He’s coming apart, coming unravelled. It used to frame the missions, this shakiness, this uncertainty, and then it starting to squeeze inside the borders. Hand damp with sweat on his gun. Breathing short and shallow. A ringing in his ears. Lately it’s started to fill up the missions, so that he stands shaking sometimes. Now he asks, again and again, the time of the rendezvous. Now he asks confirm, confirm in the earpiece. Now he checks the safety on the weapons again and again and again and it’s isn’t possible he’s forgotten that the safety is on, it’s not. His mind isn’t like that any more. But he checks because he must. Because if the safety isn’t on someone could end up dead. He could kill someone. A friend. A comrade. That’d make him the Winter Soldier again.
It’s bad on the missions, but it’s worse at home. Perimeter checks become nightly, then twice nightly, and Steve groans, half waking, drowsy hand reaching for him because he knows by now it’s not an emergency, it’s just Bucky. “Come back to bed.”
“Just gotta check, Stevie. Go back to sleep.”
“You checked earlier.”
“Yeah. Go back to sleep.”
It’s not that he’s forgotten the touch of locks turned and sealed windows under his fingers; rather, it’s that he needs to be reminded of the turning and the locking all over again. Like the confirmation of orders. Like the careful repetition of the rendezvous. Like the safety on a gun.
It’s just that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. That’s good, right?
Last night, Steve found him in the kitchen.
He was standing near the sink and couldn’t move. It was, oh, well past midnight. He’d passed his flesh finger over the place where the window and the frame joined up, senses alert for the seep of cold air that meant anything but a perfect latch, a deep-bitten lock, security. He’d been standing there when he’d seen the knives in the block near the stove, and gone cold.
“Bucky?” Steve asked. Bare feet on the hardwood, the soft shuffling of pyjama pants that were too long and one day one of them were going to sit down and hem. Bucky’s head roaring with noise, like a radio stuck between stations, blasting at a party full of people speaking a language close but not exactly like his own, and a jet passing overhead.
The knives. How easy it would be to take one, and while Steve slept…
So easy. How many throats did he lay open with lesser tools?
A piece of glass once, in Bucharest. A tin can lid in Seattle.
Stop, please, stop.
All these knives. The movements all well practiced. It’d be so easy. It’d be so horrible. It’s exactly the sort of thing that he would do.
“You…” he wanted to make Steve understand. It was important. It was the most important thing he’d ever had to say. “You shouldn’t trust me.”
“You shouldn’t trust me. I could kill you. Look at this place. Look at these knives. I might kill you.”
“Are you…” Steve’s hands warm on his arms. Gripped him and turned him, and Steve studied his face. “You're sleepwalking, aren't you?” he whispered, probably asking mostly himself.
“Steve, listen to me. I’m not safe. You can’t trust me.”
Steve’s mouth made the shape of a smile but his eyes were bewildered. “I do trust you. Bucky, I know you won’t hurt me.”
“You don’t know that,” he said. "You can’t. I don’t know it.”
“Bucky," Steve's voice had gotten a little firmer. "You’re not going to hurt me.”
But hurting is what he does. It’s what he is. There was probably a time when he wanted to be a doctor or a clerk or something, but those desires were scrubbed out of him a long time ago.
“Listen to me," Steve's voice was low and steady. "It’s late. You’re sleepwalking, and it sounds like a nightmare. Come on. Let me take you back to bed.”
He didn't protest. After all, they had a four a.m. flight and the others were counting on them.
But Bucky’s coming apart and they both know it.
It’s a two-day mission, and nobody gets hurt but the target. Bucky makes sure of it.
He sleeps in his seat in the quinjet, or at least, he pretends to sleep. While he fakes, he listens to Clint complaining about the meagreness of the MREs. He listens to Stark chatter about what he’s going to build next. He listens to Steve reassuring himself that they did the right thing. He reminds himself that they're all coming home. In spite of everything. Against all the odds.
It’s never good, this after-the-mission feeling, that he could have let them down, he could have hurt one of them, he might have, and maybe no one's saying anything. It's never good. But it’s never been this bad before. He listens to the chatter to drown out the racket in his mind. He tries to hold himself together the way a kid tries to hold a sandcastle together when the tide comes rushing in.
Thor suggests a drive through. Bucky cracks one eyes to take the temperature of the room. He sees Bruce Banner watching him with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Yeah!” Clint says. “Yeah. I could totally fly this through a drive through.”
Just get me home, Bucky thinks. I just want to go home.
When he stops holding himself together he sees electrodes and the tiles one the floor. He smells his own puke. He feels himself reaching for the emptiness of unconsciousness, desperate for it, knows that begging will only make things worse. He wants to be sick. He wants to hide in the dark. He wants to be allowed to crawl away. He remembers crying for his mother in the cell.
“I would eat the entire ass end of an elephant,” Tony says. There’s a stunned silence. “I mean, eat-eat. Like a giant ham, not the other way. I’m not actually a pachydermophile. I know, shocking. Clint, you think you could get us through the drive through at the Big Burger?”
“One way to find out,” Clint says.
Please, Bucky thinks. His stomach is a knot, and there’s the faint taste of vomit in his mouth. I just want to go home.
“I’m not sure I’m up for it,” Natasha demurs.
“Yeah,” Bruce says quietly. “I think some of us are done for the day.”
“Another time, Clint,” Steve says.
Clint groans, c’monnnn but that’s the end of it and Bucky’s so grateful. Bruce could have said, I don’t think Barnes is up to it. He could have said, Steve, you think he’s okay? but he’s a better man than that. One day he’s going to do something nice for Banner. As soon as he can afford to divert effort from keeping himself together. He thinks about that. Keep himself together. That’s all he has to do. Keep the sandcastle up. It's just the tide.
He and Steve get back to the place they’ve been sharing for the better part of a year. He’s so glad to get inside the confines of the apartment. So glad when he can push open the door to their shared bedroom.
“Gonna shower,” he says.
“Yeah, sure,” Steve answers, a little absent. He’s absorbed in something on the tablet Stark gave him. Good. Bucky goes into the bedroom. Dark and cold. He can hide here, but the bathroom, small and dark and with the light switches inside the door that locks, that’s better. He wrenches open the straps of his suit. It peels away like a scab and he’s already shivering. The place is cold, it’s late in the year and they didn’t leave the heat on.
Sometimes the cold is soothing but not today. He’s too keyed up, too frightened. His stomach clenches. Too many basements and too many vaults. He has to strip and get into the shower. He sheds the rest of his clothes. Takes fresh clothes, cold, from the dresser. He wants the sweater Steve gave him, the one with the hood, the one he can hide in. He has to kneel to retrieve it from the bottom drawer and with the kneeling comes a rush of terror and vertigo. He closes his eyes and that’s worse. It’s been over a year since he went like this. Over a year. He thought he was better. He thought these things were done but since he’s been having the nightmares he hasn’t been sleeping and now.
Please. I just want to go home.
Hmm. Perhaps try increasing the voltage.
Please. Please, I don’t want…
No, no, no. That’s the past. This is now. No. He puts both hands on the cold hardwood. Therapy, therapy, therapy, they taught me something. For when it gets like this. Not pain-taught, school-taught. He calls it up.
Where are you?
I’m here. Steve’s place. My place. I’m home. I’m safe.
When are you?
His own voice, begging. Please, stop, please!
He swallows. There’s something awful in his mouth. He’s got to keep it down till he can get into the bathroom. He can keep it down till he gets to the bathroom. If he throws up here Steve’ll know. They’ll know. They’ll…
Steve’s voice, coming closer, “Oh, hey, I meant to-”
He looks up. Steve, standing in the doorway. He’s got a tablet in his hand and it’s on and glowing. But he’s not looking at it, he’s looking at Bucky. “Bucky, you don’t look so good.” Steve’s easy posture is gone now. He comes into their room. “Did you get hurt?”
“No.” Damage means maintenance. Damage implies deviation. Deviation from programming means the chair. “I’m fine,” Bucky says.
“Are you… are you having a hard time?” he asks. It’s their way of saying, is the past eating your guts like acid? Are you crawling out of your skin? You know you’re acting crazy, right?
“Yes,” he whispers. His head is roaring so loud he can hardly hear his own words.
He knows that Steve understand missions are hard for him, but he doesn’t know. Steve’s still at war, still fighting for the good guys, on his own terms. You can run a long way on personal conviction, you can fight a hell of a lot of battles because you believe it’s the right thing to do. Because you’ve got allies. Because you know somebody’s got your back. You come home at night, and you sleep the sleep of the righteous. At least, you're supposed to.
Bucky’s been having these nightmares, nightmares where he goes looking for Steve. They’re on a mission and Steve doesn’t make the rendezvous point. So Bucky goes looking for Steve and finds Natasha. She’s always Red Room Natasha, young, clear-eyed, January-cold. She’s always standing near something covered with a sheet. There’s always blood on the floor. A lake of it. In the dream she looks at him and says, you did this, and he knows it’s true.
It’s gotten so he’s afraid to sleep. It’s gotten so he can’t tell if Steve is dead or not until he sees him. It’s gotten so he’s not sure when he’s awake and when he’s dreaming. Tired is an inadequate little word.
Tide. Sand castle. He feels sick. The wave crests and crashes and swamps him.
Big hands on his arms. Steve never cringes from the metal of his arm. Sometimes Bucky thinks he forgets about it, the way Bucky wishes he could. “Hey,” Steve whispers. “You’re safe. You’re home. Tell me where you are, Buck.”
Direct order. No deviation.
“Home,” he says. He mouths emptily. “I can’t,” he says and it takes effort. "I can't…"
“Okay,” Steve says immediately. “You don’t have to.”
Bucky chokes out a single laugh. “You don’t even know what I can’t do.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he answers. Then he smiles. “There. You’re just about through it. You want to tell me? What you can’t do?”
He swallows. Programming. It must be programming that makes this so hard. It must be. He has to mouth the words once, twice, before he can make the sounds that go with them. “I’m…” he starts and can’t.
“Bucky, where are you?”
He can do that one. “Here. I’m here. I’m home. I… I’m… I’m tired,” he blurts. It's terrifying. "I'm tired."
"Okay," Steve whispers.
“No, I mean… I’m tired,” he says it again and this time it’s like water cutting a path between rocks, around a dam. He closes his eyes and he sighs. “We’re the only soldiers who never came home, you know? It’s just us.” He thinks of the dream of Natasha, and knowing what's lying under the sheet without ever having to see it. You did this. Negligence just as fatal as a bullet. "I'm sorry," he whispers.
Steve makes a low, sorrowing noise. "It's okay."
"No, it's…" He open his mouth and says the thing they trained him never to say. “I don’t want to fight any more. I'm tired of fighting, Stevie. I'm sorry. I can't. I just want to go home.”
Steve agrees to tell the others Bucky’ll be stepping back from the Avengers Initiative. They’ll ask if he’s okay. Natasha will probably drop by to collect that book she left accidentally-on-purpose four months ago, and see to her own satisfaction that Bucky is all right. Stark will complain, thoughtlessly, that they’re losing a weapon and Steve will come home seething about it. The others he’s not sure about.
This time, in the dream, there's no sheet and no Natasha. It's Steve who says, you did this, and Bucky wakes up screaming.