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There Is No Admin in This System

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It’s a windy day in New York, the cloud cover suggesting afternoon flurries, when Natasha heads out to a bar she’s been visiting occasionally in Queens to build one of her new covers. There’s a prickle at the back of her neck, just under the collar of her leather jacket, when she heads down the stairs into the warmth of the subway station, but no one seems to be following. The feeling dissipates for the duration of the ride uptown, but then it’s back as she walks through the station heading for the exit closest to her destination, and she slips behind an unlocked service door, knife at the ready. 

She’s not quite prepared for who follows her inside, though, his hands immediately held up in surrender. 

“Ne dyelai mnye bolno,” he mutters, blue-grey eyes a little wild as he looks at her. “Ne khochu vozvraschatsya . Don’t hurt me. I don’t want to go back. 

She knows her eyes are wide, but she lowers the knife, holding it ready but more relaxed at her side. Steve’s been searching for him, since the helicarriers, but Natasha has had a feeling, confirmed now, that whatever became of the Winter Soldier wouldn’t be coming in until he was ready to do so. 

“Who the hell is Bucky?” she remembers, from Steve’s pained retelling, and quickly thinks of something neutral to call him, something more personal than soldat . “Yasha,” she murmurs. “Rad videt vas.” He looks at her a little dubiously, and yeah, last time they saw each other, he unambigiously tried to murder her, but she’s not lying. She is glad to see him, since it’s clearly a different him this time. “Mozhet prosledovat za mnoi?” Can you follow me?

He nods, but then hesitates. “Mne nuzhna pomoshch… no yevo ne vishu.”

“Ponymayu.” She crosses his body, carefully, and leads the way into the light. 

~*~

A month later….

“Is she going to explain? Why I can’t see him?” Steve asks as the elevator opens to add Natasha and Clint to their motley crew before continuing its journey downward. He’s grumpy, but then that’s become his new status quo, ever since Natasha brought Bucky in. Sam nudges his shoulder, and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“You can’t see him because that’s practically the first thing he asked for when he found me,” Natasha repeats for maybe the hundredth time. “His choice.”

“But it’s been weeks !”

Natasha doesn’t dignify that with a response, and the others just give him vaguely sympathetic looks as they shuffle out onto the 39th floor. It’s not where Bucky’s being held, just a generic floor of offices and conference rooms, one of which already holds Bruce, Tony, and a petite woman in a smart blazer with dark skin and very close-cropped hair. The remaining four Avengers take seats around the conference table, and the door automatically locks behind them, soundproofing engaged. 

“JARVIS, no cameras,” Tony says, and then nods to the woman at the head of the table. “Well? We’re all on tenterhooks, doc, might as well get to it.”

“I can imagine,” she replies with a warm smile, folding her hands over the manilla folder on the table in front of her. “But let me at least introduce myself before we begin. My name is Doctor Michelle Adeyemi—I specialize in complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and I have been the primary therapist working daily with Sergeant Barnes for three weeks now, in addition to leading his overall care team.”

“Thank you for meeting with us, Dr. Adeyemi,” Bruce offers, gentle and polite as always. She smiles and then nods to the group of them.

“Of course, I know you are all anxious for a report on your friend. I hope you understand that his case is quite unique, given the duration of the trauma he experienced and the effects of the healing factor on his brain. We’ve confirmed what you suspected—he was given a variant of the serum that enhanced Captain Rogers, which complicates any investigation of his health, given our limited understanding of how his unique physiology might respond to trauma. We might have preferred to give you earlier updates, but the time has been necessary to devise a treatment plan and reach a place where I felt comfortable obtaining his informed consent to share information with you.” 

“Bucky knows you’re talking to us?” Steve leans forward a bit in his chair. 

“Well… the answer to that question is somewhat complicated, as I’ll explain, but I am satisfied with the level of consent my patient was able to give to sharing the details of his condition with you today, such as we know them. I must be frank with all of you. I do not believe that Sergeant Barnes is suffering from a diagnosable mental condition consistent with what we have seen in other survivors of trauma, and I doubt that we will ever be able to understand exactly how his brain has responded to his experiences of torture and brainwashing. The brain is a difficult organ to understand even under relatively normal conditions, and these conditions are in no way normal. But I have been able to make analogies that have led me to a treatment approach, and confirmed my hypotheses through brain scans, as well as consulting with several other professionals that your Stark Industries team has vetted.” 

“All right.” Tony nods. “We’re kind of used to unusual around here, doc, just tell us what you’ve got.” 

“As far as I can theorize… your friend was subjected to extreme torture at the start of his captivity, including electrical stimulation to the brain and classical psychological torture techniques paired with neurolinguistic programming in an attempt to create an obedient asset for HYDRA. We believe, based on the information available from the intelligence community on the first kills attributed to the Winter Soldier alongside the data you released to the public, Agent Romanoff, that this torture must have lasted many years before he was considered an active agent of HYDRA, obedient enough to their commands to act reliably in the field.” Her tone is calm, even, but Steve’s hand curls into a tight fist as she speaks, and Sam watches him warily. 

“Based on his current behavior, his access to memories, and other evidence I’ll explain in a moment, I believe that his mind essentially locked away his original personality, the man you know, Captain, as Bucky Barnes. The extreme stress over time, far beyond what a normal human body could sustain, triggered dissociative amnesia, meaning that the person in HYDRA captivity could not recall any of his life as Bucky Barnes, down to details as basic as his name. This kind of amnesia is possible in a baseline human, and we call it generalized dissociative amnesia or in the case of a new identity being adopted, dissociative fugue, but of course we have no other cases where torture was prolonged for seventy years, accompanied by the extreme brainwashing techniques we know HYDRA used.”

“So… he still doesn’t remember?” Steve asks, looking a little like a kicked puppy. 

“The simplest answer to your direct question, Captain, is no. The man we are treating does not identify as Bucky Barnes, nor does he have accessible memories from the time before his captivity. But the reality of his memory formation and identity is much more complicated than what he does not remember. The fact is, I have been essentially working with multiple patients over the last few weeks. It is clear that more than one distinct identity has formed as a result of the trauma.”

“Multiple personality disorder?” Clint asks, raising his eyebrows.

“Dissociative identity disorder,” Bruce corrects mildly, his tone soft as usual. The doctor smiles, but shakes her head a little.

“Technically, DID only forms in children. But yes, Doctor Banner, I do believe that what Sargeant Barnes is experiencing can be most closely analogized to dissociative identity disorder.”

“Sorry, what?” Steve frowns.

“Dissociative identity disorder, or DID, is a condition formed in response to childhood trauma,” she explains. “When a child under the age of seven or so experiences major trauma, he or she is still in the process of forming a personality. In rare cases, the trauma results in the formation of more than one distinct personality within the same person—in other words, a person with DID experiences themselves as a system of separate identities, each of which experience the world differently and may hold different memories. We believe that the brain uses this kind of personality formation as a coping mechanism to segment traumatic memories, though it is much more complicated than that. I would be happy to recommend some literature for you to review after this conversation, but the salient point is that we believe Sergeant Barnes has had a similar experience, and thus I was brought in to lead his care team given my experience in both C-PTSD and DID.”

“So you think a DID split happened in him, even as an adult, because of how extreme the trauma was?” Bruce asks.

“Well, yes, in combination with the fact that his brain had to find ways to respond to something that we’ve simply never been able to study before. Normally, even in cases of extreme trauma, DID can’t occur in adults. Because our personalities are already formed, there’s no way for them to form as separate entities as they do in children with DID. But , we believe that in this case, with physical trauma to the brain that would have killed a normal man many times over-”

Steve chokes on an unvoiced sound, and Sam rests a firm hand on his back. 

“-the brain responded remarkably, essentially boxing off the fully-formed personality entirely, so that what was left could develop almost like a child’s brain while the original personality remained frozen in time. I don’t want to infantilize Sergeant Barnes, but this is the best explanation I can come up with, under the circumstances. I have been able to work with the personalities—we call them alters—who retain memories of his time with HYDRA, and based on their reports I believe that he spent most of the time he was not in cryogenic freeze essentially blank, responding to orders, but there were brief periods of confusion and dissociation where his brain was attempting to form the personalities that now exist for him as alters. One of the alters describes these periods as “malfunctions,” and they were routinely suppressed by what he refers to as a wipe—the use of high-voltage electricity to trigger amnesia and make him more susceptible to the use of programmed trigger phrases.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Steve whispers, and the doctor goes silent as Sam rubs his back in slow circles. 

“You wanna take a break, man?” 

Steve doesn’t respond for a minute, then shakes his head, sitting up again in his chair. “I need to hear this. Sorry. Please continue.”

“No need to apologize, Captain,” Dr. Adeyemi rebukes with a kind smile. “I realize this is incredibly difficult for you to hear. Stop me at any time.” Steve nods, and she continues. “My theory, in any event, is that his memory pathways were regularly suppressed from reconstructing themselves, but the serum did enable them to do so eventually, when he escaped from HYDRA. What I can’t be sure of is whether his current alters formed at the time of the initial trauma, or at different times, or whether the exact same alters would have formed if the trauma had been shorter in duration. It’s simply impossible to be sure. It could be that his alters existed over a long period of time in a kind of suspended state, and then memories were assigned to specific alters when they formed later, or that alters did fully form but weren’t able to consciously control Sargeant Barnes’s body until he escaped, or something else we can’t possibly imagine. It is also possible that specific alters formed as a result of specific incidents of torture. But given the unique nature of his case, I don’t believe that coming up with a theory of how it happened is particularly productive—what does matter to his healing is that he experiences life in the present day through the consciousness of multiple alters, and that he came here for help because his experience post-HYDRA was extremely confusing without an understanding of DID or any other possible mental health conditions. The alter that the medical staff initially met, who now identifies himself as ‘Yasha’-”

Natasha inhales sharply, and everyone’s eyes flick to her, but Dr. Adeyemi continues when she doesn’t say anything more. 

“-Yasha arrived to Avengers Tower extremely confused, not understanding his own mental state, and believing that he needed to be locked up for his own safety and the safety of others. He reported experiences of hearing voices and losing time, and we initially believed that he was experiencing a very extreme case of C-PTSD, especially given that the only obvious alter at first was what we would call an “emotional part,” a response that can occur in C-PTSD where the patient severely dissociates but doesn’t form a complete separate personality—in this case, its primary characteristic is a self-destructive tendency.”

“That was when you put him on suicide watch,” Steve says in an very bland tone, obviously masking his emotions.

“Yes. I don’t intend to disturb you any further than necessary, but in that incident the patient woke screaming from a nightmare, begging staff to take his life. We didn’t initially attribute the incident to a DID-like condition, despite the fact that he didn’t recall the incident in later therapy, because dissociation and this kind of ‘persecutor’ emotional part is consistent with C-PTSD. But I was able to come to my current theory over a number of sessions with both Yasha and other alters, based both on the variance in their behavior and on the details they reported of their time here. When I first started working with Yasha, I don’t believe that any other alters came to the front—which is what we call it when a particular alter is conscious, we use the term “fronting.” But when he became more comfortable with me, another alter began to come forward, and I noticed that the patient I was working with spoke differently and described his experiences differently at different times. Sometimes when I asked questions about his time with HYDRA, he would retain memories, and at other times he claimed not to remember and was very vague about having done “bad things” in his past. When we specifically tracked where Sargeant Barnes was losing time in different sessions, a pattern emerged that was inconsistent with a single personality experiencing dissociative PTSD episodes. If I asked questions about the same day in different sessions, he would describe losing the same period of time, but also could sometimes describe in detail a period of time that he would later describe as being lost. That’s when I realized that I was definitely speaking with at least two different alters, which was consistent with the very different nature of speech and mannerisms I’d observed at different times.” 

“Damn.” Tony shakes his head. “It’s like a mystery thriller: human brain edition.”

“Sometimes,” Dr. Adeyemi concedes with a mild smile. “The human brain can be quite mysterious. But Sergeant Barnes’ system, as we call the collection of alters sharing a body, does seem to be progressing much more quickly in his healing now that I’ve been able to develop a theory and share it with both Yasha and the other most frequently appearing alter, who identifies as James.” 

“James?” Steve frowns. “He hated that name.” 

“Bucky hated that name,” Dr. Adeyemi gently corrects. “James took it from a Smithsonian exhibit on the Howling Commandos that he visited when he was at the front shortly after his defection from HYDRA. It seems to fit him as well as any other.” 

Steve frowns. “So… there’s two of him, now? Yasha and James?”

“And that’s not confusing at all,” Clint mutters. The others look at him with some confusion, except for Natasha, who explains.

“Yasha is the closest Russian equivalent to James. I used it for him when I addressed him in Russian. If you speak Russian, it’s like knowing twins named Richard and Ricardo. But there aren’t only two, are there?” she asks, perceptive eyes on the doctor.

“No,” Dr. Adeyemi agrees. “There may be many more. DID systems often comprise dozens of alters, some of whom never ‘front,’ or come out in the external world. And alters often learn to mimic each other, so I can’t be certain how many have come forward in James’ system. Yasha and James are clear. The persecutor alter who triggered the suicide watch is another, though he isn’t coherent and hasn’t named himself. He fronts rarely, generally at night, and tends towards self-harming behaviors, but of course we’ve minimized his opportunities for those behaviors in the clinical environment. There is also a fourth alter, the one who helped me to understand the way what he describes as ‘malfunctions’ are treated. Yasha refers to him as ‘the Asset’ and he fronts rarely, but seems to be the alter who is most similar to Sergeant Barnes under HYDRA, in terms of language and behavior. He responds to direct questions, but doesn’t speak otherwise.”

“You said most similar,” Bruce interrupts. “You don’t think that’s the alter that was present when HYDRA used his trigger words?”

“Not exactly. Again, it’s really conjecture when we try to establish what happened during that time, but when referring to the past both the Asset and Yasha refer to the Soldier or Soldat. If that is an alter, he hasn’t emerged that I can tell—but it’s hard to say whether it’s even fair to refer to the mental state under such harsh conditioning as a personality or alter. I believe the Soldier is more of a shorthand for the lack of personality or inability to form a personality that he experienced during those times.”

“Okay. So now what? How do we fix him? Can we bring Bucky back?”

The doctor smiles sadly at Steve, and his stomach drops at her pity. “Captain, I’d encourage you not to think of treatment as a ‘fix’ or a way to reinstate Bucky Barnes. I have to be honest with you—that’s likely impossible. If Bucky does still have the ability to exist consciously in the external world, which we haven’t confirmed, he’s now functioning as an alter within the system equal to any other. I’d conjecture that if he serves any role we can label, it would be as a positive memory-holder, an alter who keeps pre-trauma memories for the system and doesn’t have access to memories of the trauma—which would be a benefit for him of remaining separate from the rest of the system. Therapeutically, I believe that it would be a major ethical violation to attempt to force or even encourage integration of any of the alters I’ve described unless they ask directly for that approach. Of course, there are those in the profession who disagree with me, but we’ve largely moved away from treating DID with a focus on integration, as that kind of therapy can intensely backfire and hasn’t been proven effective. What we can do is focus on helping as many alters as possible to feel safe, and confirming that Sergeant Barnes as an entire system will be safe outside of a clinical setting.”

“Confirming? So you don’t think he’s dangerous,” Natasha surmises, her expression skeptical.

“I think he is absolutely dangerous to anyone who attempts to harm him,” Dr. Adeyemi corrects her. “And we don’t know what the effect would be if trigger words were used on him again, which another specialist will likely need to address at some point when he’s more stable overall. But I don’t believe that he would engage in unprovoked violence. Self-harm is much more likely in cases of DID, and I would like to focus on ways to make his alters feel safe, which would both minimize self-harm and reduce the likelihood of accidentally causing harm to others if he feels threatened. I also wouldn’t recommend focusing on retrieving Bucky’s personality, as we know that the brain created these alters as a trauma response, rather than simply restoring the original personality. It must have done so for a reason, and presumably this is what feels safest for Sergeant Barnes, to the extent that we can describe his condition in those terms.”

“So what’s the treatment plan, then?” Tony asks. “How do we make him feel safe?”

“I’d like to continue to work with his alters in daily therapy. We’re also giving him time in between sessions to relax, if he can, and get used to daily living. I can talk him through the experience of dissociative episodes and what works best for others when dissociating and switching between different alters being at the front. I want to start to work with what we call positive triggers to encourage different alters to work with me, so that we can both get to know them, and have him work with a journal so that the different alters can communicate. They have different levels of awareness of the system, but that may develop over time, and journaling is a technique that works for many systems with DID. Of course, we will also need to eventually talk more about his experiences so that your legal team can come up with an approach, Mr. Stark, and so that I can make recommendations on how his alters might handle legal proceedings. Talking about what happened may also help us to identify ways to make him feel safer in a non-clinical environment.”

“Yasha, at least, has been very clear that he doesn’t want to meet anyone outside of his medical team yet, but eventually that will be the goal. So I will want to work with him to catch him up gradually on the outside world, and I want all of you to review some resources on DID in loved ones, keeping in mind that it may be months before he’s ready to live independently or be in regular contact with your team. We want to give his alters time to make themselves known, and give the system time to adjust to his new reality. At that point, though, I believe living among the Avengers would be safe for him, especially as you are all accustomed to avoiding clear PTSD triggers and are physically equipped to handle a violent episode if one does occur.”

“All right.” Tony frowns. “JARVIS, you’ll distribute those materials to the Avengers?”

“Yes, of course. Doctor, I would be happy to compile any resources you recommend at any time.”

“Thank you, JARVIS. I believe that’s all I have for you today, but I’ll be in touch when I have another update.”

The team all mumble their assent, and she strides out of the room, carrying the folder she hadn’t referenced once against her chest. Everyone gradually turns to Steve, who’s staring blankly at the ground. 

“Hey man. We’re gonna get through this,” Sam offers gently, returning his hand to Steve’s back. 

“Yeah, all of us except for Bucky, who’s apparently stuck inside his own brain.” 

“Maybe,” Sam agrees. “But it sounds like he feels safe there, yeah? Probably doesn’t even have any of the trauma the rest of the alters do, from what it sounds like. That could be good.”

“But it was him ,” Steve murmurs, sounding dejected. “On the Helicarrier, he knew me. It sounds like...none of the rest of them existed, before. So how could they have known me?”

“That way lies crazy,” Natasha warns. “C’mon, Steve. You can’t keep thinking about that, not when it might be months before you see any of them. You’ve gotta let it go.” 

“Right,” Steve lets out a hollow laugh. “Let it go.”

“Easier said than done,” Tony concedes, pushing to his feet and clapping his hands together. “C’mon Avengers. Let’s disassemble.” 

“Pizza?” Clint suggests.

“Pizza.”

~*~

“Look at it this way,” Sam suggests, gesturing vaguely with a cheesy slice. “Like she said, we know how to handle PTSD. We pretty much all have it, right?”

“Hey now,” Tony objects. “First rule of PTSD, we don’t talk about PTSD.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Yeah, keep believing that, buddy. Point is, it’s not a bad bunch of people to deal with dissociation around. I’ve read a little bit about DID, it sounds a lot like primary structural dissociation.”

“Which is, for the kids in the back?” Clint asks.

“Freaking the fuck out.”

“Ah. I know that one.”

“Specifically, the kind of freaking the fuck out where you don’t know where you are, where you go full flashback or hypervigilant or whatever, where you lose time. I haven’t had that experience myself, but I’ve worked with a lot of guys… I think DID’s like that, it’s just that instead of going fight-or-flight on steroids, you switch personalities.”

“Huh. Sounds better,” Clint responds before stuffing half a slice of pepperoni into his face.

“I don’t know if it’s better . I think switching kind of sucks, too. But my point is, none of us is gonna freak out and get angry if another member of the team has a dissociative episode. We all know protocol for flashbacks. So maybe it’s not so different.”

“Hell, we know protocol for the Hulk ,” Tony adds, and Bruce only glares at him a little.

“Tony,” Steve chides on autopilot.

“What? It’s true. This Tower is a safe space for crazy. No offense to the other guy.” 

“Thanks, Tony,” Bruce says with a long-suffering kind of expression.

“I wish you wouldn’t call your teammates crazy ,” Steve objects. “Not all of us even have PTSD.”

“Uh huh. De nial ,” Tony coughs behind his hand, and Clint wings a mushroom slice at him.

“First rule of denial, we don’t talk about denial.”

“Yeah, all right bird-brain. I’ll drink to that.”

Steve, for his part, remains silent.