tight. “Are these us?”

 

“They’re caricatures,” Steve admitted. “Sort of societal allegories. You’ll get it when I finish.”

 

Steve’s drawings always got spectacularly horrific on bad days. “You okay?” Bucky asked, kissing Steve’s neck.

 

Steve angled his head to give Bucky a better angle. “I’ve been better. Wanna cuddle?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They snuggled on the couch, Steve burying himself in Bucky’s arms, somehow still not at all bothered by the metal arm or the scars.

 

Bucky could tell Steve’s thought process was getting morbid.

 

He nudged Steve.

 

“Knock, knock.”

 

“Who’s there?” Steve asked quietly.

 

“Olive.”

 

“Olive who?”

 

Bucky pressed a kiss to Steve’s hair. “Olive you, and I don’t care who knows it.”

 

Steve picked up his head and looked at Bucky incredulously. “Did you just tell me you love me for the first time through a knock-knock joke.”

 

Bucky grinned. “I’m not sorry.”

 

Steve kissed him. “You are a nerd. I love you too.”

 


 

 

Natasha and Clint came over for dinner.

 

It was always nice, and Steve and Natasha were back on excellent terms again, and Bucky and Clint got on like a house on fire.

 

Natasha took Bucky aside and asked lowly, “How are you both doing?”

 

Bucky glanced over at Steve, who was shaking his hips and singing the YMCA song while Clint laughed at him. Steve’s eyes burned with anger more than passion these days, and sleep was sparse, and they were both fucked in the head. But. “I think we’re happy.”

 

“I think you are too.”

 

 


 

 

They donated one million dollars to the VA. Another million to cancer research. And another million to a mental rehabilitation center. All of it anonymous.

 

It was good.

 

 


 

 

Steve’s comic book got published and was immediately assaulted with the praise of critics.

 

Steve got signed for more issues a few days after it hit shelves.

 

 


 

 

“Where should we go for our anniversary?”

 

“I have an idea.”

 

 


 

 

The Grand Canyon looked beautiful at night. Bucky sat with his back against a rock, and Steve sat on the rock, his legs brushing Bucky’s shoulders.

 

“Is it as great as you thought it’d be?” Bucky asked, circling his fingers around Steve’s ankle, not surprised by the lack of feeling and fine motor control anymore.

 

“The view is pretty spectacular,” Steve said softly, and he was staring down at Bucky.

 

Bucky smiled. “Is it?”

 

Steve leaned over and managed to kiss him at that awkward upside-down angle. “It is.”

 

Bucky looked at the Grand Canyon again, then back at Steve. “Hey, Stevie. You’re happy, right?”

 

Steve ran his hand through Bucky’s hair. “I am.”

 

They sat there, watching the sun set behind the natural phenomenon, two ghosts, imperfect and anonymous and somehow content.