i. The team calls him Barnes and they skitter around him with weary smiles and tense shoulders. The team calls him Barnes and it feels just as unfamiliar and impersonal and harsh as Soldier - a gruff bark buried somewhere in the mess of his memories, an accented greeting of good morning and a steady reply
Good morning, soldier
Ready to comply
Most of the time, Soldier feels more comfortable than Barnes, but he doesn't want to say so - that would just disappoint Steve, and Steve tries so hard. He reads newspapers with him and calls him Bucky and tries to remind him of their childhood but it all washes over him, like a dream he can't remember upon waking.
Wanda, though. The girl. The pale shadow in the corner.
She looks at him and she knows.
She looks at him and sees right through him, and he wonders how that could be when he doesn't even know who he is.
ii. He catches her eye in the field one day. That's really the extent of their overall interaction. Of course, he's seen her around the compound, but Wanda's quiet like him, and they don't really let her go out, whereas he prefers to walk around New York City, aimlessly, as if trying to find something, anything, to give him some kind of meaning.
But when they do cross each other, they catalogue looks, exchange glances, watch each other with this semblance of earnestness that neither knew they were still capable of. Sometimes they'll smile once in a while, but he always feels awkward doing it: he doesn't remember how these conversations - or lack of thereof - are supposed to go. Bucky Barnes was all manners and boyish charm, but then, he's not really Bucky Barnes anymore.
He knows about her, her power, her abilities, but he can't say he's ever felt her sifting through his mind. Of course, he probably wouldn't know - he knows so little about not only her but the extent of her powers. She could have scrambled his brains and he'd never know the difference, but her eyes are kind and her scarlet dances softly and somehow he doubts she would ever have intruded as such. Besides, there seems somehow more than just knowingness whenever he turns to her and catches her already looking. Sympathy. No. Empathy. Understanding.
So he catches her eye in the field one day, and she's standing on a building out of the action as she usually is, manipulating from the outskirts. She's watching him with something like curiosity.
He turns his gaze away.
iii. She finds him hunched over a bowl of cereal at three in the morning one night.
Can't sleep? She asks lightly, sliding opposite him, and he shakes his head. He doesn't elaborate more than that, but she recognizes that look in his eyes, as she has for the past few months. It's a look she's seen so many times in her own reflection. Worn, darkened, stamped with black and blue.
They sit there in comfortable silence, until finally, Wanda, do you ever go inside my head?
Not if I can help it. I try not to intrude with anyone. It's just... some thoughts are louder than others. And yours... they howl.
He sucks in a breath sharply, thinks about this a few seconds. I don't mind if you look. If it's easier to listen in than... block it out. You can. I just... He chuckles dryly. My memories scare me. I wouldn't wish to inflict them upon anyone. It might... it's not... I don't sleep, It's... I can't... it's so dark in there and I don't know if maybe you're right to not want to...
She smiles sadly, Do not think me frail, Sergeant Barnes. I grew up in a third world country ripped apart by civil war, you forget, and he swallows hard. The Winter Soldier was in Sokovia, and he remembers. He remembers everything. And Sokovia was probably the most brutal, violent place he'd ever seen. A fragment flashes through his brains of small children running through the wartorn ghettos, scavenging and begging with wide, sunken eyes, offering anything for a scrap of food. Work. Possessions. Their bodies. He feels ill to think that was how Wanda grew up. He feels ill to think of her as a HYDRA pet, just like him. He notices how her hands shake, the violence of the tremors pulsing out tiny strands of scarlet. He lays his arm out on the table - the one of flesh - so they she may see how they too tremble.
She is quiet a moment before continuing. It's all mostly images, you know, dreamscapes. Not exact thoughts or memories or... I'm still working on that. I'm not... it's still so new to me. I don't know how to do that yet. I'm... I'm never in control. They're right, what they all say about me, out there. I'm unstable.
She looks so small right then it stirs something inside him he doesn't recognize, this fierce, protective instinct that feels so foreign to him that his eyes just fix on her, searching. Of course he knows she's beautiful, objectively. Maybe she was the type of girl he would have once asked on a date. But that was another lifetime.
Why are you looking at me like that? She mumbles, and he reminds himself to look away. It's rude to stare, a woman's voice echoes from the shadows of his mind. His mother, maybe. No. Bucky Barnes' mother.
Nothing. I just... know what you mean. To feel like that. Uh. Unstable.
Her mouth twitches. Yes. I suppose you do.
iv. They mirror each other almost unconsciously. He speaks softly, as she does. She walks with her shoulders hunched, as he does. They sit beside each other, perfectly still, only moving when the other does. He starts spending more time in the compound, feeling a little more tethered. He enjoys her company. Sometimes they sit in silence, and sometimes he tells knock knock jokes and sometimes she reads him her favorite poets and sometimes, when he feels himself slipping into old protocol, she'll be awake and join him as he patrols the tower, checks for bugs, cleans the guns. The Winter Soldier has no commands, after all.
Sometimes they just watch each other, exchanging small smiles and unspoken statements, and it’s just desperately, beautifully, blissfully quiet. He can’t remember the last time he had that. She doesn’t think she ever has.
v. Steve teased him about it once, the strange tie they shared, the way they moved in perfect synchrony, accompanied one another everywhere, sat shoulder to shoulder, two souls out of time. He shakes his head, says they’re just friends, but the word feels wrong in his mouth. Friend. It didn’t fit. She wasn’t his friend.She wasn’t exactly more, she wasn’t exactly less, but she… she looked a lot like forgiveness. He could use some help with that.
Steve didn’t bring it up again, and he didn’t really think about it again. Friends, more than friends, not friends… the two of them didn’t fit into such moulds. They just…. were.
vi. Their late night conversations are almost routine, and she’s surprised to find him one day lying on the couch, asleep, watching an old black and white film. She watches him, filled with something almost joyful to see him, calm, features unlined and unstrained and peaceful and it’s so rare and so vulnerable that she almost wants to cry, but then he starts to twitch and shake and quiver, his hands curling into fists and she wakes him, shaking him. It’s not real. None of it is real. It’s not real.
His eyes widen, his whole body poised for attack. It is. It is all real.
No. No. You're safe. You are safe here. You are safe. They don't own you anymore.
He is quiet. Who are you?
She grasps his hand tightly. It takes him about an hour to come back fully, fragments reappearing fuzzily and slowly, but when it’s all still just a disjointed puzzle he can’t put together, all he knows is this girl who is all sincerity and softness and slim wrists, eyes filled with such concern, speaking as much as they see. Wanda, he says eventually.
Bucky, she echoes.
I'm not him. Bucky Barnes.
He was a hero.
I can't be.
In the end, it is just a name. You may choose whichever one you wish. You do not have to be the Bucky Barnes to just be... Bucky.
Yes, he relents. He likes the way she says it. She says it without expectation. She says it like it's a gift she has given him. She says it like he deserves a name, one that does not objectify him.
They remain quiet a little while longer, before she glances up, searching his face. He understands what she's saying. He doesn't object.
So she slips into his mind.
Wanda sees everything. She sees it all, in half-cast shadows and nightmarish abstractions of his mind. She sees cruelty in labcoats, heavy chains and blood, maniacal smiles and sharp teeth and pain, just pain, searing and burning and neverending and the tiny, broken animal, wounded and crying and reaching for a light, any light, any relief, make it end please god make it stop make it stop, and faces, so many faces, faces of all the people he has killed screaming and screaming and Bucky keeps shrinking and shrinking and it’s all a mess, it doesn’t make sense, and Wanda’s trying so hard to tame them, make them go away, but she can’t. She’s not there yet. She relents, come back to herself, unaware that she’s left her fingerprints on every memory, every corner of his mind, every stone she has thus far turned over.
Shame colours his cheeks. She doesn’t say anything.
Sleep takes them both eventually. The nightmares come, scalpels and orders and electricity for him and bombs and gunfire and corpses for her, but there is something new in each of their dreams – something in their subconscious, an unseen figure, standing watchful and calm, a guardian. Lithe and graceful and kind for him and sturdy and hunched and tentative for her.
They lie, side by side, in the light of the black and white film, not touching except for the tips of their fingers.
When the sun comes up, they’re both covered in sweat, and they’re both shaking and they’re both terrified of having to face another day carrying around what they carry. But she’s next to him and he’s next to her and they understand and he asks her what she wants for breakfast.
vii. She watches from overhead, as another Winter Soldier grabs Bucky, twisting him and crushing him into the ground, over and over and over and spitting in words in a language she doesn’t recognize, but she’s overcome by such ferocity and fear of losing him and fear of anyone hurting him any more than he’s already been hurt that she finds herself surging forward, through the city and through the people and the rest of the team and she’s rolling the scarlet between her palms, pulling it and tearing as the Winter Soldier, suspended above ground, screeches in pain as she rips the very limbs from his body.
Go, he splutters, rubbing the blood and spit from his mouth. Get out of here. Get out of here now.
But he squeezes her hand roughly, eyes burning.
viii. She puts on Billie Holliday one night after dinner, and there are noises of complaint and objection but he just sits in silence, and something tight and sad twinges in his chest at the familiar croon, the trumpets, and when everyone leaves he says flatly I used to dance to this song. She looks at him, even if he doesn’t meet her eyes, Is that an invitation? It wasn’t - but his lips twinge slightly and he makes his way to her and takes her hand – such a familiar gesture to them both – and takes her in his arms. He’s not sure he remember how to dance and she never has, so they just hold each other, swaying gently.
ix. He loves her. He loves the way she tilts her head, he loves her self-conscious snark and the way she pulls on her sleeves, her terrible guitar playing and the way she understands. Everything about her is hesitant and gentle, her laugh is just like windchimes and he wishes she’d do it more often, and sometimes she floats away and disconnects from reality and she’s so weird and she's so thrilling and he’s so in love with her and he’s probably always known. He just didn’t realize it until now. It’s not that he hides it from her – but she’s his favorite thing about himself and he doesn’t want to taint it by all the years had stolen from him. He doesn’t tell her.
x. She knocks on the door twice at the sound of the first thump. Bucky? There’s merely a groan in response, and she feels the pull in her chest and pushes the door open tentatively. He’s in the corner, curled up with his head in his hands, rocking back and forth mumbling incoherently too fast in too many languages. His head snaps around, eyes wild and desperate and darkened, but there’s a flash of recognition and he chokes out get out of here, girl but she remains planted. Every instinct within her lurches, telling her to run, get out, he doesn’t know her really, and she’s afraid. She’s so afraid, afraid like she was all those years ago in her apartment with her brother waiting to die, waiting for the bomb reading Stark Industries to blow up and kill them. She was waiting for it to explode. And she is waiting for Bucky to explode. A time-bomb.
She sits next to him as he trembles. He keeps telling her to leave, begging her, and at some point he starts spluttering the same sound over and over, the same sound and she can’t make it out but it gets louder and louder and she realizes he’s saying wandawandawandawandawanda and he’s crying and she’s crying and she reaches out to touch him but he can’t stop flinching and she lets herself in his head, pushes through the thorns and glass and barbed wire, all the faces of the dead and the living and the cruel all rushing towards him, replays all the people he killed over and over again, and she tries to take some of the burden, tries to change it, but again, she can’t. She never can.
The tremors stop eventually.
You don’t have to go in my head, Wanda, he tells her. He can feel her when she’s there now. I know it makes you sad.
She’s quiet for a moment. I’m sorry.
I don’t mind. But you carry around so much pain with you already, I don’t need you to carry mine.
I can’t help it. Even if I didn’t, I still carry your pain, she tells him pointedly. As you carry mine.
He grunts in agreement.
But, she begins, tears springing to her eyes, What I meant was… I’m sorry I can never fix it.
xi. They are just blood and bones and shrapnel, having used the remaining strength in their battered bodies to save each other one last time. The sky splinters through the cloud of dust, and he clasps her hand with such fierceness it almost makes the pain from her wounds go away. Almost. He tries to splutter some kind of goodbye, something that will have made this all mean something, how it had been she, the girl with the trembling hands that contained so much power, she, the patient gardener and protector of dreams, she who had been the only one to have seen his ruined, bloody heart and still look at it the same way in the morning. But the air is getting thicker and the blood in his throat holds him choked and all that comes out are a series of desperate, indecipherable whimpers. Bombs are falling. There’s fire everywhere. And she’s crying and telling him “I was practising. I was practising. I was going to get better with my powers… I was going to try and take away the nightmares… I…. I just wanted for you… to sleep.” And then he’s crying, because maybe they are all just blood and bones and shrapnel and maybe none of this meant anything, they never meant anything, and right before she goes under he says, “I love you,” and everything goes quiet, the same kind of quiet that being near him always bought her, that blissful, impossible silence that he never got to hold onto until her, and it’s precious and it’s kind and it’s finite and she turns her head and says, “I know,” and the last thing Bucky hears before the blackness comes is Wanda’s voice over and over, “Whatever comes next, whatever happens, I love you. I love you. I love you, I love you, I lov-”