James Buchanan Barnes. He tests the name in the silence of his head. It rings unfamiliar and hollow in the empty space once filled with mission directives. Bucky. Bucky Barnes. Your name is Bucky.
Except, that isn’t his name.
He is The Asset. The Ghost. The Winter Soldier. He is the human weapon with no real name.
He looks down at the museum pamphlet clutched in his metal hand. A face that is equal parts familiar and not stares back up at him.
He doesn’t know how long he spends committing the name beneath the picture to memory. Hours. Days.
It’s his. The time. The name.
He has a name now. He is a person now. In the recesses of his memories he has a past screaming and clawing for freedom.
His eyes fall on the face of Steve Rogers. In his head something whispers MISSION, at the same time another voice says friend. An image of a battered face flashes in his mind; Steve Rogers’ bloody mouth moves.
"I’m with you ‘til the end of the line."
He runs a finger, one made of flesh, over the picture of Captain America’s face. “My name is Bucky, and I know you.”
For the first time in a long time, he is in charge of himself. There are no handlers, no one to sedate and wipe him when he becomes uncontrollable. He now has to learn to control himself.
His days bleed together. Sometimes he wakes up and he can’t remember who is or why he is where he is. He lashes out wildly at the walls of the tunnels he wanders into to keep himself away from people. (He only surfaces to steal food, but he hasn’t been hungry in a long time and he goes days without eating anything.)
He is alone with his own thoughts. At some point, he loses himself for weeks in the darkness. He shouts at things that aren’t there and fights with his own shadow.
Much later, when he wears himself out he remembers the pamphlet. He keeps it in the pocket of his stolen clothes. It’s creased and ripped in places, but he holds onto it like a life line. It reminds him of what is real. Where he is going. Who he will become.
When he sleeps, it’s only because the headaches build up until the pain is unbearable. He has had enough sleep forced on him. Cold sleep. Long and dreamless sleep. But when he sleeps now, of his own free will, he dreams. Distortions of light and sound and pain. Memories.
Disjointed things, his memories. They crash and flow together violently in his head. But they are his. He remembers.
When Bucky emerges out of the shadow of the Winter Soldier, he’s not entirely whole, but he is closer to human than he has ever felt. There are still deep black holes in his memories, but Bucky knows someone.
He knows someone that knows him.
Bucky’s hunt for Steve Rogers leads him home. He leaves D.C behind in a car stolen from a salvage yard and drives to New York. According to the media, Tony Stark has taken in Captain America, as well as Black Widow and Falcon. Providing for them where SHIELD no longer can.
It’s the last place Steve was spotted, and it’s the first place he will return to. There is no one around to beat the trepidation out of Bucky. He white-knuckles the steering wheel for the entire four hour drive.
His hunt for Steve Rogers leads Bucky down the sometimes dark and twisting path known as memory lane. Driving into the city, memories swirl like smoke in Bucky’s mind. He remembers being in New York for a mission. He slaughtered a family he can’t name but whose faces, bloodied and slack in death, haunt him. The recollection is juxtaposed with one of him and Steve at Coney Island.
This is his life now. The nightmare of the Winter Soldier at war with the old James Barnes. There is guilt and sorrow mixed with indifference. The effects of repeated desensitization still have their claws in him. He’ll take the guilt, though. The damnation, because there is no forgiveness for him, he knows this.
He’ll take it all because he has the choice now. He has the freedom.
Bucky stashes the car in the abandoned lot where the apartment complex he and Steve lived in used to be. There is nothing left of it except the ghost-like memory Bucky has of the place.
He doesn’t have a plan for what comes next. He’s got his knife and his Sig-Sauer, and the vague hope that Steve Rogers still considers him friend and not foe.
Steve returns to Stark Tower two weeks after Bucky arrives in New York. He looks as haunted as Bucky sometimes feels. It sets something off inside of him, something sharp and painful.
He walks into Stark Tower behind Steve. The reception area is empty except for the voice of Tony Stark’s AI system, if that counts towards a presence being with them. For a long moment, Steve is unaware of who he is. Bucky’s metal arm is hidden beneath the sleeve of his jacket and a leather glove. He’s hacked off his hair. He doesn’t look like the monster he used to be.
A phantom impulse forces Bucky’s flesh hand to reach for and wrap around Steve’s arm. At first, it seems Steve doesn’t recognize him and then all at once, like a tidal wave, Bucky is being pulled forward. Strong arms settle around him, hugging him, and Bucky fights the hissing voice that tells him this is meant to crush him. To break and destroy him.
Steve’s voice in his ear, reverent and broken, erases that hiss completely. “Bucky.”
Bucky’s throat is tight and hot. Words form, his mouth moves, but nothing comes out. He curls his own arms around Steve.
“Punk.” He finally manages to say. Steve laughs into the crook of Bucky’s neck.