Bucky jerks awake, thrown out of sleep by the rush of chemicals in his brain and the fragmented images his mind saw fit to toss at him, and nearly breaks his teeth on his hand. It's a habit he started back during the war after Steve pulled him out of Zola's lab - they all slept in close quarters out on the field, and a lot of the time across enemy lines, and he couldn't exactly wake everyone and half of Germany or occupied France or wherever just because he'd had a bad dream - but now it's different.
Back then, Bucky would shove a fist in his mouth to stifle the shouts, and the pain if he did break the skin would give him something else to think about so he could shove back the panic and wipe his eyes and not look like a damn baby out on the front with a bunch of guys who went through hell every day. Back then he'd had fingers made of flesh and bone and muscle, not some kind of Stark Industries alloy that could get caught in an elevator door and come out looking brand new, though couldn't say the same for the doors.
Back then, the only thing in his nightmares had been pain and fire in his veins and the doctor's soft voice hissing in his ear asking for reactions, like he could really write down how he felt on a scale of one to ten and describe if the pain was burning or stinging or aching or throbbing or anything else Zola wanted to know when he was screaming so hard he lost his voice. Back then Bucky thought it couldn't get any worse.
Now, Bucky's head is stuffed full with another life - hundreds of other lives - scattered across the century and shoved back inside about as carefully as a field medic might stuff a man's insides back into his stomach until they got him back to the hospital. Now it's blood and screams and silence, it's faces with their eyes wide in fear and their mouths open in a shocked 'o' as they fall to the ground and their skulls crack against the floor.
Now, Bucky's left arm is made of metal, and he's still right-handed but the machine in him reacts faster than the man and so it's his new hand that he bites down on to keep himself from shouting and waking Steve or bringing all of SHIELD down on his head. Great. This just keeps getting better and better. Just when he thought it was safe to sleep with the arm still attached.
Bucky sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed, and sits with his head in his hands and his elbows digging into his thighs as he runs his tongue over his teeth searching for cracks. Behind him, good old Steve snores on, which means that Bucky might have to check his mouth in the mirror just in case but at least it wasn't for nothing. Steve is already run pretty ragged worrying about Bucky and going through every public relations protocol that SHIELD has without waking up to yet another nightmare.
The nightmare wasn't anything special, anyway. No soldier is a stranger to night terrors, even the ones who didn't get their brains hacked to pieces by mad scientists and used by madmen for decades. The ones who only had to put up with regular stuff like getting blown to pieces in a muddy trench, or seeing their buddy's legs get torn off by a land mine, or choking and fighting to keep their head above a mess of mud and rainwater while crouched in a shell hole, or listening to a friend and comrade die slowly overnight in the middle of no-man's-land because they couldn't make it out to drag him to safety or put a bullet in his brain.
Bucky comes back to himself when he opens his hand and sees several black strands twisted around his fingers, and oh damn it, there'd better not be a bald patch or he'll never manage to get this past Steve. As it is he has to get it together; SHIELD says they don't have monitors on his vitals but Bucky didn't enlist yesterday, and at the very least they'll have the place full up with cameras just to make sure their favourite liability doesn't go crazy and murder their favourite soldier.
He's not sure he can sleep and even less sure he should, and so Bucky pushes himself up off the bed and drops down silently into the chair at the desk across the room. It's a nice place, lockdown, way better than even the best joints the SSR got put in during their heyday during the war, and he takes a second to run his hand over the oak desk leg before shaking himself and going back to the files.
The problem with the cube, or whatever it is that SHIELD used to restore his memory, is that it's all there, all the memories that the Red Room did their best to wipe from him - Stark made some kind of analogy using computers that Bucky isn't even gonna try to parse, something about overwriting data seven times still isn't enough, and Bucky just smiled and pretended he was listening to a girl talk about shoes - but they're all over the place. Bucky can't just call up the names of people he assassinated as the soldier; he has to hear it, or see it, and that triggers the memory if it's there.
There's a pile of folders and papers on his desk that Bucky's been sorting into two piles based on whether he stares blankly at it or gets a jolt like he just tried to lick a light socket, which is about as fun as it sounds. He thinks back to the day the poor young SHIELD mook who was probably re-evaulating her pay and wondering whether she could sue for a raise came to him and gave him the assignment.
"Seriously?" Bucky'd said, trying not to stare her down. He used to be good with girls, used to be funny and charming, but that part of him is old and scabbed-over and it's easier to turn back into blank-faced and, apparently, terrifying. "You want me to stare at a bunch of pictures, see if any of them trigger an episode, so I can tell you whether I think a hit is one of mine."
At least she'd looked apologetic about it, behind the fear, anyway. "We'll need to come up with cover stories if any important figures are yours," she said. "Just in case someone talks."
"Do you want me to give you how they died, if that's part of the flashback?" Bucky had sneered, all hard-edged and nasty, and boy Steve would not have approved if he'd heard, but Steve wasn't there.
"That's usually in the file," she said. "They thought it might help you remember."
"Great," Bucky had said, smiling at her, and there'd been a hint of his old devil-may-care grin there, but now it was too sharp, too jaded, like trying to hide a bunch of nails and broken glass under a carpet in the hopes it wouldn't puncture your tire. He'd snatched the file out of her hands and stalked off. Later he felt bad and apologized; she told him it's okay, her grandpa fought in the same war as he had so she understood, and that's when Bucky just about stuck his head under the sink and left it there.
Now, Bucky pulls the closest file to him and opens it, staring at the swarthy face of a man unfortunately named Timothy Dinkwater, a banker responsible for a bunch of hedge funds that went under back in the day. Bucky studies his face in the live headshot, and when nothing hits him, he flips the page over to the police file on his death - shot in his home, lying face-down in the shower, most of the blood having run down the drain by the time anyone arrived. He runs an eye over the details - point blank range, messy exit wound - and finally shakes his head and slides the photo back into its file. Nothing. Not one of his. Whoever was buying the Winter Soldier apparently didn't bother with bogus investment funds, which made sense because anyone mad about it probably wouldn't have the cash anyway.
Not that Bucky has any idea what the Soldier's going rate was at the end; from the sounds of it he was pretty much being passed between buyers like a cigarette around a campfire on the field, so who knew.
Bucky flips the next file open, flicks his gaze over the woman's face - Asian, pretty, serious expression - and doesn't even get as far as the name before the memories slam into him like a wave. The eerie, hollow rustling of wind through bamboo leaves. Sliding paper doors that tore when he slammed them open. The thud of his boots against reed mats. Wailing, begging, imploring, words in a language he hasn't spoken in years but which carves its way through his skull now. The curve of a rounded belly covered in purple silk. And then blood, so much blood.
This time Bucky can't stop the scream that tears itself out of him, he slams the file shut and throws it across the desk but it's too late, the images are there. Not this woman (wife, expectant mother) but others, children lying motionless under the kitchen table, toddlers stretched out in dingy halls. They hadn't just sent him after important figures, it had been their families, too. Bucky during his World War days had killed plenty of people through his sniper scope that probably had wives and kids back home, but he'd never actually marched into their kitchens, killed each with a single shot to the head, and left with the house on fire behind him.
There's the stuffed Hulk that he won Steve at the fair on Bucky's desk, next to the lamp. He's supposed to look at it when he has an episode to help him focus, draw his attention to the present because there may be triggers everywhere, connections to his past that he doesn't know exist until they hit him, but his therapists are pretty sure that a fuzzy green rage-monster toy isn't one of them. Except that as he stares at it, Bucky's mind jumps to a stuffed teddy bear lying in a pool of blood, and he can't tell if that's an actual memory or just his mind being super melodramatic and sickening but it doesn't matter. Either way, that coping mechanism's gone out the window with the rest of them.
The part of Bucky's brain not currently trying to make him crawl inside-out thinks that if the SHIELD headshrinkers aren't the highest paid members of the staff, they probably should be.
That thought quickly slides away, and it's nothing but blood and more blood and metal and smoke and the sickly-sweet stench of rotting bodies, and underneath it all is - peppermint?
The smell hits his brain, wiping away the rest with the clear, clean scent of gum and tea and candy like Sister Catherine used to keep in her drawer and give to him when he'd done something good. Bucky gasps, opens his eyes and sees Steve kneeling in front of him, holding his hands, an open bottle of oil on the desk beside them. "Good, Buck," Steve says, slow and soothing, "You're right here with me. You're here at SHIELD, Bucky, it's okay. You're safe. You didn't hurt anyone. You can come back."
Bucky sucks in a breath - for a second the air feels cold, like ice and snow and falling - but Steve moves, holds Bucky's face in his hands and presses their foreheads together and tells him to breathe, and Bucky is a soldier and a soldier follows orders and he does. "Good," Steve says again, like Bucky is a dog, but it lets Bucky take another breath, and another, and another. "Good. It's okay, Bucky. You're here. Nobody's hurt."
Bucky looks down at Steve's wrists, mottled purple from Bucky's panicked grip. "Except you," he gasps out, his voice hoarse.
Steve doesn't even look. "I'll heal. The important thing is that you're here and you're safe." He blows out a breath through his nose, the lines of his face tight.
"What's with the look?" Bucky asks, and his heart rate is still skittering all over and he's shaking and if he tried to stand he'd fall over but at least he knows where he is. Bucky recognizes the face Steve makes when he's pissed, seriously end-of-the-world Captain-America's-gonna-kick-your-ass pissed, but trying not to show it, the thing where he clenches his jaw until a muscle twitches and his eyebrows turn into those two towers from that movie series Bucky might actually sit through when he has a million hours to do it.
"You're not doing that again," Steve says in a carefully modulated tone. "I don't care what they say or how soon they want it, you're not doing that alone. They can do their own cross-referencing or whatever it is, and if they really need you to check for them then they can do it when you're in with a therapist ready to bring you out of it, but not alone. Not in the middle of the night. Not again."
"What, is Captain America going to deliver a star-spangled spanking to the SHIELD brass?" Bucky tries to laugh, but it gets stuck somewhere in his chest. He closes his eyes and lets Steve's fingers, strong and blunt against his jaw, hold him steady.
"He will if he damn well has to," Steve says, all crackling energy and repressed fury, and it's stupid and maybe not that healthy but Bucky relaxes. He grips Steve's wrists - lighter, this time, not digging in and leaving marks - and Steve strokes his thumb across Bucky's cheek. "You back with me, Buck?"
"Yeah, old man, I'm here." Bucky tilts his head, and Steve takes the invitation to kiss him, screw the poor suckers on the night shift who will be monitoring this.
After a while Steve pulls back, running his fingers through Bucky's hair. "C'mon, turn on the TV and we'll play a game. No point trying to sleep. In the morning you're going to see your therapist."
Bucky sighs and lets Steve drag him to the bed. "You mean you can't just heal me with your love? Wouldn't that be easier?"
"Therapist," Steve says firmly, and pulls Katamari Damacy from the pile of games next to the TV. It's a good time-waster, repetitive and colourful and task-based, exactly what Bucky needs after an episode. Which is good, because turns out when you're not allowed to play anything with violence, your options are kinda limited.
Bucky leans against Steve's shoulder as he directs the little green man around the screen, and they take turns after every mission because Bucky enjoys backseat driving almost as much as actually playing. He ends up dozing toward the end in the middle of shouting at Steve to roll up the dog because it's really damned annoying. He doesn't remember after that except that when he wakes up the TV is off and Steve has him held against his chest, reading from one of those electronic book things so he can turn the pages one-handed and hold Bucky with the other arm.
The next morning after Bucky's therapy session, during the daily briefing, Steve corners Fury and the other SHIELD operatives to give them a piece of his mind over not allowing Bucky to identify targets on his own anymore. It's not the first time Bucky has heard Steve yell at someone higher up because he believes what he's yelling about is right, but it gets him every time. By the end of the conversation Fury has ratcheted himself tighter and tighter, drawing himself up and twisting his mouth into a sour-lemon expression until Bucky thinks he's going to lift up his eye patch and blast Steve to smithereens with a death laser embedded in his skull.
"I'm listed as his next of kin, and his health care proxy," Steve says, mulish, and he crosses his arms and clenches his jaw like every old political cartoon from the forties of Captain America chastising the Nazis. Yet again the part where he can lecture Bucky about not bothering to dress properly while he himself wears shirts two sizes too small works well, because his muscles strain against his sleeves like they're pumped full of his rage. "That means I can make decisions about his health care."
"That paperwork was filled out over eighty years ago," Fury says with the sort of maddening calm that means the only good thing he's getting out of this conversation is staying cool while the other person explodes. "And furthermore, that proviso only comes into effect if Sergeant Barnes is incapable of making decisions himself."
"I found him triggering himself at three in the morning because he couldn't sleep after one of your sessions," Steve says, short and furious. "Buck, you know I love you, but you're stubborn as hell. You'd run yourself into the ground just because you hate to ask for help."
"Thanks for saying that to my face, I guess, instead of going all 'Sergeant Barnes' on me like I ain't here," Bucky says dryly, and Fury's eyebrow twitches. "Look, I don't really care either way -" he stops when Steve gives him the evil eye, "- but if you guys want me sane enough to make some kinda statement later, then yeah, maybe not."
"It's my professional opinion that while James does need to deal with the various elements in his past if he's to avoid being triggered in daily situations, these unscheduled, unsupervised episodes are detrimental to his recovery." Bucky has to give Gloria, his main shrink, credit for managing to sound like a normal person in their sessions while dialling up the unnecessary professor-speak when faced with opposition. It's a talent he appreciates even if it's not really his style.
Fury pinches his lips together like he really wants to drag a hand down his face but isn't going to give them the satisfaction. "All right," he says, doing his best to get his picture in the dictionary after the word 'aggrieved', definition: I've had it up to here with you assholes but I'm going to humour you because I'm the bigger man. "From now on we'll avoid bringing past cases to Sergeant Barnes except in the event it's necessary."
"And only in a safe environment," Steve adds.
"And only in a safe environment." Fury fixes him with a baleful stare. "I hope that satisfies." He looks at Gloria and jerks his head toward the door; she nods and slips out through the back. "Now. Talk to me, people. How are we coming on the Soldier? Is anyone stepping up?"
Everyone looks at Natasha, whose experience naturally put her at the head of the project. "Nothing yet," she says, cool and collected as always. Her gaze flickers to Bucky just for a second, and she gives him a small smile that digs into his chest with just as much force as the assassin photographs. He sees her face in his mind, splattered with blood and dirt after a mission - he congratulates her, takes a swing to test her reflexes - she blocks, and he kisses her and tastes the tang of smoke and gunpowder on her tongue -
Bucky shakes himself. Everyone's staring, and he looks down to see his metal fingers digging dents into Fury's nice mahogany conference table. There's a vein in Fury's temple that should probably petition for sentience recognition soon. "Sorry, what? I wasn't listening."
Natasha, bless her, just keeps going as though Bucky didn't have a mini-freakout right there in front of everyone. One day he'll ask her how long it took her before she stopped doing the same. Right now it's all too raw. "I was saying that no one we can track down to having used the Winter Soldier over the past few years has come forward or made any extortion threats against SHIELD. That doesn't mean anything just yet; it's entirely possible they're waiting for confirmation before they show their hand."
That sounds about right. Bucky remembers almost nothing about the people or organizations who bought him - they made sure of that, nothing like having a half-crazed assassin remember your face and decide he wanted to cut out the middle man and get paid directly - but anyone willing to track down a legend and work their way through the underworld channels to get him had to be good at some measure of patience. "So what do we do?"
Hill does that thing with the edge of her papers and the desk that makes Steve homicidal. "We keep looking. Meanwhile, we continue using our life model decoy of Captain America to stave off the situation here at home."
After the news of Captain America, America's possible next gay icon, hit the mainstream, SHIELD got clobbered for demands for interviews and statements and all that kinda nonsense that seems like it would really gunk up the workings of a secret organization. Hill anticipated that, and so as soon as that early-morning meeting ended, they sent out a robot replication of the Captain to Europe, where he could be seen investigating news of an enemy installation and therefore not be reached for comment until he got back. It gives them an excuse, takes some of the pressure off, and also gives Steve something to do, since he can't actually be seen in public and the LMD needs his input if it's going to do more than just stand there and be a really attractive statue.
Bucky still can't get used to the idea of a walking, breathing, talking Steve Rogers that isn't the one he grew up with. It's weird, but even with demigods and aliens and everything else, it's the robot that gets him. Maybe it's because back in the day he'd always known that the other stuff wasn't real, but robots, those were the future. Those would happen. It's one hell of a head-scratcher to wake up and find that they happened while he was away.
Stark didn't make it any easier by joking that if Bucky did really well on his next psych eval, maybe they'd let him take one home so he and Steve could try out some more complicated stuff without needing to find a third person. They're all lucky Steve wasn't in the room to hear that one.
It looks like a lot more busywork until somebody cracks somewhere, and Bucky is on psychological leave and may as well use it, so he gives himself permission to space out. This is the sort of in-between bullshit that they'd always put him to sleep for, which doesn't make it worth it, but when Bucky's feeling morbid and amused he can pretend for a second. It's nice of SHIELD to let him stay awake and keep his memories and all, but really, right now he's of no more use to them than he was to whoever hired him back in the day. Maybe he should learn to make gourmet coffee and doughnuts and bring things around to the staff.
Eventually the meeting ends. Steve's called away to help his robot self make an appearance, which leaves Bucky with a pair of SHIELD kids who must've been head hunted just out of college. SHIELD and its diaper recruitment league have a nifty way of making Bucky feel ancient even without factoring in the actual date on his birth certificate. It's not always a bad thing - like he said to Steve, at least he's in a place where feeling old is better than the alternative - but it does fill Bucky with irritation that he has to follow these infants around.
The only good thing is they look just as mortified to be keeping track of him as he is annoyed by their presence, so there's that. Bucky sighs and heaves himself to his feet, but that's when Natasha glides over and sends the aides away with a flick of her fingers. Bucky raises an eyebrow.
"You need to work off some of your stress," Natasha says, lifting her eyebrow right back at him.
Bucky needs more sleep, but in lieu of that, sure, stress relief works too. His automatic response is something cute about what she might recommend, but he can't even get all the way through the thought before it stutters to a halt because this isn't just a pretty girl. This is his Natalia, even if she's not who she was back then and neither is he. "Have you got something better than meditation, because if I go through any more yoga exercises I think I might -" He stops himself and winces. "I might do something entirely appropriate and not likely to get me locked away again," he says, instead of his usual quip about killing somebody. That had already stopped being funny back during the war, but now it's right up there with suicide.
"I got you clearance for the shooting range," Natasha says, and Bucky doesn't know whether it's the thought of holding a gun again or the small, twisting smile she sends him that makes his stomach jump, but either way, he's probably screwed up but there you go. "You'll have to be with me, and take orders from me at all times, but you can at least do something while Steve is away on his mission."
Bucky has no idea how to untangle what he and Natasha are to each other now, and honestly he's not sure whether he should even try. Like everything that happened after the KGB got hold of him, his memories of her aren't as clear as the rest, but he knows he loved her - that they loved each other. Knows that in the middle of what would turn out to be the worst hell of his life, he did manage to make something good out of it, even if it all went up in flames later.
He hasn't asked her - he can't - what they took from her, if she still remembers all of it, what's left of the stolen moments, climbing through windows and sneaking into showers, stealing kisses in locker rooms and whispering their promises in English so they could at least pretend they weren't committing treason by doing it. Call it just one more road that Bucky can't walk down because he's pretty sure it will end in nothing but blood and tears and fire.
He loved Steve before the Red Room turned his mind into party dip, and he loves Steve now. That's what matters, and that's what he trusts. It's easier for Bucky to think of him and Natasha as a relationship that ended and that's it, even though it's nothing like that at all, even though there's no closure in his memories, no nice bow to tie it off with. She's like the arm he lost in the ice except there's no new shiny fix-it in this metaphor, just a severed limb and a lot of trailing tendons and gushing blood, and the less he pokes at it the better.
Steve keeps not-asking so loud he may as well be shouting his demands through a megaphone, but that's just fine; Bucky will keep not-answering until the day he dies.
"Assuming you want to," Natasha says, and Bucky jumps because he hasn't answered her. He doesn't know how to tell her that he can't talk to her without his brain freezing, that it wars against the pre-war flippant part of him that keeps making bad cracks and the part of him that's quiet, deadly, and remembers the feel of her lips against his neck, her fingers massaging the join of his shoulder where his skin met metal.
"Yeah, of course I do," Bucky says finally, choking on the automatic phrase 'I could kiss you', and this must be what going crazy feels like - actually going crazy, not being turned that way by a bunch of scientists with nothing better to do than rip people apart and ruin their lives.
"I thought you might." Natasha is the same woman who haunts Bucky's memories but she isn't, too. She's lighter, her everyday movement less like she's stalking and preparing to strike; his Natalia kept herself coiled tight, every part of her ratcheted in like the inside of a pocket watch, precise and wound and perfect. Like if she let herself down for a second she might explode, and Bucky has scraped together enough in his mind to know that's not just paranoia. Now she still occupies the same amount of physical space but it doesn't feel quite so weighty, like she's given herself permission to close her eyes and fall asleep and trust that she won't wake up to a world on fire.
She leads him through the bowels of the SHIELD underground, and Bucky doesn't bother to try to memorize the layout even though he's been trained - programmed - to do just that, because if SHIELD doesn't want him to find it again, he won't, though likely not because he doesn't remember the route. Nothing happens here without Fury's one-eyed say so, and if that includes Bucky only getting to play with guns under adult supervision, then so be it.
He actually has to put up with a lecture from the guy in charge of the range about safety, and Bucky would roll his eyes or make smart remarks except that he's lucky SHIELD lets him wipe himself after he uses the john, so he keeps quiet. It's a little better when he lets his gaze flicker to the left and sees Natasha's lip curl in what would be an unreadable blank face on anyone else but is as good as a guffaw from her. Bucky keeps his expression neutral but it holds him through to the end of the speech.
They don't let Bucky choose his own weapon, and his fingers itch as he takes the safety earmuffs and puts them on while Natasha fetches something for him. He's wondering what they'll trust him with when Natasha comes out of the locker with an M1903 Springfield, and Bucky loses his breath. He takes it from her, runs his fingers over the smooth wood stock, the sights, and for a second he's jarred back to the trenches, pressed shoulder to shoulder with the Commandos - only they weren't called that then, they were just a bunch of guys in the same outfit who fought together and insisted on calling him Jimmy no matter how much he protested - and Bucky hisses. It probably says something that this is one of his better flashbacks, but no matter how bad it is, the smell of blood and smoke and the tang of metal and garlicky scent of nerve gas, at least he knew who he was then.
Bucky looks up to see Natasha watching him in that cool, calculating way she has, except she's waiting, too, gauging his reaction for more than science. "I hope you don't think any less of me if I start bawling like a baby," Bucky says, and he's rewarded when the corner of her mouth curves up. "You picked this one on purpose."
It's the last weapon he handled before Zola picked him up and started the process that led him to where he is today, a nutty patchwork quilt of a guy, like Frankenstein's monster only with fewer scars and neck-bolts and a killer smile instead. The last weapon Bucky had before they took him and made him into one himself.
"I thought you might enjoy it," Natasha says, and yeah, Bucky did love her once, and even if thinking about it makes him feel like he's dragging himself across broken glass, she is amazing. Loving Steve now doesn't change that. "We all have our comforts."
"You still sleep with a beretta?" Bucky asks, holding up the Springfield and sighting along the barrel. It's not an authentic historical model, but for a working reproduction it's flawless. The only real clue is that the sight's too good, the line of the barrel too perfect. He won't have to compensate on the field like he did back then.
"Only on special occasions," she says, and this is all right, this Bucky can do without freaking out, and then they step into their partitions and everything slides away.
Later, Natasha almost has to pry the rifle out of his hands. "I'll call you," Bucky says to the gun, kissing his fingers and touching the stock before Natasha tugs it away and heads back to the storage room.
"Come," Natasha says when she reemerges, jerking her head to the side, and Bucky is nothing if not an obedient soldier and so he follows. She leads him through to one of the commissaries, and she grabs herself a mug of something that Bucky doubts is regulation while he fills his mug with the thickest, blackest coffee they got.
"So," Bucky says, because what can he say? He and Natasha do better in groups, when they don't have to rely on themselves to keep the conversation going, when Stark's unending prattle or Banner's alternating polite and sarcastic interjections fill the silence.
"I think you should join SHIELD," Natasha says, taking a sip and regarding him evenly.
Bucky has seen way too much to choke on that statement, but it's a near thing. He sets down his mug, pleased with himself that he didn't spit-take. "Say what?"
She reaches up and tucks a strand of hair behind one ear, and Bucky really needs to get his head sorted because a memory hits him of standing with her in the shower, pushing her soaked hair out of her eyes before she kissed him, and wow, that is really not an okay thought to have. Bucky's not a prude and even less of a gentleman, but that's bad even for him. This whole business of stirring up his memories has left him jumbled and ridiculous.
"You heard me," Natasha says. "That's going to be the deal in the end, their protection in exchange for your cooperation. You may as well impress them by bringing it up first."
"You know, me and Steve had a big fight about this before he got himself smacked into the ground by a histrionic crazy guy," Bucky says dryly. "I told him it doesn't sit right with me, what you people do with the ones you take down."
Natasha raises an eyebrow, and Bucky swallows. He still hasn't asked her what happened, how she got here, how she found herself on the other side of the world, speaking a language he'd only barely begun to teach her, and he knows by the way Steve's eyes burn through the back of his neck when they're in the same room that they never bothered telling Captain America, either. If she'd joined SHIELD on her own or if they'd made her or what happened there, but Bucky gets the impression he just put his foot in it.
"They gave me the choice," Natasha says simply. "We give everyone the choice, just like I'm giving it to you so you know it's coming. Nobody just gets locked away to rot to death. Everyone SHIELD comes up against is a possible asset and ally, and more than one of them have seen the wisdom of that."
"What, no better way to guard against evil aliens than by recruiting psychopaths and giving them guns?" Bucky can't believe that, no matter what anyone tells him. He's fought some of these people. He met Doctor Zola, slimy and simpering and doe-eyed and evil, every bit as evil as Red Skull with his posturing and aggrandizement because he thought himself a sane man amongst madmen. There's no way that SHIELD would just let them loose any more than they'd tell him he was free to move to Hawaii without further interference. Likely the place he stayed at would have cameras hidden in the walls before he even decided to buy it.
Natasha rolls her eyes at him, and Bucky winces, because this is not her affectionately exasperated face. "A psychopath is someone who needs healing," she says, firmly, and Bucky looks down at the table and draws an embarrassed squiggly-mouthed smiley in the ring of steam-condensation left by his mug. "Not everyone can be rehabilitated, no, but all of them have the option. I don't know if this will surprise you, but many choose incarceration rather than to give over to people they see as their enemies. Some of us -" she shrugs - "were more practical."
Bucky hadn't really thought about that either; he imagines anyone from SHIELD getting Red Skull to agree to put down his alien beam weapons and join the forces of good, and the guy would've laughed his skin off while eating their hearts with his bare hands. He frowns. "And you really think that would help, if I put on the uniform and played nice with the boys in blue."
"It can't hurt," Natasha points out. "Look, James -" he still shivers when she says his name, and he's glad more than anything that Steve never called him anything but Bucky - "Let me tell you something, off the record. I've been going through every file we have on the Winter Soldier's appearances, confirmed and suspected. There's no indication that you've been used by any real organization since the Cold War ended. From the looks of it, you were bought and sold by anyone with the knowledge to find you and the wherewithal to pay for it."
Bucky winces. "That's what I figured, but always nice to have it confirmed," he says, a sour taste in his mouth, and he swigs the rest of his coffee in an attempt to wash it away. It only sort of works.
"At one point you were being used by both sides of a turf war." Natasha lifts one shoulder and gives him a small, tight smile. "I spent a great part of my life avoiding a crisis of personality by attributing my life's meaning to whichever forces bound me at the time. Sometimes that's all we have. The point is, there is no giant shadow organization with a binder full of knowledge on James Buchanan Barnes and his other identity, not as far as we can dig up."
Bucky swallows. "No?"
"No," Natasha says, and her voice is not gentle, not precisely, but it is quiet, and calming, like her smooth, capable hands setting a bone back in place. "The only organization that knows anything about you at all is the one big enough - and willing - to protect you."
"In exchange for doing your dirty work." He uses the familiar inclusive pronoun without thinking, but Natasha doesn't even blink.
"Yes," Natasha says without prevarication, like always. "SHIELD does what it can, just like anyone, but if the events of last year proved anything, it's that there are enough people within the organization to stem the tide when it starts down the wrong path. You could be part of that, in whatever capacity you choose."
Bucky swallows. He wasn't lying when he told Steve he missed fighting at his side, that seeing him out there on the field, getting shot at, getting buried in the rubble, without Bucky there to keep him in his sights, made Bucky sick to his stomach. It felt a lot like when they were dumb kids trying to get themselves enlisted to fight overseas, when he pictured some low-grade outfit picking Steve out of desperation, the two of them sent across the continent to battle and die alone.
And yet at the same time, Bucky has no idea if he could ever pick up a rifle and fire it at another human being ever again. "You know that part of me best," Bucky says, and Natasha says nothing, gives him no clues with her expression or posture. "You really think that's a good idea? What if the first time I look through that scope and see a person on the other side, I lock up? What if I have episodes every time they let me into combat?"
"Then SHIELD pulls you from active duty and gives you something else," Natasha says. "You could train new agents, just like you did me. You could work in the weapons department. SHIELD has more nooks and crannies and specialized units than you could ever imagine. The protection we're going to offer you will not be contingent on whether or not you're useful on the battlefield. We only get a few fights a year anyway; it's hardly like the old days."
Bucky gnaws on his cheek, and memories flutter at the corner of his mind but don't creep into his conscious mind, not yet. He lets out a breath. "Okay. What do you think?"
Natasha looks at him, really looks, that way she does that makes him feel like he's been stripped down to nothing, not just bare skin but right down to his core, like she knows every part of him. The way Steve looks at him when Bucky's been running tail from a realization for far too long and even the Captain's patience can't take it anymore.
"I think I've been wanting this since we pulled Captain America out of the ice and I saw your face in his personnel file," Natasha says levelly, but there's a rasp beneath her tone that makes Bucky's spine straighten. "They always used to joke it was you, back at the Red Room, but none of us actually thought it was real, and you never said anything about it to me so I thought -" she shakes her head, cutting that off, but Bucky knows what she was going to say. She thought that because he hadn't told her, it must not be true. He exhales through his nose to avoid giving himself away with a grimace.
Natasha's eyes go faraway. "Every time Steve talked about is best friend, I knew who you were. Every time he beat himself up about letting you fall off that cliff and die, I knew he hadn't. I knew that what happened was far worse. That it was better for him to remember his friend as the one who lived a short life and died a tragic death. Now that you're back -" Her hands tighten against the table, pressing flat to the surface in the strongest show of real emotion that Bucky has seen from her in a long time. "This is an opportunity for everyone to get what they want. Steve has his friend back, and I no longer have to worry who's using you when I'm not there."
"Is that it?" Bucky asks before he can stop himself, because he's an idiot with brains tossed in a blender and he doesn't know where he is anymore.
"I wouldn't say 'it'," Natasha corrects him. "But it is what it is. I've had time to work through what we were and what happened to us, James. A long time." She pauses, and it hits Bucky that she looks exactly the same as when he knew her, just with different hair and clothes, but age hasn't touched her at all. He has no idea how old she is, how many years it's been for her. "There are things more important, more binding, than love, at least in the simplistic sense that people seem to value. You and my team are part of that."
Bucky's chest tightens, but at the same time it's like those stories he heard about guys with missing limbs who had itches they couldn't scratch until this doctor played a trick with mirrors and their remaining arms and it made the phantom twinges go away. "You sure know how to be romantic," he quips, because if he doesn't he's afraid he'll fall apart.
Natasha snickers lightly. "Hardly. But I can borrow some sentiment, if you'd like, and tell you that having you alive and back in your own mind is all I ever wanted for you, and more than I thought I'd get. For both of us to be here, and sane, and safe, is all that matters."
"So is this a fancy way of telling me there's another guy and I shouldn't get my ego up?" Bucky asks, and he means it to be funny but it isn't, really.
"No," Natasha says, and he expected her to say something smart or maybe threaten him for the remark, so it throws him when she doesn't. "But I am telling you it doesn't matter." She raises her eyebrow again. "I haven't spent all these years pining, James. I've just finally learned to live. And so should you."
It's the kind of thing that people say in a well-intentioned sort of manner all the time, big smiles and wide eyes and sickening optimism, the kind that no one should ever really try on Bucky because he can't track his moods anymore and has no idea whether he'll be comforted or want to smack them in the head. Except that from Natasha - like it would be from Steve, or Stark, or any of them - it means something, because every one of the Avengers knows the difference between surviving and living.
Something unknots in Bucky's spine, and he leans back in his chair. "You know you're amazing."
Natasha smiles. "So says my personnel file."
Bucky grins at her, and he feels a little more solid now, like the ground underneath him isn't eroding away quite so fast. "Is it okay if I still don't have heart to hearts with you about Steve? I mean, that's kind of weird."
"I assure you that's perfectly fine," she says, and she uncurls herself from her chair with the kind of grace that only dancers and assassins can maintain. "If you're really feeling the need to chat about your feelings, try Dr. Banner. He hates it when people assume his Ph.D makes him a licensed therapist but he'll be the one to pretend to be nicest about it. Maybe Clint, if you bribe him and he's allowed to make fun."
"I'll remember that," Bucky says. Natasha stands, and he holds out a hand, though he doesn't grab her wrist because he knows better. "Hey, sorry, this is gonna be a weird request, but just - last time I saw you, before all this, I was getting tasered and everything went to hell. You think maybe - just, to close it, I dunno -"
For a long moment Natasha says nothing, but then she nods. She steps in close, leans down and kisses him. It's a simple press of lips, close-mouthed and lasting all of two seconds, but it slots the last of the broken pieces back into place. Bucky exhales when she pulls back, and it feels like he's been holding that breath for decades. In a way, he has.
Natasha's gaze flicks to the entrance of the commissary, and Bucky follows her eyes to see Steve standing in the doorway, watching them both. He has a lot of guarded expressions now that Bucky can't read, and it's jarring after their years of growing up together where Bucky didn't even have to look at him to know what his face was saying. Bucky swallows. He's been slapped by girls for less, and this is the kind of thing that Steve would have every right to get pissed as hell over.
Natasha slips out past Steve, lays two fingers on his arm and says something too low for Bucky to hear. Steve gives her a startled look, but then he makes his way over to Bucky and drops down into the chair next to him. "Hey," Steve says, and he's careful, he's using his eggshells voice, but that could mean anything. "Everything okay?
"Yeah," Bucky says, and Steve doesn't look mad, his eyes are clear and he's not clenching his jaw, and he folds his hands together on the tabletop with his fingers loosely linked. "Is this the part where I say 'it's not what it looks like'?"
Steve huffs a small laugh. "Well then I don't know what it was, because it looked like a goodbye."
"Oh." Bucky blinks.
This time when Steve laughs it's more real, and he nudges Bucky with his foot under the table. "C'mon, Buck, what did you think I was going to do, jump to conclusions and shoot at you?"
It takes a second for Bucky to get the reference, and when he does he shoots Steve a flat-eyed stare. "Okay. Steve? That is not what this looked like. If I'd been kissing her like private what's-her-name was kissing you, I'd fully expect me to shoot me."
"You didn't even see her kiss me! How do you know what it looked like?"
It's an old argument, and Bucky lets it smooth the last of his ragged nerves, lacing his hands behind his head and giving Steve a wide, toothy grin. "Because I remember Agent Carter, that's why, and no way would she have gone that crazy on you if it had looked innocent."
Steve harrumphs, Bucky laughs at him, and in the middle of it all Bucky catches Steve by the front of the shirt and tugs him in for a kiss. "Can we get out of here?" Bucky asks, and yeah, maybe some of this is trying to prove to himself that he's okay, they're okay, after being so jumbled up for the past week, but he's allowed to be broken. He's allowed to try to fix it. "I mean. We can't get out of here, but out of here?"
"See, that's why the girls always liked you better than me, all that smooth talking," Steve says, and Bucky may be crazy but Steve loves him - actually loves him - and what's crazier is that for the first time in a long time, that might actually mean something. "But yeah, let's get out-of-here-but-not-out-of-here-just-out-of-here."
"Thanks," Bucky says, jostling Steve with his shoulder, and he wants to ask Steve what Natasha said to him, sort of, but after he thinks about it for a minute the desire fades away. Steve still hasn't asked Bucky to talk about Natasha, not even he walked in on the two of them sharing a kiss, so you know what, Bucky will let Steve keep this one to himself.
"Hey, you know what," Steve says, and he turns to Bucky with a grin. "If you don't mind being around people for a little while, there's a table tennis tournament going on in one of the rec rooms. It's getting pretty heated, but I think you and I could take everyone in the team competition. What do you say?"
"Only if they're betting real money," Bucky says. "This is the future, right? No more matchsticks and cigarettes."
"I don't know about that, but I think Harker from salvage has some old alien weaponry he's put up for whoever wins the runoff."
Bucky barks out a laugh, and he throws his arm around Steve's shoulders and pulls him in until they knock skulls. "Sounds good to me."