They find it when Tony blasted a hole in the bunker of the Hydra cell in Arizona they were taking out, revealing a series of hidden passageways and a switchback staircase that descended into the earth. Going by the spider webs as thick as orchard netting they found throughout, it was likely that the bunker’s most recent Hydra inhabitants didn’t know the passages were there either.
Steve and Natasha took point after Tony tried flaming away all of the spider webs and almost set them all on fire. Natasha picked up an old steel bar and started pointedly swiping the webs away with ease – all without breaking the flat stare she gave Tony – and Steve followed in her wake, shield up.
By his reckoning they descended some four stories into the earth before the stairway opened up into a long room that looked eerily like the first Shield headquarters at Camp Lehigh that was destroyed around them all those months ago – clunky 70s-era metal desks and pine-paneled walls, but here the Hydra insignia was right on display instead of a Shield one. Tony left his suit on Sentry-mode, forging ahead while Nat and Steve more diligently looked for useable data – what projects were planned here, what Hydra operatives cut their teeth in this bullpen.
Tony came striding back a minute later, his face a little too excited for desks and moldering papers. “Found something. A door. Not like a regular door, but the kind that just begs me to blast it open because it’s probably thicker than a bank vault. Ever wanted to break into one of those just to see if you could?” Tony asked, climbing back into the Iron Man suit.
“I can and have,” Nat said blithely, which surprised nobody, of course.
Tony used his repulsors to get down the long corridor he’d found – which frankly, was cheating, and he was only doing it because now he was worried Nat wouldn't let him blast through the door – and Steve glanced at Nat with a shrug, and followed after.
It didn't look like a bank vault door by they time they got to it – Tony had gotten through with an impressively controlled blast that only left a few metal carts, the kind they used in operating theatres, knocked over on the other side. As Steve climbed through, he could hear Jarvis giving a report as Tony stepped out of his suit once more. “No heat signatures detected, however this room receives a power feed. It appears to be for the metal casket and control panel to your left, Sir.”
“Aw, ain’t that sweet – they left us some toys to play with,” Tony quipped, and headed for the control panel. Natasha headed for filing cabinets against the far wall.
Steve didn't look at the upright casket and its control panel straight away – he was drawn in horrified fascination instead to the chair on the other side of the room. It looked like a dentist’s chair gone wrong, with restraints for arms and legs, and the restraints for the left arm seemed oddly more elaborate and durable. There was a metal apparatus overhanging where the head would go, and Steve felt a bit sick when he saw a discarded rubber mouth guard on the dirty floor.
“I think we’re looking at the remains of the Russian arm of Hydra’s cryogenic experiments, boys,” Natasha said, flipping through some files. Steve drifted away from the chair, to get a closer look at the casket – an upright metal tube, its door with a tiny grimy window set into it.
“Probably hung the power for it off the grid and back up systems for the bunker upstairs when they built it, before they literally bricked it over and forgot it was there,” Tony said, fiddling with some switches. He blew some dust off the panel, only to start sneezing when it blew back into his face.
“How long has it been here?” Steve asked, setting down his shield against the wall. When he walked up to the casket he could hear the faint hum of power, and the little window was on level with his face, but opaque with dirt.
“Looks like it was abandoned in the late 80s. Pierce has his signature all over these reports, no surprise – they brought in the asset-” here she motioned at the cryochamber “-from Russia when the Soviets started losing control of the Union, only to discover there was some kind of malfunction. They could never use it.”
Steve took a handkerchief out of one of the pouches on his belt, and heard Tony snort behind him. “You really are America’s golden – aah-CHOO! Okay, give it here.”
“Not for you!” Steve called cheerfully, and used the handkerchief to swipe at the window – but paused when he realized the grime was unpleasantly damp. He laid his other hand against the cryochamber. It was cold and clammy, like a drink covered in condensation. Dread filled his stomach. “Hey Nat, they say specifically that the cryochamber is the asset they acquired? Or if it had something inside that could be the asset?”
“Why?” she asked, and she and Tony both looked up as Steve gave one last firm wipe and took the filthy handkerchief away from the cryochamber window.
Now somewhat clean, they could see the faint outline of a hand pressed against the frosted glass.
The bunker was clear, so they called Bruce down from the quinjet where he’d been waiting in case of a Code Green. He looked as relieved as always when he got to step into a cleared area with all his clothes on, and Clint trailed after him.
“The question is: what do we do about it?” Steve asked, once they’d been briefed.
“There are boxes and boxes of files here, I’d need time to translate them all – it would be faster to scan them at the Tower and have Jarvis translate. But from a closer look at some of the files from the Soviets, I think this could be the Winter Soldier,” Nat said soberly.
“The Winter what now?” Tony asked.
Clint gave a snort. “He doesn’t exist. He’s a ghost story – an assassin with no face, accountable for countless kills, active for nearly thirty years. The kind of story that gets passed around the intelligence community like a fairytale.”
Natasha flipped a file open on one of the metal counters, and Steve stepped forward to look at the spill of paperwork and brittle old photographs. In the photographs, a man could be seen, although his face was never quite visible – long lank hair and a sleekly muscled body, except for his left arm, which was articulated metal.
“How many ghost stories have a metal arm?” she asked with a smirk. Clint came forward to sift through the photographs beside Steve. They showed the man strapped into the chair, tendons straining with what must be excruciating pain. The man standing, with his head tipped forward so his hair covered his face, a rifle loosely cradled in his hands. The arm was functional then.
“Okay we have to defrost him just so I can get to the arm,” Tony said from behind Steve, who cast him a dark look.
“If we can defrost him – just because stasis has been maintained, doesn’t mean we can reverse the process. This thing doesn’t happen to come with a user manual, does it?” Bruce asked, poking through a pile of dusty files.
“I think the question isn’t if we can defrost him, but if we should,” Clint said quietly. The rest of the team turned to look at him, and he shrugged. “If he’s the Winter Soldier, and he comes out hostile and swinging, we’d have to contain him. Indefinitely.”
“He’s already being contained. Like serving a prison sentence without ever having a trial,” Steve argued.
“Much as I hate to agree with Cap, he’s got a point,” Tony said. Steve rounded on him.
“If we can get him out alive you’re still not getting the damn arm.”
“So you’re saying if we defrost a corpse, then I get it?”
“If he comes out alive he might be no better than an automaton,” Nat interrupted, holding up another file. “There are dozens of files like these – detailing the mind control techniques and programming inflicted on him over the years. He might be a blank slate, and never able to recover.”
“But he deserves a second chance, doesn’t he?” Bruce asked, with a kind of somber smile that made his face look pained. “I think it’s fair to say all of us have had one, after doing things we need to atone for. Are we really the people to say he shouldn’t get at least a chance to be a better person?”
There was silence in the room for a moment. Steve stared over at the quietly humming metal casket in the corner, the frosty outline of a hand over the window – he couldn’t help but think of Shield, and what things he may have unwittingly been doing for Hydra. The man in the cryotube was reaching out. Maybe he was hostile, or maybe he was another victim of Hydra, needing help.
“Tony, see if you and Bruce can rig up a power source for transport. We’re going to try to get him out alive,” Steve said decisively.
Tony threw up a sloppy salute and started talking logistics with Bruce, while Steve stayed staring pensively at the metal chamber. Nat came to stand beside him, fanning herself with a grainy photograph of the Winter Soldier’s scarred shoulder, where a seam of metal met flesh.
“Can’t save everyone, Cap,” she said, almost gently.
“The day we stop trying is the day we’ve lost,” he said, and she had nothing more to say to that.
It was almost two months after they transported the Winter Soldier’s cryotube from Arizona back to Stark Tower until Tony and Bruce seemed confident they could reverse the cryofreeze process successfully. Steve watched them argue good naturedly over a panel of instruments – Tony had decided they needed to dress for the occasion and tried providing dramatic white lab coats to the assembled Avengers, and grumbled when everyone but Bruce had refused. Nat and Clint were drinking coffee and talking in low voices, looking relaxed except for the fact they were suited up and armed to the teeth. Steve had chosen not to climb into Cap’s gear, instead wearing simple exercise pants and a t-shirt that he could easily move in. If the Soldier came out hostile, they wanted to be ready – so his shield was leaning against a table in easy reach.
Tony had installed the cryotube in one of the Hulk-proof labs that seemed to dot the Tower, in case they needed to go into lockdown, while Bruce himself planned to stick close to a side door he could duck out of if things got violent. The Iron Man suit stood in sentry-mode by one of the windows – Steve thought it looked like a sardine tin that had been peeled open and emptied, but would save that thought for if Tony got particularly annoying.
“Okay,” Tony called finally, clapping his hands together in excitement. “Operation Red Ice-tober-”
“Tony,” Steve said warningly.
“-is a go. There’ll be some blinky lights, a shitload of vapor, keep your metal arms inside the vehicle at all times-”
“He means, this process involves a rapid reversal of the cellular freeze, but the cryochamber has to remain closed until the interior atmosphere equalizes – that part is actually a lot slower than the defrost,” Bruce said, tipping his glasses down his nose and speaking directly to Steve. “Going by Jarvis’s translations of the Soldier’s files, if we do this right – if he’s still alive in there and capable of higher brain functions – he may return to consciousness several minutes before we can actually open it up. In other words… don’t let him out until the light by the door goes green, Steve.”
Steve felt a lot like the whole room had pinned him as the softie who’d casually crack open the door before the process was finished and give the Soldier the bends, or something. They were probably not wrong. “Understood. Don’t pop the tab too early or everything will fizz over.”
Tony pointed at him in delight, but looked at Bruce. “He made a joke, almost. Did you-? Never mind, I’m sure Jarvis got it, we can watch the play-by-play later.”
“Stark if you drag this on any longer the guy in stasis is going to die of old age,” Nat said, coming over to stand at the ready. Steve saw Clint climbing up on top of some built-in cabinets, close to the ridiculously high ceiling, pulling his bow from his back.
“Fine, let’s get Operation… Defrost Franken-ice? I just can’t get this name down, too many options. Let’s get this show on the road,” Tony said, retreating back to the instrument panel, while Bruce went to another panel that looked entirely the same, just on the opposite side of the room.
“By all means, Doctor Banner.”
Steve rolled his eyes, while Nat smirked.
“Shut up, you know they’re cute,” she said quietly, and hip checked him.
“Executing now,” Tony said simply, and hit a button.
The gently humming cryotube began to rumble, a deep resonant sound that felt like a vibration through the very air. It began to hiss, too – and a moment later, great clouds of vapor began to vent. It obscured the cryotube, and Steve stepped forward instinctively.
“Forty percent,” Banner called.
“Power source is stable – of course it is, it’s my power source,” Tony said. Steve wasn’t listening, focused instead on the groaning of metal and the clanking of the tube. He stepped further into the vapor cloud, trying to make out the little glass window with the hand pressed against it.
“Steve, step back, I want eyes on you,” Nat warned, but he ignored her. Yeah – there was the hand, still stuck against the glass.
“Sixty percent,” Bruce called.
“Jarvis, can you get any reading inside the cryochamber now?” Tony asked.
“I cannot, sir, the metal still interferes with my scanners.”
One of the fingers twitched.
Steve jolted to a stop in front of the cryotube door, staring fixedly at the hand, almost sure he’d been seeing things – or maybe the stress on the metal was causing movement within.
The hand dropped away from the glass.
Steve stopped breathing, trying to peer through the glass, but of course the damn Russians hadn’t put an interior light on the upright coffin they used for freezing a human, so he couldn’t see a thing. He tipped his head forward, listening, and almost jumped a foot when he heard something thump heavily against the door from the inside.
“Steve?” Nat called. The cryotube was no longer venting now, and the clouds of vapor were beginning to clear – he could just make her out, standing with a handgun in each hand.
He heard it then. Three distinct taps against the metal. Someone knocking.
“He’s alive,” Steve said breathlessly to himself. And then louder: “He’s alive!”
“Ninety percent – don’t open that damn door, Cap!” Bruce called, which – okay, so Steve had been reaching for the handle without really being aware of it.
Steve cautiously raised his hand closer to the window, and tapped three times on the door. He listened, ear all but pressed against the metal, but didn’t hear anything else.
Steve raised his hand to knock again, when something hit the inside of the door, hard. He reeled back, staring at where the metal beside the handle to the door was dented outward, trying to figure the kind of force required to do that. Exactly how strong was this metal arm?
“Nat?” he called, and a moment later caught his shield whizzing through midair, bracing it in front of himself.
Something hit the glass window in the cryotube door, and a spider web of fractures radiated out from the center. Steve dropped into a defensive stance. “Bruce, I’m pretty sure this guy is coming out whether we’re ready or not so-” he started.
“Ninety-eight percent- oh. Yeah, okay good idea,” he heard Bruce call back, and a moment later the clang of a door as Bruce made himself scarce.
The glass was hit again from the inside, and this time it shattered – Steve was shocked to realize it must have been over an inch thick, looking at the shards – and then a metal arm snaked through, patting clumsily at the metal door panel. Steve checked over his shoulder, making sure his team was ready – Tony had climbed into his suit and was hanging back by the windows, Clint had an arrow notched and ready, while Natasha stood, guns up. He gave them each a nod, and turned back to the cryotube.
“Hold fire until we know what we’re dealing with!” Steve called over his shoulder.
The metal arm found the door handle – a latch that lifted up and outwards to release – just as the light beside the door went green. It fumbled, then yanked, and the door unsealed a crack and the arm disappeared back through the hole in the glass. For a moment nothing happened, then the door swung open and a naked man fell through face-first.
Steve didn’t really think, just dropped his shield to rush forward and catch him. He was heavy, sagging into Steve’s chest and stumbling over his own feet, like the effort of punching through the glass and opening the door had taken everything he had at that moment. He was also shivering so hard that Steve could literally hear his teeth chattering.
“Okay, here we go,” Steve said, trying to half-lead and half-drag the man over to a chair. He managed to drop the Soldier into one, who slumped over his knees with hair hanging over his face.
“Here,” Nat said, thrusting a blanket at him with one hand, the other still holding a gun.
Steve flicked it open and wrapped it quickly around the man’s shoulders, who shuddered, fingers coming up slowly to curl around the edges and pull it close to himself. He said something in what sounded like Russian that Steve didn’t understand, low and guttural. Steve looked to Nat in askance.
“He said, ‘What is my mission?’” she said grimly.
Kneeling gingerly in front of him, Steve tried to see through the curtain of hair. “Hey. Hey, no mission, okay? We’re the Avengers. We want to help you.”
“So… cancel the red alert, or what? He looks cold. I feel like I should make him hot chocolate, not fight him,” Tony called, and there was the distinct sound of the plates of his suit separating so he could step out. Hot chocolate would actually be pretty useful right now, Steve thought wryly.
The Soldier said something again, muttered into his knees and getting lost in his hair. When Steve looked up to Natasha for translation, her face was pinched. “He says he was disoriented, and awaits our punishment for damaging the cryochamber. His new owners, the Avengers.”
“Listen, no punishment, okay? You were just trying to get out, you didn’t know where you were,” Steve said gently. Lord knew he was familiar with the feeling.
The Soldier shivered, but finally raised his head so his hair fell away from his face. Steve stared, and could feel nothing but the blood rushing through his head for a long, awful moment.
“Bucky?” he whispered.
Because it was, and there was no mistaking – no matter how many times he blinked, or told himself he was seeing things wrong. It was Bucky. With long hair and bags under his eyes and sallow skin, but definitely Bucky – last seen plummeting from a train into the ravine below.
Bucky stared at him, gaze wandering over his face without recognition, and flicked an uncertain glance at Natasha, then back to Steve.
“Who the hell is Bucky?” he asked in perfect, unaccented English.
Steve had to go out into the hallway for a minute to hyperventilate.
It was Clint that followed him out – they’d never been particularly close, or even worked any non-Avengers missions together before Shield had gone down with its helicarriers in the Potomac – but now he clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezed.
“You sure?” he asked simply, because American history was very clear on what the name Bucky meant to Captain America.
“It’s him. It’s him, Jesus, he doesn’t know his own name but it’s him,” Steve gasped out, desperately trying to slow his panting breaths.
“Right. We know what was in the Winter Soldier files, the kind of shit they did to his mind,” Clint said, and it was suddenly very clear why he’d been the one to follow Steve out. “So he doesn’t know himself, and he doesn’t know you. Maybe he’s still in there, who knows? They had him for over thirty years – I don’t think a blow to the head is going to bring him round. But he still needs you now.”
Steve started nodding, feeling his breathing start to ease. Clint was right. Whatever had happened to Bucky, if there was any hope of bringing him back, Steve was the most qualified person in the world to help him.
“So I know you wanna fall down and lose your shit, but you can’t, got it?” Clint continued. “He may never be the man you knew, and he may never remember you. But you are the one person who really cares that he gets to be his own man again. You clear?”
“Clear,” Steve said quietly. Clint gave his shoulder another squeeze before dropping his hand and turning away.
“Good. Get back in there before Tony pries his arm off with a crowbar.”
“Clint?” Steve called as he was walking back to the lab. “Natasha got you back to yourself, but we all cared. It mattered.”
Clint nodded without turning around, and then went back in the lab.
When Steve followed, he found Bucky actually holding a mug of hot chocolate, staring down at it in confusion, the blanket still wrapped around him. Natasha stood by his side, and while her weapons were holstered she was still very obviously on her guard. Clint had kicked back in an office chair and looked like he was napping. Bruce had returned – by the looks of it, he and Tony were running some kind of surreptitious scans on Bucky that were either so non-invasive as to be undetectable, or they just didn’t bother him. Steve picked up the loose sweats they’d left piled on a table – it had been in the files that the Winter Soldier was naked during the cryofreeze process.
“Bucky?” he called gently, but Bucky didn’t look up. Steve stepped up to him. “Hey pal, how’s the hot chocolate?”
Bucky did look up then. “This is not a nutrient shake,” he said, like they had made a particularly amateur mistake.
“Yeah, it’s to warm you up. Tastes good, that’s all,” Steve said. Bucky stared at him, and then cautiously sipped the drink. His face didn’t change, but he did promptly gulp the rest down. Then he simply thrust the empty cup in front of himself.
Steve and Natasha stared at him, then each other, before Natasha gave a put-upon sigh and took the cup.
“Want some clothes?” Steve tried next. He shook out the soft sweatpants and held them up. Bucky stared at him like he was insane.
“Those will not provide any ballistic protection on my mission. I am more likely to be compromised and fail,” he said slowly, like he was talking to a child. Nat actually huffed out a laugh at that, and then schooled her face when Steve cast a glare at her.
“They’re not – there’s no mission. You’re at ease, soldier. These are for warmth.”
Bucky pondered this for a bit, and then nodded. He stood – fluidly, all clumsiness from earlier gone – and dropped the blanket, standing completely naked without a bit of self-consciousness.
“Oh Jesus he’s – actually, hold up the metal arm away from your body?” Tony called behind them. Bucky did, without a moment of reservation, but frowned when it made a whining noise. He rotated his shoulder carefully, and several of the plates shifted with a grinding sound.
“Oh that’s – that’s really good, actually,” Bruce muttered. Steve looked over his shoulder – he could see a wireframe of the arm filling itself into the air in front of them.
“The weapon requires maintenance,” Bucky said, and by the time Steve turned back – shocked into stillness for just a moment by the phrasing of the weapon – Tony was suddenly beside him.
“You have come to the right place, my Soviet icicle friend.”
“That is the legitimately the fastest I have ever seen you move, Tony,” Natasha said.
“Can we please let him put some pants on?” Steve asked, stepping in front of Bucky, feeling a red flush of embarrassment by proxy climbing up the back of his neck. Bucky took the pants he held out, and slipped them on easily.
Within a few minutes Tony had evicted a grumbling Clint from the office chair and had Bucky seated in it instead, arm laid across the table beside him. Bruce and Tony both leaned over it with fascination – they’d worked out how to make most of the plates on the bicep slide back and fold up, and were poking around in the interior. Steve found a stool, and dragged it to sit in front of Bucky.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked quietly. It was quite obvious he didn’t, of course, but somehow he had to ask the question, even though the answer was going to hurt.
“My new handler,” Bucky said, that same blank lack of recognition on his face. Steve had been right. It hurt like hell.
“My name is Steve Rogers. You’ve known me your whole life,” Steve said.
“Steve Rogers,” Bucky said, but it was like he was parroting back intel, not saying anything familiar.
“You’re Bucky Barnes. My best friend.”
“Codename: Bucky Barnes. You are my… mission?”
“No, you-” Steve stopped and sighed, rubbing his hand across his eyes. Beside him, something sparked in the metal arm, but Bucky didn’t even flinch. He tried again. “Your name is Bucky.”
“Codename: Bucky,” Bucky agreed. Good enough, Steve supposed, if it meant he would respond to his own name.
“Okay, try this – we are geniuses, by the way, so success is imminent,” Tony said a moment later, and closed up all the plates. Bucky stood, rolled his shoulder and flexed his arm – it whirred a little, but it was a healthy machine sound compared to the grinding.
Bucky noticed Tony was staring at him expectantly, and his eyes flickered from place to place – he seemed to recognize he was supposed to say something but was not sure what. “You are an excellent technician. It is worthwhile not to kill you.”
Steve almost laughed.
There was a hurried conversation in the hallway about exactly what to do with Bucky now – they’d been prepared to confine a hostile, but hell if Steve was going to lock Bucky up; he was going to stay with Steve. Nat, Bruce and Tony had seemed prepared for just this since the moment he’d recognized the Winter Soldier, and were instead trying to talk him into compromises.
“Full lockdown on your apartment at all times. Sub-dermal tracking device. No access to Jarvis or the internet,” Natasha tried.
“Apartment lockdown for a trial period, no tracking device because what the hell Nat, and I’m in the middle of The Blacklist so we’re definitely keeping the internet. Restricted access to Jarvis, Tony I know you can manage it so he can’t influence any operational functions of the Tower or confidential information – if he even tried,” Steve countered.
“The Blacklist is so good. What episode are you up to?” Tony asked.
“Focus, please,” Bruce said. “I want to know exactly what we’re working with – he has to be enhanced to have survived the cryo procedure. I’ll trade you full blood works and endurance testing for conditional apartment release, pending our analysis of how to stop him if he goes rogue.”
“I don’t even need sub-dermal, he’s got a metal arm. Tony puts a tracker in the metal arm for restricted Jarvis,” Natasha said.
“And internet, they’re kind of a package,” Tony added. He took in Natasha and Bruce glaring. “What?”
“You are supposed to be helping us negotiate Steve down here,” Nat said, and Tony shrugged.
“Seriously though, have you watched The Blacklist yet?”
“I’m concerned the Other Guy might make an appearance if anybody hurts James Spader, he’s a national treasure.”
“Okay,” Steve said. “How about: lockdown over a four week trial period and while his physical capabilities are being established, followed by restricted release with a tracker over a probationary period. Tony sets up Jarvis, but we get full internet. Deal?”
When they went back into the lab, where Clint and Bucky seemed to be having a staring contest, Clint called out, “I hope you kept internet, Cap, cause have you seen Blacklist yet? So good.”
The asset – Codename: Bucky – followed his new American handler into an elevator that let them directly into a large apartment, many stories up. The elevator doors closed behind them, and he noted there was a loud thunk of multiple locks falling into place. They needn’t be concerned, of course – he was their asset, and knew that disobedience had brutal consequences. He did not know how he knew, but he did.
He would be their creature, and his mission was to be his handler’s best friend. He didn’t know what that meant, but would do as he was told until mission parameters became clear.
His handler showed him around living quarters that included a spacious lounge and dining area, a kitchen of marble counters and steel appliances, and several bedrooms, each with an attached bathroom. Steve Rogers clearly slept in one, as the bed was unmade and the closet that led through to the bathroom had clothes hanging in it, but took the asset to another one that was unlived in.
“This is your room. Uh, you can use it how you want? Do you… do you want to shower?”
Thinking of a blast from a cold hose, Codename: Bucky flinched minutely.
“Okay, no, that’s a no then,” Steven Rogers said hurriedly. “A warm bath? Your hair needs a wash, probably.”
Codename: Bucky raised flesh fingers to touch at his long hair, feeling the grease and grit coating it. He followed Steve Rogers to the bathroom, where he leant over the bath and started running the faucet – steam curled off the surface of the pooling water, and he dumped some sort of creamy liquid into it that made bubbles form under the running water.
Codename: Bucky stripped out of the shirt and pants he’d been given to wear, standing naked while Steve Rogers swirled the water with his hand and chattered about pleasant advances in modern technology that had resulted in never-ending hot water supplies and his deep appreciation of it. When he shut off the water and turned around, he startled and the skin of his neck and ears began to color pink.
“Okay. Ah. You’re naked already. That’s good. Want to climb in?”
The water was stunningly warm when Codename: Bucky stepped in – he stood for a moment with it up to his shins, trying to process, while Steve Rogers smiled at him. A smile was usually an indicator that he had disobeyed and pain was imminent, so Codename: Bucky hastily sat down. The water was even better when he was sitting down, so he slid down until just his nose and eyes were above the surface. He blinked at Steve Rogers, who had sat down on the closed lid of the toilet.
“Pretty good, huh?” he asked, and fussed around with some bottles on the counter. “I got shampoo and conditioner but honestly your hair might take a couple of goes. You know how to do this?”
Codename: Bucky stared blankly at him.
“Yeah, didn’t think so. Immerse yourself so your hair is wet, and then sit up. I’ll rub the shampoo in and you can rinse.”
He did so, and when Steve Rogers knelt beside the bathtub and began to rub one of the lotions into his hair, with fingers scratching gently over his scalp, Codename: Bucky closed his eyes and breathed very, very carefully. It felt good, and if Steve Rogers knew how good it felt he would no doubt stop.
“Okay, Bucky?” Steve Rogers asked after a minute and a half, fingers slowing almost to a stop.
“Optimal. There is no reason not to proceed,” Codename: Bucky croaked.
Steve Rogers gave him a long, measuring look, but his fingers started up again. “I hope it feels nice, having someone take care of you. Does it feel nice, Buck?”
Codename: Bucky swallowed heavily. If this was a trick, and he admitted to liking the sensation of Steve Rogers’ fingers scraping over his scalp only to have it stop and be punished, then his handler would know that he could be manipulated and tricked. Yet he could not lie to his handler for fear of even worse punishment.
“It feels good,” he said heavily, and tensed.
Steve Rogers just gave a hum of acknowledgement, and his fingers didn’t stop for another four blissful minutes. Then he said, “Lie back in the water and I’ll wash the suds from your hair. Then you can sit up and we’ll do it again.”
It seemed he wasn’t getting punishment, just more of the same. He lay back, and the feeling of Steve Rogers’ fingers combing through his hair in the water was different but still good. When he sat up and Steve Rogers started to rub his head with the lotion again, Codename: Bucky let himself relax into it, just a little. It felt good. All of it was good.
The next good thing was Steve Rogers putting two slices of bread together with cheese and ham and seeded mustard inside, slathering the outside with butter and frying them up in a pan while narrating what he was doing. Codename: Bucky sat at the kitchen counter on a stool wearing fresh underwear, pants and shirt, and he had a very soft, fuzzy towel draped around his shoulders for his wet hair to rest on.
Steve Rogers set the grilled cheese in front of him with a glass of water and looked at him expectantly. Codename: Bucky looked down at the grilled cheese, now cut in half with melted cheese oozing out the middle, and touched it with his flesh fingers. It was too hot, so he switched hands, picking up one half carefully.
“Blow on it, if it’s hot,” Steve Rogers said, and mimed blowing. Codename: Bucky gave him a flat look, because he was an elite soldier who was capable of blowing air out of his mouth. Steve Rogers gave him a sheepish grin in return. “Shut up. Eat.”
Codename: Bucky blew on the grilled cheese, and when he took a careful bite he had to stop for a moment, just to fully understand the complexity of crispy fried bread and cooling melted cheese in his mouth. Then he began to chew, and there was the added bite of the mustard seeds bursting between his molars, and the smoky undertone of the carved ham. He stopped chewing, and gave Steve Rogers A Look.
“Right?!” Steve Rogers said with a laugh, and turned back to the stove to make more.
That night, Steve Rogers showed Codename: Bucky how to brush his teeth, standing beside him in the bathroom and brushing his own in striped pajamas, and then turned down the blankets on the obscenely large bed, and stepped close to Codename: Bucky and put his arms around him in a startling gesture of physical affection.
“Glad you’re here, jerk,” he said, and left for his own bedroom.
Codename: Bucky, wearing his own pajamas, climbed into the large soft bed that had many pillows, and switched the light off, and tried to remember if he had slept in a bed before. He couldn’t remember, although he seemed to know how one felt, the comfort of it. He drifted off to sleep thinking about it.
Sometime close to three in the morning, he woke from a dream – he didn’t know if he had ever had a dream before, or if this was really just a memory returning while he was not conscious. He climbed out of bed, went down the hallway, and pushed open the door to Steve Rogers’ room, which had been left open a crack.
“Bucky?” Steve Rogers asked sleepily, sitting up immediately.
“Did… did you used to be smaller?” Codename: Bucky asked uncertainly – because it seemed so unlikely, that his towering handler had worn the same face on a much smaller frame, and still called him ‘jerk’.
“Yeah. Yeah, Buck, I did. You remember that?” Steve Rogers asked. He had a thing that Codename: Bucky somehow recognized as hope making his voice thready.
“Punk,” Bucky said simply, and ghosted away back to his own bed.