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Lost Together

Chapter Text

A box of saltines. Eight individual jars of baby food. A pack of apple juice boxes. Four one-liter bottles of Pedialyte. A digital thermometer. A bag of multicolored bendy straws. All of it clattered onto the counter, dumped from the shopper’s arms.

The Walgreens cashier—Catey, her nametag read—gave the man in front of her a dramatically sad look. “Uh oh. Yours too, huh?” she said, reaching for the first item.

Beneath the shadowy brim of a nondescript baseball cap, Brock Rumlow raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“Sick baby.” The scanner beeped rapidly as she ran the items. “I was buying this same stuff a few weeks ago when my toddler got sick. Must be something going around.”

“Yeah. Must be.”

“Good news is it’s fast, if it’s the same bug,” Catey continued, her hands moving with speed and precision. “Mine was over it in a week, and his immune system isn’t all that great to begin with, so maybe yours’ll get better faster.”

“God I hope so,” said Brock, meaning every word of it.

She bagged the last item and gave him his total. He paid cash and dumped the change in the little donation box on the counter. As Catey handed Brock his bags, she gave him a sympathetic grin. “Hang in there, Dad.”

Brock put on a thin smile, nodded his thanks, and passed through the automatic doors with quick, long strides. He had to slow himself down as he crossed the parking lot, feeling the obtrusive stare of every security camera he passed. Fast movement drew more attention, and even though it was unlikely that anyone would be running a facial recognition profile on a dead man, Brock didn’t want to press his luck. He needed to get out of Iowa as soon as possible. He’d be halfway across South Dakota right now if it hadn’t been for . . .

. . . well, lot of shit had happened lately that he couldn’t help. Nothing he could do but roll with the punches.

A silver Chevrolet Suburban with darkly-tinted windows stood in the farthest corner of the parking lot, underneath the partial shade of some neighboring pine trees. Brock unlocked it remotely and went around to the passenger side, which faced the trees and was angled away from the security cameras. He opened the rear door.

Curled up on the back seat was the Winter Soldier, dressed in a plain white t-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants. His hair, a disheveled brown tangle that smelled of cheap motel shampoo, hung over his face like a veil.

Brock set the bags on the floor and pulled out one of the bottles of Pedialyte. He snapped it open and removed the safety seal.

“You awake?”

There came a soft mumble.

“Sit up. You can’t drink layin down.” Brock rifled through the bags until he found the straws. He pried his fingers through the plastic, fished one out, and inserted it into the bottle.

The Soldier still hadn’t moved.

“C’mon, Barnes. Don’t make this difficult.”

A moment passed. Brock waited. Then finally the Soldier pulled himself up.

The man that used to be James Buchanan Barnes was pale, his eyes glassy and his expression wavering somewhere between drowsiness and nausea. The cuts on his face that had been fresh yesterday were already healing over.

“Here,” said Brock, holding out the bottle. “Drink.”

With a dull look of understanding, the Soldier leaned forward, opened his mouth, and clamped his lips around the straw. He sucked a few times before pulling away.

“You gotta do better than that,” said Brock. “Half the bottle. Come on. You need it.”

The Soldier made a pained face and shook his head. He looked like a sick child refusing bitter medicine. “Stomach,” he murmured, closing his eyes and wrapping his arms around his middle. His kept his gleaming metal arm pressed close to his body, as if he were trying to hide it. “Unstable. Don’t wanna.”

Brock’s eyebrows took a hike up his forehead. Well, that was new. A direct refusal. Might be a good thing or a bad thing. Could be his mind was slowly returning. If that was the case, how do you keep a handle on someone who could kill you in less than five seconds? What do you do when confronted with a force that was not only absurdly powerful, but emotionally unstable?

Better play it safe. Barking out orders and threatening physical punishment? Yeah, probably not the best idea right now.

Slowly Brock climbed up into the seat and sat down beside the Soldier. He removed his cap, making his face more visible, and slid close until their bodies were touching. He went still for a minute or two, allowing the Asset time to recognize his smell and his face. When there was no negative reaction, Brock reached out and very carefully put his arm around his shoulders.

“Hey, Barnes. It’s Rumlow.” God, he hated how meek his voice sounded. He didn’t even know he was capable of talking like this. “I’m here to take care ‘a ya. You gotta drink something, kiddo. You were puking all last night and ya need to rehydrate, or else you’re just gonna get sicker. I know ya don’t feel like it, but you need to do it anyway. Come on. Be a good boy.” Fuck he hated this.

Barnes opened his eyes and looked up at Brock pathetically. “I feel hot.”

No shit. Brock’s arm was getting sweaty just touching him. “You prob’ly got a fever, that’s why. All the more reason you need to drink. It’ll help cool you off.” He lifted the bottle to Barnes’s mouth. “Just a little bit more. Please.”

After a moment or two, Barnes lowered his eyes and accepted the straw, taking a few slow swallows. Brock got the weird, unpleasant sensation he was nursing a baby and had to consciously keep his upper lip from curling. It might alarm the Soldier. (Shh, don’t wake the baby.)

God. What the fuck had happened in the last 48 hours? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Everything had gone to shit. His plans, everything he’d been working on for a year and a half, none of it included playing nursemaid to a mentally unsound, 90-something-year-old super assassin.

Brock leaned his head back against the seat and sighed.

A dead man and a ghost, sitting in the backseat of a car with counterfeit tags, $500,000 in unmarked bills hiding under the folding rear seat in a metal briefcase, and a thousand miles between them and their destination. It sounded like the start of a bad joke.

Shit. How in the hell was he gonna pull this off?

Chapter Text

Brock slid into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. Blood poured into his left eye from a cut on his forehead, but he didn’t know that just yet. He wasn’t even sure he still had a left eye after what had just happened. His arm, torso, and leg—all on the left—was full of broken glass, cuts, gouges, bruises, and he was pretty sure he had a couple broken ribs. A layer of white concrete dust covered his whole body, making him look like a powdered doughnut with smears of red jelly leaking out. He would have probably found it funny if he wasn’t so fucking scared right now.

“Shit shit shit,” he muttered, starting the Suburban and throwing it into gear. His hands were shaking—shock, adrenaline, fear, anger, there was no way to tell which it was. Maybe a little of everything. Tires screeched as he peeled through the parking deck. He drove one-handed, smashing through barricades and jouncing over speed bumps. The rumbling from above hadn’t stopped—it was, in fact, getting louder.

Brock pressed the gas pedal, repeating the same word softly under his breath: “Shit shit shit . . .”

If his luck didn’t improve soon, he was going to be disappearing from more than just HYDRA’s employee roster.

He careened through one turn after another and then, finally, daylight. Brock floored it, crashed through the main crossing gate, and burst out into the beautiful spring afternoon. He turned left, tires squealing, and roared toward the access road. In the rear view mirror he watched what was left of the Triskelion crumble into a smoking, burning heap.

Jesus Christ, that had been close. Way too fucking close.

Steering with his right hand, he pulled his left glove off with his teeth, reached up and gingerly inspected his face. His eye was still there, that was good. There was a chunk missing from his eyebrow, some serious cuts on his cheek and jaw. Neck was okay, maybe a few shards of glass. Ear felt fine, too. Could be worse, really. If he hadn’t gotten out before the whole floor exploded into a raging fireball, he’d be looking a hell of a lot uglier right now.

He merged onto Roosevelt Memorial Bridge and then took the exit ramp to Washington Parkway, avoiding the traffic on 66 as he made his way north, running parallel to the Potomac.

Driving with one eye and multiple injuries is hard even when you’re not trying to make an escape in broad daylight, so Brock began to look around the cabin for something he could use to at least get the blood off his face. Maybe there were paper towels or some hand wipes in the center console . . . niente. Shit. Maybe the glove box? Hell no. Leaning over with busted ribs, not a good idea. A quick glance confirmed that his gym bag was in the back seat, just like Kaye had promised; maybe he could pull out a shirt and use it to clean—

As Brock turned his eyes to the front, a pedestrian—male, Caucasian, dark hair, completely oblivious to everything around him—stepped from the wooded shoulder and into the middle of his lane.

Brock cursed and stood on the brake with both feet. Rubber screamed on the asphalt. The Suburban slid to a stop less than eighteen inches from the man.  

The Bronx was strong with Brock Rumlow, and he wasn’t about to let this moron forget it.

He had enough rationale to put on his hazard lights before he jumped out of the vehicle with the standard preamble of “the fuck’s the matter with you” and “get outta the road, dipshit”, but he didn’t make it three words before the shock shut him down.

The Winter Soldier stood on the pavement, water oozing from his black uniform, his gaze fixed on something so far away it might as well be in another galaxy. He had that same blank, catatonic look on his face as a shambling zombie straight out of a 50s horror flick.

Brock wiped the blood from his left eye and squinted through his right. “What the . . . Soldier, what are you doing out here? Where’s your backup?”

The Asset raised his head when Brock spoke, but there was nothing behind his eyes except seventy years of pain. Maybe that deep-fried brain of his had finally decided to call it quits.

A driver behind them beeped his horn impatiently. Brock whirled around and threw his arm into the air. “Hey fuck off, pal, I got my lights on! Go around!”

His appearance probably had more effect than his words; the driver slammed his car in reverse and merged into the adjacent lane, roaring past with the horn blaring. Jackass.

Brock turned back around and discovered the Soldier had broken out of his stupor and was opening the passenger door. “Hey hey wait, what the—no, look, you can’t just—”

But he had already climbed in and shut the door.

Brock raised his arms in a gesture of surrender. “Okay. Fuck it, y’know what, fine. HYDRA road trip, why not.” He climbed back into the car and put it in drive, hoping that that little traffic incident hadn’t drawn too much attention. A vain hope, probably. There were cameras everywhere these days. Goddamn surveillance state.

They drove along Washington Memorial Parkway at a sane 55 miles per hour, blending in with the other vehicles on the road. Brock glanced over at the Asset, who was staring at the glove box with unblinking eyes. There were bloody scratches on his left cheekbone, but that seemed to be the extent of his injuries. At least externally. His hair was plastered to his cheeks in dripping tendrils, his uniform drenched and soaking into the seat. A muddy, swampy odor clung to him. It made Brock wrinkle his nose in disgust.

“Jesus, you smell like wet garbage,” he muttered. “What happened, ya fall in the river?”

No response. Maybe one of the command prompts would work.

“Soldier: mission report.”

That seemed to do something. The Asset came awake with a blink, then frowned. “Mission failed. I was unable to eliminate the target.”

Well, shit. That really put a damper on things. Brock would have liked to spend the rest of his life not having to worry about a vengeful 6’2” super soldier on his six. “Did you see Captain Rogers?” he asked. “What was his last known location? Was he alone?”

The Asset suddenly grimaced, his face contorting into an expression of pain and suffering. “S-St-Steve,” he struggled. “His name is Steve. He’s my f-friend. I hurt him and I . . .” He looked down at his metal hand. “I didn’t want to. B-but I . . .”

Brock wouldn’t have been surprised if the Asset had started screaming in Russian right then and pulled a grenade and blown them both off the highway because that was just the kind of day he was having right now. But he didn’t. He let out a whine, bent over, and started bawling into his own lap. That surprised Brock.

And scared the hell out of him, honestly.

“Hey. Get a grip, Soldier,” he said, turning his head back and forth between the road and the blubbering assassin in the passenger seat. “Talk to me. What’s goin’ on?”

Brock knew what was going on—the Asset was having a meltdown and needed to be wiped and iced, SOP, every handler was given the instructions—but he asked anyway, hoping the question would be enough to distract from any suicidal thoughts the Soldier might be having.

But the sobbing continued. Loud, body-wracking moans of pure agony and snotty, congested gasps. Brock had seen a lot of men break in his 31-year military career, but he had never heard another man cry like this before. It was positively gut-wrenching.

“Barnes,” he said, his voice loud but gentle. “Hey. Sit up and breathe. Steve is okay. Target was not eliminated. C’mon, buck up and—”

God, what a poor choice of words. Brock had forgotten all about that old nickname.

Barnes clapped his hands to his ears and started to howl. “That’s what he called me! That was my name! He knew it and I kept hurting him why why did he let me why—”

Brock’s left hand drifted down to the SIG on his thigh holster. He wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of blowing the Asset’s damaged brains all over the Suburban’s windshield, but not everything was going according to plan today. He was prepared to do whatever it took in order to survive right now, and if that included killing James Barnes and dumping his body in the woods somewhere, well, he could live with that.

It would actually be kind of merciful, come to think of it. Anyone could see how much this shattered wreck of a human being was suffering. It wasn’t the first time Brock had thought about it, either; he always seemed to know that one day Pierce’s little tin soldier would break for good and he’d have to “take care of things”. He felt sorry for Barnes, he really did, but that’s all it was—a sad story with a sad ending. What else could he do?

Sorry about your bad luck, kid, but I’ve got a life to live, he thought, watching Barnes snivel incoherently out of the corner of his eye. I worked too hard for too long just let you fuck this up.

A blunt, persistent finger began to poke at something soft and small in Brock Rumlow’s chest. He took his hand off his sidearm and gripped the wheel. The feeling faded a little, but it didn’t disappear.

Fuck. He hoped he wasn’t growing a conscience. He was way too old for shit like this.

Chapter Text

Barnes finally quieted down somewhere around Washington, Pennsylvania. Brock had been tuning out the sniffling and sighing for the past three hours—one of many useful coping mechanisms he had cultivated since joining HYDRA’s ranks—but he didn’t become fully aware of the silence until it was broken by a sleepy moan. He looked over and saw that Barnes had curled up in his seat with his arms wrapped around himself, his damp head resting against the window. He trembled with every breath.

A morbid fantasy flashed through Brock’s mind: him, reaching across the console and passenger seat, gently pulling the door handle and letting Barnes tumble out onto the busy highway like a sack of garbage. Maybe getting run over by a semi that Brock had conveniently steered in front of a few moments before. Aside from a couple seconds of terror and pain, it would be like dying in your sleep.

It was a bullshit idea. Not only was Brock unable to reach that far, certainly not with cracked ribs, but there was no guarantee of instant death. That was the real problem. Brock was an unrepentant killer, a ruthless prick, a Class-A motherfucker, but he wasn’t a sadist. He preferred his kills quick and clean, no suffering, no surviving. It was the one shred of decency that he’d managed to retain since his days in the Marines, and no one, not even HYDRA or whatever came after, was going to steal that from him.

So door-dumping the Winter Soldier was out of the question. Okay, fine. But Brock was going to have to get rid of him somehow. He couldn’t keep him, didn’t want him, didn’t care what happened to him. He just needed him gone. Pronto. But that in itself was another problem.

Brock thought about how he was going to solve this issue and many others while the miles blurred beneath the Suburban’s tires and the odometer continued to rack up numbers. The sun disappeared from the sky and Barnes slept and shivered against the passenger door.

The SUV’s headlights splashed across a sign that welcomed them to Ohio in cheerful red and blue letters. Brock wanted to sneer at it but he was just too fucking tired right now. His head was killing him, he was thirsty, and every muscle in his body was sore and stiff. The blood in his hair and on his face had mixed with the concrete dust and become a tough, tacky glue. All he really wanted right now was a shower, a couple Motrin, and 24 hours of peace and quiet. Another vain hope probably, but what the hell. He’d been living on dreams for the past year. One more day wouldn’t hurt.

Then, about two miles past Exit 10 on I-70, Barnes woke up and promptly vomited into the footwell.

As the unpleasant sounds and smells assaulted his senses, Brock tightened his grip on the wheel until the leather squeaked. His jaws clamped together so tightly it made his teeth hurt.

That was it. He was done. Fuck this whole day, fuck HYDRA, fuck this dumb brainwashed bastard beside him, he couldn’t do this anymore, whatever the hell it was. He’d had enough. Finito.

He pulled the car over onto a broad, grassy shoulder and slammed it into park beside a thickly wooded area. He cut the lights and removed the keys from the ignition. In the sudden darkness he heard Barnes gag, spit, and begin to moan. Brock threw open his door, slid out, slammed it shut, and walked around the front of the car. He wrenched open the passenger door and hauled the Soldier out by his flesh arm, paying no mind to the pain that shot through his damaged ribs. He held Barnes firmly and marched him, staggering and stumbling, into the scrubby woods.

It was pitch black among the trees, the only light being the brief glare of headlights from passing cars. Leaves and twigs crunched under their boots. Barnes suddenly began retching again and Brock decided this was far enough. He let go of the Soldier’s arm and pulled his SIG from its holster.

“Get on your knees,” he started to say, but Barnes had already dropped down on all fours and begun heaving his stomach contents onto the ground. Vomiting itself sounded disgusting, but Barnes seemed to be sobbing in between his gasps and groans, which added a pathetic note to the grotesque symphony.

Brock leveled his pistol at the back of Barnes’s head and thumbed the safety off. Stripes of yellow light flashed across black leather and brown hair, broken by the sharp shadows of their surroundings.

“Sit still, Soldier,” said Brock gently, curling his finger around the trigger, “it’ll all be over soon.”

But “soon” came and went, and still Brock stood there, listening to Barnes cough into the dead leaves and moan like a wounded animal. There was a problem with this little shoot-and-scram tactic, one he had known was there but had neglected to address in his anger and impatience:

What the hell was he going to do with the body?

If he left it here, it would eventually be discovered by local authorities and then the story about a dead man with a metal arm would find its way into the news. HYDRA would swoop down like a flock of hungry vultures to collect the remains, and then they’d start asking questions. Questions like “how did the Asset end up in Ohio” and “who brought him there” and “who killed him”. No, Brock couldn’t leave the body.

Could he carry it to his destination and then bury it? Burn it? Christ, that meant driving all the way to Montana with a fucking corpse in the car. The smell alone would kill him. And what if, God forbid, he got pulled over by the cops? He could shoot them, sure, but the body count would just keep rising and pretty soon he’d have every police car in five states on his tail. No, Brock couldn’t carry the body.

After several moments he took his finger off the trigger and slowly lifted the gun away from Barnes’s head.

He couldn’t shoot the Winter Soldier. But he couldn’t leave him on the side of the road like an unwanted pet, either. He’d be picked up by HYDRA sooner or later, they’d coax a name out of him with 200 volts of alternating current, and then Brock’s ass would be grass—and if they wanted to be really ironic, they’d send the Soldier to do it.

That meant one thing: Barnes would have to live . . . at least until they got to Montana. After that, Brock could do whatever the hell he wanted with him. Who knows, maybe after a thousand miles he’d actually end up liking the guy.

The thought made him snort with disgust. “Alright, Barnes,” he said, slipping his SIG back into its holster, “on your feet. Let’s go.”

When there was no response, Brock bent down and grasped the Soldier’s right arm. It was shaking. “I said get the fuck up. Now.”

Barnes rose unsteadily but obediently to his feet.

“That’s more like it.” Brock patted the leather-clad shoulder. “Now get back in the car. We’re gonna find us a motel.”

Chapter Text

Fall Inn.

It sounded like a drill sergeant joke, but when Brock opened the door to the front office, an explosion of reds and yellows hit his eyes like a 10-million-watt searchlight. He winced in actual pain.

If autumn could be considered an illness, this motel had a terminal case. Framed pictures of maple leaves, weathered old mills, and vibrant fall forests hung on every wall, and every wall was painted a different shade of the season. Bouquets of fake sunflowers and ceramic figurines of mushrooms and grinning chipmunks cluttered the reception counter. It was like some sort of psychedelic, harvest-time hell.

The old hippie manning the front desk shuffled out of his office and gave his guest a long, hard stare. Brock, fully aware of his disheveled, war-torn appearance, braced himself for the inevitable question—

“How many?”

—and that was not it.

“Uh. One?” he answered, not sure if the guy was talking about nights, beds, or people. One thing Brock was sure of was that he was too tired to care anymore.

“Okay, sign the register. I’ll get your key.”

“Don’t I need to pay first?”

“You pay at check-out. We’re old-fashioned here.”

Shaking his head uncertainly, Brock picked up the counter pen and scrawled the name “Ben Ricciardo” in the guestbook. When he finished, the hippie held out the room key to him. A brass acorn the size of a golf ball dangled from it.

“Room 8. Enjoy your stay.”

“Thanks,” said Brock, accepting the heavy trinket and turning to leave.

“What branch did you serve in?”

Brock slowly turned back around. “Marines,” he said. “Fifth Regiment. Gulf War.”

A ghost of a smile appeared at the corner of the old man’s bearded mouth. “Third,” he said, pointing a thumb toward himself. “Vietnam.”

“No shit.” Brock grinned for the first time in what felt like weeks. “Fortuna fortes juvat.”

“Right on, brother.”

The two men nodded and shared a casual salute, then Brock walked out the door with a jingle. He crossed the tiny parking lot and went to the Suburban, opening the rear door. Moving carefully to avoid hurting his ribs, he dragged out his gym bag and hung it on his shoulder, then folded the seat down to reach the extreme back. Normally there would have been another row of seats, but this SUV was slightly different from civilian models. Instead of seats there were floor compartments for storing an impressive selection of firearms, explosives, tactical gear, and other weapons. But Brock had little use for those kinds of things anymore; he opened the digital locking mechanism and pulled out a metal briefcase. Once he had it in hand, he shut the compartment and turned to the shadowy figure hunched over in the passenger seat.

“Alright, Soldier, outta the car. Let’s go.”

Barnes slowly unfolded himself and opened the door, sliding out until his boots touched the pavement. He swayed groggily back and forth like a sapling in a strong breeze. Brock shut the doors and locked the car, then stepped to Barnes’s side. He put his hand on the cold metal arm.

“This way. Move.”

Barnes followed him with clumsy steps, his half-closed eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare. He stumbled into Brock’s back when they reached the door to Room 8, causing Brock to turn around and give him an angry shove.

“Will you wake the fuck up already?” he snapped. “Jesus, what’s the matter with you? You’re getting stupider by the minute.”

There was no response. Only a pair of staring eyes, blank and unaware.

Brock shook his head and opened the door. “Go on, get inside before someone sees you.”

Barnes trudged past him and Brock shut the door, turned on the lights. The rooms weren’t nearly as hideous as the front office. A little kitschy and dated—the furniture had definitely seen better days—but there was a bed and a shower and a little refrigerator humming in the corner, and that was all Brock cared about. He dropped his bag and the briefcase on the floor while Barnes stood like a statue beside the bed.

“Shit, what a day,” he sighed, heading toward the bathroom. He flicked on the lights and grimaced at his reflection. “Christ. I look like I’ve been dead since March.”

He leaned toward the mirror and inspected the side of his face. He’d been able to pick most of the glass and gravel out of his body during the nine-hour drive from DC, but there might still be some shards and splinters in there. He would have to dig them out with a pair of tweezers later, something he wasn’t looking forward to. His cheekbone was still a little swollen, nothing that ice and a couple aspirin couldn’t take care of. He doubted the hair on his left eyebrow was ever going to grow back, though. It was a nasty cut, probably needed a couple butterfly strips. The medical kit in his gym bag had plenty of those. He might even—

A tremendous thud jolted Brock out of his self-absorbed meditations. He turned and saw the Winter Soldier sprawled on his back on the carpet, unmoving, his dark hair fanned out around his head.

“God,” he muttered. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

He went to Barnes’s side and crouched down, pressing his fingers to his neck. There was a pulse beneath the cool skin—still alive. He pulled up Barnes’s eyelids and discovered his pupils were different sizes. He couldn’t remember what that meant—something to do with the brain, he thought—but he knew it wasn’t good.

He also knew there was nothing he could do about it right now. At least that’s what he told himself.

“Okay,” he sighed, patting the front of Barnes’s leather vest. “You just stay right here and rest a while. I’m gonna get a shower. You got a problem with that?”

Silence.

“That’s what I thought. Thanks, pal.”

He stood with a grunt and walked back to the bathroom, peeling his shirt over his head as he went. He had discarded most of his holsters and tactical gear earlier, so it didn’t take long for him to get naked. A good thing; he was sore as hell. His clothes dropped to the bathroom floor in a dusty black pile.

As Brock turned on the shower and waited for the water to warm up, he glanced at the mirror again, observing the ugly rainbow of bruises that covered his torso. He had always been a little vain about his appearance, but scars and scabs he could live with—was a little proud of them, actually. Hell, he was staring the big 5-0 in the face; the fact that he didn’t already look like Frankenstein’s monster was nothing short of a miracle, especially in this line of work.

He leaned around the bathroom door to check on the Soldier—still out cold, good—before stepping into the shower.

There were few things in the world that felt as good as warm water on a filthy body, and Brock couldn’t help groaning as the stream poured onto his head and shoulders. He stood under the water for several minutes without moving, his dark hair plastered to his head and draping into his eyes, allowing the heat work its way into his muscles. He watched the diluted blood and dirt swirl around his feet and vanish into the drain. It was like saying goodbye to the whole shitty day, rinsing the proof of its existence down into the pipes of the past.

The bathroom filled with steam and Brock lost track of time. He had to wash his hair twice to get all the blood and dust out of it, and he probably spent longer than necessary lathering soap all over himself. Whatever. It felt good and he deserved it. His skin was bright red by the time he finally shut off the shower and pulled back the curtain.

“Fuckin ay!”

Barnes was standing in the bathroom like a grungy, leather-clad grim reaper, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

Brock swiped a towel from the rack on the wall and tied it around his waist. “Jesus Christ, Soldier,” he snarled, stepping out of the stall, “you’re lucky I didn’t have my fuckin gun in here or I’d have blown your goddamn head off. You can’t just—”

Mne prisnilsya durnoy son,” said Barnes, turning to look at Brock. His eyes were large and scared, shimmering with moisture. “Vo mne byl monstr. O-on yel menya. On zastavil menya sdelat’ uzhas—” 1

“Whoa, whoa,” Brock interrupted, holding up his hands. “I don’t speak that much Russian, kid. You’re gonna have to switch to English. Angliyskiy, da?

Barnes looked confused and utterly heartbroken. He opened his mouth and tried again, but it was just another river of incomprehensible Russian.

Brock sighed and combed his wet hair out of his eyes. “Okay. Okay, just—fuck, you smell even worse than before—just get outta those clothes while I get dressed, okay? You can do that, right?” He pointed to his own bare chest, then the pile of crumpled garments nearby. “Clothes: off. Shower: in. Ponimayete?

Barnes nodded hesitantly and began to fumble with the straps of his chest holster. Brock shouldered past him and entered the main room, grabbed his gym bag from the floor and dropped it onto the bed. He hadn’t packed a lot of clothes—this was supposed to be a nonstop flight from DC to Livingston, not a fucking family vacation—but Barnes was going to need something to wear other than that reeking leather getup of his.

He dug out a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and set them aside. The Soldier would have to make do with that for now. Next he pulled out a pair of jeans, some boxer briefs, and a black shirt—these were his. He whipped off his towel and quickly got dressed, even managed to swipe on some deodorant before he put his shirt on. Shit, he almost felt human again.

“You okay in there, Barnes?” he called.

When there was no answer—nothing except the squeak and creak of leather—Brock went to the bathroom door and peeked inside.

Barnes had unbuckled his chest holster and was now grappling with the second strap of his tactical suit. His fingers, both metal and flesh, were awkward and slow-moving. It reminded Brock of a young child trying to learn how to work buttons for the first time.

He dragged his hand over his face and watched the Soldier pick uselessly at the strap for another minute. Then he stepped forward with an impatient huff and swatted his hands away.

“Jesus Christ, just let me do it. We’re gonna be here a fuckin week at the rate you’re goin’.”

His hands made quick work of the buckles and fasteners on Barnes’s jacket. He peeled it off him with a damp flap and tossed it in the pile with his own clothes. As he set to work on Barnes’s belt, Brock decided it would be best to just throw all the clothes together in a garbage bag, carry it all to Montana and burn it. They couldn’t afford to leave behind incriminating evidence like this.

He crouched down to untie Barnes’s boots, feeling strangely like he was undressing a small child for bathtime. God, what a fucked up day this was turning out to be.

“Bet you’ll be glad to get outta this shit, huh?” he said, pulling off first one boot and then the other. “You probably haven’t worn anything normal in months. Lift your foot again, Soldier.” A pair of black socks soon joined the growing mound of dirty clothes beside the toilet.

Brock stood up and found himself uncomfortably close to Barnes’s face, with those big blue eyes and pouty red lips. He lowered his head and began to unbutton the black BDU pants Barnes was wearing.

A soft, vulnerable voice that couldn’t possibly belong to the world’s oldest living assassin said quietly, “Ty sobirayesh’sya prichinit’ mne bol’?2

“I already told you, kid,” Brock grumbled, “I don’t speak Russian. I grew up in the Bronx, not the fuckin Kremlin. If you’re gonna talk, it better be trash or Italian.” He pushed the pants down around Barnes’s thighs and discovered he was wearing nothing underneath. Of course. Brock dropped to one knee, deliberately turning his head to the side, and finished pulling off the pants. He stood up again hastily.

“Alright. Shower. Now.” He pointed to the stall. “Before I go all Norman Bates on your ass. Don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m sayin, I know you know how to work a fuckin faucet so get the fuck in already.”

Barnes looked toward the shower, then back at Brock. All the irritation and impatience and frustration that Brock had been feeling abruptly drained out of him because Barnes was staring at him with the same confused, desperate expression on his face as that day at Ideal Federal. The day he’d encountered Steve Rogers on the bridge.

The day he almost turned back into a human being.

Brock’s temper went cold under Barnes’s pain-filled, wide-eyed gaze. “You’re not gonna get wiped, Soldier,” he said gently. “It’s just a shower. I’m your handler. You can trust me, alright?”

Barnes gave a vague nod.

“Okay then,” said Brock, taking a step back. “Get cleaned up. I’ll have somethin for ya to eat when ya get out.”

Chapter Text

Barnes was in the shower a long time. Long enough for Brock to patch up the worst of his injuries and pop two 500-milligram ibuprofen from his med kit—fuck his liver, he was in pain. He washed down the tablets with two bottles of water and then settled back on the bed with a bag of ice on his ribs, courtesy of the machine in the little vending area outside. He turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, gnawing on one of the protein bars he had packed.

Aside from the clusterfuck of consecutive catastrophes that had taken place earlier that day, it looked as if everything might actually end on a good note. And that note got a whole lot sweeter when a press photo of Alexander Pierce’s stern, line-creased face flashed onscreen.

Brock stabbed the remote with his thumb, turning up the volume.

“—following the death of Secretary Pierce, who was revealed in leaked documents to have been a chief HYDRA operative, and the mastermind behind Project Insight’s deadly intentions . . .”

An unexpected current of satisfaction surged through Brock as he watch footage of fire and rescue teams carry a shroud-covered stretcher from the rubble of the Triskelion.

Well, well. So the biggest player on the field has been permanently sidelined. The game was over. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, in Brock’s opinion. Pierce was a prick. He had this whimsical, impractical way of commanding the STRIKE teams, probably stemming from the fact that he was a career politician and not a soldier. He didn’t know anything about combat leadership or tactical planning.

And he treated the Asset like shit, too.

A good soldier takes care of his weapons, keeps them in top condition, makes sure they’re working properly. Pierce was negligent. He used the Winter Soldier as his personal servant and errand boy, as if he were a piece of disposable machinery. It wasn’t right; you don’t use your rifle as a shovel when you’ve got a whole shed of garden tools at your disposal, and you can’t abuse your best weapon and expect it to keep performing at the same level. When it starts getting less reliable and showing signs of wear, you take it out of action and you fucking repair it. You don’t keep beating the shit out of it, shooting hundreds of rounds through it without giving it a break. Even guns need a chance to cool off or else they’ll fall apart.

Pierce either didn’t realize that or he didn’t care. Brock felt no sympathy for him whatsoever; the son of a bitch got what was coming to him.

He took another bite of his protein bar and watched HYDRA’s carefully coiled guts continue to unravel. It was beautiful. No more espionage, subterfuge, double-agent bullshit where he had to wear two faces and couldn’t trust anyone, not even the men he’d worked with for close to a decade. There was only one side Brock was on now, and that was his own. He could finally stop pretending to be everybody’s friend (or enemy) and just be himself.

There was movement in his peripheral vision. He turned his head and saw Barnes standing just outside the bathroom door, naked and dripping water on the carpet. He was clutching a towel to his chest and staring at the television, mesmerized.

Probably not a good idea. God knows what might trigger him at this point.

Brock sat up as quickly as he could without tweaking his ribs and crossed the room with a few hurried strides.

“Hey,” he said, stepping between the screen and Barnes. “Hey, don’t pay any attention to that crap, just look at me, okay? That’s it. You and I were both there, Soldier, nothin we ain’t already seen . . . Shit, don’t you know how to dry off? You’re still soaking wet. Gimme that thing.”

He pulled the towel from Barnes’s unresisting hands and began to rub it over his wet head. Barnes stared at him with his large, sad eyes, and Brock found himself searching for someplace else to fix his gaze—like the ruddy, scar-slashed shoulder where metal met flesh.

“We’re gonna have to hide that, y’know,” he muttered. “Can’t have you flashin those shiny guns and blowin our cover. I got a jacket I think’ll fit ya, but we gotta do somethin about that hand.”

He finished drying Barnes’s hair and gave him a quick once-over with the towel before tying it around his slim waist.

“Alright, Soldier, c’mere. I got an idea.”

Brock led him over to the bed and handed him the sweatpants and shirt he had set aside earlier. “Get dressed. You can do that on your own, right?”

Barnes gave a slight, uncertain nod.

“Okay. Get the clothes on. I think I got some gauze in the first aid kit we can use to wrap your hand.”

While Brock pawed through the box of medical supplies in his gym bag, Barnes removed his towel and slowly pulled on the sweatpants. He had barely gotten the shirt over his head when Brock returned with a roll of athletic tape.

“Found somethin even better. Siddown, this won’t take long.”

Barnes timidly seated himself on the edge of the bed.

“Hold out your hand,” said Brock. He tore off several small strips of tape with his teeth and began to wrap each of Barnes’s metal fingers.

Barnes watched in silence, his eyes flicking back and forth from his hand to Brock’s face. “Ya pomnyu tebya,” he said softly. “Vy tot, kto pomogayet mne.” 1

“Still stuck on Russki mode, huh? I sure hope that shit’s temporary; I’m way too old to learn another language.”

When Brock raised his head, Barnes was smiling at him—a small smile, but nonetheless real. Brock couldn’t recall having ever seen him do that, not in the three years he’d known him. He hastily refocused his attention on wrapping the Soldier’s hand.

“Y’know,” said Brock haltingly, “for a cold-blooded killer, you’re kinda cute. Bet you turned some heads back in the day. You looked like a goddamn baby in your enlistment photo, even for being 25. Really put the ‘infant’ in infantry.”

Ty dobr,” said Barnes, still smiling. “Ty mne nravish’sya.” 2

Brock shook his head incredulously. “You could be cursin my whole family right now and I wouldn’t know any better. Ya think if I hit you in the head you’d switch back to English?” An involuntary smirk found its way to his lips. “I had a TV like that once. Always picked up the Spanish channels for some reason. I had to punch it every time I wanted to watch Magnum PI. S’why my right-hand knuckles are so fucked up now.”

Barnes’s smile widened into a grin. For some reason, it made Brock feel better.

He finished applying the tape to Barnes’s wrist and stood straight again. “You hungry? You should probably eat something. Wait, better have some water first. You need that more.” He grabbed one of the water bottles from the bedside table and handed it to him. “I hope you like Quest Bars ‘cause it’s all I got right now. We’ll get some real food tomorrow—none ‘a that fast food shit, though. Stuff tears my stomach up.”

While Barnes awkwardly opened the bottle and took a few slow swallows, Brock went around to the other side of the bed and rifled through his gym bag for another protein bar. He found one, sat down on the mattress, and held it out to Barnes, who had once more become hypnotized by the images on the screen. Brock picked up the remote and clicked the power button. The TV went black. Barnes blinked and turned to give him an inquisitive look.

Brock stretched out on his side of the bed and replaced the bag of ice on his ribs. “That’s enough TV for tonight,” he grunted, trying to make himself comfortable. “Your bar’s right there, by the way. Don’t sit on it.”

He tucked one arm beneath his pillow and shut his eyes.

Gde ya dolzhen spat’?” said Barnes in a small voice. 3

“Pretty much,” Brock mumbled, not even bothering to open his eyes.

Barnes studied him blankly for a minute, then picked up the protein bar. His fingers carefully worked the wrapper open and he took a tentative bite, chewing and swallowing mechanically.

By the time he had finished, Brock was already sound asleep.


It was around two in the morning when Brock was woken by the distinctive sound of vomiting. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom.

“Fuck,” he muttered, dropping his head back onto the pillow and wincing.

The retching continued. It sounded horrible. Painful, even.

He released a heavy sigh and dragged himself out of bed, trudged to the bathroom door.

Barnes was crouched on the tile floor, clinging to the toilet with trembling hands. His hair hung across his cheeks, which were red and shiny with tears. His back arched as he gagged again, forcefully. Nothing came up.

Brock scrubbed his hand over his head leaned against the doorframe, watching and waiting. Barnes kept gagging, but the only thing that came up was spit.

“Okay,” said Brock finally, and Barnes jerked, startled by his presence. He looked up at Brock with terrified eyes.

“Wh-where am I?” he rasped.

Brock made no effort to hide his relief. “Thank Christ, you’re speaking English again. I was gonna—”

“Who are you?”

Well. This was unsettling. Brock slowly, warily squatted down until he and Barnes were looking eye-to-eye. “I’m Rumlow, your handler. Remember? I’m part of your support team. It’s my job to help you.”

The Soldier’s fear seemed to subside a little. His lips, glistening with saliva, trembled as he spoke. “What’s wrong with me, Rumlow?” he asked, his voice cracking. “My head. There’s so much . . . so many faces, I can’t . . .”

Brock stood up and grabbed a fresh washcloth from the counter. He ran it under the warm tap and kneeled down at Barnes’s side again. “C’mere,” he said. “It’s okay, I’m just gonna clean your face. Nice and easy now, that’s it.”

Barnes relaxed and allowed Brock to touch him. Brock held him by the jaw and gently wiped the tears and vomit from his face.

“I dunno what kinda drugs they put into you,” he murmured, combing back the strands of dark brown hair and tucking them behind Barnes’s ears, “but it had to be some strong shit to mess you up this bad.”

Barnes’s face suddenly crumpled and tears began to roll down his cheeks in fat, hot droplets. “What did they do to me?” he choked. “Do you know what they did? Why’m I so . . . why did . . .”

Without thinking, acting completely on an instinct he didn’t know he had, Brock put his arms around Barnes’s shuddering, weeping body and pulled him up. His ribs flared with unholy pain but he ignored it, and dragged the Soldier to his feet.

“This way, kiddo,” he said. “C’mon. Gonna get you to bed. Jesus, you’re like fuckin ice.” He rubbed Barnes’s flesh arm rapidly, trying to warm the unnaturally cold skin. They hobbled across the room and over to the bed. Brock pulled back the covers with one hand and gently lowered the Soldier onto the mattress.

“Rumlow, I can’t. Can’t feel my arm,” Barnes whimpered.

“Which one?”

Barnes shut his eyes tightly and shook his head, as if he were denying an awful truth. “They took it from me,” he wept as Brock pulled the covers over his body. “They took it away . . .”

“It’s okay, we’ll get it back, don’t worry.”

Brock didn’t know what he was saying—but he was pretty sure Barnes didn’t know what he was saying, either. The Soldier curled up into a shivering ball and hid his face behind his right hand. Long whines and high-pitched moans rose from his chest with every breath he took.

Brock sat down on the edge of the bed. “Barnes,” he said softly. “Bucky. Hey, it’s gonna be—”

“Don’t call me that,” came a ferocious snarl.

Brock drew back a little, alarmed.

“Bucky’s dead.” The voice became low and mournful again. “They killed him. Fuckin . . . tore his heart out and . . .” The words dissolved into sobs.

Brock reached out and very delicately placed his hand on Barnes’s shivering shoulder. He patted it, rubbed it soothingly, as if he actually cared. As if he weren’t really half asleep and confused as hell. As if he were one of the good guys.

He glanced over at the digital clock on the table. Almost 2:30. Fuck. This was gonna be a long night.

He gazed down at Barnes again, sniffing and sniveling.

And a dark and stormy one, too.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t remember much after dragging Steve to the riverbank. His brain had been consumed by fire and metal then, piercing, burning, releasing clouds of repressed memories with every stab. Faces he recognized but whose names escaped him. Feelings and emotions without the context of images—things that felt like birthdays, holidays, normal days.

Between the explosions of dusty memories and this moment now, there were long periods of frozen black silence where the only indication of time’s passing were brief, hot flashes of terror and torment. These flashes were quickly suppressed, extinguished by an unnatural, manmade frost. As sound is deadened by snowfall, so were the bright orange sparks of emotion chilled to colorless ashes, unable to do any harm.

For decades the snow had fallen in the forests of his mind: an eternal winter landscape where nothing grew and the wind was made of broken glass and wolves’ teeth.

But something strange began to happen now. The snow was melting, turning the world inside his head into a slushy gray swamp. Words and thoughts trapped beneath the ice for seventy years were released into the air, swirling together in a blustery, baffling hurricane. Feeling returned to places that had been numb for ages. His nervous system came alive again, like frostbitten fingers held beneath hot water, tingling and aching with new sensation.

The solid ground dissolved beneath his feet and turned into an ocean of pale mud. He wallowed through it, staggering and slipping, trying to stay on his feet. The gray muck sucked at his limbs and saturated his clothes, weighed him down, covered his body, oozed into his mouth and ears.

Finally, exhausted and overwhelmed with despair, he sank into the mire and let it swallow him. The mud closed over his head and he disappeared, alive but suffocating, being slowly digested by the sludge that had once supported him for so many years.  

That’s when he woke up.

His fever had broken and he was drenched in sweat. His shirt clung to him, damp around the neck and under the sleeves. He pushed himself up with one arm and looked down at his bed: a strange, modern-looking couch (wait, no, this was the backseat of a car), his pillow a folded denim jacket that smelled like another man.

“Welcome back,” said a voice from up front. “How do you feel?”

It was Steve, but it didn’t sound like Steve. Steve didn’t have dark hair, certainly wasn’t that big, but it had to be him. It couldn’t be anyone else.

And who was ‘you’? That meant me. Who is me? Jay butte cannon. Buck in the barn, barking dog. Dogface, that’s what they called us Army guys. Sergeant Bar. Your bar’s right there. Don’t sit on it.

He slumped back with a hand over his eyes. “Jesus criminy, my head’s killin me. How much did I drink last night?”

“You’re not drunk,” said Steve. “You’re detoxing.”

“The hell’s that mean?”

“There’s some Pedialyte on the floor. Help yourself.”

“Petey-what?”

“Beverages, Barnes. Consumable liquid that goes in your mouth, this ain’t quantum fuckin mechanics.”

Barnes. Of course, that was his name. Shit, how tight had he been to forget his own name? “Okay, okay,” he grumbled. “Just do me one favor, Steve, and douse the lights. S’too damn bright in here.”

Steve didn’t say anything for a while. When he finally spoke, he sounded a little concerned. “It’s daylight, kid. There’s nothin I can do about that.”

Barnes smiled incredulously. “Where do you get off callin me ‘kid’, pipsqueak? I’m a year older and fifty pounds heavier than you.”

“Drink something,” said Steve firmly. “Then try to get some sleep.”

“Alright, Ma,” he muttered, but he did what Steve told him because Steve might be an annoying, bossy little punk sometimes but he knew how to take care of sick people, and Jesus, did he feel sick right now.

The bottle he picked up was weird, all soft and flexible, but his fingers seemed to know how to open it—that’s funny, what happened to his left hand? It was all bandaged up—and the stuff inside was fruity and refreshing. He drank slowly, then laid himself back down when he had finished.

“Whose jacket’s this?” he asked, fluffing up his makeshift pillow. “He smells like a real dandy.”

Steve muttered something under his breath that sounded like a curse.

Barnes stretched out on the backseat, massaging his brow with his fingertips. “Wake me up when we get to . . . hey Steve, just where’re we goin’ anyway?”

“Livingston.”

“Where’s that? Upstate somewhere?”

“You could say that.”

“Okay. Wake me when we get there.”

“I will.”

And he closed his eyes and slowly drifted to sleep.


In Brock’s opinion, driving with a sick passenger was just one notch above getting a bullet to the kneecap or having a raging case of jock itch. By the time they picked up I-29 just a few miles east of Nebraska, Brock was pretty sure he would have taken both the bullet and the itch if it got him out of this fucking vehicle.

Not that Barnes was quite so physically sick anymore—he had stopped puking a couple hours after they’d left the motel that morning—but emotionally, he was a shambles. He slept a lot, thankfully, but when he was awake . . . Jesus Christ, Brock had never dealt with anyone so unhinged.

Almost every time Barnes opened his eyes, he was a completely different person. After six hours and 450 miles, Brock had names for them all:

There was the Brooklyn Brat, the smartass, sarcastic kid who liked to say “gee, that’s swell” and kept calling Brock “Steve”, even though he looked and sounded nothing like the guy; then there was Hysterical Hans, the German who did nothing but rant and rave and bang his head against the bulletproof window until it was covered with spit and oily smudges; there was Soft Sasha, the Russian with the timid voice who frequently cried himself back to sleep and shivered as if he were trapped in a meat locker; there was Sergeant Sniper, a grim, gung-ho Army rifleman who thought he was riding a passenger train through Nazi-occupied France; and there was another voice whose language Brock didn’t recognize, but he guessed it was either Czech or Romanian or some other Eastern European country. That guy sounded the most normal of Barnes’s “characters”. Brock wished he could understand him better. Some sane conversation would have been a nice reprieve on this otherwise hellacious road trip.

There was roughly 24 hours of interstate travel between the Fall Inn outside Richmond, Indiana to their destination in Livingston, Montana, and Brock was determined to drive straight through without having to stop for another motel room. He didn’t think Barnes would survive otherwise; seductive little phrases like “murder-suicide” and “ritual-style execution” kept flashing through his mind. It wasn’t entirely Brock’s fault—it was his situation. He was over-caffeinated and irritable, his ass was sore from so many hours of nonstop sitting, and he was trapped in a vehicle with a mentally ill man who was wholly capable of killing him in the blink of an eye. Of course he was grouchy. All he wanted was to go home—or get to the place that would eventually become his home—and get on with the rest of his life.

He had no idea what he was going to do with the crazy son of a bitch in the backseat, though.

The simplest solution would be to shoot him in the head, burn the corpse, and scatter the ashes to the four winds. The minimalist in Brock really liked that idea, especially when Barnes was having a panic attack or sobbing in another language or whining that he had to pee again, but there were other times—like when Brock rolled down the windows as evening approached, and watched Barnes in the rear-view mirror quietly eat a jar of baby food and stare at the passing landscape—that he wondered if he could be helped, rehabilitated or something. It would be a huge undertaking. The thought alone was enough to make Brock break into a cold, nervous sweat, but . . .

This kid had been royally fucked over for the past 70 years, and somebody owed it to him to give back what HYDRA had so ruthlessly stolen. As a former HYDRA employee, Brock felt the tiniest bit obligated to try. Because if any help was coming, it was going to have to come from him.


Sioux Falls was the unofficial halfway point, and they were passing through on I-90 around 2100 hours—Eastern time, that is. They were traveling backwards across time zones, so it was actually 7:00 PM instead of 9:00 PM, but Brock wasn’t really looking at the clock anymore. Time had ceased to matter. There was only THE FINISH LINE, and that’s what he focused on. Livingston, Montana. A new name, a new life, a new start. They were on the home stretch now, a 776-mile home stretch, sure, but at least there would be no more interstates after this.

Boredom and inattention were the biggest dangers now, especially once night fell and everything disappeared except what the headlights could illuminate. Brock spent a lot of time surfing the radio waves, looking for rock stations or news or something to keep him alert. He was no stranger to all-nighters and other feats of endurance, but everything got a lot harder once you passed 40. The empty carcasses of energy drinks and gas station coffees littered the passenger side, along with half-finished bags of trail mix, browning banana peels, and granola bar wrappers.

Barnes had his fair share of road trip garbage, too: empty juice boxes, cracker sleeves, crumbs all over the seat, damp wads of tissue from his last crying jag, the fragrant peels from a tangerine that were probably lost under the seat somewhere. And Barnes himself—the biggest mess of all—lying on his side with his face to the back of the seat, either sleeping or quietly exploring some of the newly-opened pathways in his mind. He seemed a lot more docile at night. Brock was thankful for that much.

A light rain set in and lasted until the small hours of the morning. The Suburban’s wipers squeaked steadily across the wet glass without interruption. When dawn finally arrived, it came cloaked in gray clouds and thin, pale yellow skies.

Brock’s stamina was fading fast by the time they passed through Billings; he pulled over at a truck stop just long enough to refuel and grab some coffee—and escort Barnes, wearing unlaced boots and Brock’s denim jacket, to the restroom. If this were a regular gas station they would have drawn unwanted attention, but here they blended in with the rest of the long-haul truckers, haggard and hopped up on caffeine pills and cigarettes. No one batted an eye.

The two remaining hours of the journey passed swiftly. The rain set in again as Brock turned onto SR 89 and crossed the Yellowstone River. Barnes hadn’t said anything since the truck stop. He stared at the raindrops on the window as they skidded across the glass in quivering rills, keeping his bottom lip tucked between his teeth. Brock wondered how his mind was doing. He’d find out soon enough—they were almost there.

Like most of the residences strung out on the road between Livingston and Clyde Park, only cattle gates and lonely mailboxes suggested the presence of houses. Some could be seen from the road, but most were hidden behind clumps of trees—nice and private, just the way Brock preferred.

Beyond one such gate, at the end of a long gravel driveway and sitting in the middle of a stand of hardwoods, was a small but comfortable-looking house. It was one storey, had a full front porch and a steel-panel roof, and the lawn was wild and untended; apparently it had been unoccupied for some time. When Brock parked the car out front and opened his door, he was tempted to drop down and kiss the wet dirt. He decided against it. It would have been too difficult to get up again.

“Alright, Barnes,” he said, opening the rear door like a chauffeur. “Outside.”

Barnes carefully climbed out of the SUV, hugging himself anxiously and studying his strange new surroundings. “Where are we?”

“Home,” Brock grunted, grabbing the metal briefcase and his gym bag from the back. “For me, anyway. Come on.”

As Barnes followed Brock to the front door, he tripped on his trailing bootlaces and almost planted his face into the porch’s concrete floor. The only thing that prevented this was Brock’s hand catching the back of his jacket.

“You okay?”

Barnes nodded, looking a little more awake now.

Brock let go and unlocked the front door.

The house was dark and stuffy inside, filled with the smell of new furniture and fresh paint. Cardboard boxes of all sizes cluttered the floor; Brock had to kick a few aside to clear a path to the little breakfast nook just off the kitchen. He set his gym bag and briefcase on the table and returned to the living room, where he collapsed onto the brand new couch with a loud groan.

Barnes trailed behind him like a nervous puppy, looking at every box and corner as if it might be booby trapped. “Is it safe here?” he asked softly.

“Safe enough.” Brock opened his eyes when he felt a warm hand on his arm. Barnes was kneeling beside the couch, his blue eyes wide and unusually alert.

“What are my orders?” he whispered.

“Relax,” Brock muttered. “And don’t wake me for the next twelve hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

Brock’s eyes fell closed only to open about a minute later. Barnes was still staring at him, clinging to his arm like a worried child. “You can get off the floor now, Soldier.”

He didn’t move.

“Or not. Fuck, do what you want. I don’t care.” Brock released an aggravated sigh and shifted around, getting comfortable again. It wasn’t long before he fell into a deep, dreamless slumber that only the truly exhausted can appreciate.

Barnes stretched out his legs and leaned against the couch, resting his head on the overstuffed cushions, keeping silent vigil over his wounded, weary, wonderful commander.

Chapter Text

Brock woke up in the dark, alone. He pulled himself up slowly, feeling sore and surly and old, and sat blinking in the dark for a few minutes. It was quiet. No cars, no sirens, no barking dogs. No music blaring from down the street. No rowdy voices shouting and laughing to one another. No trucks downshifting as they rumbled through the neighborhood like nocturnal beasts. No streetlights, no neon, no concrete. Nothing but sky, trees, and earth.

This was what Brock had longed for all his life. Something simple and pure. Someplace where he could start fresh, be whoever he wanted to be. No more city, no more stress. None of the shit that had been following him like a shadow for the past two decades. It was freedom. He was free.

Well . . . not yet. Not completely.

“You in here, Barnes?”

Silence. Brock pulled himself off the couch with a sigh, mindful of his still-tender ribs, and bumbled around in the dark, feeling for a light switch. He found one and winced in the sudden brightness. The living room was empty. No sign of Barnes.

“Great,” he muttered, and found himself automatically raising his left wrist to look at the watch that wasn’t there. He had no idea what time it was or how long he’d been asleep. It was liberating, but it also made him feel just slightly insecure; for the first time in at least 20 years he was completely unplugged from technology. No cell phone, no pager, he didn’t even have the clocks set up in the appliances yet. Just like the good old days. Brock remembered those. Not all of them good, but definitely old.

After a quick detour to christen the toilet, he searched the rest of the house. It didn’t take long—it was just a two-bedroom, one-bath, cabin-style home, not many places to hide—and it soon became apparent that Barnes was no longer indoors. Fucking wonderful. An assassin with an identity crisis and a 50-year criminal record, prowling around in the night like Jack the Ripper. Brock hoped he hadn’t gone far. He needed this like he needed a goddamn hole in his head.

He stepped out the back door and onto the stoop. The night was cold, damp, and black. The ambient light from inside the house just barely illuminated the shapes of the structures across the overgrown yard: an old barn, the well-house, a pole barn that had probably seen use as a garage, and a small shed. Brock cupped his hands around his mouth and called Barnes’s name, his breath appearing in a thin fog.

There came a small commotion from inside the barn—the sound of a metal pail hitting the ground and rolling away. Brock stepped off the stoop and hurried across the wet grass, blinking his eyes and trying to get them to adjust to the darkness. Unlike certain serum-enhanced individuals, Brock’s night vision was pretty shitty, getting shittier every year. He was already playing the trombone whenever he had to read small text; another year or two and he was going to have to break down and invest in a pair of reading glasses. Getting old sucked.

“Barnes, you in here?” he called, walking through the wide double doors. The old scent of hay and horses hung in the air, sweet and somehow pleasant. “Goddammit, this better not be a—”

“I’m here, sir.”

Brock leaned forward and squinted his eyes. Barnes stood a few yards away, still bundled up in the denim jacket that belonged to Brock. He was staring into one of the stalls, apparently lost in thought.

“There used to be horses here,” he said quietly.

“No shit. It’s a barn.”

“I’ve never been in a barn before.” He turned to Brock with a frail smile. “Barnes in a barn. I must belong here.”

You belong in a shallow grave, thought Brock, and a twinge of guilt lanced sharply through him. That was new. Guilt, regret, remorse . . . there was no room in a soldier’s heart for that kind of garbage. Anything less than complete confidence and certainty was unacceptable. But Brock didn’t want to think about that now. He was cold and cranky and wanted to get back indoors.

He approached Barnes and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. “You can explore the place tomorrow. Come inside and get a shower. You smell like a locker room.”

Barnes reluctantly came away from the stall and followed Brock out of the barn. “Are you gonna get horses, sir?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“The barn needs horses.”

“I think Barnes wants horses.”

“Barns? You mean me? Oh—no, I don’t know anything about them.”

“So what,” said Brock, opening the back door. “You can learn, just like I did. Surely you’re still capable of learning, right?”

“You know about horses, sir?” said Barnes as they stepped into the laundry room.

“Yeah, enough to know I have no business foolin around with them at my age. And you can stop callin me sir. I’m not your commander, you’re not my subordinate, we’re not working for HYDRA anymore.”

Mention of the H-word brought the hunted animal look back to Barnes’s eyes. He stopped talking and sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, turning into a frightened, bewildered child. Brock was simultaneously exasperated and sorry for the guy.

“Hey,” he said, putting his hands on Barnes’s arms and turning him so that their eyes met. “It’s over. It’s behind us. We’re through with them, okay? You don’t have to worry.”

Barnes nodded slightly, but a line was forming between his eyebrows. His face began to contort until it looked as if he were going to start crying. “But what if they find us?” he squeaked. “They’ll take me back and they’ll. . . they’ll put me in the, in the ch-chair again and—”

“They will not,” Brock said, and suddenly found that his hands were holding Barnes’s face, his thumbs reflexively brushing away the warm tears that were rolling down his cheeks. What the hell was he doing? “They’re not gonna find us and they’re not gonna take you away. I won’t let that happen, James.”

Barnes blinked, sniffed wetly. His nose and cheeks were pink, his eyes bright with tears. “You called me by my first name.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“What’s your first name?”

“Brock.”

“Brock.” Barnes licked his lips and swallowed. “You have cold hands, Brock. I guess that means you have a warm heart, too.”

Fuck. If he didn’t let go of Barnes right now he was going to do something he hadn’t done to another man in over ten fucking years, and staring at Barnes’s stupidly pretty mouth was not helping.

“It doesn’t mean shit,” said Brock, abruptly taking his hands off Barnes and stepping back. His heart was galloping like a frightened horse. “Go take your shower.”

Was it his imagination, or did the light just go out in Barnes’s eyes? Fuck it. It didn’t matter anyway. Brock hadn’t dragged Barnes’s dumb ass all the way to Montana just so he could play Daddy to a sick, vulnerable man with more holes in his brain than a fucking tennis racquet. How either of them felt was irrelevant right now—what they needed to focus on was surviving. That was infinitely more important than whatever dormant homosexual urges Brock was currently experiencing.

Barnes turned and solemnly left the laundry room. Brock heaved a sigh of relief once he was gone and rubbed his tired, unshaven face. Conventional wisdom told him to just calm down and try to take things one day at a time, but even that seemed like breakneck speed. He was going to have to do this minute by minute, or else things were going to get a lot more complicated than he needed them to be.

As if on cue, Barnes called from the other side of the house: “Uh, Brock? Where are your towels?”

Still in boxes, if they hadn’t been lost during delivery. A headache began to throb in Brock’s temples.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he declared. “Just . . . don’t take your clothes off yet. Stay dressed, okay?”

“Okay.”

There were no less than 5 million cardboard boxes strewn all over the house, so it took Brock the better part of an hour to find the ones that contained the various toiletries required for bathing. The linens were all straight from the factory, unwashed, and rough as hell. He doubted Barnes would care. He managed to locate a couple bars of soap but no shampoo—again, Barnes probably wouldn’t care. And if he did, well, Brock would just have to remind him that this wasn’t the Waldorf fucking Astoria.

As expected, however, Barnes said nothing but a soft “thank you” and retreated to the bathroom like a beaten dog.

Now Brock felt bad, and he had absolutely no idea why. It’s not like he had yelled at Barnes or backhanded him or crushed all his hopes and dreams. Jesus, there was no middle ground with this guy at all. It was either one extreme or the other.

While Barnes was busy in the bathroom, Brock wandered into the kitchen and started digging through boxes. Most of the food he’d had shipped to the house was of the canned, nonperishable variety: soups, stews, meats, Chef Boyardee—his Nonna would be rolling over in her grave if she knew—fruit, beans, lots of junk that he didn’t usually eat but would be handy in an emergency. And Brock was too hungry to be picky right now.

He popped the lid on a can of ravioli and ate it with his pocket knife. It wasn’t that good, certainly nothing like Nonna’s, but it would fill the hollow spot. He finished the can and decided to have another. He was halfway through it when Barnes opened the bathroom door and quietly padded into the living room. He wasn’t completely naked this time, and it looked as if he’d actually made an effort to dry off. Good. Brock didn’t want to get anywhere near him without several layers of clothing on both of them. It was just too . . .

Easy. Lots of words came to Brock’s mind when he thought about James Barnes in this precise moment, but “easy” was the most accurate. Emotionally vulnerable. Mentally absent. Compliant. Fearful. Eager to please. Desperate for reassurance. Starved for human interaction.

Jesus, thought Brock, watching Barnes carefully weave his way among the boxes in the living room, just like Little Red Riding Hood walking through the dark, scary forest to Grandmother’s house. A perfect victim. Easy prey.

A shiver ran through Brock as he stared, ravioli forgotten as a different, more primitive hunger took hold of him. He could do anything he wanted to Barnes right now. He had that kind of power. If Brock wanted to chain him out in the barn like an animal, he could do it. If he wanted to hack him to pieces with a machete and drink his blood, so be it. If he wanted to carve those pretty blue eyes out of his head and fuck the sockets, no one could stop him.

It was absolute control. Total domination. Barnes was at his mercy, and he was too ignorant to even realize how helpless he was. Shit, Brock had forgotten how fucking satisfying it was to be on top for once, to have this much power. His dick was half hard just from the sheer exhilaration of—

“Do you have any clothes I can wear?”

It was like a switch had been flipped. Brock felt himself wilt under Barnes’s wide-eyed, trusting gaze. His lust and hunger abruptly fled, leaving behind nothing but overwhelming shame.

Christ. He had been fantasizing about torturing Barnes. Assaulting him. Eating him. Murdering him. Brock wondered what the fuck was wrong with himself. Maybe HYDRA had been messing around inside his head, too.

“I’ve been gazing into the abyss too long,” he said.

“What?”

Brock raised his eyes to Barnes, standing there in his towel with his damp, shaggy hair framing his face. His metal arm shined as he held it against his naked belly, his left hand still wrapped in white athletic tape.

“Nothing,” said Brock. “It’s from a quote. Gaze into the abyss and it gazes back at you . . . or something like that.”

Barnes became very still. “Wer mit Ungeheuren kämpft,” he said softly, “mag zusehen, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.”

For a moment Brock wondered if Hysterical Hans had decided to make a comeback, but Barnes followed up with a translation.

“It’s Nietzsche,” he said. “He who fights with monsters must watch that he does not himself become a monster.”

Brock meditated on the words. “Fighting with monsters,” he murmured. “Does that mean against the monsters or alongside the monsters?”

Barnes’s lips drew into a stiff, trembling line, and suddenly he was crying again. “What does it matter,” he croaked, wiping his wet cheeks, “when you’re already a monster.”

Something hot and passionate flared up inside Brock, and it felt a lot better than the ugly things that had been passing through his mind a few minutes ago.

“Hey, no. Look, they made you into a—into this,” he said. “You didn’t volunteer. You didn’t apply for the job and willingly follow their orders ‘cause you believed they were doing the right thing. You hated it and fought ‘em every step of the way. I know this ‘cause I’ve seen what you’re like before they wipe you, and believe me, James, you are not a monster.”

Barnes rubbed his nose and sniffed, looking doubtful.

“You wanna know what a monster looks like? Here.” Brock spread his arms open. “This is a monster. Not you. You’re just . . . you’re a victim. And I helped HYDRA keep you a victim because I was fucking stupid and believed their bullshit about benevolent dictatorship or whatever the fuck you wanna call it. I don’t even have the benefit of being young and clueless; I shoulda known better at my age, but I walked into it anyway. Like a fuckin idiot.”

Silence fell.

When Barnes finally spoke, his voice was soft but steady. “So what happens now?”

Brock sighed and rubbed a hand over his face tiredly. “I don’t know. I’m just . . .” He gave an honest, helpless shrug. “I have no idea.”

Another silence fell between them, longer this time. Brock eventually realized he was staring at Barnes’s bare chest and snapped himself out of it. “Right. Clothes. I think there’s some stuff back in the bedroom.”

He started to walk away, then, as an afterthought, pushed his half-eaten can of ravioli toward Barnes. “Here, help yourself. I just lost my appetite.”

Chapter Text

James Barnes came out of a black, dreamless sleep and found he was lying in a bed—if it could be called that. There were no sheets, no blankets, no pillows, and the bed itself sat frameless on the floor, surrounded by a sea of cardboard boxes. Everything smelled new, even the clothes he wore: a t-shirt that felt about one size too small, and a pair of Adidas trackpants. Morning sunlight poured in through the window and pooled on the floor like liquid gold. He pushed himself up with one arm and looked around, bewildered.

Where was he? How had he gotten here? Was he in danger? Whose clothes were these? Where were his weapons?

The questions came fast and hard, pounding relentlessly through his brain until it burned and throbbed and ached. He grimaced and cradled his head in his hands, pulling on the tufts of hair between his fingers to relieve some of the pressure in his skull. He felt sick to his stomach. The smell of this room was choking him. He needed fresh air.

He crawled up and shuffled to the bedroom door, opened it, and recoiled as if he’d been physically struck.

One would think the smell of coffee, toast, and eggs would be irresistible to a man who hadn’t eaten a decent meal in several days, but the tantalizing scents crashed into James like a garbage truck full of rotten meat. He groaned, gagged, and cupped his hand over his nose. Amidst the whirlwind of questions blustering through his mind, one in particular stood out in hot red letters:

Who was cooking?

The need to answer the question proved more powerful than his nausea. With his face twisted in displeasure, he forced himself to walk down the short hallway and enter the living room. From there he had a clear view of the kitchen, where a man with dark hair and a trim, athletic build was tending to something on the stove.

James didn’t know why, but he felt a large part of his anxiety and fear suddenly leave him. Words like “safe” and “handler” and “rock” glided through his thoughts and calmed his pounding heart. He crept toward the kitchen, his bare feet making no sound on the wood floor.

The man turned from the stove and scraped the contents of a skillet onto a plate—and that’s when he looked up and saw James.

“You’re up,” he said, his voice rough and familiar. “Want some eggs?”

James winced and shook his head.

“You should try to eat anyway. Siddown, I’ll make you somethin.”

James obediently took a seat at the kitchen table and clasped his hands between his thighs, like an insecure child waiting for permission to speak. He studied the man across the bar—Romley, was that his name? Roland, Rummel, Rambo—and tried to bring back the knowledge he was sure was there. And there was more to it than just a name; James felt that he knew this man very well, and where they were, how they’d gotten here, he just couldn’t . . . grasp those memories and pull them into the light.

He bit his bottom lip and concentrated as hard as he could while the man was busy in the kitchen. It wasn’t until a plate of food was set in front of him—some sort of toasted sandwich made with dark bread—that James finally remembered.

“Rumlow,” he blurted, raising his eyes to the rugged, good-looking face. “Your name is Brock Rumlow and you’re my handler. We’re in Living Stone, Montana because . . .” His brow creased. “Because we . . .”

“We’re starting over,” said Brock. “Milk or orange juice?”

“What?”

“Do you want milk or orange juice with breakfast?”

James blinked, trying to keep up with the rapid shift in subjects. “Uhm. Milk. Wh-what does starting over have to do with beverages?”

Brock frowned. “You’re sounding like Winter again. I thought you were over that.”

“Over what? How can I sound like a season?”

“Not the season, your name.”

“My name is Winter?”

“No, your name is James Barnes.”

“Then why did you say I sound like winter?” James asked, his voice rising.

“Because that’s exactly the way Winter would say something.”

“Who is Winter?”

You are. You’re the Winter Soldier.”

“But you just said I’m James!”

“You’re also the Winter Soldier!”

“How can winter be a soldier!” cried James.

“It’s just a name, not the fuckin season!” Brock bellowed. “Jesus, don’t you remember anything?”

No, I don’t!” James threw his arms on the table and buried his face in them. His muffled sobbing was loud in the sudden silence.

Brock sighed and scrubbed at his bristly, three-day beard growth. “Hey. Barnes. It’s okay. I shouldn’t have tried to . . . talk to you, I guess. Shit. Just forget I said anything, okay?”

“No!” James lifted his flushed, tear-streaked face. “I’m through with forgetting. I wanna remember!”

Brock raised his hands defensively. “Hey, no prob. No more forgetting. Fine with me.” He sat slowly down in the chair opposite James, eyeing him like one would a beaker of unstable and potentially deadly chemicals. “So what do you remember?”

James sniffed and wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I dunno. It’s all in pieces. Like a broken mirror I’m tryin to put back together so I can see myself again.”

Brock stared. That had to be one of the most vivid and beautiful analogies he’d ever heard—and the fact that it was coming from someone so fucked up made it even more beautiful. But he wasn’t about admit that, hell no. So he sat there and watched James gloomily pick up his sandwich and take a tentative bite.

“This is weird,” he said, chewing and swallowing. “What is it?”

“Peanut butter and banana on pumpernickel.”

James took another bite. “It’s not bad.”

Brock smiled sardonically.

“Are we lovers?”

“No!” Brock jolted in his seat as if he’d been zapped by an electrical current. “Jesus fuckin Christ, what gave you that idea? God, no!”

James recoiled at the vehemence of Brock’s voice. “I-I’m sorry,” he said meekly. “I just thought you . . . I know you’re my handler, but I feel like we’re . . .”

Brock shook his head and crossed his arms tightly—defensively—against his chest. “No. We’re nothin like that. Never were.”

“Oh.” James dropped his gaze down to his lap, embarrassed. “It’s just, I coulda sworn that you  . . . that we’ve been friends for years and we used to look out for one another, y’know? Protect each other.”

Brock went still as a stone. “I think you’re confusin me with someone else.”

“But I don’t remember anybody else.”

“You sure? Doesn’t the name ‘Steve’ sound familiar?”

“No.” James raised his eyes to Brock’s. “Just yours.”

“You’re sure about that? You really don’t know who Steve Rogers is?”

“Never heard of him. Why, should I? Is he important?” said James, as blue-eyed and innocent as a baby.

Brock’s leg began to jitter anxiously. He hoped he didn’t look as horrified as he felt. “Uh, no. Not right now.” He rose from the table. “You just, you finish your breakfast while I go . . . work on some things, make some lists. There’s still a ton of shit I need to unpack.”

“Can I help?” said James, crunching into his sandwich.

“No, um. You just”—Brock gently held his hands up—“just stay here and try not to think too much, okay?”

“Okay.”

Brock was out of the kitchen and halfway to the front door when James called his name. He stopped and turned around.

James smiled thinly. “Thanks for rescuing me. F-from the HYDRA facility, I mean. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

After a long, tense pause, Brock said, “That wasn’t me who rescued you, Barnes.”

“Oh.” James frowned. “But  I thought—”

“Don’t think. Don’t even . . .” Brock shook his head helplessly and turned. “Fuck it. Just eat your sandwich and stay in here.”

James stood up in alarm. “Wait, Brock, are you mad at—”

But Brock had already vanished through the front door, shutting it loudly behind him. James sank back into his chair again with a hurt look.

“What did I do?” he said softly to the empty room.


It wasn’t so much what Barnes had done as what he’d said. That was what worried Brock. None of it made any sense. Of course, it was probably stupid to expect anything sane out of his mouth this soon. A little over 24 hours ago he hadn’t been able to speak a word of English, and now it had miraculously come back to him. Less than 24 hours ago he couldn’t stop talking to “Steve”, and now he didn’t even recognize the name. And that question about being lovers, Jesus Christ. It was enough to drive Brock to cigarettes and hard liquor again, and he hadn’t touched either since 1995.

Brock paced back and forth across the front porch, alternating between cracking his knuckles and running his hands through his hair. It was a beautiful day, ironically: brisk, bright, with a fresh breeze blowing and budding green foliage on the trees, a sky of deep, crystal blue. If he’d been alone like he planned, he’d be out enjoying this new environment. Instead he was getting unnecessarily stressed over the sad, helpless stray in his kitchen who seemed to think he and Brock were bosom buddies. And buddies with benefits, apparently.

Shit. Did that mean Barnes and Rogers had been . . . ?

Brock craned his neck back and let out a long, low groan. He should have just shot Barnes and been done with it days ago, but now it was too late and he felt bad for wishing him dead and it wasn’t really Barnes’s fault anyway, it was HYDRA’s, but now they’re stuck with each other and there’s something weird stirring in Brock’s heart that feels like compassion, and fuck fuck fuck, what a bloody screaming mess this was turning out to be.

“Okay,” he muttered to himself. “Get a grip, motherfucker. Fix this shit.”

Alright. Fix it how? Get Barnes out of the picture. That was literally the only way this HYDRA Retirement Plan was going to work. Okay. How could Brock remove Barnes without killing him? He couldn’t just turn the guy loose; he’d end up back in HYDRA’s freezer or on trial for 50 years of war crimes, and honestly, court sounded like a worse place to be. Also, Brock was pretty sure nobody would take Barnes’s side. Nobody except—

He stopped in his tracks.

Of course. Steve Star-Spangled Rogers. Bucky Barnes’s closest and dearest friend. Why not reunite them? Rogers would be fucking ecstatic.

Brock began to pace again, faster, as if trying to keep up with his own thoughts.

He wouldn’t do it immediately, of course. No, he would have to work with Barnes for a while, try to get him to remember Steve and the long, Shakespearean tragedy that was their life together. He’d remembered before, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t remember again.

Yeah. Yeah, Brock really liked this idea. He’d educate Barnes a little, bring him up to date, get his brain back in working order, and then turn him over to Captain America. Boom. Problem solved. And if Brock played his cards right, if Steve was as desperate to find his precious Bucky as Brock thought he was, his freedom would be guaranteed. No ransom or death threats or anything, just a little blackmail to ensure a peaceful retirement. Hell, Steve would probably be so grateful to have his half-baked boyfriend back that he’d forgive Brock unconditionally.

There were still some kinks to iron out, but it was a solid plan. A good plan. Nobody had to die. Nobody had to go to prison. It could work.

Brock heaved a sigh of relief and ceased his frantic pacing. He felt a lot better now that he had a goal in front of him. He just hoped . . .

What? That Barnes wouldn’t forget all about him afterward? That he’d remember just how fucking hard Brock had to work for this and how close he’d come to having his brains blown out on the side of an Ohio highway? Hell-fucking-yes Brock wanted Barnes to remember. He wanted Barnes to remember every day for the rest of his already-too-goddamn-long life. He wanted Barnes to acknowledge his sacrifice and effort, the blood-sweat-and-tears he’d shed just to get them this far. He wanted Barnes to say “I’m alive because of Brock Rumlow” every time he woke up and be fucking overwhelmed with gratitude. It was the least he could do, in Brock’s humble opinion.

He stood with his hand on his hips, staring blankly at his lovely, tree-shaded, secluded front yard, and felt no pleasure. His mind had slipped into the familiar three-step dance of PLAN, STAGE, IMPLEMENT that all soldiers knew. The Mission Waltz. The very thing he was trying so hard to get away from, and here he was, doing it all over again.

. . . fuck it. It’s not like this was going to last forever. In six months Brock would toss Barnes back into Steve Rogers’s massive, muscular arms and get the hell on with the rest of his life. The end. Applause. Roll credits.

What James Barnes might want or desire never even entered Brock’s mind.

Chapter Text

Living with James Barnes was like living with a very dangerous pregnant woman. At least for the first month.

Whatever drugs HYDRA had been using to keep him compliant had begun to leave his system, and they did not go quietly. He was constantly nauseated, vomiting at least twice a day, typically in the morning, could barely stand to eat anything, and found even the most pleasant smells repulsive. Every once in a while the nausea would leave long enough for him to develop weird food cravings, and it always seemed to strike in the middle of the night. Brock once had to make a trip into Livingston at three o’clock in the morning for vanilla ice cream and a block of Velveeta cheese, but he considered it a worthwhile sacrifice. Barnes had been bitching and moaning and crying for hours, and this had finally shut him up.

Headaches were a daily occurrence, some of them reaching five-star, just-kill-me-now migraine status. Brock, who had a reputation in STRIKE for literally “using his head” to solve problems and quell confrontations, was very familiar with this type of misery and did his best to help Barnes through the worst of it. He hung towels and sheets over the bare windows to block out sunlight, kept the house cool and quiet, made sure Barnes drank enough water, and swapped out his gel pack with a fresh one from the freezer whenever his current one became room temperature.

Brock would have felt terrible to admit this, but he really liked the days when Barnes stayed curled up on the bare, queen-sized mattress in the bedroom, immobilized by excruciating pain. That meant he could focus on other things, like settling in, getting a cell phone, rebuilding his wardrobe, finding an ISP, familiarizing himself with the nearby communities, stocking the house with essentials, grocery shopping, normal, everyday shit like that. So long as Barnes was bedridden, Brock didn’t have to worry about him wandering off down the road or burning the house down or committing suicide, although the latter would have made things a lot easier . . . and Brock always felt shitty for thinking that. Death should never be anyone’s default method for solving problems, but HYDRA had practically turned it into a reflex.

Mentally, Barnes was a complete basketcase. When he wasn’t wrapped around the toilet or clinging to the mattress in agony, he was a jittering, hyper-vigilant bundle of nerves, jumping at the slightest sound, cringing whenever Brock spoke to him above a whisper, unable to sleep at night. He looked awful. Purple half-moons hung under his eyes, his complexion was dull and greasy, his hair a tangled, knotted mess, his eyes bloodshot, and the thick black beard he was growing made him look like a serial killer. He reminded Brock of a junkie going through withdrawal, and he reckoned his assumption wasn’t that far from the truth. God only knew what kind of psychotropic shit HYDRA had been pumping into him.

To make matters worse, Barnes’s behavior was completely unpredictable. One minute he would be sobbing because he thought he was the last human on earth, the next he’d be laughing uncontrollably at some random memory from the past, and the minute after that he’d be pissed off for no reason at all. He sank into deep, black periods of depression and went days without sleeping or eating. Brock had no idea what might be going through his head during those times, but whatever it was, it had to be some truly mortifying shit. He tried to get Barnes to talk about it, but his questions were met with either silence or colorful suggestions about what Brock could go do with himself, usually involving his asshole and a sharp object.

Brock had become desensitized to rude comments—being a former Marine was partially to blame for that—and he ignored Barnes’s remarks, gave him space, and accepted Barnes’s weepy apologies that inevitably followed a few hours later. Brock learned to ignore those, too. It was part of a cycle, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before his dear little Jamie was a snarling, sneering bastard again.

Jamie. When did Brock start calling him that, and why? Jamie was the name of a cute little boy with brown hair and blue eyes and a big bright smile, not that fucking metal-armed monster who lived in the back bedroom. Someone like that needed to be called “Necromaker” or “Murderfist”. Not fucking Jamie.

But Brock mindlessly, habitually kept calling him that, a name that fit during those rare moments of clarity when Barnes would look up at him after recovering from a migraine and softly thank him for the glass of water he was given. Those moments almost made all this shit worthwhile, the thought that Bucky was still alive in there somewhere and waiting to resurface; a normal guy with a sassy sense of humor and a great smile, a guy who loved Cracker Jacks and baseball games, swing music, his best friend Steve, and going dancing on Saturday nights. Brock didn’t know much about Barnes’s personal life but he liked to imagine that was the way he had been back in the 1940s. It made it a lot easier to actually care about him.

It made Brock feel better, too. Helping people was a pleasant change from what he’d been doing for the past ten years.

Finally, sometime around mid-May, the migraines stopped and Barnes no longer had to spend his mornings hunched over the toilet. He shuffled out to the kitchen early one day, wrapped in a throw blanket and quietly, politely asked Brock, who was in the middle of making breakfast for himself, if he could make some for him, too. Silently surprised, Brock said yes and told him to sit down.

Barnes looked like a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, but he seemed much more alert and clear-headed. He seemed a little confused when Brock set a tall protein shake in front of him, but he quickly accepted it as breakfast.

He put the straw in his mouth and drank slowly while Brock surreptitiously watched from the side, studying his movements and facial expressions. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe the worst was finally over. Christ, he hoped so. He was really sick of sleeping on the couch.

“I remember this,” said Barnes finally, smacking his lips.

“What, the drink?”

He nodded, sucking on the straw between sentences. “It tastes familiar. I’ve had it before.”

Brock froze as if he’d been caught doing something that would destroy his reputation. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I, uh. I may have given it to you a few times during missions,” he said. “It’s good for, um . . . it’s got lotsa vitamins and stuff. High protein content, helps with muscle repair. Back then I wasn’t—I didn’t think you were getting enough protein. Your body, it’s special. It needed more than what they were giving you, so I . . . yeah.”

Barnes stared, the straw hovering at his lips. “You looked after me. All this time, you’ve been . . .”

“I was doing my job. A handler takes care of his—of his own.”

Barnes was silent a moment. Then he whispered in a frail, tender voice, “Thank you.”

“No, look, it wasn’t like—argh, fuck.” Brock dragged his hands over his face. “I was just tryin to keep you in good condition. It was my duty.”

“But you cared.”

“I was following orders.”

“What about now? Whose orders are you following?” Barnes’s voice fell to a murmur as he added, “Why are you still taking care of me? Why did . . . why am I here?”

“Because you stepped in fronta my fuckin car, that’s why,” said Brock forcefully. “You were all fucked up and I had no choice but to take you with me, and the only reason I’m helpin you now is ‘cause I’m tryin to do something right for once in my goddamn life.” He paused to rake his hand through his hair. “Jesus, just because I took care ‘a you a few times on missions doesn’t mean I’m in love with you. Why are you so fuckin obsessed with this?”

Barnes had shrunk down in his chair and was now blinking back his tears. “Because”—there was a catch in his throat, he swallowed it down—“because even when I had nothing, I still had you.” He bowed his head even more, his hair obscuring his flushed, embarrassed face. “Even if I didn’t know it was you, it’s nice to be . . . woulda been nice to be cared about. Y’know?”

Brock watched Barnes sniff and wipe his nose with the back of his hand. He sighed and pulled out a chair, sat down at the table. “There were people who cared about you, Jamie,” he said at last, threading his fingers together. “Most of ‘em are gone now, but there’s one who’s still around. And whenever you’re ready, I’ll try to help you remember him. Okay?”

Barnes raised his head. “You mean there’s only one person in the world who cares about me,” he said incredulously, “and I forgot all about him?”

“Yeah. It’s pretty fucked up.”

“I must not have cared about him very much.”

“You did, believe me.”

“I’m glad one of us knows what I’m feeling,” Barnes muttered, wrapping the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Maybe you can tell me what I’m thinking, too.”

“Sure. You’re thinkin I’m a rude, offensive asshole with no tact or heart or manners and that I can just go to hell. Right?”

Barnes’s eyes popped wide with shock, as if his mind had just been violated.

Brock grinned. “It ain’t just you, kid. Everyone I meet thinks that.”

A smile threatened to come to Barnes’s lips. “Maybe you shouldn’t be such a rude, offensive asshole, then.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business and drink your shake.”

The struggling smile finally emerged victorious on Barnes’s mouth. He hid it behind his straw and sucked down the rest of his protein shake as noisily as he could.

Brock crossed his arms and waited for him to finish, his lopsided grin never fading.


Later that week Brock came home from a trip to Billings with a mountain of shopping bags, all for Barnes. Most of it was clothing; he and Brock were practically the same size, so there was little guesswork when it came to simple things like jeans, shirts, socks, and underwear. There were other things, too: a cheap notebook computer; an electric shaver (a not-so-subtle hint to do something about that beard); a twin-sized mattress and bed frame; bed linens and pillows; hangers and a closet organizer for storing clothes; a lamp; some curtains that matched the linens; a cheap Ikea bedside table—

Barnes sat on the couch, bewildered by the amount of stuff that Brock continued to unpack and pile all around him.

—an old-fashioned bell alarm clock; an area rug; an extra set of towels; a personal shower caddy; a set of combs and a single hairbrush; a huge bottle of vitamins; a few pairs of pajama pants; and last but not least, a stuffed chenille cat as big as a king-sized pillow.

Brock looked a little embarrassed as he held it out to Barnes. “They didn’t have any dogs, and the rabbits were all this gay pastel color,” he muttered. “I dunno why I even got it, but . . . here.”

Barnes slowly reached out and accepted the huge gray toy, reflexively hugging it to his chest.

“Ya like it?”

Barnes nodded, the fingers of his metal hand gently squeezing the cat’s polyester filling. “It’s soft. Squishy.” He smiled thinly, briefly. “You didn’t have to get all this for me, Brock.”

“It’s just little stuff. Don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah, but it’s—”

“Hey. I said don’t worry. I’ll still be usin the furniture when you’re gone, it’s no big deal. I needed it anyway.”

Barnes lowered his head. “When I’m gone . . .”

“When you’re better,” Brock corrected. That weird feeling in his chest was back again. He wondered if he ought to go see a cardiologist about it. Or maybe a psychiatrist. “When you get your memories back and you’re ready to go home.”

Barnes sat wordlessly on the couch, hugging his stuffed cat.

Brock sighed and squatted down in front of him. “What’s wrong, Jamie?”

“Nothing.”

“Then what’s on your mind?”

He shook his head. “I dunno. It’s all . . .” His head kept shaking. “I just feel mixed up.” He squeezed the cat tighter.

Brock rested his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together. He exhaled softly. “Why don’t ya get a shower and a shave, and I’ll get started on dinner, okay? And if that doesn’t make ya feel better, at least you’ll look better. Not this”—he drew a circle around his face with his index finger—“sad hobo thing you got goin’ on.”

Barnes cracked an unwilling grin, and Brock felt like he’d just won the biggest battle of the day.

“Okay,” said Barnes, then added timidly: “Are we having grilled chicken again?”

“You sayin you don’t like my cooking?” said Brock, pretending to be offended.

“No! No, I wasn’t, I didn’t mean—”

“Relax, kid, I’m only teasin.” Brock gave Barnes’s knee a playful tap with his knuckles as he stood up. “I picked up a couple ‘a ribeyes on the way home, so no cryin at the table, okay?”

Barnes smiled sheepishly. “Okay . . . Thanks, Brock. You’re—”

“An asshole, I know. But I do have my moments.” He flashed Barnes a sarcastic smirk, but his eyes were soft and tender. “Go get your shower, Jamie. And don’t rush, we’ve got plenty of time.”

Chapter Text

The laptop that Brock had gotten for Barnes had a more practical purpose than simply idle entertainment; it was to be a tool to help educate him, filling in the missing gaps of his memory, bringing him up-to-date with the history of the world.

And would be a good way to keep him occupied while Brock was at work.

Barnes nearly dropped the plate he was holding and stared at Brock with wide, fearful eyes. “Work?” he exclaimed. “But. Wh-why? What kind of work? Who—”

“Will you just calm down,” Brock said, giving him a sidelong glare. He was wrist-deep in suds, washing the after-dinner dishes. Barnes was rinsing and stacking them in the drainboard, his metal hand clicking against everything he touched.

“It’s an honest job,” Brock went on. “No killing or anything like that. Just typical, everyday ranch work.”

One of Barnes’s eyebrows quirked, a cute reaction despite his current distress. “Ranch work? You mean like horses and cowboys?”

“More like fixin fences and puttin’ out hay all year for shit pay,” said Brock. “It ain’t as glamorous as they show in the movies, but it’s somethin. It’ll get me outta the house, at least. I start next Monday.”

Barnes bit his lip and went quiet. For several minutes there was no further conversation; just two men standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the sink, the only sound being the slosh of water and the gentle clatter of dishes. Finally, Barnes couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Why can’t you just stay home?” he blurted. “You’ve got plenty of money. You don’t need a job.”

Brock scoffed. “And do what? Sit around here with you all day? I like you, James, but not that much.” The sarcastic grin that had been on his face slowly faded. He seemed to be concentrating a little too hard on the fork he was cleaning.

“I wanna do normal things,” he said at last. “Drive a truck, work outdoors. Have friends, be one ‘a the guys. Live simple. You know I never had a regular job? I had some shitty little part-timers when I was in high school, but I went straight into the Marines after I graduated, so I never . . . I just wanna try somethin new. Somethin different.”

“Sounds like you wanna be someone else,” Barnes muttered.

The words took Brock completely by surprise. He wasn’t expecting insightful commentary from someone with such a broken brain. He opened his mouth to spew a torrent of denial—his knee-jerk response when it came to confrontations—but Barnes was already continuing his thought:

“I dunno why you’re so determined to get away from yourself. It’s like you’re obsessed with changing who you are, but you can’t, Brock. You are who you are. And I like who you are. You don’t need to change. You shouldn’t have to. It’s bullshit.”

At this point, Brock was somewhere between angry and genuinely touched, and he had no idea how he should react. He opted for his typical temperament: defensive and obstinate.

“You don’t even know who I am, Barnes. You can’t like me.”

“I know you enough, and I like what I’ve seen.”

“You haven’t seen the whole picture, the real me. What you’re seein now is just the tip ‘a the fuckin iceberg. I’m not this sweet guy who goes around rescuin people and bringin ‘em home outta the goodness of my heart. I’m a fuckin killer.”

“So am I.”

Brock stopped washing and gripped the edge of the countertop, his hands sudsy and red from the hot water. “Don’t even get me started on this shit again, James, I am not gonna argue with you.”

“I’m not arguing,” Barnes argued. “I’m just trying to find out why you hate yourself so much—”

“I don’t hate myself!”

“Then why did you change your name and move to—”

“It’s called surviving, dumbass! You think HYDRA was just gonna let me walk away from them whenever I wanted? Or let you walk away? C’mon, no one can be that fuckin dense.”

“I’m not dense,” said Barnes coldly. “I know what you gotta do to survive, but if you really wanted to get away from HYDRA you’da moved to the other side of the world. But you didn’t even leave the country.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I’m too fuckin old to learn a new language and all that shit. I’ve done it before—tried to do it—it’s called deep cover and I suck at it.”

“You said you wanted to start over,” Barnes suggested archly, “try something new and different.”

Brock was trying hard not to grind his teeth together. “This is as new and different as I wanna get,” he said. “This is my country, I was born here, and HYDRA can just fuckin come and get me if they want me so bad. I’m not tryin to get away from myself, I’m tryin to get away from them.”

“You wanna get away from the monster they turned you into. I understand, Brock. They did the same thing to me.”

“No, no, no.” Brock’s temper had reached critical mass. “It is not the same thing, you do not understand, and they did not fuckin turn me into anything! You’re tryin to put me and you together in the same box and it ain’t gonna work so just fuckin—”

There was a loud pop, followed by the sparkling sound of shattered glass hitting the floor, and Barnes jumped in surprise. He looked down at his hand, which was still clutching the jagged remains of the glass he had been holding. Strangely enough, it was his right hand. Bright red blood seeped out of the cut on his palm, smearing against the shards he held. He seemed completely dazed, unaware of the fearsome grip he’d had on it.

“Goddammit,” Brock muttered, “now look what you’ve done. Gimme your hand, stupid.” He swiped a towel off the counter and carefully pried the glass remnants out of Barnes’s hand. He tossed them into the sink and wadded the towel against Barnes’s palm. “Hold that. There’s a med kit in the bathroom, go wrap your hand while I clean this shit up, and watch where you step—Jesus, why are you barefoot? Put some socks on for Chrissakes. Go, get.”

Anxiously sucking his lower lip, Barnes stepped over the shards and quietly left the kitchen. Brock fetched the broom and dustpan and spent the next ten minutes meticulously sweeping up broken glass and trying not to dwell on what Barnes had said because he certainly did not hate himself; people who hate themselves usually want to kill themselves, at least that’s how Brock perceived it, and he wasn’t suicidal. He was just the opposite—trying to build a new life for himself in a new place. What was so wrong with that? He wasn’t trying to bury who he was, he just . . .

The broom went still.

He was trying to erase HYDRA from his mind, just like HYDRA had erased Barnes’s memories. He wanted to forget them because he felt guilty about all the terrible things he’d done while he was under their spell. He was ashamed that he had believed their lies and ignorantly followed their dogma, reciting “Hail Hydra” like an obedient child, helping them almost succeed in destroying what was truly good. This new life, it didn’t belong to him. It belonged to every person he had ever killed in the name of HYDRA. Barnes had picked up on that almost instantly. That was what pissed off Brock so much; the brainwashed idiot who could barely function saw through him more clearly than any person he’d ever met.

And he had been right. They were alike. Brock didn’t want that. He didn’t want to have anything in common with Barnes because that would give him a reason to like him, to be his friend, to call him Jamie all the time instead of every once in a while, to make it okay to want to touch him and . . .

Brock shut his eyes tightly and shook his head, but the images poured into his mind anyway. Barnes—James, his sweet Jamie, the Good Boy—on his knees in front of Brock, looking up at him with those big blue innocent eyes. His lips, glossy and pink and plump, wrapped around Brock’s hard red dick. Brock holding him by the hair while he thrust his hips into Barnes’s face and fucked his mouth, that nice cocksucking mouth with its velvety soft lips and deep, wet heat. Listening to Barnes hum and groan and slurp and roll his tongue over the head of his cock, asking Brock if he wanted to come on his face or if he wanted him to swallow, because of course he was a swallower, he would take anything Daddy gave him, he was a such a good boy.

“Holy fuck,” Brock uttered, rubbing one side of his face. He was standing alone in the kitchen with a pile of broken glass on the floor and a broom in his hand and a massive hard-on sprouting in his pants.

And still the images kept coming: Barnes, face flushed and short of breath, spreading his sweat-damp thighs and begging Brock to please fuck him, kiss him, help him. Grinding himself against Brock’s leg and whimpering, panting for release—

“Stop it,” said Brock in a strangled whisper. “Fuckin ay, just stop.”

But it looked so good, that smoldering portrait of Barnes on his knees. It was intoxicating. Addictive. And Brock’s reptilian brain kept elaborating, filling his mind with all sorts of titillating little pictures and ideas. Like how Barnes probably preferred it rough, wanted to be tied up and pinned down, spanked and slapped, fucked on the floor, on the kitchen table, against a wall. Maybe he was into domination. Humiliation. Rape-play. He probably cried real pretty, too.

You could make him cry, a dark, internal voice told him. He’d probably like it. You know he wants you; he’s been dropping little hints for weeks, he’s just too shy to come out and say it. He’s been desperate  to jump on your dick ever since he remembered your name. Go on, go find him. Let him know how you feel, and then let the games begin.

No. No. What the fuck, NO.

Brock dropped into a squat—not a comfortable position when one is sporting an erection—and hastily swept the broken glass into the dustpan. He carried the shards to the garbage bin and dumped them in, tossed the broom and dustpan in the corner, and marched to the bathroom.

Barnes was no longer there. Thank God.

Brock bent over the sink and splashed some cold water on his face. He looked up and met his own eyes in the mirror. He stared at himself, at the sharp angle of his jaw, his cheekbones. At the faint scars on his cheek, his neck, that hairless slash that went through his left eyebrow. His eyes, amber in this light, staring out of their deep-set shadows like the eyes of a lion—of some ravenous, insatiable predator that stalked the savannah and picked out the most vulnerable of the herd. A devourer of young, killer of innocents. Flesh-eater. Blood-drinker.

He bared his teeth at his reflection and released a breathy snarl.

He might be a horrible man, but he made one hell of a beast.

Brock relaxed his expression, allowing it to return to its normal human mask. He straightened and blotted his face with a towel, then mopped up the water he’d splashed all over the bathroom counter.

It suddenly hit him: there was no med kit sitting out; no blood in the sink; no bandage wrappers; no uncapped ointment tubes or bloodstained cotton in the trash. No sign that Barnes had even stepped into the bathroom, and that guy was like a tornado—he left a mess wherever he went.

Brock left the bathroom and went to Barnes’s bedroom door. No light shone from underneath.

“James,” he called. “Can I come in?”

Oh boy, he hoped Barnes said no. He prayed he would say no. Then Brock could get pissed off and not have to think anymore, just react. Let his true son-of-a-bitch nature shine forth. See if Barnes liked him then, with all of his ugliness showing.

But there was no response. Brock turned the knob and slowly pushed the door open. Light from the hallway spilled into the room, painting a wide yellow swath across the twin-sized bed huddled in the corner. Barnes lay on his side with his back to the door, his long brown hair trailing across his pillow.

“James,” Brock repeated.

Like before, silence.

Brock turned on the lights, went over to stand beside the bed. He stared down at the pathetic picture of Barnes hugging his stuffed gray cat, his face tucked into its artificial fur. He was still clenching the bloodstained, wadded-up towel in his right hand.

“God dammit, Jamie,” Brock sighed. He turned around and walked from the room. When he came back with the First Aid kit, Barnes had not stirred from his position.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and opened the kit, gathering what he needed. Luckily Barnes was lying on his left side, so Brock was able to easily pry the soiled towel from his hand, apply some ointment, and begin wrapping the cuts on his palm. Barnes was as limp as a doll, allowing Brock to work unhindered.

After securing the gauze with a strip of tape, Brock packed everything back into the kit and studied Barnes quietly for a few moments. “Do you hate me, James?”

The reply was muffled but adamant: “No.”

Brock put his hand on Barnes’s shoulder and gently rolled him over. James’s face, red and sticky from crying salty tears, stared up at him broken-heartedly.

Looking down at him like this, all those erotic, filthy fantasies seemed so far away. As if James’s sad, lovely eyes actually made Brock into a better man, chasing away the images that tortured his brain and set his lust on fire. How could the same person incite such wildly different responses?

Because we all have two sides, said something inside Brock, a kinder, gentler voice than the one that had whispered to him earlier. Every man has the potential to be a beast. So when you find someone who brings out the worst in you . . . when the poison and the shit and the evil thoughts are removed, all that’s left is the good.

Brock picked up Barnes’s hand and gazed at it blankly for a second. Then he lifted it to his lips and pressed a kiss onto the bandaged palm. Barnes’s eyebrows bent into an even sadder expression, his eyes filling with moisture.

He carefully laid Barnes’s hand down again, then picked up the medical kit and rose to his feet. He was halfway to the door when Barnes sat up.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted. “About breaking the glass. And for . . . everything I said.”

“I’m not.” Brock turned. His eyes had lost their feral glow; now they were a soft and tender hazel. “Never apologize for speakin your mind, Jamie. Sometimes it’s exactly what someone else needs to hear . . . even if that someone else doesn’t wanna hear it.”

Barnes smiled weakly.

Brock smiled back. And that weird feeling in his chest? For some reason didn’t feel so weird anymore.

In fact, it actually felt kind of nice.

Chapter Text

There were two notes pinned to the refrigerator on Monday morning, written in Brock’s heavy, hurried hand. James stood in the kitchen in his pajamas, grasping the refrigerator door handle, and read them three times.

Jamie

There is cereal for breakfast + sandwich stuff in the frige for lunch. DO NOT drink all the cokes!

Cell # is 406-555-2192 call ONLY if its an emergency!

The laptop and tv is for HOMEWORK USE ONLY

NO FUCKING AROUND

History channel, Discovery, wikapedia ect. is ok

Here are some topics to research:

-(heavily scribbled out)

-Cold war

-Korean War

-NATO/Treaty of Brussels

-moon landing

-rock n roll music

-Albert Einstien

-hydrogen bomb test

-Warsaw Pact

Don't know when I'll be home. DO NOT USE THE MICROWAVE I will show you how to use it later. You can go outside but STAY IN THE YARD. The barn is OK just don't touch anything. Clean up after yourself. I'm not your Mommy.

NEVER FORGET THAT HYDRA might still be looking for you. Keep your arm covered. If anyone comes to the house or calls IGNORE THEM.

Don't do anything stupid while I'm gone.

-Brock

“Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone,” he repeated. That line sizzled and smoldered in the dark corners of his memory. He had said something like that to someone before. Someone he cared about. He was certain of it. He could hear his own voice, the ambient noise of people around him, and recall the melancholy, slightly-scary feeling of having to leave and not knowing when or if he would return. 

Don’t do anything stupid . . .

He opened the refrigerator and stared into it blankly, his mind replaying the phrase as if repetition would conjure up a face, a name. Cold air poured out onto his bare feet. (Put some socks on for Chrissakes.) He couldn’t have said it to Brock, but Brock was the only person he cared about. Brock was the only person who cared about him.

There were people who cared about you, Jamie. There’s one who’s still around. And whenever you’re ready, I’ll try to help you remember him.

“Who?” James asked the carton of milk in front of him. “If it’s not you, then who . . .”

The idea that Brock might not actually care about him made James’s throat tighten and his eyes sting. It was a gut-wrenching thought, but it had to be true—why else would Brock take a job he didn’t need and leave him alone like this? If he really cared, he would have stayed home to help him, like he did the other night when . . .

He looked down at his right hand. All that remained of the cut on his palm was a thin pink line. “You heal fast,” Brock had told him the next day, during a follow-up examination of the wound. “That’s just the way you are. Don’t worry.” He had grinned and given James a gentle pat on the side of his head.

James desperately wished Brock were here now. He didn’t have to be in the same room or even inside the house, just as long as he was within a hundred yards of—

Hurt yourself, said a frantic voice in James’s head. Drink poison. Break a bone. Cut your hand again. Then call Brock, he’ll come straight home and he’ll take care of you and make you comfortable and he might even kiss you again, and if he does then you know he really cares about you and you don’t need that Steve guy, he couldn’t possibly be as sensitive and sweet as Brock Ruml

It’s called surviving, dumbass!

As sensitive and sweet as Br

C’mon, no one can be that fuckin dense.

AS SENSITIVE AND SWEET AS

Goddammit, now look what you’ve done. Gimme your hand, stupid.

James shut the refrigerator door hard, causing the bottles and jars inside to rattle. Brock’s notes now stared directly at him, bold and dark and incredibly loud.

NO FUCKING AROUND

STAY IN THE YARD

don’t touch anything

I’m not your Mommy

James let out a long, low whine and put his hands to his head, burying his fingers in his hair. A knot rose in his throat. His chest felt tight. His heart was beating too fast. He couldn’t breathe—call Brock, you’re having a heart attack!—no, Brock would get mad—it’s an emergency!—no it’s not, you’re just sad and lonely and it will pass, it will pass, it will pass—

He stumbled from the kitchen with tears in his eyes and his heart banging a wild, jittery rhythm against his ribs. He felt like he was going to be sick and Brock wasn’t here, he was all alone and the house was shrinking around him and his chest was caving in and he was going to suffocate and Brock was going to come home that night and find him dead on the floor, and then he’d crouch down and slap James’s corpse and yell, “Why didn’t you call me, dumbass! Jesus, you’re so fuckin dense!”

James threw open the door to Brock’s bedroom, dropped onto the bed, and curled up in a fetal position. The mattress was soft and familiar, even if the pillows and sheets were a new addition. This was the platform on which he had slept for the first month of his new life, where he had shivered and sweat and sometimes thought his head was going to explode from the pain. The mattress had lain naked on the floor then, and James remembered how Brock would squat down and feel his forehead with the back of his hand, talk to him softly, bring him a fresh ice pack or a glass of water. That was when he had still cared . . . or at least pretended to care. He had fooled James completely. Hell of an actor, that Brock Rumlow.

James snatched one of the pillows and hugged it, buried his face in it like he wanted to disappear from the world. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the strong scents of Brock’s hair, his shampoo, his cologne. It should have been comforting, but all it did was emphasize his absence.

It was irrational and he knew it, but fear and anxiety does some strange things to our brains, and right then James wished he had a photo of Brock because he was fully convinced that he was going to forget what the man looked like, and that terrified him. He had forgotten so much already, people who had apparently cared about him and loved him—all those things that Brock himself vehemently denied feeling—so if it was easy to forget about them, how quickly would he forget Brock? Probably faster. A week? A day? A few hours?

James’s heart began to pound again, and before he could stop himself, he shot upright and grabbed the handset from the little bedside table. The numbers still glowed in his well-trained mind like hot coals—406-555-2192—and he punched them in without thinking. He put his ear to the receiver and bit his lip, but it wasn’t until the ringing began that he realized what he had done.

Terror wrapped its icy, electric hands around his heart. This wasn’t an emergency. Brock was going to be pissed. He would never come home again. He would hate James forever. Hang up, hang up, hang up, his mind screamed. Hurry, before he

Hey,” said Brock’s voice. “Everything okay?


Brock was riding in the company truck with Jim Carsen, the foreman of Silver River Ranch, when his cell phone began to buzz urgently. He twisted in the seat, trying to dig it out of his pocket as the truck bounced over another clump of grass, rattling the Chevy’s frame. Jim, who was Brock’s senior by at least ten years, politely paused his narration about the details of the west pasture and nodded when the new guy insisted that he had to take this call.

“Go right ahead, son,” he said, and took advantage of the lull to fish the can of Skoal from the front pocket of his shirt.

Brock put his phone to his ear. “Hey. Everything okay?”

Silence.

“You there, Jamie?”

Yeah.” The voice on the other end sounded as frail as a 90-year-old’s.

“Are you alright? What’s goin’ on?” Brock was certain he heard a barely-audible whimper. “James, fu”—he checked himself—“for God’s sake, talk to me.”

I got scared,” came the sudden answer. “I couldn’t breathe and I was shaking . . .”

Brock waited for more, eyebrows raised in anticipation. “That’s it? The house isn’t on fire? You’re not bleedin out on the floor?”

No . . .”

Brock sighed and rubbed his face with one hand. “Okay, what scared you?”

Jim tucked a wad of snuff into his lip and pretended to mind his own business.

I dunno,” said James’s small, tinny voice. “I just. I was all alone and I thought about hurting myself so you’d come home and I don’t wanna forget you, Brock, but I’m afraid I will.” The words were hurried and breathless, cracking with the onset of tears. “I need you. I’m scared, I can’t—”

“Jamie. Hey. You’re havin a panic attack, kiddo. Listen to what I say, alright? I want you to take a deep breath. Hold it in, then let it out real slow. I’ll do it with you, okay? Ready? Deep breath in . . . okay, now let it out slow.”

A sigh. A pause. “It’s not helping, Brock.”

“You gotta do it more than once, genius. Find a place to lay down—”

I’m already laying down.”

“Then try to relax your muscles. And stop chewin your lip, I can hear you doin’ that over the phone. Just relax your hands, your arms, shoulders, everything. Lay on your back and close your eyes. Are ya doin’ that?”

Yeah.”

“Good.” Brock switched the phone to his right hand and propped his elbow on the edge of the open window. “Wherever you feel tension, let it go. Listen to your body. Don’t think about anything else, just focus on you and what you feel. Release that tension. Breathe while you’re doin’ this, slow and deep.”

Slow and deep. Okay.” There was a crackle of air in the phone as James released a breath.

“Keep your eyes closed,” Brock continued, his voice calm and steady. “Find the tension. Loosen it up. Go from head to toe. Focus. Breathe. Relax. Repeat what I just said.”

Focus, breathe, relax.”

“Good. Okay. I want you to do that until you feel better, alright? Don’t worry about anything else, just focus on you and makin yourself feel better. I’ll be home before you know it.”

Okay . . . Brock, do you care about me?

The question caught Brock off guard, but his mouth was quick to answer: “Of course. Don’t be stupid . . . Look, I gotta go now, but you just keep doin’ what I told you, alright? I’ll see you when I get home.”

O . . . okay.”

Brock ended the call and sighed as if he’d just spent two hours trying to coax a suicidal man down from a ledge. “Shit. Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” said Jim gruffly. “Family comes first. James your boy?”

“Boy?” Brock looked just slightly horrified, though it was uncertain whether the cause of his horror was the thought of fatherhood or the fact that Barnes had been mistaken for his son. “Oh no, no, he’s my brother. Kid brother, actually. Same mom, different dad.” He was a little ashamed of how easily the lies rolled off his tongue. “Mom had me when she was real young, so by the time she married my stepdad and Jamie came along, I was already outta high school.”

“Hoo wee. Heck of an age gap,” Jim said. “Y’all sound like ya get along fine, though.”

“Yeah, we’re actually pretty close. You know, big brother hero worship and all that. He wanted to be just like me, so he joined the Army and got sent to Iraq. He was in the middle of his second tour when he lost his arm. An IED exploded in a house they were clearing. Lost everything from the shoulder down.”

“Sweet Jesus. Is he okay now?”

Brock winced, tilted his head in that universal gesture of indecision. “He has his good days and bad days. He’s got PTSD real bad, amnesia, blackouts, all sortsa mental issues. None ‘a the medications seemed to help him and he gets freaked out in hospitals, that’s why I’m takin care ‘a him. I’m hoping maybe he’ll be able to live on his own someday, but for right now, it’s just me and him.”

“Damn,” Jim said, somehow drawing two syllables from a one-syllable word. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hell of a thing to happen to a young man, ‘specially defendin our country.” He looked over at Brock seriously. “You’re a good fella, Mike. Not many guys’d do what you’re doin’.”

The man calling himself Michael Bruno smiled modestly. “He ain’t heavy,” he said, “he’s my brother.”


The day dragged itself toward evening, mercifully uneventful after that morning’s unexpected call. Jim finished giving “Mike” a tour of the ranch, introduced him to the rest of the cow crew at lunch—nice guys, but the big redheaded gorilla called Casey was going to give Brock trouble, he could just feel it—and the afternoon was spent replacing old posts on the north fence, and hauling hay from the main barn and distributing it to the various pastures. The other cowboys were a little puzzled as to why a middle-aged, city-dwelling Italian-American with the physique of a UFC fighter wanted to work on a ranch, and they were more than a little doubtful of his abilities, but for the most part they seemed pretty friendly and relaxed. They even invited Brock out for a beer at the local watering hole after work, and as great as that sounded, he had to decline.

“Thanks, but I gotta get back home and take care ‘a my brother,” he said, and Jim proudly clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“You got your head on straight, Bruno,” he declared. “Don’t worry, there’ll be other opportunities for these fellas to drink ya under the table.”

“Yeah,” Brock snorted, “we’ll just see about that.”

Jim outlined tomorrow’s itinerary before the crew split up, told them what time to meet at the barn in the morning, and warned everybody else not to get into too much trouble at the bar. Hands were shaken, goodbyes were said, and they all piled into their trucks and went their separate ways.

The trip home was short for Brock—of all the employees who lived off the ranch, his house was the closest—and even though it was close to 8:00 p.m. when he pulled into the driveway, there was still plenty of light in the sky. The clouds were ablaze with a rainbow of pinks, oranges and purples, and there was a chill in the air as evening approached. All things considered, Brock thought it had been a pretty good day.

He climbed out of the Suburban—he really needed to trade it in, he thought, get a truck, a big boxy Ford from the mid-90s or something—when he heard the front door open. He turned and saw James standing on the front porch, barefoot and still in his pajamas, wearing the denim jacket that Brock had finally surrendered ownership of. The expression on his face was an indecipherable mixture of concern, anticipation, and more than a little bit of displeasure.

Brock shut the car door, stood in the driveway, and opened his arms. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Aren’t ya gonna run over here and gimme a hug and tell me how much you missed me?”

James looked shocked, then insulted, then infuriated. “Why are you such an asshole?”

“Why are you such a baby?”

“Wha—that’s not—look, I needed you and you weren’t here! How can you make fun of me for needing help? Seriously, how dare you!” James shouted, his face flushed with embarrassment. “You have no idea what I’ve been through today. I thought I was gonna die!”

“And did you?” Brock said. “No. Case closed, problem solved.”

“I didn’t die because I called you and you talked me through it!”

“Yeah, and now you know exactly what to do the next time somethin like that happens. See, that’s what normal people call learning, James. It’s how they grow up and, you know, become fuckin adults.”

James stared at Brock hatefully, tears brimming in his eyes.

“I can’t do everything for you, kiddo,” he said flatly. “At some point you’re gonna have to stop being a victim and learn to be a man again. You can’t depend on me for everything ‘cause I ain’t always gonna be around.”

“I know that.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

James swallowed, then said in a low voice: “You don’t have to be so mean.”

Brock’s eyebrows leaped up. “I’m not mean to yo—”

“Yes you are!”

“I am not! That’s fuckin ridic—”

“You’re snappy and you yell at me too much!” James sputtered. “You’re just . . . you’re too forceful! I almost didn’t call you today ‘cause I was afraid of how you’d react. I was afraid you’d get mad.”

Brock’s retort died on his lips. He stared at James as if he were seeing him for the first time.

“You can’t just blow up at me every time I get scared,” he said quietly, rubbing his arm. “I, I’m trying hard not to be like this, but sometimes I can’t help it. Look, I know I’m not gonna be magically cured overnight. I get it. But you gotta be more patient with me. You . . . I really need this from you right now, Brock.”

There was a brief pause. “What about what I need, huh?” Brock muttered. “Or did that stop mattering when you stepped in fronta my car?”

James lowered his eyes. “It isn’t just about you anymore. It’s about us. We gotta . . . we need to help each other, not just ourselves.”

Brock clamped his mouth shut. Two and a half months ago he would have stomped away, pissed off and high on adrenaline, and taken out his frustrations on the 100-pound punching bag down at the gym. But a lot had changed since then. There was no more gym, no more SHIELD, no impromptu boxing matches with Rollins and the rest of the team. Things had gotten a lot simpler since then. Now it was just two men living in a house in Montana, one trying to forget, the other trying to remember. And when Brock stood back and looked at the big picture—a lot easier to do when you lived under this much sky—it made all the shit and anger he was feeling seem petty and meaningless.

“Help each other, huh? Okay.” He took a step toward James. “Punch me.”

James’s eyes went wide. “What?”

“You heard me. Go on, punch me. I’ve been a dick. I deserve it.”

James shook his head. “I’m not gonna punch you, Brock. That won’t fix anything.”

“Maybe not, but it’ll make ya feel better.”

“At your expense. We’re supposed to be helping each other. Come on, be serious.”

“I am being serious,” said Brock. “I was mean to you, I feel bad about it, so all you gotta do is punch me and we’ll both feel better. I won’t feel guilty anymore, and you’ll feel like you’ve done something productive today. C’mon. Hit me.” He raised his hands in invitation.

James rolled his lower lip into his mouth and turned to hide his smile.

Brock took another step forward and stood toe-to-toe with him. “I’m not gonna let you go back in that house without punchin me first, Jamie. Come on. Put some scars on the right side ‘a my face. I hate it when things don’t match.”

“You’re such an asshole,” James muttered.

Brock grinned and waited.

James rolled his eyes, raised his metal hand, and gently bumped it against Brock’s cheekbone. “Pow. There. You happy now?”

“That’s it? My toaster punches harder than you.”

“So pick a fight with the toaster then,” said James, turning toward the door. “It’s cold out here. I’m going insi—hey, what’re you do—augh!”

He flailed as Brock, with astonishing speed and grace, hooked one arm around his waist, bent down, hooked the other arm around his legs, and scooped him completely off his feet.

“Stop it! Hey, put me down!” James cried, even though he was clinging to Brock’s shoulders like a rescued damsel.

“Sorry, no can do,” said Brock insolently. “You walked out here barefoot like an idiot, so now it’s my problem. I’m just here to help. You want us to help each other, right?” He took a staggering step toward the threshold, the tendons in his neck standing out.

“No! Brock, stop it, you’re gonna throw your back out!”

“You ain’t heavy,” he groaned, “you’re my brother.”

“Your what? Brock, I mean it, you’re gonna pull something—”

“Oh fuck, too late—”

Brock!”

There came two heavy thumps, followed by the scrape of furniture, followed by a peal of helpless, uncontrollable laughter.

Not a bad way to end a pretty good day, all things considered.

Chapter Text

Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Brock was familiar with that idiom and he hated it. Might as well just say “fuck it, I have no control over anything, I should just give up trying”, that was how he interpreted it. But there was a shadow of truth floating around in there somewhere, not in the fatalistic cliché touted by all the gutless losers of the world, but in the idea that something meaningful existed in the small moments between life’s big events. A satisfying, comfortable feeling of everything settling into place. Contentment in the mundane and simple. Brock didn’t have any words for it, but if he did, they would sound a hell of a lot better than “life is what happens while you’re making other plans”. He was sure of it.

He and James were getting along better now. Summer had arrived in Montana, and that meant long, sunny days full of blue skies and fresh air, and cool nights spent with the windows open. Fair weather made for fair tempers, and living this close to nature seemed to be exactly what both of them needed. Most of Brock’s weekdays (and occasionally Saturdays) were spent bumping across green pastures in the company truck, filling feeders or fixing fences. Sometimes he got stuck behind the wheel of a tractor, mowing acres upon acres of hay. Sometimes he was on horseback with the rest of the crew, gathering cows and driving them from one pasture to another, sorting them in the pens, running them through the chutes, administering vaccinations, dewormer, marking and branding, cutting, whatever was required that week. It was tough work sometimes, full of shit and flies and stubborn animals, but it beat the hell out of a desk job.

And he didn’t have to wear a tie.

Brock’s everyday “work uniform” consisted of jeans, an undershirt, a long-sleeve button-down, a canvas jacket if it was cool or damp out, boots—not cowboy boots, but he was beginning to see the benefit of them out here—and a hat that definitely was cowboy because he learned his first week on the ranch that baseball caps don’t do shit for keeping the sun off the back of your neck.

James’s eyes nearly popped out of his head the day Brock strode into the living room wearing a crisp, bone-colored felt Milano with a 4-inch brim. He had wrapped his arms around himself and howled with laughter.

“Thanks for the support, asshole,” said Brock.

“No, it’s not that!” James cried, holding up his hands. “You actually look good. It’s, I dunno, like you were meant to be a cowboy or something.”

Brock felt his ego blossom at the compliment, and he grinned crookedly. “Really?”

“Yeah. It suits you.” A devilish smile appeared on James’s face. “And it even makes you look taller than me. I dunno if that’s false advertising or just a pathetic attempt at—”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence because Brock grabbed him and put him in a mock sleeper hold, and even though the former Winter Soldier was more than capable of breaking free, he allowed himself to be “subdued” as penance for being a smartass. Much screeching, swearing, and squealing ensued.

And laughter. That seemed to be happening a lot more often, Brock noticed. Maybe because James was gradually getting better, mentally and emotionally. His personality, frozen solid by HYDRA for fifty-plus years, had begun to thaw, and Brock was surprised to discover that the former Brooklynite was not the sassy, swaggering smart-aleck he thought he’d be. James Buchanan Barnes was quite a polite, introspective, well-educated young man with a good sense of humor, and very sensitive to the emotions of others. Nice qualities to have, but the latter wasn’t exactly helpful when there was tension brewing in the household. He reacted strongly to Brock’s raw displays of emotion, apparently being accustomed to people with more subtle dispositions.

“You’re loud,” James once told him, “and you swear too much.”

Brock’s reply had been, “Is that fuckin so? I was not aware. Thank you for bringin it to my attention, Pope Obvious the Third.”

Brock wasn’t usually that sarcastic. Sarcasm was for people too afraid to say how they really felt, that was how he saw it, ergo his emotions were seldom a mystery. If he was angry or depressed or annoyed, he let it show right then and there—or as soon as he got home, if the source of his angst was work-related. He was blunt and uncomplicated, reacted first and thought later, always said what was on his mind.

James, on the other hand, was reserved and somewhat introverted. He had a bad habit of letting his discontent simmer for weeks until he finally erupted like a volcano, usually over something that had nothing to do with the current situation. Brock found his meltdowns bewildering. Trying to understand James was a lot like trying to understand a woman, and Brock hadn’t had much luck with that in the past.

But their arguments, no worse than any of the millions of arguments taking place all over the world, became fewer and farther between as time went on. They learned to be patient and live with one another, work around each other’s flaws and foibles, and stuck to their unspoken promise to help each other . . . more or less. There was still the occasional turbulence between them, but it appeared they had weathered the worst of the storm and were now sailing on much calmer seas.

James’s memories began to return in bits and pieces thanks to Brock’s continuous efforts and daily “homework assignments”. Each evening they would discuss what James had recalled or learned that day, usually over dinner, sometimes sitting comfortably in the living room. James was very distracted by television so Brock either turned it completely off or set it to one of the music channels, light jazz or big band, old music that might jog his memory and make him feel comfortable, happy, nostalgic—anything other than sad and miserable, really. Finally Brock decided to ditch the TV altogether, and one Friday night he brought home a retro-looking Crosley stereo. Wooden case, fabric-clad speakers, big 40s-looking dials and everything. In addition to records and AM/FM radio, it also played CDs, cassette tapes, and had a jack for connecting an MP3 player.

James had been thrilled by the unexpected present, but it was nothing compared to the delight he experienced on Saturday, when Brock ferried him over to the little antique-slash-thrift store in Livingston to load up on vintage vinyl. He wandered among the cluttered, claustrophobic aisles of the shop, touching relics from the past with his one remaining flesh hand, eyes wide and full of remembrance. Every trinket and piece of furniture triggered some sort of memory of the life he had lived more than half a century ago. His brain probably hadn’t been this stimulated since he had recognized the face of Steve Rogers on the helicarrier back in April.

Brock kept a close eye on James while he browsed, just in case he saw something that would give him the screaming meemies. But he didn’t scream, meemie-induced or otherwise. He had a ball. He befriended the woman behind the counter—Deborah, a delightful old broad from Long Island (pronounced “Lwon Gailand”)—and left Livingston Fancy Flea with an armful of records.

That night he and Brock sat on the living room rug with the day’s haul spread out around them, spinning LPs and snacking on popcorn and Coca Cola, talking about New York and home and the Old Days, swapping stories and jokes and having a really good time.

This was life, distilled to its simplest, purest form. And it happened while Brock made his plans and thought about the future, as he became comfortably accustomed to James’s presence, to his voice and his face and his scent, to the broad smiles that made coming home the best part of Brock’s day.

Looking back on it a year from now, Brock was pretty sure this was when the ice surrounding his heart began to melt. A fitting end to an unnaturally long winter.

For both of them.


They hit a rough patch around Independence Day. Brock was afraid this might happen. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, as the saying goes. He’d made plans, but they were for going out and having fun, not staying home and mopping up tears the whole holiday weekend. The ranch was hosting a company barbecue for all its employees on Saturday, and Brock had RSVPd two weeks ago for himself and one (1) guest. So much for that idea. This is what he got for being so goddamned optimistic.

The user manual of the Winter Soldier, commonly referred to by HYDRA’s wittier minds as the Red Book of Death, contained notes about certain volatile times of the year for the Asset, and the Fourth of July was the worst of these. It had something to do with either the chemically-induced betrayal to his country or the birthday of his best friend, maybe both, no one ever really knew. But the Soldier was always put on ice in mid-June and revived no earlier than the second week of August—no exceptions. It wasn’t that he became violent and unpredictable (he always had that potential), but because he slipped into an unshakeable stupor and was completely worthless to his masters. Nothing could bring him out of it: beating, bribery, deprivation, pampering, none of it made a difference. So they stuck him in the freezer and tapped their feet and checked their watches, waiting until that internal clock of his was fucked up enough to lose track of time. A precautionary wipe would follow, just in case he still had some notion of the date, followed by full defrost, activation, a thorough reprogramming, and boom. HYDRA was back in business.

Some things never changed, it seemed.

The spectacularly shitty six-day event kicked off at the end of June with mild depression and a loss of appetite. Brock tried to bring James out of it with blueberry pancakes and a playlist of World War II-era Disney cartoons he’d found on YouTube, but he was interested in neither. He nibbled at his pancakes, just enough to keep Brock from worrying, then went back to bed. When he finally joined the world of the living later that day, it was with a lot of sighing and staring and aimless shuffling around the house.

By July second James’s world had condensed to his room, the bathroom, and the short trek from one to the other. Brock had to kick him out of bed and order him to eat, practically had to threaten him to take a shower, and forbade him from using the laptop in his bedroom. “You wanna use the internet,” he snapped, “you come out and sit at the kitchen table like a normal human being. You’re not gonna lay back there all day and rot.”

James had defiantly shut himself in his room—sans laptop—and lain on the bed with his back to the door. He might as well have had a big middle finger printed on the back of his t-shirt.

It took every ounce of Brock’s self control not to get a screwdriver and take the whole fucking door off its hinges. He was pretty sure this was what having teenage kids felt like and was glad he had missed that particular boat twenty-something years ago.

Jesus was he glad.

By the third of July, the attitude had dissipated and now James was just a miserable, moping mound of raw emotion. He’d traded the bed for the living room couch, where he sat staring into space. He didn’t speak more than ten words to Brock that day, grunts and inarticulate mumbles notwithstanding. All three meals Brock made for him went untouched; the only thing he seemed to want was hot tea. Brock obliged him, even made a special trip out before the stores closed for the holiday, and stocked up on a few boxes.

Standing in line at Albertsons with a basket full of Twinings and honey (and a gallon of milk because they were almost out), Brock experienced a weird déjà vu feeling. The feeling intensified when he dumped the contents of his basket onto the checkout counter.

Uh oh. Yours too, huh?

What?

“Sick baby,” said Brock under his breath.

It came back like an old reel film, frame by frame: an Iowa City Walgreens. Crackers. Pedialyte. Must be something going around. Colorful plastic straws. A cashier named Catey whose toddler had been sick but the good news is it’s a fast bug, hers was over it in a week. The sympathetic smile she gave him when she handed him his bags.

Hang in there, Dad.

Brock drove home with the radio blasting 90s alternative rock, muttering along with the lyrics and tapping the wheel, trying not to think about how he hadn’t really missed that fucking boat after all.


When Independence Day arrived, there was no improvement in James’s condition. Same as the day before, he lay stretched out on the couch like a drunk on a park bench, his left arm tucked against his side and his face hidden by a cascade of brown hair. A lukewarm gel pack sat abandoned on the coffee table, along with a flock of snot- and tear-soaked Kleenexes, his laptop, and no fewer than six mostly-empty teacups. Brock took one look at him and got flashbacks so vivid it made him dizzy.

Stomach. Unstable. Don’t wanna.

You gotta drink something, kiddo. You were puking all last night . . .

I feel hot.  

You prob’ly got a fever, that’s why.

He didn’t realize he had reached down and put his hand on James’s forehead until he felt the cool, smooth skin beneath his palm, and even then he didn’t know why he did it. James’s problem was with his mind, not his body. There was nothing Brock could give him, no tea or crackers or Pedialyte, that could heal this kind of hurt.

He lifted his hand away and folded his arms across his chest, stared down at the man on the couch as if he were a medical examiner glumly analyzing a too-young corpse. He felt that somehow this was all his fault. If he’d just had the fucking balls to wake up and fight back against HYDRA. If he’d just said no when Alexander Pierce approached him in 2005 with a job offer “more suited to a man of your capabilities”, then maybe . . .

Brock sighed.

Someone else would have filled his boots. Maybe someone worse than him, who took real pleasure in bending the Soldier to his will, who actually enjoyed standing over him with a stun baton and lighting him up as part of his regular “behavioral adjustment” sessions. Someone who, unlike Brock, didn’t have to be told to “use more voltage, he doesn’t feel pain like a normal person, he won’t remember any of this anyway”. Maybe this someone wouldn’t have been satisfied with being just the Soldier’s handler. Maybe he’d ask for a little extracurricular playtime with HYDRA’s favorite toy. Off-record bonuses, a nice perk to the job. Who knew Winter could be this hot?

Brock shut his eyes tightly, willing the grotesque images from his mind. A nauseous flower had already begun to bloom in his stomach. If only this had made him sick eight years ago . . .

“I’m sorry, Jamie,” he said hoarsely. “God, I’m so sorry.”

“For what?”

Brock flinched, startled.

James opened his eyes and stared blankly across the room. “You’re not the one ruining someone else’s life because of your fucked-up brain.”

“You’re not ruining my life. My weekend, maybe, but not my life.” Brock tried to smile. “You ain’t got that much power over me. Yet, anyway.”

James’s expression remained the same: flat, sad, totally defeated.

Brock sighed and crouched down between the couch and the coffee table, one arm on either. “You want me to get your cat pillow?”

James shook his head no.

“What about some toast? You want a plum? I got some ‘a the kind you like. You gotta be hungry.”

“I hate Steve Rogers.”

For a second Brock thought he had heard wrong. He had to have heard wrong. “Come again?”

“He’s the reason I feel like this,” said James, his voice cracking as he threatened to fall apart. “I don’t know how or why, but I know it’s his fault I’m like this now and I fucking hate him for it.”

“What? No, no.” Brock slid to his knees, his heart suddenly pounding. This whole rehabilitate-and-release effort hinged on James wanting to go back to Steve; Captain America reuniting with his Beloved Best Friend Bucky, gosh and golly, ain’t that swell. Brock couldn’t very well send James back to the guy if he hated his guts. Jesus, what the hell. “No, you like Steve. He’s your buddy, your pal. It’s HYDRA you hate, not him. He’s got nothing to do with, he’s not response—you don’t, you’re just—”

Brock continued to stumble over his words. To say he was panicking just a little would be a grave misstatement.

“Look,” he said finally, “if you wanna hate somebody, hate me, I fuckin deserve it.”

“You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me,” James muttered.

“Only ‘cause you don’t remember anyone else! Steve was a hell of a lot nicer to you. You two practically grew up together.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Shit, everybody knows that. Good ol’ Cap and Bucky, best friends since childhood, America’s Heroes, defenders of the—”

I’m not Bucky!”

Brock recoiled hard enough to bump his ribs into the coffee table. Old pain flared up and made him see nothing but stars for a few seconds.

James pushed himself upright on the couch, face red and hair flying. “I’m not Sergeant Barnes, or the Asset or Soldat or Winter, I’m Jamie. This is who I am. Right now is who I am! And if this is what’s gonna happen to me every Fourth of July, just because of some guy I used to know, I’d rather quit tryin to remember him and move on.”

As Brock stared, angry tears began to fill James’s eyes.

“I wanna be like you, Brock. I wanna start over with a new name and a new life. I just wanna”—the tears were spilling down his cheeks now—“I wanna be free from this shit in my head. I’m tired of crying for no reason and being so . . . so goddamn sensitive to everything. It’s not fair to you. All I’m doing is dragging you down and keeping you from being the man you wanna be, from living a normal life. You don’t deserve that.”

“Jamie,” said Brock lowly, “you have no idea what I deserve.”

James sniffed, wiped his face with his flesh hand. “I wish you had just run me over.”

Brock shook his head. “You’da lived if I’d done that. Then I woulda had to back up over you a couple times, that fuckin arm ‘a yours woulda got caught in my rear axle, and I’d have never made it past Pittsburg. I had to pick you up.” He shrugged. “Sorry.”

A smile bent the corners of James’s mouth. He looked down at his lap, at the silver fingers of his left hand, folding and unfolding. “You keep picking me up. You do that a lot, you know. I sometimes . . . I’m afraid you’re gonna get tired of doing it. That one day you’re just gonna leave me.”

“Not until I can teach you not to step out in fronta moving vehicles,” said Brock, reaching out and brushing a few strands of hair away from James’s face, tucking them behind his ear. “And considering how fuckin dumb I am and how you can’t remember shit, this might take a while.”

James laughed through the rest of his tears. “You think so?” he said hopefully.

Brock nodded, thinking how it wouldn’t really be so terrible if he had to look at this face every day for the rest of his life. God knows he deserved much worse punishments.

“Yeah,” he said, not sounding the least bit disappointed, “I’m afraid so.”

Chapter Text

Brock thought July would never end.

The days dragged their asses from one end of the week to the other, evaporating the pleasure of being outdoors in Montana during one of the nicest times of the year. Work life and home life had become sources of stress, strain, and constant failure. For a solid month it seemed like he couldn’t do anything right. He ran over a massive rock with the mower one day at work, busting a rotor. Jim Carsen wasn’t too happy about that, but it could have happened to any of them.

“You can’t fight bad luck,” Jim sighed, “but it don’t cost nothin to pay a little gotdamn attention, neither.”

Another day the tractor seized up on Brock while he was alone in a 2,000-acre pasture, and Kody Pennington, the youngest guy on the crew, got the truck stuck in a ditch on the way to rescue him. Both were stranded for hours, and by the time the rest of the crew arrived to collect them, the better part of the day had been wasted.

Jim Carsen hadn’t been too happy about that either, but he told them the same thing he’d told Brock. You can’t fight bad luck.

Then Brock’s company horse, a deceitful Palomino named Daisy, decided to break in half under him one morning and the crew found themselves a front-row audience at the amateur rodeo. Brock managed to hang on for the full eight seconds before Daisy finally bucked him into the wet grass and pranced away, snorting and tossing her head. Kody and Domingo pulled “Bruno the Bronc Buster” to his feet, patted his back, and congratulated him on surviving. He was sore for days afterward. And just when he thought his ribs had healed, too.

Things weren’t much better at home. James had begun to improve after his Independence Day meltdown, but his progress was slow and painful. He hadn’t lived through this part of the calendar year for more than half a century, so maybe that was why his limbic system suddenly exploded back to life around mid-July.

It was the proverbial opening of the floodgates—floodgates that HYDRA had built to keep the Soldier’s mind small and contained—and now he was caught in a roaring river of memories, struggling to keep his head above water. Some days the noise in his head was so deafening that he hardly said a word. Other days he talked so much he barely made sense, as if he thought speaking might actually help organize the random barrage of memories assaulting his brain.

He would pounce on Brock the minute he walked through the front door, babbling like a madman about the War, Siberia, his introduction to Semtex and chemical weaponry, being a teenager during the Great Depression, his first handler, the hilarious caricatures Steve used to draw during class, everything coming in a disconnected, breathless ramble.

Brock tried to be patient and understanding but this was honestly the last fucking thing he wanted to deal with when he came home after a long, frustrating day. But instead of grumbling and snarling to be left alone—something he would have done six months ago without hesitation, and with all the appropriate expletives—he’d take a deep breath, put his hands on James’s shoulders, and ask him if it could wait until dinner.

He was as gentle as possible, more gentle than he had ever been with anyone in his life, but sometimes even that wasn’t enough to keep the wounded look off James’s face, as if Brock had just told him to shut up or that whatever he had to say wasn’t important. And James, unable yet to shake the decades of grooming and submission to authority, would obediently shut his mouth and lower his eyes. Ponyal, ser. 1

It never failed to make Brock feel like the world’s biggest asshole. Even as delicate and sensitive as he tried to be, in the end it was just another shovelful of guilt heaped onto his head. Pointlessly, really; he couldn’t control James’s reactions or how he responded. He could only control himself, how he behaved around him, the words and body language he used.

And he was trying. Jesus Christ, was he trying. Every day trying to improve, to understand a little better, to be a better listener, to care more. It was the hardest thing he had ever done. Marine boot camp was nothing compared to the struggle of managing all these new responsibilities: taking care of James and himself, maintaining a job, providing for them both, making sure they had enough toilet paper and laundry detergent and lunchmeat and 6,000 other necessities, washing clothes, planning meals, buying groceries, and trying to keep the house clean because Sofia Romello would come back from the dead and haunt her grandson to madness if she knew he was living like a pig. Non ha allevato un barbaro! 2

This would have been so much easier fifteen years ago, when Brock was 174 pounds of fire and fuck-you attitude, when he still had enough fight left in him to want to be a hero. Most of that was gone now. HYDRA had sucked out the best parts of him like a vampire and left nothing but a bitter, pessimistic husk. Forty-nine was too old to be starting over. Why hadn’t he realized that sooner, before he’d decided to mutiny?

Because I’ve always had the shittiest timing, that’s why, he thought, poking absently at the green beans on his plate. He got more pleasure in stabbing them with his fork than eating them, and if that wasn’t morbid, he didn’t know what was. James liked them, at least. Of course, he’d eat anything Brock put in front of him and ask for seconds. Either he wasn’t that hard to please or Brock was a better chef than he thought. Probably the former.

But James was strangely reserved in his eating habits tonight, pacing himself instead of wolfing down his meal like he usually did. He even used his knife to cut his chicken instead of bludgeoning it with the edge of his fork. Not that Brock noticed—he was too busy marinating in his own misery. That was why James’s question took him completely by surprise.

“Are you okay, Brock?”

He looked up, blinking his way back to reality. “Huh?”

“I don’t . . . mean to pry,” said James carefully, “it’s just I’ve been talkin all this time and you’ve hardly said a word. You feelin okay?”

Brock gave a fleeting grimace and shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah. Just tired. It’s been a long week.”

“Well, I can clean up after dinner if you wanna go to bed early.”

“Nah, that’s okay. I—”

“Brock, we’re s’posed to be helping each other. Let me help you.”

“I’m good, I can handle it, you don’t have to do anythi—”

“But I want to. Please.”

Brock was never one to back down from an argument, certainly not ten seconds into Round 1, but he just didn’t have the energy to keep putting up a fight. Not after a rotten day like today. “Okay,” he grumbled. “But I’m not goin’ to bed. It’s barely eight o’clock. I’m not ninety friggin years old.”

“I know you aren’t. You can do whatever you want. Go sit on the couch, watch television. I got this. Really.” James smiled wholesomely.

That’s when it finally dawned on Brock—shitty timing strikes again, Jesus, and he had the nerve to call James dense—how surprisingly normal this felt. Healthy and good, as if they weren’t both ex-killers with fucked-up minds and motives and instead were just two regular guys having dinner. And Brock knew that as unpleasant as his week had been, it was nothing compared to the 70-something years’ worth of memories that had been pounding the juices out of James’s gray matter all day. And here he was, this sweet kid who had been through hell and back, who was probably battling a headache and all sorts of revved-up emotions this very minute, offering to take some of the load off of Brock’s shoulders. Offering to make his life easier when his own was practically tearing apart at the seams.

The words left Brock’s mouth before he had time to think about them: “You’re beautiful.”

James’s smile went slack. “What?”

“I mean”—Brock lowered his gaze, curling his hands into anxious fists beneath the table—“you’re a, it’s a beautiful thing, y’know, the way you deal with, that you can still be so thoughtful, y’know, in spite of all the assassinating and destruction you’ve—”

Pain flashed in James’s eyes, sharp and deep.

Brock noticed and was instantly horrified. “Shit, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry, I just. I’m tryin to say you’re still beautiful after—a beautiful person, that is, good heart and all—you’re a still good man, even after everything you’ve been through and what you’re still goin’ through and I . . . and . . . fuck.” He leaned his elbows on the table and put his hands over his face.

James sat in his chair for a few long, silent moments. “I’m not beautiful. I’m a mess.”

After a heavy sigh, Brock uncovered his face.

James hooked his finger into the neckline of his gray Henley, pulling it down. He turned his head, revealing what had been hidden by his long hair: three dark pink lines—scratches made by fingernails, speckled with tiny red pinpricks of broken blood vessels—down the side of his throat, across his clavicle, disappearing into his shirt.

Brock stared, his mind sluggishly trying to interpret what his eyes were seeing.

“It’s a lot worse on my chest,” said James. “Bruises. Cut skin. My left hand is . . . it doesn’t feel things the way my other hand does, so it causes more damage.” He let go of his collar and combed his hair forward, concealing the scratches again. “It happens at least once a week. I do it in my sleep. I don’t even know why.”

His right hand was resting on the table, and Brock’s eyes drifted down to it. The cuff of his sleeve was rucked up just enough that it bared his wrist. It was covered in raw red marks, rubbed pink around the circumference, like he’d been digging at something or—

A cold spike of realization went through Brock’s chest.

A strap. Like the straps on the diagnostic chair at Ideal Federal. The Wiping Chair. He had been trying to free himself.

A sickening cramp twisted Brock’s guts into a knot. For ten long, horrible seconds all he could see was Jamie—not the Soldier, not Sergeant Barnes, but his Jamie—restrained in the chair by a fiendish array of clamps and belts. Naked from the waist up and crying, begging incoherently around his mouthguard while technicians calibrated the electrodes on the machine. Helplessly clenching his fists and squirming in the chair’s leather grip, fighting with everything he had left. Tears staining his cheeks, his hair a greasy, unwashed tangle because nobody gave a fuck about his basic needs with all the sophisticated programming he had received.

The Soldier’s brain comes first, Alexander Pierce liked to say. Everything else is secondary.

“Is it”—Brock blinked his stinging eyes—“are you havin bad dreams?”

James shook his head. “I don’t dream anymore. I guess that’s a good thing. No dreams means no nightmares. I used to have ‘em, but that was before I fell off the train and HYDRA . . . got me again. Now it’s just black, nothing. Like being in a coma.”

He folded his left arm against his side and cradled it with his right; a subconscious gesture.

“Sometimes when I’m layin in bed I get this sudden feeling like I’m falling again,” he continued. “I try to catch myself and my arms and legs jerk real hard, like a reflex. Then I just lay there and wonder if maybe I’m still falling into that gorge and this is all just a dream, that if I go to sleep, suddenly I’ll be back in 1944 and ten feet from the ground, falling toward it at a hundred miles an hour. And then . . . splat.”

He looked up and smiled thinly at Brock, whose face had gone ashen. “It sounds kinda nuts right now, with the lights on and everything. But somethin about the night, about being in the dark . . . when you wake up and it’s so black that you don’t know if you’re dead or alive . . .”

Brock stared at James for a few moments, and couldn’t recall having ever felt so sorry for another human being before in his life.

“So you see,” said James, straightening his back, “there’s nothin beautiful about me. But I’m okay with it. Lotsa broken, ugly people out there have it worse than me. I’d say I’m pretty lucky. I’ve got you, after all.” Again that smile.

The urge to contradict James’s words was so powerful that Brock had to clamp his teeth together to keep himself from ranting across the table. The blood that had left his face returned, staining his forehead and cheeks a dark red. He was so fucking angry—no, he was furious, absolutely enraged—but not at James, dear God, no, not Jamie, he hadn’t done anything, he wouldn’t understand why Brock was about to have a fucking aneurism at the table, Jesus, he had to get out of here—

The chair scraped loudly across the floor as Brock stood from the table and marched toward the back door. He heard James stand up behind him. “Don’t follow me,” he snapped. “I’ll be right back.”

“Brock?”

The door closed hard behind him. He strode across the grass toward the barn, paying no mind to the mild, dusky evening with its bronze-colored sky and gray-blue clouds. He moved quickly, with purpose, like a fighter approaching the cage. Very little was going through his head. Words and explanations had abandoned him and now there were only feelings that needed to be given outlet. Violently. He wanted to break something with his fists. That was the only way to satisfy his rage. Rage at what? His skull was too full of fire to let a sensible question like that exist. Every thought that came through was instantly reduced to ash. He had become an instrument of destruction again.

He had become himself again.

The half-rotted ladder that led up to the hayloft was the first victim of Brock’s fury. He walked into it with his left fist and it burst into shards between the fourth and fifth steps, releasing a rich, delicious CRACK. Wood is still tough regardless of its age, and Brock’s hand came away with bleeding scratches and tiny splinters.

But he felt better, so he kept going.

Another punch broke the ladder in half. Brock kicked the lower part into the aisle and chased after it, punting it out of the barn with a lung-emptying roar. He turned around, looking for his next target. He zeroed in on the door to the little tack room, hanging on by one rusted hinge. Brock lay into it, pummeling it for a few savage, satisfying minutes until it finally broke off. It collapsed at an angle against one of the horse stalls, refusing to go down. Brock lifted his foot and curb-stomped it, cracking it but not breaking it. He dropped down and began beating it with both fists, leaving bloody marks on the wood. Still he kept hitting, grunting and growling with each blow.

He probably would have carried on until the barn was leveled or his hands were nothing but boneless shreds of meat, but as he drew back to finish off the door, a pair of strong arms—one warm and fleshy, the other cool and hard—hooked under his armpits and locked behind his neck, effectively immobilizing him.

“Get the fuck off me, James,” said Brock warningly.

“You need to calm down,” came the smooth, level answer. “You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

“So fuckin what. I don’t hold you back when you’re losin it. Fuckin let go ‘a me.”

James didn’t. Brock gritted his teeth and twisted, shrugged, tried to free himself. James carefully tightened his grip and sat down on the floor of the barn, forcing Brock to do the same. Brock kicked his legs and snarled like an animal. Hay and dust flew into the air. James remained as cool and calm as a winter landscape.

Finally, after a full minute of useless struggling, Brock slumped against James’s chest, red-faced and huffing for breath. They sat tangled in each other’s limbs for an interminable length of time, long enough for Brock to get his wind back. He could feel James’s heart beat lightly and slowly against his back. It was soothing. So was the warmth of his body, and the smell of his hair. The sound of his quiet breaths near Brock’s ear.

“You know I almost killed you in Ohio?” said Brock with a sadistic grin. “Yeah, that first night after I picked you up. You puked in the car and I just fuckin lost it. I was already pissed, still had glass and shit in my face, and I didn’t care about anything except gettin to Montana. All you were was a fuckin problem to me. So I pulled over on the side ‘a the road, got you outta the car, and we took a little walk in the woods. Got you down on your knees and put my gun to your head. You didn’t even know, you were too busy pukin’. I coulda put a bullet through your brain and you woulda never known. You’da been outta my life, it coulda been that easy for me. Piece ‘a fuckin cake.”

“Why are you tellin me this?” said James flatly. “If you’re tryin to make me hate you, it’s not gonna work.”

The ugly smirk on Brock’s face disappeared. “I’m not tryin to make you hate me. I’m tryin to make you understand why I hate myself.”

“God, Brock, please—”

“I just want you to know what you’re gettin yourself into. A guy like me, we’re not good for guys like you, okay? You say you’re a mess, well, buddy, I’m a goddamn disaster. My mind makes yours look like fuckin Candyland.”

“I don’t know what Candyland is,” James said, “but you need to shut up right now, okay?”

Brock sighed and did as he was instructed. After a while James unlocked his hands from the back of Brock’s neck and put them on his shoulders, laid his cheek against Brock’s back. They sat like that for a long while, silent and sullen, as the night came down and the barn’s shadows deepened around them.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” said Brock at last, his voice tight and strained. “You’ve been hurt enough because of me.”

“When have you ever hurt me, Brock?”

“I stood by for three years and watched them put you in that fuckin chair. That’s how I hurt you.”

James’s eyes shined wetly. He tightened his arms and legs around Brock—not denying Brock’s involvement, not defending his actions or lack of them, but forgiving him. Totally and unconditionally. And Brock felt that forgiveness in the strength of James’s embrace.

It was more than he could bear. He sniffed and bowed his head as the tears started to fall. A tiny, high-pitched whine came out of his throat and ended in a sob.

“Hang in there, Brock,” said James, and somehow that made Brock’s tears even bitterer. “I need you. Don’t . . . don’t give out on me yet.”

Brock coughed out a laugh and reached up, laying one of his bloodstained hands on James’s and gripping it tightly. “I won’t.”

“Promise me. I wanna hear you say it.”

“I promise I won’t give out on you. Just as long as you don’t give up on me.”

“Deal.”

Brock nodded and wiped his nose on his hand, leaving a sticky red smudge on his upper lip. He raised his face to the moldering rafters and looked around at the shards of wood scattered across the floor. “I really need to get this place fixed up before winter.”

“Sounds like a good weekend project,” said James. “Can I help?”

“You know anything about carpentry?”

“Less than nothing.”

“Well, that makes two of us.” A defeated sigh.

“Hey, don’t worry. I’m sure we can figure it out.” James crawled to his feet and extended his hand. Brock clasped it and stood up. Neither one of them let go.

“I dunno,” Brock muttered, staring at the floor. “It’s prob’ly gonna look like shit.”

James smiled. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. As long as it’s strong, it’ll work.” He slipped his fingers between Brock’s bloody ones and gave a reassuring squeeze. “And it will. I’m sure of it.”

Chapter Text

Natasha Romanov was all business as she walked up to the front door and gave it a few solid knocks. “Open up, you two,” she declared. “You were fools to think you could hide from me. Surrender yourselves peacefully and no one will get hurt.”

Moments later the door swung wide, revealing Sam Wilson’s disappointed face. “Well, we tried.”

Natasha tilted her head. “C’mon, Wilson, eight legs will always outrun two. You know that.”

“A spider joke, huh?” His gaze drifted downward. “Well, where you keepin the other six? ‘Cause all I see is two, and they’re pretty nice-lookin for an arachnid.”

“This arachnid hasn’t shaved her legs in two weeks.”

“Spiders are supposed to have hairy legs. I can’t even tell.”

Natasha smiled. “You’re too kind.”

She stepped inside and removed her sunglasses. Unlike her typical attire of long pants and dark colors, today she wore a lightweight dress and a pair of sandals, her hair gathered into a clip on the back of her head. She carried a laptop bag on her shoulder and she held an insulated travel cup in her hand. She looked like every other casual, unassuming tourist in the nation’s capital.

“Don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a skirt before,” said Sam, studying her unusual disguise. “What’s the occasion?”

“Summer. And it’s hot as balls.”

“Yeah, no kiddin. I hope it’s cooler in New York ‘cause I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

“It’s miserable there, too.” Ice rattled in Natasha’s cup as she took a sip. “Whole east coast is sweltering this year.”

“Guess I can just forget about packin those sweaters and jackets, huh?”

“Pack them anyway. Tony has the Compound’s air conditioning set at 65—and no one touches the thermostat.”

The two Avengers shared a grin, then turned at the sound of approaching footsteps.

Steve Rogers entered the nearly-empty living room, carrying a loaded cardboard box under one arm and another on his shoulder. They were obviously heavy but he handled them as if they were only a fraction of their weight. He brightened when he saw Natasha, and set them down beside another half-dozen boxes stacked on the floor.

“I thought I heard a familiar voice,” he said, wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans and walking over to greet her. “Good to see you, Nat. What brings you to DC?”

“Oh, just checking in on you guys,” she said, bumping Steve’s huge bicep with her fist, “seeing if you needed any help getting moved.”

“Is that right?” His gaze fell to the laptop hanging at her hip. “No interest at all in joining us on our mission? No pearls of wisdom you’d like to share?”

A smirk fought its way to Natasha’s lips. “Negatory on the first question, Cap, but I do have some information that might be helpful in your hunt for Red December.” After a brief pause she added, “If you want to see it.”

Steve’s affable smile abruptly flatlined. It did not go unnoticed.

“Sure, we need all the help we can get,” Sam said softly. “C’mon, you can set up in here.”

He led them to the little island in the middle of the kitchen, and Natasha removed the laptop from its padded case and set it on the countertop. Steve and Sam hovered over her shoulder as she booted it up, her fingers tapping skillfully over the keyboard.

“I called in a couple favors with my contacts in Kiev,” she said as she typed. “Came up with a few good starting points for you guys to consider. I mapped everything in a GIS program and included as much data as I could find for each location.”

A program opened. A black and green map of the world appeared, with a rash of red dots speckled across nearly every continent.

Steve leaned in, frowning. “HYDRA facilities?”

“Facilities, fronts, cells, yes. Most of them are defunct now, especially the major ones, but there’s enough probable cause to believe the Sol”—Natasha stopped, corrected herself—“that Barnes might be programmed to return to one of these sites in case of a collapse.”

“Like a homing pigeon,” Sam murmured.

“Or a well-trained dog.”

Steve straightened his back and shook his head. “He’s not their puppet anymore, Natasha, I saw it in his eyes. He recognized me. He’s still in there somewhere. He knew who I was.”

“That doesn’t mean he knows who he is,” Natasha said gently, “or that he’s completely broken free from their control. It might’ve been a temporary lapse. We don’t know what methods HYDRA used to corrupt him.” She softened her voice even further, for Steve’s sake. She knew this was a heartbreaking subject for him. “But whatever the case, when you finally do find him, he’s probably not gonna be the Bucky you remember. In fact, there’s a good possibility he never will be.”

“She’s right, man,” Sam quietly admitted. “Recovery is a process. It’s like lookin for pieces of broken pottery. You gotta go through stages, dig through layers of dirt to find the fragments of who that person used to be. Then you gotta sort the pieces, clean ‘em, polish ‘em, try to glue ‘em back together. And they’ll never really fit together the way they used to, not after being busted up for so long. Sometimes it takes years for vets to get to a point where they can honestly say they’re recovered. And with everything Barnes has been through, physically and psychologically, well . . . findin him’s gonna be the easy part. Putting him back together, that’s gonna be the hard shit.”

Steve’s worry lines had been growing steadily deeper as he listened to their grim forecasts, and now his face had turned into a picture of anguish. He stared at the screen, eyes searching those evil red pixels as if Bucky might be hiding somewhere within them.

“And he’s out there right now,” he said roughly. “Lost, alone. Scared and confused, not even sure who he really is.”

Sam and Natasha said nothing.

“And the worst part is the whole world hates him. Every government on earth wants to see him dead.”

“They want to see the Winter Soldier dead,” Natasha corrected. “No one has any idea this international bogeyman is an American prisoner of war, brainwashed and turned into a killing machine.”

“Not yet,” said Steve, “but they’re going to find out. If I have to bust down the doors on every embassy in every country, I’m gonna prove Bucky’s innocence. One way or another I’m gonna find him and I’m gonna bring him home. He is coming home.”

He relaxed and took a deep breath, calming himself. Gathering his energy into something more useful.

“And if I come across any of the HYDRA bastards who did this to him . . .” His hands tightened into bloodless white fists. He turned to Sam and Natasha, who were staring at him with tense, solemn faces.

“I’m gonna kill every last one of ‘em.”


Brock was still half asleep when he plodded through the living room and into the kitchen, his face twisted in the typical early-morning grimace of someone who didn’t really want to be out of bed. It wasn’t even that early. The clock in the kitchen read 9:40 AM, and compared to Brock’s usual work schedule, that was practically midday.

James looked up from his laptop when he saw Brock shuffling toward him, and set down the bowl of eggs he was whisking. “G’morning. Oh hey, I. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”

“Nah. I was . . .” Brock waved his hand vaguely. He was still too drowsy to form complete sentences. Grunts would have to do for now. James, on the other hand, was pretty lively. Apparently the quality of his sleep had been improving in the last few weeks.

“I might’ve been playing YouTube a little loud,” he said with an apologetic stretch of his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Nyeh.”

“And I dropped the coffee pot in the sink when I was filling it up. It didn’t break but it made a hell of a rack—”

“It’s okay, Jamie,” said Brock, finally opening his eyes and leveling his gaze. “Really. I don’t need to be sleepin in anyway. S’a bad habit to get into.”

“Yeah, but still. You want some coffee?”

“Hell yes.”

Smiling, James grabbed a cup from the shelf.

Brock slid into his chair at the kitchen table and gradually blinked himself into a more lucid state. “You cookin somethin?”

“Yeah,” said James—a little too enthusiastically—as he poured. Coffee splashed over the rim of the cup but he was in such a good mood that Brock didn’t want to say anything to bring him down. And something like that would. James was extremely sensitive to criticism, no matter how gently Brock spoke to him.

“I really wanted to make some fried eggs—my ma would make fried eggs and toast every Sunday—and I used to know how to make ‘em but I couldn’t remember how she did it, so I got on the Internet first thing this morning and, boy, everybody’s got a recipe for fried eggs. I was kinda intimidated by it all”—his face crinkled into an expression of unsurety—“y’know, ‘cause it’s been so long since I’ve tried to cook anything, but then I found the omelet recipes and I struck a fossil!”

Brock’s eyebrows sprang up.

Fossils. That was the special word James had for the memories of his old life, the parts he had forgotten but were finally coming back to him, fitting together like long-lost puzzle pieces. He’d been stumbling upon a lot of them lately, thanks to the Internet and the weekly pilgrimages to Fancy Flea in downtown Livingston.

“I mean,” James had explained after one such excursion, “that’s what they are, really. A buncha old bones and shells and leaf imprints. There’s no life to ‘em anymore, but you can still tell what they used to be, their basic shapes and everything.” He had sniffed and used Brock’s handkerchief to blot the tears from his red-rimmed eyes, then blown his runny nose. “Maybe one day they’ll be fleshed out again, but for now . . . they’re just my fossils.”

And all Brock could think about was how perfectly goddamn beautiful his choice of words was. It had given him an idea, too.

“You did, huh?” said Brock now, with genuine gladness. “That’s great. What kinda fossil was it?”

James held up his left hand, metal thumb and forefinger indicating a tiny space. He wrinkled his nose cutely. “Just a little one. There was a guy in our unit, Steve’s unit, I mean, the Commandos. His name was Didier and I remember we were somewhere in Belgium—or maybe it was Luxembourg, we were just passing through—but all I remember is we were so damn sick of eating C-rats that we were—”

“Sea rats?”

“C-rations. The canned stuff they used to give us.”

“Oh, right. ”

James sat down across from Brock and passed him his coffee. “We came across this farmhouse, and the family who lived there had a couple hens, so we traded our C-rations for some eggs and Didier made us all omelets. Honest to God, that was the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life. Well . . . until that beef stroganoff you made last week.”

Brock smiled as he raised his cup to his lips. “Yeah, food in the service is still shit,” he said, deliberately ignoring James’s compliment. He felt uncomfortable when it came to receiving praise. Always had, always will. “It’s a little better these days, but I dunno how you guys survived on it back then.”

“Guts of iron,” said James flatly.

Brock laughed.

“Anyway, that’s today’s fossil. Omelets. I had no idea how to make ‘em so I started looking for authentic French omelet recipes, ‘cause Didier was French, y’know, and I found this lady named Julia Child, and she seems to know what she’s doing, so I’m trying—”

Brock winced as he swallowed his coffee. It was really weak. James must have used a spoon to measure the grounds instead of the scoop. Whatever the case, Brock kept a straight face and dutifully took another gulp. He would live. Hell, he’d drunk worse joe than this for most of his life. No need to go breaking a man’s heart over one bad cup.

“That’s good, kiddo,” he said. “Glad to hear you’re tryin new things.”

“You want an omelet?” James asked, perking up. “I can throw in a couple more eggs.”

For a split second Brock looked like a deer in headlights. He opened his mouth to say no, because that was his immediate reaction to any suggestion or idea offered to him by someone else—especially someone with much less experience. No. I can do it myself. I can probably do it better than you, and on my first try. I don’t want what you’ve got. No hard feelings, you’re just inferior. You know what they say, if you want something done right . . .

But looking at James’s face, so happy and hopeful and eager to put a new shine on this dusty old memory of his, Brock had to shut his mouth and think very carefully about his next words.

Even if the omelet turned out like shit—and it probably would, given how long it’s been since James has handled anything other than a weapon—it shouldn’t matter. He was making something because he’d seen a rare gleam of light in half a century of blood and shadows, and if that didn’t deserve a resounding “hell yes” right out of the gate, then Brock needed to just shut the fuck up and stop being such a negative, neurotic asshole.

And he would. Because his Jamie deserved the very best.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling. “Why not.”

James beamed, stood up, and hurried back to the bowl of eggs sitting on the counter.

Brock sipped his coffee and watched him bustle around the kitchen, frequently referring back to his laptop and the recipe displayed on-screen. The immediate area was an absolute catastrophe; broken egg shells, wads of damp paper towels, the open loaf of bread with a couple slices spilling out, butter wrappers and butter knives, the can of coffee sitting out along with the filters and sugar and spoons, spatters of half-and-half, cutting boards, forks, the cheese grater, shreds of cheddar on the counter and floors, a half-finished glass of orange juice . . .

But it none of it mattered. Not with that brave, cheerful, broken-but-healing soul standing there in the middle of it, still wearing his pajamas, his long hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. Barefoot as usual. Relaxed and untroubled, possibly even happy. A Portrait of Recovery, James Barnes, August 2014.

Like he was a goddamned Da Vinci painting or something. Jesus. Brock didn’t know much about art, but he knew something warm and flowery had to be incubating in the deep recesses of his heart because you don’t look at another man and compare him to paintings and statues and other masterpieces of human culture, not without being in love.

Admiration. Yes, that’s what he was doing. Admiring. Appreciating. Nice and objective, no dangerous, uncomfortable feelings here. And James was certainly museum-worthy; not the kind filled with broken pots, bad taxidermy, and caveman tools, no, he wasn’t a fossil. He was alive. His mind was the museum. A dark, cluttered, disorganized place, full of empty displays and lots of engraved name plates that read “artist unknown”. But that was going to change. Not overnight, but eventually. Brock felt pretty confident about that.

Speaking of which . . .

He set down his cup and slipped out of the kitchen while James was preoccupied with food prep. He returned a few minutes later with a plastic shopping bag in hand; he quietly laid it on the table and sat down again, went back to nursing his coffee, and pretended he was still trying to wake up.

It was pointless, really. James possessed a caliber of self-awareness that bordered on omniscience, and Brock knew his brief disappearance had been noted. But he would play the game anyway. It was okay to have a little fun every now and then.

As expected, James approached the kitchen table with two loaded plates and his eyes immediately fixed on the bag. “What’s that?”

“Somethin for you. Here, I’ll trade ya.” Brock took one of the plates from James’s hand and replaced it with the bag.

James gave him a questioning look, then sat down in his seat smiling, breakfast forgotten. He reached in and pulled out a soft leather book, its cover embellished with ornate tooling and tied by a single long cord. His smile vanished when he realized what it was.

“Oh, Brock.”

“It’s for your fossils. So you can keep track of ‘em, organize ‘em and all that.”

James untied the journal’s cord and riffled through the crisp white pages with his thumb. He closed his eyes and took a deep, appreciative breath. “It smells so good.”

Brock cocked one eyebrow in a hilarious expression of bewilderment.

James raised his head, his eyes glistening. “Thank you, Brock. This is . . . I can’t tell you how perfect this is. It’s just what I needed. Thank you.”

“There’s somethin else in the bag, too. You missed it.”

James set down the journal and eagerly pawed through the bag until he came up with a narrow, rectangular box. He lifted the lid and his mouth fell open.

Lying on a bed of protective padding gleamed a black and gold Sheaffer fountain pen.

“Figured when it comes to writing, your fingers would be more familiar with this old 40s style pen,” said Brock with a self-conscious grin. “Who knows, it might even help bring back some . . . you okay, Jamie?”

Suddenly there were tears coursing down James’s cheeks one after the other. His eyes had gone distant, his chin and bottom lip trembling as if he were freezing.

“Oh, shit. You just found one, didn’t you?”

A slow, deliberate nod.

Brock set his coffee cup down harder than he intended and bolted from his seat. This was only his fourth time dealing with one of James’s memory recoveries—most of them happened while he was at work—but he knew exactly how to handle them. He darted around the side of the table and crouched down at James’s knees, taking hold of his arms. Keeping him anchored to the present, just in case . . .

. . . in case it was something from those years.

James let out a sob—oh fuck, it was something from those years—but it was immediately followed by a bark of astonished laughter. “Brock, I was a writer. I used to write.”

All Brock could do was blink. He was mute with shock.

James turned his head so he could rub his wet nose on the sleeve of his t-shirt. “This pen. The minute I touched it I remembered. I was the best storyteller on my block when I was a kid. I had a journal, not as nice as this one, but I filled it fulla funny stories and poems and . . . and my teachers told my ma I had a gift for it. I got, I got a scholarship. I attended college. LIU, ‘35 to ‘39. I got a degree in English.”

He raised his face toward the ceiling and sent another two tears skidding down his cheeks. Brock stared at him as if he were the rarest, most exquisite flower in the world, blooming before his very eyes.

“I started out teaching and ended up working for a newspaper. Or maybe it was a magazine. I don’t think I liked it all that much. I liked teaching better. Me and Steve, we used to talk about publishing books together. Picture-books for the kids, illustrated novels for the adults. I wrote all the time, even during the War. I was a company clerk before things got bad and they moved me to the infantry. I wrote field reports, letters home, I even had a diary I lost somewhere in Italy . . . I was a writer. I was an author.” He grinned giddily, still unable to believe it.

Brock, who felt like a knuckle-dragging troglodyte now, at least in terms of educational achievements, humbly stiffened his lip. “Well. I can’t say I’m surprised. It would explain a lot.”

“Whadda ya mean?”

“I dunno, it’s. Some ‘a the words you use, I guess. The way you speak and put sentences together, they just flow out so easy. Like you know what you’re doin’.” Brock took a moment to search his thoughts, scratching his bristly jaw. “Back when we first got here and you were still kinda out of it, you said somethin that really stuck with me. Had to do with mirrors and tryin to remember. Somethin about you tryin to put broken pieces of a mirror back together so you could see your own reflection. I dunno, I’m prob’ly mangling it.” He shook his head. “But I thought it was beautiful. And how you came up with the name for your memories and everything, it’s great. You’re a  . . .  you’re really amazing, Jamie. I’m happy for you.”

From the look that crossed James’s face right then, one might think Brock had given him a piece of his soul instead of a compliment. Without warning he threw his arms around Brock’s neck, pulled him between his knees, and hugged him tightly. Brock’s foot slipped on the kitchen floor, and he would have fallen completely into James’s lap if he hadn’t clamped his hand onto the edge of the table and steadied himself. His face was smushed into the side of James’s neck, the loose strands of James’s ponytail tickling Brock’s cheeks and getting tangled in his beard.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Brock,” he said with a soggy sniff. “You’re so good to me. Thank you for . . . thank you.”

Brock felt his throat constrict. He slid one arm around James’s waist and gave him a squeeze. “Just tryin to help you get better, BB.”

Another wet sniffle. “I will now.” James pulled back and pressed his palm to the side of Brock’s face, gazing into his eyes with humility, gratefulness, and—

And.

Fuck it. There was no other word for it. Love. That was love in James’s eyes. Warm, simple, honest love. And kneeling there on the floor like a knight before his king, Brock had never felt so inadequate, so undeserving, and so lucky in his whole life.

“I know just what I’m gonna call it,” said James softly. He turned in his chair and opened his journal to the first blank page.

Brock watched with interest as James deftly uncapped the fountain pen, loaded the cartridge, and tapped a few dashes onto a nearby napkin to get the ink flowing. Then he put the pen to the paper and began to write.

The letters poured from the gold nib in dark, rich lines, shining with wetness. His penmanship was tidy but not especially skillful. Perhaps with time and practice it would improve.

When he had finished, James capped the pen and set it aside, then blew on the ink to speed its drying. He held up the journal so Brock could read what he’d written.

There, in the middle of the empty page:

The Museum of James B. Barnes

Brock looked up at him and smiled. “Perfect.”

His comment, however, had nothing to do with the journal’s title.

Chapter Text

In mid-September Brock finally made good on his promise to get rid of the Suburban. He’d been keeping an eye on the local auto trader for months and finally found the truck he’d been looking for: a 1995 Ford F-250, excellent condition, still had most of the original parts, just over 160,000 miles on it. He called the dealer that afternoon and made the necessary arrangements. All he had to do now was drive up to Great Falls on Saturday—a 350-mile, 6-hour round trip, but at least it was a straight shot on Highway 89—pay the man, sign the paperwork, and swap keys.

When James learned what Brock had done, he burst into tears.

“How could you,” he sobbed, storming through the house with Brock trailing behind him like a bewildered shadow. “That’s our car! It’s the one you picked me up in, the one that carried us all the way from DC to Livingston! And now you’re getting rid of it like it was just another piece of junk!”

Apart from being completely mystified, Brock was also pretty fucking annoyed. James had no idea how great this deal was, a real once-in-a-lifetime thing. Why couldn’t he just be happy for once? It’s not like the decision was up to him anyway. He didn’t have to drive that oversized yuppie-wagon to work every day. What kind of a cowboy drives a goddamned SUV? It was embarrassing. And realistically, it was just four wheels and an engine. Nothing to cry about. Especially that piece of shit.

Brock made the mistake of saying all this to James, which led to their first real screaming fight with one another.

“I was still the Winter Soldier when I sat in those seats!” James bellowed, moisture leaking from every orifice in his red, furious face. “It was where I transformed! I went from being a weapon to being a person again! All those miles, all those hours! Don’t they mean anything to you?”

“They can’t mean anything to you because you spent half the time sleeping and the other half outta your mind!”

“But it’s our car!” James drew out the last two words, his voice rising to a hysterical howl. Brock actually cringed. “It was the vehicle we got away in! And you wanna leave it behind like you’ve left behind everything else in your life, even your own name! You don’t wanna hold on to anything!”

Brock raised his finger warningly. “Don’t make this about me, James. It isn’t fair.”

“Oh, cry me a fucking river. You know what’s unfair, Brock? Having your whole life taken away from you by a bunch of evil maniacs. Being forced to fight against your own friends because you can’t even remember your own goddamn name. That’s unfair. But please, tell me more about how offended you are.”

Brock sighed forcefully and wiped his hand over his face. “Fuckin ay. Alright, look. If you can just put your personal feelings aside for a few seconds, you’ll see where I’m comin from. Anyone in their right mind would agree with me, the SUV just isn’t practical anymore. I need a truck.”

“But I’m not in my right mind,” said James bitterly, “so of course I don’t agree with you.”

Brock winced. “I didn’t mean it like—”

“Yes, you did. Just say it, Brock. I’ve got a brain like a fucking sieve and therefore my opinion doesn’t matter.”

“Is that what you think? You really think I’d say somethin that shitty to you?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me.”

Brock began nodding his head. “Nice. Real nice. Glad to know you think so highly of me. That makes me feel real good.”

“Well, maybe if you actually listened to me and valued my opinion I wouldn’t be so goddamn paranoid about whether or not you think I’m competent!”

“How can I value your opinion when every decision you make centers around your fuckin feelings instead of facts?”

“Am I not allowed to have feelings anymore?” James clenched his fists; his left one produced a small, hair-raising squeal. “You want me to be a robot again? You want me to be the Winter Soldier again? Yes, sir. No, sir. Understood, sir. Mission accepted, sir—”

Brock put a hand to his forehead. “Jesus Christ.”

“That’d make things a lot easier for you, wouldn’t it? Admit it, you liked me better when I was a mindless, servile piece of machinery that you could—”

“Will you quit blowing things outta proportion! I’ve never thought about you like that!”

“Then quit expecting me to sit quietly on the sidelines and be an audience to your life. I wanna live too, Brock! I wanna do things and go places but you keep me locked in the house—”

“You are not locked in the house.”

“I might as well be!” James thrust out his left arm, displaying the gleaming metal that had replaced his natural appendage. The two bottom points of the red star on his shoulder were just barely visible, peeking out from under the sleeve of his black t-shirt. “Can’t risk anyone seein this ugly thing. Gotta wear a hat and put on a full disguise just to go down to the stupid mailbox. Can’t be gone more than two hours or else we’ll spontaneously disintegrate or someth—”

“I’m trying to keep you safe, you idiot!” Brock shouted. “As if that fuckin arm wasn’t enough, you’ve been havin episodes every day for the past two weeks. You know how much attention you’d draw if you had a meltdown out in public? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m tryin to keep a low profile here. Is blowin our cover worth it just to keep you from getting bored?”

Fresh tears began to pour from James’s eyes. “There you go, putting this all on me again. Like it’s my fault we’re in this situation.”

“Well, it—” Brock stopped himself, shut his mouth. He put his hands on his hips and released a long, heavy breath. After a few moments he said softly, “What do you want me to do, James? Go out there guns blazin and kill whatever’s left of HYDRA? Clear my name? Clear yours? ‘Cause that’s the only way you and me are ever gonna be able to be ourselves again, and I am too old and way too fuckin tired to do that shit anymore.”

“So that’s it then? You’re just gonna roll over and give up, like some kinda gutless coward?”

Brock’s face twisted angrily, but his eyes radiated a deep, helpless pain. The kind that speaks of broken pride and too many years of regret. “I know when to call it quits,” he said with difficulty. “You can’t fight somethin this big, Jamie. I’m takin whatever I got left and I’m movin forward with it the best I can. You should, too.”

“Moving forward,” James muttered. “Is there such thing as life after HYDRA? Is it even worth living?”

“We’re livin it right now. You tell me.”

James pinched his lips together and turned away.

Brock sighed. “Listen. I’m not a hero. I can’t avenge you. I can’t even avenge myself. I’m not Captain America. But if you think he can do a better job of helpin you, by all means”—he raised his arm toward the door—“go get ‘im, kid. You’re not my prisoner. But if you wanna stay with me, you’re gonna have to follow my rules. It’s for your own good.”

“For my own good.” James shook his head. “Your rules. Your house. Your car. Your job. Everything physical is yours. All I’ve got is my stupid, immaterial feelings.”

Something dawned on Brock at that moment. “Wait. Are you . . . is that why you don’t want me to get rid ‘a the Chevy? Because you feel like it’s part ‘a you now or somethin?”

“I’m not a part of anything anymore.”

“You’re part ‘a my life.”

James turned his head and met Brock’s eyes.

Brock stared at him, looking vulnerable but determined. “A good part. The best part. You make . . .”

Holy shit, was that his voice? What were these words? Was he really saying this right now? Yes. Yes, he was.

“You’ve made my life a lot more interesting. And . . . full. Happy. You’ve improved me, and I didn’t even think that was possible. I thought I’d have to settle for something less than”—he gestured to the air around him—“than what we got here, this good thing that we’re buildin together. But I didn’t have to settle. Because ‘a you. And I swear to you, Jamie, if I had to do this all over again, I’d—well. I’d do a lotta things different, but bringin you here, having you here with me, even goin’ through that first month when you were practically puking your guts out nonstop. . . I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Look, I dunno if you’d be better off with someone else or not, but as far as my life goes, it’s better with you in it.”

James narrowed his eyes, which were close to overflowing. “Are you saying you need me, Brock?”

An expression almost like pain crossed Brock’s face. “I’m sayin I need you. And I want you. I . . .”

The courage he had been building for the last few minutes abruptly crumbled, destroyed by his uncertainty.

“Want you to come to Great Falls with me,” he amended. “Yeah, we’ll, uh. We’ll take one last ride in the Suburban before we send her off. Like a Viking funeral, only without the fire.” He forced a smile, hoping it was convincing.

James’s shoulders slumped, as if something inside him had just wilted. “Isn’t it a long ride to Great Falls?”

“Eh, kinda.”

“What if I have an episode?”

“You’ll be able to handle it.”

“In public?”

“I’ll be able to handle it.”

Silence.

Brock couldn’t resist; he walked over to James and put his hands on his arms, giving him an encouraging squeeze. “C’mon. You and me. New truck, new chapter. Turn the page. We’ll do it together. Whadda ya say?”

James tried to look enthusiastic and only halfway succeeded. “Okay.”

Brock grinned. “Okay.” He patted James’s shoulders, then his eyes settled on the red star hiding beneath his sleeve. “How long’ve you had that thing?”

“I dunno. A long time. Longer than . . . than I can remember.”

“You wanna get rid of it? Now’s the perfect time. I’m in full get-ridda-everything mode.”

James’s eyes twinkled like new frost as he finally smiled. “I’ve been wanting to, yeah, but I never really got around to . . . There’s been so many other things I . . . yeah. Yeah, take this fuckin star off me, Brock. I’m not their goddamn property anymore.”

Brock smirked and tenderly patted the side of his head. “Atta boy.”


In the little equipment shed behind the barn, Brock hauled down a jug of mineral spirits from one of the shelves. He gave James a mask to wear—“You need every brain cell you got,” he told him—and sat him down on an old plastic water cooler by the open door. Then, using a shop rag soaked with spirits, he gradually wiped the red star out of existence.

When he had finished, James looked down at the blank gray metal of his bicep and slowly removed his mask. After several moments he raised his face to Brock, still squatting beside him and awaiting the verdict.

“I guess sometimes it’s good to get rid of things,” he admitted with a weak grin.

“As long as they’re things you can live without,” said Brock. “But those one or two important things in your life, the things you can’t live without . . .”

“I know.” James reached out to grasp Brock’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “You hold on to ‘em with everything you got.”

Brock swallowed hard and nodded, curling his fingers around James’s. “With everything you got.”


Saturday dawned cool and cloudy, heralding the peak of Montana’s notoriously brief autumns. Brock and James pulled themselves out of their beds at sunrise, ate a quick breakfast, and climbed into the Suburban for the last time. James slept through the first hour of the journey while Brock listened to KBOZ-FM “9 Country” broadcasting out of Bozeman. He lost the signal somewhere north of Ringling and eventually turned off the radio when he couldn’t find any other stations worth listening to.

The new silence was filled with the rumble of tires on the road, steady and monotonous. The scenery passed by in blurs of aging green, the mountains standing low and blue on the horizon. Brock looked over at James, fast asleep beside him, and recalled that long, harrowing journey they had first taken together. He saw the Winter Soldier sitting in that seat, his leather tactical suit soaked with river water, a shivering, sniveling, moaning wreck that could barely be called human.

What a difference.

Instead of a black specter of death, now there was a colorful, healthy-looking man in jeans and sneakers, the sun striking his long brown hair and bringing out its coppery highlights, wearing the denim jacket that had once been Brock’s but was now his own, and holding an olive-drab messenger bag in his lap, the one he’d gotten from the little Army surplus store across the street from Fancy Flea. In this bag he carried his journal (The Museum) and his fountain pen, a pack of gum, a hair elastic, some tissues, maybe a few pieces of hard candy. Everything he owned, his whole world, condensed to one bag.

Seeing him like that, Brock’s heart turned into a hot, sore lump in his chest. He knew why. He didn’t know how or precisely when—maybe in the last couple months—but he knew why he ached when he looked at James Barnes. It was because he loved him and wanted him to be happy. It was as simple as that.

Nine words, and somehow it felt like the whole meaning of Brock’s existence. As if he were put on Earth just to be a small part of this man’s long, ruined life. If that was it, if his sole purpose and reason for being was to help James Barnes for a little while, to love him and care for him and receive absolutely fucking nothing in return, Brock would do it with all his heart and be perfectly content. It was more than he deserved. It was better than he deserved. Because people like Jamie only come around once in a—

The tires thumped rhythmically on the centerline reflectors, jarring Brock back to the present. He guided the car between the lines again and the thumping ceased, but James stirred and drew in a long breath, coming awake with a few slow blinks. He stretched and gave a drowsy little moan. That was a sound that Brock wouldn’t mind hearing again sometime.

“Hmm. Where’re we?”

“We just passed White Sulphur Springs a few minutes ago.”

“How long was I out?”

“About an hour.”

“Really? Wow. I musta been tired.” James rubbed his face and drew his hair out of his eyes. It was longer now, falling just past the shoulders of his jacket. Brock kept his eyes trained on the road in front of him, jaw clenched and hands clamped to the wheel.

“Montana really is a pretty state,” said James at length, staring out the window at the grassy hills and wide open sky. “Is that why you wanted to move here?”

“Not really. I was originally thinkin of Texas, but I never could stand the summers out there. Closest thing to hell on earth, no shit.”

“You’ve lived in Texas?”

Brock rolled his lips between his teeth and wondered why he had even mentioned it. He hadn’t thought about Texas in over a year, hadn’t spoken its name in even longer. But something about James relaxed him, disarmed him, made him want to be open and honest. Nonna was the same way. Brock could talk to her about anything—truly anything, even things he hadn’t planned on telling her at first. She was the kindest, most patient, non-judgmental person he had ever known. At least when it came to things not related to cooking or housekeeping. He never had to worry about being criticized or berated or sided against. In fact, Sofia Romello was the only person who knew the real reason behind Brock’s dislike of Texas.

He glanced over at James. James was waiting, his expression kind and patient and non-judgmental.

What the hell. He was going to find out eventually, if they kept up this little . . . whatever it was that was happening between them. Might as well be now.

“Temporarily,” said Brock, turning his eyes back to the road. “Between enlistments, during leave, things like that. I didn’t . . . actually live there. I was . . .”

James waited for the sentence to be completed, though it never would be. He gave Brock the opportunity though. “You were seeing someone,” he said.

Brock’s face twitched anxiously. “Yeah.”

Silence.

“Was he a civilian,” said James softly, “or was he a Marine like you?”

A wound opened up in Brock’s guts, raw and naked and vulnerably tender. He didn’t ask how James knew. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to know. He just accepted it and moved on, the same way he’d been trained to deal with all other situations that were beyond his control.

“Marine. Daniel Hartley. Everyone called him Dan. We met in basic. He was from Texas, the first real-life cowboy I ever met. Thick accent, blond hair, yes ma’am, no ma’am, everything. Best thing I ever saw in my life. Up to that point, anyway.”

James nodded and pretended to be interested in his fingers, which were knotted together in his lap. A closer look would have revealed how red his cheeks were. “How long were you together?”

“Too long.” Brock let out an irritated puff of breath. That raw feeling was starting to fade now. “Four years, officially. We screwed around for longer than that, though. Dan was emotionally stuck at age nine—I prob’ly wasn’t much better, stuck at age twelve or something—but I didn’t think I could do any better, so . . . I put up with him.”

“Four years is a long time.”

“Says the guy who’s ninety-six years old.”

“It’s still a long time, especially for a relationship.”

“Relationship?” Brock shook his head bitterly. “Hell, if you could call it that. We were a mess, totally incompatible with each other. We had chemistry, but that was it. We fought a lot. Picture what you and me did yesterday, only all the fuckin time and a lot more intense.”

“Did you hurt each other?”

“Sometimes. I mean”—Brock pinched his face into an indecisive expression—“nothing serious or anything. He’d hit me and I’d hit ‘im back, mostly pushing and shoving, slappin each other around, that sorta thing.”

And wrestling. And biting. And furious, hot-blooded fucking that always seems to follow their arguments, but Brock left out all those nasty parts. Jamie didn’t need to hear about them. Nobody did, really.

“It wasn’t healthy, whatever you wanna call it. We shoulda never gotten together, but.” Shrug. “I was twenty-three and stupid. Got burnt, learned my lesson, moved on. We all go through phases and shit like that, y’know?”

James, who was anxiously chewing the skin off his bottom lip, ceased his nibbling in order to speak. “So that’s the real reason why you didn’t wanna go to Texas. Because Dan is still there.”

“Maybe. I dunno. He coulda ended up somewhere else, but I dunno.”

“Texas is a big state.”

“Well, it ain’t big enough for the both of us.” A cynical, lopsided smirk came to Brock’s face. “All I know’s the summers there are fuckin miserable and there’s too many bad memories for me to wanna go back. Ain’t worth it.”

“They’re not all bad memories, are they?”

“Nah, I mean.” Brock couldn’t believe he was talking about this so easily. Where was his guard, his defense? They had all disappeared. “There were just enough good times to make me wanna stay and work things out. Dan was an asshole, but he taught me a lot. Like how to ride and how to rope. He sucked at roping, so I guess that’s why I suck at it, too. He was more of a bullrider than an actual cowboy. Wanted to be in the PBR and everything.”

“What’s that?”

“Professional Bull Riders. The guys that go to rodeos and ride these giant-ass, ball-busting motherfuckers with horns for a living.”

“Wow. Like being a Marine wasn’t manly enough.”

“Ha, yeah. And I was gonna go into fighting when I got outta the Corps, be a boxer or trainer or somethin. We weren’t compensating for anything, oh, hell no.”

James tittered.

“And maybe that was part ‘a the problem,” said Brock, his grin fading. “We were too much alike. Too hot-blooded. Bad tempers, drinkin problems, daddy issues, huge fuckin egos . . .”

“Daddy issues?”

“Problems with our dads. He hated his and I never had one. Daddy issues.”

“Oh. Did your father die when you were little?”

“No. I was un bastardo. You know what that means, right?”

“Yeah.” An uncomfortable pause. “I’m sorry, Brock.”

“S’okay. Not your fault.”

Another uncomfortable pause, only this one was much longer. Brock relaxed a little, thinking the conversation was over. Then, after five minutes of silence and staring out of his window, James said flatly, “Steve and I were sexually involved with one another.”

Brock hands tightened on the steering wheel.

He had suspected it, practically known it just from the way James behaved and the little cues and subtleties he’d been picking up on all summer long, but it still came as a shock to hear it stated so starkly. He drew a long breath, released it slowly, and said nothing.

“I’m not sure if it was love because I can’t remember my feelings,” James continued. His voice was deadpan, clinical. “All I’ve got is images. Things, people, places. Like watching a silent movie, only the actors are wooden puppets. No idea what they’re feeling. They’re all lifeless.”

He sniffed, and Brock guessed he was already crying or getting close to it.

“I know we liked each other—we had to’ve, we were friends and everything—but Steve liked girls too, and I only liked guys, so I’m not sure if what . . . if what we had was real or just two buddies sharing an apartment in Brooklyn. It’s all dust and shadows. No blood. Nothing alive.”

He sniffed again, a wet sound.

“And I like you, Brock.”

Brock’s heart was suddenly slamming in his chest like a heavy metal drum kit. Jesus God, he regretted not going to the doctor sooner about this fucking thing.

“I was so worried you’d be disgusted by me. This is, it was one of the first fossils I remembered, me and Steve being . . . together, but I didn’t wanna tell you because you”—his voice became high and strained as the anguish went full power—“you’re such a. So tough and masculine, I was scared you’d, you might hate me and kick me out or worse, stay away from me because I’m a . . . ‘cause I’m not right and I never was—”

Brock jammed his heel into the brake pedal and pulled over onto the shoulder. James had his hands over his face and was crying as softly as possible. From the outside he appeared as if he were keeping it together pretty well, but the shuddering of his shoulders spoke of just how powerful his tears were.

Brock unsnapped his seatbelt and whipped it off, then reached over the console to put his hand on James’s shoulder. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but he barely noticed.

“Hey. Hey. Look at me. You are not disgusting. I do not find you disgusting. I would never kick you out for somethin like that. Jesus, that’d be pretty fuckin hypocritical of me, considerin everything I just told you.”

“I know, but,” James squeaked, turning his tear-streaked face toward Brock. “I don’t want you to hate me. I don’t want you to think badly of me. I just want everything to . . . I want us to be okay. I don’t”—his face crumpled and he started to bawl—“I don’t want us to fight! I don’t wanna be another bad memory to you!”

Brock stared. His blood felt like it had just frozen solid in his veins.

“I don’t want you to regret helping me and I don’t wanna be a burden or, or feel like you have to ‘put up with me’ because I’m too—”

Brock reached out and grasped the sides of James’s head, pulling him forward as he leaned over the console. The kiss was quick and hard, landing just to the left of James’s nose. A sharp prickle of beard, fleeting warmth, and then it was over. Now Brock gazed at him, the hot shades of hazel and green in his eyes strong and unwavering.

“Listen to me, Jamie. You are not a burden. You’re important to me. You’re one of the . . . you are the most important thing in my life. Right now. You. Are.” He gave James’s head an affirmative little shake. It was enough to send the last two tears skidding down his dazed, florid face.

“Things aren’t always gonna be perfect between us,” Brock said. “We’re gonna have bad days. I’m gonna say stupid shit and you’re gonna hate my guts and we’re both gonna drive each other up the fuckin walls, but it will not change how much I . . . how hard I’m gonna try. I’m gonna do my best. For you. I said I was gonna take care ‘a you, and I fuckin swear to God I will finish what I started. I am not gonna leave you behind, Jamie. I . . .”

The last two words were there. They were right there on the edge of his tongue. But once again his courage failed him. It couldn’t be helped. He was afraid. Every time he said those three words, things fucked up. Things broke. Things got ruined. He didn’t want to ruin this. It was too soon, and he cared too much.

One day, he promised. One day he is going to say it, but not here on the side of the fucking road after just got done talking about his asshole ex-boyfriend. Jesus. Shitty timing—it must be a Romello family curse.

“I promise,” Brock finished, and smiled. He hoped it looked convincing because he felt fucking terrified. “Don’t ever feel like you gotta hide stuff from me, okay? Trust me, there’s nothin about your past that’s gonna drive me away. I’m the monster, remember? You can’t scare me. So whatever you got, bring it. I can bear it.”

“You’re not a monster,” James rasped, trying to grin. “You’re a good man.”

“I dunno about that.”

“You are and I will fucking fight you on this, Brock—”

“Alright, okay, jeez. I’m good. Whatever you say.”

James smiled through his tears and inhaled, producing a long, wet, slurpy sound.

“Need a handkerchief?” Brock asked.

“Uh. Yeah, please,” he said meekly. “I don’t think tissues can handle this much . . . snot and stuff.”

Brock let go of James’s face and pulled the folded paisley handkerchief from his pocket, whipping it open with one quick motion. He passed it to James, who blew his nose with a loud, billowing honk.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” He sniffed, then sighed heavily and blinked his puffy eyes. “God. I don’t think I’ve ever cried this much in my life.”

“That’s probably my fault.” Brock reached up and combed the hair back from James’s face. “Everything I’ve ever loved I’ve broken.”

James’s eyes widened a little. Then his face warmed, his mouth bending just slightly upward. “Lucky you. I was already broken before we met.”

Brock drew in a breath and leaned back awkwardly, letting go. He settled in his seat again and stared through the windshield. “It’s not too late to turn back. We can call this whole thing off if ya want, go back home. Pretend it never happened.”

James shook his head. “No. Let’s keep going. I wanna see what happens next. I wanna see what life’s gonna be like after . . .” He trailed off, and Brock got the impression that neither of them was talking about trucks or HYDRA anymore.

“After we fuck it all up?” he offered.

James laughed congestedly. “Yeah. We’ll do it together, you and me. New book, chapter. Turn the page.”

He laid his left hand on the console, metal palm facing up. Brock reached out with his right hand and grasped it, cool metal pressing to warm flesh as their fingers intertwined, forming a tight knot.

Brock smiled, though his eyes were full of fear and uncertainty. Jamie’s, though . . . they were full of something else, and that gave Brock courage.

“Turn the page,” he said.