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Free As My Hair

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1.

There is no briefing on the Winter Soldier, not for HYDRA's rookies. The history and maintenance of the asset is on a strictly need to know basis, and Brock Rumlow, twenty-four and freshly recruited from SHIELD, doesn't need to know a damn thing. His CO makes it clear that this is not a collaborative effort: the team is only there as backup and they won't be needed. Don't talk to the Soldier, they're ordered, don't touch the Soldier, don't get in his way. He's HYDRA's best and he's worth more than all their lives combined.

He doesn't look like the best of the best, Rumlow thinks when the famed Soldier is led into their transport. He looks like a pussy. He doesn't speak or move, just stares off into space like he's Rain Man. He's apparently too special for regulation hairstyles and the way his locks frame his blank face, it's like he's trying to be Brad Pitt.

The only impressive thing about him is the metal arm, and Rumlow thinks that's due to scientific advancement and not the body it's fused onto.

At least, that's the only impressive thing until they let him loose in the field. It's like watching an attack dog in terms of ferocity but with cool calculation under the surface in place of animalistic rage. It's breathtaking.

He can't help the smirk that crosses his face when the Soldier passes by him, doesn't even try to keep the "Nice moves, Rapunzel," from slipping out of his mouth. The man's dead eyes flick over him and the dressing down he receives from the CO for insubordination is worth it, because he's the only rookie there to catch the Soldier's attention.

Later, when left to their own devices, the team sits huddled and speaking in hushed tones about the rumors they've heard of the Soldier. The second in command listens in silence, which Rumlow thinks is damn smart: why clarify the legends when you can put the fear of God in your men? They say he's a Soviet assassin traded to the US to end the Cold War. He's immortal. A Howling Commando. A vampire. A mindless machine who could slaughter them all if his orders aren't clear.

Rumlow scoffs at that one. "What kinda machine has hair like that?"

"One that needs to be set apart as a machine." The second in command speaks up for the first time, his tone scandalized. As if it's the first time anyone's dared mock their perfect Soldier, and maybe it is. "He can't look like the people around him. He might start thinking of himself as a person if he did. And if that ever happened, well." A pause, obviously for dramatic effect. "None of us would make it out alive."

Everyone else reacts with murmurs and awe as if that's profound. Rumlow struggles not to roll his eyes. What a load of bull.


2.

By the time Rumlow's thirty and leading a team of his own, the Soldier's hair has ceased to be funny. Sure, sometimes he flips it away from his face with a head shake right out of a shampoo commercial and Rumlow has to bite back his laughter, but the importance thing is the asset's performance. And his performance is flawless. Yeah, his hair is ridiculous, but so what? It kind of suits him and it's not Rumlow's job to care about aesthetics.

But it is his job to worry about efficiency, and there's nothing efficient about the Soldier's locks.

Rumlow's standing outside the shower, watching the technicians scrub the slush off of the Soldier. The Soldier can't maintain himself straight out of the tank, weak and disoriented and hardly able to stand as his body inches its way out of shock. The technicians are supporting him, trying to rinse the sludge from his hair, and it strikes Rumlow, as always, how painfully long this process is.

"How long does it take to wash his hair, do you think?" he asks.

The Soldier starts to gag involuntarily, lungs trying to force out the remnants of the tank's fluorocarbon, and one of the techs moves to pull the Soldier's hair from the line of fire. "Uh, maybe ten minutes. Fifteen if he pukes on it. Why?"

"You like doing that?"

The Soldier is now entirely dead, convulsing weight. It's all they can do to keep him upright. "Oh yeah. Love it," the second tech grunts, right as the Soldier manages to be sick on his shoes. "Can't you tell?"

"Be easier if it were shorter," Rumlow muses.

"No, really?"

He leaves them to it and submits a requisition form to management for permission to cut the Soldier's hair. By the time he gets a response, the Soldier is already back in the ice. The asset must retain a high psychological dependency, the official explanation reads. Difficulty in grooming is an effective method to enforce that dependency without compromising the asset's prowess in service. So the hair stays.

Not for the first time, Rumlow wonders if the higher-ups can keep a straight face while they type this shit.


3.

There's no point in getting worked up over the decisions made by those above his pay grade, Rumlow knows. Irritations are best relieved over a bottle of beer or a punching bag; let them fester and one risks losing order or drawing the wrong sort of attention from management. No one ever leaves HYDRA: it's either please the powers that be or a bullet between the eyes.

So for five years he shuts up about the Soldier's hair, and might have stayed silent on the subject forever were it not for the storm.

It's a mission in Yucatán and they have to work through a goddamn hurricane. The Soldier lies on the roof top, readjusting his rifle every few seconds, and making low, distressed sounds in his throat. It takes too long for Rumlow to place the noises as irritation, and longer still to recognize the source: the wind is smacking hair into the Soldier's eyes and throwing off his ability to calculate the shot. He won't remove his hands from the rifle to wipe his hair back, which Rumlow guesses is a part of his conditioning. Even if he did, the winds are over a hundred miles an hour and it would only help for a second or so.

There's not a single rubber band to be found on anyone's person and Rumlow's attempt to tie the Soldier's hair with a shoelace ends about as well as he should have expected. So he sits, in a hurricane, holding the Soldier's hair back as if the Soldier is a drunk girl at a frat party, because everyone else is too afraid to touch him.

When the target arrives—four hours late—the Soldier blows him away on sight but it's hard to be pleased with the perfect shot when Rumlow is drenched and can only see red.

He isn't the one who submits the form this time; he's not stupid enough to create a document trail of the same request once it's already been rejected. Instead, he waits for the next time Sophie has her hands on the Soldier.

If her position has an official title, he's never bothered to learn it: Sophie's just the one in charge of making sure the Soldier's armor is effective and fitting. She's also grating as hell and somehow, whenever she enters the break room, the television will be switched to a rerun of What Not to Wear in under five minutes, no matter the time of day. She makes Rumlow cringe in places he didn't even know he had.

Every few years they evaluate the efficiency of the Soldier's armor, put him in new designs and use him as target and combat practice to try them out. A few months after Yucatán, one such test comes up and Rumlow watches, arms crossed, as Sophie straps the Soldier into the new armor.

"Remember that mission last spring?" he asks. She isn't afraid to push or tug at the Soldier to get him to comply. Rumlow can't decide if it's bravery or stupidity, or both. "In Paris? When he dressed as a civilian?"

"Ooh yes," she says, at a pitch just barely audible to humans. "He had the distressed jeans with the Sketchers and those gorgeous Oakleys and that maroon pullover, didn't you? Did you have jelly bracelets? I feel like there were jelly bracelets."

The Soldier blinks.

Rumlow clears his throat. "Right. Well. Don't you think the hair makes it hard for him to blend in?"

"Ooh, not at all. There's so many possibilities." She drags the Soldier, only half-dressed, to the nearest chair and proceeds to demonstrate no less than thirty possible looks that can be done to his head. Several require a curling iron. One, made by pulling the upper half of the Soldier's hair into a ponytail while the rest hangs flat, is a style Rumlow's pretty sure is popular among preteen girls. "See?"

"You're really great at that," he says, and he thinks he can feel his ears bleed at her giggle. "Too bad you can't cut it, you'd think of something amazing…"

He's the one stuck with dressing the Soldier when Sophie runs off for a requisition form.

One week later, he finds her in the break room watching Clinton Kelly and Stacy London—Christ, does he hate himself for knowing those names—and asks what came of the request. "Oh, they said my work now is so stunning they can't bear to let me change it up! Can you believe it?"

"Sure can," he says, resisting the urge to put his foot through the TV.

Rumlow takes to carrying hair elastics.


4.

The Soldier is shrieking in the chair and it's not making Rumlow's already considerable headache any better. He glances at Brubaker, whose own gaze darts between the chair and the computer as he makes minute adjustments to something or other. How is it that the lab techs never even flinch at this sound? Do they all have the power to go temporarily deaf at will?

"Doesn't his hair get in the way of that?" Rumlow asks. Usually he thinks better of picking at his own irritations this way. Usually he doesn't have a migraine building and isn't made to stand guard for this always unnerving procedure.

And usually, when he orders a rookie to pull the Soldier's hair back before a mission, he doesn't return a few minutes later to find the recruit French braiding it.

All of which have been the case today. Rumlow's too annoyed to think better of anything right now.

"What's that?" Brubaker asks, looking away from his science experiment for the first time. The whir of the machinery halts as the Soldier's body goes slack, chest heaving.

"His hair. Doesn't it…disrupt the flow of electricity or something?" They shave prisoner's heads prior to the electric chair, after all. It stands to reason that all that hair could be a detriment to the procedure. It probably also stands to reason that, as such, the Soldier's hair comprises a massive security risk and should be dealt with immediately.

Probably.

"It does require adjusting the procedure," Brubaker says. He presses a button and the clamps around the Soldier's limbs retract. "Someone will suggest shaving it off every now and then."

Story of my life, Rumlow thinks. "Doesn't look like that plan ever takes."

"He used to have short hair." Brubaker shines a penlight into the Soldier's face and his eyes focus enough to track the movement. "Before all of this, I mean. I think that's the reason they keep it this way. No chance of reminding him that he used to be a person."

Which would be an entirely legitimate excuse if the asset were allowed access to mirrors.

The next time Rumlow spots a recruit braiding the Soldier's hair, he just keeps walking. He can't bring himself to care anymore as long as it's out the way.


5.

The Soldier is lying on his stomach, hands on his rifle. Every minute or so he will make a quiet huff behind the mask. It's not a sound as much as it is a forceful and fast exhalation.

"Then I pointed out that his hair gets all over crime scenes," Rumlow continues, eyes on the Soldier's motionless form. "He's literally shedding DNA everywhere we send him. Not the best idea for an assassin who's meant to be a ghost, right? You wanna know what they said?"

No one is allowed to pull the Soldier's hair back now; Rumlow had to put a moratorium on it. The braiding was one thing; it kept the Soldier's hair secured. The barrettes and alligator clips were allowed to slide by for the same reason. But the ribbons and the ball hair ties and side ponytails and pigtails…there are rules about engaging with the asset and right at the top of the list are "the Soldier is not a toy" and the "Soldier is not a person." Everyone's heard the story of the CO who thought he could get away with calling the asset "Winnie." Everyone knows the asset was ordered to grind that idiot into pulp. If the higher ups learn that Rumlow's team is using the Soldier as a Barbie, then Rumlow's going to be the one who ends up as a wet mass of flesh sinking into the carpet.

So here they are, back to the Soldier's hair flowing in the breeze.

Rollins stretches his legs; beside him, the Soldier lets out another little huff. "What did they say, that he needs all that hair to keep warm?"

"They said, they actually said, that they like it when people find traces of him. Because his identity and affiliation isn't on file, so all that comes up is what's been found at other crime scenes for the past seventy years. It makes him like a mythical figure or some shit, they said. Really worth jeopardizing the whole operation, huh?" He sighs.

The Soldier huffs right after, as if mimicking the sound.

Rollins leans forward and examines the asset's profile. "I think his hair's in his eyes."

"He's wearing the goggles."

"It can still block his vision." Rollins brushes the Soldier's hair back behind his ear. "I think he was trying to blow it back, but he couldn't with the mask."

"HYDRA's greatest weapon." Rumlow buries his face in his hands, head shaking.

Rollins tucks back the hair on the other side. "Just cut it off him if it bothers you that much."

"And be the idiot who took a knife to the Soldier without permission. No thanks."

"Say he did it himself."

"And be the idiot who let the Soldier go at himself with a blade? Yeah, that's better."

It's two hours before the Soldier takes his shot and they have to readjust his hair for him nine times during that span.


+1

Of everything Rumlow envisioned that could go wrong with the Soldier's hair—and he's envisioned no shortage of worst case scenarios—he never thought anyone would be able to pull it.

But that's exactly what happened in Mombasa. Things had already gone off track—what was meant to be a stealth operation had devolved into a semi-public brawl—and someone, in an act Rumlow wouldn't have believed had he not seen it with his own eyes, had grabbed hold of the Soldier's hair and yanked with such force it was a wonder the Soldier didn't end up scalped. That was bad, but salvageable; what was worse was that the Soldier's head had been jerked back, leaving his throat exposed.

His arm had come up fast enough to keep another assailant's blade from slicing anything important, but not fast enough to prevent the knife from touching his neck altogether. The sight of the Soldier's own blood seemed to make him rabid and their opponents were completely decimated within seconds, but the Winter Soldier was bleeding and things were so far from the realm of okay that Rumlow expected to be taken out and shot the moment their plane touched down in the US.

Instead, he and the Soldier are brought before Alexander Pierce, and Rumlow wonders if the shooting wouldn't have been preferable.

Pierce doesn't demand an explanation, doesn't speak at all at first. He guides the Soldier to sit, winds a hand in the man's hair and gently tugs, forcing the Soldier to bare his throat again. His free hand runs along the little scratch there, barely a paper cut now that the Soldier's body has had time to heal. There is no blood, save for what's stained the Soldier's clothing. Rumlow wiped away the rest on the flight.

"They grabbed his hair?" Pierce asks, eyes still on the Soldier. He guides the Soldier's head back to its natural position but does not release him. The Secretary's face and voice are perfectly blank.

"Sir." Rumlow nods, tensed, awaiting a reprimand. A blow. An order of execution.

"It's such an unnecessary risk, isn't it? His hair." Pierce is pulling on it again. It starts gently enough, but his hand is winding tighter and the force is enough to make the Soldier lean toward his handler.

Rumlow does not speak, watching.

"It must seem so foolish, letting him keep it." He tugs and the Soldier is pulled from the chair, knees bent and body off balance. "There's no practical benefit." In a single fluid motion, Pierce steps to the side and jerks his wrist, slamming the Soldier forward into his desk. Rumlow can hear the winded gasp from behind the mask.

Pierce forces his wrist backward and the Soldier is this time rammed against the chair. "It began to remind him of his place," Pierce says, his tone conversational. The Soldier did not quite manage to sit when his body impacted with the seat, and Pierce tugs again, forcing him into the proper position. "To demoralize him. We let children decide how to wear their hair, and he wasn't even allowed that."

He forces the Soldier's head back and forth like a dog worrying at a bone. Rumlow can see the tension around the Soldier's eyes, but there are no tears. He's too well trained for that. "Of course, in this day and age, it's no longer necessary. It would take something far more drastic than a haircut to break through his programming. Look at him. He could kill us both without the slightest bit of effort, and he doesn't even think of it. You know the story of the elephant and the stick? That's our asset, only he's an elephant that thinks himself smaller than his ringleaders."

Pierce releases the Soldier's hair then. The tension does not fade from the Soldier's shoulders. It never truly fades in his handler's presence.

"So then, of course, the question is why do we keep it?"

Because it's funny, Rumlow thinks. It's amusing to have total control and still force such a petty issue. He can see the joke. He might even laugh at it if his own ass weren't currently on the line. He knows the answer, but Pierce expects the question this time, so he speaks. "Sir?"

"Because it suits him, don't you think?" Pierce runs a hand over the Soldier's head as if he's stroking a beloved grandchild. "It's beautiful. Don't you like it?"

Any answer he gives will not absolve him of his failure on the field. He can only hope to provide a response that salvages the most of the situation possible. "It's starting to grow on me."

Pierce's laugh is genuine, and Rumlow can just barely breathe again.