Steve leaned against the back of the sofa to study the makeshift command center filling Natasha’s living room. The object of his focus at the moment, a poster board nailed to the wall. It hung with a faint crookedness that complimented the scrawled words. A near smile crossed his face at the block lettering that announced, “Project Barnes Offensive.” He admired Natasha's dedication if not her wording.
Sam bumped his shoulder and settled in next to him, “Bringing him back to the real world is going to be one hell of a ride, Rogers."
“He’ll walk it off the way we always did. I know Bucky, he’ll shake this off.”
“You certainly have unwavering faith in the man; I’ll give you that.” He didn’t hold back his laugh.
Steve finished Sam’s thoughts, “But you’re not feeling my optimism?"
“Hey, I’m normally an optimistic kind of guy, but on this, no, not feeling it.” The off-kilter poster begged for his help; he crossed to oblige. It was a good distraction from the rest of what he wanted to say, “He hasn’t exactly been dealing with picking up the pieces of his life after Hydra. There’s a certain level of survival mode that keeps you going, keeps you focused and stable. Soldiers are fine through the worst crap out there, and it isn’t until they get home when it all falls apart.” He turned to face him, “Call me a skeptic, but I’m not that sure he’ll settle into domestic bliss with you once you get him home.”
“We’ll deal with it, trust me. He’s pulled it together before. You called it. I have faith in him, in us.”
Sam watched as Steve folded his arms across his chest, his cue that he was encroaching on hallowed ground. He kept going.
“On another topic, have you reconsidered the backup plan to the house? How about an alternate location, like a bunker or a Winnebago? Just in case the whole living-the-dream in Upstate New York gets us too much on the radar.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair and shrugged, “The view from a bunker sucks. I’m still open to the Winnebago idea, but you’ll have to talk to Nat, her last comment was something about "A cold day in hell with the three of you." He began to pace, “The house is good, state-of-the-art surveillance, I have total confidence in it, you were there. King T’Challa’s people took care of everything.“
“Yeah, well, there's no forgetting the hours of fun we had wiring an 1850's farmhouse like it was a supermax."
Steve threw him the Rogers look-of-disapproval for the supermax reference.
"Sorry, like a bank? Is that better?" He pointed at the slightly askew poster board that refused to comply with his straightening efforts and dove in deeper, “He still has the trigger words to contend with, you know it's going to take serious therapy, de-conditioning, professional help, maybe years to sort it out."
“We’ll deal with that." Steve’s steps ground to a halt in front of the poster board. His attention fell to the long list of concerns generated by months of midnight brain-storming. He muttered, "It’ll take time, there are specialists, King T'Challa's people are willing to help." He turned to Sam, "Bucky wants this, he wants to get rid of the trigger words, he’ll do whatever it takes.”
“You said he told you he remembers everything. He remembers who he killed. How much do you think that guilt weighs?” Sam put a hand up to stop him from answering, “That, by the way, was a rhetorical question."
Steve reiterated, “It wasn’t his fault. He has to accept that. I do and so will others in time.”
Sam crossed to an over-sized pad of post-it notes stuck on an easel, “I’m just trying to give you a free session with your friendly mental health counselor.” He pointed with the authority of someone who’d done this kind of presentation before, “Read the flip-chart. Page one: PTSD. Page two: POW for seventy years. Page three: Hydra’s version of electroconvulsive therapy. Page four: He remembers everything. Page five: Did I mention PTSD?”
“We’ve been over this; I get it, I get every damn detail of it, Sam.” Steve turned to resume his pacing, “I know he’s damaged, he’s not going to be the Bucky I remember from the 40’s. We’re both changed but we can do this, we will do this.”
Sam made one last push “I just want you to consider the entire plan; all of it.” He pointed at the one line on the poster that Steve had scratched out. ‘Involuntary commitment.’ He kept going. “What he’s been through, his particular brand of severe complex PTSD isn’t even in the psych doc's bible. If it were, it would have his picture next to it. Just him, no one else.”
Steve’s frown was bordering on irritated, “Not funny.”
“Not joking. We – you need to be prepared for the worst.” He settled against the sofa, arms crossed, holding to his bottom-line.
Steve countered, “You won’t mind if I hope for the best, right?”
Sam laughed, “I expect nothing less from you than your usual blind hope and devotion towards him.”
“It’s go-time boys.” Natasha announced as she strode into the room, and tossed a set of keys towards Steve “Your jet is all gassed up and ready to go.”
She winked at Sam as they watched the I-got-it-all-under-control Steve Rogers get just a little unraveled when the keys hit his palm. “All right, you’ll check the house, right? I think I left the lights on, but I’m sure I turned the stove off, I think, no I’m sure.” He rushed towards the door.
Sam followed with Steve's jacket and smiled, “Here you might need this. No worries, we’ll check the place.”
His sudden stop forced Sam to run into him, “Food. I forgot the food. Fridge food anyway. There’s nothing to eat.”
Natasha smiled and nodded at Sam, “Oysters, chili peppers, avocados, watermelon.”
“What? No. He needs real food.” Steve's hand made it to the doorknob. “Coffee, hot chocolate, and milk.”
She pushed him over the threshold, “Get going, you don’t want him waking up to strangers.”
He clung to the porch railing, "Trash bags, I used them all.”
Sam grabbed his arm and walked him down the stairs. "No speeding."
Steve ran back up the stairs and added in an almost breathless tone, “Toothpaste, I forgot toothpaste."
Natasha smiled as she put a foot on his butt and provided a loving yet emphatic shove, “We’ve got this end. You’ve texted me a list at least five times. Go away."
He paused on the sidewalk and turned back, an uncharacteristic sheepish look on his face, “You won’t be there right? No offense, but he might not be comfortable.”
Sam provided the herding duties to get him the rest of the way to the truck, “We know the plan, Steve. You get him home. First, we follow in a few days when you call us.”
“Great. We’ve got this.” He climbed into the pickup, turned the key and threw it in reverse. Then park. "Wait. What? Domestic bliss? No. Friends, he’s my friend.” He laughed the kind of laugh that tells everyone within earshot you don't believe a word of your BS as he finally got the truck heading in the right direction.
Sam and Natasha stood on the porch and watched as he left a hint of rubber on the road in his drive off.
“Oysters and watermelon?” Sam grimaced.
“Aphrodisiacs.” She said with a smirk.
“So, are we betting on when they become a couple?” Sam wondered. “He acts like they’re a couple, don’t you think?”
“A couple? They’re already a couple. They don’t know it yet. Oh, and twenty bucks they’re in bed together in three days.”
Sam laughed, “You’re on.”
Bucky didn’t dream when Hydra put him in cryostasis. It was always a deep and dark excursion into the comforting nothingness. He welcomed the reprieve.
The time in cryo in Wakanda was different. He was dreaming. It rolled on an endless loop through his consciousness never responding to his attempts to wake.
In this dream, there was darkness, the Soldier, and Tony Stark.
A battered red gauntlet hovered close around his throat, stifling his breath. He gasped in spasms of brittle, stale air. Cold fingers tightened their grip on his throat choking down his scream.
A familiar iron mask loomed nearby passing through his vision. It stalked him silently. He gasped again, struggling for air. His body convulsed and crashed into the solid, immovable metal armor that was Iron Man.
“Do you even remember them?” The iron mask whispered. Bucky knew his answer. “I remember all of them,” but in the dream, his words slurred and fell unspoken.
He raised his hand to shove the growing weight off his chest. His right arm twitched as icy hot tingling shot down through his fingers. Waves of heat brought the familiar cramped nausea.
An open metal hand floated towards his face. The repulsor clicked and whined. The white-hot glow filled his vision. He knew what came next. Death by Tony Stark.
The dream cycled through his sleeping consciousness until he heard a voice.
"You deserve this, Soldat. It’s about time.”
It whispered close to his ear in an intimate embrace with his mind. He’d heard it countless times before, waxing and waning over his years with Hydra. It brought conviction, condemnation, and companionship in varying degrees dependent on his circumstances. It wasn’t long before Bucky stopped questioning its existence.
The burning light of the repulsor came around again. The mask morphed into the face of Tony Stark. “You killed them, you son of a bitch. You killed both of them.” The iron Stark face went on, “Rogers isn’t going to save you this time."
An image of Steve hovered beyond the crushing metal suit of armor near enough to reach if Bucky could only raise his arm but his outstretched shoulder melted away into a tangled ball of circuitry. He searched for recognition in Steve’s emotionless eyes as he watched Bucky struggle against what Stark rightfully brought to bear; his punishment.
King T’Challa stood next to Steve as the technicians worked to reverse the cryo process. “He’s having some difficulty coming out of this. They’ll get him through it.”
Steve nodded. His fingers itched to rip the cover off the stasis pod. He kept his struggle internal as he took in Bucky’s convulsing movements and gasping breaths. “Soon, right? I can help them.” He muttered.
“Steve, they can get him through it. Trust them.”
“He looks like he’s having a seizure. He looks...” His voice trailed off. He didn’t want what he was thinking to gain any energy by being stated out loud. Bucky looked afraid. That look of fear touched something deep in his core beyond the friendship he remembered. He wanted to protect him, save him, bring him back from the horror he’d been living. Those feelings stirred the one he hadn’t felt since they were kids. Steve didn't want to deny any longer what he’d buried as he watched Bucky fight through the cryo-sleep induced sickness and seizures. He wanted something more than their friendship.
“Steve?” Bucky sat with his feet dangling off the table, shivering through the cryo-sickness. His skeptical gaze ran up then down his body.
Steve nodded, “Yup. It’s me. Not a nightmare. I think? Really me.”
“Not a trick?”
“Nope. In the flesh.” He offered a quick squeeze of his shoulder.
Bucky's expression of detached curiosity neatly hid away the narrative he listened to as the Voice came to life in his head.
"You know Hydra would find it funny to trick you. Use your beloved Captain America to get you to comply. They’d watch you be fooled by their game. Laugh at you as they strap you in and take him away."
The Voice remained harsh, a hard lesson to learn with Hydra when it first started to make an appearance. It was best to keep their conversations hidden from those around him; his eyes on Steve's face never betrayed the words spewed by the Voice.
A technician suggested, “We need to get him to the surgical suite.”
Bucky shook his head at the offered wheelchair and the trip to surgery.
“I’ve got him.” Steve’s hand on his shoulder and encouragement led to an arm around his waist as his bare feet stumbled along from the post-cryo weakness and confusion.
"That’s right, Soldat. Go to the chair. It will be cleared up soon. The sickness, the weakness, the guilt will fall away.”
He hesitated, “Wait. I can’t. I don’t.”
”Come on Buck. You need this.” Steve’s voice distant. It fell in behind the louder one in his head.
“You know it is so much easier when you submit willingly. A few moments of pain is worth the freedom from your memories.”
Bucky stopped short. His words rasped from a voice not used in close to a year, “No. No more chair. No more wipes. I want my memory. I want him.”
Steve held tighter, trying to control the spreading tremor he could feel running across Bucky’s chest. “What? No chair, no memory wipes. Is that what you think we’re doing?” He ducked in close. Steve searched his eyes for a glimmer of recognition. His hand hesitated at first then he committed to what he thought he’d never do. He brushed the sweat-soaked hair from Bucky’s face, brought his lips close to his ear and whispered, “There is no chair. I am very real. Anyone who wants to hurt you is gonna have to go through me.”
He felt a nearly imperceptible pressure on his side. He knew he felt the brush of his cheek against his lips. Bucky didn’t pull away; he leaned into the touch.
Steve forged ahead, “You with me? Are we good to go? We need to trust T’Challa’s doctors. They need to replace your arm.”
A slow and hesitant nod was his answer.
Bucky drifted in and out of consciousness while they replaced the metal arm. His dreams full of terror. The fight at the silo dominated and cycled through a dozen other battles that left him with his memory scarred with death and blood. The ever-present pain in his shoulder invited in remembering the agonizing flight to Wakanda. He told Steve he wanted to be in stasis until someone could get the words out of his head. That was part of the truth. What he wanted was to sleep, to escape down into the dreamless cocoon of stasis and disappear from the reality of what he’d done.
“I killed Stark’s parents.” His whispered confession startled Steve from his fascination with the surgeon's work.
He turned to the find gray eyes staring intently at him.
“Let it go for now. We’ll talk later.” Steve’s fingers twisted around the waistband of Bucky’s hospital pants.
“I did it, he knows. He saw me do it. Can you imagine that; watching someone kill your parents?"
“They’re almost done." His thumb grazed along Bucky's temple, a bare hint of contact. "We talked about this; you weren't yourself. Enough."
The physical pain of being the Fist of Hydra was Bucky's accepted reality. What wasn't a reality was the guilt. Hydra’s memory suppression machine, the trigger words, years in cryostasis pushed all that into a corner of his mind that he was never allowed to access. Now it came rushing in full-force to dominate all other thoughts or memories. The price of his freedom from Hydra was the guilt.
“He watched me strangle her with my bare hand.” Bucky pushed at Steve’s hand, trying to disengage his fingers.
Steve refused to let go, “You couldn’t stop that from happening. That’s all I’m gonna say right now. Let’s get through this right here then we can talk.”
Bucky whispered, “I killed Howard for God's sake, Howard. How can you look at me like that?”
Steve shot back, “I know what happened. Hydra killed him. They used you, that's it. No more." Bucky's words caught up with him, "How am I looking at you?”
“Like you give a shit about me.”
“I care about you. Of course, I give a shit about you.”
“Then stop it. Stop looking at me like that and clinging to me. You’re an idiot.”
“No, you’re the idiot. You were brainwashed."
Bucky rolled to pull away from Steve but fell back to the table stifling a groan when the technicians grabbed to hold him down.
A voice from behind a surgical mask interjected, “Could you stop arguing with my patient long enough for us to finish this, please. Or do I need to ask you to leave?”
Steve looked around the room at the sudden stillness and wide-eyes of the surgical crew; he muttered, "Sorry. Got it. Fine. We’re fine," before he laid his head on the table to wait out the rest of the procedure. His steadfast hold on Bucky never wavered.
Bucky closed his eyes shutting out Steve, the doctors, the hum and jolt of a new arm that felt a lot like the old one and let the Voice run amok in his head.
"This new arm is never going to be the glorious appendage that Hydra created. It’s not threatening enough. The neural connections are too sensitive you’ll feel everything now. A weapon doesn’t feel a fine touch like a soft caress. You don’t need that kind of sensitivity it will make you unstable. It did in the past, remember that time you ran away.”
Bucky wondered if it had taken hours or days to pass the battery of tests that cleared them to leave. His only point of reference, the slivered crescent moon high above them as they stood on the tarmac in Wakanda. He watched with an impassive stare as King T’Challa handed over the new arm’s data stored on a thumb drive that Steve tucked in a pocket with quick discretion.
“Soldat? Is this your new handler?”
The muttered, “Apparently so,” never caught Steve’s attention.
“So, are you curious about where we're going?” Steve’s opening attempt at a conversation as the quinjet left the ground was his fourth try to get Bucky to talk to him since the surgery. The argument still felt fresh, even if it only lasted a few seconds.
He was surprised to hear him mutter. “Sure.” A quick rise in his hope, “We’re going to New York.”
Steve settled the jet into the flight pattern and grabbed onto his stubborn optimism to add, “No, not safe enough there. A place in Upstate New York. A good place. We’re going home.”