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Healing Process

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Sometimes, in his dreams, he's fast enough.

He's fast enough, he's strong enough, he's smart enough, he's enough.

In those dreams, Bucky doesn't die, the plane doesn't crash, Schmidt doesn't escape, he doesn't freeze and drown at the same time.

Those dreams are the worst ones.

He prefers the nightmares. He prefers the ones where he relives Bucky's fall, the sound of Bucky's screams, over ones where he's able to reach, able to grab, able to pull his friend to safety. Because when he dreams that he's enough, he has to wake up to the realization that he's not.

***

Bucky had a sister.

Not many people know that. She was younger, married at sixteen to a husband who took her down South and wasn't interested in letting Bucky tag along (even if Bucky had been interested in tagging, which he wasn't.) Her name was Rebecca.

When Bucky fell, Rebecca got a letter. The Army would have sent a telegram, but Steve refused to allow it. Not for Rebecca, and not for Bucky. He sat down at a table with a sheet of paper and a pen and he did the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life. When he was done, he folded the letter up and put it in the mail, and then he tried (again) to get completely shitfaced. It didn't work any better than it had the previous times.

Dear Rebecca,

It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter to let you know that your brother, Sgt. James B. Barnes, is missing and presumed killed in action as of October 29, 1944.

As his mission was classified top-secret, I cannot tell you the details of his passing. What I can tell you is that Bucky died as he always lived: a hero. He gave his life for something he believed in, hoping to keep others safe from the tyranny that we all fight against over here.

Please know that I share in your grief. Bucky was as close to me as any brother could have been, and as you know, was the only family I had after my mother's death. I mourn his loss as you do. If there is ever anything that I can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours most sincerely,

Cpt. Steven G. Rogers, U.S. Army.

Nearly two years later, lying sleepless in bed with Darcy's head cradled on his chest, Steve could still recite that letter word for word, still see the text of it in his own painfully neat handwriting, stark and black on the page. He wasn't sure he would ever be able to forget it.

It wasn't always flashbacks that kept him awake; it wasn't always nightmares that robbed him of his sleep. Sometimes it was the simple act of remembering. Sometimes it was simply rage.

Rage at himself, rage at the world, rage even at Bucky, blameless as he was, for dying and leaving Steve all alone. The night after Darcy was fixed was one of those nights. He lay in bed, the sweat of exertion cooling on his body, her lithe form tucked up against his right side, her warm breath curling across his bare chest, and he was filled with rage because it was wrong, all of it was wrong, and Bucky should never have died and Steve shouldn't even be there, because there was Peggy and he was supposed to have a date.

He felt it building inside him, that rage that simmered for days and days until some innocent bystander - like Darcy - took the brunt of it. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard, trying to force that feeling down, but it wouldn't go away; it got bigger and bigger until he felt like it might choke him to death, and all he could see behind his eyelids was Bucky's face.

He forced himself to take one long, slow breath - in through the nose, out through the mouth, as Bruce had taught him - and then he shifted, carefully lifting Darcy's head off his chest and laying her on the pillow. She snuffled in her sleep, curling up into herself as he slipped out from between her sheets and dressed quietly. He took a moment to leave her a note - couldn't sleep, gone down to the gym, be back, SR - and then he slipped out of her apartment and made his way downstairs.

One good thing about having a gymnasium that took up an entire floor of the tower was that if you needed to blow off steam, there was a way to do it. Steve entered by the door near the yoga area, walked past the cardio section and the tumbling floor. He passed the sparring ring and the heavy bags, ducked into the locker room to change into his spare sweats and a sleeveless tank. When he came out, he crossed the floor and pushed a secondary door open.

When he'd finally agreed to move into the tower, Tony had brought him on a tour of the Avengers' floors, showing him all the amenities he'd built, and asking if Steve could think of anything else. After seeing this room, Steve had to admit that he was fairly certain Tony had thought of everything. The obstacle course was about half the size of a football field and designed to simulate a combat zone, including pop-up civilians and unfriendlies. It could be configured for any of the team's major weapons: Thor's hammer, Natasha's guns, Clint's arrows, Steve's shield, or Tony's suit.

It could also be configued for hand-to-hand fighting, and that was what Steve asked JARVIS for now. Deep inside the course, Steve could hear pneumatic hisses and mechanical clanks as the equipment shifted and set, and he took a moment to run through a few warm-up stretches. Then JARVIS said, “Would you care for a soundtrack, Captain?”

Steve blinked. “A soundtrack?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Stark has recently added a variety of options. One track simulates the sounds of a battle zone, for a more realistic experience. Another track offers what Mr. Stark calls 'angry music.' There are other options as well.”

Steve thought about it for a second. He wasn't sure he wanted the sounds of a battle zone; the full-immersion experience might be a bad idea, when he was already dealing with the rage issue. He wasn't too sure about angry music, either, but he gave himself a mental shrug. He could always ask JARVIS to turn it off, if he didn't like it.

“Sure, okay,” he said. “I'll take the angry music, please, JARVIS.”

“Very good, sir. The course is ready when you are.”

“Thanks.” Steve placed himself at the starting mark and took a deep breath, considering how best to begin. He blinked when he was surrounded by the sound of a man's whisper.

Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the
FLOOR

The explosion of rage that was the last word send him exploding into action across the course, up and over a pile of debris, where he paused for a moment to scan his surroundings. Tony's robots reset the course every time it was used, so it was different now from the way it had been the last time he'd been here. He took it in, searching for the enemy, and launched himself at the first one, fists swinging.

It was good. His mind shut down as the adrenaline of combat overtook him, supplemented by the pounding of the music and the fury of the lyrics. He told that part of his mind that did all the thinking to shut the fuck up, and he just felt, raging his way across the course and killing every enemy he could find. He didn't notice when his mind began substituting HYDRA agents for the blandly menacing generic-villain opposition he was facing. He didn't notice when he started bleeding, or what he'd hurt himself on. He didn't notice when he burst through a doorway and screamed Bucky's name.

He didn't notice when the door from the gym proper opened, or when the music shut off. He heard someone shouting his name, but it sounded like Bucky, and he turned, tearing through drywall and piled-up cinderblock looking for him.

He didn't turn in time to see the figure who raced up beside him, body-slamming him to the ground in a clear space. He struggled against this new, unexpected enemy, fighting and clawing, but his enemy was much larger than he, and fresh where he was tired, and after a moment of useless grappling, the enemy simply reached out and clamped a huge, meaty hand on his neck, slowly constricting his airway. He struggled more, but it was useless, and the edges of his vision began to grow dark. He struggled, focusing on the face of his opponent and as pinpricks of false-light began to form in front of his eyes, he managed to choke out one word. “Thor?”

Thor immediately eased his grip, though he did not release him completely. He waited as Steve sucked in one painful breath, and then another, and then Thor released him as he rolled onto his side, coughing. The Aesir remained in place, kneeling beside Steve as his body was wracked first with coughs, and then with sobs. Thor stayed where he was, one huge hand resting warmly on Steve's shoulder, and he waited until Steve had cried himself out before saying, “Come; it will do neither of us any good to remain here. Let us go and have a cup of something warm, and talk.”

They detoured through the locker room, where Thor made him shower and change, before they went back upstairs. The common kitchen was empty, and Steve followed his teammate quietly, taking a seat at the counter while Thor dug through the cabinets for mugs and a kettle. “Now is not a good time for any stimulant drinks,” he said simply when Steve cast a glance at the coffee maker. Then he set the kettle on to boil, ducked into the pantry, and came back with his wooden box of Asgardian spices and things.

With a low rumbling sound that Steve belatedly recognized as tuneless humming, Thor pulled out one set of packets and split the contents between the two mugs on the counter. He waited for the kettle to whistle, poured the water, and then pulled out two more items that looked rather like cinnamon sticks, popping one into each mug. He handed one of the mugs to Steve, then idly began stirring the liquid in his own with the not-cinnamon. Steve did the same, watching as the water quickly took on a soft yellowish color, and then he took a sip of the mixture.

The first thing he noticed was the taste, which was like chocolate but not, in a strange but not unpleasant way. And then, slowly, the warmth of the drink began to flow through his body, relaxing muscles he hadn't even known were tense. He sighed softly, slumping into his seat, and Thor smiled slightly as he leaned against the counter. “It's good, yes?” the Asgardian said. “It is called kovva. My mother used to make it for us, when Loki and I were small.”

“It's delicious,” Steve said honestly.

They sat there sipping their drinks for a long minute before Thor spoke again. “When we were young,” he said, not looking at Steve, “my brother and I were explorers. We would escape from our tutors and go out into the city to see what our world had to offer. Sometimes we would steal horses from the stables and go ranging far into the wild lands to see what we could see.” He paused, smiling slightly. “Those lands, of course, are as tame as any can be on Asgard, but we did not know it at the time. We were boys, playing at being giants. We would swim in the rivers and run in the meadows and all the time, the sun would shine down upon us and I can recall thinking that these days were so beautiful that they could not possibly ever end.”

He paused, swallowing hard, and he looked down into his cup. “But we grew up, as boys do, and we became men, and somewhere in the doing of that task, everything went wrong. I grew arrogant and self-assured, and Loki grew cold and distant, and I did not realize it until it was far too late. And now,” he finished, his voice dropping to a near-whisper, “my brother is dead.”

Steve swallowed hard, but did not speak.

After a moment, Thor looked up at him again. “I would tell you of him, if you would hear what I have to say.”

Steve nodded, and Thor took a deep breath. “He was brilliant,” he said softly. “Far, far more intelligent than I. Oh, I am a warrior, and I have no doubts in my own abilities upon the battlefield. I am no idiot, either; I am versed in the histories of my people and on our laws and other such things. But Loki.” He shook his head. “Loki's mind is so gifted, sometimes I thought he could contain entire universes in a single thought. Some called him Loki Silver-tongued, for the skill that he had with words. He could have talked the birds down out of their trees if he was of a mind. When I tell you that Loki was brilliant, I mean it. He was brilliant. But that was never enough for our father, and to this day I know not why. I know only that as we reached adolescence, it seemed that Loki could never do anything exactly the way Father wanted, or be exactly what Father sought. Whatever he did, whatever he was, it was just slightly wrong.” He shook his head. “I never could have guessed that Loki would turn out to be Laufey's son, and I will never understand why my Father instilled in us both such a hatred of the Frost Giants, knowing Loki's heritage.”

He was silent for a long time, and Steve realized that he'd said everything he planned to say. So he swallowed hard, took another sip of his drink for courage, and said, “My brother's name was Bucky.”

He told Thor everything he could think of to tell him, starting with the way they met, on Steve's second day at the orphanage, when Bucky got between a mouthy, skinny, wheezing twelve-year-old and somebody's fist. How Bucky had taken care of him for so many years, from having his back in any fight Steve picked to shouldering most of the load when Steve couldn't get steady work that paid enough to keep soul and body together. How Bucky had gone off to war and Steve had been so jealous, so desperate to be half the man that Bucky was that he'd gone off and gotten himself juiced up, and how he'd saved his friend from a Nazi torture chamber only to lose him over some godforsaken mountain range.

Then he told Thor how every time he closed his eyes, he saw Bucky's face. How, over and over, that familiar visage flashed through his mind, like a movie reel that he couldn't shut off. How he felt helpless, hopeless, worse than useless. How he dreamed about being enough only to wake up and discover that he wasn't. How real life was the nightmare he couldn't wake up from. He wanted to cry, to sob, to rage and scream and claw at the world, but as he finished speaking, he suddenly found himself feeling... hollow. Empty, like he had been sliced open and drained out of everything that was inside him.

He looked up at Thor. “So I'm... a little fucked up.”

Thor nodded gently, silent for a long moment. Then he said, “You have been speaking with a healer of minds. One of the doctors who seeks to repair wounds of the soul.”

“We call them psychiatrists. Or counselors. But yeah.”

Thor nodded. “Does it help, telling this man of your suffering?”

Steve took a deep breath, thinking about it. “Sometimes,” he said finally. “Sometimes not. He says it might get worse before it gets better.”

“And have you told him about your dreams?” Thor asked, his gaze seeming to pierce Steve all the way through to his core. “Have you told him what you just told me?”

Steve's silence was apparently all the answer Thor needed. The Asgardian drained his cup, chomped down on the not-cinnamon stick in two bites, and placed the mug carefully into the sink. He ran some water into it, then turned and faced Steve. “If I were injured in battle,” he said, “and I sought the assistance of a healer, but allowed that healer only partial access to my wound, you would rightly call me a fool, would you not?” When Steve nodded, he continued. “And if my healer gave me instructions for the proper care of my wound, that I might become whole again, and I did not follow those instructions, you would again and still rightly call me a fool.” Steve nodded again. Thor stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Then what shall I call you, my friend, when I see you doing the same thing?” With those parting words, the Asgardian turned and left the room.

Steve sat there for a long time, staring into his cup, thinking about what Thor had said. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that it was not for nothing that Thor was the heir to his father's throne.

He drained his own cup, putting it into the sink with some water, and munched his own sweet not-cinnamon stick as he made his way back upstairs to Darcy's apartment. She was still asleep when he slipped between the sheets, but she turned toward the warmth of his body and snuggled up against him, murmuring his name as she wrapped her arm around his stomach. He lay there staring into the darkness for some time, turning Thor's words over and over in his mind. Eventually, sleep overtook him.

For once, he did not dream.

***

He got an appointment with Burke late that morning. When he walked into the room, he sat down in the chair, leaned forward, and rested his head in his hands. Burke said nothing, merely waited for him to find his words. He closed his eyes against the view of the city, searching, and then he opened his mouth, and the words came out of him just as they had in the darkened kitchen with Thor.

“My brother's name was Bucky,” he said. “And I first met him when I was twelve years old.”

***

When he came home, he was carrying a blank canvas under one arm and a bag from a local art supply shop in the opposite hand. He texted Darcy that he was going to miss their afternoon history session but would be in his apartment if she wanted to stop by after work. Then he tossed his cell phone onto his couch and dragged his easel downstairs, parking it beside the windows for the best light. He grabbed a small pedestal table and stood it beside the easel, stacking several small packages on top of it. Then he set up the canvas and clamped it.

He started with the pencils, opening the brand new package, sharpening the lightest one, and roughing in the shape of a face. Once the oval was on the canvas he just drew, pausing only to pull a new kneaded eraser out of its plastic packaging. Pencil in one hand, eraser in the other, Steve worked quickly but carefully, roughing in eyes, nose, that smirking mouth, one ear, the suggestion of a curl of hair.

At a sound, he looked up and saw Darcy coming through the door. He smiled at her. “Hey, doll.”

“Hey,” she replied, dropping her bag on a chair and coming around to see what he was working on. “Oh, who's that?”

He reached over and wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “That's Bucky,” he said.