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the long road (rising up, meeting myself)

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The lady across from him was wrinkled by time, but she stood straight and proud, though short, as he entered. She did not react to his sudden cough after purposefully soundless steps, just finished watering her plant and sat down across from him. She sat like a lady, ankles crossed, and waited for him to settle into some semblance of comfort before she spoke, slowly, in a voice accented by a thousand places and nowhere in particular. “James Buchanan Barnes. The Winter Soldier. Bucky. The Asset. You’re a man of many names, young man.”

He blinked. The sentence was on the tip of his tongue – ‘young man? I’m a hundred and four years old–‘ but he stayed silent.

The therapist was undaunted by his silence, or his stare. “I won’t bother with ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ We both know you’d rather be anywhere else. But I do have one question for you, one critical to our time here, and I need you to answer me honestly.”

He tensed, imperceptibly. Here it came; she would ask if he regretted his actions, demand to know his kill count, seek some horrible statistic or other that would make this kindly old lady look at him like a monster. He held himself with perfect posture in the paisley wingback armchair, waiting for the blow. She sat across from him her own comfy armchair, leaning on her knees with her hands clasped. Her eyes were piercing blue behind golden frames. “What do you want me to call you?”

~

Bucky had felt resigned, when the court announced he had to seek therapy. Back in the time that still felt like his, even now, electric shocks were the prevailing treatment for disorders that didn’t get you thrown straight in the loony bin, or simply lobotomised[1] He knew things had changed, sure. He had researched therapy from the moment his lawyer suggested it was a possibility, absolutely, he wasn’t stupid. (Steve had enough stupid for the both of ‘em.) No matter how much he researched, however, he couldn’t get rid of the image therapy conjured in his mind: a featureless office, an emotionless voice telling him how he should feel, how he should act, puppeteering their own broken little soldier in cold words as opposed to icy conditioning.

Marian Thorne didn’t fit into any of that. Her office didn’t have much in the way of features; there wasn’t room. Two chairs and a couch, all patterned, all comfortably out of date, in a rough circle. Two tables, one low one in the middle of the room with tissues, a blank notebook, and a book of origami paper on it, the other tall and half tucked behind Marian’s chair featuring a second notebook and a bright green spray bottle she had happily informed him was a plant mister. This was in the office for good reason, as three of the four walls were almost entirely comprised of plants. Big leafy ones, small spiny ones, ones with bright flowers and ones that some vague, half-forgotten memory told him were edible: it seemed to Bucky like every plant known since Eden was in the office, trailing over the walls and around the windows and stopping just shy of the door and the frames opposite it; certificates and photographs, some faded with age.

For their first session, she invited him to draw or write whatever he felt like in his notebook, and she would do the same in hers, and then they would compare. She had drawn a door in sharp lines, clumsily shaded with an amateur attempt at wood grain. He had stared at his paper for a long while, listening to the scratch of her pencil, her quiet humming. She must have been observing him, though he couldn’t see how; people didn’t just sit the Winter Soldier down and tell him to colour. Bucky, he thought sharply. Marian had only insisted on one rule, in her leafy little oasis: Bucky was to pick a name, any name he liked, and stick with it. If he wanted to change, he could do so, and she would address him differently, but he could not drift off into self-loathing or despair and name himself monster on a limb. Right now, he was Bucky, and for the foreseeable future Bucky he would remain.

(He drew one of Marian’s plants, the big trailing one. It looked like a mess of vaguely leaf shaped blobs. She grinned like he had just handed her a winning lottery ticket, and even with his most attentive stare, he couldn’t see it as patronising.)

~

The sessions were meant to be weekly. They were pencilled in his little diary, a small green book with a calendar at the back and a section for names and phone numbers at the front. He had bought it, on Marian’s advice – you feel disconnected from the modern world? Put down the damn smartphone, Bucky. Dinosaurs like you and me are perfectly entitled to prefer paper. Get yourself a diary, pencil in your schedule and phone numbers and anything else you like – and, somehow, had grown to love the little thing. It reminded him of his Ma, of the big book she had kept on the shelf below the landline[2] with the contacts of every person she had ever given a little piece of her heart to. Hers was huge, with loose sheafs of paper tucked in behind the back binding. His is tiny, pocket sized so he could carry it everywhere, and there are only three numbers in it: his own, Marian’s, and Sam’s. Each week, he had therapy down for nine on a Thursday. Each week, he would sit by a tree in Brooklyn, noting the length of his daily run and – after a quick double check with the watch on his wrist, an antique made in 1938 that made him feel quite ahead of the times, and then quite foolish – how long each run took him. Sometimes he wrote in what he did on a given day, tiny things, tried Chinese or walked past Father McMahon’s old apartment or visited the Met. He wasn’t sure why; the assignment mission homework from Marian hadn’t demanded he pour his heart out onto the pages, and it was never a habit he had had much use for, before. But when he woke up cold in spite of the heating on full blast, sweat frozen to his skin and longing, rusted, daybreak on his lips- well. It was nice, to have a record of the things he did, things Bucky chose to do, all for himself.

He didn’t tell this to Marian. She was, undoubtedly, the person he talked too most – Sam always seemed to be busy enough that bothering him would be an actual bother as opposed to minorly and humorously inconvenient, and everyone else either didn’t know who he was or was dead. Still, he didn’t mention the little green book he kept in the shirt pocket over his heart. Wasn’t it part of being a person again to have secrets? She helped him process that – relearning to be a person, with emotions and wants and secrets, every Thursday like clockwork, with a handful of extra days thrown in when he admitted he needed it. He spent Becca’s birthday in her little green room, learning how to properly mist fittonia[3]. He spent his Ma’s anniversary there, too, learning to identify mayfly and destroy them with extreme prejudice.

And then, all of a sudden, he gets a call and his world narrows. He has no memory of calling Marian, of taking the subway to her stop, of the three block walk and two flights of stairs to her little office. In the space of a blink, he was standing in her doorway, breathing hard. She was tending to her plants, as always, examining the new flower on her Aloe with all the care of a mother checking up on her only child. It reminded Bucky of faint memories of leaning against the doorframe while a blonde held her babies’ hand, hissing prayers he still remembered even as her name faded. At his entrance, Marian turned to him with a smile, gesturing to the chair opposite hers and sitting down herself, fingers steepled, waiting for him to collect himself.

Bucky throws himself onto the little chair opposite hers, hands so tight on the arms that he can feel an ominous tear under his right hand. “He gave away Steve’s shield!”

Marian nods. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Bucky repeats, in utter disbelief. “Nothing about this is okay!”

Marian pushed her glasses up on her nose. “And why is that, Bucky?”

Bucky let out a strangled scream of frustration, burying his head in his hands. Opposite him, Marian pulls out a dollar store water bottle and two china teacups, pouring as daintily as if she was serving Earl Grey to the Queen of England. He looked up at her and had to stifle a manic laugh. “Steve’s shield is gone. Rotting in some damn museum, with everything else we owned, and I’m-“ his breath hitched. It should not need to do that; cryogenic freezing did tend to make one better at conserving breath. Why, then, did his breath hitch?

“You are alive, Bucky Barnes, and there is no shame in that.”

He stood up, then, one fluid motion, and spread his arms wide. His hand – the left one, the flesh one – clipped off one of the teacups, sending it clattering to the floor. Marian watched it, and him, impassively. He towered over her, like this. She was not a tall woman standing; seated, she had to tilt her neck to meet his eyes. She did so with a calm stare, not heedless of his racing thoughts but in spite of them. He could kill her, and they both knew it. It wouldn’t even be difficult. He could reach over with his right hand and squeeze, and everything that made this bright woman herself would be snuffed out like a guttering candle, and require about the same amount of effort.

He leaned over her, one fluid motion, and picked up the teacup off the floor. He set it neatly beside the other one after running his finger around the inside to check for cracks, the same way Ma used to. Only when he was finished, assured that he hadn’t caused yet more damage, did he sit back down, and then speak. “Sometimes I think Bucky Barnes died. During the war.”

Marian nodded her head, slowly, letting the words hang in the air, giving them all appropriate acknowledgement. “The person you were is here no longer. That isn’t death. Everyone changes, every day. If you’d like, young man, we can work on finding out who you are now.”

He took a deep breath, then another, still watching her. She didn’t look afraid, even now. “I think,” he said slowly, “you should call me James.”

Marian took a sip of her water, refilled his cup and waited for him to do the same, and then wrote something in her notepad; his new preference, presumably. “Okay. James, can you tell me about the shield?”

~

John Walker is announced as the new Captain America, as if anyone had a hope in hell of replacing Steve. James Barnes was in his apartment, watching the news with food from the Korean place around the block spread around him. He has faint memories of eating something like this, long ago; while not quite soothing, it does ground him, convince him that his long life truly did happen. He needs it, in that moment, seeing the smug grin of some idiot who wouldn’t know true patriotism if he tripped and fell over it. James takes a deep breath, then another, and walks to the window. The apartment doesn’t have much – a cheap mattress, because the expensive ones felt wrong to a body that grew up in the depression, a slightly more expensive television, because he might as well reap the benefits of living in the future, and a big window covered in plants. He stands there, checking each one over, looking at soil dampness, cleaning the drainage pan, examining each fragile leaf and bud.

I am angry, he thinks. Angry, and sad, and scared, because it feels like they’ve forgotten Steve. Why does that make me feel like this?

He sits there, for a long moment, trying to think it through, considering and discarding several options before he finds one that makes his chest tighten in a way he had come to realise, from his sessions, means he’s hit the mark. Steve did so much for this country, and forgetting that sacrifice makes me angry. I loved Steve, and he’s being left behind, and that makes me sad. Steve believed I was a good man, but they’re erasing him, and I don’t want that belief erased. That makes me scared.

He finishes his examination of the plants. Each of them is perfect, because of course they are. He goes through this routine several times a week, trying to identify which ghost is pulling at his heart strings this time; his garden is probably the best kept one in Brooklyn[4]. Like always, it fulfils it’s purpose; his emotions aren’t threatening to drown him anymore. He takes a step back, and walks over to the TV, turns it off, and then walks past it to his phone. It’s a clunky thing; several years old, by any modern standard, it connects to the internet but still has a physical keypad. Touchscreens don’t like his prosthetic hand, and it feels a little more real, to still have to punch in numbers.

He has two texts: from Marian, “My afternoon is open. I could use some help with propagation.” And from Sam, “I didn’t know.”

He stares at them for a long moment, before texting a polite refusal to Marian – promising to help her on Thursday, as if he doesn’t know she’s been finished propagation for two weeks – and then pressing the green dial button, and calling Sam.

 

~

He still goes to Munich, to Morgenthau. Sam had asked him to. Well, that is perhaps inaccurate; Sam told him what he was planning to do, and James tagged along with a grimace and some snark. He wasn’t very good at being friendly, yet, but he knew he couldn’t let the stupid punk wander off to Germany and fight the good fight alone. It went to shit, of course. He hasn’t had good luck since 1938. First he mistakes the ringleader for a hostage, then her goons show up and he’s forced into a very flashy and very dangerous fight on top of two moving trucks, like something out of a film too cheesy to be believed. Morgenthau moves with the graceless fury of a supersoldier, and as much as he hates to admit it, James and Sam both would’ve had their goose cooked if not for John fucking Walker.

That does not mean, however, that he has to like the shitheel.

James sits opposite Walker and Hodgins, in the truck on the way home. He holds himself as still as a toy soldier, breathing slow and shallow enough to be missed on a first glance, staring at his prosthetic hand. He twitches it, joint by joint, closing and opening his fist in the sort of precise movements he had never bothered to hone, before. He had tried every traditional grounding technique Marian Thorne could throw at him before they settled on this one; he could do it anywhere, it was something the Winter Soldier had never done, and it kept him focused on something other than punching Walker’s sorry lights out. He listened half-heartedly to the tactical talk, managing to keep his breathing even and his hands on his knees and even ignore Sam’s worried glances.

Then John Walker looks directly at him, with the kind of soulless puppy dog eyes someone probably told him looked endearing. “I get it, Bucky,” he says, in a tone so manufactured it could’ve plopped straight out of a can, and about as easy to swallow. “And- I’m, I’m not trying to be Steve. I’m just trying to be the best Captain America I can be. That’s it.”

Walker exchanges a glance with Hodgins, who watches the whole pantomime without expression or comment. Sam, sitting beside James, is tense, eyeing the super soldier with significantly more genuine concern. “It’d be a whole lot easier if I had Cap’s wingmen at my side,” he finishes, and James is done.

He stands up lightning fast, shaking the whole truck. The driver swears, slamming on the breaks, but James is in the centre of a hurricane and he pays no more attention to it than a typhoon cares for the rocks it slams against the shore. “My name,” he says, very slowly, “is James Buchanan Barnes. You call me James, or Barnes, or nothing at all.” He stares at Walker, who has frozen like an actor that’s forgotten his lines and desperately hoping the stage manager will stick their head out of the curtains and whisper them. His gaze moves to Hodgins, who visibly swallows before nodding. He’s scared of me, James thinks. Some buried part of him thinks good. He doesn’t look at Sam.

“I followed Stevie to hell and back, and he did the same for me. You can’t buy loyalty with a rescue and a nice ride.” James feels his face wrinkle in disgust, looking at the man his country thinks could ever possibly replace Steve Rogers. “You will never be Captain America,” he says, in that same, flat tone. He does not hit Walker. He does not even lean over him, use his bulk to intimidate, but the effect is still the same: Walker recoils. James’ lips twitch, for just a second, into a macabre rendition of a smile, before he jumps off of the truck and starts walking.

Only a second later, there’s a second set of footsteps behind him, jogging just slightly to keep up with the supersoldiers long strides. For a few minutes, there is silence, just their breath and their feet in the warm air of mid morning as they both cool off. When Sam speaks, it’s a question James hadn’t even imagined him asking: “Would you like me to call you James?”

Barnes turns, walking backwards, and eyes up Sam. The other man is slightly out of breath in trying to keep up with his punishing pace in tactical gear, and he stops, allowing him a moment to recover. “I’m… still Bucky,” he says at last. “To my friends, at least.”

“And are we?” asks Wilson. “Friends, at least?”

Barnes puts a hand on his chin, exaggerated motions, and loudly pretends to think. “Hmm… well… yes. I suppose so.”

Wilson lets out a laugh, moving to shove him, but the supersoldier dances backwards with ease. “You’re an asshole, Bucky!” He shouts, and Barnes laughs, and for one golden moment, the rest of the world was a million miles away.

~

It didn’t last forever; nothing does, and Bucky knows that better than most. On the long flight home, he catches Sam glancing towards him, chewing on a question he doesn’t quite know how to ask. “More supersoldiers, huh,” he asks, at last.

“Huh,” says Bucky.

“Does that bother you?”

“It’s not the first time,” he says. When Sam visibly starts, Bucky chews at his lip. “Isaiah Bradley,” he says at last. “Experiment, Korean War. Only survivor. He was sent behind enemy lines to stop-“ and here, Barnes pauses, flexing his right arm and listening to the soft whir of the Wakandan gears, so unlike the Hydra machinery he was so used to.

“You?” guessed Sam, his voice bringing Buck back to the present. In his defence, he sounded calm. Unfortunately, his body language betrayed him. His shoulders were held very tight, as if he purposefully had to stop from leaning forward to try and ‘comfort’ Barnes. His eyes were a mix of curiosity and pity, a familiar mixture. He hated it.

“Me. I’ve never fought a harder opponent, before or since.” He ran his fingers over the edge of his jaw, feeling for where any ordinary man would have a gnarly scar. The Asset had pushed forward, but he had needed a long stay in the Chair to put his face back together after. “He was cheerful, a smooth talker. Managed to weasel my location out of the locals. If the world was fairer, you and him would get along well.”

“Why didn’t we?” asks Sam. “Why didn’t I know about him? He sounds incredible.”

“It was 1952,” said Bucky, “and the sole survivor of the programme to engineer a new Captain America was black. They sent him on at least three suicide missions. Musta figured a corpse they could dissect would be better than a Cap they couldn’t make propaganda with.”

His tone was bitter, he knew it was, but it was nothing compared to the expression on Sam’s face. His whole body was tight, wound up like a new spring, and across his face flew grief, anger, and a touch of resignation. “What happened to him?”

“Lives in the suburbs. Baltimore, last I checked. Has a grandkid.”

“Could I meet him?”

Bucky looks Sam up and down. For the first time since Steve… left, Sam looks hopeful, maybe even a little awed. “No,” he says, and watches the other man’s face shutter, turn to a frown. “I’ll pass on a letter for you, if you like, but I doubt he wants the Fist of Hydra turning up at his door. Even your shiny little smile can only do so much.”

“That’s-“ Sam began, and then paused. Sighed. “Fair. And considerate.”

Bucky grinned, a perfunctory gesture mostly filled with teeth. “I’m becoming a good person. Haven’t you noticed?”

 

~

His journey to becoming a good person was challenged, severely, when he arrived back in the States to Marian Thorne sitting in the waiting room of the airfield. If swearing made you a bad person, then all of his progress was surely for naught; he swore up a storm that would set his Ma looking for a bar of soap to stick in his mouth. “I missed my session,” he says, to the both of them.

Marian nods to Sam, but then turns the full force of her gaze onto Buck, one eyebrow raised. “I’m not mad,” she says, barely coming up to Sam’s shoulders but with the commanding presence of a much younger woman, of Peggy Carter in her prime. “but I am disappointed.”

It is so sudden, so jarringly unexpected, that he barks out a laugh. She laughs too, a quieter, more dignified noise, before turning on her heel and beckoning for him to follow. She leads him to a side room, sits down, crosses her ankles and cocks her head. “I’m disappointed, James, because I don’t understand why you did that. Could you tell me?”

Silence. Neither of them are willing to break it; Marian reaches into her bag and pulls out, of all things, knitting needles and some yarn. She begins working away, sometimes glancing up at him, in a wordless display of I could sit here all day.

Bucky, then, is forced to speak: “…couldn’t let him walk into the fight on his own. He’d get himself killed.”

Marian pauses her knitting, and puts it down onto the table. “Is that your responsibility?”

Bucky cannot believe her. She had been so understanding, before this point. They had spent hours together, talking things through, working through his every damned emotion, and then she completely misses the point on something obvious like this? “Of course it is! He’s my friend, he’s Steve’s friend, he’s important-“

“Why does it have to be you, James?”

Silence, and she seizes the moment. “Sam Wilson is a decorated veteran, working with the US Air Force. If he needed backup, it could’ve come from any number of places. Why you?”

James sits and he thinks. Why him? He discards the easy answer – I don’t trust anyone else to watch his six – and looks deeper. He could’ve vetted the proposed backup like he vetted the delivery boy at his local food place, his favourite uber driver, and Marian Thorne herself. Why did he go to Munich? He doesn’t know.

“James,” says Marian, after a moment of silence. “Are you familiar with the concept of penance?”

James snorts. “I was Catholic, ma’am.”

Marian shakes her head, but doesn’t quite smile, not letting the levity come in and sweep over the room. “Did you go to Munich with Sam Wilson as penance, as payment for your guilt?”

The world narrows, down and down and down, until it is just him and her, alone, floating somewhere, her words echoing. His fists are clenched around something, and he can feel it warp under his right hand. He fights to keep his breaths slow, but it’s like running a race against a cheetah, like trying to wrestle jelly, like trying to float in a lake of concrete. Guilt, he thinks. I have a lot to be guilty for, don’t I?

His whole body is cold, but he can feel something warm against his hands, squeezing with all the force of a butterfly but squeezing all the same. He opens his eyes – when had he closed them? – to see Marian, crouched beside him, her hands against his and a serious expression on her face. “James Buchanan Barnes,” she says, with the most severe expression he has ever seen on her, “listen well, because I hope to only say this once. You have nothing to be guilty for.

He takes one shaking breath, and then another. Marian waits until he seems somewhat steady before hauling herself up (with some difficulty – she was no spring chicken) and perching daintily on the edge of the table. “What do you say to that, James?”

“I think,” he replies, “I want to try being Bucky.”


~

Marian didn’t dwell on his fuck ups; it was one of the things he liked best about her. After a nauseating session talking about guilt, she had put forth a suggestion. He did not have to take it; she actively told him he shouldn’t, until he felt ready.

St Michael’s children’s research hospital was a squat grey building in a cheerless industrial estate. The inside fought back against its drab location with all its might; golden buttercups and cotton candy pink roses danced over the walls, with a baby blue ceiling and cheerful nurses in ivy green scrubs. Buck stopped to stare at it; if his Stevie had had this in the thirties maybe he would never have gotten so damn sick. Marian appeared in front of him, then, just visible in the gaps between the three boxes, two bags, and purse she had him carrying. “Where are you?”

“2024. Hospital, but for my own sake, not Stevie’s.” From what little he could see of the therapist, he could tell she was examining him, watching however much she could see of his face and his posture. She had a very penetrating stare, but Buck was steady.

“Okay,” said Marian Thorne, and went to find the charge nurse, Barnes a shadow two steps behind.

~

The plan, as Bucky had been told more times than some OP plans during the war and knew twice as well, was fairly simple. St Michael’s got charitable donations delivered twice a month. This time, rather than an anonymous white van, Marian and her anonymous helper would be visiting in person to dole out all the teddy bears, action figures and art supplies they could carry. He would not be required to speak to anyone. Reading between the lines, he was not entirely sure if he was allowed to speak to anyone – he didn’t dare ask if bringing a reforming assassin to a hospital filled with vulnerable children was an accepted part of the counselling process, or if Marian had bent the rules just for him. He wasn’t sure which answer he would like less.

Today was the trial run. In and out, drop off supplies, talk to the nurses, maybe clean up the playroom if he felt truly adventurous. When he felt ready, he could move to slightly more social positions – making tea and coffee for parents, giving directions, and acting like a normal volunteer staff member. He was almost looking forward to it, the normalcy of it all. He knew that there was a higher tier for real volunteers, actually getting to spend time with the children, but he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be trusted to do that. Hell, he wasn’t sure he trusted himself. He remembered Stevie, flushed with fever and light enough that even at age ten little Jamie Barnes could lift his whole body and bring him over to the window to cool down. You wouldn’t know, from the way history had painted him, that Steven Grant Rogers was once a delicate little bird of a boy, as fragile and precious as spun glass. Bucky’s arm whirred as he turned the corner, adjusting his grip on the boxes. He was no longer the kind of man that could handle delicate.

“Who’s this?” came a high-pitched voice from approximately the height of his hip. Marian took the first box off of Bucky’s pile, allowing him to see the tiny child in the middle of the hallway. Tiny was an understatement; the kid looked like how Bucky had imagined elves as a child, skin almost translucently pale, wisps of thin blonde hair hanging around her face, holding on to an IV drip with her left hand and a teddy bear with her right.

“This is one of our new special helpers!” announced Marian with slightly undeserved cheer.

The little one narrowed her tiny eyes to slits, considering. “He looks more muscle-ier than your other helpers, Miss Marian. Do your arms not work right anymore, too?”

“Nah,” says a voice Bucky didn’t quite realise was his until the word was out there, hovering in the tepid air. Marian and the kid both look at him as though they hadn’t expected him to speak. “Her arms work fine, it’s mine that don’t. See?” He kneels down, putting down the packages, pulling back his sleeve to show the not-quite-smooth join between his shoulder and his prosthetic.

He didn’t know what he was doing, or what to expect. He didn’t quite dare to look at Marian. The girl, however, lit up, rushing forward so fast that her weak little legs couldn’t quite keep up, sending her toppling into his left arm as she examined his right, heedless of her fall or perhaps so used to them that she didn’t even register it as a not-strictly-encouraged form of locomotion. Her tiny little fingers felt the grooves in the metal with more care than some doctors Bucky had had the displeasure of knowing, both within Hydra and without. “Wow,” she said, in a voice filled with more wonder than should really fit in her little chest. “I want one!”

Bucky blinked. Then he blinked again. Marian, luckily, wasn’t quite so caught up in absolute wonder that a kid could find the cool metal reminder of his bloody past to be “-bloody cool, Mister!”. The therapist laughed, gently setting the girl back on her own two feet and meriting only a pout. “Tina, if you’re very good for Doctor Milligan, I’ll see about getting you gloves that look like Mister Bucky’s arm, okay, honey? But his arm helps him like your walker helps you, so you can’t have it.”

Tina let out a big, dramatic sigh, filling her little lungs up and then blowing all the air out in one big huff, but she did at least let go of him, and gave him a truly brilliant smile when he handed her back her teddy bear. They escorted her back to her room, where a truly exhausted looking blonde man was sleeping in a chair, with a promise to stay there this time.

As they doubled back to collect the packages, Bucky could feel Marian’s stare on the back of his neck. “Was that… okay?”

“Oh, Bucky,” his therapist said, “that was wonderful.”

~

That was not the end. Of course it wasn’t. Morgenthau was still at large in Europe, Walker still loomed across his home country. In another life, a very broken Barnes would have suggested using Baron Zemo, abusing the trust the Wakandans put in him, and play-acting his own personal hell by pretending to be the Fist of Hydra. In this life, Bucky didn’t do any of that.

He didn’t think he had to. He was not the tool of bad men, anymore, used as a gun and pointed at any target that could cause chaos, heedless of collateral damage. Neither was he a tool for good men. Bucky did not want to see Baron Zemo ever again, and so he didn’t. One action leads to another, and rather than confronting Karli at her mother’s funeral, both Wilson and Walker don’t manage to track her down until she’s in New York – fuck, why was it always New York – as she planned an attack on the GRC.

Some things changed. Some things stayed the same. On US soil, it was John Walker who had the advantage, John Walker who arrived first, who fought Morgenthau hand to hand as his right hand man took on her second in command. In every universe, however, Lemar Hoskins was no match for a supersoldier. All it took was one punch not quite pulled enough, and the Flag Smashers had brains alongside the blood on their hands. All it took was one heart-stopping look as his best friend hit the end of the line, and John Walker had blood on his hands, his arms, and Steve’s shield.

It is still Sam Wilson who wrenches the shield from his grip, but things are moving too fast. He has no time to learn how to use it. He did, however, have the phone number of someone who did.

When Sam finally called Bucky with a lead, he came with reluctance. He came with no unearned guilt to make up for. He came with the knowledge that he didn’t have to do this.

When Sam held out the shield, wings on his shoulders and a truck idling behind him, Bucky furrowed his brow. Certainty he may have, but a gift with words was still far beyond him. “I’m not the Winter Soldier, Sam.”

Wilson turned to him, tilting his head to the side and examining Bucky’s face. When his voice came, it was slow, probing. “I know.”

“I’ll be there for you, as much as I can, but I won’t kill anyone. Not one more body, understand?”

Sam clasped Bucky’s shoulder with a determined edge to his smile. One Bucky was familiar with, from decades of following self-righteous optimists into the pits of hell. “Not one more. You’re a good man, Buck.”

Bucky nodded, a tiny smile at the edge of his own mouth. “I know.”

~

It did not take a long time, to find John Walker. He had a good headstart, with Bucky and Sam having to chase down Karli first, but he wasn’t subtle. Bucky Barnes had been hunting down self-righteous assholes in this city since the thirties; Walker didn’t stand a chance. In what felt like no time at all, Bucky held the not-so-good captain up by one hand, staring at his face, trying to see what the army did, what made him a good Captain America. He couldn’t find anything.

“Lemarr didn’t have to die. That flag smasher did not have to die. You, John Walker? You have to die.” Bucky spoke slowly, deliberately, watching Walker’s reaction. Said reaction was to claw at his vibranium hand, going red from seething hatred as much as from oxygen deprivation. Bucky loosened his hold, and the soldier dropped like a stone, his hands going to his neck while a snarl spread across his face. He did not, however, say one word, or make another movement towards Bucky. What could he say?

 “But that’s not my job. Sam!” he yelled, and his friend stepped forward with an expression of distinct relief. “Get some cuffs. The good captain has a cell to get acquainted with.”

~

When Bucky got home, there was someone waiting for him. He had the bizarre thought, as John Walker was pressed into a cop car and Sam Wilson spoke to the press, that Marian Thorne’s superpower was tracking down errant superheroes and giving them a piece of her mind. His hand went to rub at the back of his neck, unconsciously.

“That was reckless, vindictive, and perhaps even unnecessary, James,” Marian said, without inflection. Her face was scarily impassive, even against too many decades of training in reading people.

Bucky nodded. “I know. I knew when I did it.” After a second’s thought, he added, “and I don’t regret it.”

Marian nodded. There was a pause, before a genuine smile spread across her face. It did not make her look younger, necessarily. What it did was make her whole face glow, transform her into something powerful. “Good,” she said, leaning forward with relish. “Bucky, we’ve been here for hours and hours working on your guilt. All I ever hoped for you was to understand what actions you should take personal responsibility for, and which ones you shouldn’t.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to tell me I’m turning into the Winter Soldier?”

Marian matched him, raising an eyebrow of her own in a distinctly patronising manner. “I was going to say, I think we can move our sessions to every other week, but if you think you know my profession better than me…”

Bucky stood frozen, before shaking his head. “You can’t leave me like this, doc. I still can’t knit for shit.”

Marian laughed, a full belly thing. “Alright, Bucky. I think we can leave our standing appointment open for knitting.”

“Too right,” he said. “I still owe Tina a sleeve.”

 

[1] Electro shock therapy premiered in india during the inter war period, and was first used in the US in 1938. It is entirely plausible that Bucky would have known about it, before he shipped out.

[2] 40% of US households had a landline in 1930. We know Steve was poor, his Ma bankrupting herself to care for him… but it isn’t impossible that the Barnes family was slightly better off.

[3] Yes, this is a skill. If you don’t believe me, you can try to buy a fittonia for yourself… but don’t come crying when the damn thing spends more time wilting than photosynthesizing.

[4] Though only in Brooklyn; he could never compare to Marian, and honestly, wasn’t even interested in trying. It felt good to come second best.