Art by truthismusic, and it is interwoven and lovely.
Betaed by thepouncer, all remaining mistakes are mine.
It's not just that he doesn't understand himself. It's that nothing else makes a bit of sense, either. His memories, when they come, if they come, almost never align with the world he sees in front of him. This one is noisier, brighter -- somehow quicker. It makes him think of the feel of a gun in his flesh hand, the burn of a punch on his knuckles. It is only when he finds quiet places that any other memory can assert itself again, seem like it might be real.
In the end he calls himself Bucky because he feels certain he needs to self-identify in some way, and although he was told his name is James, that does not fit. Not that Bucky does, so much—more a shifting collage of emotions, sounds and places—but the man (Steve, and it's strange, strange that his mission's name is more substantial than one that might be his own) on the helicarrier had called him it with such conviction. There was an emotion in it that Bucky doesn't have a word for, but it's positive, just warm enough and pain-free. It is the only thing Bucky can remember wanting, ever.
He's pretty sure he does not deserve the name, in the same way he cannot deserve Steve's…concern? Interest? The world he's woken to is a puzzle, and the past that might have been is at best a kaleidoscope, but his purpose, the feel of blood on his skin—not his—and the smell of smoldering casings, that is clear. He takes the name anyway. It is clearly not the worst thing he's ever done.
He's seen cars driven, but never been taught to drive one. Or, at least, he doesn't have that set of memories, and almost everything that informs his usefulness as a weapon is there, bright and shiny and cold for the taking. All of his phones have been burner phones, for calling or texting only. His purpose was not as a spy. He has not been programmed for that.
He can get in and out of places unnoticed, but the first time he tries sitting alone in a restaurant called McDonalds, easily identifiable by its omnipresence, large golden M, and nauseatingly intense smell of grease, he can't handle the sense of being seen, even in a corner booth with his back to the wall. Cash is familiar in a fractured way, where he can relate it to things he was given—weapons, food, transportation, or in good moments, things he once bought himself: liquor, a nice coat, and strangely, medicine—but he has no clear sense of how to use it, to procure it and translate it into goods. He cannot remember checks or credit cards at all, can't even tell if he's ever known about them.
The heat of the oncoming summer feels good. He's been cold. Not like the ice, but not right, either. Normally, if something was wrong with the asset—no, that's not…with his body—they fixed it. Him. Or put him in the ice. Or—or something. He understands that the—that his body needs care, but what kind of care or how to manage it is completely out of his reach.
He doesn't remember fevers for the longest time. He simply knows he's too cold for the ambient temperature, that his vision is not as clear as it should be, that the world tilts at inopportune moments. The—his body isn't fixing the gash on his side, opened up when he'd been trapped by the metal structure of the falling ship. He has the sense that usually it takes care of things on its own, but maybe this is too big, or maybe he's doing something he's not supposed to.
The water he'd swum through had smelled wrong. He starts to connect that with the angry red surrounding the wound, the way he goes from hot to cold without a change in location. He doesn't remember how to fix it. He believes the knowledge is in there. It would be a good thing to know; how to keep himself together. Then he wouldn't have to go back in for—oh.
Bucky's been mindwiped a few hundred times, but he's not actually stupid. Once he starts figuring out what skills would have made him capable of surviving apart from his handlers, the gaps in his knowledge are sometimes predictable.
He wishes he even knew where he is in the thawing process. It's been a while since they woke him up, pulled him from the cryo chamber. If nothing else, the time line he put together through reading trashed newspapers and the scrolling news on TVs in windows or on signs makes it probable.
He's glad. He hates the ice, the slow settle of it in his blood, the way his mind always takes too long to freeze. (And why can he remember that? What good does that do him?)
He shivers with the return of the fever and a snippet of something tries to force itself to the front of his mind. It's…it's the man he pulled out of the water, only it isn't. The man he pulled out of the water could eat this wisp of a person in his mind, but they look so alike. Brothers?
The small one, the one he can see in his head if he focuses enough, he'd been sick. There'd been fevers. Bucky tries to follow the thread, see if it will lead him back to a spool, but all he finds are the sounds of coughing, and a laughter that is not his own but that he feels belongs to him.
Beyond the arm, there are modifications to his body he does not understand; things they must have wiped out of his memories after implementing. He has metal…elsewhere. He sees similar things in people's ears, but they seem ornamental, and Bucky's are not in places his armor reveals. They are not in places any sort of normal outerwear reveals, if his observations of normality are leading him to correct conclusions. Bucky is almost glad not to have memories of where the metal comes from, what its purpose is, except for how he wants nothing more than to get rid of the holes in time. He does not know who he is, but he somehow knows that he wants all the information before he makes any decisions on that front.
The Winter Soldier is trained for the type of stealth that allows him to make a shot or break a neck before alarms are set off. It is not the same kind of skill that would help him to steal a wallet. He's managed to shoplift some clothes, bundle up despite the heat. His arm does not look like other prosthetics, not even here in the future. And the fever keeps him chilled enough that his teeth chatter at times.
He does not need to eat or sleep as much as…he used to? He doesn't remember, only knows he can survive longer without the basics than an average human being. He can't survive forever. He's lived on something while he was on missions, at least so far as he can recall. There's no taste on his tongue to give him a hint of what it was, or what he should eat, or even how much.
In the back of his mind, related somehow to the tiny, sick kid, is the knowledge of how to scrape up food in the city, where to look. The feeling is as familiar as it is completely unknown. He eats what he finds, grateful to learn that his body will take fuel from just about anything and that taste may be unpleasant, but is also irrelevant. He finds a rooftop of an abandoned building and lies down, his back to the ground, his eyes facing skyward. He knows better than to think he is safe, but for the first time in as long as he can remember—not long, granted—he feels like he can breathe.
He falls asleep on an inhale.
He is not entirely sure how long he spends following where momentum and brief flashes of memory take him. Time has not been his own for so long, it is a weird thing to have to measure. Certainly, on missions there were timetables, but that was time as it related to someone else. For himself, whether awake or not, time has been outside his realm of cognizance for, well, if the exhibit and the books he's poured over in the library are to be believed, probably since late 1944.
Basic math—and he remembers that, how to add, subtract, multiply—tells him it has been seventy years. He tries not to think about it too much. The terrifying stretches of years that are simply blank make him panicky if he allows himself to dwell.
It starts to occur to him that he might need a plan. He's made plans, of course. Once given mission directives, he was, at times, allowed to actually plot out the shape of how things would unfold. Most of the time his handlers had managed that, just pointing him in the right direction, keeping their fingers carefully on the trigger, but he knows how to make a plan.
Frustratingly, the plans he's familiar with making all involve killing someone or something and then coming back to heel. There's nowhere to go anymore, even if there was he wouldn't, he wouldn't. (He probably would. He evidently did every time before.)
He's seen the alerts for him, is aware of his wanted status. He's good at losing himself in a crowd for moments, hours, even days, but he's too conspicuous to get away with blending in, setting himself up somewhere and simply surviving. Even if he could, he still doesn't have any idea as to where he'd go. He doesn't even think about the fact that his skills are rather specific, that he needs new ones if he eventually wants to enact a basic survival plan. That's a secondary problem for the moment.
He manages, though, stays hidden like a good little sniper, invisible, like a ghost. He finds ways to flush out the infected wound. Sort of. Another wisp of a memory—the small boy with the Captain's eyes—with a cut lip and torn cheek, of trying not to hurt, of rough bar soap and water that wasn't warm enough.
And then autumn rolls in, and with it a fall of cold rain.
He loses time after the first sheet of icy-cold needles pours down. He has no idea how he gets himself beneath a bridge, no idea if he has hurt any of the others under it. They are keeping their distance when he settles back into the present. Breathing hurts, focusing is a task harder than remembering.
He abandons the idea of a plan. If he's going to survive, he needs help. Which means he has two choices. He can go back. He knows they'll take him, fix what's broken, steal the last season away and he won't have to wonder or feel or struggle. Just endure.
He has no idea what the end of a person's endurance feels like, but he might have met it, because he cannot convince himself to return to the known, the pain and the cold and the nothingness, not only of the world, but of himself. The thought alone has him feeling as though he will choke on blood that is not his own. It has no context, but he can draw the inference.
His aversion to going back means going forward, seeking help from another source. And he knows there's only one person in the world willing to give it to him. He might not understand Rogers' motives, but he's forced by his actions in their last fight to believe they are real.
The asset—Bucky, Bucky, Buck—tries to approach the problem the way he would a mission with lacking intel, or bad intel. Of course, most of the time the way the Soldier handled those things ended with it broken and bleeding, half-hoping its keepers would botch the extraction, that it might finally close its eyes and not open them. Bucky's a little surprised to know that, unsure if the memory is real or some kind of instinct.
In this case, lying down and dying is one possibility, but he's strangely not ready for that. He goes back to the first information gathering place he'd remembered after the fight: the library.
The woman at the information desk looks uncertain about helping him. He smells. He can smell the infection, but he knows others are smelling months of almost no hygiene, years of intermittent cleanliness before that. He feels ashamed without even being able to trace the context for that shame.
She grimaces, but she gets him a computer station and shows him how to pull up newspapers and live reporting sites. And then it really is like a mission with incomplete intel. It is the art of piecing together bits and scraps of information, of seeing what other people do not, of asking the right questions and knowing how to find the answer. Like mathematics, the knowledge of what he must look for, of how to follow the path of a man who does not even know he is being sought out, is simply there, unlike almost everything else.
The conclusion he comes to makes him reconsider this plan. He has found the answers to the questions: 1) where is somewhere safe from the people who will come after him? 2) somewhere that can keep even him contained? and 3) somewhere that will take him in out of loyalty to Rogers, perhaps even bring Rogers to him? Even the pictures of the place on a computer screen cause a furl of quiet panic in his chest. Bucky cannot say what about it causes him uncertainty, only that the emotion is heavily present.
He has a ways to go. North, north toward a place that supposedly raised him up. He sees how people here know their way around: which corner will take them to a park, and which street will bring them to a store. Did New York once hold that familiarity for him? There's no answer to the question, neither in his mind, nor in his gut. All he knows is that the city is where he has to go if he intends to keep going.
He could stop, just stop, and let the infection take its course. It will likely kill him eventually. The sound of Rogers' slurred promise echoes in his mind and somehow, he can't quite convince himself this is the end of the line.
He slips onto a train leaving DC, not confident in his ability to drive himself. He's discovered in Aberdeen and made to leave. It is nearly an impossibly long walk to Wilmington, staying close enough along the tracks to be certain he's not lost his way, and far enough that nobody will spot him. Time continues to be flimsy, missing patches due to pain and visions of other forests, colder, but with people—friends?—at his back.
At Wilmington he sneaks back on, and evades notice until Metropark. He walks again, step after step, until he blinks into awareness on all fours, the world a burning sphere of pain. He waits for the next train and allows himself no choice but to push into that space where he is the Soldier, where he can force himself to run, to cling to the back rail of the train with his metal arm, to bury the terror that the rush of air on his face makes swirl in his belly, his lower back, the outer regions of his mind.
He has a good grip. The histories have told him he fell. It's not as if he can remember. He has no reason to worry.
Surprised is far too casual a word for what Bucky feels when he walks—he has shored up his limp, every minute sign of weakness, for this moment—into Stark Tower and is almost immediately greeted by security with a polite, "Sergeant Barnes?"
Bucky almost snaps a gut-deep, "Maybe?"
Instead he just gives a little nod. The man, whose name tag reads, "Juarez," and who stands a few inches taller than Bucky, if not as solid, tells him, "Mr. Stark said you were to be shown to the guest floor when you arrived."
Mr. Stark. Tony, not Howard. The thought stings like an open wound, but Bucky's not entirely sure why.
Stark has only sent one man, completely human, so far as Bucky can tell, to greet him. Bucky wishes he could sift out the intricacies of courtesy and innuendo. He stops himself from getting lost in the thread of the wish. "Th—thanks."
He rides in the elevator with Juarez, a not-entirely-comfortable silence settling between them. He can't even feel them moving, is somewhat startled by a British-accented voice informing him that he has reached, "Floor ninety-one."
Bucky expects Juarez to follow him, so he's left floundering a bit when the man stays on the elevator, the doors closing between them. The room he's in has floor-to-ceiling windows, a long bar, seemingly well-stocked, and some areas and furniture to lounge in. There's also a TV screen bigger than any Bucky has seen so far since waking.
The elevator opens again with a hiss and Howard's son is standing there. Bucky waits for it to jog something other than the words he's read about himself, about Howard, about this man in front of him. Nothing comes.
Tony cocks his head, and the first words out of his mouth are, "That's some interesting tech you've got hanging at your side."
Bucky looks at the arm, then back up at Tony making sense of everything that has just happened. "He told you I'd come."
Tony shakes his head. "If he'd known, he would have come here, instead of haring off to…uh, I think they're somewhere in the UAE right now? But I figured it was at least a distinct possibility."
Bucky's eyes stray to the couch in the room. It looks…he thinks the word is 'soft.' He repeatedly runs into a lack of framework for things that people like. It's more than a little frustrating, but also only a small part of the larger whole.
He's not sure what to do. He should leave, of course. Wait and watch and return when Steve does.
"Look, not that your hobo-chic thing isn't haute couture and all, but you think you could stand to shower, or would you wash right away with the dirt?"
Bucky focuses back in on Tony, blinking. Tony shrugs. "I'll sweeten the pot with some sweats and a bed that's all yours. I'll show you where the open kitchen is, you can raid it whenever you feel like it."
Bucky's mind moves too fast, too out-of-control for a second, two. "I should go."
"You really shouldn't. Cap only provisionally likes me anyway and if he found out I'd let you wander the streets of New York destitute and alone, that would be all over." Tony tilts his head. "Also, I know how to reach him."
It takes a while for Bucky to say, "I—I'll stay." He's forgotten the process for, the experience of, agreeing with anything rather than just obeying.
Tony puts him on the seventy-ninth floor with a cheerful, "It's one of the Hulk-proofed ones, so if you have some kind of melt-down, do your worst. Always good to know where the weaknesses are."
None of that makes much sense. What Bucky takes from it is that he probably can't hurt anyone so long as he stays on the floor. And that there are doubtless safeguards to assure he does.
He showers. He turns the water on hot, so hot it hurts, but the memory of tiny-maybe-Steve insists that hot water is important. And pain is a sensation he at least recognizes. It's a sick sort of familiarity, but it is something.
The world fuzzes at the edges when the water hits the wound and he loses what little he's eaten over the past day or so. The injury is putrid. There is more puss than blood and even the fall of water is agony. He forces himself to stand under the spray until there is at least some clean blood flowing. He stumbles out of the shower, his legs shaky.
He's glad the toilet is near, glad to be able to crumble to his knees and rest. Nothing comes up as he heaves again. He hasn't eaten that much in a while, no appetite to drive him to it, no internal sense of how to survive to press the point. His vision gets white spots and he closes his eyes, grits his teeth. The British voice from the elevator says softly, "There is water and fruit in the kitchen, Mr. Barnes."
Bucky grips the edge of the toilet and asks, "Wh-who are you?"
"I am JARVIS, an artificial intelligence."
Bucky frowns. That doesn't mean anything to him. But water, at the very least, is probably a good idea. Tony seemed pretty serious about not killing him, so he'll have to take the risk of trusting it's not poisoned. JARVIS speaks up again. "Sir has also asked me to inform you that two boxes of basic active and sleepwear have been delivered to the hallway outside your door."
Clothes. Bucky wonders if "sir" is Tony. He'll need to figure that out. A wave of exhaustion makes it hard to even stand. His side is nothing but burning, blazing hell. He pushes himself to where the boxes have been set, bringing them inside and finding a pair of boxers and a t-shirt. Getting the t-shirt on has to be done sitting, as the pain threatens to topple him.
He wonders if he should ask for tools. Maybe if he told JARVIS, the artificial…thing would know what to do and what he needs. He tries. He does. He opens his mouth twice. And finds he has forgotten how to ask for this kind of help. Finds that the mere thought makes him sure the weakness will be noted and punished, or worse, used.
The water, when he gets it, feels good going down. He's so thirsty. He drinks a bottle and takes another with him. He doesn't have the energy to hunt long, so he finds the first defensible corner with good sight lines and curls against the wall, tucking a knife and a handgun right behind his feet. He closes his eyes and that is all sleep requires.
The screams wake him, maybe. Or maybe it's that he's vomiting the water back up.
It doesn't matter. Both must stop. If they find him they'll put him back in the chair. They'll—no, wait. Something about that isn't correct. He doesn't know what, though. His heart is beating so hard it feels like it's bruising his chest.
He doesn't recognize the dark room, the plush furniture. Did he fall asleep during a mission? What was his mission? No answer comes, nothing but panic at the lack of an answer.
It's cold. It's—he's not dressed appropriately. He has weapons. He must be on a mission, there's nothing else he could be doing, but none of this right. Nothing is right.
The voice that asks, "Sergeant Barnes?" takes him off-guard and he does not know where it came from. He shoots at the ceiling, since that seems in the right direction. When the ring of released bullets has quieted, the same voice says, "I am sorry to have startled you."
"Do you require assistance?"
He holds the gun aimed at the ceiling, his back tucked as tightly into the corner as possible. He tries to calm his breathing. He asks, "Wh—what's my mission?"
"I believe it is to rest," the voice tells him.
He's so tired. His feet are wet with his own sick and he's going to get caught. He'll get caught and they won't stop with the machine, they'll—he knows there's something else, but no words or images come, simply blankness and fear. "I have to finish the mission."
There's silence and Bucky wonders if he has been abandoned, left to be found, taught the price of failure. (He knows it, he knows, even if he doesn't remember.) Then the voice says, "I will look into your mission parameters, Sergeant."
Tony is asleep, as is Pepper, when JARVIS says, "Sir, I believe our house guest is having a PTSD episode. Also, he has been violently ill on nothing more than water and his temperature is running at one hundred and six point two degrees."
"So, basically, he should be dead," Tony says, rubbing a hand over his face and sitting up. Supersoldiers. More trouble than they're worth. He kisses Pepper's forehead with a, "Sorry."
She sits up and asks, "What are you going to do? You can't go in there. Not if he's in the middle of an episode."
"J, is Bruce awake?"
"Dr. Banner is currently awake and in his kitchen."
"Of course he is. Where the hell else would he be at 1:27 in the morning?" Tony muses, getting out of bed.
Pepper raises an eyebrow. "He's really not a medical doctor."
"No, but he'll know enough to give us a rough estimate, and no part-tin, three-quarters amnesiac assassin is going to be a serious issue for him."
"J, give Bruce a heads up that I'm about to crash, yeah?"
"Right then," Tony says, and goes to give his second favorite housemate the good news.
The voice comes back after an indeterminate amount of time. Bucky has managed to stand with the aid of the wall at his back. He is holding the gun with both hands—the flesh one shaky with exhaustion, the metal one heavy and pulling against the injury in his side—and he listens as he's told, "Dr. Banner is being sent to medically assist you. You are to follow his instructions."
Bucky doesn't know who Dr. Banner is, but if he doesn't have a mission, it makes sense that they've decided to patch him. They usually do before—before the ice. He clenches his jaw and forces himself to lower the gun. He could fight, but he knows deep down that he's never won, that it's been a while since he's tried. Bucky nearly falls back to the floor. He catches himself with the metal arm, jarring his side and causing him to dry heave.
He hears only a hint of the slide of the elevator doors, the footsteps approaching him, but he's too well-trained to miss it. He has to fight to keep himself still. He needs to be fixed. But he doesn't want the ice. He's not sure why it matters so much this time. Maybe it has mattered the other times too, and he just can't remember that, either.
Dr. Banner is a man. He looks uncertain. Bucky has the sense that something is wrong, but he doesn't know what, doesn't have context, or a comparison. Banner says, "My name is Bruce. I'm a friend of Tony's. And…and Steve's. I want to see if I can help you."
Tony. Steve. Bucky struggles to use the names to push himself past the swirl of confusion that is everything just then. Steve. Cap. Steve Rogers. Bucky meets Bruce's eyes, only to look away. "You'll fix me."
"I'm going to try to make you feel better, if you'll let me."
Bucky blinks. He's not the one in charge. Maybe Steve is, maybe Steve—Bucky doesn't know. Maybe maybe maybe. He shrugs, then bites his cheek so hard he draws blood to keep from groaning.
Bruce says. "I'm not going to come any nearer for now. I'll tell you when I need to do that. But can you take off your shirt for me? You're favoring one side, and JARVIS says you're running a fever. I need to at least see what's going on."
He does as told—asked—but the effort leaves him dizzy. He's barely started to recover when Banner says in a very even, calm tone, "If you want to live, you are going to have to let me surgically flush that wound out, cut away the infected skin and possibly do a few grafts. You're also going to need intravenous antibiotics."
Bucky wonders if he really gets to choose, or if this is just a way of making him go calmly. "Wh—what if I say no?"
Bruce closes his eyes, takes a few deep breaths. "We've already called Steve. I'd see if you'd let me manage your pain for you."
It's not the answer Bucky is expecting. He's not certain what that answer is, just that this is not it. He tries to think through the pain, the ever-shifting planes of his reality. "I don't want you to make me sleep."
He'll have to, of course, in the ice, but he doesn't want to before then. Something about that thought line blurs for him, but he can't follow it just then.
"Understandable," Bruce tells him. "But I am going to try use a local numbing agent. If it can be helped, I'm not working on that with you being able to feel it. If you think it hurts right now, you've got no idea."
Pain he remembers. Maybe not why he was in it or when it happened, but the bright flare of too-much in his left arm is a sharp sense memory, the current of no-please-no in his mind is always there, always a threat. "I can handle it."
"Probably," Bruce agrees easily enough. "But I'm not sure me and the Other Guy can, so we're using a numbing agent and hoping your metabolism isn't quite what Steve's is, or we're going to have to have someone else treat you."
Bucky looks around. "There's no other guy here."
Bruce sighs. "Long story. I'll tell you while I'm trying to save your life."
Bucky closes his eyes. He wants to sleep a dreamless sleep, he wants to awaken warm, he wants—he wants Steve. Bruce is Steve's friend. Probably. He said he was. And he's here with Tony, who is. He opens his eyes. "Okay."
Bruce is there and then he isn't and then he is. Bucky's not tracking well. It is maybe a long time in between these things. Or maybe very short. At some point, smells that make Bucky restless, uncertain, waft around him. They are clean smells, too clean, something tells him. Strong and astringent and Bruce says, "I'm just going to swab a little area with iodine before I inject the local. All it should do is cause numbness. If you start to feel something else, anything else, I need you to tell me immediately. Please."
Bucky blinks at that last word. Bruce begs a lot for a man who has all the knowledge and place on a team of high-level operatives.
Bruce doesn't quiet down; he talks to Bucky with each step. He explains what he's about to do. Bucky finds it weirdly comforting. He doesn't know what any of it means, but the fact that Bruce is bothering to tell him is different. At least it resonates differently. He can't swear it wasn't like this ever, but in the fragments of memory that scrape along his mind in a repetitive manner, all he expects—no, the best he expects—is to be retuned like a machine.
Bruce wipes the area right above the suppuration with a disinfectant and shows Bucky the syringe. "It's Bupivacaine. It will take a little bit to kick in, but once it does, it's going to numb the area for about six or so hours."
Nothing he is saying has to be true. For all Bucky knows, the syringe could contain cyanide or something even more instantly deadly. Maybe they think that's what's best for Steve. Something inside Bucky wants to punch things at the very thought, but not…not faces. Walls and other things that won't fight back, won't whimper, will be easily fixed. Half the anger stems from not being certain they're wrong.
He could run. For a little while. Until the sickness stops him, slow and sharp in its taking of everything. At least the needle won’t hurt too much. Unless it's a toxin meant to hurt. His head pounds, circles of thought twisting into infinity loops.
Bruce says, "I won't do it until you tell me it's all right. But I'm hoping, if nothing else, it's going to make you feel better for a bit."
After a second, Bucky gives a tight nod, because the temptation is too much to resist. The needle goes in, the medicine stinging a bit, but he doesn't really notice. It's background noise to the pain of the wound.
Bruce talks while they wait. He shows Bucky his supplies, some of which are causing the smells, and explains what he's going to do. He tells Bucky about how he'll have to take care of it after the procedure, but reassures him, "JARVIS knows all this, all you have to do is ask."
When the numbness comes, Bucky experiences a brief flash of panic, but Bruce is still talking and the room is warm and this numbness isn't the kind that borders on painful. There is a hint of pain beneath it, where his blood is resisting the intent of the drug, but otherwise, if anything, the sensation is…maybe soft. He's still working on remembering what that means, exactly.
Bruce catches on fairly quickly and tests the area, but Bucky can't feel anything aside from an echo of hurt and a little pressure.
The whole procedure takes nearly an hour. He has to cut away a fair amount of skin, or what used to be skin. Bruce keeps talking, mostly about himself now, making good on his word that he would explain the other guy. Bruce doesn't seem to like it much, but Bucky's kind of jealous. At least Bruce's monster is his own.
At certain points Bruce interrupts himself, telling Bucky how well he's doing. Bucky isn't sure he's really doing anything. It doesn't hurt by any of his definitions. He's pretty sure being fixed usually hurts.
He drifts, the surcease of pain and Bruce's monologue calming in a way he should allow neither to be. He hears Bruce say, "That's right, there you go," and the current sweeps him right off.
The Soldier thaws.
Or, no. It's not cold. It's warm. It's warm and when he opens his eyes, there's a ceiling above him. He's lying down. He must be on a mission.
He fell asleep on a mission? And why can't he remember what the mission is?
He registers a beeping sound. It quickens and then a scientist comes. The scientist says, "Barnes, calm down, you're fine. The procedure worked."
The Soldier mouths the word 'Barnes' and the worst of the disorientation disappears. New memories click into place. He's at Stark's Tower. Kid Stark. Who's not a kid. This is Bruce. Bruce fixed it. Him.
Bruce says, "Can you try and eat something if I bring it to you? I know you probably want to sleep some more and I want you to, but I'd like to get some calories in you first. It's pretty likely you burn through everything like Steve does, and I'm guessing you've been too sick to keep stuff down for a while."
He's Bucky. Yes. He's Bucky, and Bruce did what he said he would, even though Bucky fell asleep. He looks down at where his torso is a mass of bandages. It hurts, but not like before. It's a dull throb of heat and achiness.
It could be a ploy, of course. But to what end? Unless they don't have the right machinery to wipe him and freeze him. They could need his cooperation.
He is hungry, though. And he's trusted them this far. Just a little further can't make things too much worse. (That's a lie, he knows it, but at the moment it's a lie he's going to be comfortable with.) He nods. "Food."
"You have anything you like? Don't like? Are allergic to?"
Without even feeling the words form, Bucky tells Bruce, "Steve's allergic to oranges and filled milk and Crisco." He frowns, trying to figure out how he remembers that. It's a search that goes nowhere. And he realizes, "I guess he's not now."
"Probably not," Bruce agrees softly.
"Is Crisco still a thing?" He hopes not. Now that he's remembered it, he has a bone-deep sensation of always wanting butter and knowing he'd always have to get the tub of cheap but tasteless substitute instead.
"It still exists. A lot of people choose to avoid it, nowadays."
"I liked butter," Bucky tells him.
"Maybe a little toast with butter? Think you can get some eggs down?"
Bucky pushes to see if a memory of eggs will surface, but it doesn't. "I can try."
"I'll make them with butter. Maybe a little bit of toast, yeah? Nothing too exotic."
Bucky watches him leave the room. He takes stock of his surroundings, focusing on exits, sightlines, all the priorities his brain has been taught. (Washed, maybe they washed what was there before and scrubbed all of this into his brain, until there was no room for anything else.)
He pokes at the bed with his flesh hand. He knows what it is. Identifying basic objects is, for the most part, not an issue. The times when it is, he's beginning to recognize objects that would have lessened his dependence. He knows what the bed is, but none of his memories will give him any more information about the object. Even the flashes of himself curled around a smaller boy, curled into himself, are different, not as soft, nowhere near as warm, unless the heat is overwhelming.
He's still trying to sort out the lack of understanding when Bruce comes back. He's not sure who's more shocked, Bruce or himself, when he murmurs, "Smells good."
Bruce recovers well, though, setting the tray he's brought on Bucky's lap. "Hopefully it'll taste that way. Take it slow, all right? We want this to stay down."
There's a fork next to the plate. No muscle memory comes to help him figure out how to use it. Looking away from Bruce, instinctively aware of the breach of etiquette but entirely unable to remedy it, Bucky picks the toast up with his hands, folding it so the eggs stay in the middle. It's messy, but it's the best he can do. He takes a bite and, and, "Oh."
It's fantastic. He's never tasted bread like this before. It's bursting with nuts and other flavors he can't name. The butter is creamy and salty and the eggs are as well, if richer in texture and taste.
"Okay?" Bruce asks.
Bucky hasn't needed words in a long time, has often been discouraged in their use if not prompted to tell a superior something, and now it is hard to trust that his are right. He goes with a simple, "Thank you."
"Take it slow, like I said. There's more if you need it."
Whether there is or not, Bruce is leaving the room, clearly not intent on taking it from him, and Bucky is going to savor every last bite. He wants this memory. He'll fight to keep it.
Steve is there the next time Bucky surfaces. He blinks a couple of times, half-smiles, but doesn't say anything. He looks like he hasn't slept in a year, but it's an improvement over the last time Bucky saw him. A million thoughts fling through Bucky's mind. In the end, hungry and still tired and with his side itching like crazy, he says, "Bruce has good bread."
Steve seems to consider this a completely reasonable topic and nods his head. "He makes it, usually. Or goes to the Farmer's Market. There are machines that knead the dough now. He doesn't use 'em, though. Something about the kneading helping release frustration."
For a second, Bucky gets lost in the image of small hands—a woman's hands?—kneading dough, but there's nothing to ground the picture. He shakes his head a little. "I don't…things come back without the ice or the—the machines, but I still…there's not a lot."
"One problem at a time," Steve says. "Bruce is pretty sure the infection is all cleared up, but the wound was bad enough that it's still working its way to healed up. He's not sure you don't have other issues he should be treating. Let's get you feeling better before we worry about anything else, all right?"
There's something like an echo in Bucky's mind. He closes his eyes, trying to isolate it.
"I—I used to say that. I used to—" Bucky opens his eyes, meets Steve's gaze.
"Yeah, you, you were big on keeping me in bed and actually doing what I was supposed to be doing while sick or recovering from a fight."
"You fought," Bucky says, more to himself than anything.
Steve winces. "Sam thinks I probably shouldn't tell you things about what I remember, that I should let you figure it out in your own way."
Sam. Bucky rehashes the articles he read while trying to decide where to go to find Steve. Sam Wilson. The guy with the wings. "He, uh. He probably doesn't like me."
There's a hesitation, but Steve smiles. "Honestly, I think he's waiting to make any judgments on that front."
It's hard not to believe Steve. Even in the worst grip of the amnesia, it had been hard. And Steve was his captain. He doesn't fully remember that, but the Smithsonian told him all about it and he knows without need to remember that it is correct. "Is that my mission?"
Steve raises an eyebrow. "What?"
"To remember. Is that—"
"There's no mission, Buck."
From the look on his face, Bucky wonders if it's meant to be a mercy. It feels like cutting his parachute from him mid-drop. Steve must see something in the way he holds himself, maybe even his eyes, because he says, "Well, I mean, you have to get better. That is your mission, definitely."
It's not much, but it's a string to clutch onto and hold and hope it keeps him safe.
It's not Steve's proudest moment, but he doesn't think lying to himself about it is going to somehow make it more stellar: he might be having a meltdown. He moves far enough into the next room that, with any luck, Bucky won't hear, and slides with his back against the wall down to where he can curl into his knees and just shake for a few minutes. Or ten. Ten minutes is a nice, round number.
At somewhere around eight and a half, he texts Sam. "Hi."
Sam's response is an immediate, prescient, intensely Sam-like: "need backup?"
Yes. Yes. Steve needs more backup than he can remember ever needing in his life. "need to make toast. and eggs."
"will it freak him out if I'm there? I make a damn good toast."
Steve measures his options. Bucky might not take another presence well. Then again, it's hardly as if Steve's the only person Bucky's been in contact with. Bruce operated on him. Tony gave him a place to stay. Really, Steve's been the least useful one in this scenario. And he can vouch for Sam's breakfast-making skills.
"I'll handle it," is what Steve finally types back. He knows it's the right answer when his chest loosens ever so slightly, and he's able to stand.
He steps back to where he can hear Bucky breathing. The cadence is even, he's probably sleeping again. He risks peering out to where he'll be able to see, and sure enough, Bucky's out. His face isn't what Steve remembers, not exactly. When Bucky'd sleep when they were kids there was always a tease of a smile somewhere in his features. Now there's…nothing. At least, as he's learned from watching for a bit, nothing until sudden, unrelenting terror.
He swallows back breath and bile, burning from his stomach to his throat. He has nightmares, too. It's of no consequence. Steve has Bucky back. That's the only thing that matters. The details can be handled as they come.
When he has slept enough that his system is more than just exhaustion, Bucky's nightmares come. It's a bit of a surprise. If he'd thought about it, he might have expected them, but he didn't have them on the streets, too busy watching over his shoulder, making sure none of his weaknesses showed. And if he had them before, he doesn't remember.
He wakes from the first one being pinned to the floor by Steve and Tony, who's in the Iron Man suit. Halfway still under, he struggles even upon regaining consciousness, and it takes endless minutes of Steve narrating reality to him for him to begin relaxing. They don't let him up until he can tell them what year it is, where he is, what he ate the last time he woke.
He wraps his arms around his knees, the dream still viscerally holding him, even if he realizes now that's all it is. But it's at least partially memory that his waking mind hasn't managed to dig up yet. Might never manage at all. Tony disappears and then it's just Steve and him. Bucky forces himself to ask, "Did I—are the piercings from before?"
Steve's poker face is crap. Bucky is surprised and a little pleased when he recognizes that it always has been. He'd had to train him in twenty-one, because bluffing was never going to happen. Right now, though, it tells him what he needs to know. "Those are new, huh?"
"It wasn't really a thing people did. When we were…in Brooklyn."
Bucky nods slowly. "I don't remember getting them."
"Do you want to take them out?" Steve offers.
Bucky presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth, the two balls nearly ghosting over his throat a familiar sensation, and yet completely unknown at the same time. There are others. He's found them along the course of these months, in the rare chances for bathing and other moments. "I don't know. I don't—"
The possibilities rush around his mind and for several seconds he gets lost in them, the overwhelming tide of what-ifs. He manages to pull himself back at the sound of Steve saying, "Hey," but he's not sure how long Steve's been saying it.
When he actually zeroes in on Steve, Steve tells him, "You don't have to make any decisions right now. About anything. Not if you don't want."
Bucky almost cries in relief, he feels the violence of the release bubbling up in him. "I'm tired."
He's just woken up. Steve doesn't mention this, just says, "Yeah, let's get you back in the bed, okay?"
The bed, despite the fact that Bucky's slept in it for days now, seems foreign and daunting in his relatively lucid state. He freezes on his feet. Steve doesn't push. After a bit, he carefully touches a hand to Bucky's flesh arm and asks, "Will it help if you know I'm staying?"
It will, it does. Bucky tugs a little at Steve's elbow. "Will you—" He leads him to the bed, then climbs in, looking back at Steve. He almost says, "nevermind," figures he's overstepped a boundary. Also, it would be only logical for Steve to be concerned about being attacked.
Steve, though, just smiles, wide and bright and real in a way Bucky knows, even if he doesn't remember it. Steve says, "Yeah. Yeah, of course."
Bucky is Bucky for a second between sleep and waking. Tangled in Steve, warm and not-quite alert, there's a moment where he just is. Then he actually comes to, and scrambles away, because what the fuck was Steve thinking falling asleep?
"Whoa," a voice says, and Bucky twists around, coils into a defensive pose.
Wing-Man, um, Sam, Sam Wilson, right, is standing with his hands up in a gesture of intended peace. "You're okay. We just wanted someone watching in case you had another nightmare. And even Captain America's gotta sleep some time."
Bucky doesn't relax. He does say, "Sorry. About, um." He looks to the side, but he isn't sure he remembers the specifics of what he should be apologizing for, so he chooses, "Everything."
"Yeah, well." Sam's gaze is compassionate, restful in a way that makes Bucky unfurl ever so slightly. "Story is you didn't have a whole bunch of choice in all that."
Bucky goes to scratch at the last of the healing wound and makes himself stop. The idea of choice causes his mind to expand in a million directions, the way it does—he's realizing—when there's something it wants to remember. Bucky works not to zone on the feeling, to let it take him. Sam's still standing in front of him.
"Bruce said if you woke up I should try and get you to eat. Craving anything?"
A couple of days ago he learned that he likes orange juice a lot. And sunflower seed butter. He doesn't really want to stop there. "Something new, maybe."
"I'm guessing that covers a lot of territory," Sam says, one eyebrow raised.
Bucky nods. "We've done scrambled eggs. And yogurt. Buttermilk pancakes. Club sandwiches. Vegetable and chicken noodle soup."
"All right, I can work with that. Done any fruit?"
"Apples and bananas. Oh, grapes."
"Honey dew it is. How about fried potatoes?"
Bucky feels the pull of need from his mind and pushes it aside again. "I think we had potatoes, back, back before. I don't remember how we made them. There was mashing, maybe?"
"Okay. Sounds like we've got a game plan."
"Can—" Bucky swallows, reflexive fear spiraling up his spine, through his joints. Questioning wasn't encouraged as the Winter Soldier. It hadn't been on that last mission. "Can we make extra? Steve might wake up."
Sam nods easily, like there wasn't a big pause right there, like nothing momentous has happened. "Probably will. That kid eats enough to feed a small developing country."
His body heals up and Bucky stops sleeping. Or, well, he'll fall asleep, now and then, particularly if Steve is near, or if he's found a hiding spot with good sight lines, but getting through a REM cycle without a sleeping terror has become impossible.
He thinks he wouldn't mind so much if he woke up remembering something new, if they at least told him something, but all he recalls upon coming up is helplessness, and Bucky already knows there was plenty of that.
Then Sam tries waking him from one, and despite being across the room, the shout that penetrates the Soldier's sleep gets him to Sam and into an offensive hold that's crushing Sam's larynx before either of them even knows something has changed. Someone barks, "Stand down, Soldier!"
The Soldier doesn't recognize the voice, but he knows the command. He's scrambling back, biting his lip. Apologizing won't make anything better, it won't make them forego the punishments, the wipe, the electricity, but he wants to try, oh he wants to try.
His victim is still coughing, and the voice that ordered him down, it's—it's telling him everything is all right. He looks over, which probably isn't wise, but this doesn't make sense, doesn't gel, doesn't—
"You're in Avengers Tower. It's mid-morning. Steve went out to buy groceries, because getting them delivered makes him feel lazy and he wanted to think about what you might want to try. You fell asleep in the linen closet."
The Soldier tries to slow his breathing, to sort out the words.
The voice belongs to a woman, and he knows her. He knew her? She's got hair the color of the sunset he's been watching daily outside the windows of the Tower. Avengers Tower. "My name is James Buchanan Barnes."
"Mine is Natasha Romanova," she tells him. There's relief in her eyes, her stance.
One thing clicks. "You were—you were on the bridge."
The memory is shaky, more an echo of something than an actual scene or even storyline. "Mission priority level—" He forces that part aside. "I tried to kill you."
"A few times," she agrees quietly. "Guess I'm hard to kill."
"Me too," he tells her. It doesn't feel like a blessing. He doesn't think she feels like it is, either. "I didn't mean it. The attempt."
She nods. "Yes, I—trust that I understand."
He glances over at where Sam has his back pressed to a window and is still rubbing at his throat. An apology doesn't really seem adequate, so he goes with, "JARVIS?"
He loses a half-minute or so to the clang of different voices calling him that. Then he swallows and crunches the noise into something tiny, something he can crumble even in his flesh fist. "Can you tell Bruce that Sam needs medical attention and restrict access on this floor to Steve, Bruce, and Iron Man?"
"Please understand that Sir can and will override my programming at any time he so pleases."
The arm feels unbearably heavy in a way Bucky suspects is all in his mind. It does not make a lot of difference. He almost finds himself commenting on the novel aspect of his free will being undermined, but holds it in at the last minute. He needs to focus, because there's a guy who made him food after Bucky had committed unforgivable crimes standing across the room from him with injured breathing tubes. "Understood."
"Where is Bruce, JARVIS?" Natasha asks.
"His labs, Ms. Romanova."
She crosses to Sam and puts a hand in the small of his back. "C'mon."
He looks at Bucky and rasps, "Don't do anything self-destructive before Steve gets back. He'll mope."
Bucky bites the inside of his lip. "I'm—I didn't mean—"
"Yeah, no, sleeping dragons," Sam tells him, waving a hand, as if it's nothing, as if he's not starting to bruise already, as if it won't hurt to breathe for days. As if he's not lucky Natasha was there, not lucky that's the worst of the damage.
Sleeping monsters, Bucky thinks, but he just closes his eyes and waits to be alone, to be relatively harmless, at least for a bit.
Steve returns from the store with so many groceries it takes him four trips from the car. He asks Bucky if he'll help. Bucky thinks he probably should. It would undermine the whole point of accessing clearance to this level, though. He skirts the issue. "I'll, uh, start putting things away."
He has to read all the labels to figure out what goes in the refrigerator and what doesn't. The answers feel like something he should know, but so do most things; he's nearly used to the persistent hum of something being off. He opens the freezer to put away ice cream.
The next thing he knows, he's being pulled away, pulled from the ice and even though his mind is a blank, empty and quiet, there's enough of him left to know this will hurt, the process of his blood beginning to flow, his joints warming up minute by slow minute.
There are still hands on him. That's not—that doesn't fit. The restraints should already be on. What happens after is a complete mystery, but he knows he should be horizontal, strapped down. The hands are warm and careful, one cupping his neck, the other his cheek. Someone is telling him, "Sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't think about the ice cream. I didn't mean for that to happen. Breathe, okay, just breathe? No more ice, I promise. No more ice."
"C-cold," someone else says. He agrees. It's so fucking cold. "Cold."
"Right, right, just—"
An arm comes around his back, steady and warm. He's moved, the arm at his back bringing him along, and then he's being wrapped in…in blankets. He falls back onto the bed. Bed. He takes a shuddering breath and makes himself look around, catalogue what is physically present.
He focuses, seeing Steve, who's climbing onto the bed. Steve must see something in Bucky's expression because he asks, "You with me?"
Bucky rolls a little toward him, incapable of asking for the comfort of touch, of body heat, but needing it with a desperation there aren't words to relate. Steve takes the hint, holding him tightly enough to help, but with enough give for Bucky to easily free himself. The worst of the physical symptoms are beginning to fade. He still has to concentrate to keep his mind in the here and now.
Steve talks quietly. "They call it post-traumatic stress disorder now. PTSD. We used to call it shell shock. People get it over all kinds of things and I—well, I think and Sam, who does this for a living, agrees that you've probably got more reason than most." Steve rocks them a little, possibly as much to settle himself as Bucky. "From some of the stuff Pepper's said here and there, I think Stark suffers from it at times."
Bucky doesn't remember the term "shell shock" but there's something intuitive about it, and between that, the night terrors, and the flashbacks, he'd say it's as good a diagnosis as any. "They got a way to fix it now?"
Steve says, "I don't know about fix."
"But?" Bucky can hear the unfinished nature of the sentence.
"They have ways of making it better."
"Even for, um. I don't think my stuff is normal."
To Bucky's surprise, he can feel Steve's lips twitch into a smile where they rest against his ear. Steve tells him, "According to Bruce, the psychiatric world is pretty sure nobody's is."
Bucky's not sure of the truth of that statement, but the words are oddly comforting. "What do I have to do?"
"We'll start figuring it out after a nap, okay?"
Bucky mumbles, "I wear you out, old man?"
Steve just tightens his grip, strength never faltering.
Steve must put Natasha back on the list of people with permissions to enter, because she comes by the next day and Steve asks, "SHIELD had you see someone for a few years after you came in, right?"
She makes what Bucky has categorized as her "are you shitting me with this?" expression. "You know I did. You've read my dossier. For that matter, the entire world now has."
Bucky admires how she hides the tension the words make her feel. He can see it, but only because he's looking, only because he knows how to look. She gives him the sense that he's seeing himself in a cracked mirror. Whether he's seeing the Winter Soldier or Bucky, he has no clue.
Steve smiles ruefully at her and asks, "Can I make you some tea, or something?"
"Did I just make Captain America mind his manners?" It's a joke, but she's charmed. Bucky's surprised to know that body language, that hint of laughter. The knowledge is just there, with no context for how he knows it.
Steve takes that as a yes and goes to boil water. Natasha turns to him and is quiet, holding his gaze for a bit. "Do you want to see someone? Or are you going because he wants it for you?"
Bucky does her the courtesy of actually thinking about the question. "I'm not sure how different they are right now, but—but I'm tired of waking scared sick with no idea of why, being terrified I'll hurt him or, or anyone. I'm tired."
She nods once, tightly. "I've been there."
He believes her. "But you, um, you're not? Anymore?"
She dips her head into a little roll. "Good days and bad."
"It'd be enough. To have good ones in between the bad."
Steve calls from the kitchen, "Earl Grey, vanilla, or spiced?"
"Vanilla," she says, elevating her voice slightly. She focuses in on Bucky again and her expression is sympathetic. "Yeah. Yeah, it is enough."
"You know someone who can help?"
"I have to talk with some people, but we'll find someone."
He breathes, finding it easier. He hadn't even realized how tight his chest had gotten. "I'm still really sorry about trying to kill you."
"Been there," she tells him.
"Does it get easier?"
She glances to the side and then forces her gaze back to him. "In certain ways, yes."
He finishes, "And not in others."
Carefully, she reaches out for his intact shoulder. He stays where he is, allowing the contact. She squeezes lightly. It takes a while for Bucky to identify his response as a flare of comfort. It's different from the one he gets with Steve, but something tells him that has always been true. Steve has always been subject to different rules.
Steve brings him resumes and dossiers of several candidates whom Sam and Natasha have both vetted and determined to be viable for helping Bucky. They all have experience in working with survivors of torture, brainwashing, something called Stockholm Syndrome, and captivity. They are all leaders in the field of working with those suffering from PTSD and they all have extremely high clearance levels with their respective governments.
Only one of them is the niece of a Howling Commando and has been practicing for nearly thirty-five years. Her file tells Bucky this: Bridget Morita is the youngest child of Falsworth's sister. Her mother, Emily, had married Rashid Khouri, whose family had emigrated to the UK a little over fifteen years before civil war broke out, and Lebanese refugees became a common sight.
Falsworth moved to America to be nearer to the other Commandos after retirement, and since he was her only family, Emily convinced Rashid they should go as well. Bridget had only a year left in high school, but evidently didn't fuss too much, as she'd spent most of her life corresponding with the other children and nieces and nephews of the Commandos and would be moving into a settled social circle, even if she'd never met the others in person.
She and Evan Morita, Pat's eldest, began dating in college. The words in the file imply they may have been sweet on each other just from the letters. Evan was three years older than her. They were together almost seven years before they married. Evan, who joined the Marine Corps after graduation and a year into their relationship, served for five years, while Bridget pursued her bachelors and went on to a PhD in psychology.
Between her to-be father-in-law, her uncle, and her father's family, Bridget states in the notes to her thesis—An Equilibrative Approach to Traumatic Healing—that she'd always wanted to work with vets and refugee populations. Now, thirty-two years later, she's considered the foremost practitioner in the area of cognitive behavioral approaches to PTSD recovery, as well as one of the few clinical psychologists to have gained a Masters in occupational therapy and integrated such into her practice.
All that's nice, and everything, but what draws Bucky to her is the familiarity of her nose and the point of her chin in her profile picture. He can only remember the other Commandos in snippets, some of which he thinks aren't even memory, just adaptation from what he's seen and read. He sometimes has this sense of knowing, though, that comes before memory or facts, and she captures that. It's not that he feels comfortable meeting her, talking to her, being in a room with her. It's that he feels less uncomfortable than he does with the others.
Bucky asks Steve: "You haven't met her?"
Steve spreads his hands, looking guilty. "Between Peggy and the Commandos, there are fifteen children and another thirty-two grandchildren. Gabe only had two kids and between the two of them, they managed to produce eight of the thirty-two grandkids. Nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and nephews? There are upwards of seventy all told. I've only been awake for three years, and at least some of that was spent fighting aliens to save the world and then helping a little bit with clean-up."
Bucky doesn't even know where his next words come from, but it's instinct to say, "I'm judging you. Three years is plenty of time to have a picture with at least every one of the babies. Babies, Steven."
Steve looks even guiltier and opens his mouth, clearly to apologize or further explain and then he stops. There's a couple of seconds where he's frozen before his mouth wobbles into an uncertain smile. "You're kidding."
It's not a question, but it definitely has the edge of a revelation. Smiling feels like struggling again his muscles, through weather damage and the erosion of time, but Bucky fights for it and wins. "When did you get so easy, Rogers?"
Steve shrugs, the smile widening into a grin. "Haven't had you around to sharpen the edges."
They don't make it to his first appointment. Bucky showers and gets dressed and goes down to the car bay of the Tower with Steve. Steve asks, "Car or bike?"
Bucky finds himself staring at the doors of the bay, thinking about them opening—
"Whoa, hey, hey there," Steve is saying, and the floor is spinning slightly. Bucky's got excellent balance, but it doesn't seem to matter, he's falling. And Steve is still talking, "Hey Buck, I need you to breathe. Listen to me count and breathe, all right? In, one, two, out, one, two, try for me, come on."
Bucky hears the words, but making sense of them is something entirely else, they're just sounds. There's a ringing in his ears nearly drowning them out, and the edges of his vision are starting to blur, to blacken, to fill the space where there is still light.
He's not sure how long it's been, but there's definitely a temporal gap between darkness taking over, and waking up on his back, head pillowed in Steve's lap. He looks up and Steve is gazing down at him, concern writ large on his features. Bucky frowns. Steve had done this, sometimes, when they were kids. He remembers the terror and the sound of Steve struggling for breath, puts it together with the information from the exhibit. "Did I have an asthma attack?"
Steve shakes his head. "I think that was a panic attack."
"Oh." Bucky roots around, trying to identify something he recognizes in himself, a sense of having done this before. Nothing comes, not that that really means anything.
"Do you—" Steve stops for a second, then forges on, "do you know what upset you?"
"Uh." Bucky closes his eyes again, reordering the events of the last few minutes. "The door."
"The…door." There's no question, but Steve's asking.
"I didn't want to go. I mean, I didn't want to open it. No, I didn't—" He nearly growls at his own brain, the fractured link between action and explanation. "I don't want to leave."
Steve nods. "Okay. You know we'll come right back, after?"
Bucky swallows, finding his mouth dry. "It's not—" Or, maybe it was a little bit that, the fear of all of this disappearing, but mostly, "There's too much out there. Safe here. Me and everyone from me."
Steve's quiet for a while. When he does speak, it's to say, "I know I failed, last time, Buck. I know I let you fall and I didn't look for you and I—I didn't keep you safe. But I swear to everything I consider holy and true that I'm never letting anyone hurt you ever again. Including me."
Bucky has begun to remember the fall. He remembers his fear and his pain and even, at some level, his acceptance. But what he remembers most is the look on Steve's face, the determination and terror. That sits with him more than anything. This isn't Steve's fault. Definitely not all of it. But he's tired and his stomach is pitching and he doesn't want to try and recreate enough knowledge to navigate that argument. "I know. I still—" can't do it. "Please don’t make me."
He hears Steve swallow. Steve's voice comes out quiet and intent. "Nobody is making you do anything. Please tell me you understand that. You have the right to say no. You have the right to make people listen. Anyone."
Bucky doesn't understand. He can't. Ninety-five percent of the scant amount he has regained in memory has been of orders and programming and icy sleep. But he gets that right now, Steve's not going to make him go. It's all he needs in the moment. "Okay."
Steve sighs, probably aware he's being bullshitted. He doesn't call Bucky on it, though, just echoes, "Okay."
The first words Bucky says to Bridget Morita are, "Sorry about the change in plans."
She has her graying hair pulled back in the neatest ponytail Bucky remembers ever seeing, is dressed in a taupe pantsuit that matches well with her olive-brown complexion and almost-brown green eyes. What makeup she is wearing is meant only to highlight her features. She still has traces of a British accent when she tells him, "It's not at all uncommon, Sergeant Barnes. And now I know at least one of the demons we're battling."
After a second her mouth quirks into a smile. "And aside from that, what kind of crazy person passes on a chance to see inside Avengers Tower?"
Honestly, he tells her, "I'm pretty sure they keep the exciting stuff as far away from me as possible."
Her smile does not falter. "I suspect that's all in how you define 'exciting.'"
He tilts his head in acknowledgment. "You want to sit?"
"Do you want to?" she responds.
Bucky thinks about it. He knows it shouldn't be some big decision, but she's not putting off an aura of impatience, so he figures he's probably allowed. "There's a…Steve calls it his drawing room. We could go there."
The so-called drawing room is an approximation of a "sun room," with lounging chairs and a paint job suggesting summer days. He shows her to it, and commandeers the plush arm seat that's almost big enough to swallow him. It has blue and white print upholstery that's familiar in the way things he knows but can't remember are. She takes the divan, swinging her legs out in front of her. She comments. "This is lovely."
"I think Steve asked for stuff in here." Probably from Pepper, who would have listened. Bucky might not be able to remember his mom's name yet, but he's getting a pretty good sense for how the dynamics of the team and their significant others work just by listening to Steve. "It's usually warm in here."
She nods. "You both like that?"
The question sends Bucky down a path he didn't even know was there, a memory rising of an afternoon trying to cool down, sitting on the stoop, scheming about how to get cool water. He knows, instinctively, that he'd been miserable, he and Steve both, but even the ghost of the still, simmering heat sinking into his bones seems utterly desirable. It takes him a while to remember she has asked him something. He blinks back into the moment and she is watching him, casual and unconcerned.
"Yeah," he nods. "We like warm."
"What else do you like?" she asks.
She shrugs. "You, him, both of you. Tell me what feels important to tell me."
Words and images collide as he tries to sort out where to start. Then he realizes there's only one thing that's vital. "Steve. I—I've liked him since…" It's like tugging on a string that's been tangled, that has no interest in ever unwinding. But if nothing else, Bucky is stubborn, has always been, will always be. He tugs until the knots come closer. "Since he saw a kid, um, older, and maybe, Polish? Coulda been German or Italian or Jewish, who knows. We lived close, then." Bucky can't remember if they were in the same building or not, cannot remember what the building looked like, or even the inside of his home. "I was five, I think. He was six, but probably half my size, a quarter of this other kid's size. Other kid is calling me names and suddenly there's Steve, all three-and-a-half pounds of him, like a pure fireball of rage."
Bucky laughs. "He got in two hits, the other kid and I were so surprised."
"And then was happened?" she asks softly.
He looks over at her bits and pieces of the meeting straightening themselves into the barest semblance of order. "What always happened. I took Steve's side and dragged his bleeding, stupid face back to his apartment, so his mom or I could patch him up."
Therapy is not what Bucky expected. Oh, they talk a lot. But she talks too, tells him things about herself, lets him in. She does not push him to remember. At times she does not even seem to think it is important.
She likes to ask him things that take him off guard. "What's your favorite part of waking up?"
"Do I have to have one?" he asks, after some thought.
"No, but if you have a least favorite, you probably have a favorite, too."
It's a valid point. "I can feel the sun, here. We moved the bed to where—where it soaks in the most of it."
"Do you ever find yourself with that feeling during other parts of the day?"
That one isn't hard. "Near Steve."
"What about without him? Without other people at all?"
It takes him so long to answer, she takes pity on him, and says, "It's not something you need to know right now. Just something you need to keep in mind."
The Great Ice Cream Exploration begins by accident. Because evidently Bucky really liked ice cream when they could get it, back in the day. And as long as he doesn't have to go near the ice bo—freezer, he still likes it. (He filches a bite from Steve one evening, because Steve looks pleased and Bucky has invested himself in learning what causes Steve happiness). He hasn’t the slightest sense memory of liking the treat in his past life, except the vague idea that he might have stolen one or two of the ice creams Steve talks about sharing with him. Either that, or he did something else wrong, but he's learned the feeling of recognizing when he was kind of a jerk before they turned him into a mindless and soulless weapon.
He's getting better at joking about it, at least to himself.
In any case, it turns out that there's a lot of variety in ice cream these days. Bucky never learned about this culinary development, probably because poison and other subtle forms of assassination weren't what they used him for, according to the memories that have returned—too many, too many of that type, not enough of the others.
Steve discovers sea salted caramel ice cream when Tony goes on an ordering spree from some place called Holey Cream. He eats all of the two pints of that flavor Tony ordered, sharing only with Bucky, and even then, sparingly. Bucky doesn't remember the taste at all. When he tells Steve, feeling frustrated, Steve shakes his head. "This definitely wasn't a thing when we were kids. At least not in Brooklyn."
Bucky accepts that at face value and doesn't think about it much until the same flavor shows up in an entirely different carton, Steve once again plowing through it at a rate that would probably scare small children. Bucky thinks for a second and asks, "JARVIS, how many types of sea-salted caramel ice cream are there?"
"Internationally or domestically, Sergeant?"
"Uh. Worldwide, I guess."
"One-hundred and thirty-nine."
"Can we, uh, get all of those? One at a time?"
"Certainly. Do you have a preference of where to start?"
Bucky looks over at Steve, who shrugs, his lips closed tightly around the spoon in his mouth. Bucky says, "Whatever you think is best."
"Very good," JARVIS says.
Bucky holds out his hand, the flesh one, his, and tilts his head at Steve, but finds himself unable to ask for a taste. It's a small thing, he knows, and in his head, Bridget is telling him there's no risk, that this is the perfect time to extend a little faith. He tries, he does, but in the end his hand drops to his side, the question unasked.
Steve, after Bucky has backed up a step, walks over with the carton in one hand. He slowly but surely crowds into Bucky's space and says softly, "You should try some of this. It's delicious."
Steve digs the spoon in, bringing up a mouthful. Without even realizing what he's doing, Bucky finds himself opening his mouth as Steve holds the spoon up, taking the cold, salty-sweet treat onto his tongue. Bucky lets it melt, breaking down the flavors. He has been relearning to have preferences, to figure out what he enjoys and what he never wants to put in his mouth again.
When he swallows, he says softly, "Yeah, that's…that's good."
Steve lines up another spoonful.
They're on their thirty-seventh brand of sea-salted caramel ice cream when Steve asks about the tongue piercings. He asks, "Do they, does it hurt—your tongue?"
Bucky's thinking about where this particular brand ranks—they've got a chart—so he frowns and asks, "The ice cream?"
Steve swallows hard and shakes his head, and Bucky catches up. Oh. "No. I barely feel them, really."
It makes him wonder how long he's had them. But every time he starts to remember something about the barbells on the back of his tongue, or the ones embedded in a ladder down the underside of his cock, spearing through both nipples, his chest starts to hurt and his lungs refuse to work. He's stopped pressing the issue. He supposes that on some level it doesn't really matter if he gets those memories back. It's just that he'd like the whole picture.
Bridget, when he told her this, responded, "Pretty human."
He'd made a face and asked, "Even if I know it's probably nothing good?"
She'd cocked her head. "What do you think makes it so human?"
After a moment, Steve nods and asks, "What d'you think?" gesturing toward the shared pint.
Bucky takes another bite, letting melt before swallowing. "Mmm, somewhere between fifteen-to-twenty."
"Show your work," Steve says, like their seventh grade math teacher. Bucky, who has collaborated with Steve to create a system of points by which each brand is judged, starts with texture, which he gives a seven out of ten.
"I like a little more grit over my taste buds," he says.
"How are you so weird?" Steve asks. Bucky just moves on to intensity of caramel flavor. He's still in therapy for questions just like Steve's.
Bridget starts making goals for Bucky to accomplish between sessions. She's coming twice a week, so it's usually only one goal at a time. Sometimes they're not easy, but not something he has to force himself to do, such as being the one to pick what's for lunch one day. Sometimes they leave Bucky nauseated and sweating, like having to hold a conversation with one person not allowed on the floor. He can do it by video, but he has to do it, and it has to last a minimum of ten minutes.
Tony's not exactly allowed, but he always overrides the protocols, so he might as well be, which is unfortunate, because Tony can make one sentence last ten minutes. One time Bucky tries Clint, and that's not so bad. Clint talks to him about his favorite sight lines in the Tower and from atop it. Bucky mentions the Ice Cream Exploration and Clint opines that sea salted caramel is, "Fucking bourgeoisie. Seriously, can't you just go with some mint chocolate chip or something?"
Bucky promises, "It'll be the next one we explore."
"Okay, well, tell me when you get there, because I have some recommendations."
"Steve says you eat your scrambled eggs on peanut butter."
Clint shrugs. "It's delicious. Also, some of the only protein we could afford when I was a kid, and quite a bit when I was freelancing."
Bucky hopes that his expression gets his distrust of Clint's taste buds across adequately. Clint, the traitor, is out of the Tower the next time Bucky gets the dreaded Talking Assignment. He tries Bruce that time, and the two of them fumble about for a bit before Bucky asks, "Um. Steve says you do projects?"
Bruce, as it turns out, can also draw out a sentence for ten minutes. Bucky hasn't a fucking clue what the sentence means, but hey, he doesn't have to talk much.
When Bridget quizzes him on the conversation, he says, "Bruce is doing important stuff."
She rolls her eyes. "I don't doubt it for a minute. Next time, talk with someone you're actually having a conversation with."
Bucky has never met Thor, Jane or Pepper and doesn't really want to try to do so this way, which leaves him with Sam. It's kind of a surprise when Sam answers the call. Bucky knows that JARVIS tells him who's calling. He's caught off-guard enough that it takes a few seconds for him to think of anything to say. When he does, it's, "Sorry. About the choking and breaking your wings and—"
Sam interrupts him with an easy, "What've you been doing these days? Is Steve playing you good music? Because I try, man, I try so hard, but kids these days, you know?"
Bucky blinks. "He, uh, Aretha Franklin? She has a big voice. Strong."
Sam grins. "Yeah. Kinda makes you feel like she'd never let anything get in her way, right?"
"Sometimes—sometimes I put her on when I wake up." Mostly after the nightmares. In the mornings, he let Steve pick music if they were going to have any.
"Has he started you on any Gladys Knight?"
Bucky opens the music folder on the screen the way Steve has shown him and flips through Steve's collection, trying to remember all of what they have and have not listened to. "I don't think so."
"Well then," Sam says, "What are we waiting for?"
Nobody is more surprised than Bucky when Sam is the first person he puts back on the permissions list. But spending three hours on a vid-call throughout the day is getting stupid, and even Bucky can acknowledge its nothing but his own stubbornness (and fear) keeping it that way. He points out to Bridget, "It's a rational fear."
"Sure," she says. "But so are fears of heights or needles or sharks. That doesn't mean people shouldn't fly or get vaccinated or swim in the ocean."
"Your logic is irritating," he tells her after several minutes of thought.
"I'm going to consider that progress."
Sam always brings something. Usually it's food, everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to mini-bundt cakes. But he also brings a record player and records, a thing of Play-doh, which Bucky finds useful in keeping his hands busy when he's nervous or frustrated, and a queue of instructional videos on what to do with shoulder-length hair.
And, on one memorable occasion, a dog. A big dog. Like, half Bucky's size with ears that nearly reach the floor, a swirly chocolate and reddish brown coat and a very loud sniff. Bucky says, "You have a dog."
"Not exactly," Sam tells him.
Bucky looks at the evidence to the contrary, which is currently sniffing its way inch-by-inch through the floor. Sam grins. "Her name is Sylvie. She's about a year and a half, they think. She was full-grown when she was found. She's a little scarred up, and she gets possessive about food, but she passed the training to be a PTSD service animal with flying colors."
"She's weird-looking," Bucky says, even though the urge to see if she'll let him scratch under her ears is nearly impossible to ignore. But a dog is just one more being he can hurt and if the faint marks of teeth and the way she favors her back left leg ever-so-slightly are any indication, this one has been hurt enough.
"Well, they think mom and dad were probably a bloodhound mix and a Great Dane mix, but who knows how much else she's got going on all up in there. The guy at the shelter gave me a link for ordering a DNA test if we really have to know. And like you're one to talk, flower power."
Sam had shown him a documentary on Woodstock a few weeks earlier. It had been one of the first pieces of history they'd found that didn't cause a flashback or an episode. And Sam had decided the only thing to do was tuck plastic flowers in the casual ponytail Bucky wears most of the time. It made Steve smile when he saw, so Bucky hasn't taken them out.
Sylvie, evidently having decided there are no immediate smells that must be rooted out, trots over to Bucky and begins a smell-terrogation of him. Bucky mutters, "Buy a guy a drink, first," but stays still for it. She shares her satisfaction by licking a wide stripe along his right forearm. He makes a face, but can't help skritching her head. She leans into him and looks up at him with the easy devotion of creatures who just don't need much.
"I'll hurt her," Bucky tells Sam without looking up. Her eyes are big and black, sweet and loyal, despite not having known him for longer than ten seconds.
"No," Sam says. "You won't. She's trained to handle your type of episodes, to help bring people suffering them out of them."
"Nobody's trained for me. Not even Steve."
"And yet he's still alive and well."
Bucky does look up at that. "He heals quickly."
"He hasn't needed to," Sam counters.
Sylvie digs her nose against Bucky's stomach and he wants nothing more than to curl up over her, take as much of her softness against himself as he can. "This is a bad idea."
Sam shrugs. "Believe me, I've had worse."
Steve's first words are, "We got a dog?" followed by the biggest grin Bucky can ever remember seeing on him. Granted, it's possible that's a function of Bucky's missing memories, but it is an objectively large, excited grin.
(Bridget's are, "Is Sam looking for work? Because I'm considering hiring a partner-in-crime.")
It is nice, though, having her warm, living heat fall asleep atop him on the couch in the middle of the day, curled up against his back at night. And she does this thing where she can tell when Bucky doesn't want anyone near. He didn't even teach her or anything, but on the third day she's around, Natasha comes in as Bucky is shaking off a flashback and Sylvie just gently herds her out of the room.
A few days after that, Bucky's watching a sitcom—they're usually safe—and finds himself jerked into an episode over a stupid joke about brainwashing. He comes to only minutes later—the episode is still on the same scene—to Sylvie whining at him and licking his face. It’s so far away from any kind of contact he ever experienced as the Soldier that it jolts him back into his present reality, into the Tower and safety and the background sound of recorded laughter.
Soon enough, with a nose to his face and a very insistent snuffle-woof, she firmly wakes him before his nightmares can get much of a grip, when he's still just sinking into the sensation of terror, without any of the visuals or scorched and burned memories to force him deeper.
She's earned her weight in chew treats by the end of the first week, but when Bucky realizes he's accepted that she's staying—that she's his—is on a Sunday afternoon. Steve's napping while Lady Day sings soft and sad quietly over the speakers. Bucky's looking at the catalog of shampoo and soap products that Pepper has sent him with the note, "Scented to help with relaxation and mental clarity. Give them a try for me?"
Bucky wonders idly if Pepper's always been thoughtlessly compassionate of others, or if being around Steve has rubbed off on her, too. He doesn't remember himself before Steve, but the little ways he softens his anger for Steve sometimes, or forces himself to be patient, they settle in his spine with the ease of breathing, of something he's always done. It's like knowing how to hit a target without remembering how to pull the trigger, but it's something.
Steve moves restlessly on the couch and Bucky thinks about whether to wake him, but he's still uncertain what Steve hears or sees in Bucky in his first moments of consciousness. For all that Bucky can peer into Steve's mind, the nightmares could be about Bucky.
He's still considering his options when Sylvie gets up from where she's been dozing by his side, and rises up on her back paws, propping the front ones on Steve's chest and letting out a soft but insistent bark. Steve startles at the sound, his eyes opening, muscles tensing. Then he smiles a little and brings a hand up to skritch at one of her ears. "Hey there, pretty girl."
She barks again, not loudly, but like a question. He laughs. "You got it in time."
She makes a huffing sound and lowers herself so that her head rests on Steve's chest. She eyes him, clearly perfectly content to stay just where she is. Bucky, for everything that's missing, knows that feeling in the way he knows the pain of the wipes and how to handle a knife. He knows it the way he knows how to walk and how to scream. He knows it so deep, he figures it was always there, always, just beneath the surface, waiting for the wind to scratch that barrier free.
Along with the slow, one-step-forward, eight-steps-back resurgence of Bucky's memories, comes waking in a different year, a different place, or falling into another time at a wrong sound, touch, or taste. It's on a day when he's woken up somewhere in 1939, maybe 1940, panicked that he can't hear Steve breathing, and scared shitless by his own body that Sam says, "Okay, aware this might be a landmine, here, and you're welcome to explode, but maybe it's time to consider having a specialist look at the arm."
It's not just the arm, but Bucky's not ready to discuss the other stuff with Sam, especially when he still can't remember where it comes from. And the arm is definitely a big deal.
Off to the side, Steve is sitting silently, watching the two of them, careful with his posture the way he is when he agrees with something someone has said, but doesn't want to seem like he's pushing. Bucky explores his awareness of Steve's body-language for a few quiet seconds, trying to figure out if it's newly learned, or from before. The lines are blurring, which isn't really helping anything.
Bucky says, "A specialist."
Sam looks at Steve who has the grace to look sheepish, which tells Bucky they've been talking about this for a while. He sighs. "It wasn't my idea, Buck, but Stark Industries kinda, well, acquired the foremost prosthetics company in the world, as well as funding a grant toward neural-interface prosthetic projects."
Bucky feels a spark of surprise, but not that Tony wants to get his hands on the tech. He figured that out a while back, when Tony couldn't stop staring or asking or making wisecracks. No, the surprise is in that Tony and Pepper had to have done all that work back when he first showed up, when he was nothing more than the guy who'd tried to kill his own best friend.
Then he feels a little ashamed, because he's not stupid. Sure, Tony practices being an asshole like some people work on a trade or a career, but he let Bucky into his space with almost no reservations, despite every good and smart reason to have them. And Bucky's been living here expectation-free for the better part of seven months.
Sylvie appears from where she's been sleeping in the window and hops on his lap. He mutters, "Make yourself at home," but his arms come up around her and the feel of her skin under his flesh-hand calms him enough to ask, "Where would we do it?"
Sam and Steve exchange a look. Steve says, "Hadn't really gotten that far. We weren't sure you'd agree. Have a suggestion?"
Not a lab, Bucky knows that. And not in their rooms, where he's learning to feel secure, if not safe. But he's not ready to leave the Tower, yet, either. He asks Sam, "Do you have a floor?"
"I've been camping out with Natasha and Clint. They, uh, consolidated, and the guest floor was a little much for me."
Bucky's unsure that the exercise won't end in a little bit—or a lot—of destruction. He needs a room where he won't screw much up. "Guest floor? Is it built like this one?"
"Basically," Sam says. "Wanna use it?"
Bucky buries his face in Sylvie's fur for a moment, then sits back up. "Yeah, let's do it there."
Part of Sam's job description is holding his shit together when everyone else's is flying right the hell apart. He's damned good at it, too.
But as much as he keeps a cool front about Bucky and Steve's issues not being so different from other veterans', sometimes that's more a talent for bullshitting on his part than it is professional capability. And when it comes to the arm, and how Barnes is going to deal with it being poked and prodded, that is definitely one of those times.
He doesn't want to lose the momentum they've gained in getting Bucky to agree to see the doctor, but he's also not going to rush just to maintain it. There's too much at stake for everyone.
Together, he and Bucky coordinate a session with Bridget where Sam sits in and all they talk about is the best atmosphere for Bucky to feel safe in while having the arm assessed. Sam sits quietly for the most part. Bridget starts in a way he would not have foreseen. She goes straight to the worst, asking, "What's the worst fear you can actually talk about in regard to your arm?"
Bucky wanders around the room. He plays lazy catch with Sylvie. Eventually, he stares out the window and says, "My memories, I—I didn't have them, when they took me. They didn't allow them to come back, made sure they wouldn't, took them as they did. But my arm." He shakes his head, still not looking at them. "There was still part of that to be saved. They started out by taking it. Like I belonged to them already."
Sam can't help the too-even, "People don't belong to others," that comes out of his mouth. There are some things that are so deep, so true, that no amount of training and natural equilibrium can keep them down inside him.
Bucky does turn at that, his expression more ironic than Sam would have given him credit for knowing how to manage. Bridget, in turn, says, "Step one, then: we make damn sure you remember just how human you are throughout this whole experience."
Bucky snorts. Sam pins him with a look. "It's definitely something to go on."
The first session goes better than Bucky would have expected, especially considering he woke up that morning convinced he'd just been thawed, starving and sure he'd only be given a protein mix before he received instructions. Steve manages to cajole him out of it with a trip to the sauna he'd had added to the floor, and a breakfast of strawberry yogurt and banana nut muffins.
The prosthetics specialist Tony's brought in, a doctor Sadiya Verma, who evidently has two PhDs and an MD, introduces herself and explains what she's hoping to accomplish in this first meeting. Bucky's only half listening. Sylvie licks his face at one point, and he startles, despite knowing she was there.
Dr. Verma, who asks him to call her Sadiya and sits across from him and tells him in regular vocabulary exactly what she's going to look for, is careful in her approach. He holds off a flashback of a woman with her same color hair, bleeding out less than six feet from him, by the skin of his teeth. He and Sylvie ramble around the room for about ten minutes when she's done before letting Tony take his turn.
Bridget and Sam have done an exceptionally good job of outfitting the space. Even the exam chairs look nothing like furniture that would be in a lab, instead having the comforting, cushy appearance of a reading chair. The colors are coordinated in a way that's somehow both warming and calming. There're pictures on the wall of outdoor scenes, and, strangely, a light smell of fresh oranges. Bucky has decided he loves oranges more than breathing on certain days.
It's about an hour total before they've each got the pictures and scans and conceptual mapping they need to figure out what is going on with the arm and if there are ways to improve upon the situation, or, at the very least, to make it less foreign for him. They go back up to their floor and Steve tugs Bucky back into bed, the two of them curling together, Sylvie at Bucky's back. Their breathing patterns calm him until he is capable of giving into the exhaustion that has come with the adrenaline crash.
When he wakes up, Steve is still there, and he murmurs, "Hey there. Okay?"
Bucky finds himself clinging to Steve's shirt with both hands. Steve says, "Sam brought us cupcakes. All kinds."
"In, in a moment?" Bucky asks.
Steve runs his hand up and down Bucky's side. "Whenever you want, Buck. No rush at all."
Everything goes to shit during the session where they begin actual work, a few weeks later. Bucky's managed to start moving around the Tower with the help of Sylvie. He still won't go on any of the public floors, but he's made it to all the residential levels.
When he wakes that morning, he's fine. He knows where he is. Sadiya, Tony, and he have had numerous conversations about what will happen, and it's just a bit of deconstruction. They plan to do everything in short bursts of work so as not to change anything too quickly, and to be able to make sure each step takes well.
The burning smell sets him off. Bucky isn't burnt, although he's not lucid enough to ascertain that at the time. Tony's slightly singed. It's an accident: Tony, a miniature welding-torch, and his general lack of fire-safety when it comes to himself. A minor burn, something that doesn't even deter him.
Or, well, it wouldn't, if Bucky hadn't reacted in a blind panic, swatting him across the room and breaking three of his ribs with one sweep of his arm. It's not Bucky at that point, really, not the Winter Soldier, either—more the husk of a terrified weapon.
He comes to on his hands and knees, Sylvie alternating barks with licking his face, Steve on his other side, saying his name firmly and insistently. He catches Sadiya's terrified expression out of the corner of his eye, hears Tony's pained breathing.
He vomits over his own hands. His throat feels raw when he says, "Bridget. I need Bridget."
Steve and Sylvie have managed the heroic feat of nudging Bucky into the shower, and keeping him there under the lukewarm water. He finally comes up enough to clean himself a little bit, then Steve dries him off and basically puts him in bed. Sylvie curls up around him and Steve disappears for a whole minute before coming back with ginger ale and graham crackers.
Bridget comes in as Bucky is nibbling on a cracker, uncertain it's a good idea. Steve stands to leave but Bucky shakes his head. He'll maybe regret it later, but right now the idea of Steve not hearing this, not having the information Bucky finally has won't settle and so he tugs Steve into sitting on the edge of the bed. He looks at Bridget. "I know where the piercings come from."
Bridget just holds his gaze for a moment before asking Steve, "Have any more of that ginger ale?"
Steve goes and gets cans for both of them.
"They soldered them in. The metal. That's how—the first few times, they rejected. But the soldering, that. That worked. They stayed." Bucky reaches for his soda and stops, his hand shaking too much to manage. Steve covers Bucky's hand with his own and together they bring the mouth of the can to Bucky's lips so as to allow him a few sips. .
He's quiet long enough that Bridget tells him, "This isn't one of those times where I push, dear. You say what you need to say when you're ready. But I don't believe forcing anything is to your benefit just now."
A crest of helplessness that tastes of other men's skin and smothers him in the sensation of being bound washes over his mind. He comes up panting to Sylvie's whine.
"It didn't matter what they did," Bucky says. Steve chokes a little and Bucky shakes his head sharply. "No, to them, it wasn't—I was going back in the ice, I would be wiped, it was like it never happened because you can't ra—um. Can't hurt a weapon, like that." Bucky frowns, because he can see Bridget opening her mouth, knows she's going to gently prod tell him to spell it out, not for Steve, but for himself. They've been working on verbalization as recognition of trauma. "It wasn't just that I wasn't James or Bucky. I wasn't an I. I was the Asset, not an asset, not a person."
Steve's expression suggests he is bleeding to death from a gut wound, or something equally painful. Worse, really, because Bucky's seen that face, caused that face, and this is definitely beyond that level of hurt. Still Bucky causing it, though.
"One of the doctors, he—he liked something to grab onto. He—" Bucky swallows down bile at the memory of a whisper, a suggestion, "what if I covered all of you in metal, hm?" He breathes through his nose. Once the doctor had figured out how to make the piercing hold, he'd wanted more of the screams. More of Bucky's pained reaction as the burning metal was pushed in. He'd heat the metal up, run currents through it, whatever he could manage to coax moans or screams or, at his worst, cries from the Soldier. The Asset.
Sometimes he'd brought others with him. Protégés, maybe. "They wanted to see what I could take."
The answer, as it turned out, was a lot. The serum took care of anal tearing as though it was a papercut. It repaired the mess of his larynx with an efficiency even the Soldier had been able to appreciate on some level.
At first it was just fists. One. Then two. When that got old, they'd decided to get creative. They were scientists, after all, and he was just one more experiment. A sharp twinge travels up his spine. "Went too far, once. Ice healed me, I guess."
When they'd put him in, though, he'd been bleeding out from internal wounds. After that they'd gotten a little more careful, but no more gentle. They just shifted their sadism to different outlets.
He blinks, focusing back in on the bedspread, Sylvie's fur, where he is right now. He laughs. It's not funny, it doesn't even feel funny, but he's tired of crying.
Bridget asks, "Can you sleep? You need to. You need to let the new memories integrate so that we can start to handle them, to draw out the poison they're creating."
He's exhausted. It seems like it should be an easy answer. He can't look at Steve as he asks, "Can you stay, a bit? Just, I—"
"That's not something you have to ask, Buck," Steve says, quiet and determined. "Not ever."
He nods, his eyes still on the deep blue of the comforter. "I'll try, then."
Bucky sleeps so hard he wakes mired in sweat, pressed down into the mattress not an inch from where he started. Panic is the emotion that brings him to, though, heavy on his chest and like electricity through his spine. Someone, a woman, says, "Breathe," and it takes longer than it should for Bucky to realize the word was said in Russian.
He tries to slow his breathing, match it to Natasha's. When he's made progress, she tells him, "Good, you're doing well."
Her expression has the echo of something familiar. He doesn't mean to say, "They liked experiments," but evidently his tongue is looser in Russian than English, which is hilarious, given that nobody ever wanted him to speak when he believed Russian to be his native tongue.
"You were one," she responds. It's not cruel, but it is honest. Bucky likes that about her.
"I can't—there are memories, but no order."
"That will come." She sounds so certain.
He fists his hand in his hair and tugs just a touch. He doesn't ask about what will happen if things don't start to create a linear timeline. "What if they're not even real? The things I remember?"
"The actual memories, or the emotions they're evoking?"
He nods his head after a moment. "You think it doesn't matter."
"I think reality is a lot more flexible than most people seem to realize, but our reactions? Are not."
Steve appears in the doorway, a steaming mug in each hand. "Hey, you're awake."
Bucky digs up a smile. He's still so tired. Steve hands Natasha a cup and she passes it to him. "Vanilla honey rooibos. Drink."
The heat and the gentle sweetness of the drink help the sleepiness crawl back over him. The sound of Natasha and Steve softly discussing modern dance—Steve's defending it, Natasha's evidently something of a classicist—lulls him back into a holding pattern between waking and sleep. Then even that drops away.
Bridget asks him not to remove the piercings. "Not forever," she says, "but not until removing them will actually mean a step toward getting better, rather than simple distancing."
"I'm not sure that makes sense," Bucky tells her.
She tilts her head the way she does when she's trying to break things down for him. "Why'd you come to the Tower?"
He does as she has asked time and again and actually considers the question. "Because I didn't know where else to go."
She nods. "Why do you stay?"
"Because the structure is Hulk-proofed?"
"There was a question mark at the end of that," she tells him mildly.
He huffs in frustration. Sylvie nudges at his knee and he pets her reflexively. "Because I'm safe here. The range of people I can harm is limited and Steve—" He swallows. "And Steve is here."
"In other words, there's something for you here. It's not desperation that keeps you here, it's hope and maybe even some bit of comfort."
He makes an acknowledging bow of his head. She says, "That's the difference between distance and progress, Bucky. And I want the latter for you. We all do."
His tongue, his nipples, his cock ache with the phantom pain of metal and fire. He wants that, too, though. "Okay. They stay in for now."
Steve's been weird for over a day—stumbling over things he knows are in his way, glancing at Bucky from the corner of his eye, startling Sylvie—when Bucky raises an eyebrow and says, "Out with it."
To his credit, Steve doesn't mumble or act like he's unsure what Bucky is talking about. "Can I try something?"
There's so much of Bucky that wants to tell him, "Anything," to take whatever Steve dishes out and hold his tongue. He's been informed by pretty much everyone that's not what he's supposed to do. Of course, everyone also keeps telling him he doesn't have to follow orders. It does not make for a clear path to decisions. He takes the middle road. "What?"
"There's a thing, now—wait." Steve walks over to where his tablet is and keys it up. He brings it to where Bucky is, showing him pictures of men and women wearing nothing but paint, bright and exotic.
Bucky cannot deny that the full effect is beautiful, but, "You want to paint me?"
"Not like this." Steve shakes his head. "Just something. A foot or a hand, or whatever. I just…I thought you could tell me what you'd like and I could draw that and it would be yours for as long as it lasted, and then, then you could choose something different, something new, or nothing at all."
It's an interesting idea. Bucky gets a vague sensory impression now and then of a time when his body had been his own, when he'd walked in a way he'd taught himself as a child, a teen, a man, when he'd known why things hurt, or what were his best physical capabilities. But he doesn't remember, not really. His body, so far as his mind is concerned, is something that has been created and fine-tuned by someone else.
He tests how it feels to admit, "I like green."
Steve doesn't smile, or show much reaction at all. "What kind of green? Like trees or like apples or something else?"
"Like the bedspread in the room I'm staying in."
"Okay," Steve says. "Anything else?"
"Sylvie," Bucky decides. "And walnuts."
Steve grins at that. "Walnuts, huh?"
"Did he—I—did I like them?"
Steve shrugs. "I'm not sure we ever had them. Some things are just plain new."
Because he's not ready to say, I like the feel of you when I wake up to you being near, solid and warm and known even in the disorientation of waking, he says, "Is that good enough to start?"
"Maybe on your right calf? To give me some room for Sylvie?"
Bucky rolls his pants to his knee and asks, "Where do you want me?"
Bucky can fall asleep when Steve is stroking color into his skin, which means he ends up with a lot of multi-colored sheets, but starts actually dipping into a REM cycle. It's still interrupted more often than not, but Bucky is practicing patience. (He's terrible at it.)
Steve is creating some sort of fire design on Bucky's flesh hand when he says, "Maybe we should try other stuff, with um. With the others."
Bucky tries to follow. In the end he gives up. "I have no idea what you just said to me."
"Natasha had this idea about having a baseball game. It's not a lot of touch, but there's some, accidental and otherwise. And it's a team sport, so it'd be natural for some of the others to join."
"It would be somewhat awesome to see Thor and Tony play baseball." Bucky pauses, realizing he said that aloud. Steve just snorts.
"According to Natasha, we're not allowed to be on the same team."
"Have you gotten any better with the serum?" Bucky asks. Then blinks, as the recognition of having countless memories of Steve being lousy at stickball are just there when as far as he knew they weren't the moment before.
Steve laughs. "Well, I usually don't collapse between bases now."
Steve's grin is wide and sassy. "Don't tell Natasha."
Bucky shrugs. "Okay, but it's your life you're gambling with."
Steve ducks his head. "Not a bad way to go, right?"
Bucky holds himself still, so still, pretending it's just to give Steve time to get whatever part of the piece he's swirling and coloring right. It has nothing to do with the surge of heat and shame and want and fear and guilt and no, that surges up in him suddenly. He forces it away, tells himself it's just stress. He sorts through the memories that are more quickly coming together and finds one of a woman's hips beneath his hands. He wishes it made him believe it when he says, "Yeah, no. Not bad at all."
Since getting off his own floor is still an issue for Bucky, let alone going outside, they play the first game on a floor of the Tower that Tony has converted into a ball field. As, evidently, you do. Thor is barred from batting after the second time he hits the ball so hard it would break the glass on the opposite side of the Tower if not for the whole thing being Hulk-proofed. Rhodey, who Bucky has just met, is acting as umpire, and he disallows Bucky using the left arm for pitching and definitely from throwing the ball to get someone out.
Bucky doesn't bother telling him he wouldn't have used it anyway. It doesn't have that kind of fine control. Tackling someone at the base, on the other hand? That it's good for. (He's almost used to the need to swallow back acid and something even more raw when he realizes the strengths of the arm. Almost.)
Natasha figures out Steve's omission of the fact that he really does suck at baseball less than an inning in, and leans on Bruce—who has somehow become the team captain, which even he seems boggled by—to trade Steve for Sam. Sam owns the game, at least in outfield and at the pitching mound.
Bruce holds out until Natasha literally begins leaning, then he grins up over her, and lets her have her way.
Nobody touches Bucky that first game. He runs too fast, hits too hard to allow it. Afterward, back on Steve's floor, showered and making his way through an entire box of dry Kashi cereal, Sylvie begging to help at his knee, Bucky says, "Sorry."
Steve doesn't pretend ignorance. He shakes his head. "Next game."
Bucky peers toward the window and wonders if maybe it isn't time to start forcing discomfort, stop giving Steve the chance to forgive him. Not that Steve has failed to, yet, but Bucky's beginning to be acutely aware of the fact that he doesn't want to find out what will make him do so.
Natasha is the first one to land a finger on him. She's playing third base and takes him out in a tackle that is in no way legal in baseball, but it does the job. There's a moment of stillness, where Bucky realizes what has happened. Sylvie's barking, but not interfering. Natasha doesn't back off. The urge to throw her away to run to do anything thrums through his veins.
She says, "Got you, Barnes."
Her voice is even, a little too even, and it's what he needs. He laughs. "Only by cheating."
"Them's fighting words," she tells him, but she doesn't follow him when he goes to sit down on the bench.
Bucky has Sadiya come back after the third game, where Sam body-checks him at a base, and Thor collides with him in the attempt to catch a ball. He doesn't blame her when she asks, "Are you certain?"
He tells Bridget, "It was the smell that set me off last time. Would it be crazy to wear some kind of nose plug or filter?"
"There's a fine line between crazy and genius, but I think that would be safely on the side of the latter."
He mentions it to Tony, who, of course, makes him a mask that smells like apple pie inside. (And continues refusing to acknowledge any and all apologies for the broken ribs.) Bucky doesn't even really like apple pie, but he doesn't mind the scent, and yes, he can appreciate the humor. Such as it is.
Sylvie's head rests on his lap and her body language makes it clear she's going exactly nowhere. Steve looks less planted than she does, and Steve has the resolve of granite to stay next to Bucky. Steve also insists that Bucky wear his headphones and listen to music. "Sam says he made you a mix. He was very proud."
Bucky refuses until Sadiya enters to explain, "I'm going to completely numb the shoulder and remove the casing as much as possible. If all the scans are correct, then it should be the work of about two hours. At which point we will assess how you feel about moving on. Mr. Stark assures me the prototype replacement arm we've collaborated on is ready to be affixed, but I have to see the state of the remaining flesh to be certain as to whether your body can become accustomed, or if adjustments will need to be made."
When he nods, she asks, "Do you have any questions?"
He shakes his head. She says, "If they come up, ask."
Then she smiles. "Listen to your friend's mix."
Bucky settles the noise-canceling headphones over his ears and Steve must press a button. A man with a voice like whiskey and cracked earth sings over a raw guitar about crawling, his baby, and ruling his den. Bucky doesn't know the song, but somewhere in his stomach, the urge to move with it swirls. He closes his eyes, breathes in the scent of cinnamon and green-apples, and listens.
"Did I like to dance?" Bucky asks. The casing is off. It took a little longer than predicted, and they had to shoot him up with the numbing agent twice more. Bucky is nothing but himself, flesh and bone and a little metal here and there, but not like the arm. Even so, he's not really keen on looking over at where the casing had been. It's bad enough that he feels akin to a baby fawn, afraid to stand up for fear his balance will retreat entirely. He doesn't need to see the ruined mass of skin and scars.
Steve drags his gaze up from where he can’t seem to stop staring at what’s left of the arm, his face pale and eyes tired. “Hm?”
“I—“ Underneath the sound, Bucky feels the thrum of the beat, almost inside his skin. “Like the movies we watched? The Fred Astaire ones. Did I like to do that?”
It takes a second, but a smile steals over Steve’s face, wide and sunny and Steve. “Yeah. Could hardly ever drag you away from the dance halls.”
Bucky closes his eyes, tries to let his body tell him what his mind cannot or will not. He cannot decide whether it is surprising or not that the first sense memory to offer itself up is the phantom sensation of a smaller hand clasped in his left, the sheer cotton of a dress beneath his right. He mumbles, “With girls. I danced with the girls.”
He opens his eyes to Steve’s laughter, more relieved than mocking, although there might be a hint of the latter. Steve says, “That was generally the fashion. At least in the places you frequented.”
Bucky wiggles the fingers of his right hand, trying to trace that touch of cotton to other sensations. Steve was small, then. He remembers that now, not just vaguely, but in full flashes, in a genuinely knowing way. Maybe—
Nothing comes to him, no memory of the slide of his fingers into a belt-loop, the tug of tiny, but male, hips to his. “Why didn’t we dance?”
Steve blinks. “What?”
“Why was it only girls? Why not you and me?”
Steve frowns. “Buck?”
Bucky looks over to where Tony is fiddling with the old casing, evidently finalizing whatever they’re about to put on, making sure everything is set. Sadiya is running some kind of test on the circuitry, and looking at readings Bucky doesn’t understand. Neither of them seem to be paying attention, or, if they are, they have no interest in helping him out.
Bucky’s exhausted, suddenly, and not just from the stress of the procedure, the numbing agents injected all morning. Softly, Steve asks, “Do you think you wanted to dance with me?”
Bucky reaches out and grabs Steve’s shirt, pulls him in to Bucky’s side so that he can lean into Steve. Steve doesn’t resist, goes where Bucky wants him to. Bucky rests his head on Steve’s chest, murmurs, “Wanted to touch.”
Steve’s chest rumbles, maybe like he’s laughing, more like he’s shocked. “Oh.”
Bucky thinks he should probably pull away, but Steve’s hand crosses to Bucky’s stomach, where he rubs comforting circles. Not having to look at Steve’s face gives him the courage to ask, “Did you, um—was it just me?”
“I—“ Steve is quiet for several long minutes. “No. No, you weren’t, it wasn’t. But I wanted—“
When he realizes Steve isn’t going to finish that thought, Bucky asks, “What? What did you want?”
“You to be happy.” His voice breaks on the last word. “To find a nice girl, who made you laugh, and danced with you, and who you could marry in church. And she’d live as long as you, or maybe longer, and wouldn’t start fights you had to finish and—“
Bucky grabs the hand on his stomach and curls his flesh fingers tightly around it. He doesn’t let go.
The new arm, when Sadiya steps back, and Tony says, "Give it a whirl, Iceman," is lighter than the previous one, and has more sensation when he touches different surfaces. Bucky can glean texture, rather than just temperature, or how hard he is pressing against something. None of that is what catches his attention. What he can't seem to process is how it doesn't press the casing—which is minimal—or the structural joints into his bone, muscle, the torn and scarred bits of him that he has come to expect will always hurt.
The absence of what he didn't even realize was pain anymore is startling and fiercely uncomfortable for a moment. Then he squeezes his eyes together because fuck, seriously? One or two tears make it out anyway, and he wipes at them angrily with his new hand. It's not the rough scrape of metal he almost wants at that moment. Almost.
He looks up, across the room at Tony, who is watching, doesn't have the good manners to turn away, of course, but who doesn't say a word about the crying, just asks, "Well, Pinocchio? More like a real boy? Because if not, that's probably on you, you gotta cut it out with the—"
"Thank you," Bucky says. The words feel inadequate, like everything these days, but they shut Tony up and even get a smile out of him.
Tony waves a hand. "Come to me when you've got a real problem next time, right?"
Bucky stands and takes a step toward Sadiya, whose eyes are a little wet, too. He takes her hands, one in each of his, and the way he can curl the fingers without worrying about pinching her skin, knowing exactly how far he can curl before he might hurt her, these are each one of a million tiny miracles. He repeats, "Thank you."
She squeezes both hands. "It was an honor."
Tony sends Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes an invitation to his hoity-toity gala on the event-floor of the tower. It's to benefit children who need prosthetics but do not have access to them. Bucky stares at the elaborate, yet tasteful, invitation—clearly Pepper was involved—and asks Steve, "Is he crazy?"
Steve looks up from his invitation—Captain Steven Grant Rogers—and says, "Well, I wouldn't call him sane."
"He thinks it's somehow a good plan to even offer the chance for me to be around kids?" Bucky waves the invite a little.
Steve shrugs. "You wouldn't hurt them."
"You wouldn't. You haven't had an incident in over three months, and other than the attack on Sam, and that time with Thor and the indoor lightning, which, for the record, we all agreed was inappropriate earth-time behavior, none of them have been violent toward anyone but yourself. Sylvie's been at your side non-stop since Sam brought her, and you've never so much as accidentally pulled her fur.
"Even in the worst of the PTSD, you attack persons and things your size, and then only rarely. You wouldn't hurt kids, and Tony knows it. That said, I sense it was more of a courtesy than anything. You can talk to Bridget, but charity galas are overwhelming even for me, so it's not what I would pick for a coming out party."
Bucky frowns. "They have parties for the announcement of homosexuality now?"
Steve blinks. "No. I mean, I don't think so. I was referring to Cotillions."
For a second the word doesn't mean anything. Then he gets a flash of white dresses and white gloves. "Did we go to things like that?"
"They were for a, ah, slightly higher socio-economic class of person."
Bucky looks down at the embossed, heavy paper. He can feel the texture of it, slightly, with the new hand. "You going?"
Steve nods. "Kids. Also, I have a theory that Tony's good behavior should be encouraged."
From what Bucky has seen, he thinks Tony needs more validation than encouragement, but Steve's presence probably works as both. "Maybe I could—"
"There're observation points for that floor, right?" Bucky has memorized the Tower's layout. It makes him feel more in control of his own destiny. Also, sometimes he just gets bored.
Steve nods. Bucky goes and sticks the invitation to the fridge. "Maybe I'll be there in more than just spirit."
Coulson finds Bucky while he and Sylvie are playing fetch on the baseball diamond. He comes to stand near to Bucky, but not inside his bubble of personal space. Bucky likes the other man, despite his affiliation with an organization that fostered Hydra back to health and prosperity. He radiates a calm that makes it hard to feel panicked in his presence. And he watches over the team the way Bucky knows he watches over Steve. Coulson's just more efficient and effective at it.
That last thought is bitter, but he pushes it away, because Coulson says, "Sergeant."
Bucky nods. "I don't actually remember having that rank. Not much, anyway."
Coulson shrugs. "America remembers."
Softly, Bucky says, "Memory is tricky."
Coulson doesn't respond to that. Instead he says, "Pepper mentioned that you hadn't said no to attending the gala."
"And Steve said you were thinking about maybe slipping in for a few minutes."
Bucky laughs. He can't help it. A memory of Steve's physically faulty hearing slams into him -- Steve tilting his head toward his 'good ear,' which meant 'the ear he stubbornly insisted worked just fine.' "Steve's got selective hearing."
"He looked like a kid at Christmas when he told her."
Bucky glances over at Coulson. The other man meets his gaze, nothing expectant in his eyes, just truth. Bucky sighs. "Maybe before things get started, before people are really around. I'm not—I haven't been in a crowd in a while."
"I thought I might offer my assistance, if you were going to make an appearance. Steve tends to wear his dress uniform, or, occasionally, the tux Pepper very cleverly maneuvered him into getting, but I thought you might feel uncomfortable in the uniform and I figure getting formal wear hasn't really been at the top of your to-do list."
"I…hadn't thought about that."
"If you want the uniform, we can get you fitted."
Bucky sits down on the turf and Sylvie comes to him. He buries his face in her fur for a few moments. Sensations burn through him: the cold of fever, the click-clack sound of a released casing, the jitteriness of too-long in a trench. They don't fit together, don't make sense except in the context of what he's been told, been given. "No, I don't—not yet, anyhow."
"All right." Coulson crouches. "A tux, then?"
Bucky smiles a bit. "Steve says I used to like dressing fancy."
Coulson returns the smile. "Maybe you still do."
Steve's dress uniform doesn't break any memories free, but it does make Bucky jittery under the skin in a way that's familiar and wrong and…not wrong. He hasn't a clue how to tie a tie, but he'd like to have his hands on Steve's, learn by Steve talking him through it. He settles for letting Steve lean into him, help Bucky with his own tie.
The tie is ice-blue. Everything else about the tux is black. Coulson convinces Bucky to let Steve brush his hair back into a queue, fastened with a piece of velvet the same shade as the tie. Steve touches his fingers to Bucky's neck when he's done, both of them looking at Bucky in a mirror. Steve says, "Who'da thought? You clean up pretty nice."
It takes Bucky a second longer than it should to say, "Pot."
Even with Sylvie at his side, and Clint, Natasha, Sam, Bruce, Rhodey, Tony, Coulson, Pepper, Thor, and Jane implicitly creating a buffer between where Steve and Bucky are standing and the rest of the crowd, Bucky only makes it about half an hour. He doesn't notice the sharp up-tick of his breath, the too-heavy thud of his heart. A soldier doesn’t concern himself with such details. He's only beginning to notice that all his thoughts are in Russian when Sylvie buts her head into his leg and Steve says, "C'mon. There's a mezzanine Tony didn't open up. We can watch."
"You should stay," Bucky tells him. "With your friends. For the kids."
"I'll come back if I want to," Steve reassures him.
Once they're out of accidental-brushing range, and the only thing they can hear through the speakers is the band, Bucky finds himself admiring the dress on Pepper, amused by Bruce's color-scheme, and studying the ease with which both Rhodey and Sam handle people.
Steve wanders in and out over the evening, bringing Bucky a sampling of all the food and other souvenirs. Bucky follows him when he's actually at the gala: a habit he doesn't remember forming, but can't break. Bucky's glad nobody's around to hear him laugh when Steve almost drops one of the kids.
Steve escapes up to see him after that, and Bucky grins. "Klutz."
"Careful, or I'm gonna make you come down and be a hero with me."
"Mm." Bucky revels in the feeling of being entirely unthreatened by Steve. It's as pure as a peaceful night's sleep, or days when the memories are simple: he loves jam but hates marmalade, deep, not-quite-navy blue is his favorite color, cats have been known to think he's one of them and to try grooming him.
Steve laughs, drawing Bucky out of his thoughts. Bucky tilts his head. Steve shakes his. "Just, this was one of the few songs we both liked. We never agreed about music. I liked the stuff my ma had always listened to: twenties jazz, some gospel. You were a big band devotee, but this one—we both liked this."
Bucky focuses on the notes drifting out of the speakers, as clear as though the band playing downstairs is right next to him. "It's pretty, but I—"
Steve says softly, "If you asked a girl to dance on this one," his smile turns wry, "Moonlight Serenade, you'd set your cap for her, at least for that night."
"Wanna dance?" Bucky asks. He stills only a second after Steve does. In his bones, or wherever memories are hidden from him, there's a sweet-sour ache that lets him know Steve is telling the truth, as if he has any doubts. But he hadn't even realized he was opening his mouth until the words were out, the question defining his thoughts rather than the other way around.
He brings the flesh hand up to his face and scrubs for a moment. "I, ah—"
"Yes," Steve says.
Bucky's mouth is still open. He can't seem to close it. Steve steps closer to him. "Yes. I want to dance."
"I don't remember—"
"Good, because you only ever taught me how to lead, and I'm crap enough at that. One of us needs to follow, might as well be the fella who's completely in the dark about all this." Steve keeps his tone even, a little amused, as he pulls Bucky against him.
Bucky doesn't remember, but he doesn't care, either. One of Steve's hands rests on his hip curling over onto his back a little, the other cradling his hand, and Bucky asks, "What now?"
Steve laughs. "Not much. Just, ah, try not to let me trip you."
Bucky can't say if they're swaying to the beat, or if either of them care. Steve is warm and real, his hands careful but firm. Bucky finds his head falling against Steve's shoulder without forethought or permission. Steve murmurs, "I never thought—"
There's not much Bucky can state with certainty, and if questioned too hard, he's not even one hundred percent firm in this belief, but he says, "I'm here," and he has every intention of it being true. "I'm here."
"Did I want to be a teacher?" Bucky asks. He's making oatmeal. He likes the steel cut kind, prefers it made with water and brown sugar with peaches added at the end. Details have become significant to him, even if they don't relate back to something from Before. Steve has informed him they could rarely afford anything to put in their oatmeal, and when they made it, it was often more water than oatmeal. "Or maybe a fireman?"
Steve prefers cream-of-wheat. Currently, however, he's devouring a bowl of Special K in whole milk. "Huh?"
Bucky shrugs. "I mean, I know I didn't finish high school, my records tell me that. But I wondered if I wanted to teach."
Steve sets the bowl aside and admits, "I don't know."
Bucky nearly drops the spoon he's stirring with.
"It's just, you never talked about those kinds of things. You asked me. You—you always wanted me to follow my art, and you talked about sending home your service pay so I could go to college and all that, but you never said anything about what you wanted. And the one time I asked you kinda…you smirked and said something about how I was gonna keep you in your old age."
Bucky laughs. "What d'you know? I was right."
It takes a second, but Steve laughs too. "Jerk."
"Punk," falls out of Bucky's mouth, easy as breathing.
Bucky's observed as the Avengers haphazardly figured out their mission plans. There were a few trial runs against Hydra cells within the US, other situations that would have required SHIELD and are now a problem without an answer.
Bucky's had a panic attack every fucking time the team's gone out to do so much as buy milk together. Not that they grocery shop together regularly, but Steve likes bonding activities and is something of a weirdo, so there you have it.
A call comes in -- a problem where Coulson's team needs back up. Bucky loses half a day to dizziness and heart palpitations. When he claws his way to lucidity, Bridget's there. He's not surprised. JARVIS has a tendency to call her when Bucky's freaking him out.
She pushes a glass at him. "Ginger ale. I've kept it cold."
He sips cautiously, but it goes down easy and begins to calm the roiling, festering knot in his intestines. "I should be out there."
She raises an eyebrow. "With the team?"
"No," Bucky says. Then, "Yes. No. Fuck, with Steve. I should be—" His rage is a living thing, no more under his control than his memory.
Bridget says, "Take another sip."
He does. It forces him to breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. He counts to three on each inhale, each exhale. It could be a minute before he's able to reason again. It could also be an hour. "I asked him what I wanted to be the other day. A profession. I asked about being a teacher or a fireman."
Bridget takes the change of topic in stride. "Jobs that protect and guide. Do you think that's what you wanted?"
Bucky closes his eyes. "Who the fuck knows?"
"Not what I asked," Bridget says, and for all that her tone is casual, she's going to push. Bucky's learned her patterns.
He sighs and opens his eyes to look at her. "I think being best friends with Steve Rogers means learning how to find whatever the hell is good inside you and hope that's enough. I think my use to him and to the world was as a protector and that dried up when Erskine matched Steve's body to his spirit. I think maybe Hydra knew more about me than I did."
She swallows. Her eyes are wet, but her cheeks are dry. He's never seen her close to crying, not even in the sessions where they discussed his returning, shattered memories of how they disassembled who he was, piece by piece, of how they used him when he was no longer anything but flesh and metal, and then reduced him to even less, meat to be stored, freezer-burn only a vague concern. Softly, she tells him, "You are wrong."
He laughs, bitter, feeling it in his chest. "Thought you're not supposed to put values on my feelings and perceptions."
She shrugs. "I'm not. But I'm human, too, Bucky. And I've talked to you more than I've talked to my kid most weeks for the last year. Maybe protection was how you constructed a self-image you could be proud of. That doesn't make it your single attribute."
Snidely, he says, "Maybe I just can't remember the others."
"Mm," she shakes her head. "No. No, I think you've never seen the others in yourself. Never recognized that befriending loud-mouthed, trouble-stirring, weakling little Steve Rogers was a sign that you see people, rather than just looking at them. Never recognized that your loyalty to Steve after his transformation, when you so easily could have simply been jealous, was a sign of a kind of selflessness that's rare."
"If I was really so loyal, how'd they wipe him from me, huh?" There's a snarl resting in his throat. He tries to contain it. He's not mad at her.
A startled laugh bursts out of her, and then Bucky does growl. She holds up a hand. "Sorry, sorry, it's just…Bucky, they didn't."
He stares blankly at her. She leans forward, intense and passionate. "You killed friends, you fulfilled all their orders, but he did nothing more than say your name and it broke through seventy years of programming. You think that's forgetting? That's…that's the strongest incidence of mentally holding something close the world has ever seen. They buried him, sure. They buried him with starvation and deprivation and torture but they didn't take him, because they couldn't. You never allowed it."
Bucky takes a slow sip of the ginger ale. "I don't know that I agree."
"That's all right. I'll let you think it over. We can always argue more the next time I'm here."
"You're very dependable," he tells her. Her grin is fierce and filled to the brim with compassion.
Steve returns none the worse for the wear, and Bucky finds himself herding Steve into a shower, ordering his favorite take out, and pulling him into bed when it looks like he's going to fall asleep face first into his dinner. Bucky curls up with him, needing the physical reminder that Steve's come back, that for all Bucky didn't take care of him, he made it on his own.
Bucky awakens in darkness and in terror, the ghost of hands holding him down, open, almost corporeal. The piercings ache in a way that, if he could be rational, he would know is psychosomatic. Rationality is impossible. All he can do is say, "No, no, no," aware that it doesn't matter. What he chooses is of no consequence. He exists only as a tool or plaything or weapon.
The sound of Steve's voice shouting, "Buck! Bucky!" penetrates the way a slap would, with shocking force but no real pain, just sharpness. Bucky takes a breath, then another. Sylvie is on his chest, warm and solid. He wraps his arms around her and buries his face in her neck.
When he can, he lays his head back and says, "Sorry."
He has no idea how long Steve was trying to bring him down, but he suspects it was a decent chunk of time. Steve is shaking his head. "Just tell me what to do."
Bucky laughs. "If only I knew."
After a beat, Steve says, "Let's go out."
"What?" Bucky can genuinely say he was not expecting that to come out of Steve's mouth.
"It's almost three in the morning, it'll be pretty quiet. We'll take Sylvie, go to an all night coffee joint or diner or whatever, order some food, eat, come back."
"And you'll know you can do it. Know you've won one round, and that you'll win the others."
Bucky makes himself sit with that for a moment, decide if his objections are purely out of fear, or if there's reason embedded somewhere. Finally, he tells Steve, "Okay, but somewhere with cinnamon rolls. I want a fucking cinnamon roll."
There's a moment where the waitress—easily five ten, five eleven, and built like a Botticelli model, if Botticelli models had exotic flower tattoos covering their arms and chests—leans over to give them their coffee when Bucky almost panics, almost throws her across the room, but Sylvie gets on his lap. She grins and says, "Cool service dog. What can I get you?" and the moment passes.
Steve asks, "How many cinnamon rolls can you make?"
She shrugs, like it's a totally normal request. "I'll keep 'em coming until you say stop."
Steve's smile is so pleased that for a brief tick of the second hand, everything fades but that expression. Then Bucky asks, "Why do I remember Botticelli?"
Taking a sip of coffee, Steve looks as perplexed as Bucky feels, but he offers, "I obsessed over him when I was in school. I probably talked your ear off more than once."
Of all the things he could remember, it figures Bucky'd have the mostly useless crap still floating around near the surface. He pets Sylvie until she slinks back down below the table, and drinks his coffee, which is black and strong. The caffeine will burn right away, but the bitter splash and heat of the drink is calming.
Steve let him sit in the corner seat so Bucky has a sight line of the door, along with all other possible spots of entry. He tries not to focus on them too much. Their waitress, whose name tag reads "Ryan," brings the cinnamon rolls with a bowl of brown sugar. She says, "Trust me, sprinkle a little on 'em."
Bucky takes her advice. It's only fair: she's providing the crack. He takes a bite and after a minute tells Steve, "Next time she comes to the table, one of us has to propose. The other one has to go and abduct the cook."
Steve contemplates the pastry on his plate. "Alternately, we could come back tomorrow night."
Bucky waves his hand, the flesh one. He's too used to being cautious with the other one. Even now, when he has more control over the movement, it's hard to remember. "That, or we tell Tony about this place, and he either outright buys it, like most of the things he wants, or does the thing with his computers where he uncovers the secret recipe that shouldn't exist in writing, but somehow does."
"I like my plan," Steve says primly.
Bucky is about to disagree on principle when he realizes, "I don't mind it."
Something claws at the back of his mind, insistent and a little uncomfortable. He frowns. "Did I jump out of a plane?"
Steve shakes his head. "I don’t think so. We did, uh, we ziplined—" Steve breaks off, something hard in his eyes. Bucky doesn't want to know what caused it, not without remembering for himself. Still, deciding to brave this feels familiar in a physical way, a way he associates with a shock of wind and a bracing for what comes next.
What comes next, as it turns out, is several weeks where Bucky knows he's losing it, his brain misfiring in ways that signal oncoming insanity. He wakes up screaming, shivering in too-hot-too-cold-too-too-too terror and has to silence pleas for Steve to cover up the ragged, sheared memories of pain and helplessness with new, whole ones of yes and please and good and this, this.
He leaves the diner at Steve's side wondering what cinnamon and coffee taste like on Steve's lips, on the rough tip of his tongue.
Pacing the length of the floor's library, where Bridget and he have taken to having sessions, he tells her, "I'd say I'm like a teenager, but I don't remember being a teenager."
She doesn't comment, which is a surefire way to make him keep thinking and explain further. "Everything has become about touch. What I do want, what I don't want, what I want from Steve, what I remember, what I don't." He stops suddenly, rounding on her. "Is this a coping thing? Is this my brain trying to deflect from other things?"
"Could be," she acknowledges.
He knows that tone. "You don't think it is."
She taps her pen against her chin. "I think this is you figuring out how to desire things again. According to Steve and my uncle and the rest of the Commandos, and just about anyone I've ever heard talk about you before the fall, you were incredibly tactile. It's not shocking that your brain is formulating the lesson this way. It's also not shocking that your brain is scared as fuck of rediscovering something that was taken from you by brutal, dehumanizing means."
"So this is about me needing a hug," Bucky says dryly.
"And?" He prompts.
She frowns a little. "And maybe this is a little bit about emotional and muscle memory being the strongest types of all."
"I don't know what that means."
Her smile is tight, barely different than the frown. "I think you do. But even if you don't, it's not my place to explain. There's some stuff, dear, only you can find the words for, aloud or otherwise."
"You are no help at all."
She stands up and holds her arms open. "C'mere."
Bucky hesitates for a second, but then gives in. He does need a hug.
Bucky starts small. He mentions to Clint and Natasha that he's been thinking about going to one of Sam's meetings. Sam holds them in the Tower now, on one of the lower floors, originally designed for business meetings, but redone at the snap of Tony's fingers to provide somewhere comfortable and safe for Sam's needs. Clint says, "Yeah, okay," and shows him the nearest bolt hole he's created, where Bucky can watch from a safe distance the first few times.
It takes six meetings, but he eventually comes into one, seating himself in one of the cushy armchairs with Sylvie curled at his feet. When everyone who's coming for that session has settled, Sam says, "We've got a new member, so let's go around and do names real quick."
After that, nobody pressures him to talk. Instead he listens. Dillon, originally from Nebraska, has night terrors. "My wife can't sleep in a bed with me anymore. I'm taking the couch. She, uh. I had to take her to the hospital a couple of weeks ago. I'd given her a concussion when I knocked her out of bed. It was the—" He swallows tightly, breathing through his nose.
Sam says, "Take your time."
"They thought I was abusing her." His voice breaks at the admission, but he doesn't cry. His hands tremble in his lap.
Gently, Sam reminds him, "You went to war to protect her, to protect everyone and everything you love. You're sleeping on the couch to keep her safe. They can think whatever they want. You know the truth and she knows the truth, and I bet when the cops came, they knew it, too."
A tight nod. "Yeah, they, uh—one of them was ex-army."
A woman, Layla, tells him, "My baby was three when I came back from my first tour. I was too scared to be left alone with him, just in case I had an episode."
She's hunched over, into herself, barely peeking out for the admission. Bucky recognizes the posture, Dillon's trembling, the fear of perception and the even larger terror of oneself.
He doesn't feel safe. He's not sure he knows what safety feels like anymore outside of Steve's arms. But he has the sensation of being known, of sharing ground with these people, at least some, enough to plant a tree in, to watch it grow.
He returns for the next meeting, and the next. In his sixth meeting, he says a few things. Nothing big, just about re-learning taste and what it means to like something or not, what it means to have interest or be bored. But he speaks, and they listen, and he doesn't run.
Bucky comes back to their floor after sparring with Natasha and Clint—at the same time—with enough bruising that even he notices. He doesn't mind. There's a kind of purity to pain that doesn't have any malice behind it, and it's because he allowed them get near enough to touch, even if not in a way most people would consider to be positive.
Steve chooses the moment after Bucky has stripped off his clothes but before he enters the shower to poke his head in the door. Bucky can't remember that they've been seeing each other naked all their lives, but he's rationally aware of the fact. Also, Hydra left him without any body modesty or ability to see his body as his own. Given all this, he doesn't flinch, just asks, "Need something?"
Steve raises an eyebrow. "They did a number on you, huh?"
Bucky smiles a little. "It'll be half gone by the time I'm done with my shower."
"Yeah," Steve says. "You want food?"
Bucky finds himself walking closer to Steve without having planned to do so. He looks down at his feet, as though they might explain. He looks back up at Steve's soft, "Buck?"
Bucky shakes his head and starts to move away, but Steve reaches out a hand, curling it around Bucky's flesh bicep. "Buck," he repeats. "If you want something, you—I know you better than anyone, but I can't read your mind."
"I don't care."
Bucky huffs. "There's cream, right? For bruises and, I don't know, pain?"
Steve's nod is slow. After a moment he says, "Why don't you get in the shower? I'll go get some from Clint and I can—I mean, there's places you won't be able to reach."
Bucky swallows. "I think you'd do a better job. Even where I can reach. I—you're gentle with me."
Steve's eyes are huge and luminous, and when Bucky leans forward to taste the corner of one ever so carefully, he catches the faintest taste of salt. He pulls back and says, "Shower."
Steve says, "Right. Right."
Steve is gentle, gentle and firm and Bucky's skin buzzes beneath the touch, almost like a shot of adrenaline, but easier to handle. Bucky closes his eyes so the world narrows to nothing more than the feel of Steve's care. "What do you want?"
"Hm?" Steve asks, clearly not listening.
Bucky rolls to where he's facing him. "What do you want?"
Steve's hands don't still, just move to another spot. "What I've always wanted: you to be happy."
"Steven Grant," Bucky says, surprised to find the cadence familiar. He laughs.
Steve laughs with him, which just confirms that it's something he's done before, calling Steve on his bullshit by way of middle name. Maybe Bucky started by imitating Steve's mother. Maybe it doesn't matter as much that Bucky doesn’t remember, if it gets him this response.
Steve's laugh slows into a grin. His eyes warm as he looks at Bucky and says, as serious as Bucky has ever seen him, "Any and every part of me that you want is yours. Forever. I want to be yours and I want you to be mine. It's all I've ever wanted. But only, only if that's what you want."
"I want to start a dog rescue and train service dogs for vets," Bucky starts.
"Oh, um." Steve blinks, and almost withdraws. He would, but Bucky grabs onto him with both hands and won't let him move.
"And I also want to relearn every inch, millimeter, atom of your body. I want to be part of every breath you take."
Steve blinks again, more slowly this time. He says, "I love you."
Bucky pulls him closer, close enough that their lips are touching when he says, "Yes, that."
Steve mumbles, "That's a terrible response."
Bucky smiles against Steve's mouth. "Paint it on me. The words. Whatever you choose."
"Gonna fall asleep while I do?" Steve asks.
"Mm," Bucky hums, "probably."
Steve does it anyway.
Bucky wakes to lazy kisses over the crest of his hip, the underside of his wrist, the hollow of his throat. There's no pattern, just heat and perfect pressure. Steve's path wanders here and there, over paint and around it. Eventually he reaches Bucky's mouth, where they trade slow, chaste presses of their lips.
Steve's tongue steals into Bucky's mouth just enough to swipe the foremost barbell and—
--the next thing Bucky knows, he's being held down by Thor and Iron Man, Steve's hands on his chest. They're on the floor and Steve is, oh fuck. Bucky's breathing quickens. "Are you bleeding? What did I—"
Steve grabs the nearest pen, thankfully near due to last night's activities, and writes on his forearm. "Bit my tongue. I'm fine."
Bucky translates this as, practically took my tongue off with your teeth, luckily, I'm a super-soldier."
"Breathe, friend," Thor says, and it takes Bucky a moment to realize Thor is speaking to him. He's breathing, but it's too quick, too shallow. Thor starts a count, and Bucky does his best to follow it. Thor might be using something a little more powerful than just his voice, because it works fast, a little too fast to be completely normal.
By the time he's calmed, Steve's tongue has healed up enough for him to say, "I think the piercings are a trigger."
A mechanical mumbling about "Captain Obvious" comes from Iron Man. Everyone ignores it.
Steve hadn't winced as he spoke, but his skin is a full shade paler. Bucky almost can't stop himself from struggling against Thor and Iron Man's hold. He manages, but only just. They must feel the shift in tension, because they back off. Bucky pulls himself into a sitting position and wraps his arms around his knees. Sylvie trots over and starts sniffing at him, going through her routine check to see that he's whole.
He turns his face into her for a moment before making himself face the others. "I'm going to clean up and call Bridget." He breathes. In for three, out for four. Facing Steve he says, "Um. You should probably sit in."
Steve lights up like he's just been given the right to rename Christmas. He leans forward and kisses Bucky's forehead. "Let me help you clean up?"
Despite having just woken up, Bucky feels worn. "And to think, I'd almost forgotten about your complete lack of self-preservation."
Bridget is there by the time Bucky and Steve are dressed. Bucky settles on the couch with Sylvie. Steve attempts to give him some room, but Bucky reaches a hand toward him, and Steve does not hesitate to press himself into Bucky's side.
Bridget tilts her head. After a moment, she says, "You want me to ask, or you want to just start where you think you need to start?"
Usually Bucky prefers the former. She's better at knowing what will unearth answers than he is. He tells her, "I—the fall took a lot, even before the—even before they started cutting away more and more. Burning and, just. I couldn't remember who I was when they found me. But I must have known something, must have, because I remember thinking I could fix what I'd done if I—"
Bucky realizes he's clenching at Sylvie too hard when she whimpers. He lets go. "I killed a lot of them at first. Every time they left me out longer than a few days. There was still just enough me left to know they were the enemy. I…maybe I thought it would make me better, make me not just a weapon, or at least not just their weapon."
He swallows, tries to form thoughts cohesively, turn them into explanations. "At first—the stuff I told you about? The food deprivation, the brands, the water, that stuff wasn't torture, like I thought. I mean, it, its purpose was to punish."
Curling his knees further into himself in the pointless hope that it will reduce the growing nausea, Bucky says, "Then they figured out that punishing something meant it was still sentient, still capable of making decisions based on incentive or…or otherwise."
His stomach burns, a solid ball of lava at his core. "But the asset wasn't. It—they couldn't punish the asset, they could only use it, in ways that proved its utility."
Bucky stops and stares across the room, out the windows. It's a pleasant day outside; not as warm as Bucky prefers. Bucky likes it sweltering these days. He pines for the days he dreaded in his youth, aware that the chance of passing out at the docks was high and that the only relief going home would bring was Steve's smile. Neither Steve nor Bridget interrupts his thoughts. Steve rubs tiny circles over the back of his hand, round and round.
It's nearly impossible to say, "At first it was just—just rape. A—a lot of them, at once, and they'd make it so I couldn't shut my mouth, so I wasn't a threat, just a hole, but that's all it was."
"No," Bridget says.
He frowns at her. She shakes her head. "It wasn't just anything."
She's right, of course. In some ways, even though it was simpler, those first few years were the hardest, because every time someone forced his way inside Bucky, his belief in his selfhood slipped a little further despite his best intentions, how hard he worked to keep it from happening. Though he couldn't have explained why, those were the most primitive lessons Bucky learned, even if you included having his body operated on and his brain prodded and cut and vandalized.
"It was less complicated," he settles on. "The tongue—they, I don’t remember the words, something about needing more pleasure." He grimaces. "It was like the arm, really. Making me more fine-tuned to my purpose."
Steve's breath hitches, but when Bucky glances over, his eyes are still dry. Bucky flips his hand to squeeze Steve's. "The nipples, my cock, I think that was just to prove a point. I was a canvas or a pin cushion or. Something. A thing."
Softly, Bucky says, "You don’t have to be careful with a thing. Not one that can be put in a freezer and brought out good as new."
Bridget tells him, "Things don't have triggers." She allows some time for that to sink in before saying, "They don't panic. They don't hurt. They don't remember."
"That last one is questionable, in my case," Bucky says, bitterness flooding him like adrenaline with no outlet of fight or flight.
"No. That last one is the perfect example of everything they took from you, but that's all it is. And the fact that the memories are returning is a sign of how you are slowly taking things back for yourself."
Into the silence that follows, Steve says, "You won. Things don't win."
Bucky doesn't feel like a winner, but he can appreciate Steve's point.
Even touching the piercings in his dick or his nipples with his own hand can end with Bucky losing time. He hadn't even noticed he's avoided them, but now that he knows, he can't reclaim ignorance. Steve takes to showering with him, or at least being near, so that Bucky doesn't come to under the water and think he's being drowned, sending him into another panic spiral. That happens once and once is more than enough for everyone involved.
Bruce finds a medical doctor to talk to him about the possibility of removing the piercings, but it will require cutting out the surrounding skin, and they haven't yet found a way to put Bucky under general anesthetic. Being awake for it, even if he's numb, sounds like a recipe for maiming and other disasters.
At one point, after another panic attack, when he's curled on the bathroom floor and soaking wet with Sylvie pacing around him protectively, Bucky says, "It could just be like this."
Steve, equally wet, raises an eyebrow. "This."
"I could stay on the brink of being a really useful, multi-purpose weapon and glory-hole for the rest of our lives. Which might be long."
Steve stands and gets a towel. "I don't believe that's what you are right now."
Bucky catches the towel Steve tosses him. "I'm not the guy you grew up with."
Steve disappears under the towel, drying his hair, then whips it off. "I think I'd worry more if you'd survived the years and everything and were."
Bucky sighs. "Steve—"
"You can give up," Steve tells him, and there's not even a hint of reproach in his tone. "But I'm not ready for that."
A call comes in about Hydra shenanigans outside Geneva and Bucky boards the jet with the others. He doesn't ask permission, doesn't give a heads up. Steve sees him coming and after a second, smiles. "Thought you wanted to teach dogs like Sylvie."
"What, Stark's the only one allowed to have a day job and hobbies?" Bucky asks.
Clint, who's piloting the jet, snorts, and Sam snickers. Tony answers, "Yes."
Steve says, "Buck," quiet and serious, a question in his tone.
Bucky knows some things. Everything he knows has a gap in it, a window or a hole. But he knows he didn't want to go to war. He remembers the ripping feeling inside himself as he got on the boat to ship out. He knows the only time war made sense was when he was following Steve.
There are no details for these certainties, just emotions, but he has learned that is how things come back to him. First the reaction, then the context, if it follows at all.
He tells Steve, "Still following that skinny kid from Brooklyn," frowning after the words come out. They weren't what he'd thought he'd say. He'd planned on something about Steve's team being his team, but his mouth decided on that sentence.
It must mean something, though, because Steve's eyes light up. He doesn't look away from Bucky as he asks, "Hey Tony, we got an extra comm. unit?"
Tony is unimpressed by the near-garden of explosives festooning Hydra's base and goes to work gleefully exploding shit. Sam gets Clint up high so he can have eyes on the scene. Cap, Thor, and Natasha work their way through the various STRIKE teams defending the base. Bruce stayed home. Everyone felt Hulk would be overkill in this instance.
Bucky stays with Steve. Steve doesn’t order him to and Bucky doesn't head into the fight intending to. But once everything starts happening, it's almost as if he's tied to Steve, incapable of exceeding the length of the rope.
He knew, in an academic sense, that he and Steve fought together. He was told by a museum and the words of others, that he spent his life when it was his own protecting this man. To feel the rush of it like pepper and fireworks in his bones, his spine, is exceptional. To step in front of Steve and not even consciously make the decision that nothing, nothing is getting through him.
Little pieces, fractured and jumbled, snap into place with every lackey Bucky hauls away from Steve, every instinctive moment of choreography between them, every touch of their shoulder blades. Bucky fits into Steve's fighting as easily as the shield, if with less obedience.
This is his body's purpose.
They make it inside. Clint, Tony, and Natasha collect the information they want before Tony gets a little hit off Mjolnir. Bucky suspects this is mostly for show, then Tony fries the place until even the earth is scorched. Bucky watches the blaze as they pull away, back on the jet.
He doesn't have to turn to find Steve. For one thing, Steve hasn't tried to pull apart the invisible knot between them. For another, it's almost as if Steve is an extension of himself. Bucky pulls Steve nearer, one hand hooked into the collar of the uniform.
Steve comes easily. "Hey. You okay?"
Bucky pulls him in, unconcerned that the others are near and can see this. He pulls Steve in and kisses him. Pushes his way into Steve's mouth, then licks against Steve's tongue. Steve stiffens, even struggles a little bit, but groans and gives in when Bucky runs the piercings along the length of his tongue. Bucky backs away when he can hardly breathe, grinning when Steve follows.
He says, "Yeah, fine. I miss Sylvie."
Steve rolls his eyes and retaliates with more kissing.
Sylvie has definite opinions against being left behind during the action. Bucky rolls around on the floor with her for a while, and lets her sniff at him until she licks his ear, which he takes as a sign of forgiveness. Then he showers, pulls on sweatpants, and locates Steve in the kitchen, devouring an order of garlic naan.
Steve says, "Waited for you," gesturing to the unopened cartons of food. Bucky hesitates, not really wanting to put off getting his hands on Steve any longer than he already has, but he is famished.
Together they neatly demolish everything edible within a ten foot radius, including the cake in the fridge that Rhodey dropped off because he'd been at some bakery Steve likes. Then Steve stands in the middle of the kitchen looking lost and Bucky growls, "C'mere."
"Buck, I just—after combat can be, um, I mean, I talked to Bridget and—"
"No, seriously, I need you to shut up and come over here before you do kill the mood."
Steve shuffles a little in place. "I'm trying not to take advantage of you."
Bucky could scream in frustration. "Could you go back to that after I've taken advantage of wanting to rip your clothes off?"
Steve may be Captain America, but he's also human, and Bucky can see he's interested from across the damn room. Steve holds out for another few seconds before saying, "I want it on record that I think this could be a bad idea."
"Duly noted," Bucky tells him, meeting him half-way and pushing him against the nearest counter. Right now, Bucky wants to scrape his tongue over every inch of Steve's skin, until the feel of metal in flesh belongs to him. He presses into Steve, kissing him with a force born of urgency. Steve doesn't try to slow or gentle him, just hangs on for dear life.
Bucky breaks away long enough to get Steve's shirt over his head, mouthing a path down his collarbone, over his shoulder, along the lines of his arms. He gets stuck in the hollow of Steve's breast bone, less prominent than his mind tells him it should be, clean and salty and new.
Steve gasps and arches into Bucky, pulling back when he realizes what he's done, but Bucky just crushes Steve to him. He nibbles at the waistline of Steve's sweats before pulling them down. He mouths at the inside of Steve's thigh, which causes an explosion of curses on Steve's part. Hilariously, that causes an echo of familiarity. Bucky's too interested in what he's doing to stop and explore it.
He devotes himself to the back of Steve's knees, pushing Steve onto the counter and pushing his legs back. The soft skin tastes like heat and Steve's heartbeat, and Steve giggles breathlessly. Bucky says, "I'd forgotten you were ticklish," like it's the only thing missing.
Steve almost falls off the counter after he jackknifes when Bucky licks a stripe up the arch of one foot. Bucky laughs and anchors him, sucking at toes, biting at ankle bones, laving at the Achilles tendon. Steve sobs a little, but not in a way that makes Bucky want to stop. He moves up and swipes at the head of Steve's cock.
Steve does come off the counter at that, breathing hard and mumbling Bucky's name over and over. Bucky kisses him and says, "I'm gonna need you to be real still, okay? And, um, don't touch my head. Or my hair. Or, um, any part of me."
Steve nods breathlessly, his fingers wrapping on the counter behind him so tightly they turn white. Bucky takes a deep breath and almost backs down, but he wants this. There's so, so damn much of him missing. He's taking what he can, even if it's violent and ends in bruising and stitches and a few tears.
Steve's cock slides over his tongue. Bucky takes it slowly, carefully, an experiment. There's nothing familiar in the taste, which helps. Steve remains still, allowing Bucky leeway. Bucky moves forward, then retreats when Steve hits the back of his throat. In the back of his mind, he knows he could take Steve all the way, was made to once. He doesn't want that. Then is not now. Instead he wraps his flesh hand around the base, and Steve mumbles, "Oh, oh, I—Bucky, I—"
And Bucky gets it, he knows what Steve needs, and a voice in his mind shouts that it is Bucky's to give, only Bucky's. He sucks down hard. It's not artful, but it's enough, because soon Steve is saying, "Buck, you should—"
Bucky pulls back, far enough that he won't be hit. Something in him shies away from being sprayed with come, and he listens to it. He's learning when his mind isn't lying to him.
Steve comes down to his level and kisses him, his forehead and eyelids, his cheeks and nose. "Lemme do that for you, Buck. Lemme—"
Bucky shakes his head. "Not—not yet." He tries to turn away, bites down apologies because they upset Steve. He wants nothing more than to let them spill out.
Steve is having none of it, and brings Bucky's chin up so that he has to face Steve. Steve's smile is soft and floaty. "Then lemme see you touch yourself, yeah?"
Bucky almost wants to make a snarky comment about Steve's artistic vision. At the same time, he won't interrupt whatever's between them right now. After a moment, he pulls free of Steve and scoots so that the counter is at his back. He lifts his hips enough to shimmy down his pants. He breathes, one-two-three, one-two-three, and cautiously wraps his hand around his own cock.
One-two-three, one-two-three, his hand moves in time with the rhythm of his breathing, his gaze never leaving Steve. Steve says, "That's right, baby, you can do this."
Bucky's breath hitches. His hand moves along with Steve's cadence. "Tell me more."
Steve talks, he talks about Bucky's strength and his beauty and how much he missed him, and Bucky comes despite his hand being on his dick.
Bucky wakes up with Sylvie half on top of him, nosing at his chin, and Steve saying, "You're in Avengers Tower, you're with me, Steve, your name is James Buchanan Barnes, and you are safe," over and over.
When Bucky's managed to overcome the panicked instinct to strike out, he exhales. "I'm here."
"Can I touch you?" Steve asks.
Bucky takes a mental inventory of his parts, of the way his muscles are quivering beneath his skin. "Just…take it slow."
Steve runs his fingers along Bucky's before intertwining them, presses a quick, soft kiss to the curve of Bucky's shoulder. Inch by inch, he draws Bucky into him, until they are knotted together, Gordian and complete.
Bucky admits, "I don't know how soon I'll be able to try that again. The uh—"
"Yeah," Steve cuts him off, and Bucky can hear the roll of his eyes. "I don’t care."
"I am something less than him in every way." The feeling he woke with, of blood wetting his clothes, his palms, his fingers, in his mouth, recurs for a brief moment. He sees faces. He doesn't recognize them, but he knows they are dead and he knows he killed them. It is worse that he cannot recall their names or even why he took their lives. "Something worse."
"No," Steve says soft but obstinate. "You are something healing. And with each scab that scars over, you are something new, created from the man I knew, and the experiences he endured. You cannot convince me otherwise. You know, somewhere inside, you know I've always been more stubborn than you."
Bucky laughs, because now that Steve mentions it, he does.
Tony slips into the gym while Bucky and Thor are sparring a few days later. Bucky has found that exhausting his body to the point where his mind shuts off just a tiny bit allows him to touch and—to some extent—be touched without immediately having an episode or just plain freaking out. They stop, because Tony is watching, and Tony doesn't usually spend his time watching other people. According to him, he's got better things to do.
Thor cocks his head. "Joining?"
"Ha ha," Tony says, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "JARVIS told me I'd find Nutcracker up here with Cavalier."
Thor says, "I do not know—"
Tony waves a hand. "Ballet. I'm hanging out with Pepper too much. Beside the point."
Bucky leans back against the ropes. "Which is?"
"Right." Tony claps his hands together. "I made you a foundation. You don't need to thank me or anything, I'll just be—"
"Stop," Bucky says, halting Tony mid-pirouette. "Explain."
Tony shifts from one foot to the other and Bucky wonders if he's going to actually have to chase after him. Then he says, "Sam and Natasha, they were talking about how you wanna do this thing, with stray dogs and vets, and Sam was brainstorming grants with Bruce and I mean, I have this team of lawyers and a lot of money that I made turning a blind eye to killing people and so I just, uh, put the two toward creating a 501(c)(3) with space in the Tower for the intake and training of the dogs and whatever else the project needs."
From the far high corner of the room, Clint says, "Phil's gonna eat your entrails."
"Can't you sit in a chair or stand around like a normal person?" Tony snaps, as though he didn't create those nests throughout the Tower in the first place. Bucky's a big fan of the ones in the common areas. Thor is snickering. Thor's snicker is much like most people's booming laughter.
Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. "Wait, no, forget I asked that. And no he's not."
Clint snorts. "Only because Pepper's gonna get to you first."
Tony throws up his hands. "I am doing a nice thing. I am a nice person. Why the hell do I need enemies, Barton?"
Clint just smirks. Thor appears about to explain, in a beautiful approximation of complete earnestness. Bucky can only imagine how Coulson and Pepper had reacted to this idea. Or fait accompli. He's noticed their tendency to try and talk Tony down from his more fantastical, quixotic moments. Rhodey does too when he's around. Which makes Bucky ask, "What did Rhodey say?"
Tony blinks the way he does when he hasn't expected he'll be listened to. Bucky's pretty sure he has no idea about the tell. "Uh, to talk to Sam about the details, because he'd know best, and to tell him when things were up and running since he has some people he'd like to refer."
Bucky nods. "And did Sam? Know best?"
Tony looks wary as he says, "A veritable font of wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit. In the most 501(c)(3)ish of ways."
Bucky hasn't earned this, of course he hasn't. But Bridget is working to convince him that not everything is about balance in life. Tony is jittery, waiting for rejection, waiting to be fed head-first to Pepper or Coulson, and their disappointment in his inability to listen. Bucky claps his hands. "Show me what you've done so far."
Tony opens and closes his mouth. Twice. "Right, yeah, c'mon, wait till you see the way I set up the dog residences, you're going to reconsider my genius all over again."
Dryly, Bucky tells him, "I do every day, Stark."
Bucky searches out Bruce in the middle of one night. Steve isn't sleeping, either, instead playing around with the oil sticks he'd bought earlier in the week. Bucky's content to watch for a while, but he's got something on his mind, something he needs to speak to Bruce about. He tells Steve, "I'll probably be in the gym. Or on the roof. Just ask JARVIS."
Steve doesn't pause as he asks, "You all right?"
"Just need to move a little." It's not the whole truth, but it's not a lie, either.
Sylvie trots out of the room after them, and they start by going down to the labs, but while there are signs that Bruce has been there recently, he's clearly not just then. They find him in the second spot they look, making coconut curry popcorn on the stove in the common area. Tony's talking loudly from the couch, but when Bucky leans on the counter, Bruce says, "Hey," and, "Don't mind him, he's been theorizing out loud for the better part of the last half hour. Most of what he's come up with is utter bullshit."
"I can hear you," Tony says.
Bruce glances at Bucky a second time and whatever he sees, he nods slightly and calls back, "Go play with Dum-E. He likes all your ideas."
Tony grumbles, but he disappears. Bruce asks, "Something on your mind?"
Bruce has allowed Bucky the dignity of his choices since the moment they met. Which is the only thing that makes it possible for Bucky to say, "Would you take the metal out of my chest?"
Bruce keeps his concentration on the pan in front of him and says, "If, and only if, you let me use a local."
Bucky could honestly hug Bruce for not making a big deal out of this. "I—yeah, I want that."
"Look, I'm not trying to question your choices, but if this is something that has the possibility of triggering you, I think you should have someone there who can bring you back. Bridget, Steve, whoever, but I'm going to be taking a sharp instrument to your skin and as much as I love Sylvie, I don't want a dog being the only thing between you and the Other Guy."
Bucky is of the belief that he's possibly safer in the hands of the Other Guy than most other times, but he agrees. "I told Steve I would let him be there, anyway. He worries, that one."
Bruce makes a "you're one to talk" face at the pan that Bucky does not miss, but chooses not to comment on. Bruce asks, "Wanna do this now?"
Bucky's responding smile is just a flash, not too sturdy. "Yeah, I mean. If you can. Just. I don't want to lose my nerve."
"Go get Steve. Meet me on the guest floor in half hour."
Bucky sniffs the air. "Will you bring the popcorn?"
Bruce makes a shooing motion. "Demanding little thing, aren't you?"
The first dog Operation Back Home welcomes into its palatial rescue quarters in order to train as a service dog is a rottie mix with limp and a tendency to lick everything it contacts. Bucky names her Ant and tells everyone but Tony it's short for Anthony. He's pretty sure Tony suspects, but it's more fun to play at innocence, or at least plausible deniability.
They rescue from shelters that can't take another dog, from rescues that are given dogs that don't quite fit into their mission. Not all the dogs are going to work out, Bucky can tell that by the fifth one, a Labrador mix with a little too much enthusiasm to be helpful. Tripp's older brother ends up adopting that one for his kids.
Bridget sometimes holds their sessions in the play area with the dogs roaming around them, even though Bucky's more and more able to leave the Tower these days with Steve or one of the others. Even occasionally on his own. He's made it to her office more than once, but she says, "You're still easier to work with when in your comfort zone."
Steve often drops by in the early evenings, when he's finished working with Coulson's team or coordinating with Nat and Clint or even calming the masses when it's necessary. He likes sitting side-by-side with Bucky, their backs to the wall while dogs climb over them or chase balls they throw or tug at the other end of toy ropes.
Sometimes it develops into something they want to take back to their rooms. More often it doesn’t. Steve shares whatever doodles he's made that day. Bucky says, "That one," and points to his favorite, and nine times out of ten Steve draws it on him later, maybe after a mission where Bucky has joined—most of them, now—and they need the connection, or after one or both of them has woken from a nightmare.
Steve paints him and sooner or later it washes off, but he remembers what it looked like, without photo or picture. He remembers.