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(After) The End of the Line

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James woke up choking and gasping for air, heart thundering away in his chest. In the last couple of weeks nightmares had plagued him nearly every night. Dr Flores said it was to be expected as he recovered more and more of his memories both from the time before (his life as Bucky) and from his time as the Winter Soldier. At first, when he thought about it, it was like he was simply recounting events in someone else’s life – like a movie he’d seen. It had been terrible to know the things he had done (been forced to do), but it hadn’t had much emotional impact. Now, however, every new memory came with feeling – guilt, pain, horror, despair, anger and fear. Now it wasn’t just a movie; it was himself, all emotions unlocked and overflowing.

There were times James was glad for it, as it made him feel human again – a person, not Hydra’s weapon. Yet at night, when his mind was filled with images of pain and suffering, he wasn’t so grateful. Dr Flores just kept telling him that it was a good thing and that the immediacy of the feelings would fade with time and that the pain would lessen (and a part of him wondered if he even deserved that, after all the hurt he’d caused others.)

“One day at a time, James,” Dr Flores said at the end of every session.

To help deal with it, Dr Flores had recommended James keep a dream diary; he was to write down what he remembered from the dreams (nightmares) and all feelings they evoked. Then later he could discuss them with Dr Flores if he wanted to. While James had been skeptical at first, he had to admit that it seemed to help. At the very least, it was something to do rather than pace in frustration, unable (and unwilling) to go back to sleep.

Tonight he dreamt of the Starks’ murder, as he’d done many times before. In Siberia, when he and Steve had fought Stark, James had said he’d remembered all his kills, though that hadn’t been completely true. He remembered it in flashes, mostly when something triggered the memories (like the video had done), but not in the visceral way he had recently begun to remember things. At the time, he had watched himself murder a man he had known and hadn’t been able to feel anything. When he looked back now, all he could remember feeling during the whole “Civil War” was confusion and fear. None of that should have happened, but the fight in Siberia was the thing Bucky was most ashamed of. He had been, arguably, in his right mind (that was, not under Hydra’s direct control) and at the time he’d thrown the first punch, he had not been in immediate danger (nor had Steve for that matter). Also, unlike in Bucharest, when unknown agents had invaded his apartment to capture him for something he’d had no knowledge of (he had thought they might have been Hydra), in Siberia he didn’t even have that excuse. He knew exactly why Stark was fighting, why he’d targeted both James and Steve (god, how could Steve have kept such a secret from the man?) and James knew he’d been more than justified. If, at that moment, Stark had really wanted to kill them both, James would not have been able to say it was unwarranted. Yet Stark didn’t kill them. James was now aware of the capabilities of the Iron Man suit so he knew that Stark had had all means at his disposal to win that fight. He’d apparently said so in the trial – that if he’d really wanted them dead they would be – and it was true.

It filled James with a mixture of shame and anger to remember that fight. He wished, more than anything, that that hadn’t happened. Because at that moment he had abandoned his humanity, his decency, to be a monster – someone who watched another human being in pain, having been the one to cause that pain, and instead of acting with compassion, turned to violence. There was no war, no threat, no misunderstanding or mind control. There was only James, incapable of doing the right thing when he could – should – have.

Still, it hadn’t been only him in that bunker. Steve (and Zemo) had contributed to that. It was hard to reconcile the Steve from his memories of before with the Steve who lied and attacked a friend for selfish reasons.

Whenever Siberia entered his dreams, James wondered how things could have gone so wrong. And, perhaps most of all, he wondered how he could ever hope to make up for all he’d done. He had written several apology letters to Tony Stark in the last couple of months, yet none of them felt sufficient. How could anyone possibly apologize for something like that? Would Stark even give a crap about it? Was this apology for Stark or for James himself? Was it to ease his own guilty conscience or to do something for Stark, however small it might be? James didn’t know – which was why he kept writing, and why he had yet to send anything.

The truth was that there was nothing he could do to make any of it better. He could apologize on bended knee for the rest of time and it would make no difference. The Starks (and others) would still be dead and their son still orphaned and betrayed. And James himself would forever be burdened with the knowledge of what he’d done. He had thought that perhaps in time he would be able to accept the things he had been forced to do and find a way to move on. It was easier to do that when thinking about nameless strangers, but with the Starks it was different. Howard Stark wasn’t a stranger, and neither was his son, who was a living reminder of the impact of his actions. It was much harder to keep it out of his mind when his victims were there to constantly remind him of what he’d done. And it was harder to let go of the guilt when his memories had emotions attached to them.

At times like this, overwhelmed with guilt and regret, James wondered if it would have been better if he’d just died back in that fall. Or at any point during Hydra’s experiments and “training”. Or when he’d seen Steve again and began to remember who he used to be. Perhaps he should have realized then that he was too far gone to ever have the possibility of going back, and just ended it. He could have taken charge of his life again right then and done the right thing – or was it the selfish thing? If he’d died then, maybe the families of his victims would never have known what had really happened to their loved ones, would never have had that closure (though James wasn’t sure whether they actually appreciated that).

He kept going around in circles in his head over it until morning came, feeling weary and exhausted of this never-ending cycle of despair and guilt. His breakfast looked utterly unappetizing and James was sure he’d be sick if he ate any of it, so he left it untouched. When the guards came to collect the tray, James asked to see Dr Flores. His sessions were usually in the afternoon, but Dr Flores had told him to call if he really needed to talk and today seemed to be one of those days.

There was probably little coherence to what he said to Dr Flores, yet it still felt good to get it off his chest. Dr Flores listened quietly and only when James was finished, panting as if he’d just gone three rounds with other Winter Soldiers, did the doctor open his mouth.

“James,” he said, “what you’re feeling is normal. I know it seems overwhelming now – and it will probably be so for a while yet – but it will get easier. In time. You have to give yourself time.”

“Time isn’t going to change what happened or what I did.”

“No, but it will make it easier to live with it. It will help it feel less overwhelming.”

“But do I even deserve it? After all I did, is it even right that I should put it behind me? What about all those people who suffered because of what I did?” He thought of Stark’s eyes as he watched his parents killed in a video with no warning and no emotional support.

“James, you are not morally – and possibly not legally – responsible for those deaths. It is normal to feel guilty, but you cannot let it rule your life. The victims and families aren’t going to suffer any less because you move on. The fact that you survived, and are here now, is not something you should be ashamed of, although that is also understandable and normal.”

“What about what I did in my right mind?”

“That is something you will also have to come to terms with so that you can eventually forgive yourself. It will not be easy, I know, but don’t give up yet. You’ve only just began to deal with all this. Give yourself some time, James.”

It sounded good, James thought. He wanted to believe Dr Flores, wanted to have hope. “I’d like… I don’t know if it’s possible, or even if I should, but I’d like to try and make amends for what I did. Or at least apologize to the families. Is that… is that self-serving?”

“Not necessarily. I believe it could be a good idea, as long as you keep in mind that it might not be received the way you want it to. If you want to do it just so you can feel better about yourself, it would be self-serving. But if you really just want an opportunity to express your feelings and do something for those people, however small it might be and without expecting anything in return, then it could be good. You should have a chance to say your piece if you feel it is important to you. Just remember that people might not want to hear it, or they might not care or forgive you. They also have a right to their feelings on the matter. You can’t count on it as absolution.”

James nodded. He knew he had no right to expect anyone to forgive him, or even give a crap about him and his feelings. Still, he wanted people to know, at least, that he acknowledged his culpability and was willing to face consequences. He remembered, when he was reading about the others’ trials, that people appreciated that Sam and that guy Lang had accepted responsibility for their mistakes and apologized for their actions. Steve and the Hydra woman had not, and they were vilified for that as well as their crimes. James had decided a long time ago that he would accept responsibility. Steve might have claimed that he had been trying to help “Bucky”, but James wanted to make it clear that he had not asked for it and did not condone Steve’s actions.

“I don’t even know who most of those people were. I don’t know how many are dead or injured because of me.”

“James, take it slowly. It won’t help you to get into all of that all at once.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I should start with the people involved in the Civil War, right?”

“That could be a start, but remember that there will still be a trial for that.”

“I’m… I’m going to plead guilty. It’s the least I can do.”

“I understand. However, you should discuss it with your lawyer first, see what kind of deal you can get. There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Will you help me with the letters?”

“Of course.”

It was very hard to put his feelings into paper in a coherent way, James found. What could he say that wouldn’t sound like a pitiful attempt to gain sympathy? How could he convey his sincerity about his regret? It seemed like an impossible task.

“James, no matter what you write or how, it will not be perfect and you have no way of predicting how the recipient will interpret it, so just do the best you can. Be honest. That’s all you can do. I’ll bring you some material on it for you to go over tomorrow.”

By the time their session ended, James did feel slightly better about the situation.

The rest of the day was pretty routine. Idly, James wondered how Steve was doing in prison, how he was coping with forceful inactivity. He also wondered if Steve had gotten his head out of his ass yet.

*****

A few days later he got a visit from Mr Alvarez, his lawyer, with an update on the trial.

“The Accords Panel will split the cases against you, to make it easier for everyone. The events of the Civil War will be tried separately from what you did as the Winter Soldier,” Mr Alvarez said.

“What does that mean?”

“Well, first, it means an acknowledgement that there was a different in your… state of mind… between the two situations. Also, the Accords Prosecution department is still going over Hydra records regarding the Winter Soldier and which missions were completed to have a clearer picture of it.”

They’re still figuring out how many people I killed, James translated. “Okay.”

“You said a while ago that you wanted to plead guilty. Is that still true?”

“Yes.” He paused. “And I want to… I want to make a statement. Is that possible?”

“Certainly. Dr Flores has completed his assessment of your mental capacity and can present his findings to the court. That will help you get a reduced sentence. I have not yet heard an official deal in regards to your sentence, but I believe I can get you around 10 years in a secure psychiatric facility with a specialized team of therapists.”

Ten years, James thought. It wasn’t nearly as long as Steve (or Sam). Right now it might seem like an eternity, but it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t like he could be free anyway, not with Hydra’s triggers still in his head. He hoped Dr Flores would keep being his doctor though.

While Alvarez tried to get him the best possible deal, James continued to work on his apology letters. Even with James getting the chance to make an official apology to the world at court, he still wanted to send individual apologies to those he’d wronged, particularly Stark. He was going to leave that for last, however, because he didn’t want to do it as a rush job; the man deserved that much.

In a way, he was almost looking forward to his day in court. It would mean an end to all the uncertainty he felt now regarding his future, as well as the first step into doing something to make up for his actions and mistakes. He should have turned himself in years ago, but he’d been too scared of ending up back in Hydra’s hands. Now he finally had the chance to do the right thing. He wasn’t scared anymore, not of prison at least. He was scared of his own mind and the world at large, perhaps, of losing control of himself again, but not of being confined. If the facility he went to was similar to the one he was in now, it would be okay.

The final sentence was set at 9 years, which Alvarez told him was very good. There would be no parole until the triggers in his mind were confirmed to be truly gone, and since no one at present knew how to do it, it would be a while before that was even a possibility, which would still have to be evaluated. Possible treatments were being developed, Alvarez said, but it would likely be years before they were finalized and approved by all official channels.

On the day of the sentencing, James dressed in the suit Alvarez had gotten him and tried to make himself as presentable as possible (he wanted to look like a person, not an “asset”). With his hair cut short and neatly combed and the empty space where his arm (Hydra’s arm) used to be, he felt almost whole. This is who I am now. This is how I’ve chosen to be. It felt good to have choices – a choice how to wear his hair, a choice of suits (Alvarez had given him options), a choice in how to deal with the charges against him. James had decided on all of it and it helped him feel human again. Maybe his choices were somewhat limited, yet even limited choices were better than none. This time, he’d had time to think, to consider what he wanted and arrive at a decision about what would be best.

The setup of the court was the same as in Steve’s trial, five judges from different countries.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” the presiding judge said. “You have accepted a guilty plea for the crimes you have been charged with. Was that a choice made of your own free will?”

“Yes, it was,” he replied, fervently glad to be able to say so.

“As part of your agreement, you wished to make a statement regarding your actions in these events. Please proceed.”

James took a deep breath before he began. He had gone over the things he wanted to say (even wrote something of a script, though he didn’t want to read it) yet was still nervous now that the time had come. He had never really had any experience with being in the spotlight and it felt rather uncomfortable. Come on, you can do it.

“First of all, I’d like to say how sorry I am for the people that got hurt and killed during the so-called Civil War. I’m sorry that I hurt people. I didn’t really know what was going on most of the time and I reacted with violence when I shouldn’t have. To the Task Force officers in particular… I… I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to attack them. I tried not to use excessive force, but… I did it anyway. I should have surrendered right away and explained that I had nothing to do with the bombing in Vienna. Further investigation would have cleared me without anyone getting hurt. I thought… I guess at first I thought that it was Hydra who had found me, and I reacted badly, I don’t know. I’m sorry about the civilians that got hurt in Bucharest during the chase. I wish things hadn’t happened that way. I wish I’d made better choices.

“I want to say I’m sorry about the officers in Berlin. I… Zemo told me to kill all those people and I wasn’t strong enough to stop it, to stop myself from doing it.

“I’m sorry about the injury Col Rhodes suffered as a result of the fight at the airport. That fight should never have happened. We should have surrendered immediately. We should have also told the Avengers about the other Winter Soldiers. I don’t know why Steve and Wilson decided not to. I heard them say something about Stark and the Accords, but I didn’t really understand it then. They – we – were wrong to handle things that way. I wish I’d questioned things more. I thought… I thought I could trust Steve to do the right thing.

“I also want to say that now that I know what they are, I fully support the Sokovia Accords. They are a good thing for everyone.

“Finally, I want to tell Dr Stark I’m very sorry about everything. I should not have fought with him in Siberia, it was wrong of me to do that. I should have tried to calm things down instead of making them worse. I should have surrendered.

“I’m sorry that the whole mess happened because of me. Steve was wrong to choose to protect me at the expense of other people. I never wanted that. I wish I could have found a way to stop him.

“I understand that I did terrible things – willingly or not – and that I have to pay for that. I accept that. I can’t promise that I’ll never hurt anyone again – I wish I could – but I can promise that I will do my best. I don’t want to hurt people anymore, I just want to be left alone.

“I know none of this changes anything, and I understand it if people ignore me. I just… I just wanted to let people know that… that I didn’t do any of that on purpose, maliciously. I didn’t set out to hurt anyone, though it happened anyway. I never thought I was above the law or more important than others. Those deaths weren’t acceptable. If I had known beforehand what would have happened… I would have surrendered right away. I never wanted more blood on my hands.”

James exhaled hard and nodded to show he was finished.

“Thank you, Mr Barnes,” the judge said. “Your words have been entered into the record. The Accords Panel hopes that you will get the help you need to fully regain your mind.” She banged the gavel and declared the proceedings finished.

The next day he had another appointment with Dr Flores.

“How do you feel now that it’s over?” the doctor asked.

“Relieved.” It probably wasn’t what most people would feel, but for James that was the prevalent emotion. “It’s all done now and I can… move on. No more limbo.” As Dr Flores had said, things had gotten a little better in the last couple of weeks before the trial. Though he still had moments of guilt and pain, it was getting easier to handle them without sinking into despair.

“That’s good.”

“What are the chances of getting the triggers out, you think?”

“I am confident that we will find a way to do it. Hopefully soon.”

“How soon is soon?” While James did not object to being in prison, he would feel better if he knew for sure that on one would be able to turn him into a killing machine anymore.

“That is impossible to say, I’m afraid. There are a lot of people working on it at the moment; I am one of them. Still, the mind is a complicated thing and we must proceed with caution.”

“Will you… keep in touch? After I get to the new prison, I mean.”

“Certainly. I intend to remain one of your doctors, if that’s okay with you.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” James said with a smile. That was very good news to him.

“I might not be able to be there in person all the time, but we can do videocalls. Plus, the new doctors can contact me if you need anything urgently. I will keep up to date on everything.”

“Thank you, Dr Flores. Really. I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me.”

The rest of the session was focused on getting James up to speed about what to expect in the new facility (not a prison). It was reassuring to have information so he could prepare himself and not be taken by surprise. Ever since he’d been arrested it had happened that way – someone always explained to him what was going on, treating him as a person capable of understanding. When he thought about it, it was a sharp contrast to Steve, who had simply plowed on making all decisions without consulting or even informing him (like leaving the rest of the team behind in Liepzig). James had been off-balance and lost the entire time, not able to make a single thoroughly-thought decision, always bouncing from one disaster to another without a chance to breathe.

Yes, James was glad things had worked out as they did (for him at least, he avoided thinking about Steve too much because it made him feel angry and hurt). It might not be perfect, but for now it was good enough for him to know that he’d be safe and that he’d get help. One day, when he was released, he might even be able to return to something like a normal life, away from wars, blood and pain. It certainly seemed like a real possibility now.