It’s three o’ clock in the morning and James Buchanan Barnes is screaming.
He’s screaming because he dreams of rubber in his mouth and electricity coursing through his body.
He’s screaming because sometimes he remembers falling and cold and metal cutting through skin to replace it with more metal and the face of a man who he sees every day, now.
He’s screaming because this is all he remembers.
He’s screaming because he is and is not James Buchanan Barnes, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.
He screams until he’s hoarse and now there’s someone in his room--because, he has just realized, this is his room, it’s temporary but he has a room--who is trying to touch him, but he pushes the hands away and grips at his hair as his screaming devolves into heaving sobs. It comes to his attention that he’s rocking back and forth. It’s a soothing action, so he keeps doing it.
“Bucky,” someone is saying. “Bucky, please talk to me.”
Bucky can’t talk, not now, so he just looks at the blond man and wipes at his eyes with his flesh and blood hand and turns away from Steve (that name--that name is like Bucky in that it makes some soft shadow of a memory wrap around the back of his mind) because he’s crying and suddenly, wretchedly embarrassed.
He is the Winter Soldier. He is not meant to cry. He is not allowed to cry.
But he’s not the Winter Soldier, either.
That’s what everyone tells him, and that’s what he feels. He remembers that.
Steve tells him he's safe, and then tells him to take a shower. Bucky (because that’s his name, that’s his real name, the one that feels even more his than James Buchanan Barnes) goes because he listens when people tell him to do things, even though he vaguely remembers Sam (the Falcon, his mind supplies, Sam is the Falcon and Bucky tried to kill him once) saying he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to.
Bucky isn’t so sure of that, because it's difficult to tell what he wants to do, but he thinks he actually does want to take a shower, so it doesn’t matter. He stands under the spray of the shower for just a few minutes because he knows the water goes cold if he stays under it too long, and he hates the cold. He knows why he hates the cold. Because they used to put him to Sleep in it.
He doesn’t like remembering the cold, but he likes remembering the because of why he dislikes or likes something. It makes him feel as though he is real.
They go to Avengers Tower three weeks after Steve and Sam find Bucky, because they’ve been staying at Sam’s apartment but it’s not safe enough.
Bucky wants to point out that nothing is safe, nobody is safe, not with him around, but he doesn’t because he can’t find the words for it, not in any language.
It frustrates him, the way he has trouble “verbalizing”. That’s what Sam calls it, at least. Bucky just calls it “talking”. He doesn’t say much. Speaking falls into three categories: repeating things he’s just heard or remembers, phrases and words that are carved into his mind and take only muscle memory to say (but most of them have to do with missions, with killing and pain, and make Steve look sad), and words he has to string together painstakingly. Mostly he finds himself in the third category, searching for a way to say what he wants to say and coming up short, coming up with simple questions and simple words and not much else.
So when he finds himself faced with the Avengers, he doesn’t have anything to say except “The weather’s nice,” except it’s raining outside and the rain gets into his eyes and he doesn’t like it.
But when he goes out--not often, because too many people around him make him uncomfortable, and when he’s uncomfortable Steve is uncomfortable, and Bucky knows it’s because he thinks Bucky will get violent, and the worst part is that he might--he hears that phrase often. So he says it because he knows he’s expected to speak. Nobody says anything back, though, until they suddenly start saying hello, smiling.
Someone reaches out a hand to shake and Bucky shrinks away, barely restraining himself from lashing out. He doesn’t like touching people. He doesn’t like it when people touch him, either.
The hand retreats.
Steve tells him all the names of the Avengers, and Bucky forgets them all immediately except for Natasha. He knows Natasha.
He knows four names right now: Steve, Sam, Natasha, and Bucky. He is perfectly aware that he should know more, but he doesn’t, and he doesn’t tell Steve or Sam or Natasha that he can’t remember.
He takes in the figures in front of him, though, pretends he’s on a mission. A mission developed specifically to not kill. There’s a large man with blond hair and braids. There’s a stockier man with brown hair. He’s wearing a purple shirt. There’s a man with a goatee. There's a man with gray in his brown hair and large dark eyes. That’s all. That’s not so many people, and there are Steve and Sam and Natasha, the people he knows. “You and Sam’ll live on Steve’s floor,” the man with a goatee who reminds Bucky of someone says. “We didn’t really have the time to make you your own, but you’ll have rooms to yourselves. It’s basically an apartment, so you’ll be fine.”
Sam says, “That sounds great.” Bucky watches the floor. It’s not interesting.
Bucky’s room isn’t like the temporary one he’s used to, mostly because it’s a lot larger. He lies down on the bed and it’s too soft, but it’s warm. The whole room is warm.
At least there’s that.
He closes his eyes. Not to sleep--never to sleep.
He sleeps anyway, because his body won’t do what he wants it to, and it’s frustrating.
He wakes up screaming and when he comes back to himself, to what’s left of himself and whoever he used to be, he finds that somebody’s knocking on the door that he’s barricaded with his body.
“Bucky?” a familiar voice speaks through the door. “Hey, you okay?”
He is clearly not okay, but he’s found that even though people ask that question often, they generally already know the answer. So he doesn’t say, “No.”
Instead, he just wipes at his eyes and looks at his hands to make sure they’re not stained with blood and pushes his hair from his face. Then he opens to door.
Sam’s furrowed brow denotes concern.
Bucky is relieved that Steve isn’t there to be concerned too, but at the same time kind of wishes Steve were there, because Steve is a calming presence. So is Sam, though, so Bucky doesn’t quite understand his preference. He just knows that around Steve, he is calmer, though he is never calm. (He has to be on high alert because everything, everybody is a threat.)
“What were you dreaming about?” Sam asks. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he adds, and for a moment Bucky feels a surge of annoyance because he doesn’t know what he wants, he never knows what he wants.
“Nothing,” he says finally. There’s no way for him to say I dream of electricity and cold and blood everywhere, blood all over my hands and running down my face, I dream of men without faces and women with holes in their heads and I don’t know any of them, I just know they’re dead and I killed them because I am a machine and a monster.
“Okay,” Sam says amiably. “Let’s watch some TV.” Bucky nods. It’s something to do. He curls on the couch, hand where one of his knives is supposed to be--but Steve’s taken away all his weapons and Bucky can’t help but resent him for it--and Sam puts something on.
It’s an old show, animated because Bucky guesses they think animated things won’t disturb him, and they’re right.
He likes the artwork. It lulls him into a state that feels softer than all of the sharp edges of his life. It’s like how sleeping should be. He leans against the arm of the couch and stares through the television. He runs his flesh and blood hand through his hair, twisting it in his fingers because he wants to do something with his hands.
“Bucky,” Sam says. “Bucky,” he says again, and that’s when Bucky looks at him.
Sam’s looking for a response, so Bucky nods a little, and it’s enough for Sam to continue. “How do you feel?"
The question catches Bucky off guard. He doesn't quite understand it.
"I don't feel anything," he says.
"I don't believe that."
"I believe that you feel things, but you have a really hard time saying them."
Bucky is still and quiet at that, because it's true but he doesn't know how Sam knows. "Do you think it would be easier to write it down? We can go out and get some notebooks."
"Notebooks," Bucky repeats. He wonders if writing is something is one of those things his body remembers how to do without prompting, like shooting a gun.
"Yeah. I think you should try it. Journaling is something that works for a lot of people. You can write whatever you want and you don't have to show it to anyone."
Sam stands up. "C'mon, you need to leave this place at some point anyway." Bucky nods and follows Sam out of the apartment, down to a small store.
He watches Sam's back as he grabs some notebooks and pens, scanning the shop for threats and finding none. Sam tells him to pay. Bucky prefers not to interact with people, but he pays, and manages to echo the cashier's "thank you", and after that Sam grins at him like he's done something right.
Bucky remembers how to write.
He wonders if his handwriting's always been this bad, if it’s always been this large and shaky and blocky.
There is a part of him that thinks no.
The man with the goatee is named Tony, and he wants to look at Bucky's arm, wants to see the technology, but Bucky doesn't want him to.
He doesn't know how to say that, though, so he grabs one of the notebooks Sam gave him, the one that doesn't have pages full of things he never wants to show anybody, and writes They look at his arm before the electricity, touch it up and sometimes make improvements so it's better for killing.
Tony reads this with a frown on his face. "What's the electricity?" he asks.
There's no way to describe the electricity, but Bucky tries anyway. They put you in a chair and strap you down and put rubber in your mouth and then there are things on both sides of your head that send electricity through your body and after that the memories are gone because memories are a liability.
Tony reads this and says, "Holy shit." He sits back and shakes his head. "Holy shit, Bucky. They really did a number on you."
"I know," Bucky says. Tony nods slowly.
"Your brain's been under a lot of stress. What would you say to a few tests?"
"No," Bucky says, because just the word tests makes him think of distant shapes looming over him, ready to hurt him. He curls in on himself.
"Okay," Tony says, shrugging. It's that easy.
"Wipe him and start over," Bucky keeps mouthing to himself that night, like it's a lullaby, because it's one of those phrases that he remembers, and the conversation with the man with the goatee has brought it back to the forefront of his mind.
In his dreams that night, he sees a man's face, feels a hand connect against his cheek, the sound of a slap reverberating through a room, and he could kill this man, he could kill this man one handed, but he doesn't because…
Because he's too afraid, he is afraid of this man, this man is HYDRA, this man is HYDRA. This man can wipe him, this man controls the electricity, this man controls the pain, this man is his master. He's strapped down now. Wipe him and start over. Start over. He's screaming.
He grabs for one of his notebooks and sprawls out on the floor and writes his name more times than he can count, until it feels like it's his again: JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES, JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES, JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES… He's not screaming anymore.
He turns to the next page, writes down: alexander pierce alexander pierce alexander pierce, covers the page with that name, the name of the man in his dream.
He turns to another page and runs the tip of his pen over it, leaves a long black line. He does it again, again, again, until the page is all black and he feels better.
Bucky likes sitting in the gentle man's lab, likes watching him work.
Bucky has been told why the man is an Avenger, but he can't remember.
All he knows is that the man is a scientist too, and he doesn't get angry or sad when Bucky asks his name even though he's supposed to know it.
"Bruce Banner," the man says, and Bucky flips through his green notebook just in case there's no Bruce Banner in it, but he finds an entry on the page titled AVENGERS that states in his big, shaky handwriting, Bruce Banner/scientist/brown and gray hair/not hostile/can turn into green monster called the Hulk but not dangerous unless provoked.
He nods and moves on to another page, starting to color it in black. Scribbling his pen over the page is simple and repetitive, and it's soothing.
It makes him feel something he doesn't recognize, but he…he thinks he likes it. The page is entirely black when Bruce says, softly, "Want to get something to eat?"
What does he want?
He doesn't eat, they put needles in him and those make it so that food is unnecessary. But now he eats, he remembers.
Now he has to eat because they don't put any needles or tubes into his body here.
"Yes," he says. As they walk upstairs, he forgets the man's name, but he checks when they get to the kitchen. Bruce, he thinks, and then he says it aloud.
"Yeah," Bruce says, and then, "Let's make some sandwiches."
Bucky's relieved to have something to do.
He usually doesn't do much in the kitchen because there are too many weapons, too many potential triggers, but sandwiches are easy to make and there are no weapons involved, just hands. First, though, he takes his notebook and writes down a question, asks why Bruce did all of the things he did in his lab, because it's something to know and Bucky likes knowing things, even just for a while, even if he has to write them down to remember them sometimes. Bruce smiles when he reads the question, and he talks about his work while he and Bucky make sandwiches, talks about it while they eat, too. It's nice.
Sometimes Bucky speaks Russian, slips into the language by accident.
It is not easier than English, it is not harder.
He thinks it might get harder, since he doesn't really practice it. He doesn't want to. He doesn't know why, and that bothers him, but he thinks maybe it has to do with the red star Tony scraped off of his shoulder once Bucky let him look at his arm for just a few minutes, thinks it has to do with some of those things he can't remember past their shadows in his mind.
So when he speaks, he speaks in English, even though sometimes it comes out Russian instead.
And when he writes, he always writes in English, because those are the letters his hand forms.
He still doesn't know when he learned to write, but he thinks perhaps that skill came from when he was young.
He doesn't remember being young. I don't remember being a child, he writes in his notebook, because it suddenly seems very important. What was I like when I was a child? he writes after that, a question he does and doesn't want to ask. This duality frustrates him, and he feels like crying. Instead, he takes deep breaths like Sam taught him to, thinks about how Bruce takes those deep breaths too.
There's a man with a goatee. Bucky knows him.
"Howard," he says. "It's been a while."
Howard just looks at him for a long time, and then shares a glance with Steve that looks significant.
"Rookie mistake, Buck," Howard says, and there's something choked in his voice. "Howard's been dead for years. It's Tony you're talking to, his much cooler son."
Bucky furrows his brow.
"Oh," he says, and then, because there's a kind of shining in Tony's eyes that he doesn't like (and now, when he looks closer, he can see the difference--the difference between this man and the man Bucky's just remembering--among all of the similarities), "Sorry."
Tony laughs, and pours himself some brown alcohol out of a glass bottle. He takes a sip. "No problem. You're not the first one to make that mistake."
That night, Bucky dreams of cars that fly and a man with a roguish smile.
He doesn't wake up screaming, and the next day, when he's eating breakfast with some of the others, he asks, "Why don’t cars fly?"
Tony and Hawkeye (Bucky will have to look up his real name in the notebook soon) start laughing, and Bucky feels his own mouth move upwards in an unfamiliar motion at the sound of their happiness.
Sam looks a bit concerned, but there's a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Steve just looks at him for a long time, and then asks in a very quiet voice, "Why do you ask that?"
Bucky turns to a new page in his notebook and scribbles down as fast as he can--not very fast, but faster than he can say it--There's a red car and it floats above the ground and there's a girl next to him and behind him there's Steve but smaller the car drops to the ground he turns to look at Steve.
He pushes the notebook towards the others, and they crowd around to read it. Steve grins. "That was at the World Fair. Howard Stark thought flying cars were the future, he built one and everything. But the guy always bit off more than he could chew, and the thing crashed after a couple of minutes. Kinda disappointed me, but I think you thought it was funny."
Bucky doesn't remember how he felt about it, doesn't even remember the story, just a piece, just the piece he's written down not just for the others but so he won't lose it like he's sure he's lost so many other memories.
Hawkeye points at one of the words on the page, clear because Bucky leaves big spaces between words. The word Hawkeye's pointing at is he.
"Why don't you use the first person?" Bucky doesn't ask who the first person is, but Hawkeye must see the question in his face, because he clarifies, "I mean, why don't you call yourself 'I' or 'me' when you write?"
It takes a moment of careful contemplation, but Bucky finds words that he thinks will answer the question. They are Steve's--he said it when Sam asked him why he did something when he was drawing, now Bucky can't remember what--but they feel right.
"Stylistic choice," he says.
Hawkeye grins. "Fair enough."
He has this anger.
Sometimes his screaming is not because of fear, but because of rage, the rage of not knowing himself and of being afraid all the time.
When this happens, he will attack. Violence has this place in his life where it is the only thing that really makes sense. He gets angry when he gets upset, sometimes, and Sam tells him he needs to take deep breaths and think about what's making him angry and tell someone he's having a hard time and why (and that goes for anything that makes him upset even if it doesn't make him want to lash out), through speaking or writing, his choice, but they can't help if they don't know what's wrong, if he screams and fights anyone who tries to help.
Sam understands it's a way of communicating, but he tells Bucky he has to translate "because we're dumbasses and we don't think the way you do". Bucky writes this down so he'll remember.
Bucky tries to do that, he tries very hard, but most of the time the rage grabs him and he doesn't know it, is barely conscious of his violence. When he's angry like that they have to make him sleep. It's not the Sleep, it's just a needle, and Bruce has explained before that it won't hurt him, it'll just make it easier to rest when he gets violent.
Still, he snarls at the sight of the needle every time and moves fluidly out of the path of the thing until they finally manage to get to him. When he wakes up, he looks at the ceiling and not at Steve, who is always, always there. He doesn't deserve Steve. Bad people don't deserve good people. He writes this down in his notebook. So he won't forget.
Bruce says, "There's a monster living inside of me."
Bucky says, "Yes." What he really means is there's a monster inside of me too. Bruce smiles at him like he understands. "It's hard, isn't it?"
Bucky nods, rubbing his fingers together for some semblance of comfort.
"We've all told you it wasn't your fault, and you don't believe us, do you?" Bruce pauses for Bucky to nod yes. He's hurt too many people. He knows it's his fault. He did bad things, and he was under somebody else's control, that's what they all say and he knows, he knows, but he can still remember those bad things sometimes, and the killing feels real under his hands and what he knows is guilt claws at his throat because he's a murderer and he doesn't deserve--
"Then, for now, let's just say good people can do bad things," Bruce says very softly. "Trust me," he says. "Trust me."
Thor is very good at telling stories, and Bucky listens and then starts to use one of his notebooks just for Thor's stories when he finds himself forgetting important parts of them--because sometimes the stories take more than one day to tell--and not being able to follow as well because of it.
Thor is delighted when he realizes Bucky is acting as his "scribe". Thor helps him write down the stories as they are told, adds his writing to Bucky's.
Thor's writing is different but it's still too large, it's clumsy like Bucky's is. "It is easier for me to speak than write," Thor admits one day when they are transcribing the day's story.
"Speaking is not so easy for you, is it, my friend?"
"Not so easy," Bucky echoes. Agrees. (He wishes people wouldn't bring it up so much.)
Thor chuckles, and begins to write carefully as he says, "No matter. There is more than one way to converse."
Bucky remembers, some.
Little bits and pieces.
He remembers Steve, mostly.
Steve saying, "Sit still. I can't draw you if you fidget like that."
Steve breathing with a high, wheezing note.
Steve running ahead through dirty streets.
He remembers loving those streets, even though he doesn't think he knows how to love anymore, doesn't know what love feels like, he remembers: he has loved.
And then--mother's smile. Father's hand in his hair.
An old radio.
Natasha teaches him to waltz, when he writes that what he remembers most about dancing is that he needs somebody to dance with.
It feels almost like fighting, like his body is making motions that were once programmed into his mind. His movements are fluid and for once he doesn't feel as though his body is not his.
He feels present.
He is part of this moment and all of these other moments that make up his life, even the ones he doesn't remember. He is here in the tower, and around him are the people who call themselves his friends even though he does not deserve them, and Steve is watching him with a smile, Bucky can feel it. He has been alive for a long time and a short time and he is alive now and he wants to be alive.
That feels like the most important thing.