“But whatever the reason, though we now have a live subject, there appears to be considerable brain damage. The subject has no memory of his previous life. What he does have…are reflex memories. He knows the things he did before; how to fight, particularly, how to speak four languages, including, thankfully, Russian, and many other things. But he has no idea how or why he knows these things. He is nearly a blank state, but an incredibly dangerous one…”
– Captain America #11, Ed Brubaker
Bucky Barnes never remembers who he is.
That doesn’t stop him from falling in love with Steve Rogers.
Steve finds him.
At first, Steve brings him back to Avengers Tower and New York, so optimistic and full of hope that he doesn’t know how to turn Steve down.
Steve tells him stories, about his parents, his sister, and their little lives in Brooklyn – from Coney Island to the Stark Expo, and a HYDRA base in Italy. He listens to memory after memory of trenches in France and snowy missions from years long past; the only missions he remembers are filled with different snows. It all sounds like a story. Like he’s reading an old diary entry he doesn’t remember writing, the words all his, but not the memories. It feels right. It sounds right.
But something isn’t right, and he isn’t the James Buchanan Barnes that Steve Rogers once knew.
He considers lying, but Steve looks at him with such naked hope and want. Steve’s been looking at him that way since he was found. There is something inside of him that tells him to stay with Steve, to trust him, keep him safe. That’s all that’s left of who he was – and it tells him, Pretend. Pretend to be Bucky Barnes.
In the end, he thinks his decision to tell Steve the truth is the only part of Bucky Barnes left in him.
“What should I call you?” Sharon Carter says, leaning across the CIA interrogation table.
This is his plea bargain: HYDRA intel for a pardon. He tells Carter everything, she lets him walk free. (She is not going to let him walk free of surveillance; so he will not tell her everything.)
He shrugs. “Whatever you want, doll,” he winks, fronting like it’s still his job.
“Captain Rogers says you’re going by ‘James,’” Carter says, watching him carefully. “But I’ve only ever seen other people calling you ‘Bucky.’ Do you like ‘Bucky’?”
“Yeah,” he shrugs again.
“Why?” she asks, like she genuinely cares. It would make him look apathetic to shrug a third time, so he cracks a smile instead.
“James Buchanan is my favorite president,” he jokes.
It’s better than “The Winter Soldier.”
Clint Barton helps him move out of Avengers Tower, even though he doesn’t have many belongings. Clint’s a good guy, appropriately skeptical and cautious, and funny.
Steve’s eyes grow sad when he tells him he wants to move out, but he nods and says he understands. When he tells Clint, the guy laughs and tells him he’s lucky to be able to escape the chaos. The truth is, it’s hard, harder than Clint would ever think.
Most people have years of memory to build on: they know how to ride a bike, bake cookies, order pizza, how to wash laundry, play Go Fish, and all the rules of baseball. He has nothing – other than what HYDRA has given him. They left him with muscle memory; the Winter Soldier was training, discipline, reflex. Everything else, he must build from the ground up.
Steve had to learn how to live in a new century.
Bucky must learn how to live.
He starts with his own place, where he can do things for himself without someone hovering over him, or an AI watching his every move. Bucky’s new apartment isn’t anything to brag about, although Stark offers to pay for something fancy. Stark tells him to take his pick of any apartment of the city. Bucky makes his choice carefully.
He buys what little furniture he needs secondhand. Clint helps him carry the couch, bed, and chairs up the stairwell (despite the fact that he has a metal arm and a certain supersoldier at his beck and call). Clint complains about his back, but laughs and cracks jokes about Bucky’s weird neighbors.
The apartment isn’t spacious, but it feels empty. The walls are painted a neutral color, the rooms separated by sturdy doors that lock, the carpet thick enough to muffle footsteps – unless you know where the creaky floorboards are. He’s already put in thick blinds. Strategically, it’s a nearly perfect place to live.
“Nice place,” Natasha Romanoff says as she appears out of nowhere and steps into his apartment, conveniently after they’ve finished carrying up the last piece of furniture.
“You couldn’t have shown up five minutes ago?” Clint huffs from the couch. He’d collapsed on it as soon as they’d dropped it.
“Wouldn’t want to bother you two,” she smiles. “Should’ve chosen a bigger place, Barnes, there’s not even a guest room.”
“It’s a pull-out couch,” he shrugs, before he realizes what she’s doing. Bucky crosses his arms and narrows his eyes. “What game are you playing, Romanoff?” he asks.
“I was just asking an innocent question,” she says, laughing.
“Innocent,” he repeats. Yeah, right. She’s feeling him out, trying to see if he’s chosen the strategically valuable apartment in Brooklyn because he thinks it’ll jog his memory, or because he thinks the pain of familiarity will keep Rogers away. Bucky narrows his eyes at Romanoff.
“You do know the meaning of that word, right?” she says, tilting her chin up and maintaining the eye contact. It’s aggressive body language. She’s testing him.
Clint eyes the both of them carefully and raises his hands in mock-surrender.
“I’m not getting in the middle of this,” Clint says, retreating from the room towards Bucky’s kitchen, leaving them alone. Just like Romanoff wanted.
It’s just the two of them, now. Two assassins, two spies, two people who no longer have to hide their fangs behind masks.
“What game are you playing?” he repeats, quietly enough that Clint won’t be able to hear from the other room.
“You say you can’t remember Bucky Barnes,” she says, pretense abandoned. “I don’t believe you.” She’s efficient – he has to give her that. She cuts to the quick and expects the same in return.
“I remember flashes,” he replies. “A few words, a moment, a feeling.”
“Rogers says you don’t remember him,” she says, tilting her head to the side.
There it is. Rogers.
“I don’t,” he replies, because that’s what Rogers needs to hear.
Romanoff leans closer, smiling at him like the cat that got the cream, and whispers, “I don’t believe you.”
She’s gone before Clint returns to the living room, carrying three beers and a forced smile.
What he remembers is this:
Warm hands, soft eyes, a laugh like a sin, the salty smell of sea and sand –
Iron and blood, blood and sweat, burning flesh, something in the air like the scent of lightning in the storm, a promise, a vow, a – a curse.
– This is everything, this is your everything, and you keep it safe.
When that’s all you have left of who you are, on what other thought can you build your world?