Sometimes when Bucky wakes up he expects to see the stained, cracked-plaster ceiling of his old Brooklyn flop.
Other times, he expects the low-ceilinged vault where he had been prepped and wiped and prepped again, over and over throughout the course of too many years lost to memory and ice and stiff, formal words printed in textbooks.
He very rarely expects the modern openness of his apartment in Avengers Tower, even less so the large, solid presence warm against his side; a presence that he had—from the memories that have slowly begun to trickle back through the closed-off prison of his mind—been very used to, though with considerably less bulk.
When he wakes and doesn't know where he is, he closes his eyes again and tries to orient himself. Tries to remember that it is 2015, not 1939 or 1950 or 1963. That he is not awake for a mission but because he fell asleep on this bed the night before—voluntarily— and his body had woken up—voluntarily. That he is safe, that it is Steve’s arm around him: Steve, who protects and watches and grounds Bucky sometimes when he feels like he’s reeling, his tether to this earth and reality frayed to one insignificant strand pulled too tight.
It never works.
He is angry, for far too long. For far too long it is only the sound of Natalia’s soft, husky voice speaking to him in Russian that calms him down. It’s only her who can coax him out of his crouch, who can gently ease his fingers from his hair, who can calm his racing heart and his racing thoughts. He seeks his solace in her presence, because she too knows what it’s like to feel like a caged animal.
He pushes Steve away. He pushes everyone away. He scares Sam so badly that Sam won’t come near him for a week. He fantasizes about ripping the arm off, dreams of the crackling electricity of the circuits and the warm gush of blood from his flesh. He fantasizes about killing himself: jumping off the Tower, dismantling his razor, upending his bottle of pills.
He’s seen the exhibit at the Smithsonian. He is not that man. He may have been, in a time long past, but that man is long dead. Bucky wears his face but he’s an imposter, poorly-fitted in a life that isn’t really his own. He is dead: dead-eyed in the mirror, hollowed out like an old tree. It wears on him like a long-term poison.
“You need to work through it,” Natalia tells him.
They’re on the couch in her apartment, partly because no one else will hang around him for longer than they have to and mostly because Bucky can’t stand the look of guilt on Steve’s face, like it’s his fault that Bucky is even in this state right now. As if he’d been personally responsible for the fall from the train and Hydra taking him prisoner instead of it being Bucky’s own stupid bravado, desperate for the chance to fight alongside his best friend and prove himself.
Bucky looks up from the magazine whose corners he’s been mindlessly dog-earing for the better part of an hour.
“Come to terms with it,” Natalia clarifies. They’re at opposite ends because Bucky is still twitchy about personal space, but company he sometimes doesn't mind. “Accept yourself. You spent a lot of years obeying orders. It changed you. You can’t keep trying to go back to who you were before that, because it’s not going to happen. But you can accept that. You can tell yourself that what’s done is done, and it wasn't your fault.” She speaks with the conviction of someone who knows. Bucky supposes that she does, because he remembers what no one else besides them does.
“Everything is my fault,” he says, dragging his thumbnail over the worn crease of the page.
“It isn’t,” Natalia stresses. It’s what his therapist says to him every session, stressed over and over while Bucky sits on the couch and fidgets, not speaking as he memorizes the intricate patterns on the walls. He’s so fucking sick of being talked down to.
“Yes it is,” he snaps, hackles rising, red flashing across his eyes. He grips the magazine too tightly and a chunk comes off in his metal fist. He tosses it to the floor and stares at the crumpled heap of it as he tries to regulate his breathing. Calm down, calm down, he can hear the shrink say. Anger is not a necessary response anymore.
“James,” Natalia says, two times before he reacts by dragging his eyes to hers and taking deep breaths. “I know you want to go back to who you used to be. Believe me. But sometimes it’s better to move forward. Steve needs you.”
The words hit him the way that he remembers the chair feeling, jolting and painful and unexpected no matter how much he prepares himself for it.
“I…” Bucky swallows hard, running his tongue along dry lips. Fear encompasses him, insidious, and smothers the anger. Admitting it out loud is more than he’s done since escaping; it’s showing weakness, and after seventy years Bucky isn’t quite sure he knows how to be weak anymore. “I’m—scared.”
Natalia nods, but the slight tilt of her head and faint curve at the corner of her mouth means that she’s pleased. Bucky isn’t used to seeing that expressed in his direction. “Aren’t we all?”
“My name is James Buchanan Barnes,” he tells his reflection in the mirror. Not the Asset, not the Soldier. Feels foolish, hair stringy and long and eyes carved-out dark hollows sunk deep into his face. He clenches his left hand into a fist and hears the joints whirr, then clenches his right and almost hears the joints creak. Starts to say, “I—I am—,” but he can’t.
This isn't James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th or the Howling Commandos, or James Buchanan Barnes from Brooklyn, savior of skinny, sickly boys with hero complexes. He is not the best friend that Steve lost to war and then Nazis and then ice. Nor is he the Asset. He is—nothing, falling somewhere in between.
The shrinks can tell him that this is the best way to pave a path to recovery, but Bucky knows that it’s all a lie. He is responsible. It is his fault. He may not be—him anymore, but that programming will always exist no matter how many pills he takes or therapy sessions he attends or meetings he goes to.
Takes a deep breath and holds it in, closes his eyes. Swallows. When he exhales he reiterates what he’s been told: “My name is James Buchanan Barnes. I am a survivor. What I did was not my fault. I had no control over my actions or my decisions.”
The words taste bitter in his mouth. Everything tastes bitter. He sees a villain’s reflection instead of his own. He barely blinks when his metal fist connects with the mirror. In the glass that doesn’t fall to the floor he’s still there, two-three-four-five of him, and he has to look away, because there are too many and he isn’t sure which one of them is him.
How is he supposed to accept himself when he doesn't even know who that is anymore?
Insomnia is Bucky staring at the door of his room at four in the morning, wishing desperately that he could get up and open it, walk out and into Steve’s room where the empty side of the bed is ready for him, just like it’s always been. But his legs don’t listen and his brain screams at him.
Insomnia is being scared of the nightmares that refuse to go away. Insomnia is the harsh overhead light of the bathroom as Bucky stares in the mirror and gently places a finger to his carotid artery, feeling the steady beat of his pulse and wondering what it would feel like to slice it, how warm the blood would be and how red it would look against the tile.
Insomnia is perimeter checks around the apartment so many times every night that Bucky loses count. It is midnight panic attacks and bouts of paranoia that don’t stop even when he presses his back flat against the wall and slides down to the floor, curling in on himself with fingers laced on top of his head, eyes squeezed shut and teeth gritted.
Insomnia is memories coming back, quick lightning flashes interspersed with the red memories of the Soldier, and Bucky is scared to close his eyes. Feels like they will swallow him whole, eat him up until he is nothing but bleached bones half-sunken into the floor. Insomnia is not knowing what is real and what is not, who he is and who he is not, if he’ll somehow fall asleep and wake up speaking Russian again and not remember who Bucky Barnes is, or why the man on the bridge had made him pause.
The wife of a diplomat that he had been ordered to kill, cowering in the closet with her toddler son in her arms. In the hall her husband already dead, blood arcing up in a grand display over the white gloss paint of the wall, body slumped at the baseboards, nearly unrecognizable from a close-range shot from the Soldier’s gun. The wife begging, pleading, crying with her son held close to her chest, palm splayed across the back of his head like that will protect him.
The Soldier doesn't blink when he pulls the trigger, doesn't hesitate to fire once more when the wife slumps over and the kid starts screaming.
They hadn't been his mission, but they weren't supposed to come home.
Then, a man with a broken leg trying to run, trailing red in the snow that glistens black in the moonlight. Breath puffing up in ghostly clouds from the two of them, curling and dissipating into the Russian wilderness. The man still running, the Soldier taking aim, labored breathing echoing, loud. The crack of a report, the fall of a body. Red that blooms like a sinister flower.
Then, two kids cowering under a sofa, the Soldier finding them—
A man and woman, car careening out of control—
Bucky wakes up screaming.
“No, no, please don’t make me. Don’t make me. Please. I don’t want to!”
Words that Bucky Barnes had been screaming for decades while buried under the Soldier’s iron control bursting from his throat now, raw like they’re bleeding, erupting from where they’d been buried in his esophagus.
And then Steve is there (Steve is always there Steve is the reason why you breathe, why you fight, why you don’t give up) pushing the door to the guest room open, getting to the bed before Bucky can reach for the gun hidden under the pillow and tossing it out of reach. Bucky tears at the sheets, desperately trying to hold his tenuous grip to reality, and all it takes is one look at Steve half-shadowed in the light, eyes tired like he hasn’t been sleeping, eyes huge and worried like he isn’t going to be able to fix this, for it to fall apart.
The grief rises in a bubble before it bursts, and Bucky is hunched over, immobilized by heavy, wracking sobs. Steve keeps his distance, knows better than to try and touch, but his voice is soft and soothing, even when the deep inhales turn into gags and Bucky throws up for the fifth time this week from dreams he can’t remember, too numb to be mortified. Steve murmurs through the heaves, and only once Bucky is calming down, trembling violently but breathing almost normally, does he gently place a hand on Bucky’s back and say, “You’re okay. It’s okay. I’ve got you, Buck.”
I’m okay Bucky wants to say, but his tongue is glue and his mouth is sour and he’s tired, so goddamn fucking tired, and Steve is looking at him in the way that makes nausea rise all over again. Because Steve is looking at him like he isn’t a murderer. Steve is looking at him like Bucky’s still his best friend.
Let’s get you cleaned up, Steve says. You’re gonna be okay, he says, and Bucky follows, pressed tightly to Steve’s side, because in this moment he believes him. Wonders if this was how Steve had felt, before, and decides that if it is Steve truly is the braver one out of the two of them.
It’s months before Bucky can even think of sharing a bed with Steve.
He does, eventually, and the glow of Steve’s smile, the broadness of it and how it’s the first time that Bucky can recall seeing Steve actually happy, warms him in a way that he’s almost forgotten the feeling of.
"Sometimes it's all or nothing," Steve says when Bucky appears at his door, stripped down to his underwear, and holds out his hand.
Insomnia is also the yellow glow of the light above the sink; it is the clench of hands, one flesh and one metal, against the rim. It is tired, burning eyes and a cacophonous head, the sear of anger brimming and bubbling just under the surface but unable to boil over.
Insomnia is Bucky laying out the fragments of his life and trying to piece himself together but coming up short, frustrating, impossible. It is holes in the plaster that Tony has covered up the next day without a word and it is the slight furrow between Steve’s brows whenever he looks Bucky’s way.
It is Steve waking up in an empty bed and following Bucky into the kitchen, sleep-rumpled and yawning and looking so much like the ghost of his former self that Bucky could scream. Wants to. His whole life had been stolen away from him, ripped apart and set on fire and left to burn into ash.
“You okay?” Steve asks, even though they both know the answer.
Bucky says nothing, just studies the glittering patterns in the granite lit aglow by the light above. He’s not okay, but he doesn't feel that merits a response at this point. Steve doesn’t seem bothered by the silence, and Bucky thinks bitterly that he’s probably used to it by now, at living with this slinking shadow that’s sometimes present and sometimes not. When Bucky isn’t screaming he’s nothing, withdrawn in on himself so tightly that it’ll take a miracle to pry him apart and straighten him up.
Finally he does say, “It’s three in the morning,” in a voice flat to even his own ears.
The chair at the island scrapes across the tile with a slight squeak. Bucky still doesn't turn around. Another minute passes. The clock ticks. Bucky’s heart beats and his eyes still burn.
“You weren't there,” Steve says simply. He doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t push, but the words left hanging, unsaid, speak loud enough.
There are old pictures—pictures that had been in their apartment, in Steve’s before his mom had passed—on the internet. In textbooks. Intimate snapshots into their life as it once was.
There are Steve’s sketchbooks, on display like Steve is still gone, still just a relic from a better time instead of a frequent visitor to the coffeeshop a few blocks down, or a rapid devourer of modern art that Bucky doesn’t even try and pretend to understand. Like Steve isn't a person.
Sketches that Bucky remembers being present for: Coney Island in the spring; the view from their dump through the fire escape bars; him, sitting on their ratty couch and unaware of the sweep of Steve’s quick, talented hand. He can still remember how that couch had felt, lumps and heavy, rough material.
Bucky wishes that he could get them back, bring them home where they belong. As he thinks it he wonders when, exactly, he’d begun to refer to this place as home. He mulls it over, trying the word out again, and feels like one of those puzzle pieces has come together.
One thing that Bucky still appreciates all these years later is the beauty of the city at night. The boroughs he once knew intimately, that he could navigate drunk and blindfolded, have changed but the spirit has not. There are more lights and more skyscrapers, but every minute of every hour is still bustling, noisy, never-ending.
He doesn’t feel the wind even though he’s wearing only a thin long-sleeved t-shirt. He doesn’t feel even a glimmer of fear as his feet edge closer over the lip of the roof. He can see down, through the orange glow of sodium lights, the yellow streaks of passing taxis and the white glare of headlights. Wonders what it would be like to fall again. If he’d survive it this time. The wind blows his hair into his face but he doesn’t feel it.
Steve doesn’t sound worried, just cautious. Curious. He doesn’t ask Bucky why he’s up here, or what he’s doing, and for that Bucky is grateful. Silence lapses, broken by faint shouts on the streets below. Bucky imagines those shouts turning to screams as he jumps off.
“What do you want?” he finally asks, still staring out at the skyline, away from the street now, into the endless blackness beyond.
“I don’t want anything,” Steve answers.
“Then why are you here?”
“I heard that stargazing from the edges of rooftops is all the rage these days.”
Bucky is glad that Steve can’t see the twitch of his smile. Turning around, he says, “You’re never gonna stop being a smartass punk, are you?”
“I had to keep up with you.” I had to take over for you. Bucky can practically taste those words, and he fucking hates the surge of paralyzing guilt that sweeps over him. Steve’s half-smiling, but it slips easily as his eyes search over Bucky’s face. “Buck,” he begins gently, “you know—”
“It’s not my fault?” Bucky finishes nastily. One more step and he could fall. He wants to take it. “Yeah, think I heard that one already.”
Steve chews on his lip, and it’s so goddamned unfair how the dusky light highlights the shadows of Steve’s cheekbones and the brush of soot-black lashes when he blinks. How everything and yet nothing has changed.
Before the war, the scariest thing for Bucky had been how much he loved Steve, the ends he’d go to protect him, to make him smile even when his skin was flushed with fever and Bucky was sure that the last rattling breath drug in would be Steve’s last. Now Bucky accepts that fact as easily as breathing. Now, what he’s terrified of is how easily he can destroy Steve.
(He’d run from it then at first, and he’s running from it now—things never really change.)
“I never wanted to be helped,” he lies. For a while, he hadn’t. But he’d seen the look in Steve’s eyes on the bridge, and that hopelessness, that hollowness, is impossible to unsee. “I didn't want to be found.”
“We found you,” Steve says, like that’s the easy part, like he’d always expected everything to work out. That voice of bravado and confidence. Bucky doesn’t doubt it; Steve had always been the more optimistic out of the two. He’s always had more faith in Bucky than Bucky deserves.
It’s chilly up here, and Steve looks beautiful backlit by the orange glow of the city.
“But I haven’t found me,” Bucky says, like that makes sense to anyone who isn't him, who isn't wading around in the fucked-up mixed messages inside his head.
There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense anymore. His puzzle is still incomplete, gaping holes and poorly-fitted edges shoved together in frustration. Steve sees what he wants, and Bucky wishes to god that he could just give it to him.
The Winter Soldier should just be executed. Who cares if he’s “rehabilitated”? That doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t change what he’s done.
Why do they even still have his display at the Smithsonian? Barnes isn't a hero. He’s a menace and a murderer, a goddamn traitor.
Where is the trial? Why does America keep turning the other cheek when people like this break the law? He says brainwashed, but no one has any *proof* that he was. It’s all a fabrication, a cover for him to hide behind while he acts innocent and plots his next mass murder.
My little brother’s history textbook labels Barnes as a war hero and he keeps asking me why a war hero would kill all those people. I want to throw up. We need to get these textbooks out of curriculum.
Found all of my dad’s old Bucky memorabilia in the trash today. Kind of broke my heart, because I grew up with his tales and had even gone with him a few times to flea markets looking for rare items.
And over and over and over. Page after page, website after website, and Bucky can’t stop clicking, goes from one to another with a sort of insatiable, masochistic hunger. He doesn't flinch at the amount of death wishes, or the tales of disillusioned parents or grandparents. Deep down, he knows he deserves every threat, every loss of faith. He is a murderer. He deserves to be punished. Who is he to try and defend himself? Who is he to think that he deserves decades of accolades and tales of his presence as the great Captain America’s friend and comrade?
He doesn’t notice the grooves his metal fingers have dug into the desk or the way that his breathing has picked up, harsh, as time ticks by unheeded. He doesn't hear Steve until Steve is pushing the laptop closed, and Bucky stands up so quickly that his chair skitters on the floor. He’s drawn up to his full height like Steve doesn’t have a few inches on him now.
Steve doesn’t back down, only says, “You shouldn't take anything you find on there to heart.”
Bucky’s fists clench, and he grinds out, “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one people can’t stop talking about.”
“None of it is true,” Steve says, and oh, isn’t that rich. “You’re still Bucky.”
“You know damn well what I did,” Bucky growls. The anger is making him wild, irrational, so much that when he takes an unconscious step forward Steve’s biceps twitch, like he’s preparing himself for an attack, though he doesn't make a move. Bucky reigns it in, running his flesh hand through his hair instead. “Every day I read about myself and see people who had called me a hero, who had viewed me as an icon, and all I can see are the scared faces at the end of my gun. The red of their blood on my hands. I still hear their screams when I try to sleep. I still remember the automatic way that I executed every single one of them.”
He can’t stop, barrels on with so much voice that his voice rises. “The worst part? I still don’t feel regret. I feel remorse, and I feel guilt, but when I think about those people I feel empty. Detached. And I fucking hate myself for it because it’s like he’s still there controlling me.” Tears burn his eyes and he blinks them away, shaking his head. “You don’t know what it’s like to have people fucking around in your head, Steve. You don’t know the pain and the fear and how it feels when you finally detach from yourself. So don’t you dare fucking try to downplay it like we’re gonna go back to the way that we were before the war. There are things you just don’t come back from.”
He’s met with silence, Steve staring at him with a blank look.
Bucky’s chest is heaving, heart racing, but he feels…lighter. Freer, in a vague way. It’s the most that he’s spoken at one time since he came to the Tower; in fact, it’s the most that he’s told to anyone. Steve seems to realize it, too, and when he steps forward Bucky lets him. Doesn’t move when Steve’s arms wrap around him, warm, safe, sturdy. Only blinks when Steve murmurs, “I know.” That’s it. Just I know.
It’s all Bucky needs; he still feels raw, like a wound, like an open nerve, like the baby bird fallen from its nest to writhe helplessly on the ground. The scab of himself he’d been picking at is gone and the pink newborn skin is exposed.
“I can’t go back,” he breathes.
“You don’t need to,” Steve replies, and he’s pulling back, hands framing Bucky’s face, thumbs stroking over his cheeks. Bucky had forgotten how blue Steve’s eyes are. “I never wanted that. I just wanted you.”
Steve’s eyes are blue and they shimmer, and Bucky leans in, hand curled around the nape of Steve’s neck, and kisses him.
Sometimes when Bucky wakes up, it’s in increments rather than a jolt. The weight of Steve’s arm, the warmth of his body, the softness of their bed and the light shining in through the windows.
Remembering where he is gets easier, but frustratingly slowly. On mornings when it is less than so, Bucky focuses on the soft, even pulls of Steve’s breath, the slight hitch of a snore, and grabs onto it like he’ll die if he doesn’t. Repeats his mantra and reminds himself that he is safe, that he is okay.
“My name is James Buchanan Barnes,” he whispers, “I am a survivor. What I did was not my fault. I had no control over my actions or my decisions. I am learning to accept it.”