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Clean Skin

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By the time he’d landed in Romania, the little glimpses of the life he’d once led were coalescing into a larger picture, a simulacrum of Bucky Barnes—one Steve Rogers might even have recognized if he’d stayed still long enough to let him see it. He found a dingy, smelly flat in a rundown Bucharest building full of other people who looked as hard-up as he did—it might have been terrible, but it was his, and for now at least, he could stay put. There was enough of an active economy to provide work for someone willing to do manual labor and who had the basic language skills, yet it was easy to be invisible here, to get paid under the table, to live without a lot of questions asked.

One of the first things he’d bought, back in the States, were some notebooks he could log his rediscoveries in—the piquant, bright taste of fresh fruit, the nostalgic smell of castile soap, the soft texture of new clothing against his skin. The sound of laughter instead of screams. For a while he’d been satisfied with the place as it was—even a hovel was an improvement over a frozen coffin and he didn’t need a palace in order to sit on a mattress and record the memories that were coming back or the horrors of the past seventy years. But even the dim light didn’t hide the grime, and one day he bought some cleaning supplies on his way home from work. Just to spruce it up.

Except he liked the cleaning. He started by scouring the rust stains out of the kitchen and bathroom sinks, the stains of he didn’t even know what in the toilet and tiny metal shower stall. The floors he tackled the way his ma had done, at least what he thought he recalled her doing—on his hands and knees with two buckets and a brush, and it took him some time but when it was done he started all over again. The cabinets, the refrigerator, all got scrubbed and scrubbed again, the shelves and tables dusted regularly, his small collection of laundry washed at least once a week.

It wasn’t that he kept the place tidy, necessarily, and it was certainly nothing to look at with the papered-over windows, peeling paint, cracked tiles, and cheap old mattress with a worn sleeping bag rather than a decent made-up bed, and the small appliances and household items were scavenged from the streets or charity shops, but it was as spick and span as he could make it and the only smell now came from the lemon-scented cleaning products.

Steve would have laughed: there was nothing they’d cared less about back then, and though his memory was fuzzy about so many things, Bucky was pretty certain he’d never been the one who finally broke down and cleaned their little place when it became almost unbearably filthy.

When he was cleaning, he thought only about cleaning—not the people he’d killed, not the faces of his torturers. Just how much elbow grease he needed to remove that stain, what would get the mineral buildup out of the tap or the shower, how to mend the lamp he’d just found. It was calming and he ended up satisfied with a simple job well done, and there was a hell of a lot to be said for that.