His body is not his own.
This may not be the first thing they teach him, but it is the first thing he learns.
When it hungers and thirsts, he cannot feed it. When its hair grows, he cannot cut it. When it has waste to expel, he cannot choose where to empty it. When it bruises and bleeds, he cannot stop it.
When it freezes, he cannot warm it.
Even after everything else starts to melt away, after all the painstaking minutes and days and weeks and months spent learning how to reclaim what is his, this is the one lesson that remains ingrained within him as deeply as the cold that continues to burrow within the very marrow of his bones.
He may not have his body but at least he has his name, though it doesn’t make him feel much better.
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” the man in blue says to him while everything is falling; the walls are collapsing into themselves and the plane is plummeting into the Potomac and his heart has dropped to his stomach.
Then, weeks later, not in a plane, not wearing blue, the man – Captain Ameri-, no, Steve – is saying “Bucky,” and nothing is falling but he still feels like he is.
“I’m never going to be him,” is the first thing he tells Steve once he’s finally allowed himself to be found.
Steve insists it doesn’t matter. That he doesn't have to be, that he can be whoever he wants.
But the thing is, he wants to be Bucky Barnes, even though it terrifies him, even though he feels like a thief every time he hears that name applied to him and not to the man with his face that he’d read about at the Smithsonian for hours every day for two weeks before finally deciding to give it a go for himself.
The name feels nice but also wrong, like a rank he has not earned, a pleasure he does not deserve to know.
Still, pleasure is pleasure and he’s desperate for it whether he deserves it or not, so he takes it when it’s given and the way Steve’s eyes light up whenever he – James, James Buchanan Barnes, Bucky – responds to the name like it’s his own almost makes it seem like he is actually worthy of it.
Nobody notices it at first because nobody touches him, which sounds more extreme than it actually is, because the pool of potential people from which this ‘nobody’ is drawn is about 98% Steve, who fusses over Bucky with his face and words and everything else except his hands.
Fair enough, Bucky thinks. Thinks of the blood on his own hands and the grotesque topography of his body and his face that is a cheap imitation of some precious ancient relic.
He wouldn’t want to touch himself either.
Sometimes, however, he catches Steve beginning to reach out towards him with the same reflexive ease as a person extending their arm in response to someone else’s offered handshake. He’s always left a little awed by just how natural a motion it seems to be for Steve’s body, how perfected and polished it is, even after all this time of not doing it.
Bucky knows a thing or two about muscle memory. It was, after all, what he operated on for over seventy years.
But it’s something that runs a little deeper, a little darker, than mere motor learning that has him disappearing inside himself whenever someone else’s body threatens to overlap with his own.
At first, he thinks that’s why no one will lay a hand on him. His brain may be fried, but he’s not stupid; he sees the way they watch him, like he’s a landmine that will detonate beneath just the slightest pressure. He sees the sad understanding in Natasha's eyes and he knows Sam probably told them all about neurosis and battle exhaustion (“It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder now,” Steve says uncomfortably one night as he’s stripping urine-stained sheets from the bed, Bucky watching him miserably from the doorway, stinking of piss and fear and shame). About how Bucky might not want to be touched after what happened to him.
It’s only when Bucky sees his own reflection in the television screen one afternoon that he realises he’s given them absolutely no indication that he feels this way. He’s sitting on the couch, watching the blank screen as if it was actually playing something. He likes the television when it’s turned off, when it’s quiet and safe, not full of loud colours that are too bright and move too quickly, but he knows Steve hates it when he spends too long staring at nothing so he tries to shift his gaze every now and then to placate him.
Steve comes to sit beside him, arm beginning to curve to fit Bucky's shoulders as he’s lowering himself onto the couch, but, as usual, he stops himself before any actual contact is made and even shifts a couple inches away from Bucky before he finally takes a seat.
Bucky watches all this in the TV screen. Watches the fluid movement of Steve’s arm, interrupted by the split-second of realisation before it withdraws. Watches the sofa sink beneath Steve’s weight. But most attentively of all, Bucky watches himself. The Bucky on the screen does not flinch, does not freeze, does not stiffen, does not seem to react abnormally at all, which seems decidedly odd considering the cacophony that went off like an air raid siren inside his head the moment Steve began reaching towards him.
And then, suddenly, all that noise is replaced by a vast, engulfing silence, so huge that he becomes but a speck. It is a terrifying emptiness the likes of which he has only ever experienced as a sodden, helpless thing being hauled out of a chair whose slick leather and cold metal he can still smell to the point where the new car scent of Natasha’s Corvette Stingray once had him vomiting onto the side of the road and Steve had to come pick them up in his Ford hybrid with the cloth seats.
None of this internal turmoil is visible in the Bucky on the screen, however. If anything, the Bucky on the screen starts to lean in towards Steve, with nearly the exact same instinctive effortlessness as Steve’s initial gesture towards him, though where Steve’s movements are natural and open, Bucky’s are more automatic, mechanical.
It’s only a slight inclination, but certainly enough to be noticeable, to be interpreted as a need for more.
(Show me how much you want this. A malicious purr in his ear, breath hot against his temple.)
Steve must have noticed.
Steve must have noticed that Bucky wanted this (good boy he’s good he’s a good boy) but instead of closing the space between them, he widened it. Bucky takes this to mean that Steve hasn't been acting distant because he's worried about how Bucky might respond to the physical contact. It means the real problem lies in Bucky himself.
Bucky watches the way the thick, toughened flesh around his prosthetic dries and peels off in dead strips and he thinks he understands. Even his own skin doesn’t want to be near him.
When Bucky gets frustrated because he thinks he’s not getting better fast enough, that he’s not doing it well enough if he’s even doing it at all, Sam is the one to put everything back into perspective for him.
It’s Sam who makes petty ‘demands’ like “pass me the remote” or “go take another lap” and doesn’t get mad when Bucky scowls at him instead of listening, just waits patiently for Bucky to realise this and then smiles when he does. It’s Sam who invites himself over for dinner, throws a Chinese food takeout menu at Bucky and tells him to check off what he wants, then after phoning the restaurant Sam points out to Bucky that he had chosen each one of his dishes without panicking or looking to someone else for help. It’s Sam who drags Bucky out for a run and grumbles when he laps him three times in twenty minutes, but once they’re home and changed and Sam has convinced Bucky that Gatorade is safe for human consumption, he reminds Bucky that even just two weeks ago he had been slowing himself down to match Sam’s pace because he didn’t trust himself to make it around the block on his own.
It’s Sam who comforts but doesn’t coddle or condescend, who somehow manages to handle him carefully without making him feel like he’s made of glass.
It’s also Sam who’s with him when he has a panic attack while Steve is out getting groceries, and he asks Bucky if it’s okay to rub his shoulders as Bucky is knelt down before the toilet puking up everything he's eaten that day.
Bucky nods, used to acquiescing while on his knees, and hopes that not saying it out loud makes the yes a little less of a lie, because he likes Sam and would prefer not to lie to him.
Like most things that start out okay and then go horribly wrong, it was probably all Bucky’s own fault.
“On the helicarrier... how did you know?” Steve asks him. “What was the first thing that made you remember?”
Bucky does not answer for a long time, but it’s not because he’s trying to remember, it’s because he already does.
It was the way Steve touched him, though really this means the way Steve fought him, because that was the only contact they’d had by that point (and because Bucky’s understanding of touching and fighting are still so hopelessly intertwined that they might as well be interchangeable words). Steve had touched him as though he felt the pain of each blow he landed on Bucky’s body tenfold, touched him in a way that suggested they used to touch a lot differently, in some other life. Every time a fist came towards his face, Bucky could almost imagine how those fingers would feel if they were uncurled and pressed palm-flat against him.
“It was all in the hands,” Bucky says finally, fatefully, and neither of them realise the road this sentence has sent them on until, like most things that start out okay and then go horribly wrong and are all Bucky’s own fault, it is maybe too late.
After this, Steve slowly starts to use his hands more and more, and, in almost exactly corresponding increments, Bucky slowly starts to disappear.
It’s not a lie, though, about Steve’s hands.
They are a little different every time Bucky remembers them – sometimes small, sometimes big, steady or shaking, clean or charcoal-stained, warm or warmer (nothing really feels cold to either of them anymore, not after the ice), balled up into fists or laid open and tender – but he always recognises them somehow, and by extension, recognises himself.
Sometimes, when the skies are clear enough, he can remember how he has always existed in relation to those hands. He remembers a life where those hands substantiated his very being, letting him know where his body began and where it ended, providing him with comfort and strength, even when they were feeble with fever or split along the knuckles because their owner routinely insisted on picking fights he’d never win.
Bucky knows there is a lot more that those hands used to do for him, do to him, because it’s all coming back to him in clippings and snippets of familiar gestures and recreated touches, except Bucky is pretty sure that when it’d happened the first time around, Steve hadn’t always had to ask if it was okay beforehand.
Which he still does now, even after weeks of Bucky saying nothing but yes, and even for the tiniest things, like giving Bucky a congratulatory pat on the back, or cupping Bucky’s hand with his own, or sitting particularly close to Bucky on the living room couch. It makes Steve’s movements towards Bucky no longer seem as natural as they once were, because even back when Steve would start to reach for him only to stop and draw away again, at least it meant he was so used to being able to touch Bucky freely that he couldn’t even remember how not to. Now, however, his actions have lost all that effortlessness and are instead painstakingly premeditated, and something about this makes Bucky feel sick.
At first he thinks it’s guilt, and maybe part of it is. Guilt that this is yet one more way in which he can never be the person Steve wants him to be, the person that Steve deserves.
But there’s something else to it, something subtler and more insidious, twisting at Bucky’s insides whenever anyone asks if they can touch him. He always says yes, so it’s not his answer or actions that are the problem. Somehow, it’s the question itself. Whenever anyone poses it, he knows he’s doing something wrong, he just can’t quite put his finger on what it is.
So he lets others put their fingers on him, until finally they no longer feel like they have to ask for permission each and every time, and the gnawing thing inside of him settles like a whale carcass sinking soundlessly to the ocean floor.
He learns this means he must be getting better.
“Man, you’re doing really well,” Sam tells him one day, giving his flesh shoulder a light squeeze.
Bucky knows it must be true if Sam is saying it, because Steve is gullible in his hopefulness but Sam is as sharp-eyed as his codename and has less to lose by refusing to pretend everything is okay.
Steve beams at both of them and rests his hand on the back of Bucky’s neck, gently playing with the downy wisps at the base of his hairline.
Bucky nods, glassy-eyed and absent, waiting to be shown which way to tilt his head.
“You used to get your ass kicked a lot,” Bucky says out of nowhere over breakfast, because Steve likes to know when he remembers things.
Steve splutters a little on his milk. “I... Yeah. I did.” He worries on his lower lip before adding carefully, “You were always there to patch me up, though.”
Normally Steve tries not to talk about the past, resolutely avoids voicing any references or comparisons to the 'old' Bucky, knowing it just makes this Bucky feel guilty and sick and pressured to live up to some impossible standard. Today, however, Bucky feels secure enough to ask to hear some more about it, like a little kid requesting a bedtime story.
They’re just fairytales, after all.
“What did I do?” Bucky asks quietly, because he genuinely wants to know how he used to make Steve feel better so that maybe he can do the same thing now. “To- to help, I mean.”
Steve tries not to show his hopeful excitement at the fact that Bucky is prodding for more information instead of clamming up and disappearing into his bedroom for hours at a time, but even though Steve can keep a stiff upper lip like it’s nobody’s business, in the end his face is too open and honest to really be able to hide much.
“It was all in the hands,” Steve says with a shy smile, echoing Bucky’s fateful words from what feels like so long ago now.
He reaches over across the table to rest his hand over Bucky’s flesh and bone one, which had been curled into a loose fist next to his napkin but goes slack the moment it’s enveloped by someone else’s warmth. Bucky waits with unflinching patience for his hand to be guided. Slid through a pair of restraints, perhaps, or yanked roughly, expectantly, towards the zipper of someone’s trousers.
Steve just gives the hand a tiny squeeze and then lets go.
Bucky frowns, confused, and Steve must think he is confused about what was being said because he starts to explain what he meant.
“There was this Johnson & Johnson first aid kit that hung on the wall of your bathroom,” he says. “Your ma always managed to keep it stocked somehow. I swear, you knew the inside of that kit better than you knew your own wardrobe. You... you’d clean the cuts with iodine and it stung like hell and you’d say that oughta teach me a lesson. Your house had a deep freez— I mean, a freezer, so there was always ice available. You’d wrap a block of it in cloth and press it to wherever was swollen most and you’d run your other hand through my hair as you told me how stupid I was.”
Bucky is silent, engrossed by the story, by the idea that he was once able to deal relief and comfort in the same way that he now doles out death. After a moment he notices that Steve suddenly looks embarrassed.
“Steve...? What is it?”
Steve laughs a little, a sad, affectionate sound and he says, “It’s funny, ‘cause even when it hurt, it was okay, because it was you. You used to joke that I must like getting the tar beaten outta me, what with how often I let it happen, and yeah I guess some of it had to do with what Natasha calls a ‘savior complex,’ but I think what I really liked was... having you around. Afterwards.”
“You’re an idiot,” Bucky states plainly, drawing another laugh from Steve, lighter this time, more melodic.
“You’re a jerk.”
Bucky stiffens unexpectedly at these words, feeling like an actor who’s forgotten his lines, knowing there’s supposed to be more to this exchange than he’s been able to offer but he’s at a loss as to what it may be.
Steve seems to notice Bucky’s distress and quickly says, “Uh, anyway...” in an attempt to change the subject, but he has nothing with which to follow it up so for a moment there is just an uncomfortable silence.
Eventually, Bucky says, “Couldn’t I do anything without you?”
Steve stares at him a little incredulously. “...Did you not hear anything I’ve been saying? You were always the one saving me, Buck. From myself, mostly.” He allows himself a bit of a self-deprecating chuckle. “It was me who couldn’t do anything without you.”
That’s when Bucky realises he’d asked the wrong question. What he’d really meant to say was couldn’t I be anything without you? Because he remembers how it felt to have someone to take care of, someone who needed him like that. It felt like a guarantee that he would always mean something, that he would never be alone. In his fear of needing anything, Bucky found solace in being the one who was needed.
More than solace, perhaps. Perhaps validation.
After all, what would he be, without Steve?
If Steve was the sun, brilliant and golden and unstoppable, then Bucky was the moon, weathered and dependable but shining only because of someone else’s light, and hiding a dark side that everyone knew about anyway, even if they’d never seen it.
Distractedly, Bucky’s brain drifts to the Apollo moon landing. He was actually awake when it had happened, having been on an assignment in Honduras.
Three days earlier, he’d fired a cannon at the jet of an El Salvadoran Air Force captain who, Bucky eventually learned, had remained in the plane in order to pilot it away from the city and make sure it crashed into uninhabited land.
Bucky wonders how he felt as he saw the Honduran fields rushing up to meet him, if he felt the same way Steve did when he'd put the Valkyrie in the ocean.
Wonders if it’s anything like the way Bucky felt when he fell, then realises that it probably isn't, because Steve and the air force pilot died as heroes and Bucky died as nothing.
Steve says, “...Bucky?” and Bucky immediately zeroes in on the voice to block out the whistle of icy air rushing past his ears but it doesn’t work, he can hear the crunch of bone and the whirr of some horror instrument that he’s pretty sure you’re not supposed to use on anyone who is conscious and his heart is lashing out like a battering ram against the bars of his ribcage because he knows what’s next, he knows what’s coming, and the anticipation of it is almost worse than—
—every muscle in his body is locked in place. He feels rusted shut. His lungs are bags of sand, nothing works—
“Bucky, you’re safe. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. I’m your friend, Steve.”
—coughs even though there’s no air in his body to be expelled, so it comes out as more of a choke and—
“The year is 2014. We’re in my apartment in Washington, D.C. We’re having breakfast. You’re safe.”
—wiggles his toes like the man with the wings suggested he do, feels the cool hardwood floor beneath his bare feet. Smooth, varnished oak. Not laboratory linoleum or alpine snow or the gravel of an unpaved road in the hills of Tegucigalpa.
“That’s it, Buck. Come back to me. You’re safe.”
Bucky blinks. Once, twice. Experimentally takes a slow, deep breath. No more sand. He tests out other parts of his body – his hands, his knees, his tongue, his jaw – and is relieved to find them all more or less operational, if not completely and utterly drained. He knows he looks as worn-out as he feels because Steve is watching him with worry stamped all over his face.
Steve swallows nervously before he clears his throat and asks, “Can I... Can I touch you?”
His face is earnest and hopeful and sad, just like all the other instances he’s asked Bucky for his permission, though now he only does so when Bucky has been having a difficult time.
Bucky’s mind clouds over with frost and fog and he feels himself nod, feels the firm yet gentle grip of two strong, familiar arms wrapping around his torso, and it distantly occurs to Bucky that this should be making him feel safer, grounded, but the only thing going through his brain right now is blankness.
In that other world, the one before all the cold, Steve’s hands and body were the prism for all that light inside of him that Bucky – in that other world, the one before all the darkness – thrived on, leaning into its source like a flower that turns to face the sun.
In this world, though – the real world – he is more of a black hole than a flower. A perpetual collapse, swallowing entire universes whole.