Chapter 1: Prologue
”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."
Chapter 2: Defining Yourself
Steve pressed his mouth into a line, “You could come find me.”
Another self–sacrificial stupid idea from Steven Rogers. “So you can look like shit too?” Bucky shook his head. “Always let you sleep. You need it more.”
“I'm not sick any more, Buck. You can wake me up.”
HOW TO DEFINE A PERSON featuring Clint, Natasha, Thor, J.A.R.V.I.S. and of course, Steve.
Thank you so much to everyone for their kudos and bookmarks. It means a lot to have people enjoy the journey and it's always an inspiration to have such lovely comments.
It's not beta'd, so all mistakes are mine and likely at least partially due to writing in intense thunderstorms.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The apartment looked antiquated but deceptively normal. Bucky didn't think that Steve had done the decorating, but the place unarguably suited his needs, with warm colors and large windows (stand in front of him if he goes near the windows) letting in natural light. The round lights beamed down from the ceiling. They barely illuminated the living area, where the long shadows stood reassuringly still. The place was designed for comfort and fortitude, even if the windows were ridiculously large and most modern technology blended in to the point of being almost hidden. That would not have been Steve's choice – probably Stark. Steve was wholly comfortable with modern technology.
Bucky had to admit, the place was surprisingly secure for an apartment. However, despite being in one of the most secure buildings in the country, he couldn't find any rest here. It was better than sleeping in alleys with a hand on the gun, but at least exhaustion had always taken him then. In the tower, he was expected to sleep every night. Sleep was too elusive. It felt like hammering a failure home with every hour sleep didn't come. It became more stressful as time went on, so by morning, he was usually climbing the walls.
Steve had been quick to establish a routine. Bucky had discovered early on was that Steve would not go to bed until he did, but they always went to bed around eleven at night. He had no desire to keep wake Steve if it could be avoided. Steve needed rest. Steve always pushed himself too hard. So every night, he'd slip into ill fitting sweatpants before curling up against the bed with the quilt, trying to force himself to go limp and mindless. It used to happen automatically. Not any more. Now everything was incredibly loud, too close and intensely confusing.
It was even worse at night. It had been terrible trying to sleep on the bed. It was unfamiliar, with some weird plastic that shaped weirdly under him. He was sure he wasn't the only one sick of soiled mattresses and torn up sheets in the mornings.
Lying at the side of the bed was a more defensible position than lying on it, with a clear view of entry points and clear access to the weapons stashed underneath. Slipping under was never that difficult. Murder would be easier than staying under, with nightmares ripping dry, silent (don't make a noise) screams out of his throat. He was definitely qualified to make the comparison, given the bloody film strips that played behind his eyelids. He'd woken up approximately two hours later, breathing heavy and trying to move against non-existent restraints.
Not the worst night, but adrenalin surged through him, making returning sleep without pharmaceutical help damn near impossible. After lying there a while, he'd given up and wandered out to check the apartment for breaches. It was the fourth night in a row that this routine had played out. Bucky had stood outside Steve's door silently before anything else, and just listened for the rhythmic breathing of sleep. It conjured memories of sleeping in frozen conditions, huddled and hearing nothing but healthy lungs. It had surged something in him then, or more the absence of something, some still unidentifiable thing that made his stomach lurch.
Having gone over everything twice, Bucky ran his hand over the objects on the table. Under everything else, he had found the worksheet from his last session with Hart. 'What makes you a person' was block printed at the top. It was fucking ridiculous hat he needed to try and remind himself of his fact, that wants (what is required), needs and irregularities were normal. It was too big a concept. It had seemed all encompassing two days ago. It wasn't any better now.
But Bucky had to do something. There was the possibility of doing another check. To check on Steve and then the apartment, Steve then the apartment and then Steve and then the apartment. He could spend entire nights checking, attempting (failing) to sleep then checking, but in the morning, Steve would get the worried crinkle. He had begun to despise the crinkle.
Resolved not to roam around like a half metal and wholly disturbed ghost, Bucky pulled his legs up under himself and tried to think of answers objectively. What makes a person in general. The need to consume nutrients (not a tube), sleep (ice) and have purpose (mission objective). They wanted things (mission: complete), liked things (???), hated things (mission: failure) and did things that were not fucking missions. But his head was white noise. It wouldn't work.
Hart had suggested asking people. People were still (threats) difficult to interact with. Even if he had been told he could leave (he hadn't), the idea made him uncomfortable. Too many people. Too many targets to neutralize. But people were not the only life form in the tower.“JARVIS?”
The reply was instant and cordial. “What can I do for you, Sergeant?”
Official title. Or not. He was retired from service (useless), both for the army and HYDRA. Sergeants weren't sitting around an apartment being watched and watching others and talking to head doctors all damn day. JARVIS was a constant. Constant surveillance was nothing new, but it didn't usually come in the form of a dry witted AI. Though not often called upon in personal quarters, Steve sometimes asked – him? it? – advice on what movies they could watch. Something happy. It wouldn't be the first time that Bucky had called on the AI either. He had resorted to calling upon the AI to check on Steve on the two occasions he had been called into the field in the last two months. Knowing Steve's vitals had been reassuring, so JARVIS had put them on the screen. His heart rate meant something.
“Up the lights in the living area?” Asking for things remained one of the most difficult aspects of living in the tower, but a necessary part of cohabitation. It seemed easier to ask an AI than a person. Unless an AI was considered a person. It's not as if he had much luck differentiating between what was and wasn't.
The lights came up overhead. It was easier to read the worksheet, with both his name and numbered points where he could write in his thoughts. That would take all of two seconds, given his mind kept going blank. Where the hell was that when he was trying to sleep? He could write down human needs, but was that the same thing? His handwriting was ridiculous, it was blocked chicken scratch at best, but it would suffice. Or would, if any words would come. They didn't.
After a while, Bucky put down the paper and pen on the old table and ran his hand across his face. “JARVIS?”
“Are you a person?” It was probably inappropriate to ask that, but damn it, he was drowning here. The world was complicated. People were worse. Artificial people were as close as he was getting to normal.
“I think that would depend on your definition of a person.” The AI responded.
Bucky sighed, “How do you define a person?” Was asking an AI cheating? Maybe from one outsider to person-hood to another, JARVIS would be able to break it down in a way his mangled synapses could understand.
“There are a lot of ways to classify a person,” JARVIS answered, “A person is generally accepted as a human individual with the legal rights defined with that status, but beyond that, it seems subjective. There are many linked concepts to the idea, such as a basic idea of self, such as self awareness, perception and knowledge or personal identity, such as personality, experiences and motivations. A person can be defined by any of these things and more nuanced definitions. A person is what they choose to be, by what definitions they choose. I suppose choice is a key aspect of what a person is and the ability to make them and accept their consequences. It's a rather complex issue, and one that may possibly be difficult to process properly at the wrong side of four in the morning.”
That had made his lips curve unbidden into a smirk. It was the same gentle cajoling that he had seen the AI give both Stark and Steve when they were running ragged. “I don't think sleep is on the cards, pal.” He pushed his head back against the couch, regulating his breathing. Maybe it was just busy work from Hart. Something to keep his mind occupied so he wasn't useless (weak) and could concentrate on something specific. Something to hold onto till (if) he was battle ready again. “Need to do something.”
“If you're finding sleep difficult, might I suggest typing 'funny animals' into youtube?” JARVIS asked. “Mr. Barton does appear to find this a way to lose several hours without trying.”
Bucky blinked. The AI had no face, but there was something to the tone that –– “That was a joke.”
“A sense of humor is also a sign of being a person,” JARVIS replied, and if he had a face, Bucky imagined it would be looking pleased with itself. “Though many seem to function well enough without one.”
Bucky choked on a laugh. The AI had a sense of humour. The AI had a sense of humour and was making jokes at him. The AI was better than being a person than he was and wasn't that just great? “You're better at this than I am.” It was supposed to come out funny. It came out sour. He felt a pang of guilt, but at this point, what was one more guilty feeling upon everything else?
“I am programmed to adapt and grow as needed,” JARVIS said. (I was programmed for ––) “In that respect, I'm more like a person than most artificial life forms. Though I must admit, it's probably a little easier with subroutines as opposed to synapses and the restrictions of a human body.”
“Aint that the truth,” Bucky agreed. It would have been easier if it was his brain that was electronic, instead of the arm. A few switches and he'd have been ready to be whatever he needed to be. Instead, he wasn't able to keep control of any thought for long and was barely human, let alone a person.
Steve would be up at five for a run. It would be better if Bucky were not sitting there when he did.
Though there were individual units in the tower, he had been to the communal kitchen at Steve's urging. He hadn't said much either time, then had left as too many people trickled in. Once there were too many targets in the area, he didn't choose to remain. He couldn't concentrate on all of them. It felt like a migraine coming on. At this time of the morning, it was unlikely he would find anyone there. Sam was in D.C., as he kept insisting upon retaining his job despite offers to do otherwise. While Thor was on the planet, he was not in the country. Romanova wasn't either. If Stark was awake, he would be in his workshop. Same would be true of Banner and his lab. Potts was unlikely to venture to the private areas alone. That left Barton, who did not rise before dawn.
He'd been half right.
Coming into the communal kitchen, Bucky noticed the noise of rustling. The source had been easy to pinpoint: Barton, asleep on the couch area with papers next to him that shook with every breath. That was not particularly stealthy for a sniper. Unsure of how to proceed, he stood locked to the floor.
One minute passed. Then another. He could make a line for the balcony area, covered by an electronic mesh. It wasn't as secure, but it would not have a sleeping Avenger on it. He was not meant to go on it alone, but he wasn't sure what they were afraid of. Even if he fell off it, he doubted it would kill him. Falling from a speeding train hadn't done it. The sound of whipping winds made it hard to breathe suddenly. It forced his hand.
He moved purposefully into the kitchen area and programmed the coffee machine to spit out something akin to sludge that would stop him from falling asleep out there.
(Movement detected. ) Spinning around and already looking for the next available weapon (glasses behind the bar, cups, cutlery, knives would need force to ––)
“Easy.” Bucky came face to face with Clint Barton, codename: Hawkeye.
His hands were up, but that in no way meant he wasn't armed. Barton must have woken up and managed to get within five steps of him without his notice. Perhaps not a terrible sniper then, if he could ghost. Bucky didn't respond but did nod in acknowledgement. One person he could handle. Removing one person without their primary weapon choice was achievable. Christ. He hated when those thoughts became indistinguishable from his own. They were implants, regulating behavior as HYDRA desired. Something of what he was thinking must have played out on his face, because Barton cleared his throat. “You want to hit the button for mine?”
The noise of the coffee machine registered and he turned sideways, keeping both Barton and the coffee machine in view. There were names assigned to orders, but nothing that indicated that this label applied to Barton. No Hawkeye, no archer, no Clint.
He spared a look that must have said it all, because Barton was slowly coming behind the counter.
“Ah,” Barton said, as if looking at the screen afforded him answers. “Tony's changed the names again. I'm Merida.” He tapped the screen. “Red Menace will be Natasha. War Machine will be Rhodes, don't think you've seen him yet. Science Bro is Bruce. And –– Hammer Time? Seriously?” Barton gave a noise of disgust.
“Which is Steve?” Bucky asked. Barton gave him a look of mild surprise, then scrolled on the screen. “Nonagenarian.” He sighed. “It was Captain Tight-pants last time I saw it.”
There seemed to be so many jokes wound into even their names. Names were important for definitions. His own name had been a wake up jolt, lightning in the brain and the novelty of having two names hadn't worn off. As the soldier, the asset, no names had been necessary. Having both a name and a nickname was (meaningless) something he rolled around in his brain even in the noise. It was a clear path.
“Can't sleep?” Barton was holding out the coffee, which the machine had spat out. Bucky shook his head slightly, hair moving limply. He eyed the cup before Barton put it down in front of him. Only then did he pick it up. “ I don't know what to do with all this downtime either. Been taking long term jobs since New York and, well,” Barton fidgeted a little against his cup. “There's only so many times you can play with the dog or go to the range.”
“Range?” Bucky hadn't realized there was a range. On second thoughts, of course there was a range. There was a gym. A library. Living space. Why wouldn't there be a range?
“Yeah,” Barton eyed him for a moment, then smirked. “Why, feel like seeing if you could hold your own?”
Bucky huffed, “Wouldn't be a competition.” It wasn't a matter of pride, but a statement of fact. He had always been the best weapon.
Something daring sparked in Barton's eyes. “Prove it.”
This was how Hawkeye and the operative formerly known as Winter Soldier managed to spend an hour and and a half shooting targets in the tower's shooting range.
“Always wanted to know how I lived up to the legend,” Barton said, without stopping the arrow onslaught which brought a near perfect shot every time.
Though he was out of practice, Bucky had been holding his own. Even if idle conversation was not helping his concentration, his head was always more clear with a weapon in his fingers. “Both your arms are flesh and bone." He flexed the hand, "Not a fair comparison.” He wouldn't be able to react as quickly as metal or endure exhaustion in the same way. He was not as effective as a weapon.
“Not the Winter Soldier legend,” Barton clarified, “The Sergeant Barnes, the Howling Commando sniper one.”
Most of the time, Bucky could forget that his life was something grade school kids did papers on. There were probably pre-teens with more knowledge of his life than he currently had. “I'm out of practice.” He was only half a heartbeat away from Barton's score, but it was behind. He didn't like that at all.
Barton spared him a look, “Yeah, yeah. The I–was–brainwashed–by–an–evil–Nazi–scientist is only going to work for so long.”
Bucky snorted, but resumed the practice with vigor.
It only came to a spectacular finish when the door opened behind them and both men turned, with rubber bullets and arrows bouncing off and clattering onto the range. Steve was standing in the doorway, looking slightly bemused. He should have been on his run by now, but his hair was uncombed and he was still in 'home clothes'. No shoes.
“Cap,” Barton said, forced casual tone wavering.
“Clint,” Steve replied. It was too tense to be a Captain America voice. He looked straight at Bucky instead, “I wasn't sure where you were.” His tone had softened, Bucky noted with a flash of irritation. He didn't want to be treated like that.
“Barton said he was a good shot,” He said. “He's trying to prove it.”
“Hey, no,” Barton protested, “Look at the scores! I'm beating you.”
Bucky lifted his head, staring in defiance. He would need to practice more if he was ever going to be battle ready again. If he was going to be able to stop Steve getting into trouble again. “Rematch?”
Barton's grin was wolfish, “You're on, buddy.”
Barton had scheduled a time to try again the following week. Steve had looked at him tightly, then pointed out they should all get dressed.
The panic didn't hit until the door shut behind Steve. At that moment, it seemed to hit that Bucky had spoken more to Barton than he had to anyone other than Steve in weeks, had gone to a new room, wielded a weapon in front of an entirely human man and arranged to do the same in the recent future. Nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. He hadn't lost control, despite knowing Barton was considered a HYDRA target. He hadn't run off to complete (kill Captain America) his last mission. He had done it because ––
He had done it because he'd wanted to? Acting on that seemed huge, it was exhilarating but none of that had mattered when the door had shut. Bucky couldn't breathe. Fuck. Fuck.Fuck. He could hear repetition of terms of existence, drilled deep statements from the Russians to regulate behavior. Behavioral rules that he had violated by deviating from routine, interacting with others, speaking out of term, eating flaked pastry that reminded him of France and ––
Before he could finish the thought, he lurched forward in a dry heave. Shit. He had heard Steve calling him in the background, as if from under water, but his heart had started to thump to so loud that nothing penetrated it. All the external signs that he was about to hurt like hell. When you deviated that badly, bad things happened. He bit back a whine, forcing himself forward and before landing on his knees in front of the toilet in time for his coffee to make a reappearance.
Steve had sat down beside him. There was a part of his brain that registered that as humiliating, but he had tried to make him leave before when this had happened. Not for this reason, usually because he was still having digestion problems with solids, but Steve never did leave. The argument that he'd been thrown up on by Steve more times than either could count so there was no shame involved had been a damn good one. He'd counter it, but it was hard to heave and counter at the same time.
When the puking stopped, Bucky just tried to breathe without heaving. It was a struggle and his breathing echoed around the room. Tentatively, Steve put his hand on his arm lightly before coaching “In,” and “Out,” in a soft, steady tone. Sam had taught him that. Sam had been the first person to get him through one of these months ago, by doing this. He'd managed to start touching him before Steve had, but then, Sam had asked and no had never been an option before. Steve, as always, had remained more complex but it was easier, now, to concentrate on only that direct thought. Not on his thoughts (punish), not on his heaving body and not on trying to lose himself.
Just the sound of Steve's voice, strong and steady.
Bucky looked up to find Steve standing above him, holding a plastic cup with water in it. He took it and raised it to his lips, just wetting them. It only shook a little. That was something.
Wordlessly, Steve slid down onto the floor again.
“You don't have to sit here,” Bucky said, hearing the roughness of his throat in the voice. He sipped at the water, ignoring the lurch in his stomach.
Steve went still suddenly, “Do you want me to go?”
It was practically a dance. The right answer was yes. Go live your life, stop wasting your time on bathroom floors with a vomiting ex–soldier, ex–person, ex–anything fucking useful at all. But Bucky couldn't bring himself to say any of it. Instead, he clung desperately to the only real friend he had like a lifeline. “Gotta have better things to do.”
“Than sit with my best pal?” Steve shook his head, plastering on a smile. “Not a thing.”
The response was usually in the form of an insult that wasn't an insult, something that would spark a response of the same in his head and he could respond mindlessly. “I must look bad if you're using that line,” Bucky snorted, leaning back against the wall.
“You've looked better,” Steve agreed, before his eyes focused again. “You sleep any?”
Bucky nodded, “Coupla hours.” He always rounded up. Something told him that he'd done the same during the war, during times when Steve had been sick and he'd been too damn scared to sleep in case he stopped breathing.
Steve pressed his mouth into a line, “You could come find me.”
Another self–sacrificial stupid idea from Steven Rogers. “So you can look like shit too?” Bucky shook his head. “Always let you sleep. You need it more.”
“I'm not sick any more, Buck. You can wake me up.” He hated the face Steve was using the gentle prodding tone. He was a big boy. He could handle his own nightmares. Steve continued on, “Even if you just want to lie down with me to sleep. It might be more familiar.”
“Your seduction technique needs work, ” Ah, this was simple. The words would drop into his head, like tactics and weapons ops, and all he had to do was force them out without thinking too much and watch as Steve lit up and banter back and forth till they were talking nonsense.
Steve didn’t laugh. If anything, he flinched. “Not what I meant, Buck.” He looked down, with an anguish (you put that there) that was hard to define.
“Don't got a flop in Brooklyn with one bedroom any more, Steve,” Bucky said, looking around the expansive bathroom. He wanted to ease him, be comforting but he couldn't comfort let alone anyone else. “I'm not the same person.” He still wasn't sure he could be counted as a person at all.“Not that guy.” He wanted to add sorry on the end. Sorry he couldn't be what he was waiting on.
There was a beat of silence, before Steve nodded in agreement, “No, we aren't those people anymore.” Then hesitantly, he added, “Almost got a place there. In Brooklyn. When we came back.” Steve appeared to be talking to himself as much anything. “It's home, even if it's weird to see the mix of old and new.”
Bucky shut his eyes, and thought back to Barton on the couch. Able to shut his eyes without panic. It came down to trust. He was comfortable enough to sit back with Steve right there and know he was in no danger. Safe. “Came here instead,” It wasn't a question.
“Didn't feel right there without you,” Steve said, honesty startling Bucky enough to open his eyes again. It sounded like a confession. He had been to Brooklyn too and felt the same ghosts. It felt less lonely and more horrible to know they followed Steve too. “Maybe when things are better, we'll go back. I–if you want to.” The fear and sincerity in Steve's voice was painful. If Steve thought that Bucky would ever be safe enough to leave this place, he was lying to himself.
But for that moment, for the memories of hot dogs and Italian food and neighbors from two flights up who argued loudly, Bucky wanted to lie to himself too. Even if he couldn't be happy, he wanted to make Steve happy and this didn't hurt anyone. “Maybe. Can take the boy out of Brooklyn,” He murmured.
Steve smiled, but there was something sad behind it. “That place, it's part of who we are.” He looked away, “Captain America may a symbol for the whole country, but––“
To his surprise, Bucky found himself finishing the sentence, “Steve Rogers is a punk kid from Brooklyn who don't know when he should quit.” Today was a remarkably talkative day. It was never linear.
Steve shrugged, “Can only run so many times.”
Looking around the bathroom, affirming that he was here by his own choice and decision to stop running, Bucky nodded and fought the stomach lurch. It settled a notch. This was just choices and consequences. It wasn't the chair, it wasn't beating and it wasn't being stripped of everything. It was no different from Steve standing up to some idiot and getting his teeth knocked in because he wouldn't run from the right thing to do. As usual, Steve was ahead of him and he followed on behind.
“Yeah,” He agreed. Running wasn't what he wanted to do. Running wasn't useful. Running wouldn't help anyone. “Steve?”
Steve looked him square in the eye, like he was expecting a fight.
“We should get off the floor.”
Hearing Steve laugh was like letting go of a breath he'd been holding. “Yeah, come on,” Steve offered his hand, “I'll figure out breakfast.”
“It's blue.” It was neon blue.
The iced drink that Romanova had put in front of him looked like some kind of floor polish with ice put in and a swirly straw that seemed to have no purpose. She had retrieved them from inside, and then taken a sip though the straw before putting the one she had drank from in front of him. It seemed that some habits died hard. It might have been safe to drink, but it didn't look it.
Steve had gone to an event in full Captain America mode and he'd been left with the newly returned Natalia Romanova as a babysitter, since his panic attack three days before had rattled him enough that he'd barely left him alone for days. It had put him on edge.
She had insisted on going up to the roof, as there was an unseasonable heat in the air. Bucky had no problems sitting up there. It was high enough to get an excellent vantage point and it was surprisingly good to be outside. He was sitting on a deck chair while Romanova lounged with sunglasses and her neon drink.
“It's blueberry flavour,” She smirked, taking a long drink of it.
Bucky continued to stare at the container. “I don't see it's nutritional value.”
Her smirk grew wider, “There isn't any.”
Bucky made an irate sound, “I don't understand.” Why would you take something that had no nutritional value and looked like a cleaning fluid?
“Try drinking it instead of understanding it,” She replied, illustrating the point by taking another drink.
That didn't sound like a smart move.
He did it anyway.
The taste wasn't wholly unpleasant, but it was sour and sharp. He could feel his face twisted involuntarily at the strong taste, and Romanova shook with silent laughter at his response. “What the hell is that?”
“That'd be the lime,” Romanova said, taking a drink and not having her face twist up like it was folding into itself.
The tastes still lingered on his tongue. “Lime.”
“It's a fruit.” She deadpanned unhelpfully.
“I know what a lime is!” Bucky huffed, trying to taste the drink again. It mostly tasted sharp, cold with a hint of generic fruit. It was artificial, but it was cold and eased down his throat without triggering heaving.
Romanova stared at him over her glasses, “Do you like it?”
He had no idea if he liked it or not. It wasn't unpleasant, it served a purpose even if water would serve it better but it had more taste. “I'm not sure.” He scrutinised it again. “It doesn't taste familiar.”
“It isn't supposed to,” Romanova said, evenly.
Mostly, Steve tried to give him things would trigger responses from taste and smell. He had tried to recreate things, but wasn't the best cook. Never had been, if memory had served. Just enough to get by. “Why'd you give me it then?” He couldn't grasp the reason she hadn't simply told him to take the water. He was still drinking it, though. Addictive?
“You need to try new things,” Romanova said, getting straight to the point. That was her usual fore according to her profile: she would avoid and analyse, then be blunt when needed. “The past is important to who you were, James, but not who you are. If you don't move forward and try to have a future, it will all be meaningless.”
He doubted very much that this was for his well-being. More likely, she was being protective of Steve. They were friends. He needed friends to keep him safe, from when he eventually realised there wasn't much more than salvage left of his best friend. Of his lo–
“And it's funny to see a world class assassin with a blue tongue.” Romanova continued cheerfully.
He looked at her in confusion, then at the drink.
“There's a mirror indoors,” She pulled her glasses back up and rolled onto her stomach to indicate she was done talking.
Bucky currently had a blue tongue.
His whole mouth was strained, so were his teeth. He could see them clearly in the mirror beside the door, leading into another lounge area. He was starting to think that when they weren't defeating the forces of evil, all people did here was lounge. And eat.
And his tongue was blue.
“Are you well?” He was startled out of his thoughts by another of the latest arrivals, Thor. He was dressed as anyone else, and the tone was friendly and open.
“My tongue is the wrong colour,” Bucky blurted, dumbly.
Thor responded with a bright smile, which showed pink coloring all over his teeth. “As is mine!”
Without thinking, Bucky took another drink of the processed chemical that was staining his mouth. He gave the cup an accusatory glance. What was it doing?
“The concoctions are from Darcy,” He elaborated, indicating behind him where there was a bespeckled young woman with a glass of the stuff that rivalled her head for size. “She claims such drinks are a rite of passage on hot Fall days.”
“She's messing with you,” Bucky said, still trying to figure out what was bothering him. He didn't think it was the Norse god, maybe it wasn't even the drink or the fact that there were three other people in the room. Maybe it was paranoia. He hadn't had the chance to check the room properly before it had become too crowded.
“I thought as much,” Thor didn't seem off-put by that in the slightest. He waited a beat, before addressing him again. “May I ask you a question?”
Distractedly, Bucky retraced his steps without addressing him. He had left his back to Romanova, but he had done his many times and nothing had happened. That probably wasn't what was going it. When the question registered, he answered with a nod.
“Natasha calls you James, but Steven uses Bucky.” Thor pointed out. “Which would you prefer I use?”
The question was unexpected, but earnest. The different titles in his life had not been something he had fully considered. Sometimes, he was referred to so James, Barnes, (the asset), Bucky or even an old rank. He had heard conversations refer to him as the soldier when he wasn't supposed to be listening. He opened his mouth to claim a lack of preference, before he remembered the gut feeling he got whenever Steve used his name. The same name that had woken up connections in his mind, woken him up enough to grasp at the fact he had once been someone and the name that had finally put a title to the stray thoughts he had written off as malfunctions.
Names were important. They defined the level of comfort, or at least, the level of familiarity. His name was important, even making a claim to anything made him feel nauseous and terrified.
“Bucky,” He said, throat constricting as he said it. “It's –– It's short for Buchanan. It's –– my middle name.” It was more stunted than his interactions with Barton, but weapons he knew. Weapons he was familiar with. Trying to claim something (that is not yours) like a name was making him feel hot and dizzy. He took another drink of the blue ice.
Thor nodded happily, “Middle names seem very important in midgardian culture. On more than one occasion, Darcy has threatened to call Jane by her middle name and it resulted in an impressive battle between them. ”
Romanova –– Romanoff –– looked up at him with another slight smile on now thoroughly blue stained lips, “So how do you look?”
“Blue,” He croaked affirmatively, fighting against the constriction in his throat. He tried to listen to Steve's voice, Sam's voice, the memory of being told how to breathe through this panic.
He looked back at her to find she was staring. Maybe he looked as perturbed as he felt. He used to be an impassive mask, even without the actual mask (muzzle) doing that job but like everything else, it was falling apart in confusion. The question came out before he could stop it. “Are you Romanova or Romanoff?”
“Both,” She responded, as if the question was not difficult. “But I prefer Natasha.”
“Natasha,” He echoed, trying to process that. Even recent memories could be difficult to hold on to. He had lesions on the brain, which were healing but still causing problems.
“James,” Romanova –– (Target: Black Widow, mission: failure) –– Natasha gave him a nod.
“Bucky,” He corrected. It sounded right. It felt right.
Natasha smirked at him, “James.”
Bucky shot her an irritated look.
She responded by sticking out her luminescent tongue and lying back against the lounger with her book.
At the end of the week, Bucky handed his notes to Hart's assistant when he was waiting to go in. He had not allowed Steve to see it, feeling strangely protective of what he'd written and feeling a sense of accomplishment along with the foreboding that had kept him up all night. He hadn't thrown up, though.
In the spaces below, he had written down what she had requested. Signs that, despite how he felt most of the time, he was a person and was continuing to figure that out.
- A person is capable of making their own choices.
- A person is human, arm notwithstanding.
- A person can interact with others.
- A person has a future.
- A person can define their own name. Even if some people won't use it.
At the top of the page, he had struck out 'James' with black pen and underneath the scribble, he had put scrawled 'Bucky'.
I'm hoping to update about once a week, as life allows. Thank you to everyone for reading and I hoped you enjoyed it. Next time, the subject will be: Identities.
Chapter 3: Active Choices
Thank you so much to everyone for your feedback, your kudos and encouragement. It means the world to me, especially when it's not my usual thing. I realise this chapter is a lot later than promised -- it's been a hectic week and I've only just finished. This became more about choice than identity, but hopefully it still works to show the different threads of identity bleeding through.
Not beta-read, so any and all mistakes are down to me.
They spend the next session slogging through the past week.
Recounting actions is normal (mission debrief) but the more Bucky slogged through the details of the last week, the more he realised the week had differed from the usual. The new usual. Since (the asset) (the soldier) Bucky decided (return to base for debriefing) to take up residence (with Steve) at Avengers Tower, there had been a schedule that you could set your watch by.
Up at five, or more accurately, out of his bedroom at five because by that time, Steve would be awake. While Steve wouldn't mind if he slept longer, it gave him an excuse to stop trying. Steve would hit the bathroom and Bucky would hit the coffee button. There would be conversation, or Steve would talk and he'd listen, because there was too much noise in his head for him to actually talk. Steve would go out to run for a while. He did that a lot now. Bucky would take a bath, or more rarely, shower. Showers could be hit and miss, sparking blob-like memories that weren't clear enough to identify. Steve would come back, shower and make breakfast while Bucky watched television or him, as if tracing every movement he made and committing it to memory. Not that this would matter if HYDRA showed up (cut off one head). He wanted to burn them, but the memory strands were so twisted and pervasive, he was having trouble identifying the right targets. If he could make find solid threads (the asset) (the soldier) (nothing) (commando) (lab rat) (sergeant) (person), identify the differences between a target for one but not another, he'd be ripping HYDRA to shreds (where else would I be?) by now instead of being a useless lump of flesh.
Steve would go do Captain America missions, such as talk to people. It was ongoing work with flushing out SHIELD, working with the Avengers and the general duties of being the performing monkey he’d despised being since 1943. Bucky would, depending on the day, either try and sort out his own mental time line and thought threads alone or with one of the other therapists which came in. There were general therapists, counselors, doctors and psychotherapists each trying to treat the impossible situation of dealing with the soldier conditioning (there is also underlying trauma from Azzano that I doubt has been processed properly) and memory threads that don’t fit together or bleed where they shouldn't. It wasn't that different from returning to any of the bases he'd returned to over the last seventy years. Doctors and his brain scrambled and labs. He was still working up to letting them get a proper look at him in the medical lab, without involuntary panicking noises coming out whenever he got too close to labs and medical areas. (No. No. No.) On other days, he simply walked around trying not to feel like he was about to jump out of his own skin. He read everything left there.
Lunch would be skipped if Steve wasn't there. It wasn't always deliberate, but it was annoying trying to process yet another meal when his stomach often didn't want to work properly. The cryogenic process, tubes and drugs had done a number on it, but it didn't impair him enough to fix it. If Steve was there, usually he brought something in for them and either looked pitiful or glared until he actually ate it. Steve called it payback, for every time he had pushed him to eat to keep his strength up, always with that goddamn smile where he managed to look distraught at the same time. Fucking Steve.
Steve would come back from being Captain America and go back to being himself for dinner. Dinner was quiet. Sometimes people joined for lunch or breakfast but they were always alone at dinner. He'd managed to almost double his tolerance for keeping things down, but sometimes his digestive system flipped him off and something that was fine this week would keep him, one way or another, glued to the bathroom for the next few hours. Evenings were almost always alone, watching movies or television until bedtime. Unless Steve had to do an appearance, and then Sam or even Rom– Natasha would sit up and watch things. Sam usually talked to him, but Natasha critiqued the shows.
Sometimes none of these things would happen. Sometimes hours would be lost in a memory, or in something he didn't remember when he came back to himself. Sometimes time would slip away and he’d awaken wondering what year it was. It was somehow worse, knowing the threads weren't malfunctions but his life stolen and trying to return years late.
This week, Bucky had changed his schedule. This was, apparently, a big deal. He’d gone up to the communal areas. Talked to Barton. Went to the range with Barton too and didn't attempt to finish his final command the second a weapon was in his hand, despite knowing he could probably walk into Steve’s room unnoticed. (Widow would be more difficult.) He wasn't sure why he had thought he would automatically return to what he was (is) the second he was armed with better weapons than a knife. He’d been armed in front of him before – he was the weapon, after all, the rest of the equipment were just adjustments and upgrades to improve his functioning. With no one holding the trigger, he could remain dormant the rest of his life. Useless, but possibly safe.
Bucky had described the miserable panic that had gripped him after the range, only for Hart to say that was normal. She suggested it was the mixture of changing his schedule, the difficulty he had in making peace with making his own choices (she suggested that part of the conditioning may be to punish himself for it so they would be aware of when autonomous thoughts arose, particularly actions he enjoyed and wasn't that wonderful?) and he had simply overstretched his limit Like everything else -- food, sleep, people, actions -- it would take time and practice. The goal for the week had been set around this. Three half hour periods where he differed his schedule to do something else. Something that would engage him with others for a short period, and it had to be something he chose to do. It was a tall order, but she reminded him that if there were problems, asking for help was both allowed and encouraged.
It wasn't weak. (that was a lie) It was all about seeing what pace he could handle.
As usual after sessions, Bucky did not sleep. He lost ten minutes here and there over the course of the night, but his eyes burned and there was a familiar ache in his limbs that said he'd had little rest. He restricted patrols to hourly, blaming nightmares for the desire to perform them constantly. Nightmares on these nights were imageless phantoms that were gone the second his eyes opened again, so there was no way to tell if he truly dreamt at all or it was simply recall coming to the forefront of his mind. Memory and nightmare were often interchangeable. He would need to sleep for four consecutive hours within the next two days, or fall over. He could stay awake longer using a pain stimulus, providing it didn't impair his required activities.
As usual, Steve got up at five and went for his run. He had spared him a look before leaving, creases in his eyes and looking more tired than he should. There was nothing as terrible as seeing Steve Rogers look disappointed, but worry came close. Bucky was the one who worried. Steve got into trouble and needed worrying about. He knew that all too well. He had come back with the intention of looking after him (protect him) (???) , but the docs seemed to make him come apart at the seems as easily as any of HYDRA’s best. He was useless, a puppet with the strings cut and not enough of a fucking mind left to figure out how to change it.
Bucky sat down in front of the television, watching some morning show where the presenters appeared to be hosting guests and making some kind of breakfast. Social cues had changed, and watching this kind of television helped him get to grips with generic and pleasant instead of a unseen, unmemorable ghost. A way to pass for normal. He had once been charming, charismatic and quick-witted. Maybe. It could be a mixed thread again.
The presenters smiling were grotesque mockeries of human interaction. Their reactions were over the top. The guests were asses. It was completely un-enjoyable. That was likely why he was able to watch it without any real problems. It ran to a schedule, and was sitting on a cooking section where they were attempting to make something called breakfast cups (rich in protein).
An idea sparked. “JARVIS?”
Bucky looked back at the presenter, before making a decision. A choice. Damn being useless (you've got nothing to prove), he could make the fucking breakfast. “Do we have the ingredients he just described?”
There was a moment of silence, before the AI responded positively. “Trays on the bottom right.”
Following the instructions was a lot like following orders, memorised and sticking there till it was completed. There was something soothing to the repetitive motions involved with making breakfast. It hadn't changed all that much. Eggs were still eggs. That was comforting. The briefest flash of memory flickered, and for a moment he wasn't in the kitchen but what looked like a bunker with a brunette, red lips smirking and a gun in his hands. (Is it better to think you are useless or for everyone to look at you and assume you are?) and it was so jarring, he burnt the first mix. He made another, more quickly this time.
It was a lot like a mission, but it was unlikely anyone would die. Not unless he managed to set Steve’s kitchen on fire. “Possibility of a fire incoming,” He said, more to himself than to JARVIS.
It didn't stop him responding with, “Sprinklers standing by, sir.”
He would have to commend Stark on managing to make an AI sound amused, but that would require talking to him.
Steve’s look when he returned was worth the effort. It was a mixture of amusement, surprise and something that looked like he was relaxing for the first time since D.C. Cheerful thought.
“Don’t go expecting too much,” Bucky grumbled, putting the little cups onto the plate with bacon and coffee. Even when the rest of him shook, he was able to keep his hands steady. “I haven’t cooked since--” He searched through the threads, face screwing up but as usual, his mind was not linear. He couldn't chronologically place things, relying on Steve’s age to change and tell him how old he would be in return but he was so damn baby faced it was hard to tell. He tried to follow the threads, finding rations and feeding a fevered Steve Rogers at a hundred different points but nothing he could claim as the last time.
“Rations?” Steve put forward, taking a sip of the warm coffee and smiling uncertainly.
Bucky nodded, sure that this was the logical answer even if he wasn't sure it was the right one.
“You used to make this soup when I couldn't get out of bed,” Steve said, eyes glazing over in memory, “I think my mother gave you the recipe. I don’t know how you found the energy to work all day, cook and stay up all night taking care of me.”
Images flitted that up unbidden, of a sweaty, small Steve struggling to stay awake and eat, trying to breathe against rattling lungs, scars that were long gone from diseases long gone as they tried to break fevers but always, always, remembered sitting there with him, feeding him, holding him and whispered begging for him to get better. Exhaustion hadn't mattered when Steve’s fever had broken. Tiredness etched into his bones, but drained away every time Steve survived. Every time he beat back an illness like the back alley brawler he wasn't given the body to be (but insisted on being), it was hope. “I’m not bringing you breakfast in bed,” Bucky muttered, in lieu of trying to explain how his memories would catch on and focus on him but only him. “You can get up now.”
Steve snorted in response, before putting an entire cup into his mouth with a genuine smile. “This is good,” He said, earnestly, then more cautious, he added, “You didn't have to.”
“I know,” Bucky shrugged, “But I couldn't find your shoes or figure out how to take out the trash.”
At the range, Barton must have been early. He looked a little tired, but given that Natasha had been draped over him yesterday, Bucky imagined that he was being kept awake all night by an ex-Russian assassin of his own. Probably it was for more fun reasons than he and Steve.
In the rush to push himself to do it, Bucky forgot his time limit and an hour passed. Half way into the next, the scenery began to gel together.
One moment, there were targets and a steadily growing score against Barton and the next, he was staring down the scope moments before the body dropped and screaming started almost eighty meters from him. He could feel the sweat against the muzzle, his finger on the trigger and his heart rate slowing. He could feel the shaking van moving him away, restraints, electricity (nothing--)
For what felt like the hundredth time in the last year, Bucky came back to his body violently. He and Barton were staring each other down, loaded weapons pointed and bodies still. Sniper against archer.
“You here, Barnes?” Barton asked, voice steady and calm. He did not drop the aim.
Nodding, Bucky tried to drop his arms but found them frozen in place. It was a malfunction. He muttered the need for maintenance, words sounding jumbled and too loud. It was both arms. How was his flesh arm frozen? He pulled at it, and pulled and could feel sweat beginning to prickle and panic beginning to rise. Breathing increased by 60% and rising.
“Can you drop the gun?” Barton still sounded far away, too far from how little he was standing away from him.
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Bucky roared in response, trying to make his voice heard against the cacophony. Bullets. Screams. Tires.
The fuzzy figure of Barton appeared to be surveying him, before he side stepped and took a step closer. “I’m gonna take this off you. Alright?”
“I’ll stop you,” Bucky shook his head.
“Let’s try,” Barton gave him no warning, before he was pushing the gun out of his hand and tossing it away. Inexplicably, he made no move to stop him. "We good?”
He gave a sharp nod. He could still smell sweat on leather, and his metal arm was flexing for his guns. He could feel the weapon in his hands (retrieve the weapon), the heartbeat hammering in his ears (possible target: Clint Barton) and packing up his equipment. “Yeah,” He blinked several times, pushing the images out and trying to get his breathing back under control. "Yeah."
Barton put down the bow, “Let’s get out of here.”
“So you're not sleeping.”
It wasn't a question. Barton was sharp eyed, friendly without being overly familiar but highly capable. He had been on a possible targets list for HYDRA. It wasn't a mission, he wasn't a mission but the information was there in his head should he come across him and be required to dispatch him to complete the objective. That meant Barton was both dangerous and capable. (target)
They were sitting down in the locker room, the nearest place without weapons but with seats and ice water.
“Look, I get it, I'm not any better about asking for help but you got to find a way to feel safe enough to rest. Something that makes you feel safe enough to pass out or you’ll do it anyway.” There was something behind Barton’s words. It wasn't pity, or professionalism but something else. It could almost be -- empathy?
Bucky shook his head. The most obvious answer was also an unacceptable one. The idea of being around Steve sleeping when he didn’t have this under control was enough to make him swear off sleep forever. More than once, he had woken up with Steve having stop him (mission: failure) from strangling, stabbing, hurting him. He wouldn't hurt him again. Never again. There was the option of weapons, weapons helped, but they would only be for show here: there was a monster downstairs, people in technologically superior armor, professional assassins and a computer controlling the building. Knives staved off any immediate danger to him, but it didn't feel safe. He didn't feel safe.
“I got a dog. It helped,” Barton said, seemingly understanding he wasn't going to get a verbal response. “Having someone else there helped. Even if it’s someone to spar with or scream at or build a nest with till you can blow up a few of the bad guys and feel like you again.”
Something about the tower clicked suddenly, and Bucky nodded, “There's ledges. Yours?”
“Tony trying to help,” Barton smiled, genuine and fond. “It’s not the same as the dog getting between me and a threat or petting him to stop feeling like shit. But friends are good. They stop you from passing out.”
Bucky checked his breathing. Almost normal now. “It would take 12-14 days to achieve that level of exhaustion.”
“Which would be fine if we were HYDRA,” Barton said, an edge creeping into his tone. “You’re not there anymore and you’ve got to stop treating this place like you are. It’s over. This isn't a base, this isn't an op and we’re not your soldiers or worse, your handlers. You don’t have to hide here. It could be home. We’re all a mess, but we’re stronger together. Safe.”
“I--” (return to base?) “--don’t know you.”
Barton appeared to take no offence to that, “I don’t know you either, but you got Steve Rogers vouching for you. That means something in these parts.”
Bucky couldn't argue with that. “I still don’t want a dog. I don’t need someone big, messy and blindly putting himself between me and danger. I got one of those upstairs.”
Barton almost choked on his water.
Thursday night was Movie Night.
Still requiring a third action to complete his (mission) homework, Bucky asked to go. Steve had been so taken with the idea that he'd offered to make popcorn.
"Try not and poison us all," He'd said, banter flowing easily tonight.
It would involve there being a lot of people, but JARVIS had calculated the escape routes through the elevators and into the bathroom for emergencies. With Steve throwing kernels at him, it felt like something he could do. Ninety minutes, and he only had to get through thirty.
Things had not gone to plan.
By the time Barton appeared (giving Steve a look and trying not to laugh much to Steve's confusion), there was the sound of an alarm came on. Bucky pulled on Steve’s arm on instinct, pushing him to the ground while reaching for the weapon that wasn’t there. His stomach had plummeted. He needed something, anything--
“We got a situation,” Stark’s voice came through from nowhere, but people were already getting ready to go. “Some idiot at Penn Station has (and this is not a joke) a freeze ray and is taking blasting chunks where there are trains."
Steve was already getting up, but his hand found his way to Bucky's shoulder. He was already calculating how to tackle him down, just in case. “People?”
“Screwed unless they thaw as well as our resident geriatrics,” Stark responded dryly. "But they can't get them out till this nut is dealt with."
Steve spared him a look, caught between the need to help the people at the Station and something else, something to do with him. Bucky wasn’t having that. Despite his racing pulse, he pulled himself down on the couch and stole Steve’s popcorn. “I’m not an Avenger,” He shrugged, popping a few into his mouth. He wanted to tell him he couldn't go. But it was ice. He could survive ice. He would be fine. He had other people to watch his back now, no matter how much that hurt.
"Next time," Steve told him, a promise. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He joined Romanova, Barton and Banner in the elevator, so Bucky was left alone in the media room when the doors shut. Something snarled in his mind, accusing him of not doing his job and being a coward.
(he's out there without me)
(captain america dead)
“JARVIS?” He asked, forcing the words past the noise in his mind. If he could watch him--
“I’m afraid the news crews are currently unable to get close enough for video and the feeds are down,” JARVIS responded, without need for explanation.
It was the third time Steve had left, and with every time he did, Bucky felt worse about not being there to watch him. It was worse than feeling useless. It was a betrayal (failure is unacceptable) and he had to force himself to watch it, to feel the potential of losing the only thing in his life that made a lick of sense and knowing he should be able to stop it. His muscle mass had dropped, he was out of practice and he had no idea what triggers were still active.
Bucky gritted out, “Vitals?”
“Steady,” JARVIS responded, before bringing them up on the giant screen. There was something soothing about watching the numbers and his heartbeat, something that came from before when his heart was weak and every beat may have been it’s last. Bucky sat himself down on the ground, with a clear view of the door, window and screen.
Bucky was on his feet by the time the door opened, some time later when he had lost all concept of minutes to watching the vitals on the screen.
Only Miss Potts entered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Potts said, “I can go.”
“S’fine,” He slurred, sitting down on the floor again.
He didn't mind Miss Potts -- much like Carter had been (brunette, red lips, heels and an aim to die for), she was sharp as a whip, more capable than anyone else and had a masterful control of the building and Stark. Both were impressive. Now she appeared to vibrate, uncomfortable and swallowing hard. She was nervous. He did not blame her. Sitting with a ghost in an abandoned cinema with a thundering heartbeat didn't seem like a pleasant way (dancing, smiling, leaving early with no one) to spend a night.
She seemed to make a decision, then she slipped further into the room and turned her attention to the screen. "Steve?" She asked. He noted the lack of formality.
He nodded, tearing his eyes away and to her. Maintaining eye contact was always difficult, but he pushed through it.
“How’s he doing?” She sounded nervous, tired, and worried. He wondered if she could see the same things in him, or if he was still an impassive mask. She didn't seem bothered if he was. More likely she was trying to distract herself while Stark ran headfirst into a battle he had no business in being in but did it anyway. He could relate.
“BP is high, breathing's aggravated,” (breathe with me, just slowly, come on) All normal high stress indicators, “Heartbeat fast, but steady.”
Potts nodded, “Do you mind if I--?”
Bucky shook his head. He thought back to what Barton had said, about not doing it alone. He wasn't sure he would be good enough to count, but on the off chance it helped her, he would sit there and watch two sets of vitals instead of one. This -- wasn't like HYDRA at all. It wasn't like the Red Room. It was like being a dame waiting for your fella to come home and see if he needs his insides (eight bullets, Steve, eight, do you want me to count the holes in you again?) put back in.
“JARVIS?” Potts cleared her throat.
“Bringing up Mr. Stark’s vitals,” JARVIS said, as the screen changed to show a second set of vitals, including suit power levels. “Though he may be experiencing some discomfort due to not getting dressed before putting on a suit.”
Potts raised her palms to her forehead and sighed.
There was nothing else to say. They waited in silence.
When she caught his eye again, she said, “No more suits. He was retiring. But there’s always someone, and something out there that needs help.”
She sounded upset. Frustrated. Maybe scared. He had no idea how to handle that. She had been kind, controlled but professional the other times he had seen her. This felt as if seeing something too private and he didn't know what to say to her. He was saved from a response when something red flashed onto the screen. It was wrong. Something was wrong.
Steve. “JARVIS?” Bucky asked, uncertain.
The AI's silence lasted a lifetime. “Mr Stark is informing me that parts of the building have broken off and fallen,” JARVIS responded finally, “Captain Rogers appears to have sustained head injuries and is unconscious. Dr. Banner is currently dispatching the remaining assailants while Captain Rogers and Agent Barton are being evac-ed to the hospital.”
“Where?” Bucky could hear the quiver in his voice, both angry and frightened.
(you let this happen)
“Program it into my GPS,” Miss Potts was already moving towards the elevator, “We’ll drive.”
It took three blinks to register that she had said we. Bucky had not left the tower in over two months, and the idea of stepping into the world when (the procedure has already begun) he wasn't right in the head almost stopped him. Miss Potts was deliberately getting into a small space with him, knowing he could lose time and kill her. It rooted his feet to the floor for all of five seconds, before he remembered this wasn't about him. This would be about Steve waking up in a hospital, alone and hurt because medication always seemed to do nothing for him. This was about how Steve would be a sitting duck for the remains of HYDRA, for anyone, to try and take out while he was hurt.
He gave Miss Potts a nod of acknowledgement, as he joined her and the elevator doors closed behind him. The arm shivered, twisting and spoiling for a fight. If anyone was going to try something, they would have to go through him.
And they wouldn't.