DUDE I ALREADY GOT THE IDEA ALL SQUARED OUT.
So I picture it being the breaking point of this really long, drawn out battle of trust between the Asset and Bucky. The Asset’s accepted Bucky as his new handler but slowly comes to the realization that Bucky doesn’t want him to be “functional”, and the Asset’s scared shitless of not being functional because not being functional means being Steve, and despite the fact that Bucky has a million and one fond memories of Steve, the only thing the Asset knows about Steve is his nightmares of being cold and in pain and begging for it to stop and being horrifically scared and lonely and just slowly, slowly losing hope that someone’s going to save him.
Because Steve breaking is not a sudden snap the way Bucky’s potentially was, with Steve’s death being the breaking point. Steve’s is a long, ugly, drawn out process. It takes months and months and he remembers every second in his nightmares and in that minute after he wakes up screaming, and he’s terribly relieved when the memories slip away from him again.
So when he realizes that his handler wants him to hold onto that, to be that person and have all that memory of pain constantly, the Asset runs. He disappears into the night for almost a week.
He instantly regrets it. It’s winter, and he didn’t prepare; it was a split-second decision made after a nightmare, just one more example of how he is no longer functional. It’s icy, and he’s cold and lonely, and he misses his handler, even if he was a terrible handler. He misses the constant, pointless chatter, the warm showers, his handler tucking him into a soft bed and waking him up with whispers and smiles.
He stumbles back a week later to his handler’s little house. The Asset is shivering, his shoes are soaked through, he’s miserable and filthy and hungry. His handler will be angry at him for wandering off; they always are. He will be punished, the warmth and kindness he missed will not be there.
He knocks on the door. His handler opens it halfway through a sentence spoken to someone he thinks is at the door, “Hey, did you-“, and freezes when he realizes who it really is.
"Shit." he whispers, grabbing the Asset’s shirt and pulling him into the kitchen. "Shit, Steve." His handler holds him. The Asset doesn’t know what to do as his handler rubs his back and doesn’t let go. His handler is crying. His handler does not yell or hit him or punish him. He sobs and holds him very tightly.
Slowly, the Asset relaxes. His handler is not angry that the Asset left, he is… happy that the Asset is back.
"I’m cold." The Asset said softly, and that’s not the right way to say it. He’s supposed to inform his handler of his internal body temperature. of the percentage of risk of hypothermia-
"Okay." His handler whispers, nodding against the Asset’s shoulder before pulling back and cupping the Asset’s face in his hands. His hands are warm, and his handler is smiling even though his eyes are shiny with tears. "You wanna take your shower now?" The Asset is so relieved and so grateful that he cannot speak. He can only nod, and his handler smiles even wider and leads him to the bathroom. The Asset washes a week of grit and grime and sweat off of his skin and out of his hair. He takes a bit longer than necessary to do so, because the water is very warm and he didn’t think he’d get to feel it again.
His handler says nothing about how long he’s taken in the shower when the Asset comes out dressed in his pajamas. He only hugs the Asset again, more gently this time, slower, with more warning. The Asset thinks he wouldn’t mind if his handler hugged him like this more often. Maybe he could hug his handler back.
His mind stumbles, slides back. You don’t hug handlers. But… handlers don’t hug you either. The Asset tries to grapple with this. Nothing here makes any sense.
"What are you?" The Asset asks. His… handler(?) pulls back, frowning.
"What do you mean?" he asks.
"You are not my handler." The Asset says. This much he knows. This man is not a handler, a handler would not respond to the Asset the way this man has responded to him. The man looks startled.
"No." He says, and the Asset blinks, having expected him to claim that title. "No, Steve. I’m your friend." The man sees the Asset’s confusion and sighs. "Come on, man. Let’s go to bed. We can talk tomorrow, okay?" The Asset nods slowly.
In bed, the Asset considers what the man said. The man is not his handler. The man is his friend. The Asset does not think he’s ever had a friend before.
He has nightmares again that night, but halfway through, the cold and screaming melts into something else.
A little boy, too skinny under his layers and layers of jackets and coats, screams as another boy, taller and stronger, pushes the sled down the snowy hill.
"Come on, buddy!" the taller boy yells. "Hands in the air!"
"You’re crazy!" the smaller one on the sled screams back. As if on cue, the sled catches on something and flips. The boy flips and barrels through the snow.
"Oh shit, Stevie!" The taller boy slips and stumbles down the snowy hill towards the crash site. He hears wheezing and coughing and speeds up, terror in his eyes.
He finds his friend laughing through a minor asthma attack, curled up in the snow, soaked to the bone.
“I’m crazy?” the taller boy laughs, tugging his friend upright. He’s grinning, but there are tears in his eyes that he blinks away. “You’re crazy.”
The Asset is quiet the next day, and his friend doesn’t seem to like that. The Asset is not angry or sullen. The Asset is thinking. Trying to restructure his current situation around this new relationship.
The man is his friend, not his handler. Is the Asset the man’s friend in return? He must be; it makes sense that he would be.
The Asset… enjoys being around the man. He finds listening to him talk an enjoyable experience. Being around the man is preferable to not being around him, he’s discovered that. The man is his friend.
But being someone’s friend and being someone’s handler are surely two different things. This explains why the man was a poor handler. He was not acting as a handler; he was acting as a friend. He cares for the Asset and extends far more trust and care to the Asset than a handler would.
Does this mean that the Asset should extend the man more trust than he would a handler? The idea makes sense, and the idea makes the Asset… he doesn’t flinch away from the idea. It feels right.
His friend deserves trust.
His friend doesn’t like it when the Asset is silent. After dinner, his friend sits down with a bottle and drinks from it quietly.
The Asset hesitates, then sits next to his friend. He pauses, and his friend stares. Then the Asset curls up on his side with his head in his friend’s lap.
It’s an odd action, but it feels natural. It feels like something he’s done before, though there’s no way-
Steve loved letting Bucky pet his hair, but it felt like admitting defeat. Like admitting something was wrong, that he needed comfort. He hated doing that. Feeling vulnerable. Too many people assumed he was vulnerable, he had to prove them wrong.
So letting Bucky tug him down so that his head was on his lap and run his fingers through Steve’s hair was a treat, like a Christmas ham. It felt nice. It felt safe.
His friend’s fingers ran through the Asset’s hair slowly, carefully, gently, and the Asset melted. He trusted. His friend was not going to hurt him. The Asset was safe.
His friend choked, and for a moment, the Asset wasn’t sure if his friend was laughing or sobbing.
"I’ve got ya, buddy," his friend whispered. "You’re safe. I’ve got ya."
The Asset believed him.