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On Reflection

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For a long time he has had the knack of making himself into what people expect to see when they look at him. This is a Bucky skill, he thinks. The Winter Soldier was good at being what he was told to be; only when given the order not to be noticed had he drawn upon this ability.

But that was enough to keep them from taking it from him, and he still has it. He has made himself dirty and ragged, so that when people look at him they barely see him at all. People who do notice him expect him to be invisible, or to cringe away from attention; he mostly is, and mostly does.

He doesn't know if it's possible to find out what he is when he's not reflecting anything, when no one's running a signal through him that makes him play out their ideas of what he's good for. Disappearing is part of it; giving himself time to remember is part of it. But he also wants to know what they did to him, how and why and who they were, so that he can try to account for those distortions in the glass.

So now he's trying to track them down--not the people, but the records. His search has brought him to Miami, where he has learned about himself that he does not like the sticky heat of a Florida summer. He is going past the kind of grubby that makes people's eyes skim past him, into the territory where they look at him with disgust. He doesn't want to become something disgusting and inhuman.

Not again.

So he'll have to find a secure location to get clean, obtain new clothes and probably a haircut. He's been traveling light, but he's got enough cash to buy clothes, maybe a hotel room if he can find the clothes at a thrift store. If he can just make sure he's not followed away from this HYDRA location once he's learned whatever he can...

As soon as he reaches the eleventh floor, he knows he's come too late. The offices are deserted in the way that means he'll find nothing of use; worse, there is one person inside, and he knows who she'll see when she looks at him. For a moment he wants to fight it--to stay himself, the one he's been for months now--but he reminds himself that if he reflects her assumptions back at her it will only be a mask. Everything goes more smoothly when people see what they expect to see. He just needs to get this over with so he can get out of here, get clean clothes, and become invisible again somewhere else.

He squares his shoulders and lifts his chin, falling into the Soldier's posture and stride. It feels real when he settles into the role, even though he's wearing battered jeans and a thin, worn hoodie instead of tactical gear, and the only weapon he carries anymore is the one attached at his left shoulder.

She turns, and he can see that she's braced to throw a Widow's Bite or draw a gun, but she doesn't do either immediately. He keeps his own hands at his sides, and makes no threat but the one implicit in standing there, being the Soldier in her eyes.

He can see that she believes him.

She speaks first. "Steve is looking for you."

The Soldier doesn't care about Steve; the Soldier isn't simultaneously longing for that golden figure out of his memory and terrified of being subsumed into whatever Steve sees when he looks in Bucky's direction.

The Soldier takes a step toward the Widow. The Soldier has a mission, and he will complete it or know the reason why. "Where are they?"

She stands her ground, though he can see that she's afraid. "I don't know." She hesitates, then offers more words, like goods she's bartering. "I was looking for information."

Aren't we fucking all, he thinks, but that isn't what the Soldier would say. When in doubt, the Soldier stays quiet, waiting for the next move.

"What are you going to do now?"

She still thinks that he's controlling this encounter. He's tempted to turn and walk away without another word, but that would only guarantee her pursuit. As soon as he shakes her she'll go back to Steve and report this; what will Steve see in her description of him at this moment?

He finds himself oddly caught between Bucky and the Soldier, between being what she expects and what Steve will expect him to have been. His answer comes out as a mix of them both.

"Stop them. I'm going to destroy HYDRA."

"By yourself?" He hears her doubt. Too much Bucky, probably. He lapses back into the Soldier's silence and only stares at her, waiting for her to give up and walk away, or attack.

She lowers her weapons instead. "Let's go. This place gives me the creeps."

He hesitates, but he doesn't disagree with her. The Soldier wouldn't care, and Bucky--well, Bucky probably wouldn't be hanging around abandoned office spaces. But the him who's standing behind the reflections, he doesn't want to be here either. Once he realizes that, and realizes there's no reason to resist, he lets acquiescence soften his posture, and follows when the Widow walks out.

He follows her into a cab, where he finds that he can smell himself. He sees that the driver can smell him too, but the contrast between his grubbiness and Romanoff's polished exterior is weird enough to become unmentionable; together they are invisible again.

Romanoff takes him to her hotel room, and a quick glance shows him she's already cleared it and trusted a few belongings to its security. Safe enough, then, if he can find some chance...

"I think you're going to need a few pieces of materiel for your op," Romanoff says, sweeping a look up and down him. She could mean weapons, but he has a feeling she means clean clothes; of course she wouldn't have failed to notice the state he was in.

"I can get what I need," he says, Bucky's self-sufficiency in the Soldier's bloodless voice.

She smiles a little anyway. He knows she will relay it to Steve, and Steve will hear something else entirely. But it will be something that makes Steve happy, and at this distance he can't begrudge that enough to do anything about it.

"Sure you can," she says. "But leave it to the expert. You probably have some other prep to be doing."

She doesn't look toward the bathroom, merely crooks an eyebrow up. He doesn't nod, but he stands still until she turns to go.

The door locks behind her and he turns on his heel, hurrying into the bathroom and switching on the shower. He doesn't even care whether this means she saw through him, or how many layers down. He hadn't even hoped to get to a shower so soon. The hot water is an unutterable relief, washing away sweat and grime and stink. Washing away everything people see of him, and leaving only...

Who? Who is he, locked alone in the bathroom, with steam fogging up the mirror?

He is a man who wants to be clean. He is a man who sniffs the hotel shampoo and Natasha's, considering the scents before he settles on green tea eucalyptus and rubs it firmly into his scalp. He is a man who does not forget to wash behind his ears and the back of his neck.

A knock at the bathroom door makes him slap the water off, bracing himself for much worse than being seen.

Romanoff calls through the door, "I'll just leave the bag out here. Take all the time you need."

He is a man who loses track of time when taking a leisurely shower.

He dries himself thoroughly, using two of the fluffy white towels. He considers using the corner of one of them to dry the mirror so that he can see himself to fix his hair--there is something like muscle memory suggesting the exact motion of it--but he leaves it as it is, combing his hair with his fingers and not worrying about arranging it any particular way.

When he opens the bathroom door just far enough to reach the shopping bag left outside, he discovers that Natasha has concluded certain things about... the Soldier? Bucky? Whoever she sees when she looks at him, evidently he is a man who she thinks should wear deliciously soft black boxer-briefs under dark-wash jeans and a short-sleeved shirt of dark red under a new gray hoodie, still fleecy on the inside.

He tsks softly; he is in fact a man who doesn't want the soft fluff of a new hoodie's sleeve going up against the joints of his arm. The boxer briefs came in a three-pack, though, and he only has to disassemble one pair to make a sleeve for his left arm. That means he'll have a spare pair to wear when he washes out the ones he's got on now.

He is a man who likes to know where his next pair of clean underwear is coming from.

When he steps out of the bathroom, there is something freshly assessing in Romanoff's eyes, and he knows that he can't be sure she will see the Soldier the next time she looks at him. He suspect that she's caught more than a glimpse of who he was alone in a steam-filled room, but she says nothing about it. Instead she offers him something cinnamon-and-sugar smelling that she calls a churro.

He plays the Soldier about it, just to recover his balance; he spends a few minutes checking carefully to see that it's not poisoned or drugged. And still, when he takes a bite, he knows that she sees that he is a man who likes churros.

It's not a bad thing, he thinks, licking cinnamon from the whorls of his fingerprints. It's a thing she will know the next time she sees him, and a thing she will tell Steve. No matter what part he has to play for either of them, the next time they see him, at least he can probably have another churro.