It’s been exactly a week and two days since he pulled Steve’s body out of the water and left him there, covered in mud and crusting blood, barely breathing. Time is precise. Time doesn’t change. Counting the time grounds him in reality.
He’s spent 30 hours and 25 minutes at the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America and the Howling Commandos. He’s memorized everything on the glass display that immortalizes James Buchanan Barnes’s life. He’s seen every single interview, video clip, and voice recording they have available. Three days ago, he spent a full hour and forty-five minutes watching the same twenty-second-long video over and over, watching Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes laughing on grainy film, arms slung easy around each other’s shoulders. Last night, the security guard who’s taken an odd liking to him lowered his voice to a conspiratory whisper and confessed that he’d been on duty when the Captain America costume got stolen by Captain America himself, isn’t that just fantastic? And he thinks of dark red staining the stars and stripes and forces a smile, pulls his hat down a little further with his right hand.
Finding Steve Rogers is easy – something he accomplishes three and a half hours after setting himself the task, a week and two days after pulling Steve’s body out of the water and leaving him there. Espionage and digging for information are second nature to him.
Finding Steve Rogers is not easy. He spends five hours traveling to the low-key, high-security brownstone, of which 36 minutes are spent on public transportation, and the other 264 minutes are spent staring at the house, completely immobilized, as the sky gets darker and the rain falls harder.
He doesn’t know what it is that finally propels him forward, but he raises his right hand and knocks quietly. He runs through the words he’d carefully selected and carefully memorized, and clears his throat.
When Steve Rogers opens the door, everything falls apart. He can feel the mental break and he scrambles to catch his breath, clenches his hands inside his coat pockets, prosthesis straining against itself, and Steve stares at him for a full minute before cracking a quiet smile and it makes him feel absolutely helpless, staring at this face that he knows, but he can’t put together all the pieces.
Piecing himself back together is the most difficult thing he’s ever done. It’s messy. It’s awful. The first night, he falls asleep with Steve sitting on the edge of the bed, exhausted, and he gets ripped into consciousness by a nightmare so vivid that it takes him minutes to reconnect his body to his brain once he realizes that he’s trying to kill Steve, trying to keep following that last, hard-wired order.
Steve’s hesitation to reach out and touch him once he’s finally forced himself still is understandable, but he hates himself for it anyways.
He wakes up screaming nearly every night after that, and he watches Steve shoot quietly apologetic looks at Sam-the-Falcon and Natasha-I-knew-her every time they come up (in Natasha’s case) or down (in Sam’s case) to the ground-floor kitchen to make coffee in the morning, eyes tired.
Steve is solid and reassuring and unbreaking like he’s always been, unendingly, inexhaustibly reliable, and when he’s past vomiting, past words, past screams, dissolved into silent shaking, Steve just reaches out to smoothe sweat-soaked hair out of his face, gently tucks it behind his ears, and lets him curl his prosthetic arm into the blankets.
Down-swings are punctuated by periods of neutrality, hours at a time at first, and when he realizes he’s stopped counting the time, that’s when he knows it’s okay. Sam is patient and funny and always has something interesting up his sleeve to talk about and he always manages to help Steve pull memories out of him, and nothing is better than feeling the grin spread across his face when the puzzle pieces click together for him and he tells stories organically.
Natasha asks first before speaking Russian, hands working with cool efficiency to repair his metal arm as best she can, and he tells her to stick to English with a tight throat. He doesn’t want to try Russian just yet.
Down-swings last for days. Days and days. He’s counted fifteen so far, this time – fifteen days of apathy, fifteen days of watching the world through a fog-like filter where nothing seems real, fifteen days of not knowing who he is or why, exactly, he’s here.
On the twenty-sixth day, he realizes that he can’t bring himself to speak. He pauses in the middle of some easy sparring with Steve and tries Russian, tries Spanish, tries French, tries Arabic, tries Urdu, tries Ukranian and Polish and German but there’s nothing.
Steve does his goddamn best like he always does, gives him two days’ space, but by the twenty-eighth day, when he’s staring blankly from the pen in his hand to the notebook on the coffee table and finally back at Steve, it finally seems to click for him. Steve smiles slightly, tucks a runaway strand of hair behind his ear, and says he’ll go get Sam.
Sam, as is his style, throws around Dangerous Phrases like selective mutism and subvocalization and aphasias with exaggerated gestures and a hell of a lot of his whip-sharp humor. It pulls half a smile out of him, and then Sam finally shrugs and smiles back and quietly tells him honestly, man, just take it easy, work on what’s comfortable because this is hard shit, and he would know. Sam tells him, voice lowered and out of Steve’s hearing, that he was nonverbal for six months after Riley died.
After thirty-four days, Steve has learned all of his body language. Steve’s always been able to read him like a book but this is different, softer, and it feels more like discourse. He learns how to ask for the warm pressure of Steve’s palm against his and how to tell Natasha he needs some space, how to thank Sam for his presence.
He still counts the days. And the hours. And sometimes the minutes. Their sparring gets more intense; he goes for longer runs, and pushes his body further than he should. He hasn’t slept a full night in thirty-eight days.
On the forty-ninth day, the dam breaks. It’s the tiniest thing that does it.
Winter sets in, air dry enough to crackle, and a buildup of static electricity shocks him when he reaches for the pantry door’s handle.
He screams until his throat is raw and he can taste blood. His hands slide over his face, up into his hair, pulling until his scalp hurts, scraping across his ribcage, prosthesis painting bruises through his sweatshirt. Steve just holds him, rubs circles into his back, follows him as he stumbles to the bathroom, gently pulls his hair into a ponytail as he empties the contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl.
They sit on the cold bathroom tile and silence stretches between them; Steve’s hand is cool on his neck and his voice is low as he quietly repeats in, out, in, out. He’s aware of Steve softly telling Sam and Natasha that they’ve got this, thanks for worrying, and he focuses instead on keeping his breaths even.
He stares at his mismatched hands, resting palms-up on Steve’s thighs, and he finally says, “My name is James Buchanan Barnes.”
Sorting out his memories gets easier with every day, now, and he needs fewer and fewer nudges from Steve.
He’ll sleep through four nights out of seven but when he wakes up sweating and panicked Steve is just an arm’s length away, like he’s always been, and Bucky can now remember exactly how he used to wake up, his hands having fallen asleep draped across Steve’s too-bony hips, in their old Brooklyn flat. Steve’s all muscle, now, but his skin gives comfortably underneath Bucky’s right hand, and curling into Steve under the blankets is a thousand time more remedial than curling into himself.
He presses his forehead against Steve’s one night and tries to grin as he confesses in barely a whisper that he might need help, that kind of help, and the smile that spreads across Steve’s face is so beautiful that Bucky can’t help but reach out and cup a hand around his jaw, take every inch that Steve gives him.
They go back to the Smithsonian on a Wednesday morning when it’s snowy, while everyone’s at work and in school, and they spend a lot of time in a quiet back-and-forth, remember when–? remember when—?
Steve has a way of telling when Bucky starts shutting down and he knows just how to quietly nudge him elsewhere in his headspace, with a hand on his back or on his shoulder or around his palm, and Bucky can feel all of the callouses and scars Steve’s built up over the years. He wonders whether Steve can feel his.
They decide to leave when foot traffic picks up and pass by the display of their uniforms one last time, only to run into the security guard that had taken to Bucky at the beginning of this mess. The guard looks at him with recognition and then with recognition from across the room, mouth falling open under his grey mustache, and Bucky winks at him, feels like a kid again when Steve has to muffle a grin with his free hand.
Sometimes he goes to the shooting range with Natasha and they cheerfully rip on any cocky assholes in Russian and then challenge them, just to see those egos taken down a few pegs, because neither of them can ever really quench the burn to show off.
Sometimes he goes to the VA with Sam, metal arm carefully tucked under a shirt and a glove, and there’s a girl there who can’t be much older than twenty, wearing a painfully standard prosthetic from her left knee down, who looks at his gloved hand and then gives him a small, sad smile.
Sometimes it’s a step forward, and sometimes it’s three steps back. Bucky is pretty sure the nightmares will be a constant for the rest of his life but that’s okay because Steve is there every time, as insufferably stubborn as he’s always been, always ready to take on anything that Bucky’s fucked-up head is throwing at him.
Sometimes, it’s all he can do to stare blankly at the TV, wearing Steve’s tee and Sam’s sweatshirt and slumped between Steve and Natasha, trying to keep his thoughts on straight, easy tracks. Sometimes Steve turns in early and Bucky has to gently mold himself around Steve’s back to ease the tension and the anxiety out of his shoulders, press his forehead to the back of Steve’s neck and let him breathe, let him use his hand like a worry stone, calloused fingers threading through his own.
Sometimes Bucky thinks about it while dozing off, Steve giving off heat like a furnace against him – thinks about how no two others could possibly, could ever follow each other through the depths of time and hell like he and Steve have, and—-
Well, to the end of the line, right?