To the Winter Soldier, the arm was a tool, a weapon. Just another extension of his body, just like his rifle or his knives, strong and honed. Powerful.
To James, the arm is the price he paid. It’s a part of him that he can’t deny, a token he carries with him even after the hold of the Red Room is broken.
But to Bucky, well, the arm is his cross to bear.
Long after Steve returned him to himself, in the days and weeks after, Bucky mourned. He mourned the time that he missed; the people, the places that had changed in the time that slipped by him. He mourned the loss of his family, the Commandos, everyone.
But above all, he mourned the parts of himself that were irretrievably broken. Blessings that he’d never counted, that suddenly he missed with every thud in his chest: nights of dreamless sleep, not knowing what it looked like to watch a man die, never getting to stand at the end of a long church aisle and watch his girl take that last work toward him. But most of all, he flexed his hands into two mismatched fists and he mourned his arm.
Selfishly, secretly, Bucky would watch himself. In the mirrors at the gym, in his brief reflection as he exited the showers; he’d trace a finger along the seam at his shoulder and chastise himself. If this was the price, to be back and whole, with Steve by his side again and with Natalia in his arms, then what right did he have to hate it?
Even with all of SHIELD’s upgrades, even after he’s pried off the blood-red star and replaced it with the symbol of Steve’s shield, even after the coverings and the tweaks… it still doesn’t ever feel like his. It doesn’t feel like anything but dead weight, dragging him down, his cross to bear for his multitude of sins.
Natalia never says anything. He knows that this is all she’s ever known of him, that she’s never expected anything but one warm hand and one cold, that she’s never looked at him and seen less of man. But it feels different, somehow, when they’re together again. With the time that’s passed between them, Bucky feels like she’s changed – he was suspended in static, immobile, while she carried on and lived and loved. And Bucky knows that the arm is his tether to the past; Natalia’s moved on, she’s moved past, and he’s still tied up in metal sinew and mechanic muscle. Trapped in a cage built of his own limbs.
But Natalia’s smart, smart enough to know why he always crowds her to his right when they walk, why he shirks her hand from his left in a quick-jerk movement before spinning them awkwardly. Why he still wears gloves, even indoors. And just like always, she’s not taking any of his excuses.
One night, when they’re getting ready for bed, Natalia pads into their bedroom, closing the door behind her. It’s strange, Bucky thinks, to have this – a room of their own, no barred windows, nothing but time and free space. It’s a little frightening, too.
When he turns to the bed, he sees that Natalia’s settled herself squarely on what he’s begun referring to as “his side” – another strange, domestic thing that still doesn’t feel quite right. Bucky swallows, waiting a moment, before he circles to stand at his side, looking down at her with one eyebrow cocked.
“Are you lost, darlin’?” Bucky can feel the Brooklyn lilt creeping back into his voice, and it’s one of the few things that make sense. He’s moving steadily back to himself, away from the man he was built to be, and every day he’s getting closer.
But right now, Natalia’s still sprawled on his side of the bed, and that makes for the most pressing problem.
“Don’t you ‘darlin’’ me, Barnes. I can sleep on this side if I want. Do you have a problem with the other side?”
Bucky grumbles, eyes flitting to the other side of the bed. She’s turned the tables on him, and he knows it. If he sleeps there, he’ll have no choice but to embrace her with his left arm, and…
“Get in, James. I’m tired.”
Natalia heaves a weary sigh, and without further preamble, flicks the lamp on her nightstand off, leaving them in darkness. Bucky runs a hand along the footboard of the bed, stepping lightly and taking his time, the moonlight slotting through the blinds glinting off his arm as he pulls back the sheets. He slides in, turning toward her like he always does, and realizing a split-second too late that he’s still on the wrong side. His left hand is settled on her hip before he has time to divert, and he jerks it away, ashamed.
Natalia’s quicker, she always has been, and before he can roll away again, she’s seized his left arm at the wrist and twisted herself to face him.
Bucky can’t bring himself to look at her, her piercing gaze searching his face even in the darkness, so he keeps his head turned. But she startles him, then, bringing his hand up to her face and pressing a kiss to the silver palm.
She brings her other hand up, cradling the metal of his hand in both of hers, and turns it over, pressing another kiss atop his knuckles.
“Listen to me.”
Bucky waits another moment, refusing to give up his shame so easily, and when his eyes finally do meet hers, she falls silent for a moment.
“Natalia, stop. You don’t have to…”
But Natalia has already brought one of her hands to his face, the other’s fingers lacing between his and when she speaks again, her voice is gentle.
“There is nothing about you that I don’t love. There is not part of you that I would not protect with my life. James, you can’t go on like this, thinking you’re a
She squeezes his hand, briefly, the pressure absent in his mind but very, very present in his senses, and Bucky is sure for the first time that he can actually feel it.
“We’ve all done things, become things we didn’t intend. What makes us different is that we are more than that. You are greater than the sum of your parts. You’re extraordinary.”
Bucky feels her hand trace his cheek before she slips it away, settling back down and tugging their still-twined hands so he has to, as well. She brings their joined fingers to rest on her hip, and Bucky settles in flush against her back, leaning his forehead against her shoulder for a moment.
He takes a deep breath, but she steals the words before he can whisper them.
“I love you.”
So he returns the words into her hair, his hand folded in hers on top of the covers and for the first time in a very, very long time he doesn’t flitch when the moonlight reflects back at him from between her fingers.