”How are you feeling, James?”
Did you know there are at least three sight lines that would end you before you could move?
I've seen enough head doctors already.
I don't trust you.
I don't trust anyone.
This was a stupid idea and I'm going to kill Sam for suggesting it.
The easiest way to kill the target would be --
“Fine.” Bucky forced the word out, effectively slamming on his mental brakes with as few words as possible. The tone was wrong. It sounded angry. He didn't feel angry. That was one of the problems, wasn't it? He didn't know if he did feel angry. There was so much noise pervading his thoughts that trying to jump onto one felt dangerous. Trying to reply felt dangerous. One of the most difficult things about sessions with the never ending parade of doctors and counselors he had began to see was that he had to respond. As much as they told him to go at his own pace, he knew that every second was cataloged for meaning and analysis. There would be notes made, as he struggled to sort out if the thought he was considering answering with was going to trigger something or if it was a thought that truly belonged to him and not one that was implanted by electricity and pain or if maybe it was the ghostly remnants of Sergeant Bucky Barnes trying to claw through him and demand his life back. The last one would at least be easier to deal with, but that ghost only seemed to come out when he wasn't thinking much at all. That was rare.
He had tried in his first sessions to take the time to analyse his responses before vocalising them. Establishing a framework where he could categorise his thoughts was one of those things that he was supposed to work on. He was supposed to go through the work sheets in his room, but there was the fear gripping at his insides, hot and shameful, that Steve might read it accidently and then...what, give up on him? Like he hadn't spent four months turning down every alley, running through rooftops, using every last bit of training he had to avoid Steve because he just would not stop. That little punk never did know when to give up. It wasn't a logical thought. A warped thought, he had been told. He was supposed to pick it apart logically to calm down and work through it. There were very few logical thoughts when it came to Steve Rogers. He defied all logic and sense. Always had. The fact he knew that, that he knew him, was the only thing that stopped him running out the door half the time. He had said nine words in that original session, then needed to nap for the rest of the afternoon. That didn't make any sense either. He was supposed to be a super soldier -- why did he get so exhausted just by pushing words from his brain to his mouth?
So he wasn't fine, not by anyone's definition of fine, but he was trying to be. He tried to sit in the same room as Sam and Natasha when they came to Steve's floor, even when ice skittered up his back and made him want to reach desperately for a weapon that was no longer there. There was a kitchen knife tapped to his leg. Just one. That was progress. He was in a room with a middle-aged blonde woman he'd only met four times, in a place he barely knew with windows that would make an assassin week for joy at the amazing lines of sight and all he had was one knife. Relatively speaking, that was something.
Bucky forced his eyes up to Dr. Hart's, defiant and willing the doctor to argue the point. There was no reaction. He hadn't really expected one. Hart had come recommended from Barton, vetted by Hill and had survived their last few sessions with unflappable calm. He hated that. His own thoughts couldn't stop racing, so he had to force this stillness to calm himself while Hart did it with an ease that made him want to scream at her and he didn't really understand why. He felt the same way with Steve most of the time. The unerring compassion, the drive to help him when he didn't deserve it in the slightest and taking the screaming, violence of nightmares as just another quirk in his screwy house guest from hell. He despised it. He wanted Steve to tell him to leave, to even imply it, to give up and walk away because this kindness was infuriating when half of his already shocky mind couldn't deal with it. He hated him for not giving up.
The guilt that came with admitting that, even to himself, hit lie a tidal wave. He was drowning in it, struggling to breathe through a clamped jaw – fuck, not again –
“In.” Hart prompted,“And out.” The steady words filtered through, using the same techniques as he had been using for the last two months. Repeated words, something easy to hear and obey. Focus on the words and the actions, nothing else, until he felt under control.
He had to refocus, regroup. Remember why he was here. His name (the asset known as the winter soldier) was James Buchanan Barnes. He was in New York (New York is a no fly zone for the soldier), in a high rise building that made the word ostentatious seem too light. He was in a light room (Steve would love drawing in here with all of this natural light), with windows all down one side (easy access) allowing the early morning light to cast shadows on the plants and comfortable furniture. It is has been seven months since (Mission failure) the events in Washington D.C. He has a room in an apartment upstairs with (the target) Steve. It has been just over seven weeks (need to return to base) since he agreed to stay there. There's a glass of water in his hands. It's not spilling. That hand doesn't really tremble. It recalibrates. He needs to recalibrate but it's not that easy by himself.
He took a sip, forcing his mouth to open enough to accept it and felt everything come to a stop. His head was pounding behind his eyes. Not a surprise, considering he knew he had lesions even if they were healing more every day.
Hart was not the only doctor he was seeing. She was here to counsel, to help him adjust to some kind of life. He had seen her three times already and every time was the same. Hart would ask an innocuous question meant only to start him talking. He'd pull on the wrong thread and end up failing (failure is not an option) all over again. Hart would offer him an out, Steve (who would be sitting outside, unless someone moves him again and makes him do something else, thank God for Miss Potts and Steve's inability to say no in the face of a polite request from her) would walk him upstairs and he'd shut himself. He wouldn't sleep. He'd drift in and out, being not quite awake but lost in silence without stimulus. He'd just sit there against against the bed, counting down to when he'd have to leave for lunch. Food was still a complicated issue, but his body seemed to be adjusting to it more successfully, even if swallowing was more uncomfortable now. He was doing better there. It had been almost two weeks since the last time his legs had given out in exhaustion too. He was sure he used to go longer than four nights without sleep, but given that nine words could exhaust him now, perhaps it wasn't surprising he couldn't do that anymore. He hated how useless he felt. Not feeling things was usually part of the problem. He couldn't always tell if he was hungry or tired or if he'd just spent six hours in the exact same position until Steve's voice would filter through, usually reminding him that it had been some time since he last ate or suggesting a match to watch or even saying his name in that forced, steady way.
One of the others, the first doctor (recommended by Natalia Romanova and therefore hard to fool, hard to talk to) he had seen here had explained this as a disconnect from his body. He'd said it wasn't his body before his mind could identify the nature of the thought. He was sure that outburst had lead to this somehow and if that wasn't proof he should watch his mouth, he didn't know what was.
Hart appeared to be assessing him. “We can try again, if this is too much for you today.”
The out. He wanted to take it. He didn't want to be in this room. He wanted to tell her that she was wasting her time with him. He was a lost cause. He was exhausted trying to sort his thoughts. He wanted to shoot something. He wanted to lie down. He wanted and that, that was part of the problem. He could no more handle the concept of want than understand what he's feeling or if he's feeling at all. It makes him feel weak, pathetic and broken. That wasn't surprising, as he was all of those things now. He's told Steve time and again that he's not the same, that he should get on with his life and forget him. On his hardest days, he had even wished for the silence, for the clarity he once had in knowing his missions, for the ice to envelope him and maybe he could wake up and try again in a few years. On the worst days, he thinks of the fractured memories of a broken soldier and the surprisingly clearer memories of the begging, screaming and dying people and thinks of putting a bullet into his brain to make things quiet again. Some days he didn't feel alive at all, so it would have made more sense to cause his body to align with that than to drag it into a mockery of humanity. He did nothing human correctly. He'd throw up after certain meals, he couldn't sleep without screams that woke him or medication that trapped him in memories where he woke up with wet bedsheets and he couldn't talk to people without tugging on the wrong thread and unraveling before them. He wasn't worth this. Nothing could be worth this.
No, Steve was worth this. He might not be, but he wasn't blind: he knew Steve wasn't doing so hot either. His smile when he could recount one of the legendary pranks of the Commando's, talking about the smell Mrs. Rogers baking or when he remembered to ask for things was a thing of beauty. It lit him up. Brought him to fucking life. He'd go through this for the rest of his life for that smile.
He could get through this.
“Let's just get it over with,” He muttered.
This time, he noticed how hoarse he sounded. It was possible he'd gone a few days without speaking again. He racked his screwed up memory for evidence he had talked to Steve, but it provided nothing. What about Sam? Sometimes he talked to Sam. Natasha? JARVIS? Fuck. Yeah, Steve was definitely going to waiting outside now.
“What I'm hoping we'll do here is help you reclaim yourself, your sense of identity, mind and body. To help you feel connected to yourself, to others and to the world.”
Bucky snorted, “You don't sound real sure about it.” He could hear the ghost of Captain America's loyal best friend, the man who died for his country, in his own voice. When that happened around Steve, it was like the fourth of July. That alone made him think this was the right thing to do.If he could do that more, this would be worth all of it.
In return, Hart nodded. “Then why don't we start with you telling me who you think you are?”
“James Buchanan Barnes.” That was simple enough.
“Alright, James.” Hart smiled again, “What kind of person are you?”
“I'm not.” Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. That wasn't meant to come out. That was another one of the wrong threads, the wrong words, the words he'd been forced to repeat over and over and damn it, he'd wanted to get through one of these without breaking apart. Without fucking up.
He hadn't noticed that his head was in his hands until he realised he could hear Hart talking but couldn't see her.As always, she sounded steady and in control. “It's alright to have those knee jerk responses,” Hart said, quietly but firmly. “You can amend what you've said or contradict it. You're in control of this session.” If he couldn't control is own body, his own mind, how was he supposed to be in control here? He must have indicated as much, because Hart went on. “You're going through cognitive therapy, trying to organise your thoughts in a way that makes you feel safe and content. Finding warped thoughts and working through them as well as finding pathways formed by what you've endured that want to trip you up is going to take time and practice. Trying to find old threads and making new ones is an important part of defining yourself, an important step in making peace with yourself. This is taking control and how we see ourselves is an important part of being a healthy and mature person. Or a healthy and immature person. I'm here to help you, so are the rest of your treatment team. Be honest with us. This is a safe space and you don't have to regulate what you say here. Feeling angry, frustrated or scared is normal. There's nothing you can say that can hurt me, not when this is about helping you. This is my job.”
Bucky can feel his eyes getting blurry and blinks it back, pushing hard on everything he could to focus himself. This is his counseling session. He's trying to control himself. He's going to control himself. He's a world class assassin. He doesn't need to be coddled like a child. Something inside him, insidious and unwanted, tells him be haves like one. He doesn't behave like he should. He can't be trusted in social situations. He has to be reminded to eat, drink and bathe. He has to have his hand held outside the main lab to stop him from running away any time he needs to go there. He soils the goddamn sheets like he's not fucking toilet trained when he's trapped in a nightmare from medicating. Even Steve puts his medication on his counter with a glass of water at night and puts his blankets around him when he forgets to pull them over himself. Fuck, this is exactly what he is, he's a fucking child, a broken doll that Steve dresses up like his dead best friend, maneuvers through his days and cleans up his messes and tells him when he's done something wrong gently. Or worse, he looks disappointed and he's trying to hide it. Steve can't hide worth a damn around him. He knows him too well. If he knew his own indicators as well as he knew Steve's, he probably wouldn't be sitting here.
He has to bite back a strangled laugh, but it slips out. It's not funny, but it kind of is.
“What are you thinking right now?” Hart prompts.
He tries to let it go, to just say what he's thinking. “I'm wrecking his life.”
It's simple. He should run. He should just get up and run and make sure Steve never finds him, wait for him to give up, take his favourite gun and to mouth and –
Hart doesn't bother asking him who he is. At first, she had assumed he was speaking in the third person but this wasn't the first time he'd said this. Her assurances tended to do little to help the crippling guilt. “Do you think he sees it that way?”
The question cut through his mind like an arrow. That wasn't what she'd said the last two times. He shook his head without speaking. (Speak when spoken to.) “Steve's too soft for his own good.”
She regards him for a moment, “Would you see it that way?”
What? No one could ever accuse him of being soft. Weak, pathetic and snot nosed brat maybe but not soft.
“If he had gone through what you have." Hart elaborates. "If he was struggling but fighting for himself, the way you are now, would you see it as him wrecking your life?”
“He wouldn't have broken. They'd have had to kill him.” Well, fuck. He could see his hands shaking. This was going to be a bad one. This was going to be the mother of bad ones. He can't think of Steve going through that, he'd kill them, he'd take them apart for touching him.
“Would you be happier with him dead, than going through what you are now?”
“No,” The word came easily, full of saliva and bubbling from his mouth. He was aware of wet cheeks but digging his fingers, metal and angry, into his thigh wasn't bringing him back anymore. Pain used to work. It didn't anymore. “But then, I'm selfish.”
Hart had the audacity to smile about that. “Wouldn't you have to be a person to be selfish?”
He laughed at that. It was wet, broken and hysterical but it was a real goddamn laugh. “Guess I'm a person after all, doc.”
"I think so too," Hart nodded, “What we're going to do here, James, is set achievable goals. Things to help you integrate yourself. Things to make you feel more connected. It's not going to be easy, but you know that.” Hart looked over the tablet, “Each week, you'll be able to spend time working on a specific goal and we'll go over your progress at the end. How does that sound?”
He pushed his shaking hand over his eyes, wet and disgusting but no longer weeping. He nodded, “Okay.”
“We'll start with self definition,” Hart said, moving the stylus across the technology with one eye on him. “I want you to find at least five signs that you are a person. I want you to write them down for me and give them to me in our next session. I want you to remind yourself of them every time you feel like you're not. And don't download them from the net, these should be specific to you.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, “How the hell would I know what makes me specifically a person? You want a copy of my birth certificate or something?”
Hart just handed him an appointment time: same time, next week. “You could try talking to people, asking them about what makes them a person.” He baulked, looking at her like she was insane. He didn't talk to people who weren't Steve without dire threat. Sometimes, Sam or Natasha but they looked after Steve and Steve was always in dire threat just by being Steve. He managed to get into trouble more before nine am than most people did all day. “See what you can extrapolate about yourself from what they're saying and find things to relate to.”
Hart was phrasing it like a mission. That had to be deliberate. That could work. He hadn't had a mission in a long time and he was spoiling for one, trigger finger itching, so treating it like one might make him feel calm. It might calm the thoughts racing, the memories ripping through and it might make this doable.
Bucky didn't bother cleaning himself up before he went out to Steve's hesitant smile. Steve had seen him worse, even if he wouldn't have let no one else see him looking that bad if he could help it. Besides, if Hart was right, on the off-chance Hart was right, he wasn't hating him for how pathetic he was being and that would make one of them, at least.
“How'd it go?” Steve asked, worry written over his face clear as day. (You did that. You made him look like that.)
Steve looked tired, but there was a carton of coffee in his hand. Two, actually. He handed one over, careful not to graze his fingers as Bucky took the cup. He was so worried about touching him wrong and if he was honest with himself, Bucky didn't know whether to thank him for that or beg him to stop.
“It was fine,” He said, aware that his eyes were still probably still red and that the appointment card he was handing to Steve shook a little before Steve's hand steadied it. It was easier for Steve to know considering he forgot to talk some days, let alone trying to remember an appointment. The fact Steve was now doing that smile meant that yeah, it'd probably been a few days since he'd said anything and after a few days, Steve seemed overjoyed when he said anything at all. He deserved so much more than this.
Steve prompted him to move by standing. “Come on, I'll make us some lunch.”
Maybe if he did this, tried hard enough, if he could build himself back into some kind of person whose innards weren't screwed to hell, he might be able to give him some of it. There might be enough of Bucky left in him to make Steve happy, even if he couldn't imagine there being enough of anyone left inside that wasn't put there by someone else. But if he couldn't fix himself enough to be happy, wasn't Steve being happy so much more important?
He took a sip of the drink and pushed himself to speak unprompted, "Sure."