The Winter Soldier is coming to like not being cold. It’s vastly different from what he’s used to, so he'd been worried at first that his initial enjoyment wouldn't last, but even after sixty-seven hours imprisoned in the Avengers Compound he still enjoys it. He now thinks it unlikely that it would become unpleasant.
He has a cell near the center of the building, which he has not tried to escape. Security cameras track his every move, and the walls of the cell are thicker than his thigh on the one side that opens to the outside world. That side of the cell is curved and see-through so that the Avengers can monitor him constantly.
To conserve heat, he sits curled up against the back wall, in the corner most thoroughly covered by the security cameras. When people come to interrogate him or scan him or just stare at him, the way the tall blonde man does, he stands up and moves to the center of the transparent wall so that they can see him properly, then returns to huddle in the corner once they have gone. Some of them come to see him only once, but others he sees often. He suspects that several individuals, including the blonde man who stares at him and the technician in charge of the scans and the cell’s security, never really went away. One of them had mentioned a control room just outside where the cameras and the scans send their results. If he had to guess, he’d say they went to that room when they left this one.
There are multiple technicians, but only one of them works with the Asset. The others only duck their heads in to relay the results of the scans. The one who stays is called Tony Stark, and he is more powerful than the other technicians. It takes a while for him to figure this out, since normally the influential or important techs manage to avoid working with him by citing their usefulness and how little HYDRA command would want to risk losing them if the Asset malfunctioned.
This technician even goes so far as to touch him. He’d held the Asset’s shoulder in place so he could remove the arm when he’d first arrived at the Compound, then played around with the wires until his shoulder didn’t hurt anymore.
Sometimes the blonde man, who tells the Asset to call him Steve, hovers over the technician’s shoulder and asks questions about each little detail. It clearly annoys the technician, but he only rarely makes Steve leave.
More often, though, Steve asks him questions. That was the first clue that he’s going to be one of his new handlers. Handlers always have a list of questions to ask him about things that he remembers. He isn’t mission-ready until a handler has verified that he doesn’t remember any of the items on the list.
The questions Handler Steve asks aren’t the same as the ones past handlers have asked, but that is to be expected. Those were HYDRA handlers, Steve is an Avengers handler. His priorities are probably different.
He’s not very good at answering Handler Steve’s questions, though. At first he thought he was doing well. Not only did he not remember any of the events he asked about, he didn’t have any clue why they might be important or what they might have to do with him. Halfway through the second interrogation, however, realization hits him like a bucket of cold water.
Who is Bucky, I don’t know and I don’t remember are the wrong answers.
Things only go downhill from there with Handler Steve. He gets louder and more assertive, and demands that the technician allow him to join the Asset in the cell. A cold wave of fear rushes through the Asset’s body, and he tries harder to impress upon the man that he doesn’t know anything and that he would do what was asked of him. This just upsets the Handler more. After a few minutes, the Asset realizes that speaking is only making things worse. At this rate, he’s definitely going to be punished. Rather than make things worse, he falls silent and stares at the empty patch of wall behind Handler Steve.
Finally the technician has to come and drag the man away from the Asset’s cell.
The Asset returns to his corner and awaits maintenance and punishment. By his estimation he waits for an hour before the technician returns. He doesn’t mind the wait. It’s not cold, and there’s no Chair in his cell, nor anything else that shocks him when he touches it. He’s content to wait for as long as necessary.
When the technician returns, the Asset gets out of his corner so that he can clearly see him through the glass. The technician rubs his forehead and consults with a tablet.
“So, since Steve is a shit interrogator, I’ll ask you the questions he was supposed to ask you, alright? You won’t be punished, no matter what you answer. This isn’t some sort of test you can pass, so just forget about that. We just want to know where things stand before we move forward. Now, why did you come to the Compound?”
“I don’t remember,” the Asset replies. “It may come back to me later, but right now I can’t remember.”
“Okay. Memory problems, then? Can you tell me more about that? Are we talking memories coming back, and you remembered Steve or something? Are you losing memories? Like, HYDRA screwed around with your brain so much that it’s deteriorating right now or something? Are you going to remember this conversation tomorrow?”
“All memories since the latest maintenance session are intact. Memories predating latest maintenance session but after first maintenance session come and go. Memories predating maintenance suspected, but not confirmed. If they exist, they are not accessible.”
The technician’s face twists and cracks, and he taps out a note on the tablet resting on his lap.
“Alrighty then, that’s. That’s not going to be good enough for Steve, and I really don’t want to have to physically restrain him. Can you tell me what you do remember from before your last maintenance session? ”
He says the last two words with subdued poison, which combined with the comment about the tall blonde man makes the Asset’s heartbeat speed up. He knows that tone. It means that information is more important than punishment, and so the punishment will wait. It means that his handler needs to rein in their fury just long enough to find out what happened, but no longer. He’s never heard a technician use it. They aren’t affected by missions unless the Asset himself malfunctions as part of the aftermath, and even if they were, they don’t have the authority to punish, though they can assist a handler in carrying punishments out.
He thought Handler Steve was the only handler, but if the technician has the power to restrain him, then he must be a higher-ranked handler, or perhaps even higher up the chain of command than handlers.
He hopes he was just a higher-ranked handler. Faces flit through his mind like butterfly wings, fluttering and moving before he could get a good look at them. A memory pounds against the back of his mind, and he can almost feel the electric fizzle of it. He doesn’t remember why people ranked higher than handlers were to be avoided, but he knows that they were.
He needs to answer the technician-no, Handler Stark . There’s still reason to hope that he is merely a handler, so Handler he will be.
“I remember the locations of various pick up and drop off locations, as well as several names and faces, not all matched and only about half with context. I will probably forget approximately one third of them during my next sleep cycle, though I will remember some new ones to replace them. I remember a few missions partially, and one or two missions in their entirety. Those I have also been forgetting and then remembering. They are difficult to hold on to.”
“When was your last maintenance session?” Handler Stark asks. His face is as blanka s a slab of white ice.
“I do not know. Maintenance was done improperly due to Asset malfunction, and my sleep cycles were unstable for several days afterwards. I often lost consciousness abruptly, and was not always able to find out how long unconsciousness lasted. It has been two months since regaining control of my sleep cycles.”
“What do you remember about Steve? Actually, it’d be great if you could tell us what you can remember about any Avenger or SHIELD agent, but Steve is going to have a stress-induced heart attack if he doesn’t know where he stands with you. I’m sure he’s wearing a hole in the control room floor as we speak.”
Stark makes a pointed face at one of the cameras as he says the last part.
“I have no memory of him. I remembered him yesterday, I think. He was part of why I came here. And I remembered a small, sick man two weeks ago who had something to do with him, but I don’t remember what. I don’t remember the sick man now either, just that his face was floating around in my head for a while. I might remember him again tomorrow, though.”
Stark looks a little more tired with each word, but he doesn’t get angry or try and jog his memory, so he decides nothing bad will come of his report.
“No wonder Nat said this was going to be a hard job. Jesus. Okay, do you remember any of the rest of us?”
“Does one of you have wings?” Faint images of a winged human figure against the sky slip away before he can get a handle on them. Every time he tries to put a name to the memory, he somehow ends up thinking of various bird names, sometimes in English and sometimes not.
“That would be Sam. What do you remember about him?”
“That he was in the sky.”
“Okay, so not a lot. Though to be fair, the whole ‘being in the sky’ thing is the most memorable thing. Flying is pretty awesome. So, Sam’s the only one?”
The Asset has never been asked so many open-ended questions. Usually his handlers could ask his STRIKE team or someone else on his support team those sorts of questions. He just reported, then submitted to the wipe. His brain is starting to feel stretched. He hopes it stretches enough to tear. It won’t be nice, but if there’s a hole in his mind perhaps the memories of Handler Steve will come through the hole. He really wants to remember Handler Steve.
Handler Stark visits his cell that night with a bundle under his arm, and the Asset realizes that the time had come for him to make himself useful. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he supposes the Avengers had plenty of enemies they’d like to have him take care of. At the very least they’ll want him on the field with them, lending the twin power of the Serum and his brutal training to their side of the fight.
The handler punches a code into a pad on the wall, and a piece of the wall swings open. Stark puts the bundle into the cubby, then shuts it, leaving smooth wall behind. A similarly-sized section of the back wall of the Asset’s cell slides open, revealing the bundle. He dutifully accepts it, then carefully unrolls it so that the weapons inside wouldn’t clatter to the floor.
Only there aren’t any weapons.
He shakes the cloth lightly, then fully unrolls it on the floor. Still nothing.
He looks up at the handler, who’s staring at him. He wants to ask if the handler forgot the weapons, except that he knows that questioning handlers is a bad plan. He tries to think of something else he can ask to clarify the situation, but nothing he can think of is safe. He has no information, and weapons don’t have thoughts. Weapons just obey. And he would obey, if he only knew what Handler Stark wanted.
The handler just stares at him. The heartbeats stretch and time feels too fast, like someone had greased the seconds with soap so they’d slip by more quickly.
Eventually, the handler will give him an order, even if it’s just to hurry up and do whatever it is that this cloth was supposed to prompt him to do. Speaking up would be a mistake. No one accepts backtalk from their weapons. He falls into parade rest and looks at the handler’s feet.
“It’s a blanket,” Stark says.
The Asset’s eyes spring back up to his face. The handler looks bemused, but not violent. The Asset hasn’t screwed up that badly, then.
Stark pauses, then continued, speaking slowly and deliberately.
“You wrap it around yourself, and it keeps you warm.”
The Asset leans down automatically and lifts the blanket off the floor. He wraps it carefully around his shoulders, making sure there’s an equal amount of fabric on each side of his body, then looks back to the handler for further instructions.
“I thought you looked kinda cold, you know, with the curling up in a ball in the corner and the rubbing your legs together and the shivering. I thought upping the temperature would fix that, but you still looked a little chilly.”
The Asset holds the blanket a little closer to himself. There is no mission. Handler Stark just wants him to be warm.
“Thank you,” he says, because the handler seems to be waiting for some sort of reaction from him, and he doesn’t want to contradict the handler by telling him that he wasn’t cold, not like the ice and the HYDRA labs and the Russian north. Contradicting handlers was forbidden.
“Great!” Stark claps his hands together loudly. “I’ll be back with some bedding, and you can start sleeping like a person again. I gotta tell you, that whole thing where you go into a trance and then jump into fight-to-the-death mode the second a mouse takes a step in the next room is really creepy, and probably not a good replacement for sleep. Or for Natasha’s sleep. I don’t think she’s willing to drop her guard while you are conscious.”
The Asset stays silent, and after a few seconds Handler Stark leaves.
Once he’s alone again, he retreats to his corner and holds the blanket tightly against himself. With a little experimentation, he finds that if he starts from one side, rather than the middle, he can wrap it around himself nearly three times and still have a little left over to hold in his one hand.
The blanket is softer than his clothes, which are stiff and dirty from his time on the run from HYDRA. When he curls against the corner, it cushions his back a little, and the wall doesn’t leach away his body warmth quite so fast.
Slowly, his body warms up. It’s a nice feeling, like all the ice in his mind is melting away, leaving it liquid and runny. His concentration slips for a moment, and a memory of a different blanket wrapped around a small, sick boy seeps up through a crack in the ice, then sinks down again.
He likes being warm even more than he likes being not cold.
Not long after leaving, Handler Stark returns, this time carrying a mass of blankets so large they completely block his body from the Asset’s view. If it weren’t for the muttering, the Asset might have believed that piles of blankets just floated in the Avengers compound.
When he reaches the section of wall that opened last time, he drops the pile on the floor and smiles at the Asset.
“I can’t fit a mattress through, and Nat said the little air pump thing that would inflate an air mattress was too close to a weapon, so you’re just going to have to make yourself a nest out of these.”
The Asset’s eyes stay glued on the blankets.
Handler Stark makes several very undignified attempts to get the whole mass of blankets through the opening in the wall. The Asset works to keep up his wariness of this man. No one at the handler level should ever be underestimated, but he would be lying if he said this little display was in any way intimidating.
Eventually, the handler gives up and sends the blankets through in smaller clumps. He seems put out by this, and tells someone named Jarvis, who must work in the control room, to remind him to make shrinkable blankets.
After he leaves, the Asset wraps the blankets around himself until he’s lying like a butterfly in a cocoon.
That night, he dreams of the tall blonde man, and everything is warm. That’s probably because the sky is on fire, and they are running. He doesn’t like this warmth quite as much as the warmth from blankets, but he does like the tall blond man, which is strange, since he certainly hadn’t liked him much earlier.
But this version of Handler Steve doesn’t ask hard questions, and soon enough they stop running. They’ve reached a tall, tall tower that rises above the fire and smoke, and Handler Stark is waiting at the top.
With a grin, the Asset starts to climb the tower. Behind him, Handler Steve follows, and he’s so, so warm.
When he wakes up in the morning, the landscape of his memory has rearranged itself again, and the prospect of seeing Handler Steve again is no longer quite so terrifying. Steve is a good person, if sometimes troublesome and blind to the consequences of his actions. He is kind, and he was Bucky’s best friend before Bucky died and the Asset rose from his ashes.
He wasn’t expecting Handler Steve to ugly cry into the glass wall separating them while attempting to simultaneously declare his undying commitment to their friendship through a thickly-running nose, but it’s much better than another interrogation.
The Asset waits for him to stop sobbing so he can talk properly. He waits for a long, long time.
The Asset liked Handler Stark.
Stark chattered, yes, but that was better than Handler Steve’s painful questions and sad eyes. Stark babbled like a brook- he didn't expect his audience to reciprocate. There were no wrong answers with him.
Handler Stark had never known Bucky Barnes, whom he had learned about in long information sessions with Handler Steve that he hated and dreaded as if they were punishments, so the Asset and the ghost of the man he'd been forged from were on equal footing in a way they weren't with Handler Steve. He didn't get upset when the a weapon answered his questions instead of a person while he ran maintenance and gave upgrades to his arm, but he didn't bat an eyelash when he played at being a person either. It made it easier to approach him with requests.
Requests were relatively new. None of his Hydra handlers had indulged him so, but his new handlers had been very clear that his role was different now, and that this new role came with new privileges. The Asset had been very careful to make his requests few and far between to avoid angering his new handlers into revoking the privilege of asking. So far there had been no negative responses to his cautious requests, which was why the Asset was finally prepared to come forward with this particular request.
Handler Stark must have noticed that he was tense, but he chose to wait for him to bring it up.
After several minutes of quiet coexistence, he finally finds the words to ask.
“Tony?” He asks. He was surprised to learn that Handler Stark prefers casual forms of address, but it is an easy order to follow. He’s not alone; none of the Avengers like being called ‘Handler,’ though they have not volunteered a replacement title.
“Yes Dear?” Handler Stark replies lightly. The Asset is still getting used to his style of address, but he thinks that once he gets used to it, he will like it nearly as much as he likes the blankets he still hasn’t been asked to return.
“Can you tell Steve that Bucky is dead, so he doesn’t have to keep trying to find him in me?”
Handler Stark winces. “Yeah, he’s not going to take that very well. Anything else you’d like me to say, something that won’t get me thrown out the window of my own building?”
The Asset tilts his head in confusion.
“Why would he attack you? You are more powerful than him, and you control his living quarters.”
Handler Stark sighs.
“It’s not that simple. Or I guess, it’s much simpler than that, for Steve at least. He doesn’t like giving up. Besides, you two seemed perfectly fine yesterday. You were chatting up such a storm Clint couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and that’s saying something.”
The Asset shakes his head.
“But I don’t remember him today, and that made him so much worse than he was before. I remember what we talked about yesterday, but he thinks that means that I remember the things themselves, rather than just talking about them. He wants things I can not give, and I don’t want to be punished. But he does not listen when I tell him that.”
“Hey, first of all, Steve’s never gonna punish you. Never.”
The Asset looks down so Handler Stark won’t see the disbelief on his face, but he must pick up on the sentiment anyway, because he sighs and breaks off whatever speech he was going to give before he can properly get started.
“Okay, I’ll talk to him.”
The next day, Steve comes down to the lab.
The Asset freezes when he appears. Handler Steve has never come to the lab before, and Handler Stark’s words about getting thrown out the window blast through his mind at full volume. His heart beats a little faster. He subtly moves to put himself between Handler (just Steve!) from Handler Stark (he wants to be called Tony, get their names right Asset), but Steve just keeps right on walking towards them.
The Asset prepares to leap to Tony’s defense, but rather than continue to the back of the workshop, where Tony is spread out on his back under the lower half of the Iron Man suit, he curves over to the couch pressed up against the wall, near where the Asset was sitting.
“Hey Buck,” He says softly. The Asset considers reminding him that he is not Bucky, but decides not to antagonize him unnecessarily. He falls out of his battle stance, though he stays where he is rather than taking the offered seat.
“I’m sorry I keep messing this up. You don’t deserve that. But Bucky, please believe me. I would never hurt you. I want to help you.”
He looks up at the Asset with wide, determined eyes, and the Asset trembles inside. He’s not sure he wants all that devotion turned on him. He’s not even sure that devotion is for him. Handler Rogers, Steve talks endlessly about a person the Asset can’t remember and how he and that strange person were inseparable.
Then, a strange thing happens. Those terrifyingly soft eyes slip from his face to somewhere behind and to his left. A hint of sheepishness briefly flickers across his expression.
“I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t like being called Bucky.”
“I don’t mind it,” The Asset says.
Steve sighs. “It’s okay, I can stop it. If it will make you more comfortable, I’ll do it.”
The Asset shuffles a little bit closer to the couch. He wants to sit down and cuddle up against Steve like he remembered this morning that he used to do and just forget about this entire conversation, but he also wants to see what other wild things Steve Rogers will promise him.
“You can call me Bucky,” he mumbles. “That is my name, and everyone says I’m supposed to use those now. The problem is that I’m not that Bucky.”
Steve gives him the biggest, saddest, confused puppy eyes he’s ever seen. “What do you mean?”
The Asset (he doesn’t have to call himself Bucky in the privacy of his own head) tightens every muscle in his body so he won’t shrink in on himself. He doesn’t remember Steve today, but he remembers the feeling of remembering him, of wanting to reconnect with him and sit next to him and hold him like a big warm friend-shaped pillow, so he can’t shy away now. Especially when Tony clearly went out of his way to talk to the guy for him.
“I don’t remember the things that made your Bucky Bucky, ” he forces out through a throat squeezed tight by tension and the fear of this pushy, single-minded man that lingers whenever his memories aren’t around to hold it at bay. “But when I do remember them, I - They’re just such warm memories. Whenever I remember you, I want to try and be your friend again. But that’s because I like the you I remember, not because I am the man who made those memories.”
The Asset glances to Handler Stark (Tony!) for support, and he nods encouragingly. It occurs to the Asset that Steve coming down here put him at a powerful disadvantage.
And then that silly man holds up a god-damned cue-card that says ‘go for the emotional jugular. Don’t leave him any room to pretend.’ It’s written in sharpie, and there’s a bunch more that he’s just now noticing, half-hidden behind whatever technological marvel Tony’s working on. Dear God, the man must have been prepared for the Asset to crash and burn, and now he almost wishes that he had just so he could see how Tony planned to save him.
He swallows, looks at Steve’s big puppy dog eyes, and follows Tony’s advice. “I know that when you say Bucky , you’re talking about that other person. He’s not here for your to be friends with, though.”
Steve shudders, and the Asset is aware of all the little hairs that stand up on his arm like trampled grass slowly pushing itself up again. He wonders if those weren’t the right words, if Steve is going to keep trying to talk to the man from before, if this was all in vain-
And then Steve wraps a careful, warm arm around his shoulders, pulls him against his side and says, “Okay.”
"Hey, you cold? I can get you a sweatshirt or something if you want."
The Asset shook his head. Cold was so much worse than this. Cold was pain and falling and ice. Cold was his body and brain peeling away from each other like an orange skin from the fruit inside, leaving him open and bleeding to be picked apart by HYDRA. This wasn't cold. This was... The absence of warmth, perhaps.
He knew that he probably couldn't be warm all the time. Being warm was a special sort of gift, and one couldn't receive gifts all the time. Besides, he probably didn't deserve to be warm all the time. He had killed a lot of people. He had paid pounds of flesh to be able to squeeze warm throats in his fist like those warm little packets the STRIKE team sometimes used, to feel hot blood run through the plates of his metal arm and drip onto the ground below.
He wrapped his arms a little tighter around himself.
"You sure? I've got a lot of those novelty sweaters Pepper rolls her eyes at down here. I've gotta stash the best ones down here or Rhodey'll try and steal them. He claims he thinks they're dumb, but he likes to wear them when he's off duty." Tony stage whispered conspiratorially.
The Asset didn't know what a novelty was, but if Tony liked them then they were probably good.
With a small smile Tony got up and went over to a cupboard towards the back of the workshop. He must have seen the Asset's curiosity. The Asset resisted the urge to follow him over. Tony might be more brilliant and wonderful than any other lab techs in the world, but he was still a lab tech, and lab techs didn't like it when he moved towards them. He wouldn't kill Tony like he'd killed them, but Tony might not believe him if he told him that.
Tony kneeled down and began rummaging through the cupboard. Every once in a while he'd lift something up and giggle, but he seemed to be looking for something in particular. At last he pulled away and stood up. The Asset tried to get a better look at the thing in his hands, but Tony had it all bunched up in his hands, so he couldn't say much about it for sure.
"Why don't you try this on for size? I bought one of their bigger sizes because I was going to use it as part of a prank that I never really got around to pulling on Bruce, so it should fit you," Tony said as he walked back over. He unfolded the clump so that he could see it properly.
It was a sweater, the Asset realized. It had a picture of Tony with cat ears and whiskers holding a cat covered in Iron Man armor on the front. He reached out and ran his fingers along the whiskers. It felt soft like the blankets in his cell.
He slowly accepted it from Tony, doing his best not to make any sudden movements and scare him, then slid it over his head and wriggled into it like he used to when he put on his old tactical gear.
This was much nicer than his old tactical gear. Much softer, too. He wanted to rub the fabric against his skin just to feel that softness some more, or curl into a tighter ball so that he could slip his knees inside it too. He didn’t, of course. That might stretch or otherwise damage the cloth.
“It looks good on you,” Tony sayd. He looked like he’s holding back laughter the way some of the other techs did in the past, but Bucky didn’t think the sweater is going to shock him or anything like that. He would have felt a wire if there was one. “Feel free to borrow it whenever you want. In fact, just take it. Pepper can’t take it from you , and it’s not like I don’t have lots more of them. Unfortunately, Captain Serious doesn’t like novelty sweaters, or really any novelty clothing, which, I mean, that’s fair. There’s a lot of pretty tasteless ones out there. Some of which I may have bought. See, I know in hindsight that that might have been a bad move, but in the moment I was only thinking about how fabulous it was that he hadn’t even been out of the ice for a year and they already had sweaters that look like that spangly outfit of his with a star-shaped boob window and the words ‘government certified beef’ on the back.”
The Asset contemplated whether or not he should interrupt Tony’s ramblings. He still doesn’t know what a novelty is, but he doesn’t want the flow of words to stop. It’s soothing, and he knows that if he just lets him keep going, Tony could talk for hours.
Perhaps he could have both. Tony might answer his question and then get on a tangent related to that instead. Satisfied with his conclusion, he waits for Tony to stop for breath, then asks.
“What does novelty mean?”
Tony paused before he answered, and Bucky breathed through the sudden silence.
“Huh, did they even have novelty clothes in Ye Olden Days? I mean, they probably didn’t have boob windows or computer images, but did little old ladies crochet, like, dinosaurs drinking tea or something? Maybe Steve would like something like that better. Well, Winter Wonder, a novelty sweater, or a novelty anything really, isn’t the tasteful, mass-produced clothing you normally wear, but often ugly, humorous crap with funny stuff on it. Being ugly isn’t a prerequisite, mind you, but it’s often a side-effect. I love them, and I buy all the good Avengers ones, so have at them if you ever want one.”
The Asset nodded in acknowledgement of the gift. He couldn’t make his face smile like Steve’s, though he wanted to. He wasn’t good enough with words to thank Tony properly, so it would be better if he could thank him physically. He resolved to practice.
After a few moments of silence, Tony called up another hologram and sat down next to the Asset on the couch. He began designing something, talking all the time about the different tweaks he was making and why, about humorous failures and missteps he’d made earlier in the project, and translated commentary from the bots, which rolled around the lab freely.
His arm was warm where it pressed against the Asset’s side, and it permeated through the soft sweater to warm his entire left side. The Asset sank into the feeling as though into a warm bath.
“You know,” Steve says out of the blue one day, when the Asset can remember the years leading up to the war well enough to reminisce with him about being young and unbroken and ready to face whatever the world threw at them, “If you wanted to sleep with Tony, he’d probably say yes.”
The Asset does want to sleep with him. He sometimes does, when Tony can’t sleep and the Asset manages to find more than one blanket to share between them. He doesn’t think that’s what Steve means.
“He doesn’t mind guys,” Steve continues, “And that sort of thing isn’t taboo like it used to be. Not in New York, anyway.” His eyes are a little unfocused, and the tightness around his smile tells the Asset that he’s forcing his way through this conversation, the way he forces his way through everything. He’s not surprised; even when he wakes up without a single memory of pre-everything Steve, he remembers the star-spangled idiot on the bridge that used a shield as an offensive weapon.
“I don’t want to have sex with anyone,” the Asset says, “Not anymore.” Steve might think they need to have this conversation, but Steve is wrong.
“Okay,” he says, some of the battle stance leaking from his propaganda-perfect muscles. “Have you told Tony that? I mean- there’s a certain expectation that comes with sharing a bed, you know. And Tony’s a very physical person.”
“We just sleep.”
Steve holds his hands up in a parody of defeat that almost makes the Asset laugh. As if Steve would ever accept defeat.
Later, he slinks down to the workshop, wondering if maybe Steve was right to shove the issue in his face where he couldn’t ignore it.
Tony smiles bright and welcoming at him, and pats his thigh. The Asset melts to the floor like chocolate and settles his head in Tony’s lap. It’s easy and sweet, and he sinks right into it.
The Asset can feel his mind stabilizing. His memories from before Hydra are still patchy and prone to disappearing, but so much time has passed that he can fall back on steadier, stronger memories of his time since Hydra. Each morning is less of a freezing freefall, reaching out for whatever memory branch he can grab a hold of to keep from falling so far into the abyss that he can never climb back out.
He still only occasionally remembers what Steve looked like before the Serum, but Steve seems to have made his peace with that.
Aside from Steve, he finds himself spending his time with Tony. He discovered one chilly night under a comforter on the lab couch that when Tony talked, Tony talked like a rolling wave that the Asset could just ride from one swell to the next. It was peaceful, and Tony was almost certainly doing it for him.
They have a peaceful routine. Whenever he’s feeling a bit too cold, he comes on down to the lab with a thick blanket or a novelty sweater and cuddles up against Tony while he works. Tony calls it their penguin routine. They talk, Tony with words and the Asset with a mixture of sound and touch. Little by little, the cold is beaten back.
It takes a while for the Asset to realize that he’s slowly but surely bringing the blankets Tony gave him on that first night and bringing them down into the lab. He’s pretty sure Tony notices at some point before the entire bed/nest blanket complex has been reconstructed, and takes the continued encouragement to ‘come on down whenever you like, Bucky, I am always down to cuddle. I am right below an octopus on the would-cuddle-you-to-death spectrum. Gimme that arm.’
Tonight, the nest is finally reconstructed, and the Asset wonders how he should proceed. He wants to sleep down here with Tony tonight, to be warm and safe and pressed up against him all night long. Natasha warned him that Tony likes sex and one-night bed-warmers but the Asset thinks he’ll understand. He’s understood everything else so far.
So when it gets dark out and Tony’s eyes begin to droop, he carefully scoots him over to the nest and lays him out on his back so there’s no pressure on the arc reactor. As he hesitantly curls against Tony’s strong, warm back, he hears a little chuckle, almost like a sleep-laugh.
“Do you want me to hold you back?”
The Asset smiles.
“Do you want this to be a regular thing?”
“Then come closer, I could fit an ice sculpture of myself between us. Cuddle me like you mean it.”