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Natasha stops by on a Tuesday, early enough in the morning that it would have been late by Steve’s old standards. Now, though, it takes him nearly three minutes just to limp to the door, yawning, and when he opens it he has to lean heavily on the doorframe.

“Hi,” Natasha says, over the beginnings of birdsong. She’s not alone. “Can we come in?”

“Sure,” Steve says, standing well aside. Natasha is wearing a leather jacket two sizes too big, covering body armor, and Steve can pick out the very edges of an abrasion on her forehead, masterfully covered in foundation. Behind her stalks a man in black fatigues, his lank, dark hair hanging past his chin, and he’s got the kind of crazy eyes Steve last saw on Natasha when she first came in and started making life decisions that didn’t lead to being a drugged-up teenage mercenary.

Steve makes no effort whatsoever to mitigate the limp as he shuts the door and goes to the kitchen. “Can I get you anything to drink?” he offers, glancing over his shoulder in time to see Natasha direct the man to pull out a chair and sit via chin tilt and subtle hand gesture. “I’m making tea.”

“Tea, yes please,” Natasha says. There’s a creak from the ancient wooden chairs as she sits down too.

“Who’s your friend?” Steve asks, not really expecting a straight answer.

“This is… Soldier,” Natasha says, nodding at him. He’s deathly still, but something about him still makes him look like he’s vibrating. “Soldier, this is Steve.”

Soldier turns his burning eyes Stevewards. He’s got lines scored into his face under all that hair and stubble, his skin waxy, but Steve can tell he’s not as old as he looks. Poor kid.

“Nice to meet you,” he says aloud, feeling the familiar diorama-puppet sensation of being undercover. As himself, apparently. “Natasha’s an old friend of mine. How do you know each other?”

“We’re old friends too,” Natasha says. “Coworkers, for a while. He needs a place to stay between jobs.”

The euphemisms must be for the kid’s benefit, because Natasha never bothers talking spy at Steve anymore. Not when she doesn’t have to. “I see,” Steve says, playing his part. “Anything I can do to help?”

“You got room for one more here?” Natasha says. It’s not a question. For whatever reason, she needs to park this guy here for however long and she either can’t tell Steve - unlikely - or doesn’t want to say in front of Soldier. To be fair, the guy doesn’t look like he’d understand many words right now, or at least not any that aren’t along the lines of “get him” or maybe “open fire”.

Either way, the point is moot. Natasha never does anything without damn good reason. “Sure,” Steve says. “I can get the spare bedroom made up.”

“Good idea,” Natasha says, in a way that means yes go do that now. Steve obligingly stands, holding in a groan as he pushes up from the table.

The spare bedroom is at the back, but the farmhouse must’ve been built sometime even before Steve was born and these walls aren’t anywhere near soundproof. “Soldier,” Natasha says in Russian, hardly muffled. “Stay with Steve. He’ll help you. If anyone comes after you here, there are defenses.”

“He is an invalid.” Soldier’s voice is thin and raspy and lighter than Steve expected.

“Steve’s a lot tougher than he looks. He has a lot of experience. And he heals fast. He’s out here on medical leave and it’s temporary. He’s here because this is the most secure safehouse I have. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come back once I’ve eliminated complicating factors.”

“Understood,” Soldier says, managing to sound reluctant with a voice about as expressive as a greyscale flowchart. 

Steve finishes sacking the pillow and goes back out to the kitchen. “Room’s ready,” he says, limping to the counter to check on the tea. Not quite steeped. He pours himself a mug anyway. “Anything else you need?”  

“Show him the defenses,” Natasha says, pushing a bulky-looking phone and a thick wad of hundred dollar bills across the table. “Here’s grocery money.”

“You spoil me,” Steve says dryly.  

“Make sure you buy yourself something nice,” Natasha says, giving him just the fastest flicker of a grin. “If you send a message on this phone it’ll reach me. I’ll come visit once I take care of a few things.”

“Sure,” Steve says, pouring Natasha’s tea and placing it on the table. Her pal Soldier watches dubiously. “Anything we should watch out for?”

“Just the usual,” Natasha says. “Do what you usually do when stormtroopers come down out of the sky. Between the two of you, I’m not worried.”  

Soldier gives Natasha a look that says he is worried, and that he’s got a ten page letter to the editor ready to go on the subject of Steve’s competence. “Alright,” Steve says. “Everything okay out there?”

Natasha flashes a slightly longer, meaner smile. “Just a few old friends cropping up where they shouldn’t be.”

Natasha only ever says old friends like that when it’s her quote-unquote former affiliations in Russia. Steve would ask if she needs help, but she has a pretty spectacular track record in that department and he knows very well she prefers to handle those cases alone. Or without witnesses, rather.

“Good luck,” he tells her instead. “But you’d better stay for dinner when you visit next.”

That, finally, gets a real Natasha smile, the one she gets when she’s laughing at a private joke. “Don’t worry,” she says, nodding at Soldier. “I’m sure you two will keep each other company.”

Natasha leaves the way she came, her car - a nondescript beige sedan - rolling bumpily away down the weedy gravel drive to the farm. Steve watches her go, steaming mug in hand, then digs his personal phone out of his pocket. Sam got him hooked on the damn color matching game and now the stupid computer even joins him in the bathroom. He’s becoming a youth in his old age.

He unlocks the phone. There’s a message from a server-based relay service disguised as a software update notification, which usually means Natasha is feeling especially paranoid. Steve taps in the passcode, then scans his thumb, then types in another four passwords.

POW. Brainwashed, amnesia, probably other head trauma. He’s enhanced, like you are. Got used as a shock trooper and assassin. Don’t rattle his worldview too hard all at once, you know how the deprogramming goes. Will probably decide you’re a handler.

Then, in a separate message bubble: He’s a good person.

Steve scratches his beard. Natasha’s judgments - both personnel and personal -  tend to be as sound as anyone’s get. And if she needs to park this guy here, then it’s probably the best possible thing for him. Or for her. Either way, Steve trusts her reasons are sound.

A roommate of dubious sanity who’s strong, trained and might violently try to kill him. Well, why not. It’ll be just like Basic.

Steve pockets his phone again and limps back out to the kitchen. By all appearances Soldier hasn’t moved, staring at Natasha’s mug of tea like it’s about to tell his fortune, but Steve is utterly unsurprised to see that both phone and money have vanished from the kitchen table. “You got a first name, friend?” Steve asks.

Soldier slowly transfers his lizard gaze to Steve. “No.”

“Soldier it is, then,” Steve says. “You want the house tour?”

Soldier seems to reanimate a little. He really doesn’t look healthy, his skin bluish and pasty and his hair begging for a wash. “The defenses,” he says woodenly.

Steve scratches his chin and looks around. “Well, that over there is my cane,” he says experimentally. Does the kid even have a sense of humor? “It catches me a pretty good wallop every time I trip over it.”

Soldier does not look like he appreciates the joke. Too bad. “The property’s got a fence,” Steve continues. “I haven’t been all the way around it but it’s a pretty big patch of land…”

Soldier is managing to look appalled, horrified and apoplectic with rage without moving a single facial muscle. “And there’s some kind of laser grid over the whole thing,” Steve allows. “It’s automatic. The controls are in the outhouse but since the spider nest in there is the size of my head I think they’re pretty tamper-proof.”

Now Soldier looks like he’s having a very quiet aneurysm. “C’mon,” Steve says, unable to resist enjoying himself. This is the most entertainment he’s had since the feral cats chased a chipmunk into his bedroom. “I’ll show you the works.”

The sun is starting to peek over the horizon as Steve collects the cane and stumps out onto the porch. Soldier marches angrily behind, his boots clomping on the ancient wooden boards.

The farm is halfway to dilapidated, empty for a few years before Natasha rented or bought it or otherwise acquired it through various means. Hell, maybe it’s abandoned and Steve’s technically squatting. It had been a pretty fancy property once - there’s a big greenhouse right next to the house, sturdily built even though now a lot of the glass panes on the lower levels are broken or missing, and it’s got sliding panels that are currently rusted in permanently open positions. There’s a barn, too, full of popped hay bales and approximately a dozen half-feral cats.

“I haven’t worked the property much,” Steve tells Soldier, taking him around. “But there’s chickens and a vegetable patch and an orchard, though that’s pretty overgrown. And back there are the beehives.”

“Beehives,” Soldier says, the same way Steve’s heard fresh faced GIs say minefield.

“Yeah. There’s twelve or so, depending on whether they swarm or not. I go and get some honey every so often. Don’t worry,” Steve adds cheerfully. “They hardly sting.”

“Hardly.”

“It’s the chickens you gotta watch out for,” Steve says, going to the main shed. He opens the door on the heavy rubber apron, thick oven mitts and ballistic goggles, then glances back at Soldier, who is watching all this with mounting horror. “Wanna help me collect the eggs?”

Soldier does not want to help collect eggs, judging by the rictus of distaste on his face. “You’re right,” Steve allows. “We should go visit Bessie first.”

He can't exactly pinpoint the moment he made the actual decision to fuck with the Soldier, but he thinks it might’ve been between ten to fifteen seconds after he heard the word invalid. And it’s not even going to be fucking with him, per se. Steve’s just going to… live up to expectations.

-o-

Soldier does not understand what is going on.

He had been ordered to eliminate the Widow and Captain America and make it look like Widow had done it. He downed Captain America, but then the Widow and some crazed blonde in nurse’s scrubs with a fucking semiautomatic had chased him halfway across DC while Captain America somehow crawled out of the Potomac, rebooted his wings and thwarted an Alpha STRIKE ambush by opening them in a closed elevator. Soldier is still, after everything, stung by the fact that Alpha STRIKE was deployed at all. As if he couldn’t handle two fucking targets.  

But then the Widow cornered him, and - he remembered her. And she remembered him. They understood that they had forgotten. Been made to forget. And they had both hesitated, which had given Captain America enough time to swoop in and kick Soldier in the head.

He’d gotten wiped again over that. He doesn’t know what the fuck happened to Widow between then and their flight to New Jersey, but it must have been just as bad because she mined a fucking bridge, shot a rocket launcher at his jeep and forced him to abandon the fucking blazing fireball and storm Lehigh on foot. And he was angry, so fucking angry, but it was like she was possessed and she lured him down into the bunker and she kept saying things. She said things like what else did you forget and I got away. I got away from them and I can help you. You can too.

And when the bunker systems had activated, and Soldier froze, because the voice - the face - the doctor - and Widow -

-  had not frozen. She’d kicked a grating out from under Soldier and dropped him down a story, and while the fucking voice droned on she emptied a clip into the source, and when that didn’t cut it off she jumped down into the pit with Soldier, and either she’d boobytrapped the place a whole lot more thoroughly than he’d expected or the bunker was struck by a missile, because that’s when everything fucking exploded.

And then, when they were coughing and half blinded and digging themselves out of the rubble, she had kept trying to talk to him. She had said, again, I can help you.

He had said, you can’t. I can’t. She had said, I can. She had said, all we have to do is make you disappear.

She brought him here.

And now, this, this person, in horrible grass-stained jeans and the world’s tiniest shirt clinging miserably to his freakishly proportioned body, is supposed to be his - guard. His keeper. This towheaded idiot who manages to look like he’s prancing despite a highly pronounced limp. When HYDRA comes to kill them all, he won’t even be any good as a meatshield. Not with that kind of waist.

They enter the barn. By the entrance is a pile of metallic tubes and canisters and suction attachments that Soldier would one thousand percent label torture implements if there hadn’t been a faded stencil of a grinning cow proclaiming them FARMER JIM’S GRADE A DAIRY FITTINGS.

There’s also a live cow. It can’t be anything else. It’s got hair longer than Soldier’s and it looks like a piece of luggage on legs, but it’s got four hooves and it’s in a barn.

“That’s Bessie,” the… Steve… says, pointing at the cow.

It burps. Soldier recoils. Fucking Steve glances at him, grins, and for no single discernable reason at all goes to kick over a tin bucket and then a short stool. Soldier watches them clatter to a stop adjacent to Bessie. He does not understand what is about to happen until Fucking Steve squats unsteadily on the low stool, swearing under his breath.

Bessie continues chewing, and does not turn her head even as Fucking Steve reaches out and grabs hold of the wobbly pink thing hanging off her belly.

“Took me a while to learn how to do this at first, but once you get into the rhythm of it it’s easy,” Fucking Steve says, like he’s not groping the tumorous growth of a fucking bovine. “You just gotta do a really gentle squeeze.”

That raises more questions than it answers. Soldier, rooted to the spot, has no choice but to watch Fucking Steve lovingly tug at the private parts of a two-ton cud-chewing farm animal.

Bessie turns her enormous head and makes limpid eye contact with Soldier over the sound of something liquid jetting loudly into the tin bucket. Helplessly, Soldier stares back. It’s still safer than whatever it is that’s happening between Fucking Steve and the horrible pink tumor.

Fucking Steve starts whistling. The bucket fills up. At one point the cow extends something that can only be its tongue, a necrotic grey appendage easily two feet long, and uses it to explore one cavernous nostril.

The last dribbles of cow juice squirt noisily into the bucket. Fucking Steve, seeming not at all harrowed by this experience, pulls a tin cup off a hook in the stall and dips it in. It comes up full of frothy white… stuff. “Want a sip?” Fucking Steve says, slurping from the cup.

Soldier turns around and walks out of the barn.

-o-

As soon as Soldier is out of hearing range Steve spits his mouthful of raw cow milk onto the hay, and spits again to get the taste out of his mouth. Once accomplished, he stares at “Bessie.”

“One day I’m going to figure out whose cow you are. And how you got in this barn.”

Bessie chews her cud and stubbornly refuses to provide any answers.

“Freeloader,” Steve adds. “Guess you were technically first, though.”

Bessie gurgles alarmingly. Steve struggles up off the stool and beats it out of there before she decides to gift him with any more liquids.

-o-

x3642bq9863z29: requesting expedited exfil

P3849s: ?

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.3

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.2

P3849s: that's a cicada

P3849s: local fauna within expected norms

x3642bq9863z29: SEE IMG.4 ATTACHED

P3849s: bullfrog. also normal

P3849s: you’ll be fine, soldier. Sit tight.

P3849s: :)

-o-

Steve makes breakfast, adding another three eggs to the omelet and some bacon on the assumption that Soldier will have to eat sometime. He mixes up cat food in a big salad bowl and takes it out to the barn - no sign of Soldier, but Steve can definitely feel a glower aimed directly between his shoulder blades - and goes back inside. Typically the cats wake up in time for lunch, so he’ll come back to collect the bowl around noon.

Twenty minutes later when Soldier still hasn’t been lured inside the house by the smell and sound of cooking eggs and bacon, Steve ventures back out to the barn and sticks his head in. He still can’t see anything, but the air feels significantly lighter this time, like maybe Soldier can smell breakfast waiting and is waffling about whether or not he wants to risk coming inside. Then Steve looks down at the salad bowl on the floor.

Empty.

Steve stares at it.

“If you want people food next time, breakfast starts at seven,” Steve says to the air. It says nothing back. “I promise it’s better than cat mush.”

The air maintains a doubtful silence.

Steve shrugs and turns back into the house. He’s cooked enough for one and a half supersoldiers, because he still can’t tell how much Soldier actually eats, but considering how Steve’s still on the mend himself, the overall spread isn't much. Maybe about four normal people portions.

He’ll put aside a plate for Soldier if he decides he wants real breakfast after all.

The bacon, though. Steve’s only just started moving off the easy digestion diet, given all the various horse pills he was taking just to keep his insides in, and he’s not ashamed to say he’s been relishing the trips to town where he can a) drive and b) buy meat. His first steak in six months had been heavenly. His body had promptly made him regret it, but Steve can’t call himself a quitter and especially not when it comes to steak. Not when it comes to bacon, either.

If Soldier decides he wants bacon Steve will make more. After all, Steve’s an invalid. He’s got weight to gain back.

Petty thoughts or no, Steve does, in fact, have pills to swallow and PT to do, so with an audible creak of joints he cleans up after breakfast and goes to do some tai chi.

After that it’s the daily battle with The Naps. He actually finds it easier to fall asleep for his scheduled naps outside in the field than inside the house in his own bed like a normal person, like his body knows what he’s trying to trick it into doing and does not appreciate it one bit. Usually he has no trouble outside; the heat of the sun and the soft grass and a thick blanket make him feel naturally drowsy.

Usually. At one o’clock when Steve shakes out his blanket over his favorite patch, he definitely feels Soldier’s gaze boring into the back of his head. That’s talent. Steve’s still got no idea where he is and the stare feels like it’s coming from all directions.

It’s mildly unsettling. Steve lies down on his stomach, pillows his head on his arms, shuts his eyes, and tries to ignore the faint buzzing sensation all over his body. The sun’s pleasantly warm with the slight cloud cover, and the grass makes a comfortable thick carpet underneath him. It’ll be easy to drift off like this.

At two o’clock the buzzing has intensified to the point of being deeply fucking uncomfortable. It’s the psychic equivalent of someone running a drill next to his ear. Steve rolls over onto his back, eyes still resolutely shut. Maybe if he impersonates a dry log, Soldier will become bored and quit.

At two thirty Steve remembers that Soldier is an assassin and is probably used to staking out targets for days on end, and in conditions much worse than these.

Steve rolls up the blanket and goes back into the house.

He ventures outside again in late afternoon. He’s surprised to see Soldier out in the open, or at least somewhat visible, sitting in the bushes under the apple tree and looking parboiled and bitter in his thick black fatigues. He immediately levels a vengeful glare at Steve on the porch, but it loses a little something when it’s coming from someone so desperately sweaty.

Steve takes pity on him and limps over to the greenhouse, turning the spigot to let the water flow into the evaporation basin and start filling up the trough. "You want to help me round up some veggies for supper?"

Soldier promptly stands like he’s been given an order, but Steve’s heartened by the familiar look of furious resentment as Soldier follows him out into the garden. The vegetable bed is wildly overgrown, but Steve can recognize some of the same scraggly green tops he'd pulled up on the Western Front, once upon a time. He sends Soldier to the shed to get a basket and lowers himself onto the ground, which takes a good ninety seconds but only makes him swear twice, so he’s definitely on the mend.

By the time Soldier rounds the corner of the house, Steve has just pulled the first turnip. He gently tosses it towards the basket in Soldier's hands.

Soldier drops the basket, pulls a knife and skewers the turnip in mid-air. His blank, battle-ready expression collapses into confusion as he looks at the root lodged on the end of his KA-BAR.

"That eager to do the chopping, huh," Steve says.

Soldier’s glare has upgraded to Defcon Fuck. He looks like he’s trying to find words but also like most of his faculties are going towards not popping a vein.

The turnip slides off the end of his knife and plops into the basket. Steve smiles sunnily. “See, you’ve got the hang of it,” he says. “Come on, we’ve got to get these out of the ground or they’ll rot.”

Soldier looks very much like he wants to send the knife through Steve’s face next, but he picks up the basket and stalks over to the other side of the patch. He looks at the ground and crouches down like a lawn chair folding up.

Birds chirp. The bees hum. Soldier excavates turnips and carrots and garlic out of the vegetable patch, first like they’re armed landmines, then like they’re dead mice. When sweat starts dripping off his nose Steve gets vaguely concerned about heatstroke and decides an intervention might be the Christian thing to do. Natasha used to run herself ragged and needed prompting before she finally figured out how to regulate things like food and water. “You can go cool off in the basin if you like,” Steve says. “In the greenhouse. Should be full by now. I’ve been using it as a wading pool.”

Soldier gives him a look of vicious disdain through damp strings of hair. “Or not,” Steve says mildly. “You finish up here, I’ll go make us some lemonade.”

Soldier jerks out another carrot and flings it onto the pile. Steve leaves him to it.

Once inside, he’s got a new set of challenges. He takes a few lemons out of the icebox and gives them a considering look. “Can’t be that hard,” he says aloud.

It’s harder. Steve ends up mangling about six lemons in increasingly tragic ways, hoping against hope that one of them will produce juice. They don’t. After fifteen minutes he gives up, puts down the potato masher and texts Sam.

Flappy Bird: Dude. It’s water and lemon and sugar. It’s three things. And like two steps.

Flappy Bird: Why didn’t you just google this?

cobra commander: google is more judgemental than you are

cobra commander: also we don’t have wifi

Flappy Bird: I find both of those things hard to believe.

cobra commander: it’s west virginia, sam. not the avengers tower

Flappy Bird: You can’t just keep saying “this isn’t the avengers tower” about everything like it’s a legit excuse for your laziness, dude. Call cox services and fix your damn wifi already.

cobra commander: we don’t have wifi and we don’t need wifi.

cobra commander: i live on a mountain, sam.

cobra commander: west virginia took me home.

Flappy Bird: White man don’t lie to me. I see your Baby Ballroom on my Netflix.

So that doesn’t pan out. Also, Natasha needs to use her own damn Netflix account.

Desperately, Steve consults the rickety shelves of books by the fireplace. He hadn’t examined them too closely when he first arrived on the farm; he’d taken one look at the rustic wallpaper and authentic hobbit-hewn furniture and assumed that all the books would be by John Steinbeck or someone equally unbearable. Now all that means is that the previous owner was definitely the type to have a few ancient print cookbooks lying around somewhere.

Apparently they had a fun nephew or something, because he does find a single cookbook wedged in between a Steinbeck and a Hemingway. He prises it out and stares at the color-splashed cover.

The title reads, in all caps: IDIOT’S GUIDE TO IDIOT COOKING: GROW THE HELL UP ALREADY!

“Sure,” Steve says, and flicks to the table of contents.

He props the book by the cutting board, open to the page entitled “LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS,” subtitled “LIFE ALSO GAVE YOUR MOTHER AN IDIOT WHO CAN’T MAKE LEMONADE,” and gets to squeezing.

It’s twenty more minutes before he has a pitcher of something that can, by FDA standards, be called lemonade, but it’s cold and it’s potable so it’s going to have to do. Steve ferries it outside and finds Soldier nowhere.

“You thirsty?” Steve calls, deciding banging a fork against the pitcher like he sometimes bangs a fork against a bowl to summon the cats for dinner is too much. Then he catches sight of Soldier facedown in the greenhouse basin.

It’s a big basin. It’s cement, nearly ten feet long, and meant to distribute water through the greenhouse for evaporation. Soldier is floating, unmoving, in the center of the pool.

“Uh,” Steve says.

Soldier doesn’t answer. For one shocked second, Steve is genuinely afraid he has, in the span of less than a day, driven Soldier to the brink, but then Soldier slowly swivels his head to the side and glares at Steve with one waterlogged eye.

“What,” Soldier says, bubbling a little.

“Nothing,” Steve says. “Not a thing.”

“You’re disturbing me.”

“I see that,” Steve says. He looks down at the tray of lemonade. In an effort to make the presentation as obnoxious as possible, he’d unearthed a few paper umbrellas from a dusty drawer and stuck them in. Ragged chunks of lemon swim in the lemonade. He’s helped by the fact that all the glasses in the farmhouse are ancient Disney-themed plastic. Mickey Mouse, scarred by many washings, leers geriatrically from one plastic tumbler.

Steve wavers, considering his options, and then he bends over and places one of the glasses on a flat edge of the basin. “Fluids,” he says. “For when you’re… done.”

Soldier slowly, stiffly rotates in the water without making any discernible arm or leg movements, like a hotdog swiveling in brine.

“...Okay,” Steve says, as Soldier, face up now, floats his way closer with no visible means of propulsion. “I’ll leave you to it. Dinner’s at seven. You can put the glass back in the sink when you’re done.”

“Understood,” Soldier says, fairly civilly. Practically genial by recent standards. Steve has another hysterical moment where he wonders whether or not he should have watered Soldier to equilibrium along with the rest of his vegetables before he turns back to the house.

The lemonade is magnificent. Steve texts a picture of it to Sam. You can achieve anything, Steve reflects, if you have a pioneering spirit.

-o-

The… man… Widow left him with goes to bed at 2135. This is preceded by one hour of cooking and two hours of reading on the porch. Several attempts were made to lure Soldier inside, but they were unsuccessful. Promises of a plate left in the oven will remain unverified. Soldier had made the mistake of drinking the lemonade and his teeth still ache with phantom sweetness. Who knows what the hell will be in the “dinner”.

He has more important things to do. As darkness falls, he climbs down off the barn roof and infiltrates the farmhouse.

He tosses the place top to bottom. The handler has proven to be a depraved maniac and Soldier has to at least know the extent of what he’s dealing with.

There’s a case with two handguns in it by the kitchen door, loaded, but the case itself is covered in dust and locked besides. On top of it are seven beat up paperbacks. The kitchen table has twenty more. The tiny living room is lost to them entirely. The whole damn house has the worst book infestation Soldier has ever seen.

He goes to the “guest room” the Steve had prepared for him. It’s small, the bed neatly made, the place as clean-looking as can be when there’s so much floral wallpaper. Soldier can’t find a single camera or listening device even though he scours the place twice. He even unscrews the lightswitch panel with the tip of his knife, and discovers no more than prehistoric wiring and the mummified corpse of some kind of bug. Soldier grimaces and replaces the panel.

There’s an attic, dusty and full of boxes, and a cellar, mostly empty save for a handful of lumpy pickled shapes in jars. The kitchen is clean and well stocked, the floor tiled and making no sound under Soldier’s boots. The icebox has a lot of yogurt, along with no less than seven containers labeled some version of probiotic . One kitchen cabinet seems to be entirely full of pills. One of the shelves has a folded up sling, a leg brace and some rib strapping.

He investigates further. In a kitchen drawer is a motorcycle license, Steven Grant Rogers, a library card, Steven Grant Rogers, credit card, debit card, Steve Grant goddamn Rogers.

There’s also a SHIELD badge. COMMANDER STEVEN G. ROGERS, says the ID tag on the back.

SHIELD.

Widow works for SHIELD. But. This whole situation makes no fucking sense. If this… Steve… is a SHIELD commander, then why the hell is he sitting out here like some kind of hermit? What is he doing out here? Is he some kind of sleeper agent. Widow treated him like a civilian, but then said he was an operative. He sure as hell doesn’t move like one, even injured. That SHIELD badge was tossed in the drawer like it belonged with the broken ballpoints and rubber band ball. How long has he been exiled out here.

How long is he going to be out here. Soldier knows the right thing to do and it’s kill this captain, steal the truck and come back in. He needs to return to the vault and report. Admit to his failure and submit to recalibration. But underestimating Widow is lethal, and he has no idea what precautions she’s taken to keep him here. He needs to determine what kind of prison this is before he can make a plan to get out of it. He is of no use dead.

Widow said he would disappear here.

Soldier ghosts upstairs. It takes a lot more fucking work than usual, because these stairs are 10% wood to 90% creak. At least his fatigues have long since dried from the water basin.

Commander Steven G. Rogers sleeps with his door open, every window flung wide and a fan droning in the corner that drowns out a whole host of minor noises. Half Soldier’s instincts yell trap and the other half yell dumbass. Fucking Steve is hardly covered by the thin sheet, bunched as it is around one knee and thigh. He’s in shorts and another damn white A-frame, thick surgical scars stretching across his chest and up his right shoulder and down his right leg.

Around his throat are a set of dogtags.

One of them is face up on his chest, in a lucky stroke, and limned silver in the moonlight. CAPTAIN STEVEN G ROGERS 37337566 T42 43  C.

Captain. That’s right. It sounds right. Commander’s wrong and Fucking Steve is also. Commanders don’t partake in hazing, but Soldier’s met plenty of captains with the gravitas of a bored two year old in church. The lackadaisical irreverence and the - the cow touching are definitely captain behavior. And like hell is Soldier going to call him Steve.

He’s recognized today for what it was, finally. He’s been on enough STRIKE teams to know that there is no excuse for catching it sooner, but in his defense, he usually was the hazing.

Has Widow placed him here as some sort of test.

He goes outside. The barn continues to smell like a locker room for animals. The horrible lumpy cow blarts at him from its stall, as if he would deign to acknowledge it. He climbs up to check the second story of the barn. It’s full of hay. As he watches, two, four, seven sets of reflective green eyes blink open and stare at him from the far end. One of them meows. Soldier bares his teeth at it and drops back down to ground level.

It’s hard to find the edge of the property. He circles, giving the bee field a wide berth. The greenhouse is a riot of escaped plants, wound around everything and poking out through the holes in the glass, nothing but a small cleared area left around the basinlike trough. Behind the barn there is indeed an outhouse, and it does have some kind of metal box bolted to the wall. There is also, however, the promised nest of spiders.

Soldier is not afraid of spiders. And he has a metal arm specifically to handle dangerous or toxic substances. Like spiders.

He decides it is not necessary to open the box at this point in time.

He continues his survey. The back of the property becomes forest, and he’s wary of coming up on an invisible boundary without any clear idea of what defensive measures might be in play so he stops before he gets too deep and heads the other way. Past the front yard there’s the decrepit truck which must be Captain’s, and beyond that the overgrown lane that leads out to the road. He steps right to the edge of the gravel driveway. There’s no hum of anything, no laser grid or otherwise, so either it’s not active unless some kind of sensor is tripped or Captain was lying. Soldier has no way to tell. There’s a strange little conviction that says Captain hasn’t lied yet, but Soldier disregards that as unreliable perceptory malfunction.

He edges further. Still nothing. But maybe it doesn’t stop anything from going out, only coming in. He creeps all the way down the drive, where the gravel becomes slightly more well-paved road; nothing happens. Some poking at what is presumably the property edge reveals a wooden mailbox, bleached with age and almost entirely subsumed by the vines grown around it. If there was ever a house number on it, it’s long been eaten away by time and rain.

Soldier picks up a rock from the ground and gently tosses it onto the cracked pavement. Nothing. Another six rocks tossed with varying velocities produce the same result. It must be a biologically activated grid. He doesn’t have the resources to test it further. The only logical thing to do is retreat.

Soldier circles the house and barn twice more. The night continues to be utterly lacking in any threat or conflict, save for what sounds like all-out insect warfare in the bushes. At one point Soldier sees a dark shape move in the corner of his eye and whirls, but it’s just a cat jumping onto the porch and it meows at him reproachfully before slinking away. Soldier’s left standing in the clearing between the barn and the house and the truck, panting over nothing at all.

Captain issued no directives. He has set no standards of behavior. Neither has Widow, beyond stay here. There’s nothing here to do.

Soldier spends the rest of the night circling the property with an itch growing under every square centimeter of skin. His body is starting to ache, worse than it did before Captain filled the basin and gave him leave to get in. Suggested. Suggested he get in. This Captain is no kind of handler. He’s just a - a custodian. A janitor for this safehouse. Soldier has to remember that. He just has to get through this, just like everything before. Widow will come back. He can deal with this until then.

And if Captain does get an order to put a bullet in Soldier’s head, he’s going to find out just how difficult that is. Soldier has no intention of letting down his guard.

-o-

Of course, by next morning he has a fever. Captain, amazingly, does not fail to notice. “You feeling alright?” he asks, pausing in the doorway.

Fine,” Soldier snaps, undermined by the seditious way his teeth are chattering.

“Alright,” Captain allows. “But I gotta warn you, I don’t really have a choice about using the facilities in here.”

Soldier’s in the bathtub, because it’s the most defensible area and it’s got access to potable water. It’s also in the only bathroom in the house. “Just d-do it,” he growls, pushing further into the corner to stop his metal arm from clattering against the tub.

Captain limps in, washes his hands, brushes his teeth, washes his face, examines the scarring on his cheek and jaw, rubs an ointment onto his thigh and hip and shoulder, and fastidiously draws the shower curtain around the tub before using the toilet. Soldier fights the sagging of his eyelids. The shower curtain has little yellow ducks printed on it. They’re starting to tango.

At some point Captain must have left, but then come back, because Soldier hears his voice nearby, not far but not within striking distance. “Damn it, Natasha,” Captain says indistinctly. “Is he coming off something?”

Widow’s voice is even more indistinct, but she sounds interested. “Is he?”

“It sure as hell looks like it.” Captain just sounds sour. “If he needs anything, I’m calling you for an airlift.”

“He’ll be fine. Just drown him in chicken soup like you did to me all those times.”

“If he doesn’t improve by sundown -”

“I’m your first call, yes. Make sure of it. I highly doubt any hospital visit is going to result in anything but casualties. Pretty sure I’ve detoxed off the same stuff he’s on, too, and I did it without his enhancements. He’s tough. He’ll be fine.”

There’s a beep, and the next noise Captain lets out is a long sigh. Soldier wonders if he can operate the water taps with his boot. His skin feels like it’s become the battleground for two separate warring armies of fire ants. Maybe he’ll drown.

The next second Captain is there again, looming over him like a rugged pink monolith. “Let’s get you to bed, hotshot,” he says, reaching down, then jerks his hand back with a low hiss when Soldier automatically blocks it.

He comes right back, though, and this time he catches Soldier’s metal arm. The pressure sensors aren’t the most sensitive, but Soldier can tell his grip is strong, stronger than it should be. “You need to lie down,” Captain says. “You’ll be more comfortable in a bed.”

“No,” Soldier says, on principle. The fire ants have started using artillery and the tub is at least marginally cooler than the air.

“No? What’s wrong with the bed?”

Soldier can’t believe Captain’s stupid enough that he doesn’t even notice the fire ants. He expounds upon this at length, then realizes that for some reason his mouth isn’t moving. “Glrghrh,”’ he complains.

“Right,” Captain says. “That’s what I hate about beds too, the glrghh. You comfortable here?”

Soldier, now under joint force fire ant carpet bombing, tries to tell Captain to go fuck himself. Captain does not seem to receive the sentiment. Maybe he’s in league with the fire ants. “You wanna go lie down in the water again, champ?”

The water. Soldier tries to focus on whichever of the three swimming Captains is the right one. His bones hurt. He’s so tired. He has no idea what Captain offered but it can’t be worse than this. “Yes,” he manages, with heroic effort.

Captain stands up, leans over and lifts Soldier out of the bathtub with a grunt of effort. Soldier tries to make him stop, but Captain just grunts again and carries him out of the bathroom. Soldier tires of elbowing him pretty quickly, and then he can’t remember what he was doing or why so he just hangs there and jolts as Captain lurches down some stairs.

Soldier’s eyes open again when he gets deposited on - concrete. Trees overhead. Sunlight. The greenhouse basin. It’s dry now, but an arm reaches over Soldier’s head and there’s the squeak of a tap and then the splatter of water. It starts to seep into his fatigues as the level steadily rises and the armies of fire ants are driven off by external intervention. Somewhere far away his boots are being pried off. Maybe Captain isn’t in on the fire ants’ side after all. Soldier closes his eyes.

At some point he’s lifted again, or at least his head is. What feels like a rolled up towel is placed under his head. “So you don’t drown,” Captain says somewhere. Then, “Bradbury or Wodehouse, buddy?” Then, “Wodehouse it is. Let’s see... Here we are. If Jeeves had been there, he would have been able to tell me exactly how to rifle through a fellow’s belongings with minimal disturbance and maximal efficiency, but he wasn’t there, which was rather to the point as it was in Jeeves’s bedroom that I was doing said rifling…”

The deep, even voice is familiar. The water is cool, and the formicidaeal ceasefire seems to be holding. He can feel the air move and sunlight and shadow dapple over his face. He must have fallen into a river. A river where someone is telling him a story. Maybe he died.

That theory gets disproven eventually, because the water revokes its past alliances and turns on him, heating up. The light grows until it’s too bright even through his closed eyes, and moving his head feels like trying to haul cement using only his eyebrow muscles. Being dead can’t be this fucking uncomfortable.

Then a hand covers his eyes, hot but dark, and then, a wet cool piece of cloth. Relief. “Let’s get you out of the sun,” the big voice says, and he gets lifted up again.

Whatever he’s laid down on is soft, but they’re still outside, the feeble breeze blowing over his skin. Exposed.

Reality filters in slowly. This period of debilitating weakness is when the retrieval teams come. He knows this. It’s why the post-mission comedown is so bad, so ruinous: he goes long enough without checking in, he’s got to be weak enough for them to force the issue. Any minute now it’ll be the tranq darts and the mag cuffs and then the tank.

But it just keeps on not happening. It just keeps on being the shade and the cool breeze and the big voice, and the sound of birds and frogs and bugs in the trees. He can’t help but drift again, even out of the water. Someone is close by, someone he knows, and that’s - protection. Someone’s sitting sentry. Someone who won’t falter or leave or fall asleep. He’s telling Soldier a story.

At one point something sniffs at his ear, then butts his face, then climbs onto his chest. Soldier remembers that he has eyes, then tries to open them, then remembers about the wet handkerchief. The weight on his chest settles in and then starts to knead his stomach.

“Be nice to him,” Captain’s voice says. “He’s going through some stuff.”

The thing now crouched on Soldier’s chest meows in response.

“That’s Froggy. He’s an unnatural invert who loves water.”

Meow.

Yes, I’m talking about you.”

Mrrrrow.

You’re an outcast from your race and a perversion of nature.”

Prrrrrrrrrrr.

“That’s what I thought.”

-o-

True to Natasha’s word, Soldier’s fever breaks somewhere near midnight. Steve lets him sleep out on the porch, bringing some of his own blankets out to make himself a slightly more padded seat on the porch swing. He figures the guest room mattress he dragged out for Soldier will dry alright, and in the meantime the kid’s unstiffened somewhat and started breathing in passably normal sleep.

Steve sits up until dawn, reading about Jeeves on his phone and eventually just staring out at the gradually lightening yard. He gets up every forty minutes or so to check the kid’s pulse and temperature, which both get steadier as time goes on; whatever enhancements he’s got are working.

It’s a good thing too. If this kid is anything like Natasha, taking him to a hospital will just make him disappear for thirteen days to do whatever Frankenstein first aid he decides is appropriate. That had been a fun couple of weeks. Fury had almost authorized the covert ops version of an AMBER alert by the time Natasha resurfaced in Steve’s kitchen, showing off the artisanal stitching and charmingly homemade cast on her leg and eating Steve’s potato salad with a serving spoon. She’d done a pretty good job, but Steve had enrolled the two of them in paramedic night classes anyway.

He doubts he can do anything like that with Soldier, but at the very least he’s going to bully the kid into drinking eight cups of water and getting some electrolytes. Steve ought to make some lemonade again.

And maybe look into resurrecting the “hide a multivitamin in every possible snack food” strategy he ended up having to use with Natasha. Under that jumpsuit Soldier definitely does not look like he gets enough - well, anything in his diet. When Steve unbuttoned the top to loosen his clothing and wipe away some sweat he saw the metal arm goes all the way up to the shoulder, and judging by the scarring it’s not meant to be removable. On a second pass Steve undoes the laces of Soldier’s boots, but after finding three knives in there he decides to leave it at loosening them.

Soldier sleeps well into the morning. Steve shifts himself around eight thirty, because the cats need feeding and he himself is still on a medication schedule. When Froggy - by far the friendliest of the semiferals - comes trotting out of the barn to do the whine & twine on Steve’s ankles, he levers himself up and goes to make breakfast where he can keep an eye on Soldier from the kitchen window.

Somewhere around eleven Soldier sits upright on the porch like a vampire lurching up in a coffin. He looks around creakily, seems to realize he’s in the same place he was before, and starts checking himself all over for weapons, both obviously and in the more discreet way Natasha has, subtly shifting in place. Apparently satisfied, he starts clumsily tying up his boots.

Steve finishes stirring yogurt into his muesli, picks up the breakfast tray and heads outside. “Morning, champ,” he calls, opening the front door with his foot. “You up for some breakfast?”

Soldier gives Steve a look of watery spite and doesn’t answer. “Good to see you’re feeling better,” Steve says, putting the tray on the porch swing in arm’s reach of Soldier.  

Soldier stares balefully at the toast. Steve picks up a slice, butters it, sprinkles on some cinnamon and sugar and hands it to him. Soldier visibly debates the moral consequences of taking it.

“Eat,” Steve says. “I hear it’s good for you.”

Soldier wavers, gives in and takes the toast. After a minute, he bites into it like he wishes it had a jugular he could sever.

Steve sits down on the porch steps to finish his muesli and sip his tea, looking out at the garden. He should probably pick through the tangle of vines around the greenhouse and remove any broken glass. He himself doesn’t go over there much, but Soldier seems the type to stick himself through any crawlspace in a mile radius just to check that he can fit. The porch could probably stand to be painted too. Steve’s seen splinters out here the size of his thumb.

Soldier, having grimly overcome two slices of toast, evaluates the remaining mug of tea. He eventually decides it’s nontoxic, which is a stroke of luck because Steve’s next step would’ve been trying to enforce hydration via Gatorade popsicles. The guy doesn’t seem any happier for having eaten breakfast, though; Steve’s aware of him in his peripheral vision and if anything he seems to be winding himself tighter, looking out at the yard just like Steve is, only with a fraction of the benevolence.

Steve makes sure his next sip of tea is more of a slurp. So is the next one. And the next. “What the fuck is this place,” Soldier finally bursts out, like a pressure cooker finally popping its lid.

Steve looks over at him. “How do you mean?”

Soldier makes a sharp, jerky gesture that’s probably meant to encompass everything from the three tabby cats sunning themselves in front of the barn to the grass stains on the knees of Steve’s jeans. “What do you do here,” he says angrily, with a certain shrillness that once again has Steve clocking him as someone younger than he looks and a lot more upset than he’s letting on. Not that it’s any great secret here. Natasha had been a little more contained when it had been her, but the aura of whacked beehive is still very much present.

Also, the toast crumbs around his mouth kind of take away from the glower. Steve heaves a sigh as he extends his leg all the way. “This and that,” he says. “Read. Mind the animals. Eat. Take naps.”

“That’s all?”

“I’m on medical leave, champ.”

“What for.”

“An alien whale fell on me,” Steve says mildly.

Soldier chews on that one for a few seconds. “The Battle of Manhattan,” he says, but more uncertainly than most people do, and with an odd, pinched look around his eyes.

“Yep,” Steve says. “Broke every single bone in my body.”

That snaps Soldier out of whatever’s got him staring at nothing. “No you didn’t.”

“Yep. Even the tiny little ear ones.”

“You didn’t!”

“All of them. Every single one.”

“No you didn’t ,” Soldier says mulishly. “If you did you’d be dead.”

“Well, the serum helped with that a little,” Steve says musingly, scratching his stomach. “Gave me three extra bones, for one.”

“No.”

“Broke those too.”

“What bones!”

“Told you. All of em.”

“You didn’t grow new ones. You’re lying. Where are they?”

“You trying to violate my medical privacy?” Steve says, jokingly, but Soldier’s face screws up like there are some fundamental words he doesn’t understand in that sentence. “How about,” Steve says, “if you can guess where they are, I’ll show you.”

“Why should I care about your fucking bones,” Soldier says sullenly, turning up his shoulder at Steve.

“Don’t let the staff of every medical research department on the East coast could hear you say that,” Steve says, mostly to himself. He downs the last of his tea. “Well, if you’re bored - we’d better find something to do.”

Soldier immediately goes wary, like a cat that’s just spotted a vacuum cleaner. “Like what.”

“You ever gone fishing?"

Soldier gives one shake of the head. Steve looks him over consideringly, scratches his chin - he really needs to shave one of these days - and says, "Well, I think my old waders will fit you just fine."

-o-

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.34

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.35

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.36

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.37

x3642bq9863z29: IMG.38

P3849s: does steve know you’re taking surveillance photos of him

x3642bq9863z29: is his judgment sound

P3849s: i trust him with my life

P3849s: why do you ask

X3642bq9863z29: identify equipment “waders”

x3642bq9863z29: relevant mission code “fishing”

P3849s is typing

P3849s is typing

P3849s is typing

P3849s: steve will tell you

P3849s: don’t worry it’ll be fun :)

-o-

Natasha calls as he’s getting in the truck. “How’s he doing?” she asks by way of greeting.

“Spectacular,” Steve says. “What’s he been telling you?”

“That you’re a deranged pervert who touches animals inappropriately and that you’re planning to drown him in a swamp.”

“Sounds about right,” Steve says, fastening his seatbelt.

“Let me guess. You milked the cow and want to take him fishing?”

“Yep. And I told him I already have old waders, so now I’ve gotta run to the store and buy some and make them look authentically used.”

“You’re having too much fun out there,” Natasha accuses over the sound of the truck starting.

“It’s West Virginia, Nat. Gotta get my kicks somehow.”

“If he leaves with more trauma than he arrived with it kind of defeats the purpose.”

“But this is the good kind. It’s character-building.”

“If I turn on the news tomorrow and see headlines about a murder-suicide swamp drowning, I’ll be very upset.”

“I don’t think we get the news around here,” Steve says as he pulls out of what could generously be called a dirt driveway. He waits until the truck’s clattered safely onto the road to continue, “Could’ve sworn last week I saw a bumper sticker that said ‘I eat reporters’.”

“Charming,” Natasha says.

“And maybe even true, given what I’ve seen people around here eat,” Steve says.

“You’re such a baby. ‘Ooh, people eat crocodile. Ooh, is that lizard? ’”

“That’s not even what I sound like,” Steve says patiently. “And I don’t know if West Virginia has any crocodiles.”

“If you find one you can throw a barbeque for your neighbors.”

“I don’t think West Virginia has neighbors either.”

“Baby,” Natasha says. “Keep bullying him some more. If he hasn’t killed you yet, it’s probably helping.”

“What the hell am I supposed to be doing with him again?” Steve says, but Natasha just laughs at him and hangs up.

Steve sighs and drops the phone into a cupholder.

One shopping trip later, he’s hauling two pairs of waders out of the passenger seat. He carries them out to the dirt patch by the barn and starts whacking them with his cane to give them the “grandpappy’s first waders” look. After five minutes of this, they look like they've gone through the war. Every war.

Then Soldier catches him doing it. Steve startles mid-whack and they stare at each other. "Just breaking 'em in for you," Steve says. “You know. Getting all the spiders out.”

Soldier’s face spasms.

“We don't get the venomous kind 'round here,” Steve fabricates wildly. “So I wouldn't worry if I can't chase 'em all out.”

Soldier closes his eyes very briefly. When he opens them Steve sees fire. Steve allows his grin to widen manically. “Oh, hey,” he says, leaving off with the waders to go back to the truck. “Bought you these, too.” Steve presents the four knives he bought at the tackle shop. “So you can stop stealing my kitchen knives.”

Soldier looks suitably caught off guard by being presented with weapons, or possibly he thinks Steve’s been too dim to notice the kitchen set dematerializing. He extends a hand towards them warily, but then pauses to look at Steve.

“No spiders,” Steve promises.

Soldier snatches the knives, giving Steve a dirty look. “I’m not afraid of spiders.”

“Ooh, don’t let Natasha hear you say that,” Steve says. Then he listens to himself, and frowns sourly. Natasha was right; he does sound like that.

They go fish.

Steve drives them out to the river a couple miles away, laying out a blanket on the riverbank and arranging things as best he can remember from movie scenes of people fishing. The waders are pretty straightforward; Steve pulls them on like pants and everything seems to be functioning as intended.

Soldier puts on the waders with the air of a man lowering himself into radioactive sewage. Steve whistles between his teeth as he sets up the poles, idly wondering how long he can keep this Old MacDonald charade going. He figures he'll know when Soldier snaps and tackles him into the mud.

In the meantime, Steve’s gonna see if he’s still got the knack of falling asleep sitting up.

They make it thirty minutes with not a twitch on the lines before Soldier throws the rod down, shoves off the ground and stomps into the river. He stops a few yards away from the bank and just stands there, probably trying to decide whether drowning himself is a better bet than spending any further seconds with Steve. Then he draws a knife.

“Hang on,” Steve says, as Soldier bends over and hovers with his knifepoint poised perpendicular to the surface of the water. “That’s not gonna - ”

Soldier’s knife blurs, and suddenly there’s a fish on the end of it.

Steve stares. Soldier stares back. The fish wriggles, furiously.

“That’s… one way to do it,” Steve says slowly. “Good... job.”

Soldier’s glare slowly dissolves into smugness. It's a nice look on him. Shame Steve never learned how to quit while he's ahead. “You ever gut one before?”

What follows would probably qualify as B-roll footage for one those horror movies Sam watches full of chainsaws and machetes and inexplicable hockey masks. By the time Soldier wipes his knife on his thigh, the fish has been not so much gutted as aerosolized. Steve stares at it, mildly nauseated and glad the waders come up over his hips. There’s a bit of a splash zone.

“Guess we’re having something else for dinner,” Steve says.

Soldier looks even more smug, like he's accomplished exactly what he set out to do. Since Steve's just decided they're never trying fishing again, he guesses Soldier did.

-o-

In absence of missions, the thing to do is train. But in this hellforsaken bug pit there’s literally nothing to do, and there’s only so many pushups Soldier can grind out before he wants to feed himself feet first into a woodchipper. Captain does things, technically, but everything he does is categorically unacceptable. Yesterday he said something about “helping him turn the compost”. Soldier is starting to miss his cryo chamber.

Especially in this heat. Birds chirp. Bees drone. Soldier kicks vengefully at a tree. He feels like he’s gonna liquefy. He sits down at the base of the trunk, draws a knife and starts vengefully chipping slivers out of the bark.

“Aw, hey, don’t do that to the tree,” Captain says, when he’s wandered back out of the house and unerringly zoned in to bother Soldier. “It hasn’t done anything to you. Its bark is like its skin.”

“I don’t care,” Soldier growls, stabbing harder.

Captain is unmoved. “Don’t do it to a live one, at least. Come on, up. If you want to make mulch there’s a log pile behind the barn.”

Soldier doesn’t make mulch, but he does accept Captain’s offer of an upgrade to an axe and spends a sublime twenty minutes hacking savagely at logs until he grows bored and his flesh arm tires. Captain stays the entire time, pressed close to the barn wall well out of the way, and when Soldier finally chucks the axe blade-first into the ground Captain dares to edge closer. They observe the blast radius of obliterated log bits. It looks like Soldier stuck a stick of dynamite into the log pile and blew it up.

“Guess some of it’s still salvageable for firewood,” Captain says slowly.

Soldier grunts, and then sneezes. A shower of wood dust and shavings falls out of his hair.

“Maybe for a bonfire,” Captain amends, toeing at a small, uneven chunk of wood. “Or, hm.” He bends over creakily and picks up the chunk.

“What are you doing,” Soldier says, immediately suspicious. He’s vindicated when Captain draws a knife from his pocket, even if it is a pathetic little folding knife Soldier wouldn’t use to pick his teeth with.

Captain says, “We’re going to learn whittling. It’s like making art with knives.”

“I know what whittling is,” Soldier says scathingly.

“Great. You won’t have any problem showing me your best technique, then.”

Soldier gestures wildly at the wood explosion.

Captain sighs, and actually puts his hands on his hips. It’s an awkward look with a knife and a chunk of log in hand. “C’mon,” he says. “Let’s get ourselves somewhere we can sit.”

Soldier contemplates the axe jutting out from the grass again, but eventually he turns and follows Captain back to the front of the barn.

Captain disappears inside, and returns dragging an attractively rough-hewn bench made out of thick cuts of some sort of polished dark wood. Soldier glares at it speechlessly as Captain lowers himself.

“Did you make that,” Soldier says.

“Naw,” Captain says, stretching his leg out in front of him. “Well, I mean, I helped Old Joe down in the sticks pick out the wood, but that don’t count for much when he did all the carving.”

“Did he teach you all he knows,” Soldier says sardonically.

“Yee-up,” Steve says. He pats the bench. “Now sit so I can teach you too.”

After fifteen minutes Captain has produced something that can, if held to the light and turned just so, be understood as a face. Under any other circumstances, it looks like a fucking potato. Soldier says so. “It looks like a fucking potato,” he says.

“Well, my hands aren’t what they used to be,” Captain says.

“Did they used to be fucking rocks?”

“Beauty in art is subjective,” Captain says blandly, switching tracks so fast Soldier has to physically bite down on the impulse to let loose an ululating baboon shriek in Captain’s face. “What’d you make, then?” Captain says.

Soldier’s hands spasm around his own chunk of wood. For a second Soldier wants to throw it far away, or stomp it into the dirt, or just fucking eat it. But he has the inevitable feeling that Captain will just retrieve it, or dig it out, or make him fucking cough it up just so he can hold it up and say something horrifying like my god, we need to telephone the Louvre. Slowly, unwillingly, Soldier pries his fingers open one by one from around the wood.

Captain and Soldier share a devastating silence.

“A knife,” Captain says finally. There’s a quiver of something in his voice. “You whittled your own knife.”

Soldier’s definitely going to throw it now. “You even carved in the little Gerber logo,” Captain continues in tones of pure wonder. “It’s got the little mountain.”

Soldier, already feeling baboonish, finally devolves those last two hundred million years. “Shut up,” he hisses. “Just shut up. You said it yourself. Beauty. Is. Subjective.”

Captain makes a noise like a hamster caught in the garbage disposal. Soldier flings the knife - it lands quivering, point first, in the dirt, because he’d balanced it perfectly - and exits the situation.

From the roof of the barn, he watches Captain laboriously crouch down and pull his wooden knife out of the dirt. It looks like it takes more effort than it should, even for him, but then - he pulls it out.

It’s got a turnip stuck on the end of it.

Soldier can’t hold back the gargle of rage. This whole fucking farm is out to get him.  

-o-

When he enters the barn later, after dark, he’s stopped by a covered plate on the polished wooden bench. He lifts the cover. The smell of roast turnip wafts out, along with tomatoes and mustard and beef.

There is also a note, on a folded piece of what looks like sketchbook paper. To commemorate your first kill, the note says, in atrocious handwriting that somehow looks exactly as expected, and below that is a cheery little smiley face and a doodle of a turnip.

Soldier hurls the plate like a discus into the orchard and listens with vile satisfaction to the distant smash.

-o-

He’s in the farmhouse again. He can’t imagine why he’s back in the heart of the Captain’s lair, but he needs to go back out to the barn. He tries to find the kitchen door, but the layout has changed. The paint is still peeling and the floor is still dusty and chipped but he doesn’t recognize anything. He opens a door at random. Behind it is the Captain wearing red white and blue overalls and holding up a platter of turnips.  

“Pigs in a blanket?” Captain says hopefully.

Soldier slams the door in his face and runs. He wrenches open another door. “Tater tots?” Slam. Soldier flees. “Corn and slaw?” Slam. “Mush like mama made it,” Captain drones, and Soldier runs down the endless hallways. He dives for the stairs.

In the kitchen is a whole spread of cat food. The figure at the stove turns around. It’s Bessie. She lows. Milk starts seeping out of the floorboards.

“Want a sip?” Captain says from behind him. Soldier turns. As he watches, Captain grins like a hyena and dissolves into the rising white froth.

Soldier gasps awake. He’s no stranger to nightmares, but this - this is like being trapped in a Norman Rockwell painting done by Hieronymus Bosch. He’s in overalled, mudspattered, haystrewn hell. This place isn’t a safehouse. Widow just didn’t want to risk a neutralization attempt head-on and so brought him here to die of “natural causes”. He’s sure of it. This place is cursed.

Something mrrps in the darkness. A second later a small fluffy thing rubs against his thigh. Soldier has to lock every muscle so as not to jump a mile. A second later it’s wormed into his lap and settled there, purring like it thinks he’s got food to give or something.

The mundane little lump vibrating happily on his thighs does bring him back to reality somewhat. So he had a bad dream. He’s the Winter fucking Soldier. He is the darkness. He is the curse. He will not be vanquished by turnips.

-o-

The next morning, Steve finds an exquisitely crafted little figure of a man pinned to the inside of the front door, made up of twigs and twine and carved wood and plaited straw. A matchstick tied to one stiff arm can only be a cane. It’s pinned to the door by means of a knife through the head.

Steve takes a picture and sends it to Natasha.

chiburashka: wow

chiburashka: that’s really well done

cobra commander: i know. kid’s got talent

cobra commander: remember when you used to embroider death threats on my pillows

chiburashka: hahaha oh man good times

cobra commander: do they teach embroidery and voodoo at assassin school

chiburashka: [ crylaugh crylaugh crylaugh ]

chiburashka: nah the perfectionism just gets applied kind of broad spectrum

cobra commander: well this kind of creativity deserves to be rewarded

Steve finds some string, makes a loop and hangs up the little effigy on the porch like a windchime. “Finally, some atmosphere around here,” he says, and snaps another photo for Natasha.

Chapter Text

Day seventeen.

Everything is too fucking hot. On the porch, Soldier’s death threat spins merrily in the breeze. Captain took a picture of it. Like he’s proud. Like Soldier made a good thing.

Captain has not for one second stopped his hazing, nor stopped swanning around being upsettingly large in pathetically small A-frames. Soldier feels like a wet sock trapped in an oven. He has spent weeks camped in snowbanks more excruciating than this. His spirit has broken, he decides. There is nothing left for him but to lie in the straw and wait for death, however it will come.

There’s some familiar uneven footsteps, then some rustling, as of someone limping through straw. Soldier grits his teeth and wills himself to dissolve deeper into the haypile at the back of the barn. There’s death and then there’s this.

“Hey there,” Captain says, his face appearing in Soldier’s vision upside down. “It’s laundry day. I understand the concept may be unfamiliar, but the basic premise is, you give me your clothes, and then I wash them -”

“What?”

“First I put water on your clothes,” Captain says patiently. “Then I add soap -”

“I know what washing is,” Soldier snarls. “I don’t need it!”

“You’ve sweated all through your jumpsuit,” Captain says in a helpful tone, like he doesn’t fucking know it’s fatigues. “And you swam with it in the basin. And slept in it. And sat on it in dirt. And in straw. And in -”

“I’ll do it myself,” Soldier snaps. Whatever Captain wants from his uniform, he’s not going to get it.

“I’ll get you some soap. You can wear some of my things while it dries,” Captain says cheerfully, his face disappearing from sight.

It turns out that Captain does laundry in a tin tub, outside, and hangs it on the porch to dry. He sits on the porch steps with the more scarred leg stretched out stiff in front of him and washes shirts and socks and dishtowels in the tub, the garden hose by his hip. He seems to be whacking each individual item of clothing against the tub before rinsing it with the hose and hanging it up on the washing line strung up on the porch.

Soldier is gratified to see it is extremely slow going. Captain has hands that look like a couple of ham hocks grew fingers, and he scrubs the cloth slowly because otherwise it’d probably rip. A lot of water slops out of the tub, and it gets on Captain’s forearms and shirt and the thighs of his jeans. Soap foam clings to him and throws tiny rainbows in the sunlight as patches of his clothes go dark and transparent.

Soldier sits back on his heels in the bushes. There would be a certain satisfaction in making Captain wash it for him, but it’s outweighed by the necessity of keeping hold of his own things. Maintaining gear is a personal responsibility.

His pants have started to feel uncomfortably tight. Soldier glances down, then tries to adjust the fabric first to the left, then to the right. The discomfort does not abate in the slightest. Soldier grits his teeth and does not give in to the urge to just rip the pants off himself and figure out the consequences later. They never felt so - so tight before. They really must need a wash.

That leaves the question of what to cover himself with while his uniform is out of commission.

Soldier refuses to put on any of Captain’s things. He will not be bought with linen. Nothing will fit him anyway. The Captain is an upsettingly large man and the Soldier is lithe and compact. Being naked is also out of the question, however. He will have to source his own alternative garments.

There’s got to be something available on the property before he resorts to making loincloths out of the untouched guest room bedsheets. He climbs into the attic again, pries open the nearest likely-looking chest and starts rummaging through.

The first chest is just old shoes, but the next is full of clothes. They turn out to be only nightshirts and aprons, but near the bottom is something that unfolds to be a pair of shorts. There’s an elastic waist and leg holes. The fabric is printed all over with big red strawberries.

The camouflage value of these is below zero. But they will cover any vulnerable bits. And while Captain is not right about anything ever, Soldier really should wash his fatigues, given their camouflage value is also approaching zero due to the smell.

He takes them off. Removing his gear takes him longer, as does reconfiguring everything to fit under the strawberry shorts. Some of his knives he has to set aside, along with the lockpicks he’d shaped out of some wire from the barn and hidden in the seams of his fatigues.

He stows those in the barn, up in the hayloft. It’ll be hard for Captain to get up there with his current physical capabilities, which makes Soldier feel better about using it to sleep in. Captain has also finished his washing, all of it hung up to dry; a few minutes later he stumps out of the farmhouse with his blanket under his arm and heads for the bee field.

Captain naps outside more and more lately, which is infuriating to watch - butterflies land on him, and sometimes his fingers curl in and out or his eyes move, and Soldier can see the freckles forming - but will now serve as good cover. He sneaks down, takes the tin tub and fills it up for his own uniform.

Washing cloth, he discovers, is something his hands know how to do. The soap makes his metal hand slippery and he has to be careful not to pull too hard on anything, but after a few cautious scrubs things seem to be working themselves out. He focuses on going over the whole thing inch by inch so no possible thoughts about where and how and when he learned how to launder leak out.

It doesn’t take too long to wash only two items of clothing, so he takes off his boots and washes his socks, then rinses the outside of the boots. He hangs up everything to dry in the barn, high in the loft and away from all of Captain’s items.

Soldier resolutely does not look at the multiple pairs of undershorts strung up on the line. Many of them have extremely unbecoming patterns. No less than four pairs sport the design of the American flag.

Seeing them makes him grit his teeth and turn away for no good reason. He has no national allegiance. He is an asset unencumbered by irrelevancies like patriotism or personal sentiment. That’s the whole point of the - the forgetting things. He doesn’t need them. It makes him a better operative. The best fucking operative in the world.

What else did they make you forget.

He stands in the scrubby grass with his fists clenched, eyes shut, bricking up the thought and all that comes with it. The sun is shining. The bug chorus is full swing in the trees. The breeze feels fresh and cool over his bare back, and the wet grass feels somehow refreshing on his toes. Maybe he doesn’t need to put his boots back on immediately.

It’s a treasonous thought. He’s already significantly compromised his combat readiness by removing his uniform. But. It had to be done. He doesn’t have a spare. This was the sensible course of action.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t be angry about it. He didn’t choose to do this. It’s not his fault he’s been forced into these - these civilian rags. It’s all Captain’s fault. All of this is Captain’s fault.

The shorts are a lot more comfortable than the uniform. That makes him angrier, so he snatches up his knives and stalks off to practice by the bean patch.

Captain shows up on the porch after he’s already thrown and retrieved all his knives twice. “Nice aim,” Captain says.

Soldier grunts and throws the next batch at a tree that’s twice as far away. His aim isn’t nice . His aim is exceptional . His aim is unparalleled . He could put a knife through Captain’s throat without even turning around and Captain doesn’t sound even remotely concerned about that possibility.

“Nice shorts,” Captain adds, like an afterthought. “You like strawberries? For eating, I mean.”

Soldier shrugs angrily. How the fuck should he know.

“Ever tried them?”

Soldier sends the next knife into the post by Captain’s head, and Captain, infuriatingly, doesn’t even twitch.

“There’s a blackberry patch in the woods out back,” Captain continues, like he’s just thinking out loud. “But I haven’t seen any strawberries around. I’ll keep an eye out next time I’m in town.”

“Go sit on a cock,” Soldier snaps in Russian.

“Well, I would, but around here there’s a serious shortage,” Captain says in the same language. “At least for recreational purposes. But let me know if you find any,” he adds, and waves amiably as he goes back inside.

Soldier, staring at his retreating back, forgets to throw his knife for a whole minute. Whoever taught Captain Russian needs to be beaten to death with raw beets. His pronunciation wasn’t even that bad, which makes it even worse.

Fuming, Soldier retrieves his knives and starts over again, this time farther away from the house, more in the woods. Angry is good. Angry keeps him focused. If he’s not focused he starts thinking about - things, bad things, and he gets confused. He’s having more nightmares, worse than the one before: that was a funhouse mirror dream, meaningless, not remotely connected to the emotions it was saddled with. But these - these are strange, fractured visions, of Captain wearing things he never wore and saying things he never said. Of Captain leading men, giving orders, striding through battlefields in a garish tricolored uniform. Of Captain stroking his hand down Soldier’s back, like a favorite cat, like a close friend.

And worse - worse are the dreams about himself. Wearing and talking and doing things he never did. Marching with Captain. Eating with him. Turning to Captain and saying - saying -

What else did they make him forget.

In dreams, he has another name.

And it’s starting to bleed into daylight. Strawberries. He does like them. He’s never had one. He has. He knows what it’ll taste like. He’s never eaten one before.

Soldier collects his knives, turns on the greenhouse basin spigot and grimly watches it fill up. Desperate times call for desperate measures. He’s gonna stay in the water until he prunes.

-o-

When Natasha next visits she comes up the drive already dragging her clothes off, unbuttoning her shirt and ungracefully yanking off her jeans in a way that means she hops for a good three feet of garden path around the porch. “You need any help there?” Steve calls, amused, and gets the shirt flung at him for his trouble. Natasha wrestles her boots off with extreme prejudice and when she's down to her skivvies she drops her whole body in the greenhouse trough.

She surfaces a full five seconds later, wiping her hair from her eyes. “If you needed a decontam shower, the garden hose is a better bet,” Steve says mildly, leaning his forearms on the porch rail.

“That car,” Natasha says, pointing one dripping arm vengefully, “has no AC. And you live in the devil’s asshole of humidity.”

“West Virginia,” Steve says reflectively. “Truly a natural paradise.”

“Ha ha,” Natasha says, like she wasn’t the one to stick him out here. “Where’s your roommate?”

Steve points. The upper third of Soldier’s head is just visible over the rise of the barn roof. He’s glaring at them. He’d been spooked up out of the trough by the arrival of Natasha’s car; Steve feels there’s some resentment being channeled there. He waves.

Natasha waves too. “How’re you doing?” she calls.

Soldier pops up, yells “He won’t show me his bones,” then drops back down and disappears.

Natasha looks at where he’s not anymore. Then she looks at Steve.

Steve studies the eaves innocently. “I told him the serum gave me three extra bones.”

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

“I told him to guess.”

“But you don’t have any extra bones,” Natasha says after a moment, sounding a lot more certain than the situation really calls for.

“Sure,” Steve agrees easily.

Natasha’s eyes narrow in a way that indicates she’s going to steal his latest x-rays and do some counting. “You want to swim too?” Steve offers. “If the trough’s not big enough there’s a watering hole half a mile away.”

“Well sure farmer Steve,” Natasha agrees. She pops up out of the basin with a bright, wide smile and swinging her gosh golly fist. “We’ll go to the watering hole - but let’s all whitewash the fence first!”

“You’re in a greenhouse trough,” Steve says. “You wanna get on my case, go ahead, but you’re in your knickers with your knees over the edge of a trough full of rainwater in my backyard.”

“I can't believe you just said 'knickers’ out loud,” Natasha says. “I think this place is changing you.”

“Is it, though?” Steve says vaguely. Soldier has reappeared at the corner of the barn and resumed glaring at them. Natasha waves at him again, then turns to Steve with a thoughtful look on her face. “Are those strawberries on his… shorts?”

“Yep.”

“And are they, in fact, shorts?”

“Nope.”

“Went shopping, huh.”

“Nope. No idea where he got them.”

“Hm. That’s worrying,” Natasha says, not sounding real worried about it.

“Well, I’ve yet to find any corpses,” Steve says. “I think we’re doing alright.”

“I can hear you!” Soldier yells.

“We know,” Natasha calls back. “How’re you doing?”

Soldier takes this as an invitation to stalk over, looking like a wet cat trying to fluff itself in fury. “This man,” he says, stabbing a finger at Steve, “is a fraud. He’s not an operative. He’s not a commander.”

“Really?” Natasha says interestedly.

“He,” Soldier says, voice quivering with incense, “is a farmer.” He pronounces it like pedophile. “You left me with a farmer.”

Natasha surprises everyone by bursting into laughter so hard she falls back in the trough. Soldier twitches as some of the splashback hits his skin. “Farmer Steve!” Natasha hoots. “What’s he - what’s he farm, bricks?” She loses it again.

“I am too a commander,” Steve tells Soldier, not putting a hand over his heart on the basis that it would be too much. “I have a little piece of plastic that says so and everything.”

“Steve’s from Brooklyn,” Natasha gasps. “That cow is feral. He got the chickens from the neighbors because they felt sorry for him, and he’s too scared to deal with them without oven mitts on.”

“Chickens are terrorists,” Steve protests. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

“Each of them weighs like five pounds max,” Natasha points out.

“You weigh five pounds max,” Steve mutters.

Natasha preens, then seems to remember she decided she doesn’t want other people knowing she experiences human emotions. She sits up in the basin. “Their brains are the size of wasabi peas,” she tells him. “Just eat the meanest ones and make the others watch.”

“They’d just be jealous they don’t get a piece,” Steve says grimly. “They’re cannibals. They eat chicken nuggets.”

Soldier, who’s been watching this back and forth with an increasingly pressurized look on his face, finally explodes. “A farmer,” he yells, one metal finger pointed accusingly at Steve’s face like he’s decrying him as consort of the devil. “There’s nothing here! I’m useless! Why did you put me out here!”

“Would you rather be on missions, Soldier?” Natasha says, in the same voice she used to talk about chickens. “Killing people?”

“I,” Soldier says, his face still angry but his voice not quite there anymore. He suddenly looks more out of place here than ever, even with his fatigues gone, his sleek silver arm throwing off strange curved reflections and his scar-carved body sharp and pale and hostile. “I’m a valuable asset.”

“You are,” Steve says, taking pity on him. It’s - well, not exactly easy to forget, not with how twisted up Soldier is all the time, but when he’s hopping mad and baffled by Steve’s bullshit he feels like just another trainee agent Maria or Sam or Natasha sent to him to break in. But Soldier’s not another Quantico kid or Marine hotshot. He’s like Natasha. And Natasha, in her first few years with people who weren’t mercenaries, criminals and state-sponsored torturers, had been kind of a fucking psychopath.

“You’re a good person,” Steve tells Soldier. “I like having you here. You’ve helped me do a lot of things I couldn’t before. And I never said I was a farmer,” he adds, virtuously.

Soldier stops looking lost and once again returns to the familiar lands of incendiary fury. Steve hasn’t been taking it personally and isn’t about to start, because he’s familiar enough with brain damage - his own and others’ - to know that it can pretty seriously impact mood and emotional regulation. And even without all that, Natasha had pretty obviously plucked this guy out of everything he knew and plopped him down here in the middle of nowhere with Steve. Everything new and strange and incomprehensible here is gonna be solidly understood as Steve’s fault.

“It’s alright, buddy,” Steve says, meaning it. “If you’re feeling cooped up, we’ll go do more things. There’s a couple hikes I’ve been meaning to try, and I was thinking we could clean up the orchard some -”

“That’s not what I’m talking about!”

“Here,” Natasha says, hopping out of the basin and going to her discarded pants. She pulls her phone out of them and offers it to Soldier. “Open google and look at the top news stories.”

Soldier stares at her, chest heaving, then snatches the phone. He holds it close to his face, blocking out the sun glare as he types. His fingers clench tighter and tighter as the page presumably loads - the 3G isn’t fast out here in the mountains - but then his eyes go wide. And wider.

Steve watches Soldier’s face slacken into something like wonder. He looks at Natasha. “Do I need to look at the top news stories?” he says.

She looks back at him. “You haven’t been reading the news.”

“No,” Steve admits. “No TV out here, and I mostly keep the radio on music.” Plus, he’d been told point blank if he didn’t follow his medical regimen to the letter he might permanently compromise the function of his shoulder and leg, especially if his accelerated healing set it wrong again. If he doesn’t rest properly, he’ll only be out of commission longer and waste more resources and time. He’s been trying not to be an idiot about it.

“Keep that up,” Natasha says. “At least for now.”

“Is this real?” Soldier demands. They look at him. There’s a shake to his voice. He’s still staring at the screen. He switches to Russian. “All of this? Real?”

“Yes. It’s not finished,” Natasha says. Steve feels for the kid. Natasha’s probably burned down whatever gulag she pulled him out of; it must be showing up on the news as terrorist activity like it usually does. “The network was widespread. I have work to finish in DC. But: a few more weeks. And then I would like your help in rooting out the rest.”

Soldier stares back at her like a dog on point, a fine tremor over his whole body. “Tell me,” he says. “Tell me how.”

Natasha meets his gaze consideringly. Then she glances at Steve. “Will you give us a moment?” she says. “And some paper and pens, if you have it.”

Steve goes. He digs them out a notebook and some ballpoints, and then, because he knows how to read Natasha’s requests these days, he takes the car keys and jingles them when he comes back out and hands the notebook over. “I’m gonna get us some pie and barbecue,” he tells her. “You need anything Walmart can offer?”

“Not this time,” Natasha says, smiling a little. “But I’ll stay here tonight, if you’ll have me.”

“Always,” Steve says, and visibly startles Soldier by kissing the top of Natasha’s head on the way out to the truck.

The Walmart is forty minutes away, which should give the two of them plenty of time to conspire. Part of Steve does admittedly want to pry and ask Natasha what kind of network she’s scything at in DC, but the rest of him figures, well, she’s handling it. And Steve’s retired.

He’d been kind of anticipating boredom fever, in a not overly concerned way, and then had been pretty surprised when it hadn’t happened. But then he’d really only retired from desk work - he’d looked at his calendar and realized that while he no longer had nine to five hours (or, more realistically, seven to nine) his speaking engagements and charity-going and consultation requests had tripled, sprouting up amongst his new class schedule. He barely had time to complete figure drawing homework, let alone sit and twiddle his thumbs.

And he still saw Natasha and Sam and Maria and everybody pretty regularly, between the training exercises he got asked to run and the standing gym dates none of them bothered to change. Sam’s based out of DC and Natasha’s there as much as she is anywhere, so it’s not like he never saw them anymore either.

Then again, he’d only been two and a half months into “retirement” when he’d been told to suit up and start punching Chitauri, so who knows. Maybe he’d been a week out from dropping all his classes and going vigilante to get his kicks. He doesn’t really feel like he was, but maybe he would’ve surprised himself.

But it’s been pretty nice, not to have to read endless reports and sign off on dockets and listen to interminable briefings on the state of the world today. It’s all important, of course. And someone has to do it. But Steve hasn’t been Captain America for three years and a Commander only goes into the field when shit has gotten quite seriously fucked, which is set up as such for good reason. But Steve was, in a lot of ways, quite literally made for the field, and he’s not about to go knocking any doors down to get back to his desk.

And now he’s in the fields. Haha.

When he gets back it’s full dusk, the light gone blue and the cicadas going full blast in the bushes. The frogs are giving them some stiff competition, so the overall effect is that a witch cursed an orchestra to be trapped forever in the woods with all their instruments turned into whoopie cushions.

Natasha’s on the porch swing, making it creak by means of planting one foot against the porch rail and sawing it back and forth. She’s still in her underthings. Part of Steve can’t help but appreciate the sight even as the rest of him thinks vaguely of mosquito bites and potential porch splinters. “Sure you don’t want some pants?”

Natasha wiggles her toes. “Why would I want that?”

“The interest of not catching whatever the mosquitoes are carrying these days?”

“I’m a super assassin. I’ve been stuck with every vaccine ever made. Mosquitoes die on contact.”

“Sure. Just don’t come running to me for malaria tablets,” Steve says, putting down his bags on the bench next to her. “Because I don’t have any. Where’s our friend?”

Natasha unerringly sniffs out the bag containing barbecue and dives in, peeling apart the takeout boxes with a crackle of plastic. “Around,” she says. “Thinking things over.”

Steve figures that’s the best that can be hoped for and gets cracking the top off the sugarcane soda and getting out the paper napkins. “How’s tricks with you?” he asks. “Not hiding out from mortal peril out here?”

“Well, no,” Natasha says, her mouth already full of pork. Steve hands her a fork, reproving. “I’m definitely out here to get off the grid,” she continues, swallowing. “But I’m going back tomorrow. Sam and Maria are holding down the fort while I make sure you haven’t died in a ditch.”

“Well, the night’s still young,” Steve says. “And there are just so many great ditches out here.”

“Do your best to resist temptation,” Natasha says, immediately before stuffing a fist-sized chunk of pork in her mouth.

They eat, Steve standing by the porch rail because if he sits now it’ll be a while before he gets up again. He picks out a piece of shoulder and some mashed potatoes and sets them aside on a paper plate. He’s been having middling success in getting Soldier to eat people food; if he puts a covered plate out in the barn then around forty percent of the time it gets eaten.

Unfortunately the rate of getting the plates back is more one time in five. Steve sighs and sets it aside.

“How’s cohabitation?” Natasha asks, reading his mind the way she sometimes does. The ring of sauce around her mouth makes it seem a lot less uncanny now than usual.

“Doing fine,” Steve says, well aware that Soldier is likely lurking nearby. “He’s a nice young man. Very driven.” Natasha grins. “Starting to think there’s something wrong with my cooking, though.”

“Bring home more of this stuff and he’ll eat right up,” Natasha says, waving at the ravaged styrofoam containers.

Steve laughs and sits down heavily on the swing, putting his leg up with a grunt. Natasha curls into him, setting aside her barbecue and pushing him into the cushions until she gets the arrangement she wants. She used to do it in a sexy way, back when she saw him as just another lever she had to press, but these days Steve feels a lot more like a wild jaguar’s favorite toy beanbag.

Natasha underscores the feeling by kneading happily at Steve’s thigh until Steve oofs quietly, the muscle spasming and then releasing under her fingers. “Read me a story, Pappy Steve,” she says.

Steve sighs. “You know I wish I could read, Nat.”

“Okay, I’ll tell a story,” Natasha says. “You illiterate hick. Once upon a time, there was an itsy bitsy spider -”

“Oh no.”

“- and this itsy bitsy spider was living her life, bopping along, taking mercenary contracts from lots and lots of interesting people, because that was the kind of exciting high-roller life she was living after killing off all the handlers that made her. And despite working in a field that fit her unique skillset exactly and practically pooping money, this itsy bitsy spider still had this nagging feeling that something was missing. So she started dating a carnie.”

“Dating?” Steve says to no one. “We’re calling it dating?”

“Anyway,” Natasha continues, “the carnie was nice but not one hundred percent equipped to help this spider with her personal and professional development. So he introduced her to this one complete fucking psycho, who, at the time, was the head of ops at SHIELD. Now, this guy was nuts. Completely out in the peanut fields. Couldn’t tell his ass from his elbow in a sanity contest -”

“Wow,” Steve says.

“- and when he found out the spider was living in a different hotel room every night under like, sixteen assumed names, he offered his spare bedroom. And at the time the spider thought this was perfect, because, access! Free access to the commander of SHIELD! His house! His things! His psyche! And she didn’t even have to try! But then. Then the itsy bitsy spider found out that this cohabitation situation had consequences.”

Steve drops his head back on the swing and rubs his face with one hand. “Making you eat breakfast and stop doing horse tranquilizers is not consequences.”

“Hah!”

“Neither is going to Mets games.”

“As I was saying,” Natasha says. “Suddenly the spider was all caught up in everything this crazy did, like going to community theater productions and making birdhouses. And this total psycho made her go running with him every morning, and bought her incredibly condescending coloring books to ‘help her work out her feelings’.” Natasha considers this. “Okay, he also did start sparring with her to help her work out her feelings, but he wouldn’t go barehanded and we weren’t even allowed to use knives. Not even fake ones! What kind of training is - anyway,” she says, catching herself. “He was terrible. He cooked her food, and watched her back on missions, and made her do things like stop chewing her nails bloody and pulling out her own hair. He bought her all the books she didn’t know she wanted. He yelled at people who said stupid things. And when she needed help, she got it. For nothing. For free.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. It’s not a smart remark kind of situation.

“Her resources grew,” Natasha continues. “She started to be able to do things she never could before, to think things that had been unthinkable. She made friends. Took an art class. Got a cat. And she started to notice people, people she’d never before thought were people, and things, things she’d never noticed were problems. Her work improved for it. She got even better at her job. She can rely on her team, and they trust her, and together they can do ten times as much as she ever could alone.”

Steve knows why she’s telling this story, why she’s telling it like this, who she’s telling it for, but he can’t help but shut his eyes briefly. It’s because of her skill with lies, he knows, that she can use the truth like this, like a vaccine or a sword, framing it and shaping it and inserting it where it can do the most good.

“And it was the crazy nutcase that made it all possible,” Natasha says, quieter. “He helped her. And now she can help other people.”

Steve, definitely not trusting his voice right now, lays his cheek on Natasha’s head. Natasha very kindly tolerates it.

“It was all you, you know,” Steve says, when his voice can behave itself. “You did it yourself. You just needed the space to get there.”

“And that’s what you gave,” Natasha says.

“Not just me,” Steve says, because it had been Clint that brought her in and Maria and Nick that brought her on.

“You and a couple others,” Natasha allows. “Not many would have taken a chance on me like you did. Not for an enemy assassin with a reputation for backstabbing and crazy.”

“We’ve all got our little personal problems,” Steve says, putting his arm around her when she butts his shoulder with her forehead.

“It’s that can-do attitude that sets you apart from the rest, Rogers,” Natasha says solemnly, and then only cackles and armbars him instead of rebreaking his shoulder when he tries to give her a noogie.  

-o-

Soldier, sitting on the roof of the porch, listens to Widow and Captain roughhouse and laugh and eventually quiet down and move inside. The smells of meat and spices and rich sauce eventually dissipate on the sluggish breeze. The noises of the night wash back in, heavy and thick.

He unlocks the phone again. It’s still open on CNN, and after a brief moment of glitch the video resumes its autoplay. The yellow tickertape scrolls past in a stream of heavy black and white words. Detention complex destroyed in explosion - Berlin Chief of Police found dead - documents reveal ties to white supremacist terrorist organization -

He - can’t think about this. He can’t. That was - the headquarters - he can’t think about this. There was a vault there. He can’t do this. That had been - a core cell. A nerve center.

The faces of men who gave him orders are lined up on the screen, one by one, named and exposed and dead. Widow did what she said she would do.

Soldier pulls on his hair until it hurts and listens to the All-Star Frog & Bug Philharmonic giving it everything they’ve got in their nightly performance around him until there’s nothing but the heat and the night and the familiar coal of rage in his belly. He can’t think about this. So he won’t. He needs to do his nightly circle of the property and get what rest he can. There will undoubtedly be acres more stupidity provided by Captain in the morning.

-o-

Natasha leaves the next morning. Or at least, she plans to. She’s halfway out the door with a thermos of Steve’s tea in hand when both of their phones emit a noise guaranteed to wake the dead.

Natasha whirls around. “Barn,” Steve says, “over the cow’s stall,” and Natasha zips off. By the time he makes it there she’s already got the thick briefcase down and is opening it on the ancient workbench, unfolding the mobile command center Stark made Steve take with him out here to the boonies.

“I leave for five minutes,” Natasha says, codging an earpiece into her ear, then, “Widow,” as she comes on the line.

“Rogers,” Steve says, doing the same, and hears it echoed faintly in Natasha’s comm. The screens flicker to life, showing a control center, and then, a couple of satellite maps. “We’re remote. What are we looking at?”

“Skrull raiding party sighted over Quebec,” Hill’s voice says. “Heading south fast. With the situation in DC, we’re short. Can you run drone support?”

“Ugh, Skrulls,” Natasha and Steve say almost simultaneously. Skrulls were like syphilis: caught early and managed aggressively they were no problem, but you did have to go after them and you couldn’t afford to let things slip. Thor had tried to explain something about how the Chitauri opening a portal over New York had left some kind of interstellar flashing rest stop beacon in the fabric of spacetime or whatever, which wasn’t helped by how he didn’t seem too clear on the mechanics himself; the results were self-evident, though, and it meant that every Tom, Dick and Hrgl’kk the Martian would swing by every so often and give New York a poke. There’s a permanent Asgardian envoy currently residing off Central Park West and based out of the Freedom Tower that works to intercept friendly or neutral parties and identify hostile ones.

Skrulls are definitely in that last category. They’re apparently a pirate nation, raiding indiscriminately and using their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate systems and loot with impunity. That’s why you have to blow them out of the sky before they land, unless you want to spend the next three months playing Spontaneous Blood Test Roulette.

“Skrulls,” Maria confirms. “We’ve scrambled two live jets, six drones. You got it?”

“We see them,” Steve says. “We got it. Half and half?” he says to Natasha.

“You take port, I take starboard,” she says, and the command center isn’t really built for two but they make it work, Natasha dragging the bench close with one foot and the two of them squeezing together in front of the console.

It’s a fast-paced but predictable fight, because one of the saving graces of Skrulls is that their many, many pirate bands don’t often talk to each other. They rarely bring new weaponry or strategems to the battle. The pilots in the two jets take care of the main assault with the usual Predators or Stingers; the drones are specially outfitted SHIELD craft used to laser any falling bits of Skrull craft into barbecue briquette to make sure there’s no unfortunate survivors landing in New Brunswick or something. Steve does not want to repeat that shapeshifting alien manhunt expedition.

So he and Natasha are basically running intercept. It’s a job usually done by senior drone techs. Steve briefly wonders what’s going on that Maria’s so short on drone pilots - granted, when Steve left they only had four trained to do this kind of op - but then one of the Skrull flyers makes a deliberate divebomb and he puts the thought aside.

It takes forty minutes. It’s gonna be another eight hours for Hill, but out here they have to do neither politicking nor cleanup. Steve and Natasha take out their earpieces, Natasha scowling when hers catches on her hair. Steve hits the button to fold up the mobile screens and looks up at Natasha, sitting back. “‘The situation in DC’?” he says.

Natasha exhales. “You’re recuperating,” she says bluntly, not even pretending not to know what he’s talking about. “Give me a few more weeks and you’ll be back anyway. You’ll be brought to full speed then, believe me.”

“Do you need help?”

Natasha looks at him for a moment, or rather uses his face as a place for her eyes to rest while she looks inward, running the math. “You are helping,” she says finally. “And if anything goes wrong - wrong enough - you get a deadman switch dump with everything anyway.”

“A deadman switch,” Steve repeats. As in, triggered by Natasha’s death. “That’s how it is?”

Her mouth hooks up in an orca kind of smile. “If it goes so wrong that you have to be told by dead man's switch, I want you exactly as mad as you’re going to be about it. For now, you’re the secret weapon. So, y’know. If you haven’t started ramping up your workouts yet, I’d say now’s the time to start.”

Steve looks into her eyes, and she looks back at him, smiling but grim. “Copy,” Steve says.

-o-

Natasha drives away again, this time in a truck that looks even more beat up than Steve’s own. Steve watches her go; there’s been no sign of Soldier since yesterday afternoon, but the prickling between Steve’s shoulderblades tells him the kid’s definitely around here somewhere. He wonders what he thought of the brouhaha in the barn.

He leaves him be. Whatever Natasha showed him, told him, he clearly needs time to process.

The air goes wet and heavy by midmorning, and the afternoon greys rapidly with the onset of a summer storm. It’s going to be a big one, to build up all day like this; usually they’re there and gone, blowing on down the valley. Steve spends the day figuring out just how much flexibility he's lost and swearing internally at his neck, shoulders, hips, spine and knees. 

By early evening even opening a window feels like being chloroformed. Once the thunder starts in the distance Steve shuts his book and limps outside to batten down anything that needs battening.

The trees are swaying in the rising wind, which is more moving the humidity around than cooling anything. The heat feels like a wet velvet sheet laid across the entire valley. Thankfully, there’s not much to take in; Bessie wanders in and out of the barn as she sees fit, and the chickens have all clustered inside their den of iniquity for the evening. Steve rolls up the truck’s windows and does a last circuit around the farm.

There’s a glint of silver from the top of the house. Steve sighs. “Come down off the roof, champ,” he calls. “It’s gonna thunderstorm, and this place might not have a lightning rod but you’ve definitely got a metal arm.”

There’s a distinctly sullen silence, punctuated only by the creak of the weathercock. Steve’s about to offer to get a stepladder when there’s a light thump of landing by the begonias. Soldier slinks out of the shadows, glaring from beneath his hair as he stalks onto the porch.

“C’mon inside,” Steve says, holding the door open. “The rain tends to go kinda horizontal when the clouds get all curly like that.”

Soldier frowns at him, then leans out over the porch rail and looks up at the sky just as the first droplets start to fall.

One immediately nails him in the eye. He hisses and reels back like a splashed cat, and it’s all Steve can do not to bust up laughing. “Just like that, yeah,” he says instead, controlling his voice by a bare margin. “Only sideways. C’mon. We’ll do something fun.”

Soldier does not look enthused by the prospect of fun, but he slouches into the house after Steve anyway. Once inside he looks more keyed up than he usually does, eyes flicking around like any second now he’s expecting axe murderers to pop out of the woodwork. It’s probably a natural consequence of this morning, and yesterday afternoon too.

Steve considers a game of cards, then tries to remember if he even has a pack. One of his best-kept secrets as an old coot is that he uses his phone to play solitaire. A house like this has got to have a pack of cards somewhere. Then again, Steve thinks sourly, if he goes looking all he’s likely to find is another mouse nest and three new bibles.

Thunder booms. Soldier visibly twitches, his right shoulder jerking up around his ears.

“I need a favor,” Steve decides, turning towards the living room. “I need you to read to me.”

“What?”

“My eyes aren’t what they were,” Steve says, stumping over to the bookshelves. Soldier follows him, palpably puffed up on refusal; despite the whining, however, Steve hasn’t failed to notice that Soldier’s still done everything Steve outright asked him to do. Part of Steve feels bad for being the kind of person who’ll manipulate a brainwashed assassin’s conditioning this way, but the rest of him knows he’s damn well not going to have Soldier out in the rain or cooped up in here, stalking around like a greyhound forced to wear pants.

The kid needs entertainment. “I need someone to read this to me,” Steve says, taking a book off the shelf.

Soldier looks at it like it’s the carcass of a toad. “Why.”

“My eyes aren’t -”

“Why that book!”

“It’s a good series,” Steve says mildly. “I want to find out what happens next. Come on.” He holds out THE CASE OF THE GOLDEN HARPOON: A Tracie Wonder Mystery and waggles it in the air until Soldier takes it, holding it with two fingers like it’s covered in slime.

“I have to read this?”

“You don’t have to,” Steve says. “But I’m an old man and I’d be much obliged if you gave it a try.”

“How old can you fucking be,” Soldier mutters, sneering at the book cover.

“Hundred and three,” Steve says, in full honesty. “Come on, let’s sit on the couch. Help me move these books.”

Steve’s mostly eked out a single-occupancy spot on the ancient couch where he can nap sitting up and put his leg up, and the rest of it is covered in stacks of books. Soldier ferries them off with bad grace, pushing them any old where on the shelves. Steve doesn’t really blame him. Most of the couch books are interminable Faulkners and Salingers and Fromes that came with the house, and Steve put them there to open up some room for his own books from the Clover Lick Public Library. He can’t really bring himself to feel bad about floor-stacking the fourth fucking copy of The Old Man and The Sea.

“Come on, sit,” Steve says, starting the process of lowering himself and hooking the fossilized ottoman closer with his cane. He glances up at Soldier last minute, brow furrowing in concern. “You can read, right?”

“Of course I can fucking read,” Soldier snaps, ramming himself up in the couch corner furthest from Steve. “I can read in eighteen languages.”

“This one’s English,” Steve says helpfully, pointing at the book. “At least, it should be. My eyes aren’t what they were -”

“Gnrgrhh,” Soldier says, the sound of ire distilled, and whaps the book open. He glowers at the page. “‘It was June the seventh,’” he reads vengefully, “‘and the pavement was hot, the air was still, and Tracie Wonder was falling out of the fourth story window…’”

Soldier’s diction sounds like if the voice that comes out of Sam’s GPS needed to take a lot of anger management classes, but he reads well enough and he doesn’t actually seem bored. His voice starts changing, too, after only a few pages, his irritation fading as he gets into the story. Steve tries not to feel too smug as he closes his eyes.

It’s another fifteen minutes before Soldier starts trailing off, catching himself and restarting the sentence, reading faster than he’s saying the words aloud. The gaps between his read-alouds get longer, and longer still, then replace the sound of his voice entirely.

Steve opens one eye. Soldier’s still reading, rapt. He flips a page, then another one. He’s holding the book approximately three inches from his nose. Steve closes his eye and settles back into the cushions for a full nap, keeping a straight face to make sure Soldier doesn’t look up and accidentally catch him smiling.

-o-

Steve dozes, slipping in and out of sleep. Soldier’s hunched up in the corner still reading every time Steve cracks an eye, and at some point the book in his hands changes. Steve recognizes the next one in the Tracie Wonder mysteries. Steve doesn’t hold back the smile this time. He used to read to Bucky, back in the war, or at least he’d start out reading and then Bucky would get impatient, climbing onto the cot or over Steve’s legs to pry the book out of his hands and read what happens next for himself. Seems like Soldier’s the same type.

Steve closes his eyes again and settles further into the cushions. He’s currently got four Tracie Wonder books from the library, so he’s got a pretty good idea of what Soldier’s gonna be doing for the next few hours.

-o-

The next morning, Steve opens the cupboard and learns that he is out of oatmeal. He is also out of butter, bacon, sausage, cheese and pancake mix. And milk. Real milk, pasteurized and processed like God and the FDA intended. And he probably should get some Gatorade and popsicles

Soldier is, after some searching, revealed to be in the orchard, in the apple tree nearest to the house. He’s crunching an apple, Steve’s heartened to see, but he lowers it to give Steve a deeply suspicious look as he limps to the foot of the tree.

“No book?” Steve says, knocking on the trunk.

“Finished them,” Soldier says shortly.

“You read fast,” Steve says, impressed. Soldier takes a noisy, pointed crunch of apple. Steve hopes they’re ripe enough to eat. Is it unripe apples that give you the runs? Maybe that was raw onions. Steve’s not sure if Soldier uses the toilet inside the farmhouse at all, but nonetheless makes a mental note to stock up on toilet paper.

“Want to go to town with me?” Steve says aloud. Maybe he can gently introduce the idea of indoor plumbing by making the kid pick his own toilet paper. There can’t be more than, what, twenty-seven different kinds. Character building.

Soldier narrows his eyes. “What for.”

“The groceries don’t grow on trees, champ. And we need propane.” Steve nods out at the truck. “Plus I gotta return some library books. And get new ones.”

That gets him. Soldier does a good job pulling on his usual sullenness, but he jumps out of the tree and heads straight towards the truck. “Hold up,” Steve says, limping after. “We can’t go like this. We need disguises.”

“Disguises,” Soldier repeats, stopping short.

“Can’t go into town like that,” Steve says reasonably, gesturing at Soldier’s getup. “Folks will think there’s an invasion on. Hold tight, I’ll get you some things to wear.”

Steve goes upstairs and comes back out with some clothes under his arm. Soldier lurks at the mouth of the barn, eyeing him suspiciously. “These’ll fit,” Steve says, laying out the pants and shirt on the polished bench. “You can keep your boots, those’re fine.”

Soldier’s a skinny little thing, ropy with scars and wiry muscle, and he reaches for the jeans and button down like they’ve each personally wronged him. Steve mentally adds jam and peanut butter and a stop at the bakery to his mental list. There’s a fruit stand by the bakery where they can pick up some strawberries, too, if Gary has them this week.

It takes a second, however, for Steve to notice something is missing. “Wait,” Steve says. Soldier’s shucked his uniform and got one foot almost in the jeans. “Where are your underpants?”

“What underpants,” Soldier snaps.

“Oh, buddy,” Steve says. “Alright, well, we’ll buy you some. Carry on.”

Soldier yanks the rest of the clothes on with a dirty look, like he thinks Steve made up underpants just to spite him. Then as Soldier makes for the truck again Steve stops him. “Gotta wear these too,” he says, handing Soldier a ballcap and tugging one onto his own head. “Critical to the disguise.”

Soldier looks at it mutinously, but finally snatches it out of Steve’s hand and puts it on. Steve’s shirt and jeans hang off his stringbean frame, and between the hat and the hair and the scowl he looks a lot like the teens that hang around the parking lot of the nearest gas station. If not for the stubble and scars on his face he would’ve fit right in.

The truck Natasha saddled him with only has one license plate and looks like it was dragged off an impound lot, but it gets the job done. They stop at the bakery first, because Steve’s hungry and leaving groceries to sit in the truck while you visit other places is a mistake you make only once. Soldier expresses no state of being besides angry sulking, but Steve bets he’s hungry too. The cheesecakes at Charlene’s Cakery are the size of hubcaps and could probably be used to waterproof siding in an emergency. They’ll be just the thing.

Charlene herself is at the counter when they come in, though that’s not too unusual given her employees are her, her husband, her daughter and Mabel the eighty year old cashier. “Roger!” Charlene says.

“Hey, Charlene,” Steve says, anticipating Soldier’s balk and stepping neatly behind him to cut off retreat.

“Roger?” Soldier hisses, shoulders going up around his ears as he scans the cafe.

“We’re undercover, remember? Go grab us a table.”

Charlene watches Soldier advance on the corner table furthest from the window, calculation obvious on her face, but she must think Steve enough of An Upstanding Citizen to let it slide. “Who’s your friend?” she asks.

“That’s Jimmy,” Steve says, picking a name at random. “He’s staying with me for a while. He’s been -” Steve glances over at Soldier’s hunched stance, waxen face and mortal glare at the napkin dispenser - “sick.”

“Your nephew?” Charlene guesses, and Steve nods, arranging surprise on his face. “We understand,” she says in tones of deep sympathy. “It can be so hard when it’s someone in your family.”

“He’s doing much better,” Steve says, because he doesn’t want anyone showing up on the doorstep with helpful casserole and getting a knife through the eyeball. It would take a lot of doing to get to their doorstep, but Charlene has a twenty year old daughter who gets trotted out in front of Steve like a show pony every time he’s in town, and while Steve’s pretty sure Stacy is about as interested in him as he is in her - id est, not at all - she does have to account for her mother.

“I’m sure he is,” Charlene says. “What’re you having today?”

Steve gets one slice of each of the cheesecakes on display, and she gives him two iced teas on the house. “You take good care of him now, alright?” she says as Mabel rings him up.

“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” Steve says, taking the tray and carrying it back to Soldier. Steve hears Charlene murmur “so sad” and “just terrible, what drugs are doing to young people” and grins to himself.

Soldier levels a glare at Steve’s head that would probably be a lot more effective if he weren’t wearing a ballcap that proclaimed him BECKY ANN’S PIES N’ PUDDIN PIE EATING CHAMPION 1999. “You told them about me,” he says accusingly.

“They think you’re my meth-addicted nephew that got shipped here to straighten up with his Army uncle,” Steve tells him. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Soldier transfers his glare to the slice of cheesecake before him. “What is this.”

“Lemon swirl. Give it a try.”

Soldier gives it a try. Then another try. He keeps on trying it until there’s only the crust left, which he categorically rejects, apparently on moral principle. “That good, huh,” Steve says, pushing another slice over.

Soldier gives it a look like he’s offended not just by this new cake but by the very concept of sharing as well. “That’s chocolate peanut butter,” Steve says helpfully. “My favorite, personally. Love this stuff.” Soldier grimaces; Steve shrugs amiably.  “If you don’t eat it I will.”

Steve watches him struggle between the need to reject everything Steve likes as abhorrent and the clear desire to get some revenge by snatching away from Steve something he has admitted to love. In the end the call of the chocolate wins out. Soldier picks up his fork and stabs it directly into the peanut cup decorating the slice.

Steve, in the interest of upping Soldier’s calorie intake, says nothing and starts in on the raspberry pie.

They chew. True to form, Stacy gets sent out to ask Steve four times if he wants any more tea or milk or coffee. Soldier gives her the rabid seagull eyeball, which she returns with interest. He also switches his and Steve’s iced teas three times, which first Steve thinks is some kind of decoy move born of poisoning paranoia, but then realizes is just Soldier determined to have control of the cup with the most liquid in it.

-o-

“Now what,” Soldier says, the normal edge to his tone blunted somewhat by cheesecake.

“Now we go to the library,” Steve says.

They go to the library. “You can get as many books as you like, but in two weeks we either have to give them back or renew them,” Steve warns. “And some books aren’t renewable if there’s a waiting list, but the librarian will tell us at the checkout if that’s the case.” Steve checks his watch, remembers he hasn’t worn a watch since it got cut off him in the hospital and gropes for his phone. “Meet back here in thirty minutes,” Steve says, showing Soldier the time. “We’ll check out together. Let’s go.”

Thirty minutes later, Soldier has gathered a stack of books so big he has to balance it using his chin. Steve is gratified to see this stack includes all the Tracie Wonder mysteries currently available at the Clover Lick Public Library. Steve carries over his own much more modest stack, and between the two of them they check out thirty-three books, including the entire available Tracie Wonder collection. Luann the librarian - the only person in the county who knows Steve’s real name, by way of having her older sister be a USO chorus girl - gives them a cheery wave as they head out.

“Now where are we going,” Soldier demands, when it becomes obvious that Steve is not taking them directly home. .

“I told you, we’re getting some underwear,” Steve says as he parks, cheerfully unclicking his seatbelt.

Soldier trails him into the Walmart, less palpably fuming and more visibly itching to go back and bury himself in the books. Steve considers making this fast, but in the end decides against it. Some things can’t be rushed.

Once inside, though, Soldier blinks hard and scoots in a good three feet closer than his usual massive personal space bubble allows, looking around like any minute now the nearby mother and toddlers will attack. Maybe this will have to be rushed.

“Alright, here’s the op,” Steve says, drawing Soldier to the side of the entrance. “You need to pick out ten pairs of underwear. And the ones that come in big packs don’t count. Individual ones only.” Those are the high quality ones, or at least as high a quality as one can get in a Walmart. Living with Sam has rubbed off on him more than he’s thought, if he’s got hifalutin thoughts about knickers, but on the other hand, Soldier deserves decent underthings. Everyone does. An itch-free bum is not to be sneezed at.

“Underwear,” Soldier says, but he’s watching a nearby clerk scan merchandise with the speed and enthusiasm of an arthritic koala.

“Yep,” Steve says, striking out for the clothing section. “Underwear. Among other things. If you think I haven’t noticed you only have one pair of socks you got another thing coming.”

“What thing,” Soldier says darkly, tagging along behind like an angry tugboat in the stream of a giant cruiseliner.

“What?”

“What thing have I got coming.”

“Oh. Nothing. It’s a figure of speech. Though I guess,” Steve says, “in this particular situation, the thing you’ve got coming to you is more socks. Here we are. Pick some.”

Soldier gives him a profane look and limply lifts the nearest package of socks off its hook. “Great!” Steve says. “Keep going. I’ll go fetch us a cart.”

Soldier tries to keep up the shopping-while-held-at-gunpoint attitude, but as they go on it’s like he can’t help but express an opinion. Steve holds in his smile as he starts offering up the ugliest possible options. “How about these?” he asks, holding up a pair of briefs whose unfortunately positioned camo print and coloring makes the wearer look like they’ve just seriously compromised themselves in the crotch department.

“No,” Soldier growls, snatching them away.

“No? What about these?” Steve holds up a pair with a photo of a bald eagle printed mid-screech across the dick flap.

“Stop helping,” Soldier says, grabbing everything out of Steve’s hands and stuffing it back onto the shelf.

“As long as you pick out ten pairs,” Steve says happily.

Soldier growls, snatches up two handfuls of underpants from the clearance bargain bin and drops them into the cart. “Are those your size?” Steve asks innocently.

“Who cares!”

“If they’re too big they’ll just fall right off you. Don’t want to be hitching up your unmentionables the whole time. I’ve got this pair with busted elastic, and let me tell you -”

“Alright! Okay!” Soldier ferries everything back to the bin and starts glaring and yanking out individual pairs like an angry seagull pecking for french fries. Steve resists the urge to whistle under his breath and puts a few packages of socks for himself in the cart.

Next are clothes, since they’re right there and all. They go to the plaid overshirts. Steve takes down a few that he thinks are closest to Soldier’s size and holds them out. Soldier protests that he is not a Small and demands the Large. Steve offers to compromise with a Medium. Soldier snatches the Extra Large off the rack and yanks it on over his existing shirt.

He’s a Small.

Steve manfully resists saying the thoughts in his head, which range from so you like it extra large? to kid, you look like you’re wearing a plaid muumuu. “You comfortable like that, champ?” he says instead.

“Yes.”

“Whatever you like, honey,” Steve says sweetly. When he turns to hang the Medium and Small back up, he sees a large man in a cap two rows away giving him a pointedly unpleasant look. Steve makes eye contact, holds it and winks. The man turns away, broadcasting disgust across a solid half dozen aisles of basement price jeans and t-shirts.

There had been a time when Steve might’ve been offended. There had been a time where he might’ve even been scared. But a lot of things have lost their bite for him over the years, and these days the disapproval of some bigoted hick doesn’t even register. It’s not like there’s anything left for him to be embarrassed about. Steve spent his first five years out of the ice in a constant state of embarrassment. The clothes, the… lack of clothes, the language, the constantly being hit on while in line for bagels, the incredibly intrusive doctors who want him to Talk About Things, the television shows where people do all these things on camera and oh, by the way, everybody has cameras in their hands that link directly to the entire world and communicate to anyone. Instantly. Which is a good thing, of course. There are a lot fewer places for injustice to hide these days. Unfortunately, the evaporation of the public blind spot seems to have taken personal privacy with it.

And then the Obama Boner thing happened, which Mrs. Michelle was very gracious about and explained very kindly about linguistic drift and twenty first century colloquialisms. Tony still calls it the Oboner. So does the entire internet. And after inadvertently talking about erections to the First Lady of the United States, well, what is shame, anyway? What good is it doing him, out here in this wild west of the new century?

Besides, by that point he’d gotten fed up with people asking him about his lack of date at every event and gala and dinner he was shoveled into, so on a lark he’d asked Peg if she was up to joining him at the Firefighter’s ball. And was she ever. She’d worn a glittering, draping golden dress that made her look like Greek royalty and she’d had two of her grandkids string glowing fairy lights all through her wheelchair, so when they rolled up the red carpet there wasn’t a single camera that didn’t go off.

She joined him for nearly every single event after that. She kept wearing the most marvelous dresses, peacock feathers and velvet and embroidered silk, and they’d lurk in corners or sit at the bar and whisper petty, silly things to each other all night long like they really were two lovesick idiots not old enough to know better. Steve had gotten four years and ten months, playing gin rummy with Peg in the park and getting away with being old and eccentric together at public functions, and it was more that a lot of other people ever got.

After the funeral - well, a good while later, really, but Steve still thinks about events like that, before and after, and this was in the after - Natasha had taken it on herself to go as his companion. And she liked to wear all the really fun disguises she never really got a chance to in the field, so the press had a series of field days about the apparent string of different women on his arm. Not much of it was flattering, in Steve’s opinion. But, well, who gave a damn? Hell, he would’ve taken Bucky on his arm, if Buck had turned out to be serious

And if he had survived, of course.

That’s always where those thoughts end. These days Steve’s a little better about not letting himself slip down a mope spiral, so he turns back from the shirts. Soldier’s eyeing him suspiciously. It’s possible Steve was straightening the rehung clothing with more care than was perhaps warranted. “You got your overshirts, champ?” Steve says, setting all that aside. “Great. Let’s go try on some jeans.”

Soldier gets serious about the pants, at least, once he sees the variety of multi-pocket cargos and pseudomilitary gear on offer. He picks out three pairs of black cargos with zippers and buttons and velcro, and doesn’t even protest when Steve snags a few grey and black shirts (Small) and chivvies him to the fitting rooms.

There’s only a few tiny cubicles, white pasteboard and linoleum harshly lit with fluorescents, several of which are flickering enough to look significantly haunted. Steve opens the door of the one with the bench next to it; Soldier stalks in while Steve sits down heavily and stretches his leg out, sighing. It’s at the point where he’s starting to really feel the pins in his knee and ankle and they’re getting to be more a hindrance than a help. Still a month before he can get them safely out, though, and Dr. Cho has enough experience working with his tissues that Steve trusts her timeline.

Steve fishes out his phone and gets the color matching game loading. He’s beaten all the levels and is just replaying at this point, but it’s still fun. Soothing. It’s a whole seven minutes before he realizes he hasn’t heard anything from Soldier inside the changing cubicle, not even cloth rustling.

“How’s it looking, champ?” he says, knocking his knuckles back against the door. “Champ?”

No answer. Steve, grunting slightly, leans down to look under the door. Soldier’s legs are definitely right there, in his borrowed jeans and heavy tac boots. Steve’s gotta get the kid sneakers. “Got yourself stuck in the zipper?”

No answer. No movement, either. Steve stands up, changing his grip on the cane and rolling out his shoulders. “I’m coming in, buddy,” he says, opening the door.

Soldier’s - fine, he’s right there, but he’s also staring at nothing and frozen to the spot. He got his shirt off, and his hat is on the bench, but it looks like he got stuck halfway through trying a new shirt on. The flickering fluorescent panel is right above the mirror, and Soldier’s half-turned away from it, stiff and trembling, his flesh shoulder hunched up as if to ward off a blow.

“Buddy,” Steve tries, swearing internally. “You with me?”

No change. Steve swears some more, bigger internal swears and then risks touching Soldier’s flesh elbow. It feels cold and clammy. Steve bites the bullet and closes in, leaning his cane against the wall to carefully put both arms around Soldier, bringing him in and pressing his face to Steve’s chest.

Soldier doesn’t resist, or even seem to notice. Steve puts one hand on the back of Soldier’s head and turns them further, blocking off as much of the mirror and the light as he can. Soldier shouldn’t be able to see much anyway, his forehead mashed to Steve’s clavicle. Hopefully that’ll take care of whatever the stimulus was.

Steve cautiously brings his other hand up and checks Soldier’s pulse. It’s a lot faster than it should be, his breathing too, so Steve sighs and rubs Soldier’s back between his shoulders and talks low about the first time he’d lost the plot in a massive grocery store and Sam had to talk him out of the yogurt aisle and how that’s fine and Walmart probably just does this to people.

He starts getting signs of life around minute seven. That’s good; he’d once had to sit in a gym bathroom with Natasha for nearly two hours before she was in any state to be mobile. The best thing to do would probably install Soldier in the greenhouse trough with a popsicle for a couple of hours, but right now Steve will settle for leaving this Walmart. “Hey,” he says gently, leaning back just enough to get a look at Soldier’s face. “You with me, champ?”

Soldier looks pretty emphatically not with him, but after a moment Steve gets a mechanical nod all the same. “Why don’t we get you out of here,” Steve tries. Another delayed nod.

“Alright,” Steve says. “Go straight outside and wait in the truck. Understand?” Nod. “What’re you gonna do?”

A couple more grams of recognition spark fitfully behind Soldier’s eyes. “Go straight outside.” He swallows laboriously, his eyes darting around briefly before returning to stare somewhere around Steve’s sternum. “Wait in the truck.”

“Good. That’s exactly right.” Steve rubs Soldier’s flesh shoulder again. “I’ll walk with you to the exit. Then I have to buy our things. After that I come right back out, and we go home. Alright? Understood?”

“Understood.”

“Good. Here are the keys. Come on, let’s get your shirt back on.”

Steve untangles them slow, keeping an arm around Soldier as he snags the shirt he’d come in with. Soldier mechanically lets Steve poke  his arms through the sleeves and button it up, staring at the ground, so Steve says, “Have I told you about the time I wiped out on my bike directly into a swamp full of crocodiles? Well, I was doing a hundred and five through the Everglades…”

They make it to the exit, Soldier marching stiffly under Steve’s arm. Steve pushes the door open, stepping out to the parking lot, and the gust of hot, humid air makes Soldier blink fast and look up, rallying a little. “There we go,” Steve says. “You got the keys?”

That makes Soldier look at him like he’s speaking Martian, so Steve gets the keys from Soldier’s pocket and folds Soldier’s flesh hand around them. “Go ahead and wait in the truck,” Steve says. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. I’ll buy our things and we go home. Understood?”

“Understood,” Soldier says creakily, none of his usual attitude, but he swivels towards the parking lot. He doesn’t quite seem to be able to figure out what happens next, though. Steve decides he better see this through and takes Soldier by the elbow again.

When they get to the truck Steve decides sunlight and sauna-like humidity are good for the body and soul, so he takes the car keys back, folds out the truck bed and sits Soldier down. “Take a break,” Steve tells him, unlocking the cabin and rolling the window down with the crank. “If you get too hot go sit inside. Here’s the keys. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Got it? Understood?”

“Understood,” Soldier repeats, and while he looks about as natural and relaxed as a plastic Halloween skeleton he’s at least holding onto the keys and blinking blearily at his surroundings. Steve takes it as a win.

He lopes back into the store, jogging around his limp, and just bundles up everything that was in the dressing room along with his cane. The checkout is where he gets stuck: there’s twenty people in line and only one register open. Fucking Walmart. Steve oozes through the line at the speed of water running uphill, racing through paying the cashier and finally making it back outside six minutes over the deadline he gave Soldier.

At first it seems like all is well - the truck is still there and no part of the parking lot is on fire, so Steve’ll take it. It’s not empty anymore, though: there are male voices out there of the pitch usually employed by Young Assholes, and they come into view, two men in the ubiquitous ballcap t-shirt and jeans, walking on the opposite side of an empty parking row from Soldier and the truck. Steve hears an indistinct word and some loud laughter a second before the dark shape of Soldier vaults out of the back of the truck and goes for the civilians like a guided missile.

Steve drops his bags and makes it across the lot in seven strides, adrenaline completely overriding the limp and the cane only coming along by dint of being hooked over his wrist. He doesn’t intercept so much as assume a collision course as Soldier cannons into him, and if the kid weighed even fifteen pounds more Steve might’ve toppled over.

As it is, it’s like catching a hundred and fifty pounds of landed barracuda. “Whoa, whoa,” Steve manages, as Soldier very nearly flips over his shoulder. “What’s going on? What happened?”

“I’ll kill them,” Soldier hisses, all traces of earlier unresponsiveness gone; he’s writhing like a rabid possum. “What happened?” Steve repeats, trying to grapple Soldier around enough to make his feet touch the ground. “What did they do?”

“They called me a dyke!”

Steve frowns. “A what?”

“That’s not my name!”

“It’s not,” Steve agrees. He’s managed to hold Soldier at arm’s length, feeling his body vibrating under his hands, but the look on Soldier’s face is very motivated and it’s not gonna hold him for long. “What’s a dyke?”

This seems to stymie Soldier briefly, but it doesn’t last long. “They laughed!”

“Right,” Steve says, making an executive decision. “Get in the truck.”

“I’ll kill them,” Soldier snarls, redoubling his struggle.

“No,” Steve says, leveraging his hold on Soldier’s shoulders and trying to walk him backwards. “Go sit in the truck.”

“What?”

“I said go sit in the truck.”

“No!”

“Soldier,” Steve says, pressing his palm to the side of Soldier’s face to keep it still and bending down to look him in the eyes. They’re grey, a kind of grey Steve doesn’t think about often and won’t now. It’s not important. “They’re over by the store now. The store has cameras all around the outside, and people and employees who might see you through the doors. You go over there, you get recorded or seen. Understand? Sit down.”

“No!”

“I’ll bring them to you.”

This seems to surprise Soldier enough that he quits fighting, and Steve pushes him down to sit in the truck bed as gently as he can. “Wait here,” he repeats, hoping it’ll stick, and limps off around the truck.

The two guys are looking back at them, and once they realize Steve’s heading their way they appear to be having an argument. One of them seems to want to retreat to the store while the other is visibly puffing himself up. Steve leans harder on his cane and limps prodigiously.

The puffing one seems to win. “Yeah?” he says as Steve nears. “What do you want?”

“Depends,” Steve says, closing the last of the distance. “You gonna come back with me and apologize?”

The two of them both gape at him for a second before Puffin recovers. “No fucking way,” he swears. “For what? You a fag too?”

Steve sighs. “In your lexicon, yeah, probably,” he says, then, while they’re trying to figure out what he said, whacks Puffin on the shins with his cane and grabs Coward by the scruff of the neck.

Puffin yells and grabs for him, naturally, so Steve uses the cane to spin him around and hook one arm behind his back. He reels both of them in, changing his grip on Coward just enough so he won’t try anything creative, and marches them all back towards the truck.

Around halfway there they seem to have an epiphany and really start struggling, so Steve adjusts his grip again and lifts both of them off the ground. This seems to activate Coward’s limp kitten reflex, but Puffin squawks “What the fuck!” just as Steve gets back to the car.

Soldier is watching these theatricals with his mouth hanging open. Steve hefts the two starring antagonists and makes sure they’re looking at Soldier. “Apologize,” he tells them.

They do not get the message. Puffin especially redoubles his ardent wiggles, scratching frantically at Steve’s shoulder. “What the fuck! This is assault! Let me go!”

“I will,” Steve says. Soldier has yet to get rid of his guppy impression. It’s kind of cute. Steve winks at him. “Just as soon as you apologize.”

“Fuck you!”

“I can be here all day,” Steve says mildly. It’s not a strain to hold them up. His shoulder’s really improved in the past few weeks; he should start lifting weights again. “Apologize.”

“I’ll call the fucking cops, you fucking faggot -”

“Andy! Just say you’re fucking sorry so we can fucking go!” Coward bursts out, in a fit of perspicacity. “Come on! Just do it!”

“No fucking way!” Puffin Andy yells, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that his shoes are a good two feet from the ground. “What’s he gonna do, huh? He’s just fucking standing there! Fuck you!”

“You’re right,” Steve says. “This isn’t much of an incentive. Soldier, help me take their pants off.”

Suicidal Andy gives a screech and starts kicking like a donkey. Then he freezes and goes quiet, because Soldier’s stood up and drawn a knife. It’s not one of the utilitarian hunting knives Steve gave him from the bait shop. This blade is black, anodized, and there is no mistaking it for anything but a weapon.

And now Steve’s got to tread carefully, because Soldier’s not in the most stable place and Steve’s holding up two civilians who probably don’t deserve to have parts cut off just because they’re fucking morons.

Luckily, Soldier does not immediately go for the throat. “I don’t want your pants,” he says menacingly. “I want your wallets.”

“Hey, come on, we’re not going to mug them just because they’re idiots,” Steve says. “That’s not nice. And what do you need money for? I know you know where my wallet is. And all the cash in the house besides.”

“I don’t want their money,” Soldier says in scathing incredulity. “I want their photo identification. I’ll have your names,” he says, attention back on the dastardly duo, making the knife do a flickering kind of flip over his fingers. “And I’ll know your address.”

Suicidal Andy and his slightly more self-preserving friend try to turtle back inside their shirts while trying not to make any visible movements. Soldier might be wearing clothes four sizes too big and a champion pie hat but there’s nothing funny about his stance and his hold on the knife is pure professional. “This is why you shouldn’t yell names at strange people in parking lots,” Steve says. “Some of them might turn out to be us. Now apologize before we decide to make the lesson stick.”

“Sorry,” squeaks out Self-Preservationist, thank god, with Puffin Andy half a beat behind.

“Good,” Steve says, giving them both a friendly shake. “Don’t call people dyke.” Then he drops them, using the motion to step forward and block whatever Soldier might feel moved to do.

He does lunge forward, but he bounces off Steve’s chest too easily for it to have been a lethal attempt, and it gets the terrible two scrambling. Steve doesn’t really think Soldier’s gonna go after them for real this time, but just to make sure he steps forward and scoops Soldier up, one arm diagonal around his waist.

Soldier immediately bites Steve’s shoulder, probably entirely out of shock, because in the next second he’s back to the usual wet-cat thrashing. Steve grins as he carries Soldier one-armed to the passenger seat. “Bought you those underwear,” he says, over Soldier loudly spitting what must be the terrible, terrible taste of Steve’s t-shirt out of his mouth.

“Put me down!”

“Gladly,” Steve says, depositing Soldier in the seat and then piling some of the library books into his lap to stop him from leaping up again. He shuts the door on a sputtering Soldier and gets around to the driver’s side, starting the truck and peeling out before they can have any more charming encounters with local wildlife.

Soldier spends half the ride home leveling a stare like a buzzsaw at the side of Steve’s head. Steve considers ignoring it a little longer, but then again, probably best not to let this ferment. The second he glances over Soldier immediately snaps, “I was handling it.”

“Sure,” Steve says. “But we don’t kill people in parking lots just because they’re idiots. Otherwise we just wouldn’t have enough hours in the day.”

“They were bastards,” Soldier says with feeling.

“Sure,” Steve says. “And they got their comeuppance. Do you think they didn’t?”

“No,” Soldier says mulishly.

Well, time for The Talk. “Alright. What do you want to do?” Steve asks. “We could find them. Ask around, get their names, their addresses. Slip in at night and slit their throats while they sleep. Then they’ll never call anyone names ever again. Never do anything else, either, but hey. And then, well, we can’t stop there, can we? There’s a prison about thirty miles away. I know for a fact there’s a man in there who got drunk and ran over a little girl a couple months ago. She was three. I think that’s worse than calling someone a name, don’t you? Let’s get him too. And while we’re there, well - it’s a prison. Everybody in there’s got to have done something . We can’t just let them get away with -”

“Stop,” Soldier says. “Stop. Fucking stop.”

“You don’t want to kill them?”

“No.”

“Alright,” Steve says equably. “Me neither.”

Soldier sits hunched for the rest of the drive, burning a hole out the passenger window with his eyes. When they pull into the farmhouse clearing he angrily grabs up his stack of library books and makes to beeline for the barn, but Steve stops him with a hand on the shoulder.

“We gotta keep those on the bookshelves,” Steve says. “They’re not our property. We can’t keep them anywhere they might get damp or animals might get at them.”

Soldier scowls, but he does shift direction to face the house instead. His scowl deepens. “Door’s always open,” Steve says. “And you can read wherever. We just gotta keep the books where they belong.”

Soldier hasn’t made any motion to remove Steve’s touch, but his shoulder feels rock hard with tension. Steve drops his hand. Soldier immediately heads for the house with his books, not looking back.

Steve watches him go, thoughtful. Lifting those two kids in the parking lot hasn’t given him the shoulder trouble he thought it would. He really should step up his workouts. Under normal conditions Steve’s body tends to go squirrelly without a daily workout that involves some kind of sparring, but so far his system seems to have its hands full just regrowing various tissues. He does his PT and all, but that stuff’s pretty tame compared to what he used to do before breakfast every morning.

Hell, maybe he’ll take Soldier jogging.  

Steve looks over at the house. Soldier, still in his borrowed shirt and jeans, has installed himself on the roof next to the moss-covered chimney and opened a book. Steve grins and goes to ferry the groceries out of the truck.